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WGC: No. 2 nine-holer in the world! No. 1 in members’ hearts

By Rod Lee

Appearances can be deceiving, which explains why a glimpse of Whitinsville Golf Club from Fletcher Street in the town of Northbridge would prompt some motorists passing by on the rolling, twisting road to say “this is just another little neighborhood course.”

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Long celebrated as one of Architect Donald Ross’s most masterful creations, “Whitinsville” was recently named the second-best nine-hole layout in the world by GOLF magazine.

Only Royal Worlington & Newmarket Golf Club in Suffolk, England ranked higher, in GOLF’s first-ever attempt to identify the globe’s finest “half-tracks,” or “short courses,” if you will. Whereas Royal Worlington & Newmarket’s claim to fame is its “quirkiness,” Whitinsville’s is simply that it has become “a classic.”

The No. 2 news arrived at the doorstep as a most pleasant surprise to Whitinsville’s new pro, Mark Aldrich, the club’s veteran manager, Frank Iannetta, and WGC members. The buzz still had not come close to wearing off when a correspondent for The Blackstone Valley Xpress dropped in to discuss the honor on September 24.

“Everyone got very excited, obviously,” Mr. Aldrich said. “No. 2 (in the world) is the highest ever” for Whitinsville; “but,” he noted, “everyone’s got us on their list.”

Indeed they have. Playing to a maximum 18-hole length of 6,427 yards with a par of 70, Whitinsville has the hallmark traits of Donald Ross architecture: smallish, rounded greens with treacherous sloping, unobstructed run-up areas to the front of most of them, strategically placed fairway bunkering and challenging par 3s.

Golfers who tackle Whitinsville know that they will “likely use every club in their bag.”

One expert’s take in touting Whitinsville Golf Club’s charm was expressed thusly: “I strongly believe Whitinsville proves once again that bigger and bolder isn’t always better. This quiet nine-hole layout serves the community well. If every town had a Whitinsville you would have millions more Americans enjoying golf. Fun, variety, an easy walk—all make for an enjoyable day. How I wish we could celebrate what nine holes can do for the outdoor spirit.”

Mark Aldrich is in “Year 2” of his stint as pro at Whitinsville. He was formerly assistant pro at Worcester County Club. He and Whitinsville’s course superintendent, Shaun Mitchell, arrived at about the same time. Both are basking in the glory of the recognition the club has received.

Mr. Aldrich said WGC’s young superintendent “does amazing work with those eight, nine guys” who are responsible with him for maintaining the course.

WGC Superintendent Shaun Mitchell has ample reason to be proud of the pristine 6427 yards he and his crew maintain.

Standing at one of his favorite spots on the course, at a rendezvous of golf carts, Shaun Mitchell said of the designation, “it is quite an honor.” Like Mr. Aldrich, he is humbled, not boastful, about the acclamation. “Between my last two courses, we would carry ourselves with the same amount of pride” at earning such an endorsement, he said. “It’s up to the members where to take it,” in terms of capitalizing on the distinction.

“I played high school matches here, for Grafton High. It’s good to be back close to home,” he added.

Mr. Iannetta, who is big on the storied history of WGC, knows exactly what the plug from GOLF means.

“It lends itself to great promotion,” he said.

In fact, there is the usual renewed interest in growing the membership, which currently stands at around four hundred (age seven to ninety-two); and fresh inquiries from golf writers to pay a visit to see for themselves the magnificence of Whitinsville.

“We have a lot of golf writers asking to come in. It’s free publicity,” Mr. Iannetta said. Also, “a gentleman from Andover visited. We got to the fourth tee and he said ‘how much is it?’ to become a member.”

WGC has stood the test of time. Except for a restoration plan crafted by Gil Hanse in 2009, the course is not appreciably different than it was when commissioned to be built by the Whitin Machine Works nearly a century ago.

“The fourth tee is the only non-original” part of the layout,” Mr. Aldrich said. “That’s why it gets recognized as a pure Donald Ross design. It is one of Gil Hanse’s favorite courses. Bob McNeil is a member here. He’s a famous golf-course architect.”

Typical of the zeal admirers of Whitinsville Golf Club espouse for their home track is that rendered by Ben Crenshaw of the PGA Tour and the Ryder Cup, who said, years ago, that the picturesque 446-yard 18th hole “is the second greatest hole he’s ever played. That’s how we started to get the notoriety,” Mark Aldrich said.

Whitinsville’s clubhouse as seen from Fletcher St., and the picturesque 18th hole and green as viewed from the fairway.

Whitinsville is in prestigious company with the fifty nine-hole courses around the globe that GOLF’s eighty eight-member panel of experts chose to single out. Among them are several in the U.S., including No. 3 Culver Academics GC in Culver, Indiana (“incredible landforms”); No. 4 The Dunes Club in New Buffalo, Michigan (“as diverse and versatile as can be”); and Edgartown GC here in Massachusetts (“breathtaking views of Vineyard Sound, clever routing and creative use of multiple tee boxes” to allow for an actual eighteen-hole experience).

Whitinsville falls into the category of what Golf Coach Mike Dutton says every good “nine-holer” should be: a course that “knows what it is—intimate, local, welcoming—and avoid what it isn’t: pretentious, punitive, grand. Like Cliff Notes or a nap, a nine-holer fills the bill when you want less to be more. And like the bar in Cheers, it should be a place where everybody knows your name.”

Mr. Dutton has been “fascinated” with nine-hole courses since growing up at Goose Run GC on the Navy’s submarine base in Groton, Connecticut.

Whitinsville Golf Club’s professional, classy (but also unassuming) scorecard contains the words, directly under “A Donald Ross Design” “GOLFWEEK #72 classic course in America.”

Now that may have to be amended to include “No. 2 nine-hole course in the world.”

Contact Rod Lee at [email protected] or 774-232-2999.