Written by David Gould, a former Executive Editor of Travel + Leisure Golf who has authored several books on golf history and course architecture.
On a map of New England you notice Vermont’s silhouette—narrow at the bottom and widening toward the top. That’s how it feels to any fall-foliage seeker motoring north, as the road opens up and the scale of the topography increases. If rather than drive you’ve booked a Tradewind flight—a private charter to the classic Vermont town of Stowe—the sense of anticipation will be similar and your views (from above) naturally grander.
Come autumn, trees and bushes here controvert the Green Mountain State nickname, flaring into yellow, orange, and red. Arriving to view the fiery results are vacationers of every sort, and yet it’s golfers who get the best of it. “Where you want to be is on an elevated tee somewhere along Route 100 in the first week of October,” says Vermont golf expert Jim Remy, “with the maples coming to peak and sunlight flooding the fairways.”
Remy was a hotshot ski-racer kid who left his hometown in central Massachusetts after graduation and settled in the Vermont town of Ludlow, working at golf courses in the summer while waiting for the double-diamond trails to turn white again.
Despite not treating golf as his number one sport, Remy honed his game, turned professional, mastered the nuances of the golf business, rose ever higher in his peers’ estimation, and wound up as president of the PGA of America, a massive organization with 27,000 member pros and hundreds of millions in sponsorship contracts to manage. When his years of constant events and travel as a PGA officer ended, Jim was even more of a Vermonter than when he started.
“This is a part of the world where people tend not to overdo things,” Remy explains. “While golf was growing at an unhealthy rate elsewhere, Vermont was adding just the right type of courses and resorts, in just the right locations—mostly up and down Route 100, the old ‘Skier’s Highway.’ ”
Whatever Vermont highway you travel, you may see ‘Moose Crossing’ signs, but you don’t ever see billboards. Likewise, you see very few big-box stores. All part of not overdoing things—commercialism particularly. But the quaint towns come along reliably every 20 minutes or so, with their general stores, craft barns, antique shops, glassblowing studios, wood stove suppliers, and other “country things,” as Robert Frost referred to them.
Remy’s base of operations, going back 20 years, is Okemo Mountain Resort and the Okemo Valley Golf Club. In 1997, the couple that owned the resort (the Mullers, who own it still), hired Remy to assemble a team that would build and manage a first-class golf amenity, making Okemo a four-season force to be reckoned with. Twice this decade, Okemo Valley has been anointed by Golf Digest as the Best Public Course in the state, and it has hosted major regional tournaments like the Vermont PGA and the New England PGA Senior Championship.
“It’s got a beautiful collection of par-3 holes,” says Remy, “and par-5s with a lot risk-versus-reward choices for the golfer to make.” At plenty of spots the errant shot bounces back into play, preserving the enjoyment factor—this on a course built at a time when brutal difficulty was in fashion across the golf landscape.
Okemo is nearly on the opposite, or southern, end of Route 100 from your Tradewind-served town of Stowe, where you find the fairways of The Golf Course at Stowe Mountain Club, a high-country layout designed by golf polymath Bob Cupp and built a dozen years ago. Vermont’s highest peaks, Mt. Mansfield and a neighboring bump called The Chin, are in full view for golfers nearly throughout the round. The course is a wonder of engineering, the way its fairways have been ramped onto hillsides and its greens perched on precipices. Pick the right afternoon and this place offers as much visual beauty as one can take and still swing a club.
To play Vermont National Country Club, located west of Stowe in South Burlington, you have to be a private-club member elsewhere. Have your own club’s professional call ahead and set things up so pay a Reciprocal Guest fee, then take your shots at this Jack Nicklaus-designed course that seems eminently playable but can very easily wind up playing you. The layout was carefully routed in respect of prevailing winds, which in the meadow-like confines of the Champlain Valley are dependable. Vermont National has 17 holes that run north-south and just one, the 10th, oriented east-west.
There is enough variety and novelty—a split fairway on No. 3, a shared green for holes 10 and 15—to make the course seem like a charmer rather than the taskmaster it really is. Between fairways of the early holes are lively swaths of bottlebrush, goldenrod, and even thick stands of cattail.
Rutland Country Club, a citadel of Vermont golf history, looks and feels like a private enclave but opens its first tee to anyone who calls in advance and covers its $80 green fees. The ancient layout has good bones and fine character throughout. It opened in 1896 as a nine-holer and was expanded to 18 in 1928 by the under-appreciated course architect Wayne Stiles. With greens that are smooth and gospel-true—but only lightly contoured—it’s a course where you could show up with a hitchy putting stroke and perhaps make it well again.
No. 6 is where RCC begins doling out the distant views of Killington Peak, Ram’s Head, and all the various high points to the east. Putting out on the sixth you are soothed by the sound of a nearby falls. Other than a short, deep plunge to the green of the par-3 15th, the inward nine climbs steadily up the ridge until you hole out on lofty No. 16. From there it is down toward the creek again before a testy par-4 finishing hole with a curling fairway and a tucked green.
With not too much travel time in between, you can play your next day’s round at Green Mountain National, which cuts merrily through noble woodland and packs a great variety of shotmaking challenges into its 6,500 yards. Course architect Gene Bates laid out his No. 8 hole at Green Mountain National as a bite-it-off dogleg to the left that punishes the greedy. On No. 16, you blast down a hill then have to thread your approach into a well-guarded green; it’s like a ski run you’ll want to turn around and scoot down again.
These courses all come with a nod of approval from our guide, Jim Remy, as do many smaller, lesser-known layouts—many of them family-owned. “You can take your autumn vacation here and divide it between the courses that are elite and the ones that are more humble,” he advises. “Whichever you choose on a given day, it’s still Vermont.”