Golf Course

History of The Stanwich Club

There was a time not that many years ago when the cities of Greenwich and Stamford were quiet villages. But the population explosion of the 1950’s changed that rather emphatically. Sparked by the exodus of business and industry from New York City, the coastal towns of Connecticut grew at a rate faster than they were able to handle. Among the areas affected was recreation. The need for new private clubs in the area was apparent.

At the Round Hill Club in Greenwich, there was a five-year waiting list for membership. Consequently, a group of members began investigating the possibility of a new club in the “Back Country” beyond the Merritt Parkway. In 1960, one of the most spectacular and devastating fires in Greenwich history claimed the clubhouse of the Greenwich Country Club. While that club considered rebuilding at its existing site, a group of its members looked into the possibility of moving the club to a new location farther out from the city.

One piece of property interested both groups, and that was the Hekma Estate, also known as Semloh Farm, which was bordered by North Street and Stanwich Road, west of the Merritt. Purchased in 1909 by Edwin T. Holmes, Semloh (which is Holmes spelled backwards) grew into a magnificent estate and farm. There were several lakes on the property, a greenhouse, and fifteen fountains spotted throughout extensive gardens. The pastures – today’s fairways – were used for grazing cattle.

After Holmes’s death, the property was purchased in 1930 by Jacob Hekma. When Hekma’s business associate, Wendell Willkie, ran as the Republican candidate for president in 1940 against Franklin Roosevelt, numerous strategy meetings were held at the farm. It was rumored that, had Willkie won that election, Hekma would have been named Secretary of the Treasury. Hekma put a considerable amount of money into Semloh, which was considered a model farm in every respect. Hekma’s widow continued to live on the estate after his death in 1949, and the farm and its pastures were kept in good condition. When she died in 1960 Semloh consisted of 330 acres. But the estate was tied up in litigation at the time the Greenwich C.C. group was contemplating a new home, and since no other suitable site was available, that club stayed put.

Undaunted, the Round Hill and Greenwich groups met for further discussions, forming in 1962 the Northwich Development Company. Their intent was to purchase and develop Semloh Farm, with a country club and golf course as the centerpiece. Informal talks had already taken place before Northwich summoned golf architect William Gordon to inspect the site and make recommendations. Gordon was most impressed, telling the group “if you let this property get away from you – you’re crazy.”

On October 16, 1962, the Northwich group completed the purchase of some 270 acres from the Hekma estate. Northwich, in turn, sold 186 acres including the clubhouse and four other buildings to The Stanwich Club, which had been organized that summer. The name chosen for the club had been part of the local lexicon for nearly 250 years, ever since a 1732 settlement of that name in the vicinity of the Mianus Gorge, The old Holmes manor house, with Long Island Sound in sight eight miles away, was converted into the Stanwich clubhouse. It formally opened in June of 1964.

William Gordon and his son, David, designed the Stanwich course. Prior to joining the Toomey & Flynn organization in 1923, Gordon had built courses for architects such as Donald Ross, Devereux Emmet, and Willie Park, Jr. However, the Stanwich people may have been more impressed by the fact that Gordon had been a central figure in the revisions at both Shinnecock Hills and The Country Club carried out by Toomey & Flynn.

Construction of the golf course began in September of 1963, with five 15th holes built from reclaimed swampland. The course opened for play on July 11, 1964.

Long, tight, and relatively flat, with trees lining all 18 fairways, the Stanwich course is truly an imposing test of golf. Perhaps its most memorable features are the Gordon-style greens, the fastest in the Met Area, canted severely from back to front and bunkered tenaciously at their front corners, and the lakes and streams which come into play on eight holes.

The ninth is vintage Gordon, a long par 5 with a fairway divided beyond the drive zone by a stretch of rough infested with five bunkers.

The 13th is Stanwich’s postcard hole. From the blue tees, it plays over a creek, then a lake, to a slightly-elevated L-shaped green built around a deep bunker across its left front. The putting surface is built up from the front, then falls away in its left-rear sector.

The 14th is an S-shaped par 5. A conservative stroke from the tee must be played with a club other than the driver to avoid water straight ahead, and the second shot then must be played short or to the left of a second lake ahead on the right. But there is the possibility of carrying the stand of willows to the left off the tee, a feat that will be rewarded with the chance to go for the green on the second shot – over a lake.

The 17th is a pretty par 5, with the brook that parallels the left side behind a row of trees eventually expanding into a lake that must be carried on the shot into the green.

Stanwich hired Billy Farrell in 1964 as its professional, he retired in the fall of 2000. Farrell’s father Johnny won the 1928 U.S. Open in a playoff against Bobby Jones.

Stanwich’s roster of club champions includes the names of George Zahringer, five-time Met Amateur champion and the only player ever to capture the Met Open and Met Amateur titles the same year (1985); Mike Sanger, who reached the quarterfinals of the British Amateur during the 1970’s; and Tom Yellin, a television producer who advanced as far as the quarterfinals in the 1988 U.S. Amateur.

Zahringer won his first Ike Championship at Stanwich in 1989, his score of 76-68-74=218 five strokes ahead of the field. Zahringer’s second round 68 was the only sub par round of the tournament, and established a new amateur record for the course. Also noteworthy was Alan Specht’s final-round 30 on the back nine he birdied seven of the last eight holes after a double-bogey on the tenth. Zahringer and Yellin won the team trophy.

Stanwich hosted the Met Open for the first time in 1972 and again 1996…

Everything considered, Stanwich is living proof that one’s return on an investment is directly proportional to the size of the investment. In other words, “you get what you pay for.”