Established in 1897, Winchester Golf Club was the precursor to Winchester Country Club, which was inaugurated five years later. The original 9-hole course, designed by Willie Campbell near Winter Pond, no longer exists. The current layout at Winchester Country Club was established as a 9-hole course in 1903 and was extended to 18 holes in 1916, nine years before Donald Ross was called in to redesign the layout.
Holes are essentially built on the side of a hill close to Upper Mystic Lake with many of the fairways laid out side by side due to the lie of the land. Nonetheless, the design skills of Donald Ross were such that he still managed to create an interesting and totally engaging course.
The most difficult holes here appear around the turn, where the long par four 8th requires a fairway wood or long iron approach to the green and the slightly doglegged 10th is played to a tricky two-tier putting surface.
The signature hole on the card is the 525-yard 13th, the second of back-to-back par fives, and bunkers separate its split fairway. A tee shot driven to the lower level on the left lessens the risk, but lengthens the hole whilst a drive to the right offers big hitters the chance of going for the green in two mighty blows.
New Yorker Stephen Kay revised the layout in 1991 and in 2012 Ron Forse worked with superintendent Dennis Houle to complete a bunker renovation across all eighty-one sand hazards.
Winchester Country Club was designed by Donald Ross for its third iteration. M. James Ward gave a comprehensive review although there are a few areas where perhaps I disagree with his review.
My two hosts were excellent, both long-time members of the club and knowledgeable about its history. They shared the recent changes to the club as well as an ongoing discussion at the club as to whether to lengthen the course to 7000 yards from its current 6886 yards. There is room to do so although there is not much room to go beyond 7000 yards.
Massachusetts is a golf rich state so being in the top 25 is itself high praise. As noted, too many new courses have been built recently for Winchester to remain in the top ten. However, if the course added yardage to 2-3 holes it would increase the quality of those holes and reopen the debate as to where it should rank. The holes being considered for lengthening are already some of the better holes on the course and changes could perhaps make them some of the best holes in the Boston area.
I do think the course likely gets points taken off because the back nine has too much movement. I did not like the sixteenth hole as the fall-off down to the green is too severe. Also, if the wind is in one’s face they will likely not hit the tee shot far enough to have a view of the green. A blind shot into a green is fine, but not when there is a 75 feet drop. However, the green complex and green surface is very good. The walk up and down on the back nine is perhaps too severe at times and it detracts a bit from the course although adding to the difficulty of the holes.
One criticism I had is the location of the clubhouse which is at the lowest point of the property placed also in a corner of the land. The clubhouse would have been much better located at the highest point of the property. This high point is where the course superintendent is provided lodging for himself/family in the form of a rather lovely house and barn. It is a great perk. If the club ever considers doing substantial/expensive renovations to its current clubhouse I think they should swap the locations, even if it means the routing changes. While I usually only consider the course and never the clubhouse/practice facilities/experience, the location of the clubhouse made me wonder whether Mr. Ross delivered the best routing for the course. With the benefit of modern topography maps it is likely he could have created a course even better, even if the current course is deserving of its lofty ranking in Massachusetts. Perhaps one could have started with the long downhill twelfth or began at the current green for the thirteenth. On this I agree with Mr. Ward.
Yet the course is very worthy of its current ranking on top100golfcourses.com in the state of Massachusetts. I have yet to play Sankaty Head or Vineyard so I cannot say whether it should be in the top ten. I also think Worcester is a better golf course and Charles River is a close call as to which is better.
I also agree that the front nine has the superior holes to the back nine. While the back nine has the better views across the course and in the distance, the front nine twice offers views of the Boston skyline. The back nine adds a view of Mystic Lake and its swimming beach as well as multiple looks at the city. The back nine has both the larger and perhaps more interesting greens. The back nine also has the more difficult holes due to the more significant change in terrain. Yet the front nine feels both more intimate and classic in its design and overall the slightly better greenside bunkering and green surrounds.
I should note that we played a wet golf course due to a full day of rain the previous day (when I played George Wright). The courses had not dried out from the Saturday overnight heavy rains and yet a full day of rain had come. While the course drains fairly well, we saw a few areas of water as well as heard water underneath the wheels of our pushcarts (trolleys). It certainly added to the length of the white tees which are listed at 6474 yards. I certainly felt the course played closer to 6650 yards. The wet spots made a shot from the rough much more difficult as well as wedges and chips had to be struck crisply to avoid being hit fat.
As noted the par 4 opener is less than 350 yards, yet because it both bends to the right and is sharply uphill, it plays closer to 400 yards. One wants their tee ball to avoid the two bunkers on the outer corner and stay as close as possible to the tree line on the right. The green is long and thin with a fall-off of the right side. It is a solid opening hole.
The second hole is a downhill par 5 that rises again to the green. The two bunkers on the hole are set well short of the green which sits atop a false front. All of us were short with our third shots, but due to the wetness our balls remained there instead of coming down the slope. The green has an early tier to it with gradual fall-offs off the right and rear.
The third hole plays downhill and is one of the better holes on the course both visually and in playing making the hole play a bit shorter than its 425 yards. There are trees, a stream and a pond down the right side. Three bunkers are on the right side as you approach the green with a single deep bunker on the front left. Only the earliest bunker on the left will result in a difficult bunker shot. This green is tilted back to front and looks to break if coming from the side but does not turn as much as it looks. It is a speedy green.
The fourth plays gently uphill adding to the length of this 428 yard par 4. An early bunker on the right followed by a tree make the play off to the tee to the middle or left side. There is another bunker approximately 60 yards from the green on the right that is clever as it is somewhat hidden if playing from the right rough. Three bunkers surround a green placed behind a false front. The green has a slight tilt left and to the front but one should be able to do no worse than two putt regardless of distance.
I liked the look of the fifth from the tee as a short dogleg left of 337 yards. There are two sizeable bunkers down the inner corner. Longer hitters can easily carry these bunkers but must not go too far right as they could end up behind a tree or perhaps even out-of-bounds. The green is a good one set atop another false front with a narrower front due to framed bunkers. The right side has a second bunker that is also somewhat deep. These green has more contouring than the other greens which so far have mainly been defined by their slopes.
Six begins the wonderful par 3’s at Winchester. This hole plays slightly uphill at 186 yards. We had a back flag making the hole nearly 200 yards in length but longer due to the uphill. There are four bunkers on the front left/side all of which are deep with the front ones leading to a blind recovery shot. The bunker on the right offers a view of the putting surface. This green seemed faster to the front than the others played so far. The hole is expertly placed below the higher ground behind it. This green also offers the third chance on the front to see the Boston skyline.
Perhaps my favorite hole on the front nine is the seventh, a downhill par 4 of 386 yards. The fairway is canted to the left so the right side is to be favored. The rough is also thick if one goes left. There is a central bunker roughly 80 yards from the green and another bunker off to the left about 40 yards short of the green which seemed unnecessary. At the green are two deep bunkers on the front left and a single one on the right. This green is likely the quickest on the front nine going to the front but with micro-tiering. I liked the visual of this hole as well as its strategy.
Eight is a brute of a hole unless one is a long hitter. This par 4 is 464/427 and plays sharply uphill to the highest point on the front nine. There are no bunkers until 75 yards short of the green where the two bunkers right and a single bunker left squeeze the fairway for the shorter hitters. A fourth bunker is placed 20-10 yards short of the right front. The green sits well above you and is sizeable which is very appropriate for the length of the hole. While the hole is somewhat featureless from a visual standpoint, it is a strong golf hole. This is one of the holes that they might lengthen by another 15 yards.
Nine is a most attractive par 3 surrounded by seven bunkers. It is a mid-length at 173/164 as you play across lower ground to a green that is tilted to the front. Given the tilt of the green, the obvious bunkers to avoid are the two in the rear. Because I had played George Wright the day before I instantly compared it to the seventeenth at George Wright. While this is a very good par 3, I thought the one at George Wright to be slightly better if the bunkers were kept in good condition.
Ten is another long hole playing downhill back up to a green on a bit of a shelf. There are no fairway bunkers but the two greenside bunkers on the left and the single one on the front right have to be avoided. I admired this green which is the largest on the course and can result in putts of perhaps as much as 150 feet (mine was 135). The green has three tiers and provides the appearance of rippling like waves. I loved this amazingly large green.
Eleven is a long par 3 of 234 yards playing basically level but over a valley to a green. If one is short of the green their ball with not advance onto the green unless they have hit a low boring shot. The left side of the green has a falloff of as much as 50 feet if one is unfortunate enough to tumble all the way down through the steeply banked ground. Given the steepness of the slope off the left side, if one stays on the bank it will be one of the hardest recovery shots of their life due to the stance one would have to take in order not to fall down and tumble down the hill. The green is large with two long and deep bunkers on the front left resulting in blind recovery shots while the right side bunker affords a better view of the green. It is a difficult par 3.
Twelve is a par 5 of 515/470 which I think should remain a par 5. You tee off from an elevated tee to a slight dogleg right. There is a bunker down the right side that catches a lot of balls. The bunker on the left is up another 40 yards so typically only the longer hitters have to consider it. Another fairway bunker is on the left about 75 yards from the green. The fairway cants to the right a bit with tall grass down the left side. The green is perhaps 50 feet above the lowest point of the fairway so the hole plays a bit longer than 515 yards. It is another big green framed by two bunkers that again are fairly deep and one can have a blind shot if the pin is in the rear. The green has more humps than the other greens so far. It is a decent par 5.
Thirteen is the second par 5 and the last on the course playing at 530 yards to a split fairway with the right half being much higher playing across four bunkers. I could see no advantage to playing down the left side because the bend in the fairway is so severe to the right that one is likely blocked by trees resulting in playing to the left leaving anywhere from 120-160 yards. The longer hitters currently try to play just to the right of the bunker line off the tee with a slight draw. This is the sharpest dogleg on the course and there are two bunkers on the left side after the sharp turn. The green is long and framed by two bunkers left and a single long one on the right. The green has a defined higher back and a bit of a turtle shell spine in its middle. The club is considering adding a new tee here that could add as much as 80 more yards resulting in a forced carry of 240 yards over a valley. It would require removing some trees. I would be in favor of that for the better/longer players and it would transform the hole. I did not care much for the hole due to the awkwardness of the turn.
Fourteen is the final par 3 and the shortest at less than 150 yards. It is not as visually attractive as the ninth but has very good bunkering with a front bunker and one on either side all of which are five feet deep. This green is again tilted to the front. The hole is beautifully backdropped by trees.
The final four holes are par 4 with all holes being over 400 yards. The fifteenth used to have its tee on the left instead of being now a straight shot. The tee was moved because too many players hit their tee shots out-of-bounds to the right into the street or neighboring yards. I wish the tee was placed back and more trees planted down the right side as the hole would be better. As it is, it is an okay hole at 457/384 yards. Three bunkers are staggered down the fairway with the green having a bunker the length of the right side. This green features a fall-off of the left and has a central spine.
Sixteen simply did not do it for me. This dogleg right requires one to clear the hill to have a view of the sharply downhill shot into the green. There is a narrow creek bed about 40 yards from the green. The green complex is one of the best on the golf course with four bunkers, a narrow front and a mound on the left side that kicks ball to the right. The green is slick to the right and to the front. I loved the green but did not like the hole itself as the change in terrain combined with the dogleg was overkill for me.
Seventeen plays straight but the fairway kicks to the left making this play more like a dogleg. There are three bunkers down the left side and the balls seem to gather near the lips of them so getting onto the green is unlikely. The green is angled to the left with three fronting bunkers. This hole is somewhat benign from the tee but the tilt of the fairway makes it a compelling one.
The finishing hole is one of the strongest on the course and likely the most difficult despite it playing downhill. It is 453/440 yards but also a dogleg left. The fairway features a bunker on the left and two on the right all of which catch a lot of balls as the fairway tilts to the right. If one tries to play down the left and ends up in the left rough or left bunker they will have a blind shot as the taller land on the left side blocks the view of the green. There is another bunker placed on the inner corner of the dogleg which starts about 180 yards from the green. The green complex is another strong one with two bunkers left and two on the right with a green that has a lot of slant and inner movement. There is also better contouring surrounding the green. It is a very strong finishing hole.
I liked Winchester. Single-digit members here likely travel well with their indexes and would be good for a member-guest. As mentioned, I think the course likely gets critiqued for too much land movement on the back nine, a weak sixteenth hole, and lack of micro-contouring near many of the greens.
If they added length to the four-five holes perhaps it could break into the top ten of Massachusetts. In my opinion, I place it ahead of courses like Hyannisport, Vesper, Cape Cod National, Whitinsivlle, and Taconic but slightly behind Salem, Charles River and certainly Worcester. But it’s a close call given the richness of the top courses in the state. If one gets invited to Winchester, they should definitely go as it is another gem from Donald Ross.
The opening hole is indicative of what you will encounter for much of the round at Winchester. The "short" par-4 plays directly uphill and turns right in the drive zone. Generally, at most courses you don't get such a starting hole. The Ross design works very well on the constantly shifting terrain. The green sites are varied but there's little severe -- more on the subtle side of things. As has been mentioned, the Ross inclusion of false fronts is clearly present.
The routing is quite good -- always changing directions and forcing golfers to adjust. The strength of the course comes in the diversity of the par-4 holes.
The back-to-back par-4s at the 3rd and 4th are solid holes. This is especially so at the latter which climbs uphill to a green perched on top of the hillside. The short par-4 5th that follows is fairly rudimentary and Ross has delivered better on this front elsewhere. The par-3 6th is a good one-shot hole with the green again raised and fiercely protected on the left side by a menacing bunker.
The par-4 7th and 8th holes are neatly crafted. The former has a well-positioned center bunker in the fairway and the long 8th culminates with another green set above the fairway. When leaving the green you can see downtown Boston in the nearby distance. The closing hole on the front side is a devilish par-3 -- surrounded by seven bunkers and each named for one day of the week. Just be sure you don't miss the green left or finish too far right. In either misfire -- the penalty you suffer will be a swift kick in the golfer's boot.
Of the two nines the inward side is the more comprehensive in terms of overall hole quality. The 10th is a tenacious par-4 and has one of the more vexing green to decipher. The counterpoint with the long par-3 11th is another fine example in which Ross is keen to include such a hole in the mixture. What follows at the 12th and 13th are back-to-back par-5's and truthfully, the 12th should be played as a long par-4. The 13th features a split fairway and for those intent in getting to the green in two blows being successful in finding the right split area can provide the best angle into the green.
The short par-3 14th is a fine change of pace hole but it's not at the same level as another Ross stellar similar hole such as the 11th at Plainfield CC in NJ. Winchester concludes with a quartet of par-4 holes. Each move in a different direction and Ross excels in differentiating the requirements each mandate. The par-4 16th has superb topography. A blind landing area which moves downhill and turns right. The fairway landing area runs out at approximately 320 yards. The green is again elevated and sufficient internal movements requiring a deft approach shot. The closing hole at Winchester goes in an opposite direction from the penultimate hole. The challenge of the 18th comes with a green that is one of the finest Ross greens one can play. There is a false front and the tilt is noticeable. Any shot above the hole facing a frontal pin requires a brain surgeon's touch to leave unscathed.
So where does Winchester rightly fall among the elite courses in the Bay State? It's not a top ten layout simply because the newest courses such as Boston, Old Sandwich and Great Horse have all clearly made their respective marks. The old-time clubs such as TCC, Myopia Eastward Ho and Essex are also superior. That leaves only a few spots and the competition for them is a bit too keen for the likes of Winchester. Nonetheless, the totality of what is present at Winchester is clearly impactful. The downside of the course is that roughly one-third of the holes are merely good but hardly exceptional. It's too bad the routing could not have started where the grounds crew building is located. Having a position further upwards in the property could have made a far more sensible start and ending.
Overall, Winchester embodies an entertaining round of golf. Having such rolling terrain means ongoing adjustments when encountering a variety of lies and stances. Place Winchester in a vast number of other States and its overall placement would be considerably higher. Being in Massachusetts means getting an Oscar for best supporting role.
M. James Ward
I would rate as an Eagle Lip Out though most of my playing partners would rate it as an Eagle. Traditional Ross layout with well-positioned bunkers off the tees, false fronts and never ever go long! The grounds are well maintained with greens that are a little flatter than most traditional Ross greens, I guess that's why I rate it a little less, but on dry fall days watch out for the speed. The makeup of the course holds true to many classic Ross features. The opening hole of the front loop is a shortish par four Ross never thought the first should be too difficult. A nice collection of three par fives the longest is13 which gives you two options off the tee featuring a split fairway option. Lastly, the 9th is a traditional volcano style par-three of 172 yards downhill to a mounded green circled by five bunkers. If you can get on it you'll appreciate every hole its a course you could play every day and never get sick of it.