Unveiled in 2000, the course at Okemo Valley Golf Club is a Steve Durkee design that lies on the other side of the main highway leading to the ski slopes at the Okemo Mountain Resort. Featuring bent grass tees, fairways and greens, the course is a heathland-style layout that extends to modest 6,400 yards, playing to a par of 70.
“A shortish test whose eastern reaches climb a bit,” writes Daniel Wexler in The American Golf Resort Guide, “it makes extensive use of tall native grasses in attempting a heathland look and begins with a front nine built around a pair of well-bunkered par fives plus the downhill 186-yard 8th.
The longer back nine begins with a driveable par four 312-yard 10th and a water-flanked 513-yard 11th, but flexes its muscles during a closing stretch that includes two big par threes (the 230-yard 14th and 213-yard 17th) and the layout’s three longest par fours, the best of which is the 438-yard tightly-bunkered 18th.”
There are few courses which have exceeded my expectations more strongly than the Okemo Valley Golf Club. This entire property receives my high praise as a memorable, modern gem which fits its setting exquisitely.
Despite my New England upbringing, I am not a fan of skiing, snowboarding, or any outdoor winter sports. For that reason, the Okemo Valley Resort was foreign to me until our family took a summer weekend trip to visit. We had an absolute blast – the hotel is beautiful with a number of cool outdoor amenities. The drive out is idyllic, passing through small towns with fascinating old stores, delicious restaurants, and of course, excellent breweries. Rural Vermont is charming in all the ways one could desire.
In my opinion, the best golf courses capture their natural terrain and always reflect their environs, wherever they may be. Although it opened in 2000, the contemporary Okemo Valley Golf Club captures the rustic spirit of pastoral Vermont perfectly which takes the playing experience to a whole new level. The clubhouse transports you centuries, and the ambience is a reminder of simpler times. Among the more spectacular aspects of the land is the shine of the golden fescue contrasted against the dark hues of the Green Mountains. In the fall, Okemo is breathtaking.
Expecting prototypical “resort-style” golf, I was pleasantly surprised at the superb playing conditions and strategic architectural interest of many holes at Okemo, which is a self-described “heathland” course. Some of those include:
• #2: The par five 2nd is reachable for many, playing slightly downhill. The fascinating perched volcano-esque green complex has an “L” shape which makes the strategy differ depending on pin location. When the flag is on the right, the best angle is from the left half of the fairway which is guarded with well-placed bunkers. When the flag is on the left, the better angle of approach is from the right, but visually, the surrounding greenside bunkers are far more intimidating. This second/third shot hole, depending on your tactics, sets the tone for many thought provoking shots to come.
• #3: The uphill par four 3rd aptly employs clever, yet daunting optics from the tee. Three pot bunkers coerce the player into thinking that short-right is the best route, when in fact, the best angle of approach to this beautifully contoured, narrow, deep diagonal green is from the left. Aggressive right-to-left plays off the tee can pay off handsomely on this tricky two shotter.
• #5: Conversely, bunkering on the par four 5th has the opposite effect as #3. The better angle to the green is from the wider part of this split fairway, to the right. An imprudent player may think an advantage is gained by aggressively aiming down the left, only to find themselves with a more difficult approach (albeit a bit shorter).
• #7: The par five 7th has a fascinating ‘S’ shaped fairway with bunkers that remain top of mind throughout the entire length. From the tee, it is clear that left is a simpler play than right, where three fairway traps await. However, to have any angle at all for the green in two or even a straightforward layup, playing further to the right is essential. Closer to the green, the player must switch mindset and get the ball as far left as possible for the ideal angle. This change of pace all within one hole keeps you engaged at every step.
• #8: Among the most awe-inspiring panoramas I have witnessed in golf, the drop at the 186 yard par three 8th is at least a 2-3 club decrease for most players. The views of the ski resort and mountains in the distance are absolutely stunning.
• #9: True dogleg holes are fairly rare these days. While it may not appear sharp on satellite image, the 9th at Okemo Valley feels like a 90 degree turn to the right. The best play to the green is to keep the ball left and long off the tee; to accomplish this, one must watch out for a nasty pot bunker in the ideal landing zone. A strong left-to-right shot can gain serious yardage here, too.
• #10: Drivable par fours are arguably the most fun in the game of golf, and Okemo’s is no exception. The more heroic one wishes to be off the tee on this 312 yarder, the more danger they will face with increasingly scary bunkers and a hazard left.
• #12: Of my 3,300+ unique golf holes played, the 12th at Okemo sits comfortably in my “Ideal Dream 18.” From an elevated tee, players are immediately confronted with the challenge of a gorgeous, natural brook diagonally bisecting the fairway, in addition to fescue grasses surrounding the rumpled terrain. If playing from the proper tees, this will automatically force you into a difficult club selection – most likely between choking down on a driver or hitting a metal. The fairway itself is narrow, just until you approach the stream when it widens. This beckons players to be as aggressive as possible without accidentally rolling their tee shot into the waterway. Placement is also key here, and the right half of the fairway (which is more narrow for most of the hole) generally provides the best angle of attack. The complexity generated on this hole by the simple use of the natural ground – including a bumbling brook – is ingenious.
• #15: The unique 15th hole is a par four with a two tiered fairway, separated by a thick patch of rough. The massive green allows for infinitely many interesting pin placements, meaning each route may be preferred on a different day. The left side is tighter while the right is guarded by a large bunker.
If you cannot tell, Okemo Valley has a special place in my golfing heart. Although it was opened in the modern era, it captures the spirit of Golden Age design in so many ways, offering variety, strategic options, differentiating elevations, beautiful landforms, and fair challenge throughout. In fact, the strategy you think may be the right option on one hole may be completely different a few holes later…or even a few shots later on the same hole! Okemo has all elements of an ‘ideal’ golf course that I can imagine. Additionally, the course conditions were absolutely immaculate when I played, with fairways like carpet. Okemo is well worth the summer or fall New England excursion off the beaten path. It captures its setting perfectly and stands out in the world of resort golf.