WHITINSVILLE, Massachusetts – Most golf courses can only dream of being ranked No. 2 in the world, but that dream turned into reality for Whitinsville Golf Club.
Last year, GOLF.com ranked the club second on its inaugural list of the top 50 stand-alone, nine-hole golf courses in the world. The 1925 Donald Ross design placed first in the U.S. and trailed only Royal Worlington & Newmarket GC of Suffolk, England, across the globe.
“There are a lot of good nine-hole golf courses around the country and in the world,” Whitinsville head pro Mark Aldrich said. “So to be No. 2 is remarkable.”
Drawing rave reviews is nothing new to Whitinsville. The challenging par-4 ninth hole has long been ranked among the 100 best holes in the country by Golf Magazine and has been a favorite of two-time Masters champion Ben Crenshaw, who played the course when he was in the area to play PGA Tour events at Pleasant Valley CC in Sutton.
In 2019, Golfweek ranked Whitinsville No. 55 on its list of the top 100 classic golf courses (built prior to 1960) and Whitinsville was the only nine-hole course mentioned.
Nevertheless, the No. 2 ranking in the world surprised nearly everyone at Whitinsville, many of whom believe the club is underrated despite its many high rankings.
“I think it’s a great honor,” assistant pro Scott Moody said, “and I’m happy to see this place get some recognition because I think it’s a smaller course that often gets overlooked. It’s really nice to see that people that appreciate classic golf architecture have acknowledged that this golf course is as good as it is, which is an awesome classic Donald Ross layout.”
The No. 2 ranking created so much interest, for the first time in quite some time, Whitinsville has a full membership of more than 400 members and the club has a waiting list of more than 40 golfers, according to Aldrich. The club’s unrestricted, seven-day membership costs only $3,400.
Golfers from all over the country have requested to play Whitinsville, which is a private club so to play you must be a member, play with a member or be recommended by a member. Guests can walk 18 holes for $70 Monday-Thursday and for $90 Friday-Sunday. Optional carts cost $24 for 18 holes.
Whitinsville has no pool, tennis courts or lavish clubhouse. It’s all about golf. The club is owned by the members and is overseen by eight board members and a president.
The course plays to a par 70 over 6,427 yards for 18 holes from the back tees, with a course rating of 71.2 and a slope rating of 139.
E. Kent Swift, chief executive of the Whitin Machine Works, the world’s largest manufacturer of textile machinery at the time, hired Ross to design the course for his employees. Aldrich said only nine holes were built because Swift didn’t want his employees arriving to work on Mondays feeling fatigued.
One reason Whitinsville deserves to be ranked so high is because it hasn’t changed much since Ross designed it nearly 100 years ago. Some trees have been removed, but many of them weren’t around when Ross designed the course.
“We’ve added a few tees for length,” Aldrich said, “but as far as design, it hasn’t been altered, which makes it one of the more unique Donald Ross properties anywhere.”
Noted architect Gil Hanse was hired in 2009, but to restore Ross’ intent, not to stray away from it. Superintendent David Johnson carried out Hanse’s restoration plan and is now superintendent at The Country Club, which will host the 2022 U.S. Open.
“The terrain, the topography out here is awesome,” Moody said. “It’s a relatively friendly golf course off the tee. This is a second shot golf course that requires precision with your irons. We’re notorious for our very difficult greens. Therefore the iron shots and good approaches into the greens are really what make this golf course a true test.”
“From 100 yards in, you have to have a pretty decent game to play well here,” Aldrich said. “With many Ross courses, once you start hitting from the sides, from the rough or from the wrong angles, there are a lot of visual deceptions, bunkers that look like they’re greenside aren’t really greenside. They might be 20, 30 yards away. And it’s hard to hold the greens coming in from any type of angle unless it’s straight on. Mostly it’s the subtleties of the greens. You know they break, but maybe not the way you thought or as much as it does.”
Some greens are severely sloped. Others aren’t but are still difficult to putt.
“No. 3 is probably the trickiest green we have,” Aldrich said. “It looks very benign, but people end up three-, four- or five-putting it.”
Bill Ballou has been a member since 1981 and he knows all about the subtleties of the course.
“It doesn’t punch you in the face, it sort of tickles you,” he said.
It may tickle, but it’s not funny.
“I can’t tell you the last time I laughed on this course,” Ballou said.
The scenic, but demanding par-4 ninth hole plays 416 yards from the white tees and 446 yards and over water from the blues. From the blue tees, the safe play is to drive onto the fairway to the left, but you leave yourself a long approach. Tee shots hit straight and long enough leave a much shorter approach, but they must carry 215 yards over the wetlands.
Even from the less demanding white tees, it takes two well hit shots to reach the green which sits atop a steep hill.
“It’s so hard. It’s really a par four and a half,” Ballou said. “You have to hit a really accurate drive. If you don’t hit it down the middle, it’s going to roll off to the right and it’s almost impossible to get home from there.
“You’re actually better off on your second shot putting it down in that valley where you have a flat lie,” Ballou said. “That is such a steep hill, it’s really hard to hit an approach shot. You’re better off with an 80-yard approach than a 40-yard approach on this hole because of the angle of that hill.”
The 3.303-yard blues are less than 200 yards longer than the whites, but they play much tougher.
“We watch it every day with all the different tournaments,” Aldrich said. “On the front side people get along pretty decent and once they make the turn the course becomes a little bit longer and it’s hard to hit those greens.”