It helps to have a friend in the business.
For years, golf architecture critic Bradley S. Klein beseeched Pete Dye to build a municipal course for his home town of Bloomfield, Conn. a few miles northwest of Hartford. Eight years, three referendums and $11.5 million later (only $1 went to Dye, who did the work pro bono), Wintonbury Hills opened in 2003. Every town should have a course this good.
Built on a former dairy farm and hunting preserve, the course, Pete’s first in New England, appears petite on the card (6,711 yards, par 70) but is subtly muscular. Driving areas are generous, but with more than 100 bunkers, mostly deep pots cut into volcano-like mounds, this pleasing spread exudes Yankee vigor.
Open, links-style creations lead to heavily wooded holes on higher ground, their rolling fairways offering long views of forested ridges. Wintonbury’s short, sporty front nine, its treeless holes defined by wetlands and tall fescues, kicks into gear at the fourth, a sturdy par five sculpted from the side of a ridge that appears straightforward–until you line up a putt on the wickedly contoured green.
The back nine, nearly 400 yards longer than the front, demonstrates why Dye is a master of his trade. The short uphill par-three 12th, its shelf-like green sheltered by white birches, is a gem, while the 455-yard 14th ranks among the finest par fours in the state. Here the Tunxis Reservoir, its shallow waters favored by snapping turtles, hugs the entire ride side of the fairway, with a steep, wooded hillside defending the left. A sentinel oak backdrops the large, sloping green. Maybe a spoonful or two of dirt was moved to create this nature-made classic.
Crossed in places by huge pylons, which Dye made no attempt to hide or disguise, Wintonbury Hills is a housing-free sanctuary. More than 100 bird species have been identified on site. Bobcat, bear and coyote have been spotted. No wonder Mark Twain loved Hartford and its environs.
Shortly after Wintonbury Hills made its debut, a bold urban course bounded by busy thoroughfares took shape a mere three miles away as the crow flies. Centerpiece of a mixed-use residential neighborhood, Gillette Ridge is a daily-fee spread set on CIGNA’s 600-acre Bloomfield campus. The course, named for Francis Gillette, a 19th-century reformer, politician and business leader whose fine stone house was left intact, is a Palmer Course Design with a very intricate routing.
The setting may be corporate, but the challenges at Gillette Ridge are entrepreneurial. Certainly the visual touchstones are unique: Between the 10th and 17th holes is a series of stone sculptures by Isamu Noguchi meant to connote a family. The opening and closing holes swing by a plain rectangular building from the 1950’s built to exemplify “international modernism.”
Marked by prominent berms and containment mounding, its holes routed over and around natural ponds, manmade lakes and meandering streams, this 200-acre jigsaw puzzle is a big-time test bristling with hazards. Some of the fairways skirt wetlands or wooded conservation easements; others traverse rolling terrain that offer glimpses of the Hartford skyline. The greens are large, undulating and exceedingly well-defended by bunkers, water or giant oaks, sometimes all three. More than one putting surface occupies a plateau set above a rock-rimmed creek. From the tips at 7,191 yards (par 72), you may need to double down your insurance premium.
A well-balanced design with thrilling par threes and a good mix of par fours, Gillette Ridge hangs its hat on its massive par fives, notably the double-dogleg 17th, which stretches to 573 yards and leads to an oblong green set on a stone parapet with steep drop-offs on all sides. Only a life insurance company could get away with a hole like this.
When times were good, CIGNA had planned to build a 275-room hotel and conference center, a bevy of restaurants and up to two million square feet of office space. Those plans have been shelved. For now, Gillette Ridge functions as the perfect yin to Wintonbury’s yang.
Wintonbury Hills $69 Monday – Thursday, $79 weekends / holidays (same rate walk or ride). http://www.wintonburyhills.com/index.php.
Gillette Ridge $50 Monday – Thursday, $65 weekends / holidays (same rate walk or ride). http://gilletteridgegolf.com/index.html