A Tom Fazio design that first opened in 2001, the layout can play to a very challenging slope rating of 146 from the back markers. Most sensible golfers will see sense, however, and tee it up from one of the four more forward tees on every hole.
On the front nine, the par threes at the 214-yard 2nd and 224-yard 8th provide more than a modicum of golfing eye candy as a spectacular thirty-foot waterfall backdrops the green at the former and an alluring wetland area fronts the bunkerless putting surface of the latter.
The back nine holes play through an undulating wooded landscape – with half a dozen little wooden bridges linking uneven sections of the terrain – whilst the front nine is laid out on more open ground, with six of the holes set alongside the Housatonic River.
The backside at Great River Golf Club begins with a par three. What might look like on paper as a gentle introduction to the second half is anything but as this 197-yard hole plays to a demanding sand-protected, raised green that sits behind a creek.
The comments mentioned by Doug and Adam respectively show the clear contrasts on how Great River is viewed. I fall between the two of them.
The main anchor against Great River is playability. The intensity meter is certainly high and the need for airtight shotmaking is a constant element -- with severe penalties swiftly meted out. Being able to flight one's ball is another characteristic. Low handicap players can deal with this dimension but those who can't have to improvise on a steady basis. To borrow a line from Ed Harris in Apollo 13 -- "Failure is not an option."
This is not to say the challenge Great River provides needs to be dumbed down -- but the backbone of Great River rests on "either or" golf. You either succeed or fail miserably. There's little in terms of a middle ground or architectural ingenuity. Having water penalty areas that consume much of the experience can be a trying experience for the less gifted players and make no mistake about it -- the severe nature of the penalties will snare even the best of players. Water has its place but being judicious in how it inserts itself is a puzzle architects have to constantly assess.
No question the facility and what it provides is at a high level. This includes turf quality from the three (3) different times I have played the course. There's a real sense of a "country club" which is available to the masses -- albeit not at a modest fee. For a number of golfers, the fees will not be a deterrent because of what they receive when on property.
On the flipside the Fazio design brings to the forefront the profound "look" -- the hallmark of the architect. I often thing the Fazio team can produce visual dynamics that go beyond what's needed and run counter to meshing with the existing terrain. The Fazio approach is giving golfers "more" visually when a smarter outcome is a toning down with subtle design elements ingrained into the flow of the course. The wherewithal to digest my preceding point rests immeasurably on just what elements have the greatest meaning to those playing the course. It's not unheard of that higher handicaps will embrace the stark divided on how shotmaking is assessed and those with a lower handicap may see the design as being too intense.
It would help matters if the routing were a bit more creative -- the holes embrace a pattern following a basic out and in formula. To be fair -- the site itself likely dictated such a land plan.
Is the course worthy of a possible top five status as Doug alludes in his comments? I don't see it being that good and much of that is because the private side of Nutmeg golf is very good and candidly much of the superior designs are found in Fairfield County.
Those going to Great River will likely split along the divides Adam and Doug articulated. The one-time visitor may have an engaging time -- but I dare say those seeing it that way should see if such an opinion holds with multiple plays -- notably when the wind picks up and if the wrong tees are played.
In any case, you can be sure opinions will be quite polarizing.
M. James Ward
Great River Golf Club was one of the final top tier Connecticut public courses that I checked off my bucket list a few years ago. While the round itself was fun, there was very little memorable about the course architecturally and I have no plans to return soon.
Great River feels like a modern private club. With an excellent range, massive clubhouse, technologically equipped carts, and an extremely high price tag, you definitely feel a sense of exclusivity throughout your time on the property.
A few holes which I can recall in more detail:
• #3: This long par five takes advantage of a quirky corner on the property. Playing straight for most of its length, the fairway slowly pinches as one approaches the green. The putting surface is set at least 20-30 yards above the fairway, so laying up and dialing in a precise wedge is critical.
• #6: This par five plays alongside the Housatonic River yet feels very sylvan. The landing area for ones’ approach is very wide, and playing left is essential for the best angle. Along that path, though, one must contend with the river and thick rough.
• #9: With a very wide landing area, one can play more aggressively towards the left (and a pond and thick woods) for a better angle and shorter approach, or more safely to the right with a tough iron shot over a pond.
• #10: This mid-length par three plays slightly uphill to an interesting, multi-tiered green with interesting pot bunkers and collection areas.
• #15: The most impressive hole on the course, this par three is listed as being 160 yards from the tips but drops significantly, playing 20-30 yards shorter. Wind is a factor, and the view is spectacular.
• #17: This downhill par five is gorgeous, following the flow of the topography beautifully. A right-to-left shot off the tee is preferred, but a number of options open on the approach shots depending on pin location.
While a day at Great River is enjoyable and provides variety in shot selection, the course lacks in strategic architectural interest. This is best highlighted by the following observations:
• 17.5 holes at Great River run North-South along this thin property, likely by necessity (the exception being the approach on #9). With the wind blowing southward on the day I played, shots were either directly downwind or right into your face which got old quickly.
• This course is an absolute brute throughout with virtually no breaks in challenge. This may be great for low handicappers (such as local college teams), but I cannot fathom it being especially playable day-in and day-out for mid/high handicappers. The only relatively easy hole was the opener, playing around 350 yards and featuring one of only three greens that allowed run-up shots. This baffled me – usually, a strategic architect would offer such an option when players had long irons in their hands, not wedges.
• The few holes that do offer wide landing areas are actually not especially thought provoking. Holes #4, #9, and #18 each are par fours very generous fairways should the player wish to lay up. However, there is no real room to hit a driver where the fairway narrows – it becomes way too troublesome and narrow. Essentially, there is no risk-reward mindset present. The only sane option is to lay up.
Great River’s conditioning is immaculate, and the service level was top notch. However, I would expect these with a $120+ price tag. While many of its greens had interesting rumples and contours, the majority were surrounded by rough and holes blended together. For value, it is hard for me to recommend playing Great River more than once. Great River did not leave a strong impression on me relative to many other far less expensive Connecticut public options.
Great River is a fabulous course. A great mix of very good holes. Over the years they have switched the front and back nines. For a while the first hole was a challenging par 3. With the change the first hole is a devilish par 4 that is a slight dog leg right with massive fairway bunkers right in the hill that sits to the left of a pond. The hole seems to be almost straight except if you challenge the right side the reward is not worth the risk. the 2nd is a par 3 which is a very good hole. It has a very large green which sits behind some small moguls and diagonally has depth to the left. The 3rd hole is fabulous par 5. It gently glides to the left as two ponds come into play out to the right. The final 80 yards are up a huge incline to a severely sloped green. At the base of the final incline is a brook. The 4th is a very demanding par 4. There are ponds left and right and the one on the right goes up to the green and infront of it. A good drive is met with an approach which must carry the pond yet hold and not cross the green as there are several demanding bunkers. The 5th is another demanding drive par4 as there is a pond on the left and a waste area on the right. The 6th is a par 5 which has a seemingly wide fairway. The trees out on the right however cause problems as the firway ends and goes right to the green and shots can be troublesome if right as the trees block the green view but the fairway slopes away and balls run out often thru the fairway into the woods left. The 7th is another big par 4. Elevated tee to a fairway that has waste area the whole left side a pond to the right unless you can carry it 260 past it. A green protected by an enormous sahara like bunker with a slight hill on the right toward the green. The green is very deep and diagonally laid right to left. The 8th is a par 3 with good length and a waste area to cross and to the left and a slightly raised green. The 9th is a dog leg right par 4 with a huge waste area to the right forming the dogleg. The green is well protected by bunkers. The 10th is a good par 3. A slight rise to the large green and you must cross a brook just short of the green. 11 is a good par 4. Pretty much straight with the green sitting in a well bunkered area with mounds on 3 sides. 12 is a fabulous par 4 with a valley with a brook sitting out about 250 to 2800 off the tee. The area near the brook slopes down toward it making drives that go to that depth creating downhill lies to an elevated green 175ish away. Numerous bunkers are placed all over the approach area. 13 is a good par 5. The tee sits along side the rail tracks and the right side is dead the whole way. You cross that valley again as you go back but it is close enough to the tee to not be too bothersome. The green sits across a massive bunker. This bunker rides the left side for near 200 yards and crosses in front of the green. 14 is a seemingly wide open par 4. There are deep fairway bunkers left and the railway is out right but the fairway is 50 yards wide. The green is extremely protected with bunkers and is raised slightly. 15 is a post card par 3. Straight down hill playing 120 to 160 and the green is sided by the Housatonic River and fronted by a brook with massive stone walls built everywhere. 16 is another fabulous par 4. A semi blind drive up the hill to a wide fairway. The green is positioned next to a large oak tree with a limb that covers the right edge of the green. The green is raised and well bunkered. 17 is maybe the toughest drive of the day. You hit up a gentle slope with woods and bunkers out to the left. The right is a severe drop off to the river with a lost ball. It is so very narrow. The finish of the hole is a large funnel down to a well protected bunkered green. 18 is a good par 4. An elevated tee shot to an expanse of several fairway bunkers challenging you to cover them. They sit in a hill so you either lay up and have a blind approach or you try to cover them and bring trouble into play at all angles. The green has drop offs on 3 sides.
Great River doesn't get the positive feedback it deserves in my opinion. It is a fabulous course deserving of a top 10 maybe top 5 rating in CT.