Cunning required at Fox Hopyard Golf Club in East Haddam, Connecticut
EAST HADDAM, Conn. - The fox is associated with cleverness, wit, and cunning. The phrases "Sly fox" and "Crazy like a fox" spring to mind, along with all the times you out-foxed a rival - or were instead out-foxed yourself. The Fox Hopyard Golf Club, located adjacent to Devil's Hopyard State Park, lives up to its namesake mascot: It is a challenging layout that can mess with your mind, where a steely nerve, steady hand, and a few rounds' experience are required for low scoring.
Jack Stevens, assistant professional at Fox Hopyard Golf Club, admits that the course is "visually intimidating the first time you see it." Six par-4s and par-5s demand forced carries over wetlands and scrub brush off the tee. And more than a few greens force approaches over similar wetlands and streams. Given the smallish size of the greens in general, even the ones that can be approached with lower, running shots require touch and precision to hold the putting surfaces.
All is not gloom and doom, however, despite the 74.1 rating and 136 slope from the championship tees: "After a while," Stevens tells players, "you realize that the carries aren't that bad. The fairways are generous, and the rough is actually the narrowest part of the course."
The reassurances don't ring hollow, either. The fairways are for the most part enormous. At the 415-yard, par-4 12th, the landing area is a full 150-yards wide. Still, you cannot get careless off the tee, since most holes are lined with timber as thick as any found on the ballyhooed courses of Northern Michigan. And even experienced Hopyard members have their issues at times: I watched one founding member dunk two balls off the tee into the ravine on the par-5 3rd during men's leagues.
When asked how he and his playing partners liked the course, I expected yowls of pain and suffering. Instead, they all smiled. "It's a great course," they responded in unison. One added, "But as beautiful as the course is, the best part is the staff in the pro shop. They treat you like family." It is this, in all honesty, that makes Fox Hopyard special. Owner William Sandri had the vision to build an upscale daily-fee course just ten miles from the hoity-toity Connecticut shore, directly in the shadows cast by the upturned noses of the numerous private courses. And don't think for a moment those clubs haven't noticed. The Hopyard has 215 members (and a few memberships still remain), most of whom joined because they were tired of languishing for years on the waiting lists of the area's private clubs.
The members, and the general public, have been bountifully rewarded. Course architect Roger Rulewich, who worked for decades with Robert Trent Jones, Sr., is as skilled as any at balancing playability with hazard, as evidenced by the five sets of tee boxes. Rulewich also designed Fox Hopyard's older sister Crumpin-Fox in Bernardstown, Mass. In its recent ranking of New England's public courses, the New England Journal of Golf ranked Crumpin-Fox fifth and Fox Hopyard 18th out of over 800 public golf courses in New England.
Not only are there no weak holes on the 6,912, par-71 layout, but there are very few that aren't memorable. Beginning with the 409-yard, number 1 handicap, par-4 2nd, players will not fail to be dazzled until, possibly, the difficult but relatively less striking 9th. The 2nd boasts one of the toughest tee shots on the course. Although the fairway is wide, it is uphill, and canted rather sharply from right to left. Any draw landing center-left will most likely run down into the woods.
The 517-yard, par-5 3rd is arguably the best hole on the course. Players are greeting with a second consecutive forced carry off the tee, over what is termed in the yardage book a "beautiful but frightening and deep hazard" (sounds like a philosopher I dated in college). From tee to green it is completely uphill, so much so that when you're standing on the green looking back down, you might get vertigo.
The 202-yard, par-3 4th offers more dizzying elevation, with a 90-foot drop from tee to green. Take at least two clubs less than the yardage would indicate. The 506-yard, par-5 5th is another stunner. The green complex is perhaps the best on the course. One of the signature stone walls runs in front of and along the right side of the green, which is either elevated or sunken, depending on the position of your ball in the fairway. Foxy, very foxy.
The back nine is somewhat less spectacular, but no less clever. Every hole forces you to think off the tee and, more importantly, on your approach. The two best examples of this are the par 5s, the 567-yard 15th and the 551-yard 18th. Only a long-hitting pro (or steroid-gulping duffer) would go for the hazard-fronted green at 15. And a decent tee shot to the first corner of the serpentine fairway is required just to see the lay-up area around the trees.
The 18th is a truly spectacular closer. There's a wide fairway to aim at, and long drives over the ridge will run close enough to think about gambling on your second shot. However, from 155-yards in, there is water immediately to the right, and even slight fades can easily take a bad hop and roll off the green into the drink.
Besides the championship layout, Fox Hopyard offers all the amenities of a private club. The cedar-shake-sided clubhouse exudes New England charm, and houses a posh pro shop, the gourmet On The Rocks restaurant, and first-rate banquet facilities. Head pro Ronald Beck and his assistants offer lessons on the expansive practice range. There are even tennis courts across from the clubhouse. And best of all, for just $85 weekdays or $95 weekends, anyone can avail themselves of all the comforts of a private club, without all the attitude.
Fox Hopyard Golf Club: The verdict
Fox Hopyard is an excellent course the first time you play it, and experience not only makes you appreciate its intricacies more, it also will lower your score. The first time you play, invest in a yardage book and check the pin placements. Some of the modest but undulating greens are tough to two-putt if you're on the wrong side of a ridge. Having opened in 2001, the greens are still a bit immature, but air circulation and sunlight have been improved through tree-thinning. As such, the putting surfaces should mature nicely over the coming season or two. Bring every shot in your bag, and every ounce of cunning you can muster.
Stay and Play
There are no "stay 'n' play" packages as such, but Fox Hopyard works with the Mystic Marriott ((860) 446-2600, mysticmarriott.com) and Mohegan Sun Casino and Resort ((888) 777-7922, mohegansun.com), both of which are just ten minutes away. Thirty minutes away you'll also find the Foxwoods Resort and Casino ((800) PLAY-BIG, foxwoods.com), home to the only poker room in New England.
Aside from On The Rocks restaurant at Fox Hopyard (try the prosciutto wrapped sea bass for dinner), a hundred restaurants can be found on the Connecticut shore, just ten miles away. Other sure bets (for food at least) are the dozens of restaurants in the Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods Casinos. You might even see if you're clever enough to out-fox the house at the gaming tables.
All of the ever-present stone walls were built from stone blasted out of the 530-acre Fox Hopyard property. Much of it was taken from what is now the precipitous par-3 4th. The topsoil was also all found on-site, much of it taken from what is now the practice range.
April 3, 2006