Monday, May 11, 2009

18. Granite Links Golf Club

Location: Quincy (0:19 S of Boston, 2:31 E of Pittsfield).
Architect: John Sanford, 2003.
Yardage: 6818 (black) / 6300 (blue) / 5001 (white).
Weekend Rates: $125 (cart included).
Best Deal: $65 (after 4pm).
Boston's stunning skyline backdrops Granite Links Golf Club.

Granite Links Golf Club is perched on three old landfills south of Boston, the 27 holes sitting on top of soil trucked down from the comically disastrous Big Dig highway project. In all, nearly a million truckloads and nearly 12 million cubic yards of fill were spread across the wasteland to enable the existence of Granite Links!

While a success in turning unusable land into a playground for Boston golfers, the design of the golf course itself is questionable on the whole. While there are individually a number of excellent holes, I and my playing partners lost close to a billion balls (that's an estimate) over the 4 hour round. Blind hazards intrude into fairways and hay grass that quickly gobbles balls seems to line one side or the other of almost every hole. I may have never seen so many good golf shots hit that were lost in a single round. That said, all golf courses can be brutally hard the first time, and as the saying goes: "for a golfer with a memory, a shot is only blind once." Perhaps the second time around, we would all be a little less aggressive cutting corners and hitting over quarries. Let's just say I hope the GPS system in the cart isn't broken next time I play Granite Links.

The nets of the (impressive) driving range mar the pure-golf landscape.

Perhaps one reason the course left a bit of a bitter taste in my mouth is that its opening and closing holes are the worst-designed and most unfair holes of the entire 18. Granite Links has 27 holes, and we played the Milton/Granite nines (the combination ranked by Golf Digest). The Milton Nine opens with a downhill 483-yard par four that pinches down into a 5-yard wide bottleneck right in the range of a well hit drive! I have not seen many near 500-yard par fours where it is suicidal to hit driver, but this is definitely one (side note: my partner Danny ripped a long drive right into the neck, bada-bing!) Double-bogeys tied the first hole as our foursome lost three balls after three pretty good swings. The rest of the front nine is very solid golf and is accentuated by beautiful vistas of both the Blue Hills Reservation to the south and the Boston skyline to the north.

Rolling hills frame the Milton Nine's 4th hole beautifully.

The 4th hole is an excellent short par five of 514 yards; I can only blame my 2 lost balls on 2 terrible slices off the tee and down the cliff that lines the entire right side of the hole. If you keep the drive straight, the green sits attractively above fairway level and dares an aggressive approach. Of course, anything leaked right may tumble a hundred feet down the side of the old landfill and into oblivion. The 387-yard 5th hole features the most thrilling approach on the course, as Boston's many skyscrapers can serve as aiming points behind the skyline green. I could be happy putting and chipping around this green for hours with the city silhouetted 7 miles in the distance.

Quarries and ravines dot and slash across the former landfills.

The 7th, 8th, and 9th hole serve as an interesting finishing trio to the Milton Nine. The 7th is a short par four containing a bunker smack in the middle of the fairway. Our group avoided the fairway bunker on both sides - but easier approach shots were definitely found by the two balls carrying the right side of the bunker - their angle had no further hazards guarding the green. I thought the 354-yard 8th hole was the most interesting hole on the Milton Nine. The fairway might be 75 yards wide for a lay up shot, but an aggressive drive down the left side could carry a fearsome bunker and be propelled up for a short wedge to the green. An excellent hole which appears to play easy for the average golfer, but narrows up quickly and can punish the overly brash long hitter.

The sharply uphill 9th plays waaaay longer than its listed 521 yards.

The 9th hole is a par five uphill and on our afternoon, dead into the wind. Wind is a big factor at Granite Links, with its perch high above the surrounding land, and boy did it make the 9th play close to 600 yards. Left of the fairway is a cliff of fescue, and four large white-sand bunkers can easily catch indifferent second shots, making for very difficult uphill third shots out of the hazards. Both the Milton and Granite nines have holes such as the 9th where one fairway is artifically built way up from its natural grade - the result is steep hills of fescue grass that separate parallel holes and snag any off-line shots.

Golf, golf, and more golf appears off the Granite Nine's 1st tee.

The view from the Granite Nine's 1st hole is exhilarating - you can see about five golf holes laid out in front of you. But when you re-focus on the hole at hand, it's another case of a poorly-designed golf hole that is really not much fun to play. The fairway runs downhill and funnels into a tiny chute about 240 yards off the tee, so driver is taken out of your hands (except, again, for my partner Danny who ripped yet another big drive down into a 5-yard gap!). The fairway then widens again into a penisula before a quarry cuts in front of the green. While the green can easily be reached in two, it is equally easy to lose two balls along the way.

Granite #1: how do you play this hole?

I enjoyed the middle stretch of the Granite Nine, especially the medium-length par four 5th and 6th holes. The 5th measures 398 yards; you drive across wasteland to a fairway angling to the right. Dotted throughout the fairway are rock outcroppings that can either impede a swing or send a golf ball careening one way or the other!

Numerous granite outcroppings add interest to the 5th's fairway.

The 353-yard 6th tempts the big bomber to turn a draw down the left side of the fairway - a sharp slope of short grass will propel a long drive into a hollow short of the putting surface. Weaker drives leave downhill short irons to an attractive postcard of a green wedged between reeds on the left and rocks on the right. The 7th hole is a difficult long par three: all 218 yards must carry a deep gorge. One gorgeous iron shot in our group looked destined for a hole in one only to be shockingly swallowed by the quarry short of the shallow green. I like to have an all-or-nothing hole once in a while in a round, and this hole fits the bill nicely. It's a great feeling to pull off a really hard golf shot with no real options for bailout (not that I didn't dump one in the gorge myself!).

Could there be a more obvious target off the 8th tee???

The 8th and 9th holes call for extremely precise shots - too precise, in my opinion. The 504-yard 8th weaves up a hill to the right, narrowing as it filters into a slim gap between a deep quarry pond to the right and cliff falling off to the left. Going for the green in two proved a poor decision for 3 of the 4 golfers in our group. This is one short par five where layup is definitely the right play, to provide a wedge into a wildly undulating green.

The awkward pitch to the awkward 9th hole.
The 9th hole offers a legitimate chance at an eagle putt, as its 310 yards are measured with the dogleg left in mind. But yet again, going for the green is a clearly idiotic play, as the putting surface is wedged between a rock-edged pond and the ever-present cliff on the left. It would take many plays to figure out the right club off the tee, but my best guess would be it's a mid to long iron played to the right of the string of bunkers dividing the fairway into two sections. "Swing holes" that offer chances at eagles, birdies, and double bogeys are a great way to end a match, but good shots can too easily be punished at the last hole at Granite Links.
Overall, my sense of the course was it could have been something better. Often the most picturesque and memorable holes are downhill ones; while Granite Links has dramatically downhill holes in abundance, none even come close to being great holes. In fact, they are the most frustrating to play. There's no doubt the many ravines and ponds made the routing of Granite Links holes a difficult process, but starting each nine with layup shots fraught with danger doesn't seem like an ideal way to begin a round of golf. However, for every hole that rubbed me the wrong way, there are two that are gorgeous and engaging to play. The collection of medium-length par fours incorporate heroic fairway bunkering and plenty of exciting shots. The best feature of Granite Links is definitely the views, though. I can only imagine playing along the southern edge of the course with the hills of Milton awash in fall colors, or sitting on the deck of the clubhouse as dusk falls across the Boston skyline on a warm summer evening.

Granite Links offers a million-dollar view... for $125.

Granite Links has won three awards from Golf Digest in the past five years: 8th Best New Upscale Public Course in America in 2004, a Top 50 Best 19th Hole in America in 2007, and this year attained the #73 ranking on America's 100 Greatest Public Courses. The only one of the three that makes any sense to me is the 19th Hole award, and I can only imagine the other two making sense to Golf Digest panelists if they visited the 19th hole before playing the course.

The following quote is from Granite Links' website. "We're so proud to receive this national distinction and we congratulate our fellow Bay Staters, The Country Club (Brookline, MA) and Kittansett (Marion, MA), as the only other Massachusetts clubs recognized for distinction this year," said Granite Links' general manager, Walter Hannon, III. Having played The Country Club and Kittansett in the past nine months, I think it's completely laughable to compare Granite Links to this pair of venerable golf clubs. I would guess The Country Club and Kittansett want congratulations from Granite Links as much as I want congratulations from one of my 7th grade students for adding 2 fractions together correctly.

The only component of Golf Digest's 7-part rating system that I see Granite Links at an All-American level in is "resistance to scoring," and maybe its extremely high marks in that area vaulted it into the Top 100. At my salary, I could see playing Granite Links maybe once or twice a year to hit a few thrilling shots and, in the process, purge a few Top-Flites from the bag. However, I'd much rather make the drive up to hit some balls at the range, grab a cold beer overlooking the Boston skyline, and pocket the remaining $100 for the rest of the weekend.

Course Rating: 6 stars out of 10

Bang for your $125 bucks: 3 stars out of 10

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

17. Glen Ellen Country Club

Location: Millis (0:44 SW of Boston, 2:11 E of Pittsfield).
Architect: ??? , 1963. Renovation: 2001, Ron Pritchard.
Yardage: 6634 (blue) / 6237 (white) / 5148 (red).
Weekend Rates: $51. Cart +$17.
Best Deal: $25 (after 5pm, Fridays).
The 8th hole features a natural island green framed by willows.
The drive into Glen Ellen Country Club is what most stays with me a few weeks after playing the golf course. Weaving down Orchard Street for about a mile to the course was one of the most nerve-wracking driving experiences of my life, right up there with the twists and hairpin turns of Route 1 along the steep cliffs north of San Francisco. Lined by old rocky walls, and dotted with tree trunks virtually encroaching into the asphalt, Orchard Street seemed as narrow as Bethpage Black's first fairway to a middle-handicapper. My knuckles turned white more than once as pickup trucks barreled around corners almost forcing the Buick Century and I into ditches! But, I made it to Glen Ellen in one piece, and had a wonderful afternoon walking around with a longtime member named Bill.

Glen Ellen was renovated in the early 2000's by Ron Pritchard, and done so in "the style of Donald Ross." I've played a few courses renovated by Pritchard: Hanover Country Club up at Dartmouth College, and Jeffersonville Golf Course and Aronimink Golf Club in suburban Philadelphia. The three have classic roots, all being originally built between 1921 and 1931 during the golden age of golf architecture, and Pritchard's work has kept them feeling like old-school golf courses. As for Glen Ellen, although built later in 1963, Pritchard's renovation makes it look and play older than it is, with nicely framed doglegs and understated yet effective bunkering. I would like to go back to play Glen Ellen again, as I feel there may be more to learn about the golf course than can be gleaned from a single visit.

Glen Ellen starts with a bang, the first hole a 448-yard monster turning gently to the right around a nest of two bunkers. A swale fronts the slightly raised green, so getting to the green in regulation is a huge accomplishment for the first two swings of the day. If possible, the second hole is harder than the first, and plays longer than its 218 yards up a steep hill. I hit a great hybrid (normally a 230-yard shot for me) that barely climbed up to rest on the front left of the slanted green. From there, it was three putts uphill to find the hole. The third hole, though only 387 yards, plays very narrow through a chute of trees, and features a new green built by Pritchard across a valley. Guarded front left by bunkers, the real defense of the putting surface is its two tiers and the challenge of putting either up or down the slopes. I can imagine getting through the first three holes at bogey golf isn't a terrible way to start any round at Glen Ellen.

Trees and bunkers guard the short par four 4th.

The rest of the front nine isn't terribly challenging, but remains interesting. The fourth hole doglegs downhill to the right, and an aggressive player can take a rip at the green 322 yards away with a high fade. The fifth hole returns gracefully to the clubhouse (a feature I love to enable short loops of an hour of golf!), and the sixth plays back away and at 526 yards is a potentially reachable par 5. The only problem is a creek cutting in front of the green to catch any mishit long approaches. I decided to lay up, and shockingly made a birdie with a nice sand wedge and short putt. The 7th hole bends left hugging a creek along the left side - which is clearly the preferred side to approach the green guarded only by a lone bunker... on the right. A little risk challenging the water, a little reward with a simple shot up the throat of the green. The coolest hole on the course is the 8th hole; measuring 144 yards from the back tee, it is a decidedly short par three... but totally surrounded by water, a tough one! The green nestles naturally between a couple branches of a creek and is backed by marshy land - better hit a good short iron to find the convex surface! Any middling shots not hit flush with a bit of spin can easily bounce off the green and into a watery grave. The 490-yard ninth hole is a true birdie opportunity, provided you make it across the wide creek 50 yards in front of the green. After a mediocre drive, I still gave it a go, and carried the longer left side of the diagonal hazard by what seemed to be inches. A diagonal hazard like here on the ninth allows all levels of golfers to choose their challenge, and thus is great fun for duffers and scratch players alike.

Glen Ellen's back nine utilizes a ridge eating into the eastern edge of the property.

The back nine of Glen Ellen consists of a mix of excellent and mediocre golf holes, and is laid out on more open rolling land than the front. The 430-yard 11th hole is a challenging par four, the tee shot made difficult by what I can only assume is a new bunker encroaching into much of the fairway driving zone. If you safely carry or stay left of the intimidating hazard, the approach is to a pushed up and sharply back to front sloped green: better stay below the hole. The 12th hole is a long par three to a huge green sited comfortably at the base of a hill. The 13th hole is an excellent short par five that plays along and then up this hill. The dogleg right tee shot must either carry or fade around three bunkers, and then the exacting approach shot has to climb the hill while carrying two bunkers cut 30 yards short of the green. I missed the green pin-high left, which made for a very awkward uphill pitch to the elevated putting surface. I would guess it is not birdied as often as its sub-500 yard length would predict.

Across a creek and surrounded by pines, the 14th green's real defense is its sloping nature.

The 14th and 15th holes play down and up a sharp slope, before you arrive at the 16th, the most vexing hole on the course. Measuring 404 yards, the tee shot is played into a valley that then twists up to the left. Anything with a fade is guaranteed to bounce into the right rough, so only a precise draw will hold the canted left to right fairway and set up a realistic chance to reach the elevated green complex. My iron barely made the front of the extremely long green, which reminded me a bit of the 13th at Taconic GC, neatly benched into a hillside that falls sharply off to the right. However, different than Taconic's 13th green, Glen Ellen's 16th green almost appears to tilt into the hillside, meaning putts would break uphill. I knew this couldn't be the case, and I could tell the regular player Bill was enjoying my obvious confusion reading my 70 foot putt. Long story short, I played the ball almost straight and missed it a good 6-8 feet right of the hole, the ball breaking at least 12 feet right of where my eyes initially expected a putt aimed at the hole to end up. Yikes.

A sidehill lie is almost guaranteed at the 404-yard sixteenth hole.

The course ends weakly, with a narrow fairway and sharp dogleg left combining to punish anything but a perfect tee shot on the 411-yard 17th hole, and what can only be described as a bland 155-yard par three to finish.

In sum, Glen Ellen is a solid but unspectacular golf course. With a better finishing pair, Glen Ellen would be a course I would seek out regularly (even braving the rocks and trees of Orchard Street to get there). It has a nice mix of long and short holes, provides four reachable par fives for some birdie drama, and the total length of 6634 yards from the back tees is challenging but not overwhelming. I would say the green undulations at Glen Ellen are decent, but far from the engaging and complex surfaces found at truly classic golf clubs. Pritchard's work renovating the course added some great features like the greensite on number 3 and the cross bunker at number 11, and the recent hand of a single architect makes the course enjoy a good identity and flow. I am glad Glen Ellen has made it through a number of hurdles in the past few years, including the possible sale of its land to convert to housing lots, and the banking meltdown almost sending the course to auction this spring. Hopefully Glen Ellen will provide suburban Boston golfers a low-key destination for years to come.

Course Rating: 5 stars out of 10

Bang for your $51 bucks: 5 stars out of 10

Thursday, March 19, 2009

16. Agawam Municipal Golf Course

Location: Feeding Hills (1:44 W of Boston, 1:06 SE of Pittsfield).
Architect: Richard Leao, 1944.
Yardage: 6099 (white) / 5345 (red).
Weekend Rates: $20. Cart + $13.
Best Deal: $17 (weekday).

A towering tree stands sentry in front of Agawam's 12th green.

Agawam Municipal Golf Course is a tale of two nines. The front nine is laid out on a steady slope of land falling away from the clubhouse to the southeast; every non-par three hole on the front nine plays either directly north or directly south. The most positive thing about this routing is that most of these holes fight a sideslope and force you to constantly hit shots with the ball above or below your feet. In addition, the greens are built with few bunkers and only slight fill - they flow very gracefully with the natural grade of the land.

Single rows of trees divide holes on the front nine.

This very simple routing, however, means that the wind doesn't hit you from many different angles - on the March day I played, every hole going south was dead into the wind, and every hole going north was with the wind - not much variety. Also, the holes are separated by very straight lines of trees which act as very artificial barriers between playing corridors. Perhaps clumps of trees, or leaving the land devoid of these plantings would look more natural to the eye.

The 6th green cascades sharply from back left to front right.

My favorite holes on the front nine were two par fours: the 465-yard 4th and the 360-yard 6th. A par on the 4th hole is very hard earned, as even an excellent drive leaves a long iron approach downhill to a rolling green. The 6th hole is much shorter, but plays uphill. Many drives will die into the hill, resulting in a partially blind approach to the most challenging green on the course. I hit what I thought was a perfect approach just right of the flag, but found my ball skipped just a few paces too far to the back fringe. From there, it was an easy three putt. I can only imagine trying to putt this diabolical green at summer speeds - stay below the hole at all costs! The front nine closes out with a 155-yard par three that plays at least 180 yards up an extremely steep hill behind the clubhouse. Trying to flight a shot that carries the correct distance on a hole with such elevation change is a difficult way to end the first nine.

The back nine measures just over 3000 yards, similar to the front nine, but contains three par fives and many more interesting holes. Most of the back nine was cut through dense hilly forested land, and a meandering creek wanders through four of the holes. The 10th hole is a short dogleg left par five at 475 yards, but can extract a big number as out of bounds stares you in the face directly through the diagonal fairway. The extra hang time from the highly elevated tee only exacerbates the chance a sliced ball will fly into the trees on the right. The 11th measures 395 down and up yards, climbing sharply to a flat plateau green that's about halfway up a cliff behind the clubhouse. I can imagine hitting a club too much to this green and still having a birdie putt as the ball filters all the way back down the steep slope backing the green. The short 12th hole's defense is a unique one - a monstrous singular tree hangs over the entire right side of the green. As the hole is only 348 yards downhill, drives to the left leave a simple pitch... but any drives to the right require some sort of bump and run to stay under the branches.

The more exciting back nine rolls through a wooded setting.

Two easy par threes bracket the most strategic hole on the back nine at the 322-yard 14th. This short par four poses a classic risk-reward dilemma as it doglegs to the right: how far do you dare to carry the creek to shorten your approach shot? Long hitters could conceivably hit a high fade right at the green if they can carry the ball close to 300 yards; short hitters are still challenged by a 150-yard carry straight ahead over the water. This hole shows the importance and intrigue a simple angular hazard can add to what would otherwise be a humdrum dogleg design. Agawam closes with an unusual string of pars: 3, 5, 5, 3.

The par five 16th swoops up to a hilltop green.
The 16th hole features a blind landing area over the crest of a hill; a strong drive down the right side opens up a shot at the green, while a drive down the left is blocked out by a grove of trees at the late dogleg. Agawam ends relatively weakly with a medium length par three, which is preceded by a short par five that boomerangs to the right and is made difficult by the always atrocious interior out of bounds stakes. It's too bad the white stakes are made necessary by the poor C-shaped design of the 17th, because the green is a fun sidehill one, flowing steeply away from the clubhouse.

Agawam Municipal is an easy walk and a solid value, especially if you pay the 9 hole rate and sneak out on the back nine. The many elevated greens make for challenging targets on the inward nine, where the ever-present creek and well placed trees demand more accuracy than on the outward nine. The staff is extremely friendly, which just adds to my desire to give Agawam a shot when it's in summer condition.

Course Rating: 4 stars out of 10

Bang for your $17 bucks: 6 stars out of 10

Recapping... the First Eighteen

Of the first eighteen profiles...

10 were eighteen-hole layouts...
7 could be played for $20 or less...
6 were located west of Worcester...
and 1 was named "Unicorn."

Course Ratings:

9 stars: Taconic
7 stars: Dedham, Crumpin-Fox, Rutland, George Wright
6 stars: Waverly Oaks, Wachusett, Cape Ann, Greenock
5 stars: Franklin Park, Fenwick
4 stars: Amesbury, Waubeeka, Brookline, Unicorn
3 stars: Marion
1 star: Norwood, Kelley Greens

Bang for your Buck Rankings:

10 stars: Fenwick
9 stars: Cape Ann, Greenock
8 stars: Wachusett, George Wright, Marion
7 stars: Franklin Park, Amesbury
6 stars: Crumpin-Fox, Waubeeka, Taconic, Waverly Oaks
5 stars: Rutland, Kelley Greens, Unicorn, Brookline
3 stars: Norwood
N/A: Dedham

Saturday, March 14, 2009

* Rutland Country Club

Location: Rutland, VT (2:58 NW of Boston, 1:50 N of Pittsfield).
Architects: Wayne Stiles and John Van Kleek, 1928.
Yardage: 6134 (blue) / 5761 (white) / 5322 (red).
Weekend Rates: $93. Cart included.
Best Deal: $80 (Mon-Tues).

Imagine the Green Mountain landscape encircling Rutland in the fall!

Rutland is the second largest city in Vermont, but it exudes tranquility. Hemmed in by mountains and counting less than twenty thousand residents, Rutland's peaceful ambiance extends to Rutland Country Club, which edges up into hilly terrain northwest of the city's center. The golf course rolls over exciting land while providing panoramic mountain views from its many pedestal tees and greens. Both the front and back nines cross East Creek and venture into highlands, giving great balance to the layout. The course is short, tipping out at 6134 yards, but the Stiles and Van Kleek design is excellent, including a wide variety of holes demanding precise wedge shots time and again. Rutland was built in 1928, immediately before Stiles and Van Kleek's masterpiece, Taconic in Williamstown, MA. The two layouts share a strong sense of brotherhood and each can lay an honest claim to be the most beautiful course in their respective states.

Rutland begins with back to back par fours measuring about 400 yards each; they share little else in common. The 1st is noticably flat, with a road marking out of bounds on the left, and the simply canted green bunkered symmetrically on both sides. The left side of the fairway, nearer to out of bounds, makes the approach slightly more straightforward but probably not enough to challenge the white stakes regularly. The 2nd plays up and over a hill that makes the approach a challenging blind one for most golfers. The green is tucked into a dell at the base of the clubhouse, which serves as a good aiming point depending on where your drive ends up. Rutland's 3rd is the first of a great set of par threes - it measures 170 yards and plays over a valley to a wonderful greensite defended by a rocky outcropping left coupled with a trio of bunkers short right. The 481-yard 4th hole dips down and up through a long depression, culminating at a challenging hilltop green. Any stroke picked up at the 4th will be quickly lost at the 5th, one of the most straightforward and impossible par threes anywhere. It plays a monstrous 223 yards, and uphill at that. The tee shot is over a deep gorge whose creek swallows any topped shots. A good tee shot is but a single solid step, as the green is wickedly sloped from back to front and demands concentration until the ball is in the hole.

Looking down at the 6th green from the left side.

I would consider the 6th and 7th holes a major climax of Rutland's routing. The 415-yard 6th, like the 409-yard 2nd, plays up and over a knob of land; unlike the 2nd, a good drive here should make the top of the hill, leaving a gorgeous postcard of a drop shot to the green bunkered left and falling sharply off into East Creek to its right. The 7th hole can proudly identify itself as a rare exceptional uphill par four.

Rutland's par four 7th defines beauty.

It climbs its way up a steady slope, snaking around fairway bunkers staggered along the right and left sides of the twisting fairway. The green is located at the highest elevation of the front nine, and provides long views back down the fairway and over East Creek. Rutland's 8th through 10th holes provide scoring opportunities as each is a short par four. The 323-yard 11th continues the trend; it's located back across the creek from the clubhouse, and follows the creek to the left, terminating at a narrow green perfectly benched into a sharp hillside. The 12th plays much shorter than its 205 yards - playing down a steep slope, the green is quite narrow at the front and defended by a very deep bunker on the left. The cavernous bunker may be the preferred miss, however, as splashed shots from there can hold the canted right to left green; tee balls missed right have a very delicate pitch to hold the putting surface which slopes away. The 13th winds up a hill for 539 yards - the green has nightmarish pitch from back left to front right. If you go for the green in two shots, you better make sure not to wildly miss long! Even a wedge third shot to this sloped putting surface must stay below the hole location at all costs. I turned two excellent shots into a frustrating bogey with four mediocre shots around and on the pitched green.

Rocky outcroppings frame the great short 14th.

Rutland's best hole is the 393-yard 14th - nary a bunker in play, but trouble everywhere! Rocks encroach on the right side of the fairway... mounds of rough in the middle of the fairway... woods border the left side... a virtual cliff falls off the right side of the plateau green... all this adds up to a wonderfully natural and challenging golf hole. Chasing any pin on the right side of the green takes a lot of confidence, and not just a little idiocy. After the tiny downhill 129-yard 15th, the 365-yard 16th steps up to the highest point on the course, its fairway slanted down the hill to the right. Like many of Rutland's holes located up in the mountainous terrain, the fairway rewards a curved shot that fights the slope of the land. The view from the 17th tee is breathtaking, the wide green fairway far below overshadowed by the towering Green Mountains in the distance. The course ends with a solid dogleg left par four to a green much like the 1st, protected on both sides and sloped steadily back to front.

Rutland Country Club leaves an indelible impression of quality golf. Part is the great conditioning, but I think much stems from the gentle touch Stiles and Van Kleek used in routing a dozen holes over truly rambunctious terrain. The variety of the par threes (measuring 129, 170, 205, and 223 yards), insists on both extremely brute and extremely delicate shots to come away with hard-earned threes. This variety extends to the par fours and fives, with greens sometimes clearly in view but sometimes totally obscured, fairways alternately slanting to the right and to the left, and approach shots somehow terrifying and charming at the same time. Given a few hundred more yards and a more complex set of putting surfaces, Rutland Country Club would be known to many more golfers outside of Vermont and Western Massachusetts. The four hours spent walking the Rutland layout may be taxing on the legs, but it is unquestionably easy on the eyes.

High mountainous terrain is split from low flatlands by rushing East Creek.

Course Rating: 7 stars out of 10

Bang for your $93 bucks: 5 stars out of 10

Thursday, March 12, 2009

15. Greenock Country Club

Location: Lee (2:06 W of Boston, 0:15 S of Pittsfield).
Architect: Donald Ross, 1927.
Yardage: 3080 (blue) / 2843 (red).
Weekend Rates (9 holes): $25. Cart + $18.
Best Deal: $15 (weekday).

Tranquility abounds on the isolated 2nd tee.
Greenock Country Club flies well below the radar, even where it is located in far Western Massachusetts. The epitome of a small-town club, Greenock sports nine holes laid out on a plateau a few hundred yards west of Main Street in Lee. The "hidden gem" feeling you get from playing Greenock emerges as a result of its laid-back country setting, affordable greens fees, and wonderful Donald Ross design. Pine tree removal around green complexes over the course of the last decade has opened up airflow and resulted in excellent conditions: the greens play firm and putt like private club surfaces, swift and true.
Greenock lacks length, checking in at 3080 yards from the tips, but it maximizes the small acreage it occupies as adjacent holes swing gently next to each other in harmony. For example, the 1st and 8th holes both play from near the clubhouse (I actually started my round on the 8th, as the 1st tee was busy!), parallel each other down into a valley, bend slightly left up a sharp hill, and end with gathering greens so close to one other that they share a greenside bunker. Do the holes look and feel repetitive? Yes. Is that a problem? Not for me - they are both gorgeous and use the high points of the terrain beautifully. In fact, the 8th can serve as a sort of redemption hole for messing up the similar 1st! One of my favorite holes at Greenock is the 168-yard 2nd hole. It plays in an isolated pocket of woods to a green protected by a single bunker left and framed by a gorgeous lonesome pine. A simple hole, and easy on the eyes. After the #1 handicap 3rd hole, a long dogleg right, the 4th hole is a chance to pick up a stroke. The 4th measures 307 yards on the scorecard, but can be shortened as it doglegs severly right. An easy way to play the hole is long iron, turn right, short iron, but where's the fun in that? I aimed over the trees guarding the corner of the dogleg and let it fly at the hidden target. The drive's result is pictured below.

How do you miss a 3-footer for eagle?!?

And yes, I missed the kick in for a two. Moving on. The 5th may be the most beautiful hole on Greenock, which is a high compliment given the expansive views of the Berkshire Mountains all over the course. The lengthy 441-yard par four is the third straight dogleg right as it ripples down a hill, culminating with a pitched green just beyond a natural pond grabbing shots missed short left. The pain of a bogey, or any score, on Greenock's fifth is alleviated by the magnificence of the setting. The 6th hole is the only par five on the course, but at a mere 465 yards is another good birdie opportunity. Drives down the right side of this dogleg left, even those in the rough, have a marked advantage to go for the green in two. The 7th is a quintessential New England par three, dropping 184 yards to a green protected by four bunkers, one placed well short of the putting surface to wreak havoc on depth perception.

A simple drive, but an exacting approach at the 8th.

The 8th and 9th holes are par fours that go out and back from the clubhouse. The 8th hole, like the 1st, has its punchbowl green perched high above the fairway, but the 8th's upslope is pinched by two large bunkers. Pity the player who underclubs up the hill and gets caught 20 yards short of the green.

Greenock Country Club almost makes me wish I grew up in tiny Lee, Massachusetts. I would have loved learning to play golf with my dad on two-hole loops like 8-9 at dusk, or three-hole loops like 1-6-7 on a Sunday evening, or fitting in a quick 5 to 7 holes after school with high school friends. But I'm glad to have eventually discovered Greenock; its location is ideal for breaking up the long drive from Boston to my childhood home of Rochester, NY. I'd encourage any lone golfers traveling down the Mass Pike to hop off at exit 2, navigate the mile up the hill to Greenock, and lose yourself for a couple hours in the splendor of the Berkshire foothills.

Greenock takes full advantage of its small acreage.

Course Rating: 6 stars out of 10

Bang for your $15 bucks: 9 stars out of 10

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

14. Unicorn Golf Course

Location: Stoneham (0:13 N of Boston, 2:29 E of Pittsfield).
Architect: Wayne Stiles and John Van Kleek, 1928.
Yardage: 3234 (blue) / 2902 (red).
Weekend Rates (9 holes): $20. Cart + $13.
Best Deal: $19 (weekday).
Unicorn's 5th hole adds woodsy flavor to the course.

Unicorn Golf Course. It would be the greatest-named course in almost every U.S. state... except Massachusetts! Massachusetts is lucky enough to house one of the best courses built this decade - located in Plymouth, it is the unfortunately named Old Sandwich Golf Club. I definitely think "Old Sandwich" is disgusting enough to beat out the magical "Unicorn" for best moniker in the state. Other than its name, Unicorn is a solid but unremarkable municipal golf course. It has some good qualities (two nice par threes and par fours ranging in length from 326 to 448 yards), but also some flaws (average conditioning and utterly pointless out of bounds stakes between parallel fairways).

Sparse treelines (and O.B stakes!) separate most of Unicorn's parallel holes.

Unicorn takes advantage of the moderately rolling land it sits on well, with most greens elevated from their surrounds and guarded by flash-faced sand bunkers. As a municipal course, the layout has lost much of its teeth since its inception in 1928 - the nine holes that remain from the original eighteen have had many bunkers reduced or eliminated to speed up play and lower scores. The two best holes on the course are the two par threes; these two holes, while still excellent, each have lost intimidating fronting bunkers which apparently frustrated local golfers one too many times. Most frustrating about Unicorn, however, are the white interior out of bounds stakes marching under the picket fences of trees that separate the many holes near the clubhouse. As there is no distance advantage or angle to be gained to hitting over trees into another fairway (Unicorn's par fours and fives are all virtually straight holes), I believe these stakes are completely superfluous. When my friend Danny and I played Unicorn, we ignored the stakes - wild shots into other fairways had enough trouble to deal with getting back over the trees and toward the correct green.

Unicorn's layout starts with three back-and-forth short par fours; the 1st green has a deep bunker defending the right side, the 2nd green is small and surrounded by trouble, and the 3rd green is located in a nice pocket of trees below fairway level.

The attractive target at the 179-yard 4th.

My favorite three holes at Unicorn all are laid out in the woods at the southern edge of the property. The 4th measures 179 yards but plays less down a slight slope. The green is wonderfully full of contour. Originally completely ringed by large bunkers, is now guarded by smaller sandtraps left and right that still penalize a pulled or pushed mid-iron. The 415-yard 5th hole steps into the woods, the fairway slowly spooling down an undulating hill to a natural greensite encased by trees left, right, and behind. After the long 6th and 7th run toward the clubhouse and back, the par three 8th's tee is again situated in the woods.

The raised green at the 178-yard 8th.

Unicorn's 178-yard 8th hole measures only 1 yard less than its other par three at the 4th. More importantly, however, the effective yardages are a couple clubs different as the 8th plays moderately uphill while the 4th drops from tee to green. For example, my 7-iron reached the 4th, but I needed a 5-iron to find the 8th green! The 8th's green complex is another victim of the course changing to accomodate the weaker golfer, as the front bunker in the picture above is gone. The green is still a demanding target, located on a high spot protected by deep bunkers on either side. Unicorn's nine holes ends with a brutal 447-yard par four that parallels the 1st hole and leads back to the parking lot.

In sum, Unicorn has lost luster since its Golden Age conception but still provides a good venue for a quick nine holes. One interesting fact about Unicorn is for many years it existed as a very unique 13-hole course! For many golfers, 13 holes might be the perfect compromise between the sometimes unsatisfactory nine and the sometimes exhausting eighteen. In 1994, the four "extra" Unicorn holes were remade into nine par threes ranging from 82 to 179 yards. The construction of this executive course, Stoneham Oaks, condensed Unicorn into its current, more conventional nine-hole layout in the process of providing a perfect playground for beginning golfers.

Course Rating: 4 stars out of 10

Bang for your $19 bucks: 5 stars out of 10