Saturday, February 28, 2009

5. Taconic Golf Club

Location: Williamstown (2:49 west of Boston / 0:29 north of Pittsfield).
Architects: Wayne Stiles and John Van Kleek, 1928.
Yardage: 6850 (gold), 6230 (blue), 5202 (red).
Weekend Rates: $145. Cart included.
Best Deal: $80 (Williams College-affiliated).

Sipping a BBC Steel Rail on the clubhouse's porch is the perfect way to wrap up a round at Taconic.

Admittedly, I have a huge bias toward Taconic Golf Club - I've played there hundreds of times as it is the on-campus course for Williams College students, my alma mater. That said, I honestly believe Taconic is one of the best golf courses I have ever played, and the best accessible course I've played in Massachusetts. Taconic is rated the 30th best public course in the USA by Golf Magazine and the #1 college course in the country by Golfweek Magazine. It is heavily used by students, professors, and local townspeople alike, but is open each afternoon to the general public for $145 and regularly hosts notable tournaments, including the 1996 U.S. Senior Amateur and the 2004 Massachusetts Amateur.

Taconic Golf Club defends par not with brute length, but with imaginative and challenging greens; it is possible to go rounds and rounds and rounds without losing a ball and still struggle for good scores. Almost every green is contoured to accept a shot accordingly from one side of the fairway or another, and on many holes there are certain areas around the greens that leave only the opportunity for the occasional miracle up and down. Examples of ill-advised misses around greens include left of the 1st, right of the 3rd, over the 6th, short of the 8th, over the 10th, right of the 12th, and so on... Experience is important in knowing which direction a particular green is safe to miss so as to leave the opportunity to recover.

After the relatively bland short par five 1st hole (which has been improved by three staggered fairway bunkers added in Gil Hanse's 2008 renovation) and the medium-length par four 2nd which hops a creek before climbing to a hillock, the golfer arrives on the 3rd tee. The 407-yard par four ripples downhill against the towering backdrop of the Berkshire Mountains to a contoured green defended by 2 bunkers, out of bounds right, and Phoebe's Creek lurking below on the left.
Williams Women's golfers take in the inspirational view down the 3rd hole.

A 150-yard path behind the difficult 3rd green takes you along a pond and to the secluded 4th tee, the furthest point on the course from the clubhouse. The hole is a strategic short par four with the tee shot anywhere from a 4-iron to a driver over the pond to the diagonal fairway hugging the creek.

Smack in the middle of the 4th hole's pond: A "Suggestion Box"!

The 4th fairway didn't always hug the creek; before the 2008 renovation, it was separated by a strip of rough about 10 yards wide. The new fairway configuration should tempt more golfers to shorten the hole down the left, and in the process, get their balls gobbled up by Phoebe's Creek.

The dark green shading marks the recent expansion of the 4th fairway toward the creek on the left.

The 5th hole is a solid mid-length par three, and the 6th is a short par four but uphill the whole way to a wildly sloped green. Many students and members intentionally play the approach short of the green and take their chances getting up and down with the resulting straightforward uphill chip. The 7th hole is a long par four with a recently restored crossbunker obscuring the approach to another segmented putting surface: the 7th's green has two marked tiers, with the higher back tier separated left and right by a huge hump encroaching from behind the green. The 8th hole is an underrated beauty, as the drive is lofted against the backdrop of Williamstown's dorms, steeples, and observatories, and the approach is downhill to a green falling away. Only a crisp short-iron will avoid bounding over the green and down into a rough-filled depression.

The 8th green sneakily slopes away from the player.

The front nine ends with a sharply downhill par three into a hollow near the clubhouse. The shot is an unquestionably pretty one, as the kidney-shaped green is surrounded by three bunkers, towering pines, birch trees, and fescue and scrub-covered hillsides.

The back nine is significantly harder than the front, covering slightly wilder terrain and measuring about 400 yards longer than the first nine! Taconic's 10th hole is extraordinary, and notable among all holes in Massachusetts for its green. The green on this 510-yard par five drops almost 6 feet from back to front, making it virtually impossible to stop a downhill putt anywhere near the pin. The severe green dictates play, as most good golfers play what would normally be a reachable par five conservatively as a three-shotter, choosing to control a short 3rd shot directly below the pin as opposed to firing long 2nd shot that could easily end up in horrible position around the green.

The 6th, 10th, and 13th greens, along with the 7th, 11th, and 14th tees converge at bottom left.

Taconic's 11th hole is its longest par four, measuring 470 dramatic yards. A good drive ends up at the base of a rise 200 yards from the green - from there, a solidly struck long iron will reach the partially blind green, open in front to a running shot, but defended by deep bunkers left and right.

Crowds follow 2004 Massachusetts Amateur finalists at the 11th.

Taconic's 363-yard 12th hole may be its most strategic, and the strategy was only enhanced by the relocation of the back tee down and to the left of the middle markers. The drive is across a fescue-covered gully and provides a "cape" dilemma - should you bail out to the right, avoiding the gully and out of bounds, but leave yourself a difficult iron shot across a fronting bunker to the tiny green? Or do you want to take on the longer carry to the left, challenging out of bounds but potentially setting up a simple wedge shot straight down the green's throat? The answer may vary depending on the day's conditions, the player's adventuresome spirit, or a combination of both. The 13th hole is, in my opinion, the best on the course and one of the best holes I've ever played. It measures 391 yards and plays across a sideslope from left to right with out of bounds left. The drive is gorgeous, with three mountains in the distance framing the landing area, and the approach is challenging, to a huge rectangular green benched into the hillside but still sloping significantly from back left to front right.

The idyllic drive at Taconic's 13th.

The 14th turns right and plays perpendicularly to the 13th - the tee is the highest point on the golf course and commands beautiful views of both the majestic purple mountains surrounding Williamstown and the green fairways well below. In the 1956 U.S. Junior Amateur held at Taconic, 16-year old Jack Nicklaus hit an 8-iron to the well-bunkered 14th green and found the cup for an ace!

The narrow target at the 173-yard 14th hole.

The final four holes at Taconic are lengthy monsters. The 15th measures 441 downhill yards, commanding a breathtaking view of rocky Pine Cobble in the distance. The 16th's new tee box pushes it to 460 punishing yards, the last 100 of which are straight uphill to a canted hillside green. Short is the best miss, and the extra yardage will ensure that short of the green is certainly the most popular place to end up!

Looking back down the steep hill at the long par four 16th.

The 17th hole is a very long par three, measuring from 220 to 246 yards, and ends with a green that was part of the original primitive 1896 Taconic layout. The green is the most heavily sloped on the course, which is certainly saying something. Any shot missed above the hole has a lot of work to do to get down in 2 strokes - it is imperative that the long tee shot be kept short of the flag. Taconic ends with a medium-length par five, a great swing hole where eagle is a possibility, but so is double-bogey as out of bounds lurks all along the left side from tee to green. Playing the last four holes in even par is sure to pick up strokes in any match.

Taconic's storied history includes Jack Nicklaus making a "1" at the 14th.

Taconic is renowned as one of the most beautiful places in the world to play golf in the fall, as tees and greens throughout the course provide stunning vistas of the Berkshire Mountains. The long views on the course combine with the wonderful small-town atmosphere of the club itself, highlighted by a faded sign on the pro shop reading "No Preferred Lies, We Play Golf Here." Golfers at Taconic pride themselves on quick pace of play, and the compact routing allows singles and twosomes to walk 18 holes in closer to two hours than the standard four. Though the course is hilly and cart fees are included in green fees, most golfers walk and carry their bag; seeing 90-year-old members stride the fairways is not an uncommon sight. There is nothing quite like an October Saturday afternoon spent golfing on Taconic with the crisp air, changing leaves, and Eph football fans roaring to the left of the 18th fairway.

Course Rating: 9 stars out of 10

Bang for your $145 bucks: 6 stars out of 10

1 comment:

  1. Zach, fantastic. I was lucky enough to work at Williams College for a little over a year and had the privilege of playing this beautiful golf course.

    I spent many long summer evenings on this course and have extremely fond memories. One day I'll be back.

    I believe they've taken out a few trees since I played back in 2003?