New Butter Brook gives Beantown an affordable golf option

By Patrick White, Contributor

With the Northeast's prime agriculture land being sought by housing developers, more than a few farmers have decided to choose links over livestock.

The good news? This move toward golf keeps the land open.

The bad news? The courses built are all-to-often, er… "amateurish." The farm owners might lack golf expertise, but they have plenty of heavy equipment at their disposal, often enough to try and take on the task of constructing the course themselves. In those cases, the results can be less than memorable.

That could easily have been the case a few years back when Ed and Betty Kennedy decided to go the golf route after 60 years of raising cattle and hogs on their land in Westford, Mass., a suburb northwest of Boston. Instead, and wisely so, the Kennedy family decided to turn to the experts.

They hired Mark Mungeam, of Cornish, Silva and Mungeam, as architect for a layout called Butter Brook Golf Club. Mungeam's work preparing Olympia Fields in Chicago for the 2003 U.S. Open helped bring the golf course designer name recognition, but his work around the Northeast—including such notable Massachusetts layouts as Shaker Hills (Harvard), Olde Barnstable Fairgrounds (Cape Cod) and Cyprian Keyes (Boylston), plus newer effort in New Jersey like Charleston Springs - has been appreciated by golfers for years.

How hungry were golfers in this Boston suburb for affordable ($40 for 18 holes weekdays; $50 weekends) public golf?

"They love it," said Ed Kennedy. "The first three or four days, I walked around and asked people what they thought of the course. A bunch of them gave me great big hugs."

Sean Kicker, Butter Brook's PGA professional, reports that the level of play since the first nine holes opened in April has surpassed expectations. "Play has been outstanding," he said. "We've really been pleasantly surprised by how busy we've been."

Kicker says most of the play has been from the immediate area surrounding Westford. "The town was in desperate need of a quality public course," says Kicker. But a fair amount has also come from Boston, just 25 miles away.

With Beantown so close, it's an easy drive for residents or visitors to Boston. Those coming into town will find Westford a classic suburban community that's grown tremendously over the past quarter-century, but which still retains some small-town character.

The plan is to begin work this summer on the back nine at Butter Brook, but as of early August the course was still in the process of negotiating with the state of Massachusetts' Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program. During initial inspections of the course site, a population of blue spotted salamander was discovered, which delayed construction of the front nine, and now has impeded the backside.

Mungeam, who encountered the same problem at past projects, jokes that the salamanders might be endangered, but the group charged with protecting them, "might not be looking in the right places. They seem to be on most of the proposed golf course sites I see."

Mungeam has worked with the Kennedy's to produce a routing that provides the salamander breeding grounds six times the buffer zone required, and the hope is that issues regarding the salamanders will be resolved this summer and work can quickly commence turning Butter Brook into an 18-hole facility—hopefully by spring 2005.

"They're so pleased with what we've got, they just can't wait for the back-nine," Kicker said of the anticipation expressed among golfers who have played the course.

Mungeam is an architect with an appreciation for golf's past. In addition to his work at Olympia Fields, he recently completed a major remodeling project at the Country Club of Pittsfield, a Donald Ross/Wayne Stiles gem in the Berkshires of western Massachusetts. Mungeam has taken the same restrained approach to design at Butter Brook.

Players must think strategically to score well. Ignore the clues the course presents and they will pay a price. If you put yourself into the mind of the architect, you'll be rewarded. Mungeam says, "The seventh is a personal favorite of mine: the way it sets up off the tee, the way it's a gambling hole, with its green setting in the bowl ready to collect shots."

Kicker brings a golf professional's expertise to the discussion, and not surprisingly he has his own favorite holes—the hard ones. "The 9th—which is named ‘Eternity'—is a 628-yard par 5 that is sort of a double-dogleg S-shaped hole. It's all the golf hole you'll ever want," he says. "The other par 5 that's particularly interesting is the seventh. It's an aesthetically beautiful golf hole; the name of the green is ‘Party Hole'. It's a humungous green where everything funnels down into the middle—sort of an old-style punchbowl green. It also has the largest putting surface on the course, but the other greens are generous."

Mungeam was impressed with the site he was given, and says the final results owe much to the land. "Overall, I think there's a real maturity to Butter Brook. The site was densely wooded when we found it. The white pines that dominate the site are so big and the style of bunkering is very much in harmony with these trees. I'm thrilled to hear that people think it has a classic, old world feel."

He credits the firm's associate designer, Tim Gerrish, for the dramatic look of the ragged-edged bunkers. "I've kidded Tim a lot about having to be drunk to paint such uneven lines, but I know it takes a keen eye to get it right," says Mungeam. "As they mature, these bunker edges will look even better—less manicured and more vintage."

Mungeam also added a fair amount of strategy through the placement of the bunkers. The architect notes, "Because of the cross bunkering which juts into the fairway and creates the winding fairways, most holes look hard but play much easier. There's always a place to play the ball and not be penalized. It's not overall penal and requires a good deal of thought. We feel that good players will find the back tees very challenging."

In addition to the bunkering, Kicker notes that Butter Brook's selection of holes in unique. The front nine has three par 3s, three par 4s, and three par 5s.

"It makes for a challenging but fun layout," he says. "The front line is about 3,400 yards from the back tees, with four sets of tees available. Because it's framed by tall pines and large fairway bunkers, the course, especially the fairways, give the appearance of being narrow. But once you get out there, you realize that most of the fairway landing areas are almost 50 yards wide."

Enough room, hopefully, for slicers and salamanders to peacefully co-exist.

The verdict

Butter Brook is a very solid public course at a very good price in an area that was very much in need of a golf course with those two attributes. When all 18 holes are opened, the course will likely see its profile grow and its reputation spread enough to attract more golfers from Boston and beyond.

Where to eat

Currently there's a full-service pro shop at Butter Brook, as well as a patio-grill that serves a wide variety of food. "Everything from shrimp skewers to pulled pork and hamburgers and hot-dogs," says Kicker. The dining area overlooks the course, offering scenic views of the former farmland. Construction of a permanent clubhouse is scheduled for 2006-2007. Kicker also recommends The Westford Grill as a top-notch restaurant nearby.

Fast fact

The tees at Butter Brook are built on a pure sand base--a construction medium usually reserved only for greens. The result is a true, smooth teeing surface. Course superintendent Jason Kennedy (no relation to the owners) says the grass thrives on the sand, adding that he has to irrigate the tees more often to keep it growing.

Where to stay

Pine Needles Bed and Breakfast
(978) 399-0199

The Samuel Fitch House
(978) 952-6888

The Harborside Inn
(888) 723-7565

Patrick White, Contributor

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