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When Grover was 'A high test of golf'; Former Country Club of Buffalo course brought world's best to WNY in 1912 and laurels to 'homebreds'

The reaction of Western New York golfers upon learning the 1912 U.S. Open came to Buffalo is almost universal:

"The U.S. Open was held where?"

Believe it. Humble, little Grover Cleveland Golf Course, the flat-as-a-pancake municipal layout where many for decades have gone to learn the game, played host to the nation's greatest golfers exactly 100 years ago.

How it got there and what happened is a story that ties together a burgeoning metropolis, the Godfather of Western New York golf, and an American-born hero whose life went straight to oblivion almost from the moment he left Buffalo with the title.

"If you look at what the course is now and what it was then -- and also what the game was then -- it's dramatically different," said Lockport-based golf course architect Scott Witter.

Golf still was in its infancy in the United States in 1912. While the game was played in the United States dating to the late 1700s, the first permanent golf club in America was not founded until 1888. The first U.S. Open championship was held in 1895, by which point about 75 clubs were operating in the country.

One of them was the Country Club of Buffalo, which was incorporated in 1889 but which didn't have a golf course until 1894. CCB moved from a farm near Elmwood Avenue and Nottingham Terrace to the present Grover site at Main and Bailey in 1902.

A decade later, it made perfect sense for the United States Golf Association to bring the nation's championship to Western New York. Buffalo was the 10th-largest city in the country, with a population of about 424,000. It also was closer to the middle of the nation's population core than New England and the New York City area, where most of the early Opens were held.

The Buffalo Evening News wrote in 1912 that the tournament "ought to be the best in the history" of the USGA, in part because Buffalo was "so centrally situated for the professionals of the East and West."

>Buffalo's golf giant

Buffalo also had a great advocate in its corner, named Ganson Depew, who to this day is the most influential golf administrator Western New York has ever seen. Depew was a prominent lawyer and businessman in Buffalo, as well as an avid sportsman. He won the city tennis title five years running, and he laid out the first nine holes of the new CCB course at Main and Bailey in 1901.

Depew's uncle, Chauncey Depew, was a railroad magnate and a U.S. Senator. Connections like that no doubt served him well in dealing with the Eastern elites who ran the USGA. When CCB lobbied the USGA in 1910 about hosting an open, Depew's influence was critical. The tournament chairman for the 1912 open was Depew, "to whom the credit of obtaining the open championship this season is entirely due," wrote the Buffalo Evening News.

Depew went on to serve almost two decades as a high-ranking official in the USGA. He helped found both the Buffalo District and New York State Golf associations, and the trophies for both the state amateur champ and the Buffalo amateur champ still bear his name.

Depew and the CCB leaders also curried favor with the USGA in the way they managed the course. The club enlisted golf giant Walter Travis to add a great many bunkers to the course and make some other alterations. Travis, born in Australia, was one of the most respected men in the game. He won the U.S. Amateur three times (in 1900, '01 and '03) and the British Amateur once (in 1904). He started working on course design right around the turn of the century. Travis' hand lent a lot of credibility to the CCB layout.

The July 1912 issue of The American Golfer magazine included this item: "In changing the links, Mr. Depew followed many suggestions very kindly offered by Mr. Walter J. Travis, in regard to the location of the bunkers, and the club feels a deep obligation to Mr. Travis for his ever ready willingness to improve the course."

While the course was not considered one of the very top layouts in the country in 1912, it was by all accounts a quality layout for the time.

"Although unfortunately flat, it requires very accurate play and furnishes a high test of golf," The American Golfer article stated. "The fair greens are abundantly protected for sliced and hooked balls and the approaches to every green require very accurate play or the ball is in trouble."

>A far different course

Today's Grover Cleveland course measures only 5,621 yards. The building of the Veterans Affairs Medical Center at the south end of the property in 1947 eliminated a three-hole chunk of the original course and prompted a wholesale redesign.

In 1912, the course was 6,326 yards, which made it the third-longest Open venue in the previous 10 years of the event. The 1910 Open stretched just 5,956 yards. The CCB course played to a par 74 and included the only par 6 in U.S. Open history -- the massive, 606-yard 10th hole.

"Half a dozen years ago, 6,000 yards was considered a wonderful stretch, now it does not cause even a lifting of the eyebrows," wrote The Buffalo Evening News the day before the tournament.

With Travis' help, the CCB green complexes were of high quality -- and a bunch of them still are.

"There are some very interesting, built up green pads there, with a lot of undulation," said Witter, who designed the outstanding Arrowhead Golf Course in Akron and has worked on courses all across the Northeast. "I think even now the USGA continues to go back to courses that have a lot of movement in green surfaces. That one does."

"You have to remember with those big square greens, a lot of those falloffs and roll-offs had tight bunkers around them, whereas now most of those bunkers are filled in (with grass)," Witter said. "Those edges are critical to the good players. Those guys, even then and certainly now, really can throw darts. You need the corners to bring the bunkers, to bring the roll-offs, around them into play. It's scary how masterful Travis was at creating green complexes and putting surfaces."

Even now, one can see some great pin locations on the corners of some of Grover's square greens. A good example is the nicely built-up, large green for the par-3 third hole, along the fence on Harlem Road. That was the green for the par-4 fourth back in 1912. (As a side note, two of the best current greens at Grover, Nos. 17 and 18, were not part of the Open layout. They were designed by legendary architect Donald Ross in a reworking of the course in 1917.)

The equipment and conditioning of the course from that bygone era had a huge effect on its design, as well. The players used hickory-shafted clubs, and the ball didn't fly as high. A set of seven or eight clubs was considered standard. In the 1913 U.S. Open, winner Francis Ouimet carried seven clubs -- a driver, a brassie (the equivalent of a 2-wood), a mid-iron (2-iron), a mashie (5-iron), a mashie niblick (7-iron), a jigger (chipping club) and a putter. The ball was relatively modern. A ball with a rubber core, wrapped in rubber windings, covered in hard sap and marked with dimples had been invented in 1905.

"Keep in mind, there was no irrigation," Witter said. "So whatever the conditions were at that time of year, that's what the architect counted on."

The 1912 Open was held Aug. 1-2, with 36 holes played each day. It was midsummer. The course played hard as concrete and fast.

"A lot of those cross hazards up near the green, where you think nobody would really be there; well, now nobody would," Witter said. "You'd never get there far enough on your drive, and they're between there and the green. So they really don't affect your second shot. But go back to 1912, it's very different. They were really affecting that second shot a great deal because the ball didn't carry as far. But when it did you encountered the ground game."

A perfect example are the big humps and cross bunkers 20 yards short of the green on what is now No. 10, along Main Street. (It was No. 12 for the Open.) In 1912, when golfers were bouncing the ball up to the green more often, those and other humps like them had to be carefully avoided.

"You see a totally perpendicular cross mound directly in your way with a small, little, almost like a coffin, shallow dish of sand, sometimes before them, sometimes directly after them," Witter said. "What made that golf course so interesting and unique was that things were in your way. They were meant to be in your way, as golf should be."

>Pulling for Americans

Upon this landscape came a field of 131 golfers, eclipsing the previous Open record by 40 golfers. The average field the previous 10 years was about 80 players.

The big pretournament discussion centered on the "homebreds" vs. the British-born pros. Right from the time the first clubs were established around 1890, there was an influx of Scottish golfers to America, and many served as club pros. Famed golf writer Herbert Warren Wind wrote that Scottish golfers had become "as permanent on the American scene as Swedish masseurs and Chinese laundrymen."

Pros from Great Britain had won each of the first 16 U.S. Opens. But the streak had been broken the year before, in the 1911 Open in Chicago, by 19-year-old Philadelphia native John J. McDermott. To this day, McDermott is the youngest player to win the national crown.

McDermott was back to defend his title in Buffalo, along with four other former champions -- Scotland's Alex Smith (who won in 1906 and '10), Scotland's Alec Ross (1907), England's George Sargent (1909) and Scotland's Fred McLeod (1908).

There were five former runners-up in the field, including American-born Tom McNamara of Massachusetts and McDermott, who had lost in a three-way playoff to Smith in 1910.

The Buffalo Courier placed the 40-year-old Smith in somewhat of the villain's role: "Smith a few years ago sought to laugh the homebred invasion down the wind and for that reason will always be a shining mark for the American-born experts," the paper wrote.

"The greens are not in the very best condition, rather slow, owing to the dry weather and the severe winter which killed out the grass to a considerable extent," wrote the Buffalo Express. "Otherwise the course is ideal for play."

>Defending the title

After the first day of play, Smith was in a three-way tie for the lead with big, burly Toronto pro Percy Barrett and Boston's Mike Brady, who had lost in a playoff to McDermott the year before. McDermott stood two shots back. McNamara had a bad second round of 80 and stood seven shots back.

McDermott was a mere 5-foot-8 and 130 pounds, but he had big hands and used oversized grips. According to a Golf World feature on McDermott, he played the ball slightly back in his stance, cocked his wrists early and used his big muscles, more than just his arms.

"Every time he made a full swing at the ball, he would give a little 'Ah-eeh,' " Pennsylvania pro Jerry Pisano told Golf World's Bill Fields. "I never forgot that. Almost like one of those karate-chop things."

McDermott's power was evident in Buffalo, and his play on the monster 10th was pivotal. He made eagle, birdie, eagle, birdie on the hole for 6-under par, two better than any of the other top-six finishers.

McDermott proved to be the steadiest golfer in the field. He followed his first day totals of 74-75 with an even-par 74 on the third round and a 3-under 71 on the fourth. His 294 total was 2-under, making him the first man to break par for 72 holes in a major event. The top three after Day One all slid back and McDermott won comfortably, despite a bogey on the 72nd hole, by two shots. McNamara rallied with a 73 and 69, the only round under 70 for the event, to place second.

"Yesterday was the greatest day for the homebred professional in American golf history, and it may be incidentally remarked for the Irish as well," wrote the Buffalo Courier. "The Scotch got a little of the frosting."

"I am very glad to have once again carried off the laurels," the Courier quoted McDermott as saying. "Inasmuch as I have again won these laurels and proved that I am in form, next year I may once more try my luck on the other side (at the British Open.)"

McDermott's winner's prize was $300, which accounting for inflation, equates to about $6,800 in today's currency. Travis, for finishing as the low amateur, got a silver plate, but refused to accept it because "he has too much plate about his home already, or so he said."

The average score per round was 80.72. There were 16 rounds under par, 10 at even par and 322 over par.

CCB went on to greater things; McDermott did not.

The club hired Ross, one of the greatest course architects ever, to design a new layout off Youngs Road in Williamsville, which opened in 1926. The course has been rated among the top 100 "classic designs" (those built before 1960) in the country.

McDermott saw the luster of his back-to-back triumphs quickly get overshadowed the next year by the upset victory of Ouimet, a 20-year-old who became the first amateur to win the U.S. Open.

McDermott hit financial hard times in 1914 due to investments gone bad, and he underwent what appeared to be a nervous breakdown in October of that year.

His mental state never recovered. In June 1916, just shy of his 25th birthday, his mother committed him to a mental institution. He was diagnosed with chronic schizophrenia. He spent most of the rest of his life in mental hospitals, up until his death at age 80 in 1971.

email: mgaughan@buffnews.com