Thursday, July 27, 2017

Golf at Glens Falls

"The golf course of the Glens Falls Country Club ranks among the first hundred courses of America"  -- Donald Ross

Even though I have played a lot of Donald Ross designs over the years I feel like my golfing education is still under-represented in the Ross genre. While my exposure has been to some of his most widely praised courses, namely, Aronimink, Pinehurst #2, Inverness, East Lake, Oak Hill, Pine Needles, Plainfield, Gulph Mills, Seaview (Bay Course), Scioto, Oakland Hills, Blowing Rock, and Seminole, I never ranked him among my favorite architects. It’s difficult to tell why. Partly, it may be that some of his courses like Oak Hill and Scioto have been changed so that his original intentions might have been watered down over time? While all of them are good courses, aside from #2, none of them left me with a sense of gaga, unless you count the original design at Whippoorwill, although I believe the “wow” holes there were the product of Charles Banks.

The cover of the club's 1923 history with a dapper old-school golfer and his hickory club. He's smiling because he shot a 99!

The private Glens Falls Country Club is located in the Adirondack mountains of New York, about 15 miles from the Vermont border. Glens Falls is located within the 9,300 square-mile Adirondack Park, an area thick with dense forest and lakes. The course is twenty miles from the cultural heart of the region and one of the nicest small towns in America: Saratoga Springs.

Prior to playing Glens Falls my warmup round was at the lush Sagamore Resort nearby, a 1928 Ross-designed mountain course featuring greens as small as the compact set at Inverness. The low-key resort course was the perfect appetizer for Glens Falls and got me prepared for mountain golf: uneven lies and twisting holes routed around knolls through the woodlands. The first hole at Sagamore is especially break-taking with a long view of Lake George in the distance, and it offers an ego-boosting tee shot where your ball drops into the valley below after being suspended in mid-air for longer than usual.

After the delightful round at the Sagamore it was time for the main event at Glens Falls, and what an event it turned out to be. The stock of Donald Ross is rising fast after my round at Glens Falls. 

10 from tee
The tee shot on the 10th hole at Glens Falls, like the tee shot on the first and fourth holes, confronts the golfer with a sharply rising hill with no flag in sight!

The first hole sets the tone for the day. A sub 500-yard par five asks you to start your round with a tee set in the lake to a fairway up a sharply rising hill. It is the first of many blind shots to sweeping fairways with uneven lies. Blind drives on the first, fourth, sixth and tenth and accompanied by blind approaches at the sixth, seventh, eighth, eleventh, thirteenth, and fifteenth. This crafty design element alone is enough to make the course interesting. What puts it over the top is that most holes finish with multi-tiered, tilting greens set on hillsides! 

4th green-001 
The approach to the 4th green, with a devilish swale in front

The par-five fourth hole is a good hole until you get to the green, where it transforms into a great hole. Look at the picture above and note the large swale running in front of the green. It is such an imaginative and tricky hazard, it is no wonder you don't see more of them used by golf architects. The obstacle is as demanding to get up and down from as a sand trap or thick rough (actually more demanding). 

4th swale
A close up of the rude dip on the approach to the fourth green; it is a robust hazard

The sixth hole begins a stretch of four first-rate holes in a row. At just under 400 yards the hole requires both brawn and brains. One of the defining characteristics of Glens Falls is that, aside from the par threes, it is rare to see the hole's flag off the tee (or sometimes even on the approach to the green).

6 back-001
The 6th green looking back up the roly-poly fairway

Glens Falls seems more like a design of Seth Raynor than one of Donald Ross, with sweeping land forms and as many greens in hollows or swales as there are inverted saucer greens like those that Ross perfected at Pinehurst. The 399-yard 6th hole is a case in point, another hole where the pin is nowhere to be seen for the baffled golfer standing on the tee. It is only when you crest the hill that you see the magic of the hole. The land drops precipitously below you culminating in a funky oblong two-tiered green that raises both your spirit and your score. 

The 399-yard 6th hole as seen from the mid-way point of the hole at the crest of the hill 

One of my theories about golf is that you are attracted to courses that mirror your personality. Glens Falls, like Cruden Bay, Whippoorwill and Myopia Hunt Club, suits me because it is eccentric and unpredictable. The capricious nature of a hole like the sixth makes this a delightful place to play the game: Should you try to fly the ball to the hole? Bounce it along the ground? Play a pitch all the way to the left and watch it bound pin-ball style to the right on the two-tiered putting surface? It is so much more fun than a straightaway typical par four where you hit driver followed by an iron through the air to a green with the standard defense of a bunker left and a bunker right.

The 292-yard par four 7th hole, the author's favorite

The exhilarating sixth is followed by the perfectly presented 292-yard par four 7th, a hole that doesn't look like it was designed as much as it looks like it was sculpted. It is a perfectly plotted hole whose aesthetic beauty is difficult to beat: it has a symmetry and sense of proportion to it that Leonardo da Vinci would approve of. Unless you are downwind and have a beefy swing that permits you to drive the green, chances are you will have a blind shot into the treacherous putting surface (pictures flatten out the steepness of hills; this is steeper than it looks). Although it only requires a wedge shot, the short distance the ball must still travel commands your full attention. The club describes the green as a three-sided pedestal, and who am I to argue with their description? The warning from their website: "Other than the greenside bunkers, anything left, right and long is disaster coming back on the green. Forewarned is forearmed. Best of luck." It's one of those holes that makes you think how fortune is shining down on you to be blessed to play this great game. Oh Fortuna!

8 green-1
The eighth green is as difficult as the 18th green at Augusta National. Be below the hole or suffer.

The par four eighth hole doesn't look like much on the scorecard, but then again neither does the eleventh hole at Merion, which plays to a similar length and requires the same steely nerves to hit the correct shot. This is a 362-yard hole where you hit your tee shot into a rising hill. The second shot requires a brawny iron, also played uphill, to a green that slopes down the same hill. Woe betide the golfer who is above the hole. In shades of the 18th hole at Augusta National or the borderline unfair 8th hole at Crystal Downs, this is a sinister green, requiring a deft touch to not roll the ball back down the hill, even when it is lightly tapped. While the members don't have a lot of enthusiasm for the green, your high handicap author chipped his third to within six inches of the flag so I didn't have to suffer from the vagaries of the hole, and therefore I love it!

The front finishes off with a 150-yard par three that sits atop a precarious push-up green. Par is a good score. 

There are as many bells at Glens Falls as Santa's reindeer wear, necessitated by the abundance of blind shots

Before the era of big-money corporate-sponsored PGA Tour golf, professionals would drive from city to city and play for modest purses. Glens Falls hosted a tour event for a decade beginning in 1929. The 1938 event was won by Tony Manero (winner of the U.S. Open at Baltusrol two years before), who beat Gene Sarazen by two strokes, Sam Snead and 1941 Masters Champion Craig Wood by three, and Ben Hogan by a dozen. Snead shot at 66 in the second round before throwing up a couple of big numbers on a course that regularly kept the best in the world in check.

In the pre-refrigeration, pre-air conditioning era, Glens Falls was a desirable summer destination, as was Lake Placid, New York. Upstate New York was a happening place and in the Roaring Twenties Buffalo was three times the size of Houston.  Niagara Falls was a popular honeymoon destination. The Sun Belt had yet to rise in prominence and Atlanta and Dallas were not even ranked within the 25 largest cities in the country. A short drive from several large East Coast population centers made the Adirondacks a cool destination as temperatures rose in the cities.

17 elevated green
The long, narrow 17th finishes with a green perched on top of a knob

The par four 17th plays only 361 yards, but care must be taken to hit the green perched on top of a knob over a small valley. If you hit your drive in the correct spot you have a chance of obtaining one of the few flat lies of your round, enhancing your ability to hit the green. Although the green is effectively on the same level as the fairway, the only small problem is the big chasm you must navigate to avoid a late-round card wrecking score!

The par three 12th hole (not pictured) was another impressive one. A sturdy 223-yard hole, it plays uphill to a green built into a ledge on the hillside, through a narrow chute of trees. Ross designed it with a backstop so that shots long and left ricochet onto the green in a very satisfying fashion. A loose shot landing short and right is an unmitigated disaster down the hill.

The challenging 17th hole from the tee

The shorthand for Donald Ross is his defining work at Pinehurst #2, with  inverted saucer greens, a design element he also used extensively at Seminole. Glens Falls shattered my narrow view of Ross's work. As you would expect from a man who designed 400 courses, his work is quite diverse and impossible to explain so simply. I look forward to playing more of his courses, especially Essex County, Worcester, and Salem in Massachusetts and Fenway in New York, so I can learn more about his varied talents as a master of his profession.

I have an overactive imagination and will often speculate on what I would do if I won the lottery. I have worked in New York City for twenty-five years and while I love the excitement and merriment of the city, it is beginning to wear me down. The day after my ideal visit to Glens Falls was a swampy one, one of those mid-summer stinkers where Manhattan does a fair impression of a Louisiana Bayou. There is a reason Dog Day Afternoon was set in New York City. I couldn’t put on enough talc to prevent chafing on the walk from the train station to my office. You know the feeling: one of those days where you get to your desk and your wife-beater is soaking wet from the humidity. Anyway, it got me thinking of another fantasy to add to my growing collection. The first involves spending the months of January and February golfing in Queenstown, New Zealand, in addition to buying that house in East Hampton and playing Shinnecock, National, and Maidstone whenever I desire. The ever-expanding fantasy includes setting myself up for the month of August in the Adirondacks.

After I dried out, I spent the entire morning stewing about my station in life and thought how lucky my handicap-lying-Glens Falls-member-friend is to spend the month of August Upstate. It would be nice to live life in the slow lane for a while and not get into skirmishes with cabbies who run red lights. My dream goes like this: after sleeping in late at my large Victorian mansion in Saratoga I would stroll down Main Street for a leisurely coffee, followed by some browsing at vintage book stores. I would then drop into PJs Bar-B-QSA for my first meal of the day. This would in turn be followed by a visit to the races at Saratoga Springs, an experience in the world of spectator sports equaled only by attending the Masters. The old-school track has been running races since the Civil War, making it the oldest continuously operating sporting venue in the country, and it feels magical. Sitting in the old wooden grandstand is a delightful way to pass a lazy summer afternoon with the warm sunlight splashing down on you as the unchanged racing scene unfolds at your feet as it has for decades.

The intimacy and non-commercial nature of the Saratoga races on a beautiful summer day is hard to beat

After collecting my race track winnings I'd head up for a leisurely twilight round at Glens Falls. Since that sandwich of burned brisket ends wasn't enough protein for the day, a carnivorous dinner of smoked meats from Oscar’s Smoke House out on the barbecue with a scotch and a large cigar would put me away. August in the Adirondacks is the perfect ecosystem for a life of leisure, and is one of the few places you can still live large away from the hustle and bustle of modern life. Although parts of it are a bit kitschy, the fact that the region was bypassed for decades after the advent of air travel means that it is still unspoiled, with a dearth of strip malls and chain stores, and instead is blessed with an abundance of locally run businesses with real character.

Such an existence would put a smile on my face as wide as the portly 1920s golfer on the cover of the Glens Falls club history!

The timeless scene at the first tee at Glens Falls (across the wooden bridge in the lake) looks the same today as it does in this vintage postcard.