Taconic Golf Club was originally designed in 1927 by Wayne Stiles of Stiles & Van Kleek. Gil Hanse completed a renovation in 2009. I admit to never hearing of Stiles and Van Kleek until doing some research in advance of playing Taconic.
Mr. Stiles was a member of Brae Burn and a low-digit amateur player who eventually decided to form a partnership with Mr. Van Kleek, a landscape architect. Ultimately, Mr. Stiles designed over 140 courses from Maine to New Mexico, of which 70 remain. Mr. Van Kleek, designed courses all over the world and eventually became the supervising architect for a renovation of New York City’s golf courses, including Split Rock, Clearview, Dyker Beach and Van Cortlandt Park.
The duo were not together long in their partnership but were known for being modest and designing courses with lower budgets. Their courses include Cranwell Resort and Golf Club in Lenox, which works its way around the mansion and through the woods. Wahconah Country Club is another and is known for two items. The first is their signature elevated greens with severe back-to-front slopes. The second is it is the site of the final round Bobby Jones played on August 15, 1948. Haverhill Country Club and Albuquerque are generally considered very fine courses.
They were known for creating holes that were unseen from other holes on the course (not the case at Taconic after the Gil Hanse renovation). Their courses generally featured wide fairways with the emphasis on the second shot and skill with a putter/wedge. The greens were often crafted atop knobs and rises with false fronts and overly contoured greens (pretty common for today’s minimalists). While it might be easy to get onto a green, the contours of the greens made it imperative to be in the right spot on the green (I can vouch for this at Taconic). Their routings were very influenced by where they wanted the greens to be located.
I first laid eyes on Taconic about 35 years ago during a visit to Williamstown with my wife and friends, all three non-golfers. We were there to go through the outstanding Clark Art Institute. At some point I found myself alone for a few minutes having spied a golf course in the distance, back-dropped by the beautiful treed low mountains surrounding the town. I had wanted to play the course ever since.
On Sept 14, 2020, I finally got the chance to play Taconic. Its reputation is impeccable. Some consider it to be the second finest “classic” college golf course in the country, trailing only The Course at Yale. There are some similarities between the two courses: exceptional land, heavily contoured greens, generous fairways, terrific green surrounds. While Taconic in its totality is not in the same league as The Course at Yale, it likely does deserve its place among the top classic courses attached to a college (in this case, Williams). However, it is no longer one of the top college courses in the country simply because the fairways are overly generous with few holes offering up a penalty for an errant tee shot. Secondly, the college players today hit the ball very far and at 6808 yards from the Black tees, the course is much too short for today’s college player. (Yale suffers from the same fate). I do not think a top high school player would consider attending Taconic for the golf course, they would go for the academics as their priority. While their chipping might improve, for their standard of play the importance of landing the ball on the green is diminished when one might typically have a wedge (sand wedge at that) in their hands for their approach shot on many of the holes. For top women college players, the same holds even if they are only hitting it 240-250 off of the tee. Where one will improve their game at Taconic as a college player is in their chipping. At some point they will learn the greens with their putter so chipping is where they might improve.
As for “average” players who are an 8-12 index, it is a fun course to play. All of the difficulty is around the greens. As such the stress level and decision-making is gone from most tee shots, but increases with the shot to the green.
For its day before technology made very good courses somewhat neutered, the routing done here was excellent for all players; now it is still good for average players.
The greens are perplexing…..uphill putts are even slower than they look and downhill putts are even faster than they look. I like to use my putter from off the green but at Taconic due to the severity of the uphill false fronts that is not the right play as the tilts are too severe and the grass seems to grab the ball. Maybe that is a bad thing as an option is taken away.
I did not go in a single bunker but my playing partner did. They did not seem too difficult to get out of but certainly one side of the green is always a preferred miss, whether one is in a bunker or not.
The course is a par 71 playing to 6808 yards, rated 73.5/134. There is a combination tee at 6601 yards, rated 72.5/132. The Gold tees are 6410 rated 71.8/131. There are six additional sets of tees/combination tees. I found the index to be a bit light by 0.5 strokes and the slope to be correct. One should not lose many balls here and the rough is generally not so thick that you cannot advance one’s ball. It is truly all about the green and the green complexes.
The course is very beautiful, nestled on previous farmland, with long views across the fairways to the church spires in the town or the surrounding hills/mountains.
The back nine has all of the good holes with much longer length: 3189-3619 yards. The front nine offers some excellent views and greens, but there is not a hole I considered to be truly memorable.
1. Par 5 – 480/470. A slightly downhill par 5 with a fairway bunker on the right and left followed by two fronting the green. There is a small bunker also right of the green. The green has a small short grass area to its right and does not seem to receive a ball. It is too easy a starting hole as a par 5.
2. Par 4 – 406/355. From an elevated tee one can get a nice roll-out on this dogleg right. There is a single fairway bunker right fronted by trees. Missing right will send your ball down into a valley where the grass is fairly high. The green is angled to the right with a bunker to either side. The green is fairly long and sloped more back to front than it appears. I think this hole is visually more pleasing than difficult or strategic. This is the one of the view greens where it does not matter that much which side you are on for the first putt.
3. Par 4 – 421/383. This hole plays to a broad fairway with a single bunker left and a few trees pinching in from the right. You play downhill and the fairway tilts to the right. There is a severe drop that the big hitters can easily get to the bottom leaving themselves no more than 50 yards to a green that is now above you with a bunker to either side. This is a steeply slanted back-to-front green with a huge tilt also to the left. The back part of the green is the only flattish part. Balls putted short can come back 10-15 feet. Balls landing short of the green will find the false front and roll back 40 yards. It’s an okay hole due to the severity of the green. One gets a lovely long view of the mountains in the distance from the tee.
4. Par 4 – 358/346. Playing from the woods over a pond set left and a stream down the left that will ultimately cross the fairway, the bigger hitters will likely lay-up. Off to the right are two bunkers from the fifth hole about 230 yards out. The green is beautifully situated on higher ground with another substantial false front almost the equal of the third hole. There are flanking bunkers again to a steep back to front green with interior swales. Much like the second, this hole is visually pleasing but if one hits a good tee shot there is not much to it other than the green.
5. Par 3 – 178/157. Playing across a valley to a green that has five surrounding bunkers and another false front. The only miss one cannot do is miss left due to the green and land sloping away from you. It is another steep back to front sloping green with a tilt to the right. It is a decent hole.
6. Par 4 – 372/356. Walking back to the left of the par 3 for the next tee, this hole plays uphill adding about 20 yards to the length. The hole angles to the left with two inner bunkers that are not too difficult to recover. There are flanking bunkers at the front of the green to a green with a less steep false front but a very steep back to front green. A chip from behind the green has a good chance of going off the front. A putt from the front to a back pin would require a full shoulder turn.
7. Par 4 – 402/368. A center bunker is in play off the tee for this sharp dogleg right. One wonders if the bigger hitters simply hit it down the parallel fairway of the thirteenth fairway and avoid the trees on the right side and left side that they can hit into. The hole plays downhill from the elevated tee but at the center bunker the land is beginning to rise to the green. Once again, there are single bunkers placed on both sides of the front of the green. The green has a false front and two tiers and is very speedy and sloped back to front. A putt from the upper tier to the lower tier is probably best played as sideways as possible to reduce the speed. The green makes the hole.
8. Par 4 – 394/382. A dogleg right from another elevated tee making sure you do not hit into the tree line on the right where an inner turn bunker is almost hidden from the tee. The green has a very large bunker left shared with the eleventh hole and a long, thin bunker on the right. The green also has a run-off on its left side into the bunker and a fall-off at the rear. This might be the best hole on the front nine and the only one with a front to back sloping green.
9. Par 3 – 178/167. Playing to a drop of about 30 feet, the wind in our faces offset the reduced yardage from playing downhill. There are two bunkers left and one right, but none are particularly deep. There is short grass fronting the green which has a mound on its right side and a lesser one of the left side. It is the most fun hole on the front nine.
10. Par 5 – 506/498. This hole plays downhill as a slight double dogleg with a big climb at the end. There are three bunkers on the hole with the first bunker in play for the second shot for average length players. The second bunker is a sort of central bunker so bigger hitters will want to stay right of it. The final bunker is at the left front. There is another substantial false front to the hole. The hole is steeply sloped back to front and other than the back third of the hole, probably does not have any usable pin positions for the front two thirds of the green such is the slope. One could argue this green is unfairly sloped with a change of nearly five feet. I like the hole but this green I think is too much.
11. Par 4 – 478/449. Playing downhill there is a bunker left forcing the fairway to the right. There are two bunkers left about 50 yards short of the green. As mentioned, the large bunker on the right is shared with the eighth hole (a playing partner went into it both times). There is another bunker middle right of the green which has another dip that can send a ball into the bunker. This green has more subtle breaks that confuses one in terms of pace.
12. Par 4 – 377/363. The Black tee plays over the ravine more so than the Gold tee. The ravine is down the left side and is dramatic but should not be a significant factor in determining the type of tee shot to hit. A collection of trees is out on the right if one slices their tee shot. The hole bends left but the green is set to the right atop another knob. So the farther one goes right for a conservative play, the worse the angle is to the green. The bolder play is more left where one gets a good look at what is required. There is a single fairway bunker right for the longer hitters while the green offers a bunker set well left at the bottom of another significant false front. The right side bunker is built into the side of the hill fronting the green. A miss left will lead to a blind shot to the higher green. This is another steeply sloped back to front green that is almost unfair. I did like the hole.
13. Par 4 – 403/377. The most visually pleasing hole on the golf course is a straight downhill par 4 to an uphill green. There is another false front to the hole. There is out-of-bounds left off the tee. The green complex extends about 30 yards in front where there are two bunkers before the short grass of the false front. To the right are two bunkers set well below the green. A shot missed right will lead to a blind shot and the green is not very receptive to holding even short shots hit very high due to this being the narrowest green on the course.
14. Par 3 – 163/152. Jack Nicklaus made an ace here in 1956 in the junior amateur. I came within 5 feet right. You play from an elevated tee across a valley to a raised green that is surrounded by six bunkers. The green seems to be speedy either way. It’s a nice par 3.
15. Par 4 – 441/426. Playing downhill, this hole reminded me of the eighth hole with its fairway bunkers set fairly far away for the average length player. There are two scattered on the right and one on the left that shrinks the fairway. The green has two bunkers to either side. It is a nice hole.
16. Par 4 – 460/430. The longest par 4 comes next offering no fairway bunkers until about 50 yards from the green where flanking bunkers are placed. The green has a bunker to either side. The green is again raised, not quite as much as the tenth but nevertheless a substantial false front. It is another good hole and completes the best run of holes on the golf course from twelve to sixteen.
17. Par 3 – 246/221. Playing from an elevated tee, part of the green is obscured by a knob about 15 yards on the right side of the green. The hole seems very out-of-character for its position on the course. It has a single bunker to its left and short grass fronting the green which is somewhat crowned and much more uphill than it appears. I did not care for the hole.
18. Par 5 – 545/510. The back tee makes this an acceptable hole as you play across a valley to land that starts to rise before flattening out at about 275 yards off the tee. There is a pond off to the left that is not in play while a single bunker on the right set into the hill is in play. Bigger hitters will make the rise and have a view of the green complex which offers two bunkers left front and one on the right about 15 yards short followed by another front right. There is a small, but sharp false front to the green which is sloped back to front and towards the parking lot on the left. It is an okay finishing hole but the highlight is the view of the lovely white clubhouse behind the green.
I like Taconic although I think there is perhaps too much emphasis placed on false fronts and greens seem to all be the same – sloped back to front. Most of the greens have flanking bunkers set at the front when more variety would be better.
The fairways are wide which would not be an issue if there was slightly better fairway bunkering. There should be more cross-bunkers or bunkers placed inside fairways such as on the eighth and fifteenth. The par 5’s need to be strengthened with better placement of fairway bunkers.
Overall, the course has a much weaker and less memorable front nine with the exception of the fourth’s green site and the ninth hole. There is a lovely stretch of holes from twelve to sixteen. I think if one could combine a visit to Taconic with another round at Ekwanok, it would be a very special two days. In non-Covid times, a trip to Williamstown would be a blast including a round here. Playing Taconic when the leaves have changed colors in the fall must be breathtaking.
Date: September 15, 2020