More of WNY's best golf courses
Story and photos by Ronald S. Montesano

Darwin Martin house
Ironwood's 14th, at the tee.
Photo by Ronald S. Montesano.
The recent spate of outstanding golf-course openings on both sides of the US-Canadian border continues a pattern that dates back over a century. The Niagara region is a hotbed for capable golf course architects and fine course designs. Prior to the 1990s, Western New York counted one accomplished local landscape architect who dabbled in golf courses, and one other designer of international stature. Around the turn of the millennium, two transplants began to make a name for themselves with local 9 and 18-hole productions. Buffalo Spree continues a look at local golf course architecture with a transition from the golden age of golf course design toward an era of modern machinery and ideas. The unique and distinctive works of four principal course designers shape the work done locally since the Great Depression.

William Harries was the only local gentleman making anything close to a living/career out of golf course architecture between the two great wars. A landscape architect by education, he was unfortunately caught in an era when local development tended away from his area of expertise. Harries was unable to secure a number of high-profile commissions for the simple reason that money was not available. Looking back at his body of work, three types of Harries courses are discernible. The first type was characterized by great land but an average budget. The second classification was blessed with great land and bolstered by a great budget. The final grouping was saddled with both average land and an average budget. Into the first category we place Byrncliff, Sheridan Park, and Elma.

The second includes Brookfield and Niagara Frontier. The third are Audubon, Beaver Island, Hyde Park, and Brighton. William Harries was a member at Cherry Hill, designed by Walter Travis, yet Harries demonstrates very few of the characteristics associated with Travis’s fine Ontario country club. Harries’s two predominant features seem to be the falling off of greens to the sides and back, and false-front bunkering (the location of sand bunkers ten to twenty yards away from the putting surface). If viewed in separate and isolated pieces, his body of work is clearly dependent on the whims of the client. When given the opportunity, he designed interesting, challenging layouts; when the budget or the land restricted him, well, he did the best he could.

Buffalo Tournament Club
Buffalo Tournament Club, 7th hole, at the tee.
Photo by Ronald S. Montesano.
Robert Trent Jones, Sr., an architect of international stature, was the father of modern golf course design. Born in Rochester, he cut his teeth under the tutelage of the great Canadian golf course designer, Stanley Thompson. Before he was out of college, Trent had designed Durand-Eastman, the wonderful (if poorly-kept) municipal course along the shore of Lake Ontario. Trent became a showman of sorts, giving the owners what they wanted: something big, something to be feared. His reputation was sealed with his toughening of Oakland Hills Country Club, near Detroit, for the 1951 US Open. Ben Hogan uttered something resembling the famous phrase, “I’m glad I finally brought this monster to its knees” after shooting a near-perfect final round to capture the title. Trent brought two sons into the business, and both have achieved world-wide recognition. Trent, Jr., whose nearest design is the Kaluhyat course at Turning Stone Casino. Similar to his father, Junior designs large and demanding courses that more often than not, bring golfers to their knees. Second son Rees Jones has come to be known as the “Open Doctor” for his redesign work on courses hoping, or slated, to host the US Open. His most well-known reworking was put on display in 2002 when Bethpage Black, the great Long Island course, became the first municipal course to host a national championship. Recently, Rees Jones was in the area to open his course at Grand Niagara, in Niagara Falls, Ontario. Trent, Sr. first put his stamp on the Buffalo area with the Crag Burn Golf Club in 1972. Built as Trent was transitioning from bully architect to thoughtful elder statesman, Crag Burn is the most thoughtful design in the area, and the one that receives the greatest number of ‘aye’ votes when nominated for greatness. Trent also designed Ransom Oaks Country Club, which today is open to the public as Glen Oak Golf Course, and performed a redesign of Niagara Falls Country Club, endowing the site of the Porter Cup amateur tournament with many of his high-faced bunkers. Built in the tradition of a Florida golf development, Glen Oak exhibits many of the earlier Trent characteristics: long runway tees, straight holes of extensive length, and marvelous par threes.

Tim Davis is the quiet man of local golf course architecture. Never wanting to get into golf course architecture, his only desire was to build a golf course that he could one day run. Transplanted from central Florida, he moved to the area with his wife, teaching professional Marlene (Brodzik) Davis. His first area design was Fox Valley, the tricky Lancaster course located along a local flood plain. Cursed with a minimal amount of land with which to work, Davis did an admirable job of routing the course to maximize playable, memorable ground. Anyone who has played the back nine at Fox Valley cannot help but admire the flow of the land and the use of elevation changes. Davis’ second course work, for which he has not received much credit, is the basic routing at the Links at Ivy Ridge. The fine Akron course opened for play in 2005 to regional and national renown, and owes much of its routing to Davis’s thoughtful planning. The original layout was enhanced by the ownership, with the help of a professional shaper, and brought the Links at Ivy Ridge from a course with a solid routing to a course that holds to international standards of excellence. Davis’s third (and what he swears to be his last) local course is the Buffalo Tournament Club, of which he is part owner. Less than a mile from Fox Valley along Genesee Street in Lancaster, Buffalo Tournament Club opened its first nine for play in 2005, and anticipates completion and debut of its second nine in July of 2006. The course makes use of woodlands for the front nine, then meanders through a played-out quarry over the back nine holes.

Links at Ivy Ridge
The Links at Ivy Ridge.
Photo by Ronald S. Montesano.
The fourth post-Depression architect of importance is Scott Witter. A Boston transplant now living in Lockport, Witter’s educational pedigree is matched by few. Witter’s first local work was the third nine holes at Deerwood, the North Tonawanda municipal course. After playing the Buck and the Doe nines, one cannot help but be impressed by the thoughtful, modern routing of Witter’s Fawn nine. Given less land to work with than allotted for either of the original nines, Witter’s melding of challenging par fives and sneaky short par threes and fours eclipses the older siblings. The Ripstein family of Cowlesville presented Witter with a blank canvas for his first eighteen-hole commission, and he produced Ironwood Golf Club, just off route 31-A between East Aurora and Varysburg. The understated course is a tribute to the natural origin of the game, played with equal skill along the ground and in the air. When the family wished to route the course away from a gigantic cellular tower on the property, Witter’s expertise detailed a proposal that would bring holes within range, yet remain unaffected by the monolith. The result was the area’s finest risk-reward, short par four, the 319-yard sixteenth hole. Joe Frey of Frey’s Old-Time Furniture provided Witter his second course opportunity, on an uninspiring piece of farmland in Akron. Witter appropriated nine of Frey’s eighteen holes at Bright Meadows, and utilized the adjoining land to mold the land and create a course of equal reputation to the area’s finest: the Arrowhead Golf Club. Arrowhead is a parkland course in the tradition of English moorland courses. While there is no elevation change throughout the course, the holes provide the constant sensation of moving like waves on a turbulent sea. Level fairway lies are a rarity, and balls may reach their destination in the American way (through the air) or in the Scottish tradition (along the ground). In its second full season of operation, Arrowhead hosted the United States Golf Association Senior Open qualifier and received rave reviews from all participants. In fitting tribute to Witter’s design, former Crag Burn pro Lonnie Nielsen birdied the final three holes to qualify for that national championship.

Niagara Falls Country Club
Niagara Falls Country Club, at the tee.
Photo by Ronald S. Montesano.
These four golf course designers constructed the backbone of the golfing body of Western New York. If he did not give us great golf, William Harries gave us lots of golf. Few avid WNY golfers have not walked the fairways of a Harries design. Trent Jones links our corner of the state with the international world of golf, both through his far-off designs and his local layouts. Tim Davis’ arrival enhanced both the public and private opportunities of the eastern suburbs, an area long overdue for quality golf. It is the exciting designs of Scott Witter that offer the greatest hope for the future of Western New York course design. His thoughtful, educated routings are crafted in interpretable layers, like excellent literature. Although the local market is currently saturated for new builds, it is expected that Witter will travel wide and far to create unforgettable golfing grounds, bringing the Western New York influence to distant lands.

Ronald S.Montesano has battled each of the aforementioned courses, but has yet to emerge unscathed. He is the director of BuffaloGolfer.Com


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