Taconic Golf Club a strategic challenge with Mass. Amateur on horizon


From its relatively benign start to its devilish finish, Taconic Golf Club is a visual beauty and a strategic challenge that is sure to produce a deserving champion when its hosts the Massachusetts Amateur Championship beginning on Monday.

Not only will the eventual winner have to survive the medal-play cut from 144 players to 32 and then win five head-to-head matches in the five-day marathon, he will have to think his way around a course that favors patience, precision and touch over pure power.

"It's going to take a very consistent player, someone who keeps the ball in play off the tee and has the ability to control his distances with his irons, to win here," Taconic head professional Josh Hillman said. "You don't need to be a bomber off the tee."

Hillman has talked with a number of next week's participants after practice rounds on the par-71, 6,808-yard course in recent days, and they have come away impressed with the classic course designed by Wayne Stiles and John Van Kleek way back in 1927.

"They have been struck by the beauty and the quality of the course," Hillman said. "From one to 18, there isn't a weak hole and there is nothing goofy."

True, although the greens, many perched above the fairways and some with severe slopes, sometimes can make golfers look a little goofy.

"On at least a half-dozen of the holes, if you go long past the pin you can struggle just to make a bogey," Hillman said.

In the book "The Life and Work of Wayne Stiles" written by Bob Labbance and Kevin Mendik in 2008, noted golf course architect Gil Hanse, who was at the time working on a master plan for a course renovation that earned rave reviews when completed in 2009, talked about the putting surfaces.

"Taconic Golf Club has outstanding greens," he said. "These greens possess all of the bold undulations and imagination that mark greens built by classic golf course architects. ... Part of the golf experience at Taconic is the fear of being in the wrong position on these greens. Very often that position is above the pin starting at a sharp downhill putt."

Frank Vana Jr., who won the Mass. Amateur the last time it was played at Taconic in 2004, got reacquainted with the course during a recent practice round and was a little surprised by what he found.

"Somehow, I forgot how sloped the greens are," he said. "They are very difficult."

Which is why hitting fairways off the tee and controlling distances on approach shots will prove critical. Adding to the difficulty are well-placed bunkers and some false fronts that repel shots that come up a little short.

"If go over the green on six, seven and 10, you are in jail," said Taconic member Chad Alibozek, who is in the field and hopes his local knowledge will give him an advantage.

Those holes, along with the par-4 16th and par-3 17th, are places where chips from 10 yards in front of the green are preferable to 8-foot downhill putts.

The 10th hole highlights how much of a difference a green complex can make. On the scorecard at 506 yards, it looks like a reachable par 5 that will yield birdies aplenty. But two huge bunkers guarding the green and a sloping putting surface often make a layup and wedge third shot the wise option. The green falls several feet from back to front and there is a ridge in the middle that makes it a severe two-tiered test.

During the 36 holes of medal-play qualifying, it will be crucial to get off to a fast start. This is a course where the challenges grow as the round unfolds. Three of the first four holes are arguably the easiest (though they certainly aren't pushovers) on the course and the back nine is 430 yards longer than the front.

"The common thought here is that the back nine is two or three shots more difficult, and the last four holes are very challenging," Hillman said.

The par-4 15th measures 441 yards and par-4 16th is a 460-yard uphill brute where the second shot plays perhaps 15 yards longer than the distance and where, again, an uphill chip is a better option than a slick downhill putt. The 17th, a par 3 that can play as long as 246 yards, is as much of a challenge as anyone would want at that stage of the round. Of all the greens, downhill putts on this one may be the scariest of all.

After that three-hole stretch, the 545-yard 18th is seemingly a relief, with a birdie over even an eagle a possibility. But with out of bounds left and a new tee that has lengthened it, the finishing hole isn't to be taken lightly, especially with the outcome of a match at stake.

That final stretch, along with a pair of strategic par 4s (Nos. 12 and 13) and a round of full of decisions that Taconic requires, sets up well for match-play excitement.

"In match play, the score is only relevant to the person you are playing," Hillman said. "Watching your opponent is key. If he is out of position, you have to judge their potential to get up and down for a par and adjust accordingly."

"This is a very strong match-play course," said Tom Berkel, who will be the Massachusetts Golf Association's official-in-charge along with Marty Salvadore. "You are going to have to think. There are some real opportunities out there, but there are other places where you need to be cautious."

To contact Richard Lord: relord633@gmail.com or 413-281-2226.


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