The Hotchkiss School is an independent boarding school, surrounded by the Hotchkiss Golf Course. Seth Raynor designed this 9-hole layout in 1924, forming a friendship with English teacher Charles Banks that would later develop into a design partnership.
If you love Golden Age golf, you are likely aware that the overwhelming majority of Seth Raynor courses are very exclusive. One of the few exceptions to this norm is the 9-hole layout at the Hotchkiss School, situated in the bucolic northwestern corner of Connecticut, just a few miles from the Appalachian Trail. The drive up to this gorgeous part of the Nutmeg State is worth the price of admission alone, as your phone will probably drop its signal and you will also lose touch with the hustle and bustle of the more populated cities behind you.
Despite its routing circling the campus grounds of one of the most exclusive boarding schools in the world, the Hotchkiss School Golf Course could not be more welcoming. The clubhouse is a small shack, walking costs a mere $15 cash, and if no staff are present, a sign tells you to slip money under the door.
One of the best pieces of advice I received before visiting the Hotchkiss School Golf Course was to speak with longtime head professional and manager, Jim Kennedy. Jim’s passion for Hotchkiss was evident immediately, and after my roughly 1 hour round, Jim spent almost 2 hours with me showing off black and white aerial photographs of the course, discussing its evolution, and demonstrating his deep care for hidden-gem, family-owned golf courses all over the nation. Building relationships with amazing stewards like Jim is one of the most rewarding aspects of our sport.
With a modest budget, Jim has done his best to preserve and highlight some wonderful Raynor work at the Hotchkiss School. Notable holes for me include:
• #1: The opposite of a ‘gentle handshake’, this stout par four up a massive hill presents uneven lies, and a brutal green with a devilish back tier.
• #2: Previously a par four, the now par three 2nd “Leven” almost feels like a punchbowl with a deceptive mount protruding from the front and banks all around the back.
• #4: Working back into the campus, Raynor masterfully used the right-to-left tilt of the land to reject shots toward inferior playing angles into this green.
• #5: The “Short” at Hotchkiss has an awe inspiring view of surrounding mountains and Wononskopomuc Lake.
• #6: The 6th green was beguiling with rumples galore. Raynor balances this extremely challenging green with a wide open tee shot, testing the merits of the player to find their best yardage.
• #7: Without the ability to move large tracts of land for fairway regrading, many classic architects expertly found the most rolling pieces of terrain to build exceptional holes. The bunkerless par five 7th at Hotchkiss rolls over hills and valleys in this way, providing difficulty without any sand traps. This hole reminded me of the amazing bunkerless par fives Ross built at Roaring Gap.
• #8: The Eden par three 8th also naturally lays over the land, beautifully incorporating some glacial boulders.
Over time, the greens at Hotchkiss have shrunk, and due to school expansion, some holes have been lost. In context, especially given a modest budget, it is no short of remarkable to see such the level of preservation we do today. Kudos to amazing historians of the game – people who care – such as Jim Kennedy. My respect for such a humble leader knows no bounds, and my adventure to Hotchkiss was well worth the trip.
I was a bit surprised to see Hotchkiss School's course ranked on this site. Its history is fascinating and it was a truly special experience for me as a pilgrimage to the former home of “Steam Shovel” Charles Banks, the architect of Annapolis Roads, which was one of my favorite golf courses of all time. However, the course itself isn’t particularly spectacular outside of some interesting green complexes, many of which appear to have been reduced in size for maintenance purposes. Presumably it has been minimally updated by the prestigious prep school since Seth Raynor and Banks built it in the 1920s aside from a few tweaks I'll cover later.
The odd part about Hotchkiss as far as a Raynor course goes is that it’s hard to tell what is a template hole and what isn’t. The course begins with a long, uphill par four with a green that falls off steeply to the right; perhaps it’s a reverse Redan template, but the slopes aren’t quite right. #2 is a short downhill par three with a mound and ridge bisecting the front right portion of the green. I believe #3 is an Alps template, although the second shot isn’t completely blind – it’s a dogleg left par four whose fairway slopes heavily from left to right, with a massive Sahara bunker fronting the green. Another interesting feature of #3 is the multiple narrow ridges/humps bisecting the green from left to right. The fourth hole is an unremarkable but fine short par four with a nasty greenside bunker. #5 seems like a Short template with what was once a much larger green with a false front into a large bunker; now it is a small oval only representing part of the old green complex. #6 is a medium par four with a similar shape to #3 (but not as blind) featuring the craziest green on the course which contains a small ridge and “notch” in the mounding in its rear right portion. #7 is a rather mundane but short and narrow par five which, according to research, does not have its original green complex due to some campus reconfiguration. #8 is a long downhill par three that has one of the larger greens on the course, with another weird “notch” in the front of the green for drainage purposes. The finishing hole is in my opinion, the worst hole on the course. It is a short dogleg right par five that features a “Road grass bunker” and bunkers behind the heavily sloped green complex, but getting there is the problem – the hole is entirely too narrow until just shy of the green, and the dogleg is only at about 200 yards from the back tee.
Overall, Hotchkiss was well worth the visit. The Berkshires region is beautiful and serene with tons of fun things to do – our stop at Hotchkiss was only a blip on a whirlwind trip to New England. I’ll throw out a recommendation for a place about a half hour away in Great Barrington, Massachusetts called The Bistro Box (http://www.thebistrobox.rocks/) – it’s a gourmet “roadside shack” that produced the best burger and fries I’ve ever eaten.
As for the course, I liked Hotchkiss for what it is, but it’s likely a shadow of its original self. The views of the campus and nearby lakes are lovely, and the bones of a neat historic course are there, but the two par fives are not good holes and the greatness of many of the green complexes has been taken away by the maintenance reductions. For roughly $20 (cash only) with a cart it’s a decent value, but not a great course by any stretch of the imagination. It pains me to give a golf course that meant so much to me a three-ball rating, but so life goes.
Played June 17, 2016