River Oaks Golf Club, designed by the late and mad Scotsman, Desmond Muirhead, is quite unique among private clubs in western New York. Opened in 1972, the course hosted LPGA events its first two years of existence, then later served as course for informal Pro-Am events that included PGA tour players. The course measures longer than any other course in the Buffalo District from the tips (nearly 7400 yards) and serves as a monument to what can be done by golf course architects and shapers to change the topography of a flat piece of land.
Holes 1-3: 348, 392 & 498
The first hole at River Oaks appears to ease the golfer into the round. In truth, only the drive is simple. With no fairway bunkers and light rough on either side of the fairway, the tee ball is straightforward and downhill. The approach must be kept below the hole and must also avoid three of the many bunkers that inhabit the course. The putting surface is circular in nature, with a pair of diversions from the sphere. With short iron or wedge in hand, anything more than 4 is considered a failure here. The second hole might be the
toughest drive (although not necessarily a fair one) in the area, owing to the overhanging (and unnecessary) trees on the right side of the hole. When leafy, any shot played from right to left is eliminated. This wouldn’t be so bad if the fairway did anything but kick hard left, which it does. From the member tees, driver is not necessary; from the tips, it is. After negotiating the perils of the tee ball, which include three bunkers and a pinched drive zone, the approach is played uphill to a tri-bunkered putting surface of considerable size. Putts of over 60 feet are possible on this grand green. The third hole is the first of the three-shot variety, although this one yields the second opportunity for birdie. The tee ball is played over the faux-dune on the left side of the drive area, semi-blind in appearance. Muirhead was a fan of double and triple doglegs made by fairway mowing lines and number three might be the finest example. A single fairway bunker on the right protects the landing area, then six more await inside 100 yards. In truth, the second shot in is fairly simple, leaving a short pitch or chip at most. The green is tilted toward the fairway, but is not extraordinarily undulating. Putts can be given a good run here.
Holes 4-6: 435, 190 & 381
The fourth hole is often more challenging than the third, despite measuring 50 yards less in length. The hole plays slightly uphill and most often, into the wind. Two bunkers frame the right side of the drive zone, although the left-sloping fairway does its best to help the ball to avoid them. The second shot, played with hybrid or fairway metal, must avoid a sizeable front left bunker adjacent to the green, along with a back bunker and a left side sand pit. The green is enormous, bisected by a ridge, and site of many a long approach putt. The fifth hole, the first one-shot device, plays to a wide green protected by an acre of sand front middle and right. Another sizeable bunker (albeit dwarfed by the front one) protects the back. The smart play is to hit the left-center portion of the green and take the benign, mid-range putt for 2. Anything that dares to challenge the right side of the green must challenge the bunker. The sixth hole offers another cool drive, akin to the third hole, but better. This one finishes completely out of site, in a dell that slopes from left to right. High
left is the best line to take, as two hungry fairway bunker claim shots that stray too far to the right. The approach comes in with a short iron or wedge, to another deep green, well-protected by three more sand pits.
Holes 7-9: 586, 194 & 417
The meat of the front nine is found on these three holes. Seven demands three superior shots, well-planned and well-executed. The tee ball avoids left and right bunkers in the drive zone, the second shot is seduced by the siren call of the line of charm (the left/short side of the fairway) and must aim itself at the distant fairway bunker right to have a clean third in. The hole bends left at the 150 yard mark, from which point a crisp third must be struck, one that avoids a large front-right bunker and two of its mates, front left and back center. Another large, bisected green, this one with a severe false front, makes chipping and putting an affair. The eighth, the second short hole, plays in Redan fashion from front
right to back left. The kick plate is not as pronounced as it should be, so balls hit right might end there. The large pond to the left and front-left of the green proves to be a severe hazard. No shot is more frustrating than the one played to the front portion of the green that hangs up there, leaving a long, speedy putt to the back left hole location, with watery demise waiting behind the green. The ninth is similar to the first in that it plays to a wide, wide fairway; dissimilar in that it plays uphill and much longer than the opener. Keep the tee ball left to avoid the bunkers right and to open up the better line to the green. Three bunkers constrict the putting surface, although it is still gigantic by golden-age standards. A less-than-inspirational hole, the ninth still provides an adequate close to a memorable front side.
Holes 10-12: 408, 376 & 596
The back nine begins with two stout holes and one beguiler. The tenth demands an accurate and strong drive to reach mid-iron distance in. Drives into the slope often yearn
for roll that never comes. The second may be played with as much as 4-iron, to an elevated green, well-protected by two strategically-placed bunkers. The green, sizeable as the rest, still demands a superior air game to be reached. Despite Muirhead’s Scottish roots, the ground game is rarely an option at River Oaks, a shame. The eleventh hole is a mid-length par four that doglegs severely around an out-of-bounds line. Too far to the right and you find trees. The second shot plays directly uphill to a green benched into the hilltop, albeit not at all flat in nature. When speeds are up, this green is by far the most treacherous on the course. More sand guards this green, although the approach may be played safely to the left front portion of the green. The twelfth hole is another gargantuan par five, though not as constricted as number seven. A poorly-placed cart path (not necessary; are they ever?) eliminates the potential for a truly-unique drive zone, forcing the golfer left and closer than necessary to the water. The second shot is played center-right, again to avoid the wet stuff and also to position one’s approach into a green split vertically by a ridge and protected by a front swale and back sand pit. Due to the length of the hole, five is always a relief.
Holes 13-15: 431, 174 & 404
Yet another meaty, three-hole stretch. Thirteen plays oddly, with a tee ball to a left-sloping drive zone, on a fairway that moves up and to the right…completely counter-intuitive. To make matters worse, the tee ball must carry right-side bunkers to reach position A, yet not stray to the right, where position Trees awaits. Balls that run out to the left, often find water. The approach avoids bunkers front and back right, the green is again enormous. In fact, it is safe to say that two things are consistent at River Oaks. One is the steroidal size of the putting surfaces. The second is the absolutely boring nature of the par three holes, which leads us to number fourteen. The third of the one shotters, fourteen
differs from its predecessors and from number sixteen only by virtue of being twenty yards shorter. Each of the four par threes at River Oaks measures hybrid or long-iron distance, each plays over a hazard to an elevated green, each is extremely penal. After a while, one years for a shorter pitch and, truth be told, I would probably play two of the four par threes from the white tees, were I a member, to avoid redundancy. Nevertheless, fourteen demands a fine tee ball, as the green is pitched from right to left and crucifies a poor putt with little mercy. Fifteen is a fine and deceptive par four with a challenging tee ball and another ruthless approach. Muirhead tilted this green from right to left, then plunked a huge bunker front right, precisely where a runner would enter the green. His bunkering is backasswards here. The sand should be front left, save the pulled approach from a watery grave. Instead, he steers the approach toward the water, an unnecessarily sadistic move on his part. For shame, Muirhead, for shame!
Holes 16-18: 184, 495 & 398
River Oaks closes in fairly memorable fashion. The sixteenth is the final short hole, played from a slightly elevated tee to a teardrop green. Bunkers pinch in the bottom, yet a bit of room is left to bounce a ball in (as long as the superintendent avoids Muirhead’s sadistic tendencies and cuts the rough short.) The green is tilted but does not move as quickly as it appears. The seventeeth is a heroic hole, another half-par-minus that presents a true opportunity for birdie or eagle. A solid drive, inside the left fairway bunker, bounds on and down the fairway, leaving hybrid or metal into the green. The right side should be avoided, as it is all fescue and trees. The second is played inside the starfish bunker left, about 60 yards short of the green, to a sizeable putting surface. Keep the ball left on both shots and you should have a run at birdie. The home hole is a bit whacky, in keeping with Muirhead’s
leading toward the daft. A huge and stupid tree sits in the middle of the fairway, for absolutely no reason. If it were gone, tee balls would still run into the pond that bisects the fairway, or would stop short, leaving a downhill approach to an uphill green. Ironically, the hole that least should offer the running approach, due to the downward-sloped fairway, is the one that leaves the front of the green unprotected. Silly, really, as approaches that land short will rebound straight up, finishing shy of the green. You’ve seen this green before, slightly tilted, mainly round and huge. Great routing, uninspired greens and a few silly touches.