I have often thought that if I had a career in insurance (Aetna, Cigna, The Hartford) or aerospace (Pratt & Whitney, Hamilton Sundstrand, Kaman) and had to fly often to Hartford, CT, for meetings, I would have brought my golf clubs. Within just 10 miles of Bradley International Airport are three outstanding public golf courses, two of which I have reviewed here – Keney Park in Hartford and Gillette Ridge in Bloomfield. (I consider myself lucky to live within 20 minutes of each course.) Every bit the equal in layout, conditions and reasonable green fees is Wintonbury Hills, also in Bloomfield.
I play Wintonbury at least a few times each year, and although the first three holes on both nines are repetitive, that is about its only flaw. Designed by Pete Dye’s architects for reportedly just $1 as a favor to a Bloomfield acquaintance, the course features just about everything you would expect from a modern New England layout, including sloping fairways, significant if not severe changes in elevation, standard Dye bunkers, including potholes, and subtly sloping greens that make chipping and pitch shots the most challenging category of shot-making during most rounds.
From the clubhouse, the views are wide open to fairways and large greens in the distance, and the panoramic view suggests links land. But once you reach the edges of the course, the holes thread through trees and around a few ponds and marshland hazards. The course measures less than 6,700 yards from the tips and less than 6,300 from the men’s tees, but when the wind blows, as it does a lot in spring and fall and just before summer squalls, the course's ratings and slopes seem a tad conservative, especially with pins just behind a number of false fronts (ratings are listed after this review). Although few of the 125 bunkers are in play off the tee for better golfers, those around the green are well placed, many built into greenside hillocks.
The round starts off mildly, with a straight on par 4 of modest length with deep heather and the Connecticut version of gorse past the rough on the left and a smallish green that slopes away from a missed shot on the right and beyond. The fun starts at #2, an uphill par four where a shot up the right side will provide the most level lie and a fair look at the green. Hit the middle of the fairway and the ball will bound down to the left, the lowest point on the fairway; miss the fairway there and the blind uphill shot from thickish rough will make a green in regulation difficult.
The back nine, as mentioned, starts off almost the same way, with a straight on par 4 exactly parallel to #1, followed by another par 4 that shares the same hill with #2. Nothing wrong with any of these four holes but one wonders if the goal was to make starting a round on either nine a similar experience. (The 3rd and 12th holes are both downhill par 3s, extending the similarity of the starts.) The repetition seems unbecoming of a creative master like Dye.
A round at Wintonbury combines equal parts challenge and fun, sometimes in equal measure on the same hole. On #5, one of my favorites, you tee off on the short par 4 (327 yards from the “men’s” tees) from one of the highest points on the course, down to a slight doglegged fairway (to the right) spread out below you. A well-struck driver on such a short hole will leave a wedge, possibly a sand wedge, if you avoid the bunker in the driving area on the right edge of the fairway and don’t overcook your ball to the left of the cart path and into the long heather. A high-lofted approach is almost mandatory as the small green is severely contoured and moves from front left to rear right. The play off the tee is definitely left side of the fairway.
The 14th hole, a long par 4, is justifiably the #1 handicap hole on the course, in part because of its length but also because the landing area is narrow and a severe slope from high left can propel the ball across the fairway and into the rough. (When the course is soggy and carts are not permitted on the fairways, the walk down that slope requires the assistance of your chosen club as a cane.) The green slopes left to right, and any shot played to the middle of the putting surface often bounds off the green and down a slope on the right side. The ideal play is to the front left edge of the green, but if the ball is coming out of the rough from off the fairway, it will run through the green to the back, and you will consider yourself lucky with a chip from there.
The par 3s are among the easiest holes at Wintonbury except, at least for me, the 9th, with the least deep green on the course and nasty bunkers guarding the front. When the pin is anywhere near the front of the green, you are lucky to be putting from the back, a distance generally of less than 30 feet. The short 9th can make or break your front nine.
For those who need the practice range before a round of golf, Wintonbury Hills' is up the road, a little too far for a cart ride. Compensation is in the practice green complex just behind the clubhouse, which includes a few sand traps as well as an undulating surface that previews the greens on the course. Wintonbury also permits chipping to the practice green.
The folks who run the desk in the pro shop and those who serve you in the excellent pub at Wintonbury are friendly and helpful. The golf course is less than 20 minutes from the airport, and if you have just one day to play, I suggest either Wintonbury or Keney Park (call ahead for both), itself less than 20 minutes down Interstate 91 from the airport.
If you have three days to play golf in Hartford, add Gillette Ridge in Bloomfield to make a trifecta – and consider yourself lucky.