Golf Digest's Ron Whitten, the preeminent golf course architecture critic
Black Rock Golf Club, Hingham, Mass.
Golf Digest's Best New Private Course of 2003 was a course called The Club at Black Rock in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, and I have no quarrel with that. It won fair and square, scoring highest in the collective opinion of Golf Digest panelists, who scrutinized over 150 new courses and judged them on the basis of five different architectural criteria.
But in 2003, there was another new club called Black Rock that I thought was just as good, and maybe even better. Yet Black Rock Golf Club in Hingham, Mass., on Boston's South Shore, didn't challenge for the top spot. Heck, it didn't even sniff a spot in the Top 10 among Best New, and I have no idea why it didn't. Having played both Black Rocks, I think the two are much closer in shot demands, scenery, satisfaction and yes, even surprises, than the 2003 survey indicates.
The Idaho Black Rock was designed by Jim Engh in his now-familiar art deco style, with squiggly bunkers that frame recessed fairways and punchbowl greens. Most features exist to collect, or at least direct, golf shots. The result is a fully contemporary New Age golf design.
The Massachusetts Black Rock was designed by Brian Silva, using his now-familiar style that blends the New England bunker style of Donald Ross with the geometric green complexes of Seth Raynor and the lines-and-angles strategies of Pete Dye to create what I call a fully contemporary Old School golf design. Brian was given a promising, if challenging, site – the old Margetts Quarry - and made the most of it. Spread over 200 acres, this was actually several small quarry pits, from which granite and quartz were mined, separated by stands of trees. He weaved holes around, between and even over rock outcroppings and boulders. The straight downhill par-4 13th, just 334 yards from a hilltop tee, has a fairway shaped like a pop bottle, between trees left and a mountain of rock to the right. The smart play would seem to be something less than driver off the tee, but the fairway, on this hole dubbed "Narrows" is very narrow at 210 yards off the tee. In truth, Silva wants golfers to hit driver, as the fairway widens out considerably past the bottle neck. For some, it's really a drivable par 4. But visually, with that rock looming on the right, it makes us play defensively instead of offensively. That makes it a great hole, and demonstrates how well Silva can play mind games with our golf games.
This Black Rock is well defined, as Silva scattered 108 bunkers randomly about. Typical is the 572-yard par-5 sixth which has a dozen bunkers, including a target one just 155 yards off the tee, one in the middle of the fairway complicating the second shot and three strip bunkers around the perched green that are described in the yardage book as "deep, deeper and deepest."
What makes this Black Rock particularly attractive is the exposed rock (most of it not black) on nearly every hole. The par-4 first green has a neat shelf of rock to the right. The 169-yard par-3 second, called "Moss Rock," is backdropped by outcrops, and there's a proposed new back tee for the par-4 third that will sit atop an escarpment. The short dogleg-left par-4 seventh turns around a vertical wall of granite, with a long strip bunker separating the fairway from the base of the wall. On the back nine, the dogleg-right 16th turns 90-degrees around a 50-foot-high wall of rock, augmented by manmade slabs on this occasion. It started life as a very weak 493-yard par 5, where good players carried the corner and had an 8-iron second shot. Now it's a 493-yard par 4, and it's surprising how much farther that corner now seems.
The 176-yard ninth is called "Redan" and, with its tilted sideways and front-to-back green, it plays like one. But I thought the 227-yard 12th, from elevated tees tucked back in the rocks, played even better and as an aim-for-a-spot-and-let-it-bounce par 3. Everything left of the green pitches down to it, unless you go too far left, where a steep-faced strip bunker separates the hole from a pond.
I think this Black Rock is just as memorable as the one in Idaho. That one has a most unusual par-4 10th, where the fairway funnels so dramatically downhill from landing area to green that you can, and will, use putter from 150 yards out. But the Massachusetts Black Rock tops even that novelty hole with its 522-yard fourth, where Silva not only hid the green behind a grassed-over hill of rock, but designed it so that second shots funnel down to the hidden punchbowl green. It's called the "Green Monster," but rather than a baseball field, it brings to mind the horseshoe end of a football stadium. Imagine lofting a shot from outside the stadium over the rim, then having it bounce down the steps to a green at the goal line. That's what the approach on Black Rock's fourth is like, as fun and exciting as any par 5 you've ever played.
If Idaho's Black Rock has an advantage, it's that it sits on a hilltop overlooking Lake Coeur d'Alene. Boston's Black Rock has no such offsite vistas, and in fact, over the fence, on tree trunks along the right side of the par-4 eighth hole, there are x-rated signs posted by what must be the world's most disagreeable neighbor, who obviously resents the golf course and thinks golfers are !&*#@%!s.
Could that simple disparity – sparkling blue water versus shockingly blue language – have been the difference in the results of the two Black Rocks in the 2003 Best New race? I can't believe so. I'm more inclined to think that Silva's design didn't generate more enthusiasm because he did it in his own backyard. Sometimes, architects, especially veteran, prolific ones like Silva, are underestimated by local golfers.
Idaho's Black Rock was a deserving winner, and will contend in the future in Best in State surveys and, who knows, maybe even 100 Greatest surveys. But I'll go on record as saying that Boston's Black Rock is deserving of a second look. It, too, should be a contender in future surveys.
Black Rock Golf Club
19 Clubhouse Dr.
Hingham, Massachusetts 02043
For membership information: 781-749-1919
Golf Digest's Ron Whitten, the preeminent golf course architecture critic, will review a course each week for GolfDigest.com.
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