Located on a bluff above the Connecticut River, the TPC course originally belonged to Middletown Golf Club when it was established in 1928, changing hands six years later to become the property of Edgewood County Club.
The PGA Tour acquired the course in the early1980s, bringing in Pete Dye to redesign the layout to professional tournament standards before it re-opened as the TPC of Connecticut, hosting the Greater Hartford Open with both Canon and Sammy Davis Jnr as title sponsors.
Just a few years later, the course was further remodelled by Bobby Weed, in consultation with Tour professionals Howard Twitty and Roger Maltbie, and renamed TPC River Highlands, with the PGA Tour event losing Sammy Davis Jnr from its title.
Now known as the Travelers Championship, this professional tournament attracts huge crowds, and their massive numbers make it second only to the Phoenix Open for the most-attended PGA Tour event every year.
The course is routed around a 148-acre property, with tree-lined bent grass playing corridors skirting a number of water hazards along the way. Holes 15 to 17 are certainly aquatically challenged as they play around a four-acre lake, making this closing stretch one of the most exciting on the pro circuit.
There is no doubt that the TPC at River Highlands sits comfortably in the top echelon of Connecticut golf courses. While this parkland layout in the Hartford suburbs may seem straightforward through your television screen during the Travelers Championship, any player lucky enough to experience it in person will realize the subtleties which add strategy, challenge, and excitement.
Growing up in small town Cromwell myself, I was fortunate to watch pros take on this Pete Dye design every summer. Over time, particularly in the last decade, the field has grown stronger thanks to excellent tournament leadership as well as the high respect players have for this course. Perhaps the biggest testament to the compelling nature of the architecture at TPC River Highlands is the variety of the tournament champions. Past winners include PGA Tour rookie first-timers and 20 year veterans, long ball hitters and shorter shot shapers, even a mix U.S. and international players. The blend of talent succeeding at the Travelers is just one window into the fact that architecturally, there is more than meets the eye at River Highlands.
Perfectly maintained with a wide range of green complexes, collection areas, and hazards, the experience at River Highlands is memorable and tough from the first tee to the eighteenth green. Some of the most notable holes include:
• #2: Arguably the best hole on the front nine, the 2nd is a puzzle. The sharply uphill, blind tee shot is reminiscent of holes at other great rolling properties, such as the 9th at Oakmont. Pin placement will determine strategy. When in front, laying up will be critical as a controlled wedge with spin is necessary to stick the approach in the tiny forward portion of the putting surface. When the pin is in the back, players can choose to be more aggressive off the tee; in fact, some longer hitters may even be able to reach with a long right-to-left shot. However, three trees short of the putting surface require players to either lay back, or secure an exact angle. In general, I am all for tree removal on courses, but these three simple features help make this short par four a standout adventure.
• #4: One of the hardest holes on the entire course, this par 4.5 is an absolute brute, especially playing into the (often prevailing) wind. While there is some width in the first half of the hole, any player trying to gain an advantage with length will have to shape the ball left-to-right into a far narrower strip of fairway guarded by bunkers. The green complex is beguiling and can easily reject an iron shot to the chipping area on the right. In fact, the best approach may actually require the opposite shot shape as the drive.
• #5: This intimidating, lengthy par three appears to offer an open area for run-up shots, but with a deceptively raised slope, many still come up short.
• #6: As the only par five on the front nine, the 6th may seem like a break in a very difficult stretch. In fact, the course’s demand for precision only continues. Straightforward off the tee, players face major challenges on the second shot. Trouble starts about 150 yards away from the green with a centerline bunker. Any shots past this face a very tight strip of fairway and bunkers that leave awkward shots into this relatively small green. Should a player go for this putting surface in two and miss, collection areas funnel balls into thick rough and awkward pitch locations.
• #7: Despite being virtually dead straight, the 7th creates interest with features that any course could incorporate. Three fairway bunkers off the tee force the player’s eye left which is lined by out-of-bounds for the entire length. The green complex is extremely difficult with many undulations and no area to bail out.
• #10: Any player starting on their day at the turn must have their A-game prepped. The tee shot is very constrained with thick trees on either side. A solid drive will likely require curvature to avoid a large tree in the left-center of the fairway. From there, players will likely need to adjust strategy and hit as straight of a mid or long iron into a tiny, perched green complex. There is virtually no room for error; the short-grass collection area on the right is so steep that getting up and down to the shallow side of the hole requires superior abilities to bump-and-run, or flop from tight turf.
• #12: When attending the Travelers, I often would spend much of my day watching tour pros tackle the much underrated 12th hole. Using the natural terrain of the land beautifully, any golfer playing from the proper set of tees will have a thought-provoking decision. Some may choose to lay up with a metal to have a flat approach shot with a good view of this tough green, though this route must avoid three bunkers which pinch the landing zone. Others may choose to be more aggressive, and should they succeed, can catch a slope which propels balls 30-40 yards closer to the putting surface. However, this distance advantage comes with the cost of not being able to see the slippery putting surface. As with many great strategic holes, options abound, each with their own challenges and opportunities, welcoming any style of player.
• #13: The back nine’s only par five is no joke. From the tee, any shot must avoid a pond on the right, and more aggressive drives will have to navigate fairway bunkers and a narrower landing zone. Should one succeed, going for the green in two is possible is a player can fly a pond and stop the ball short on this somewhat shallow complex. Laying up right of the pond is no simple task either, especially since the angle into the green may be very awkward. Spinning wedges into to the pond is another real possibility.
• #14: Capturing the natural topography of the land gorgeously, the 14th is an interesting two shotter. The drive is somewhat blind and uphill; a right-to-left shot may also gain additional yardage thanks to the land’s contours. The kidney shaped green is at an interesting angle to the fairway. When the pin is in the front, the best angle is from the right side of the fairway; when in the back, the best approach is from the left.
• #15: Without question, the 15th at TPC River Highlands is among the best risk-reward holes that professional players face throughout the entire PGA Tour season. I once heard a golf announcer say that most professionals could probably hit pitching wedge-pitching wedge into this hole and almost guarantee themselves a birdie, but I believe that assessment is inaccurate. Trouble lurks on virtually every inch of this drivable par four. In reality, there really is no room to lay-up as bunkers pinch this fairway into. Going for the green, or playing closely with a metal are the most common routes, though both bring the lake on the left into play. The gentle Biarritz style green works marvelously for this type of tee shot. While this template was originally meant for long par threes, the ideal intended strategy here is exactly the same – a low running ball on the ground with a driver or metal.
• #17: It is hard to imagine the fear this hole could induce for any player in contention at the Travelers on Sunday, especially since I myself am nervous thinking about playing the 17th for fun! The tee shot is slightly wider if a player lays up, but with fairway bunkers left and the lake right, being aggressive or conservative really does not matter. The player’s first priority is picking a club that they feel most comfortable about keeping on dry land. This green is devilishly pitched back to front. Naturally, a player’s inclination might be to play long, but that would also be a mistake. Another well-placed shortgrass collection area makes recovery to a green sloped away from you extremely difficult.
• #18: With a large hill on the right side of the hole (that can bounce balls left), and a bunker on the left side of the landing area, the ‘easier’ bail out from the tee on the finisher is right. However, the best angle into this thin, deep green is actually from the left. As you have likely seen, this hole has provided some wildly exciting finishes over the years for a fairly straight par four!
The TPC at River Highlands may seem conventional on the surface, but it is a joy to play for any member or Connecticut golfer who can do so regularly. There is variety in the shot types necessary to be successful, and the course favors no one type of player. With some of the most incredible practice facilities in all of New England and a newly renovated clubhouse, TPC River Highlands is the consummate golf club.
In my opinion, the course only has two weaknesses:
• The first is that 15.5 of the 18 holes run North-South. Given the generally blustery conditions in this part of the state, and prevailing gusts that also run along the same directions, hitting shots directly into or against the wind repeatedly gets old quick.
• Second is that the land from holes 3 – 9 is especially flat and uninspiring relative to other parts of the course and most clubs in the Nutmeg State. Despite this, as you saw above, the architecture does a great job at generating strategic interest and challenge.
However, these do not hold TPC River Highlands back from my high esteem. Should you ever receive an invitation to play, accept immediately and gain a new appreciation for the depth and breadth of challenges that PGA Tour players overcome annually at this compelling club!
(I was torn between a 4.5 rating and a 5.0 rating. TPC River Highlands is undoubtedly a “6.0” in the context of Connecticut golf, which is average. Because the course is “the best in the region” around greater Hartford-area, I rounded up to a 5.0)
TPC River Highlands is home to the Travelers Championship. The winner of that event usually posts some really low scores. The course is very nice but predominantly the greens are relatively easy to read so good putters will bring this course to it's knees. First hole is a nice par 4. It can feel a little claustrophobic though as there is OB right and left. 2 is a short par 4 up hill 3 is a nice par 4 4 is the #1 handicap. Long par 4 dogleg right with a huge tree forming the dogleg. 5 is an uninteresting par 3 6 a par 5 with some need for accuracy as many fairway bunkers. 7 a straight away par 4 8 a decent par 3 and 9 a par 4 sliding along the houses on the right. 10 is my favorite hole a nice par 4 with a tree in the fairway about 2/3 of way right to left. 11 a down hill par 3 don't go over...12 straight away par 4 13 a devilish par 5 which has water in play off tee and short of green, but for tour quality play its a drive and hybrid/mid iron. 14 is blind tee ball and down hill par 4. 15 is drivable par 4 with water left. 16 a nice par 3 over the water. 17 the signature hole with water the whole way right and also in front of green. Challenging for most but layup and short iron for tour pro. 18 a bombers delight into the stadium side finish with hills left and right. Fun to play. Grounds very congenial for a PGA tour event. Always in great shape. Very welcoming staff.
I have watched over the years the steady progression of TPC River Highlands and the existing version is certainly worth attention and for those able to wrangle an invitation to play, a joy to behold. My rating of four balls is based on what exists for golf in the State of Connecticut. The Nutmeg State doesn't remotely have the depth of comparable sized locations such as Massachusetts and New Jersey. Frankly, one can make a good argument that Rhode Island has the greater depth of courses -- both on the private and public side of the aisle.
However, TPC River Highlands has been strengthened over the years and the layout that the world's best professionals play each June with The Traveler's event is especially well done. The wherewithal for low scores is certainly present. Consider Jordan Spieth at this year's event -- he opened with a tie for the first round lead shooting 63. The next day -- on the same course -- the three-time major champion shot 73. In short -- the course is for the taking -- but it doesn't just give it away. The architecture is an interesting mixture between the more bucolic front nine and the ever risky back nine where major swings -- both up and down -- can be made.
The front nine is rather straightforward in its presentation. There are no gimmick holes -- just the need for solid play. There are no standout holes because that would likely imply there are a few of lesser quality. That's not the case here.
The inner half of holes is what makes TPC River Highlands special. The inward half commences with a solid long par-4 at the 10th. The fairway is not spacious and the prudent play is to avoid a mega-sized oak tree which awaits golfers who pull their shots in that direction. The green is equal to the task -- long and slender with danger to the far left.
The drop-shot par-3 11th is a good change of pace hole and the par-4 12th is especially well done for a mid-length hole. The player must decide to either lay-up (which most do) before the terrain plunges downhill. The green is wonderfully contoured and only the best of approaches will have a good shot at birdie. The 13th is the lone par-5 on the back nine and here the player faces a challenge with a pesky pond that protects the left side of the green.
The 14th is another solid mid-length par-4 -- the drive can run out a long ways and if in the fairway provide a short pitch to a green that provides plenty of movement.
The ending quartet of holes is what makes TPC River Highlands memorable. The short par-4 15th -- plays only 296 yards -- but is clearly one of the best short par-4 holes in all of New England. There is a pond to the left of the green and for those who hook it will mean a watery grave. The bailout right provides no quarter with a series of bunkers on that side. The green is simply grand. The target is elevated and there are numerous movements and sections on the green. Any number from two (2) to seven (7) can be made.
The 16th is a beautiful par-3 played over the same pond encountered at the 15th. The green is elevated and any long approach will be pressed to walk away with par as the surface slopes away. The par-4 17th is reminiscent of holes found at TPC Sawgrass. The same pond from the preceding two holes is in play. Any tee shot pushed to the right will mean a quick splash. The closer the tee shot is played to the water's edge the easier the angle to the green will be as the same pond once again enters the picture.
The ending hole is a quality closing par-4. The drive is tested with bunkers on both sides of the fairway with the one on the left the more pressing concern. The green sits in an amphitheater area ideal for the thousands who will witness the conclusion of the Traveler's event.
All in all, TPC River Highlands is far better than many other private clubs in Connecticut and easily would make my top 5-6 in the State. The course has benefited from various tweaks over the years and the turf quality is generally top notch too. Interestingly, after this year -- the long PGA TOUR event in all of New England will be here at TPC River Highlands. The quality of the event has made a big time impression with the strength of the field -- most notably following the US Open. The architecture is not of the vintage level found with the classic courses in the region but make no mistake about it -- TPC River Highlands has plenty of interesting shots to be played and holes to keep you on your toe's throughout the round.
by M. James Ward