Golf in the Catskills

Have you heard the one about playing golf in the Borscht Belt? Road trip-worthy Catskill courses.


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The Borscht Belt may not be what it used to be, but there’s still great golf

 

 

The Borscht Belt (aka Catskills resorts, for anyone under the age of 50) may be a destination about as appetizing as, well, beet soup, but that doesn’t mean the golf there isn’t, as always, first rate. No, you won’t be able to catch Morey Amsterdam or Myron Cohen in the showroom after your round like you used to, but I’m guessing that fact won’t be a deal killer.

 

From the ’40s right up through the ’60s, New Yorkers escaped the sweltering summer months by heading north and into the mountains for some cooler, cleaner air. During the ugly period of hotel restriction policies, Jews found haven in these resorts that featured a friendly environment and kosher restaurants. Well, widespread air conditioning, casinos, and the end of hotel restriction policies took their toll on the resorts, and today, only a couple remain in full operation.

 

The decline of the old-style resorts sometimes leads golfers to believe that the courses have gone the way of Milton Berle and Red Buttons…in other words—dead.

 

Meshugenah!

 

The resorts, in most cases, are only a shell of what they used to be, so the courses have taken over as the main source of revenue for these once-proud establishments. If you haven’t given any thought to a golf trip into the Catskills—Ach! That’s crazier than paying retail!

 

Let’s take a ride to the Catskills for some golf.

 

The Concord Resort and Golf Club

Kiamesha Lake, NY (845) 794-4000; www.concordresort.com

 

At 7,652 yards, it isn’t hard to figure how the concord’s golf course got the nickname “The Monster.” Joe Finger, the famed architect, designed the course and, if you understand a little bit about what made Mr. Finger tick, you can get some insight into the course. Originally a chemical engineer and an MIT grad, Finger revolutionized golf-course design by setting the same expectations for it that he had as an engineer in the fiberglass industry. He wanted courses designed that would age well with efficiency standards for drainage and irrigation and a consciousness about future budget implications.

 

He built The Monster with his golf coach, Jimmy Demaret, on reclaimed swamp land. The Concord features lakes, bunkers, and pine trees wherever you go, and it’s the type of course that will keep you thinking every time you grip your club. Look out especially for the twin-trunked pine tree that stares at you from the middle of the 18th fairway about 60 yards off the green. Working your way around or through that monster within The Monster will give you something to drink about when you get to the 19th hole.

 

In 1996, Golf Digest rated the Concord, now owned by Westchester developer Louis Cappelli, as one of the best 100 courses available for public play in the country. Everyone talks about the size of the course, but keep in mind that The Monster was constructed in the early ’60s before everyone was all titaniumed up and hitting the ball a mile. An interesting side note is that Finger didn’t even intend to make the course as long as it is. He had planned to build practice greens at the back of each tee, presumably so you could have something to do while the pokes in front of you kept taking practice swings. The practice-green idea was scrapped and another set of tees were thrown in to give the course its monstrous length.

 

Grossinger’s Golf Resort

Liberty, NY (845) 292-9000; www.grossingergolf.net

 

 

There you are, heading up the mountain to get to the course, and what you see is the abandoned buildings of what used to be the famed Grossinger’s Resort. The resort closed back in 1986, and there’s something about a golf course surrounded by a resort that’s been closed for more than 20 years that doesn’t foster confidence about quality. You kind of get the feel that you’re about to be an extra in some sort of B-level, golf-themed horror flick.

 

The only thing B-level and horrific about my experience at Grossinger’s was my back swing, but that screenplay travels with me to every course I visit. Make no mistake, Grossinger’s Championship Golf Course remains top notch. Joe Finger also designed this course (sometimes called The Big G) as well as the Concord, but when you travel slightly north to Grossinger’s, you’ll notice he decided against super-sizing everything. Instead he took the natural lay of the land, used its changes in elevation, and decided to reward the duffer who could place shots and control where the ball went. If you need to vent your emotions and want to really give the ball a whack, stay at the Concord, but if you want to test your placement skills, go to Grossinger’s.

 

Expect to go up and down hills as you make your way around the 18, and count on having more uneven lies than your average congressional ethics committee testimony. The course starts you down some elevation and works you back up the same hill as you get around the 18 holes. There are a fair amount of turns, mostly to the right, and, if you’re lucky enough to get the darned ball to wrap around the corner, you’re not out of trouble yet because there’s a good chance that it’s going to find some sand or pond water when it lands.

 

The par-5s will tempt you with their reasonable distance requests, but what Finger gave you in distance he takes back by requiring placement. The course’s signature hole, the 13th, accomplishes this with one of the very first island greens ever constructed. It’s picturesque if you’re a photographer—but a tad maddening if you’re swinging at a little white dimpled ball.

 

Grossinger’s also has a nine-hole course known, not surprisingly, as The Little G. It was designed by the famed A.J. Tillinghast, who also designed Winged Foot. Expect Tillinghastian tiny, fast greens surrounded by bunkers deep enough to lose a toddler in, as well as a fair number of blind shots.

 

Mohonk Mountain House

New Paltz, NY (845) 255-1000; www.mohonk.com

 

 

This course was designed in ‘97 and it remains pristine. Oh, and, by the way, that’s 1897. The Monhonk Resort is a throwback to a different era with a guesthouse that looks like something out of movie from the ‘20s. Actually, the Matthew Broderick period flick, The Road to Wellville was filmed at Mohonk. Remember The Road to Wellville?

 

No, I didn’t think so.

 

You’ll love the wooden rocking chairs overlooking the lake, the gardens and the mountain nature trails with the beautiful view of the Hudson Valley that seems to go on forever. The food is spectacular and the themed weekends are fun and kitschy.

 

But this is about golf, damn it.

 

First of all, don’t believe the hype—this is not an executive course thrown together to amuse hotel guests. This nine-hole course was designed as courses were a hundred years ago; that is, without consideration for the goofy space-age technology that now allows knuckleheads without an ounce of skill to drive the ball distances that would require two and half gallons of gas if you were to drive. With only 2,707 yards, this is what’s known as a placement course, so put that fat club away, Joey Titanium, and try the game as it was meant to be. That is, by hitting your shots around tricky quirks that Mother Nature threw into the landscape. This is challenging and, make no mistake, unlike that lie your wife has been telling you for years—when it comes to golf, size really doesn’t matter.

 

Like the rest of the Catskill courses, this one is a mountain course with its share of elevation changes. It also adds a couple of punchbowl greens and severe natural obstacles. Take No. 4, a seemingly manageable 375-yarder except for those two century-old trees staring you down directly in front of your tee shot. After you thread that needle (which a camel would have a better chance of getting through), hope you don’t drift a mere 10 yards to the right because then you’re going to be in deep—grass, that is. Let’s face it: you’re not getting through the trees or avoiding the rough, so just plan on that left-to-right cut shot from the tall grass to get back on the fairway and count on a six.

 

Mohonk is exceptional and a perfect mini-getaway that offers a golf and lunch package, so if you want to head that way with your spouse who doesn’t golf (but likes to spa), you can have one of those nicely timed compromises that will keep both of you satisfied.

 

Kutsher’s Golf and Tennis Resorts

Monticello, NY (845) 794-6000; www.kutshers.com

 

 

Kutsher’s remains in operation in much the same way that it always has. There are some of the old-time acts in the showroom and there are the swimming, the tennis, and the activities for the kids. Still, the resort isn’t stellar. Staying there is your call but you can still throw the sticks in the trunk and point the GPS toward Monticello, because the golf remains in good shape.

 

The course was designed in 1958—around the same time, apparently, they last changed the entertainment lineup in the showroom. At 6,843 yards, the course is long enough to begin with but, because of the terrain, it plays even longer. On 13 and 15, you’ll have to deal with a lake off the tees and then, if you clear the water, you’re going to have to hit long shots to uphill greens. Get used to the sight of water because, as you stroll around spoiling your good walk, you’ll encounter five of them, and they’re strategically placed.

 

Kutsher’s considers its 16th hole, a par-3 that plays 219 yards from the back tees, its pride and joy. You’ll be asked to cross some water and somehow get the ball to go right to get to the green. It’s a beautiful hole and, like a lot of holes at Kutsher’s, the trees lining the hole make it tight. So, while you’ll be digging the majesty of Mother Nature, don’t count on being as thrilled with what number you have to put on your scorecard when it’s all through.

 

The Nevele Grande

Ellenville, NY (845) 647-6000; www.nevele.com

 

C’mon, tell the truth: you started singing the song, didn’t you? Aside from the little ditty theme song that conjures up obsessive-compulsive reactions in 93 percent of all people who have ever heard it, there’s lots to obsess about golf-wise at this Borscht Belt favorite.

 

The 27 original championship holes were designed by Robert Trent Jones and then were given an update by one of today’s design greats, Tom Fazio. The course is situated in the valley formed by the Shawangunk Mountains and, as is typical of Jones and Fazio, the natural landscape gives the course its feel. The course is made up of red, blue, and white tees with the red and white being the original 18. Fazio designed these holes and, if you want to see his artwork at its pinnacle, check out the seventh hole on the white course. It features not only an island green but also an island fairway, so I guess I’m going to need to find some sort of pastel scuba suit with a little alligator on the breast pocket for the next time I go to play this course.

 

The Blue Course, originally known as the Fallsview Course, was Jones’s handiwork. At 3,432 yards, it’s not the longest course you’ll play, but it’s set up against a mountain ridge and could possibly be the most scenic. Jones loved to tweak his nose at golfers by incorporating naturally occurring obstacles, and you’ll find plenty of those on his Blue C.

 

Blackhead Mountain Lodge and Country Club

Round Top, NY (518) 622-3157; www.blackheadmtn.com

 

 

 

Despite the name, which conjures up recollections of adolescent complexion issues, Blackhead is beauty to behold. It was designed by USGA Archy Nicholas Psiahas, who wisely decided to use the natural lay of Blackhead Mountain to give the course its terrain. The course meanders its way uphill, forcing golfers to deal with changes in elevation and, because of Psiahas’s design, tight, tree-lined fairways. At around 6,000 yards, it’s not the distance that will get you, it’s the course’s stern request that you make shots. Like a design from an old master such as Donald Ross, the emphasis is on accuracy, not brute strength.

 

That temptation to get in touch with your inner brute will spell your demise on Blackhead’s 17th. This 350 yard, par-4 has its tees cut right into a mountain ledge and the fairway heads straight downhill—which is exactly where your score is going to go if you don’t play this one smart. Because of the elevation change, the hole plays about 80 yards shorter than it looks so you may think you’re going to drive the green. The smart move, though, is to dip it out to the nice, safe landing area. So while you either (a) miss the green with your drive or (b) hit the green only to watch the ball role off the slope to the right, left, or back, you’ll be wishing you’d played it safe and never bought that titanium driver with a head the size of a championship jack-o-lantern. Then, as you curse your uphill lie and the subsequent 9 you get on the hole, you’ll find yourself tempted to go back to that tee on the mountain ledge—not to try again, but to jump off it.

 

Tom Schreck lives in Albany and continues to embarrass himself each and every time he plays golf. His funny murder mystery On The Ropes, A Duffy Dombrowski Mystery, debuts in September.

 

 

 

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