Golf Course Spotlight: Ponkapoag Golf Course

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Editor’s note: The following is the fourth in a series of profiles on Canton’s golf courses. The series continues with a look at Ponkapoag Golf Course, a 36-hole municipal course located on Route 138 at the foot of the Blue Hills.

From “world beater” status in the 1940s and 50s to the “worst golf course in America” according to Sports Illustrated’s Rick Reilly in 1988, Canton’s Ponkapoag Golf Course has always had a way of capturing the imagination of golfers — for better or for worse.

A view of the 13th hole at Ponkapoag's newly restored Course No. 1

A view of the 13th hole at Ponkapoag’s newly restored Course No. 1

And now the oft-maligned yet equally beloved local “muni” is poised for an exciting new chapter thanks to a multi-million-dollar investment from the state and the passion and dedication of its current leadership team.

According to Joe Leary, the director of golf operations for the state Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR), Ponkapoag is in the midst of a major transformation that aims to return the course to its former glory while also preserving the affordability and accessibility that has made it so popular over the years.

The centerpiece of this revival — a fully restored Course No. 1 based on the original Donald Ross design — is slated for a soft opening on Friday, October 23, and Leary can barely contain his excitement.

“I believe that within five years we’ll be ranked in the top 10 for municipal golf courses in the country,” he declared. “It’s that good; it came out that good.”

Once considered a real gem and a destination course for PGA professionals, Ponkapoag’s Course 1 has been a shell of its former self in recent years. Half of the holes (3-8 and 11-13) have been closed since the early 1990s due to drainage issues, while the other nine holes, although playable, suffered through years of neglect and mismanagement, exacerbated by a lack of state funding.

But rather than lease the course and turn it over to a private operator — a popular solution offered by state Senator Brian Joyce and other local officials — the state decided to invest both capital and manpower, and the result, according to Leary, is a beautifully restored, 80-year-old golf course that’s supported by modern technology and a team of experienced professionals.

“We’re very proud,” said Leary, who played his very first round of golf at Ponkapoag’s Course 1 many years ago. “We brought a Donald Ross golf course back to what it should be. He was a man way ahead of his time.”

The DCR brought in noted golf course architect Brian Silva to oversee the restoration, and they followed Ross’s original design to the letter whenever possible, guided by the golf course legend’s own handwritten notes from the late 1930s.

Leary said the biggest change they made was to lengthen the course a “little bit” to a championship distance, but without compromising the integrity of the design.

“Course 1 historically has such a great layout — the undulations in the greens, the bunkering, and just the elevation changes in the tee boxes,” Leary said. “It’s a pristine golf course to look at.”

In addition to the improvements at Course 1, Ponkapoag also installed irrigation on every green and purchased state-of-the-art maintenance equipment. They also implemented tee times, provided uniforms for the staff, and brought three New England PGA Class A professionals on board.

“We’re trying to develop a professional atmosphere here,” noted Leary, who previously helped to revitalize the city-owned George Wright Golf Course in Hyde Park. “We want people to come here and have an experience that they would have at a private club. We want them to come in and feel welcomed.”

Leary said the course is also in outstanding shape, thanks to the hard work and expertise of Ponkapoag Superintendent Mark Brady and his staff.

Donald Ross's handwritten notes for the 12th hole of Course No. 1

Donald Ross’s handwritten notes for the 12th hole (click to enlarge)

Meanwhile, the prices will continue to be among the lowest around. Currently, a round of 18 costs $27 on weekdays and $30 on weekends ($17 for a cart), and season passes range from $475 for seniors (weekdays) to $875 for regular visitors and includes access to the state’s other municipal course, Leo J. Martin in Weston.

Leary said the affordable prices combined with the recent improvements have led to a “perfect storm” of surging popularity at Ponkapoag.

“Last year, we had 65,000 visitors in here, and those are big numbers,” he said. “People who haven’t been here for 15 years and had given up on the place, they’re coming back now and they’re thrilled.”

Going forward, Leary said the DCR will continue to “fine-tune” the course while also adding additional professional touches, including a possible policy for collared shirts beginning next year.

“We understand it’s a muni and not a country club,” he said, “but we’re trying to run it a little more professionally and we’re trying to change the culture — and not for any other reason than it’s the right thing to do at this time.”

Already, the “new” Ponkapoag has attracted the likes of the Massachusetts Golf Association, which is planning to hold its U.S. Public Links Qualifier on Course 1 next year. And Leary said he could envision even bigger tournaments being held here — including possible PGA Tour events — in the not too distant future.

“It’s not that far away to be honest,” he said. “Ever since Bethpage Black hosted the U.S. Open [in 2002], the PGA has been looking to host events at munis that are worthy of it — and now we’re worthy of it.”

The way Leary sees it, Ponkapoag already had the history and the tournament pedigree. Now it has the professional management and the outstanding golf conditions to match, not to mention a beautiful location abutting the Blue Hills Reservation and Ponkapoag Pond.

“It really is a gorgeous piece of property,” said Leary, “and now we’re treating it the way it should be treated.”

For more information on Ponkapoag Golf Course, visit www.ponkapoaggolf.com.

Previous Golf Course Spotlights:

Milton-Hoosic Club

Brookmeadow Country Club

Wampatuck Country Club

 

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