James Baird is standout in vaunted state-park courses

Airline restrictions on oversize baggage have prompted many to rethink the notion of bringing them along for, say, an afternoon’s diversion following a morning meeting and preceding a flight home. But even when it wasn’t such a chore, this reporter has been reluctant to recommend that any trip to New York City include golf.

That’s different, of course, than going New York City specifically to play golf, preferably successive rounds at Shinnecock, National, and Sebonack. Trouble is, though, you’ll need some juice to finagle these invitations. What if you either don’t have it or don’t have the time to invoke it?

I recently played two avowedly public layouts – the course at James Baird State Park and Pound Ridge Golf Club — each roughly an hour’s drive from mid-town and each clearly superior to anything within the city’s collection. The two are by famous designers — Robert Trent Jones and Pete Dye – respectively, but there the similarities end abruptly and they form an interesting pair of bookends for public golf here.

Would you book a weekend or other semi-extended stay centered on these places when the city is within hailing distance? Perhaps not, although given the abundance of non-golf recreation that both enjoy, you certainly could. In addition, comparative neophytes in the region’s geography will enjoy this sampling of the city’s network of northbound parkways, which offer some brochure-worthy driving when the weather cooperates.

I was fortunate to drive to both of the courses on weekend days, so traffic was generally light, but the commute’s part of the fun in any event. Certainly beats taking the No. 4 train to the end of the line to play Mosholu.

Considering how badly run New York is in most respects — the state legislature is a public disgrace, for example – our inventory of state parks, and especially golf courses, is awfully high-quality. There is, of course, the formidable, five-course Bethpage; much less appreciated is the standard of most of the rest of the 21-course stable, including Saratoga Spa, Montauk Downs, and Green Lakes, to name just three.

The last of these is an early design by Trent Jones, who went to school at nearby Cornell, where he also eventually designed the university’s course and a career’s-worth of others in the region, of which James Baird is another incipient example of the master’s hand, dating to 1948.

A number of eventually standard Jones design features are already in evidence, beginning with some strapping par 3s – 213, 216, and 214 yards among them — over water or wetlands. The 8th features a horseshoe-shaped tee, with all distances to the center measuring 159 yards, that will reappear in subsequent Jones projects – Virginia and Nevada come to mind but given his prolificacy, there are undoubtedly others.

Also like much of his work to follow, the course seems “big,” although at 6,616 yards, par 71, slope 119 from the back tees, it’s quite easy to walk.

(The park itself occupies a site of 590 acres, donated by James Baird, a contractor and engineer whose firm constructed the Lincoln Memorial and who stipulated that the Pleasant Valley plot would remain a park.)

Two of us did so with rented pull carts ($3) for a total of $64 on a Sunday morning. The area has been experiencing a dire drought and the fairways were brown, though the greens were lush. In fact, the firm and fast conditions did nothing to detract from the playing experience, as balls tended to roll through fairways into fescue thin enough to find them but long enough to make solid contact problematic.

James Baird is accessible from the Taconic State Parkway, some 12 miles north of the junction with I-84. http://www.stateparks.com/james_baird.html. (914) 452-1489

The other end of the maintenance-green fee spectrum is found in Pound Ridge, New York, in the farthest reaches of Westchester County, nearly coterminus with Connecticut. It is, as the media material notes, Dye’s only design in the Empire State.

Opened in 2008 after an expensive permitting-and-construction process, the question has always been whether the market existed for daily fee play in sufficient numbers. But Pound Ridge seems to have rolled with the punches throughout the economic downturn; the original asking price, $275, has been reduced; and the club has begun offering some creative membership plans, presumably for frequent players for whom country-club membership is suddenly not a priority.

The superintendent has also softened some of the more punitive features that drew complaints when the place opened, though at 7,171 yards from the tips, it would obviously be plenty tough.

There are some really great perspectives from time to time on Pound Ridge, it’s in great shape, eminently walkable, and the staff couldn’t be more helpful.

Pound Ridge Golf Club is just off the Merritt Parkway, roughly 40 northeast of Manhattan. www.poundridgegolf.com/, (914) 764-5771.

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