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An interview with Keith Cutten, author of “The Evolution of Golf Course Design”

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This interview is with Keith Cutten, author of “The Evolution of Golf Course Design,” which is a new book he is releasing to the public. This is an unbelievably well-researched and all-encompassing look at golf course architecture, how it has changed throughout history, and all of the variables in play that have shaped it over the course of time.

Let’s start with the easy stuff. What’s your personal background? How did you get into all of this?

Well, my passion for golf architecture started back in high school. I took a drafting and design curriculum all through high school, which was hugely beneficial. I was getting into golf around 15-16 years old and I lost my grandfather, who was the primary golf influence in my life. When he died, he left me his golf clubs, and I missed him so much I just dove completely head first into golf.

When I finished high school, I sat down with my dad to try to hash out a game plan to get into the golf industry. My dad was an environmental scientist for 40 years with the Ministry of Environment in Ontario, so he helped me a great deal in understanding the policy system here in Canada. I started by getting my bachelor’s degree from the University of Waterloo in Planning and Environmental Design. In my last coop term, I went for broke and I reached out to Rod Whitman in Canada, who invited me to do a 5-month coop with him during the construction of Sagebrush Golf & Sporting Club in British Columbia. The pay was paltry and I ran a shovel and a rake for most of the summer, but I fell in love with it instantly.

I later went back for my master’s in Landscape Architecture at the University of Guelph, which I finished in 2016. The culmination of that was my thesis, which has now become this book. Nowadays, I have my own company, Cutten Golf, Inc., which allows me to partner with people like Rod and Dave Axland, who has been Coore and Crenshaw’s chief project manager for 30 years. I couldn’t have walked into a better situation as a young, aspiring architect. To have the opportunity to work with these guys is incredible.

Having had the opportunity to peek at an advanced copy, I can say the book is completely fascinating. Talk a little bit about what compelled you to devote so much of yourself to this pursuit in the first place.

I’m the type of person that needs to answer my own questions to be satisfied. I’m not comfortable with just accepting things as fact without knowing the story behind them. I was sitting in one of my first master’s classes, which was basically a history of the landscape architecture profession. I’m learning how everything is influenced by society and wars and economy and I thought, “This has to be true for golf, but no one’s ever talked about it.”

At the time, I was also batting around ideas for my thesis. I was thinking a lot about the renovations that had recently been done to Pinehurst No. 2 and I was particularly curious about how Donald Ross’s original design was so much more environmentally sound than what it had been allowed to become over the course of time.

One of the key quotes that I got from Bill [Coore] about that project was that they were not trying to be “environmental crusaders” so much as they were just trying to put the course back to the way Donald Ross had originally intended it. So the question I kept asking in my head was, “How did this happen?” I sort of went on a fact finding mission to uncover how golf course architecture changed and it kept snowballing. I just kept following leads in different directions that began to connect all the dots for me. I went a little deeper down the rabbit hole every day, and ended up with a 600+ page thesis to turn in.

Just to paint a quick picture for the readers as to what’s going on in the book, there’s two main sections to it. The first section is going through history decade by decade starting with the early origins of golf, then 1830s, 1840s, and so on. I don’t want you to give too much of your book away, but give people a taste for what’s going on there.

Essentially, there’s a lot of short little blurbs about historical context that I try to quickly tie into golf. I suppose you’d have to start with the Victorian era, which was the first attempt at going away from the “links” style of architecture. When people from urban areas (say London) found golf and wanted to play it, they wanted to create their own courses so they wouldn’t have to travel over to St Andrews. So, the professional golfers of the time built what they could. The only people that were doing construction of the landscape at that time were the crews that were building state homes for the ultra-wealthy in the Victorian style. So they wound up with golf courses that were built much the same way with features that were geometric and square. They looked nothing like the links courses of Scotland.

After that, there was then a shift into what’s called the Arts and Crafts movement that takes you into the 1910’s. WWI had a huge impact at that time. Britain was basically devastated after WWI, so a lot of architects fled to the US, the land of opportunity, which led to what we now call the Golden Age of golf course architecture.

Shortly after that period, you have the Great Depression and WWII, where all of this knowledge that had been built really just comes to a halt. After going through the Great Depression and WWII, society really didn’t want to think about the past. There was no fondness for what had been done, so modernism became the way of life for basically everyone at that point, including golf course architecture.

Most of the big name architects (Ross, Mackenzie, etc) started their careers back in England before WWI, so when you get to WWII, those guys are all either dead or retired. It was a perfect storm which basically took golf in a completely different direction.

The second part of the book is profiles on golf course architects, authors, and visionaries. So you go from Old Tom Morris to Geoff Shackelford and everywhere in between. Given how much time you’ve invested in this, I’m curious to know who you would put on the Mount Rushmore of architects and why?

I’m going to flavor this with my own personal bias, but for me number one has to be Harry Colt. He’s so brushed over in North America it’s crazy. He pioneered what golf course architecture is, which is combining strategy and naturalness. Colt’s influence can be seen in work of Dr. Alister MacKenzie (Australia and America), Hugh Alison (Japan), Stanley Thompson (Canada) and Donald Ross (America). His influence just can’t be overstated in my opinion.

Stanley Thompson would have to be my next choice. Especially since I’m Canadian. His projects have defined great golf here, and his influence on me was immense.

Third would be Bill Coore. Without Sand Hills, I don’t think we are where we are today when it comes to golf course architecture. I don’t think anyone is reading my book and I doubt I’m even writing if it wasn’t for Bill. I think he’s the Alister Mackenzie of our time.

Last would be Rod Whitman. He just doesn’t get the notoriety or the acclaim that he deserves in my opinion. Bill Coore sings Rod’s praises all the time. He even gives Rod credit for figuring out how to make his routing work at Friar’s Head. I’ve learned so much from Rod and a lot of my passion for architecture comes from him.

If you had the opportunity to sit down with one of these people (dead or alive) you profiled over dinner, who would it be and what questions would you ask them?

I think it’d have to be Stanley Thompson. He was the type of guy that was notoriously larger than life. It’s rumored that he made and spent multiple fortunes in his lifetime according to his biography. He’s the type of guy that could sell the Canadian rail lines on the idea that they should build a golf course up here in the middle of nowhere because it’d be good for their business. I just think if he’s anything at all like what those stories would lead you to believe, that’d be a hell of a dinner.

I do want to ask about one specific aspect if you don’t mind because I personally find it super interesting and I think our readership would as well. Can you talk a little bit about the relationship between golf course equipment and architecture? Let’s kind of go down that rabbit hole for a minute.

I think the biggest misconception is that Golden Age architects never saw these kinds of advances in equipment coming. They did. They experienced their own advancements with equipment. The Golden Age didn’t start in the US in the 20s and 30s. Those same guys were designing courses in England in 1910 and prior to that, so they had already seen advancements of their own. They did react to them very differently than what has been done up until the last 10 years, however. They used the contour of the ground and width and angles in such a way that if you didn’t play to the right area of the fairway, you didn’t have a shot. The way they combated length is to put an emphasis on placing your shot in the right location instead of just pounding it down there as far as you can.

Even back then, there were some instances where people could hit 300-yard drives because you have to remember this was before irrigation. This brought the ground game into play. It wasn’t lawn darts where you hit every shot a certain distance and stopped it on a dime. Even though a long hitter might be able to get a drive out there 300 yards, that shot likely wound up in a pot bunker if you weren’t super precise with it. Back then, it was so much more a three dimensional game where you had to think about all the little humps and bumps and what they might do to the golf ball after it landed. The Golden Age architects were already thinking about this stuff when they designed their courses.

For a long time, we basically forgot our own history. Everyone after WWII just tried to reinvent the wheel by pinching landing areas and growing the rough taller, which was terrible for golf. We’re relearning, though, that combating length isn’t done by making courses longer and narrower; it’s done by making them shorter and wider. I think we need to start showing a bigger variety of golf courses on television. I think the tour is doing that with places like Trinity Forest, but they need to stop listening to the whining of players. That cannot be our measuring stick for whether or not a course is good.

Right or wrong, what gets shown on TV is what gets exported everywhere. One of the messages with my book is that that has to stop. Every course should not aim to be Augusta. They should aim to be what they are, and that requires completely understanding and committing to what that is.

Lastly, give us a call to action. Tell us how to get in touch with you and learn more.

Sure! To learn more about me, my business, or my book, the best way to do that is to visit my website www.cuttengolf.com. @cuttengolf is my handle for both twitter and Instagram.

Keith Cutten, author of The Evolution of Golf Course Design

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Peter Schmitt is an avid golfer trying to get better every day, the definition of which changes relatively frequently. He believes that first and foremost, golf should be an enjoyable experience. Always. Peter is a former Marine and a full-time mechanical engineer (outside of the golf industry). He lives in Lexington, KY with his wife and two young kids. "What other people may find in poetry or art museums, I find in the flight of a good drive." -Arnold Palmer

4 Comments

4 Comments

  1. Chuck

    Dec 27, 2018 at 4:00 pm

    Well those are sure some interesting comments about advances in equipment technology and architecture.

    15th Club

  2. Fuggedabooitit

    Dec 24, 2018 at 8:25 pm

    Would you call the Extreme 19th Hole in South Africa an evolution? How about some of the Dye-abolical Pete type courses? Are they evolution or just mickey-mousing the silliness and taking it to stupid places that the terrain and the game itself can provide?

  3. Dolla

    Dec 23, 2018 at 8:34 pm

    The last bit about the whining of players has nothing to do with it.
    It’s to do with how many grandstands and concession stands and TV camera towers and positions can they fit on a course, along with the spectators they need to bring in to pay for a lot of things.
    Space for all that stuff and a system to generate moneys is why you see a lot of the courses that you do.
    Don’t just blame it on the course designs, don’t just blame it on what the players say.
    Yes the Tour does set up courses for better scoring, and even the USGA has caved into that with all the rules changes to make it easier to do so.
    But course designs you see on TV is mostly due to the amount of room the equipment needs to live and make room for the fans to be there, so they can support with their money

  4. ogo

    Dec 23, 2018 at 2:54 pm

    Did the 19th and early 20th golf course architects deliberately create many water hazards into their designs?
    I can see a water pond reservoir being part of a golf course, but to fill the course with water hazards seems psychologically masochistic and too punishing on the golfer losing expensive golf balls.
    This also include dense undergrowth that is impossible to find errant golf balls. Why is punishing water and weeds included in golf course design?

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Tour News

GolfWRX visits with Ryan Palmer

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The 2019 Charles Schwab Challenge at Colonial is upon us. I got the chance to sit down with three-time PGA Tour winner and Colonial Country Club member Ryan Palmer ahead of his opening round at the PGA Tour’s stop in Fort Worth, Texas. We discussed why he loves Colonial, how it felt to win on tour again, his friendship with Jon Rahm, the Ryan Palmer Foundation, and why he chooses not to have a club equipment sponsorship.

(GolfWRX spoke with the actual, not the cardboard, Ryan Palmer)

JN: Do you have a home field advantage here at Colonial?

RP: To a point, I guess. Obviously, I have played this golf course in every type of wind. I mean, I know certain holes play shorter than they are. So, a little bit of an advantage because I don’t put much stress into the golf course itself. I just know it. And of course, James, my caddie, knows it. And that is nice. But I do put more pressure on myself because I want to play well here

JN: Why did you decide to join Colonial as a full golfing member?

RP: The history of it. To me, it’s one of the most prestigious clubs…if not the most prestigious club…in Dallas/Fort Worth. History of the golf course, history of the tournament. The more and more I played it…playing in the tournament for 16 years now…the guys that play in the ‘big game’ took me in and they’ve thrown a few parties for James and me after we won a few times. I thought the best way to give back then is to join and become a full member.

JN: How often do you play out here?

RP: If I am home for a week, I play at least twice a week. Just to play in the big game. If I am home and playing golf, I am playing here.

JN: Tell me about the Ryan Palmer Foundation

RP: I started it in ’03 in Amarillo with my dad and my good friend Billy Slaughter. We do a lot of different things but our biggest thing now is our brighter smiles initiative through dentistry. My wife Jennifer is a dentist. And our good friend Chris Swayden with Smile Workshop here in DFW does a lot of our work here and then Kyle Sparkman in Amarillo, Texas does all our dental work out there. The biggest thing was just bringing in kids to boost their self-esteem, give them a better way of life. A lot of their families don’t have the means and the funds to provide dental care. It’s an easy decision to help these kids and give these kids a sense of confidence. I have read stories about kids wearing hoodies to school because of their teeth. That’s pretty sad. I have always been about giving back and having an immediate impact. So what better way than to provide dental care.

JN: How big was that win at the Zurich in New Orleans for you?

RP: It was unbelievable. Nine years since our last win. But to have Jennifer, my wife, there and our son Mason, 12 years old, was there. He was there in ’08 when I won. But he was a year and half so he had no clue. In 2010, they weren’t there. But to have them there and have him finally see it. Mason always asks “Dad, are you going to get a trophy?” So to have him there to finally witness it…that was special.

JN: How did the partnership with Jon Rahm come about?

RP: We met in ’15 at the Phoenix Open. I knew Jordan wasn’t playing this year at Zurich. Jon and I had played some rounds together. He played in my charity event last year. So, I knew Jon a little bit and I know his caddie, Adam Hayes real well. We’ve known him since we have been on tour, James and I. And so, I talked to James about players we should want to play with and Jon was one of the top ones. So, I texted Adam and mentioned the idea to Jon and he loved it. Jon and my games are pretty similar as far as ball striking. So I shot Jon a text and he accepted.

AVONDALE, LA – APRIL 28: Ryan Palmer and Jon Rahm fist bump on the fourth hole during the final round of the Zurich Classic of New Orleans at TPC Louisiana on April 28, 2019 in Avondale, Louisiana. (Photo by Stan Badz/PGA TOUR)

JN: Are you going to play together again next year?

RP: It would be hard not to play together again next year. I will have to run it by Jordan….no I’m kidding. Jordan was happy for me and excited. He gets it. As long as Jon wants to play, we will go try to defend.

JN: What are your thoughts on not having a full bag club sponsorship?

RP: It is just a matter of playing with what I like. When I first got on tour, you would sign a full deal and it was pretty good. Now you are signing for balls and all 14 clubs. I love the Taylor Made driver but they cut out the driver only deals. They went just full line. Fortunately, with the help of Mike Chisholm and Chisholm Sports, I have some great corporate partners. United Rentals, a great deal with Unisys, RBC. I am able to have these corporate sponsors allow me to play what I want. I made some comments like ‘two hundred grand is not worth an equipment contract on tour because of what you can make that week.’

So, I got ribbed a little bit for making that comment but honestly it is not worth it in today’s game. We play for so much money now each and every week that by the time you get a $200,000 deal, you’re paying taxes and management, at the end of the day its worth a top 20-finish. And then you have to play those clubs all year long, whether you like them or not. So now I can play whatever putter or iron or driver I want. I am only under contract with ball, shoes and gloves. Footjoy and Titleist. I test and I tinker now and then but I always go back to what I have performed with in the past. I stand over a tee shot and I think, I know I hit this driver this way at this tournament at this particular moment. Why would I change?

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Morning 9: U.S. Open qualifiers | USGA x Marvel? | Tiger miniseries?

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Owing to technical difficulties, please enjoy this very low-tech (let’s call it “minimalist”) version of the M9

1. Weir, and other U.S. Open qualifiers

AP Report…”Former Masters champion Mike Weir is headed back to the U.S. Open for the first time in six years as one of 10 players who advanced Monday from the first of 12 sectional qualifiers.”

  • “Brendon Todd continued his resurgence with rounds of 65-66 at Northwood Club and Bent Tree to share medalist honors with Nick Taylor of Canada.”
  • “Weir opened with a 69 at Northwood and secured his spot with a 67 at Bent Tree to avoid extra holes.”

Full piece

More on yesterday’s qualifying in Dallas from the USGA’s David Shefter…

  • “Todd, a former University of Georgia All-America honoree, shot 10-under-par 131 at The Northwood Club and Bent Tree Country Club in Dallas, Texas, on Monday to share medalist honors with Nick Taylor in the first of 12 U.S. Open sectional qualifiers. Ten players advanced from a strong field of 102 players that included several PGA Tour and Web.com Tour competitors.”
  • “The 36-hole sectional qualifier in Japan is scheduled for May 27, while the remaining 10 qualifiers are set for June 3 – eight in the United States, one in England and another in Canada.”
  • “I’m pumped,” said Todd, who owns one PGA Tour and three Web.com Tour victories since turning professional in 2007. “This was on my list for about a year to try and qualify for Pebble. It’s one of my favorite courses in the world. I just can’t wait to get out there and play Pebble in a U.S. Open setup. I think it will set up good for me. I think it will be firm [and] I drive it straight. It’s a course-management golf course. You’ve got to put it in the fairway, keep it under the hole and score well.”

Full piece.

Full results here.

2. Fassi!

The AP’s Doug Ferguson on Maria Fassi (ANWA runner up) capturing the NCAA individual title handily…

  • “Fassi, with her high energy and a powerful swing, delivered a bogey-free round of 68 to win the NCAA individual title by four shots. She is the first woman from Arkansas to win the NCAA title since Stacy Lewis in 2007.”
  • And from Fassi…”After a pretty perfect year that my junior year was … and then heading to nationals and playing pretty bad golf was not fun,” Fassi told Golf Channel. “It was a feeling that I never wanted to feel again. I think I just grew from that. I don’t like feeling that way, I don’t like finishing second. I think those are things that fuel me. They make me wake up early, go work out and stay here to dark practicing. I think those are the things that have helped me this year.”
  • “I think not winning at Augusta was probably the best thing that could have happened to me. I can say that now that I have reflected. I know that not winning was probably what needed to happen because I knew I was going to learn a lot more from coming in second versus pulling that one off. Of course I hate losing, but coming here I knew what I was going to be put up against.”

Full piece.

3. Who’s missing?

Begging the question… was it worth it?

Golfweek’s Forecaddie…”The list of players who turned pro midseason this year was particularly long thanks in large part to changes the LPGA made to its qualifying process…The Man Out Front got to wondering – where are they now?”

A few of the departed…

  • “Robyn Choi, Colorado – Missed three cuts so far on the LPGA this season and one on the Ladies European Tour. Ranks 66th on the Symetra Tour money list with $4,381 after making four of five cuts.”
  • “Kristen Gillman, Alabama – Ranks 33rd on the LPGA money list at $156,459, getting a huge boost from a T-6 at the ANA Inspiration. (That’s the week she likely would’ve been playing at the Augusta National Women’s Amateur.) Not only has her card locked up for 2020, the Solheim Cup is not out of the question.”
  • “Lauren Stephenson, Alabama – Started 2019 rookie year with a T-8 at the Vic Open. Ranks 75th on the money list with $55,673 in seven starts.”

Full piece.

4. Back to the Black

Geoff Shackelford’s thoughts on adjustments to Bethpage ahead of the Ryder Cup’s turn at the venue (plenty of time!)

  • “…Not much needs to be done at Bethpage Black for the 2024 Ryder Cup…Take down the rough cut for the bomb-and-gouge loving American team, more concession stands and way more grandstand seating…”
  • “The most complicated of all involves the oft-discussed, widely loathed par-4 18th hole…Tweaks were made this time around, more bunkers added to the already excessively-trapped, straightaway mess and a dreadful finishing hole remained so. The last time a major was played at Bethpage, the USGA tried to improve 18 by moving up tees and that just led to the regrettable sight of 6-iron lay ups and a sense that the hole was no better.”
  • “In the past, consideration was given to creating a hybrid hole utilizing the righthand bunker complex, the first fairway on the Red, and the current 18th green. Many others have advocated that players be asked to take a walk from the par-3 17th to the Red Course’s 18th tee.”

Full piece.

5. Hovland wins Ben Hogan Award

Golf Digest’s Joel Beall…”Viktor Hovland received the Ben Hogan Award at Colonial C.C. on Monday night.”

  • “The Oklahoma State junior beat Cowboys teammate Matthew Wolff and California’s Collin Morikawa for the prize, which is given to the nation’s best collegiate golfer. (The award used to be primarily academic based, but its criteria changed in 2002.) Though Wolff has received more media attention, the honor encapsulates all amateur competitions, which made Hovland the easy choice.”
  • “The 21-year-old out of Norway is currently No. 1 in the world amateur rankings, a standing spurred by winning the 2018 U.S. Amateur at Pebble Beach. That victory earned an invite to Augusta National this past spring, where Hovland finished as the Masters Low Am. He also captured three collegiate events this season, and finished second at last year’s European Am.”

Full piece.

6. USGA x Marvel

A real thing that is actually happening…

  • Via Golfweek staff…”The USGA announced Tuesday it has partnered with the Marvel Universe for a comic book using some of the Marvel Super Heroes teaching kids the basics of playing golf.”
  • “The books will be available prior to the U.S. Open online. Limited-edition Marvel-themed golf posters will be distributed at the Junior Experience on June 9 at Pebble Beach.”
  • “The story follows Tony Stark (Iron Man) and other Avengers as they teach the next generation of Marvel Super Heroes about golf.”

Full piece.

7. The big win that wasn’t

Golf Digest’s Stephen Hennessey…

  • “It turns out, there was another huge payday on the line at Bethpage Black on Friday of the PGA Championship, just not one that would’ve been on anyone’s radars.”
  • “The Vegas Sports Information Network reported on the very bold “make-the-cut” parlay for the PGA Championship placed by Icelandic gambler Spencer McIlmoyle. For the casual reader, a parlay is a wager with multiple bets included, and it only pays out if every bet wins. McIlmoyle’s bet was a $3,448 10-leg parlay on seven golfers to make the cut and three golfers to miss the cut. The potential payday? $155,000.”
  • “Amazingly, McIlmoyle nailed nine of the 10 golfers’ outcomes, correctly predicting Brooks Koepka, Xander Schauffele, Tommy Fleetwood, Hideki Maytsuyama, Patrick Cantlay, Tony Finau and Webb Simpson all to make the cut, and Jason Dufner and Branden Grace to miss the cut. It all came down to Shane Lowry to miss the cut, and a birdie by Lowry on his second-to-last hole of his second round moved Lowry inside the cut line, costing the gambler the six-figure payday.”

Full piece.

8. JT to return from wrist injury at Memorial

Golf Digest’s Joel Beall…

“It appears Justin Thomas’ injury sabbatical is coming to an end.”

  • “Thomas, who dropped out of the PGA Championship last Monday and the Wells Fargo Championship two weeks before that due to an ailing wrist, has committed to next week’s Memorial. The tournament announced Thomas’ participation on Tuesday morning.”
  • “The 26-year-old, who dealt with a similar issue at the end of last season, hurt his wrist at the Honda Classic after hitting a tree with his club in March. In 11 starts this season, Thomas boasts five top 10s, highlighted by a runner-up at the Genesis Open. His last event was at the 2019 Masters, where he finished T-12.”

Full piece.

9. Tiger miniseries?

Report via Tim Baysinger at The Wrap

  • “A scripted miniseries on Tiger Woods, based on Jeff Benedict’s book about pro golfer is in development at Brent Montgomery’s Wheelhouse Entertainment.”
  • “Benedict reached a deal with Montgomery to set up a joint venture at WHE, with “Tiger Woods” as the first project that Benedict and Wheelhouse will take to market. The book, which Benedict co-authored with “60 Minutes” correspondent Armen Keteyian, was published last year and became a New York Times bestseller.”

Full piece. 

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Tour Photo Galleries

10 interesting photos from Monday’s U.S. Open sectional qualifier at Northwood Club

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GolfWRX had feet on the ground at Northwood Club in Dallas, Texas for this Monday’s U.S. Open sectional qualifying. We have seven galleries in our forums filled to the brim with photos from Monday’s action, and here are ten interesting selections for you to enjoy.

“Talk to me Goose.” And presumably, “I feel the need for speed.” Top Gun all the way!

Jim Nous’ bag full of Ping clubs features three visible wedges all with different bounce.

Blaine Hale rocking this great looking TaylorMade Spider headcover.

Shorts on the course –  a rarity.

Conner Koberg showing off his colors with this Iowa State headcover.

Julius Boros won the 1952 U.S. Open at Northwood Club. One of his three major triumphs. How about that bag?

Stephen Jaeger played collegiate golf at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, but he’s quite clearly proud of his homeland too.

Noah Goodwin is another player who loves the raw finish on the Callaway Apex MB irons.

Up close with the Titleist 718 T-MB utility iron

.

A glance at Northwood Club itself.

Check out all of Monday’s photos on our forums.

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