The History of Oak Hill Country Club
A Country Club for Fitchburg
The story of Oak Hill Country Club began in 1917 when Frederick N. Dillon, working on behalf of a group of local golfers and business leaders, purchased the 145-acre Rose Farm on Oak Hill Road as the future home of a new country club for North Central Massachusetts. Dillon and his group, later known as “Oak Hill Associates”, with Dillon, Alvah Crocker and Alvan T. Simonds as trustees, had been members of the old Alpine Golf Club, a short, “sporty” nine-hole course founded in 1897 on Wallace Avenue. Too short by modern standards, with insufficient room for expansion, the Alpine members had been searching for alternative sites for several years, before choosing Rose Farm.
Work began on the new nine-hole golf course in May 1919 under the direction of golf architect Wayne Stiles of Boston. Over the next two winters, public meetings were held to create interest in the new club and to sell membership subscriptions. By then, Oak Hill Associates had already spent $45,000 to purchase the land for the club and on construction of the golf course, and had pledged up to $50,000 to finish the work. But an additional $50,000 would be needed to build and furnish a clubhouse and additional members would be needed in order to support the continuing expenses of a country club. Joseph A. Lowe was chosen to head the building committee, and by April 1921 sufficient funds had been pledged to begin construction of the clubhouse designed by prominent Fitchburg architect Albert Francis.
With the golf course nearly ready for play and the clubhouse under construction, Oak Hill Country Club was formally organized on April 25, 1921, electing Fred Dillon as the club’s first President. The golf course opened for play on July 4, 1921 and the clubhouse five weeks later – both to favorable reviews. The lay-out was considered a great improvement over the hilly Alpine links, and the spacious clubhouse, with furnishings donated by Mrs. Daniel Simonds, quickly assumed a central role in the social life of Fitchburg’s business class. A year later, two tennis courts were constructed (on the site of today’s swimming pool), completing the founders’ vision of a first-class country club for Fitchburg.
Let’s Play Nine…More
The success of the club encouraged the club’s founders to expand the golf course to 18 holes. Famed golf architect Donald Ross was hired in 1925 to develop plans for the new holes while $50,000 was raised towards construction. At Ross’ insistence, Oak Hill Associates purchased additional land on the eastern side of Oak Hill Road (the site of the current 10th and 11th holes), so that nine good holes could be situated on each side of the road. Work on the new nine began later in 1925, and despite the thick growth, swampland, and rocky terrain that Ross encountered, the second nine was ready for play on July 30, 1927, at a final cost of $65,000. The grand opening featured a 36-hole exhibition match between U.S. Open champion Tommy Armour and Metropolitan and Massachusetts Open champion Johnny Farrell. Such was the renown of the players involved, that the opening of Oak Hill’s 18-hole golf course received extensive coverage in the Boston and New York newspapers as well as in the national golf magazines. Farrell established the initial course record with his 2nd round score of 70, defeating Armour by three shots.
Oak Hill’s new nine was clearly superior to the original nine holes, so Ross was hired in 1928 to completely renovate the first nine at an additional cost of $35,000. Ross retained Stiles’ routing, but every hole was changed to some degree and new greens were constructed on the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 6th, and 9th holes. Ross’ continued involvement with the club led to the remaining Stiles’ greens being replaced in the 1930s.
The current golf course is largely Ross’ creation, albeit with subsequent renovations to the 3rd, 5th, 7th and 8th holes by architects Geoffrey Cornish and William Robinson in 1969, and by Tom Doak and Bruce Hepner in 1995. In 2010, the Club approved a Golf Course Master Plan developed by architect Ron Prichard to “reestablish the classical playing character that Ross intended.” Some of Prichard’s recommendations have already been completed as the club continues to make progress on the implementation of the full restoration of its Ross golf course.
A New Beginning
Unlike many golf clubs, Oak Hill managed to survive the Great Depression only to face its biggest challenge in the early morning hours of June 30, 1941 - the complete loss of its clubhouse due to a catastrophic fire. With war on the horizon and defense needs a priority, the club’s Directors, under the leadership of President M. Fred O’Connell, acted quickly and economically to rebuild the clubhouse. Choosing a plan by architect Stephen W. Haynes of Fitchburg, the club built a colonial-style clubhouse on the site of the original building, utilizing the original granite foundation and retaining much of the footprint and layout of the earlier building. Although modernized and expanded over the years, the new clubhouse that opened on May 24, 1942 is essentially the building that the members enjoy today.
Champions and Championships
Oak Hill has been a “country club” since its beginnings, with social activities, tennis, and later swimming being important parts of its culture, but it is fair to say that golf – and competitive golf - has been at the core of its existence.
From its early days, the Oak Hill calendar has been busy with golf competitions, many involving prominent local, regional and national competitors. In addition to Tommy Armour and Johnny Farrell’s 1927 exhibition opening the 18-hole course, Oak Hill members have hosted major champions Bobby Jones, Francis Ouimet, Jesse Guilford, Gene Sarazen, Walter Hagen, Byron Nelson, Babe Didrickson Zaharias, Ted Bishop, Cary Middlecoff, Larry Mize and Billy Casper. And beginning with the 1935 Massachusetts Open – with Sarazen the victor – Oak Hill has hosted 12 MGA championships, three New England Amateurs, three New England PGA championships, two WGAM championships, the 1966 Tri-State matches, and countless MGA and USGA qualifying events. Local golf officials consider Oak Hill to be one of the region’s best competitive venues, a recognition that has resulted in the club being awarded the 2015 Massachusetts Amateur Championship.
Beyond hosting golf tournaments, Oak Hill has also been a proving ground for top players. For years Oak Hill has enjoyed a reputation as a home to good golfers, players drawn to the club by the competition and the challenge of its golf course. Among the many Oak Hill golfers who have made their mark on a regional and national level are:
- 17-time club champion Arthur Peterson, the runner-up in the 1937 MGA Amateur;
- Jim Shea, a prominent state and regional competitor who rose from the Oak Hill caddie ranks to become club President;
- five-time New England Senior Amateur champion Dr. John Mercer;
- Gardner native and PGA Tour winner Bob Menne;
- 18-time club champion Jim Ruschioni, winner of four different MGA championships as well as the 1987 New England Amateur;
- 1990 MGA Player of the Year Ted Rockwell;
- 1994 MGA Amateur champion Doug Preston; and
- Joanne Catlin, 15-time club champion who has been a top competitor in WGAM and regional events for many years.
Oak Hill Country Club today remains a home for great golf and an important institution for the North Central Massachusetts region.