When it comes to public golf courses in The Sun's circulation region, one stands out among all the rest.
Red Tail Golf Club, on the site of the old Fort Devens army base, is as beautiful a course as you will find anywhere north of Augusta. Georgia, not Maine.
With endless elevation changes, pine-lined fairways, gaping sand traps and greens the size of a Costco, Red Tail presents a challenge for even the most serious golfer. There are no shortage of water hazards either.
The fairways are generous, and the greens are huge and full of undulations. And the amount of sand on the course puts Hampton Beach to shame.
But above and beyond the layout -- Red Tail has made the Top 50 public courses in America list -- is the beauty of the place, especially in the fall, when the leaves are turning colors on the birches, maples and oaks.
And there are remnants of the Devens army base throughout the golf course, including on the 17th hole, where old ammunition storage bunkers can be spotted to the right of the green, and on the second hole, where tanks used to cross during drills on the base.
The price is relatively steep. Eighteen holes with a cart is $89 on weekdays and $105 Friday through Sunday. It drops to $69 and $79 after 2:30 p.m. I would not normally say a golf course is worth that kind of coin, but this one may well be.
Another local course that comes close to Red Tail on every level is just a few miles away -- Shaker Hills Golf Club, which straddles Ayer and Harvard.
Shaker is $20-$30 less than Red Tail but, like its neighbor, offers extreme natural beauty, especially with the rock outcroppings that spice a number of holes. Again, the elevation changes are remarkable.
Despite the fact that it is not an easy golf course, you won't lose a lot of balls in swamps and protected areas and poison ivy patches at Shaker. But you might not make a lot of birdies, either.
Closer to home
In the more immediate vicinity to Lowell, Trull Brook Golf Club in Tewksbury, Butter Brook GC in Westford and Four Oaks CC in Dracut are the best of the 18-hole bunch.
Trull, a traditional old New England course that borders the Merrimack River in a number of spots, gets a lot of traffic but never disappoints in terms of condition.
The course is not particularly tough for the average golfer (the par-5s are mostly reachable in two) but it's certainly no pushover either. Al Santos has been the head pro there forever and is one of the most sought-after local pros when it comes to lessons.
Butter Brook is a relatively new golf course located in Westford. The front nine was open for several years before the back nine and winds through the woods a little more than the more open back nine, which is centered around a large water hazard. The front can lull you to sleep with gently curving dog-legs and mounded terrain, but the back nine will wake you up in a hurry.
Local golfers seem to have a love-hate relationship with Four Oaks, another fairly new course in Dracut.
The front nine is fair while challenging. With fewer forced carries across wetlands and more open terrain for wayward tee shots, you can make a score on the front if you attack the par-5s.
This is a course you need to play a few times before you know where to go -- and where not to go. And if you're interested in post-golf food, there aren't many better places than the Grazie Italian restaurant in the huge clubhouse.
North of the border
In southern New Hampshire, a few courses that are within an easy drive stand out.
Foremost among them is Campbell's Scottish Highlands in Salem, built on a former dairy farm. This is an enjoyable course that does a good business and offers deals on certain days of the week. (Check website on Page S5.) They've got a driving range and large practice green, and the conditions are always pristine.
Overlook CC in Hollis is another super-enjoyable 18-holer that starts the front and the back nine off with twin par-5 holes and finishes off with another par-5 that has trees, sand, water and a sloping green that need to be negotiated.
Green Meadow in Hudson features 36 holes (the Jungle and Prairie) and gets as much play as any other links in the region. The holes there have been moved around and switched so many times (mainly for real-estate reasons) that it can be tough to keep track of where you're going after you tee off.
There's no shortage of nine-hole courses in The Sun region.
Quail Ridge in Acton is a beautiful course that at one time was supposed to be an 18-hole private course but later was cut back.
Groton CC has a few too many blind shots for my taste, although the layout is challenging once you learn your way around.
Tewksbury CC, built on the site of the former Tewksbury Airport on Livingston Street, is a par-33 layout with four par-3 holes. This is one of my favorite short courses in the area, especially the stretch of holes 4-5-6.
There's also Chelmsford CC, Pine Valley in Pelham, Tyngsboro CC, Swanson Meadows in Billerica, Whip-Poor-Will in Hudson, N.H., all of them nice, neighborhood courses perfect for young kids learning the game to play all day.
Butter Brook GC, Westford
Distance/Par Back Tees: 6,700 yards/par 72
Distance/Par Front Tees: 4,850 yards/par 72
Signature hole: 17th, par 4; straight shot from tee box to green; cliff to the left of the fairway that is all hazard area.
No. 1 stroke hole: The 17th
Campbell's Scottish Highlands, Salem, N.H.
Distance/Par Back Tees: 6,249 yards/par 71
Distance/Par Front Tees: 4,678 yards/par 71
No. 1 stroke hole: 5th, par 5, 525 yards; straight from tee box to green; trouble on both sides; right side of green features water hazard; green is angled, making it very difficult to putt.
Country Club of Billerica
Distance/Par Back Tees: 5,798 yards/par 69
Distance/Par Front Tees: 4,515 yards/par 67
No. 1 stroke hole: 17th, par 5, 590 yards; bunkers line the fairway; second shot must be hit over water.
Four Oaks CC, Dracut
Distance/Par Back Tees: 6,268 yards/par 70
Distance/Par Front Tees: 4,348 yards/par 70
Signature hole: The 11th, par 4, 385 yards; high tee box, hit down to a sloping tree-lined fairway.
No. 1 stroke hole: 18th, par 4, 436 yards; narrow drive that has an out-of-bounds area to the left; green is narrow and sloped; hole features a cross hazard 130 yards from green.
Green Meadow GC, Hudson, N.H.
Distance/Par Back Tees: 6,160 yards/par 70
Distance/Par Front Tees: 4,900 yards/par 70
Signature hole: 15th, par, 438 yards; dog-leg left; tee shot must go to top of a hill, then downhill shot to green, tilted toward the golfer.
No. 1 stroke hole: 18th, par 5, 531 yards; dog-leg right; second shot after tee shot must go uphill.
Distance/Par Back Tees: 6,940 yards/par 72
Distance/Par Front Tees: 5,236 yards/par 72
Signature hole: 3rd, par 5; elevated tee shot, dog-leg right; second shot must go around a corner; two-tiered green with a bunker to the right.
No. 1 stroke hole: 13th, par 5, 556 yards; parallel to the Nashua River on the right; very slight dog-leg right; elevated green with a fairway bunker to the front left of it.
Hickory Hill GC, Methuen
Distance/Par Back Tees: 6,287 yards/par 71
Distance/Par Front Tees: 5,081 yards/par 72
No. 1 stroke hole: 6th, par 5, 530 yards from back tees; dog-leg left.
Red Tail GC, Devens
Distance/Par Back Tees: 7,006 yards/par 72
Distance/Par Front Tees: 5,049 yards/par 72
Signature hole: 18th, par 5; only par 5 on the course; clubhouse overlooks it; water hazards and four fairway sandtraps; one sandtrap at green.
No. 1 stroke hole: 7th, par 4, 481 yards; fairway bunkers 70-80 yards in.
Shaker Hills GC, Ayer
Distance/Par Back Tees: 6,910 yards/par 72
Distance/Par Front Tees: 5,079 yards/par 72
Signature hole: 18th, par 5, 548 yards; formerly a par-4 hole; dog-leg right finishes by the patio.
No. 1 stroke hole: 5th, par 5, 606 yards from back tees; narrow fairway, straight for about 400 yards; second shot toward a dog-leg right; about 250 yards from green, there's a landing zone surrounded by bunkers; two-tiered green with bunkers to the right of it.
Townsend Ridge CC
Distance/Par Back Tees: 6,200 yards/par 70
Distance/Par Front Tees: 4,685 yards/par 70
Signature hole: 13th, par 4, 407 yards; dog-leg left; rock wall 200 yards from back tees; pond in front of the green.
No. 1 stroke hole: 4th, par 4, 432 yards; uphill with hazards on left and right; green has a bunker to the left.
Trull Brook GC, Tewksbury
Distance/Par Back Tees: 6,345 yards/par 72
Distance/Par Front Tees: 5,193 yards/par 72
Signature hole: 15th, par 3; elevated tees for a downhill shot; Merrimack River behind and Trull Brook in front; bunkers around the green; voted most picturesque hole in New England several years ago.
No. 1 stroke hole: 3rd; uphill tee shot with a blind dog-leg right; uphill approach shot onto a small green.
Distance/Par Back Tees: 2,368 yards/par 33
Distance/Par Front Tees: 1,913 yards/par 34
Signature hole: 4th, par 5, 450 yards from back tees, 330 from ladies; dog-leg right; willow tree guards the green.
No. 1 stroke hole: 8th, par 4, 395 from back, 320 from front; dog-leg right to a hidden green.
Distance/Par Back Tees: 2,755 yards/par 35
Distance/Par Front Tees: 2,154 yards/par 36
No. 1 stroke hole: 3rd, par 4, 391 yards from back tees; valley in front on the tee box; blind shot onto green with second shot.
Pine Valley Golf Links, Pelham, N.H.
Distance/Par Back Tees: 3,015 yards/par 36
Distance/Par Front Tees: 2,675 yards/par 35
No. 1 stroke hole: 15th, par 5; dog-leg right; ponds and trouble on left; tee shot must clear trees on corner to have clear shot toward elevated green.
Quail Ridge CC, Acton
Distance/Par Back Tees: 3,315 yards/par 35
Distance/Par Front Tees: 2,412 yards/par 35
Signature hole: 4th, par 3; tee shot has to carry over water to a well-bunkered green.
No. 1 stroke hole: 3rd, par 4, 431 yards from back; narrow and challenging tee shot; water to the left of the green; second shot is all carry uphill.
Swanson Meadows GC, Billerica
Distance/Par Back Tees: 2,243 yards/par 32
Distance/Par Front Tees: 1,829 yards/par 32
Signature hole: 7th, par 3, 130 yards; hit over water to a shallow green; bunker to the left of the green and mounds behind.
No. 1 stroke hole: 3rd, par 4, 350 yards; narrow fairway with bunkers on the right side; green tucked in behind a bunker; left of fairway is all woods.
Distance/Par Back Tees: 2,632 yards/par 33
Distance/Par Front Tees: 2,393 yards/par 33
Signature hole: 9th, par 3, 150 from blues, 127 from whites; hole faces clubhouse and is adjacent to a pond; very scenic.
No. 1 stroke hole: 6th, par 5, 477 from blues, 452 from whites; straight fairway, slightly downhill to large green; pine trees to right of fairway; hole is strategically sandtrapped.
Distance/Par Back Tees: 2,660 yards
Distance/Par Front Tees: 2,123 yards
No. 1 stroke hole: 4th, par 5, 530 yards from back; par 5 with trouble left in the form of trees; hole gets tighter as you get closer to the well-bunkered small green.
Whip-Poor-Will GC, Hudson, N.H.
Distance/Par Back Tees: 3,200 yards/par 36
Distance/Par Front Tees: 2,800 yards/par 36
Signature hole: 9th, par 3, 165 yards; bunkers surround green; pond to the left of tee box.
No. 1 stroke hole: 6th, par 4; long hole with trees on both sides all the way along.