I wish that I’d have studied golf course architecture 25 years ago, because – if it’s at all possible – I would have loved the Links at Hiawatha Landing even more than I do now.
The year was 1994, and although the golf world didn’t know it or expect it, a tumultuous sea change had started. Golf had just entered the Second Golden Age of Golf Course Architecture. In particular, the public access “daily fee experience,” as it was known, was about to take the quantum leap from mere trappings, sundries, and après golf to phenomenal strategic designs that everyone could play. Overnight it seemed, architects like Tom Doak, Mike Strantz, and Brian Silva had opened daily fee facilities that weren’t just the country clubs for a day, but they were truly inspired by and reproduced the greatest ideas of the original golden age of golf design in America. Best of all, the tired, target, penal school of architecture was – finally – declining, much to the delight of average golfers everywhere.
As any climber will tell you, it takes only a few small pebbles to start an avalanche.
Hiawatha Landing was born in the formative years of this movement towards harmony. Brian Silva, Boston’s favorite son of a golf course architect, had an eye-opening experience a few short years earlier at Pete Dye’s PGA West Stadium Course. That’s where “the light bulb went on,” as Silva put it in an earlier interview with your author.
“I joined up with Brian and Geoffrey Cornish shortly after Brian had started to become familiar with the architecture of Charles Blair Macdonald, Seth Raynor, and Charles “Steamshovel” Banks. I had graduated Worcester Polytechnic Institute’s civil engineering program, and worked on a project in Virginia for a contracting company before that,” explained Mark Mungeam, the architect Silva and Cornish ultimately gave the lead for building Hiawatha. Bordering the Susquehanna River and tumbling over roughly 180 acres of rolling terrain, it was primal land for golf set in a verdant, tree-cloaked valley.
Mungeam hadn’t studied classic golf course design in depth before that, but he loved learning the craft and took to it immediately. Temptation, angles, proper sequencing of the holes: as his career would progress, Mungeam would become best known for his prowess at routing.
“I’ve always loved the process of looking at topo maps and superimposing the course over the property lines. And walking the property, especially Hiawatha Landing, was a joy,” Mungeam stated fondly. “It’s like solving a jigsaw puzzle – making wind direction, terrain, distancing, and everything else interplay properly with one another.”
Opened in 1995, Hiawatha Landing is a modern links-style course with a treeless landscape to take advantage of the swirling winds within the little bowl where the course lies hard by the river. The two loops of nine are separated by Marshlands Road.
Marshlands…boy isn’t THAT an appropriate name. Beneath the beauty of Hiawatha’s idyllic, indeed majestic setting lies a formidable challenge – flooding. Binghamton’s southern tier sees hundred-year floods seemingly every decade. And the rains and floods turn every golf course in Broome and Tioga Counties into…well…marshlands. “There’s been salmon swimming across the seventh fairway on several occasions,” observed former PGA Head Professional Bernie Herceg, and Your Author can confirm that through first-hand observation. Back in the 2000-oughts, we had a writer’s tournament at Hiawatha. Day one was washed out with three inches of rain: 48 players, zero golf shots.
As day two dawned and the players arrived, the folks running the tournament presented each golfer with a brand new, long-sleeved waterproof pullover. Then they sent us out in three more inches of rain. The first group reached the 12th hole by the time they called it off for good because standing water was getting knee high in places as the river flooded over.
Oh, by the way those 48 waterproof pullovers? They turned out to only be water resistant. Which means 48 drowned rats changed their duds on the fly in the men’s room, (and wrung out their pullovers).
“Flooding was the toughest challenge we faced,” agreed Tim Rose, who has been on the grounds crew at Hiawatha almost since the course’s inception and head superintendent since 2007. “We’ve had at least five really bad ones, including one in 2011 where we had to rebuild several holes.”
Rebuild several holes is an understatement. First off, the Susquehanna River flooded so badly that, of course, the front was completely flooded. But worse still, the river flooded further down its bed, crossed Route 17, (a major highway!) and flooded the back nine too through what amounted to a trap door nobody expected.
“It was insane. The water got trapped on the back nine. We had to pump it out through the underground tunnel carts take to cross Marshlands Road 24/7 for two full weeks,” Rose recalled.
Two crucial back nine holes, 14 and 17, suffered the worst damage but were restored to 95% of what they were before.
“The closing stretch is terrific,” beamed Mungeam. “14 features two clear options off the tee: try to drive the green or club down and play safe to the right. It’s only about 313 yards, but there’s a bunker and a pond on the left. The right side is open and feeds into the green because I wanted to tempt longer hitters to try to go f0r it, so I kept the hazards visually subtle, but carefully placed to catch the most likely errant shot. There’s also a bunker 265 yards out on the right to catch a fade or a slice.”
The mighty, 460-yard, par-4 16th features a similar challenge, but on an even grander scale. A cavernous fairway bunker yawns menacingly with the fairway winding around it far to the right. But a drive over the bunker catches a speed slot, and the difference between a tee shot safely in the right side of the fairway and a shot the carries the bunker is four clubs or more into a tiny green guarded by severe swales.
“The green is also much less accepting to a long club approach and a shot from the right side of the fairway,” added Mungeam.
Of course a great finishing hole is a summation of all that came before, and the par-5 18th has everything you saw in the previous 17 holes. A strategic carry over a lake, a chance to reach the green in two, but trouble of every kind lurking: you can finish with a 3 or a 13.
“Or you can get hit in the thigh with a golf ball so hard you had a dimple pattern on your thigh for a week,” groused golfer Charles Cordova, who had that exact thing happen to him when Your Author thinned an 8-iron into the lake. As I told him then – laughingly, of course – that’s what you get for hawking golf balls and not paying attention. And he’s not kidding about the dimple pattern. I saw that with my own eyes too.
“I think the backbone of the golf course is what we call the ‘S-curve,’ holes five, six, seven, and eight. That’s our Amen Corner,” noted Rose, speaking of a section of holes so close to the river that two holes – five had six, a short par-4 and long par-3 respectively – have no bunkers at all; instead they are defended fiercely by a lake that runs their entire right side. “With our typical westerly prevail, five, seven, and eight all play into the teeth of the wind. Doubles and triples are frequent. All the flooding may have helped out the members and bogey golfers, because we got rid of a couple bunkers, widened the fairways, and thinned out the fescue so it’s more playable for higher handicappers.”
All the flooding issues prepared the grounds crew for Covid. They’d rebuilt the course after storms out of the pages of the Last Judgment, so they focused that same energy and problem solving to a different challenge and adapted quickly and easily.
“Covid definitely was a boon for public golf. We had more people, but we kept to 10 minute tee times through the season and the golfers did a great job of keeping things moving,” said Rose. “We did all the typical Covid precautions – single carts with dividers for a while, online booking, cashless transactions, sanitization of everything, no rakes, foam inserts in the cups. Our Director of Golf and General Manager J.B. Bump did a great job organizing everything.”
As the Second Golden Age of Golf Course Architecture progresses, and the public golf world revels in masterpieces like Bandon Dunes, Sand Valley, and Streamsong, and Tobacco Road, let’s not forget the Hiawatha Landings and the Red Tails and the Royal New Kents of the world. These were the small public facilities that led the vanguard, and although they may only have a regional following and might not appear on a magazine top 100 list, every successful course of the 21st century owes them a debt of gratitude.
When not reporting live from major sports championships or researching golf courses for design, value, and excitement, multiple award-winning sportswriter Jay Fle mma 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