If you come to Vermont’s Stratton Mountain Resort in the summer to play golf, cue up Toto’s “Africa,” Men at Work’s “Down Under” and “Escape: The Pina Colada Song” on your cell phone play list, because every day is ’80s day at the golf courses. At least that’s what it feels like on many tee boxes.
The story of Stratton’s golf courses actually begins in 1964 with 18 holes designed by Geoffrey Cornish, a prolific northeastern golf architect responsible for several resort golf courses, including nearby Mount Snow. Called the Lake and Mountain nines, the courses enjoyed a day in the sun a generation ago; from 1990-1995, they hosted an LPGA event, originally the Stratton Mountain Classic and later the McCall’s Classic, sponsored the magazine of the same name. Popular LPGA star-turned broadcaster Dottie Pepper won the final event though the tournament was trimmed to 54 holes instead of the normal 72 because of inclement weather. Cornish returned to Stratton in the mid-1980s to build an encore, the Forest Nine.
But Cornish was trained by Robert Trent Jones Sr., and all 27 holes at Stratton were built during the “harder is better” craze that plagued golf design from 1940-1994. As such, the course is almost exclusively penal target golf. That makes for an exciting golf tournament but less fun to actually go out and play. There are several ramrod straight holes with penalties lurking on both sides. In several places, you’re forced to club down off the tee, either by creeks that cross the fairway perpendicularly or because the fairway is choked by trees on one side and water on the other. On such holes, the playing corridors are as wide as the actual fairway, and with hardwoods looming or water lurking, a missed fairway risks a likely unplayable lie or, worse still, a lost ball. It’s a penalty stroke either way.
Target golf went out of vogue a long time ago; it’s been 15 years at least. The Second Golden Age of Golf Course Architecture began in 1994, and gained national mainstream recognition around 2005, about the time the USGA started changing the way they set up U.S. Open courses. Public golf has especially benefited: Bandon Dunes, Streamsong and Tobacco Road are just some of the instant classics that forever changed the shape of American public golf. The sport has conclusively moved away from target layouts and penal architecture.
For more of Jay Flemma’s series comparing Vermont versus New Hampshire for skiing and golf, click here.
Stratton’s courses are pretty; I’ll give Cornish that. There’s something absolutely primal about the first tee of all three courses, something even the most seasoned veteran and well-traveled golfer will still marvel at and appreciate. It’s one thing for a ski-area golf course to let you see a trail or two as you make your way around the golf course. But at Stratton, the entire face of the mountain stands sentinel over you. You can stand on the tee and recite the trails as though reading the map: “Standard … Spruce … Lift Line … Slalom …” (or “Standard … Frankie’s … Tamarack … Grizzly Bear” if you prefer).
Bravo, Geoffrey! In golf parlance that’s called “statement of place.” What that means is the golf course’s identity should reveal itself from the get-go. It does at Stratton, in grand fashion.
Sadly, though, instead of a launching pad for the rest of the round, that’s where the best of Stratton golf ends. The 3-pars are a particular weakness. At four of the six 3-pars, you can’t see the putting surface. That works once, perhaps, if executed properly, but not four times. Besides, 3-pars are your best chance to produce both a postcard photo and a strategic marvel. Stratton’s 3-pars underwhelm both aesthetically and strategically.
The 5-pars are a mixed bag. Three holes – Nos. 5 and 8 on the Forest course and No. 5 on the Mountain nine – are simply a game of golf hopscotch as you play over forced carries from island fairway to island fairway with no strategic option to offer risk-reward. That’s ’80s all right — Weird Al Yankovic-type ’80s. The other 5-pars are at least short enough to offer the golfer a chance to go for the green in two, but risk a penalty if you miss.
“I like the Lakes Nine,” said Chloe Levens from Rutland, Vermont, a rising young star of an amateur golfer. “The 4-pars are strong. The first hole in particular is a great opening hole.” She’s correct.
The Lakes has the longest and strongest 4-pars, without any of the claustrophobia of some fairways on the Forest and Mountain courses. Right on cue, at the No. 5 hole of the Lakes, Chloe hit a Goodyear blimp of a drive from the blue tees, blasting it so far into the stratosphere that Mission Control had to warn the Space X spacewalkers to watch out for the ball. (So that’s how that astronaut lost that side-view mirror …) She missed driving the green just to the left, but at a full 320 yards, she blew it over all the trouble.
If Cornish were alive, he’d have said to himself, “I never thought they’d hit it there. Better put a bunker over there, too.”
“I’ll make par from there,” she said confidently, putting her driver away. I saw where her pitch ended up. She almost made eagle.
“I grew up on this course. I’ve played it since before the days of the LPGA tournament,” added Andrew Froelich from Bondville, drawing again on the nostalgia the course taps into. “That was so much fun. The ladies had such pure, fluid swings, and yet they hit the ball so far. And they were so great with the fans. We came every year to the tournament.”
The nostalgia is great, but that only draws regionally. Plus, it’s 25 years removed, a full golf generation. What would draw nationally would be a new nine drawn up by one of the age’s new rising stars of a golf course architecture: Urbina, Phillips, Engh, Sanford, Smyers, Forse, Kay, Silva – take your pick, there’s a smorgasbord to choose from. Best of all, a new nine could be sand-capped, resulting in the fastest and firmest conditions and best drainage of any course at Stratton. Cost would be no problem: They’ve got all the lumber they need. They can clear out the trees that have choked fairways and dried-out turfgrass, and trade that lumber for sand straight up.
There’s a vein that can be tapped into here. Before Covid-19 shut the industry down, Alterra had pledged $550 million worldwide on their properties, including $10 million for Stratton. Here’s hoping some of that money can find its way to the golf course. The last time the resort did course restoration work in 2014, it was spearheaded in house by then head superintendent Tim Massucco. But that work was predominantly restoration touch-ups, not strategic strengthening. Present head super Shawn Murnaghan should be given the green light to go on an aggressive tree-clearing campaign at the least. (You can grow grass, or you can grow trees, but you can’t grow both.)
Still, perhaps it’s time to bring Stratton into the 21st century. Stratton is a bucket-list ski resort; it deserves a course of equal stature. The resort has the brand strength that if they genuinely decided to build a new course in the style of a revered Golden Age architect, they could command the attention of the entire golf world. There are golfers lining up to play courses designed by certain architects simply because of their names and past successes. Alterra just has to take the leap of faith and not be afraid of change.
Then again, some people may just want to recall the 1980s. It was, after all, a glorious age in which to grow up: the U.S. Hockey Team, Celtics vs. Lakers, The Breakfast Club, Die Hard, Michael Jackson, Duran Duran and the Bangles. You remember the Bangles? Everybody loved them. ***singing*** “Waaalk liiiiike a Egyyyyptiaaaaaaaaaaaaaaan …”