Published October 04. 2010 4:00AM Updated October 04. 2010 7:32PM
Groton - On a recent sunny fall afternoon, a cool breeze and sight of the sparkling Thames River greeted golfers emerging from the cart path tunnel that crosses under Eastern Point Road.
A ferry headed upriver to unload passengers. A pleasure boat raced through the choppy waters. A flock of birds soared toward the shoreline. The smell of sea water was in the air.
For one soothing moment, the spectacular postcard view at Shennecossett Golf Course can make a golfer forget about the course's ball-eating fescue and tricky winds.
"It's a beautiful distraction," said Tim Castleberry of Groton. "It really is."
Considered one of the top public courses in the state, Shennecossett enhanced its image when it built three holes - No. 15, No. 16 and No. 17 - with the Thames River as the backdrop. The renovation was a result of a land swap between the Town of Groton and Pfizer Inc. in the late 1990s.
The addition continues to draw rave reviews from golf magazines and golfers who come from near and far to play the Groton course.
"Everybody that comes here wants to play the holes on the water," assistant pro Casey Roan said. "It has been in national magazines and local magazines. Those holes have added quite a bit to the golf course.
"Who doesn't want to play golf holes right on the Long Island Sound? It's just gorgeous down there."
One day last week David Vance of Mystic walked down the 16th fairway on the course's signature hole that features a slightly elevated green located within a chip shot of the Thames River.
Vance, who was playing Shennecossett for just the second time, soaked in the view before heading to the 17th tee box.
"You get a little focused on golf and you need to take time to appreciate the view," Vance said. "This is as pretty a hole as you're going to find on the East Coast."
Does the view help him forget about his bad shots?
"Maybe for a few seconds," he said.
Even the Shennecossett members never grow tired of the water-view holes.
"They're awesome," said David Seney of Ledyard, who's been a member for eight years. "They're different types of holes than the rest of the course. This is our Pebble Beach view. It doesn't get any better than that."
So which hole is his favorite?
"They're all my nemesis," Seney said with a smile.
Back in the clubhouse, Shennecossett men's club champion Gary Jones of Groton talked about the course's water-view holes.
"Some days I like them, and some days I don't," Jones said. "Sixteen is very hard for me. I never hit that fairway. It's in my head."
Three scenic holes
The scenic tour starts with the 15th hole, a deceptively difficult par 3, 195 yards from the back tee. Bunkers guard the front of the green. Club selection is key, according to Roan, the assistant pro, who says anywhere from a three to six iron can be used off the tee depending on shifting winds.
No. 16, a 400-yard, par 4, starts a bit tricky with a dogleg left and a fairway bunker as an obstacle. Once you are in good position in the fairway, there's a big green to shoot at. Par is realistic.
"You've got to get the tee-shot in the fairway…" Roan said. "It's just a great golf hole because it's all about the position off the tee."
Teeing off with their backs to the water, golfers get a straight shot at the par 4, 17th hole. This is a birdie opportunity for experienced golfers.
Just don't be fool by the short distance (345 yards from back tees). The biggest challenge is the second shot at an elevated green tucked in the hillside. Find the deep front-side bunker and forget about par.
"The second shot is really the tough shot on that hole because the green sits above you," Roan said. "It's deceptive."
Once golfers walk off the 17th green, they head back into the tunnel and across the road to complete their round. They'll leave behind bobbing boats, soaring birds and the smell of saltwater.
Memories will linger, though.
"It's like when you first arrive at the beach," Roan said.