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The Sublime Charms of Golf in New England



Equinox Resort & Spa, Manchester, Vermont

There is an old story, perhaps apocryphal, about the American who traveled to Scotland to play the Old Course at St. Andrews. As luck would have it, his caddie turned out to be a particularly dour sort who viewed work as the curse of the drinking class and was none too happy about being on the course instead of inside the adjacent Jigger Inn.

At any rate, as the round wound down to its merciful conclusion, the American — whose display of hacks, foozles and other calamities had sorely tested what little patience his caddie possessed — faced a tricky pitch to the green on the infamous seventeenth hole. Focusing on the job at hand (a shot whose difficulty far exceeded any skill level he had previously displayed at any point in the round) with Nicklaus-like intensity, he struck the ball with authority. A tad too much authority, it turned out, as the ball came screaming off the clubface. Our hapless hero was understandably dumbstruck when the ball hit the flagstick, ricocheted toward the heavens, became entangled in the flag and fell into the hole.

“Golf sure is a funny game,” he exclaimed to the caddie.

“’Twasn’t meant to be,” the caddie muttered.

Indeed, golf is a funny game, and mysterious as well. How else to explain why otherwise serious, rational captains of industry wear lime green corduroys embroidered with little whales? Or why none of us ever plays our “usual” game? Or why it is that New Englanders are so willing to travel thousands of miles for golf vacations when we have some of the finest and most diverse courses in the country right here in our own backyard?

First of all, let’s deal with the unpleasant matter of winter. There’s no use denying its existence, but it is all part of the character-building experience that goes into being a New Englander. It is a months-long misery that helps instill in us the ability to overcome adversity, gives us a certain moral supremacy and makes us fatalists — all traits vital to becoming a successful golfer and/or a lifelong Red Sox fan. Besides, there’s nothing like a couple of midwinter nor’easters to remind you just how magical the other three seasons are around here. OK, so enough about winter. It keeps us from being slothful. It thickens the blood. It is an excuse to switch from Mt. Gay to Johnny Walker Red and, to quote Our Girl Martha, “It’s a good thing.”

Few parts of America can boast seaside links, mountain courses and parkland designs. Florida cannot and neither can Arizona. California can, but have you flown coach lately?

I’ll give you North Carolina and Virginia and raise you Massachusetts, doubling down with Maine.

On the pages that follow, we’ll pay special attention to five resorts — two in Vermont, one each in Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Maine — and sprinkle in mentions of a few others. My heartfelt apologies to the state of Rhode Island and a certain gambling mecca in the nether reaches of Connecticut. You didn’t make the cut. The list is subjective. Feel free to write.

First up is the Woodstock Inn & Resort in Woodstock, Vermont. If Hollywood wanted to make a movie about the quintessential New England inn, they couldn’t create a set to match the Woodstock Inn.

The town is nestled in the Kendron Valley roughly a thirty-minute drive from I-91 and about a four-hour drive from lower Fairfield County. The town’s main street is lined with shops, restaurants and carefully restored houses in the Federal style. The inn, which has been a fixture in town for more than 200 years, is across the street from the village green, which, in turn, is adjacent to one of the town’s three covered bridges.
Get the picture?

That the Woodstock Inn should emerge as the model of understated elegance and grace is due, in no small part, to a happy accident of love and money. As a youngster, Laurance S. Rockefeller’s wife, Mary, summered in Woodstock and had a deep affection for the area and its people. Her husband grew to share her feelings, and in 1969, he added the inn to his RockResorts collection of resort properties. Together, they oversaw the extensive renovations and so loved the place that when Rockefeller sold RockResorts in 1985, the Woodstock Inn was the only property he retained.

Within walking distance of the inn is the Woodstock Country Club, whose golf course has existed in one form or another since 1885. The present course was designed by Robert Trent Jones Sr., who enjoyed an illustrious career but could have lived very nicely on just the commissions he received from wealthy patrons like Mr. Rockefeller. Indeed, Jones Sr.’s unquestioned genius at golf-course design was more than matched by his ability to befriend wealthy benefactors and keep his name in public print.

Jones made his reputation on redesigning or renovating such classic courses as Augusta National Golf Club and Oakland Hills Country Club while at the same time building courses that could fairly challenge players of every skill level. The latter was particularly true of his resort courses. The task he faced when he came to Woodstock in 1961 was how to modernize what was a relatively unchallenging golf course without the luxury of adding significant yardage. He began by bringing the meandering Kendron Brook into play on twelve of the holes, while at the same time adding three ponds. Greens were elevated and meticulously bunkered, and when he deemed that the existing Vermont riverbed sand was inadequate for his purposes, Mr. Rockefeller arranged for bright white, fine sand to be shipped from Bermuda. After all, what’s the point of being a Rockefeller if you can’t act like a Rockefeller?

Today there are three sets of tees, ranging from 5,207 yards to 6,052. Accuracy is valued over power, and when the winds blow down through the valley, hitting the small greens can present a considerable challenge.

Northwest of Woodstock is The Equinox, in the equally charming town of Manchester. Dating to 1769, the Equinox (or at least its linear ancestors) have hosted the likes of Mary Todd Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt and Ulysses S. Grant, who presumably did not come for the waters. The Marsh Tavern at Equinox had been a meeting place for the Green Mountain Boys, a convivial place where they could plot their shenanigans against the British and their Tory sympathizers.

The hotel’s Gleneagles Course was designed by three-time U.S. Amateur Champion Walter Travis in 1927 and underwent a brilliant renovation by Rees Jones (one of Trent’s two sons) in 1992. While the younger Jones has numerous fine original designs to his credit, he is best known for his thoughtful and inspired renovations of such venerable old U.S. Open courses like the Country Club, Baltusrol and Congressional Country Club. At the Gleneagles Course, he recontoured all the greens while rebuilding and reshaping the bunkering. Like the Woodstock Country Club, Gleneagles doesn’t require that you live or die with your driver. But because so many holes feature elevation changes, you have to keep your wits about you — no small accomplishment if you play in the fall and face the distractions presented by the brilliant foliage.

The Equinox also gets the nod for non-golf activities. There is an Orvis Fly Fishing School in town, a British School of Falconry, a Land Rover Off-Road Driving School and a complete spa. Another plus is that Manchester is home to any number of high-end outlet stores where you can find many of the goods you’d find on, say, Greenwich Avenue, at considerable discounts.

If both the Woodstock Inn and The Equinox can be accurately described as quaint and understated, the same cannot be said for our next stop, the Balsams Grand Resort Hotel in Dixville Notch, New Hampshire. Just thirteen miles from Canada, the Balsams dates to 1886, when the Dix House opened with twenty-five rooms and all the fresh mountain air you could stand. Today, the place is a vast, sprawling behemoth. To fully appreciate the scope of the operation, simply consider that in a typical week during the high season, the staff will serve 1,100 eggs, almost 2,000 pounds of meat and fish, 2,500 pounds of potatoes, 1,200 gallons of milk and 5,000 alcoholic drinks. Hotel records show that one year an astonishing 323,000 meals were served.

With all those calories being consumed, there had better be plenty of physical activities available, and happily there are — and, equally important, many of them involve golf. By a twist of fate and timing, when Donald Ross — the patron saint of golf course architects — left Scotland for America, he first put down roots near Boston, which meant that New England is blessed with some of his earliest and finest designs.

One of them is the Balsams’ Panorama Course, built in 1912. The 6,804-yard, par-72 course runs along Mount Keyser and is 2,100 feet above sea level — something to always take into account when making your club selection. As is so often the case with a Ross design, the greens are crowned, the better to repel a poorly conceived or indifferently played approach. Happily, a recent renovation did nothing to detract from the subtle beauty of Ross’s design. In addition, there is a par-32 Coachaukee Course which, while not as challenging as her sister course, is a pleasant diversion.

After your round, warm yourself by the enormous stone fireplace in the clubhouse. Legend has it that during the bad old days of prohibition, bootleggers would do the same thing after picking up truckloads of whiskey from just over the border. Sufficiently warmed and sated, they would head off to points south, where parched millions awaited their safe arrival. On behalf of those poor suffering citizens from that late and scarcely lamented era, we thank the Balsams for the small part it played in combating the lunacy.

While there will always be naysayers who argue that golf was born in Holland or Japan or some such place, true believers know in their heart of hearts that it was first played by crews waiting for the tides to turn so they could sail from St Andrews (a bastion of staunch, churchgoing and God-fearing women, so that there weren’t a lot of other diversions in town). This may provide one reason why, for all the splendors of golf in the mountains and deserts, golf is simply truer to the spirit of the game when played by the sea.

Two of the finest resorts round out our tour — the Samoset Resort in Rockport, Maine, and New Seabury on Cape Cod.

The Samoset Golf Club dates to 1902 and was extensively redesigned in 1972 by Robert Elder, with assists from Geoffrey Cornish and Brad Booth. At every turn, the people who left their fingerprints on this course wisely took full advantage of its proximity to the water. Seven holes play along Penobscot Bay, while there are water views from fourteen holes.

Fairly or unfairly, seaside courses in the United States are invariably compared to the Pebble Beach Golf Links, although calling someplace the “Pebble Beach of New Jersey” does have a certain hollow ring to it. But at Samoset, there is some validity to the comparison, particularly when you stand on the tee of the course’s signature hole, the 503-yard, par-5, 4th hole, which immediately brings to mind one of the greatest finishing holes in golf, the par-5 18th at Pebble Beach.

The 4th hole doglegs left and clings to the shore for its entire length. Like the 18th at Pebble Beach (and the 18th at the Stadium Course at the Tournament Players Club at Sawgrass for that matter), the hole issues a considerable risk-reward challenge to players from the tee. Cut off enough of the corner and you can reach the green in two, but echoing in the back of your mind is the classic Clint Eastwood line from Dirty Harry: “Do you feel lucky, punk? Well, do you?”

A moot point, really, because if you’re playing Samoset on a brilliant summer day, with the wind blowing just enough to keep you honest, you are very lucky, indeed.

Last and certainly not least is the Resort at New Seabury. The Ocean Course was designed by William Mitchell in 1962 and renovated by Rees Jones in 1987. The course offers two different but enjoyable styles. The front nine has a links feel to it, with lovely views of Nantucket Sound, while the back nine winds through pines that line the fairways. The course hosted the 1985 Women’s NCAA Championship. The Dunes Course is carved through a forest of pines and oaks and is the tighter of the two, although it is not nearly as exposed to the winds off the Sound. The Dunes Course, another Mitchell design, was recently renovated by architect Marvin Armstrong, who lengthened the course while adding new bunkers, waste areas and water hazards. Greens fees, course availability and starting time policies vary throughout the year, so it is best to inquire well in advance of your planned visit — a good rule of thumb at any resort.

New Seabury is a fairly self-contained community, which is a godsend in the summer, when traffic on the Cape is fully the equal of a Friday rush hour on the Long Island Expressway. The Cape is a very different place than it was even twenty-five years ago, let alone back when the Cape’s highways system was being planned (a misnomer if there ever was one). Beacon Hill lore at that time records that a prominent Democratic leader was approached by a Republican counterpart who needed a small favor in getting some boondoggle through the legislature. In return, he’d arrange for the Democrat to receive a parcel of land on the Cape that had been in his family since the servants came over on the Mayflower.

Having an innate distrust, the Dem set out to see the property. Upon his return, he killed the deal. “Nobody in his right mind would ever live down there,” he said. “There’s nothing but sand dunes, scrub pines and cranberry bogs.”All of which explains why, given the parochial nature of Massachusetts politics, there are just two bridges to the Cape and two main, east-west highways.

So there you go. Five truly excellent reasons to stay in New England for a golf vacation. It’s also nearly impossible to follow God’s Team on the radio once you leave Red Sox Nation.   

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