A trophy in a dusty closet reignites the Hornblower in Plymouth
03 Jun 2022
by Sean Melia of AmateurGolf.com

see also: Hornblower Memorial Invitational, Plymouth Country Club

Matt Parziale won the 2018 Hornblower (Credit: Hornblower)
Matt Parziale won the 2018 Hornblower (Credit: Hornblower)

Boredom and rain at any country club lead to all sorts of inventions and games. Some folks play cards or putt their way around the pro shop with cash and pride up for grabs. In the case of Skeet Ellis and Gerry Goodwin, it led to spring cleaning and the rebirth of a prestigious tournament.

Plymouth, Mass. is famous for a rock that marks the landing spot of the pilgrims in 1620. More than three centuries later, on a rainy day in 1962, Skeet Ellis and Plymouth CC’s head-pro, Gerry Goodwin, made a discovery of their own. It wasn’t a rock, but instead buried deep in a dusty clubhouse closet, they found a neglected trophy.

Two words were inscribed on this discovery: “Hornblower Trophy.”

Considering the location of Plymouth Country Club on Warren Cove along the edge of the Atlantic Ocean, a name like hornblower seems a worthy seafaring reference for a golf event. However, the word on the trophy had nothing to do with oceans or coves or horns or pilgrims or rocks. Instead, it was named after Henry Hornblower, a Boston businessman who donated his own land to build six of the clubs’ original holes.

The Pilgrim Hotel overlooking Plymouth Bay gave up their own land for the other three holes. A nine-hole club was born, but Hornblower wasn’t done yet. After Donald Ross designed the second nine holes in 1921, Hornblower and the membership convinced Ross to build nine more holes; the Scotsman’s design simply outshined the original nine holes and they wanted more. By 1929, Plymouth Country Club had 27 holes; it proved too much for the club to maintain, so they gave the original nine holes to a local pro named Donald Vinton to run as a public course.

In the teeth of The Great Depression, the original nine holes were closed by 1932; however, Henry Hornblower used his wealth and influence to ensure tragedy didn’t find its way across the street and swallow up Plymouth CC.

In an expression of its gratitude, the club presented Hornblower with a trophy; two words were etched on it: “Hornblower Trophy.”

Henry Hornblower always believed golf had a place among the masses - an honorable game that everyone should enjoy. The trophy sparked an idea, and he decided to create a tournament for the best amateur golfers in New England. The winner would be awarded the Hornblower Trophy.

The Hornblower was born.

Over the next six years, the event blossomed, growing more popular with every passing year, becoming an important date on the calendar for players across the region. The first winner, Bill Arnold, hailed from another Donald Ross design: Charles River Country Club.

Unfortunately, as the Hornblower was gaining notoriety, a war was raging in Europe, forcing the Hornblower on hiatus. Sadly, as an added layer of tragedy, Henry Hornblower suffered a fatal heart attack in 1940 while visiting Pinehurst, North Carolina. Between his death and the deleterious impact of World War II, the trophy, and the Hornblower Tournament, was forgotten.

Harold Goodwin, who would become the head pro at Plymouth CC in 1942, won the Hornblower in 1939 as a talented amateur. Harold also happened to be the father of Gerry Goodwin, the man who helped Skeet Ellis dig through that dusty closet in 1962. That generational link may have been the ember that sparked the Hornblower’s rebirth in the 1960s.

As soon as the trophy was discovered, the wheels started turning at the club. Gerry Goodwin, Skeet Ellis, and a board of members began planning an event. Wisely, they started small, keeping the trophy “in-house” and making The Hornblower a member’s event. However, in 1965 the tournament’s board opened the event to talented amateurs, invoking the spirit of Henry Hornblower’s original desire in the 1930s: to spread the game he loved on the land he donated.

Players who have competed in the Hornblower over the last 55 years speak about the spirit of the event and how distinct it is among the slate of events in the Northeast. Unlike many prestigious amateur events, The Hornblower is organized by the members of Plymouth Country Club and not the governing golf body within the state, MassGolf. It’s the first big event of the season, played at the same course, and the winner is awarded a trophy and a jacket.

In addition, competitors appreciate the fact that the membership willingly gives up their beloved course for the 36-hole Friday and Saturday event in early June. A time of year when the golf itch is scratchable again. Competitors are welcomed back by the same smiling faces each year, excited to show off their course and eager to hear what the players think about changes and tweaks the course has undergone. Mike Ellis, the current tournament director and son of Skeet Ellis, said, “The same guys sit at the registration table every year. They know the guys by name, the players know them.”

While the spirit of the event is fun - in the words of 2020 winner Nick Maccario, “If you have a bad round on Friday you’ll have a great time in the clubhouse, and if you have a great round on Friday, you’ll have a great time in the clubhouse.”

The fun isn’t just limited to the clubhouse. Mike Ellis and Frank Vana Jr. spoke about the group of members that head out to The Perch near the seventh and eighth holes to watch the “carnage.” Both greens are treacherous tests on a normal day, but toss in a bit of pressure and an extra foot or two on the stimpmeter and even the best players in the region will eat some humble pie.

In the words of Mike Ellis, “They like seeing the guys struggle on their course because we do it every day.” Hanging out on The Perch is so much fun, that after their round some competitors will even join the members to take in the entertainment. There are rumors that a drink cart might even swing by to add to the revelry.

While The Perch might haunt some players, The Hornblower has also provided a Joycian epiphany for golfers over the decades. A Hornblower triumph has filled winners with the gumption to try golf at the next level. In 2012, Colin Brennan shot a 76 in the first round and assumed he was out of the running, nine shots off the lead with only 18 holes to make up the difference. He licked his wounds with some beers as a storm rolled into Plymouth Cove that might have capsized The Mayflower.

In what his caddie described as some of the worst weather he’s ever seen golf played, Brennan fired a 3-under par 66 and won The Hornblower. That early season victory kicked off a great summer for Brennan that ended with the Richard D. Haskell award as Mass Golf’s Player of the Year. Within the year, Brennan turned pro and moved to Florida. He credits that rain-soaked victory as a big reason he wanted to pursue life as a golf pro.

It’s not just this decade that the Hornblower has boosted the confidence of a winner. The 1975 and 1977 champ, Bill Buttner, credits his wins with giving him the confidence to turn pro. Buttner, the only Plymouth CC member to win the event, didn’t pick up golf until high school when an injury waylaid his baseball aspirations. He played a decade on the PGA Tour after graduating from the University of North Carolina, a school he initially attended with the hopes of playing on the basketball team. Buttner was a grinder who recalled a frigid day in 1975 when he recorded his first win. His dismay at not repeating, even 45 years later, was palpable during our conversation.

While the Hornblower is a launching-off point for many, MassGolf Hall of Famer, Frank Vana Jr. counts the event in the small number of tournaments he doesn’t have in his trophy case. The irony is that Vana has won an event at Plymouth Country Club: the 2018 Mass Mid-Am. The added layer of drama is that his caddie for that win was Hornblower director Mike Ellis. Even as he continues to chase that Hornblower trophy, he speaks highly of the course and the event, “I love the Hornblower. Everything about it - the golf course, the people, where it’s located. Everything.”

In 2020, it looked like the Hornblower wasn’t going to happen due to CoVid-19 for the first time since 1962. However, when the Mass Open was canceled, an opportunity presented itself and Mike Ellis jumped at the August opening. The membership, experiencing an even shorter season, willingly gave up their course on a Monday and Tuesday. The eventual winner, Nick Maccario had piled up four straight runner-ups in major amateur events leading up to The Hornblower. A 3-under 66 in gusty winds, just like Brennan in ‘12, helped Maccario win the Hornblower and ultimately secured the 2020 Richard D. Haskell trophy.

Tommy Ethier will defend his title at the 58th Hornblower which will be played on June 4-5. Plenty of players have it circled on their calendar and are looking forward to competing for that trophy and their slice of Massachusetts golf history. All in the name of amateur golf and growing the game, just as Henry Hornblower intended.

ABOUT THE Hornblower Memorial Invitational

Long running amateur invitational tournament named for Plymouth Country Club "Benefactor" Henry Hornblower who collaborated with the now defunct Pilgrim Hotel to create what is now Plymouth Country Club.

Style of play: 36 hole stroke play – field cut to low 60 players and ties after 1st round. Handicap required: GHIN index of 3.0 or lower. The Hornblower Committee will be responsible for acceptance or rejection of all entries.

View Complete Tournament Information

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