The Buffalo-Niagara golfing landscape has changed a bit since our most recent ranking in 2010. The final courses came to fruition and the building boom came to a close. Those who took up public golf in the 20th century were reconciled to a municipal course or Glen Oak. From 2000 to 2015, seven new and worthy courses came to the region. Many courses did not make our list, but are worth a tour. These include, but are not limited to: Audubon, Brighton, Eden Valley, Grover Cleveland, South and Delaware Parks, and Spruce Ridge.
25. Peak ‘n Peek Lower Course
The Lower Course fulfills its role as complement to its rigorous Upper sister. If there is a degree of elevation change on the Lower, I’ll buy you lunch. The Lower offers great balance for the average golfer throughout. Hole dogleg left and right, allowing golfers of all bends to maneuver their shots half the time. Conditioning is quite good, ensuring that putting is true and fairways are tight.
24. Holland Hills
One of the many underrated courses on this list, Holland Hills sits quietly off Route 16, just beyond the Holland Speedway. The course stretches through the meadows, balancing straight holes with doglegs and one island green! Editor’s Note: BuffaloGolfer has not been to Holland Hills in the past five years, so we are relying on the 2010 review until we remedy that.
23. Dande Farms
Dande Farms has a challenging first hole, as well as a dramatic, closing stretch. Hole #16 is always regarded highly among the area’s better players. The balance of the course is interesting but not memorable. For a humble, country course to claim a spot in the area top 25 is high praise for the conditioning and overall layout.
22. Cazenovia Park
Some might consider it a stretch to list a city-owned, nine-hole layout in the top twenty five of area public golf. If you let Caz grow on you, you’ll understand why. Whether it’s the fairway-level 1st, 2nd, 6th or 9th greens (holes where you cannot believe you 3-whacked or failed to get it up and down), the volcanic 3rd and 5th putting surfaces (where a miss anywhere but short leaves a ticklish recovery) or the hill-benched 4th, 7th or 8th greens (holes whose approach shots demand the greatest of care), Caz is an approach-shot course. Hit your drive anywhere, it seems, until you realize that each of these putting surfaces must be approached with respect and restraint. Conditions relegate it to the bottom five of the list but, hey, that’s not so bad for a little south Buffalo course, is it? Editor’s Note: This review nails the essence of Caz, so we’re not changing one word!
21. Chestnut Hill
Chestnut Hill has a few holes on the upper tier of its property, but the majority sit below the drop. It’s a bit of a shame that the transitions from top to bottom are so abrupt. Rather than a straight-drop par four hole, which happens once on each nine, a bit of diagonal descent and ascent would add drama and quality to the course.
20. Concord Crest
Concord Crest also consists of upper and lower sections, but unlike other courses, it uses diagonals and short par threes to get from one tier to the other. I’m not a big fan of the 90-degree dogleg fourth hole, because it plays as two par-three holes, with no reward for the risk of going for the green. That’s about all there is to complain about, though.
The Fawn nine, Scott Witter’s first solo effort in Buffalo-Niagara, balances Deerwood’s original 18. Built in the 1970s, when length and hazards were all that mattered, the Buck and Doe nines are one-dimensional challenges. Greens are fairly consistent circles, unlike the putting surfaces on the new nine.
The two courses outside the Chautauqua Institute differ vastly from each other. The Lake has the feel of a traditional, golden-age course while the Hill, by necessity, possesses a modern quality. The Lake course offers straight holes from tee to green, not exactly what Donald Ross would have designed. However, some of the bunkering evokes the style of the master. The Hill course winds up into the altitude above the lake, but would benefit from wider corridors amid the tall timber.
17. Elma Meadows
Elma is the challenging, Erie County course, host every other year to the Erie County Amateur championships. It occupies a fine piece of property that could easily host a country club. With the exception of the massive drop off the tenth tee, Elma Meadows utilizes gentle negotiation of slopes, often at a diagonal. Greens are set against deceptive backdrops, disarming golfers on their approach shots.
16. Buffalo Tournament Club
When plans for BTC went on the table, talk of the other new courses in the eastern suburbs was minimal at best. As development of the course moved at a leisurely pace, work on neighboring additions speeded up and suddenly, BTC was the formerly-acclaimed new kid at school who now had some competition. It’s clear that BTC has some terrific land and a more-than-decent course scheme. The shots over the creek (#4 and #7) on the front, along with entire 9th hole, are memorable and challenging. The back nine keeps you waiting for that “wow” hole that never quite materializes. The shot qualities are all in the “B” grade range, but none ever ascends to the “A” level of this lists’s top 8. Buffalo Tournament Club found its nitch in the golfing market of Buffalo’s eastern suburbs and holds it down quite well. A day spent at the Lancaster course is enjoyable and worthwhile.
If you can’t putt, you’re in for a long day in Salamanca. Elkdale is a straight hitter’s paradise, so long as said hitter can putt. The entire course is benched into the side of one of those Allegheny hills and the putting surfaces are 100% influenced by the slop of the terrain. Add well-mowed greens to the mix and you have the exciting and ennervating combination of undulations and speed. If one could hit driver 270 yards and straight at Elkdale, one would have wedge in all day…fortunately, that doesn’t happen and the course asks for its share of mid and long iron approaches. It’s amagical ride down to Salamanca and a worthwhile trip around a well-kept, divergent hill course with all the requisite shot opportunities.
14. Tri-County Country Club
Tri-County is one of the Hill Country courses, along with Byrncliff, Elkdale, Chautauqua, Holiday Valley and Peek’n Peak, that occupy a spot on this list. TCCC made changes a decade ago to its opening holes, strengthening them in the process. There is plenty of rural funk to the course, and you never want to putt from above the hole. The opening-nine holes are much more exhilarating than those on the second nine. If the back nine topography were equal to the front, Tri might threaten the top ten of area courses.
One of two 27-hole complexes to make our list, Willowbrook made great strides in the late nineties with the addition of its north nine. When the owner made the decision to build a third nine, he took great care to study great holes and do his best to emulate them. As a result, some of the more intriguing holes in Niagara county, including two challenging par five holes, are found on this third of the course. Long known as a short and accurate hitter’s paradise, Willowbrook’s older, goofier holes are offset by the newer, substantial ones found on the north nine. Editor’s Note: BG.C is due for a return to Willowbrook in 2015.
Believe it or don’t, Scott Witter is more pleased with Ironwood than with Arrowhead. Certainly the best-known attraction in Cowlesville, Ironwood has no weak holes. Short par fours are guarded by strategic sand, fairway cuts and giant ponds. Reachable par fives are buffeted by appropriate hazards and undulating putting surfaces. Witter invoked the great holes of yesteryear, from the pitch-shot 2nd to the blind tee ball on 3, from the risk-reward 7th to the great Irish flavor of 18. The slightest miscue is all it takes to keep a course out of the top ten and, unfortunately, the green built beyond the pond on 14 is incapable of holding much more than an 8 iron, eliminating the possibility of hitting the green in two or, sometimes, three shots.
11. Glen Oak
One of my favorite success stories is Glen Oak. Back around 2000, knowing that a peck of new courses was coming to the eastern suburbs, Glen Oak dredged its ponds and tidied up what had become a drab old course. Glen Oak, built around the same time as Crag Burn, by the same architect (Robert Trent Jones, Sr.) is a fine, flat farmland course that looks at home in western New York and Florida. Fast forward three decades, turn the same land over to Scott Witter and you’ll have a completely different course. Great holes like 7, 10, 11, 12 and 17 are balanced out by stinkers like the opener and the closer. Were it not for the incredible 11th, Glen Oak might have the worst set of par fives of a top 25 course in the area. It is a credit to the grounds crew that the courses is always in top shape and prepared to offer a quality test of golf.
The cream of the municipal crop in Buffalo-Niagara, no other municipality (town, city, county or state) has a course that comes close to Sheridan. Sadly, what once was and what might have been were even better than what exists today. When the land across Sheridan Drive was sold to developers, the course lost six great holes and replaced them with lines stolen from flat baseball fields. Nevertheless, find a stretch of holes as stirring as the closing eight anywhere in western New York. The dance back and forth across two mile creeek on 11, 12, 13, 14, 16, 17 and 18 is monumental. Return Sheridan to its glory days and the course vaults into the area’s top five.
9. Terry Hills
Terry Hills is a tremendous, little 27 hole complex in Batavia. It is our most eastern course selection and worthy of a spot in the top ten. Each of the nines was designed by a different architect, so if you feel a bit confused by architectural styles, it’s understandable. Terry Hills loves its doglegs, so the majority of holes force you to aim for corners or shape the ball. It has memorable par three holes, sturdy par fours and very interesting greens to putt.
There is no nicer and challenging walk in the woods than Byrncliff. Wyoming county’s premier course moves up and down the foothills with gentle abandon. Known for its par five holes, all of which are reachable on a good day, Byrncliff also has a collection of short but deadly two-shotters. Need convincing? Play the 3rd, 5th, 6th and 13th in even par and you’ll have a great day. 4 and 8 are fine one-shotters, but it’s the boring nature of the back-nine par threes and the uncerainty of 17 (par four? par five? par four-point-five?) that holds Byrncliff back from a higher ranking.
7. Peak ‘n Peek Upper
Gone too soon was WNY’s most stable professional event. The Upper course held its own against the best of the Nationwide tour. Whether it’s the breathtaking drop from tee to green on number three, the throat-narrowing second on the long 14th or the chance to get it as close to the home green as possible on the drive, the Upper Course without question offers one of the top golf experiences in the region. I’m divided over the elimination of #10 and its replacement with number 14 in the flats, below 13 green and 15 tee. Actually, no I’m not. The new hole is better.
6. Holiday Valley
There aren’t many redesigns in western New York, which makes Holiday Valley most unique. Ownership took the brave step to upgrade the golf course to the level of the ski resort and did so in spades. Bringing in Paul Albanese (see Mill Creek near Rochester) was a brilliant maneuver. Albanese improved #10 (the second of consecutive par threes) and gutted the abysmal 11th, making it a playable hole for the first time in its existence. The always-troublesome 17th and 18th were reversed. 17 is now a terrific par five that plays 15% longer than its measured yardage, while 18 is the heroic, downhill hole that it should be, descending toward the clubhouse and finishing over the rocky creek. Oh, let’s not forget some more good and bad: the new tee on 7…shame about 5 (boring par three) and 6 (goofy, walled-off drive), holes that keep HV out of the top five…wait, one more…#14, the gorgeous launch hole to the newly widened and split fairway. Holiday Valley 2.0 is one heck of a golf course.
5. Links At Ivy Ridge
Home to the smartest ownership team in Buffalo-Niagara (who else would have left such an enormous buffer between the course and Main Street?), Ivy Ridge might have the strongest collection of par four holes in western New York public golf. Taking advantage of the central ridge that defines the course and its name, LIR guarantees no similarity between consecutive holes. Even the 9th and 18th, twin two-shotters that wrap around the same pond, require two completely different strategies for success. The par three holes at Ivy (with the exception of the somewhat-mundane 5th) are stellar one-shotters. The centrally-located 6th and 14th, both brawny par fives, narrow a bit too much in their various landing areas to be truly considered great holes. I’ve truly never understood the right-side pond on #6. It’s not for irrigation, so why is it there? Nevertheless, Ivy Ridge is firmly implanted in the top five of the area’s public courses.
The first 18-hole triumph from Lockport import Scott Witter. Afforded a flat piece of farm land occupied by some old Bright Meadows golf holes, Witter crafted a very playable layout with some of the best public course movement in the region. From short par fours to long par fives (and everything in between), Witter proved himself to be a master of his craft and the finest hire for golf architecture around. There are no weak holes at Arrowhead, but a 450-yard par four on each nine would elevate it toward the top three.
3. Harvest Hill
The course in Buffalo-Niagara with the most similarities to the great Crag Burn, Harvest Hill offers the finest collection of par five holes in the area, public or private. The par four holes offer a strong backbone to the course and it is only the tremendous banality of the par three holes that keeps Harvest Hill from threatening the top spot.
T1. Diamond Hawk
This is quite the shocking development: Diamond Hawk jumps from 6th to a tie for 1st in our latest ranking. Here’s the negative: the penal nature of Diamond Hawk is what holds it back in the eyes of many golfers. The owners and managers of the Cheektowaga course listened to client opinions and removed great clumps of briar patch, widening landing zones and light-rough areas in the process. Diamond Hawk is the ultimate strategic golf course; driver is useful but should remain in the bag on 2, 7, 8, 12 and 15…in other words, think your way around the course! The par three holes (3, 6, 14 and 17) offer unique aesthetics and demand four different clubs. The par four holes range from short and tight (#15) to long and demanding (#1, #18.) They move both ways and go straight. The par fives (5, 9, 10 and 14) are as diverse as can be desired, offering looks at birdie and runs at double bogey. The toughest finishing hole in Buffalo cements D-Hawk’s place in the WNY top ten.
T1. Seneca Hickory Stick
It may be the newest, it may have been a bit controversial/newsworthy, but Seneca Hickory Stick has everything that one needs in a golf course for the average amateur and the professional alike. The ground and air games are welcomed at SHS as at no other course in the area. The putting surfaces are complex while the fairway routing demands forethought and planning if success is to be garnered.