Whispering Woods Golf Club (Erie, PA) Review

Whispering Woods is clearly Erie’s best public course, and it will only get better as the course matures.

Whispering Woods LogoThe Erie area first heard about the golf course that would become Whispering Woods Golf Club in early 2002. In late 2005, a golf course began taking shape among the houses of the Whispering Woods residential development. Seeded in two phases during 2006, the semi-private course opened May 25, 2007 with less than the desired 100 members. A rate drop for both membership and public play only 11 days later lured the remaining members, necessitated a waiting list 70+ names long, and increased public play on the course dramatically.

The course, like so many others, lays claim to the title of “best in the area.” I tested the assertion – is the course the best public course in the Erie area? Read on to find out…

Conditions
As I mentioned, the course was seeded in two phases: most of the front nine was seeded in early 2006 while the back nine wasn’t seeded until early fall. The difference is evident if you pay attention while you play: while the front nine is rather nicely grown in, the back nine has a few areas where the grass failed to take. There’s nary a bare spot on the front nine, but several holes on the back nine have areas – primarily in the rough – which have hardpan dirt and very thin grass. The spots are rarely more than a few inches wide or long, and you can roll your ball a short ways to get onto some pretty good grass, but it’s disappointing to have to play winter rules in the middle of June.

Portions of the course simply need a little more time to grow in and fill out. When it does, and if portions of the front nine serve as an example, I expect conditions to be quite good.

Whispering Woods 10 Tee
The back nine starts with a bang: the 10th plays 450+ yards slightly uphill from the blue tees. Yow!

Tees and greens are already near perfect. Despite being brand new and built to USGA specifications, the greens are quite receptive. New USGA-spec greens are often hard as rocks, but the grounds crew at Whispering Woods waters their greens carefully and the result is surprisingly playable, especially when you consider the Erie area’s lack of rainfall this year. When you repair your ball mark, you’ll notice how little grass is covering the greens. This is typical of a brand new course. The thatch layer many people are accustomed to as well as the years of topdressing with sand and the thicker root base grass eventually grows take time to come about.

Fortunately, putts roll quite smoothly with few bumps and jumps. Green speeds, again due to the course being new, hover at about nine feet on the stimpmeter. They’re not lightning quick, but they’re faster than most public courses you’ll find. The grounds crew and superintendent Rob Goring have done a fine job preparing the dance floors for play.

Likewise, the course’s 50 greenside and fairway bunkers are well maintained. They’re raked daily and I think Goldilocks would enjoy them: they’re not too firm and they’re not too soft. Tees, too, are well-built: flat, long, and soft enough to take a good divot on the par threes without needing to adjust the loft and lie of your iron afterwards. Fairways are, like the greens, going to need a little more time to become fully lush, but are off to a good start and provide a good lie for the ball. If anything, the slightly thinner fairways demand better ballstriking.

Whispering Woods 03 Tee
The tee shot at the par-five third is not nearly as daunting as it looks… just don’t yank one left. Balls slightly right will kick off the slope, often winding up in the middle of the fairway.

The practice putting green is too slanted to be useful and the course currently lacks a driving range or short-game practice area. The pro shop is presently a double-wide trailer. All of these things will be built and are expected to be available in the spring of 2008.

Design and Layout
Designed by the late John Exley – the same designer of the Upper Course at the Peek’n Peak Resort (which we reviewed two years ago) – Whispering Woods shares some of the same characteristics: large elevation changes, gullies, short drivable par fours with significant risk, and ample use of areas that exact an incredible penalty. It’s tough to characterize this style of golf course design: it’s not early American, it’s not parkland, it’s not “linky,” and it’s not manufactured/cookie-cutter. A fair amount of dirt was moved in creating Whispering Woods, but given the significant changes in elevation, the course still feels more set upon the land rather than shaped or bulldozed into being.

Whispering Woods presents a tale of two nines, woven together with a common thread. The first nine holes wanders through the housing development, and though the houses never come into play, they’re visible from the fairways, tees, and greens. The closest the houses get to the course are the right side of the seventh hole and near the tee on the eighth. The back nine, in contrast, is completely secluded. An older house beyond the trees behind 11th tee is the only house you’ll spot on the back nine, and unlike the front, you can peer through trees separating the holes to see other golfers.

Whispering Woods 07 Green
The par-five seventh green, seen from about 180 yards out, winds hard around a lateral hazard and tall trees. The fairway in the layup area, as you can tell, is incredibly narrow.

The par threes at Whispering Woods vary enough to offer a challenge, though I wouldn’t call them especially interesting. Both nines have a second-hole par three, usually a no-no in golf course design as it slows down play right out of the gate, but Whispering Woods pulls it off because the second is a rather short hole of about 145 yards with a rather flat green. In other words, it’s easy enough that play shouldn’t be held up much at all. The sixth plays about 185 yards, and with one of the more deceptive greens on the course – it kicks balls back and to the right, making it tough to get close to the hole with a long iron. Left is dead like at the second, and I’ve actually bounced balls onto the putting surface by hitting a slope right of the greenside bunker and careening the ball around it to a back pin. Heck, I’ve made birdie doing that.

The back nine one-shot holes include a somewhat bland down-hiller of about 165 yards at the 11th, albeit with a green sloped heavily back to front. This hole plays into the wind, and I’ve hit more club here than I have at the long-ish sixth hole on occasion. Right is toast, and yet virtually everyone hits it that direction – likely due to the fact that you’re hitting from an elevated tee and the urge to ease up on your swing is too great. Finally, the 14th hole plays about 10-20 yards longer than the 11th, but across the wind. The green is flatter than it looks and framed nicely by bunkers. None of Whispering Woods’ par threes feature water hazards, but the same cannot be said for the other holes on the course.

The par fours and fives are quite varied. They’re both easy and difficult – and which holes you consider easy or difficult can change from day to day. The opener, a 420-yard uphill par four with a tall stand of trees protecting the green from any shot left of the center of the fairway, requires a solid drive and a gutsy second shot. Golfers who carry the ball less than 250 yards off the tee are likely to face a blind second shot.

Whispering Woods 04 Tee
If you’ve got the stones to go for it, the carry is about 250 yards at the 280-yard par-four fourth.

The fourth and fifth holes both measure under 300 yards. Both, consequently, are drivable par fours. However, the fourth is protected by a gorge with a creek and features a shallow green. The fifth has a ravine well to the left and is protected by bunkers only, but the green is also the smallest on the course at 3,793 square feet. The smart play on both is to hit a 3-wood, hybrid, or long iron to the fairway to the right, then play a delicate pitch shot onto the green. At the fourth, this shot demands accuracy, as the green is very wide but shallow when played from this angle. Though I love the idea of high-risk, high-reward short par fours, I wish these two were routed apart from one another. Playing them back-to-back is just a teeny bit mundane.

The 425-yard eighth hole plays downhill to a two-tiered fairway. The 10-yard tier is covered in rough and just about the perfect distance for my 3-wood from the tee. A driver would carry into the lower tier and leave a short iron to the mounded island green, but a collection pond to the right of the second tier forces the player’s hand just a little off the tee. The club has plans to remove the tier and mow the entire hole as fairway, which is a good move: currently, you can stripe a 3-wood down the middle and find yourself in the rough with 170 yards downhill to a small, island green.

Whispering Woods 04 Green
Your second shot at the short par-four fourth is a delicate pitch across a stream to a very wide, shallow green.

The 355-yard ninth wanders up and to the left. Though dramatic in appearance, the hole is actually quite soft. I enjoy holes like this – it’s stout in appearance but quite playable once you figure out the strategy. For me, it’s a 3-wood with a little draw up the right-center and a short iron beyond the green’s false front.

The back nine’s par fours are both more varied and more dangerous. Gone are the easy short holes. In fact, the back nine welcomes you with a par four measuring 455 yards. The hole usually plays a little downwind, but it’s also slightly uphill and features a relatively small green considering most players will be hitting long irons or even hybrids on approach. Left of the green is toast, and 40 yards short of the green, the architect saw fit to bury about 10 large elephants in a large bump that really throws off depth perception.

Whispering Woods 08 Tee
The downhill tee shot at the par-four eighth. Choosing a line is tough, but choose carefully. This hole has what I call a “mound island” green that resembles a shaved Hershey’s kiss.

The back still features two short par fours, but they come spaced apart at the 13th and 16th holes. The 13th measures 365 yards and a gorge traverses the hole at about 280 from the tee. The prudent play is to hit a hybrid to the top of a hill, then hit an 8-iron or so to a deep, elevated green with a subtle ridge running through the left side. The 16th measures only 295 yards and would be drivable if the second shot didn’t play so far uphill. Greenside bunkers will catch any drive that’s nearly perfect, but I’ve found it better to hit only a 5-iron from the tee. Despite being played with a pitching or sand wedge, the approach to this hole is one of the toughest shots on the golf course, as the green is small and slants heavily front to back and left to right. Shots will not spin much on this green, and balls that come up only a few yards short can often roll 50 yards back down the hill. Precision is key here.

The back nine closes with a pair of strong holes. The 17th is about a 70° dogleg left with a rather wide fairway. Despite all the room to the right, players are tempted to hug the left-hand side to make for a shorter second shot. This often results in disaster, as a fairway bunker is the least of the troubles left. The green slopes left to right and back to front and the approach plays downhill. It’s one of many examples at Whispering Woods where the elevation changes have been put to great use, as the view of the green from the fairway is so inviting, and the ball gets so much hangtime, it’s almost breathtaking.

Whispering Woods 08 Green
The “Hershey Kiss/island mound” green at the par-four eighth requires a pretty accurate approach shot, often from 170+ yards. Fortunately, the green tilts back to front to hold most shots.

The 18th is the sternest test on the golf course. Trees and a gorge protect the left-hand side while the right is protected by fairway bunkers. A draw works beautifully here, but players must hit the ball at least 255 yards (uphill) to get around the corner and have a free look at the green to the left. Playing 400 yards and uphill the whole way, the second shot is played to an elevated green and will play anywhere from 135 to 200 yards depending on the line taken from the tee. Protected in front by two flashy bunkers and beyond with a steep incline, the green demands precise shot placement to hold the putting surface. A creek and a small ravine between the landing area and the green only add to the interest for players who are unable to make the corner and are forced to lay up.

Though none of the par fives on the course measure more than 535 yards from the blue tees, all are interesting. The third, at 502 yards, can be reached with as little as a 6-iron depending on the conditions. The drive plays across a large hollow with a storage pond to the left. Mounds to the right will kick the ball back, but any ball tugged left of the fairway is a goner. The second shot must be played up the right-hand side, as left is still dead. The green slopes quite severely from front to back – a design quirk that’s popular at Whispering Woods yet under-utilized on most other golf courses. I love the green design, as better players will really have to think about their second shots – if they’re forced to lay up, the pin position can change the ideal layup position by 100 yards!

Whispering Woods 18 Tee
The tee shot at the 18th requires a drive of about 270 yards, ideally with a draw, to get around the corner and have a look at the green. The carry to the fairway is about 200 yards.

The seventh is one of the most dastardly holes on the course. The drive is played to an incredibly generous landing area… so long as you don’t hit the ball 260 yards or more. Trees line the left-hand side and O.B. hugs the right (along with a fairway bunker). At 260 yards, the fairway tightens to about 12 yards at a crest before widening out again beyond the bunker. Drives squeezed through this slot are rewarded with a little extra roll. The lay-up is then played to an incredibly narrow fairway that snakes around a lateral hazard to the left (with O.B. still to the right) – choosing the proper club and hitting it on the exact line is critical here. Drives hit through the slot can reach the green with as little as a 6-iron again, but a perfect draw around the trees and the lateral hazard left will have to be played to get the ball on the green.

The back nine’s par fives – the 12th and the 15th – measure 512 and 533 yards apiece and are rather similar to each other. Both pinch in around 265 yards from the tee, making accurate driving critical. Left or right on either of these holes will leave golfers in the trees, lateral hazards, or with a lost ball. The second shot on both holes asks the golfer to carry a large ravine. At the 12th, the carry is often only 160 yards, but the 15th can be devilish – even a good drive may result in a carry of 200 yards into the prevailing wind. As if that’s not enough, the carry is uphill and played from a downhill lie. Choose to lay up short of the ravines and you’ll have a 170 to 190 yard shot to the green, uphill, for your third. From across the ravines, a short pitch is all that’s left, but the 15th green slants again from front to back and kicks even sand wedge approaches to the middle or back of the green.

Whispering Woods 18 Fairway
With a good tee shot at the 18th, you’ll be left with anywhere from 180 to 130 yards to a shallow green fronted by two bunkers. There’s a reason this hole is the toughest on the course.

Whispering Woods places demands on your game from tee to green. Though the fairways are a bit wider than most courses, and though many fairways sit in valleys that help keep shots headed up the right and left sides in play, big misses are penalized heavily with lost-ball or lateral hazard penalties. If your tee ball finds the fairways, you cannot relax because the penal design often continues right up to the green. Oftentimes the worst miss is long or left while short and right will more often find bunkers or greenside mounding.

Aside from the slight mundanity of the back-to-back short par fours on the front and the moderately bland one-shot holes, the course features several memorable holes that stand apart from their brethren. Each hole at Whispering Woods feels slightly different than all the others, yet part of a whole. There’s an old cliché about “testing every club in the bag,” and Whispering Woods does that twice, and often with different shot requirements. I’ve never quite encountered such an interesting mix of holes: every hole (save perhaps the 10th and 18th) is a birdie hole with good or great shots, but every hole can also leap up and throw a double bogey in your face as quickly as you can tug a shot slightly left.

Whispering Woods 16 Tee
The short par-four 16th. Dare to hit driver? Or hit a 5-iron and a wedge. The green slants heavily front to back.

Dave Koster, former The Numbers Columnist and our resident scratch golfer, had this to say about Whispering Woods:

Excellent design. I thought that the layout was, by far, the best in the Erie area. You felt that each hole stood out on its own. Being cut off from the other holes helps but there were very few boring holes. Most had a bit of turn or elevation change that made you think before every shot. Also, each hole had a penalizing area that you wanted to avoid. Whether it was a strategically placed hazard or severely sloping contoured green feeding into some trees you felt like it was necessary to play to one side or the other on just about every hole… not just blast away like you’re at Downing [an Erie municipal course]. True golfers will love this course.

Other than the nearly double-dogleg on 18 (which may be remedied), there are no “gimmick” holes. It is a very hard but fair test of golf. Good shots will be rewarded and bad ones penalized.

Greens were not severely contoured. As the grass grows in there might be a bit more to see and feel around the greens. This is probably something I’d have to play the course a couple more times to get a better feel. For non-mature greens, they rolled really well and were in really good shape. Not once did my ball bounce off-line or break inexplicably.

There is nothing really bad to say about this course that won’t be fixed with a year or so of maturation. Grass was thin in spots and the greens were firm but once Whispering Woods fills in it will be the best course in Erie and THE track to play when visiting – or living in – the area. The only thing that will keep golfers away is the difficulty. It will eat up some balls and frustrate some players but over time I think they will learn where to play their ball and what line to take.

Whispering Woods allows walking, but only after 4:00pm during high season, and I’d advise against it anyway. The green-to-tee walks are rather short (except the 400-yard haul from the ninth green to the tenth tee), but the elevation changes will hurt and the circumnavigation of the ravines add to the total, true walking distance.

Whispering Woods 15 Fairway
The ravine at the par-five 15th sometimes asks you a demanding question: can you carry me from 200 yards out with a 15 MPH wind in your face from a downhill lie? You’d better have a good answer.

Bang for the Buck
Initially priced a bit higher, Whispering Woods dropped their membership and public-play rates only 11 days after opening. The move brought the prices more in line with those of other courses in the area, despite the fact that Whispering Woods is already one of the better courses in the area in its first season of play. I suspect that as the course grows in and play becomes steadier, the rates will eventually creep back up to their initial level.

Currently, Adult and Senior (60+) rates are $32 and $26 for 18 holes on weekdays and $35 and $30 on weekends. Nine-hole rates are available at a cost of $20/$16 and $23/$19. Carts, which are mandatory until 4:00 in June, July, and August, are $14 for 18 holes and $7 for nine. Several specials are currently available, including a $30 rate for seniors on Mondays (18 holes + cart), but not listed on the Whispering Woods website. I’d advise you to call them to ask about their specials.

Whispering Woods 17 Green
The downhill second shot at the par-four 17th can play anywhere from 130 to 180 yards, depending on how closely you hug the left-hand side of the fairway.

Members originally paid $1,800 for a 2007 membership and were guaranteed 2008 memberships would cost the same. When the prices dropped, the club granted those members their 2008 membership as well. Members need only pay the cart fee ($14) when they play, and can book tee times two weeks in advance. The public can only book one week out.

At current rates, and even with a few rough spots around the course, Whispering Woods is a good value, and some of the special rates available are small steals. The course is one of the best in Erie, and is probably already the best public course in the area. It is demanding, fairly long, and well designed with a variety of holes and shot requirements. Despite weaving amongst a housing development on the front nine, the course feels very secluded. None of the houses come into play, and each hole is nicely separated from the others.

Whispering Woods 09 Green
The second shot at the uphill, 355-yard ninth. A false front “tongue” punishes shots that lack the distance.

Conclusion
Whispering Woods is well on its way towards becoming one of the most impressive courses in northwestern Pennsylvania. Cynics may scoff at the yardage – 6,400 yards from the blues and only 6,700 from the tips – the course supports its yardage with four tricky short par fours, reachable but dangerous par fives, and trouble everywhere you go. The golf course is perhaps the hardest true test of golf I’ve seen in awhile, sans tricks and gimmicks. It will test every club in your bag and from a variety of sloped lies.

I’m not sure how one can enjoy Whispering Woods if his handicap ventures north of about 12 or 15. If you’re short but straight and play the appropriate tees (white or even yellow), you’ll be okay. If you’re long and crooked, well, bring two boxes (not sleeves!) of balls. You’ll probably go through at least one. The mounds will help contain slightly misdirected shots, but big misses will find trees, ravines, and lateral hazards galore.

Whispering Woods Aerial
The front nine, towards the bottom, weaves through the housing development. The back nine, above, occupies much less space but isn’t within sight of a single home. The water you see is the pond off the third tee.

The only downside is the newness, a problem time will cure. A few spots on the back are still a little new, but the bare spots will fill in nicely. Since the course opened May 25, I’ve already seen an impressive amount of growth, despite the horribly dry weather we’ve had here in Erie this year. We don’t have a rating system here at The Sand Trap for our reviews, but if we did, Whispering Woods would receive high marks.

Scorecard

Hole      1     2     3     4     5     6     7     8     9   Out
Par       4     3     5     4     4     3     5     4     4   36
Black   445   168   519   294   307   191   537   436   376   3273
Blue    426   152   502   271   281   183   513   422   339   3104
Hdcp      2    18     6    12    16    10     8     4    14
Hole     10    11    12    13    14    15    16    17    18   In
Par       4     3     5     4     3     5     4     4     4   36
Black   482   185   525   365   189   561   314   405   427   3453
Blue    451   165   512   351   180   533   296   389   402   3279
Hdcp      5    17     7    11    15     3    13     9    1
Tees     Rating Slope  Yards
----     ------ -----  -----
Black     73.9   144   6,726
Blue      72.2   141   6,383
White     70.5   134   6,008
Yellow    67.0   126   5,270
Red       68.9   125   4,733

15 thoughts on “Whispering Woods Golf Club (Erie, PA) Review”

  1. These are my favorite articles on the site. WW sounds a lot like my home course, short but tricky.

  2. Erik, a good solid review as always. It was an honest look at a new course – you did not hide any of the warts. The only thing I would have disclosed is that WW is one of your home courses (are you a member there?). I know it doesn’t make any difference to me – if I was in the area, I would play it regardless of your affiliation.

    That’s it…otherwise, it was a good assessment – no stones were left unturned.

  3. It is my home course, yes. One of two, anyway. I didn’t disclose that information in the review (though I am here) because I tend to notice more of the bad things when I play a course several times. That’s not to say I overlook them on other courses, but just that I will assume that some small things might be fixed (like a funny pin position on one of the greens, a browned out area, etc.) when I see a course one time. WW has only really improved since I first played it, as the grass continues to grow in.

  4. Erik – I really enjoy your site. I’m a software developer also. I don’t keep an official handicap (I really should!) but I generally break 80. I live in Lexington, KY, but I’m in Erie 2 or 3 times a year on business. Now I’ve got something to look forward to next time I’m there!

  5. I had to respond to this review since I played this course on Nov. 5, 2008. We happen to have a week of nice weather and WW had a great deal going for the fall so I went down for the day with 3 of my golf buddies. I got to tell ya…this course is outstanding! The pictures do not lie and you could never tell that it is only a couple of years old. I live closer to the Peek and Peak resort where the PGA plays but will be passing it up for this one from now on when I decide to make a day of it. I hope this architect continues in the northwestern Pa. southwestern NY area. It felt like I was on vacation playing a top tier course.

  6. I’m new in the area and am looking to become a member at a Erie Golf course. Could you imform me how your membership fees are. Thank you

  7. The course is amazing and the value is great. It is the best test of golf within 100 miles outside of Thunder Hill. The Par 4 number 8 is absolutely ridiculous. Also, the 15th is one of the toughest par 5 challenges you will find. Number 9 can be a disaster if the pin is tucked on the front slope leaving you to almost position yourself short of the green. Eighteen is a good hole but I would say number 8 is definitely the biggest challenge here.

  8. Played Whispering Woods with my foursome mid-July 2009. The course is absolutely amazing. A very good test from the Blues ! The course is very well groomed and has some spectacular scenery. I have played Peak n’ Peek extensively over the years and Whispering Woods makes the Peak’s Upper Course look flat!

    The course is an exceptional value !

  9. My girlfriend and I played July of this year (2009)- beautiful shape due to the rain, but manicured to the nines. It is tough and the pro shop staff were kind enough to give us some inside info on distances and landing areas on the several I must say blind holes and hazard areas. The rates are very reasonable for the caliber of this course, the staff most friendly and we got through in four hours! Only complaint my girlfriend had were lack of restroom facilities. For me I would say the score card should maybe contain a detailed layout map especially due to the several blind and hidden suprises the course has…especially for the first timers. Otherwise a hidden gem that all golfers passing through should play.

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