Vermont's Abundance of Great Golf Courses

Come autumn, leaves become the most cunning enemy of golfers in the Northeast. Their seductive beauty, neatly arranged in a rainbow of colors on fairways, ridges, and mountains, help mask their devious ability to swallow golf balls you swore were right in front of you a second ago.

Nowhere is this more true than in Vermont, a state so renowned for spectacular displays that its tourism website (www.vermontvacation.com) has an entire section devoted to everything you need to know about foliage season (which usually lasts from mid-September to late October).

Another way to enjoy great views of anothocyanins combining with carotenoids (the process that changes a leaf's coloring) is a tour of Vermont's suprising number of very good courses. And that's not counting layouts connected to various ski resorts, like Stowe, Sugarbush, Stratton, Mt. Snow, and Okemo. There are enough of those for another story.

The only catch is that the golf season here is far too short -- usually from mid-April to early October. But if you have a few days, you can get to at least five courses without driving for hours.

Just minutes from Burlington, the state's most populous city with views of Lake Champlain and home to the University of Vermont, is Vermont National Country Club in South Burlington. Designed by Jack Nicklaus and his son Jackie, the course sits on rolling farmland less than 10 minutes from Burlington International Airport.

The front nine opened in 1998, while the more scenic back nine debuted a year later. The layout, enjoyable but a bit overpriced at $120 a round, is generally flatter than most other courses in the state. While there are no hard breaks on the greens, there are plenty of false fronts. The upscale housing that lines the course intrudes more on the back nine, yet that's where the more interesting holes are found.

From the fairway on the par-four 11th, you'll be able to see Mt. Mansfield, the highest peak in Vermont, off to the right. The par-three 13th is beautifully framed by tall trees, while the par-five 18th has an elevated tee and bunkers throughout. The spectacular clubhouse is a perfect place to catch the sunset over the Adirondack Mountains in neighboring New York State.

Just 30 minutes east, off Interstate 89 in Waterbury, lie two of the state's greatest attractions. For ice cream lovers, there is the Ben & Jerry's Factory on Route 100, complete with a brief, fun tour, not to mention free (but way too small) samples.

Just on the other side of Route 100 is one of the top courses not only in Vermont, but in all of New England.

The Country Club of Vermont is now in its fourth full season of operation, and the praise continues to roll in. The course is private, but some public play is currently allowed. However, plans are in place to make the well-groomed facility fully private within the next few years, so make the visit now.

From its Graham Cooke-designed layout, to its expansive practice area, to a beautiful clubhouse overlooking the ninth and 18th holes, the Country Club of Vermont has it all. And it's pure golf -- no homes will be built on the property that was once farmland; there's no elaborate yardage guide; and the scorecard is simply designed with just the hole name, par, and total yards.

The centerpiece is the course -- demanding yet fun, with holes that are just as stunning looking backward from the green as they are looking forward from the tee. While the par-four seventh, with a 150-yard long bunker on the right side of the fairway, is the signature hole, the closing four holes are great fun. There's the 15th, where you'll drive from an elevated tee over granite outcroppings; the uphill, par- three 16th with its two-tiered green; the driveable par-four 17th; and the 18th, with a long, triple-tiered green.

Whatever you do, do not challenge the staff to a match here; Director of Golf Larry Startzel played on the PGA Tour and has served as chairman of the PGA's National Rules Committee; his brother, head professional David Startzel, was a semifinalist in the National Long Drive Championship; Director of Instruction Ron Philo Jr. qualified for the 1997 PGA Championship and 1999 U.S. Open; and professional Beverly Davis played on the LPGA Tour.

For a course on a less grand scale but just as scenic and interesting, head south on I-89, past the capital city of Montpelier, to the Country Club of Barre. Get specific directions to this course because you'll travel on some twisting country roads to find it (although if you can find the Brookside Country Store, you're close).

Revel in the solitude of this 1924 layout as you follow your shots through rolling hills, elevated tees, and breathtaking mountain panoramas (most notably on the short par-three 16th). You'll have plenty of sidehill and uphill lies here, making the 6,250-yard course that much tougher.

Take the leisurely drive on Route 2 heading northeast out of Montpelier to the part of Vermont referred to as the Northeast Kingdom.

Just five miles from Interstate 91, not far from the New Hampshire border, is the town of St. Johnsbury and its eponymous Country Club. Golf has been played here since 1923, when the original nine holes were designed by two-time British Open champion Willie Park Jr. (who also did the original layout at Olympia Fields in Illinois, site of the 2003 U.S. Open). A second nine, added in 1992, was created by noted architect Geoffrey Cornish, assisted by club member Jim Havers.

Both nines open with an uphill tee shot, especially on the 10th, which has an incredibly steep fairway off the tee. There are plenty of elevation changes, especially on the 15th and 17th, par threes that feature elevated tees.

This is easily the best bargain in the state, with a soundtrack of chirping birds and great conditions.

The central part of the state is home to a wonderful course in Woodstock, perhaps the classic New England small town. Jacob Collamer, a U.S. senator who served the state from 1855 to 1865, once remarked: "The good people of Woodstock have less incentive than others to yearn for heaven."

Woodstock Country Club was originally designed by Robert Trent Jones Sr., and his former associate Roger Rulewich renovated all the greenside bunkers this past April (fairway bunkers will be updated this fall).

Quick Facts
  Vermont National Country Club
(802) 264-9418
$120

  Country Club Of Vermont
(800) 244-1800
$95

  Country Club Of Barre
(802) 476-7658
$45-$61

  St. Johnsbury Country Club
(802) 748-9894
$35-$40

  Woodstock Country Club
(802) 457-6674
$64-$82*

  Green Mountain National Golf Course
(888) 483-4653
$79-$89

  Rutland Country Club
(802) 773-3254
$85

  The Gleneagles Golf Course
(802) 362-3223
$89-$99*

* Reduced fees for resort guests.
Please contact the course to confirm green fees.

That's one of the few major changes (the club has had only four head professionals in 107 years) to this course set in the Kedron Valley, just a minute up the road from the impeccable Woodstock Inn. The key to scoring well here is to disregard the hole locations and play to the center of the greens. Being able to shape your shots, especially from right to left, will also help, most notably on the signature fourth, a par four that doglegs left. Since Woodstock is not a particularly long course -- just over 6,000 yards from the tips -- accurate tee shots will often leave you with just a wedge into the green.

Just down the road from the Killington Ski area is Green Mountain National, which debuted in 1996. This modern looking layout features plenty of rock and tree-lined fairways (being located in the Green Mountain National Forest doesn't hurt on the scenery side either) that place a premium on accuracy off the tee. The greens are large and undulating, and be sure to check the tops of the trees for the wind, as they often shelter the flags on the greens. Also, don't be surprised to see a fox or moose make an appearance during your round.

For a taste of the wonderful golf history owned by the Rutland Country Club, look at the display just inside the front door of the club's restaurant. There you'll see trophies, plaques and various memorabilia testifying to the club's proud history, which dates back to 1901. The cabinet itself was made from windfall cherry trees knocked down on the property during a storm in 1988. If you can keep a driver or wood in the fairway, you'll wind up with plenty of short-iron approaches. But then you will have to conquer greens that are the toughest and best conditioned of any course in Vermont. Stay below the hole at all costs.

From the Rutland area, take scenic Route 7A south to Manchester Village. It's one of the best drives in New England. With numerous outlet shops, Manchester has become too commercialized for some tastes, but your faith will be restored at The Equinox, which has hosted visitors in some form since 1769.

Located at the foot of the towering Mt. Equinox (and just 20 minutes from Stratton Mountain), the hotel was placed on the National Register of Historic Places 30 years ago.

A new spa facility is being built for an opening next February, and an assortment of other activities -- including the Land Rover Driving School, The British School of Falconry, hiking and fly fishing -- make this a perfect beginning, middle, or end for any Vermont journey.

Just a short walk from the hotel's front entrance is The Gleneagles Golf Course, a Walter Travis design that opened in 1927. New course superintendant Tim Madden, formerly at Mt. Snow, has one of the best assignments in all of New England taking care of the "Old Man's" design, which is bordered on one side by another Travis design, the private Ekwanok Club.

Rees Jones came in 10 years ago to implement enhancements that prepared the course for an increased volume of resort play, but the Travis imprint remains strong. Some 115 bunkers help defend a course that measures just 6,423 yards from the tips. The front nine consists of primarily straightforward holes (with the exception of the par-five seventh, which is divided in two by Union Street), while the more challenging back has plenty of memorable views.

It's the type of course where you'll remember every hole, especially in the fall, when Mt. Equinox turns into a picture perfect example of Vermont foliage at its very best.

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