Taconic Golf Club, on the campus of Williams College, is consistently rated among the top college courses in the country, and is a regular fixture on any “Classic” Top 100 ranking. It’s hosted the U.S. Junior, Women’s, and Senior Amateur Championships, and the NCAA Championship on three occasions. No Williams student walks more than 20 minutes from his dorm to the first tee, and with rounds priced at less than $30 (the general public rate is $150), “getting out on The Taconic” is a favorite pastime of resident Ephs.
Seven holes were laid out on the Taconic property in 1896, though the 17th green is one of the few remnants of that original layout. The course was overhauled in 1927 by the relatively unknown Golden Age firm of Wayne Stiles & John van Kleek and is widely considered to be their masterpiece. Gil Hanse was retained by the club in 2008 to restore some of Taconic’s original feel, and add a handful of fairway bunkers and new tee boxes.
It’s a classic Golden Age design, featuring back-to-front sloped greens on all but a few holes. Some slopes, such as those on 6, 10, 13, and 17 insist that the golfer keep his approach below the hole–an uphill putt from 30 feet is often more makeable than a four-footer from the other side. Missing on the short-side of any hole is almost a sure bogey.
“Medio Tutissimus Ibis”
(trans.: Safest from the Middle)
Taconic is an intimate, tree-lined experience, laid out on just 109 acres of rolling terrain. But it’s a masterful routing–at no time during your round do you feel that the course discourages an aggressive play off the tee. While many tee shots are elevated, offering stunning views of the Berkshire mountains, most second shots are significantly uphill. This combination makes the aerial game–in particular distance control–a key to playing Taconic well. And while many architectural purists will surely consider this a deficiency, it should be noted that Taconic’s beginner and senior membership cohorts absolutely rave about their course, and few if any members have trouble walking the course in under four hours.
Even more impressive than its routing is Taconic’s pacing. The golfer is eased into his round with three of the easiest holes on the entire course in the first four, which sandwich the front side’s toughest at #3. Not a single tee shot on the front side requires a driver, though significant advantage is gained on several holes by hitting one well, and there’s plenty of opportunity to get into a rhythm.
While the front nine is enjoyable in its own right and the preferred side for most mid-to-high handicappers, it’s merely a prelude to the drama to come.
Few courses can match the sustained, thrilling challenge offered by the back side at Taconic. Though eminently “fair” for stroke play competitions (you know you have to keep it below the hole), it’s a particularly great match play course. Any number of strategies are dictated by how confident one feels off the tee on holes like 12 and 13, or how much risk he is willing to take on with approach shots at 10 and 16. To cap off the round, 18, a fabulous reachable par five, offers a very real possibility of making anywhere from a 3 to a 7 (I’ve made both numbers myself, and everything in between).
The understated clubhouse–in particular, the “back porch” just off the 18th green–is the perfect place to enjoy a Berkshire Brewing Company Steel Rail after your game (or just a quick sandwich if you’ve got a few more hours of daylight).
Taconic is one of the finest examples of the gestalt concept of pacing I hold as an ideal in Epic course design, keeping the golfer in a rhythm throughout his round, and building to an amazing climax both strategically and topographically as he nears the end. The only real knock is that its green complexes are variations on only two themes. But the consistency of the experience contributes much to the feeling of rhythm, particularly as one enters the second nine. And the similarity of some of the greens belies the tremendous array of shots that Taconic requires the golfer to hit off the tee and on his approach in order to get there.
Having played two other top-10-rated college courses, Stanford GC and Ohio State’s Scarlet Course, I am at a loss as to why they’re even considered to be in Taconic’s league, let alone ranked ahead in some publications. In fact, while I have not played it, Yale would be the only course I *might* put ahead of Taconic from a pure architectural or experiential standpoint. But no college course, and indeed few courses I’ve ever played, can match Taconic in terms of character and ambiance.
475 / 391 Yards
Probably the easiest hole at Taconic by a good half-shot, the first is a reachable par five (though it’s changed to a long par four in tournament competitions) with a broad fairway and well-protected green. The old tee markers used to aim the golfer a bit towards the right rough; it will be interesting to see whether Hanse decided to maintain this detail in his restoration.
Hanse’s addition of a fairway bunker on the right-hand side at approximately 250 yards off the tee will place considerably more stress on the golfer who hopes to reach the green in two, although the widening of the fairway on the downslope past this bunker should actually make the tee shot easier for the Tiger golfer.
Stiles’ brilliant positioning of a coffin-shaped fairway bunker approximately thirty yards short of the left-front corner of the green adds some visual interest, and if you’ve hit only a marginal tee shot, creates some uncertainty as to whether to lay up or go for it. But you don’t really want to challenge that bunker, anyway–anything left of the green will leave a surprisingly difficult up-and-down, while the right-front bunker is not at all a bad spot.
The green is one of the most subtle on the course, and once you arrive at it, you’ll likely be surprised by the degree it slopes from left-to-right and back-to-front.
406 / 324 Yards
A short hike (~40 yards) up the hill past the 17th tee box takes the golfer up to the back tee for #2. This is a good time to check out the hole location on #16.
The second tee shot is one of the most elevated on the course, and one of the most susceptible to the wind. Hanse’s placement of a fairway bunker in the right half of the fairway at around 120 yards from the green is a wonderful addition, and now makes a right-to-left shot almost essential if you’re going to hit driver.
The approach on #2 is significantly uphill and should play at least a half-club longer, particularly to back hole locations. Once you’ve reached the top of the knoll, the green is fairly flat, although shots that land in the middle of the green do seem to kick forward a bit more than usual. Neither bunker is a very good place to miss, particularly if you’ve short-sided yourself.
421 / 344 Yards
One of the most scenic holes on the course, and one of my favorite driving holes anywhere in the world. Hanse added a bunker down the left-hand side which should come into play for just about everyone. But a right-to-left shot around or a long carry OVER this bunker may be worth the risk, to open up the angle to the green and achieve a level lie. Tee shots that slide to the right here will find their way into a gully which runs the entire length of the hole. Shots are playable from the gully, but the rough tends to be thick and the approach from the right side requires a high shot with a lot of spin to just to hold the green.
Continuing the theme from #2, the third green is again perched on a knoll, this time with a more severe false front. As stated above, the angle from the left side of the fairway is particularly good here, as no matter the golfer’s shot shape, he can use the right-hand sideboards to slow the progress of an approach and work it back towards the center or left side of the green. The entire green slopes back-to-front, left-to-right, with a small ridge running horizontally through its center. The righthand bunker is nearly impossible to get up-and-down from; the lefthand bunker is do-able for certain middle and back hole locations.
358 / 256 Yards
Having played hundreds of rounds at Taconic (but none since 2008), I can easily visualize Hanse’s changes. I’m strongly in favor of most of them. But I’m unsure of how I feel about his adjustments to this hole. I like the fact he has brought the creek more into play on the tee shot, expanding the fairway about 15 yards to the left, as well as his addition of a bunker at the base of the adjacent fifth green (by the way, check out #5’s hole location on your way to play your approach to #4). But I worry that by removing the overhanging Willow to the left side of the approach, the hole has been made significantly easier by reducing stress on the tee shot. It was already not-a-driver, and one of the easier holes on the front side.
Architectural considerations aside, it’s one of the most fun holes on the course to play. A remarkable sense of serenity is created by the meandering creek, the adjacency of the third and fifth greens, and the natural setting of the hole’s own green.
Regardless of skill level many players have to be careful of backspin on their approach, so steep is the false front on this green. Putts from left-to-right are very difficult to read and have a tendency to play faster than they look. Putts to a rear hole location from the back of the green are very slippery.
The fourth is the best remaining birdie opportunity until #18.
172 / 126 Yards
I guess five would probably be considered a “transition” hole, as it plays rather simply from the plateau shared with the second and third fairways, across a low area, and to a hillock that ramps into the sixth fairway. But it’s a wonderfully understated short hole–an ingenious prelude to the devilish 6th and brawny 7th. Five is the kind of sleeper hole that should be a straightforward par, but can lead to double bogey in a hurry if the player is either too aggressive, or not careful.
Stiles may or may not have known as he designed and constructed this hole, but the winds around this part of the property tend to swirl, making club selection more difficult than normal. Like the first, the contours of the fifth green are subtle — the first-time player sees a relatively flat, inviting target — but any short-side miss means an exceedingly difficult up-and-down, as the green slopes sharply left-to-right once you’re on it.
371 / 273 Yards
Six is the kind of hole that most contemporary architects just wouldn’t have the guts (or the skill?) to design anymore. It’s a classic hole of under 400 yards with no tricks or gimmicks, playing up and across a large hill and working its way from right-to-left across a left-to-right slope.
Despite its modest length of 371 yards, it leaves many bomb-and-gouge types infuriated. Length off the tee isn’t essential here, though the player who can hit a right-to-left drive into the slope of the hill will have an advantage both with the distance of his approach and the angle into the green.
The main interest of #6 is created by one of the most severely pitched greens on the course; it’s the first instance in the round where even an uphill chip is likely preferable to a downhill putt. Distance, direction, and spin control are all essential on the approach; any miss to the right of the green means a second chip, as the first will almost surely run five to ten yards off the front of the green. When the pin is back left, it may be difficult to keep a putt from the righthand side from curling as many as 12-15 feet left of the hole.
Fortunately, the view back down the sixth fairway is totally stunning, with the Berkshires rising in the distance, which serves as some comfort in the event of a two-chip or a three-putt.
402 / 293 Yards
The tee shot at the seventh is probably the most demanding on the course and perhaps the only one where a particular shot shape (left-to-right) is explicitly called for. From the tee, the hole dips down perhaps 50 feet before turning sharply to the right and uphill. Towering pines line the right side, and combined with the slope of the fairway, they ensure that a right-to-left shot will find the left rough. From the back tee, a carry of about 250 yards is needed to cut the corner on the right. However, driver isn’t an essential play, as a well-struck three-wood will still leave a mid-iron into the green. Check the pin position on the adjacent 13th green before leaving the tee.
The second shot is semi-blind (players can see the flagstick but not the putting surface) to a two-tiered green that slopes subtly from right-to-left. Deep bunkers protect the green on both sides. Keeping the ball on the same tier is essential, and any approach that sails long leaves a near-impossible up-and-down, particularly for back hole locations. The excitement of discovering where a well-struck second shot has ended up at the seventh cannot be understated, calling into question MacKenzie’s statement about the “tiresome” nature of these kinds of approach shots.
396 / 297 Yards
Most Taconic golfers agree that the eighth represents some of Hanse’s best restoration/renovation work on the course. Hanse removed a number of towering pines which deterred players from attempting to cut the corner on this downhill, dogleg-right tee shot, replacing them with a large, menacing bunker at about 275 yards. Together with the enormous shared bunker to the left of the green and a longer, skinnier version on the right, the sense of scale of the eighth is truly remarkable–a wonderful counterpoint to the intimate seventh and 12th holes which flank it.
Strategy-wise, there’s really no reason to cut the corner too closely, as the hole is less than 400 yards and downhill. But keeping shots toward the center of the fairway is often easier said than done with a prevailing westerly wind.
The second shot will play a quarter- to half-club shorter than you expect, as the green is the firmest on the course and one of the few that slopes from front-to-back. A clever ridge running across the green approximately two-thirds of the way back makes putting surprisingly difficult at the eighth.
Fans of the Framing School of design will no doubt acclaim the fact that Stiles’ brilliant dogleg offers two distinct and equally inspirational views. The first look at the Williams campus and assorted Green Mountains is revealed on the tee shot, and an unobstructed view of The Dome, which serves as the backdrop for the approach, is discovered as the golfer works his way down the fairway.
176 / 143 Yards
Club selection is everything on this scenic drop-shot par three, not an easy a task as it might appear initially, thanks to the swirling winds common to this area of the course. It’s usually safest to check the American flag flying approximately 250 yards away, near the entrance to the course, for the true direction of the wind.
The slight bowl of the green becomes perplexingly amplified should the golfer find himself in any of the three greenside bunkers. As at the fifth, any short-side miss at the ninth will lead to an almost sure bogey.
Architecturally this may be the least-interesting hole on the course, but the steep drop in elevation makes it a favorite of many Williams students. It’s also the last un-strategic hole in the round, and a final breather before the intensifying drama of the back nine.
526 / 458 Yards
Like the sixth, the tenth is sadly another lost hole type never seen in contemporary architecture. The tee shot is the only one on the course where you can’t see the landing area, thanks to a gentle rise in topography over the first 150 yards. But it’s actually downhill overall, falling gently from left-to-right. The semi-blindness and slope of the fairway make it difficult to pick an aiming point. Any miss to the right benefits from an easier recovery to the fairway as well as slightly sparser grass; the rough to the left side of this fairway is probably the thickest on the course and typically mown against the line of play.
At just over 500 yards, the hole is typically within reach for longer hitters with their second shots, although it plays significantly uphill, and the green is well-guarded by two cavernous bunkers and assorted difficult recovery areas. It’s also probably the most severely sloped green I’ve ever played, falling several feet from back-to-front, with a soft ridge in the center of the green that creates two distinct tiers. Distance and spin control are critical here, and missing in the front third of the green is rarely a bad play no matter where the pin is or what club you hit in for your approach.
It’s a grand yet confounding hole whose strategy has been made even more interesting by Gil Hanse’s addition of a fairway bunker on the right side of the approach, and recapturing of fairway to the left (the best line into the green is actually from the right-center).
480 / 315 Yards
The 11th tee shot is my favorite on the course, disarmingly straight and right out in front of the golfer. Its simple appearance belies its complexity. While the best angle into the green is from the left-hand side (the placement of the right greenside bunker and slope of the green make it difficult to hold from the right), any miss in the left-hand rough is again in one of the gnarliest patches on the course, and tee shots have a tendency to fall off in this direction. Taconic’s longest par four essentially becomes unreachable from this position if one is not in the fairway.
As at the adjoining eighth hole, approach shots are intended to come in along the ground at number 11, and any shot from the right side of the hole must be hit with left-to-right spin in order to hold the green. From under the brow of the crest running across the fairway at the 140-yard mark, the landing is semi-blind, and again anticipation builds as one climbs the rise to discover where his ball has finished.
Recall that as at number eight, the green runs slightly away from the golfer; thus downhill putts are not as quick as they appear, and uphill putts are slightly faster.
393 / 300 Yards
The twelfth may be the best short par four I’ve ever played. The intimidating tee shot plays uphill across a deep ravine and is the most strategic on the course. Stiles’ original playing angle has been amplified by Hanse’s new back tee, creating a true Cape-style hole. The line into the green is far easier from the left half of the fairway, but it’s guarded by a specimen elm at the edge of the cape, and more importantly by out-of-bounds just a few yards away. More often than not, a fairway metal is probably the best play unless one is 100% confident in his ability on this tee shot.
The elevated green features a dramatic false front, which can send balls as much as 20 yards back down the fairway, and subtle side- and back-boards which can be used to curl shots hit from the left side of the fairway close to the hole. Coming from the right side of the fairway, though, the right-hand sideboard kicks shots forward and away from the player, requiring him to take on the greenside bunker if he hopes to keep the ball anywhere in the middle of the green. Somehow finding a way to stay underneath the hole is essential for front hole locations.
To top it off, the view looking back at the Williams campus from this green is one of the best on the course.
406 / 310 Yards
Thirteen is a simple-enough looking hole from the tee, playing straightaway to an attractive green loosely guarded by four bunkers. The more one plays this hole, the more one learns to respect it, however.
There is tremendous advantage to be gained for the long hitter in carrying the brow which crosses the left side of the fairway at approximately 130 yards from the green. Balls landing “on top” generally kick forward and yield a much easier line into right-hand hole locations on the second shot. Shots which do not carry this crest invariably fall sideways into a collection area on the right-hand side, which leaves a semi-blind second shot and a very difficult angle to right-hand hole locations. However, as at #12, out-of-bounds lurks just to the left of the fairway making the penalty for a miss severe.
Golfers who don’t feel like challenging this crest may plod their way to the same collection area by hitting a fairway metal or hybrid and enjoy watching the ball chase down the slope to the bottom.
The thirteenth green is among Taconic’s most difficult, falling sharply from back-to-front and left-to-right; combined with the fact that the fairway also slopes left-to-right and that balls do not typically bounce off the sideboard and onto the green, it can be very difficult to get the ball close to left-hand hole locations. Keeping the ball underneath the hole is absolutely essential here, and given the slope of the green, while back-right may seem like the easiest pin to get close to, it’s guarded by a swale and often leads to the most three (or four) putts.
173 / 128 Yards
Although Jack Nicklaus famously completed this hole with a single swing during the 1956 Junior Amateur, the long, narrow green of the 14th requires precise distance and direction. Given that it plays directly across a spine that marks the highest point on the Taconic property, winds can often wreak havoc on impure tee shots, and a three-quarter swing is often the safest play from the back tee.
Gaping bunkers protect short, right, and left, and the skyline or horizon green provides no comfort to golfers who try to bail out long. Balls will bound down towards the 15th tee, making recovery difficult from any side.
The sideboards created by the gradual build-up of sand bunkers at fourteen creates a fine line between perfection and disaster, yielding as many sure bogeys as they do tap-in birdies. The precision demanded by the fourteenth is an exquisite segue to the burly trio that follows.
441 / 361 Yards
The most dramatic tee shot on the property awaits as the golfer emerges from the pines surrounding the fourteenth green. Fifteen plays sharply downhill, and thanks to the removal of some two dozen pines just off the tee, offers a stunning vista of the Berkshires down the right-hand side.
The tee shot is peculiarly difficult, partly due to the hidden breeze that typically blows across this fairway from left-to-right, and partly because the glory of the shot encourages almost everyone to swing a little bit harder. Somewhat unbelievably, the fifteenth fairway rated as the hardest to hit in the 2004 Massachusetts State Amateur.
As at #11, the best line into the green is actually from the left-hand side of the fairway, with a subtle sideboard on the opposite side of the green helping balls curl towards the middle. Though it appears almost dead flat, the second shot is deceptively uphill and often plays a half-club longer. Balls landing in front do tend to trickle onto the green, though not to the same extent as at eight and 11. Though left and right look like equally bad spots to miss from the fairway, the up-and-down is considerably easier from the left-hand side bunkers because of the subtle right-hand sideboard.
Despite the proximity of the 15th green to the clubhouse, it’s rare that the golfer feels like ending his round here, knowing what awaits on 16, 17, and 18.
460 / 361 Yards
If there’s one hole at Taconic that best demonstrates the Epic ideal, it’s the sixteenth. Stiles tightens the screws on this incredibly straightforward hole, requiring two full-blooded lashes to get home in regulation, AND deft touch around the severely-pitched green.
Carrying the small gully at the 200-yard mark from the green is a worthy goal from the back tee, leaving a long iron or hybrid to an elevated green. Continuing the theme from 11 and 15, left is the slightly preferred angle (although anywhere in the fairway is fine at 16), but the right rough is marginally easier to advance the ball from than the left. Shots typically play a full club to a club-and-a-half longer due to the significant elevation change, and usually must land within two to three yards of the green to roll past the false front.
Even with the extreme length of the second shot, it’s critical to stay underneath the hole at 16, and depth perception is made more difficult by Gil Hanse’s introduction of the skyline effect by removing a number of pines behind the green. The march up the hill comes at a brilliant position in the round, when the golfer is feeling the physical strain of traversing Taconic’s rolling layout, as well as the mental toll exacted by its approach shots. It’s best to pause for 30 seconds or so to catch one’s breath and collect one’s thoughts before lining up a delicate chip or putt at 16.
246 / 159 Yards
As noted in the introduction, the seventeenth green is the only remaining element from the original seven-hole course laid out on the Taconic property in 1896. It remains the most feared green on the course, and despite the hole’s extreme length, it’s not enough just to get “anywhere on the putting surface” if one expects to make a par. Over 100 years after the green was built, it remains true that the golfer is better off five or 10 yards short of this green than even five or ten feet above (or sometimes beside) the hole.
At 220 yards, the hole was hard enough when hitting a long iron or hybrid in college, but Hanse’s addition of a tee box at 246 yards makes it no easy feat with a three-wood now. A pronounced ridge twenty yards short of the right side of the green sometimes kicks balls forward to the front edge, but just as often repels mis-hit shots back down the hill, leaving a treacherous 40-yard pitch. The correct place to miss depends entirely on the day’s hole location, but generally short-and-right will leave the easiest up-and-down.
546 / 392 Yards
After two half-par holes in a row that test the mettle of any golfer–both skew considerably higher than their stated number on the scorecard–18 offers golfers a chance to get as many as two strokes back before posting their final score.
Visually and strategically, the tee shot is just awesome. A wide fairway, one final view of the Berkshires, and (most importantly) a tail wind greet golfers as they arrive at the 18th tee. A ball struck into the fairway bunker on the right-hand side is not a difficult recovery but it does preclude reaching the green in two. Experienced players will challenge this bunker, however, for if they carry it, a hidden speed slot only about five yards wide on the right edge of the fairway will propel balls forward and put the green within reach on the next shot. Any tee ball not finding this tiny runway will likely land softly and leave all but the longest hitters without hope of reaching the putting surface.
For the golfer who plays 18 as a three-shot hole, layup position should be dictated by the day’s pin position, and care should be taken to approach the pin from the opposite side of the fairway. Four bunkers, as well as the property line, guard the two-tier green, so if you’re going to layup, lay up! The back tier of this green is typically quite firm, meaning shots must be struck crisply in order to hold it, and approaches from the rough must land short of the ridge. Whatever struggles one may have encountered over the previous 17 holes, the opportunity to make a final birdie excites even the most dejected player.