George Wright Golf Course

A strong handful of renowned public golf courses exist in the United States that represent the most virtuous commitment of their municipalities to providing access to high quality design to everyone.  The George Wright Golf Course in Boston, an original Donald Ross design through and through, is one of these.

French Chateau Clubhouse stands sentinel on the hill as you walk up from the car park

The Wright was built in the Depression period of the 1930’s on the old Grew Estate that had been conveyed to the Department of Conservation of Massachusetts through the efforts of George Wright founder of the Wright and Ditson Sporting Goods stores in Boston.  This major project of close to $1 million was financed through the Roosevelt Administration’s Works Project Administration.

In what proved to be an enormous undertaking because of the rugged topography, the construction employed almost 1,000 people as it was completed over a three-year period opening for play in 1936.  There is a unique local flavor to the artistry of this facility in that it included a three-mile long perimeter flagstone wall built by the Italian and Irish masons of Boston and a stunning French Chateau style clubhouse that belies a typical municipal golf course setting.

Note the stone manson’s wall behind the green…3 miles long it encircles most of the property

From the time it opened this course was well reputed and hosted many big local and regional tournaments.  Among the best players it was considered an equal to the posh private venues of Boston.  But time took it’s toll and after the war and a series of financial problems that ensued, it fell into disrepair and by the mid-1980’s faced imminent closure.  Against all odds, an assiduous lobbying effort by the Massachusetts Golf Association kept it in operation for the next 20 years.  Finally in the early 2000’s the powers that be in the city of Boston made the bold commitment to restore George Wright to the original quality and design.

The key to this effort was the arrival of head pro Scott Allen in 2001, who spearheaded the restoration effort, and the hiring in 2004 of Len Curtain, a greens superintendent with a special affection for the place,  who grew playing the Wright.  With the consultation of a Massachusetts course designer Mark Mungeum, together this group embarked on the long term project to peel back decades of neglect and bring this wonderful venue back to original glory.

Lots of trees were removed and the green complexes were restored to their original Ross shapes and surrounds.  Fairway bunkers were relocated along with a few new additions to help the course meet the challenge of the contemporary equipment.  Together they brought back the Wright to a course worthy of being designated as the site of the 2018 State Amateur-the first time in the tournament’s history it will be played on a municipal golf course.

The wide open driving area on the first is a teaser…this is a precise driving course

The first, ninth, and eighteenth holes are on the flattest portion of the property just below the clubhouse veranda so the course begins and ends on a fairly tame note.  On the second tee, in spite of the abundant width of the driving area, you get the sense this is a tee ball position course as the green in the distance is suspended on an alcove shelf tucked in the corner of the property.  From three thru fifteen the course is enveloped in a solitary cocoon and you won’t see any man-made structures besides the clubhouse and the maintenance facility. It makes you wonder how it could be just four miles from the center of a major American metropolis.

The Par 5 3rd gives no room for wandering

Standing on the third tee the challenge is at hand as you are staring up the narrow hallway that defines this uphill and stringent five par.  Keeping the ball between the hash marks off the tee, controlling the roll out, and finding the proper angle of approach for the day’s pins into these Ross green complexes will determine how your scorecard will fare today.  It goes without saying that it will be peppered with some high numbers but you have to accept them and remain aggressive to balance the outcome.

The landing area on the Par 4 4th is saddles the high ground

One thing you cannot fail to notice is that the holes are often lined with rock outcroppings or tall mounds.  These mounds were created by covering the piles of rocks rendered from the fairway demolition and you can begin to appreciate how much went into discovering playable fairways on this severe and rugged terrain.

Looking up the 6th you see how much was excavated to find this fairway

The devil is in the detail as you can see in the Hole-By-Hole Analysis below, the contours of five through twelve in particular will challenge your tactical instinct trying to find the line of charm.

Peaceful tranquility of the green complex on the 9th hole just below the clubhouse

Note: If there is someone manning the dog-at-the-turn cart between the 10th and 12th tees I recommend well done with relish and mustard.  The homemade cookies are not a bad chaser either.

The 8th one of the four intimidating three pars-very demanding little room for error.

As an aside, the par threes may be the most interesting holes on the course.  Every one of the four stands apart in visual distinction and precise shot making is demanded.  Not one of them is over 190 yards yet playing the four of them anywhere near par is a major accomplishment.  The Ross bunkering and segmenting of these four green complexes will sustain vivid images in your mind when you rehash the day’s journey later staring at your dark bedroom ceiling.

Bungee drop approach to the 12th from the top of the ridge

The inward nine takes up right where the last one ended with roller coaster elevation changes on the first three holes.  Be cognizant on all three of these not to drive the tee ball too far and overreach the best landing spot for the approach.  As you can read in the detail the blinded approach shot into the tenth green takes serious visualization.  The approach into the eleventh will take a different kind of creativity as it will take all your ground skills to give yourself a good scoring opportunity there.

Drop dead green setting on the Par 5 15th…just don’t hit the green wall netting behind

If you reach the thirteenth tee with minimum scorecard damage there is great opportunity to make up ground on the way to the house.  This hole is one of the most visually pleasing all day but you have to hit two very articulate shots to avoid the hazards that haunt the hole from tee to green.  What follows is a challenging uphill par three followed by a stunning three-shot par five that should give you a good chance to apply some salve to the scorecard.

Talking a 2+ club elevation change into the mountainous 16th green

I would be remiss if I did not give a shout out to the Mt. Rushmore green complex of the sixteenth hole.  No course architect would even consider building a hole like this today, but it is just flat out fun.  From the base of the hill where your drive will end up it looks like you need to hit one over George Washington’s left eye and land it on the crown of Thomas Jefferson’s head.  That is kind of what you have to do…long or Roosevelt right is no good at all.

The 18th appears sedate but there is trouble lurking if you get out of position

The two holes that bring you back to the house are very interesting.  The short par three seventeenth is one of the truly quaint looks of the day.  Encircled by sand it takes a lawn dart to give yourself a good birdie chance.  The home hole is a level walk on ground similar to the first, but the green is very deep with severe contour so you must focus to get your approach all the way to the day’s pin.

The apres golf Sports Bar and Grill is a memorabilia must stop

When it was said and done, I found the George Wright an amazing municipal golf experience, right down to the clubhouse building and the players Bar and Grill.  Linger for a cold Samuel Adams and some nachos, check out all the Boston sports memorabilia on the wall, and savor what has been a wonderful day of old style golf at a very accommodating price.

Boston, Massachusetts

Architect:  Donald Ross (1936)

.                       Par    Rating  Slope   Yardage

Blue                 70        69.5     126      6440

White              70        68.6     122      6096

Red                 70        70.3     115      5131

(Click to read the Hole-By Hole Analysis of the George Wright Golf Course)

Cape Cod National Golf Club

ccnationallogoCape Cod National was one of Brian Silva’s first new course offerings on his watch but he came to it very schooled from the time he spent working with his mentor Geoffrey Cornish.  For an early effort this course has woven into it’s fabric amazingly mature design concept.  The course is built with lots of elbow room but, like courses built back in the Golden Age of Design, the width provides plenty of tactical choices for players with imagination. Searching for and losing golf balls should not be a problem out here which makes for fast and enjoyable play.

It is very playable for the average member while it maintains intrinsic challenge for the better player at the same time.  This is a private club but access to it is available to the guests of the Wequassett Resort outside of Chatham.

The look off the 10th tee is truly breathtaking

The look off the 10th tee is a truly breathtaking challenge

Generous width off the tee with parenthetical bunkering to emphasize the proper targeting line is the operating principle.  In most cases the first bunker is in play for all players where the opposing bunker, which sets your target line, is only reachable by the biggest hitters.  As a result there is plenty of room to play and you should not spend much time in the rough or the adjacent trees.  But picking good lines is critical to having advantage angles into the green complexes.

The second principle is green complexes with bunkering on one side and bail pitching areas or grassy rough hollows on the other.  Once again this is good for the broader golfing masses who can work there way around the green size bunkers without taking them on but for the low digit guy up-and-downs off the tight grass pitching areas presents a solid challenge.

The greens themselves are very clever-oddly shaped to compliment the green approach lines with plenty of slope.  The specs the greens were made to allow them to reach quick green speeds which, when matched with the slopes, puts a premium on leaving even the recovery pitch below the hole to avoid the three putts.  The generous setbacks of the greens from the trees makes depth perception when reading the breaks a huge challenge.  Once you determine the prevailing break of the green you must pay attention to countervailing internal breaks they worked into the putting surfaces.

The first three holes give you all of this in heavy dosages.  An unusual sequence of two par fives in the first three holes gives Silva an opportunity to lay out this theme early on.  Setting up the lay ups on these two holes is all about finding a good line off the tee to set up an opposing line of approach to a narrowly confined lay up area from where an attack wedge can be played to the open side of the green complex.  All four of the five pars have interesting tactical options so the opportunity for scoring is there but it takes good planning melded with good shot making.

Finesse demand on the par 4 12th will drive big hitters bonkers

Finesse demanded on the par 4 12th will drive big hitters bonkers

The par fours have great variety-long and short versions that smartly use the prevailing topography to feed into the strategy of  the holes.  Three short ones of 335 yards or less call for very articulate club selection and execution to get the ball into the attack position into the greens.  On some of the longer holes, if you tee shots are not of full measure, it may be smarter to play to a lay up spot and rely on an aggressive pitch and a putt to make a par.  Biting off big carries over the bunker side of the green complex can lead to big numbers if you do not pull them off.  Kenny Rogers golf….you got to know when to hold them..know when to fold them.

Just a little pitch down the hill into a dicey 16th green

Just a little pitch down the hill into a dicey 16th green

The par threes at 178, 159, 209, and 127 cover the gamut when it comes to look and demand of approach shots.  The fifteenth is the longest and probably the easiest one and the shortest is sixteen and may be the one with the trickiest green placements to get at.  My favorite is the sixth where you have a full carry long iron/hybrid across an environmental area and one of the deepest hurdle bunkers you will see all day framing the carry across the full face of the green.  With a little breeze this becomes a real question of how much risk you want to take on to get it in the correct third of the green.

Talk about framing...the tee shot on the final hole

Talk about framing the shot…the tee view on the final hole

For the most part the wide playing area prevails throughout the course but there a tight corner of the property from eleven through thirteen where you have to bear down tightly on the luge runner to stay on the track.  Any towardness issues to the left of these three holes can ring up the register reading of the scorecard in a hurry.

Despite what looks like fairly hilly terrain the course is eminently walkable.  Greens are close to tees, there are very few steep transitional hills to traverse, and they even provide a walkers cut from the tee to the fairway.  Hand carts are available if you like to walk and I would recommend them so you get the full flavor and aroma of the golf experience.

Spy Pelican with a range finder adjacent to the 16th

Spy Pelican with a range finder adjacent to the 16th

One of the real kitchy things about this place is the prevalence of animal accent lawn art.  You will see hippos, seals, pelicans, and more strewn through the course.  Love the sense of humor this indicates.

Some reclining pelicans watch your warm up at the range

Some reclining pelicans watch your warm up at the range

As one of the greens staff said to me on the course, Cape Cod National does not have the reputation of some of the other older, more established courses on the Cape but it probably has more memorable holes on it than any of them.  I would agree.   Silva did a great job in creating a course that the members will enjoy playing every day or a visiting dignitary will appreciate on a one up.

Brewster, Massachussetts

 

Designer: Brian Silva (1998)

Tees                 Par       Yardage          Rating      Slope

Blue                 72          6954                74.0         135

White              72          6375                71.2          131

Gold                72          5829                69.4          124

Red                 72         4884                 70.7          125

(Click to see the complete hole-by-hole description of Cape Cod National Golf Club)

Elkridge Club

Elkridge Club LogoThe original Elkridge Club was established in the late 1800’s as a golf and hunting club in what was probably the wealthy developing side of Baltimore. It’s membership grew to 400 and in 1925 they acquired more land to meet their growing need and sought the guidance of Seth Raynor to build the course you see today.

As recently as 2003 the club hired Brian Silva an architect who has a reputation for doing work on Seth Raynor courses to do a total renovation of the course and bring it back to Seth Raynor’s original design. To those who have played them, The Washington Golf Club in Arlington and Bedford Springs Golf Resort in Pennsylvania this will have a familiar look and feel.

The classic club house is a period statement of it's own

The classic look of the club house is a period statement of it’s own

To say this is an old style course is a major understatement-it is a period piece. Suffice it to say that there are design features in this course that you would never see created today. Rectangular shaped putting surfaces, super dramatic uphill driving carries, greens with almost arbitrary undulations, three steps between green and the next tee, fairway bunkering that seems random, and hole sequencing that has all to do with the god delivered shape of the property.

Seth Raynor used the land at hand to route a delightful old style golf course

Seth Raynor used the land at hand to route a delightful old style golf course

With modern green construction this becomes a throw back golf experience with today’s gratifications. The words “fair” and “unfair” have no place in this design-it is just “wow” or “you must be kidding”. Leave your modern ego at home and just put on a pair of plus fours and bring out the hickory shaft mentality-this is quite an experience to the sophisticated golf historian.

The length of the course-especially the differential between Blue and Black Tees-is almost deluding. The course is so tightly ensconced by the trees that “towardness” is the only thing that matters here. You have to hit it Freddie Funk straight and have Justin Leonard restraint for over-reaching on any particular challenge.  One bounce on the wrong side of a ridge will change your fate on an individual hole dramatically.

The Biarritz green on #13 is something Raynor used on many of his courses

The unusual Biarritz green is something Raynor employed on many of his courses

For the most part the holes do not have severe turns in them-they all look right in front of you off the teeing ground. But the overhanging old hardwoods and the steep drop-offs mean you have to be very directive in your line of play.

Greens are terrific. Very smooth-reasonably fast-especially downhill and down grain. But if you can play your approaches and pitches beneath the hole you can be pretty aggressive into the hole.

The Elkridge Club experience is something out of a different time and it reminds us that golf courses were not always designed for those who think hitting it long is what it is all about. The shots you hit in a round at Elkridge will remind you how important creativity and finesse can be in an enjoyable round of golf.

Baltimore, Maryland

Architect: Seth Raynor (1927)

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Tee        Par          Rating        Slope       Yardage
Black     71             70.9            124          6465
Blue       71             69.7            122          6194

(Click to see the complete hole-by-hole description of The Elkridge Club)

Ridgewood Country Club

Ridgewood Country Club LogoTillinghast gave Ridgewood three outstanding nine-hole courses in 1929, compilations of which have combined for tournament play over the last century. Although the greens are not exceptionally large, averaging 5,000 to 6,000 square feet, many bear the original Tillinghast touch – severely sloping, typically from back to front, and protected by deep bunkers at the front corners. These features are overshadowed by the century-old trees that line the fairways and frame many of the greens, making position off the tee such a key ingredient for scoring well, often forcing the better players to club down for accuracy. The trees also serve to isolate each hole from those nearby, creating a scene of splendid tranquility. The challenges are one after another-there are really no let up holes-good scoring demands consistent and creative execution.

The clubhouse sets the classic tone for this place

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The old brick and stone European country style club house is a signature of the time this club was built . The club house interiors, locker room, and grill room are classic period designs without a hint of pretentiousness-they speak a quiet confidence of the history of this place. Plaques on the staging patio remind you that the course has been the site of major national golf events from 1935 to today-they include The Ryder Cup (1935), U.S. Senior Amateur (1957), U.S. Amateur (1974), U.S. Senior Open (1990), Senior PGA (2001), and The Barclays Championship (2008-10-14)-winners include well know players like Kathy Whitworth, Jerry Pate, Lee Trevino, Tom Watson, and Matt Kuchar.

Trees frame the shots required throughout the three nines

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The club had been the home of one of the most famous club pros of his era, George Jacobus and he mentored Byron Nelson as his summer assistant back in the 1930’s. Byron credits the development time spent at Ridgewood under the eye of George Jacobus as the most important in his career. There remains a plaque on the end of a patio commemorating a shot Byron hit as part of a bet with some caddies-they threw down three balls and bet him he could not hit the flagpole about 150 yards away. With a three iron in hand Byron plunked the flagpole on his second try to collect the winnings.

View of Byron’s patio to flagpole challenge

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The first thing you notice is the segmentation of the holes created by the towering trees. The spacing of the trees is generous so wayward shots still allow a path to recovery-but the thickness of the rough makes you pay the price for being off line with your tee ball. The center nine is built on the highest part of the property so the holes there have the greatest bit of topographical influence-the east and west nines fall to the sides of this high ground and provide lots elevation change and side slope stances and rolls. The combination of the trees dictating shot line and positioning along with the tactical fairway and greenside bunkering make you engage the trouble for the most aggressive shot lines.

Typical Tillinghast’s green complex…a small hole with a big challenge

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The creative nature of the green complexes means you will miss greens and have many pitch and chip opportunities to save pars-it will take good short game skills to be successful around here. One nuance is that, in spite of the fact that most greens have open front access, most have a gentle lip on the front of the green which makes pitching and chipping to front and middle pin placements very challenging. We are not talking false fronts but just enough lip to the green to make the player very indecisive as to whether to keep the shot on low to the ground or force it over the front edge of the green in the air. Fast greens just complicate this decision.

Challenges throughout can shock the system like a cold ice bath

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One of the most dominant features to negotiate is the grain on these greens-it generally runs across the property toward the highway-everything breaks toward the traffic noise-now that is different. With the slope in these greens and the dominant grain fast green speeds can make this a real test of patience and discretion.

For all of the difficulty articulated the course is very playable for the average player-the challenges are obvious and doable for someone with discretion. Score can be protected when the challenge is too steep and there are scoring opportunities to be seized at the appropriate time. Tillinghast knows how to challenge a player without overwhelming them-it is always a pleasure to play his courses because they have the visuals to wow you but plenty of opportunities to succeed if you play with good judgment.

Paramus, New Jersey

Architect: A.W. Tillinghast (1929)
Rees Jones (restoration 1986)

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East-Center:

Tees      Par      Rating       Slope       Yardage

Blue       71        71.6          136            6453

White     71        69.4          126            6023

Center-West:

Tees      Par      Rating       Slope       Yardage

Blue       72        71.8          136            6563

White     72        69.3          126            6016

West-East:

Tees      Par      Rating       Slope       Yardage

Blue       71        72             137            6578

White     71        69.1          127            6013

(Click here to review Ridgewood Country Club hole-by-hole descriptions)

Highland Links Golf Course

Highland Links LogoFounded in 1892 and heralded as Cape Cod’s oldest golf course, the Highland Links in North Truro is one of America’s nostalgic golf treasures, perched high along windswept bluffs overlooking the Atlantic next to the vintage Highland Lighthouse on Cape Cod.  This is not going to appear on anyone’s top ten courses in Massachusetts much less the northeast, yet if you are truly a student of the game this is a must play if you are on the Cape.

The original Highland House Golf Links was an adjunct to an ocean hotel and cottage resort operated for years by Isaac Small of Truro and his family.   After years of growing wear and tear the links were refurbished in 1955 by owner Hal Conklin.  In the 1960’s, when Congress approved President Kennedy’s Cape Cod National Seashore Act, Highland Links became Federal property leased to the Town of Truro.  This is now an inexpensive public golf course available for the pleasure of anyone visiting the northern end of Cape Cod.

The second would feel at home anywhere in Scotland or Ireland.

The second hole would feel at home anywhere in Scotland or Ireland.

Deep natural rough, Scottish broom, thick gorse and low bushes, hilly terrain with non-irrigated open fairways, and spectacular ocean views make this course a genuine links in the Scottish tradition.   Wind, weather, rock hard fairways, and high rough are always a factor at Highland Links. Add to this the up and down elevations and gently rolling fairways you will have a links golf experience that you will not soon forget.

Each hole requires a second time around.

Each hole requires a second time around.

This is only a nine hole course but they have two sets of tees so you can make a second loop to get in the full eighteen.  I highly recommend you do that because the first time through there is a steep learning curve on how to play these holes successfully.   As you play the nine again from slightly different tees it is interesting that the men’s inward nine is 200 yards shorter while the women’s inward nine is 30 yards longer.  The second hole is a par 5 on the front and a much shorter par 4 on the back.  The fourth goes from a par 4 to a par 5 as the thirteenth.   With different teeing lines, the shorter distance on the second nine seems a harder round to the measure of par.

Elevation change and wind have to be constantly condsidered.

Elevation change and wind are constantly considered through your day.

If you are used to lush fairways and fair bounces you need to check your ego at the door of the golf shop.  This is golf the old way, rock hard fairways with existential bounces, small putting surfaces with angular fall offs, and serious slopes to navigate on the greens.  The wind will be a major influence so trajectory control and creative attack lines are called for.  If you have a quiver of links shots bring them with you because the ground is your friend and you will have to make some strong up and downs to play well here.

Full links drama on the drive on the Par 5 sixth.

Full links drama unfolds before you on the drive at the Par 5 sixth.

The views on the high holes are just spectacular.  When you get to the tee box on six you are perched on a cliff about 400 yards above the ocean with a drop dead panoramic view worth a digital moment.  This place is not without a sense of humor.  There is a sign adjacent to this tee box on the walking path to the cliff that says, “No Ball Retrieving From Pond”.   You would need a grappling hook, lots of rope, and a lobster basket.

The PondThe Highland Lighthouse is prominent on the horizon through the round but never more spectacular then when it is the backdrop to the finishing par three on each nine.  In fact on the Truro Links website under “Directions”  they have:

Scotland:

Sail Southwest until you reach the 42nd parallel. Then head due West until you see Highland Light.

The views do not get any better than this.

View at the Par 3 ninth……it does not get any better than this.

There are also two other curious architectural artifacts on the top of the dunes behind the second and third holes.The first is a globe that looks straight out of Epcot Center at Disneyworld.  It is an old FAA service dome that originally was used by the Air Force as a surveillance station during WW II.  Juxtaposed to it stands a 55-foot tall medieval looking granite tower on which you would expect to see Mel Gibson in full Braveheart garb wielding his sword and a shield.  This is the Jenny Lind Tower that was transplanted from Boston in 1927 as a gift to Truro from Harry Aldrich, a rich Boston attorney.  The tower was famous because Jenny Lind, the most famous singer in the world in 1850, delivered a concert from the top of it to a throng of people who could not fit into the auditorium she was scheduled to perform in at Boston and Maine’s Fitchburg Depot.  I am thinking that a young and impressionable Mr. Aldrich must have been in that crowd.

The embellishments on the horizon seem to span centuries.

The embellishments on the horizon seem to span centuries.

What this place lacks in polished feature and comfort detail it more than makes up for in traditional links look and feel.  For those who love a rough and tumble British Isles golf experience there may be no better place on the east coast to find it than a double lap at Highland Links.

North Truro, Massachusetts

Architect:  Willard Small (1892)/J. Henry McKinley (1913)

Tees                Par     Yardage      Rating     Slope

Blue                 70        5332           67.0        114

Red                  72        4587           67.8        117

(Click here to review the complete Highland Links Golf Course hole-by-hole descriptions)

For more pictures click to review Postcard From Highland Links

Merion Golf and Cricket Club

Merion LogoIn 1914 the members of the Merion Golf and Cricket Club tapped one of their premier players, Hugh Wilson, with the responsibility of creating a championship golf course on a mere 110 acres of hilly ground outside of Philadelphia.  This was no small task considering he had no previous experience in course design.  He took a trip to England to study the construction of the great courses of the British Isles and came back inspired that his first stab at golf design could be a success.

           With the invaluable help of a young William Flynn as his lead construction man, later one of the most prolific designers of this Golden Age of course design, the two of them created one of the memorable tracks one will ever play.   Except for Pine Valley, Oakmont, and Pebble Beach, there are no other examples of such quality design by an individual on his first try. 

Merion has a certain mysterious quality about it that kind of creeps into your mind long after you have left the course. The sequence of holes defies any obvious pattern which gives you a sense of arbitrary fate as you work your way through the course.  There are no distance markers on the course either on the tees or in the fairways-no indications of pin positions.  Fortunately, there are a group of the most knowledgeable caddies you will find anywhere, and they know the distance from every blade of grass on the course and the break on every putt down to the most subtle nuance.

This is a course that asks you to show great patience, to wait for the opportunities as they occur.  You cannot force a good score, you must knead one out of the layout with great patience and adept shot execution.  There are very few tricky holes, all the challenges are quite obvious, but they are also quite real.  If you try to bite off more than you can chew you will likely choke on the effort.  Carefully pick and choose your challenges and when you set your mind to taking one, do not waffle on that decision-you must play every shot with great confidence or the course will eat you up.

With both five pars in the first four holes you find yourself searching for rest holes the last three hours of your day.  You are going to be rudely disappointed because even the shortest par fours, and there are a plethora of them, do not provide you with obvious scoring opportunities.  You can have short irons and wedges in your hands for second shots all through the first thirteen holes but it better be from the fairway and you better keep those approaches beneath the flag sticks.  The last five holes are as harsh of a finish as you can imagine.  It is full prevent defense of your scorecard the rest of the way to the clubhouse.

The most obvious characteristic of this course is the impeccable quality of the putting surfaces.  The greens are the finest I have ever seen, very fast, very true with lots of pitch and yaw.  The condition of the course is equally impeccable-it looks like a fine manicured yard everywhere you look.  Another signature characteristic is the severe bunkering-the bunkers are deep and often strewn with wild sage grass.  The best strategy is to stay out of the sand entirely and when you get in one take the most conservative path to exiting it.

The full Merion experience begins when you get out of your car and ends after a refreshing post game shower.  There is a special hamish relationship between the members and their long standing employees that run the place.  An informal atmosphere exists without much of the pomp and circumstance typical of an old line club.  The floors are uneven and creaky and there is a bit of a musty odor pervades the place-it feels like a comfortable visit to your grandma’s place when you were a kid.  The members themselves take great pride in the tradition and care of this place.  Try to take a mulligan off the first tee and they will show you the door.  My host was walking the fairways bending over to pull offending weeds from the turf-a bit of greens keeping vigilantism.

          The signature of Merion are the wicker baskets atop the flag sticks.  Makes it tough to get a wind reading on the green from the fairway.  Unsubstantiated rumor says that Hugh Flynn, on his pre-design trip to the review the great courses of Britain, saw shepherds tending their flocks with long staffs with hollow wicker baskets on top where they would stash their lunches to keep them away from prying animals.  He thought that was a cool look and came back to the states with this notion for unique flag sticks.  With the help of local artisans he had them made and patented and today they are guarded as treasure, taken in every night at the end of play to insure no one comes hunting for souvenirs.

          Playing this course is much more than a simple round of golf, it is a golfing experience.  The place is steeped with tradition and memories of golf’s greatest players making great shots in major championships.  You cannot help but get caught up in the ghosts of championships past.  Take in all this ambiance as you stroll these fairways and enjoy the special character of this hallowed place.

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Designer: Hugh Wilson (1914)

Tees          Yards   Par    Rating Slope

Blue           6482    70      73.5     149

Middle        6103    70      71.6     144

(Click to read hole-by-hole descriptions of Merion Golf and Cricket Club)

Bedford Springs-Old Course

Established in the late 1800’s this place is a small scale version the old line rich man’s retreat, on the order of a Homestead or Greenbrier, full service food, accommodations, golf, spa, family recreation, and all. It has a much more casual presentation than those others but that may be a function of the new day more than anything else.  A very comfortable atmosphere-well managed-it makes for a perfect two-day getaway from the hub-bub of urban life.

Par 3 “Tiny Tim” even has the chocolate drop mounds (omnihotels.com)

The golf course is quirky but very interesting.  It is the result of the efforts of three architects over a thirty year period-and it has been recently updated in 2007 without changing the effective old style character of the links.  Spencer Oldham did the original 18 holes in 1895 featuring chocolate drop mounds, geometric S-curve bunkers, and donut bunkers.  In 1912 A.W. Tillinghast got his hands on it and scaled it back to a nine-hole course with his own architectural features.  In 1923 Donald Ross took it back to a full 18-hole track and you can see raised greens with lots of tiering, artistic bunkering constellations, and, most distinctively, a creative and strategic use of the Shober’s Run that meanders throughout the entire golf course.  The renovation work in 2007 was done by Forse Design Company of Pennsylvania who are known for doing period restoration and  renovation work throughout the US and Canada-they have recently had their hands in renovation work to the Broadmoor-East Course in Colorado and the Newport Country Club in Rhode Island-sites of  recent U.S. Senior Opens and U.S. Women’s Opens respectively.   They did a wonderful job retaining the characteristics of all three of these fine architects while making it a very playable and a challenging golf experience.

The entire course is in the flood plain of the Shober Spring Stream and sits nestled between the foothills on either side.  There is a good bit of meandering back and forth so the holes do not route in a typical outward and inward loop.  For a course set in the foothills there are not that many severe elevation changes on holes and you get surprisingly few side hill or billy goat stances during the round.   As with most old style courses the track does not sprawl-the next tee is a few steps from the last green and the round has a tidy-compact feel to it.  Green surfaces are totally updated-very quick-lots of pitch and undulation and oddly shaped which makes for really small targets from the fairway.  You will do some pitching and chipping to save pars.

The green speed is the course’s major defense considering the tiering and undulations you will face.  But at the same time these characteristics provide you with a good correction mechanism for your approach shots if you pay attention to green topography and use it accordingly.  Big hitters will be frustrated by the many times they cannot just haul off and hit as much as they can-position off the tee is extremely important to getting the best angle of attack into the greens.

The last characteristic worth noting is the balance of the types of holes and the sequencing.  Five Par 5’s, Five Par 3’s, and 8 Par 4’s (only one over 400 yards) means you are hitting lots of finesse shots through the day and the mix is pretty random.  There is a sequence from 2 to 6  where you play par 3, par 5, par 3, par 5, short par 4-other than the driver on the second par 3 you have no long shots for five holes.  From 9 through 14 you have a similar 5-3-4-4-5-3 run but in the midst of this one you have two of the longest holes you play all day.  My point is you have to be very mentally agile to play this course effectively-there is no natural rhythm to the course other than the constant sound of the babbling of the ever present Shober’s Run.

Bedford Springs, Pennsylvania

Architects: Spencer Oldham (1895), A.W. Tillinghast (1912), Donald Ross (1923), Forse Design (2007)

Tees                 Par            Rating            Slope            Yardage

Medal                72               73.4               140                6785

Ross                72               71.9               136                6446

Tillie                  72               69.3               130                6023

Oldham            72               69.8               122                5106

(Click here to review Bedford Springs hole-by-hole descriptions)

Musket Ridge Golf Club

Set in the terrain of the foothills of the Shenandoah Mountains this is a hilly course with dramatic up and down holes and stunning vistas all around. The golf course is in the same neighborhood as Arthur Hill’s Maryland National to which it tends to regularly be compared.  In my estimation Musket Ridge is hands down more fun and interesting.   What differentiates it from Maryland National is that it is a consistent strong design without any trickery.  Balance of long and short holes is right, par threes have good variety, and the teeth of the course are the in finish on both sides.

Playing Musket Ridge, the first thing one comes away with is the beauty of the settings that surround the course.  There are so many holes where you stand on the tee looking at the hole ahead and your eye just gets drawn to something five miles in the distance.  At times it can be distracting because the mind starts wandering and the scale of the task at hand gets dwarfed by the panoramic view that is consuming your attention.

From the first tee the scenic beauty of this region is revealed

The second characteristic worth noting is the quality of the greens.  Pretty generous in size the greens are big without being sprawling.  Unlike so many new courses these days these are not tricked up with buried pachyderms or absurd segmentation.  Occasionally multiple tiers appear but it is selective and makes sense when it is used.  The bunkering around the greens is strategically positioned and can be punitive so you must respect their proximity when picking your approach lines.  To my experience, the quality and maintenance of the putting surfaces has been top notch.  They can be speedy when cut low but most of the time they run at a comfortable speed for recreational play.

Lastly it is noticeable the way the holes are routed across the hills.  Most holes traverse the fall line of the hills so there is a stacked effect to the arrangement of the holes.  The designer uses ridges along the side to define and contain each hole and give you relatively level ground to play from.  But the influence of the prevailing slope of the property will influence the movement of your ball on the ground.  Wandering  beyond those ridges puts your ball in the jeopardy.  To accentuate the look they have let the grass on these side hills grow to three feet plus so you have to keep your ball within the parameters of the playing area or you will pay a price.

A little floral embellishment on #17 and this could be a postcard

The variety of the holes is astounding.  No two holes look remotely alike.  There is a great mix of long and short four pars-ones you think you can drive the green and a number where a solid drive still leaves you the full measure of a fairway metal to reach the green.   The front and back both start with scenic holes that tumble below your feet and set a tone for the drama of the day.  Strength of both sides is in the last four holes where if you lose your focus you will lose control of your scorecard.  The challenge from the Blue Tees is more than enough for the mere mortal-play at this distance and you will get your money’s worth.

Even though you rarely hear Joe Lee’s name mentioned among top designers, he has been around a long time and done wonderful work.  He spent most of his career being the junior co-designer with Dick Wilson building courses like Cog Hill #4, Laurel Valley, La Costa, and the Blue Monster at Doral.  But in the last 20 years until his passing in 2003, he has done lots of work on his own that stands to its own distinction.

A book was written by Ron Whitten on Joe Lee’s work in which Lee is quoted as saying of his design philosophy,   “I start with the premise that golf should be enjoyable, not a chore. Golfers want a challenge, but they want a fair one. An architect cannot put a foot on the golfer’s neck and keep it there all day.”   His philosophy of design is evident in this layout-it is a challenge, but an enjoyable challenge.  One cannot help but walk away shaking their head about what could have been, soon to be followed by the nagging sirens calling them back for another go at it.

The look up 18 captures the balanced majesty of this place

Take the time when you are done to enjoy the food service in the grill room.  It is an intimate room with a great view of the finishing holes on both sides.  Food is quite good and makes for a nice accent to a wonderful golfing day.

Myersville, Maryland

Architect: Joe Lee (2002)

Tees                 Par        Rating               Slope       Yardage

Gray                 72            73                    140            6902

Blue                 72            71.1                 130            6416

White               72            68.9                 123            5884

(Click here to review Musket Ridge hole-by-hole descriptions)

Hidden Creek Golf Club

Bill Coore was asked by a wealthy New Jersey real estate developer, Roger Hansen, to create distinctive golf course on 750 acres of sandy rolling pine barren woodlands he acquired outside of Atlantic City.  He had in mind a golf club in the Pine Valley tradition-a private haven where wealthy people with presence in this area could entertain their friends and colleagues with the highest standard of golf, food, and accommodations in a casual environment without pretense.

The understated look of the back of the clubhouse coming down #9

Click on any photo for an enhanced view of the image

Coore spent a considerable amount of time walking the ground before a contract was prepared and determined it offered an opportunity to create rustic walking course with a character unique to this region.  There was enough elevation change in the property to make holes with distinct topological interest and plenty of natural vegetation to provide the look and feel of an old English heathland course.

The natural look brings to mind the heathland courses outside of London

What he came up with was an old style walking course, short walks from greens to tees, that clings to the upland part of the property.  With a minimal amount of dirt being moved, it would have the raw and natural looking hazards of mounding, deep bunkers, and long fescue grasses you might see at a course like Sunningdale outside of London.  There would be no paved cart paths, no houses interrupting the landscape, just natural delight as far as the eye can see.  Coore said of the project,  “The Hidden Creek site required very little alteration to the landscape.  The holes lay on the ground pretty much the way we found it.”

Coore and Crenshaw embrace the old style principles of great designers of the golden age providing plenty of  room to play the course and generous access to the greens.  There may be ferocious bunkering on one side of a fairway or green but you will rarely see both sides cordoned by trouble.  This makes the play much more enjoyable for the recreational player who does not want to take on the macho challenge.  Like many of the great courses of that period, playing this course well is about thoughtful tactical intention with adept execution of the shots required.

Large setbacks provide a beautiful backdrop for a stunning view like the Par 3 #4

They created big set backs for the holes from the existing trees-this makes for an enhanced canvas on which to present the holes.  Lush bent fairways throughout set against gold fescue grasses make for a beautiful presentation.  The most distinctive characteristic is the seemingly random mounding and bunkering that provide most of the hazards.  There is no water in play on the course-they did not route any of the holes through the wetlands that take up almost half of the property.  The randomness of the placement of the hazards defies the symmetrical look of so many modern designers and it makes the playing lines infinitely more interesting to discern as you plan your shots.

There are over 100 bunkers on the course and they often have eyebrows of natural long fescue reminiscent of Royal County Down-this makes them very intimidating looking from afar as well as difficult from which to extricate yourself if you are too close to the front of the bunkers.  Pay particular attention to the relative position of the hazards to the landing areas and greens.  With some optical trickery they can seem more imposing than they really are-there is often more wiggle room in the formula than meets the eye.

You can see on #5 the minimalist presentation with a tactical emphasis

I found the mystery of the greens particularly intriguing.  These are big, sprawling oceans of green with pitch and undulations that will confound you both on your approach shots and your putting.  Local advice is essential until your personal knowledge of the greens is up to speed. These guys have real genius giving you plenty of room to approach but giving you little room to approach successfully.  You can hit what seems like a wonderful shot that seems to randomly separate from the hole against all your intentions.  The greens roll very nicely and have lots of speed, especially down hill.  This is not really a set of greens that call for a nickel defense but you have to be careful when the speed conditions of a particular putt are at the optimum.

This 110 yard short pitch and putt on #11 is anything but a push over

What is an architectural accomplishment of no small order, given that the property itself does not have inherent dramatic topography, is no two holes on the course look remotely similar.  You cannot anticipate what is coming next because there is no pattern to the sequence or the hole designs.  The sequencing of the holes is brilliant, you might have a monstrously long par four followed by a short pitch par three or a reachable par five.  This keeps the player off balance because the challenges vary dramatically from hole to hole.

The entire facility is top notch.  The locker room, eating facility, and practice facilities are as good as any high end club you will visit.  Like you would see at Pine Valley or Caves Valley they built very nice lodge to accommodate out of town guests in for a multi-day visit to the club.  You are going to need an invite to get here but if you can find one you will not be disappointed in what they have created.

Egg Harbour Township, NJ

Architects:  Bill Coore/Ben Crenshaw (2002)

Tee                         Par    Yardage    Rating      Slope
Championship        71      7023         73.5         136
Member                 71      6562         71.6         131
Forward                 72      5486         72.3         127

(Click here to review Hidden Creek hole-by-hole descriptions)

Spring Creek Golf Course

Spring Creek Golf Course was created to support a high end housing community about seventeen miles east of Charlottesville.  When it came on line the economic infarction of the time seems to have upset real estate sales, yet this course has design quality and integrity that should make it a success as a fee course until that trend turns around.  Ed Carton has considerable deputy experience with Tom Fazio and it shows in the presentation of this course.  Like his mentor this course is visually pleasing and seems to fit into the regional topography very comfortably.    The course has won some instant national recognition by the national golf magazines and has been favorably compared in reviews to the other jewel of Virginia, Lester George’s  very private Kinloch Golf Club outside of Richmond.  The difference is this place is totally accessible to the fee paying public.

For a residential community course this has a modern design characteristic rarely seen in these type of developments-generous hole setbacks from the residential lots.  The owner, Charles Kincannon, showed great discipline in allowing the design team to employ such setbacks which make the holes seem very comfortable in their surroundings without visual encroachment.  Given the dramatic topography on which this course is built that has resulted in holes of stunning visual stature as well as tactical uniqueness.

Creative use of the topography create visuals like the par 4 #14

The most obvious characteristic is the generous use of sand throughout the course.  This is an expensive design decision but, as you see on Fazio style courses, free form expansive bunkering is a visual accent that can be psychologically intimidating and provide tactical parameters that challenge the golfers as well.  My wife said on about the eighth hole, there must have been no sand left in Virginia Beach once this course opened for play.  Most interesting is that she played the entire 18 holes and was not in a single bunker-now that is good design.

The Alien Gingerbread Man bunker hunkers over # 3 green

Another unique characteristic for this region is the choice of bent grass for the fairways and tees.  Zoysia and Bermuda grasses are usually the choice when you get this far South but the bent works well and it displays beautifully when it is well maintained and manicured as it is out here.  There is also the clever use of indigenous rock accenting some of the low creeks, crossing bridges, and the high areas behind some greens.  Given the severity of the topography this stone softens many of  the visual transitions that were required.

Sprawling greens with undulations and fall offs that will challenge

The greens themselves may be the most unique part of this design.  They are vast, sprawling green surfaces with lots of facet and undulations.  The speed on these greens, especially down the slopes, can be disarming.  You need to play this course a number of times to understand the tactical requirement of your approach positions into these greens.  On many holes the greens have fall offs in more than one direction or insidious little donut depressions that feed to side pitching areas.  Knowing how to negotiate these and leave yourself an uphill putt you can play aggressively is the secret to scoring well.  The pro told me before I played  that the yardage on the card belies the difficulty that the rating and slope indicates.  The need to be able to approach these greens with a club you can control is critical so pick your tee length conservatively if you want to enjoy your day.

The front side starts with a wonderful challenging par four that will set the tone that ball control and accuracy are at a premium.  The next two holes, a very technical par five and a seemingly innocuous par four that is in fact the first handicap hole will serve to reiterate that notion.  From four to nine, with the exception of a bear of a challenge on six, the yardage will not overwhelm you but don’t be lulled into a sense of security, good planning and articulate shot execution will be rewarded.

Some pixie dust might help resolve the mysteries of #16

Once you turn to the inward nine the adrenaline rush will begin on the tenth tee.  This is an old classic style 90 degree dogleg right which means it is all about position off the tee followed by an aggressive uphill carry shot into a well guarded green.  The next three holes are very interesting technical holes that present your best scoring opportunity run of the day.  On the fourteenth tee you will witness the anti-gravitational moment  of being atop of the highest point of your favorite thrill ride.  Other than a reprieve on the short par three seventeenth from this point it is just one G-force experience after another that will exhaust your strength and test your resolve all the way to the house.  The eighteenth hole, a wild and wooly par five that is a hooker’s nightmare, is one of the most difficult holes you can face if you need a par to close out a match.  Just a terrific exclamation point for a course that has no shortage of thrills and spills.

The wharf green setting on #18 is a formidable challenge

If I have any criticism it is the array of par threes.  All four of them play within one club of each other so the yardage demand on the short holes does not vary much at all.  The four par threes are of distinct characters but they are probably the least interesting offerings of the day for me.

What sets this course apart for me is that, for an architect without a vast resume of his own courses to fall back on, Barton has succeeded in putting together 18 wonderful holes that work well together.  You would think in such an early effort there would be at least two or three holes that either did not fit in or just did not work.  Cannot say that about this place, every hole seems to fit the motif and there is not a single hole out there that will fail to stimulate your aesthetic and athletic sensibilities.  This place may seem out of the way but it is well worth the effort to seek it out and play it more than once.

Gordonsville, Virginia

Architect: Ed Carton (2006)

Tees                 Par            Yardage      Rating     Slope

Marble              72               6673           73.2        145

Onyx                72               6197           70.9        138

(Click here to review Spring Creek hole-by-hole descriptions)