The end of an era...golf course construction halts in western New York
I knew that this day would come…somewhere, in the front of my mind, I had pushed “The End” to the darkest, dimmest, most distant recesses of my consciouness. Throughout my youth, one public and one private course had opened in western New York. Oak Run and Fox Valley are nice tracks, but nothing to set the world on fire. During my mid 30s, I caught the scent of new fairways in the region west of Batavia, the land we locals call “WNY.”
In 2002, Scott Witter’s Arrowhead Golf Club opened in Akron. Witter had designed 9 holes for the city of North Tonawanda, an addition to their 18 hole Deerwood layout. Arrowhead represented his first solo effort and it remains special to this day. Conditioning rises and falls, but the integrity of a design cannot be mistaken. In 2003, less than a mile away as the white orb flies, The Links At Ivy Ridge christened its 18 holes. Built up and along a ridge in Akron, little is “linksy” at Ivy Ridge, but much is good. US Amateur qualifiers and some such have been held there, with Dustin Johnson’s 65 being the course record. The routing at Ivy Ridge, combined with the shaping of Blaine Harrison, leave an indelible trace in each golfer’s memory.
2004 saw the arrival of Buffalo Tournament Club in Lancaster. Tim Davis, the designer of record at Fox Valley, saw his own course dreams bear fruit less than a 1/2 mile from his first course. BTC has taken a bit longer to grow in than its neighbors in Akron; in 2010, the course’s conditioning finally reached its potential. In 2005, Witter’s second solo effort, Ironwood Golf Course in Cowlesville, to the southeast of Buffalo, threw down its tee markers and called out, play away. Hewn from the farmland and woodlands of the edge of the Allegheny foothills, Ironwood is a gambler’s paradise. Nearly 6500 from the tips, it feaures three reachable par fives and at least as many driveable par fours. The short and straight hitter will score well every day, while the bomber might toss 70 one day and 90 the next. Sadly, the downturn in the economy and the saturation of the industry forced Witter from the field in 2009.
Nevertheless, the courses kept coming. In 2006, two courses from Michael Hurdzan’s Columbus (Ohio) firm posted their first tee sheets. Harvest Hill, in Orchard Park, and Diamond Hawk, in Cheektowaga, could not represent more distinct styles of play. The former is a spacious, parkland design reminiscent of the Tillinghast/Burbeck masterpiece on Long Island, Bethpage Black. Diamond Hawk is a snug gem built on reclaimed dumping grounds across from Buffalo-Niagara international airport. More than any course in upstate New York, Diamond Hawk plays fast and firm, like a links. Whether its the high winds that buffet the neighborhood or the effects of dumping on the original soil surface, your shots react as they might in Scotland, Ireland or New Zealand.
2010 welcomed the final piece in the 7-part puzzle, to the north of Niagara Falls. Fresh off his triumphant effort at Chambers Bay, Washington, Robert Trent Jones II’s Seneca Hickory Stick took its first bow. With an average piece of property, littered with ponds, RTJ2 had nowhere to go but up and down, and he did. The course plays through wetlands, yet always offers multiple options to players. Unbeknown to me, another gem to the east, Timber Banks from the Nicklaus Company, also opened its doors last year. A two-day trip to play RTJ Senior’s course at Cornell, followed by a trip around the new Nicklaus track, was a triumphant and memorable trek.
2011? It brings a reality check. The run was a great one, 8 years of new courses in an area overwhelmed by municipal courses more concerned about the bottom line. To be sure, those munis will bring in their consistent buck from residential, season-pass holders. For the munis, though, the times have changed. In order to compete with the 7 new, high-end public-access courses, conditioning will have to improve. In the end, Buffalo-Niagara gained impressively. Its residents stand to benefit for years to come.
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