The thought occurred to me somewhere on the back nine at Dutchess Golf & Country Club: this light, this vivid atmosphere, is an archetypal feature of golf in the region seen nowhere else. Artists of the Hudson River School had, of course, beaten me to the punch by a couple of centuries, capturing the mix of brilliance and melancholy that washes over the landscape. It’s a light that turns golf courses into not just fields of play, but glorious treats for the eye as well.
My fascination with the light matched my mission, too, which was to get a sense of place of this and other private golf courses in the Hudson Valley. Southeastern New York has so many household-name golf clubs — Winged Foot, Shinnecock, National — that it’s easy for clubs out of the spotlight to be overlooked by golfers seeking a challenge.
The top-of-mind courses got there by dint of the greatness of their layouts, of course, but the vast majority of us find more than ample golfing challenges in lesser-known courses. Indeed, devil’s advocates would say that popular acclaim is antithetical to country-club membership in the first place. The club should be both a familiar old stomping ground and a world unto itself.
There is a constellation of such clubs throughout the Hudson Valley, including the representative sample we played.
The Dutchess Golf & Country Club in Poughkeepsie is one of the oldest clubs in the Hudson Valley
Photograph courtesy of Dutchess Golf Club
As atmospheric surprises go, it’s tough to top Dutchess Golf & Country Club in Poughkeepsie. Sharing a small segment of one periphery with a strip-mall-clogged thoroughfare, the layout lulls you into its unexpectedly precipitous topography by the second hole, a quirky, short par 4 with a whale-shaped fairway and a downhill approach to a small, pitched green.
The first nine holes, completed in 1897 in the earliest days of golf clubs in America, were designed by a Scotsman from the venerable Park family, and noted regional golf-course architect Devereux Emmet redesigned the course in the 1930s. Those who pay attention to golf-course architecture will appreciate the fact that all 18 holes were constructed without modern earth-moving equipment, making the dramatic landforms — the towering tabletop green of the seventh hole, for example — all the more stunning. Its pre-golf-cart-era vintage means it was also designed to be a great walk, which it is.
Thus, while Dutchess may not be on the PGA’s radar, it is the only golf course to have hosted all the various championships of the New York State Golf Association. There’s a warm and unassuming clubhouse here, with a display case detailing some of the club’s golf lore—the logo says, simply, 1897 — but no swimming pool, no tennis, no non-golf distractions. As head pro Tommy Monteverdi points out, some 90 players out of the 230 total are single-digit handicappers. The place is about golf.
A tiny, testy green at Mahopac Country Club
Photograph by Dave Lowell
It seemed fitting that, the day we played, Dutchess was about to embark on an inter-club match with Mahopac Golf Club, just down the Hudson. The history of the club, which is situated on the north side of bucolic Lake Mahopac, actually stretches back to 1893, when nine holes were designed by Thomas Bendelow. The existing 18 holes, designed by Emmet, were begun in 1900 and completed in 1913.
Just 6,514 yards from the most distant tees, Mahopac is a men’s par 70. In the old-time tradition, women’s par is 72, with strokes rather than forward tees adjusting for gender differences. Much of the intrigue on the course comes from the green complexes. They are small, steeply contoured, and several include an antique design element rarely seen in modern tracks: putting surfaces sloping from front to back, making approach shots treacherous.
Mahopac’s comparatively compact routing nonetheless requires spot power, including a 601-yard par 5 (No. 7) and a 460-yard par 4 (No. 16). Mostly, though, you’ll be scratching your head over the greens. Fortunately, there’s a friendly bar and a real family ambience at the club. Head pro Terence Hughes and staff offer numerous junior, beginner, short-game, and other game-improvement clinics.
The expansive clubhouse and generous practice green at Branton Woods
Photograph courtesy of Branton Woods Golf Club
Just up the Taconic State Parkway, in Hopewell Junction, is Branton Woods, evidence of continued golf vitality and that pedigree isn’t everything. When the club opened in 2001, its slogan was “your country club for the day,” and it was operated as a high-end daily fee facility. Gradually, as interest built, the club became private.
Branton Woods is one of the earliest creations of Eric Bergstol, the construction-industry magnate-cum-golf-course developer/architect who has gone on to design and build the epic Bayonne Golf Club. His Empire Golf also offers reciprocal playing privileges at seven of its other courses in the metropolitan area, a concession to the more peripatetic tastes of the modern golfer.
Like its clubhouse, the level of golf-course conditioning at Branton Woods is contemporary, but the design retains the rolling contours of the bison farm that preceded it. There’s usually room to hit the ball off the tee, but plenty of strategy in the approach to the green, especially in risk-reward situations like the fourth hole, a par 5 reachable in two. Partly due to the inclusion of copious wetlands into the layout, it is spread out and most members ride, not walk, another aspect common to today’s game.
Actor Aidan Quinn helps Mike Caggiano line up a putt at Rockland Country Club
Photograph by Dave Donelson
In terms of longevity, Rockland Country Club, on the other side of the Hudson, is somewhere in the middle. It was opened in 1928, designed by Robert White during the second golden age of American golf course architecture. While the nearby Palisades are never visible, the tumbling terrain echoes their presence. Still, greens and tees are in close enough proximity to recommend walking.
Rockland Country Club is in Sparkill, New York, just a short drive from the George Washington Bridge and midtown Manhattan, making it all the more a “find” that close to the city. The spacious but practical clubhouse is perched above Route 9 with the golf course invisible behind it. On the other side of the clubhouse, though, you see several holes and the elaborate, colorful plantings that accent them. The course itself is short at just 6,538 yards and plays to par 71 from the back tees. The trick is to pick the correct club in the face of huge changes in elevation and hard-to-hold greens. A particular delight is the signature hole, No. 8, a par 3 with a long forced carry over a pond.
Tom Harack is a freelance golf writer/photographer based in Old Chatham, New York. His work has appeared in numerous national and regional golf publications, as well as the New York Times, ForbesLife, Men’s Journal, and others.