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Regilded

Once in danger of being lost, Hooper serves as a beacon of hope for family-owned golf courses

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Just before 10 in the morning, David Howell held court on the first tee as gray skies hung low over the forested hills of western New Hampshire.

“This old dirt road behind me,” said Hooper Golf Course’s president and part-owner, “that’s Meeting House Road. It used to be the old turnpike from Rutland, Vermont, down to Boston. The Watkins Tavern behind you was built in 1788 and served as a way station for folks making that trip in one direction or the other.” 

He paused for a moment, letting the weight of this history settle over the 64 Golfer’s Journal subscribers who had made the pilgrimage to its first event in golf-crazed New England. Then he dropped the hammer. 

“You’re going to learn to hate that road.” 

It’s a pretty good bet that at some audacious point during your golf life you’ve had the same thought that Howell once entertained:

What if we bought a golf course?

For most of us, it’s the kind of harebrained scheme that emerges after a few pops at the 19th hole, when that swath of green dotted with flags looks like a much better way to make a living than the one waiting for us on our Outlook calendars. And for most of us, that thought often passes. But in 2018, when a group of New Hampshire residents learned that their beloved and historic Hooper Golf Course was in peril, they turned every duffer’s pipe dream into reality. They have since cemented Hooper’s place as one of the great community gathering spots in American golf. 

As Howell explained to the crew, the course was designed in 1927 by Wayne Stiles and John Van Kleek, two prominent New England architects, and operations hummed along through most of the 20th century. Its severe undulations and wickedly tilted greens saw the course stand the trials of modern equipment better than many golden-age designs.

But declining yearly rounds, combined with the lingering effects of the 2008 financial crisis, put Hooper into a spiral. At one point, Howell and some friends kept the bent grass at bay with their personal lawnmowers. In 2018, Walpole’s municipal officials put the tumbling hilltop property up for sale, and it seemed that this century-old gem would be lost to the ever-encroaching woods. 

Enter Howell. And Patti Neal. And her husband, Jim. And their son, Patrick, and his cousin, Josh Beer, and Peter Bowman, and 30 more locals who chipped in to buy—and save—their home course. Some kept their day jobs; Howell runs a bar and Beer teaches high school history. In between posting on GolfClubAtlas and making impromptu trips to Cypress Point, Bowman makes his living as the town dentist (license plate: “WALPULL”). 

Others, like the Neal family, who had been playing at Hooper for more than 50 years, took things to another level. 

I awoke at 5:45 a.m. to the sound of a lawnmower. Our window in the Watkins Tavern—which has undergone a magnificent interior renovation under new owners C.J. and Eric—looked directly onto the saucer-like ninth green. I’ve made the two-plus-hour drive from Boston to Hooper enough to know that only one person pilots the mower: Patrick Neal, the gregarious superintendent/maintenance man/jack-of-all-trades. Despite having no previous experience in the golf business, Patrick has joined his parents in leading Hooper’s resurgence. The three Neals do everything from tree removal and bunker restoration to merchandise purchasing and event coordination. During each of the five events I’ve run at Hooper for my own little golf side gig, Patti has checked us in in the morning, cooked and served us lunch during the day and locked the place up at night. Patrick regularly outworks the sun on both ends, racking up 90-hour weeks in the constant pursuit of better: better conditions, better presentation, a better chance for folks to experience the lovingly titled (and somehow not clichéd) “Hooper magic.”

The tavern’s four rooms were jam-packed with golfers, and after tiptoeing over my friend Tim’s air mattress and heading out the door, I was pleasantly surprised to find TGJ’s own Foster McCune well into his first cup of coffee and nearly finished with the event setup. It felt like a day at golf summer camp. Patti was there already, kindly but sternly chasing off a couple of locals sliding putts through the practice green’s dew. It was a quarter to 7; if they thought they could sneak out early, perhaps they weren’t familiar with the Neal family work ethic.

Slowly, and then all at once, the attendees arrived. Our fellow tavern lodgers strolled down to the first tee, complimentary coffee and croissants in hand. A number of familiar faces appeared, players who had previously experienced Hooper’s charm and had returned for more, alongside new faces who came to see for themselves. Sixty-four golfers spread out across the nine holes and soaked in the surrounding beauty as they strategized routes to Patrick’s cunning pins. 

A man with a syrupy accent that screamed he wasn’t from around here louder than his unapologetically colored outfit sidled up to me, inquiring about my pink socks. 

“David Jones, Broken Arrow, Oklahoma,” he said with a beaming smile, enveloping my hand in his. I learned that Jones had recently completed his quest to play every golf course in his home state (hence the logo on his cap: a map of Oklahoma dominated by a giant green check mark). He had spent the past two days knocking out Maine and Vermont in his new pursuit: a golf course in each state. I lit up. He had to meet Sean Melia, another Hooper newbie, but a golfer well known in the Boston scene for his own chase to play every course in the Bay State. 

“Sean!” I called. “You’ve gotta talk to this guy!”

Melia looked up from his conversation, eyes crinkling as he saw my new friend.

“Dude!” he said. “I had him on my podcast back in April!” 

Now tell me that’s not Hooper magic.

Tom Doak has called Hooper’s first hole one of his all-time favorites. Your fledgling tee ball takes flight from the safety of its nest, surrounded on three sides by the pro shop, tavern and practice green, over the first of Hooper’s many rolling drops. Those who find the short grass (and avoid golfers on the ninth tee) will take aim at a deep, receptive green featuring a billboard-size backstop. It all seems benign for an opening, sub-500-yard par-5. That is, until you factor in the heaving fairway, the mean-spirited cant of the left rough and that damn road. (Howell wasn’t lying: It comes into play on six of Hooper’s nine holes.)

With counselor McCune keeping everyone in line as groups cycled through the first tee, we began our day with a two-lap hike: front nine fourball, back nine foursomes. Whacks, thwocks and thumps reverberated through the hardwoods, and joyful exhortations floated across the high meadow over which Hooper’s standout par-3 sixth reigns. Holes five through eight connect playfully, and a treeless expanse of rumbling ground allowed passing groups to toast one another’s good shots and bad.

The lunchtime hang on the tavern’s wraparound porch was unrivaled. A few more brews from Saint Archer and most of us traded in polos for T-shirts and golf shoes for sneakers, eagerly handing over $20 bills for a shot at some afternoon skins, everyone now initiated to the gift that had been saved when 30 locals made it their mission to regild a golden-age beauty. 

Sixsomes and sevensomes cavorted among the sun showers. I played better during the skins game, loose and jovial with a few old friends in the group and Tom Petty blasting from the Bluetooth. As I packed up for the drive back to Boston, the sun had overtaken the clouds and hovered on the horizon. A handful of golfers knocked irons into a golden sunset, embarking on a one-club challenge for their fourth loop of the day.

The tavern stood bathed in a brilliant light, and there was that thought again: What if we bought a golf course? The next time a place like Hooper comes on the market, we’ll be ready.