BINGHAMTON, N.Y. – It was late September in the Southern Tier region of New York, but for once the leaves had only just begun to change. Usually the vale of the Susquehanna River valley is aflame with color by this time, a rainbow of autumnal delight for the so-called “Leaf Peepers” who travel from as far as 16 hours away to see the dazzling striation. But this year there was only a faint brushstroke of gold crowning the tops, while here and there a few trees glimmered with a ruddy glow, adding a rich texture to the scene.
A warm wind blew, thankfully. This far north of New York City, there can be frost on the ground as early as the Equinox, but not this weekend; this weekend it was short sleeves and shorts, both for golf and a 5K road race, a rare treat for my annual sojourn to play golf under the fall harvest moon.
It’s a tradition dating back almost 20 years. While on a weekend trip to the region in 1997, we watched the moon rise majestically over the 15th fairway of Conklin Players Club – still one of the most popular golf photographs I’ve ever taken – and now my colleagues and I reprise the trip every year or two to rekindle the memories.
But this year we weren’t be the only ones moongazing. A so-called “Supermoon” – the closest the moon passes to the Earth during the year – was coupled with a full lunar eclipse, where the Earth passed directly between the sun and moon, turning the moon a fierce scarlet and making it appear about 30 percent larger and brighter than normal. This celestial phenomenon usually occurs about every 18 years, but this year marked the first total Supermoon eclipse since 1982. (The next one will happen in 2033, for those of you scoring at home.) Best of all, while it’s made world-wide headlines and was be visible across the globe, the best seat in the house was – for once - the eastern seaboard of the U.S.A.
Let’s get this issue out of the way right now: This is not a trip about golf architecture. Both of the courses we played – Conklin and En-Joie - were locally designed and built -- the Rickard family in the case of the former, the club members in the case of the latter. No one involved in either course was an experienced architect, they were just golf lovers who got the chance to chase their dream...and catch it! They may not be Oakmont or Winged Foot, Mackenzie or Macdonald, but they are still runaway successes regionally, well-loved by the golfing populace for their quirk, charm and friendliness. They’re a home-spun, feel-good story of DIY success, and sometimes that’s just as much a formula for success as a big name architect or a dramatic natural setting. Besides, if there’s anything else that speaks volumes about how good a golf course is, it’s that the golf writers choose to spend their personal time coming back to play there.
CONKLN PLAYERS CLUB – CONKLIN, N.Y.
Theresa Rickard is the epitome of bubbly effervescence as she sits down to chat amiably about her home -- yes, her home. That giant glass-sided pyramid off the eighth fairway that looks like an Egyptian pharaoh teamed up with the space invaders from the movie “Stargate”? That’s her family’s house. There’s a two-story basement too, along with a two-car garage port. At sunset, the view from they apex of the pyramid looks so majestically over the golf course, you’d think you were a great Egyptian king gazing out over his empire.
“My husband came home one day and said, ‘I want to build a golf course,’” she explained. “He had never played golf a day in his life, but he wanted to try something completely different, a challenge...and when he gets an idea, he goes for it,” she concluded.
“Wait! WHAT-WHAT-WHAT?!” you shriek, and ordinarily you’d be right. Normally that’s a recipe for disaster...just not this time. The Rickards were experienced design landscapers. In fact, Theresa’s father-in-law owned an excavating company. So the Rickards and their brother Rick Brown and a fistful of devoted friends bought 200 acres of an old dairy farm and set to work on a three year build. Part of the property was thickly clothed in tall timber, which took ages to clear away.
“There was a lot of sweat equity put in by family and friends,” Theresa continued. “But it’s only eight miles from where we used to live, so it was a labor of love.”
It was indeed, as everything was done by the family. Studying topo maps and aerials, they laid out the fairways over 158 acres of the property. They moved hundreds of thousands of cubic yards of earth. They built the numerous lakes and walled them with intricate stonework. They dug and lined the bunkers, filling them with sand. They shaped every inch of the course and even put in their own drainage and cart paths.
“The drainage was the hardest part!” gasped Rickard, recalling the job with a combination of exasperation and laughter. “But we’re especially proud of we job we did in that regard. My husband is a drainage freak - it’s his favorite thing to work on. And when the flood of 2006 nearly swept the town away and everything else in the region was underwater, we were fine except for our parking lot.”
But they didn’t just do this in a bubble; they researched everything before taking Step One and put together a strong team of informed consultants, focusing specifically on getting all the nuts and bolts of building a golf course correct.
“We did a lot of reading and asked questions of other shapers, builders and superintendents of other golf courses. We also consulted Cornell,” Rickard states. “We researched everything and gathered ideas from a lot of people in the golf building industry.”
While they didn’t study the architectural principles of any designers in particular, they had broad brushstrokes for what they wanted the course to look and play like.
“We wanted wide fairways so everyone had room to play the game. We wanted a variety of hazards – the ponds, the bunkers, the rock faces. And we wanted elevation change.”
And, boy, did they get elevation change! Don’t be confused by the course’s prior history as a dairy farm as significant portions of the golf course are etched into the mountainside, either climbing to its peak (3-5, 16), spiraling down its shoulders (6, 17-18), or clinging to its side (15). Indeed, the routing is excellent, building to a crescendo on both sides and then rumbling spectacularly downhill to the clubhouse at nine and 18. It’s a true mountain golf course and a difficult walk, one of the top five toughest walks your author has played in the U.S.
“Oh, and we wanted an island green, too,” Rickard adds sheepishly, and while we all can have a laugh at the campiness, the idea works at Conklin because the hole is so short, and the green is so large. Moreover, there isn’t another hole like it until you get to Williamsburg, Va. It’s one of the reasons Conklin feels -- and plays -- like a sporty resort course.
“There’s a lot of cool shots at Conklin that keep people coming back,” surmises golf-course expert Bruce Moulton. “You’ve got a reachable par 5 at nine where it feels like you can crush a driver into Pennsylvania, that’s how high up you are. Then there’s the corner you can cut at 17 and try to drive the par-4 green. And of course, there’s the Volcano Hole...”
The Volcano Hole, for those of you wondering, is a 90-degree dog-leg par-4 with reverse camber and an approach that ascends at least three clubs uphill. The knoll on which the green sits tapers as it rises, but the top of the knoll was cut off, and the view from the summit is gorgeous, especially in autumn, with the valley aflame with red, gold and orange.
While always in excellent condition, the course could embrace the movement toward faster and firmer conditions; it does tend to play a little soft and center-line. Most importantly, the rough around the greens needs to be cut so that more greenside options are available to the greatest number of players. It’s also one of the most difficult walks in golf, nearly as difficult as Redlands Mesa or Lakota Canyon Ranch.
Still, it’s got a huge following not just in the southern tier, but throughout the northeast and Mid-Atlantic. People travel from all across the region to play a resort-quality golf experience at a great price – anywhere from $40-$60. People frequently make a weekend out of it, staying in nearby Binghamton, ten playing either Hiawatha Landing or En-joie the next day.
“It’s always in great shape, it’s fun and interesting, and at sunset, the setting is just sublime,” Moulton surmised. “Finish as the sun goes down, then go get a steak for dinner. Perfect day of golf.”
BEST HOLE: Nine, the short par 5 that’s reachable for almost everybody with its dramatic downhill approach.
RUNNER-UP: 11, a long par 4 ascending steeply uphill to a narrow sliver of a green guarded all along the right side by water.
ROAD RACING – THE RACE FOR JUSTICE 5K RUN/WALK THROUGH BINGHAMTON
A steak wasn’t on the menu until the next night, because I had a road race to run the next morning. The legal group for which I work sponsors an annual 5K run/walk through downtown Binghamton. It’s called the Legal Aid Society of Mid-New York Race for Justice, and it benefits underprivileged citizens who otherwise wouldn’t have civil legal representation in critical areas such as housing and immigration. It helps victims of batteries and other domestic violence, and it assists people with serious disabilities. But most importantly, it provides an experienced lawyer to assure a fair judicial system to someone who otherwise would have to go it alone in the terrifyingly complex legal system.
“There’s a huge need for civil legal services,” explained a grateful Executive Director Paul Lupia as he thanked the assembled crowd before the race. “We opened over 5,365 cases last year, and we closed another 5,304. Without us, those people would not have had a lawyer.”
And that’s a scary prospect, as there has to be justice for everyone – high, low and middle – or there isn’t any justice at all.
Well-organized running events turn out volunteers and sponsors in droves, and it was absolutely astonishing how successful the race was in that regard. Armies of volunteers and phalanxes of sponsors, practically equaled the several hundred runners and walkers, and it took peppy race director Arlene Sanders 20 minutes to gratefully recognize them all for their important contributions. Overall, it was a smashing success, raising over $10,000. That money saved people’s homes, got sick people medical care, assisted refugees and gave aid to the elderly.
The runners run the gamut of ages, from kids and college students to people in their 60s. The course is flat and easy, climbing the bridge over the Susquehanna, then turning into the pleasantly suburban western neighborhoods before turning back to Court St. for the long stretch back into downtown. The large number of kids and college students running the race means times are quick, but if you can keep pace with them, it’s a good course to set a personal record in the 5K. (I’ve done that twice there now, and so have others that ran with me.)
It was also a good way to condition myself for the afternoon round of golf. Running and golf are similar in hat you’re the only one out there competing against yourself most of all. You’re constantly over coming barriers and that’s you have a lot of time to think to yourself – between shots or between miles…
EN-JOIE GOLF CLUB – ENDICOTT, N.Y.
A 5K is short enough to still leave me enough legs to play 18 holes afterwards, but at En-joie that’s not a concern. Flattish and walker-friendly, the course is another regional legend, having hosted a PGA Tour stop for 35 years, from 1971-2006.
It wasn’t just any tour stop though, it was the B.C. Open. And while that stood for Broome County, a natural partnership occurred between the tournament and the old Johnny Hart cartoon “B.C.,” whose caveman characters played caveman golf with stone clubs and balls. For years, statues of the characters peppered the golf course to the delight of visitors, and advertisements fused the two together into a lovable mashup. It made the tournament feel more fun and friendly.
As an aside, don’t confuse Johnny Hart (B.C.) with Dik Browne (Hagar the Horrible) or Mort Walker (Beetle Bailey). I’ll take cartoonists for $1,000 please, Alex. ”The answer is...”
The course is what you’d expect from a ‘70s age tour stop: center-line, lots of water and a boat-load of trees. It’s like The Olympic Club or Oakmont before we learned the incalculable benefits that tree-clearing campaigns have on golf course turf conditions: “Trees, trees, trees, trees, trees!” as writer Art Spander once said, describing Olympic, but the sentiment is the same here.
“Too many trees! You have to zigzag around this golf course!” moaned a shell-shocked Mr. Lu, my playing partner for the round, a photographer for this assignment who drove in just for the afternoon. He’s one of a stable of photographers that assist with that work for these articles - sort of like a real life Wang from Caddyshack. You remember Rodney Dangerfield yelling as he entered the pro shop at Bushwood? “Hey Wang! What’s with the pictures? It’s a parking lot!” That’ll be him.
Now while Mr. Lu is right - the course needs to clear out some of the trees that serve no architectural purpose – the course is tough on rookie golfers who spray the ball, and Mr. Lu excels at that.
It’s a comedy act, I tell ya: “The irrepressible Mr. Lu and his inscrutable golf game!” Heads up when he’s playing, because he somehow contrives to hit golf balls at right angles to reality. (It doesn’t help that he lines his feet up pointed down the first base line.) We all hit bad golf shots but part of the great fun playing with Mr. Lu is the depths of absurdity he plumbs. Where’s he gonna hit it next?! How’d he hit it over THERE?! He defies physics. He must have hit 24 trees even though we only played 18 holes (that’s how many trees there are at En-joie), and once Mr. Lu got in jail, he would just try to force his way out, hit a tree instead, rocket backwards and find himself 40 yards behind where he started and in worse trouble than before! I better not take him to either Thendara...or Sawgrass.
But what makes Mr. Lu a great golf partner is that although he may lose two dozen balls a round, he never loses his love of the game or his love of golfers. Together we played without a lot of birdies, but not without a lot of fun and laughs, because En-joie is a laid-back, low-impact day.
For people who like to have every shot framed for them, excellent conditioning, a PGA Tour pedigree and a variety of hazards, you’ll love En-joie. You know where you’re going, you’ve seen this type of golf before (and it’s familiar to you), and you can fire at the flags if you have a strong iron game. The greens are especially well-conditioned, rolling Tour-perfectly true. There’s excellent, indeed creative, bunkering, not your run-of-the-mill “5 o’clock, 7 o’clock” greenside bunkering you tend to see at many northeast public venues. And it’s a pretty walk, running in the shadow of the mountainside. The asymmetric routing is also refreshingly unique. A par 37-35=72, the course has all of its par 5s in the first 12 holes, including three on the front nine. The par 5s are the showstoppers, the best being No. 5, with its center-line bunker making players think carefully about the second shot. Eight also has a gorgeous picture window green.
Finally, you can’t help but love the price. At $45 you can play here – or Conklin or Hiawatha – six or seven times for the same price as one round at the Turning Stone Casino course that opportunistically snatched the 2006 B.C. Open away from En-Joie like a starving turkey vulture will fight other birds for a scrap.
The course is tight – there are only 95 acres of manicured fairways, holes are directly adjacent to each other, and there are a couple of times where you have to be careful of other golfers. Mr. Lu ended up two fairways over a few times, but so did other players. Sometimes you see a guy walking towards you and wonder, “What hole is he playing?!”
BEST HOLE: Five - You gotta love center-line bunkers!
SECOND BEST: 16 - While most people like the Cape Hole 15th for its diagonal carry over water and approach to waterside, we like 16 with it’s drivable length, yet centerline bunker and pushed up green.
STATION NUMBER 5 STEAKHOUSE
NOW comes the steak dinner! A perfect capstone to the weekend! Truth be told, I’ve had that thing halfway down my gullet since I planned the trip, because no overnight to Binghamton is complete without visiting that city’s contribution to the American restaurant scene.
Whether you call it “The Station,” “Number 5” or “Station Number 5,” it really doesn’t matter. Everyone knows where you’re talking about – it’s been the city flagship for cuisine since the 1970s. Stately and refined, with all the elegance of a truly great steakhouse, the building dates all the way back to 1897 when it served as a firehouse for 75 years before transforming into a restaurant. Steaks are around $40 and other entrees (pork, fish, chicken, etc.) run anywhere from $25-$35. The usual vegetables and side dishes are around $6 extra, although you do get one side dish with dinner (but not mushrooms, sadly). The best deal is the early-bird special where you get appetizer, entrée and dessert for $30.
Mr. Lu had a gargantuan prime rib, as thick as the length of your index finger. I had my usual – steak au poivre. Sadly for you, Dear Reader, the pictures maybe worth a thousand words but not a single taste. So book your overnight to the region soon, before the snow flies.
ALSO IN THE AREA: THE LINKS AT HIAWATHA LANDING
Hiawatha Landing has, arguably, the best design pedigree of any public course between Cooperstown and Philadelphia, and between Buffalo and Boston. Mark Mungeum worked daily on this Brian Silva design and worked in several features from the Bloodline of C.B. Macdonald-Seth Raynor-Charles Banks, including a punchbowl green set in its own amphitheatre at the par-4 11th, outstanding diagonal angles off the tee at many of the par 4s, two tantalizingly reachable par 5s with thrilling carries across cavernous bunkers, and a marvelous Cape hole to close the round.
“It’s reminiscent of 18 at Pebble Beach. You can easily lose a ball at the end of the round, or you can be a hero in the biggest way,” noted Moulton. “Love it or hate it, it’s the show-stopper of the round on a course with phenomenal par 5s.”
IT’S A BIRD! IT’S A PLANE! IT’S SUPERMOON!
We timed everything perfectly, filing out of dinner just as the Supermoon rose majestically over the city, then slowly turned a blood red – the only color that can filter through the earth’s atmosphere and be reflected off the moon during a lunar eclipse.
It was an event viewed across the planet – a staggering thought that really puts your size into perspective. Our planet spins at 1,000 miles an hour, and it revolves around the sun at 67,000 miles per hour, yet at a moment like this we all feel as one, with the Solar System and the expanses of space reaching out to us each on an individual level. You can understand why the ancients feared these events with such trepidation; they carry such power when you observe them at such size and proximity. Now we all gather on hilltops for a better view.
We’ll be back again next year, dodging the Leaf Peepers and hopefully not wearing layers of fleece. Once again the moon will rise majestically, and once again we’ll have savored as easy a golf getaway weekend as you could ask for.
“We do it every year,” said golfer Rodney Zilla. “We look forward to it all season long. Fall golf in the Southern Tier: It’s one of the great undiscovered trips nationally, but, regionally, everyone knows exactly how great the golf is.”
MOON PHOTO CREDIT: TONY KOROLOGOS