Sterling, By Design

The First in a Series on the Golf Course Design of Sterling farms

Sterling Farms golf course truly is: Sterling, by design…. Our Stamford landmark, situated on this once-active 144 acre dairy farm 40 minutes outside of Manhattan, is a destination everyone adores. We often  forget how its 18 golf holes lure us back time and again. We take for granted it has the region’s largest, best-priced, foul-weather-friendly, lighted, 365-day-a-year driving range. We arrive and find comfort in those charming old freshly-painted farm buildings, and admire all of the neatly landscaped, brilliantly colored, floral grounds. It is easy to forget how perfectly Sterling, by design, Sterling Farms is, and so we return there, time and again.

Few realize Sterling Farms is Fairfield County’s, in fact the Tri-state area’s, most complete pubic golf facility (just short of Bethpage State Park, and maybe one or two others). We whiz on by the billboards and recall  there are two theaters running a full schedule of live performances all year long, or that the restaurant, body’s at Sterling, as two terraces overlooking the fairways, in addition to its second floor bar and doing room, and downstairs take-out snack bar area with seating to boot. We forget that, sometimes.

But we can’t miss that old New England pro shop, with its green copper golfer atop the copula, and its floor-to-ceiling inventory of golfing goodies. We saunter by the green space where the kids play in their own playground, and practice to our heart’s content, noticing that big white tent and wonder about all of those summer events… “I need to go to one of those”, we think….

It doesn’t get much better than this folks!

We might have missed Curtain Call’s annual Shakespeare on the Green performances, staged last month under the stars, but we swear we’ll be back… next year.

Lou Ursone (pictured) has been performing in, and running, the incredible summer Shakespeare on the Green series for nearly 20 years. He also runs three other theatre venues at Sterling Farms, and practically grew up there!

This is second country home, and we feel it every time we see that old Fairway Green Restaurant to our left as we drive in, or as we put out on 18…. It really was a home, and when this was known as Woodsacres Farms, the Hobler family live here, and they had square dances on the second floor of the barn where the cows slept.

The old Hobler house.

That was back when Sterling Farms, as it was so named in 1943, raised Guersney cows with names like Foremost Perfect Lady, Coronation Melinda, Normandy Levity Prince, and Sterlingold Cupid…. “Small – But Very Select” was the slogan back then, and it would fit beautifully today. Everything done had a purpose, even how and when the grass was cut in the 14 pastures. They took care of what they owned at Sterling Farms, and still do. Everything here still remains… Sterling, by design.

The Best of America

Sterling Farms has evolved considerably since the 1930s and ’40s, and represents the very best of American idealism even moreso today, right when we need it the most. It embraces and embodies the American Dream all neatly encapsulated in a suburban recreational package we can see, feel, and touch. It  is the genuine article, with its old-fashioned ingenuity,  country sensibility, leadership, teamwork, and the town’s people all gathering together to show the world themselves at their very best. Sterling Farms is an eclectic mix of old, new, and everything in between… a kettle of slow-cooked thinking, inspiration, a little perspiration, a lot of heart…  and it just works. . It is where work and leisure intertwine, and everyday, like a mill grinding away at grain, it churns out memories… fond memories. I wish we could bottle the stuff… the world would be a better place!

Sterling Farms was, and still is, all by design. Its long-term success is a by-product of the vision and execution of a mid-century Stamford golfing executive citizenry that set in motion events that resulted in what we see today. These Hubbard Heights golfers had the wisdom and the stubbornness to shirk off small-minded adversity and obstacles, like seals shed water, and get done what they felt was right for their town and people.

Men of action made Sterling Farms Golf Course a reality.

It took bold vision to transform a dairy and pasture into a model community resource, with the golf course as its crown jewel, but they pulled it off, and had the smarts to install leadership at the helm to ensure it would endure: Paul Grillo. He will kill me for saying this, but his recruitment, at the ripe old age of 26, represents the the best of Stamford’s thinking. Paul ushered in the future. He financed and built that driving range, and leveled the playing field so that the golf course could withstand the unstoppable force of equipment technology. He is the reason why Sterling Farms rules the golfing roost of the land out here, and is a credit to himself, the town of Stamford.

It really all is… Sterling, by design.

A Measure of Ourselves

The golf at Sterling Farms is a measure of ourselves. This could be said of any golf course, but some more than others, and the thinking behind the design is what separates the wheat from the chaff here.

Sterling Farms gives us things we can use to measure ourselves. Can we drive Nos. 1 and 14, or hit any of the par 5s in two? Can we birdie 17, or hit No 14’s green on our second shot. Do we have that perfect cut shot for No. 8, or 11?

Sterling Farms provides solid benchmarks which can be used to measure ourselves, and our wallets. We may not like that little gully in front of 11’s green, but it gets us thinking, and the price is right too. We might four putt some of the greens, but we certainly can’t say they are in poor shape!

Every square inch of Sterling Farms is planned out for your long term enjoyment. It is intended to give you tangible benchmarks to measure yourself and your successes. It is intended to fill a need in the marketplace, and be maintainable in such a way as to keep costs affordable for all. And is intended to look good to your eye, embracing things like the gabled roof lines behind the 18th green, or the view of the Long Island sound on 12. It was all thought out, and measured, for us to gauge ourselves, and everything else too. The fact that we don’t even have to think about it is… yep… Sterling, by design.

Lots to be proud of at Sterling Farms.

Three  Ps

The three Ps—playability, practicality, and pulchritude—are considered by golf course designers to be the triangle of the game.  Geoffrey Cornish’s designed Sterling Farms golf course with these three Ps in mind. He was from a bygone era, but prolific when classic became modern, and he and his colleague Bob Graves, were the two who wrote the book on Golf Course Design. Cornish had help too, but it would come later, in 2005, when it was time to bring the golf course up to more modern standards.

“Mr. Cornish was a revered architect during the time SF was originally designed and constructed,” the Sterling Farms golf course renovation architect, Robert McNeil told me. “I would say that he made the most of a tight property with many uses adjacent to the golf course.”

Indeed! Cornish and Graves spent two decades together lecturing and writing about the many tried and true  practices underpinning what goes into a good golf course’s design, like Sterling’s, and viewed much of  it as art: “The architect’s design media, or ‘paints’, are earth, grass, trees, sand, and water,” they wrote. “His or her objective is to use this media to create a work of art, art that is a product of vision and freedom, but conforms to a basic triangle of the game, aesthetics, and future maintainability.” Both felt the goal is to “paint” a “picture” that is a “functioning composition”. To that end, it is obvious Sterling Farms is indeed a “functioning composition”.

Geoffrey Cornish

Playability is key, and it means different things to different people. One notable golf course architect, Tom Doak, who finds his main influence in Dr. Alister MacKenzie, designer of  Augusta National Golf Club and Cypress Point Club, says “playability is crucial to having a course that people want to come back and play again.” Sterling Farms fills that bill nicely.

In his interview with Club Champion, Doak notes: “A lot of architects are great players, and they get all caught up in creating a challenge for the guys they are used to playing with, and forget that the average golfer is a 15- or 20- handicap who is out there to have a good time.”

When Mr. Cornish designed Sterling Farms, he purposefully avoided putting out of bounds on the right, where slicers hit their tee shots most often. He avoided long, and relentless forced carries, and created holes with interesting features.

In 2005, when McNeil updated the golf course, he had many mandates, but crushing the golfer’s soul wasn’t one of them, even if Paul Grillo—the executive director leading the project—is a fine player.

“We wanted to respect the ‘Farm’ landscape,” McNeil recalled, “and keep the flow and cut lines as natural as possible,” during that 2005 renovation, adding: “I am not as adamant as others on protecting par especially on a public course. The game is hard enough. Although I think the bunker positioning, and some of the angles and landing areas created, enhanced strategy.”

McNeil cites holes 2, 3, 4, 11, 13, 14, and 18 as examples. “The tees, where possible, were expanded to a width which allows the markers to be placed on either side changing the angle of play,” he explains.

“Fairway contouring was changed to add playable area and strategic angles. Fairway contouring now (well at the time) was shifted to capture bunker shapes and allow for carry and angle points for play into the greens.”

When Mr. Cornish began his golf design apprenticeship in 1936 working for renowned Canadian golf course designer Stan “The Terror” Thompson, the famed Toronto amateur was building Capilano in Vancouver.  Cornish had already graduated from the University of British Columbia, with a degree in agronomy, and Thompson needed someone who knew soils. It wa also an opportunity to be exposed to a top-notch player’s perspective.

“Stanley taught me a tremendous amount,” Cornish told golf writer Tom Bedell in an article Bedell wrote for Commonwealth Golf magazine, back in 2002.  “He [Thompson] was the exponent of the principles of art in golf course design, which is why Nicklaus, Cupp, Morrish and the like all went out and studied Banff. He also started Trent Jones out, which was a great thing—if you look at it objectively, I think that Trent has contributed to our art form more than anyone else. I stayed with Stan until I joined the Canadian Army and went overseas.”

Mr. Cornish had seen enough fighting in WWII, having landed at Normandy during the invasion, to realize everything isn’t about ‘us’. “When you’ve been in the army during war, you’re sure not interested in yourself too much after that. You lose your sense of competition. People have said to me, ‘You have no competitive spirit.’ And I have to say I really don’t,” he told Bedell back in 2002, when the writer was covering designer Steve Durkee’s redesign of Cornish’s Green Mountain classic, the Manchester Country Club..

Likely, his war time experience helped him gain a better perspective on life, and how he approached the playability of a community and its golf course like Sterling Farms. His focus was on us, not on his own stellar game, or that of his fine golfing peers. But he still had a twinkle in his eye.

“Cornish is rather famous for leaving a tree in the middle of a fairway,” McNeil told me. At SF the tree on 4 may represent this,” he explained. What about the tree left on No. 2? Or what used to be left on 16, and remains right there? Or, the overhanding limbs on 7 and 11? They are not “in the middle of the fairway”, but affect the playability, which really is, well… Sterling, by design.

The Power of P in Practicality

McNeil never uses the P words, but they seem to be in his bones, as his work to improve on what Cornish did shows to this very day.

It was just after the war, and Mr. Cornish had paid his dues learning the ropes under Thompson.  He was living in Amherst with his “bride” Carol, teaching golf course design at the University of Massachusetts in 1949.

Money here in the Northeast, especially for golf courses, was tight. But in 1952, Mr. and Mrs. Cornish built their own 18-hole par 3, called Little St. Andrews, on four acres in the town of Shrewsbury. Here was a golf course designer investing his own money in himself, his trade, and the industry he hung his hat on. Pretty impressive, and apparently, it’s contagious….

“I recently bought a Cornish 9 hole course,” McNeil, the Saunderstown, Rhode Island owner of Northeast Golf Company said, “with a tree in the middle of the 6th fairway.”

Robert McNeil jots down his score while playing a match with a chum on the Cornish-designed Kings Crossing Golf Club he owns.

There is something to be said for those who invest what little they have where their mouths are, and both Cornish and McNeil did it! Impressive.

“I used to charge 75 cents a round,” Cornish told Tom Bedell that day in 2002. “The idea spread and people began to hire me to lay courses out for $500. I must have done about 15 up and down the east coast. A few still exist, such as the one in Brewster. Literally hundreds of people came up to me in years to come and said, ‘We started golf at one of your pitch and putts.’”

I’m not sure who pioneered this, but Mr. Cornish even lighted some of those old par 3 courses so people could play at night. It must have been a lot of fun, a good business move—like heating the range bays and lighting them until well after dark. Makes me think of who Sterling Farms lights up its driving range….

Marketability, convenience, water, resources, wildlife, vegetation, habitat, sight lines, and other factors effect the practicality of a golf course design, but none more than the long term maintenance implications, and their associated costs.

Cornish must have learned plenty about that with Little St. Andrews, and he’d to muster all of his know how for his next project, a biggie, that was whole on the other side of the spectrum!

It was around 1955, and one of the wealthiest men in Massachusetts, a Mr. Bert Bertsuprenant, asked Mr. Cornish if he would build him the longest, most-difficult golf course in the United States, The Pines Course at The International, in Bolton, Massachusetts.

“So I gave it to him,” Mr. Cornish told writer Tom Bedell. “I think it was 8,040 yards from back tees when it opened [in 1956, two years after Cornish became an American citizen]. They’ve continually added length to it to make sure it stays the world’s longest. It’s now 8,375. Number five is the big one. Bert wanted a hole that no one would reach on their second shot, a 640-yard par-5, but on opening day, Paul Harney cut the corner and hit the green on his second. Bert had a fit.”

Big sometimes is better, but small and select is good too. Sterling Farms is… small, select, and also pretty darn nice to look at too!

The last P in the triangle of golf is pulchritude. Huh? Yep… pulchritude. Nope, it isn’t something you eat! It is the aesthetic appeal—the beauty—of the golf course. Without visual appeal, the whole works may not work.

“We were much more focused on function and aesthetics that making the course any more difficult,” McNeil said of his Sterling Farms renovation work back in 2005.

Think about it: Playability – OB and length, width of fairways, and greens are receptive. Check. Practicality – maintainable forever, makes sense with the area, marketable, smart. Check. Pulchritude – looks terrible, grass is weedy and yellow, the bunkers are shot, there are parking lots and utility towers everywhere. Fugly. Uncheck. Two out of three is usually good, but three out of three is better. In Cornish and McNeil’s eyes: essential.

“When a professional golfer or accomplished amateur plans a course or a feature of a course, he or she is apt to emphasize playing aspects at the expense of the other two sides of the triangle,” Cornish and Graves wrote in their book, Golf Course Design, “whereas a landscape architect may favor eye appeal and a superintendent maintainability. Yet no course or any feature on it will be a true and lasting success unless the design embodies the three basic considerations. Golf architecture, therefore, involves judicial balance of the three: the game, aesthetics, and maintainability.”

Mr. Cornish would build hundreds of golf courses in New England after he made The International. In 1969, he came to Sterling Farms armed with an intimate understanding of the golf course, how it was built, was operated, and how it would need to fit within the Stamford community. Most-Importantly, he understood the golfer, and from every point of view, too.

“He brought so much to public golf as he wanted to create courses that people could really play. Golf, especially in New England, would not be the same without him,” his design partner, Mark Mungeam, of Mungeam Cornish Golf Design, noted in a tribute to Cornish.  “Everyone who ever worked with Mr. Cornish knew how he would walk and study a golf course. He would show up for an 8 a.m. meeting at 6 a.m. and walk the golf course, carefully assessing the layout before the meeting even began,” said the designer of the Lyman Orchards Apple Course.

Cornish once quoted Donald Ross as saying: “God created golf holes. It is the duty of the architect to discover them.” When Cornish walked the 14 cow pastures at Sterling Farms 50 years ago, he was looking to discover them amidst those 14 old cow pastures.

“I did write a long letter to Mr. Cornish at the time of the renovation and as we were redoing Mohegan Sun Golf Club outlining our approach, but certainly paying respect to his original design. His response was kind and thankful as always,” McNeil said.

Sounds just Sterling indeed, by design….

From the desk of Paul grillo, executive director, Stamford Golf Authority

Welcome to Sterling Farms Golfer. Over the past five decades, Sterling Farms has evolved into one of the premiere golf destinations anywhere in the region. We continually strive to maintain, if not exceed, that distinction, and know we owe it all to our Stamford families, friends and neighbors, as well as our patrons like you. Now is the best time of the year to play our spectacular 18 hole championship golf course. Our Golf Course Superintendent, Mike Golden, and his whole team, are leaders in the world of greenkeeping, and we are very proud of the quality of their hard work. I think you'll find our putting greens, fairways, tees, roughs—and every landscape feature here—reflects their devotion and hard work. It is spectacular. Sterling Farms is home to the area's top driving range facility. You won't find a better value, or level of quality, anywhere! We take great pride and joy serving you, and our local community. On behalf of all of us here at Sterling Farms, welcome and thank you!
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