If you had the means to commission your own private golf course, Pete Dye would probably be one of the first guys you called. You’d figure, however, that procuring the genius of one of the seminal architects of the last half-century wouldn’t come cheap.
That wasn’t the case for Connecticut’s Wintonbury Hills.
Wintonbury Hills is the one-and-only Pete Dye design in New England, and it only cost the town of Bloomfield $1 for Dye to practice his craft.
"To keep golf going, we have to build courses people can afford to play," Dye told The Hartford Courant when the course opened for preview play in 2003.
Dye donated his services to the city as part of an effort by the American Society of Golf Course Architects to design five municipal golf courses for just a dollar. However, it wasn’t as simple as bringing in the mastermind of TPC Sawgrass and – poof! – a course appeared. The project took eight years from conception to open.
Since its debut, the club has been consistently ranked near the top every major list of the best municipal courses in the United States. Situated on a 290-acre former dairy farm, Dye described the test as a mix of links-style and New England-classic, tree-lined golf.
From the back tees, Wintonbury Hills is short by modern standards, coming in at just about 6,700 yards. However, as is classic Dye, it’s not the length that gets players. From tee to green, each shot has value.
There are elements of visual deception and intimidation that make a player think twice about aggression. While driving areas are generous, simply being in the fairway off the tee isn’t good enough. Wide fairways create the opportunity to be in the short grass but left with a terrible angle to the green.
Greens slope in multiple directions, keeping players guessing about optimal approach placement. Land in the wrong place off the tee and face little chance to put many circles on the card. Miss the fairway or the green, and you’ll likely find yourself in one of nearly 125 bunkers on the course. Many of Diabolical Dye’s greens are of the pot-sized variety, meaning there’s little chance to do much more than to take your lumps in a faux-hazard.
You ease into the round at Wintonbury Hills, with the front nine some 400 yards shorter than back nine. The course gets more claustrophobic as you go, with more of the links-style holes, shaped by natural reserve areas, on the front nine. Mammoth trees overshadow the back nine, tightening the sight lines.
The 17th hole at Wintonbury Hills is a mind-blowing par-3. The land on which the hole sits naturally slopes right to left, meaning a player could scoot up their tee shot to the green from the 230-yard back tee. However, the putting surface also slopes in the same direction, creating a tricky two-putt. It’s a contrast from the penultimate hole at TPC Sawgrass’ Stadium Course and a reflection of Dye’s evolution in design. Dye has said his approach to par-3 designs has changed over the years, now favoring longer par-3s because, with modern equipment, players are less often forced to hit long irons. The par-3 isn’t an examination of a player’s touch, as with many of Dye’s famous earlier short-knockers, but it is a test of an oft-neglected piece of their game.
If you don’t have your best game at Wintonbury Hills, there’s a consolation prize: Over 100 bird species have been spotted on the property. Bird-making may give way to bird watching.
Billy Casper Golf has managed the property since it opened. Residents can play the course for as little as $25 during Moonlight hours, while out-of-towners can expect to pay no more than $72 at peak times.
-- This piece first appeared in Global Golf Post.