Upstate New York: An Overshadowed Golf Region

Oak Hill Country Club. Photo by L. Lambrecht.


When it comes to golf in the state of New York, most of the attention is focused on the New York City metropolitan area—for good reason. After all, it is home to U.S. Open sites Bethpage, Shinnecock Hills and Winged Foot, not to mention courses like National Golf Links of America, Maidstone, Garden City and Quaker Ridge that are among the best layouts in the world.

The stature of the Met Area casts a considerable shadow over the rest of the Empire State. But upstate New York can boast a considerable roster of courses, people and events, not to mention a passion and support for golf that few areas around the country can match.

While the PGA Tour visits one of the game’s shrines, Colonial Country Club in Fort Worth, Texas, both the LPGA and Champions tours are in upstate New York this week: The women are playing the Corning Classic at Corning Country Club, while the over-50 set is playing the Senior PGA Championship, the first major of the year, at historic Oak Hill Country Club in Rochester. (The event will make Oak Hill the only course to have hosted the U.S. Open, PGA Championship, Ryder Cup, U.S. Amateur, U.S. Senior Open and PGA Senior.)

If past form is any indication, both events will be wildly popular, drawing large galleries and offering entertaining, high-quality competition. In fact, in an indication of just how much the locals embrace the sport, the LPGA visits the area twice during the year, returning in June to Locust Hill Country Club outside Rochester for the Wegmans LPGA. And the PGA Tour, which long made En-Joie Golf Course in tiny Endicott, the site of the B.C. Open, will visit Turning Stone Resort in Verona in early October. (En-Joie now hosts the Champions Tour’s Dick’s Sporting Goods Open.) All are within a two-hour drive; that’s a lot of big-time golf for an area far from the bright lights.

This passion for the game also has produced a surprising number of tour pros. Dottie Pepper grew up in the area, as did Jeff Sluman, Joey Sindelar, Wayne Levi and Mike Hulbert.

The area also produced Walter Hagen, the son of a blacksmith, who was born two miles east of Oak Hill and learned the game by hitting balls in a field, Corbett’s Glen, next to his house, and through caddying at the Country Club of Rochester, where he carried the bags of men like George Eastman of Eastman Kodak and became exposed to the lifestyle of the wealthy that Hagen himself would assume as he won 11 major championships.

Oak Hill East, which will play at 7,001 yards for the seniors, has produced some memorable moments over the years. Ben Hogan nearly won his fifth U.S. Open at Oak Hill in 1956, but he missed a two and a half foot putt on the 71st hole to finish one shot behind Cary Middlecoff. Twelve years later, Oak Hill was the site of Lee Trevino’s breakthrough victory. In 1968 he became the first player to break 70 in every round of the Open as he won his first major.

In the 1989 Open, Curtis Strange became the first player since Hogan in 1951 to win back-to-back Opens, and made a heroic walk up to the 18th green. Six years later at the 1995 Ryder Cup, he made the same march as a goat, making a bogey on the final hole to lose a pivotal singles match to Nick Faldo as Europe won.

That ’89 Open was also the scene of one of the oddest feats in golf history. In a period of less than two hours in the second round, four players—Doug Weaver, Mark Wiebe, Jerry Pate, Nick Price—aced the 167-yard 6th hole.

Heroism returned to Oak Hill’s final hole at the 2003 PGA Championship, when Shaun Micheel hit 7-iron to two inches to clinch the title.

Other heroes at Oak Hill have included the course’s designers. Donald Ross built the course, which opened in 1925, and a visitor to the construction site was a teenage Robert Trent Jones Sr.

“He told me the green was the most important feature of every hole, and that every effort should be made to situate it in the most natural location possible,” Trent Jones said later. “‘Always remember, laddie,’ he said. ‘ The green is the heart of the hole.'”

Trent Jones, who became a giant of architecture after World War II, supplemented his empirical training with formal studies at nearby Cornell, where he created a major in golf architecture, returned to Oak Hill to make over the layout in the ’50s. (Cornell is also the alma mater of another influential architect, Tom Doak.)

Not bad for an overshadowed region for golf.