NEW BERLIN – When looking for golf courses to review, the number one rule was that it had to be 18 holes.
That was about the hardest and fastest rule in my golfing constitution; however, rules are meant to be broken, correct?
Butternut Valley Golf, located about seven miles north of Morris and just off state Route 51, has forced me to rethink every one of my criteria for golf courses.
In week three of our summer tour, I brought along my stepson, Joe Mioduszewski. If you follow the sports pages, you may have seen Joe’s results as a three-year member of the Norwich varsity golf team. For a young buck, he’s as analytical and discerning a golfer as most adult players I know, and this was also a good opportunity for us to play our first round of the season together.
Three years ago I played Butternut Valley Golf, and my one lasting impression was that it was “tough.” Joe had no idea what to expect, and considering the course is located in a hyper-rural area, his expectations were not high.
Nearing the conclusion of our second nine-hole tour of the course, Joe said, “This course is awesome. If someone has the time and is in the Morris area, they should try this course. It’s high quality.”
The land on which the course is constructed used to be a potato farm, owned the Elliotts. Gary Elliott, a third generation potato farmer, was the original owner and course designer, and he certainly knew what he was doing.
Elliott had the course designed and irrigation mapped for 18 holes, but due to budget issues, only nine holes were built, said original course investor and current owner, Tony Condurso.
Initially, Condurso was the equivalent of a silent partner, and while the course’s profitability had promise, it never quite fulfilled expectations. “This was Gary’s dream,” Condurso said of the course, who added that he didn’t become the full-time, hands-on owner until this year. “When I got in as an investor, I was hoping to get my money back, and maybe get a little bit of an extra return. That didn’t happen.”
The course was built less than 10 years ago and has undergone multiple management and ownership changes. Condurso is now the mortgage holder, and his thought was, “everyone else has had a shot (at making this profitable), let me have a shot.”
Long before I played the course for the first time, the then-named “Asuga Links” had a reputation for difficulty. Elliott was a low handicap golfer, and his course theme and architecture clearly had the more skilled golfer in mind.
The natural fescue grass was allowed to grow freely – and long – in areas not that far removed from the fairway, and the rough was penal in its own right. Couple that with doglegs, elevation changes, long carries over waste areas, and large, undulating greens, and you have a bear of a test.
Condurso, who considers himself more of a hacker, understood the course’s difficulty could turn people away. “It was narrow and it was tough, and no one wants to come out and golf badly,” Condurso said. “Everyone wants to play a halfway decent round. But when you’re losing balls, it’s frustrating and it isn’t fun.”
So Condurso’s superintendent, Tim Carroll, along with the groundscrew, have gone the route of aggressively mowing and cleaning up areas where fescue was predominant. It’s opened up the course and allowed people to play more shots where balls used to be lost – or where the player would suffer crippling penalty strokes.
Getting to the actual golf, we checked in with Amy, the bar manager, and then ventured out to the cart path. Word to the wise, if you’re a walker, that opening sojourn from the clubhouse to the first tee is about three-tenths of a mile (according to my GPS).
From prior experience, I knew the opening hole was a straight-on tee shot into an area that could easily be a driving range. It’s squared off on all three sides from the tee box, and is about 100 yards wide and 325 yards long. Just don’t spray it to the right as long grass awaits errant tee shots.
Strategy then plays into your second shot. If you’re out far enough, you can test your golfing acumen with a generous carry over long grass, bushes, and shrubs to a smallish green. Or, you can shoot toward the fairway that winds to the left of the grassy waste area at about a 45-degree angle from your tee ball’s landing area. It’s the prescribed layup for the medium to short hitters, however, it’s no picnic as knowing your distance to a safe layup is critical.
The first hole gives you choices, it requires precise knowledge of distance, and you have to be accurate. In truth, I could stop right here with the article because precision and course management are critical components to all nine holes at Butternut Valley.
I have a degree in management, although anyone grading my course management skills on my first nine holes at BVG would have given me an “F.”
“It’s a course that you have to play a couple of times to learn what you should do and what you shouldn’t do,” Condurso said. “You have to learn to leave the driver in the bag.”
I heard that comment echo through my thoughts: “Leave the driver in the bag…in the bag…in the bag… .”
Too bad he didn’t tell me that before my first time around the course.
Right out of the gate, you get back-to-back par-fives at Butternut Valley, something I don’t recall from any other course I have played in 30-plus years. While number one acts as a warmup, number two is the full Monty. I’m pretty sure that if I played that hole 100 times, I would never feel comfortable. The tee shot is daunting, and it requires expert accuracy and distance control. It is a slightly downhill dogleg to the right lined with trees left and right, and a wooded fortress on the back side of the dogleg if you hit your tee shot too straight and too far. At the right side of the dogleg, the terrain slopes sharply to the right down into the woods. The almost 60- to 70-degree turn takes you straight up the hill to the green.
In two trips on that hole, my stepson lost four balls, and I lost one – and that lost ball came on one of my better-struck tee shots.
I hit the ball where I wanted, but my ignorance to course knowledge led to a penalty stroke.
In just nine holes of golf, you have blind tee shots, multiple elevation changes, doglegs left and right, a par three over water, and second shots to greens where you can only see the top of the flagstick. If you’re riding in a cart and playing for the first time – or even the fiftieth – it pays to drive up to see the pin position.
What we deemed the signature hole was the par-three eighth (see the picture on today’s sports page) that is not for the faint of swing. We played from the white tees, a straight-on shot that is all carry over water to a green that is about 90 feet from front to back. Based on pin position, the length of the hole may range from 140 to 170 yards, and the green is full of undulation.
“That’s the best par three I have played around here,” Joe said of the eighth hole after our second nine holes.
On this day, we came for the golf, but we learned that Butternut Valley Golf is much more than that. On Condurso’s business card, it says under the company name, “It’s the Whole in One.”
Condurso is working on a business model in which he taps into every possible asset on the property. The clubhouse has a full bar and restaurant, and a pavilion in the rear to host larger events.
Butternut Valley has a full restaurant menu with a well-regarded dinners, and the bar menu has all of the staples golfers have come to love. Live music is regularly featured, and the course is quickly becoming a hot spot for weddings, birthdays, and special events. Condurso’s long-term plan is to eventually have an on-site music festival.
As far as aesthetics go, the views and vistas from the property offer some of the most picturesque settings in Otsego County. The goal now, Condurso said, is to get more people in the doors for this gem.
“You can expect the unexpected when you come here,” Condurso said. “It’s not just about what you see, it’s also about what you don’t see. We’re telling people we’re not the best-kept secret anymore.”
I’m glad this course is not a secret, because I am telling all of my golfer friends about Butternut Valley Golf.