Rater's notebook: Shining Rock

The 239-yard, par-3 fifth hole at Shining Rock

The 239-yard, par-3 fifth hole at Shining Rock

NORTHBRIDGE, Mass. – There’s a reason why they essentially gave up farming in central Massachusetts two centuries ago. One look at the rocks and ledges at Shining Rock Golf Club is enough to convince the most skeptical observer that finding arable ground here, let alone enough space for golf holes, must have been a monumental task.

It’s not entirely clear they have succeeded. In fact, it’s something of a miracle of design and dynamite that this daily-fee course midway between Worcester, Mass., and Providence, R.I., is open at all and playable.

Credit goes to general manager Tim Gordon and his firm, Niblick Golf. Gordon persisted in rescuing this project through several years of bankruptcy proceedings. The 146-acre course finally was severed from an adjoining, overly ambitious, 65-acre real estate development with 35 homesites and 120 condominium units.

The course occupies a stunning site in the Blackstone River Valley and affords some dramatic long views of the escarpment. The initial routing by Howard Maurer subsequently was revised and finished by Patrick Sullivan in his capacity as grow-in superintendent.

As a result of the formal separation of golf and real estate properties, Shining Rock now has an extremely awkward routing, with a 10th hole (originally planned as the first) starting in a kind of suspended animation. Between the distended 10th hole and some weird (and dangerous) switchbacks, this is an ungainly and occasionally unsettling routing to navigate.

The awkwardness extends to a few forced-carry tee shots, two of which (the par-4 second and fourth) are enough to end the round right there in frustration. Daily-fee players cannot reasonably be expected to hit uphill forced carries of 200-plus yards from the 6,462-yard tees. And having to move up to the next set of markers, at 5,888 yards, makes everything else too short.

A yardage book would help orient golfers as to the forced carries they face. To be sure, the rangers try. But you know you’re in trouble when, at the first tee, you confront a blind landing area on this 421-yard par 4 and the starter’s speech instructs you to “just hit it 15 yards left of that tree, and if you carry it 227 to 260 yards you’ll be fine.”

Routing issues aside, there are some virtues to golf at Shining Rock, including long vistas of the rolling terrain and lovely native wildflowers and grasses adorning the considerable wetlands. The turf also has been well maintained despite an unusually rainy golf season. The attractive site and lovely views make up for some obvious drawbacks.

• • •

1. Ease and intimacy of routing: 1

As the saying goes, if you have to explain it in golf design, it doesn’t work. This routing is awkward in the extreme, with long hauls and switchbacks on a site that has 200 feet of elevation change. It’s also dangerous, given the handful of times you head up the right side of a previous (or future) hole to get to the next tee.

2. Quality of feature shaping: 3

Big construction equipment produces big shapes and relinquishes all subtlety. There’s the predictable landscape architecture style of mounding around greens, and enormous bunkers with little relationship to surrounding landforms and character.

3. Natural setting and overall land plan: 5

The site is gorgeous. While not well suited for golf, it manages to be a sensuous outdoor environment. It’s just too bad the clumsy show of housing interrupts the holes. The 18th feels like a wrong turn into someone’s front yard.

4. Interest of greens and surrounds: 4

Big swooping contours everywhere. There’s no doubt about reading these greens, and also little intrigue.

5. Variety and memorability of par 3s: 4

All run high right to low left, slightly uphill, and on the longer side, 178-198 yards from blue tees. Granite pile behind fifth green is a welcome gesture invoking the site’s old quarry.

6. Variety and memorability of par 4s: 7

Five short par 4s are the strength of the course on a tough site with complex land issues to negotiate.

7. Variety and memorability of par 5s: 5

The first two par 5s (Nos. 3 and 13) involve compellingly stressful drives followed by high-risk/low-reward second shots. The 16th hole is simply long and otherwise pointless, except to get you to 17.

8. Basic conditioning: 8

T-1 bentgrass greens are smooth and consistent; fairways and tees are well established despite considerable rains; surface run-offs across intense slopes have caused some washouts, but manageably so.

9. Landscape and tree management: 7

Adequately cleared on a naturally wooded site, though the occasional cut back for tee shots would help. Some more understory plantings would break up untoward sight lines of real estate.

10. “Walk in the park” test: 5

A beautiful piece of countryside where the attractions are less about golf than simply a close encounter with the rugged New England landscape.

Overall: 4.7

Severe as a golf course, awkwardly routed, yet compelling as an adventure and surely at least as interesting and memorable as most of the south-central Massachusetts daily-fee layouts.

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