The central Connecticut area has been blessed by the opening of three new public golf courses during the past couple of years--Wintonbury Hills and Gillette Ridge in Bloomfield and Oxford Greens in Oxford.
While there was no dearth of very good courses in the area, such as Avon’s Blue Fox Run, Farmington’s Tunxis Plantation and Rockledge in West Hartford, the new layouts have certainly enhanced the state’s golf cache.
Wintonbury opened two years ago, Gillette last year and Oxford Greens this year, proving a winning trifecta for the state’s golfers. All three are solid layouts designed by world-renowned architects--Pete Dye, Arnold Palmer and Mark Mungeum, respectively. All three are run by top shelf management companies, Billy Casper Golf at Wintonbury Hills and Oxford Greens and Kemper Sports at Gillette. The courses provide a level of service found at the best private clubs and offer premium golf at very affordable prices. WINTONBURY HILLS GOLF COURSE
Pete Dye, the master golf course architect who designed Whistling Straits Golf Club, the site of this year’s PGA Championship, donated his services (as he does once each year) in the design of Wintonbury Hills Golf Course.
Dye has lent his skills to other top golf courses in the country, including The Ocean Course at Kiawah Island Resort, Harbour Town at Sea Pines Plantation, Oak Tree Golf Club, the Stadium Course at PGA West, the Tournament Players Club at Sawgrass, and Crooked Stick Golf Club. In Wintonbury, he created a course that is challenging for the best players, yet enjoyable for all skill levels.
The course has won rave reviews from a number of golf publications, including a top ranking among Connecticut public courses by Golfweek, and the second best new course in America by Celebrated Living, the in-flight magazine of American Airlines.
“People of all ability can enjoy this golf course,” said Doug Juhasz, director of golf for the club, which is owned by the town of Bloomfield. “It’s in great shape and every hole is unique. The response has been great so far.”
Simply put, Wintonbury Hills is public golf at its best.
Dye’s routing, a pleasant mix of what is commonly referred as “links style” and more traditional woodland holes is always interesting. The conditions, especially considering the course is so young, are superb and promise to only get better.
Slight elevation changes enhance the pleasing visual effect of the layout, which plays to a par of 70 and measures 6,650 yards from the tips. The views of the surrounding hills in the summer and autumn are stunning.
Dye incorporated over 100 bunkers, both fairway and green side, in his master design. Like the greens, the grass around the bunkers is hand mown, a nice touch that adding luster to the overall appearance of the course. Fairway bunkers frame the ample fairways, presenting a clear target for the player on the tee box.
Also in evidence are chipping areas around the undulating greens, another Dye trademark. He is keen on short game ability. There is also room to run the ball up and into the green, as well as bailout areas on each hole.
Because of the wide, forgiving fairways and safe sides on each fairway, players can take out their drivers and let it rip at Wintonbury Hills. This is a nice change from some new courses that have sought to restrict tee shots in an effort to homogenize the game and “level the playing field.” There are four sets of tees here.
While there are a number of fine holes on the more open front side, Wintonbury Hills bares its pearly teeth on the back side. Number 14 is as technically challenging a par four as you will find anywhere. The 440-yarder demands a steady drive to a landing area guarded by a steep hill to the left and wetlands to the right. The approach shot must thread the needle between a steep mound to the left, the wetlands the right and not find woods to the rear of the smallish putting surface. Par on this hole is a very good score indeed.
The 15th is almost as good. It plays 430 yards from the back tees and has woods to the left and right, with bunkers and a steep slope guarding the right side of the green.
The two best short holes are the 340-yard, downhill par-four fifth, which big hitters can try and drive from the tee, and the 7th, a neat par-three that demands a nerves-of-steel long iron or fairway wood from the back tees (222 yards) to a large, sloping green bordered by a pond to the left.
The three par-fives at Wintonbury Hills are all solid, although relatively short, especially from the forward tees. But number four and 13 both play uphill, adding beef to their overall yardage.
Wintonbury Hills has five par-threes and they are all good, ranging in distance from the 163-yard third to the monstrous 230-yard 17th. The back tees are rated 70.8 and have a slope of 125. www.wintonburyhillsgolf.com GILLETTE RIDGE GOLF CLUB
The curtain was raised last summer Gillette Ridge Golf Club.
Built on the rolling terrain and woods of Cigna Corporation property, Gillette Ridge, an Arnold Palmer Signature routing, poses a stiff and aesthetically pleasing test of golf.
“What we want to offer to our customers is a country club experience for a day,” said Chuck Grodovich, director of golf at the club. “We have valet service and a person to meet you, who will carry your clubs in, clean them and have you ready to start your round.”
Gillette Ridge is a truly magnificently routed course, one that has a feel of permanence and purpose. Palmer and his staff created a course that fits nicely into the existing natural landscape. Great care was taken to preserve the numerous trees that serve to frame fairways and greens, as well as the ample wetlands on the property.
The architects built a number of peninsula or island greens, using granite from the site to build walls near several greens and tee boxes. There are a number of forced carries at Gillette Ridge, both off the tee and on approach shots to the medium size, undulating putting surfaces, but nothing so daunting to scare away the average player. Bunkers are fairly numerous and ponds or wetlands come into play on almost half the holes. The fairway landing areas are ample.
“This is a true championship layout,” said Grodovich. “It’s a real golfer’s golf course. The shots into the greens seem intimidating, but there is always bailout area on one side or long. Just don’t be short,” he added with a smile.
There are four sets of tees at Gillette Ridge, making the course play anywhere from 7,191 yards at the tips to 5,582 from the forward markers. The course has been given a slope of 135 and a rating of slightly over 74 from the back markers.
Better not get lulled into a reverie by the natural beauty and magnificent sculpting of the holes here, many of which are self-contained. There are plenty of good golf shots that need to be played
The second hole may be the course’s signature, said Grodovich. The tee box affords a view of the Heublein Tower in the distance, and the 505-yard, par-five winds down to a peninsula green. This is a true risk-reward hole as a long drive will leave the player with an opportunity to go for the green in two. But a pond guards the right side of the putting surface and long is bad news. Even the lay-up shot must be struck with accuracy to a sliver of fairway with bunkers long and the water right.
The 182-yard 11th hole is a lovely par-three that calls for a shot across a small pond to a green framed by large trees to the rear of the putting surface.
The designers had a field day with the 187-yard, par-three eighth hole, which can be played from eight distances. The back tees will call for a 205-yard shot, almost all over wetlands.
The 17th hole, a monstrous 577-yard dogleg par-five, will offer a close up view of the Isamu Noguchi Sculptures at Cigna. The large stone sculptures present an intriguing sight to the right of the fairway.
The 18th hole at Gillette Ridge may be the best finishing hole in the state. It’s 478 yards from the tips, and the tee shot must be lusty. The approach will be made to a narrow green protected by a large pond to the right and bunkers.
Gillette Ridge also features a large practice area, a fully stocked pro shop, a restaurant and lounge. The bar and lounge offer super views of the finishing hole and pond, while large trees grace a patio. www.gilletteridge.com THE GOLF CLUB AT OXFORD GREENS
Designed by Mark Mungeum of Cornish, Silver and Mungeum, Inc. the Golf Course at Oxford Greens is a throwback, “neo-classical” routing that attempts to recreate the natural feel of a New England layout laid out at the turn of the 20th Century.
The course was carved through more than 600 acres of woodlands and over a rolling topography. Mature elm, birch, maple and pine trees line the fairways, and meadows, old stonewalls, and ponds impart a feeling of serenity.
Mungeum was careful to not overwhelm the player with an undue amount of hazards. Yes, there are some 70 bunkers scattered about the course. But they serve to frame holes off the tee and guard one side or the other of the large greens. Bailout room, both off the tee and around the greens, is provided.
Mungeum also incorporated a large degree of risk-reward into Oxford Greens. A second play of the track will allow the golfer to think his or her way around the course, avoiding hazards that need not be flirted with to score par or even birdie. But the player is often tempted to risk a heroic shot. And therein lies the delightful quandary a well-planned golf hole should present to the player.
Oxford Greens has multiple sets of tees and stretches from 4,982 yards to a whopping 7,100 from the tips.
Both sides are full of holes that are visually pleasing and challenging. Number two is a long par three that has a pond guarding the left and back sides of the green, which sits well below the tee.
Number three is longest and one of the toughest par-fives in the state. The hole stretches 630 yards from the tips and it will play even longer because it works its way up the side of a hill.
The front side ends with another great par-three that will be 221 yards from the back. The shot is across a ravine to a long, narrow putting surface.
Number 11 is a nice little 374-yard par-four that calls for a strategically placed tee shot in front of fairway bunkers, which will set up a short iron to a sloping green. I was rewarded for smart play with birdie.
Again, the par-threes on the back side of Oxford Greens are a strength. Especially the 170-yard 16th, where the shot must be true to avoid bunkers right and a steep slope to the left side of the deep green.
Number 17 is a 525-yard par-five reachable in two by the big hitters. And the 458-yard par-four 18th is a super finishing hole. A bunker guards the middle of the fairway near the landing area, forcing the player to choose an aim left or right of the trap. The second shot is downhill to a large green.
Most of the greens allow for run-up shots, much to the delight of seniors and high handicap golfers. There are basically no forced carries, although the 398-yard 15th demands a shot across a small wetland area about 60 yards from the green.
The fairways allow for significant roll on tee shots. The greens--unlike some new tracts where one must tolerate rock hard greens that reject even well placed shots--are receptive to approach shots. There is some undulation on the putting surfaces, which will be kept medium to slightly fast in speed. www.oxfordgreens.com