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

Sunday, March 8, 2009

13. Kelley Greens Golf Course

Location: Nahant (0:27 NE of Boston, 2:44 E of Pittsfield).
Architect: unknown, 1894 & 1966 / Wayne Stiles, 1929.
Yardage: 1955 (back) / 1841 (middle) / 1731 (front).
Weekend Rates (9 holes): $18. Cart + $12.
Best Deal: $12 (winter!)

Snow covers parts of Kelley Greens' shaded 1st tee.

Kelley Greens clubhouse sits only yards from the Atlantic Ocean, as the course is on an island in the Boston Harbor. Unfortunately, a seawall blocks all view of the water and Boston skyline in the distance, and the course itself does little to take advantage of its unique setting. Originally laid out over tidal swampland at the end of the 19th century, the design morphed into a 3135-yard nine hole course under the guidance of architect Wayne Stiles in 1929. Regrettably, all that remains from his layout is the current wild 2nd green, as the course closed from World War II until 1966, a period during which much of the land was taken over for the town's use. The Kelley Greens Golf Course currently measures under 2000 yards, made up of 6 par threes and 3 short par fours.

Water lurks right at the short 1st.

The best hole at Kelley Greens is found right off the bat at the 1st. Measuring 141 yards and downhill at that, the length poses no issues, but the small convex green next to water certainly does! The severe turtleback nature of the 1st green shrugs indifferent shots off its surface into the pond with ease.

The flagstick's angle gives some hint of the insanely tilted 2nd green.

The 2nd hole measures 181 yards, but despite the additional length, the major concern is once again the green. This green is as severely sloped as any I've ever seen across Massachusetts - if played at even mediocre green speeds I can't imagine a ball staying on it. It's shaped like an upside down egg-shaped bowl, where the only viable pin positions are along the high middle ridge. Hitting the green from the tee is no guarantee of a par, or even a bogey. This is the only remaining green from Wayne Stiles' 1929 design... and what a doozy it is. The 3rd, 4th, and 5th holes measure 187, 160, and 220 yards, respectively; they make you test different clubs in your bag despite the awkward partial blindness created by cattails obscuring parts of the greens. The 6th through 8th holes are the only par fours on the course and offer birdie chances if your drive stays in play. In fact, numbers 7 and 8 are potentially reachable with even less than a driver. The challenge on the 296-yard 7th is gauging how much to cut off the corner of the sharp dogleg left, and the challenge on the 257-yard 8th is keeping the teeball dead straight at the humpbacked green. The course concludes with its second best hole, in my opinion, the 183 yard 9th. The green complex is a bit different but no less challenging than previous ones, defended by a sharp falloff to the right side and a bunker eating into the left of a rolling putting surface. Almost every crazily sloped putting surface on the course stimulates creativity and rewards a skillful short game.

Kelley Greens is by no means a great golf course - the town's decision to use part of the layout for three baseball fields is probably a better use of the marshy land! However, Kelley Greens has one big saving grace in that it is consistently open during the cold winter months due to its proximity to the Atlantic Ocean. Its fairways may be muddy and puddles may abound, but the course is an absolute oasis to golfers craving a game. Get yourself to Kelley Greens on a winter Saturday afternoon - with the round costing only $12, you'll have a few bucks left for a little something to warm up your insides after the brisk walk!

Swampy brown fairway greets the golfer at the 7th hole.

Course Rating: 1 star out of 10

Bang for your $12 bucks: 5 stars out of 10

Thursday, March 5, 2009

12. Crumpin-Fox Club

Location: Bernardston (2:00 NW of Boston, 1:32 NE of Pittsfield).
Architect: Roger Rulewich, 1977/1990
Yardage: 7007 (black) / 6508 (blue) / 5432 (red).
Weekend Rates: $74. Cart + $18.
Best Deal: $44 (weekdays before May 14 or after Oct. 19).
Looking back on Crumpin-Fox's 8th hole: wow.

Crumpin-Fox Club is located far from major Massachusetts cities, costs nearly $100 in the summer, and yet their tee sheet still fills up every weekend. If gas prices stay down, I'll strongly consider a return trip out route 2 to join the crowd at Crumpin-Fox this summer. The club delivers an excellent golf course on top of its laid back, small town atmosphere - it's no wonder it is a destination for golfers across Massachusetts. The eighteen holes ramble across hundreds of acres of rural land, and almost every hole is isolated from its neighbors by thick woods. It takes an orienteering master to figure out in what direction each hole plays and where you are in relation to the clubhouse! Though cut through woods, the trees don't overly encroach on play; instead, a steady diet of elevated greens and a number of creeks and ponds combine to make Crumpin-Fox's layout noticeably difficult.

The first 9 holes at Crumpin-Fox opened in 1977, but the second 9 holes did not open until 1990. Despite the front nine being built 13 years after the back nine, the course enjoys a harmonious feel that can only result from a single steady hand guiding the design. The steady hand in this case is architect Roger Rulewich, who designs courses all over the country, but is headquartered in Bernardston. Golf courses shaped by architects in their own backyard have a storied history: Alister Mackenzie and brilliant Pasatiempo, Donald Ross and renowned Pinehurst, Henry Fownes and brutal Oakmont - the list of pairings is long. Crumpin-Fox is Roger Rulewich's cherished local design, and not surprisingly may be his best work. The watery 592-yard 8th hole is one of the best par fives in Massachusetts, the other three par fives are also outstanding, and the par threes and fours attractively zig-zag through the hilly New England forest.

Fall foliage frames the downhill 193-yard 3rd.

The course opens with two dogleg par fours before arriving at the picturesque par three 3rd hole. The difficulty of the hole is not especially its 193 yards, but its segmented T-shaped putting surface. Attacking a hole back right or back left either requires a high shot of incredible precision, or a bent shot using the greens slope to find the desired quadrant of the green. The front hole location is even more of a bear, as two deep bunkers bracket the extremely narrow target. The 5th hole would be the best hole on many Massachusetts courses, but it isn't even the most memorable par five on Crumpin-Fox's front nine! A white picket fence running up the right side gives the par five great definition as well as wonderful charm. The fairway and flanking fence swing left halfway up the hole's 528 yards, the fairway broken at the dogleg by three bunkers and rough. The hole's green is attractively located on a hilltop, sloped back to front, and guarded by four deep bunkers - the combination of the difficult green complex and the interrupted fairway ensures very few eagle putts. The 448-yard 6th hole plays down and up through the same valley the 5th plays through, and provides balance as it elegantly slides to the right up to a perched green. The 7th hole caps the army-like right, left, right, left dogleg pattern of holes 4 through 7, twisting sharply over bunkers before hopping a small pond to a green placed hard by the water. Just a little warmup before number 8!
One of Massachusetts best par fives is Crumpin-Fox's 8th.

The par five 8th hole places immense pressure on every shot. If a hole as demanding as this were located too early in the round, or in the midst of a string of very difficult holes, it might overwhelm you. But once or twice a round a huge challenge can be a good thing. At 592 yards, the green is not reachable in two shots, especially as the target is located just on the other side of a lake. The goal with the first two shots is to A) avoid the ever-present water on the left and B) advance as far up the fairway as possible to make the approach manageable. With the lake reaching to the very end of the valley, past even the green's distance, every golfer must carry the water at some point. It is not often a great hole forces players into doing a certain thing, but much like the 17th at the TPC of Sawgrass, the 8th at Crumpin-Fox demands an airborne shot to the green or a lost ball is the result. This hole is beautiful, strategic, and tough as nails.

A sliver of green is the elusive target at the downhill 9th.

Any hole would be a letdown after the colossal 8th, but the 9th hole holds its own as best it can by being very different. It measures 188 yards, to a noticeably smaller green located well below the tee's elevation. The design of the green complex, narrowing to the back right and protected in front by an angled creek and bunker, clearly calls for a high fade.

I found the back (original) nine of Crumpin-Fox to be more demanding, but less memorable, than the front nine. A full six of the nine holes have either creeks or ponds in front of their greens, making aerial approaches the only option. The woods seemed to encroach a little more overall and pinched a number of holes in the driving zone quite tightly.

Most of Crumpin-Fox's holes are isolated by woods.

The 10th, 12th, and 13th hole are mid-length par fours, broken by the 161-yard 11th hole. The demands are great despite the reasonable distances, as three of the greens are located just beyond water features. The 14th hole is an excellent reachable par five whose fairway snakes its way around intruding bunkers and trees before terminating short of a pond. The green is large but set hard behind the water, making the heroic second shot an all-or-nothing proposition. The par three 15th hole is a forced carry across the same idyllic pond; the shot measures 175 yards and is angled perpendicularly to the 14th's direction of approach.

The 16th greensite is a beautifully symmetric saddle.

The 16th hole covers 457 yards from the back tees, with a bit of an awkward late dogleg into its inspired hillside greensite. Because the hole turns to the right far (perhaps too far?) up the fairway, only drives down the left side have any sight of the green - drives safely down the right side of the fairway may have no shot at all except a vicious slice around the encroaching trees. The 565-yard 17th hole completes a wonderful collection of par fives. The drive should be faded to hold the left-to-right fairway, and the second shot poses a dilemma with a tree in the middle of the landing area. Confident shots into the narrow gap left of the tree leave a clear view and simple approach down the long axis of the putting surface. Second shots to the right of the tree have a larger landing area, but leave an angled approach over a string of four bunkers.

Left or right? Hazards abound in the last 100 yards of number 17.

Crumpin-Fox closes with an arduous par four, the green located on the far side of yet another small pond. The green itself has a couple great hole locations - a front right tongue that brings the water very much into play, and a back left plateau that requires a high soft shot to carry the pond and stop quickly.

Crumpin-Fox is an excellent golf course, but one I probably wouldn't want to play every day. The profusion of demanding shots, especially on the more clausterphobic back nine, make the course tremendously taxing to play. Individually, many of these tough holes are excellent designs; however, strung back to back to back the forced carries to elevated greens becomes tiring. Crumpin-Fox was clearly built in the era of "championship" golf courses - it features large tiered greens elevated from their surrounds, an abundance of doglegs (I count 9 out of 14 non par threes!), and water fronting fully 9 of the 18 holes. Compare this to nearby Taconic Golf Club, which presents small targets, includes a mere 5 doglegs out of 14 non par three holes, and has water or frontal bunkers in play only on a few holes. I understand the properties are different, of course, but even more striking is how much the ideology of course design has changed from 1925 to the present day. A course being "hard" has become an important measure of its greatness - just look at all the excessive lengthening being done at classic venues like Bethpage Black, site of this year's U.S. Open, or Torrey Pines, site of last year's championship. Is the relentless assault of target golf over ponds and fronting bunkers as fun as it is challenging? I would say no. Crumpin-Fox, while an unquestionably gorgeous and testing layout, is one I wouldn't frequent every weekend.

Course Rating: 7 stars out of 10

Bang for your $74 bucks: 6 stars out of 10

* Dedham Country & Polo Club

Location: Dedham (0:27 SW of Boston, 2:18 E of Pittsfield).
Architect: Seth Raynor, 1925.
Yardage: 6138 (blue) / 5808 (white) / 4918 (gold).
Rates: N/A - private club.

The brilliant and gorgeous 17th at Dedham.

Dedham Country & Polo Club has the type of golf course I would love to play at any age. Measuring only 6138 yards from the back tees, it nonetheless provides a stiff challenge to the low-handicapper while maintaining its playability for youngsters, women, and senior golfers alike. Dedham packs more heroic and dangerous shots into its 6138 yards than most courses a thousand yards lengthier. You never tire of watching your drive on the 1st hole barely make it over the crossing creek, your second on the 4th hole barely scale the massive hill, your drive at the 6th hole barely carry the right bunkers - the list goes on. Trouble lies everywhere, especially when you get overly aggressive trying to shorten already short holes. I've found Dedham can't be overpowered - even on a great driving day, the resulting dozen wedges into greens doesn't guarantee a good score. The greens are small and mostly elevated from their surrounds, and the putting surfaces have tricky undulations that even seasoned members misread frequently. Because the greens are built up from their surrounds (as many Seth Raynor greens are), the adjoining deep slashes of bunkers require high and soft sand shots to escape. Dedham is only getting better with age, as it is currently working through a master plan to restore a number of Raynor features that have been lost over time. Radical architectural changes such as reviving alternate fairway strategies on the 6th and 16th holes, in combination with the restoration of all bunkers to the classic linear Raynor style, make Dedham a fun and historic place to play eighteen holes.

Dedham's 1st tee is located fifty feet above its fairway, and steps behind the 18th green. In fact, the 18th green and 1st tee are connected only by a shallow swale of short grass - talk about a blatant invitation to play an extra couple holes at dusk after the first eighteen! The 1st drive of the day is, unusually, one of the most important of the round - a creek slits the fairway diagonally right about where an average length player's drive would take its first hop. Thus options abound: do you lay up short of the water, making certain a long approach up the steep hill? Or do you try to carry the creek near the right edge of the fairway, risking a penalty stroke on the first swing of the day but possibly earning a short iron into the green? These types of decisions are made all day long at Dedham. The 347-yard 2nd hole is the weakest hole on the course, in my opinion. Long bombers can attempt to carry water and reach the upslope to the elevated green, but the rest of us are (highly) encouraged by a creek/pond combination to lay up before lofting a pinpoint iron to the target.

Google Earth's view of #3: an unconventional, but incredible "Redan".

The 3rd hole at Dedham lies over unremarkable ground: 200 yards of gradual downslope tilting slightly to the left. Actually playing the hole is remarkable, however. A field of fescue and bunkers inhabit the first three-quarters of the hole, concealing the 50 yards of slanted fairway ramp leading to the obscured green. The green, canted to the back left like a true Redan, happily accepts a running draw bouncing in from the right but also a high fade that carries almost onto the putting surface. Though not bunkered front left like a prototypical Raynor Redan, two fierce bunkers await pulled shots or golf balls running too hot through the green. Dedham's 4th hole is 441-yards, but denoted on the scorecard as a par five - probably to achieve a total par of 70 for the course. Though the idea of par shouldn't matter when playing a hole, calling the 4th a par five certainly makes scoring a "4" feel that much better! The drive crosses the same creek in play on the first two holes, and the second shot is an awesome one: to a green located high on a giant hill, where all you can see is the flag against the trees and sky. After the par three 5th, a short iron to a small and wrinkly green, a second short par five awaits across the road at the 6th. Called "Prize Dogleg", the strategy revolves around two fairway bunkers guarding the right side of the fairway 250 yards off the tee. Because the hole turns suddenly to the right just beyond them, either hugging them close or successfully carrying them opens up the option to reach the wild green in two strokes. Bailing out to the left half of the fairway makes the 6th a true three-shotter. The 7th hole is an interesting short par four of 361 yards; after a drive to a humped fairway protected by a new fairway bunker edging in on the left, the green appears in the distance like a small volcano rising a dozen feet above the flatlands around it. Needless to say, a sloppy wedge shot missed to any side of the green complex will bound well down and away from the putting surface! The 8th hole is an interesting par four capped off by a fascinating green complex. Called a "Maiden" green, I have only seen one other one remotely like it - at the municipal Durand Eastman golf course in Rochester, NY. A "Maiden" green contains two high plateaus at its back left and right quadrants, separated by a deep swale. Putting from front to back, or especially side to side at Dedham's 8th green is really challenging - and fun.

An attractive... tee shot at the (partially flooded!) 8th hole.

One of my favorite holes at Dedham is the 334-yard 9th. A swerving fairway ends abruptly 50 yards short of the green, which is located in a dell beyond a rough and bunker covered hillside. You should have glanced at the 9th green while walking up the 8th hole to have an idea where the pin is located over the hill, and thus where your target should be. I've usually played the hole conservatively, with a long iron followed by a short iron - though big hitters could conceivably turn the hole into a drive and pitch by avoiding the hazards fronting the green complex.

No flag in sight for the approach to Dedham's 9th green.

I think the back nine at Dedham is a bit harder than the front nine - it begins with the last par five on the course, a 549-yard roller coaster of a hole. With a large hill intruding into play up the left side for the tee shot, a drainage ditch paralleling the entire right side, a creek meandering across the fairway, and a two-tiered elevated green, I struggle to par this hole every time. The 11th hole is an attractive sharp dogleg - the tee shot is over a rocky hill to a fairway jutting 45 degrees left, leading to a large green located on a knob.

The 11th green's area has been recaptured forward to the crest of the hill.

Dedham's 12th, 13th, 14th, and 15th holes epitomize the variety of targets that make playing the course so enjoyable. The downhill 180-yard 12th's green is convex in nature, repelling shots both long, short, left, and right, making chipping a high priority. The short par four 13th's green is of the punchbowl kind, funneling any ball clearing the fronting bunker toward the middle left of the putting surface. The 202-yard 14th hole is named "Biarritz", though it lacks the normal large swale through its middle section. Its green is built up from the land around it, rises wildly in its back third, and four deep bunkers protect its right and left sides. The 15th hole wraps up with Dedham's craziest green. Modeled after the Road Hole green at St. Andrews, Raynor built up a huge false front deterring weak shots but sloped the rest of the green away from the fairway, sending many approach shots bounding over the putting surface into a well-placed bunker behind. Even with a sand wedge in hand, the shot demands perfect precision.

Dedham sprawls across the land, its holes pointing in all compass directions.

The 16th, 17th, and 18th holes play back across the road on the clubhouse side. The 16th is a 371-yard par four, its fairway rumpling downhill and canted to the left. A grove of trees paralleling the right side inhabits the area where a long-forgotten alternate upper fairway existed; the prospect of returning this option as Dedham's master plan continues will make this solid hole a unique one! My favorite hole at Dedham is the 17th. Named "Reverse Redan", it is a long par three to a green angled from front left to back right. The slope of the green follows this angle, so tee shots can run onto the front edge and safely swerve toward the heavily protected back right quadrant. It is a scenic shot over a pond, full of challenge and strategy. Dedham's eighteen concludes with a very hard 405-yard hole. The unbunkered fairway jogs to the left, leading up an abrupt hill past rock outcroppings to a beautiful greensite. Two excellent shots are needed to find the green; a par four at number 18 is hard-earned indeed.

Dedham embraces its Seth Raynor design.

Dedham is rightfully proud to know their course is a Seth Raynor original design. His familiar set of par threes and creative use of the land on the long holes makes for a distinctive golfing experience. I'd suggest reading the website of the course superintendent, Michael Stachowicz, who clearly embraces both the colorful history and bright future of Dedham's golf course; his site is http://newenglandgreenkeeper.com/. In addition to keeping the course playing wonderfully firm, he has taken out trees across much of the course, elongating the long views of the sprawling landscape. Any golfer should jump at the invitation to play a round at Dedham - the immense scale of many holes masks the diminutive overall length, and the green complexes are first-rate. I love playing old classic designs, and Dedham's rumpling fairways and tiered greens are a wonderful step back in golfing time.

Course Rating: 7 stars

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

11. Amesbury Country Club

Location: Amesbury (0:50 N of Boston / 2:50 NE of Pittsfield).
Architect: Wayne Stiles, 1924.
Yardage: 3156 (back) / 2939 (middle) / 2700 (front).
Weekend Rates (9-holes): $20. Cart + $7.50.
Best Deal: $18 (walking, weekdays).

What a hill! Will these two intrepid walkers make it up to Amesbury's 9th green?

Amesbury Country Club is a relatively short but challenging nine-holer designed by Wayne Stiles. It contains three instantly memorable holes: the 230-yard par three 2nd, for its challenge and (possibly excessive!) pond guarding the green, the short par four 6th, for its alternate greens bracketing a pond, and the par four 9th, for its crazily uphill terrain and 10-foot high flagstick. Amesbury's nine is played over rocky land, and the design works with the undulating landscape as opposed to fighting the severe slopes. Amesbury is the epitome of a small-town club, kept in decent but unremarkable condition, and containing a plethora of holes where par can be earned by the weekend golfer.

The first tee is perched high above the fairway.

Amesbury's first tee is in a perfect location: it sits directly in the shadow of the clubhouse, but high, high above the first fairway getting your blood pumping on the first swing of the day. The hole plays 387 yards, but can play much shorter if you're confident enough to send driver sailing into the narrowing valley far below. A unique boulder jutting out of the beginning of the fairway marks a great line to aim over with a draw. The 2nd hole at Amesbury is as hard a par three as I've tackled: as if 230 yards weren't enough, a small pond guards the front right of the green (where the majority of weak shots end up), and the green itself is canted severely back to front. Take your three (or four!) and run to the third tee!

Amesbury Country Club's nine is routed in a counterclockwise manner.

The 3rd and 4th holes measure 354 and 324 yards, respectively, both of the dogleg-left variety. Like many holes at Amesbury, they feature small greens with mounding around them, protected by bunkers sometimes removed a bit from the putting surface. Catching one of these bunkers removed 15 yards from the green's edge results in the hated long bunker shot as the only chance for recovery.

Looking back, challenging sidehill topography defends the 530-yard 5th.

The 5th hole at Amesbury is special in the way it flows around the corner of its dogleg. The hole bends to the right around a hill, with everything falling toward the left side of the fairway. This reverse-camber dogleg virtually forces a hard left-to-right shot to have any hope of holding the short grass. I thought I hit a good faded drive only to find my ball deep in a hollow through the left side. Next time, got to have even more turn on the ball. The approach is to a green benched into the same hillside falling off to the left; with the ball well above the feet for the approach, it's easy to pull the approach and have it bound well away from the green.

You choose the green at the short par four 6th hole.

The 6th at Amesbury is a fun drivable par four at 299 yards from the elevated middle tee... unless you choose after your drive to loft your second shot over the pond to a new green 50 yards behind the original target! I think the original green is in a superb location to tempt strong golfers to have a go at it, and possibly make a big number in the process. Placed directly behind a pond on the line from the tee, going straight at the hole takes great distance precision. The smart play is to hit left of the green, but a narrow stream trails off that way making even that option a bit dangerous. Any way you play the 6th, decisions must be made and then executed well. After the long par four 7th to a green tucked nicely on a hillock, the 181-yard par three 8th features the best green complex on the course. The neat green is across attractive broken ground, and features a hump within the putting surface along with excellent interior undulations that can quickly sweep golf balls off the green and into adjoining bunkers. Amesbury Country Club finishes on a 395-yard par four that seems to almost angle skyward to the heavens. The drive dies directly into the slope, which feels nearly vertical as you climb it. The second shot is as uncomfortable as I've felt swinging a 7-iron, as just keeping your balance when your front foot is 2 feet above your back foot is challenge enough! The vision of your white ball appearing on the 9th green as you trudge up to the clubhouse's elevation is a sight for sore (or perspiring?) eyes.

Amesbury is a solid golf course, and a very good deal for golfers located north of the Boston area. I would strongly suggest remembering to bring the golf spikes out of the trunk for the round, however... as never has pure traction been the most important factor in finishing the last hole of a round in my experience!

Course Rating: 4 stars out of 10

Bang for your $18 bucks: 7 stars out of 10

10. Wachusett Country Club

Location: West Boylston (1:02 W of Boston / 1:54 E of Pittsfield).
Architect: Donald Ross, 1927.
Yardage: 6567 (blue) / 6170 (white) / 5573 (red).
Weekend Rates: $60. Cart included.
Best deal: $30 (walking, M-Th before 9am or after 3pm).

Wachusett's 5th fairway plunges downward over hilly terrain.

Wachusett Country Club is a hidden gem, unknown to most Massachusetts golfers outside of the Worcester area. If located closer to Boston or Springfield, Wachusett would be overrun with golfers appreciating its classic layout and great conditions. Thus it is wonderful that Wachusett is located where it is - though busy, it retains a sense of calm and serenity found in land removed from city life, and is able to stay in private-course type shape all summer long. Wachusett was laid out by master architect Donald Ross on an old farm in 1927. Most of the course maintains this wide-open feel, but the middle of each nine dives into heavily wooded property, which is home to some of the course's best individual holes. Wachusett's character is only enhanced by the forays into these two different golfing environments, and you leave the eighteenth knowing you've played a very good golf course.

Holes 5-7 bottom left, and 11-14 bottom right are cut out of heavy forest.

Wachusett's front nine begins with a 3-hole loop returning to the clubhouse. The 1st is a typical, and welcome, Donald Ross "handshake" start: a wide fairway greets the downhill tee shot, bordered on the right by a charming stone wall, which points to the large green below. The 2nd is a fascinatingly configured par five measuring 518 yards. The drive is back slightly up the hill the 1st came down, and longer players should play up the right side. Assuming a good drive, the next shot is hit 45 degrees right over a small pond, where the green may be in reach 200 yards beyond and far below. Watching an well-struck wood use the high left ground to bounce down to the large unbunkered green complex is very satisfying. The 3rd hole plays very differently from the back tees (380 yards) and the middle tees (270 yards). It can be a bear from the tips just to reach the green on this very uphill hole - but from the white markers a good drive can carry a large ridge and bound close to the sloped green back near the clubhouse. The next 4 holes play across the road, including the beautiful par five 5th. It covers 507 yards, all through a chute of dense woods. The approach shot is the prettiest on the course, as it is tremendously downhill to a slightly elevated green fronted by a creek and backed by a sparkling pond. The tees on the par three 6th serenely sit adjacent to the pond: the 157-yard shot is an uphill one to a small ledge of a green surrounded by bunkers and forest. Like all classic greens built into a hill, you don't want to be long of the pin! The front nine closes back on the clubhouse side of the street with back-to-back bears of par fours. The 8th measures 436 straight yards, but is a standout hole because of its brilliant green. It's not often you see a green split into sideways tiers instead of front and back ones, but at Wachusett's 8th, the left side of the green is well below the right. Hitting a draw that filters across the green and drops down the slope to a pin on the left is a really fun shot.

The back nine plays through more woods than the front, but on equally rolling land perfectly suited for good golf. After a breather at the par five 10th, the challenge ramps up again at the dogleg left 11th. It plays 430 yards and demands a right-to-left tee shot into a narrow corridor of woods. The approach is not much easier; the target is a narrow and undulating green bunkered left and behind. I think the par four 12th may be even harder than the #2 handicap 11th hole. It measures only 4 yards shorter, and plays through an equally narrow chute of trees. However, the fairway heaves like a roller-coaster all the way from tee to green, ensuring an awkward lie for the long approach. To say the least, Wachusett's snack shack is rightly placed to grab a drink after the beating handed out by numbers 11 and 12.

Wild rolls give character to the distinctive 426-yard 12th hole.

The 198-yard 13th at Wachusett is a classic Donald Ross long par three, playing from high point to high point across a valley - it resembles the 14th hole at George Wright, and continues the string of difficult holes. The remainder of the back nine at Wachusett is far from long, but is comprised of difficult greens and testy wedge shots. The best of the approaches is found at the 316-yard 16th hole, where a flat fairway suddenly rockets upward to a green high above the tee's elevation. Do you lay back for a flat lie but a longer approach shot? Or drive as far up the slope as possible, minimizing the 2nd shot but bringing deep rough and a large fairway bunker into play? I've found both tactics can fail miserably!

The skyline nature of the 16th green hides its wicked back to front slope.

Wachusett closes with a classy pair of holes that slowly transition back to the open land around the clubhouse. The 17th measures 374 yards, ending at a wonderfully canted green, and the 18th at 177 yards is the ever-rare par three finisher. I've always wondered why more courses don't end on a par three, as I love the unique pressure of making one excellent swing to set up a possible finishing birdie putt.

The golf course at Wachusett Country Club has little flashiness, but heaps of old-school character. To any golfer seeking out a challenging golf course but a laid-back atmosphere: make the quick hour's drive from Boston or Springfield to West Boylston, and rediscover the charm that may be missing from your home track.

Course Rating: 6 stars out of 10

Bang for your $30 bucks: 8 stars out of 10