East Coast Americans who golf and ski could do no better than New Hampshire. In the winter the White Mountains are C.S. Lewis’s Narnia come to life: from rugged, frigid, nigh-indomitable Cannon Mountain, to chichi Waterville Valley where the Kennedys like to party, to warm, friendly Mount Sunapee, overlooking the glimmering lake of the same name. New Hampshire skiing is world-class, at times every bit the equal of Vermont, and usually at a fraction of the cost.
But New Hampshire golf is severely underrated and underestimated. Donald Ross left a dominant footprint in the state, for example. Alex Findlay as well. And Boston’s favorite son of a golf course architect, Brian Silva, has had some man-sized hits with both original designs and restoration/renovation projects.
No discussion of the best courses in New Hampshire is complete without Newbury’s Baker Hill Golf Club, in the shadow of the aforementioned Mount Sunapee and adjacent to the lapping shores of Lake Sunapee’s ice-blue water, fed for long millennia by frigid underground springs. Without question, it’s one of golf architect Rees Jones’s strongest original designs anywhere – uneven lies everywhere you look, brilliant, treacherous bunkering, and grand, wide, sweeping fairways. With lines of charm on nearly every tee box. Baker Hill is a roller-coaster and a rollicking one at that. You can blast driver all day long, but your second shots must be precise or you’re scrambling frantically. And Lord help you if you get out of position because you’ll often face a shot played over hellscape of shaggy mounds and cavernous bunkers to a tucked pin…and it’s all carry.
“The first word that comes to mind is ‘dramatic,’” explained Jones. “I was awestruck by the property when I first saw it. The views of the lake and the way the land rolls are majestic.”
The course opened in 2001, but Rees, his former design associate Keith Evans, (now deceased, sadly), and Baker Hill Head Golf Course Superintendent Bob Turcotte began growing grass on the golf course as far back as 1999. Even back then, they had to know, just walking the property and reveling in the terrain, that they were building a solid candidate for one of the best golf courses in the Granite State.
“Rees especially loved the contours of the terrain, so wild and varied. He wanted the course to fit those natural contours and allow for many strategic options on every hole. Those were the marching orders he gave to the builders, and as they had just done a course for him down in New Brunswick, they really produced exactly what he drew up,” explained Turcotte. “It’s a marvelous success – every level of golfer can make their way around, yet it’s supremely challenging to the expert golfer because of the angles and the temptation to go for some of the tougher pins.”
Turcotte, a.k.a. Baker Hill Bob, has been the only head golf course superintendent Baker Hill has ever known, and it’s his wise stewardship and deep acumen at growing grass that makes Baker Hill one of the most impeccably conditioned golf courses anywhere in the northeast. Greens roll perfectly true, and the turfgrass, a fine, Dr. Richard Hurley-created L93, has been the gold standard of the golf industry for the last generation and plays fast and firm.
“We usually stimp them at 10.5-11 for daily play, faster in summer and for tournaments. I don’t ever want or need to trick up the course, 12 is perfect for a big event,” Turcotte noted. “The members love the challenge, and the undulations of these greens are some of the best Rees has ever done anywhere.”
Finally, broad fairways are kept clear of interference from trees, allowing wide air space to play the game and allow for long vistas across the stunning property.
As an aside, Bob has had an interesting career path as a golf course superintendent: he found his niche as an expert at grow-ins and used that expertise as his entrée into various moves up the career ladder.
“I used the grow-in experience as a tool to get new gigs down the line,” he surmised. “It’s an important skill and valuable experience everywhere I’ve gone.”
A lifelong outdoorsman, his path also demonstrates the benefits of delaying college education until getting a clearer idea about a career path.
“I didn’t go to college until I was 23 years old. I worked in shops and mills as a pattern maker for five years,” Turcotte recalls. “But then I decided to heed my Dad’s advice: ‘Stay out of the shops, and go get a career.’ It took five years for me to understand.”
Turcotte started at Paul Smith’s College in idyllic Saranac Lake, New York, next-door neighbor to Lake Placid, the 1980 winter Olympics host city, but soon afterward transferred to UMass Stockbridge’s School of Agriculture and their wildly renowned turfgrass program.
“I love the outdoors and communing with nature – camping and hunting were staples of life from childhood – but I’m also a bit more urban than living in, for instance, alone in the woods in rural northern Maine,” Turcotte stated candidly. “And I really loved golf, and I thought with a little tweaking of my major, I could work in the business of golf and turn my favorite pastime into a living.”
Starting as assistant golf course superintendent at the Donald Ross-designed Portland Country Club, the young father of two girls (Lorissa and Lori) wanted to further his career arc, so he took a grow-in job in North Conway at an Al Zakoris-designed course called Hale’s Location Country Club.
“It was euphoric,” Turcotte reminisced fondly. “Everywhere you looked the views were gorgeous.”
While there for eight years, he fathered another child, a son Lucas, continuing his children’s alliterative names and raising a scion who would follow in his footsteps at Paul Smith’s College and would surpass his father as a golfer.
“I’m not much of a player,” Turcotte laughs candidly. “But I’m much better at growing grass.”
After taking another grow-in project in Goffstown, Turcotte applied for the grow-in position at Baker Hill and has been here ever since, winning the esteem of members and golf industry figures alike over the two decades he’s been there. And no less a personage than Rees Jones himself had, perhaps, the greatest praise of all for the man tasked with preserving and promoting his creation.
“Bob has been there over 20 years, and he’s done great things right from the beginning,” Jones affirmed. “He always has the details fine-tuned, his careful attention brings out the best in the course, and it always looks and plays terrific.”
At the end of next year, Baker Hill Bob will ride off into the sunset, but he leaves with Baker Hill regarded as one of the best-conditioned courses anywhere. The course always looks fantastic, especially in the late afternoon or early morning when the shadows lengthen and dazzling sunrises and sunsets light the mountains and forest aglow with reds and golds. But it plays even better, all of Rees’s ferocious contours and undulations roaring to life and paying fast and firm. Best of all, it plays eminently fair.
“Baker Hill rewards good golf and punishes bad golf, and that’s Rees’s talent, not mine,” said a typically humble Turcotte. “Temptation is the greatest emotion in golf, and Rees lets you succeed or hang yourself. The green sites are breathtaking and challenging, but there is a safe way around as well. Rees is the true artist. All I do is keep a fresh coat of paint on her.”
When not reporting live from major sports championships or researching golf courses for design, value, and excitement, multiple award-winning sportswriter Jay Flemma is an entertainment, Internet, trademark, and banking lawyer from New York. His clients have been nominated for Grammy and Emmy awards, won a Sundance Film Festival Best Director award, performed on stage and screen, and designed pop art for museums and collectors. Twitter @JayGolfUSA