Public golf booms in Greater Boston

Friday February 16th, 2007
The 14th hole at Granite Links
L.C. Lambrecht

Boston hasn't changed much since Sam "Mayday" Malone made last call on Cheers, the TV show that defined Beantown for a generation. Thanks to the Yankees' Aaron Boone -- with an assist from former Boston manager Grady Little -- Red Sox fans are still waiting to get into another World Series. Everyone else is still waiting in traffic, which moves like clam chowder through a straw thanks to the "Big Dig," the epic road construction project that began back when Norm and Cliff were propping up the Cheers bar.

One thing that has changed for the better is the golf. The PGA Tour buzzed through town last year with the Deutsche Bank Championship at the TPC of Boston, the first big-time event here since the 1999 Ryder Cup at The Country Club in Brookline. Those courses are private, but the area has enjoyed a boom in public-access tracks not seen since Donald Ross worked here in the 1930s.

Many of those Ross designs are still in play. The Franklin Park and George Wright courses are within the city limits, while a short drive takes you to Merrimack, Sandy Burr, Leo J. Martin, Newton Commonwealth and Ponkapoag. Some locals insist these remain classic tests despite the frayed edges, while others dismiss them as short and run-down, throwaways cranked out without much thought or artistry. In 2002, a USGA delegation toured Ponkapoag, curious if a Bethpage Black-style facelift might make it a future U.S. Open venue. It was decided not. If it's not good enough for the USGA, it's not good enough for me, so I passed on a Ross redux tour and checked out the newer offerings along the corridor between Boston and Providence, Rhode Island.

Ten miles south of Boston in Quincy is Granite Links Golf Club at Quarry Hill, the first new course built inside the Interstate 95 circle in 30 years. (So new, it may not have all 18 holes open to the public until this July Fourth weekend.) It is certainly the best by-product of the Big Dig: Over 900,000 truckloads of dirt from that project were used to cap three landfills, creating a 450-acre canvas for architect John Sanford.

Granite Links offers amazing views of the Blue Hills Reservation to the west and Boston Harbor and the downtown skyline to the north and east. Many holes are cut into the side of mounds like terraced gardens and defined by foot-high fescue, water-filled quarries and huge greens. In fact, the elevation changes so much that carts ought to come with a flight attendant. The 14th hole is a short par 4 of 369 yards, but if you don't find the left side of the fairway from the tee, the approach will be blind. If you err to the right -- as I did -- aim a middle iron just left of the Hancock Building and you'll be fine.

A few miles south of Granite Links is a golden oldie, Braintree Municipal Golf Course. Most of the hazards on this 6,564-yard track are real -- water is in play on 14 holes -- but some are not, like the faux alligator intended to scare geese off a pond behind the 8th green. Locals often drop a ball and chip it at the reptile; closest to the gator wins a soda at the turn (there's no beer available here). Geese are about as popular in these parts as Yankees fans: The course mascot, a border collie named Sage, is trained to hound the birds. Sage is often tied up near the clubhouse and welcomes a scratch behind the ear.

The 7th is a 398-yard dogleg-left that the Boston Globe declared one of the 18 best public holes in Massachusetts. Water lines both sides, and a creek slices across the fairway about 50 yards short of the green. Beware: There's more room right off the tee than there appears.

From Braintree, take the short hop to Scituate, a harbor town that mixes commercial fishing grit and touristy charm. At the edge of town is Widow's Walk Golf Course, a 6,403-yard Michael Hurdzan design that weaves around environmentally sensitive areas. The course won praise when it opened in 1997, but many folks thought it was so narrow as to be almost unplayable. Subsequent alterations have made the layout more forgiving, but it continues to struggle against that initial word of mouth. The faint of heart won't find much comfort here. At the 434-yard 13th, your drive must stay short of a pond and the approach is over the water to a green flanked on the left by more water.

About 20 miles to the southwest in West Bridgewater is Riverbend Country Club, home to a 6,659-yard layout with a split personality. The front side is wide open, while the back winds through dense trees. The most stress-inducing hole is the 16th, a 572-yarder that double-doglegs tightly around the trees, leaving most players a third shot of about 150 yards. After your round, hit the Chilli Head Barbeque Company right on Route 106 for a lunch that will fire up your game.

Across town, Olde Scotland Links Golf Course is neither old nor Scottish nor a links. Still, if you think open terrain and gentle mounds make a links, then this is your kind of place, though the back nine has a natural, parkland feel. Other nontraditional features add to the disconnect: The clubhouse is a trailer dropped in a dusty parking lot, and the property is spliced by roads, a row of houses and power lines. I suspect "Olde" Tom Morris never knew a links like this. The only familiar links element here is the wind, but since the 6,790-yard course is so open, you can rip it off the tee safe in the knowledge that you'll have a shot, even if from another fairway. The only thought-provoking hole is the 476-yard, par-5 9th, where those who attack the green in two face a long carry over water.

On your way out of town, stop at Emma's Pub and Pizza, where signs advertise the house special -- 20-ounce sirloin tips for $9.79 -- and the "soon-to-be-famous" double-breasted chicken parm.

Crib Sheet: Boston
Braintree Municipal
Greens fees $30-$37; 781-843-6513

Brookmeadow
Greens fees $40-$45; 781-828-4444
brookmeadowgolf.com

Foxborough
Greens fees $40-$50; 508-543-4661
foxboroughcc.com

Granite Links
Greens fees $65-$85; 617-296-7600
granitelinksgolfclub.com

New England
Greens fees $60-$75; 508-883-2300
newenglandcountryclub.com

Olde Scotland links
Greens fees $38-$45; 508-279-3344
bridgewaterma.org

Riverbend
Greens fees $37-$62; 508-580-3673
riverbendcc.com

Widow's Walk
Greens fees $34-$42; 781-544-0032
widowswalkgolf.com

Just off I-95 in Canton is Brookmeadow Country Club, a fairly straightforward 6,637-yard track with a mixed bag of tough doglegs, elevated greens and a dash of devilish psychology. Take the 191-yard 4th, which plays almost imperceptibly uphill to a large green tilted toward the tee. This optical illusion makes the putting surface appear much closer than it is, so fight your eye and take an extra club. Stop at the bar after the round and have your love of the game burnished by Dan Daley, who has worked here for 27 years and has a lifetime of stories and golf tips to offer.

From Canton, it's a quick spin to Foxborough Country Club, a semiprivate course that is open to the public all day Tuesdays and Wednesdays and after 3 p.m. on weekends. This 6,849-yard Geoffrey Cornish design is studded with old pines, maples and oaks, giving the place a classic, regal air. The 452-yard 8th demands an accurate tee shot between trees left and water right. Here's some local knowledge: The huge bunker that appears to be right next to the green is actually about 70 yards short of it.

New England Country Club in Bellingham is just off Route 495. About a mile past the course, you'll find Kay's, a homey cafe where the menu is printed on the napkin and consists of nine sandwiches, a lobster roll and nachos. It might sound scant, but it's actually a case of knowing what you do well and sticking with it.

The Hale Irwin-designed course is pretty tasty as well. At just 6,483 yards, it sounds short, but the terrain is so hilly that it plays more like 7,000 yards. The site is dotted with huge boulders that protrude from the turf like sculptures. There are also some picturesque walls of hand-laid stone that make you wonder if the course borders Robert Frost's farm.

The downside of the terrain is that there are many blind shots, so buy a yardage book in the pro shop before you tee off. The 428-yard 18th hole is a tester: From the upper level of its two-tiered green, your downhill slider could roll off the front and into the water. If you survive with a two-putt, you'll be ready to call it a trip and head home.

But no visit to Boston is complete without a game at Fenway Park. The hated Yankees arrive for a three-game set July 23, which would be a nice capper to any trip. Even if you skip the boys of summer, you can't help but hit a home run with public-access golf in Greater Boston.

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