After more than a decade of archaeological digging, environmental permitting and near-endless rock blasting, two superlative courses debuted six years ago this spring in southeastern Connecticut across the street from Foxwoods Resort Casino, one of the world’s largest gaming meccas.
Conceived and financed by the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation, the $70-million Lake of Isles complex features two Rees Jones-designed layouts, one private, one open to resort and daily-fee play. As someone who lives 15 minutes from Foxwoods and who followed the facility’s development closely, I can report that the road to completion was long…and rocky.
“I’ve been looking at the Lake of Isles property for more than 15 years,” Jones told me when ground was broken, “and now I’ve finally been given the chance to do something with it.” The tribe had originally approached his dad, 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.
In his quest to build a pair of neo-classic, grand-scale courses that offer tee-to-green visibility along with alternate routes of attack and other strategic options, Jones was forced to blast tons of rock to create corridors for holes on the 900-acre site. The two courses are chiseled into sloping ridges within a natural bowl high above a century-old hand-dug lake. The holes, each well-defined, rise and fall through a thick forest of hardwoods and pines. On lower ground, wetlands indent landing areas and front several greens. Long wooden bridges span the lake and tie the routings together. The layouts are aesthetic triumphs as well as marvels of engineering. (The blasting bill alone was more than $10 million).
Both courses at Lake of Isles could host a pro event, and in fact a composite routing was mapped to accommodate this possibility. Quality-wise, there is little to choose between the two venues. The private South Course is a little longer at 7,359 yards from the tips, but the public-access North, a shade shorter at 7,252 yards, is more rugged and is rated a little tougher. Both layouts have five sets of tees; each plays under 5,000 yards from the forward markers. Interestingly, both courses have natural peninsula greens at their par-3 11th holes. The tribe asked Jones to represent the turtle and shell symbols in his designs. He complied with a large splayed turtle in the fairway bunker complex on the South’s fifth hole; and a representation of a whelk shell (source of wampum) in a greenside bunker at No. 15 on the North.
“Because of all the rock, we couldn’t build very fast,” Jones said. “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 well-groomed courses fit the land hand-in-glove. The wide, rolling fairways flow seamlessly through the trees, the granite outcrops like sentry posts beside the greens. The putting surfaces are subtly contoured and beautifully framed by bunkers, slopes and hillocks.
In addition to a Hank Haney Golf Academy and a first-rate practice facility, Lake of Isles boasts a 50,000-square-foot, Craftsman-style clubhouse built from stone and wood harvested on site. Large windows give members and visitors alike fine views of the lake, forest—and two of the finest courses in all of New England. Details: http://www.lakeofisles.com/index.php
If you like the action, Foxwoods has three large, bustling hotels beyond a tall ridge that separates the casino from the golf club. If you’re after something quieter, golf packages are available at The Spa at Norwich Inn, a member of the Historic Hotels of America set on 42 wooded acres a short drive from Lake of Isles. All three of the Inn’s Golf and Spa Overnight packages include accommodations, breakfast in Kensington’s restaurant, full use of the spa facility, 18 holes with cart on the North Course, unlimited use of the practice facility, and one sleeve of Callaway golf balls. Rates start at $212 per night. Details: 800-275-4772; http://www.thespaatnorwichinn.com/