2015 Annual Guide to the Great Outdoors
Teeing off at seven noteworthy courses
by Galen Crane
“May you live in interesting times,” goes the expression purported to be a Chinese curse. Well, golf may be living the curse. By many measures, the sport is in free fall. “As Tiger Woods Fades, a Fear That Revenue Will, Too” screamed a recent New York Times headline. “At its peak in 2002, the game had almost 30 million players. Now there are 23 million,” according to Bloomberg Businessweek in August 2014. But wait! “[T]here were 300,000 more females in the game of golf last year than the year before,” Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA) commissioner Mike Whan told Bloomberg six months later.
In the Adirondacks it’s the weather that’s more ﬁckle than the golfer. In early 2014, due largely to a prolonged January thaw followed closely by extreme cold and the lack of insulating snows, parts of many greens north of Albany sustained a withering kill. By late summer, greenskeepers’ hard work had paid off and new growth had been coaxed from the wreckage. This past winter was frigid but featured uniform snow cover throughout, so hopes are high.
Close observers of the game here, like longtime Whiteface Club pro J. Peter Martin, aren’t too worried about the weather or prevailing industry trends. Though courses have been shuttered in the U.S. at a rate of about one or two a day recently, he says, “Golf is very healthy in the Adirondacks right now.” The Adirondack Park is far from hotbeds like the Carolinas, Florida and California, but this is not some golﬁng backwater: many Adirondack courses bear the imprints—if not footprints—of some of the most notable architects and golfers in history. And occasionally we send out one of our own to gain golﬁng glory in the wider world: Lake Placidian Craig Wood won the Masters and U.S. Open in 1941 (he might have won the Masters in 1935 too, but for opponent Gene Sarazen’s ﬁnal-round double eagle on the par-5 15th, widely considered one of the greatest golf shots in history). And the new president of the Professional Golfers’ Association of America is Derek Sprague, who hails from none other than the Malone Country Club, just outside the Blue Line.
Here you will ﬁnd elbow room to spare on fairways and greens largely unpopulated except for summer weekend mornings; holes that ask great things of the seasoned golfer and those that will redeem the 20-handicapper; and intimate wooded settings and marquee vistas in equal measure. As Peter Martin says, “Mountain golf is glorious. You not only play better in the mountains, you also feel better.”
Herewith, a tour of seven notable North Country tracks.
Westport Country Club
Historic Westport—straddling pasture and woods above Lake Champlain—was built ﬁrst as a 6-holer in 1898, expanded to 9 a few years later, and fleshed out to 18 about 1930 by Scotsman Thomas Winton (the back 9 was closed during World War II and reopened in the 1970s). Prominent gullies traverse much of the front; the course boasts beautiful greens that last spring appeared to fare a little better than other local courses after the harsh winter of ’13–’14. Westport, along with other Champlain Valley tracks, is popular in early and late season with golfers from the Adirondack interior looking to stretch the season. (Westport claims it doesn’t have blackflies, which sounds almost too good to be true.)
Thirteen-year Westport pro John Hall points to his four par 3s as standouts. “Number 13 is one of the hardest in the park,” he says of the uphill 207-yarder with a green that looks impossible to hold (it’s not, exactly, as it rises front to back, but from the tee it looks like you’ll need a miracle). Of the par 4s, Hall counts #17, “a fabulous, tricky 442-yard par 4 that used to be a 5,” as a favorite.
Other notable holes include #6, a sharp dogleg-left par 4—hit a handsome draw off the tee to the 100-yard mark, and you get to hit out of what feels like the Grand Canyon (might want to club up). On the signature 12th, a par 4, after bludgeoning your tee offering into the abyss, you’re faced with a downhill second shot to an amphitheater green just beyond a small stream with a stone dam.
Open April 1 through November 1
*Prices shown are for prime tee times; fees vary based on time of day and season.
Ticonderoga Country Club
Like Westport, its neighbor to the north, Ti hosts some serious gully golf. The course weaves up and down the sides of a lush valley anchored by narrow, winding Trout Brook, its presence felt on seven holes. The ﬁrst 9 was created in 1926 and the full 18 rounded out six years later, both by Scottish architect Seymour Dunn, whose handiwork can be found elsewhere in the region. Laterally, many of the holes are pretty wide open, and the track is not long, a little more than 6,200 yards from the tips.
George Mackey, the pro here for 34 years, says the course strikes a balance for scratch golfers and newbies alike. “It’s fun to play,” he says. “It’s enough of a challenge but it’s not overwhelming.” Curiosities abound, not least of which is an 11-hole run (#3 through #13) with only one par 4. There are four par 5s on the front alone—exceedingly rare, I would guess—though the longest is just 500 yards from the whites.
The par-4 10th, which Mackey counts as a favorite, is a downhill left-bender of 433 yards with a bifurcated fairway starting 300 yards from the tee and dropping sharply to one of the smallest greens on the course.
Scavengers take note: on #16, you could probably ﬁll a shagbag searching the muddy, rocky banks of Trout Brook near the green. We nabbed a dozen in a minute, and they’re probably being replaced as we speak. And this being Ticonderoga, there is some deep history here: On the par-5 4th, look for the state marker commemorating Rogers’ Rangers going down to defeat in the French and Indian War 257 years ago, then suffer some defeat yourself as you hit a blind approach over a small ridge to a green moated by Trout Brook.
Mid-April through October
Thendara Golf Club
Thendara’s bona ﬁdes were established in the 1950s through the mid-’70s when it hosted high-caliber exhibitions featuring names like Nicklaus, Snead, Palmer and Player. In an unplanned coup, Lee Trevino played here the same year (1971) he won the U.S., Canadian and British Opens in a three-week span, according to Rich Chapman, the club’s pro for the past nine years. Sadly, the exhibition era is long over.
The relatively open front 9 was designed by the great Donald Ross and opened in 1921; the back came almost four decades later courtesy of Russell Bailey, and the two could not be more different. Ross apparently adored three-putts, and many of the ﬁrst 9 greens, particularly #1, #7 and #9, bear this out. (“He was a sick man,” says the friendly lady in the clubhouse with a laugh.) Seven has double whoop-dee-doo humps dividing the green in thirds back to front; the signature par-3 9th features a nearly unvanquishable centrally plateaued green that I’d pay a week’s wages to see someone hold from the tee, a sturdy 195 yards away.
Righties, set your drivers to “draw” here—plenty of holes accept the longball, but none will accommodate any sloppy fades; they’re either straight or skew left. None of the par 5s are overlong—the longest, #14, is 494 yards from the whites—so Chapman says decent drives on all will provide opportunities to score.
The back 9 sports far less malignant greens, but you’re in the woods now, and it’s the narrow fairways that confound: “It goes from wide open to a bowling alley,” Chapman says. In the height of summer look and listen for rafters and canoers on the Moose River at #11 through #14. A crack of your driver may elicit a FORE! from the water. And if Thendara management is ever looking for new revenue streams, they could probably open a white-tail-deer petting zoo tomorrow.
Early May through early October
Saranac Inn Golf & Country Club
Saranac Inn traces its history back to the turn of the last century: depending on the source, says Jim Connors, who co-owns the course with Steve Wilson, it was either 1901 or as late as 1907 when the ﬁrst six holes were built near the original Saranac Inn (it burned flat in June 1978). In the early to mid-teens the other 12 were created by the legendary designer Seymour Dunn, who called the links layout his “masterpiece.”
With the later addition of trees scattering the spaces between fairways, Connors calls it more of a parkland layout now, but he agrees with Dunn’s lofty assessment. “It’s very fair but very challenging,” he explains. “There’s great variety. You’ll use every club in the bag. There are long par 3s, 4s and 5s, and then there are short 3s, 4s and 5s.” But length can have an inverse relationship to challenge: the sub-300-yard par-4 8th, which seems almost drivable, is bunkered well enough to lay waste to such ambitions. And then there’s the green. “You end up in the wrong spot and you’ve got a double bogey before you can blink an eye,” Connors says. As proof of the variability, he adds, “Half our golfers like the front nine, half like the back.”
Ask anyone who plays Saranac Inn regularly and they’re bound to mention those greens—big, undulating, challenging and generally immaculate greens, probably the course’s signature asset. But variety is still the spice of life here: “You can be having the round of your life and then run into 16, 17 and 18,” Connors says of the par-3, -4 and -5 ﬁnishing combination that can feel like the losing end of a heavyweight bout if you’re not careful.
And though the inn is long gone, the course offers motel rooms a two-putt away from the clubhouse in case you’d like to make it a getaway.
Late April through Columbus Day
Just pulling up to the Sagamore’s fortiﬁed Tudor cottage clubhouse—tucked into towering pines, which lord over this hilltop golﬁng oasis—you know you’re in rareﬁed air. (The robust greens fee, white tablecloths in the clubhouse, and the yardage book, the only course in the region with one, should bring the point home.) Despite the genteel setting, the view from the ﬁrst tee, a downhill par 4, quickens the pulse: the fairway falls away sharply, and far beyond the green lies the Queen of American Lakes, with Erebus Mountain and Sleeping Beauty looming in the east. According to director of golf Dave Cummings, it was this view that prompted architect Donald Ross, who completed the course in 1928, to violate one of his personal tenets: he normally never opened with a drive into the morning sun.
The course went to pasture in the early 1980s when the nearby Sagamore hotel fell on hard times, but it was brought back from the brink in 1985 with a $75 million renovation that honored Ross’s original plans. (The hotel and course are now part of the Ocean Properties resort portfolio.) Ross hallmarks abound: there are devious, hogbacked greens, some with false fronts that punish short approach shots, and he applied some trickery with bunker placement. “Some bunkers seem more in play than they appear,” says Cummings. “They’re an optical illusion.” The yardage book pays for itself here.
The course does not boast great length—even from the tips, only one hole exceeds 500 yards—but there are only two par 5s, so total par is 70. There’s a premium on precision. Take the par-4 7th, the hardest on the front: a long or mid-iron off the tee to a likely double fall-line lie and you’re still looking at maybe 170 yards far uphill to a putting surface you can’t see. On #13—a former par 5, now a 4 that Cummings says is the toughest test of all—hit a blind drive avoiding water on the right and out of sight, and you’re still looking at about 170 yards uphill to get home.
The course is the most manicured and feature-laden in the Adirondacks. There are paved cart paths all the way (walking your bag is permitted only after 3 p.m.), drinking water every third hole, a well-stocked and staffed lunch shack at the turn, beautiful woods, and clean, white sand in the traps, which were totally overhauled in 2014. It’s resort golf to the hilt, and it’s why the place racks up accolades at an admirable clip. It was just named #4 in New York State on Golfweek’s list of Best Courses You Can Play (March 2015).
Late April through early November
Cronin’s Golf Resort
If the Sagamore is a classic Chris-Craft—all spit and polish—Cronin’s, in Warrensburg, is more of a pontoon boat, and that’s just the way the regulars like it. You needn’t worry about having a little fun here: everyone else seems to be. It’s a spirit that emanates from the affable Jim Cronin, who runs the course with his wife, Jean. “It’s your party and we’re here to serve you,” he says.
Jim’s grandfather Pat Cronin was hired by two partners to design the ﬁrst 9 holes in 1930, just as the Depression was digging in. (It took some moxie, Jim says, to get in the golf business in that economic climate.) Jim’s father, Robert, purchased the course in 1945 and it’s been in the family ever since. The second 9 was built in 1965.
The mighty Hudson parallels the ﬁrst three holes, and though a beauty most days, it can be a beast: one flood, in the late 1970s, took out a few holes and necessitated a course redesign, spawning the curious cluster of closing holes that Jim refers to as “nightmare corners”—or “bulls&#t boulevard.” Two short par 4s, #16 and #17, are particularly memorable: narrow as hallways through rows of tall, thin conifers that seem like jail bars (should you ﬁnd it necessary—I did—the understory is highly playable).
You’ll be forgiven if some of the yardages feel off. Several holes and approaches play shorter than the stated yardage (Jim, with a laugh, calls these “Cronin yards”)—particularly on two par 3s (#12 and #15) and the approach on #17’s dogleg corner—so it may take a couple rounds before you settle on the right club.
The clubhouse is more of a roadhouse, with a big welcoming bar and a friendly staff. A handful of cabins and a pool—which bring groups back year after year—are clustered along the Hudson near the parking lot.
“One family has been coming here since 1947, before I was born,” says Jim. He cites price—the course is the least expensive of the bunch—and
the informal atmosphere as draws: “It’s nice to play golf and feel welcome, like you’re part of the family.”
Early April through late October
Whiteface Club & Resort
The avuncular J. Peter Martin—the presiding pro since 1978 at Whiteface Club & Resort, on the southwest shore of Lake Placid—literally wrote the book on golf-course history in the region (Adirondack Golf Courses… Past and Present, 1987). He was a 14-year-old caddy at Saranac Inn when he ﬁrst played here. “I was blown away by it,” he recalls.
The ﬁrst 9 was built in 1898; the second 9 came in 1930 under the guidance of architect John Van Kleek, with 11-time major champion Walter Hagen as a consultant. “It’s a great design,” Martin says. “There’s not a weak hole from start to ﬁnish. They’re all memorable,” some more so than others, particularly #14. Martin calls it the hardest par 3 in the Adirondacks—211 uphill yards over water through a narrow opening to a two-tiered green. Average golfers should be ecstatic with a bogey here; it’s the only par 3 I know of where a lay-up should be an option.
As with Thendara, Wild West power faders will come to grief here. Many holes dogleg left, favoring a draw (though a driver may be too much club on several). The roller-coaster signature 6th, with its commanding view of Whiteface Mountain, drops sharply from the elevated tee and takes almost a 90-degree left toward a severely elevated green; there aren’t many par 5s around where hitting 4-iron/9-iron as the ﬁrst and second shots will set up par, but here we are. Going for the green in two is asking to be smote by the golf gods. And for sheer putting adventure, come into the 2nd green above the hole; this sucker has more breaks than Evel Knievel at Caesar’s Palace.
The place hasn’t changed much in 85 years, and that’s by design—and out of respect for Van Kleek. A new, local ownership group since 2004 has been improving the grounds and course appointments incrementally, and two new irrigation ponds on the par-5 ﬁnishing hole have made birdie there a real accomplishment.
Mid-May through Columbus Day
Galen Crane is a former Adirondack Life editor. He lives in Lake Placid.