Christopher Donatelli, 5, Timmy Donatelli, 2, and Abigail Donatelli, 7, play in a bunker in their yard, a remnant of the Ocean Links golf course built in 1921.
The Providence Journal / Bob Breidenbach Bob Breidenbach
NEWPORT — The members of Newport Country Club will compete in their annual T. Suffern Tailer Cup event this weekend, a summer highlight at the course for the last 81 years. This year, it will mean even more than usual. This time, the historical aspects of the event will be brought to life.
The man for whom the event is named is one of the founding fathers of golf in the state and the nation. Tommy Tailer, as he was called, obviously cannot be there. He died 79 years ago. But his contributions to the game will be revived thanks to Anthony Pioppi.
Pioppi, will be at the club to discuss his new book, To The Nines, a work that details the role of nine-hole courses in golf. As Pioppi explains in the book, Newport not only was one of the five founding member clubs of the United States Golf Association, it was the site of what Pioppi calls “possibly the greatest nine-hole course ever in the United States.”
That course is the long abandoned Ocean Links club. It lasted only a decade, from 1921 to 1931. But, as Pioppi describes in his book, it is still another in the long line of Rhode Island’s contributions to the game.
Tailer, a New Yorker who summered in Newport, was an avid and active Newport Country Club member. He became so immersed in the game that he bought 65 acres adjacent to the Newport CC and built his own nine-hole course.
He hired Charles Blair MacDonald, one of the first of the great course designers in the United States, and Seth Raynor, his protégé, to design it. Those two went on to design some of the great courses in the country, including Shinnecock Hills and Myopia Hunt. In the early 1930s, at the request of a group that included Tailer, Raynor also designed Wanumetonony in Middletown.
At Ocean Links, MacDonald and Raynor put together a course that played to 3,034 yards, par-36. The New York Times and other newspapers of the time covered the opening of the course and lavished it with praise. Tailer regularly invited his fellow Newport members to cross Commonwealth Avenue and join him at his course as well as play their own layout.
It quickly became more than that. Tailer organized a tournament he called “The Gold Mashie” and invited the greatest amateurs of the time to compete.
Long before he began his own tournament, an event he called The Masters, Bobby Jones came to Newport to compete in “The Gold Mashie.” Francis Ouimet, America’s first great champion competed, too. Pioppi documents it all, with photos, in his book.
The great players included Tailer’s son, T. Suffern Tailer Jr., who was one of the reasons Tailer reputedly built the course. The younger Tailer learned the game at Ocean Links and Newport. By the time he was 16, Tailer Jr. became the youngest ever, to that point, to reach match play in the U.S. Amateur. He also competed in The Masters three times, with his best finish a tie for 39th. The younger Tailer won two Rhode Island Junior championships, three straight Rhode Island Amateur titles, from 1930-32, and the Rhode Island Open in both 1932 and 1935.
While Newport CC has survived and thrived, Ocean Links disappeared. Tailer Sr. died at the Christmas dinner table in 1928. He left money to pay for upkeep of the course should he pass away, but his family decided not to maintain it. The property was sold. Part of the land became the site of private homes. Another part is now a corner of the Brenton Point State Park.
The hard-to-believe aspect of the story that Pioppi brings alive is that parts of the course still can be seen. Clear indications of several greens, bunkers and tees from the course are documented by Pioppi at Brenton Point.
“I’ve scared a number of park-goers as I stumbled out of the bushes and thickets,” Pioppi writes in the book. “ I always skipped the explanation and moved on before someone called the police.”
The most dramatic discovery was made by a Newport member, Dave Donatelli, four years ago. Donatelli and his wife, Michelle, had purchased property near the fifth and seventh greens at Newport CC. They built a home and, as so many Newport residents do, they decided to name it.
“We’re near Newport Country Club, which everyone knows is a links course. We’re at the ocean. We named it Ocean Links,” Donatelli said. At the time he had never heard of the Ocean Links Golf Course. It turned out to be an eerie coincidence. About three years ago, the Donatellis began clearing out a portion of their land that had become overgrown.
“It was covered in scrub, some of it about seven feet tall,” Donatelli said. “There were a lot of trees. We started clearing and did it gradually. We were deciding which trees to keep, which to take down.”
“We hit a spot where there was literally a big hole,” Donatelli went on. “We didn’t know what it was at first.” As they did more work, they discovered that it was a bunker, a golf course bunker. When Donatelli told Barclay Douglas, the president of Newport CC, about his discovery, Douglas told him about Ocean Links, the golf course, and about how Pioppi was working on a book that hoped to include information about the old course. The Donatellis had the bunker preserved and it now sits in their yard, looking as if it is ready for play. It has been documented as a bunker from the eighth hole at Ocean Links.
Pioppi has made many trips next door to the overgrown area of the state park and discovered numerous other still identifiable aspects of the course where Jones and Ouimet once played. They include greens, portions of tees and, most notably, a well of fame that was the spot where ceremonies were held at Ocean Links.
Pioppi, who spent 18 years as a newspaper reporter in Massachusetts and Connecticut before moving on to magazine work and book writing, devotes two chapters of the book to Ocean Links and Newport. It provides a fascinating chapter of Rhode Island golf history.
This weekend, players from all over the country will be in Newport to play in the Tailer Cup. Pioppi will be there to autograph his book and tell stories about the great course that used to be next door. The book is published by the Sports Media Group of Ann Arbor Media Group. The Web site is greatgolfbooks.com.