Conceived and financed by the Mashantucket Pequot Nation, the $70-million Lake of Isles complex in southeastern Connecticut, located across the street from Foxwoods Resort Casino, features two celebrated Rees Jones-designed layouts: the private South Course and public-access North Course. As someone who resides 15 minutes from Lake of Isles and who followed the facility’s development closely, I can report that the road to completion was long, rocky, but worth the wait.
“I’d been looking at the Lake of Isles property for more than 15 years,” Jones said shortly after work began, “and I was finally given the chance to do something with it.” The tribe had originally approached his father, Robert Trent Jones, with the idea of creating a pere-fils tandem on the former Lake of Isles Boy Scout Reservation. When Jones Sr. passed away in 2000, Rees, with several U.S. Open course makeovers and dozens of original designs to his credit, inherited the entire project.
He needed every bit of guile and experience to complete the assignment. New England, a place of solid firmament, abounds in rocky landscapes. Connecticut, in particular, was scoured by retreating glaciers during the last Ice Age. These glaciers deposited enormous boulders and tore away the earth to expose underlying ledge. It took more than a decade of archaeological digging, environmental permitting, and extensive rock blasting to produce the 7,279-yard, par-72 North Course, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary this season.
“Because of all the rock, we couldn’t build very fast,” Jones remembers. “It was a very hands-on project.” The extra time gave Jones and his team a chance to dig their ideas a little deeper into the glacial till. Despite the extensive use of dynamite, the North Course fits the land hand-in-glove. The wide, rolling fairways flow seamlessly through the trees, and the granite outcrops look like sentry posts beside the greens. The smooth, fast putting surfaces are subtly contoured and beautifully framed by bunkers, slopes, and hillocks.
In his quest to build a grand-scale, neo-classic layout that offers tee-to-green visibility along with alternate routes of attack, Jones was forced to blast tons of rock to create corridors for golf on the rugged site. Holes were chiseled into sloping ridges within a natural bowl high above a century-old, hand-dug lake.
While the higher holes rise and fall through the hardwoods and pines, lush wetlands indent landing areas and defend several greens on lower ground. Long wooden bridges span the lake and tie the routing together. The layout is an aesthetic triumph as well as marvel of engineering. With course and slope ratings of 76.6/146 from the tips, the North Course is one of the most challenging resort courses in New England. Also one of the best-conditioned.
Mindful that not every casino patron is a scratch golfer, Jones built five sets of tees. Most middle handicappers stick to the Silver tees at 6,005 yards; the Jade tees for women measure 4,895 yards.
There should be a notice posted in the pro shop advising players to warm up properly for the round. That is because the 1st hole is a massive par five that calls for a significant carry over wetlands to a fairway that slaloms around bunkers before rising to a slippery hilltop green. It’s the No. 1 handicap hole. It can dash hopes very quickly.
While the par fours, each well-varied in shape and length, are the backbone of the course, the par threes at Lake of Isles are exceptional. The prettiest of the four is the 11th, which plays from an elevated tee to a natural peninsula green framed by bunkers and bushy growth along the lakeshore.
A bunker renovation completed this year by Jones has greatly improved the layout’s sandy hazards. To match the epic scale of the site, the bunkers on the North Course tend to be large and cavernous, with big grassy noses extending into their depths.
In addition to a first-rate practice facility and golf academy, Lake of Isles boasts a 50,000-square-foot, Craftsman-style clubhouse built from stone and wood harvested on site. Large windows serve up fine views of the lake, forest, and a golf course that satisfies everyone, from go-for-broke gamblers to more conservative players.
The wooded 900-acre complex at Lake of Isles is a peaceful enclave for golfers. Ten minutes away is Foxwoods, the largest resort casino in North America with 340,000 square feet of gaming space. The bustling Vegas-style development has four hotels, including the reflagged Fox Tower (formerly the MGM Grand); and more than 30 dining outlets (David Burke Prime is a classic American steakhouse with a three-story wine tower). There’s also two spas, retail boutiques, two theaters, and six nightclubs. There’s even a luxury bowling alley where, unlike the North Course, it’s simply not possible to lose a ball.