Mohegan Sun CC provides counterpoint to casino

The Mohegan Sun CC

The Mohegan Sun CC

BALTIC, Conn. -- For a casino resort and entertainment center characterized by a bold, ultra-modern, steel-and-glass design aesthetic, Mohegan Sun now has taken a decidedly bucolic approach to golf.

After years of makeshift arrangements with various local clubs, the Mohegan Tribe of Connecticut finally has opened its own golf course, located 13 miles north of the resort. Anyone familiar with 50-year-old Pautipaug Country Club will recognize parts of that facility in what’s now called Mohegan Sun Country Club at Pautipaug.

With five new holes, the introduction of an expansive pond system, retro-bunkering and a complete overhaul of turf cover, we’re dealing with what amounts to a new golf course. Rhode Island-based golf course architect

Robert McNeil has taken a sleepy, mundane work by the late New England golf course designer Geoffrey Cornish and converted it into a more interesting, more thoughtfully shaped layout that fits in seamlessly with the surrounding rustic country.

Connecticut, the fourth-most densely populated state, still has plenty of unsettled, rural ground. Much of it is in the eastern part of the state, midway between Hartford and Providence, R.I., where the rock-strewn fields and woodland of the town of Baltic can be found.

McNeil’s renovation was a yearlong effort that cost $6.5 million. Much of the work involved an extensive system of interlocked ponds for water storage, and one-third of that money went to a new irrigation system. The state, already notoriously demanding in terms of wetlands regulations, has placed increasingly strict limitations on the use of streams for recreational irrigation.

McNeil’s task was to make the new storage ponds work with the golf strategy while maintaining environmental setbacks and not to intrude upon an attractive stream, Ayers Brook, that runs through the golf course.

The shaping work, by NMP Golf Construction, features bunkers that bubble up from the ground and present steep, fescue-covered faces to the approaching golfer. McNeil preserved a number of Cornish’s trademark back-to-front greens, but added enough contour on the sides to avoid any patterned look.

Cornish, who died in February at age 97, was not averse to whimsical indulgence, such as his unique (as far as I know and hope) “W”-shaped, triple-tee alignment for adjoining holes nine, 12 and 15, all of which emanate from a single, conjoined starting point. Out of respect for the Grand Old Man of New England design, McNeil kept the tee formation, though he wisely removed the two phalanxes of conifers that served as arboreal dividers. All that’s missing there now is a plaque honoring Cornish (hint, hint).

McNeil, 45, studied landscape architecture at Ohio State and worked under architects Michael Hurdzan and Keith Foster before going solo in the mid-1990s. His playful sense of form is evident in two holes he created at Mohegan Sun.

The par-4, 370-yard 10th wraps around a huge irrigation pond and offers three distinct paths off the tee, including a high-risk route that almost renders the hole drivable. He’s even more daring at the 495-yard par-5 sixth hole. The path to the shallow green perched above a front pond requires a drive to what McNeil calls “dog bone fairway.” By that, he’s referring to the fact that the landing area has a pronounced roll that, depending upon the length of the shot, will either kick the ball back or throw it forward.

Mohegan Sun CC at Pautipaug, adorned with fescue eyebrows on the bunkers and lots of tall native rough, today looks like one of those old colorized postcards of rustic New England. At 6,790 yards from the back tees and on relatively heavy soils that play slow, the par-72 layout provides plenty of challenge and intrigue. More importantly, it feels as if it has been part of the landscape for a very long time. For patrons of a bustling, high-rise casino, that is a welcome achievement.

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