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18 Holes at Harvest Times

Come autumn, the rugged hills of western Massachusetts and Vermont form a blazing backdrop for golf and personal reflection

By: Roland Merullo

Appeared in September/October 2005 LINKS

Come autumn, the rugged hills of western Massachusetts and Vermont form a blazing backdrop for golf and personal reflection.

The southwest quadrant of Vermont and the adjoining northwest corner of Massachusetts are important emotional territory to me. I wasn’t born or brought up in the area, nor did I attend school there. My family had no summer home tucked into its hills. But I came to live amid its rugged beauty for two decades, during which I experienced several major milestones: the publication of my first novel; the death of my father; the birth of my two children; and, not as any mere coincidence, the onset of a life’s devotion to golf. Return trips to the region are always freighted with memories, never more so than in fall, when the mountainsides burn with color and the tang of wood smoke marks the approach of another long, golfless winter.

In late September and early October, dozens of two-lane routes through western New England offer excellent golf and some of the hemisphere’s most dramatic foliage. On a recent autumn golfabout I followed an itinerary that would take me through well-remembered outposts, beginning in the center of Vermont at a daily-fee course called Green Mountain National. I believe the best way to experience any golf course is on foot, but any golfer who walks this one should have a strong pair of lungs. The routing climbs between rock outcroppings through an extravagant variety of holes, including a dogleg-over-water second and the free-fall, par-3 13th. Architect Gene Bates made good use of segmented greens that dictate markedly different approach shots according to different pin placements, and the course’s twists and turns bring hillsides of scarlet, orange and yellow into view from various angles.

After a round at Green Mountain National, you can choose to drive east toward the beckoning luxury of Laurance Rockefeller’s Woodstock Inn. But I prefer to bed down at the more modest (despite its name) Killington Grand Resort Hotel, with its large outdoor heated pool and jacuzzi. The Grand is situated at the foot of the famed Killington ski area, where I broke my back in a violent fall 25 winters ago. That meant surgery, big chiropractor bills and decades of chronic pain, but I’ve never let the insult or the injury keep me from returning here. Soaking away my aches in a hot tub while gazing at the peaks outside my window always feels like some kind of mad golfer’s triumph.

Next stop on this route would be Rutland, Vt., a humble city in which I spent a frigid winter during my mid-20s. I took a room in a boarding house owned by a warm-hearted couple conveniently named Fran and Fran Waterman, and passed a fair amount of time strolling the snow-covered fairways of century-old Rutland Country Club, wondering how far in life I might go with the two liberal arts degrees I had accumulated.

I look at those fairways differently now, with a golfer’s eye. Unpretentious but impeccably groomed, Rutland measures a deceptively difficult 6,134 yards from the back tees, and Bobby Locke’s course-record 62, set in 1959, still stands. Wayne Stiles and John Van Kleek ran this mountainous 18 back and forth across East Creek and notched several greens into the sides of stony, fescued hills that look as if they were imported directly from Scotland.After managing par on Rutland’s short but devilish ninth, I stopped at the refreshment stand and spent a moment chatting with the gentleman behind the counter. “The Watermans?” he said. “Sure I remember—used to go out for coffee  with them. We always kidded them, you know, because of the names. He was mayor of Rutland at one time—did you know that?”

 

I didn’t know—a quiet and dignified man, he’d never mentioned it. By the time I was a guest at his little inn, Mr. Fran Waterman had Parkinson’s. He once asked me to help him close up his summer home near Castleton, and I’ll never forget making that drive—his hands shook so badly he could barely keep the car on the road.

That same drive west on Route 4, from Rutland to the tiny, quaint town of Castleton, is alive with color each fall, as if the richest memories have been squeezed from the landscape just before the cold descends. If someone in your party desires a side trip purely devoted to leaf-peeping, send them down that brief detour. And suggest they time the trip so that they stop for the chicken Philly wrap with iced coffee, followed by a slice of homemade pie, at Castleton’s classic Birdseye Diner.

The place to stay hereabouts, hands-down, is 40 minutes south of the Birdseye at an old pearl called The Equinox in Manchester Village. There is something reliably reassuring about Manchester Village—perhaps it’s the Carthusian monastery on top of Mt. Equinox, the worn white marble sidewalks or the way bright leaves sweeten the valley’s autumn air. With its fine Northshire Bookshop—for the best of Vermont writing, check out the novels of Craig Nova and Howard Frank Mosher, or Steven Cramer’s poetry—a slew of high-end outlet stores and hills peopled by the rich and famous, Manchester rivals Nantucket and the Berkshires as New England’s place to be. The Equinox has a modern spa, broad porches and sitting rooms in abundance, and a classy-casual restaurant that serves up fresh seafood and great steaks. This enormous, colonnaded hotel used to be owned by the Orvis family, and today you’ll find all the fly-fishing gear you could ever need at the Orvis store just up the road.

Gleneagles, the golf course at The Equinox, sits in a fertile bowl formed by the Taconic and Green mountain ranges. Its silky fairways and  gentle putting surfaces won’t challenge longer hitters the way a course like Green Mountain will, or satisfy shotmakers

à la Rutland, but the last two holes can hold their own against any pair of finishers in New England. Playing No. 18 from the tips, you must hit at least a 260-yard drive over a tall maple tree (a little twinge in the back here as I attempted this) and across a long stretch of rough to a skinny fairway. That task accomplished, you are left with an uphill mid-iron to a green that has O.B. right and a deep long bunker left.

The Equinox offers a hearty morning meal, but I prefer to stop for coffee and eggs at a little hole-in-the-wall called Up For Breakfast. It’s just a handful of tables squeezed into a second-floor room, but the menu is extensive and the food superb. Soothed and sated, you’re now ready to make the scenic drive south on historic Route 7A. In less than an hour you’ll cross into Massachusetts’ Berkshire County and find another Stiles and Van Kleek emerald, Taconic Golf Club in Williamstown.

Owned by Williams College, Taconic is consistently ranked first or second in surveys of public-access New England courses. As with Rutland, its steeply canted greens can be frighteningly fast, but here the rough is deep and the par-4s lengthy. Walk to the back of the 14th tee and you’ll see a stone plaque commemorating an ace that some young fellow named Jack Nicklaus made here in 1956.

My wife and I moved to Williamstown when we were first married, not because we had jobs there—we didn’t—but because we liked the way the hills rose up around the small town. I found work as a housepainter here and was trying to get a writing career off the ground when I got the news that my dad had died suddenly. Amanda waitressed at first, then tended bar, and finally landed a photographer job at one of my favorite places in Berkshire County, the Clark Art Institute. The Clark, it so happens, sits across from Taconic’s second green, and guards within its collection a painting I never tired of gazing at, Bougereau’s “Nymphs and Satyr.” Singer Sewing Machine heirs Sterling and Francine Clark moved their extensive collection of Monets and Sargents here from New York City in the era when Manhattanites openly worried about a Soviet nuclear missile strike.

My friend Darra Goldstein, a Williams professor and internationally admired cookbook author, knows these parts well. She recommends dinner at Mezze for those who like hip bistro cuisine, and Mill on the Floss for classic French provincial. A few miles from Taconic is The Orchards Hotel, where film stars hide out during their visits to the Williamstown summer theater festival. Be sure to check out the wine cellar and sample the prize-winning cuisine of chef Swen Boehm.

This golf pilgrimage I’ve described saves its best for last. The Crumpin-Fox Club in Bernardston, Mass., 75 minutes east of Taconic, does not have an elegant clubhouse, celebrity members or shoppes across the street. This place is about pure golf, and if the relatively short venues at Rutland, Gleneagles and Taconic have left your driver feeling underappreciated, request permission to play the back tees, which measure 7,007 yards and rate a hefty 141 slope.

“Crump,” as the locals call it, is beautifully groomed, persistently unforgiving and, in all seasons, a joy to behold. Designer Roger Rulewich’s signature hole is the 592-yard eighth, where I once carded a 4 and many times wrote down an X. Playing from an elevated tee, with dense woods on the right and a pond all the way down the left, all you have to do is strike a long, straight drive, followed by a long, straight second shot and then a perfect wedge over water to a two-tier green.

Not long ago I took our oldest daughter, who is 7, up to Crump, where I played from the blues and she played from the 100-yard markers. On the relatively easy uphill second, she landed in a deep bunker, but insisted on playing the ball as it lay. When she blasted it out onto the green (with an improbable bit of backspin), I felt like a huge part of my wandering life had come full circle.

I finished this particular foliage trip half an hour south of Crumpin-Fox, in the bustling town of Northampton, home to the classy Hotel Northampton and a palette of eateries to rival a city 10 times its size—everything from Tibetan, Moroccan and Thai to Indian, Italian and Japanese. In Northampton, art movie houses, live music and bookstores mix with fancy clothing stores and gift shops. Stroll the broad main street on a fall evening, remembering your best shots of the trip and the big moments in your life, and you might come to have a special place in your heart for this colorful region, too.  

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