Established as Vesper Boat Club in 1875, Vesper Country Club actually came into being when it amalgamated with Lowell Country Club in 1899, making it one of the oldest golf clubs in America. Vesper’s 9-hole layout occupied most of Tyngs Island, in the Merrimack River, and it was here that Donald Ross won the first Massachusetts Open Golf Championship in 1905.
Little would any of the members have thought then that Ross would return as an esteemed golf course architect sixteen years later to redesign the 9-hole island course and extend the golf layout with another nine on the north bank of the river, forming a full 18-hole course for the golf club.
Today’s course measures 6,740 yards from the back markers, playing to a par of 72. Holes 1 to 3 and 15 to 18 are completely on the island. Hole 4 is a par three, where the tee shot is played from the island over the river to the mainland. Hole 14 is also a par three, played in reverse from the mainland across the river and onto the island.Accomplished architect Brian Silva oversaw the renovation of all eighteen greens to USGA standard in 2009, using a combination of Ross drawings and old aerial photographs to assist his team with the work undertaken. Over seventy bunkers were rebuilt or refurbished during the upgrade and a significant number of trees removed also.
In 25% of the states in the USA, Vesper would be a top seven golf course. In golf-rich Massachusetts, it makes the top 20. Unlike the other top-rated courses in Massachusetts it does not have the rolling, hilly land that characterizes the other courses. There are a few holes with smaller drops or valleys, but not nearly as dramatic as one will find at Worcester, Eastward Ho, Charles River, Brae Burn, Essex County, Boston Golf Club, Old Sandwich, or Myopia Hunt. The land reminds me more of Hyannisport, without the bay, of course.
This is due to having many of the holes on an island in the middle of the Merrimack River, which is where the clubhouse and other facilities are located. To access the course, one has to drive over a one-lane bridge that looks to be in need of repair. Eight holes are on the island (if one adds together parts of two par 3’s where you cross over the thinner part of the river to the greens) with ten holes on the other sides.
I cannot do a thorough review of the course due to the weather conditions. It was expected to rain before we started to play with the rain continuing throughout our round. We considered cancelling the round before we started. Yet for the first eight holes we were rain-free and optimistic. Then the rain started on nine and by the time we got to the ninth green, we had to put on rain gear. We went on, playing the tenth and eleventh in the heavy rain. As we finished eleven I was asked what I wanted to do as the newcomer to the course and since we were relatively close to the clubhouse. I suggested playing one more hole and by the time we got to the twelfth tee, I said we should play “speed golf” and see if our threesome could play seven holes in thirty minutes (we had carts). It took us 35. The final hole and a half we played without rain. But during these holes I did not take my normal time to study the golf course and watch how better/longer players attack the course.
I played with a long-hitting member who knows the course very well and a good female amateur golfer who at one time won the Junior Amateur and the Amateur in Massachusetts in the same year. Behind us was a LPGA pro and another female amateur I know who holds the Vesper course record from the red tees, scoring a 62 – 6 birdies, an eagle and an ace on 17. They abandoned their round at nine and we joined them later for lunch.
Had there not been a foursome and threesome in front of us we would have finished the round before the rain started, and without rushing a single shot. But due to the rain, a foursome and a threesome abandoned their round and allowed us to conduct our “speed golf” event.
The course is a par 72. From the Black tees it is 6784 yards, rated 73.1/134. From the Blue tees it is 6475 yards rated 71.5/132. There are six sets of lesser tees. Our threesome played the Black tees, with the female amateur beginning on the Blue tees but moving to our tees by the fourth hole. I will list only the Black and Blue tees.
1. Par 4 – 296/281. A gentle opener just off the putting green with the Merrimack River to one’s left. There is a bunker about 180-210 yards on the right as well as scattered trees. A bunker is set at the front of either side of the green which has a false front and is sloped back to front. Although this hole is an opportunity to get one’s round off to a good start, the member told me he has often seen double bogies on the hole due to the slope of the green.
2. Par 4 – 418/411. This hole looks 50 yards longer than it is and the sixteenth actually mirrors it except at the green. This is one of the holes with good movement in the land for the fairway with a substantial fall-off about 240 yards out that will allow the longer hitters to get a good roll-out. There is a single tree on the right and left. The more interesting part of the hole is a large grass bunker set before the green at an angle with the grass on the face very thick. There are two bunkers set to the right, the first to the right of the grass bunker and the second alongside the right side of the green. The green has a slight crown to it and a fair amount of interior movement with fall-offs behind. It is a good hole.
3. Par 4 – 392/384. From the tee there is a lovely view of the wider part of the Merrimack River. To the right of the hole are heavy trees. The play on the hole is down the left side but two fairway bunkers are placed inside the fairway’s edge and are placed opposite a tree. The hole has two cross bunkers that visually appear to be about ten yards from the front of the green but are actually about 40-35 yards in front. The ground rises after these bunkers with the green on the same plateau. There are no bunkers at the green which again has a fall-off at the rear. The green is sloped back to front with several interior swales. It is an okay hole visually yet made interesting due to those cross bunkers.
4. Par 3 – 147/125. You play over the thinner part of the Merrimack River fairly level to a green that has a wrap-around bunker on the front right, a front bunker, and a bunker set on the left. The temptation is to hit long but there is not much room behind the green due to Pawtucket Boulevard. Trust your yardage and club. The green is a Biarritz with a 2 ½ feet center swale in the middle leading to a three putt for me.
5. Par 5 – 480/476. My member told me this hole is more like a 4 1/2. Par. That is true and one wonders if Vesper wanted to climb in the rankings whether they should change par on this hole to a 4. For some raters things like that matter. As a par 4 it would be a very fine hole. As a par 5 it is a definite eagle or birdie opportunity for the better players. This hole is essentially straight with a little jog left about 100 yards from the green, which confused and bit me. There is an early cross bunker on the left that is not really in play and trees line the right side to the green. There are scattered trees down the left. A bunker is placed on the left side where the fairway goes to the left and where a rise in the land occurs. The green has a valley fronting it as it is placed on higher land. There is a bunker on the right side of the green. Due to a poor drive my second did not quite clear the fairway bunker leaving a blind third into the green. Because the green is set a bit to the right I missed it by a yard to the left and went well back but faced a front pin. The green has a front left swale and a crown in the middle and looked like a slope front to back towards the rear of the green. I hit one of the worst putts of my life…..we will leave it at that.
6. Par 4 – 339/329. Donald Ross has made some exceptional short par 4’s. This one is really good. The first bunker on the right is set about 190 yards from the tee while the second one is on the left about 250 yards out. The green has a front bunker and a bunker to either side. The green is two-tiered with a false front. This is a “breather” hole and likely a birdie chance for the better players.
7. Par 5 – 554/544. This hole seems to go right, then right, then right, for the average hitter. The turn in the dogleg comes later here with only the longest hitters able to reach the turn. For other players, one should play as much to the left as they can so that the second shot has a chance to get through the dogleg. There are trees scattered down the right side that makes a shot down the right very difficult to recover. The first bunker is placed about 90 yards from the green on the right followed by a bunker right and left at the front of the green. I recall the green as being pretty flat and large, one of the easier greens on the course.
8. Par 4 – 392/377. I think there is room to lengthen this hole by 15 yards although it does not need it. Island Road is to the left of the hole with a decent line of trees between it and the fairway. This dogleg left has mounding going down the left with two bunkers placed on one of the rises. There is a center-line bunker 30 yards from the front of the green which is deep leading to a blind shot. There is a final bunker on the front left corner. The green has a false front and a steep back to front slope. Surrounding the green is good interior contouring. The good female amateur hit a poor tee shot that caught a tree on the left, went into the center-line bunker, hit slightly too long over the back of the green but got up-and-down for one of the more amazing bogies I have ever seen. It is my favorite hole on the front nine, perhaps my favorite on the course.
9. Par 3 – 216/200. This hole plays over a valley (although a second set of tees on the right lessen the impact of the valley). There is a large section of short grass before the green leading one to believe that the green starts earlier. The land falls sharply to the left well before the green begins. There is a front left bunker and a long bunker on the right. I thought I hit a good shot but was only at the front of the green. The good amateur was pin-high to the back pin placement, making the hole actually play closer to 230 yards. It is a fine par 3. The rain was heavy as we putted and continued to be heavy through the fifteenth hole.
10. Par 4 – 374/360. I do not remember much about this hole due to the heavy rain other than the trees are thick on both sides and the hole is a slight dogleg left. The green is near another road, Sheburne Avenue and I believe it has a small valley in front of it.
11. Par 5 – 592/509. This hole is a dogleg left with heavy trees down both sides. There is a large, deep bunker on the left for the longer players. I topped my second shot and went in it, close to the front. As it was raining hard, none of us saw where my third went as it hit the upper part of the face of the bunker and went up in the air. Did it actually go behind me? We don’t know. We never found it and did not want to spend the time looking. The hole continues to bend to the left after this bunker. A cross bunker on the left near a tree is found about 50 yards from the green. There is a final bunker on the right middle of the green. This green is large and has ripples and swales in it. This is a fine par 5 but I would like to see it in drier conditions.
12. Par 4 - 412/406. Our speed golf began here. The hole bends gently to the left with scattered trees down both sides. There are two cross bunkers left of the green about 30 yards from the front. Two other bunkers are set parallel to the left of the green (I commented at how cool they looked). There is another bunker on the front right. I do not remember much of the green due to the rushed putting.
13. Par 4 – 373/361. A straight hole with heavy trees to the right and scattered trees down the left. The green has four bunkers surrounding the front and back with none at the rear. I recall no bunkers at the rear and a green with a decent amount of slope.
14. Par 3 – 198/177. You play across the Merrimack River again to a green with two bunkers right and one on the left. The green is raised substantially back to front. There is a lot of slope to the green. I made a 40 feet putt for par.
15. Par 4 – 440/383. This is a very good hole with a long bowl in the middle of the fairway that goes for perhaps as far as 250 yards. It begins wide and a narrows, sort of like a halfpipe for skateboaders. It is a bit to the right side of the fairway. There is a cross bunker on the left about 80 yards from the green and another to the left side to a green that is large and slightly raised. The rain was letting up as we finished but we were two minutes behind pace.
16. Par 4 – 424/414. As mentioned, this hole parallels the second and mirrors it in length. The land is not quite as interesting as the second as it is flatter, yet with a few rolls. There are two bunkers left about 200-230 yards off the tee followed by a tree. There is a cross bunker about 80 yards from the green placed next to a tree. The green has flanking bunkers on the sides. I recall a dip before the green.
17. Par 3 – 221/190. This is a long par 3 as it plays substantially uphill. It requires likely two more clubs when wind is in your face. There are three bunkers right placed into the side of the hill with two on the right done the same way. The green has two tiers and a definite back to front tilt. It seemed to me that the green also tilted to the right, away from the water, but perhaps I hit a bad putt. It is a fun par 3 due to the judgment one must make on club selection. All of us did not make the green despite the rain having stopped.
18. Par 5 – 526/502. As we were already at 29 minutes, we took a bit longer to play the final hole: 6 minutes. My member told me some people do not like the hole because it has a blind tee shot going uphill to a fairway that canters to the right. Trees also pinch in the right side. After the 30 feet rise in the fairway the land falls down towards the green which is set off to the right. Longer hitters will get a favorable roll-out with their tee shot but may find themselves in the trees on the right side. There are no bunkers until one nears the green where three are placed on the right and one on the left. The green is rectangular and reasonably easy to read.
Vesper is a fun course. It is a course that should not “beat you up” but you will be penalized if you get inside the tree lines. The greens are the primary defense of the course due to their undulations and well-thought about green surrounds including placement of bunkers and nearby mounding. There is decent land movement in many of the holes such as the second, the fifth (which should be converted to a par 4 for men), the eighth, the fifteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth. It is a course one will enjoy playing over and over due to the variety of the holes and the strength of the par 3’s. If in the area, one should seek it out for a game. While it is in the second tier of courses in Massachusetts, in many states it would be in the first tier.