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Lovely in Its Bones

Madison (August 22, 2020) There’s an old poem that begins:

“I knew a woman lovely in her bones….” 

Ask Architect Brian Silva about Madison Country Club, site of this week’s Connecticut Mid-Amateur Championship, and you hear something strikingly similar.

To Silva, who has worked at Madison, a 1900 Willie Park Jr. design, on multiple projects, Madison is perfect in its “bones.” The changes he’s made with superintendent Michael Chrzanowski and a membership dedicated to improving Madison little by little, have given shape to the flesh around those bones, but haven’t changed what Silva calls Madison’s “skeleton” or its unpretentious personality. 

“Madison is a summer golf course that has avoided the temptation and the extremes to which some courses go to be something they are not,” says Silva.”

Over the years the membership worked with Silva to improve portions of the course, for example altering holes when new land was acquired. “We looked at individual sections. But what we did four or five years ago was really to stitch together some of those changes and make the course more of a whole. So instead of losing its personality, I like to think that we enhanced it.” 

And that begins with those “bones.” 

“The skeleton is about the angles the holes create,” says Silva, pointing to the long, par-5 14th, that twists two ways before rising to a green-topped dune.  “The bunkers, approaches, they are  tendons and muscles. Grass is the skin. If the skin is not right, you can fix that. If a bunker is angled not the way it should be, that’s something you could fix in a day. But it begins with the skeleton. At Madison, I think, the skeleton is correct. It starts there.” 

In the major renovation five years ago, Madison’s tees and greens were redone. The entire course was re-grassed. Four holes were made new. But even with those holes, says Silva, elements of the old remained. He points to the par-4 fifth. “For example, the tee may have stayed, though the green and fairway moved to the right, or the green moved back.”

What endures is a short, by today’s standards, course of about 6500 yards, that adjoins but does not abut, the Long Island Sound, nevertheless relying on the Sound’s wind and resulting firm/fast turf conditions to complicate its challenge. A mix of short and long holes, par 70, Madison exposes its toughest holes, on the back nine, to the elements, making for a hard-working finish, especially if Mother Nature has a say.

“In some ways, it’s two courses,” says Bob Ruby, a former Madison member and Connecticut Golf Hall of Fame inductee who won four club championships there. “You have the first ten holes that are rather short and confined, and then the more wide-open but much longer eight holes, with two par 3s over 200 yards and two par 4s over 450.” The front nine, for example, is just about 3000 yards. The back is almost 3500. “So the idea is to make hay on the first ten, to stay at even par or a few below, and then hold on. The last holes are more exposed to the wind, and if it blows, they are a challenge even for the young guys who hit it so long. It will be up to Mother Nature and that wind. As someone at the USGA used to say, ‘It’s an outdoor sport.’”

Defending Mid-Am Champion Ben Day, who has played Madison often, echoes that sentiment.  “It’s not a course you can really ‘learn’ how to play in that it’s different every day depending on the turf condition, the wind, the temperature. I think it will play harder than people expect because though we’ve had a little rain I think it will be fast and the greens will be fast, and there will be wind. I think under par will win, but not very far under par. It will play more difficult than people expect.” 

It’s additionally challenging this year, says Day, because of the quick turnaround after the Russell C. Palmer Cup last. Day lost there, on his home Waterbury course, and the disappointment lingered. “Right now I’m trying to get my energy back. I’m trying to recoup from the Palmer Cup. Usually you have time to prepare for an event, but the schedule this year is so different from normal. I’m just trying to get my energy up.”

Day says he’s not focused on “defending” his title. “I’m not really looking at it like I’m defending anything. I’m just a guy in the field, I’m going to run my race and see how I finish.”

Day will play in a group he’s often been part of, with Ben Conroy and Mike Kennedy, members of Day’s old home course, New Haven Country Club. They also happen to be the last three Mid-Amateur champions: Conroy did it in 2018 at Richter Park, Kennedy in 2017 at Mill River. They go off at 11:10, part of a field of 107 players. The low 36 players and ties after round one will play 36 on day two, much as many of them did last week in the Palmer Cup. The championship is open to players who have reached the age of 25 by August 24 and have a handicap index of 8.4 or less. 

Does Silva have advice for the players who are meeting Madison for the first time? 

Two pieces actually. 

“Read the holes,” he says. “Madison is a course where you must read the holes. If you see a green that points to the left side of the fairway, for example, consider that side for your approach, even if it’s longer route. The course will tell you.” He likens it in some ways to Shinnecock, where an apparently straight hole will play not straight at all because of the positioning of bunkers. Two, study the angles. Silva, like his late friend Pete Dye, is all about angles and the options they provide. Knowing them will make the ‘read’ clearer. “At Madison, I’d say, appreciate the angles,” he says. “The great architects knew it was all about angles, angles, angles.” (Silva even suggests that looking at Madison on Google Maps will help players understand it better, and prepare.) 

“You know when I was in southern Scotland recently and I saw courses and played courses that were unique,” said Silva. I  said, ‘Why have I never heard of this course?’ They were delightful to play, different, really wonderful, the way they simply grew on the land. Madison is like that. It’s a summer seaside course with its own character that has never tried to be something it’s not. It’s special.”