Glens Falls Country Club
New York, United States of America

Nestled between the Adirondacks and Green Mountains, Glens Falls seduces rather than overwhelms and is one of Donald Ross’s most engaging designs.

Typically, the more events a club hosts (especially if professional players are involved), the worse a golf course becomes. This sad but accurate observation is largely unique to golf. Most other sports arenas receive enhancements in order to stage prestige events but for championship golf countless Golden Age courses have been altered/mutilated for the sake of difficulty in order to ‘test the best.’ Some clubs (Augusta National, Carnoustie, Pebble Beach) do an excellent job of hosting events but eventually fall prey to poor judgement. After debacles like the U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills in 2004, it’s a wonder that grand clubs still even agree to host such events!

On the other hand the lack of television may mean that fame will be slow to arrive. Such is the case with Glens Falls, located north of Saratoga Springs in upstate New York. Tom Doak in Volume 3 of The Confidential Guide asks, ‘How has such a fine course escaped attention this long?’ True but what a delight to discover it! Canadian golf architect Ian Andrew has been the architect of record since 2011 and recounts his initial visit:

The first time I came here, I was immediately awestruck by the undulations on the opening hole and was  eventually grinning when I passed the seventeenth green. It turned out that I hadn’t seen anything yet and as we worked our way around I was blown away by its brilliance. I appreciated how Ross incorporated the diagonal ridges into landings, swales in front of green sites, occasionally bizarre and always brilliant interior green features, tee balls that played “up” to the mid-ridge brow, epic shots into the valley, greens set on the edge of an abyss, natural plateau green sites and most of all the holes that slide away from the golfer playing down the mid-ridge. Ross made many outstanding decisions and then backed them up with even better architecture.

 

At Glens Falls one can often look back from the green (in this case, the tenth) and find that the hole’s high point is between you and a tee hidden by the fairway contours. Judging how and where to land one’s ball and have it trickle onto the green is part of the charm of a game here.

Andrew goes on to say, ‘The course was an architectural education. I went out to play after finishing a walking tour and 18 holes were not enough and began to replay “on the run” as many holes as I could till I found myself on the eleventh as the sun set. Only the thought that wolves might exist caused me to retreat!’

Ross’s first nine holes opened in the 1910s and all eighteen were in play by the early 1920s. Today’s course is largely as Ross left it. The exceptions are related to the fairway lines altered by tree growth and a bustling country road that caused an alteration to the sixteenth. Thankfully, no insipid ponds or water features have been added like those that mar the East Course at Oak Hill or Congressional. Instead, trees were allowed to proliferate but the club has started to gain the upper hand recently. For example, take the valley that the second hole occupies and that the mighty twelfth brushes alongside. Just five years ago, six fifty foot tall evergreens lined the far valley wall, shielding from view the upsweep to the twelfth green and beyond as one stood on the second tee. Shrouded in shade much of the day, the second fairway was perpetually damp and soft. A sense of its rollicking topography was muted and its fairway width compromised. As for the twelfth, the steep drop off to the right wasn’t as keenly felt standing on the tee. In both situations, the natural attributes were inadvertently snuffed out instead of highlighted. When the trees were removed in 2011, both holes could ‘breathe’ again and their singular attributes amplified.

Aptly named after its glorious location, Glens Falls offers important advantages similar to those at Pebble Beach or the Homestead where vacationers have been drawn to its beauty for decades. Additionally, America’s early history played out across this region. Whether your interest lies in George Washington’s exploits or the native American Iroquois, there is plenty to do.  J. Lewis Brown, the former editor of Golf Illustrated, authored Golf at Glens Falls in 1923, states it well:

‘And what an ideal setting the course has! Not content with providing all the historical associations which make it of great interest to tourists and others, Nature has outdone herself in her own way. Picture with me if you can, range after range of mountains which rise up to meet the blue sky, their blue and purple peaks blending with the azure blue of the fleece-flecked heavens and their verdantly laden slopes, with their lofty pines and evergreens, forming an almost artificial fringe for the course itself. Donald Ross’ {sic} creation lies in the valley of this huge ampitheatre and even if such a master has not played such a prominent part in the construction of the course, the natural beauty of the place would have endeared it to every golfer.’  

Like so many great courses golf clubs are not a prerequisite to enjoy being on this property! To the surprise of no one, Ross’s routing capitalized on the natural features and a series of arresting holes followed. Andrew’s advice to date has been straightforward: ‘Get the course to play the way it should first. Then we will look at other details to improve. So for the last few years we have concentrated on proper grassing lines, often outside the bunkers, to restore options and reintroduce alternate playing routes.’

Glens Falls packs quite the punch considering that it measures less than 6,500 yards. It’s praiseworthy that the club has seen fit to keep it that distance. Still, the author had the opportunity to play with member Anders Mattson, Director of Instruction at Saratoga National Golf Club, whose textbook swing generates disturbing power with little apparent effort. In fact, he drove over the par 4 seventh green with my hickory driver! Mattson notes ‘Unlike any other place I’ve been, this golf course makes me want to play golf. It may not be considered long any more but I have never seen anyone overpower the course. For instance, I might get near or on the par 5 fourth green in two but that green has a way of turning two shots into three.’ 

The swale in front of the fourth green eventually leads to a back right knob as well as a lower left bowl that houses today’s accessible hole location. Greens like this with its soft shoulders and interior contours keep the best at bay.

Mattson’s words echo those of Mr. Brown opining in Golf at Glen Falls: ‘it is a course that grows on you. The more you play the more you want to, and every time you do you’ll find some new wrinkle that Donald Ross and nature have put in just to take care of that particular erring shot of yours. I’m going back to play it again. I am going to have my revenge. Can you – as Baucis inquired of Philemon – beat it?’

For the author it’s this form of golf – man alone with nature’s splendor – that should be celebrated and trumpeted far more than that generic thing called ‘championship golf.’ The freshness of the course and the exhilaration of being begins at the first tee, which is located below the clubhouse and reached by traversing a quaint wooden bridge. It concludes in a fittingly unique manner with a par 3 adjacent to the clubhouse and there is nothing not to like in between, as we see below.

The idyllic location of the first tee, complete with an iconic leaning oak.

Idyllically located, the first tee is complete with an iconic leaning oak.

 

Holes to Note

Second hole, 400 yards; No architect in history has built more holes that play from an elevated tee past a fairway below to a well-draining green above. No one. Here’s a prototypical example with an attractive tee shot into a valley. As usual, Ross places greater demands on the approach resulting in one of the hardest shots confronted all round. Having said that, where Glens Falls distinguishes itself among Ross’s courses is that this is the only such hole on the course! (The eighth and seventeenth are possible exceptions, depending on how far one elects to advance his tee ball). The great preponderance of holes ask the golfer to hit down to greens.

This diagram of the second hole from Golf at Glens Falls depicts the down then up nature of the demanding second.

This diagram from Golf at Glens Falls depicts the down then up nature of the demanding second.

Third hole, 170 yards; Played into a corner of the club’s property, this one shotter features a wickedly canted back right to front left green. A ball might release and meander as great a distance across this putting surface as on any other green on the course. It’s a shrewd ploy by the architect: show the golfer your most evil greens early in the round to make him wary the rest of the way. It’s pointless for an architect to hold his best stuff until late in the round as he will have squandered a psychological advantage that he could have gained in his chess match with the player.

Fifth hole, 340 yards; Situated on the least interesting part of the property, Ross compensated by building one of his all-time great putting surfaces. Many modern architects would move prodigious volumes of earth tee to green in a desperate effort to enliven a calm portion of the property. Ross knew better. What really matters is the quality of the ultimate target: the green.

As seen from back right, this unique contour has earned the fifth green the moniker of a ‘top hat’ green.

Sixth hole, 400 yards; Half of the fourteen non-one shotters (e.g. the fourth hole, here, ten, eleven, thirteen, fourteen, and fifteen) play up and over the crest of the hill that dominates the middle of the property. This is likely the best of the bunch because of its one-of-a-kind roly-poly putting surface that is much broader than deep. The first time visitor may well have never seen anything like it, which speaks volumes as to the originality of this Ross design.

Note the graceful swales and rises that define the sixth green complex. Typically such rounded contours are only found on sand based sites. Today’s right hole location in a semi – punchbowl elevates the hole from being hard to being both hard and fun.

Seventh hole, 290 yards; Brown (did he love golf or words more?!) quotes Drayton as saying that ‘Sirens sing sweetest when they would betray.’ As well a designed hole as you will ever find, three bunkers are artfully cut on a diagonal into the far slope of the valley wall. How and where each player wishes to place his tee ball is ability dependent but ideally one long and right leaves the golfer but a pitch to an open green on the same level. A slight pull or overcooked draw from the tee shifts the advantage to the architect as the pitch is played from either a hazard or from well below the surface of the green.

The drivable seventh scores a 10 out of 10 for design and deserves to be celebrated with Ross’s finest short two shotters.

Eighth hole, 360 yards; Alister MacKenzie once lamented that no one said anything bad about Cypress Point. He feared that meant that the architecture was too tame! Clubs that routinely host events invariably have their controversial features snuffed out. The most polarizing single feature at Glens Falls is the ski-slope pitched putting surface at the eighth. Great care must be taken when selecting the day’s hole location as things readily go haywire if the hole is cut on too much of a slope. Truth be told, that leaves only a few spots. Andrew’s advice to the club is to hold strong for now: ‘The eighth green is a conundrum for the club. It’s clearly too steep, but also one of the most memorable greens sites because of it. When asked if they should consider rebuilding it, I answered that every great course has one green that seemingly crosses the line, but if there’s a way to play for an unconventional par, then it should remain. Yes, the eighth green is really hard, but it has not crossed that threshold.’

Ninth hole, 150 yards; As noted in other Ross profiles on this web site, Ross had a penchant for building ‘Volcano’ green complexes for short one shotters. This is one of his best, though the player who misses left or right and finds himself some thirteen feet below the putting surface is unlikely to agree. That there are no longer bunkers at the base of the green complex adds to the dilemma because the golfer is as likely to draw a squirrely lie on hard clay as one sitting up nicely on grass. Witnessing play within your group at this modest length hole is always entertaining as the golfer’s greed is pitted against the need for prudence. Which force wins out is starkly visible to all!

Playing this hole is not unlike the seventeenth at TPC Sawgrass: ignore the hole location and just aim for the middle of the green.

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