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New England at the Turn

No. 17 is the requisite "controversial" hole--a par-5 that favors right-to-left shots off the tee then boxes out the third shot by means of a large maple growing from an unmowed knob in the middle of the fairway about 110 yards from t he green. It serves as a reminder that architects love to build par-5s in which the third shot can't be played effectively without some degree of advance planning back on the tee. This hole, whether it accomplishes that or not, adds character to the club's lyrical back nine. And there's a story behind the 150-yard markers: A group of Crumpin-Fox regulars, seized by altruism one late-season weekend, gathered and stacked the local fieldstone, a variety of schist that cracks up into rectilinear pieces. The result is a set of homely four-foot totems right at the 150's. Scores tallied and the beer in Zeke's Lounge duly sampled, we began the 50-mile trip along Route 2 to Williamstown, which took us past cornfields, tourist-cabin colonies and trading posts with comically massive carved Mohawks out front. Daylight lingered and we felt that autumnal urge to drink in scenery, lifting our gazes past where the eye usually thinks to look. Heading west, the landscape rises off th e peneplain into a spruce and balsam forest with gorges and swift rivers on one side, steep cliffsides on the other. Abruptly it all ends, at a highway oddity called the Hairpin Turn. Slowing to negotiate it, you see the industrial town of North Adams spread out in a valley below. A few miles beyond it sits the campus-dominated village of Williamstown.

Our guest room at The Orchards resembled a luxury apartment, with paneled doors and a subtle umber decor accented by hounds-to-the-hunt lithographs. It was spotlessly clean and offered just that measure of excess--bed too big, towels too thick, lighting too subtle--that a New England spirit can abide. This is a compact, in-town resort with a well-tended central courtyard, small exercise suite and a private little in-ground pool. The Orchards attracts a far-flung clientele, and dinner there was both soothing and stimulating. It began with an amusee, compliments of the chef, consisting of duck breast slivers with lentil s and phyllo dough. The tomato-mozzarella salad was ingeniously presented--stacked and cut into tranches and drizzled with a balsamic vinaigrette. Saltimbocca of calves liver was available and even tempting, but an apres-golf dinner of grilled chicken with sesame and rosemary, accompanied by asparagus and diced tomatoes over rice, suited the moment.

Breakfast at The Orchards must be equally enjoyable, but having never before played Taconic Golf Club I checked out early and zipped across campus to the links. My college years had been spent at the least prestigious of the Little Three colleges (which are Williams, Amherst, and my alma mater, Wesleyan), and I suppose I always longed--part of me, anyway--to be a Williams golf letterman, spotted on campus with my nicked Wilson Staff irons, my country-club swing and roman numerals after my name. Ten strokes fewer on my handicap and 100 points more on the math SAT would have done it. Taconic's pedigree is eviden t throughout, from the charming black-and-white framed team pictures on a section of the grillroom wall to the rich acoustics that make well-struck shots resound among the conifers and hardwoods. The clubhouse is a neighborly, white clapboard building with a blue-and-white-striped awning covering its spacious flagstone patio. In the old tradition, first tee, practice green, golf shop and sitting area all commingle, with one or two shade trees looming above them.

"Golf course is easy," explained one of the three seniors I played with.

"It's the greens that get you," said one of the others.

As you look from a distance, Taconic's fairways show the beautiful, faint wrinkles of venerable age. But striding them, you see they mow perfectly and provide only subtly uneven lies. The greens are sized in fine proportion to their holes, several with "false fronts" that send your approach shot back like a bum check. The course is loaded with memorable natura l features, including a Monterey-style barranca that separates the second tee from its fairway and a steep cliff that falls from th e left side of No. 12th fairway. The eighth tee offers a view of a Berkshire monadnock called The Dome, located over the state line in Pownal, Vt. Most tees and greens are elevated, but all by differing proportions. Walking toward the 12th green, with its one deep, big-shouldered bunker right-front of the green, I thought of the MacKenzie edict, "few bunkers, strategically placed." Two holes later, on the tee of the par-3 14th, that theory was confounded by the little city of bunkers sculpted wonderfully up either side of the promontory where the green is perched.

Herb and Ralph beat Al and me two ways, though we won a carryover greenie. Afterward, there was a pitcher of beer in the simple, comfortable confines of the Taconic grill, while the staff sent off a women's member-guest tournament. Ralph has seen autumn cover the course perhaps 70 times, and he's only thankful his putting stroke is so much better now that it was three or four years ago.

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