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The Ranch puts the 'New' in New England golf

By Kiel Christianson, Equipment Editor and Senior Writer

SOUTHWICK, Mass. - If there's any place in the world outside of Scotland or Ireland where the sufficiently sentient golfer still can divine the presence ofthe Ghosts of Golfers Past, it is in America's Northeast. C.B. MacDonald's spirit swirls in the winds coming off LongIsland sound. In Massachusetts, the bemused chuckles of DonaldRoss can be heard as he watches today's golfers struggle on his turtle-back greens.

As richly historic as New England golf is, modern course developers have a difficult, and delicate, question to answer: Tap into the tradition of the game, or keep pace with its evolution?

The Ranch Golf Club in Southwick, Mass., which opened almost exactly one year ago, has unabashedly chosen the latter, modernist route, and in doing so has begun writing a new chapter in the epic tale of New England golf. All the trappings of modern American golf are on parade at The Ranch, from length (7,174) to routing (isolated, non-parallel holes) to the greens fees ($100). The Ranch is a welcome treat for golfers in the Northeast precisely because it is so different from most of the courses here. It has more in common with northern Michigan or California courses than it does most of its nearby neighbors.

Pedigree of a Champion

Although The Ranch is modern in all senses of the word, it lacks neither sophistication nor pedigree. The property, which had been a working dairy farm since 1896, was inspected by golf course architect Geoffrey Cornish in 1956 as a potential site for the Crestview CC. That deal did not work out, and it was not until the mid 1980s when then-owner Phil Hall decided that the future was in golf.

California golf course architect Damian Pascuzzo, former protégé and current partner of Robert Muir Graves, was chosen to make The Ranch his first design east of the Mississippi. Pascuzzo has served as president of the American Society of Golf Course Architects, and is one of the pioneers of using computer-aided design (CAD) in designing golf courses.

At The Ranch, Pascuzzo utilized 190 acres (40 acres of which serve as thebent grass fairways) of the 320-acre property for the course itself, whichis enormous by East Coast standards. The routing winds around substantialwetlands and thick stands of hardwoods, and skirts what will eventually be52 homesites off the 16th hole.

The result, says General Manager Michael Robichaud, is "not a golf course you're going to race around. We want people to enjoy the experience." Although this means that the target time for a round is between 4.5 to 4.75 hours (another eminently modern aspect of the course), Robichaud maintains that players don't realize it. "You lose track of time out there," he says.

The "Wow Quotient"

Once you move beyond the two pale yellow, fully renovated 19th century barnsthat serve as the clubhouse and restaurant, The Ranch flaunts its modernityfrom the moment you load your clubs into the cart. Each buggy is equippedwith full-color GPS, which not only tells you all the usual information, butalso where the cart of the group ahead is. This is a fantastic feature for acourse with numerous blind shots. The GPS also keeps you apprised of thepace of play, taking some pressure off the rangers, er, player assistants,who have time to provide players with warm towels instead.

Even though the layout is walkable, there are some goodly distances betweengreens and the next tees. Most of the holes are isolated, so that playersfeel like they've got the place to themselves (aside from the group in frontof them, whom they can see on the GPS). The well-defined holes, along withsome of the terrain over which they are laid out, serve to ratchet up what Icall the "Wow Quotient," or the proportion of times per hole that a golferutters "Wow!" during 18 holes.

According to GM Robichaud, "All the holes are risk-reward. You have the opportunity to make a lot of birdies, but it will challenge you every step of the way. From a player's standpoint, it's a lot of fun. You always feel like you've got a birdie opportunity, but it'll jump up and bite you, too."

Traditionalists and purists - or golfers who are simply snooty about their private club memberships - may take exception to this design philosophy. The fairways are often several dozen yards wide, and the greens are huge as well, without too many crazy undulations. Consequently, long, straight hitters can play a lot of drivers and wedges. On the other hand, few recreational golfers are consistently long and straight (at least, not at the same time), and the marshes, ponds, woods, bunkers, and thick rough encroaching on all sides of the generous fairways and greens will swallow up any mistakes with nary a belch.

"You'll shoot your average score the first time out," predicts Robichaud."If you go for extra yards, or challenge the risks, you could run into verybig numbers." Hence the 140 slope rating from the tips.

The epitome of the visually intimidating but potentially forgiving design philosophy is the 510-yard, par-5 first hole. Its broad fairway is split by a large hickory, which forces you to go around on the left (toward water and a short approach) or on the right (away from water but with a longer approach). This is a great way to ease into your round, as long as you don't do anything dumb.

The 422-yard 3rd and 441-yard 4th are two of the strongest back-to-back par4s anywhere in the Northeast. The 3rd allows you to hit anything from driver to 3-iron off the tee, depending on your confidence and strategy. The green side bunkering is simply gorgeous, and, as with most of the bunkers,you'd rather be in the sand than in the knee-deep fescue surrounding it. The Merion-esque 4th runs all uphill past plenty of sand to a deep, narrow,sheltered green. Robichaud calls this his favorite hole on the entire track.

A few holes come off as awkward, especially for first-timers. The 2nd is quirky and totally blind from the tee, making you guess between anything from a 5-iron to 3-wood. The par-5 9th and 16th feel more like bobsled tracks than golf holes - steeply downhill from the tees and completely blind. You won't know whether your shot is the drive of a lifetime or lost in the woods until you go hunt for it. In dry conditions, even a very slight hook or draw could roll a hundred yards, right off into the underbrush.

Nevertheless, there isn't a single hole that can't make someone in your foursome exclaim "Wow!" And if you measure golf value by how memorable each hole is, the $100 all-inclusive greens fee might not be too much to pay nowand again for an experience unlike any other in southern New England.

No doubt golf's ghosts pricked up their ears when they heard about The Ranch. Considering that Massachusetts is laced with historic links, it is impressive that Golf Digest ranked this newcomer as 13th best trackin the state during its first year of operation, and 3rd best new upscale course in the nation as well. The 2002 New England Golf Guide also lauded it the best new course in New England.

Kids these days!

Course Information

Greens fees: $100 with cart; replay, twilight, and memberships available

The Ranch is located just off of I-91, south of Springfield, 30 minutes from Hartford, 1.25 hours from Boston and Albany, 2.5 hours from New York City and northern New Jersey.

Yardage/rating/slope

7174/74.1/140;
6556/71.9/135;
6020/69.4/129;
4983/69.7/122

Lodging and area attractions

Sheraton Springfield Monarch Place - (413) 781-1010 (Stay and Play)
Six Flags New England - www.sixflags.com/parks/newengland/
Basketball Hall of Fame - www.hoophall.com

Scorecard

Conditions: 4.0
Value: 2.5
Service: 4.5
Design: 3.5
Overall: 3.625

Fast Facts

At 7,147 yards, The Ranch is framed in the charm of an historic New England Farm.

Kiel ChristiansonKiel Christianson, Equipment Editor and Senior Writer

Kiel Christianson has lived, worked, traveled and golfed extensively on three continents. As senior writer and equipment editor for WorldGolf.com, he has reviewed courses, resorts, and golf academies from California to Ireland, including his home course, Lake of the Woods G.C. in Mahomet, Illinois. Read his golf blog here.


 
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