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