The realization of the Antonacci racehorse family, GreatHorse is an extraordinary $50 million Brian Silva transformation of the bankrupt Hampden Country Club property into an opulent, private golfing retreat.
The golf course has undergone a complete facelift – "everything is new… the irrigation, tee boxes, fairways, greens, bunkers and cart paths,'' according to head professional Billy Downes – with only the routing remaining intact from its original 1973 design.
Renovations started when the club closed in July 2012, six months after it was purchased at auction.
“We started tearing apart bunkers at the start of that season, but then it turned from a ($3 million) bunker renovation to a full-course renovation,” Billy Downes said. “The big complaint was the 1st and 10th holes, with tee shots that were blind (so) we moved the most earth on holes 1, 9, 10 and 15.”
Notable on-course changes include a peninsula green on the 4th which is driveable from the forward tees; a double green at the 5th and 7th; and a pond that’s surrounded by a large horseshoe-shaped tee box at the par three 12th hole.
Summing up the upgrade, Billy Downes said: "Silva gave it a ton of modern characteristics, with an old school feel.''
The goal in achieving superior courses often comes down to a few key variables. First, how committed is the ownership in seeing through matters from start to finish. Second, how much of an effort has been carried out in determining what architect will be given the task. Third, can such an architect really create something that will endure -- especially if the site in question has great promise.
The Antonacci family have demonstrated clear business successes in the hauling, recycling, family entertainment and horse breeding arenas but the golf side was an open question. Selecting Brian Silva, the long time New Englander and top tier architect was a brilliant move and demonstrated a clear conviction to get the most out of the site. Silva is a known quantity and his efforts in course design have demonstrated the capacity to tie classic architectural elements in concert with a modern connection.
Initially, the effort was just to be a bunker renovation project but that soon turned into a far grander effort -- a $50 million effort with a completely new course. Situated on 232-acres of land and just 11 miles east of Springfield, GreatHorse is part of the Connecticut River Valley. The net result - a 25,000 square foot clubhouse that hovers above the entire property-- a state-of-the-art practice and teaching facility with indoor bays and club fitting / launch monitors, limited lodging for overnight stays and a 9,000 square foot banquet hall interestingly called, "The Starting Gate," for couples looking to embark in marriage. Throw in a first rate health / fitness club and a culinary connection that clearly goes far beyond most ordinary menus. Make no mistake about it -- GreatHorse is not your grandfather's club.
But let's examine the core ingredient that counts the most -- the architecture of the course.
The front nine commences with a "catch your breath" long par-4 of 485 yards. The hole plunges downhill and turns slightly right in the drive zone. The key is avoiding a series of bunkers placed along the far left side. Solid tee shots will receive a "turbo boost" from the terrain. The green is wonderfully positioned -- the back half tucked behind a menacing pond that clearly demands respect. The green, like many at GreatHorse, is well done -- with a clear separation between the front and rear areas. Let me also emphasize that the greens are usually in the 11-12 Stimpmeter speed so one's stroke had best be ready to be tested.
To play the 2nd -- you cross Wilbraham Road and proceed to play the next seven holes on that side. The land is mainly flat with just a bit of movement. Hole 2 features a fairly lengthy par-5 that provides a clear message that tee shots must be played with a great degree of execution -- just hitting away with impunity will never work at GreatHorse.
The 3rd is an extremely long hole -- a par-3 of 280 yards from the back tees. Silva does provide for an entrance way for shots to roll onto the green.
One of the best holes on the course comes with the 4th. The par-4 plays 415 yards and unlike all the other holes at GreatHorse there is nary a single bunker encountered. The greatness of the hole stems from that very fact -- that positioning off the tee is still needed as the hole features a very long diagonally-placed green that is fiercely protected by a fronting pond. When the pin is placed in the far right corner it takes a very skilled approach to settle nearby.
Interestingly, Silva connect the 5th and 7th greens together to make one mega-large complex although the holes play from different directions. The concept works quite well. The long par-5 8th at 623 yards works more effectively when played at 569 yards. Why? Silva created a centrally-placed bunker complex located in the middle of the fairway. One can stay just left or attempt to find the right side alleyway provided. At the 569-yard marker the range of options becomes more problematic. The green is set above the fairway and is also another well-contoured target.
Upon completing the 8th one has to take a fairly lengthy cart ride to cross back over the road and reach the par-3 9th. Silva has brilliantly created a Redan hole of vintage quality. The hole plays slightly uphill and the green is utterly devilish. The putting surface is angled diagonally and the key is shaping the approach so that you use the contour to feed your ball onward. This especially so when the pin is cut close to a massive deep frontal bunker. There's also a fiendish rear bunker that must be avoided for those who err too long. When I played the greens speed was near glass-like. Hard to imagine but the most challenging pin may be towards the very front because the margin of error when placed there is quite small.
The 10th tee is nearby to the 1st tee but the hole is far different. Once again you encounter a downhill tee shot. This time Silva has placed a series of bunkers in a partial "U" shape. Golfers have to decide whether to lay-up or attempt to carry them. The prudent play is to smartly stay short and leave yourself no more than 120 yards to the green. When the pin is cut tight to the right side it will take a quality approach to finish nearby.
From the 11th thru the 14th you return to the west side of the road you crossed earlier. Two par-5's are part of the mixture at the 11th and 14th respectively and they are both satisfactory. The key hole comes with the long par-3 12th. The green is located on the far side of a fronting pond and the putting surface extends to 50 yards in length. Silva again provides for an alleyway for players to bounce their ball into the target. There's a "U" shape tee which is well designed to provide an array of different distances and playing angles.
The 14th is a good par-5 before one crosses back to the other side of the road for the final four holes.
The 15th is the shortest of the par-3 holes at just 134 yards and while challenging it could have been even more compelling in the vein of the 8th at Troon. The key is getting one's approach to the right section of a very long green with various subsections included.
The 16th outlines a vast difference in terms of tees played. The back tee is hard to find but stretches the hole to 440 yards and playing slightly uphill. The more forward tee starts from a vastly different angle from the 368-yard area. The penultimate 17th descends before rising noticeably towards the green. The dog-leg left features a minefield of bunkers that simply overwhelm the landscape and represent needless overkill. Silva would have achieved an even better distinction with using far fewer but positioned in a more meaningful way -- such as having a 2-3 placed in the center point of the fairway. Thankfully, the green is separated into three distinct zones and will necessitate the right club selection on the approach.
The ending hole also features another situation with two distinct teeing areas at 499 yards. The far right tee is set on a hillside with the hole turning right and moving uphill. The alternate tee provides a more direct approach with no turning point. I prefer the tee pad on the hillside for a more dramatic visual appearance. The green is quite deep -- 42 yards in depth -- and when the pin is cut in the far right rear corner the demands intensify greatly.
All in all, GreatHorse is a tenacious layout. The layout commands respect but for some the issue of rapture may be more problematic. Silva deserves much praise for his efforts. However, having 204 total bunkers (no misprint!) is a bit much as many are simply superfluous. There's no less than 27 on the par-5 8th! Silva has often designed courses with a "less is more" approach and if he had followed that suit here at GreatHorse I believe the outcome would have only added to what is present now. One can easily see that by the qualities of the superb par-4 4th. This hole has no bunkers but by following a "less is more" approach here Silva has accentuated the look and challenge provided.
GreatHorse is also not helped with two distinct properties flanking Wilbraham Road. The seven (7) holes on the east side are located on the very hilly portion. To Silva's credit those holes are done well and avoid the slog impact such uphill terrain can provide. The eleven (11) holes on the west side are located in the flattest portion of the property and feature a east/west, west/east routing. The holes are crafted well but it's too bad Silva neither included a short par-4 of serious consequence nor a par-5 clearly different from the ones he designed. No doubt tees can be moved forward on at least one of them -- possibly the 8th -- to truly provide a high quality risk/reward dynamic.
The collective amenities GreatHorse provides is truly mindboggling given how far superior it is to anything of a modern sort created in all of New England without off-site housing playing a role. Securing an active and younger aged membership, when golf clubs throughout America are experiencing a downturn, is a credit to the Antonacci family and the talented team of people they've hired with that in mind.
GreatHorse reminds me of the epic 31-length victory achieved by Secretariat at Belmont in winning the 1973 Triple Crown. The course -- just like the horse -- is clearly a dynamo in so many ways. Aided by a bold design and having a keen sense in including a range of other elements searing into one's collective memory the time spent there. The Bay State is a very competitive one with a number of classically designed courses usually holding sway when course assessments are done. But, make no mistake about this. Given the range and courses I have played in the Commonwealth I'm more than happy to wager GreatHorse is certainly in the money for, at minimum, a top five position.
M. James Ward