Dorset Field Club had nine holes in play by 1886, though it took another decade before the club built its first clubhouse and implemented a constitution. The original layout was expanded to an 18-hole course in 1999.
The club claims to be “the oldest continuously operating golf club in America,” ahead of Foxburg Country Club in Pennsylvania (1887) and St. Andrews Golf Club in New York (1888) and there’s no doubt that a 9-hole course was in operation during 1886, as evidenced by a map of the original layout attested by lawyer Ransom H. Gillett, who wrote:
“Course laid out by A.W. Harrington Esq, assisted by a crowd of thugs, touts and loafers. 1st Assistant Civil Engineers ‘Doc’ Holley and ‘Bill’ Kent. The course was planned and laid out on Sunday September 12th 1886. The aforementioned A.W. Harrington, Chief Engineer and Mayor of the City, was late to dinner on this account and caught Hell when he got home. All of which I can swear to.”
Unfortunately, these ‘touts and loafers’ didn’t get round to formally establishing a golf club until 1896 or incorporating it with the state until 1918 so exactly when the club was formed is, at best, open to interpretation – and to make matters worse, the original map with the humorous note somehow got lost when it was taken to be copied for the centennial celebrations in 1986!
Today, the course extends to a modest length of 6,198 yards from the back markers, playing to a par of 70. Highlight holes include the 351-yard 4th, where the fairway wraps round a pond to the left of the hole, and the 560-yard 16th, the only par five on the back nine for male golfers, doglegging sharply right between the tee and the green.
Head professional Patrick Berry kindly supplied us with the following information:
“In the late 1990s, Steve Durkee added a new nine (current holes 3 to 5 and 12 to 17) and these were integrated into the original layout which was (from #1 to #9) current holes 10, 11, 6 to 9, 1, 2 and 18. The extended course opened for play officially on July 17, 1999.”
Dorset Field Club touts itself as the oldest continually operated golf course on the same piece of land -- dating back to 1886. Truly remarkable. The roughly created 9-hole layout was subsequently updated in the 1940-time frame. In 1997, local architect Steve Durkee was hired to create what is today the inward half of holes. That effort was unveiled to the membership in 1997 and which is essentially the same course one plays today.
A visit to Dorset is truly one to savor. The charm of New England is front and center and while Dorset is a very short ride to nearby Manchester -- roughly seven miles -- the spacing between the two provides for a clear change of pace -- the lively atmosphere of Manchester juxtaposed to the more sedate connection when arriving in Dorset.
For those able to access playing privileges at the Field Club it pays to consider staying at the nearby Dorset Inn -- an endearing establishment that oozes a home style experience.
The existing 18 at the Field Club is an enjoyable course but it's clear the architecture of the front nine is not in alignment with what Durkee created. The golf experience does have its moments but continuity is not present throughout and the course suffers because of this.
Hats off to the leadership of the club in opting to do a comprehensive updating of its Master Plan and in hiring the architectural tandem of Kyle Franz of Pinehurst, NC. and Tyler Rae of Wilmington, DE.
The work is taking place in stages now and if all proceeds smoothly should be completed in a few years' time. If all the improvements are carried out to fruition, it's quite possible that the Field Club will be worthy of the top slot in the Green Mountain State.
One of the most compelling ideas is taking the existing pedestrian short par-4 1st and the non-descript par-3 2nd -- and combining them into a much more engaging par-5 featuring a meaningful risk/reward element with a new green benched into the hillside where the tee for the present 18th is situated. Once completed the "new" opener will be a much more exhilarating start for the round.
The existing par-4 3rd is a fine hole at 385 yards and the plans submitted will make this two-shot hole even more challenging with a new back tee placed at 425 yards. By being moved from the 3rd to 2nd position, the "new" hole will be a stout assignment to keep momentum going early in the round.
The present-day 4th will become the 3rd. The hole will still have more of a "Florida feel" than one from New England but the planned improvements will clearly be a step-up in terms of testing players accordingly.
The first real improvement being carried out is restoring the punch bowl par-3 5th -- a hole from the early 1900's. The par-3 was being shaped when I was on the property and the overall character of the hole will be a major improvement to the routing.
Interesting, that with the planned improvements the 5th, 6th and 8th holes will be par-3's. The most fascinating could well be the 8th. There will be a new green located further out on the bluff and the new position, along with the planned "biarritz" style green will be a major leap forward.
There also plans to enhance the qualities of the short par-4 9th by combining existing bunkers and by providing a narrow alleyway for players to consider driving one's ball through the available opening.
The inward half at Dorset does have a number of good holes but the 10th is not one of them. The existing visuals bring into eye-range the adjoining practice area as well as the paddle tennis building, courts and parking. This will eventually be screened by a major cut to the ridge in the fairway thereby providing for a more segregated hole than one sees today.
Matters change noticeably at the par-4 11th. This long two-shot holes requires a stout tee shot positioned far enough right to access any pin location. The green sits beautifully behind a creek and when the improvements are done -- there will be less trees down the left to add to visibility and two bunkers will be added to the hillside just off the left side of the green. When what is planned is carried out - the challenge of the 11th will certainly be clearly improved.
After a short walk one arrives at the par-3 12th. The hole is a good test with the short iron. The green is set within mounding that engulfs the green and there are plans to add another championship tee for a bit more yardage and playing angles.
The par-4 13th is a fine two-shot hole that features a drive zone that turns left off the tee. The putting surface is done well -- plenty of internal movements that will separate the fine putter from the mediocre one.
The par-4 14th reverses direction and with plans for a bit more back tee distance the hole will certainly become more testing. The existing green is one of the best at Dorset with a spine that separates one section from the other. There are discussions to "rework" some of the slopes and I can only hope the qualities of the hole are not neutered.
The ending stretch at Dorset is fun to play and has enough teeth to provide plenty of bite for those who can't muster the challenges encountered. The par-4 15th at 421 yards is a quality hole and the planned improvements will extend the green to the far corners and bring into play the front left bunker which will be enlarged.
The par-5 16th is both beautiful and strategic. The risk/reward equation is front and center. Strong players can position their tee shots along a drop-off to the right and if successful face a long 2nd shot across the chasm with the green wonderfully located on the far side. There are also falloffs to avoid. Interestingly, two large trees located where the hole makes its final turn to the right will be removed and thereby add a bit more playability for those who don't have the firepower to go for the green in two blows.
The penultimate hole is another temptation -- a dropshot par-3 that tests the nerves. Water hugs the right side of the green and there are several bunkers providing protection for those who venture too far right. A planned new championship tee will be added -- gaining some yardage and adding another vexing angle to face.
Dorset's final hole is a rigorous par-4 of 425 yards. The uphill tee shot puts added pressure to find the fairway. The green is also quite finicky on the approach shots accepted. Plans call for the inclusion of fairway bunkers on both sides and this will certainly make better players pause before opting to unload a tee shot as they are now.
The existing course does have its moments but the lack of design clarity throughout is what's missing. If the planned work of Franz and Rae can be completed there's little doubt Dorset will rise to be one of New England's most beguiling of golf gems.
The planned total yardage will be just a tad beyond 6,700 yards.. What is missing now will be replaced with a robust golf connection -- blasting off with the opening tee shot and continuing through to when the final putt is holed. How such things are finalized will determine Dorset's ultimate golf future.
I've got my fingers crossed all of the planned work comes into being because if does then those venturing to Dorset Field Club will be smitten for sure.
M. James Ward
Dorset is a prestigious club but is not opulent in the grounds near the clubhouse. Rather, it is a quiet, summer retreat for wealthy northeast families. The course follows suit, with excellent conditions and clear, natural, design details. Each hole is named and has distinctive signs at each tee box. The fairways were like carpet, the tee boxes were perfectly even, and putting surfaces were smooth and green. The aspect that separates Dorset is the constantly changes style of holes that keeps the player interested throughout. The 13th Hole "Goat's Loose" is a 145 yd par 3 that requires a tee shot over rolling hills of fescue to a partially blind green. The 4th hole is a slight dogleg along a water hazard and would be a signature hole at most other course. But the 17th hole had the most dramatic view, down the hill to a well bunkered green, with water to the front right. ALl framed by the mountains in the background. The course is in a valley and provides mountain views from any spot on the course. I felt privileged to be on the grounds and am grateful to the staff for allowing me to play.