Hickory Ridge Country Club saves the best for last
During my recent visit to Hickory Ridge Country Club in Amherst, the following advice from my father played on an infinite loop through my head:
Please restrain from calculating the maximum poultry population prior to the completion of the entire process of incubation.
This, it turns out, is not a very good swing thought.
Hickory Ridge is one of those courses that lets you feel pretty good about yourself and your game. Despite the potential pitfalls along the fairways, the deep and rather dramatic bunkers guarding most of the greens, and the multi-tiered putting surfaces, this is a track that lets you string together some pars - maybe even some birdies.
Ask any of the members, though, and they'll warn you not to go counting up the score on either the front or the back until you hole out on the 9th and 18th.
The semi-private Geoffrey Cornish design, is a bucolic parkland 6,794-yard, par-72 layout that celebrated its 35th anniversary last year. The course traverses and re-traverses the Fort River, which appears at some very inopportune moments, coming into play on at least seven holes. On many holes, trees, both individually and en masse, also threaten wayward tee shots and ill-planned approaches.
Along with the traditional yet interesting layout, the allure of Hickory Ridge lies in a recent change of ownership. Doug Harper, a native of nearby South Hadley, purchased the club in 2002. Due to the inclement weather during the 2003 season, the first year of the new ownership was less than ideal. However, older members of the club quickly noticed improved conditions in 2004 and a renewed focus on member and guest services.
"We didn't do anything major to the aesthetics," Head Professional Rick Fleury said. "Just a general improvement of the overall conditions." One major addition to the facilities is a practice bunker and chipping area that is under construction next to the plantation-style clubhouse.
Fleury admits that the Fort River floods every spring, leaving a handful of holes under water. "But it drains away fast," he says. And surprisingly, even when large swaths of fairway are under water, it seems to take only a week or so to be playable again - playable, yet squishy.
The river rears its ball-hungry head on the first hole, a 514-yard par 5, whose elevated tee seems to invite a snap-hook that'll end up wet. Avoid the water, though, and birdie is a distinct possibility.
The mighty Fort is not the only liquid hazard on the course. On the 394-yard par-4 fourth and the 366-yard par-4 13th ponds thick with bull-frogs and Titleists threaten tee shots on the former and approaches on the latter. The 13th is the only severely cramped spot on the course, with a table-top green that seems shoe-horned between two ponds and jammed unnaturally up against a wall of trees.
The balance of short and long par-4s and par-5s makes for a memorable round, and keeps club and shot selection at the fore. The 521-yard, par-5 sixth is a prime example. From the tee, the fairway looks wide and inviting before you realize that the 90-degree dogleg left at 280-yards out calls for one of two plays: A monster blast off the tee, or a swooping draw of a second shot. At the dogleg, a massive cottonwood tree forces precise shot-making even after a perfect drive to the right side of the fairway. Finally, the green is also shielded from a clear approach by another ancient tree and some artistic bunkering.
It is the par-4 closing hole on each side, however, that will make or break a player's round here. The 451-yard ninth and the 469-yard 18th both play down into the Fort River floodplain, and then back up to their respective greens. When conditions are damp, both play more like par-5s. The river crosses each at unwieldy yardages, leaving long seconds to elevated greens fronted by sand and backed by steep banks. At one time, the 18th was rated as the toughest closer in all of western Massachusetts., for good reason.
On this particular day, my photographer's potential career round was derailed by gentleman's nines on both of these demonic holes.
Members we talked to were quick to point out that although the layout is solid, and the conditions are great, what really sold them on the membership is the service. "They treat you like family here," said Gary, who became a member when the ownership changed. Indeed, Fleury, his two assistant pros, and Harper and his wife, are all welcoming to members and non-members alike.
The weekend non-member green fees ($37.50-$65), though not a bargain, are reasonable. Memberships are a different story. One member after another commented on how the price of a single membership was "the best deal in the area." Fleury notes that word of this bargain has gotten out: "We now have a waiting list."
Hickory Ridge CC is a gem, one that many locals thought was private until the new owner began an aggressive advertising campaign. Indeed, the friendly service, stately clubhouse, manicured conditions, and traditional layout do have a private-club feel to them. Luckily for the daily-fee golfer, non-member tee times are plentiful. It is no wonder that the New England Journal of Golf ranked Hickory Ridge no. 73 in its 2004 list of the Top 100 Courses in New England.
Aside from the cramped 13th and the rather awkward 351-yard 7th, the layout is very strong, and has hosted Massachusetts Open and Amateur qualifying rounds over the past decade. And while it may not be much of a swing-thought either, the best piece of advice here is simply to not count your birdies before they're holed.
Stay and Play
Most of Hickory Ridge's business is local, so the course does not offer stay and play packages. Still, Amherst is renowned for its collection of B&Bs. The king is the Lord Jeffrey Inn ((413) 253-2576), which also boasts one of the finest restaurants in town (The Windowed Hearth), and an inviting pub.
For the best martinis in Amherst and some memorable fusion cooking try Bistro 63 at The Monkey Bar ((413) 259-1600) - the sea bass is outstanding. For an eclectic breakfast menu, head to Nick's ((413) 256-4643). Next door to Nick's is The Black Sheep Deli & Bakery ((413) 256-1706), where the selection of home-baked pastries and high-octane java will make your head spin (in more ways than one).
May 26, 2005