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A Bucket List Day of Golf in Boston

It was one of those dreams that people only have when they need to wake up early for a flight, a bus, a ferry. In my case it was a 6:20 tee time at George Wright Golf Course. When my alarm went off at 4:45 my mind had convinced me I had already missed my tee time and lost the opportunity to play two of the best city munis in the country on the same day.

The rush of adrenaline pulled me out of bed a lot faster than a when a normal day of work is calling at 7am. The sky was still dark outside, and in my preparation I left my clothes for the day (along with extra socks and second shirt) in the living room where I’d change so I wouldn’t wake my wife. It was one of those “pick your clothes out the night before” rounds of golf.

The idea to play both George Wright and Franklin Park in a day came about last October when new friend and podcast guest Kevin Van Cleef said it was an item on his golf bucket list. The idea, like all great ideas, stuck with us. We stayed in touch and every now and then we’d remind each other of our plan for a day of local golf decadence in Dorchester and Jamaica Plain.

It’s one thing to talk about 36 holes of muni golf in Boston, it’s another thing to make it happen. Foolishly, we didn’t take into account the challenge of locking up tee times during golf’s high-season. So like Ocean’s Eleven, we needed the smart, well-connected guy to break us into this ironically exclusive ring of public golf. Thankfully, we knew just the guy, Sampson is a season pass holder for the Boston golf courses, and he plays enough that he could leverage his season pass, charm, and connections to lock up a 6:20 tee time at George Wright and an 11:30 time a Franklin Park. Getting two tee times on a Sunday morning in July is the equivalent of securing Bruce Springsteen tickets and then turning around and resurrecting the Beatles for one last show in your living room.

We had our third man for the day.

The internet is a crazy place, but over the last 15 months I have met golf sickos like myself who are willing to wake up early or chase the sunset for the game they love. The fourth member of this muni foursome, Jed, happens to live a block from me; it took an introduction from Kevin to actually meet him last winter (he also came on my podcast). He’s a Plymouth CC evangelist and the club’s historian, which means he’s loved Donald Ross and golf course architecture. Unlike how you might picture a golf course historian, Jed drags down the average age of any Donald Ross Society meeting by 25 years. He’s also a very good golfer, and as a bonus, he could drive me to the course.

At 6:20 on Sunday morning we were standing at George Wright with the sun peaking over the trees and dewy grass ready for sweeping. The clubhouse at George Wright befits a course that would host a major championship. When plans were initially made to build George Wright Golf Course it was going to be a private club - the economy was roaring and The Great Gatsby was more real life than required high school fiction.

However, The Great Depression put a stop to George Wright becoming a private playground for Boston’s elite. The massive, brick clubhouse sitting atop a hill is a reminder of the opulence of the time. A small function hall sits in the middle of the building befitting Game of Thrones, with wooden beams and white walls. The famous George Wright Golf Course sign hangs at one end above a fireplace. Footfalls and clanging clubs echo in the empty space. On one end of the hall is a door to a simple pro shop and at the other end is a bar with memorabilia on the walls and along the bar in a haphazard, frat house manner. When we swung through at 8:20am while making the turn, the TV had some generic Rom-Com playing. It was dark and claustrophobic, but bursting with character and the smells of hot dogs and breakfast and stale beer.

George Wright clubhouse

The golf course matches the clubhouse. Opulent, yet with that public golf course fuzziness on the edges - stones in bunkers, irrigation work in the middle of a fairway, and soggy sections. In this neighborhood of simple houses, it’s a place that seems larger than it’s surroundings. I recently exchanged emails with a man who grew up across the street from George Wright in the 1930s and his father and uncles sold coffee and homemade donuts to the men working on the course in order to keep their house during The Great Depression. The first two holes are a reminder of where you are, as houses and backyards line the fairways and look over the opening two greens; above-ground pools and decks and play sets and raised garden bed filled the yards. There isn’t much elegance in those yards, they’re similar to the clubhouse’s bar and grill, with just a few too many things stacked on top of each other.

The first two holes are merely a gateway into the the magic that is George Wright. Standing on the third tee box it’s hard not to feel like you’ve stepped through the back of a massive wardrobe and into a completely different world. The par 5 climbs steadily up a hill; the fairway is built like a halfpipe, designed to catch most wayward shots and funnel them back onto the fairway.

3rd Hole at George Wright

I was the only one of the group that had never played George Wright before. However, Kevin was experiencing it in a completely new way, as he decided to spend his day playing hickory golf clubs from the late 19th and early 20th century. Kevin would identify himself as an intense golfer, he loves the game to his core and has turned it into a profession - he joined the Old Sandwich grounds crew last summer and has worked his way to an assistant superintendent role. The hickories are a way for him to reconnect with the game and lower his expectations from shot to shot and hole to hole. There was a moment during the day at Franklin Park where Kevin had a tricky downhill chip out of the rough. He left the ball on the slope in the rough, and his reaction was a simple, “Fuck.” But it wasn’t one of those expletives where the “F” is held and the “ck” might send the birds from the trees. Instead it was a sigh, more dejection than anger, like when you think you’ve found a piece to a 1,000 piece puzzle and try to squeeze it into place but it just doesn’t fit. Kevin went back to the pile of puzzle pieces and his next shot nuzzled itself to tap-in range, a perfect fit. That moment at Franklin Park encapsulated the hickory experience. It’s frustrating and difficult, but the expectations are lower.

As we made our way around George Wright, Jed and I snapped pictures of various holes and design features while Sampson filled us in on the renovations that have been done recently. The most striking were the connections from greens to tees. The par 3 fourteenth green had a shaved area that led directly to the 15th tee box. The 16th and 17th holes had the same feature, it’s wonderful touch at any course and adds a bit of class. I was also rewarded by the shaved grass on 14, when I rolled in a birdie putt from closer to the 15th tee than the edge of the green. The setting on the 17th tee box is one of the best spots on the course. The left edge of the 16th green sits about four yards from the 17th tee box. It’s delightfully claustrophobic.

George Wright is a big ball park full of blind tee shots, tall trees, extreme slopes, and great greens. Rock outcroppings sit on the edge of numerous holes, reminding the golfer of the extensive explosives that were needed to clean out the property to build a golf course. When it was built in the 1930s, GW was the most expensive course ever built. The right side of the par 3 fourteenth hole had a graveyard of rocks that had been cleared out during recent work on the course. The rocks along the golf course add a dramatic flair, as do some of the rock walls and stairs leading golfers from greens to tees.

The set of par 3s are solid, albeit the choice in club for each hole was the basically the same. Some variation always makes it a bit more interesting. The 17h hole is probably the standout of the bunch. A downhill mid-iron shot to a skinny green with a mean nose-shaped slope on the back edge that did a lovely job of protecting the pin on this particular morning.

17th hole at George Wright

As we waited for our hot dogs on the expansive patio after our round, we looked around and wished that the trees were a bit more sparse out on the golf course. Not for the sake of making the shots and holes easier, we didn’t find ourselves negotiating overhanging limbs or poorly placed trees meant to create strategy; instead, thinning out the trees would allow for the land to really show out. The ninth and fifth holes run adjacent to each other, split by a ridge that we could see as we dined on one of the best hotdogs any of us had ever had. The views from the patio and across the course would be more dramatic with more views of the course.

Opening up some of the holes would also give George Wright more memorable holes instead of memorable shots. There are a bevy of wonderful, challenging shots throughout the course. Some of the best shots to hit on the course are the tee shot on the par 3 fourth, the second shot into 7, the approach into 9, the approach into 11, the approach into the massive uphill 16th (I got hints of Wachusett’s short, wonderful 16th hole), and the tee shot on par 3 seventeenth. With all those shots, there just aren’t a lot of complete holes out there. This opinion could certainly change after a few more rounds, but after one round it seemed the blind tee shots make it tough to identify any exceptional holes.

The hint of claustrophobia that we all felt navigating the tree lined corridors of George Wright was fully realized when we scrambled to Franklin Park’s first tee and soaked up its sprawling, open, rolling hills.

Donald Ross’ expertise shines through as a golf course designer when playing George Wright and Franklin Park, but when they’re mashed into the same day of golf, it hit all of us directly on the head as we walked off the first tee. We could see five or six holes from our vantage point, golfers crawling like ants up and down various hillocks searching for golf balls. Franklin Park is not devoid of trees, but it’s an open space that has sections that dive into the trees and then spit you back out in the center of the property where the majority of holes reside.

3rd hole at Franklin Park

Due to its intended purpose as a public course, Franklin Park is very much in a public area. Whereas George Wright is tucked into a quiet piece of land befitting what was supposed to be a private course. Franklin Park is wedged between three busy, winding roads. The Franklin Park Zoo is across the street, and the area is generally bustling with activity. The car park is often spotted with folks hanging out and playing cards, drinking beers, or preparing for a walk through the main section of the park. The first two holes play along Circuit Drive, where mothers and fathers pull their kid out of car seats after finally finding parking for the zoo. The walking path separates the road from the golf course, so non-golfers act as defacto galleries, especially on the third tee box when it feels like an ill-timed backswing might hit an unknowing pedestrian. There are even stories of kids on bikes riding by and scooping up unattended golf bags. The vibe is enhanced by neighborhood music blasting - reggaeton and R&B rule the airwaves. It drowned out Kevin’s speaker at times, Steely Dan and Tom Petty were no match for Daddy Yankee and Shaggy.

Franklin Park is the type of place where after playing 18 holes in the morning and sweating through your clothes, you could change your shirt and socks on the second tee without a glance from anyone or fear of admonishment. In some respects, it’s how I picture St. Andrews or other Scottish courses that inhabit land that is consumed by the golfing and non-golfing public, alike. The lines between the sacred and profane are blurry, and it’s charming to play courses that don’t use fences to keep peering, curious eyes away. Instead, someone could sit on a bench and watch golfers pass by all day - golfers of different size, shapes, ages, races. Franklin Park highlights the diversity that exists in Boston and within the game. Sadly, there are moments that highlight the inequity in Boston, too.

As we made our way around the course, we enjoyed the freedom to swing a bit harder off the tee without fear of hunting through dense woods for our balls. Some of the fescue was penal, but I think we all managed our way around without losing a single ball. Sampson took driver off the deck on the par 5 twelfth, it didn’t go as planned; his ball careened into a dense wooded area that was kindly marked as a water hazard. However, he followed a small trail into the dark wilderness and bashed his ball out and kept on playing.

Great golf courses have an ebb and flow to them. Golf becomes boring if you have the same views and similar holes over and over again. Franklin Park ebbs and flows nicely. The opening six holes wander the open section of land, climbing and falling over rolling hills. Then holes 7-9 have a bit more structure and framing to them. The seventh tee shot requires the tee shot to negotiate, or fly over, a water hazard and a copse of trees (and some grazing Canada Geese). The eighth is a mid-to-short iron par 3. The only one of that distance on the course, and then the ninth has a playground running along the right side of the hole, with trees protecting any gallivanting children. Climbing the hill to the tenth tee brings you back out into the open expanse of Franklin Park with an uphill climb to a wonderfully protected green. The eleventh tee shot is from another high point, but the shot dives downhill and then into a tree protected green.

However, the walk from the eleventh green to the twelfth green is where Ross tightens the golfer’s chest. The twelfth hole is a monster, curling uphill along some heavy woods that grow denser the closer you get to the green. Accuracy is suddenly more important than it’s been at any point in the round.

Considering this was our 30th hole of the day, the climb and the required shots were even harder to muster. But in true Ross style, after the long par 5 eleventh and the monstrous twelfth, he puts a wedge in your hand on the quaint downhill par 3 thirteenth.

The par threes at Franklin Park outpace those at George Wright for one main reason - variation. Franklin Park’s short holes required four very different clubs and were different from a design perspective, too. Some played downhill, the fifteenth at Franklin Park plays uphill and the green is blind from the tee. Whereas George Wright’s par threes all ask the same questions and play over a dip in land between the tee and the green. George Wright’s 17th is a great hole, but it would be made even better if it’s fellow short holes weren’t its fraternal twin.

Even after the early wake up and thousands of steps, the last few holes didn’t seem like enough. We were gaining some steam and enthusiasm for the game. We had found silly ways to distract ourselves like marathoners negotiating the middle miles of a race. White Claw flavors were a popular topic, and the surly women at Franklin Park selling water, booze, and snacks accepted our patronage with a slight scowl, the kind of scowl every golfer thinks they can break through by the day’s third encounter (we couldn’t). White Claws, it turns out, go down rather easily. But there are some flavors that are better suited for 36 holes of enjoyment and others that are better if you’re having just one (or two… because no one really has one White Claw, right?). The lime flavor seemed to be the choice for a day of drinking on the course. Watermelon seemed to be the consensus choice as the worst flavor of the bunch. There was no choice at Franklin Park, like lottery numbers, the White Claws were simply pulled out of the cart without any discussion around what flavors we’d actually like.

It was just another slice of Boston out at Franklin Park.

I was personally playing my fourth round in three days, so I should have been dragging, but I wasn’t. Sure, there were some loose, tired swings, but when we made the turn onto Franklin Park’s back nine, Jed said he was sad that we had reached the fourth quarter of our game of golf for the day. That feeling persisted as we rounded the bend and headed for home on the 18th tee. We all slapped a drive to the bottom of the hill on the short par 5. And then our balls made their way up to the front of the green. My least favorite shot is a 20 yard pitch shot, I hadn’t had one all day until the 36th hole. I quickly chili-dipped my first attempt about three yards in front of me and then hit my second onto the green. Kevin’s ball wasn’t far from mine. He struck his shot more crisply than I did, even with a 100 year old club, and it bounced onto the green and started rolling on a nice line at a wonderful pace. We all stopped to watch and talk to Kevin’s ball as it neared the hole, “Go in,” I said. And low and behold, Kevin’s last shot of the day was a pitch-in for birdie on the 36th hole. A couple guys having beers on the patio cheered and we all high-fived.

After 36 holes and hundreds of golf shots between the four of us, that was the first shot to go in from off the green. After a long day of bashing those hickories around (and doing it incredibly well), the golf gods tossed Kevin, and the rest of us, a delicious dessert to cap off the day.

Sixth hole at Franklin Park

The patio beer (four Red Stripes) following the round is always a good one, and after 36 holes it came with a lot of incredulous sighs and grateful pulls on the Jamaican beer as we sat in the afternoon summer sun. Obviously, the topic of which course we liked better came up, but it went away rather quickly because at this point it didn’t really matter. We had done something that was just a throw-away idea last October, but we gathered a crack squad to make it happen. And we did it all without having to worry about the weather or the sun setting. It all came together perfectly.

We walked through the busy parking lot and past four guys killing the day in a different way than we just had - sitting at a folding table playing cards, drinking beers, and smoking. Maybe some day they’ll look up from their pocket aces and wonder about that golf course over yonder. Maybe they already have. Maybe they never will. The important part is that the option is there. Tucked inside Boston’s city limits are two courses that any curious person can play or just sit and watch four crazy guys go by on their way to playing 36 holes and debating golf course design and White Claw flavors.

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