Monday, September 15, 2014

Course Review - Newton Commonwealth Golf Course

This is my second golf course review. The last one was about Green Harbor, and that's here. Check it out. 

Every time you play Newton Commonwealth Golf Course, which sits (mostly) on the side of a hill in the aptly named Chestnut Hill neighborhood of Newton, you will hit at least five shots that you've never had to attempt before. This course is tight, tree-filled, crooked, and hilly in every possible way - sidehill, uphill, downhill, cross-hill, and several other compound -hill adjectives that you'd have to see to believe. You'd better know your game well before setting foot on this course, as virtually every calculation from the 150 sticks has you thinking things like uphill one club and ball's above my feet and watch out for the protective netting to the right. In terms of gadgets, leave the rangefinder at home and dust off the carpenter's level and gyroscope.

Newton Comm (as it's affectionately known) is one of the many Boston-area courses designed by Donald Ross. The Scotsman left his mark all around the Boston area, lending his expertise to more than 40 courses in Massachusetts after getting his start in the American game at Oakley Country Club in Watertown. I can only imagine that Ross had a ball designing this little number.

The grounds

View from the driveway
I'm partial to a golf course driveway that gives you a taste of what's to come, and Newton Comm has one of the best driveways around. After turning in at the nondescript oval sign, your car's passenger-side windows fill with green as far as the eye can see - the whole course stretches out below, the fairways of the 14th, 18th, 1st, 2nd, 8th, 5th, and 6th stacking up across the hill like green cordwood. The 14th is my favorite hole on the course, and the entrance gives a grand view of the small, three-tiered green and the willow trees one has to negotiate on the tee shot.

The parking lot feels a bit like a batting cage, what with the protective netting strung up fifty feet high to keep errant drives from the 13th from necessitating a call to Giant Glass (1-800-54-GIANT), and the clubhouse is unremarkable - squat and brown, seeming to sit low on its haunches and serve its purpose: to get you out onto this wonky course as quickly as possible.

Front nine
The 8th fairway from the tee
Quick story before discussing the course. Newton Comm is about a 5 minute walk from BC, and the school had an absolutely sweet deal where you could pay $130 in September and play unlimited golf for the rest of the school year. Fortunately for my GPA, I only found out about this miracle during my senior year. Needless to say, I probably played 100 rounds that year, so I consider myself well-versed on the ins and outs of this track.

OK, on to the holes. I mentioned that this course is wacky, but you wouldn't get that sense from the first hole. It's a straightforward 275-yard par four (get used to that distance). The second is pretty interesting - a par-5 that manages, despite this cramped layout, to nearly always necessitate three shots to reach the green. Your tee shot on this slight dogleg left is blind, down into a valley that marks the bottom of the huge hill that dominates most of the course away to the left. The 8th hole shown above is just above the 2nd and going the opposite direction, so tee shots wide left on both holes will find the adjacent fairway. A beautiful little brook burbles through the landing area of the 2nd, so longer hitters should keep the driver in the bag off the tee. This will set you up about 250 yards from the flag, so a long iron and a wedge will land you atop the hill and onto the green.

The third and fourth are both par-3s, part of a front nine sporting four of the short little buggers. All four manage to be testing in different ways.

The third runs up the hill, about 190 yards from the back tees, which actually share a tee box with the eighth. Turn 90 degrees to your right from that photo above, and you'll see this:

As you can tell, it's a two-tiered green. Of all the rounds I've ever played there, this was the one time that I've seen the pin on the bottom tier. Every other time it's up top, protected by that bunker on the right. Not an easy hole. 

Four is a downhill par-3 where you can go right and bounce it off the slope down onto the green, but you absolutely must not go left or long. 

The fifth and sixth parallel each other along the top of the hill. The fifth is par 5 that twists from left to right, and any solid drive will leave you with less than 170 yards into the green. Sounds easy, until you realize that the ball will be about 6 inches above your feet, and the green is small, elevated, and three-tiered, with supremely steep runoffs short, left, and long, not to mention virtually no room to miss right due to the 6th tee (and its accompanying protective netting). Birdie isn't unusual here, but the hero shot often leads to disaster. The folks at No Laying Up wouldn't approve of my saying this, but there's no shame in laying up here. 

Six is the second in a collection of six driveable par-4s on the course, and it's one of the holes that bears the strongest stamp of its designer. Sitting at the top of the hill, hard against a fence and some houses, this hole is a slight dogleg right. If you've got a low stinger in your arsenal, now is the time to play it, as I'm sure Ross imagined players would be skimming their drives over the humps and bumps of the fairway and letting the natural left-to-right slope of the fairway funnel them down to the front of the green. And as for the green, well, Ross is known for his turtlebacks, but this one's more like a camel. 

Sixth green from left of the fairway
You can see some of the drama of the slopes here, but this photo should really do it justice - I'm standing at the back of the green, and Garrett's feet are about at my head level. That lump between him and the pin is also part of the green, and acts as a kind of wall that you have to chip up and over if you're unlucky enough to miss right.

Seven is a supremely downhill par-3, knocking about 2 clubs off your distance as you fly one into a bowl-shaped green. Eight is the hole at the top of this section - a sidehill par-5 which is also reachable in two, with a caveat.

One of the hallmarks of a Ross course is that it seems to be drawn naturally from the land, rather than shaped and sculpted by the hands of men, and both the fifth and eighth at Newton Comm are great examples of this. They're both reachable par-5s, but the greens are small and guarded by the natural gradation of the land, with steep banks to the right and dramatic fallaways left and back.

The eighth green, looking back towards the fairway.
Nine is another downhill par-3, this one over 200 yards long to a receptive green. A line of bunkers breaks up the slope to the green, but you can still run a long iron down the slope and up onto the putting surface - another trademark Ross touch. I love this shot from the 9th fairway because the houses rising up the hill behind the green remind me of San Francisco. Of course, I've never been there, but that's what I feel like it looks like.
View from the 9th tee.

Back Nine

I realize I'm getting long-winded here, and it's just because I'm so familiar with this course and I love each of its little quirks. Fortunately for your eyes and my word count, the back nine is less wonky than the front.

Ten and eleven are both uphill, driveable par-4s, with ten ending in a two-tiered green guarded by two bunkers in front and a steep drop to the left.

When I say 11 is uphill, I mean it. Here's the view from 100 yards out in the middle of the fairway:

That red thing in the middle is the flag.
And believe it or not, that photo doesn't do it justice.

Twelve is a nondescript short par-3, except you really can't miss anywhere but short. A sandy bunker, a tennis court, and a small mountainside greet you from left to right around the back of this small green. 

Thirteen is where the course picks up steam again. 

View from the 13th tee.
After that cartpath, things go downhill. Fast. The hole is only 268 from the back, but a small sign proclaims that you're absolutely not allowed to try to hit the green - mainly because the driveway and clubhouse sit hard against the green. You've got to bop some sort of mid-iron down into the fairway and let it bounce its merry way along, hopefully coming to rest on a flat area. Because if not, you've got a tricky 100-yard approach on a severe downslope over a small pond. No running the ball up to the green here.

Fourteen is my favorite hole on the course - a severe dogleg left where you hit off an artificial mat (quirk alert!), through a stand of willow trees, over a pond, and onto a soft fairway, setting you up about 70 yards from a slightly elevated, postage stamp-sized green. The pond runs along the left side of the fairway and ducks in to nearly abut the green's left side, so it's a deceptively tricky approach. The green's got two distinct tiers, and a third one at the back left, where the pin was placed on this day:

Fifteen is another reachable par-5, but one on which you'll need to hit an up-sloping fairway to have a good chance at birdie. This was my second shot, which landed right of the hole and trickled down this slope (sadly not far enough - although I did get up and down for a bird).

The par-3 sixteenth is unremarkable, save for another wildly two-tiered green. Are you beginning to see the pattern here? You've either got a hard hole or a hard green, but seldom (3rd and 5th excluded) both. 

Seventeen is another gem - a downhill par-4 where your drive needs to be as far left as possible without ending up underneath the large tree about 270 yards out. Seriously - don't miss right on the drive here. You'll find a stand of trees and the absolute best you can hope for is a par. A small pond guards the narrow green, which slopes from back to front. 

The closing hole has been dramatically improved in the last few years. There used to be a monolith of a dead tree that cut off the most aggressive line one could take from the tee, but they wisely felled the beast. Now, it's a nearly reachable par-4, the 378 yardage being measured through the center of the fairway. Here's a peek at the tee shot:

The green sits just to the right of that very far bunker beyond the player, and if you and your driver have been on good terms for the round, you can try to cut the whole fairway off and go for gold. Of course, that puts the newly installed line of hillocks and bunkers that the subject of this photo is playing out of directly into play. But hey, it's the last hole of the day, can't hold anything back now.

The atmosphere

It's everything you'd want in a muni - clean, friendly, honest (like the guy who flat-out refused to allow me to pay for the 18-hole rate at 4:45 on this day because he said we wouldn't play more than 14 holes even though we ended up finishing with plenty of light), and fun - sign up for their mailing list at, and you'll become privy to some very interesting tournaments such as the "Big Cup Scramble" (a 4-person scramble with 6" cups - unbelievably fun), or the 6-club scramble (and no sharing!). 

So if you're ever in the Boston area and want to hack it around on a hillside that the great Scot Donald Ross once trod upon, take your sticks over to Newton Comm. And don't let the first hole fool you. This course is a doozy, Judge

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