Owned and operated by the town of Groton’s Parks and Recreation Department, Shennecossett Golf Course is the only public Donald Ross layout in the Constitution State. Apart from three new holes added in 1997, the layout’s unchanged in nearly a century.
While a 6 star rating may seem outrageous for a municipal golf course in southeastern Connecticut, Shennecossett is, in my opinion, deserving of a departure from the typical rating guidelines. Of the 210 courses I have played, including 60 listed on this website, “Shenny” is the place I would spend the rest of my days if given one choice. It is the course that inspired my love of classic golf architecture and its architectural brilliance shines through at every corner.
Shennecossett’s history is complex and fascinating, starting initially as a resort and hotel in the 1800’s. Amazing photographs of its Griswold Hotel and golf course can be found on its website, and also are posted weekly at Shennecossett’s Facebook page. While Shennecossett was originally laid out in 1898, but the course we see today is primarily accredited to Donald Ross who revamped the entire layout early in his career in 1916. With corporate development in and around the course, certain inland holes were lost. The town of Groton purchased a piece of seaside land in 1997 when three additional holes (15 – 17) were built as replacements. In its time, Shennecossett has hosted professionals such as Arnold Palmer (since he was stationed nearby in the Coast Guard), Walter Hagen, Bobby Jones, Tommy Armour, Francis Ouimet, Babe Didrikson, and Alex Smith.
My passion for golf architecture was born during my first round at Shennecossett. Having just started playing the game a few years prior, I was fortunate to be paired with a longtime local who explained to me the nuances of Ross’ design genius, particularly around the greens. Shenny’s features are enhanced by the firmness of the sandy soil, the changing yet constant ocean winds, and the rustic conditions of its fescue rough. Donald Ross did not design many links style golf courses, and quite frankly, there are not many links style courses available to the public in the United States. Shennecossett breaks that trend and made “brown”, firm and fast courses cool before the USGA adopted the mantra.
Search “Shennecossett” and undoubtedly, the first images which will appear online are those of the three, new seaside holes. This is understandable, yet the true genius of the golf course emerges on the inland holes. I will use the remaining part of this review to dive into notable holes:
• #2: The tee shot requires the player to play over a creek, with two options: an iron or fairway metal to a larger landing area with a mid-iron to the green, or, a more aggressive play with a driver to provide a short-iron into the green. Should the player opt for the harder line, Ross put in a fescue covered chocolate drop to pinch the landing area. The second shot brilliantly plays over an old railroad track, one of the most unique incorporations of such a feature in the game today.
• #3: The third hole is arguably my favorite on the property because it perfectly fits the land on which it was built. The tee shot is blind over a small hill with beautiful golden fescue lining the right, and out of bounds naturally in play on the left. The green site was banked onto a hill, and of the 3500 holes I have played, is the ONLY true right to left sloping green I have ever witnessed. This hole’s strategy is brilliant as it forces players to either work the ball left to right, or play out to the left and run the ball up.
• #4: Ross designed many notable “volcano” holes at places such as Bald Peak, Wilmington, Roaring Gap, and the Country Club of Buffalo. The 4th at Shennecossett is among those greats. With a long-iron in hand, players must hit a green that is perched on what feels like a Himalayan mountain. Members refer to this hole as “the hardest par 4 on the course,” and after years playing Shennecossett, it is easy to understand why.
• #6-7: These two holes are a wonderful demonstration of Ross’ foresight and architectural genius. On the surface, they are almost identical – back-to-back ~420 yard par 4’s situated right next to each other. Despite seeming so bland on the surface, Ross knew that wind would always be a factor at Shenny. Typically, the prevailing wind forces one hole to be downwind (playing closer to 350) and the other into the wind (playing closer to 470). Therein lies the genius – half-par holes which provide a new challenge every single day, guarded by natural hazards and still providing strategic options for players who wish to run the ball up.
• #14: In terms of the green itself, this is tied for being the most memorable on the golf course with #4. The turtle back shell is bisected by an interesting lower right tier. Even with a wedge in hand, I admit to laying up to prevent going over this deadly, yet beautiful, Ross green.
• #15-17: The new holes at Shennecossett receive significant condemnation on other architecture websites, yet I feel this is undeserved. The 15th is a medium length par 3 with a very generous entrance should a player need to run the ball up. 16 is a great ‘bite-off-as-much-as-you-can’ tee shot and the best view from virtually any golf hole in the state of Connecticut. 17 also provides some risk-reward for a long hitter, yet rewards the deft wedge specialist.
As if the golf course and its true links conditioning were not enough, the whole Shennecossett property is charming. Fees are very reasonable, rarely exceeding $50, the course is open all winter (weather permitting), and the clubhouse restaurant is wonderful…not to mention the fitting New England nautical feel to the entire place.
Shennecossett will always hold a special place in my heart, and despite having played many other ‘highly ranked’ courses, is easily my favorite golf course out there.
My playing partner, a longtime resident, took the time to point, from atop No. 16's crowned green, across the Thames River at two separate lighthouses, each haunted by its own ghost. A more benevolent spirit lingers around Shennecossett's property, that of designer Donald Ross. Nothing is better proof of this than the very "turtleback" green we stood upon.
Ironically, Ross did not lay out the stretch from Nos. 15-17. They were added in 1997, after a land swap with a local pharmaceutical giant. The commitment to the Scot's legacy means his name appears frequently, and Tim Gerrish—the architect responsible for the fine three along the sound—is lucky to get a mention.
For a more historically-sound Ross primer, note how the designer uses deep, lengthy, and curvaceous bunkers (Nos. 5, 7, and 11) to make one rue what seemed like a good tee shot / lay-up at the the time (for some reason, our knowing playing partner chose not to share THIS information). No. 2 may not be particularly Rossish, but it packs Old World charm nonetheless, playing across a burn from the tee and hopefully stopping before fescued mounds, before presenting an approach shot over live train tracks to a tricky right-to-left green. Unfortunately, our aforementioned playing partner has only seen two trains cross in his 30 years.
The maintenance of the aforementioned bunkers is certainly better than the municipals in your correspondent's neck of the woods, and the greens are also admirable for the price point. Although the Par 3 at No. 4 is neither particularly fun nor fair, the crowned green 200 yards away at the top of a high hill is true-to-form (Arnold Palmer shared our opinion while stationed nearby). The Redan at No. 9 plays true to its purpose, however (if on the shortish side, at 175 yards). Although a touch short for good players (6,600 yards), that Shennecossett is maintained as a municipal at its rates is an admirable feather in Groton's cap.