The scorecard says a lot about what is in store for most golfers at Jay Peak, no matter their handicap or the tees they choose to play.
Scratch golfers who play from the tips at just over 6,900 yards will face a 75.2 course rating that rivals some of the toughest layouts in the country. Bethpage Black on Long Island is generally acknowledged as close to the toughest public course layout in the country and has a rating of 77.5; yet that routing plays to a total of 7,465 yards, more than 500 yards longer than Jay Peak from the tips. More appropriate for most golfers – those with a 10 handicap and higher -- are the slope rating numbers. Bethpage Black’s 6,220-yard layout carries a slope of 130; Jay Peak’s blue tees are just 100 yards longer at 6,330 yards in total and show a slope rating of 141. I played Jay’s white tees at “just” 5,720 and its slope was a whopping 138. Even at a mere 5,100 yards, Jay Peak will still punish the higher handicapper with a slope rating of 128.
I wouldn’t recommend the Jay Peak golf course to a 20-handicap player, but for those with the ability to hit the ball straight and to chip and putt well, the layout provides gorgeous views, excellent conditions and extra touches (at least on the day I played). Yes, a round at Jay is exhausting but it is rewarding as well.
Why is Jay Peak so tough, even at the short distance of 5,720 yards? First, the course was not designed for those who hit the ball a modest distance, say 200 yards off the tee box. I found myself after decent drives faced with a few 200-yard shots over hazards; for me, those days are over. Still, it was frustrating to have to hit a 9-iron layup shot on one hole, and a couple of similar layups on others. Menacing fairway bunkers that would not come into play for a 200 yard drive from the blue tees (6,330 total yards) were very much in play from the white tees.
The layout at Jay Peak starts out challenging and seems to increase in degree of difficulty until the 18th, which rivals the challenge of finishing holes at many well-known courses. The first hole, at 349 yards, is of manageable length for someone who can drive a ball 200 yards off the tee. But a string of three bunkers adjoining the right side of the fairway begin 160 yards out and extend, with about 10 yards of rough between them, to about 230 yards from the tee. Trees line the left side of the fairway, creating a narrow landing lane between trouble.
You will get the idea of the rest of the layout from the photo gallery of all 18 holes that I have included but suffice to say that the Jay Peak’s layout ends with a bang. The 18th is a “late” dogleg left, its turn toward the green less than 140 yards out from the pin. To get close to that point, you must thread your drive between a bunker on the left that extends from 174 to 207 yards from the white tees, and a row of bunkers on the right that begin from about 190 yards out to 220 yards. Assuming a safe landing, the approach of around 140 yards must negotiate a bunker guarding the left front of the shillelagh-shaped green – low and narrow at the front, higher and wider at the back. (On the day I played, the pin was devilishly front and left.)
Like many mountain courses, Jay Peak requires at least a couple of rounds to understand the best aiming lines, even though designer Graham Cooke avoided blind shots (and cart paths that cross fairways). On the shortest par 4 on the course, the 15th, rock outcroppings in the fairway force some extra thinking about positioning the tee shot. Longer hitters don’t have to worry about the obstacles as a drive from the white tees of 210 yards will carry the boulder directly in line with the green. But I didn’t want to chance being blocked by the other boulder, middle left in the fairway; I lofted a faded drive to the right and short of it. (I never found the ball and think it might have plugged in the wet turf.)
The greens at Jay were wonderful – large and smooth, with some challenging pin positions, many of them just below or above subtle ridge lines. They were medium fast, but slower than the practice green. It took me a while to get used to the speed (although it hardly mattered given my ridiculously bad putting stroke on this day). If there was one “break” you get at Jay Peak, it is in chipping. Most of the pin positions were in places that, if you just missed the green, even on the short sides, you had a reasonable chance at recovery. Although it had rained the night before -- I was forced to keep the cart on the cart paths -- balls generally bounded at least 15 feet beyond their pitch marks.
You might have the impression that my round at Jay Peak might be the last I ever play there. On the contrary, I hope to get back there in the coming week. I played lousy enough to inspire me with confidence for improvement the next time. And as indicated, Jay is definitely a course that must be played more than once to start to get the hang of its subtleties. For the scenery alone, the course gets an A+; I can’t remember a single fairway that was “buried” out of view of the commanding mountains. The fairways were wet, and even with that, I needed to roll my ball over only a couple of times. It will be a less exhausting experience when I can drive a cart to my ball, rather than walking up and down hills, often as much as 50 yards each way. (The GPS system on the carts provide distances to front, back and middle of greens, but no other information; the yardage book you can purchase in the pro shop helps.)
As if to neutralize some of the frustrations of poorly hit shots, the Jay Peak crew provides pleasant distractions. In celebration of the season, every tee marker and the surrounding landscape was festooned with Halloween characters – a witch here, a goblin there, etc. The displays were quite elaborate, and I asked in the pro shop how long they would be up.
“Well,” the attendant told me, “we close for the season on October 12.” Too bad, but at an elevation of around 2,000 feet and at the snowiest location east of the Mississippi River, such an early closing is understandable. Anyway, they have to start preparing for the ski season.
Mother Nature provides the other distractions. The trees were just starting to change colors on the surrounding mountains, and in another week’s time will be ablaze. I hope then to redeem myself on the Jay Peak golf course, but in case not, it should still be a beautiful experience.