Situated in Blackstone Valley, some 45 miles west of downtown Boston, the 9-hole course at Whitinsville Golf Club is an authentic Donald Ross design from the mid-1920s, built for the Whitins machine works, which was at that time the world’s largest manufacturer of textile machinery.
It’s said the architect was working on another project nearby so he was duly contacted about designing the new course in Whitinsville. When Ross didn’t appear to show much interest in the commission, the offer of an 18-hole fee for a 9-hole layout seemed to quickly change his mind.
The course has been altered little down the years so it still bears many of the hallmark traits of a vintage Ross design, from small, open fronted domed greens to grass-faced bunkers, like the fairway traps found on the 438-yard 5th hole.
Laid out on hilly terrain, the fairways are generally wide and forgiving, with several of the holes routed around water hazards. The 446-yard 9th is a brilliant par four finishing hole, where the tee shot is aimed across the corner of a river basin to a tumbling fairway before an approach is then played across a valley to a plateau home green.
In the book The Finest Nines by Anthony Pioppi, the author has this to say about the course:
“There is good reason why for so long Whitinsville Golf Club has been considered the finest 9-hole course in the country. Whitinsville is virtually flawless, a masterwork of a master designer. Architect Donald Ross brought his best to this project, from the first tee to the ninth green.
”Strategy and options abound. At points, golfers are rewarded for their length off the tee. At other times, putting the driver away and playing for position is the wise move. The long irons as well as the wedges will be called on before the day is done. Not only do those who trod Whitinsville need a deft putting stroke, but they also need green-reading skills, something that could take many years to acquire.
“The course is made up of one par-5, two par-3s, and six par-4s. Four of the two-shotters are played in a row, but because of their variation in length, elevation, look, and shots required, the span is neither tiresome nor mundane, displaying the genius of Ross. The two par-3s are world apart in their appearance, the skills needed to conquer them, and the shots required to recover if the tee shots ends in unintended locations.”
Think of all the golf courses you have played. Now consider the few courses you could play every day for the rest of your life. Do any create a lump in your throat? Do any give you goosebumps?
As dramatic as that may sound, chills run through my body every time I imagine myself standing on the first tee at Whitinsville. For me, this Donald Ross masterpiece evokes a deep emotional response.
I first learned about Whitinsville in the “Donald Ross: Discovering the Legend” documentary film (http://www.donaldrossfilm.com/). Tom Doak holds very high admiration for the course, as did Donald himself; Ross cited the 9th as one of the finest holes he ever designed. As Doak explains, there are only a few topographical “features” on the Whitinsville property, yet Ross found a way to incorporate them on every hole. Whitinsville, Massachusetts may not have the dramatic setting of a coastal links or a scenic mountain range, but it hugs the contours of the land better than almost all of my other 215 courses played. There is nothing manmade about its appearance. Every one of the few trees, knobs, twists, and turns seem perfectly in place.
All nine of Whitinsville’s holes are noteworthy from a strategic standpoint, and each contributes to a round filled with variety and diverse challenges:
• #1: This stout, true three-shot hole is anything but a gentle handshake. From the tee, the landing area is fairly wide. On the second shot, players must avoid a cross bunker left and a deep valley in the fairway. Even if it was possible to reach, going for this volcano-style green in two would be foolish. Raised on all sides, the putting surface slopes from back-to-front and from left-to-right. When one lays up, they must place their shot at a comfortable wedge distance. It is nearly impossible to keep a chip from long or left on the green, and any shot before the green will travel back down the steep front up to 50 yards short. Ross’ architectural genius is already showcased – how many other difficult, true par fives can you think of with just a few bunkers, a wide fairway, and no trees? Talented architects can make difficult holes appear so straightforward.
• #2: The beautifully restored 2nd green feels almost like an island par three. Small in scale and warped in shape, the putting surface is guarded three bunkers which visually intimidate the eye. This short hole demands a high, controlled, aerial mid-iron.
• #3: The short par four 3rd may seem simple, but the fairway plays more uphill than it appears, stopping drives abruptly. The green is so severe in its pitch than any shot spinning too much will easily come right off the front.
• #4: After climbing to the tee box, the drive at the 4th is quite tricky. The best angle to this narrow green complex is from the right side which is guarded by thick rough and out-of-bounds. Should players accidentally overcook their shots to the left, they face moguls and a tree which makes a punch out almost assured.
• #5: The drive off the 5th is blind, blocked by a small ridge roughly 100 yards away from the tee. Three bunkers also sit atop this undulation. It would be easy to assume that these traps are aesthetic, when in fact they are yet another example of Ross’ genius. As the hole bends slightly to the right, these bunkers can guide players’ eyes too far left toward thick rough. Although the green is welcoming to ground shots, being in the short grass is strongly preferred for your approach.
• #6: The approach shot and putting surface at the 6th are wildly fun. Miss short, and your ball can tumble 30 yards backwards, potentially into a lateral hazard. Miss long, and you likely will trickle all the way to the 7th tee box, connected by a collection area. With the wind often blowing in your face, yardage control is critical. While playing left off the tee provides a better angle, it lengthens this already demanding hole.
• #7: The lengthier of Whitinsville’s two par threes, the 7th demands a mid/long iron that sticks on this egg shaped green. The putting surface is wider in the front, though any shot short will easily slide back 30-40 yards.
• #8: Strategy abounds at the 8th. Knowing the pin location can greatly impact planning on your drive. If the pin is on the right side of the green, players must cut the corner as much as possible and pray their shot passes a deep valley. If the pin is on the left, you can play towards the right side of the fairway and hope you are not caught in the pronged bunker. Deceptively rumpled, this is one of the most difficult putting surfaces on the course.
• #9: If ever there was such thing as an “ideal” golf hole (and, ideal land for a golf hole), the 9th at Whitinsville fits the definition. Cut at an angle, players are faced with the option of aiming conservatively left or more aggressively to a deep knoll perpendicular to your drive and a narrower landing zone. Each presents very unique challenges and opportunities. While the left side provides a flat lie, width, and a better look at the putting surface, the approach will require a long iron to a small green with virtually no room to miss. Catch the knoll by playing right, and you can either gain an easy 20-30 yards or be funneled into the swamp. The approach from the right will be blind, but considerably shorter. With the green canted hard from back-to-front and left-to-right, missing to the left creates a nearly impossible up-and-down.
Clearly, the rolling terrain of the ground defines the exceptional architecture at Whitinsville. I have played few courses where simple hills and valleys make me reconsider drives, approach shots, chips, and putts alike. The greens range in size, shape, and strategy of attack. If Whitinsville has one weakness, it is that there are only nine holes!!
Members who play eighteen at Whitinsville usually use two different sets of tees. Playing nine may rob one of the potential variety in club selection, though windier conditions also create more half-par-length holes.
The spiritual nature of my Whitinsville experiences are engrained in my personal golf story. Whitinsville is located in a quiet, small town near the Massachusetts/Rhode Island border. As it would turn out, this quaint area is where my mother was raised and where my extended family all still live today. Growing up, I had visited the town of Whitinsville hundreds of times without ever knowing this masterpiece was just 400 yards away from my relatives’ home. I would like to think that was Donald Ross looking over me, only revealing this gem through the DVD documentary after I had gained a true appreciation for course architecture and his life story.
If I even still have your attention after all this time, allow me to promote some of Whitinsville’s wonderful local businesses to complete your trip there:
• Lunch: Pirate’s Cove is a classic New England fried food shack and is a town staple minutes away from the course (74 Providence Rd, Linwood, MA 01525).
• Dinner: For an upscale dining experience using local ingredients, check out the Ux Locale located on a gorgeous farm (510 Hartford Ave W, Uxbridge, MA 01569). For something more casual, Harry’s Pizza is tried and true (6 S Main St, Uxbridge, MA 01569).
• Drinks: The Purgatory Beer Co. is a relatively new brewery specializing in IPAs less than a mile from the course (670 Linwood Ave Building C, Northbridge, MA 01588).
Have you played the other four nine-hole courses often discussed as the best in the USA? Dunes, Sweetens Cove, Hooper, and Culver Academies? If so, how would you compare them?
I have yet to play Whitinsville but I have two trips planned for Massachusetts in September and October and hope to play it then.
Thank you so much for the positive comments!
Sadly, I have not played Dunes, Sweetens Cove, or Culver Academies, though I have read frequently about each. A few years ago I actually passed through New Buffalo, MI, on a road trip and had no idea I was only a mile or so from the Dunes! If and when travel is safe again, Chattanooga is high on my list of golf destinations.
Last summer (while living in Whitinsville, actually), I made the trip up to see Hooper. I also wrote a review at the Hooper page on the site. The whole Hooper story is just inspiring. Actually meeting staff and locals who helped save that course gave more meaning to every stroke. Hooper’s elevation change is more severe than Whitinsville, and there is a broader range landscapes. At Hooper, you’ll play through everything from dense forest to open meadow. Walpole is an absolutely charming place to visit, though it is more ‘off-the-beaten-path’ than Whitinsville. Whitinsville’s conditioning is superior to Hooper, but given all Hooper’s been through, the golf course as presented is remarkable.
If I were to split ten rounds between the two, I would probably lean around 7-3 Whitinsville. When you visit this fall, know that you can easily pair Whitinsville with any of the Providence courses (about 45 minutes away) or other Central/Eastern Mass. courses. Another superb, unheralded Ross course in the area is Worcester Country Club which blew me away.
Feel free to message any time, and thanks again for the kind words!
In the past month I’ve managed to play what may well be the two finest nine hole courses in the world. And I’m having a difficult time figuring out whether I like Royal Worlington and Newmarket better than Whitinsville. Worlington’s 4th and 5th (particularly the green complexes) are as good a pair of consecutive holes as you’ll find anywhere. But for consistent hole after hole pleasure, Whitinsville gets my vote. Donald Ross managed to design doglegs on every hole but the par 3s. For balance 3 go left and 4 go right, so there are 14 times when the golfer is challenged to decide how much of the line of charm to attack. And while the par 3s require an aerial shot, 12 of the other 14 approach shots allow a variety of shots. All of Ross’s greens are either nicely contoured or devilishly sloped (or both) keeping the wielder of the flat stick on high alert.
This 9-hole Donald Ross course has a large open feel to it. The tee shots are mostly generous with 7 of the holes playing mostly flat with just gentle movement in the land. The strategic highlights are the constant change in direction and some of Ross’ most treacherous and testing greens. There are jaw-dropping putting surfaces that will not give many birdies, but are a spectacle to behold. Fans of Donald Ross will hopefully get to study these greensites as they are a wonderful marriage of ‘beauty and the beast’. The closing hole requires a dramatic carry over a marsh to a severely sloped dogleg fairway swooping back up to an elevated green. It’s truly the best hole on the course.