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A New York State of Mind

From Buffalo to Rochester to Syracuse, great courses and passionate golfers await

By Michael Bamberger

PITTSFORD, N.Y.—“I’ve never played golf this far north before,” the Hickory, N.C., golf legend J.T. Poston was saying on Thursday afternoon. He was tired and sun-burned after completing his first round at the PGA Championship. His score was 72, which is outstanding. Most people would be happy to break 100 on the East Course of the Oak Hill Country Club.

“I’ve heard they were way into the golf here,” Poston said. “From Monday on, the outpouring, the support, it’s been unbelievable.”

Believe it, J.T.! You’re in the vortex now! Golf in the great Finger Lakes region of the great State of New York! Good times!

Sometimes, you get to these big events in smaller cities on a superb, time-tested course, with passionate fans on the rope line on cool, windy bright-blue days, and from the moment you get on campus you’re floating. Golf ecstasy. It’s not for sale. It just is. And it’s here.

Kathy Whitworth once told me she could take out of her life everything but her experiences in upstate New York and still have led a rich, full life. Something like that. (Special prize to the first 100 readers who can cite the actual quote, and it’s not from the late and great Miss Whitworth.) For decades, the LPGA had an event in Rochester and down the road in Corning. Lee Trevino, famously of Dallas, is a legend here for what he did over four days in June in the long-ago, largely terrible year of 1968. Good golf year, though.

A broad swath of the stateside golfing population will cite Las Vegas and Myrtle Beach as the great American golf capitals. Others, steeped in country-club culture, will talk about metropolitan New York, Philadelphia and its suburbs, Chicagoland. 

But in actual fact, and you can look it up as you can look up anything these days, three great Lower 48 golfing capitals, for the quality of the courses, public and private, and the enthusiasm from the participants, paying by the quarter or by the green fee, are(drumroll please):

• Minneapolis and the dales beyond it

• Milwaukee, etc.

• Way upstate New York, U.S.A.

Draw a line from Buffalo to Rochester to Syracuse. Add Corning and make it a rough sort of rhombus if you’re so inclined.

Here’s a top five in Rochester alone.

• CCR (Country Club of Rochester)

• Irondequoit

• Oak Hill

• Monroe

• Locust Hill

• Lake Shore

• Eastman

Yes, we know, that’s seven. We’re trying to avoid getting sued here, people.

Brian Peartree, native son of Rochester, has worked every major event at Oak Hill since 1980, when Big Jack won the PGA Championship. At the 1984 U.S. Senior Open (won by Miller Barber) he was a teenager on the tournament’s ecology staff. (Picking up trash.) This year, Peartree, a real-estate investor, is working crowd control in the vicinity of Oak Hill’s grand clubhouse. He’s an avid and well-traveled golfer, and he knows the territory. That is, why his backyard (broadly speaking) is so golf-mad.

“For one thing, we have a short season, May through October and it can snow in May, so you’re getting outside and on the course when you can,” Peartree says. Scarcity yields demand.

Also, riding the north winds out of Canada, this rhombus of which we speak loves hockey, Peachtree notes, and hockey and golf are first cousins, except that one sport is far more violent. (Golf, of course. It messes with your head. Hockey players wear helmets.)

The Rochester Americans, an AHL team, are an institution here. The Amerks (as the team is known to locals) are an affiliate of the Buffalo Sabres of the NHL. Clarke MacArthur, after a long NHL career that included extended stints with the Amerks and the Sabres, is a longtime member at Oak Hill and a lefty, as so many Canadian-born, hockey-playing golfers are. Yes, it’s a real thing.

OK, Buffalo. BUFF-A-LO! Great, great golf town. Let’s bring in an expert here: Mike Finnerty (below), D Flight winner of last year’s Spires Memorial Tournament, staged by the Cazenovia Golf Men’s Club. It is a group of Buffalo golf nuts who play the Big Three public courses in town: South Park, Delaware Park and Cazenovia Park. Now and again, some of the CGMC members are invited to play the big-time private courses in Buffalo: Country Club of Buffalo, East Aurora, Park. There are about 20 others. Yep, short season, intense interest.

Finnerty scaled

“This year, we got started early, late April,” Finnerty says. He was enjoying the sun-splashed patio beside the merchandise tent at Oak Hill, along with a thousand or so others. Spring!

“Of course, it can snow in late April,” Finnerty says. “We play through October. It can snow in October too. But we love it. Just a bunch of retired guys playing two, three times a week, having a couple beers, telling lies about our rounds.”

The good life!

Upstate New York has turned out some major, major golf talent, long after Walter Hagen. We’re talking Mike Hulbert, Joey Sindelar, Jeff Sluman, the 1988 PGA champion. One of Slu’s hobbies, as he described it the other day, is to talk about Oak Hill with Lee Trevino. Sluman, now 65, hasn’t lived in Rochester in years. This week, in town for the champions dinner and doing some TV work, he is staying at the Holiday Inn and Suites and Spa. Something like that. “Haven’t seen the spa yet,” Sluman says.

He is proud to have won the 1981 Monroe Invitational, a mainstay of the Rochester summer golf schedule and an event won by George Burns, Nolan Henke and … Dustin Johnson, to cite three former winners who went on to PGA Tour glory.

Shari Gustin and her friend Mary Therese Owen. Owen went to the LPGA event in Corning for years. Always a good time. Gustin played in a women’s league in Rochester for years. Always a good time. On Thursday in Rochester, they were taking in the golf. Those two and 30,000 others. The front yards by the course were parking cars at $60 a pop and there was more demand than supply. They were taking in the golf, and they were loving it.
Michael Bamberger welcomes your comments at [email protected]

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7 thoughts on “A New York State of Mind”

  1. “I could take out of my life everything except my experiences at St. Andrews and I would still have a rich, full life.” R. T. Jones, Jr.

  2. Brandon Martin

    Ditto for R. T. Jones, Jr. at St. Andrews. I always thought the LPGA losing the Corning event was a sign that that Tour was losing its way. That was a fantastic event every year. Live, hand-kept leaderboard in the middle of downtown.

  3. Nice article Michael – as an ex-pat western New Yorker, I love to see some upstate golf love. I try to take my kids to see the Porter Cup when back home visiting relative. That’s a great amateur event.

  4. I could take out of my life everything except my experiences at St. Andrews and I would still have a rich, full life

    Robert Tyre Jones, Jr. receiving the Freedom of the City of St. Andrews
    Oct. 9, 1958

  5. Had a glorious trip to Rochester several years ago to visit a fraternity brother who headed the Plastic Surgery Dept at the University of Rochester Medical Center. He was a member at CCR (we played there twice — this was shortly after Mickelson shot 59 there. . . I did as well, but then had to finish the last four holes!). A friend of Joe’s was a member at Oak Hill. Great lunch, great grounds with the Champion’s plaques, and great course — pre=Andrew Green renovation which looks incredible — but worst range at a great club. . . hitting balls straight uphill provides little if any feedback. Much like Augusta, television doesn’t show you how much elevation change there is on the course. A great caddy was essential, but it was still hard to wrap your head around how much extra club you needed on some of those approach shots. Played one public course, I think it was called Greystone. A fabulous time.

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