Boston Golf: From the penthouse to the basement
My short odyssey began Friday, when I played at a golfer’s penthouse. The Granite Links Golf Club sits atop a hill just south of Boston. The clubhouse is a very large, lovely building that contains a pro shop, a member’s area and a beautiful restaurant with lots of glass, allowing you to see in every direction including out to the nearby ocean and north to Boston’s skyline. Granite Links, which has members but is also open to the public, opened in 2004 and immediately gained places on a number of “Best of” lists.
But Granite Links wasn’t always so fancy. The area consisted of three landfills and a number of abandoned rock quarries. Along came Boston’s infamous Big Dig, the immense $14 billion public works project in which a surface highway was buried and a new tunnel was built under Boston Harbor to the airport. But about a million truckloads of fill from the harbor project, amounting to something like 12 million cubic yards of dirt, were added on top of the landfills and around the quarries. Built on top of all that, Granite Links became an instant hit, a premium golf course 15 minutes from downtown Boston and a great place for a beer or a meal or a party.
Granite Links has three 9-hole courses, a very nice range and lots of practice putting greens. On a cold day, with light rain falling for the first third of our match, my partners and I played from the white tees. Given our confirmed hacker abilities and the stiff northeast wind, it was plenty of golf course for us.
The courses are not that long. The Milton course, for example, is 3,478 yards from the tips, 2,893 yards from the white and a par 36. But the yardage alone tells you little. These nines are usually described as “links-like,” which is fair but also woefully incomplete. The courses don’t have many trees in play. Instead, they feature many elevation changes, blind shots, carries over vegetation, sand traps galore, rock outcroppings, ravines, sharp slopes, ponds and fescue. And the greens are very fast, very true and full of tiers, ridges, and seams.
This results in a combination of a links and target golf. You don’t whack away with your driver on a lot of holes from the whites—too many bad things can happen. As for the blind tee shots, what you don’t see can bite you. Hit the right yardages and landing areas, or find your ball in a bunker or behind a rock, or not at all.
But interesting, distinctive holes there are. On the fifth hole of the Milton course, you aim your shot between the John Hancock and Prudential towers that rise from the Boston skyline. On the next hole, you face a demanding par 3 which has a three-tiered green nestled between fescue on the right and a steep hill and a sand trap on the left. And No. 9, a long, uphill par 5, brings you back up to an outside terrace. A tee shot too far to the left will end up on a steep hill filled with fescue. A tee shot too long will bound across the fairway and run into either fescue or an old quarry. If you do hit the fairway and go for the green on your next shot, you’ll need to go over deep traps in front of the green. And a successful second shot puts you on, what else, a very fast green.
If you play, try to hook up with someone who has played the course before. I’m a weekend hacker and played the course for just the third time this season. I managed an 89 on two par-36 courses, despite the wind and rain—including getting birdies on two successive holes, a remarkable event for me. I had a great front nine but lost a wheel or two on the bus early in the second round (including some overly strong putts — did I mention, by the way that the greens are very fast?), but I pulled things back together and limped home with a par and a few bogies. My brethren on the course did not fare quite as well, but we all had a fine time and were astonished at the lovely course and wonderful views we had so close to the city.
Sunday, I visited my local nine-hole muni, Pine Meadows Golf Course, west of Boston. You can play golf at both Granite Links and at Pine Meadows, but that’s about all they have in common. Pine Meadows is a well-maintained, wide-open course that measures no more than 2,800 yards. The clubhouse is one room, with bathrooms, a television and some snacks. No practice range.
The course starts with side-by-side par 5s, with the only problem on either hole a crowned green on the second hole. The course has a few entertaining holes. No. 5 is a dogleg over a pond. The fun there is seeing how far you can cut the corner without going into the woods. No. 8 is a relatively short par 4 that has a tall tree guarding access to the green. The most fun shot there is to deliberately hit your drive a bit to the right, then try to go over the tree to the two-tier green.
The virtues of Pine Meadow are that it’s comfortable to walk, easily accessible and in pretty good shape. I’ve met all kinds of interesting people playing there – not to mention it has slow greens, which I, as a public course hacker, am familiar with. But these features are also the course’s drawbacks.
Over the course of the dozens of rounds I’ve played there, relatively few people have beaten me—which tells you the place is not full of good golfers. One golfer I was placed with by the starter had her own clubs, her own bag, her own pull cart—and she took no less than 10 shots on each of the first four holes to get on the green. Those first four holes included a short par four and a downhill par three. I bailed out after that—it was just too painful to wait and watch.
Pine Meadows is a perfect place for beginning or, shall we say, less skilled golfers. I took my teenage daughter there once—she enjoyed it, particularly when I let her drive the cart when we got away from the clubhouse. But get there at the wrong time, it’s worse than a five-car pile up on the freeway. I’ve walked away after six holes on a number of occasions. Since I pay only $20 as a resident, I don’t complain much. But I now play either early in the morning or during those occasional holes in the crowd that occur in the late afternoon. This last Sunday, I played just after the rain stopped. There were very few people on the course and by the third hole, the sun had come out, so it was lovely—though my feet were quite wet. The drainage on the first two holes is crappy, though it has improved. I remember some years ago, standing on the turf maybe 50 yards past the tee on the second hole, a couple of days after a lengthy period of rain. As I stood on the turf, watching a guy hit out of the rough after a mangled tee shot, the ground moved up and down, like it was a surfboard. It essentially was, because there was water moving underneath a large layer of turf. Very weird feeling, surfing on grass.
But hey, it’s golf. I can sneak a bit of practice in there sometimes, and I can tell if I’m hitting it well by measuring my shots against familiar landmarks. I missed a hole-in-one on the long par 3 once by less than a foot and I can still drive the green on the uphill par four (that is, if I don’t hit the road on the right or the trees on the left).
The slow play does drive me crazy and I may give in and find a local, inexpensive club to join. But on a nice fall day, when the course is dry, the leaves have changed color and it’s cool enough to drive the fair-weather golfers away, it’s a delightful place to be. I’ll never have the time or money to make use of a golf penthouse regularly, so I’ve made my peace with playing closer to the basement most of the time. And did I mention it has nice, slow greens?