Wayne Stiles & John Van Kleek
3,033 Yards, 34.7/121 (White Tees)
Many Philadelphians enjoy their traditional summer escape to the Jersey Shore. But some seek the quiet solace and natural beauty of rural America. The same emotion may draw people to understated golf courses, full of character but not crowds, favored by purists who love the game and loath excess. Which is how I found myself on a cool summer evening, sipping a glass of bourbon on a creaky front porch, enjoying the quiet charm of Manchester, Vermont for a week-long summary holiday. With a few free hours to spend each day, while the kids were at camp and my wife worked, I decided to explore some of the region’s nine-hole offerings which could be played quickly with little cost or formality. My approach was strategic; New England has plenty of great golf, but also the highest concentration of nine-hole courses in the country. As I was to find out the next day, the two are not mutually exclusive.
An hour away from Manchester, the town of Walpole, NH is a quintessential New England town with a quintessential New England golf course; a community-driven nine-hole course laid over a gently rolling landscape that provides interest, playability and affordability at $24 a round. The course is one of nine surviving Wayne Stiles courses in the state. Stiles, a Massachusetts native who partnered with John Van Kleek, had no formal architectural training but produced a strong portfolio of work throughout the Northeast during a career severely limited by the Great Depression. Hooper is considered to be some of the duo’s best work, unintentionally preserved by a town embracing it’s identity and avoiding the temptation to modernize a golden age classic.
Side note: Hooper’s legal history is as interesting as it’s golfing tradition. George and Mary Hooper were prominent residents of Walpole with a passion for farming and agriculture. The couple placed their assets in a trust, to be used by the town to provide agricultural education for the town’s youth. In 1925 the town established the Hooper Institute to carry out this mission that continues to this day. In 1927 fifty acres of trust land were leased to the Hooper Golf Club (named in honor of the town’s benefactor) which provided revenue to the trust and a benefit to the town. In 1995, however, the state’s Attorney General deemed the lease did not maximize financial benefit for the trust and recommended a sale of the land. In 1999, after nearly twenty-five years of legal maneuvering and uncertainty, a group of twenty-five local residents (golfers and non-golfers alike) invested $25,000 each to acquire the land. They continue to operate the course, with a new permanent home, for the benefit of the surrounding community.
Hooper’s tumultuous journey and recent success has resulted in an increase in press and popularity. Anthony Pioppi highlighted Hooper in his book The Finest Nines and the course was ranked #13 on Golf Magazine’s list of Best 50 Nine-Hole Courses in the World. Tom Doak posited that if Hooper’s nine and Whitinsville’s nine were combined, the resulting composite (let’s call it Hooperville!) would rank within the Top 50 courses in America.
First Hole – 456 Yards
The First tee is steps away from the putting green, pro shop, Ninth green and patio of the Watkins Inn. It may be the most populous spot in Walpole, NH. Hooper has no practice range, so this is the corner of Main and Main. Even with the crowds, there is no pressure; this is Hooper, not Merion and any tension melts away with a deep breath and a glance down the fairway. The bunkerless fairway offers a gentle handshake and the rolling hills of Vermont provide a bucolic backdrop rising above the distant tree line.
The First tee is the highest point on the property, falling sixty feet towards the green. The fairway runs downhill and right to left, so the tee shot must be played towards the dirt paved Hooper Road and it’s stone wall that is in play on six holes.
There is a chance, if the ground is firm, for a bounding golf ball to reach a severe drop in the fairway and carry down towards the green, leaving a short iron or wedge for the approach. But this is not a course that needs to be overpowered, and the alternative of a low running shot into the green is just as enjoyable.
Second Hole – 427 Yards
The Second continues another 40 feet downhill, the stone wall of Hooper Road continues to parallel the fairway. The road, incidentally, provided the only route from Rutland, VT to Boston, MA in the 18th century and is still in use today.
The green provides ample opening at the front, allowing for the land to feed the ball to the green. Recent tree clearing to the left of the fairway illustrate efforts to improve the course. Of the opening two holes, Tom Doak writes “I racked my brain trying to think if I’d ever seen a better pair of opening holes and in the moment, anyway, I could think of none”.
Third Hole – 285 Yards
The short par-four Third reverses course, turning uphill back towards the clubhouse. The tee, set back into the trees and well below the second green, provides the first blind shot. The only guidance is from the scorecard, indicating that length is not required at 285 yards.
While the tee shot feels tight, the fairway is wide and offers plenty of room to play away from the road. The green demands the first aerial approach, which must carry newly-renovated bunkers into the proper section of a green that is divided by a subtle ridge.
Fourth Hole – 155 Yards
The Fourth hole continues to work uphill to a green naturally banked into a hillside. The green is surrounded short and left by bunkers visible from the tee, and a hidden bunker tucked behind a hill to the right makes a ground approach risky.
A sharp ridge divides the green into front and back halves, and this simple contour generates all of the interest required on the green. Many holes at Hooper follow this theme; a singular feature providing a subtle yet meaningful impact.
Fifth Hole – 474 Yards
The Fifth fairway moves severely right to left, resulting in many tee shots come to rest in the left rough. A grove of trees to the right of the fairway discourages a tee shot too far to the right, which would bring the seventh tee box into play; a reminder that Hooper is routed on less than fifty acres of land.
The green is still a far way off, but accessible with a long second shot. The rolling fairway is full of movement, moving through a small hollow and making a ground approach unpredictable. The deep green is defended by several bunkers and a false front.
Sixth Hole – 194 Yards
The long par-three Sixth works back in the opposite direction of the previous hole, using the high point of the ridge for the green location which is protected by several bunkers that provide penalty, but also prevent an errant shot from running too far into the neighboring fifth fairway.
There is plenty of room to miss the green long or to the left, but a false front and a subtle ridge make a recovery shot to a front pin nearly impossible. Short is a better miss, and the left to right sloping green will feed the ball towards a right pin position.
Seventh Hole – 311 Yards
Two fairway bunkers are the first artificial influence we’ve seen on a tee shot at Hooper, and they are most likely not original to Stiles and Van Kleek’s design. The two bunkers flank the fairway approximately 230-240 yards from the tee, and must be avoided.
The fairway rises in front of the green, hiding a portion of the landing area which makes the green appear smaller than it really is.
Eighth Hole – 381 Yards
The Eighth fairway returns us to Hooper Road on the left, and the tee shot must be played to the right to avoid being blocked by the tree line running along the road. The green, turned slightly left from the fairway, is flanked by two bunkers and offers interesting contours that are not as subtle as others on the course.
Ninth Hole – 350 Yards
From the Eighth green, we walk across the road to the ninth tee box and begin our walk home. The Ninth shares a fairway with the first. Two more fairway bunkers (most likely not original) are generally irrelevant as the preferred line from the tee is the left side of the fairway.
A drive down the left side of the fairway will provide a better line of sight to the ninth green, gently contoured, nestled just past several bunkers between the dirt road and the hillside leading back up to the first tee.
If I had more time, I would happily make the turn and go around again, playing an second set of tee boxes that provide alternative angles and distances on many holes. The opening par five, for example, turns into a long dogleg par four. A back tee box on the Eighteenth adds length and asks for a different shot into the green. Priorities today, however, limit the experience to nine holes; the perfect round for a golfer balancing life, work, and love of the game.
On the slow drive back to Manchester, I can’t help but think about the uphill battle that Hooper has ahead of it. Two hours west of Boston place it squarely in the middle of nowhere. A short season caps revenue, and the course is still recovering from the complicated recent past where operations suffered due to an uncertain future. It’s length means it will be overlooked by some who favor a “full scorecard” over a quality golf experience. The new ownership group, however, doesn’t seem to mind. As the newest stewards of Hooper, they have no delusions of grandeur; they do what they can to improve, but never to the point of excess. They embrace Hooper’s understated charm, and maintain their focus on the local community. On second thought, I think they’ll be just fine.