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.”
It is appropriate that Whitinsville is now included among the top 200 classic golf courses in the USA even though it has only nine holes. It certainly is one of Donald Ross’s finest designs. I have played the Dunes Club, but not as yet Sweetens Cove, Culver Academies, or Hooper. It is interesting that Golf Magazine has Whitinsville as the #2 nine hole course in the world.
I do not think the course sits on extraordinary land the way that a course such as Eastward Ho does. However, certainly the ninth hole at Whitinsville would fit right into Eastward Ho, Essex County, or any of the other top-rated courses in Massachusetts. The ninth hole beautifully blends the mixture of land features from plateaus to valleys to hillsides to rises with a daunting pond to cross from the Blue tee.
Massachusetts is a golf-rich state due to its coastline, soil, and topography changes evident in many of its courses. Whitinsville, while nowhere near the coast does have the benefit of great soil and topography variation on many of its holes.
I grew up on a nine-hole course near my hometown in Ohio so I am not bothered by playing the same holes. Of the three members that I joined, all of them said they never have gotten “tired” of playing the course, due to the mysteries of the amazing green complexes. This is a course that is very much all about the greens and the green surrounds as the tee shot on most holes are to somewhat generous fairways. There are opportunities to hit balls out-of-bounds but it takes a pretty bad shot to do so (I did it twice on #3 the first time around: they were hideous shots as I tried to be too clever).
I counted five sets of tees although the scorecard indicated only three. The Blue/White tees play to 6427 yards while the White/Black play to 5988 yards and the Yellow/Red plays to 5170 yards. It is a par 70 rated 71.2/139 and 69.1/132. I believe playing the Blue tees only will push the total yardage to nearly 6800 yards. Based on reading Adam Tomasiello’s review, I played a mixture of tees both for the first nine holes as well as the second nine. In doing so, the course did seem to play differently due to different looks for several tee boxes. Please note that in the yardages below as I do not have a scorecard of the Blue tees I am estimating.
1 – par 5 546/526. A “swing-away” tee shot as long as one avoids the two bunkers on the left. The land falls down to a small valley about 260 yards out with another bunker placed on the inner left on this dogleg left. The green sits well above you, perhaps as much as fifteen feet at its front with another four feet rise to the back. Landing short will send a ball back down the hill as much as 45 yards. Fronting the green placed on the hill are two bunkers left and one on the right. On the second round I noticed a small bunker placed in the rear. There is a bit of tall grass that can prevent one from hitting into the rear bunker. The green has a smallish bowl at its front middle which is where the pin was placed for my day. The green is very steeply sloped back to front with a higher tilted shelf on the right side. Balls hit above the hole will be very quick going back to the pin and stand a high probability of going all the way down that 40 yards. The negative to the green is the lack of many pin placements due to the severity of the slopes. Any chip from off the green will have to correctly judge the best path to reduce the speed of the ball. It is a par 5 that will get one’s attention.
2 – par 3 155/147. The higher ground for the Blue/White tees offers a better view of the green. The lower tees have a good view, but not quite as interesting. This green is angled right to left with three bunkers at the front and sides. The bunkers are not very deep and offer a chance at recovery. At the back left and rear of the green is a steep fall-off of about three feet. The green is sloped back to front with a higher knob on the right middle that a putt from the front will likely have to consider. It is a very nice par 3.
3 – par 4 382/372. One crosses the road to get to the tee where one cannot go right into the dense trees as it will be an unplayable lie or lost ball. There is a single tree on the left followed by a series of mounds that were added (not in Donald Ross’s design according to two of my hosts) to replace a tree that was removed farther down the fairway. The fairway has a rugged mound on the right about 220 yards out while there are two small bunkers placed about 30 and 15 yards short of the green on the left and center, respectively. There is another bunker on the right side. The green has a false front of a couple of feet. This somewhat oval green does not look as though it has a second tier but balls putted from the back will gather speed as they hit the horizontal drop in the green. There is a slight tilt to the left to the green. The green itself is set at the base of a substantial hill behind it. Many might dismiss this hole due to its length but the contours of the green certainly makes it an adequate challenge.
4 – par 4 378/358. Playing from the top of the hill to a wide fairway, one wants to avoid those series of mounds on the left and the taller grass on the right. There is a small bunker on the left after the mounds for the longer hitters as well as one on the right placed far up the hole that should not be in play for anyone. The green has two bunkers with the right side bunkers set well off to the right. I asked the members if anyone goes into these bunkers and the answer was “no.” There is a much more strategically placed bunker on the left side. The green is again sloped back to front with a knob in its back middle and a plateau back right that makes putts very confounding. Holes three and four are not particularly attractive, but one must maintain their focus to score well due to the severity of the greens.
5 – 425/421. There is talk of putting another tee about 25 yards further back which I think is a good idea. After crossing the road you play over a series of three bunkers right and two on the left set on a rise. While it seems the best line is to go through the middle of them, the better players will favor the right bunkers and be able to get a favorable roll, leaving a wedge for their approach shot. There is out-of-bounds down the right side. The green has two bunkers right about 80 yards from the green and then two more set just in front. There is another bunker set well right of the green. The green has another false front and another steeply sloped back to front with a similar middle knob in it. It is a nice hole.
6 – 420/385 For me this is the most visualizing pleasing hole on the course as a gentle dogleg right. There are two bunkers left and one on the right that are not in play. There is unkempt grass surrounding a bunker further up on the right before a drop in the fairway. Bigger hitters likely do not hit their driver on this hole to avoid having a downhill lie in the taller grass before a small stream crosses the fairway. This valley is about 100 yards long. The green is placed on level ground with the fairway which results in a substantial false front on the other side of the stream. There is a small bunker left at the bottom of the false front while there are flanking bunkers that are a bit narrower than other bunkers on the course. Any ball hit short will fall back 40 yards and end up in tall grass or perhaps in the divot of a previous ball. The green is angled back to front with its knob on the left middle. At the rear of the green is a sharp fall-off leading to the seventh tee. It is a splendid green complex.
7 – par 3 – 180/172. This par 3 plays over a valley with an even longer false front than six, likely rivalling the false front on the first hole. This hole has a thinner back half. The two fairway bunkers from the first hole can come into play to the left of the green while there are two fronting bunkers placed inside the bunkers from one. Finally there are two bunkers on the sides that are fairly deep. The green is sloped back to front. If one hits down the left side of the hole there is the possibility of a favorable bounce onto the green. Yet if one goes slightly too far left then there will have a very tricky downhill shot from the rough. It is a nice par 3.
8 – par 4 360/340. This is the weakest hole on the course as a sharp dogleg left. Bigger hitters will have a go at this green despite the trees and three bunkers on the left side. A single bunker is on the right side of the fairway. The tee shot plays over wetlands set well below onlower ground from the elevated tee although the forward tee has a blind tee shot from the low ground of the wetlands. This green has another smaller false front and is again steeply sloped back to front with a knob/mound in its middle. This green seemed to break a bit less than the other greens.
9 – par 4 – 444/416. Playing over wetlands/lake this dogleg right offers longer hitters the opportunity to cut the dogleg by carrying all of the water while average length players will play out to the left to a plateau thereby likely meaning they will have to one putt for a par. The longer hitters run the risk of their ball not quite making it all the way to the bottom of a 25 feet tall rise and therefore have a hanging lie to a green that sits on top of another hill with another false front of some length. Average length hitters will play down to the valley and hope to pitch onto the green close to the pin. There is bunker placed to the left about 25 yards short of the green while there are flanking bunkers on the sides with the left side being very thin. The green is steeply sloped back to front and left to right with more interior swales than most of the other holes. This hole is a perfect design for the topography changes.
The Dunes Club and Whitinsville are so different in their terrain, soil and vegetation that one almost should not compare them. While I think Whitinsville has the more difficult greens due to their slopes as well as more difficult green complexes due to the severity of four of the false fronts, I find the Dunes Club to have more interesting interior contouring and small, but interesting micro-contouring just off the greens. The bunkering is much better at the Dunes Club in terms of shaping and placement whereas Whitinsville has several bunkers that do not come into play. The Dunes Club is a visual feast with the exception of one hole. There is more variety in the holes at the Dunes Club. While I am a fan of both, I would put Dunes Club marginally ahead. But for those who have Whitinsville ahead, I can understand why.
My rating might seem overly harsh, but that is because Massachusetts is a golf-rich state. As such Whitinsville has to compete with The Country Club, Salem, Essex, Kittansett, Myopia Hunt, Sankaty Head, Eastward Ho, Boston Golf Club and even “second-tier” clubs such as Charles River, Worcester, Brae Burn, Hyannisport, Taconic, etc. As such it is not quite in the same league as most of them. However, it is a must play. Anyone who is a fan of Donald Ross, as I am, should definitely play Whitinsville.
Whitinsville undoubtedly in my mind is the best 9-hole course in America. Hole 9 happens to feature in my opinion one of Donald Ross’s best holes. I stared the weekend on a 9-hole course swing playing Marion Golf Course nearby, hoping to get settled in. Whitinsville was on an entirely different level, the first two holes hit me hard.
Hole one features a slight dogleg left, par five with imposing bunkering on the left that come into play off the tee. The approach and lay up areas are no easy objective either, the ideal approach shot will leave you 100 yards and under, play steep uphill towards the green. Classic Donald Ross, keep your ball below the hole.
Hole two is a downhill par 3 with bunkers guarding the flag short of the green, going long is actually better on this hole, however both times that I played the hole the wind was directly against me. A formidable hole that plays about a club longer than the yardage.
Number three is a par 4 dogleg right, typically dogleg rights heavily favor my game and scoring, as I hit a natural fade. But I was left very uncomfortable off the tee, the right side is entirely blocked out by dense vegetation and tall grass, down left towards the tree in the rough is not a bad spot and will leave a fair shot into the green. You can be aggressive as I found out my second time around, the bunker that appears to guard the pin in the front is actually set about 20 yards in before the green leaving plenty of distance between you and the hole.
Hole 4 is a downhill gem, right-side of the fairway is the best option for attacking this green, a solid drive should leave you no more than 120 yards out, keep in mind that you want to stay below the hole at all costs on this hole. Devilish green, with wild contours, make it easy on yourself and hit it within two feet.
Number 5, a fantastic hole. Drive past the bunkers if you’re playing here for the first time, it plays a lot differently than you’d imagine. The best line is to go right over the bunkers, possibly middle right. The fairway after the bunkers slopes very heavily left. Iconic hole with bells to ring one you and your partners have hit your approaches. Uphill green, that favors staying below the hole, from my two shots into the green it seems to roll quite a bit. Rolling onto the green seems to be the best play as you should have well over 160 in.
Hole six is a fun uphill par 4 not particularly long by yardage, but typically against the wind. Left half of the fairway is a good approach and will give a decent angle to attack the green. Very parable hole, tough to birdie.
Hole seven, a par 3 that plays into a nasty cross wind, sitting up top a hill any shot short of the green will roll 40 yards to the bottom on a summer day. Better to be a club long and take the par, in my option.
Number 8 is the ultimate risk reward par 4 drivable by many. The opening to the green is narrow about 10-15 yards but you got to hit it solid, go left, or short and your dropping. The smart play is to play along the dogleg and bite off as much as you can chew, 200 yard ball seems about right, taking the bunkers out of play & leaving 100-110 yard approach shot into the green, very manageable.
Ah and we now get to the final hole number 9, a wicked par 4 that I believe is one of Donald Ross’s best designs. A pond guards any ball hit off to the right, keep in mind as deceptive as it may seem you cannot carry the pond, its 305 yards out. The play is to aim at the hill middle right and fade the ball along the slopes, that still however leaves a very long and demanding approach shot uphill 190+ yards, better to club up and hit above the pin as any shot short will roll down the hill about 30 yards. Although be warned it’s a quick putt downhill, finish strong, finish with a par.
Overall Whitinsville was a very memorable golfing experience, I was not bored playing 9 two times. The course certainly left a strong impression, fantastic conditioning and a passionate staff to match.
Always happy to hear a bold statement such as "Best 9" from a well-written reviewer. Can I bait you into deflecting the perhaps more popular claims of Dunes Club or Sweetens?
Thank you, Ryan for the comment, I can't speak to say that Whitinsville is better than the Dunes Club and Sweetens as I haven't played them to date. But I can say that Whitinsville blew me away both in design and quality. I will be honest I was a bit skeptical before playing, one concern being how would the lack of 9 more holes shape my impressions and experience during an 18 hole round, some lesser 9 hole courses became repetitive after going at it a second time, however Whitinsville was certainly not the case. I immediately picked where I left off and was able to notice the subtle nuances of Donald Ross’s magic during my second time around, that I previously missed the first go around. I actually would go as far to say that having 9 holes at Whitinsville is a strength, given the quality of each hole. In particular guest play greatly benefits from the 9-hole layout, the holes are all very delightful and unique. Given that Whitinsville has a stellar and I would say rebound reputation in my mind, Whitinsville not only meets but exceeds all expectations I had, coming into playing the course.
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.