A staff member spoke proudly about Shelter Harbor following my round, touting that Dana Fry considered it his second-best design, behind only Erin Hills. I don’t believe that Fry, as a clearly-biased participant in the creation of both courses, can be relied upon for a fair appraisal. Therefore I, an unprejudiced outsider, will volunteer that Fry is incorrect: Shelter Harbor is the better of the two layouts.
I don’t aim to peddle “hot takes,” and I believe other reviewers could make legitimate arguments why Erin Hills tends to rise to the top when discussing Hurdzan and Fry. The terrain itself is better, and it certainly holds a number of superb holes. But the routing occasionally tends toward “freeway school” (odd for such an expansive property) and the hazards upon approach struck me as repetitive. Hosting a U.S. Open, plus Golf Digest’s hyping (speaking of biased reviewers, can’t hurt to have the magazine’s architectural editor serve as consulting architect) has perhaps elevated that course unfairly.
But I’m wasting my time downplaying Erin Hills when my purpose is to celebrate Shelter Harbor. These clubs should be seen on a level playing field.
It helps that Harbor’s playing field is anything but level, a prime piece of property near the Rhode Island shore that offers an unusual level of elevation change compared to the Golden Age classics along the Narragansett. The club also benefits from significant scope, which allowed Fry to create fairways nearly as epic as those at Erin. As at that club, bogey routes exist for the humbler golfer. Most fairways have trees on both sides, however, like Kevin Na at the 2017 Open, you would deserve ridicule for finding them.
Playing courses such as this leads to a lengthy list of noteworthy holes, but occasionally the simple acknowledgment of architectural merit graduates to outright awe. Such was my thought as I made my way uphill to the green at No. 9, a par five that wound through a double dogleg to a final false front and a tiered green. I imagined Bethpage Black and what it could be, were it returned to a Tillinghast from its current Jones presentation. Tillie pioneered the double dogleg after all, and his true fairway widths offered options...either challenge the well-guarded corners and green for a birdie attempt, or travel around them on the way to a satisfying bogey. The hole is — to delve into superlatives — majestic, and I loved it.
I’m also subject to my own biases, of course: As a Midwesterner, the centuries-old stone walls that line the New England countryside cause me to salivate and yearn to visit the nearest Yankee Candle retailer. Fry deserves kudos for the strategic incorporation of said walls during at least No. 2; the green on this par four (400 yards from the member tees) features a high-left tier that flows down to a low-right. My preferred strategy is to leave an approach short-left of the green and let it ride down, but shaping this shot means starting your ball over a wall that perpediculates the fairway from the left, landing at a somewhat blind point and trusting the roll. (There’s also a wall right of the fairway that is more penal; it guards a Native American burial area and landing in it brings a curse to your family. I’ve read enough Stephen King to know.)
The variety throughout the first 14 holes — three stellar entries for both threes and fives, as well as par fours that aired long or drivable — was impressive, with testing shortgrass short areas throughout.
The course hit an unfortunate slowdown for holes nos. 15 - 17 that prevented it from gaining an extra half-ball by my estimation (doubly disappointing, considering how such holes fell along the final stretch). Nos. 16 and 17 suffer for the incorporation of a large man-made pond, which while necessary for irrigation purposes and perhaps to weaponize a less turbulent piece of the property, stuck out like sore knees (hiking and golfing is the crux of my vacations) compared to the rest of the property. No. 15 was less excusable...after three exciting par threes, I turned to my host and asked what the trick was. Just lackluster.
Erin Hills, in my opinion, shares a similar story...a few weak holes here and there taking from what is otherwise a worthwhile day out. The difference is that Erin needs no PR help from me. Choose which one you will, but I believe Shelter Harbor deserves at least equal attention for its, and Fry’s, efforts.
Date: July 13, 2021