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A Walk in the Park: In a New York State of Mind

By Jim Edwards, TravelGolf.com Senior Writer

NEW YORK, NY - The USGA chose the Black Course at Bethpage State Park in Farmingdale, New York as the site of the 2002 United States Open Championship, the first ever hosted on a publicly-owned facility. Many saw the decision as confirmation that there are great golf venues beyond the private club or resort course.

The Black Course at Bethpage is only one of the twenty-seven State Park courses located throughout New York State. Many of the courses were designed or modified by famed architects like Robert Trent Jones, A.W. Tillinghast, Alfred Tull, Geoffrey Cornish and William Mitchell.

Courses from Niagara to the tip of Long Island make up the system, which is so pervasive that it is hard to find a location in New York that requires more than a two-hour ride to a State Park course.

Because they are state-owned, the green fees are inexpensive. The Black course at Bethpage is the most costly in the system with green fees of $31 on weekdays and $39 on weekends. The average fees for the rest are closer to $20.

Although they are inexpensive, they are not second rate courses. Here's a sampling of three:

Bethpage

The pendant in the necklace of State Park courses is Bethpage (at right), home of the largest publicly operated golf facility in the nation. Besides the famed Black Course, Bethpage features four other 18-hole regulation golf courses, all rated three and a half stars or higher by Golf Digest. In all, the Bethpage courses, located only 30 miles from New York City, host nearly 300,000 rounds per year.

The Black Course, designed by A.W. Tillinghast, opened as Bethpage's second course in 1936. The USGA provided $3 million dollars in 1997 to upgrade and restore the course under the supervision of Rees Jones. A sign near the first tee reads, "The Black Course is a very difficult golf course, designed for highly skilled golfers only." The slope from the tips is 148 with a rating of 76.6.

Tillinghast also designed the Red and Blue Courses and redesigned the Green, Bethpage's first course. In the late '50's, Alfred Tull designed the newest course, the Yellow, and at the same time, redesigned Tillinghast's Blue.

Montauk Downs State Park

Out on the very tip of Long Island is Montauk Downs State Park Golf Course. This scenic 18-hole course is one of the first golf courses designed by Robert Trent Jones.

Both tees and greens on this course are elevated, and the course often requires difficult approach shots. The greens are fast and the breaks subtle. The 6,762-yard, par-72 circuit is rated at 73.3 with a slope of 133.

This is a difficult course in the wind, and it is always windy.

Green Lakes State Park

Green Lakes State Park in Fayetteville, 7 miles south of Syracuse, is yet another early Robert Trent Jones course. The park is named for two glacial lakes surrounded by upland forest.

Due to a lot of elevation change on the course, the scenery is spectacular, and it is difficult to find an even lie in the fairway. Greens are demanding.

A little easier than the other two, the 6,212 yard course carries a 68.4 rating and a 113 slope.

History

If you wonder how the State of New York got into the golf course business, the history of James Baird State Park in Pleasant Valley, NY is pretty typical.

James Baird was a very successful contractor whose firm constructed the Lincoln Memorial and the Folger Shakespeare Memorial Library in Washington, DC. He was also an avid golfer. He retired to a farm in the Hudson Valley in 1936, but when his health failed and he had to move to Arizona in 1939, he donated his farm to the State of New York to be used as a recreational complex.

Earlier, in 1924, Franklin D. Roosevelt had been appointed chairman of the Taconic State Park Commission, where, among other duties, he guided construction of the Taconic Parkway that runs in front of James Baird's farm. No one was surprised when, in 1940, construction of the state park was begun by FDR's Civilian Conservation Corps.

Robert Trent Jones designed the course, and it was about 40 percent complete when World War II broke out. During the war, development of the park was abandoned.

Work began again after the war, and on June 19, 1948, Gene Sarazan and Ray Billows, a six-time New York State champion, teed off in an exhibition match to open the course.

Even though rates are currently very reasonable, they are higher that the $1 weekday and $1.50 weekend 1948 rates. Long gone too is the $25 unrestricted half-season ticket. But even at today's prices, a round at James Baird is a steal.

Playing James Baird

There is something very familiar and comfortable about the design of James Baird. Stepping up to the first tee is like putting on an old sweater. You feel like you have played the course before.

Maybe it's because of the generous fairways, or the predictable front-left and right Robert Trent Jones bunkering, or the way the course melts into the terrain, but whatever it is, the course calms your nerves and asks you to play your own game. But it better not be your "B" game.

James Baird makes you work the ball both ways, with predominant draws on the front, and fades on the back. The greens provide numerous difficult pin positions and subtle breaks. The course is refreshingly asymmetrical with a par 34 front, and a par 37 back that includes three par 5s. In spite of the 119 slope and 70.5 course rating, the pars are surprisingly hard to come by.

The most interesting holes on the course are the par 3s and par 5s. The 3rd is a gem of a short par 3 with a downhill 117 yard tee shot. It is fairly easy to be on the putting surface, but hard to stay below the hole where you need to be in order to avoid a likely three-putt.

The par-5 6th tee shot is downhill and asks for a draw. The second (also a draw) and third shots are sharply uphill to a well-contoured green.

The 12th, a 216 yard par 3, calls for a very accurate tee shot either through a gap in the trees, or over them.

The par-5 13th is the signature hole for the course. The middle yards of this 560 yard hole traverse a narrow corridor of trees and a fairway that slopes sharply into them on both sides. It is not unusual to see this hole played with three utility woods, or three long irons. Even well played shots will be struck from uneven lies.

The 17th green demonstrates some of the difficulty you'll find on James Baird's putting surfaces. The green is very long and narrow, and slopes off both its false front and the rear. About midway is a mound on the right hand side that carries the approach left. With some pin placements, your birdie target for the approach might be as small as a four-foot circle.

The only real shortcoming of the course is its irrigation system. Over the years it has fallen into disrepair, and even though there are plans to replace it, no state funding seems likely this year. The course browns out badly in the summer, so play it either before June or after the middle of September.

With the combination of good courses and inexpensive rates, it makes sense to put a State Park course into your New York travel plans.

New York State Park Courses

Battle Island State Park Golf Course - Fulton, NY 13069
Beaver Island State Park Golf Course - Grand Island, NY 14072
Bethpage State Park Golf Courses - Farmingdale, NY 11753
Bonavista State Park Golf Course - Ovid, NY 14521
Chenango Valley State Park Golf Course - Chenango Forks, NY 13746
Dinsmore Golf Course - Staatsburg, NY 12580
Governor Alfred E. Smith/Sunken Meadow State Park - Kings Park, NY 11754
Green Lakes State Park Golf Course - Fayetteville, NY 13066
James Baird State Park Golf Course - Pleasant Valley, NY 12569
Jones Beach State Park Pitch and Putt Course - Wantagh, NY 11793
Montauk Downs State Park Golf Course - Montauk, NY 11954
Pinnacle State Park Golf Course - Addison, NY 14801
Robert Moses State Park Pitch and Putt Course - Babylon, NY 11702
Rockland Lake State Park Golf Course - Congers, NY 10920
Sag Harbor State Golf Course - Sag Harbor, NY 11963
Saratoga Spa State Park Golf Course - Saratoga Springs, NY 12866
Soaring Eagles Golf Course/ Mark Twain State Park - Horseheads, NY 14845
St. Lawrence State Park Golf Course - Ogdensburg, NY 13669
Wellesley Island State Park Golf Course - Fineview, NY 13640

Jim EdwardsJim Edwards, TravelGolf.com Senior Writer

Jim Edwards is a reformed software developer who now writes programming books and magazine articles. His work has appeared on the pages of Sierra, Outdoors, Backpacker, Yankee Magazine, and National Fisherman. Living with his wife Ali in Beverly, Massachusetts, he reviews courses and resorts from New York to Nova Scotia. A lifelong, avid golfer, he hopes someday to play his "usual game".


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