Orchards Golf Club

A golfer of a certain age who stands for the first time on the first tee of the Orchards Golf Club in South Hadley, Mass., is forgiven any pangs of misapprehension. It’s simply that the rumpled fairway below him looks too much like the hillside where he once spread a scratchy, red-plaid blanket to hear his last folk concert in those final innocent days before graduation. Or like the seminary grounds he visited only one time, to see where older brother Skip was being transfigured into Father Leo.

With the blue Berkshires collected around it and the lawns and towers of five liberal-arts institution all within a short drive, the Orchards seems part and parcel of the quest for higher understanding continually being conducted in these parts. As for the stroke you need to play once any first-tee reveries conclude, it’s a 4-wood or 3-iron spotted down the right-center of the fairway, shy of a narrow brook that angles away from left to right. Nothing spectacular, really, just an honest golf shot with a little something to worry about during the backswing.

And to award the Orchards homely but high praise, a day of honest golf shots and twinges of anxiety are all this 6,424-yard course provides. That, and the understanding that Donald Ross’s poetic vision is fully realized and embodied here.

On New England woodland that creaks and slants and upwells into drumlins and ridges, Ross was always able to see the future. He knew the flight patterns of golf balls not yet struck and the visual riddles he could pose by adding this and that feature to the natural landscape. Rambling through these pines and hardwoods around the corner from Mt. Holyoke College – which was deeded the golf course in 1941 by founder Joseph Skinner and still owns it – Ross must have realized right away how he could set the terrain to music.

The reason for discussing these matters now is that the Orchards has been rescued. It’s been saved from the slow decline and atrophy it has been enduring since those folky 1960s, when responsibility for its upkeep began falling into the cracks between the college’s grounds department and a membership that was stronger of will that it was deep of pocket. With greens shrinking, fairways corroding and vegetation strangling the waterways designed to keep storm water from flooding holes 1, 9, 10 and 18, the overseers had to be summoned. The call went out to Arnold Palmer Golf Management, which took over at the beginning of 2000 and whose executives soon discovered the Orchards not just on their project list but in their blood, as well.

“Every golf facility our company takes on gets the full-bore effort,” commented sales and marketing director Brian Donahue as he played the course during reopening ceremonies this past August. “But right away this job became a mission. We realized we were entrusted with some heavy golf history. It was a business proposition – like they all are – but it was also a test to see if we could restore something that had so much intrinsic value and give it back to the game.” Fittingly, Arnold Palmer’s beloved plaque as 1999 recipient of the American Society of Golf Course Architects’ Donald Ross Award hangs in the front lobby of the rebuilt clubhouse here, representing Palmer’s contribution to course design and land stewardship in the Ross tradition.

After one season of bloody labor on every corner of the golf course, the Orchards is still not polished to a shine. That said, it is once again a seductive pleasure to walk and play and replay in your mind during the ride home to Boston or Hartford or Albany or wherever you’ve sojourned from. Its original routing and pacing are unchanged, and these assets alone make the course a woodland wonder. As previously described, it sleighrides down from the clubhouse with a see-it-all-in-one-glimpse par-4 and works its way back toward the clubhouse with another par-4, this one playing from out of a piney chute. Then it lunges out into the forest with a reachable par-5 that opens a window on Ross’s core sense of strategy and aesthetics.

From a slightly elevated tee, the golfer playing No. 3 surveys a landing area framed at the back by a ridge-like roll of land that extends, on a slight diagonal, the full width of the fairway. One player out of 20 can ponder flying this ridge, but he would do so without the comfort of seeing where his ball might land. More typical is the player who could drive long enough to reach the upsweep of the ridge and thus have a crack at reaching this green in two. But in doing so he would have to play that stroke blind, with the threat of ending up in a wooded bog to the right of the elevated green or in a stand of trees to the left.

For the golfer playing this third hole in three shots, Ross built a charming sort of challenge, a design feature that calls to mind the famous nostrum of Ross cotemporary Alister MacKenzie to wit: “One bunker, strategically placed” (rather than a gratuitous scattering of bunkers all throughout the hole). In this case, it is not a bunker but an innocent-looking mound in the left-center of the fairway where layup shots naturally land. While left is indeed the safe side of this fairway, it also becomes the unpredictable side, because the mound will disperse incoming iron shots in random directions and then set up uneven lies for ensuing pitch shots. If you’ve played modern courses that turn loose the pyrotechnics to load their horizons with high, billowing mounds, the sophistication of Ross’s single, bony ridge and subtle fairway mound on the par-5 third of Orchards G.C. has to impress.

Other front-side holes worth dwelling upon include the par-4 fourth, where a large, sloping green is guarded by rough-topped bunkers so mighty and muscular they could be part of a military defense line. No. 6, with its humble, hand-crafted pond, is an excellent example of the classic New England, downhill drive-uphill approach par-4. And the bucolic par-5 ninth, still in need of new drainage, doubles its trouble for the golfer laying up by presenting him with a split brook that fingers across the fairway on two distinct paths.

One of the course’s quirks is the odd way it makes its turn, serving up a level and slender par-3 10th that tightly borders the concluding section of No. 9. The glory of Orchards Golf Club is its quartet of par-4s from the 12th through the 15th. This run of holes takes place near the highest terrain of the 160-acre property and features several shots the golfer fidgets with eagerness to have a crack at. In particular, the triumphantly long and straight 14th sticks in a visiting golfer’s mind, including the strategically suggestive bunkers sitting just 100 or so yards from the tee.

When the original hilltop carriage house that had served as the Orchards’ clubhouse and locker room since Joseph Skinner moved it there was inspected by Palmer managers, mournful thoughts of demolition came soon to mind. But again, Palmer staff members – this time the building engineers – found themselves feeling beholden to history. They set about mending, not ending.

Palmer people spared no expense, installing new maple lockers with brass name plates; restoring the cherry wainscoting that skirts the main dining room and sitting area; devising new menus for breakfast, lunch and dinner; outfitting the grill room with a grand slate-topped bar; and painting the interiors a fall-foliage yellow with forest green trim. A full-time horticulturist has been hired solely to look after the newly landscaped area around the clubhouse.

While traditional private clubs of comparable quality might charge an initiation fee of $5,000 and another $5,000 in yearly dues and dining minimums, this come-backing classic offers fees that are considerably less steep. Starting this year, full-access memberships have been offered on two levels: “Regional,” for golfers who live within a 40-to-75-mile radius of the club ($1250 initiation, $1,500 in annual dues); and “national,” for those who live outside a 75-mile radius ($750 initiation, $1,000 in annual dues).

“Membership at the Orchards is, quite frankly, the deal of the century,” says Steve Ballard, who is in charge of recruitment. “We’ve priced memberships to appeal to serious golfers who can appreciate the quality of the course but don’t necessarily live close by. We’ve also made it easy for members to arrange access for their unaccompanied guests.”

The location of the Orchards makes this novel membership feasible. Located just off Interstate 91, South Hadley is accessible to metropolitan New York, Hartford, Providence and Boston. This part of western Massachusetts also serves as a gateway to established vacation spots like the Adirondacks, Vermont and New Hampshire.

For golfers with college-bound kids, the Orchards sits smack in the middle of the Five College district, home to Mount Holyoke, Amherst College, Smith College, Hampshire College and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. All five draw students from across the nation, meaning parents and alumni visit the region with some frequency. Indeed, Julius Erving – a UMass alum – is himself a new member at the Orchards.

The club’s “proximal;” membership program is unique to New England but ingrained in golf economics of other regions. “It’s commonplace in resort areas – and in Britain where many prestigious clubs offer “international” memberships,” Glen Zito explains. “The response to this location-based membership policy has been enthusiastic, to say the least.” The Orchards has already welcomed new members from 15 states.

Roger Hoit is one such national member. “The layout at the Orchards is without questions one of the finest on the East Coast, and Palmer’s work there has only improved the club,” claims Hoit, twice club champion at Baltusrol and past participant in both the U.S. and British amateur championships.

There is always built-in nostalgia when a discerning golfer happens upon a vintage course in an out-of-the-way place. When that vintage course is a rebuilt, reborn chestnut like Orchards Golf Club, the discovery – or the rediscovery – is all the richer.