River Oaks Country Club illustrates two of the main themes in the evolution of course design in America. Donald Ross’ original layout of 1923 was a classical example of his strategic style of design, while Joe Finger’s redesign of the late 1960s combined modern engineering with elements of the penal style to stiffen the challenge. Finger’s respectful redesign essentially followed Ross’ routing, allowing today’s players to enjoy a fully challenging modern course that preserves many features of its original pedigree.
The 6,868-yard golf course, though much changed from Ross’ original 6,375-yard design, remains what it was at its inception: one of America’s finest private layouts. The original design was fairly typical of the many “parkland” courses Ross produced between world wars: tree-lined, many doglegged holes following the natural terrain, small greens and ample, but not overwhelming, use of bunkers.
According to Ross’ strategic approach, a championship test examines every skill and every club in the bag in equal proportion: long and accurate tee shots, accurate iron play, precise handling of the short game and consistent putting. To ensure “honest” shot values, Ross balanced the severity of the problems he posed with the attainability of the objectives; for example, a very difficult tee shot, as on No. 13, is followed by a less demanding approach; or an easy tee shot is followed by an approach to a difficult green.
Jack Burke Sr., the first golf pro at River Oaks, called the 11th hole, a 232-yard par-3, “The Pride of River Oaks.” With its straightforward, demanding tee shot, No. 11 is the quintessential Ross challenge. When selecting Burke, a top teaching professional who nearly won the 1921 U.S. and Canadian opens, as the first pro, the club was guided by the principle that they wished to hire only the very best people in the game. Subsequent appointments included some of the pre-eminent names in American golf: Jimmy Demaret, Claude Harmon, Dick Harmon.
Jack Burke often hosted his peers at River Oaks, and over the decades members entertained, and were entertained by, most of the greatest players in American golf. Bobby Jones and Walter Hagen conducted exhibitions here, while Gene Sarazen, Betty Jameson, Patty Berg, Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus competed in important tournaments or exhibitions. Jimmy Demaret tuned up for his 1940 Masters victory by outplaying the entire Ryder Cup team and winning the prestigious Western Open. And in the 1946 Tournament of Champions, Byron Nelson, Ben Hogan and Sam Snead finished in exactly that order.
By the mid-1960s, the members considered modernizing and redesigning the course. Enter Joe Finger, collaborator on many courses with Demaret and Nelson, and designer of several courses listed among America’s finest. Finger was charged not only with renewing the fairways and greens, but also with stretching the layout some 300 to 400 yards and balancing both nines at par 36.
Finger’s changes on Nos. 1 and 2 introduced the penal style at River Oaks. In rerouting the 1st fairway and turning it from a slight dogleg left into a rather sharp dogleg right, Finger pushed the new green deep into the trees. This allowed him to move the second tee back more than 100 yards, thereby changing No. 2—Ross’ shortest par 4 on the front side, a drive and a short pitch of 311 yards—into a much more formidable challenge.
The evolution of the “modernized” River Oaks often resulted in enhanced playability, beauty and maintenance. For example, Ross’ predilection for leaving the natural terrain alone confronted many players with a severe problem on holes 13, 14 and 16. The rugged gulleys on Nos. 13 and 16 were so deep, and the faces toward the green so steep, that when players were in them, they could neither see the green nor play out with long enough irons to get home.
Today, the “new” River Oaks continues to rank proudly among the finest courses in this part of the country. When consideration is given to the course’s design, its playability, its traditions and its conditioning, few courses in Texas are its peers.