Appeared in September/Ocotber 2003 LINKS
Racing in the August meetings at Saratoga Springs back then were colts named Whirlaway, Ace Admiral, Eurasian and Tom Fool. Among the railbirds watching were tour professionals who shuttled between Saratoga’s racetrack and a thoroughbred golf course high above Lake George—they had names like Craig Wood, Porky Oliver and Ben Hogan. It was the 1940s, when the Sagamore Resort Golf Club was young but already beloved, and horse racing was in the blood of any American who would call himself a sportsman.
Even today, a round on the Donald Ross-designed Sagamore course recaptures the let-it-ride spirit of those pre- and post-war years. Stretched out above a still-innocent summer colony whose road signs and motel names can seem cartoonishly antiquated, Ross’s swerving, par-70 potboiler helps preserve an otherwise faded era.
The 190-acre property it cavorts through was known to the locals as Federal Hill when the pioneering architect first hiked it in the 1920s. By this point in his life, Ross’s relationship with his daughter, Lillian, had become a necessary solace to him. His first wife having died in 1922, Ross often would visit his daughter at the secretarial school she attended in Troy, N.Y., just south of the Lake George region. Along the way he would familiarize himself with the region’s more promising golf sites.
Naturally he was drawn to the famous lake. Gin-clear and surrounded by brawny Adirondack slopes, it had come into being 12,000 years earlier when a receding glacier paused twice on its earth-gouging journey northward. Each of these hesitations left a deposit of rock and dirt (called a glacial moraine) that served to dam up the emerging north-south waterway at two ends, creating a sort of Pleistocene playground for modern-day vacationers. Its centerpiece, 28,000-acre Lake George, would become a magnet for wealthy Easterners as early as the 1880s, when a group of Philadelphia millionaires produced the first incarnation of the Sagamore resort.
Sited exquisitely on a 70-acre island off the lake’s western shore, the resort saw its main hotel destroyed by fire twice in its first two decades of existence, replaced after the first blaze by a much more modern structure. After the second fire, in 1914, a large, informal clubhouse was offered to summer patrons in lieu of an actual hotel, but the lure of the surroundings kept business steady.
Not until just before the stock market collapse of 1929 was work underway for a bona fide luxury hotel to accompany the Ross golf course then being built. When the dust settled from the great crash, the new course on the hill had opened but the hotel was on hold, eventually to debut in July of 1930.
A visit to the Sagamore’s resplendent Tudor clubhouse may be your closest brush with the Ross aura short of a Pinehurst pilgrimage. Memorabilia and portraits of the Dornoch, Scotland native are subtly dispersed throughout the clubhouse. The course’s 75th anniversary was celebrated last year, and for the occasion the Donald Ross Society held its annual meeting on these grounds.
The opener of this 6,841-yard course is an appealing yet enigmatic golf hole. “Ross broke his own rule,” comments golf director Tom Smack, pointing east toward No. 1 fairway from the tee. “He was dead set against starting a course due eastward or ending it westward, except here.” Staring into the distance at a mighty swath of lake and its forested shore, Smack adds: “Guess he just had to have that view.”
The great designer broke still another of his precepts by routing the hole alongside a road, thus requiring white stakes and the dreaded O.B.-right. Ross called it “a beastly nuisance, when starting off play and before getting limbered up, to drive a ball out-of-bounds.” (So, again, it had to be the view.) Putting on the first green, a Sagamore newcomer learns quickly that green slopes and contours must be factored into the game plan on most approach shots. If that visitor is a reporter, the notepad entry that follows his speeding downhiller on this tilted green would read: “Keep it below the cup on No. 1.”
As you might expect, most rounds by note-taking writers are played in twosomes or threesomes amid a bustle of queries, comments and scribbled observations—you almost never play a match. Nor did we in my rounds at the Sagamore, but the golf course’s qualities as a match-play layout nonetheless made themselves manifest. Inviting holes are followed by intimidating ones, difficult driving holes alternate with holes where the fairway is wide and the challenge lies all in the approach shot.
If, tee-to-green, a Sagamore hole seems fairly tame, figure the putting surface will be a bit wild. Such is the case at No. 9, a straightaway par-4 that concludes with a riotous putting experience in which 10 feet or more must be borrowed by anyone crossing the width of the green along its bowl-shaped back portion.
The par-3 third is not merely long but plays upslope over a natural dell that stirs up doubt as to club selection and/or whether one has the skill to reach in regulation. But the skittish golfer can bail out left and have an enjoyable down-slope pitch or even miss short and right and face a popup-style pitch that shouldn’t end in anything worse than bogey.
The other three par-3s are similarly long, measuring 187, 175 and 219 yards, respectively. The latter hole is No. 14, which comes complete with a decent-sized, cleverly contoured fairway, to accommodate the lesser ball-striker. Still, from an elevated tee, its large, back-to-front sloping green spreads out an inspiring target that will have you wondering, upon arrival, “Why couldn’t I hit this thing in regulation?”
The fifth is a soft-spoken par-4 that features a beguiling Ross characteristic on the drive—a pair of bunkers placed and sized so as to appear almost directly opposite one another on either side of the fairway. A first-time player almost has to laugh, upon reaching the hole’s landing area, at how much farther one bunker is from the tee and how easily he fell for the visual deception.
Walking this golf course is a woodland delight. Views abound, the route to the next tee is always where you think it will be, and the tee boxes themselves are decorous and dignified, many of them tucked under shady boughs or sequestered in intimate little chutes and nooks.
The trip off No. 10 is less dramatic than that opening drive but is likewise downhill and flashes a green light to the reasonably skilled player. Be mindful of a steep-banked brook crossing in front of the green. You’ll want to enjoy it as a scenic feature, not fish your ball out of it.
The 12th is a par-4 that comes advertised on the card as the No. 12 stroke hole, and its downhill tee shot shouldn’t alarm anyone, but the uphill approach needs a bit of glory to its trajectory in order to avoid high-lipped front bunkers and land softly on the green. The Ross parlor trick of adding unseen distance to an approach shot’s carry is clearly in evidence here.
No. 15 is a beauty to look at but ingeniously awkward to play—off the tee, at least. This par-4 curves playfully left along a plateau then swings downward and straightens out, its green probably a club closer to your drive’s landing spot than it looks.
With only two par-5s on his routing, Ross had to make them count. The front side’s three-shotter is, according to head pro Smack, a birdie play from the white tees but a par hole from the brand-new back tee. No. 6 on the card, it features a pond on the right that is just long enough to threaten a greedy layup as well as bedevil the mid-iron (or even the pitch) into the green. The 17th is a par-5 that is just short of astounding. Almost its entire length is dominated by a billowing hogback, with dales and hollows added for good measure. The hooker and the slicer might as well just agree to meet back up at the green, so lofty is the central hump that defines the hole.
For all its bona fides, this is a golf course that had to be rescued from oblivion. In the mid-1980s ownership closed the hotel and let the golf course go unmaintained. Years went by and the fairways began disappearing under vegetation. At its lowest point, where a pleasant stream works its way through holes 5, 6 and 15, a beaver colony established itself, with dams at both ends like a micro version of the big lake below.
In order not to lose the Ross-crafted ground features—his mounds, hollows and hogbacks—workers from the Adirondack Park Agency fumigated the property then dragged the dead grass, ferns, shrubs and trees off the playing surfaces.
These days eight out of every 10 rounds played on the Sagamore course are played by guests of the standout, 350-room resort hotel down the road. Among the summer people who own lakefront homes and belong to the Sagamore’s small inner club are members of renowned clubs like Shinnecock Hills and the National Golf Links.
Seven years ago, Ross-course renovator Dennis Callahan learned to his delight that Ross’s original drawings for the course were intact in the archive at Pinehurst. Once the documents were acquired, resort ownership gave Callahan the go-ahead for restoration or reconstruction of mounding and other design elements that hadn’t survived the damaging fallow period when the course was closed in the ’80s. Since then, the resort has embarked on an extensive bunker-renovation program.
Today it is in perhaps its finest shape ever. And tough: In a recent U.S. Mid-Amateur qualifying event with some 90 players vying for just five or six spots, 1-over par was good enough to get in. With a neighboring lakeside resort where you can hit the hay luxuriously afterward, this is one track not to miss. Head up-country and give it a gallop.