As of May 6, 2020, Massachusetts is now the only state in the country where golf courses are completely closed.
The only tiny shred of a silver lining to MA Governor Charlie Baker’s colossal idiocy when it comes to golf is that it has forced Massachusetts golfers out of their comfort zone, and into a place usually reserved for thunderstorms, traffic jams, and those fanciful “Here be dragons” graphics on old-timey maps.
I had been meaning to play Keney Park for years, as it’s one of the only Devereaux Emmet courses around, and underwent an impressive restoration a few years ago. Also, there wasn’t a detailed Keney Park course review online anywhere, so I wanted to rectify that.
Emmet is kind of the forgotten man of golf’s Golden Age of design, but he is responsible for a number of top-tier courses, including Congressional, Garden City, Engineers, Hartford Golf Club, and Rockaway Hunting Club.
Emmet completed the front nine in 1927, and four years later, a random municipal engineer named Robert “Jack” Ross laid out the second nine. Whether he went by Robert, Jack, or Big Bob Ross, the man had some significant shoes to fill. And, after playing the course once and enjoying the back nine immensely, I’m ready to declare that ol’ Jack did more than just fill those shoes.
He straight-up busted right out of ‘em.
It’s clear that the two nines were conceived by different designers, but that does nothing to detract from the profound enjoyment of a round at Keney Park. But enough preamble — let’s get to the good stuff.
1st hole — “Valley”
Par 4, 332 yards
Directly off the side of the practice green, the player is greeted with a downhill, gently rumpled opener that sets the stage for the fairway undulations, and wild green complexes, that will become the norm throughout the round.
The first green is the star of the show, and likely the inspiration behind the hole’s name. As in, there’s a huge valley that serves as the green’s front tier.
2nd hole — “Cross Country”
Par 5, 509 yards
Another fittingly titled hole, the second turns 90 degrees left from the first green, and takes the player on an Homeric quest into the property’s northwest corner. First, a semi-blind drive over the crest of a hill and into a valley cut by a creek.
As you crest the hill, Cross Country reveals its next challenge — a blind approach over a sprawling expanse of sand.
It’s only a 220-yard carry to the creek, so longer hitters can call upon a power fade to clear the hazard and set up a chance to reach the green in two. The genius of this hole comes in its double-dogleg routing, as those who bail out left on their drives are forced to sling a hook over the yawning bunker and around that stand of trees to have a look at the green.
3rd hole — “Pit”
Par 3, 160 yards
The first of Keney’s five outrageous par-3s, Pit offers one very clear directive: hit the green, or else.
Though dissimilar from the famed Pit at North Berwick, where the green hides behind an ancient stone wall, Keney’s Pit offers its fair share of challenges, including a large, back-to-front sloping green; an eight-foot-tall false front; and this man-height bunker front right.
4th hole — “Klondyke”
Par 4, 383 yards
Now we’re talking. Like its namesake, the frankly ridiculous fourth hole at Lahinch in Ireland, Keney’s Klondyke offers a blind drive over a knoll. And although the central Connecticut topography doesn’t produce quite the same drama as that of western Ireland, Klondyke is still a joy to play.
From the tee, it looks like your best bet is to hammer one towards that lone pine tree in the center, since a miss to the left is OB and a miss right will find an adjacent fairway. At least, that was my impression. I breasted the hill after tattooing my tee ball, and found myself in a world of hurt.
Looking back at the source of my downfall (two shots in the bunker, the second of which failed to reach the green), it’s clear that the left side offers a better, though more undulating, route to the green.
Though I neglected to capture it, that long ridge rides directly into the fourth green, creating a bit of a reverse Redan situation, where shots onto the left side of the putting surface funnel hard to the right.
5th hole — “Long”
Par 4, 428 yards
The 5th is, perhaps unsurprisingly, Keney’s number 1 handicap hole. It also begins a series of two-shotters that run pretty much parallel, which generally speaks to lazy/uninteresting architecture. At Keney, these back-and-forth holes don’t feel nearly as monotonous as at some other places, owing to the course’s incredible variety.
After a right-turning fairway, Long presents a series of monstrous humps and bumps short of the green, which turn any indifferent approach shots into carnival rides.
The large, back-to-front sloping green fits the length of the hole, and features two rectangular bunkers in the back left to catch overcooked approach shots.
6th hole — Short
Par 3, 152 yards
This green does not need words.
The slopes are much larger than they appear, and I’m already licking my chops to play here again, hoping the pin sits behind that central front hump.
7th hole — “Biarritz”
Par 4, 455 yards
You might think that this hole deserves the “Long” moniker, but “Biarritz” fits just as nicely, considering this green is constructed like a paper airplane, with a deep channel grooved into it from 7 o’clock up to 2 o’clock.
8th hole — “Hogs Back”
Par 4, 407 yards
Another hole that takes its name, and all of its considerable charm, from its stunning green complex.
The spine essentially halves the putting surface. Play to the wrong side of the hog’s back, and you’ll be happy to escape with a two-putt par.
Also, a superintendent’s revenge round with the pin atop the spine would be maddening.
9th hole — “Road”
Par 4, 457 yards
The first hole calling for a draw off the tee, Road runs back to the clubhouse, allowing everyone to watch you flail and fumble as you make your inevitable bogey or worse at this remarkable, and ridiculously frustrating, green complex. A mirror image of the 17th at the Old Course, Keney’s Road template offers a strong entry into the pantheon of this oft-copied hole design.
10th hole — “Sheep Meadow”
Par 5, 533 yards
Just a really solid long par 5. With a good drive along the left, you can catch a speed slot and put yourself in position to challenge that monster fairway bunker that sits about 130 yards out.
Lay up short of the bunker, and you’re left with an uphill 140+ yard third into a green that’s not very deep, and also features a ghoulish false front.
11th hole — “Dell”
Par 3, 237 yards
The second of Keney’s holes to be named after one at Lahinch, Dell doesn’t share too many traits with its Irish namesake. What it does have, however, is perhaps the most handsome green site on the course.
Fit neatly into a bend in Meadow Brook, which meanders through most of the back nine, Dell’s green offers ample area to land the ball short and run it up. The back portion of the green rises high above the front, making anything long doubly dead.
12th hole — “Soldiers Field”
Par 4, 323 yards
Look at this beauty.
Reachable for the longer hitter, Soldiers Field borders Northwood Cemetery, with its namesake Soldiers Field cemetery sitting beyond the green. For short hitters, more timid players, or people with some sense of how to play smart golf (none of these are me), a shot to the top of the hill leaves an unobstructed view of the green, which features a gargantuan ridge in the front left that renders anything short and left very much screwed.
My drive came to rest on the fringe (below, left), and I had absolutely no hope of making birdie, with the pin cut just beyond the crest and the green falling away on either side.
13th hole — “Peninsula”
Par 3, 188 yards
Pictures absolutely do not do this hole justice.
An elevated tee box aims you towards what appears to be an alien spacecraft half-buried in the landscape, grassed over, and festooned with a necklace of perilous, eight-foot-deep, flat-bottomed bunkers.
Again, I need to play this hole again, when the pin is cut in the center of this monstrous saucer.
14th hole — “Sentinels”
Par 5, 513 yards
I’ll be honest, I was in the graveyard for most of this hole. And that’s not a euphemism, I pushed my tee shot and wound up in a graveyard abutting the hole, which I didn’t know existed until I found myself stepping on a nearly covered-up grave marker. Sorry, whoever you are, and hand over my Callaway.
The hole is pretty simple, with a fairway turning slightly right, its armpit guarded by a small, lonesome bunker.
The green is very fun, and accepts all sorts of long and bouncing approach shots.
15th hole — “Camels Back”
Par 4, 409 yards
We turn 180 degrees and play into a fairway slashed by a creek around 280 yards out, and pushed up on the left by the titular hump of the world’s largest camel.
From the fairway, nothing of the putting surface is visible save the flagstick, which seems to poke off the top sliver of a mountain ridge. Upon arrival, the player realizes that there is much green to work with, provided he trust his numbers (and his game).
16th hole — “Meadow Brook”
Par 4, 397 yards
After another 180-degree turn, the player is greeted with the course’s only flat fairway. This two-shotter is bounded by its namesake creek to the left, and features a similar green to that of the 12th.
While it’s tough to tell, the green features a pronounced ridge running across the center, kicking all short approach shots back towards the front of the green.
17th hole — “Principal’s Nose”
Par 4, 369 yards
A final about-face brings the player to the only hole on the course that’s uphill from tee to green. A slight dogleg left, Principal’s Nose takes its name from the unmistakable combination bunker/mound guarding the front of the green.
Central hazards are all the rage in golf course architecture these days, but are usually spoken of in terms of fairway bunkers. This devious little lump cleaves the 17th green in twain, and puts the “dead” in “dead center of the fairway.”
The fun doesn’t stop when you reach the green, either, as the left tier is perched several feet above the right one. Truly an ingenious and incredible green complex.
18th hole — “Punch Bowl”
Par 3, 197 yards
I might be weird, but I really enjoy ending a round on a par 3. Particularly one that’s relatively accessible. If a match, or a great round, has come down to the last hole, then it’s a simple test. One swing to rule them all.
The punchbowl sits a bit below grade and isn’t immediately recognizable from the tee box, and the sprawling putting surface actually offers two separate pseudo-punchbowls, one at the front and one at the back.
Between the time that I started writing this and the time I finished it, Charlie Baker screwed his head back on straight and became the final state to allow golf courses to operate. And while that’s incredibly good news for all Massachusetts golfers, I have to say that I’m pretty excited to have been forced out of my comfort zone. Despite the 100-minute drive, Keney Park far exceeded all of my expectations, and Hartford golfers should consider themselves lucky to be able to play such a Golden Age gem.
Also, even though MA courses are now open, you’re crazy if you think I’m canceling my 36-hole day at Keney tomorrow.