BRETTON WOODS, NH – Remember how we wrote earlier this year that at Mount Snow’s golf course was harder to play golf at than the mountain was to ski? You don’t have to worry about that at Mount Washington Golf Resort. Whether you’re here to explore Cannon Mountain or the resort-affiliated Bretton Woods, or take in all the summer activities the White Mountains have to offer, for once we found a Donald Ross course that won’t beat you up worse than the mountain.
An Omni resort, the stately hotel has been a hot spot for jet-setters for decades, and who can blame them? Its reputation for cultured refinement has been unparalleled since it opened in 1902, and the setting is almost cathedral-like, with the white hotel gleaming brightly amidst the hunter green forest, a diamond in an emerald setting. God’s Country, indeed.
The golf course was built by Donald Ross in 1915 and was restored in 2008 by Boston-based architect Brian Silva. The greatest compliment we can pay both the resort and Silva is that the course looks and plays like it did in 1915. That’s the hallmark of a great restoration – accuracy.
Now Ross was particularly fond of insidiously cunning green contours, severe false fronts, ferocious bunkers, and steeply uphill, all-carry approach shots. Thankfully for the resort guests, Ross dialed it down a notch here. With the exception of one creek (at nine) and one wetlands (at 18), a bogey golfer could play his entire round with one ball. Better still, an expert golfer can grab a fork and knife and tear into the course like a steak dinner.
You know the old expression “It’s second shot golf course?” We all understand that to mean a course where you can spray the ball off the tee a bit, but accuracy is paramount, indeed critical, on the approaches. But if you’ve ever wondered what the heck a “First shot golf course” might look like, I present the Mount Washington course for your consideration. Seminole…Irondequoit…Pinehurst…you miss the green at any of those, and you’re ten to twelve feet deep in a bunker, or forty yards back down the fairway, of pitching over a knoll. Miss the green at Mount Washington, and you might be looking at chipping in. There isn’t a lot of danger guarding the greens, and the putting surfaces are not as wildly contoured as at many Ross courses. Better still, frequently, the miss is short, another nod to bogey golfers and resort guests.
Instead, much of the interest at Mount Washington is off the tee. The front nine is almost completely flat, but that does not mean it is without strategic interest. The routing is charming; the first four holes meander through randomly-sprinkled bunkers turned perpendicular to the line of play, so that golfers must play over or around them. Though they are all par-4s and all of a somewhat similar length, they all play in different directions. But there is a common theme that continues throughout: avoid the bunkers off the tee, and you can fire at the flag. Put the ball in the fairway, and the worst of the hole is behind you.
Moreover, the course is relatively short. There are four sets of tees, and they come at odd distances: 7,000, 6,400, 5,700, and 5,300. From the 6,400 yard tees, there is only one par-4 over 400 yards, and the longest par-5 clocks in at 522. All three par-3s, however, measure between 186 and 204, though they all play differently: one flat, one uphill, and one downhill, a nice mix.
Move down to the 5,700 yard tees, however, and the course becomes a pushover, with three par-4s under 300 yards and none longer than 395. From the 7,004 yard tips, obviously it’s more fearsome.
The best stretch on the golf course is 9-14. The ninth features a creek that bisects the fairway diagonally, forcing the player to play short to the left side or carry the stream on the right side. The back-to-back-par fives at ten and eleven ascend, then descend the highest point on the property. 11 is particularly strategic with its S-shaped fairway swerving around bunkers.
12 is one of those uber-short par-4s we described earlier. At a paltry 313 yards, (273 from the resort tees), you’ll have a short iron or wedge to the green, and even a drive sliced into the 11th fairway doesn’t get punished. It’s a breather after the back-to-back par-5s at 10 and 11 and the stern test of the ninth. But at 13 and 14, it’s back to serious strategic golf. 13 is one of the few holes that plays uphill – a diagonal fairway presents itself off the tee, then an approach to a green perched precariously on a narrow hilltop. 14 is a lovely Reverse Redan, with the fairway and green sloping away from the player and sharply to the right.
The highlight of the front nine is the par-3 fifth, which turns the golfer directly into the shadow of the hotel, so close that you might catch a glimpse of the ghost of Princess Caroline Stuckney watching you through the windows of room 314.
By the way, just to debunk a myth – NO, Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation of Stephen King’s The Shining was NOT filmed at the Omni, and the resemblance between the Omni and the Overlook Hotel in the movie is remote at best when you bother to notice that the Omni is pearl white and the Overlook (the Timberline Lodge in Mt. Hood, Oregon for those of you scoring at home), is slate grey. (It doesn’t help when locals spread that myth knowing full well that it’s not true.)
The hotel is haunted, however, by the ghost of Princess Caroline Stuckney. (Not to be confused with Princess Caroline of Monaco, the daughter of Grace Kelly.) When resort founder Joseph Stuckney died, Caroline married Prince Lucinge of France. Upon the Prince’s death, she returned to live in room 314 of the Omni. Often, her ghost is seen brushing her hair on the end of the bed in that room or looking out its balcony window at the golfers playing below. Guests staying in her room may even catch a hint of her perfume, or find the bathtub filling itself on its own. Ghost Hunters did.
In short, she may be the scariest thing about the golf course. Warm and welcoming fairways with bunkers featuring mild faces and open routes to most greens make for an enjoyable, low impact round, a nice breather for a Ross course. The par-5s are all majestic showstoppers, especially when you stand on the sixth tee box and see mighty Mount Washington wreathed in cloud in the distance behind the green, and the fairway peppered randomly with bunkers.
The out-and-back routing, featuring just three par-5s and three par-3s, never feels boring or monotonous as the course builds to a crescendo as the round progresses.
Just an idea, but please lose the candy stripe posts in the middle of the fairway. I hit two of them off the tee in the first seven holes, and the ricochet off that hunk of plastic rocketed the ball backwards one time and sideways the other. (So that old excuse of “No one actually hits them” won’t fly…) Even resort players don’t need an arrow and a honking sign that says “GREEN THAT-A-WAY” in the middle of those beautiful, old school fairways. What would Ross say?
While in high season on weekends, greens fees can be as high as $130, in shoulder season the rates drop dramatically, as low as $42 during the week, a solid bargain for what you get. The course bears more than a passing resemblance to the Links Course at Lake Placid Golf Resort, another course of Golden Age vintage in the shadow of one of America’s greatest ski resorts: 1980 Olympics venue Whiteface Mountain.
There is also a short 9-hole course designed by Alex Findlay (of Moraine Country Club fame) built in 1895 and restored by Geoffrey Cornish and Brian Silva in 1989.