A Puritan’s Pine Valley | T+L Golf
Published: July 2009
By Paul Rogers
The parallels between Boston Golf Club and its inspiration in New Jersey are profound—and, in the fate of one of its founders, tragically so
My first visit to Boston Golf Club, in August 2005, began somewhat inauspiciously. The course was newly opened, and its architect, Gil Hanse, had offered to arrange for me to play it. I asked if I could bring my cousin Jim, a Rhode Islander and a talented golfer. Sure, I was told, as long as we played with John Mineck, one of the club’s founders, and Eric Baldwin, an agent from IMG who had been retained to recruit members. When Jim and I showed up at the club, in the well-heeled South Shore town of Hingham, Massachusetts, we were informed by various staff people that “Mr. Mineck” was running a bit late and probably only had time for nine holes.
But once Mineck arrived and met us on the first tee, we never heard or spoke the word “mister” again. In fact, after Jim and I hit solid drives off the first tee, Mineck—tall, broad-shouldered and wearing owlish wire-rimmed glasses under a beige cap—pretty much dispensed with first and last names, too.
“Baldy,” he barked to Baldwin, his partner in the match, “looks like these boys came to play.”
The club’s official opening weeks earlier had in many ways marked the culmination of years of investment on the part of Mineck and his cofounder, Rob Ketterson. Wealthy Bostonians who shared a purist love for the game, they met in the mid-1990s and teamed up with the goal of creating a traditional golf club within thirty minutes of the city. “Our vision was pretty simple,” Ketterson told me: “To re-create a classic golf experience and do it using modern tools.” They eventually found the spectacular rolling, pine-studded site in Hingham, and after showing it to various architects, hired Hanse to design a walking-only course. With little fanfare, Boston Golf Club opened in June 2005. Comparisons to Pine Valley and some of the most fabled courses in New England soon followed.
Our four-ball turned out to be a spirited affair. I can still hear Mineck telling stories about how the course was built, pointing out targets off the tee and, after I’d managed to make a couple of birdies, wondering how little time I’d been spending in the office (somehow the double bogeys I also made failed to register with him). When we finished the front nine, he didn’t hesitate to join us for the back, and after the round he invited us for beers in the trailer that was serving as a temporary clubhouse. Waving off an attendant, Mineck reached into the refrigerator and grabbed the bottles himself.
Tragically, it was that same whole-hearted, do-it-yourself style that led to his death two years later, at age fifty-four. Mineck was driving an asphalt roller over the club’s freshly paved entrance road on the Friday afternoon of Memorial Day weekend in 2007. The rig fell down an embankment, and his body was found hours later.
Today, Boston Golf Club is maturing into a fine new club. Less heralded than some other prestigious clubs of recent vintage—such as Sebonack, the neighbor of National Golf Links, or Ballyneal, Tom Doak’s prairie links in northeastern Colorado—it is no less worthy of discussion. The course that Hanse and his team created makes superb use of the rugged terrain, artfully incorporating steep hillsides, swaths of wetlands and, most strikingly, an abandoned quarry. The clubhouse, which opened last spring, is built largely with wood culled from the property. It looks and feels organic, and at just eight thousand square feet—a fraction of the size of most contemporary clubhouses—it’s remarkably intimate.
“There’s no doubt in my mind these guys did their homework,” says Brad Faxon, the veteran Tour pro from Rhode Island, “to see how they could use what was on the land—what was natural to the land—and enhance it and keep that New England feel.” Faxon met Mineck and Ketterson at the Deutsche Bank Championship in Norton, Massachusetts. Boston Golf Club was under construction at the time, and the founders invited him to visit the site and have a look. A serious student of course architecture, Faxon took them up on the offer, returning on several occasions. “I learned a lot watching everybody work on the course,” he says.
One of the first impressions Boston Golf Club gives is that the holes have been there for a hundred years. Fairways flow gracefully over ridges and ripples in the land. Greens perch on ledges and nestle within nooks and bowls—all natural features, if somewhat enhanced. Rather than putting surfaces of a deep, unblemished color, those at Boston Golf Club are slightly mottled, an effect achieved by mixing multiple varieties of bent grass, including native colonial. A variety of scraggly grasses and plants, even some mosses, grow at the edges of bunkers and the far reaches of rough—the “fringes of the tapestry,” as Rodney Hine, the course superintendent, puts it. Faxon says the untamed look reminds him of The Country Club in Brookline, hallowed ground in American golf.
Anyone familiar with the classic links of Scotland will also notice a number of old-world touches to Hanse’s design. The long par-four twelfth requires a blind drive over the gate in a stone wall—an homage to the sixteenth at North Berwick West. The fairways at twelve and sixteen bleed together, and on the latter hole, a short two-shotter, the landing area is divided by a Principal’s Nose bunker inspired by the one at St. Andrews.
A firmness to the turf introduces another dimension rarely found on courses this side of the Atlantic: the option of playing shots along the ground. Often the best route to the hole is to feed the ball off a greenside shoulder instead of firing directly at the flag. That’s particularly true on number three, where the putting surface slopes from front left to back right, a “reverse redan,” in cognoscenti terms.
The combined effect of all these elements is a round of golf full of variety and surprise. “I get such a kick out of seeing the reactions of people when they play here for the first time,” says Hine, who spent ten years on Hanse’s design staff before setting down roots here. “Their eyes are just on fire, they’re so lit with enthusiasm—the same light that was in my eyes the first time I played Dornoch and Cruden Bay.”
A four-hole stretch that plays across the broken terrain of the former gravel quarry is the most stirring part of the course. It begins with the 317-yard uphill fifth, which dares long hitters to reach a level landing area within tossing distance of the green. And there the fun begins: Golfers must decide whether to loft, chip or putt the ball onto the raised sliver of a green. The sixth hole, a mid-length par three, can best be described as Pine Valley–esque: an all-carry shot over a chasm of sand and scrub. “People were saying, ‘You guys are nuts. That’s a derelict, awful piece of ground,’” explains Hanse. “But to us it was the most beautiful spot on the property.” The drive on the par-four seventh must carry another section of the quarry, then the green at the par-three eighth yields one last look across it and completes the loop.
Another, less obvious parallel between Boston Golf Club and Pine Valley is that each was created in large part by an independently wealthy, single-minded founder who died before the tableau he envisioned was completed. (In Mineck’s case, only the clubhouse had yet to be built.)
Pine Valley, the top-ranked course in the world, owes its existence to George Crump, a Philadelphia hotelier and accomplished golfer. Around the time Crump was selling his Colonnade Hotel in 1910, he embarked on a dream of creating an outstanding golf club in the pine barrens of southern New Jersey. The project became his obsession. A widower with time to spare, he moved into makeshift quarters on site and painstakingly surveyed the land. Crump solicited ideas from the leading golf architects of the day, most notably Englishman H. S. Colt, then laid out the course himself. But four holes hadn’t been constructed when he took his own life in 1918, at age forty-six. (Hugh Wilson, Merion’s designer and another local amateur architect, completed them with the help of his brother, Alan.)
Tributes to Crump poured forth in the weeks following his death. “He discovered this wonderful tract of land when it was covered with trees,” wrote A. W. Tillinghast, the celebrated course architect, in The American Golfer, “and to many it seemed like folly to attempt transforming it to a golf course.” Crump’s close friend Simon Carr, a Roman Catholic priest as well as a competitive golfer, assured Pine Valley’s board of directors that the course would become an “enduring monument” to Crump and would “witness to future generations his energy, his generosity and his devotion to clean sport.”
Ninety years later, such accolades could easily have been conferred on John Mineck. Like Crump after his sale of the Colonnade, Mineck had done so well for himself by the time he and Ketterson met in 1996 that he’d essentially been able to retire as a single man in his forties. (He and his longtime companion, Nancy Skawinski, were to have been married in the natural amphitheater of Boston Golf Club’s eleventh tee.) With a background in chemistry as well as an MBA, Mineck had spent six years in new-product development with Gillette, helping to bring its popular Foamy Gel shaving cream to market. He also created Practice Management Systems, a company providing computer services to physicians. It came to dominate the business in New England, New York and New Jersey, and Mineck sold the thirteen-year-old operation in 1995, at a handsome profit.
Turning to golf, a passion that dated to his youth as a caddie at the Stanwich Club in Greenwich, Connecticut, Mineck dedicated himself to the game. He volunteered with the Massachusetts Golf Association and developed junior clinics across the state. “He had two precious commodities: time and money,” says Jim McCabe, longtime golf writer for the Boston Globe and a close friend of Mineck’s. “Most anyone else in such a position would have used those gifts to indulge themselves. Not John. His time and money were always used to do good.”
Once Mineck and Ketterson—a less extroverted type who had the responsibilities of a family and a full-time job as a managing partner at Fidelity Ventures—acquired the land in Hingham, Mineck immersed himself in the project. The first big challenge was to find a source of water sufficient for irrigation. After a costly initial round of drilling failed, Mineck, as part of a field team, spent the next eight months trudging through the woods until water was found. “Forget the scientists and the people who are at the computers in the office,” he told the engineer he’d hired to oversee the work. “I’m talking to the guy who’s drilling the holes.”
Although he and Ketterson gave Hanse’s team what amounted to a clean slate, urging them to make the most of the land without worrying about where the clubhouse and the roads would go, Mineck also engaged the architects on a daily basis. He hired two nongolf experts to bring different perspectives: Ron Byleckie, an arborist, and Hank Gilpin, a furniture maker Mineck got to know while studying woodworking as president of Boston’s Society of Arts and Crafts. These men played key roles in the conception of the clubhouse and the course and encouraged showcasing specimen trees, including a large, leaning white pine that was uprooted from an area that’s now a pond and replanted behind the eighth green.
Hanse says the first time the entire group got together, on a cold winter day at a brick-oven pizzeria just down the road, he was struck by everyone’s enthusiasm and command of their respective fields. “John found these people and brought them together,” Hanse says, “and that passion and discussion continued whenever we would have a get-together. There was always a lot of good-natured ribbing. John loved the give and take.”
A couple of years later, when the course finally opened, Mineck missed that level of engagement. “More than anything,” reflects Hanse, “he just loved the process—the thought that went into it, how things were created. And while he was happy and excited once the course was done, I think he was sad because the process was finished.” Jim Wagner, Hanse’s design partner, remembers getting calls from Mineck while working on a subsequent project, the restoration of TPC Boston. “He wanted to come out and have some fun,” Wagner says, “and to him having fun was hopping on equipment and building bunkers.” Sure enough, Mineck joined Wagner at the site, and the designer found a job for him: operating an excavator to collapse the edges of a greenside bunker and give it a more natural look.
I returned to Boston Golf Club last May to see the new clubhouse and to get a feel for how things were going in Mineck’s absence. Ketterson graciously found a place for me in the Member Mixer, a tournament that would be followed by a party to christen the clubhouse.
Despite ominous skies and a passing shower, the sixty-odd players in the field—hale New Englanders who know how to hit and move—made their way around the course in a brisk four hours. Afterward, they paid their caddies and headed to the locker room, which was newly finished and smelled like a cedar closet. They showered, threw on fresh shirts and walked over to the Main House, a cabin-in-the-woods-style clubhouse that many were seeing for the first time.
The building is purposefully modest; it was hominess that Mineck and Ketterson wanted most. They flew around the country visiting other clubs for inspiration, and their favorite was the understated farmhouse-style clubhouse at Chechessee Creek Club in Okatie, South Carolina. Borrowing on that model, the Main House sits unobtrusively on a ridge within a grove of trees. With red cedar siding, a screen porch and a pair of stone chimneys, it looks like a mountain cottage in Vermont. Already small, it’s also divided into a series of intimate spaces: a billiard room, a library, a dining room of seven tables. “If a guy comes in on a winter morning,” Hank Gilpin told me, “he can go into any room and he won’t feel like he’s twenty-five people shy of a comfortable place.” Gilpin oversaw the clubhouse project after Mineck, dissatisfied with how it was taking shape, fired six architects and a seventh quit.
By design, there are no seats at the bar. Instead, a twenty-foot-long table runs along a wall of windows. The richly grained table is a halved log from a curly red oak felled on what became the ninth hole. Gilpin handcrafted eight organically shaped stools to go with it, and they face out onto the par-three eighteenth hole, creating a gallery for players finishing up, just as Mineck wished. “I want a little pressure out here,” he used to say.
Among many clubhouse amenities Mineck planned but never got to enjoy is a rather quirky one that, naturally, he was proud of: an outdoor shower. Hidden for privacy by a rock wall, the shower is formed by blocks of granite, stacked chest-high, that were being discarded by Trinity Church in Boston. Anyone using the shower can see over to the eighteenth green.
In at least one respect, however, the clubhouse and a cottage built on the property haven’t been outfitted entirely to Mineck’s desires: both are furnished with televisions. Mineck disliked TV and would proudly state that he didn’t have a single set in his home in Cohasset. A flat-screen in the Main House was tuned to a Red Sox game on the night of the Member Mixer. The cottage has multiple sets, reflecting, as one staff member quietly told me, the preference of Ketterson, who sometimes stays over in the cottage instead of driving home to his residence in Beacon Hill.
With the Main House and locker room now completed, along with that one cottage (more are planned), Ketterson says Boston Golf Club is attracting national members. He declined to disclose the cost of a national or a regular membership. When I asked him last fall whether the economic slowdown had affected the club, he said that despite hard times membership was continuing to grow. Current members include a cross- section of New England’s athletic and business elite. In addition to Faxon, an honorary member and frequent visitor, the list includes Sean McDonough, the ABC/ESPN sportscaster and son of legendary Globe sportswriter Will McDonough, and Seth Waugh, CEO of Deutsche Bank Americas.
During the evening at the Member Mixer, no speeches or toasts were made in Mineck’s honor, but his name came up often in conversation. Before going out to play that day, Carl Klumpp, a founding member who had met Mineck when they both worked for Gillette, rubbed a green Boston Golf Club cap that Mineck had been wearing at the time of his fatal accident. Klumpp keeps it in his locker and performs the ritual before every round. Once the dining room had filled and members began spilling into the library, Klumpp took in the scene and smiled. “John,” he told me, “would have been thrilled.”