Split personality golf courses abound in New England

By Henry Choi, Contributor

Opinions differ when it comes to the appraisal of schizophrenic layouts, those courses where one nine barely resembles the other.

In northern New England, where scads of nines were laid out in the 1920s and 1930s, only to be expanded decades later by different architects, the issue is more salient than anywhere in America. There are just so many of them.

And so the question remains: Does one decry the stylistic divergence or applaud the diversity?

Two courses in the border region of Maine and New Hampshire inform the debate. While North Conway Country Club and Lake Kezar Country Club are separated by only 20 miles, the nines on each course are light years apart in terms of style and vintage. That both tracks are such good fun may just moot the point.

This part of New England is remote but hardly under developed. The resort nature of North Conway, N.H., isn't lost on first-time visitors to its eponymous, semi-private country club, where the opening tee is set back just 50 yards from the bustling main drag with its myriad hotels and restaurants peopled by droves of backpackers and leaf-peepers.

Indeed, the clubhouse at North Conway CC sits directly beside the Conway Scenic Railway Station, a massive, red-roofed, Victorian-era structure painted a vivid shade of yellow. It's quite a sight, but nothing like the vista next door. The first at North Conway CC is one of the great opening holes in all of New England, a 418-yard par-4 with long views of Cathedral Rock in the distance and, of more pressing concern, O.B. all along the left side. It takes some real concentration to block it all out and belt one (right over the train tracks no less) to a fairway 70 feet below.

Don't get the wrong idea, however. The golf at North Conway isn't about dramatic elevation changes. After this inaugural plunge, the course plays entirely in the subtly contoured flood plain of the Saco River. It's scenic - with the river running through it and White Mountains surrounding it - but it's relatively flat and eminently walkable.

The opening nine here dates to 1928, when Ralph Barton, a protégé of Seth Raynor, reworked a older, more rudimentary loop. The charm of these opening holes lies in the subtleties of their small, steeply pitched greens guarded closely by deep bunkers. The fourth is a wonderful short hole, a make-or-break 140-yard pitch to a putting surface that falls away steeply on all sides.

Indeed, every so often the land here does move with surprising drama. The 354-yard fifth plays right along the river; the back tee calls for a drive across a bend in the Saco to a swailed landing area which is then crossed by a stream at 240 yards. The green looks harmless enough, until you look over the back side and see the ground fall away steeply some 20 feet.

The second nine at North Conway CC came in the 1960s, courtesy of New Hampshire-based architect Phil Wogan, and no, the two loops don't go together stylistically. The front side putting surfaces are set mostly at grade, while the bulk of Wogan's greens are raised up in the style made fashionable by Robert Trent Jones Sr. But the backside putting surfaces are quite cool and challenging in their own right, especially the saddle job at the par-3 13th and the volcano which sits at the business end of the sublime-but-cruel 434-yard, par-4 14th.

Lake Kezar's layout is more complicated and perhaps more jarring. Donald Ross laid out the original nine here in 1921 and Brian Merrill added nine new holes in 1996 (Merrill was, and remains, Lake Kezar's superintendent). Adding nine here required some creative renumbering. The new holes start at No. 9 and run through 17, after which players finish the round on the Ross-designed par-5 18th, a cagey cuss of a hole that plays between two enormous pines and over a buried stone wall (it's a berm now) to a miniscule putting surface.

You can't do quirky holes like this today, and the new holes at Lake Kezar are absolutely nothing like the old ones. But what's not to like? This was Merrill's course design debut, and it's a pretty damned auspicious on at that. The two par-5s, at 11 and 14, are both tantalizers: hittable for big boppers who dare to hit driver; they both wind their way through the woods and finish at accessible, flamboyantly contoured greens where two putts are tall orders. The 350-yard 15th spans a gorge teeming with undergrowth before banking left around a stand of trees (a great driving hole), while the 17th is one of the prettiest short par-4s you'll see.

The Ross holes occupy better golfing ground (Merrill was consigned a parcel rife with wetlands) but the old master didn't miss a trick. Lake Kezar opens with a quartet of par-4s that average 305 yards, the best of which, the second, plays across a comely dale - a massive pine at left obliging drives to fly the basin's full width. One had better make hay on these four short holes because Ross gets serious at the par-3 fifth, which plays over water to a worryingly small target. The gripping sixth and seventh - a 391-yard dogleg right followed by a 203-yard stunner over a ravine to a perched green - are world class.

How does one effectively match Ross after something like that? Well, one doesn't. As Merrill did at Lake Kezar, and Wogan did at North Conway, one deals with the land provided and does the best one can. I mean, when plans for these new nines were hatched, it's not like Barton and Ross were calling the clubs looking for work.

Still, when golf's designoscenti bemoan the undeniable incongruencies of New England designs like North Conway or Lake Kezar, in a sense they're arguing against the club's very decision to add nine. Best to have left the original work alone, they say, in all of its unspoiled, vintage splendor.

I say, that's crazy. In a perfect world, Barton and Ross would have gone the distance. But they didn't, and today's "finished" products are bloody good fun - intriguing, dual testimonies to what might have been and what is.

Where to stay

Isaac Merrill House
Kearsarge Village
North Conway, N.H. 03847
(800) 328-9041 / (603) 356-9041

Dining out

The resort community of North Conway is loaded with restaurants, but the Muddy Moose on Route 16 is particularly good.

Fast fact

Unlike many vintage courses, North Conway CC boasts a fabulous practice facility. Get there early and warm up because the opening drive is surely your toughest of the day.

The verdict

North Conway is the best course in the area and always in great condition; definitely worth a visit. It's not expensive ($65 w/cart weekends, $40 weekdays) and the twilight rate of $25 can't be beat.

Henry Choi, Contributor

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