PAWTUCKET — In this town, Pawtucket Country Club is to golf as Fenway Park (or Yankee Stadium) is to baseball.
Legends have long resided on this plush piece of greenery located on the city’s border with Seekonk. Caddy master Jim Tanner has been working the room since 1952. You can still find him downstairs almost any day of the week, taking care of clubs and caddies.
Norm Lutz, one of the all-time great amateur golfers in these parts, spent almost as much time in the local spotlight, winning 19 club championships between 1958 and 2002 along with numerous RIGA tourney trophies, including the R.I. Amateur and the R.I. Open. His boyhood friend and long-time competitor, Jack McDermott, still drops in for a game twice a week, just to keep in touch with old friends. (Norm is retired and lives in Florida for most of the year.)
Pawtucket Country Club, a par 69 layout measuring 6,500 yards from the white tees, was originally designed back in the early 1900s by Willie Park Jr., a native of Scotland who won the British Open back in 1887 and 1889. The course was incorporated in 1902 by five prominent Pawtucket businessmen – William Meiklejohn, James C. Potter, Edward W. Blodgett, Leland J. Tuck and James L. Jenks.
PCC’s most memorable and enduring golf pro was Les Kennedy, who ruled the pro shop from 1944 until 1983. Les led the U.S. Open for one round in 1949. A member of the RIGA and New England PGA Hall of Fame, he still owns the course record of 61. Les passed away in 2000 at the age of 83.
The 2011 club champion is 22-year-old Kyle Hoffman, who grew up in the Countryside section of Pawtucket that sits adjacent to the golf course. The Bryant University alum also won the title when he was 20 years old and would appear to be a good threat to overtake Lutz’s record of 19 club titles, if you can assume a young man of his skill would stay in one place for 40 or 50 years.
“Everywhere I go, people tell me they know Norm Lutz,” Hoffman was saying last week. “Mr. Lutz is an absolute legend. He is famous for giving putting lessons to golfers over the years.”
Hoffman plays a different game than Lutz and Kennedy did in their heyday.
“The technology has changed the game,” he admitted. “The ball goes a lot farther with today’s equipment. You take the 11th hole at Pawtucket, which is around 285 yards from tee to green. We can fly it to the green, unless the wind is in your face. The 12th hole is 420 yards and if it is downwind, I won’t even hit driver. I can just hit a 3-wood and then a wedge to the green.”
Hoffman isn’t bragging. Many elite amateur players can drive the ball 300 yards off the tee, allowing them to hit driver and short irons into most par fours. Even a long hole like Pawtucket’s ninth can be tamed with a big drive by some of the young guns.
“I grew up playing Pawtucket,” said Hoffman, who beat veteran member Chris O’Neill 5-and-4 in the 36-hole club championship final last month. “It forces you to drive the ball well and straight. If you are doing that, then the course is a lot shorter. You can almost overpower some of the holes. But if you don’t hit it straight on a lot of the holes, then you’re in trouble.”
Pawtucket is a tree-lined golf course, although a fair amount of trees have been cut down or trimmed in recent years.
“The grass on the greens grows better without some of the trees,” said club member Rodney MacKenzie, a North Smithfield resident who caddied as a youngster at Pawtucket under Jim Tanner. “The course is really in great shape. Our superintendent, Mike Whitehead, came over from Wannamoisett around 10 years ago. Mike also plays golf here. That allows him to see whatever issues we are having on the golf course. Mike and his crew take care of everything.”
Pawtucket’s greens run fast and true.
“Not as fast as Wannamoisett,” MacKenzie said, “but you can pick a line on our greens and the ball goes right on the line, if you put a good stroke on it.”
The members come from all over the Blackstone Valley and beyond.
“Mayor (Dan) McKee of Cumberland is a member here,” MacKenzie said. “We have quite a few members from Cumberland. I think they’re going to have their own tournament here later this year.”
Pawtucket is probably the ultimate players club. Members can show up any day of the week near the noon hour and find a game formulating in the lunch room, or on the putting green.
“During the week,” MacKenzie said, “an A-Train game is played that includes foursomes playing one ball, best ball. They tee off each weekday at 1 p.m. On Wednesdays and Fridays, the ‘Bubba Train’ plays a team net two-ball, best ball, match that attracts from five to 12 teams. There is also a 3 p.m. two-ball game that plays most Wednesdays and Fridays.
“On the weekends, the games manage the tee box,” MacKenzie added. “This is very different from most clubs where individual foursomes are assigned tee times. At 8 a.m., a 2-ball gross game goes off. Most players are single-digit handicaps but all players are invited to participate. At 8:15, the Bubba Train goes off and typically will include as many as a dozen foursomes. Immediately after the Bubba, the Quota game is played. Quota is an individual game but players typically will also play a match among their own group. And then at 11 a.m., the A-Train goes off.”
Many former caddies have grown up and become members at Pawtucket, including MacKenzie and Chris O’Neill, to name just two.
“Five years ago,” MacKenzie said, “a number of ex-loopers decided to start a tournament for former caddies to raise money for the Burke Scholarship Fund. The Jim Tanner Scholarship Fund was born. We have raised nearly $30,000 for the Burke Fund in five years.”
Pawtucket Country Club has come a long way in the nearly 110 years of its existence. It is a place where competition is honored as the main event of each golf day, something that Norm Lutz, Les Kennedy and many others would appreciate.
“There are many good private courses in the area,” MacKenzie said, “but no other course has the variety of games that we play here at Pawtucket. Everyone is welcome to join in the fun.”