BURLINGTON, Vt. - New Englanders are well-known for being straightforward. So let's be clear. When it comes to golf, Vermont is not Myrtle Beach. There isn't a course down every road. But when you do manage to stumble onto one of the state's 70-plus layouts, you're likely to be rewarded with more charm and character than you'd find at any newly minted "golf destination."
In fact, if you want to golf the Green Mountains, start by picking up a good road map. Look it over and you'll quickly notice two things: the state has only two true highways, and it's damn near impossible to find a good east-west route across Vermont's various mountain ranges. Your reward for the twists and turns, ups and downs is the opportunity to visit small towns and quaint villages. Everything in Vermont is up-close and personal.
Those planning a golfing tour of Vermont have a decision to make: Hit the better publicized hot-spots or savor the local flavor. In other words, the itinerary can include the resort and high-end courses featured in magazine ads, or it can focus on some of the more overlooked, down-home golfing experiences the state has to offer. You can't go wrong either way.
Many "flatlanders" visiting the state drive up from the metro New York area and enter Vermont via Bennington, in the southwest corner. The first local landmark course to see on this route is the Mt. Anthony Country Club. If your golf game is dependent on flat lies, however, you be better off driving right past the entrance. The entire course plays across, up, and down an enormous hillside. The few level holes at the bottom are complicated by water and large willows. It's a fun old turn-of-the-century course, but golfers understandably find their attention drawn upward to the towering, 306-foot Bennington Battle Monument, which abuts the course and commemorates a Revolutionary War battle.
Head north on Route 7 and in an hour you'll be at the outskirts of Rutland-the world's per capita leader in stop lights. When you get enough green lights to reach the first tee at the Rutland Country Club, remember that the road running tight to the left side of the fairway carried horses and not cars at the time the course was built in 1901. It's an intimidating hazard for hookers. The squirrely second hole, like the first, was part of the original layout done by George Low. A 1925 expansion and remodeling by Wayne Stiles produced a number of great holes, including the uphill, dogleg left 14th, one of the best holes in the entire state and featured a few years back in the USGA's Golf Journal. If want a first-hand look at traditional New England golf architecture, Rutland is the place to stop.
Northbound once again, you'll soon enter the hip college town of Middlebury. If you don't have four years to finish a degree, the best bet in town is a tour of the Otter Creek Brewery. One of several highly regarded microbreweries in the state, Otter Creek offers its standard Copper Ale, as well as a handful of other year-round brews and seasonal favorites, all worth a try.
Now comes time for the dreaded east-west crossing. There's no easy way to do it, but there are several routes that offer stunning scenery. The Lincoln Gap on Route 17 brings you out on Route 100 in Waitsfield. Just a short drive north is the town of Waterbury, home base for Ben & Jerry's. The ice cream maker has become a Vermont landmark unto itself; the company's headquarters offers a look at how the decadent dessert is made-and you get free, but far too small, samples at the end of the tour.
Not too far away is the next stop on a tour of local courses: the Country Club of Barre, perhaps the best course in New England that sits on a dirt road. The members at this semi-private club no doubt appreciate its out-of-the-way setting. If you do manage to find your way to there, you'll be rewarded by a short (6,191-yard), quaint course on terrain that boasts a number of far-off vistas despite its spectacularly forested surrounds. The city of Barre is one of the world's foremost suppliers of granite and granite products. Any visit to town would be incomplete without a stop at The Rock of Ages quarry-one look at the size of the hole that has been quarried out over the years will make you appreciate your new kitchen counter surface all the more.
Continuing east on Route 2 (no mountains to cross on this leg) bring you into the small town of St. Johnsbury. The St. Johnsbury Country Club is such a well-kept secret that even many residents of the state are unaware of just how good this layout in Vermont's northeast corner, known as "The Northeast Kingdom," really is. Nine original holes were designed by the Scottish Park brothers-Willie, Jr., and Mungo-in 1923; nine more were added by the all-time king of New England golf architecture, Geoffrey Cornish, in 1993. Cornish continued the themes of the historic holes by adding terrifying par-3's, placing doglegs everywhere and sprinkling in more than a handful of blind, uphill shots. While you're in the areas, check out the Trout River Brewing in nearby Lyndonville.
Following the same horseshoe-shaped route outlined above (starting in the southwest corner, heading north, then east, then south again) golfers can opt for a whole different category of courses-"destination" type facilities with more recognizable names, higher green fees, and a little more spit and polish to them.
The Gleneagles Golf Course at the famed Equinox Resort in Manchester was originally designed by Walter Travis. Thankfully Rees Jones' renovation in 1992 didn't strip the layout of its character. It's one of Vermont's pricier plays, with weekend green fees of $125, but you'll get your money's worth on the 13th hole alone. You're unlikely ever to see another green set on its own perch so high above the fairway. When you complete the climb up to the putting surface, take a moment to look backwards. You'll appreciate the elevation of the green, and be able to take in church steeples and hillsides of Manchester. You can't go wrong staying overnight at the Equinox, especially since the resort recently opened a world-class spa facility. A short walk down the marble (this is Vermont, after all) sidewalk reveals an outlet shopper's nirvana.
Though it might be hard to believe, Green Mountain National Golf Course was Vermont's first municipal golf facility when it opened in 1997. Set at a high elevation and just down the road from Killington Ski Area, Green Mountain National boasts magnificent maintenance standards, and at just $66 on weekends, it's a virtual bargain among the upper echelon courses of Vermont.
To the north, just outside of Burlington, is Vermont National, perhaps Vermont's most polished public-access facility. From an extravagant clubhouse to pristine playing conditions, the Jack Nicklaus-designed course offers the "high-end" public feeling that many other regions have embraced, but which still feels a little foreign in the farmland of Vermont. Housing has cropped up around the course, but generally does not interfere with the feel of the layout. Green fees top out at $135-about four times what you might pay at some other local courses in the areas, but for a much grander golf experience. While you're in the area, stroll down Church Street in downtown Burlington for a warm summer evening of outdoor dining and window shopping.
Follow I-89 (an actual four-lane, divided highway that's also quite scenic) south out of Burlington to the next golf destination in Woodstock-a tony enclave that still bears the imprint of Laurance Rockefeller, who called the town home. The mammoth fireplace in the lobby of the venerable Woodstock Inn is seemingly larger than the resort's golf course. A tight piece of land is made all the more exacting for golfers by trees, which have had plenty of time to mature since the course opened in 1895. The chocolate drop hazards that marked the course in its earlier days were wiped out by a Robert Trent Jones remodel in 1961, but the same meandering stream that challenged golfers back then still feels like a constant presence-especially on holes like the short 3rd, where the water flows directly across the front of the green on this exacting par-3.
A few twists and turns down the road is the Long Trail Brewing Company, one of the best known of Vermont's craft brewers. Stop by for a tour and a pint-there probably is something somewhere in this world that tastes better than a Long Trail Ale in an ice-cold beer mug, but it's uncertain what that might be.
The tour of Vermont's most recognizable courses ends in Ludlow. Okemo Valley Golf Club sits beneath the resort's ski trails and is unquestionably one of the most fun courses in the state. A portion of the course rides on dramatically moving terrain, offering views and a rollercoaster-like golfing experience. The highlight hole for many is the 17th-a long par-3 that crosses water all the way. The brand new clubhouse looks like a farmhouse from two centuries ago, and a postcard-perfect red barn sits alongside to complete the postcard-perfect Vermont scene.
If you're looking for a resort golf experience, ski havens Stratton, Mt. Snow, Killington, Sugarbush and Stowe all boast golf courses for summer enjoyment. In fact, Stowe is in the process of adding another course, and Jay Peak will soon unveil its first. Then there are more out-of-the-way, secluded gems such as Crown Point in Springfield, the Newport Country Club near the Canadian border, Lake St. Catherine Country Club in Poultny and the list goes on. Stay tuned for more details.
Ben & Jerry's: www.benjerry.com
Otter Creek Brewing: www.ottercreekbrewing.com
Trout River Brewing: www.troutriverbrewing.com
Long Trail Brewing Company: www.longtrail.com
Vermont Tourism Department: www.travel-vermont.com
May 16, 2004