DEVENS, Mass. -- There are subtle signs of the historical significance of the land now occupied by Red Tail Golf Club: The metal lookout tower near the 18th tee box. The picture hanging in the clubhouse of Frances Ouimet -- the amateur who won the 1913 U.S. Open -- giving a golf lesson to troops. The ammunition dumps hidden along the 17th fairway.
It's hard to fathom that once upon a time barrack after barrack of Fort Devens once lined the midsection of the golf course where holes 7, 8, 9, 10, 12 and 13 now reside.
Fort Devens, located roughly 75 miles northwest of downtown Boston, was decommissioned in 1996, paving the way for redevelopment of the land by the state of Massachusetts.
Red Tail General Manager Jim Pavlik considers the club's connection to Fort Deven's past "a great piece of Americana."
"I get stoked every time I come in knowing that this is a great part of American history," he said.
Red Tail: The golf course
Architect Brian Silva built something historical himself in 2001, the first Audubon International Signature Sanctuary golf course in New England.
Red Tail, host of the 2009 U.S. Women's Amateur Public Links, currently ranks no. 1 among the top public courses in the entire state by Golfweek for 2013. GolfNow.com users rate the 7,006-yard course no. 24 nationally among the top courses of more than 4,000 in the network.
Paul Gromer, of Concord, brought his two college-age sons, Andrew and Alex, to play it earlier this summer. "What I like most is the natural feel in the woods. There's lots of space," he said. "For me, it is challenging but fair."
Rolling topography consistently provides 40 to 50 feet of elevation change throughout the round. After a relatively flat beginning, a roller coaster ride takes flight at no. 4, a par 5 that hooks left and soars to the sky.
Two risk-reward, short par 4s -- nos. 6 and 8 -- play less than 365 yards from the tips and are flanked by two of the hardest par-4s, the long seventh and ninth holes. The three most scenic holes on the back nine -- 14-16 -- all tumble downhill, affording nice views of the surrounding forest.
Pavlik likes to call Red Tail a "vacation" course for this reason: The first stretch of holes remind him of pine-tree-lined fairways in North Carolina, the opening holes of the back nine feel like classic New England golf, and the sprawling, sandy waste bunkers of the par-4 16th and 17th holes appear to be transplanted from Florida.
The only real water hazard ends the day by guarding the final green of a strong, 572-yard par 5. The clubhouse and patio overlook this beautiful setting.
Red Tail Golf Club: The verdict
Internet message boards clamor that conditioning at Red Tail has slipped in recent years, but the course conditions were solid the day I visited in August, and Pavlik insists they are even better this fall. If the club can continue to provide quality turf, nobody will be knocking Red Tail off its lofty perch as Boston's best public course anytime soon. It's a destination course worth finding.