Appeared in July/August 2001 LINKS
Just as Fenway Park sits serenely within the commotion of Boston’s Kenmore Square, Taconic Golf Club, at the opposite end of Massachusetts, tucks itself tightly alongside a middle-class neighborhood of Williamstown. Instead of a grandiose entry with artificial curves, Taconic makes do with short, straight Meacham Street as its conduit to the world.
Williams College, the prestigious institution that owns this beloved and ancient course, uses Weston Field, adjacent to No. 18 fairway, for its varsity ball games and meets. A golfer may hear a starter’s pistol fire or an infielder shouting for the cutoff throw as he begins or ends a round. Taconic is a creature of its small-town surroundings, to be sure, but ask that first-time golfer about the course at day’s end. He will surely proclaim it a transcendent golf experience.
The aforementioned Weston ball fields provided Williamstown’s original golf grounds, in 1896. That year, “three men with three tomato cans” received permission to install their crude cups in the ground and commence hitting mashie shots. A seven-hole course was constructed soon after, succeeded by the regulation nine-hole layout that opened in ’97. Some 30 years later, Wayne Stiles, of the noted Boston firm Stiles & Van Kleek, arrived on the scene. His challenge was to unite the original links and some adjacent parcels into a single, verdant vision of golf-course routing and classic American landscape design.
Originally, Stiles gave the hickory-wielding collegians a par-73 course. This configuration changed in 1955 with the opening of the Meacham Street clubhouse, a quarter-mile or so from the original. Holes were renumbered, but the essence of the Taconic routing remains. It all flows from Stiles’ decision to build around a single, central ridge that runs north-south. This ridge provides high terrain where Stiles elevated the green sites of what are today Nos. 6, 13 and 16 and the tee boxes of holes 2, 7, 13 and 15.
Although Taconic measures just 6,640 yards, the need to hit lofted clubs into the greens makes it feel considerably longer, and it offers the brawn and sweep of a championship venue.
Scoring here is all about keeping the ball below the hole. No. 1 offers a little tee gift in the form of accessible birdie, but by No. 3 the course’s penchant for giving bad grades to misplaced approach shots is fully evident.
Just when you think Taconic is strictly a second-shot course, some tough driving hole like No. 6 or No. 12 comes along to jitter you. The tee shot at 12, for example, rewards placement down the left side of the fairway with fuller green access. But it sharply penalizes anything left of Position A with a three-story dropoff into something Pete Dye and his grunting henchmen might have contrived.
Many tees offer both a vista to sigh at and some strategy to plot. Upon reaching the par-4 13th, a first-timer gazes beyond the green toward four distant breadloaf peaks, sage-green under a high noon sun in mid-May. Closer at hand he spies a left-to-right sidesloping fairway with a dramatic half-pipe that gathers strong drives and settles many of them at 7-iron or 6-iron distance.
At Taconic, you can shoot 88 and never lose a ball. Everywhere there are magnificent trees. Many were planted in the mid-20th century by Richard Baxter, an old-style pro/greenkeeper. But tree growth is well-managed. No. 7, for example, is a dogleg that plays sweepingly up and right, around white pines shorn of their low branches and thus permitting the clean punch-out escape. The white birches along No. 8 and other holes have a stunning high-country brightness to their papery bark.
“I have outwalked the furthest city light,” wrote Robert Frost in “Acquainted with the Night,” a poem he published, coincidentally, during Taconic’s first full season. That’s a bit how a Taconic golfer feels as his round unfolds. The campus-dominated village is both compact and other-worldly. The golf course, likewise, is deceptively small in its acreage, yet reaches far beyond its own borders.