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Course Tour: Glens Falls

Over the course of his prolific career, Donald Ross designed a number of courses in the upper New York State region, the most noteworthy of them being the Glens Falls Country Club. Ross originally designed nine holes for the club in 1912, then added a second nine in 1921, which opened for play the next year. Despite Ross’ involvement, the quiet and laid-back club remained out of the national spotlight for most of its lifespan—yet in the last few years, and with good reason, it has finally started to gain the distinction that a course of its quality and pedigree merits. For this, Ian Andrew, who has been the club’s consulting architect since 2011, is probably foremost to credit. The club’s website directs us to his original impressions of Ross’ layout: “Since discovering this hidden gem, I have encouraged many golf architects and aficionados to come see the course. Each has expressed their surprise at how incredible Glens Falls is and wondered why it’s not known and rated among the country’s best.”

And my reaction was certainly along these lines. Andrew and I played it on the final day of a late fall trip which also included Grand-Mere, Ekwanok, and Hooper. All four courses were excellent in their own ways, but, to me, Glens Falls was the clear standout of the lot. Suffice to say, then, that Ross’ creation is well-worthy of the praise it’s been showered with of late, including being ranked 83rd in the U.S. according to Golf.com’s latest ranking. 

The club is stealthily tucked off a busy drag about five minutes north of downtown Glens Falls proper. Although we only ventured there briefly the night prior for dinner, at a suave modern Italian joint in the basement of a theatre, the downtown core seemed quaint and charming, in a rustic, customary middle American kind of way. And this ethos very much extends to the club, too, which, despite its newfound fame, seems to have maintained its rather casual, familial, tranquil, yet still sophisticated vibe. In truth, I’ve visited very few clubs I’d rather join. 

The scene that awaits the golfer at the beginning and the end of the round is among the best I’ve encountered so far. Rather than have the 18th green and 1st tee set adjacent to the main clubhouse, as is common, it is instead the 18th tee box and 1st fairway that are near it, meaning that a full perspective of the uphill first and downhill final shots of a golfer’s round is afforded from the vantage of the patio and dining room which is located merely steps from the ultimate tee box. So upon being told that you are up, you must leave your clubs by the 18 tee, walk about a hundred and eighty yards downhill, cross a foot bridge over a little inlet of the nearby lake to a quasi island tee located near the 18th green, hit your opening drive, and retrace your steps. 

The morning Andrew and I made this trek it was hardly above freezing, and we’d already been delayed an hour and half for frost. Still, the clear skies, lack of wind, and sun, whose rays shone impotent however, promised that a glorious Adirondack fall day was to come. 

The sharply uphill and nearly-ninety-degree rightward bending 1st hole, a par 5 of 500 yards, is rather wide and forgiving, but a solid strike is needed to reach the crest. Theoretically, someone who hits it extremely high and reasonably long likely could cut the corner, leaving themselves with a mid-iron second, but for mere mortal drivers such as myself, this is a three shot hole despite its short-ish yardage. Most importantly, though, as with all great opening holes, it makes you want to play—a taste of the roller-coaster land over which the rest of the course is routed is suggested and the green site, nestled at the crest of a hill and bordered closely to its left by the road that bisects the property, is attractive. Moreover, you are immediately exposed to a tremendous “sense of place”, to steal a term from geography—the nearby bucolic lake, the rolling landforms, the stately trees all serve to remind that you are in the Adirondacks. 

The second tee-box is located across the road and, once again, the scale of the property is striking—immediately upon eyeing the tee shot, which plunges some seventy feet from tee to fairway, I was reminded of Hamilton’s 3rd and 12th. The approach shot then plays back uphill to a green that is almost entirely hidden from the vantage of the fairway and is guarded by a deep bunker short and a sharp fall-off to its right. As with all of Ross’ courses, precise iron play is required, though the course is certainly get-able. 

Glens Falls 3rd
Hamilton’s 12th

The green on the short par 3, 3rd, is set in a bit of a punchbowl and features more intense internal movement than the first couple, which mostly rely on the titled grade of the land for their character. The back-right quarter of the surface is elevated from the rest, which can leave some interesting putts if you don’t hit it close. Once again, this is an extremely attractive hole. 

The fourth transitions the routing from the more intense northern and western portions of the property to the plainer and less micro-undulating middle and eastern segments. Yet, to make up for the less-dramatic land, Ross, of course, ratcheted-up the green complexes, and the 4th and 5th stand toe-to-toe with the finest pair to be found anywhere. On the 4th tee, you must carefully pick a tree over the crest to aim at, for the fairway disappears from view where most longer hitters will land their drives—this is a tricky tee shot, especially upon first play. The layup is rather mundane, having simply to avoid the two flanking bunkers that guard the straight-running fairway. A sharp false front guards the green, whose surface is effectively divided into two waves—downhill off the front, back up to a middle crest, back down, and back up again.

4th tee shot
Looking at the par 5, 4th green

The 5th green is, somehow, even better and, in my estimation, the coolest I played all year. Despite having only sand-wedges seconds, Andrew and I couldn’t quite make out what we were seeing, for there is a ton of visual deception from the fairway—its front portion is hidden by a crest and its lower left segment is similarly obscured, leaving you with what seems to be a pool-table-sized target to hit at. And the middle portion of the surface very much looks as if Ross buried a pool-table under it during construction, leaving nearly ninety edges falling off to its back and right edges (the pictures hopefully do justice to what I am admittedly struggling to describe here). 

The uphill tee shot on the par 4, 6th, is a little nondescript and unimportant—in fact, if there is one weakness to Glens Falls it is that there are a few to many of these kinds of tee-shots: semi-blind over crests, with not much strategic interest except to mash it as far as possible (4, 6, 10,11—visually at least—13, 14, 15). Yet, the sharply downhill second shot and rousing green complex at the 6th more than make up for what the tee shot lacks in excitement. Set way down in a punchbowl, the green features an insanely elevated left segment which, in turn, can be used to feed balls to hole locations cut in the lower, quasi-saddle shaped right segment. 

The driveable par 4, 7th, is probably the club’s most widely circulated hole, and with good reason, for it is alluring especially with the fall foliage on display, the peak of which we unfortunately missed by a week or two. Really what you see is what you get here, though the green is surprisingly tame for a hole of this length. 

Tame perhaps and probably because the next green, the 8th, which is cut halfway up a steep ridge, is ridiculously pitched from back to front. Ross’ masterful ability to apply compress and release—meant, here, to be understood in terms of intensity, rather than in a spacial sense, though there are instances of that, too—is evident all around Glens Falls, which is yet another Ross masterclass in routing, folding and relapsing upon itself so as to navigate the more intense and exciting portions of the property multiple times throughout the routing rather than all at once. And, of course, this would be the obvious counter-argument to what I previously cited as the course’s primary weakness—when Ross offers a tame and “easy” tee shot, he usually counters it with an intense and taxing second and green complex. 

This final par 4 on the front once again showcases the rollicking land of the north and west segments of the property. A good drive should leave a short iron second, which must be left under the hole at all costs. I made the mistake of going long with my second and from twenty-five feet above the hole I was unable to lag it within ten, even upon multiple tries and with the green running presumably a few notches below its summer peak. 

The 9th, a par 3 of about 160 yards, is a world-class “volcano” style hole, with a green that must, at all costs, be found from the tee. Its intense back to front pitch isn’t immediately evident…until you watch what appears to be a good chip take a sudden turn and trickle ten to fifteen feet towards the front, as Andrew’s bunker shot did that day. 

Frankly, Glens Falls’ front nine plays second fiddle to very few nines in golf that I’ve yet seen—off the top of my head, Pasatiempo’s back, Augusta’s back, Pebble’s front, St George’s front are the only ones that I would judge as clearly superior to it; other than that, it puts up a valiant fight against any other one.  

The 10th is a bit of a connector hole, in truth, beginning with a completely blind tee shot over the same ridge from which you just teed off at the 9th. This tee ball can be hit, literally, anywhere—I suppose one could argue that Ross is allowing for a breather moment here after a few intense ones, which is valid. However, the second shot and the green, which falls away slightly, are compelling and require deft touch, especially when the ground is firm. 

The 11th gets my vote as the best par 4 on property. Upon first glance it appears quite similar to the 6th, with an uphill tee shot followed by a second shot down a ridge to a green set in a punchbowl. However, what really elevates this hole is the saddle-shaped ridgeline, which awards a clear view solely to the golfer whose drive finds the middle of the fairway. Less intense than the 6th, the 11th green complex plays truer to the nature of the “punchbowl” template, allowing for shots to be funnelled in from all directions. 

The momentum continues at the long 220 yard 12th, a massive, uphill par 3 which looks like a reverse-redan but doesn’t really play like one. The major challenge here is the steep false front, which, as I found out that day, will repel balls that land even as far as the fringe some sixty yards back to the bottom of the slope—from there, hitting the slim green is no easy task, as the shot is completely blind, and your lie severely uphill and thus easy to chunk a tad. Once again, this hole gave me huge Hamilton vibes. 

The stretch from 13-15, which run parallel to each-other across the middle of the property, is a bit of letdown. All three tee balls are semi blind, without much interest; however, the green complexes, especially the 13th, are engaging and intense. They’re not bad holes whatsoever; they’re just a bit monotonous and dull. 

Looking at the 13th

Originally the par 5, 16th, played over the road to a small green which is now used as a short-game area; however, due to increased traffic, the club opted to move the green short of the road and well to the left, thus turning the hole into a sweeping dogleg. After the round the club’s professional informed us that there is talk to rebuild and ease the cant of this green; although certainly severe and slightly different in nature from the rest, I didn’t find it unplayable or unfair—perhaps this was due to the slower green speeds we experienced that day. I understand why the green had to be moved, but the original version of the hole was definitely better than the new one. 

The final two holes, however, renew the momentum and the round ends on a high note. The 17th is another roller-coaster ride across some wonderful Adirondack terrain, with a big, downhill tee shot to a severely undulating fairway followed by a green set in a natural amphitheatre, well above the level of the approach. Frankly, this feels like a finishing hole, dramatic, thrilling, and picturesque.

Generally speaking, I am not a huge fan of finishing on par 3s and, according to the professional, rumor has it that Mr. Ross wasn’t completely satisfied with the final green complex, but the scene around this hole is so good that I can’t find a glaring fault in it. I can just imagine how rowdy and thrilling it must get on men’s night or during the final round of the club championship, with the patio set so close to the tee box that you can smell the beer and grub as you go through your routine. The green complex is fine, if a bit non-descript—strangely, it sort of feels unoriginal or tweaked to me, though I don’t know if this is true.

All in all, Glens Falls was one of the better courses I played in 2022—in truth, it’s probably still a tad underrated at 83rd in the U.S., but that’s about where it should be ranked in my taste.

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