A new generation of ideas and activities is helping the century-old Rhode Island Country Club meet the challenges that come with being an old-line club in a modern era.
Rhode Island Country Club (RICC), located in Barrington—about 20 minutes east of Providence—has a saying: “It’s a three-bridge day.” And on a perfect early-July afternoon, Jules Olley, Clubhouse Manager, is quick to point out exactly what that means.
“There are three bridges that connect Aquidneck Island to the mainland—the Mount Hope, Claiborne Pell and Jamestown bridges,” he says. “When the fog isn’t too heavy, you can see all three from the last four holes.”
Wedged between Connecticut and Massachusetts and deeply indented by Narragansett Bay, Rhode Island barely seems large enough to contain a big hitter’s best drive, let alone one of the finest collections of private clubs in the nation. It’s so small, in fact, that it often doesn’t register as a mecca of unique picturesque links. Rhode Islanders, however, know what they have, thanks in large part to Donald Ross, who had a vacation home here.
Rhode Island CC AT A GLANCE
Located smack-dab on the shores of the Bay, RICC is one of the best examples of what the Ocean State has to offer. It is home to the oldest of twelve Donald Ross designs in the state—a par-71 measuring 6,734 yards, with a linksy final four holes located across the road from the rest of the course and the clubhouse.
On “three-bridge days,” the view is spectacular, especially on the seventeenth hole—a 145-yard, par-three with a two-tiered green protected by a necklace of sand bunkers.
“The course was designed as a battle of wits,” says Kyle Phelps, Golf Professional. “It’s a combination of parkland, wooded and seaside holes. It’s a great place for golfers of every level. It doesn’t beat up the higher handicappers, yet it’s still challenging for the lower handicappers.”
The course has been the host of the CVS Charity Classic since 1999. It has also hosted four USGA Championships.
By modern standards, RICC isn’t known for extravagance; instead, its prestige is deeply rooted in its pedigree. “There are multiple generations of members here,” says Olley. “We do their weddings, baby showers, and anniversaries. We’re being entrusted to look after people’s families. We must do right by the legacy of RICC as an ever-evolving, family-focused New England country club.”
|Autumn Fest offered something for every member of the family: a bike race, a dog walk, pumpkin carving and scarecrow stuffing.|
The “Mite” Have Fallen
RICC’s property is bisected by Mussachuck Creek, a salt marsh waterway that has long defined the course and given golfers a true taste of coastal New England.
Over the years, however, that same creek became a source of course maintenance headaches. A failed tidal gate was restricting regular tidal flooding and flushing, resulting in a loss of salt marsh habitat and restricted fish passage. The lack of tidal flushing also caused the explosive growth of phragmites australis, a non-native, invasive reed that grows in dense colonies and can reach heights up to 15 feet.
“The phragmites led to some serious practical problems on the golf course,” says Tom Hoffer, who came to the club as Golf Course Superintendent last November after Peter Lund, CGCS, left to pursue other career opportunities.
As fresh water was unable to efficiently flow downstream, fairway drainage in areas immediately surrounding the creek began to decline, and portions of fairways that were once playable during late April were off limits until June. The phragmites limited the lines of sight on several fairways, creating safety hazards.
The course’s driving range, built in the 1930s on filled salt marsh, was also subsiding and experiencing frequently flooded conditions.
So in 2007, seeking to restore both the course and the area’s ecological wetlands, RICC entered into shared funding agreements with a whole host of environmental agencies, to work toward the ecological restoration of the tidal creek.
The renovation, which cost $7 million, began in October 2007 and was finished the following June. During that time fairways were elevated, regraded, and protected from the creek by bulkheads and stone riprap; a new drainage system reduced fairway flooding; new cart paths and tee boxes were built; and a new irrigation system was installed.
Finally—and perhaps most importantly—the phragmites were cut, mulched and treated with herbicides, to make those areas more receptive to native salt marsh grasses.
“The renovation brought back all sorts of wildlife we haven’t seen here in 20 years,” says Phelps. “We maintained the character of the course, but we enhanced our part of the ecosystem.”
Since the renovation and the hiring of Hoffer as Superintendent, a few of the course maintenance practices have changed.
“We do a lot more walk-mowing and hand-watering,” says Hoffer, who tends to keep the course firm and fast.
|Golf camps teach fundamentals to all levels of junior golfers.|
A Golfing Playground
With a phragmites-free course, RICC’s golf staff has delved into developing a variety of golf programs for men, women, couples and juniors.
“The biggest change in recent years has been the influx of younger members with kids who are interested in playing golf,” says Phelps.
Today, there are outings for every combination of family members. However, the minimum age for joining the junior program is 10, or entering 5th grade. Any child under 10 who is not entering 5th grade is required to pass the bag-tag test to be in the Junior Program.
“The bag-tag test requires a junior to play holes #1 and #2 within a time span of 20 minutes, and in 15 strokes or less,” Phelps explains.
RICC’s junior golf program is headlined by a summer camp series where kids are divided into three groups: 18-holers (more competitive players between 11 and 17 years old); 9-holers (intermediate players, ages 10-13); and 6-holers (beginners of any age).
“We run week-long camps throughout the summer, with five golf pros teaching anywhere between 32 and 40 kids,” says Phelps. “The goal is always to make it fun, especially for the 6-holers. If you make it too hard, they quit. So we teach the basic rotary skills of the game with a tennis ball or a beach ball instead of a golf ball. The kids have a blast, they learn the basic principals, and our retention rates are soaring.”
A Family Club By the Bay
While the golf is great, RICC is far more than just a course. With 400 members, it’s a lively neighborhood club with a white wooden clubhouse and a full menu of activities for every member of the family—including squash, tennis and paddle tennis, swimming, summer camps and Ping-Pong.
The club’s staying power is deeply rooted in the creativity of its management team, made up of Olley, Phelps, Hoffer, Executive Chef Pete Kittredge and Controller Jay Dwyer. As a group, they remain committed to emphasizing tradition and keeping generations of members and guests satisfied, while constantly striving to implement new ideas throughout the operation.
“There have been two significant areas of improvement over the past 6 years,” says Olley, who came to RICC in 2004 as Food & Beverage Manager, and two years later was promoted to Clubhouse Manager. “We’ve established better club branding by hanging more signage and putting our logo on doors, carpets and flags. We’ve also vastly improved the member experience.”
In his first few years as Clubhouse Manager, Olley and Board member Joyce Kilmarten wrote a mission statement, developed a business plan and walked through the things that could and should be fixed or improved.
“I came to the club with a for-profit mindset,” says Olley. “If a member isn’t happy, we’ve failed. We must do whatever we can to make sure their experience here is the best it can possibly be.”
Today, Olley oversees two dining rooms featuring two separate menus (see menus online here), three function rooms, a pro shop, a swimming pool with its own dedicated snack shop, a newly constructed halfway house serving a variety of grill items, two cart paths, two paddle courts, tennis courts and a maintenance barn.
“The club itself has a lot of different characteristics,” says Olley. “There are a number of activity options for members, because we constantly examine our demographics and make sure we have something to offer everyone.”
As a result of this mindset and a growing, younger membership base, the club has invented dozens of kid-friendly and family-focused events.
|A season’s-end pool party ended with a cardboard boat race.|
Happy Kids = Happy Parents
With a packed social calendar, RICC has firmly established itself as “the place” to be, hosting events such as kite night with free ice cream and soda, wine dinners, art exhibits, winter carnivals, a haunted clubhouse, complimentary flower-arranging classes taught by a vendor the club uses frequently, summer cookouts, and even a model car show. One of the most popular events last year, according to Olley, was the Autumn Fest.
“We wanted to capitalize on the season and create a day that would give grandma, grandpa, mom, dad, the teenagers and the kids something to do,” he says. “It began with a 15k bike race and 5k run. There was also a 5k dog walk that the kids loved, pumpkin painting and carving contests, games, rides, and even scarecrow stuffing.”
The club set up a simple but hearty buffet made by Executive Chef Pete Kittredge with lots of grab-and-go items, to keep stomachs full and members satisfied.
On the heels of the Autumn Fest’s success, when the golf course was covered in snow and club usage was down, Olley and his team then put their heads together to come up with other ways to keep bringing members to the club.
“We built a skating rink next to the paddle courts and we gave away free hot chocolate,” he says. “Only about 40 members came to the rink, but those same members might not have come if we hadn’t built it.”
With a “member first” philosophy, RICC always tries to stay one step ahead, even when the summer sun beats down.
“We had a golf outing earlier this summer when it was nearly 100 degrees,” says Olley. “We gave out complimentary bottles of water, set up a misting tent and handed out iced towels. We must give members more than they expect.”
|RICC’s clubhouse features bright and open rooms overlooking both the Narragansett Bay and the golf course.|
RICC’s swimming pool, which was rebuilt five years ago, is open daily in season from 10 AM until 7 PM, and members must purchase a separate pool membership. Looking to add value, RICC decided to open the pool for lap swims from 6 to 9 AM, and again from 7 to 10 PM. It didn’t cost the club anything to allow members this swim-at-your-own-risk access, and it maximized this particular amenity. “We’ve made a small part of our membership very happy, and we used resources we have available to us,” says Olley.
With a classic course just off the ocean and a clubhouse filled with members clamoring for ways to have fun together, Rhode Island Country Club doesn’t need to wait for the fog to lift to call the day a success. Instead, every time a member is made happy, in a big way or a small one, it counts as a “three-bridge day.”