New England is catching up fast on the country-club-for -a-day concept

By James Y. Bartlett, Contributor

The New England region might have been a bit late in joining the national trend toward upscale, daily fee, country-club-for-a-day golf facilities, but it has made up for lost time in a big way. Since the dawning of the 21st century, a dozen or more excellent public-access courses have opened throughout the New England region. Here are some of the best:

Red Tail Golf Club, Devens, Mass.

Atten-hut! This excellent Brian Silva design opened in 2002 on the rolling acres of the former Ft. Devens army base-it once was the staging area for troops heading off to World War I, and was a tank training base for General George S. Patton's armored divisions.

After extensive remedial work -- digging out toxic dumps and removing some ordnance storage areas -- Silva laid out a wonderfully challenging and interesting course that has proven popular with the legion of greater Boston-area golfers. Each of the holes is named, in the old style, and some are quite evocative of the site's past. The second, "Tanks Crossing," is self-explanatory while the 17th, "Bunker," refers not to the golf kind, but to the still-visible turf-covered Quonset huts that once housed munitions.

Silva took full advantage of the rugged terrain to craft 18 wonderful holes. He added some severe bunkering in places, and terrific green complexes to make Red Tail a wild ride from beginning to end. Some favorites: the short par-four sixth, with bushy enemy ground all down the left side, daring the player to pull out the big wood and go for it; or the par-3 11th, a lovely hit-and-hope par-3 hole over a former gravel pit. The last hole is a great par-5 hole that descends sharply to a tiny green fronted by a dangerous pond.

Greens fees here for 2004 are $78 on weekdays and $88 on weekends. Call (978) 772-3273 for reservations.

Blackstone National Golf Club, Sutton, Mass.

Rees Jones carved this excellent course out of rolling forests and wetlands in central Massachusetts's Blackstone River Valley. It's just 40 miles from downtown Boston, but it seems like 40 million in this isolated, unpopulated area.

Owner/manager Michael Gordon and his staff work hard to make sure that every golfer has a Grade-A golf experience. Clubs are unloaded from the car, the practice range is excellent and the course is kept in top-notch condition. Friendly rangers help one determine the best tee boxes from which to play, and after the round, the National Grill offers excellent dining, with frequent special events and cookouts throughout the summer season.

As usual, Rees created an eminently playable layout. While it is tight and tricky in spots, Jones also allows the golfer to bust loose, try to drive some short par-4 holes, and always mixes in the proper amounts of risk and reward. The greens are not overly tricked up, but they always are running fast.

Weekday rates are $59, and weekends are priced at $74, with twilight discounts available. For information, call (508) 865-2111.

Fox Hopyard, East Haddam, Conn.

This central Connecticut facility completes a troika of courses developed by Bill Sandri, along with architect Roger Rulewich, who also produced the highly regarded Crumpin Fox Golf Club in western Massachusetts, and the Fox Hollow golf club near Tampa.

Located near the Devil's Hopyard State Park, and in an area of Connecticut long renowned for its spooky noises and supernatural occurrences, it would appear that Rulewich was in cahoots with You Know Who given the difficulty of some of his holes. But many of the trouble areas -- large swatches of native wetlands and brushy areas that must be carried off the tee or that cut sharply into fairways and in front of greens -- were actually decreed by environmental bodies, a common devilment for today's architects.

While some of these "sensitive areas" seem silly, Rulewich did a good job of building his course around them, and the occasional outcropping of granite boulders. Elevation changes are frequent -- the par-3 4th, for instance, drops 90 feet from tee to green -- and the views change from deeply wooded to open meadow to the closers of both the ninth and the 18th wrapped around a huge retention pond.

Unlike Sandri's other two courses, Fox Hopyard is an active real estate development. The huge clubhouse, built on a rocky knoll in rambling New England style, was no doubt built with future members in mind. Still, the On the Rock restaurant, and its outdoor dining porch, is a great place from which to admire the views and watch fellow golfers struggling up the long 18th.

Daily greens fees here are $85 on weekdays and $95 on weekends. For reservations, call (800) 943-1903.

The Ranch, Southwick, Mass.

This 2002 course was built by Willowbend, a development company owned by Paul Fireman, CEO of the Reebok shoe empire. His choice of architect was unusual for a New England project: Damian Pascuzzo, a California-based associate of Robert Muir Graves.

Yet the project came together well. Pascuzzo's course was immediately lauded as one of the best new works in New England, and the customers have flocked to play The Ranch, both from the nearby cities of Springfield, Mass. and Hartford, Conn., and the further reaches of Boston (a little over an hour away) and New York (two and a half hours).

What golfers find at The Ranch is a lovely, traditionalist design that makes good use of the combination of open farmland and heavily wooded hills to create an ever-changing routing on both nines. In addition, Pascuzzo specified areas of tall, native grasses to create both visual and actual challenge for the golfer looking to finish the round with the same ball.

The Ranch's lovely yellow post-and-beam barns host the full-service golf shop and both the Crane's Kitchen restaurant and Phil's Pub. Either is a worthy destination for a post-round feast.

Greens fees here are $110 during the high summer months, with discounts for both early and late starts. To make a reservation, call (866) 790-9333.

Pistol Creek Golf Club, Berlin, Conn.

Opened in 2001 just outside of Hartford, this gently rolling site once housed the firearms manufacturing plant of Simeon North, who made most of the guns used by the U.S. side in the War of 1812.

These days, golfers can fire Titleists instead of bullets, and the large greens at Pistol Creek are usually quite receptive. Though just over 6,500 yards from the tips, the combination of open holes and those tightly guarded by woods and water makes for an interesting and enjoyable round. Elevation changes are dramatic and the views from the high spots look out across the gently rolling terrain of central Connecticut.

Back at the lodge-like clubhouse, a fine lunch or dinner can be ordered at Simeon's Restaurant, or a post-round drink enjoyed on the outdoor patio.

Weekday greens fees begin at $59, and weekends are priced at $69. For information and tee times, call (860) 828-7696.

Great River Golf Club, Milford, Conn.

Located on the banks of the Housatonic River, this expansive, $30 million golf facility was inserted on the bones of an old and tired golf course called Millstone. As in "around the neck."

Architect Tommy Fazio (nephew of Tom, son of Jim) started from scratch and created one of the region's most challenging courses. Played from the tips, at well over 7,000 yards, the slope is 154, one of the highest in the nation. But only masochists would play that version, when there are no less than six other tee boxes.

Still, Great River offers everything anyone can handle, with six holes along the riverside, and others carved out of deep woods and playing over watery wetlands. Holes on the front side stick mainly to the woods, while the back nine is more open, but features lumpy fairways and tightly protected green complexes. Visually, the course is arresting, with wooden bridges and cascading waterfalls, along with all the natural stuff.

Monty's River Grille, in the expansive clubhouse, is almost too fancy for an après-golf repast. But the restaurant's high standards and excellent wine list attract nongolfers from throughout the Fairfield County area.

A round at Great River costs $125 on weekends and holidays; $100 during the week and discounted for twilight golfers. Call (877) 478-7470 for reservations.

James Y. Bartlett, Contributor

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