Understand from the get-go that this is a private “course” ranking, not a private “club” list. The difference, you ask? Glad to clarify. “Club” includes all the amenities that sometimes accompany the centerpiece (the golf course.) This site enjoys a drink and a dip from time to time, but the number of tennis courts, shooting fields, pools and oak bar rooms have no impact on this ranking. In order to gather 25, we had to scour from Lake Ontario to the Pennsylvania border, from the shores of Lake Erie to east Batavia. To get to 25, we gave a nod to one Canadian club whose membership boasts quite a number of Buffalonians. Truly, there are others that deserve to make the list, but we could not in good conscience keep any WNY courses off the ladder. In the end, we have a list that we hope engenders discussion and debate.
A fine course in Dunkirk, it has neither “shore” nor “wood,” nor memorable holes. The entire 18 rests on a flat piece of land and the holes tend to go back and forth, parallel to each other. Conditioning is pretty good and a few local events have been played there.
24. Tan Tara
Also a fine course in North Tonawanda. Tan Tara would rank near the top twenty if not for the awful decision to begin and end each nine with a par three hole. #1 and #18 are very good holes that come at the wrong time in the round. All four short holes play across the same ditch. Throw in the goofy, 90 degree 11th and you have three unappealing holes. Tan Tara does have some excellent holes in the interior of the course, but is hampered by a practice range that takes up prime land in the middle of the property.
Shelridge ranks 23rd by virtue of having fewer awkward holes. It has some excellent newish holes on its more recent nine, yet many of the older ones still end in inverted turtle-shell greens that are very difficult (in a bad way) to putt and chip.
Bartlett is one of two private clubs along the southern Tier expressway that merit a trip down. The course is not long but makes use of its length in excellent fashion. Molded into the Olean hillside, Bartlett also takes advantage of rises and falls and suitable green sites. The conditioning is excellent, which brings it into the top 20 discussion.
Gowanda would be a bottom-three private club without one fatal move: the retention of Scott Witter as architect. Witter changed 3-4 holes in the middle of the back nine, creating one of the area’s most spacious and dramatic par five holes. Like Bartlett, Gowanda benefits from very good conditioning and meandering terrain that adds character to the course the way sideburns fill out a face.
What can you really say about Westwood, other than it is a solid course with good conditioning? There is no elevation change to speak of, until the 18th hole. The greens at Westwood are typical William Harries, not very inspired and quite uninteresting. There are no distastefully weak holes on the course, yet there is little consistency in design to elevate the course above its fourth-five placement.
19. Lockport Town & Country Club
Now we start to get into some mildly interesting layouts. Each of the next eight has just the right number of weak holes to remove it from top-ten consideration. At Lockport, the contrast between the original nine and the modern one is stark; the original holes lay on a rumpled piece of land that moves up and down with abruptness, ending in a flat, boring and weak 18th hole. The newer nine extends over two or three (hard to tell) separate pieces of land to the north-east, and possesses one of the worst par five finishes (#14 and its fronting moat) in the region. That it comes on the heels of the elegant 13th, also a par five, is grating.
This classic course, the site of Ben Hogan’s final stateside tune-up, prior to winning his only British Open title (1953) is reminiscent of Bartlett (#22) on a grander scale. The same Allegheny foothills give character to the fairways and mystique to the greens. Very rarely do holes run parallel, offering the notion of a journey, rather than a well-trod path.
17. Fox Valley
Like many a private club in Buffalo-Niagara, Fox Valley suffers from a lack of space. Tim Davis did the best he could with the available terrain; the flood plain he had to work with was equal parts inspirational and diabolical. Who among us has gazed in awe at a drive from the elevated 15th tee, only to arrive at the ball and curse the prospect of wedge-wedge into a reachable par five? Fox Valley makes a straight driver out of all its members, yet affords them the occasional, open-field lash at a reachable par four or five. Its drop-shot 6th hole is rivaled only by the Park Club’s 13th for beauty.
16. Transit Valley
The most claustrophobic course in Buffalo-Niagara, Transit Valley gives new meaning to the words “restrained” and “containment.” No matter what the estimate of available acreage might be, it is doubtless less in reality. Transit is made up of 18 solid holes. Brilliant ones like the 3rd and the 5th are balanced out by wretched ones like the 12th and 14th. The two “valley” courses have much in common; both place too much of a premium on driving accuracy, both long for more land and both fit comfortably in the middle of our list.
The pull of a gorge is mighty! Springville benefits from a natural phenomenon that no other course in wny boasts. The deep gorge to the south draws shots on 4, 12 and 13 with a sense of inescapability. The club had the common sense to purchase land to the north and utilize in-house talent to replace 3 weaker holes with a triumvirate of broader brush strokes. Fast greens and a wide variety of approach shot demands make Springville the first member of our “fine fifteen.”
14. Orchard Park
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 i) 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.
13. Niagara Frontier
It must have taken serious daring “back in the day” to build a golf course over broken ground. Maybe it was easier, since you could place tees and greens on opposite sides of ravines and not worry about tending the space in between. This course has its fair share of these holes, some that breach a major chasm, along with others that run on and through a minor chasm. The piece of the puzzle that completed the image was the abandonment of some claustrophobic holes and the addition of three more in the western hollow. The new holes look more Florida-TPC than old school, the only negative that keeps this NFCC out of the top 10.
12. East Aurora
The most demanding drivers course in the area, there is not a single hole here that can be considered a wide-open driver. For the average adult, driver stays in the bag on nearly half the par fours and fives. The shots into the greens are less arduous, then the putting takes over. There is a reason that an international junior tournament is held here: it takes young nerves to conquer this course! EACC contains many of the area’s memorable holes, but don’t leave your patience or your punch shots in the locker room.
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.
Metro Buffalo’s hidden gem. Lancaster has more solid par fours than most courses in wNY. The 18th hole was a forgettable par three in the original design, but now plays as a driveable, risk-reward par four. The greens at Lancaster slope phenomenally and are wicked when fast. The blind, par 3 8th hole is unique in the area.
Western New York’s hidden gem. Not many outside the inner circles of golf and the membership have been to Stafford. One of Walter Travis’ pieces of mastery, the Batavia-area course boasts humpty-dumpty greens that demand acuity from the tournament player and a sense of humor from the average chop. The front nine begins and ends with stout, challenging par fours; the inward half begins and ends with drivable two-shotters (quite the irony!) The Travis quadrilateral (Stafford, Cherry Hill, Lookout Point and Orchard Park) is, in a rival sport’s lexicon, quite the round trip.
The double-asterisk identifies the one course on both lists (private and public) that BuffaloGolfer has not played. A google-earth tour of the property, along with the reputation (state amateur championship site and local renown) of the course place Wanakah in the top eight of our listing. Might it rank higher or lower? Of course. When we have the opportunity to finally play the track, we’ll re-rank (if necessary) accordingly. Until then, Wanakah’s true worth will remain as mysterious as the identity of its designer/architect.
This course is solidly anchored in the top ten of area club courses. Designed by the enigmatic William Harries, Brookfield does not share the inspirational greens of Cherry Hill (where Harries was a member.) The course is solid from tee to green, although it employs far too many straight holes with little interruption from tee to green. Brookfield is the victim of technology is well; two of its more unique holes (13 & 14) are bisected by a creek that now comes into play for longer drivers, never an issue with wooden clubs and balata balls. Brookfield replaced two holes in the 1990s. The new second is a triumph, while the unfortunate third is a bunker-dominated par three of less worth.
6. Niagara Falls
From a tournament perspective, the Porter Cup is in a class by itself. From a golf course point of view, the question begged is, is it Tillinghast? Cornish? Trent Jones? Niagara Falls ranks in the second-five of area club courses for the simple reason that its architecture has no definable identity. The course has undergone so many changes over the years that many would be surprised to know that #18 was once a short par four! The Lewiston tract of land is equal parts subtle roller and garishly-bunkered post modernist. Without equal are the greens; their subtle and obvious undulations are the match of any surfaces around, despite the location of many of them on flat, uninteresting ground.
5. Cherry Hill
The lone Canadian representative might as well be a US course, right? Cherry Hill has the “it” factor, a characteristic unique to its terrain…all putts run fast toward Buffalo. Uphill and toward the Queen city? It’s fast. Downhill and away? It shall be slow. It’s not grain, it’s not the drop off the escarpment, but it is something! Ian Andrew’s remarkable bunkering efforts of the late 20s, combined with Mother Nature’s winter thinning of tree copses, opened up and closed down Cherry Hill in new ways. And, lest we forget Raymond Floyd’s whining, the 18th green is the most iconoclastic golfing element of our region.
This Colt-Alison offering lies serenely below Sheridan Drive and represents the most eponymously-named club in the area. The golden-age design team
utilized the central spine of the escarpment to develop the finest drop-shot par three (#13), a back-to-back rise and fall tandem (#14 & #15) and the
most dramatic closing hole in the area. If that weren’t enough, the fifth hole might be the best par three around.
3. Country Club of Buffalo
At times, the third iteration is the charm. After stints along Elmwood Avenue and at Main-Bailey, the CC of B retained Donald J. Ross to build the area’s golden-age masterpiece. One of the original quarry courses (Merion in Philadelphia being the other), CCB uses non-traditional terrain to provide stark shot selections over a lush canvas.
2. River Oaks
Desmond Muirhead was known to be a wildly-influenced (although not influential) designer. What he did on Grand Island was carve and mound a series of golf courses (depending on the tee deck that you select) within one 18-hole stretch. If there is a more challenging stretch of approach shots in the region than 10-13 at River Oaks, it ain’t by much. Only a finishing stretch of disputable merit keeps River from challenging Crag Burn for the top spot.
1. Crag Burn
The undisputed champion will likely remain the best private course in western New York for years to come. The usual forced carries and penal bunkering of Robert Trent Jones, Senior are not in evidence here. Instead, RTJ, Sr. crafted a thoughtful, serpentine layout replete with optional routes from tee to green. Crag Burn is known for its lengthy 2nd hole; in our opinion, #2 is only the 3rd-best par five on the course! The only flaw to the course is the absence of a driveable par four on the back nine, to complement the 3rd hole of the outward nine. Often mistaken for a links course, Crag Burn bears the greatest of resemblances to the fine heathland courses of the British isles and is a worthy occupant of the local private course throne.