Sometime this dark pandemic spring, probably late March, I got a call from Ran Morrissett, the North Carolinian who administers the GOLF Magazine course-rating operation. Starved for human contact as we both were, he and I chatted at length on various obscure but often fascinating golf course subjects. Somewhere during that extended natter he informed me that GOLF and its web incarnation, Golf.com, would soon be compiling, publishing and posting a Top 50 ranking of top 9-hole courses in the world — and that a fellow named Mike Dutton would be calling me. The resulting 100 Best Short Courses package — Top 50 Nines, 25 notable par-3s, 25 primo courses under 6,000 yards — was posted at golf.com this week; it will be published (on paper!) in the August/September print edition.
As it happened, Mike Dutton did call me, in April. He was helping Ran compile info on all these 9-holers and wanted to pick my brain. Mike has it in his head that he needs to play every nine in New England, perhaps the world (before he dies presumably). Had I played Castine? What about Megunticook? And what did I really think of Wayne Stiles’ Wilson Lake Country Club in Wilton? To answer all these questions, Mike and I did the only sensible thing: We made plans to play the 9-hole Clinton Golf Club together followed by nine more, 15 miles down the road, at an even more obscure nine, Cedar Ridge GC in Albion.
Once COVID-19 golf restrictions were lifted May 1, Mike and I would play several Maine nines this spring and summer, but not all of them — and we didn’t agree on everything. And that is perhaps the most exhilarating thing about rating/ranking golf courses. Mike is super keen on the nine at Castine GC, on the north shore of Penobscot Bay, for example, where I am less so. You can see from the new ranking that his opinion on Castine carried more weight ultimately. But here’s the take-away: It’s great fun to rate a course and defend that rating, to rank the level of “test” here vs. there, to verbalize competing definitions of “shot value”, to compete as to who can more sagely nod one’s head when discussing “great pieces of terrain.” (I’ve found it useful to stroke one’s chin whiskers, to break up the nodding.)
I’ve been a member of the GOLF panel since 1997. It is not hard science, this business of ranking one course ahead of another. And yet it is also the highest, most intellectually developed form of grille-room banter there is, or so it says here. No one cares about your golf game. Honestly, they don’t. No one. They don’t care about the irons Dustin Johnson is playing, either, or how Phil Mickelson will do on the senior tour, or Fedex Cup points. Compared to all that frippery, the course you and your buddies just played, or soon will play, stands as perhaps the only truly meaningful and lasting touchstone the game of golf has to offer.
In that spirit, here’s my own list of Top 6 Maine Nines. My state of residence was represented in GOLF’s World Top 50, but not to the extent warranted, in my view. Wilson Lake, which didn’t make the grade at all, is almost certainly better than North Haven (#14), and way better than Castine (#46). But geography, conventional wisdom and confirmation bias often conspire to blur such realities.
Wilson Lake CC, Wilton — Superb nine from underrated Golden Age designer Wayne Stiles and the only real quibble I have with the otherwise stellar ranking published this week. Definitely top 50 material. I visited here years ago but only for a drive-by. I played it this past June and wow, what a great collection of holes. Huge, diverse greens. Not a single middling hole out of nine. The routing is a bit back and forth (1, 3, 4, 5) but this can and should be forgiven over a great piece of terrain.
North Haven GC, North Haven Island — Another cracking, full length nine that is extremely scenic and even a bit raw in spots. Not mis-ranked in the Top 50 but because it’s another Stiles design, its reputation seems to me a bit overcooked, for reasons likely attributable to the Penobscot Bay ferry one must board to get there.
Clinton GC, Clinton — Homemade nine between Bangor and Waterville, and a really good one. One funky hole but 8 strong ones, solid green complexes and immaculately maintained. Suffers in some quarters because it’s new (opened early 2000s) and unabashedly modern in its design aesthetic.
Megunticook GC, Rockport — There is a demonstrable bias toward vintage golf courses within pretty much the entire course-rating community. One tries to resist — because it can hurt some courses and help others unnecessarily. So, I’m surprised Megunticook didn’t make the top 50, for it is very old, really well preserved, splendidly old-world kooky in the extreme, and super fun. The 9th green is so devilishly small, a foursome likely could not play it and maintain a responsible social distance.
Castine GC, Castine — There are some wonderful holes here and Willie Park Jr. (designer of the North Course at Olympia Fields, host to the recent BMW Championship and ’03 U.S. Open) provides a distinct pedigree. In light of Mr. Dutton’s enthusiasm for the place, I have resolved to revisit, perhaps alongside…
Bucksport GC, Bucksport — Stopped to play here with Maine State Golf Association poobah and noted links hound Michael Moore on the way back from MDI a few years ago. We were both stunned by how good it was, as we’d never heard anything about it, good or bad. The polar opposite of Megunticook: modern, full-length (a brawny par 37), compact routing on high but gently rolling ground, huge greens and not overgrown with trees.
Little known fact: I am the only Maine resident on the GOLF Magazine course-rating panel, which has been true for going on 25 years now. What’s more, because I grew up and played college golf in New England, fellow raters and media types seek me out every once in a while on course matters related to this part of the country — as Ran Morrissett recommended Mike Dutton do. Further to that point, I wrote a 1997 Sports Illustrated piece that endeavored to delineate the Top 10 9-hole courses in America. [That story essentially introduced to the larger golfing public a fellow named Mike Keiser, who went on to develop the 5 courses at Bandon, in Oregon, and a dozen more headliners around the world.] Back then Keiser was just a guy who had developed this awesome 9-hole course, The Dunes Club, in the sandy scrubland immediately south of Lake Michigan. My feature and sidebar didn’t rank all 10, but I did unilaterally declare The Dunes Club the best nine in the country.
Still, I am no 9-hole expert. My regional cred is the larger, more germane element here — because New England is the American epicenter of high-class 9-hole golf. Just look at all the N.E. entries on GOLF’s new ranking. Several Midwestern states boast more nines, in terms of raw numbers. Way more. There are 656 nines in Iowa, South Dakota, Kansas, North Dakota and Nebraska, for example, according to Mr. Dutton. New England has 274 total. It’s a matter of caliber. Iowa, apparently, has more than 225 9-holers, and upon investigation (with Iowans themselves) not a one is worth damn.
New England’s pre-eminence makes sense: Because this region was the first to be colonized and developed, land has always been at a premium here — and nine holes certainly occupy less space than 18 might. This is also the part of U.S. mostly densely populated with flinty Yankees, who built nine (as opposed to 18) because that’s all they cared to finance. Accordingly, our six states are littered with quality 9-holers that, when opened, perfectly suited the local bourgeoisie in a small New England mill town, for example, or the vacation whims of a wealthy textile family, or a resort owner on some island. In many cases, later in the 1900s, many local businessmen and golf enthusiasts added second nines; some of those flinty Yankees even chose to lay them out themselves. This accounts for some of the fun in ranking/discussing 9-holers — because several great courses have been essentially excommunicated on account of their expansions.
I imagine that 9-hole courses were created and then evolved, in other parts of the country and world, for completely different reasons. Why Iowa has so many forgettable nines is a mystery to me. But this seems to me a universal truth: People generally don’t travel specifically to play even world-class nines. I certainly don’t. Those who recommend them tend to live in or grew up in those particular regions. Otherwise, they wouldn’t even know about them.
For that reason, the new World Top 50 is an extraordinary and somewhat peculiar achievement. There are a bunch of GOLF panelists who have made it their business to play every last course in the World Top 100 (I’ve played just 71). But I daresay that no one on the panel, maybe no one on Earth, has played all 50 of these nines.
In the interest of reader service, I have detailed below a listing of New England nines that locals can and should explore, even if they’re private. I shared all this information with Ran, as well, in the interest of being thorough. Mike Dutton, too. Only a few in my view (the ones in bold) deserved serious consideration for the Top 50, which, of course, drew on a pool of 9-holers worldwide. Red ink means I haven’t yet played them but have heard or read good things.
You’ll notice that most are from Massachusetts. This is consistent with the fact that when people talk about “New England”, and all that is good about it, they are essentially talking about The Bay State (!).
Because the new GOLF package also includes a listing of short courses and par-3 routings, I conclude with brief thumbnail on the inimitable Powder Horn GC, a par-3 18 and the first golf course I ever played (thanks to my dad).
All but the Powder Horn bit I have essentially lifted directly from an email I sent Ran this spring, ahead of publication. In an effort to needle Ran on the subject of Cape Arundel GC, a 5,900-yard Maine course for which he maintains an almost unnatural love, I concluded that email with this:
Let me also add Northeast Harbor GC, weighing in at 5,602 yards, to your short-course short list. Dare I say I’d rather play there than Cape Arundel, where the greens are better than NHGC but which pales in most every other respect… Northeast Harbor’s neighbor on Mount Desert Island, Kebo Valley, says it measures 6,000 and change, according to the card. But that is what we in New England call “a lie”. As so many of these course measurements are. Here’s another fun story idea: How lying about your yardage actually keeps your course off fun lists like these…
Other New England Nines of Note
• Acoaxet Club, Westport, Mass. — Looks to be much like Weekapaug without the hairy bunkers; designed in 1919, at seaside.
• Bellows Falls (Vt.) CC — Home to a killer punchbowl green complex, apparently.
• Cape Ann GC, Essex, Mass. — Nothing fancy but a very beautiful estuary nine near Crane’s Beach.
• Chequessett Y&CC, Wellfleet, Mass. — Super fun, short, quirky routing through the dunes, half way up the Cape’s inner “forearm”.
• Exeter (N.H.) CC — Vintage nine I played with my brother who lives in this Seacoast New Hamster town; not half bad; 3-4 really good holes.
• Greenock CC, Lee, Mass. — Dates to 1895; Ross alleged to have participated in formalization here; pretty darned good if a bit boggy in spots…
• Hidden Creek CC, Litchfield, N.H.
• Intervale CC, Manchester, N.H. — On the banks of the Merrimack apparently.
• Mink Meadows GC, Vineyard Haven, Mass. — Solid but strange Stiles design on Martha’s Vineyard; routing proceeds in a perfect rectangle around and surrounded by miniature cape-style housing.
• Mountain View CC, Greensboro, Vt. — 1898 design located in the Northeast Kingdom. Mike Dutton says this is a big-time sleeper. Also, located 4 miles down the road from Hill Farmstead, VT’s new “it” brewery, apparently.
• Nehoiden GC, Wellesley, Mass. — Late 19th century routing that Wayne Stiles formalized in the 1920s; I grew up sneaking onto this private club and have written about it quite a bit (Don’t believe me? Search it here at hp.net).
• Needham (Mass.) GC — Not half bad but the less said about Needham, the better…
• Norfolk GC, Westwood, Mass. — Pretty cool private club whose 1896 routing features a fine collection of vintage putting surfaces.
• Norfolk CC, Norfolk, Conn. — Dutton says reminiscent of Megunticook; Joe Bunk, 42 years the super there, questions the club claim that it’s a 1928 A.W. Tillinghast design, which probably means he was paid to visit there one day in 1928…
• Northfield (Mass.) GC — Dates to 1901; Alex Findlay alleged to have been involved.
• Quail Ridge CC, Acton, Mass. — A rare modern nine, designed by Mark Mungeam in 2003, semi-private.
• Tatnuck CC, Worcester, Mass. — Willie Campbell/Ross-formalized nine that dates to 1898; semi-private.
• Powder Horn GC, Lexington, Mass. (1964-1979) — This where I started out in the game, at my father’s side. I was 8 or 9 and we had just moved to nearby Wellesley from northern New Jersey. Powder Horn was a par-3 course but that unfairly belittles it. There were 18 holes and while some played no more than 100 yards, others measured well over 200 and not a one was flat, rinky-dink or boring. I remember my dad and his game seemed sort of god-like to me back then: I played a lot of these holes like par-4s and -5s but there wasn’t a single hole he couldn’t “reach”. Powder Horn stood us in good stead for at least two years, and I remember playing there with my grandmother, a steadfast player in her own right (for some seven decades). I recall once pitching a mighty fit here after butchering the uphill 11th hole. There were tears. I recall her being sort of perturbed at my behavior but my dad, as per usual, showed great patience with me… We picked up games with all sorts of people at Powder Horn — another lesson learned early: that one always invites people to join him, even when one might rather not. Made my first-ever birdie on the 17th hole here, a 130-yarder over water. We played that day with a fellow named Mr. Jolly. When my ball dove into the cup from 30 feet away, he was nearly as excited as we were. Powder Horn is gone now, converted to a condo development in the early 1980s, which is a shame because I’ve often wanted to go back — and play it like a god.