2004: Orchards blossoms for Open

By Bradley S. Klein

South Hadley, Mass.

When the U.S. Women’s Open pitches its tent July 1-4 at The Orchards, 25,000 spectators per day and a national television audience will discover what many New Englanders have known for years. This lovely old Donald Ross-designed course has quirky charm and an endearing sensibility. It’s also a fine test of classic shotmaking.

Women’s golf will get a big boost from having its national championship on a course that’s owned by a fine all-women’s school, Mount Holyoke College.

The course adjoins the campus and sits within walking distance of this picture-postcard New England town.

The course dates to a nine-hole design in 1922 commissioned by textile magnate Joseph Skinner for use by his sports-minded daughter, Elisabeth. Ross’ longtime design associate, Walter Hatch, then a resident of nearby North Amherst, did the original holes, and then Ross attended to an expansion of the course in 1927 that yielded the present routing. The Hatch holes (Nos. 1-3, 9-11, 16, 18 and the practice putting green) are closer to the clubhouse; the Ross holes (Nos. 4-8, 12-15 and 17) are on higher ground, farther out and are much stronger in shaping, bunkering, putting surfaces and overall character.

After the college acquired the course in 1941, The Orchards was run as a semiprivate club on a threadbare budget. Maintenance suffered, and members were spoiled – playing for below-market fees. The only advantage of such a modest budget was that no one tried to modernize the place, and it retained its Old World charm. Longtime pro Bob Bontempo was a congenial host to students of architecture who made the trek to one of Ross’ untouched pieces of jewelry.

Revival of The Orchards started in 1983 when then-superintendent Paul Jamrog began restoring native rough grasses and recapturing putting surfaces that had been lost. The USGA was impressed enough with the place to hold the 1987 Girls’ Junior here (won by Michelle McGann). Architect Ron Prichard applied his well-honed Ross restoration talents to the bunkers in 1999.

Since 2000, when Arnold Palmer Golf Management took over day-to-day operations, the club has seen improvements to the cart paths, drainage, practice ground, teeing areas and overall maintenance – in no small part the result of behind-the-scenes encouragement by the USGA, which has been highly concerned about course conditions.

From the back tees, The Orchards clocks in at 6,575 yards, par 71 (slope of 136, rating of 72.6). For the Women’s Open, the layout will measure 6,473 yards, par 71, with the member’s par-4 13th playing as a par 5 and the par-5 16th shortened marginally to a par 4. Long hitters have a tremendous advantage, particularly since tee shots carrying 250-plus yards will make the trio of par 5s reachable in two shots.

The finish is especially demanding. The 439-yard par-4 16th hole offers an unbunkered, domed green designed to handle a lofted approach. The hardest hole on the course certainly will be the 18th, 412 yards, with a tee shot that needs to avoid a circuitous creek and a two-tier green perched 20 feet above the fairway landing area.

– Bradley S. Klein is an honorary member of The Orchards and formerly taught at Mount Holyoke College.

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