Hudson River Valley rich in lesser-known privates

The thought seemed to occur to me and my wife more or less simultaneously, somewhere on the back nine at Dutchess Golf & Country Club, in the county of the same name, 90 minutes north of Manhattan:  This light, the vivid fall atmospherics, is sui generis, an archetypal feature of the region, seen nowhere else.

I had first noticed it as a transplanted Chicagoan attending college upstate.  Artists of the Hudson River School had, of course, beaten me to the punch by a century or so, capturing the mix of brilliance and melancholy washing over the landscape.

Our fascination with this singular illumination seemed congruent with our “work,” too, which was to get a sense of place of this private Poughkeepsie club.  Southeastern New York has so many exclusive, household-name golf clubs – Winged Foot, Shinnecock, National – as to obscure the rich diversity of private golf in the region.

In that sense, the area mirrors parts of the British Isles: Golf devotees will invariably want to play iconic courses but can also stumble on some first-rate golf experiences, often with distinguished architectural pedigrees but completely off the radar.

And truth be told, the vast majority of us find more-than-ample golfing challenge in lesser-known courses.  Indeed, devil’s advocates would say that popular acclaim is antithetical to country club membership in the first place. The club should be both a familiar old stomping ground and a world unto itself. Whatever these places lack in “contemporary” difficulty they more than make up for in character and accessibility.

What we found amazing is the constellation of such environments throughout the Hudson Valley, including the modest but representative sample below.

As pleasant surprises, it’s tough to top Dutchess, in Poughkeepsie.  Sharing a small segment of one periphery with a strip-mall-clogged thoroughfare, the layout lulls you into its unexpectedly precipitous topography by the 2nd hole, a quirky, short par 4 with a whale-shaped fairway and a downhill approach to a small, pitched green.

The first nine holes, completed in 1897, in the earliest days of golf clubs in America, were designed by a Scotsman from the venerable Park family, and noted regional golf course architect Devereux Emmet praised the course, though his involvement in the second nine holes is unclear.  Dutchess’s provenance means, of course, that all 18 holes were constructed without earth-moving equipment, making the dramatic landforms – the towering tabletop green of the 7th hole, a long par 4, for example – all the more stunning.  Its pre-golf-cart-era vintage means it was also designed to be a great walk, which it is.

Thus, while Dutchess may not be on the PGA’s rota, it is the only golf course to have hosted all championships of the New York State Golf Association.  There’s a warm but unassuming clubhouse here, with a display case detailing some of the club’s golf lore – the logo says, simply, 1897 — but no swimming pool, no tennis, etc.  As head pro Tommie Monteverdi points out, some 90 players out of the 230 total are single-digit handicappers.  The place is about golf.

It seemed fitting that Dutchess was about to embark on an inter-club match with Mahopac Golf Club, just down the Hudson.  Situated on the north side of the bucolic Lake Mahopac, the club’s history actually stretches back to 1893, when nine holes were designed by Tom Bendelow.  The existing 18 holes, designed by Emmet, were begun in 1900 and completed in 1913.

Just 6,514 yards from the most-distant tees, Mahopac is a men’s par 70 – in the old-time tradition, women’s par is 72, with strokes, rather than forward tees, adjusting for gender differences – with much of the intrigue occurring in the green complexes.  They are small, steeply contoured, and several include an antique design element rarely seen in modern tracks:  putting surfaces sloping from front to back, making approach shots treacherous.

Mahopac’s comparatively compact routing nonetheless requires spot power, including a 601-yard par 5 (No. 7) and a 460-yard par 4 (No. 16).  Mostly, though, you’ll be scratching your head over the greens.  Fortunately, there’s a friendly bar and a real family ambience, as head pro Terence Hughes and staff offer numerous junior, beginner, short-game, and other game-improvement clinics.

Just up the Taconic State Parkway, in Hopewell Junction, is Branton Woods, evidence of continued golf vitality and that pedigree isn’t inscrutable.  Opened in 2001 to great acclaim as a high-end daily fee – “your country club for the day,” as the expression had it – the club has gradually morphed into an all-private facility.

Branton Woods is also one of the earliest creations of Eric Bergstol, the construction-industry magnate cum golf course developer-architect who has gone on to design and build the epic Bayonne Golf Club.  His Empire Golf also offers reciprocal playing privileges at seven of its other courses in the metropolitan area, a concession to the more peripatetic tastes of the modern golfer.

Like its clubhouse, the level of golf-course conditioning at Branton Woods is contemporary, but the design retains the rolling contours of the bison farm that preceded it.  There’s usually room to hit the ball off the tee, but plenty of strategy in the approach to the green, especially in risk-reward situations like the 4th hole, a par 5 reachable in two.  Partly due to the inclusion of copious wetlands into the layout, it is spread out and most members ride, not walk, another aspect common to today’s game.

In terms of longevity, Rockland Country Club, on the other side of the Hudson, is somewhere in the middle, having been opened in 1928, designed by Robert White during the second golden age of American golf course architecture.  Thus, while the nearby Palisades are never visible, the tumbling terrain echoes their presence.  Still, greens and tees are in close enough proximity to recommend walking.

And even though – or especially because – Rockland is in Sparkill, just a short drive from the George Washington Bridge and mid-town Manhattan, it seems all the more the “find,” the unextravagant clubhouse perched above Route 9, the golf course invisible behind it.  Short at just 6,538, par 71 from the back tees, the trick here is to pick the correct club in the face of huge changes in elevation and hard-to-hold greens.  There is also the signature hole, No. 8, a par 3 with a long forced carry over a pond.

The inviting clubhouse looks out over the first fairway and hints at the vistas to follow, as well as the elaborate, voluminous plantings that serve as accents throughout the course.

# # #