The 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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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 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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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