In a perfect world, nearly every golf course would be like Cooperstown, New York’s Leatherstocking Golf Club.
Cooperstown isn’t an ordinary town; it’s a chakra. A confluence of our country’s most iconic literature, history, and sports, all born in the formative years of our republic, if you want to see Americana in all its glory, joy, pride, and pomp, look no further than Cooperstown. American flags proudly wave on every porch front.
Their spirits buoyed by the idyllic beauty and incomparable history of the region as well as a powerful bond of community, the locals enjoy both a heart’s ease to life and a sense of stewardship of all that patriotic Americans hold dear. The Leatherstocking Tales, the pinnacle of the frontier literature of that or any age, were written here by James Fenimore Cooper, son of the judge for whom the town is named. Critical battles of the American Revolution were fought nearby, turning the tide of war in favor of the colonists. Overlooking idyllic Lake Otsego – “Glimmerglass” as it’s been called for centuries – the Glimmerglass Opera House is a bucket list experience for any true music aficionado. And the Baseball Hall of Fame is Mecca to any and all sports fans.
Oh, and summer nights on the lake make time stand still, even if only for a moment.
With all that as antecedents, the local golf course has a lot to live up to. But Leatherstocking Golf Club is more than equal to the task.
Designed by quintessential Golden Age architect Devereux Emmet, Leatherstocking is also a chakra…a golf chakra: a perfect storm of phenomenal green complexes, murderous bunkers randomly peppering the fairways, a gorgeous edge (Lake Otsego), and reasonable length. What looks like a pushover on the card (6,400 yards from the tips) has consistently flummoxed and bamboozled politicians, professional athletes, well-heeled resort guests, and grateful locals for over 100 glorious years. Best of all, Leatherstocking is open to the general public. Coming to visit the BBHOF? In town for a romantic getaway at the stately hotel? Want to knock a former top-100 golf course off your bucket list? Walk on up, and tee off! And don’t mind one bit if it feels as though you’ve stepped 100 years back in time.
Emmet built an original nine holes in 1909 and then returned for an encore in 1919. He had already cemented his reputation as one of the great designers of the Golden Age with his 1899 masterstroke at Garden City Golf Club. Just three years after opening, it hosted the 1902 U.S. Open. The 1908 U.S. Amateur followed.
But in 1910, Emmet joined forces with fellow quintessential Golden Age architect Charles Blair Macdonald to assist in the building of National Golf Links of America, as golf historian and designer George Bahto (now deceased) confirmed in an earlier interview with Your Author. Stephen C. Clarke, whose descendants own and operate the Otesaga Hotel and Resort still to this day, was a member of National and a friend of both Macdonald and Emmet. It was he who brought Emmet to Cooperstown.
“After working with Macdonald, Emmet changed his style a bit to where he more frequently used some of the holes Macdonald designed at National,” Bahto explained in the earlier interview. “And then Leonard or ‘Len’ Raynor stepped in and made some changes.
Raynor was for 36 years the head professional, head golf course superintendent, all-around ambassador for the club, and a beloved local figure. He also rebuilt several of the green complexes as well as the island tee box of the par-5, Cape hole 18th. Set in the middle of Lake Otsego, and built atop 22 junked automobiles and 2000 cubic yards of cinder-topped rock, the 18th tee is easily one of the three most memorable moments of an already compelling round. (The others are the drop shot par-3 12th and the summit of the seventh green, majestically overlooking so much of the golf course…)
As usual, on an Emmet course, the par-5s are the sturdy backbone of the routing. The par-5 fourth features a blind, downhill tee shot along the stone wall that guards NY-80, but the fairway behind is peppered with deep bunkers with steep faces. Driving into one is, essentially, like hitting into a pond; it’s 50-50 that your lie costs you a full stroke. The second shot is downhill over more random bunkering to the tiny green. Further complicating things, the fairway first cants right to left off the tee, but then left to right into the green.
Similarly, at the 11th, the fairway swerves and cascades steeply from right to left before ending at a verdant, hidden hollow. The 15th is completely side-hill, where hugging the high right side of the fairway leaves a good view and angle into a punchbowl green. Anything center-line or left will force the golfer to carry a minefield of randomly placed deep bunkers. Finally, the boomerang 18th is the grandest of crescendos.
Not to be outdone, Emmet routed the par-4s into the teeth of the mountainous hills on which the course is designed.
“The routing makes the golf course play much longer,” explained head golf course superintendent Mike O’Neill. “Each of the three longest par-4s – two, seven, and 10 – all play steeply uphill to dangerously fortified greens. Those green complexes are among the most extreme on the course: brutally deep bunkers, mountainous undulations, and false fronts and sides with steep drop-offs. You’re hitting a long club into all of them, and you really have to plan and play the shot carefully.”
As an aside, what a fantastic gig to get: a Golden Age masterpiece carefully preserved from its inception, set in one of the most historic and idyllic Colonial towns.
“The order of the day has always been to protect and preserve the course’s design, in both in how it looks and how it plays,” confirmed O’Neill, who along with his 14-year-old son has been here since 2018. Prior to Leatherstocking he was at nearby Syracuse’s Bellevue Country Club, a 1914 Donald Ross design. And before that O’Neill served for many years at Pinehurst Resort’s No. 8 course.
“My Uncle Tom taught me to golf when I was seven or eight. I was growing up on a dairy farm outside Scranton, PA, and wanted to mix the outdoors with what I loved and studied turfgrass at Penn State,” O’Neill recalled fondly.
It’s clear he learned well. A mix of the older German bents and poa, the greens are Glimmerglass-true, bringing to life all of the fierce Emmet internal contours and greenside swales.
“I have squared off the front of the greens to get a few more pins. And most of all, I like it to play firm and fast,” O’Neill states, and he succeeds. His own PGA Head Professional, Tim Quirk, putted from 40 yards off the fairway after nearly driving the first green en route to a kick-in birdie. You can do that on any hole at Leatherstocking that features an open route to the green, as well as use the putter from any of the devilish Emmet greenside swales.
Far from an anachronism, though the course is short, its asymmetric 35-37=72 routing makes for a phenomenal match play golf course. Momentum at Leatherstocking is the next shot: the next sideways bounce, the next brutal lie, the next zany angle to a Glimmerglass green, and a sucker pin: sheer delight from the opening tee shot at one to a watery grave at 18. Like the series of tales for which but’s named, Leatherstocking plays like a book you can’t put down and want to read over and over.
Now the dying embers of summer have turned every leaf in my beloved North Country aflame in a blaze of gold, russet, and orange. On my way home, I pass a house where a kid is selling limeade at a roadside stand set up in his yard. It was so delicious, I bought two glasses. Soon the snow will fall. The skis are waiting eagerly, standing sentinel-like Beefeaters next to the front door. But until then the final stoke of the coals did what it was meant to accomplish in my golfing heart. From the ashes a fire had woken; a light from the darkness did spring.
When not reporting live from major sports championships or researching golf courses for design, value, and excitement, multiple award-winning sportswriter Jay Flemma is an entertainment, Internet, trademark, and banking lawyer from New York. His clients have been nominated for Grammy and Emmy awards, won a Sundance Film Festival Best Director award, performed on stage and screen, and designed pop art for museums and collectors. Twitter @JayGolfUSA