Originally Published December 2010
My holiday tribute to the golfers of western New York is an honest assessment of the state of public golf in our region. Judging byt the recent openings and consistent upgrades, it’s never been healthier. Options run wild for affordable or high-end golfing experiences in WNY, which might explain why second-tier country clubs are scouring the tee sheets for members and first-tier clubs have reduced their initiiation edicts. I decided to make a list of the top 25 public courses in Buffalo-Niagara, going as far east as Darien Center (but not Batavia) and as far south as the Pennsylvania border. Many worthwhile courses like Audubon, Brighton, Beaver Island Hyde Park and Oak Run found themselves just beyond the list. To say that they are not worthy tests of golf would be facetious. As lists go, some make it, others do not. The list is yours to use as you wish. To keep the drama, I’ll begin at #25 and work my way to the top.
Top 25 Public Courses in Buffalo-Niagara
25. Peak ‘n Peek Lower Course
In a word, complementary. The lower course does not benefit from the undulation and elevation changes of the upper course, but it is a fine fit for the opening spot on my top twenty-five public course list. The holes work their way over a flattish piece of land but are never boring. Conditioning is top notch, probably the element that allows the Lower to grasp the final rung on this 25-rung ladder.
24. Holland Hills
One of the many unknown jewels 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!
23. Chestnut Hill
If you’d like the lowdown on Chestnut Hill, read Rico’s Rants rant # 9 from this year. Chestnut Hill is a meat-and-potatoes course that does more tournament rounds than any other local layout. Fine conditioning balances out a benign layout and elevates Chestnut Hill into the elite 25 of area public courses.
22. Dande Farms
Another humble country course, Dande Farms often gets overshadowed by its neighbors, #s 3 and 5 on this list. Nevertheless, it was good enough to produce the Brodziks, Gary Neuschel and Ken Bugenhagen, some of the finest amateur golfers in WNY during the 1970s and 1980s. Known for its absolute lack of sand traps, Dande Farms also blends an open front nine with an enclosed inward half to merge two unique styles of golf.
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21. 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?
20. Concord Crest
This southern Erie county course grew little by little…nine holes followed by nine more and voila! 18 interesting holes. The piece of property holds five holes on the upper shelf, along with one that transitions from top to bottoms, and the remaining dozen or so in the lower bowl. Concord Crest is not afraid of rock walls that front par three greens, nor consecutive short par fours, nor heroic par fours with greens that bench into a hillside. A solid if short course that easily finds a home in my top twenty.
19. South Shore
About five years ago, this link to golf’s golden age of architecture was at a low point. As one friend liked to say, “a bunch of unsupervised kids with chemicals are burning out the greens and fairways.” South Shore tried everything, including lights along the closing holes, a dome and a shortened first hole. To outsiders, it appeared that the Styles/Van Kleek course was on its way to foreclosure and a quick sale to developers. The rennaissance of the Hamburg course lies in the hands of an invested ownership family and a commited superintendent. South Shore occupies an elegant piece of land and contains a series of memorable holes. The approaches to #3, #7, #10, #11 (from the back deck) and #14 make full use of the creeks that work their way through the course. The laying of the fairways utilizes the flow of the land well. Unfortunately, the par fives are weak and minimal/ineffective bunkering relegate the course to its present location.
For many years, the key to Deerwood was length. Back in the days of wooden heads and rubber-band ball guts, it opened with along par five, a long par three and a long par four. Add the prevalent winds to the mixture and you might be 3-4 over par before heading to the fourth tee (thankfully, a short par four.) In the late 1990s, plans began for a third nine and the entire blend of the course changed. Scott Witter (see #3 & #11) took a compact tract of land and maneuvered a series of fairly shot (versus par) but challenging holes and created the third and most interesting nine at the golf course. Unlike the original eighteens, where straight and long is the order of the day, Fawn nine employs short and medium-length par threes, angular short par fours and hidden green sites to create a happy place for shotmakers.
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.
16. Elma Meadows
One of four municipal courses that occupy a spot among the heralded twenty-five, Elma Meadows takes complete advantage of the ground over which its course is laid out. It’s no coincidence that local high schools hold their X-Country championships here. Elma Meadows is a compact course with an excellent routing. No single hole nor stretch of holes offers anything less than diverse horizontal and vertical movement. The course begins with a quintet of challenging and memorable holes, closes its front nine with four solid offerings, then begins its back nine with two oppsoing forces: a short and straight par four, followed by a long, doglegged two-shotter. The pace at Elma never gets too demanding, nor does it ever let up. Conditioning is decent for a muni and that’s all you need for an affordable and interesting 18 holes.
15. 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.
It would be nearly impossible to suggest that either course at Chautauqua (unlike the two courses at Peek ‘n Peak) would be deserving of a spot in the top 25 at the exclusion of the other. Taken together, however, the golfing compound situated high above the gorgeous, southern-tier lake and intellectual retreat merits a mention in my list. Chautauqua benefits from above-average conditioning and a great deal of interesting land, not from the architecture. While Donald Ross is listed as the designer of the Lake course, it would surprise me if he ever spent time on site. Ross was know for sketching layouts based on topographical maps, then delegating the work from afar to his field supervisors. His Lake course does bear many of the characteristics of golden-age architecture, with little earth movement and siting of greens and bunkers in places where the land and the the golfer’s intuition would expect (for better and worse) to find them. Xen Hassenplug’s Hill course has longer and more modern holes, and works its way through more trees and elevations than the exposed Lake course. One could do far worse than schedule 36 holes at Chautauqua during the summer of 2011.
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. 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.
12. Tri-County Country Club
Tri-County made some upgrades a few years back to its second hole, tunrning the stretch from yet another short par four to a challenging, three0shot hole (unless you’re Jake Katz…more on that later.) Tri-County is a transitional step away from the professionally-designed hill course (see #10 and #11) to the “a local guy somehow got it right” type of layout. The piece of property out in Forestville is singular, with holes moving quickly up and down the equivalent of mild blue diamond slopes on the front, before flattening out for the most part on the back. The length of the course is on the home nine, with most of the trickery taking place on the front. Competitors in the BDGA Individual championship last summer (2010) had, for the most part, never seen a course like this one and it eventually showed, with lots of lost patience. And Katz? Well, he hit driver-7 iron to the second hole for eagle in the final round, on his way to a convincing victory.
Believe it or don’t, Scott Witter is more pleased with Ironwood than with Arrowhead. Certaintly 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.
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.
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.
8. 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.
7. Diamond Hawk
Diamond Hawk is a clear 6A, tied with Holiday Valley for the first slot in the second five. The penal nature of Diamond Hawk is what holds it back from a greater assessment. To their credit, the owners and managers of the Cheektowaga course have listened to client opinions and have made efforts to remove great clumps of briar patch and widen landing zones and rough areas. 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 toughest finishing hole in Buffalo cements D-Hawk’s place in the WNY top ten.
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, to great reception. 17 is now a terrific par five and 18 is the heroic, downhill hole that it should be. Oh, let’s not forget 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. Nevertheless, Ivy Ridge is firmly implanted in the top five of the area’s public courses.
4. 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.
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 cradt and the finest hire for golf architecture around. The absence of a 7000 yard deck and occasional conditioning issues relegate Arrowhead to a third-place finish.
2. 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 relative inconsistency of the par three holes that keeps Harvest Hill from the top spot.
1. 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.