It is difficult to believe looking at the wonderful courses Roger Rulewich has designed, like Crumpin-Fox Club in Massachusetts, Fox Hopyard Golf Club in Connecticut, New Jersey’s Ballyowen Golf Club or New York’s Saratoga National Golf Club, that the mastermind behind these magnificent daily fee tracts at one time did not know there was such a profession as golf course architect.
“I was a civil engineer, that’s why Robert Trent Jones, Jr., hired me back in 1961,” said the 69-year-old Rulewich with a chuckle. “He was looking for someone with an engineering background to help out with his golf course company. When I first met him, I didn’t know what golf course architecture was or how one did it.”
Rulewich learned his lessons well while working with Trent Jones, Jr., where he teamed with another architect of some renown, Rees Jones. Rulewich stayed with Jones, Jr. for 34 years.
“The first project Jones (Jr.) gave me was to go up to Woodstock Country Club in Vermont and design and build some new bridges over a stream that kept washing out the ones that they had. I solved the problem and I think most of them are still standing.”
Thus, Rulewich learned golf course architecture literally from the ground up.
“It was a slow process and I served a long apprenticeship. I didn’t have any formal type of training in it, most of what I know was learned through osmosis. I just learned a lot from going out on the course as it was being laid out and shaped and watching what was being done and then having a hand in the process.”
One of the first courses Rulewich cut his teeth on, as he put it, was Fairview Country Club in Greenwich. Ct. He and Rees Jones collaborated on the design of that private layout. He also had a hand in the Jones Course at Lyman Orchards Golf Club in Connecticut, Ipswich Country Club in Ipswich, the Black Hall Club in Connecticut and Quinnatisset Country Club in Connecticut.
Other notable layouts Rulewich had laid a hand to includes he venerable Yale Golf Course in Connecticut and Palmetto Dunes Country Club on Hilton Head, S.C., both of which he updated, and Metedeconk National Golf Club in New Jersey.
“The best way to build golf courses is not from an office but on site, working with the shapers and making sure the small details and subtle contours that make a good course are taken care of.”
Rulewich designed a second nine at Crumpin-Fox in 1990 and Fox Hopyard in 2001. Both are superbly routed courses that presented their fair share of construction challenges. They were laid out over land that was in stark contrast to that at Ballyowen or other lowland tracts.
“At Fox Hopyard specifically, we had some rugged terrain and wetlands that we had to work around and make the holes flow. At Ballyowen, we had an old degraded gravel pit and we moved a lot of material. But basically, we were able to quite easily create what is called a links course with wide fairways, bunkering, and tall grasses off the fairways.”
Rulewich’s designs are fine examples of premier daily fee layouts, challenging from the back tees for the most accomplished players, but playable and indeed forgiving, especially off the tee, for mid and even high handicappers. Bunkers are in evidence but not in abundance and there are few forced carries and when they appear they only serve to make holes more interesting, not necessarily more dangerous.
“I think having wide fairways, or corridors to the green, is a wise thing to do for a public golf course. Providing a place where people can recover from keeps play moving. You also create a fair course for everybody by making multiple teeing areas. If people choose the set of tees that is best for them the course is always manageable.”
Rulewich broke out on his own in 1995 when Robert Trent Jones, Inc. was disbanded.
“We came up here because of our ties with Crumpin-Fox and we moved into an office just off the 17th hole that the owner of the course gave us as a headquarters. I’ve really enjoyed being here in Bernardston and I try and get out and play the course as much as I can. But it never really is as much as want.”
Rulewich credits Jones, Jr. with being a forward-thinking golf course architect and borrowed many of his concepts and business practices from the man.
“We also do our own shaping of the land as we have a construction element to our company. We have our own equipment and field superintendents, and we work closely with them when we do a course. Jones believes in that. A golf course is really sculpture on a large scale. Each of those cuts you make as well as the grading, those are the fine touches that must be made in the field and are so important to the overall product.”
He added, “People like to say God creates golf courses we just find them. Well, I don’t think that really happens often and there needs to be significant work to make the course look like it was natural and fits together.”
One of the most troublesome trends Rulewich sees in the game is the length players are hitting the ball.
“Jones was one of the first architects in the late 1960’s and 1970’s to go out during tournaments and measure where tee shots were landing and how it was affecting play on the course. He was concerned at that time about the length pros were hitting the ball and the affect it was having on existing courses.”
He continued, “We visit a lot of older clubs and they want to lengthen their courses, but often they just don’t have the room. Making new courses longer makes also them more costly to maintain. And putting more hazards on shorter holes will make the courses more difficult for the average player.”
The solution, Rulewich, believes, is to limit the distance of the golf ball. “But that likely won’t happen,” he added.”
At an age where many individuals are well into retirement, Rulewich said he has no plans on slowing own anytime soon.
“Work keeps me active and I have no intentions of retiring until I can’t physically get around anymore. I enjoy what I do so why would I never want to stop? I’ll go as long as a I can.”
And golfers everywhere will be the better for it.