Short on yardage, long on trouble, Woodstock CC is fun - but a ball-eater

By Kiel Christianson, Senior Writer

When I last played Woodstock Country Club, Win Lincoln had been working as the starter fro nearly two decades. And although he probably gives the same spiel to every first-time visitor to the 6,052-yard, par-70 course, it sounded nevertheless both honest and original. "The course has 2.5 million trees on it," he warns. "You know how they say trees are 90 percent air? Bull----. These are solid."

Lincoln went on to point out that you will cross the Kedron Brook 12 times during your round. "And it loves golf balls," he said with a smile. "We regrip the members' ball retrievers more often than their clubs."

Finally, his advice for which tees to play, which may come as a surprise considering the diminutive length and the modest 69.7 rating and 123 slope from the blues: "Play the whites your first time or two."

When a quizzical look from a clueless golf writer prompted elaboration, Lincoln shared a story: "One guy was here last summer and said he was a 20-handicap. I suggested he play the whites [5,619 yards]. He said no way, because they're so short. I shouldn't do this, but as he stepped to the tee, I tossed a towel at his feet. 'What's this for?' he asked. 'To dry your tears,' I said. He never did tell me what he shot."

Golf in Woodstock, a favorite Vermont resort town for well over 100 years, began humbly in 1895 when a Dr. F.B. Harrington stepped off the train for an extended vacation at the Woodstock Inn. Harrington was a member at The Country Club in Brookline, Mass., and was sorely disappointed to discover there were no courses in Woodstock. In fact, there were none in Vermont.

Harrington and an Inn employee stuck some coffee cans in the ground and set up a makeshift course, and thus was born Vermont golf.

Fast-forward 30 years, at which time the Inn hired Wayne Stiles of the respected golf course architectural firm Stiles and Van Kleek (also designers of Taconic Golf Club in Massachusettes, among may others) to lay out a full 18 holes on the site of the present-day course. Fast-forward another 30 years, at which time none other than Robert Trent Jones Sr. was retained by Woodstock Inn owner Laurance Rockefeller to revamp and expand the par-68 Stiles layout.

Although Jones was known for sweeping vistas and heroic hole designs, the confines of the Woodstock acreage limited his usual drama. Nevertheless, the cramped track offers some distinct - and distinctly vexing - surprises for even top-flight players. Vermont Magazine once rated the 403-yard, par-4 fourth hole as the most difficult in the state. And in 1989, when the Vermont Golf Association held the State Amateur Championship here, the winner - a five-time state champ - went 12-over for the four-day event.

So what makes this tiny terror so tough? Part of the answer is, amazingly enough, modern equipment. The course was built for resort players in the persimmon age. Some of the greens, in fact, are still identical to the ones Stiles built back in the days of hickory shafts. As such, accuracy is like gold here, and if you want to score you need as much accuracy as the Rockefellers have gold. And a good bit of local knowledge won¹t hurt, either.

Reg Fitz, who has been playing golf for 70 years and a member at Woodstock for 25 years, has both. ³Familiarity does not breed contempt, says Fitz, who can shoot his age on any given day, despite the fact that he looks like he might not be able to walk from his cart to the tee. "Unless you¹re very, very good, play the whites not the blues," he warns. "And be prepared to hit a lot of balls in the water."

A certain golf writer took Win's and Reg's advice, and teed it up from the whites for an early-morning round. And here is where the modern equipment played against me, er, him. On several holes, straight, long tee shots ended up through the fairways and behind one of those "solid" 2.5 million trees. The 400-yard, par-4 12th is a prime example. From the whites, it¹s just 381 yards, and the landing area is cocked at such an angle that a well-hit fade or straight ball will not stop until it is into the foliage on the opposite side.

Playing the whites does allow one to hit shorter irons into the greens, however. This is extremely valuable, since most greens are small and wedged between the proverbial rock and a hard place. Take the par-3 fifth for example, which at only 151-yards doesn't sound so threatening. On the tee, however, you notice that, although the green is 45 yards deep, it is less than 20 yards wide. There's a steep, shaggy hill left, the Kedron Brook runs directly along the right, and overhanging trees limit any kind of draw or fade you can put on the ball. In short, the green is a perfect place for a picnic, but not so inviting as a target.

The two toughest holes on the course, though, are the par-4 third (370 yards) and the aforementioned fourth (403 yards). The former will not abide a tee shot even from the back tees of longer than 235 yards, unless said tee shot is a high, hard draw. The ever-present Kedron Brook bisects the fairway at the same point where the hole veers nearly 90-degrees to the left and takes off abruptly uphill. First-timers have to resign themselves to playing this hole as a par-5 because it will take a few rounds to sort out club selection.

The fourth features the most dramatic tee shot on the course, over the same accursed brook to a fairway that looks as narrow as Calista Flockhart¹s forearm. The approach is (sigh) again over the stream to a green that is tucked coyly into the hillside. It is a delicate, yet dastardly, shot no matter what level player you are.

The Verdict

The combination of Vermont topography, routing, and modern equipment creates a remarkable amount of trouble for all but the very best golfer at Woodstock. The course gives one the oddest feeling that every single shot, from tee to green, is somehow between clubs. The conditions are superb, although the maintenance staff seemed rather oblivious to golfers waiting to tee off or approach the greens they were hand-mowing. The course is very walkable, which is good, because cart fees are outrageous at $36/18 holes.

Stay and Play

The Woodstock Inn (woodstockinn.com, (800) 448-7900) is rated Four Diamonds by AAA, and stands as the jewel in the crown of the Woodstock area resorts. The Inn offers packages of all sorts with themes running from family activities to culinary delights. Golf packages begin at just over $200 per person per night. The area is home to well over a dozen B&Bs as well. One of the most family friendly is the Deer Brook Inn (deerbrookinn.com, (802) 672-3713, $95-$130). One of the most golfer-friendly is the Applebutter Inn (applebutterinn.com, (800) 486-1734, $95-$195) in nearby Taftsville.

Dining out

The Woodstock Inn boasts three restaurants: The Dining Room, Richardson's Tavern and Eagle Café, all of which are excellent. For more variety, however, head to nearby Barnard where Max¹s Tavern at The Barnard Inn serves up gourmet fare in a old-time tavern atmosphere ((802) 234-9961, $14-$21).

Fast Fact

After your round of golf, you can hit the Inn's 41,000-square-foot indoor health and fitness center and spa. The facility is open to guests free of charge, but even non-guests can indulge for just $20 per day. Not a bad idea for the kids on a rainy day.

Kiel ChristiansonKiel Christianson, Senior Writer

Kiel Christianson has lived, worked, traveled and golfed extensively on three continents. As senior writer and equipment editor for WorldGolf.com, he has reviewed courses, resorts, and golf academies from California to Ireland, including his home course, Lake of the Woods G.C. in Mahomet, Ill. Read his golf blog here and follow him on Twitter @GolfWriterKiel.


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