In 2011, Mo’ Golf (that’s me) published a Top 25 private courses list in Buffalo-Niagara. Lists are fun to scan, if only to contrast with what you might have written or listed or ordered. 2014 brought the unfortunate demise of one area private club: Westwood. A friend has done a great deal of research into Westwood’s creation, as it was generally attributed to William Harries. The friend, whose work I expect to publish this year on BuffaloGolfer, has determined that Willie Park or A.W. Tillinghast or William Harries or Geoffrey Cornish or all of them in some form or fashion…whew…were involved in the building of the nines. If you want to learn more about this lost golf course, read this thread on Golf Club Atlas.
Back to business. It’s now 2015 and it is time to update and reduce the Top Private Courses list to 24. Many golfers confuse conditioning of a layout and architectural excellence. Lush, green fairways and thick, penal rough are frequently listed as reasons to rank a course highly, when often the opposite is truer. When public-course players have an opportunity to play a private club, they make these mistakes and miss the beauty of the routing, the strategy of bunker placement and the subtle rolls of the putting surfaces.
Unless a wholesale rearrangement of holes is undertaken, a golf course is what it was created to be. For that reason, the top courses will always be just that. They were built by masters of the architectural craft, for clients who wished to have a top-shelf golf course. All of them have undergone recent restorations or have hired new superintendents to take the club to the essence that was created. Not a single hole on any of these courses lacks some feature that is memorable. Trees encroach in a way that restricts the playing of proper shots from either direction. If pressed, this tier includes the top seven clubs on the list.
The next tier of courses includes layouts that are similar to those in the top tier, but something is missing. Perhaps the architect didn’t use the land as well as he might have, or a renovation was made that disrupted the classic flow of the layout. Some hole on the course makes you scratch your head and wonder how it fits within the overall scheme of the layout. This tier runs from the 8th to the 16th or 17th notch. The final tier of courses is made up of fine private clubs with decent to fine courses. Multiple holes fall below the level of excellence and trees become a nuisance.
The main theme of this year’s rankings is trees. Yes, they are pretty and yes, they give us oxygen. However, their long shadows and roots destroy golfing turf, making grounds keeping a nightmare for superintendents. In addition, trees eliminate exchange of air and the sweeping vistas that enhance the dramatic nature of topography. If greens committees would lose their affinity for planting tree after tree after tree, they would certainly gain an appreciation for strategic golf and more enjoyment in the process.
I’ve played Shelridge twice in my life. Once was around 1982, in a junior league match. The other was in the early days of BuffaloGolfer, about fifteen years ago. Shelridge is a country course that serves its constituency well. It harbors no illusions of grandeur and it has no architectural pedigree to do such a thing. Its name honors the two towns (Shelby and Ridgeway) in which it sits and it welcomes golfers of all ages for play.
23. Tan Tara
Tan Tara is similar to Shelridge in that it serves a clientele who enjoy each other’s company. The golf course is nothing to write home about, although it is eminently playable and in good shape. The uniqueness of Tan Tara is found in the start and finish of each nine: par three holes playing over the same creek. Someone thought this was a catchy idea at some point, but history has shown that it didn’t quite catch on.
What elevates Shorewood to the number-22 position is the few holes that stand out as excellent. The courses below it have no holes of this ilk. At Shorewood, the par-three sixth is a brilliant little pitch to a well-protected green. Steady your nerves and have at it. The sixteenth is a marvelous, short par four, with water up the right side near the green. On the merits of those two holes and given the solid, unspectacular remainder of the course, Shorewood finds itself a bit higher than the last ranking.
I need to get back to Bartlett. I haven’t played it in a while and I always think back to it and wonder what I missed. Like many courses, it was built in two stages. The current layout blends original and new holes on each nine. On the club website, a tree-planting program is lauded as important to the definition and tightening of the golf course. Good architecture (bunkering, interesting greens) and conditioning (proper mowing lines, chipping instead of thick-grass recovery) are what might make Bartlett even more memorable. The original holes (1-5 and 15-18) are very interesting, as is the 6th, my favorite among the new holes. The biggest knock on Bartlett is the lack of dogleg holes. Only the 6th and 8th move with any sense of angle, leaving 12 par fours or fives that hardly stray from straight.
Gowanda was the beneficiary of some early 2000s work by Scott Witter, designer of Arrowhead and Ironwood. The holes that were revamped are in the middle of the course and add a great deal to the layout. The course moves across a rolling piece of land and sited many of its greens on interesting tufts of high and low ground. The shape of the greens tends toward the circle. Easier to mow but harder to distinguish from each other, the putting surfaces might offer a bit more intrigue and interest. Gowanda offers a nice blend of straight and doglegged long holes, giving it the boost it needs to make the top twenty.
19. Fox Valley
Tim Davis’ first solo design. Not the most agreeable piece of property. Plenty of holes are memorable, but not always for proper reasons. If pressed, we could list two-thirds of the holes that are quite good and one-third, for one reason or another, that aren’t up to snuff. For example, the third, fourth, seventh, and eighth holes on the front nine are excellent. The first (drive zone too narrow), fifth (no hole should dogleg ninety degrees, ever), sixth (green is too small for the shot required in) and ninth (driving over trees to the fairway?) are in need of some attention. On the back, you note the fine line between great and huh? Fifteen should relocate its green short of the stream and become a par four. Sixteen is a great risk-reward hole. Seventeen is a stout par three and eighteen has too severe a green (and a drive zone in a flood plain.) There is no doubt that Fox is a challenging course and typically in fine condition. It is the inconsistencies of the overall routing that relegate it to its place in our ranking.
18. Lockport Town & Country Club
The original nine holes at Lockport are located on the primary piece of land, adjacent to the club house. They current number holes 1-5 and 15-18 and bear a distinctive, golden-aged feel. Interestingly, balls may be run onto the greens of the longer holes, while the 2nd, 15th and 18th (all par three holes) demand a carry shot to the green. The newer holes were creatively arranged, since neighboring property was hard to come by. The 6th and 14th sit on a sliver of land due north of the original nine, while holes seven through thirteen sit diagonally across Cold Springs road, bordering the Erie canal. Of these holes, the tenth and the thirteenth are weak, as they demand carries over enormous ponds located in unfortunate places. Long hitters should never be penalized, and both holes do precisely this. Of the new holes, eight, twelve and fourteen are excellent, as they offer options to the golfer while preserving the challenge and strategy of golf.
Moonbrook is yet another course that I need to revisit. Something about those Jamestown-Olean courses, I guess. Moonbrook has teeth and offers great topography. The course sits on a hillside, overlooking interstate 86. The terrain is hilly and many fairways take advantage of these elevation changes to climb or tumble vertically. Irrigation ponds come into play, but are usually found just off the tee, requiring a modest carry to reach fairway or putting surface. The impact of the hills is felt on the greens, as putts break away from the summit with alarming speed and curve. Moonbrook is not a heavily-bunkered course, although it does have a few more trees than necessary.
16. Transit Valley
I’ve changed my perspective on Transit Valley, thanks to Google Earth. Looking down on the course from above, it becomes apparent that the course feels hemmed in not due to overall acreage, but to the choices made by superintendents and green committees. Stand after stand of pines leans in on the golfer as she/he attempts to navigate the golf course. Fairways could be widened without tempering the difficulty of a hole. Transit’s greens are bunkered and elevated, so an approach shot from the wrong angle will be demanding, even if played from the fairway. A bit of in-house tree removal would do wonders for the playability of many holes.
Springville is the greatest overachiever in terms of western New York private clubs. It doesn’t have the pedigree of the top seven courses, but it makes the most of a terrific piece of property. In the early 1990s, the club eliminated two unplayable golf holes, added three new ones and altered two more. The work was all done in-house, saving the club the exorbitant fee that another local club paid to have a “name” architect come in to build replacement holes with no connection to the rhythm of that golden-age course. Springville benefits from its proximity to the Spring Brook gorge, and the holes that run along it (12-14) have a swashbuckling nature. Adjacent to that triumvirate is another sequence that feels the pull of the river. The remaining holes are located on high ground, yet all have some unique character that makes them memorable.
Editor’s Note: I haven’t changed this description from the 2011 list, since no changes have been made at Brierwood.
The pros had their share of trouble when a Hogan (now Nationwide) Tour event was held here in the early 1990s. Brierwood may have more space than any other club course in the area; in contrast to its immediate predecessor, when don’t you take out driver here? Despite its apparent openness, the course tosses in a hole made narrow by a creek, a ravine or a stand of trees from time to time. The ultimate combination of challenge and accessibility for players of all lengths and ability levels elevates Brierwood above courses of similar worth.
13. Niagara Frontier
Niagara Frontier might occupy my favorite piece of golfing ground in western New York. If an architect of greater appreciation, say a Donald Ross or a Walter Travis, had done the original work, we might write of it in the same way we discuss the top five area private clubs. That said, Frontier is still a tremendous course and is an enjoyable walk. Most are tired by now of my anti-tree rants, but a bit of clearing here and there would benefit Frontier. The par-four tenth, par-three eleventh and par-four sixteenth are three of the great heroic holes in the district and make the concluding nine unforgettable.
12. East Aurora
One of the reasons that younger golfers tend to perform well in the annual International Junior Masters is their lack of distance. Tempted to hit the driver, they can. Since they don’t drive farther than 240 yards, they usually don’t get into trouble. East Aurora, due in part to the swamps and in part to the trees, is not a driver’s course. It is a layup course in this day of enhanced distance. The irony is that East Aurora could widen its fairways, trim back its trees, and bring driver into play with ease. It comes down to what the members want. If you’re on your game, you’ll love your day at East Aurora. If not, here’s hoping your wedges and punch-shot recoveries can compensate.
11. Orchard Park
Editor’s Note: I haven’t changed this description from the 2011 list, since no changes have been made at OPCC.
I’m not saying that the destruction of holes 17 and 18 ruined a Travis design, but it sure ruined the integrity of a Travis design. Holes like 3, 4, 8, 10, 14, 17 and 18 absolutely bathe in the golden-age glow; they are a call from an earlier time and an invitation to play the land, not the air. In complete contrast, holes 5 and 13 are so out of proportion and style (5 may be the single worst hole on a good course in the area…in fact, it is!) that one is grateful that the two are placed on separate nines. Any closer proximity and the complete flow would be disrupted. You’ll remember 16 holes at OPCC for their wonderment; hopefully the new ones won’t make a lasting impression.
I still haven’t played Wanakah, but I’ve toured it enough to now know what it offers. I expected it to be a much more undulating property than it is. No doubt there are drops and climbs, as found on one and two, and on ten and fourteen. For the most part, Wanakah moves along the slopes, rather than against them. Would the course be more engaging and memorable if Willie Watson had taken more risks? Who is to say? He did design some shockers, like the little par three fourth. Its terrain looks like throwaway turf, but the green undulations and bunkering are world class. The fifteenth is the par three that everyone remembers and it is quite dramatic. Coupled with the dangerous third shot to the fourteenth, one anticipates a strong finish. Unfortunately, sixteen is benign and seventeen looks more like a Florida TPC hole than a golden-age classic, with its pond and rock wall. Each nine closes with a solid yet forgettable par four. If the first and tenth holes were reversed to finish uphill, bringing drama to the end of each nine, Wanakah might be more highly regarded.
The more I see of Lancaster, the more I like. Little Buffalo creek traverses the course in a horizontal fashion, making its presence known but never in an overly-threatening manner. The holes up by Broadway are the least interesting, but there are only two of them and the remaining sixteen holes more than make up ground. Lancaster throws surprises at you, especially on its par three holes. Four and fourteen measure no more than 180 yards from any tee, yet the precision of a gem cutter is required to find the putting surface. Eight plays straight downhill to a green located in a hollow. It feels like a short four but doesn’t have the length. The climb uphill to the ninth green is unexpected and invigorating. The back-to-back par fives at 15 and 16 aren’t quite back-breaking, but they certainly keep your attention as the round winds down. No matter how tempted you are to take a run at the 18th in one, use caution. You might reach the putting surface, but you probably won’t.
8. Niagara Falls
It says much about the back nine at Niagara Falls that it can overcome the front nine. Niagara Falls’ front nine is a nice, parkland country club nine, worth of location in the mid-teens of this list. There are memorable holes, like the new second hole, the green surrounds on five, and the hourglass green on seven, but for the most part, the holes are not earth-shattering. They are challenging, mind you. Then you play the tenth, a wonderful short par four with a deceptively-large green. And the eleventh, with its massive, drive-zone bunker and challenging green. And the twelfth, with its treacherous little putting surface against the beckoning creek. And the holes keep getting better, all the way to the par-three finale. If you’ve never paid the Boy Scouts parking fee to watch the Porter Cup, you should make plans to do so this year. You’ll understand how Niagara Falls leaps over some other courses to secure a place in the top ten.
I had the opportunity to play Stafford a few years back in a NYSGA state days event. Another Walter J. Travis course, Stafford sits just outside of Batavia and is claimed by both Buffalo and Rochester as its own. We’ll share, but it’s ours today. Stafford has the finest putting green in western New York on its 11th hole. If you’ve played it, you know it. If not, try to get out there in 2015. The greens at this course are its strength, and that’s not meant to be a criticism of the routing, which is splendid. Yes, there are plenty of tree-lined corridors, of which I’m not a fan. Travis was smart enough to give plenty of width between those arboreal stands and the current superintendent is no fan of thick rough. As a result, Stafford plays fast and firm and demands that you think before you execute. I’m nearly as enamored of Stafford’s threes as I am the ones at CCBuffalo, with only the 8th at Stafford not measuring up.
Two asterisks follow Brookfield above, since the Clarence club puts the finishing touches on its own renovation in 2015. Mark Mungeam was hired to review, renew and restore bits and pieces here and there. Word from the members is most positive, but they might just be a bit biased. I’ve seen the project plan for the work and it’s idyllic. Mungeam and the board of directors didn’t seek to reroute or redo the golf course. The biggest changes from a standard of par are found on holes seven and eight. Seven was always a bear of a four and eight, a mild five. Now seven, with a new tee and some creative bunkering, is a five and eight, with tees pushed forward, is a more proper four. I’m looking forward to getting out on Brookfield in 2015 to see the work for myself.
5. Cherry Hill
Cherry Hill, along with Country Club of Buffalo, benefited handsomely from Mother Nature’s heavy hand in the storm of 2008. Trees came down, vistas returned and Cherry Hill committed to more tree removal and a bunker restoration from Ian Andrew. The Walter J. Travis design is ageless, challenging golfers with its grainy greens, gently-angled doglegs and strategic approaches. Most members spend time away from the grind of western New York at a nearby beach house. Ahh, the life.
4. River Oaks
You find some nutty-looking bunkers at River Oaks and that should come as no surprise. Desmond Muirhead was a cross between sagacious Scotsman and new-age visionary. He was grounded in the essence of the auld soil’s game, but embellished it with a blend of urban planning and mythological inspiration. There are no Mermaid holes at River Oaks, but from tee one to green eighteen, there is a rolling romp across hills and valleys uncommon to Grand Island. To be fair, Muirhead pushed up that wave with soil he removed from this declivity. The fairways are wide yet segmented, just as the greens are spacious and picaresque. There is always a better side from which to approach a hole, so position your drives and your approaches well.
Park Club underwent a restoration just after Country Club of Buffalo. Ian Andrew, a golden-age expert, took the gorgeous course that sits below Sheridan drive in Williamsville in a retro fashion, back to its Charles Alison roots. Subtle changes are seen in the walks from green to tee, where chipping areas have been restored from thick, gnarly rough that grabbed wedges and frustrated near-misses. Trees have been removed and bunkers have been refinished. The result is a true walk in the park, albeit in a way that has the golfer scratch his head for the proper reasons: which hole was my favorite? what’s the best way to approach that green? how did that putt break that way?
2. Crag Burn
Robert Trent Jones, sr. was a wonderful builder of golf courses and a wretched renovator. If given the opportunity, he could lay out masterpieces like Dunes Club in South Carolina, Golden Horseshoe in Virginia and Crag Burn in East Aurora. If you needed someone to help out your golden-age layout, you should have called someone else. Crag Burn is a heathland golf course, laid out in its majority on the open spaces of a former horse farm. The membership, made up of the area’s best, low-handicap golfers, likes its primary rough high and its greens fast. If that’s not your thing, play Crag Burn in the spring or fall, before its teeth are sharpened. You’ll enjoy the transition from open space to woodland and back again.
1. Country Club of Buffalo
CCB underwent a year-long restoration in the early 2010s. Ron Forse and team assessed the golf course and returned 97% of it to what Donald J. Ross jr. envisioned when he laid it out in the 1920s. The only element not around during that roaring decade was the beloved red maple on hole #17. The membership could not bare to part with it, so the fairway there was not returned as far left as it originally lay. CCB has four marvelous par three holes and two demanding par fives. The remainder of the course is meaty, unique par fours that call for shots from left to right, right to left, short and long.