In my estimation, golf is only “a good walk spoiled” if you concentrate too much on the game itself and not your surroundings. I’m sure that’s sacrilegious to some diehard duffers out there. But I prefer an adage from one of my celluloid heroes, Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry: “A man’s got to know his limitations.” For me, a “casual golfer” at best, the game is far too nuanced and complex to get all hung up about it. In fact, I admittedly almost never keep score.
Instead, I focus on two things I can control — where I golf, and who I go with. Because the social element of the game is really paramount. Good conversation, and some good old-fashioned ribbing, is as important to me as a monster drive or a seeing-eye chip shot. And I want to play in places that also speak to me. Places that dazzle my eyes, feed my soul and my heart. Places where I breathe deeply, either fresh mountain air or salt-tinged sea air. A good golf course can do all of that. And all of these provide a great outdoor experience.
Few tracts can boast the lore that the private Myopia Hunt & Polo Club in Hamilton, Mass., claims, hosting four of the first 14 U.S. Opens, between 1895 and 1908. No other club had hosted more than two by 1908, and Shinnecock Hills Golf Club in Southampton, N.Y., and Baltusrol in New Jersey held one each during that span. This delightful-but-vexing links-style course, tucked away off of Route 1A on Boston’s North Shore, is concealed at the end of a long, tree-lined driveway and the club’s two polo fields. That’s how the members like it. But if you get an invitation to play, don’t hesitate. Accept it. Compared with current mega-courses, this quaint venue is a relic. Which is a compliment. “If Tiger Woods played here, his driver would never leave his bag,” said Myopia pro William Safrin. The course is short but demanding, with wild elevation changes, huge amoeba-like bunkers, off-camber fairways, and disobedient doglegs. The architects, including Herbert C. Leeds (the designer of record despite building only the second nine holes in 1900), created a masterpiece.
While I mourn the loss of the spectacular 1912 Donald Ross-designed course at The Balsams in Dixville Notch, N.H., and fervently hope that it (and the resort) can be resurrected, northern New Hampshire still lays claim to another Ross masterpiece, at the Mount Washington Golf Resort in Bretton Woods. Associated with the glorious grand hotel of the same name, the original course was designed by Ross in 1915, and painstakingly restored by architect Brian Silva using Ross’ original plans. The par-72, 7,004-yard course reopened in 2008. At the front of the hotel, the 9-hole, par-35, 3,215-yard Mount Pleasant course, originally opened in 1895, is a nice change of pace for first-time players and old pros alike.
From one grand hotel to another, and one legendary course designer to another, the Woodstock Country Club at the Woodstock Inn in midstate Vermont offers a Robert Trent Jones Sr.-designed course that is generally considered one of the top 100 golf resorts by Golf Magazine, and one of the top 25 for quality of conditions by Golf Advisor (the magazine also rates Woodstock the best in New England). The course boasts a par-70 layout that promises a memorable experience, surrounded by the lush Kedron Valley, stunning views of Mount Peg, and plenty of water hazards. Bring extra balls.
I’ve got a soft spot for little-known jewels, whether a tucked-away diner, a secret slice of singletrack, or a first-rate neighborhood golf course. And I’ve got two Maine tracts in mind — Clinton Golf Course, in Clinton, and Diadema Golf Club in North Anson. “Each were built by property owners — a dairy farmer in Clinton and an excavating contractor in North Anson — guys who owned a lot of land and had the time and finances to construct their own golf course,” said Hank Read, an avid golfer from Warren, Maine. “Each is a 9-hole track with legitimate alternate tees to make 18, and each has put extra attention into landscaping and quality of the playing surfaces.”
The flower treatments at Clinton compare to Augusta National. The course is a short par-29, members only, built over the years through an apple orchard. “It’s like a private practice facility, excellent for beginners and those who have lost the thrill of playing full-sized courses,” said Read.
Situated on Route 16, just 40 minutes south of Sugarloaf Mountain, Diadema lacks the size of some courses but requires keen course management and careful approach on every hole.
Though not exactly a “hidden gem,” Owl’s Nest Resort and Golf Course in Thornton, N.H., “is a beauty, and convenient to both Waterville Valley and Lincoln,” said Dan Parkhurst, a longtime New Hampshire golfer and owner of 867 Studios in Conway. The 6,819-yard Jack Nicklaus-designed course also has been called “the best value in the Northeast, if not the entire country” with “great staff, great course and outstanding vistas.” The real challenge for golfers at Owl’s Nest is staying focused on their game while enveloped by those expansive mountain views.
Great water views
“Rhode Island isn’t necessarily thought of as a golf destination, but the very first U.S. Golf Open and the first Amateur Open were held here at the Newport Country Club in 1895, and the club is one of the founding members of the U.S. Golf Association,” said Bob Curley, the author of “100 Things to Do in Rhode Island Before You Die. “In fact, the Ocean State has several magnificent, championship-quality golf courses with spectacular ocean views, including several sculpted by legendary golf course designer Donald Ross, such as the Rhode Island Country Club, the Metacomet Country Club, and the Wannamoisett Country Club.”
Newport’s historic 18-hole, 7,075 yard, par-70 course began with nine holes in 1894, was expanded to 18 holes by Ross two decades later, and was remodeled in 1923 by A.W. Tillinghast. The course includes the genius of “two of the greatest golf course architects who ever lived,” Mike Trostel, historian for the U.S. Golf Association, told Curley.
Further east, in Massachusetts, Wequassett Resort and Golf Club in Harwich on Cape Cod is home to the 18-hole Cape Cod National, ranked as one of the top 20 best golf courses by Golf Digest. The par 72, 6,954-yard course offers exceptional views and challenging play for both casual and competitive golfers, from its smooth, fast fairways and greens to its wonderfully varied tee-shot targets.
On the commonwealth’s “other” cape — Cape Ann — Bass Rocks Golf Club in Gloucester offers exceptional links-style golf right along the water. This beautiful-but-demanding seaside course offers views of the Atlantic Ocean on almost every hole. Established in 1896, the Herbert Leeds-designed course (par 69, 71 for women), offers a wide variety of shot-making challenges due to the ever-changing winds off the Atlantic Ocean, chocolate-drop mounds, fast rolling greens and ball-eating fescue tracks.
The tailored course at the Samoset Resort in Rockland, Maine, offers a terrific test of any golfer’s skills, but is so beautiful — including one of the most stunning finishing holes in New England — that I almost don’t mind that my game doesn’t measure up to the fabulous views of an endless Atlantic Ocean. Situated on 230 oceanfront acres, Samoset was ranked in Forbes’ “Best Resorts for a Golf Vacation” in 2019, offering guests a seemingly endless array of resort activities for visitors of every age, making it a great choice for families. Samoset’s golf complex also features a clubhouse with a golf range, practice green, short-game facility with bunkers, pro shop and restaurant. The resort’s harbor location gives us a chance to get out on the water after we’ve finished our round.
Great ski resort courses
I have several friends who have a hard time, when they travel to ski country during the summer, deciding whether to bring their bikes or their golf clubs. More often than not, they bring both. For good reason. Many resorts turned to golf early on to provide a summer attraction, and mountain biking filled another gap.
One of my all-time favorites is the Sugarloaf Golf Club at Sugarloaf Resort in the Bigelow Mountains of western Maine. The par-72, 6,910-yard course, designed exquisitely by Robert Trent Jones Jr., is a work of art, offering stunning panoramic mountain views and undulating terrain that will dazzle even the most proficient golfer. It has been named the state’s best course 28 times since 1985 by Golf Digest (the publication also ranked Sugarloaf three times in its America’s 100 Greatest Public Courses listing since 2003). A number of special discounts are available for Maine residents. And when you swap out your clubs for your mountain bike, you’ll find miles of great routes at the Sugarloaf Outdoor Center and the Maine Huts & Trails network.
Not to be outdone, the Sunday River Golf Club in Newry has managed to maintain its lofty reputation despite some management problems over the past decade. Much like the healthy competition between the resorts in winter, Sunday River has garnered its share of accolades, including No. 1 course in Maine by Golfweek, Best Mountain Course in New England by Links, and Top 100 Courses You Can Play by Golf. Overlooking the Sunday River Valley in the shadow of the Mahoosuc range, the course follows the region’s natural topography, striking the perfect balance between challenge and playability. Nearby, the Bethel Inn also offers an 18-hole championship course designed by architect Geoffrey Cornish, giving visitors plenty of choices.
Over in Vermont, the famed “Ski Highway” — Route 100 — could just as easily go by “Golf Highway” in the warmer months. To the north, near the Canadian border, the Jay Peak Championship Golf Course celebrates the adage “down to earth” with the friendly, casual attitude found in everyone who works at the course. But it’s also about the earth, and course designer Graham Cooke made the most of the beautiful terrain and natural waterways found here. Near the intersection with Interstate 89, The Mountain Course at Stowe is one of the finest created by award-winning designer Bob Cupp. Like the name suggests, Stowe ups the ante by confronting players with more than 800 feet of elevation change during a round. You’re reward? Unencumbered views of Mount Mansfield, Vermont’s highest peak. The catch? You have to be a guest at The Lodge at Spruce Peak to play.
Further south along Route 100, in Waitsfield, is another Robert Trent Jones Sr. piece de resistance, the Sugarbush Resort Golf Club. Every hole on this sweeping, majestic par-70 tract is, simply, a delight. And, like the Mountain Course at Stowe, it will test your fitness as well as your shot-making skills (the resort had to buy gas-powered carts, since electric carts couldn’t handle the hills). Killington Resort’s golf course, designed by Cornish, takes full advantage of unique mountain terrain, with snowmelt streams, a 2,000-foot elevation, and signature vistas. The 6,186-yard, par-72 Championship Golf Course includes a practice facility with a 12,000 square-foot putting green and practice bunker, full-size retail pro shop with all the essentials, on-course beverage cart, caddy shack with food and beverage offerings, as well as the Clubhouse Bar and Grill.
Just south of Killington, in Ludlow, the Okemo Valley Golf Club boasts the first “heathland-style” course in New England. A more open, less fastidious course with gorse and heather, the 6,400-yard, par-70 Okemo course has wonderful elevation swings, well-placed hazards and rolling greens. In a word, the course is a delight. Willie Dunn’s Grille is an excellent spot to enjoy your 19th hole.
Three standard bearers
Some courses deserve special mention, but don’t fit neatly into any category. Here are three more you should put on your New England golf bucket list.
The Crumpin-Fox Club in Bernardston in western Massachusetts was conceived in 1969 as original owner David Berelson’s “field of dreams.” Berelson engaged the services of Roger Rulewich of Robert Trent Jones Inc. to locate a site that would accommodate a Pine Valley-style golf course. Under Rulewich’s direction, the front nine holes were created in harmony with the surrounding woodlands, along with extensive renovations to the existing back nine holes and the driving range. Bent grass fairways were planted, and the course opened in June 1990 to near unanimous acclaim. Zeke’s Bar & Grill is a great spot to share a post-round libation and a few tall tales.
Situated literally around the corner from Killington resort, Green Mountain National off Route 100 has repeatedly been named the best public course in Vermont. I’m not going to argue. Carved out of the serrated Green Mountains, the setting offers solitude and a unique sense of privacy that is exceedingly rare, and the championship course will challenge players of all abilities.
Finally, North Conway Country Club in New Hampshire was first established in 1895 as Kearsage Golf Links hard by the Saco River, and its reputation has grown steadily since. The view of the opening tee shot, looking down into the Mount Washington Valley at Cathedral Ledge, White Horse Ledge and the Moat Mountains, is jaw-dropping gorgeous. The par 72-tract is generally considered one of the best in the Granite State, with exceptional scores for maintenance. “How good is the course?” asked Parkhurst. “The New Hampshire chapter of the Professional Golf Association hosts its annual NHPGA Championship here every year for professional golfers and club pros.” Works for me.