Note: The following piece on Knickerbocker Golf Club in Cincinnatus, N.Y. ran in The Evening Sun several years ago. The course is now a well-seasoned 18-hole layout with reasonable greens fees and even more reasonable membership rates.
Walking into the clubhouse at Knickerbocker Golf Club is like visiting a favorite aunt or uncle’ s house. It’s cozy and has that family-like feel from moment one. Your favorite uncle, Todd Knickerbocker, manages the place, his brothers and father Hank tend to the course upkeep, and never do you feel out of place.
It’s not unusual to find a group of ladies playing cards at one of the four-seater tables. In one section, the tops of booths are covered with red and white-checkered table cloth, you know, the one you pulled out for summer picnics.
At the far end of the clubhouse are lounge chairs, a good-sized couch, a television, and a fireplace to warm things up on those cold spring or fall days. It’s a clubhouse that won’ t knock your socks off with ostentatious displays, fixtures, and furniture. The only glitter and flash are a few well-placed pictures of famous patrons, such as Syracuse University coaching legends Dick McPherson and Jim Boeheim, however, it’s a setting devoid of pretentiousness, and one that almost screams the word, “welcome.”
“We want people to be comfortable,” Todd said, a statement that should read above the entrance.
Once you reach your comfort level inside, the 18-hole golf course awaits, ready to create a little discomfort.
Looking over the scorecard, other than the two par-fives that extend over 520 yards each, there isn’t a hole on the course – from the blue tees – longer than 370 yards. The majority of the par-fours are in the 320-yard-or-less category, and the total course yardage is less than 5,400 yards.
On paper, the course would seem to be simple. “Driver and wedge all day,” I thought before my first outing at the course last year.
Coming back to Knickerbocker – my first outing was last fall – I was smart enough to know that there was more to this little course than meets the eye. Most of the holes are doglegs left or right. Several of the tee shots are blind looks, meaning you can’t see the green from the tee. “Absolutely,” Todd answered when asked if local knowledge of the course was valuable.
Blind tee shots and curving fairways were the least of my problems on this day. Ultimately, the greens had the final say. For one, the putting surfaces are small. Two, they are windy, bumpy and undulating. And three, the greens’ speed is faster than your traditional rural municipal course.
I learned a hard lesson about factors one, two, and three in a hurry. “These greens are eating us alive,” said my playing partner Bob McNitt after five or six holes.
My final score of 10-over-par 80 was about as unsatisfactory a performance as I’ve had in a couple of years. I walked off the course knowing I hit the ball really well all day. I found the short grass on 11 of 14 drives, hit 10 of 18 greens in regulation, and was just around the fringe on a number of other holes.
Until I nearly chipped in on successive holes, though, – the 16th and 17th – yielding one-putts – I was on pace for nearly 40 stabs with the flat blade. As it turned out, I managed 36 with five three-putts and a couple other narrow escapes.
I should have seen the writing on the wall after my first-hole bogey. A 320-yard uphill par-four over a small rise, I placed a two-iron down the middle and had around 105 yards to the green. I hit a pitching wedge on line to the hole that ended about 20 feet short of the pin and uphill. A good start in my mind considering I didn’t warm up a bit.
Not bothering to take a few practice putts proved to be my downfall – and Bob’s. I blasted my putt well by the hole and missed the comeback for a three-putt bogey. Bob, who was razor-sharp with the flat stick last week, found his magic wand dulled. After a respectable chip on his third shot, even magic-touch Bob missed a makeable par putt. Bob’s words were (or to that effect), “We didn’t want to start with a par anyway.”
Last fall’s trip to Cincinnatus brought back interesting memories, albeit our tour around the layout that time was circuitous. (It’s a long story, but suffice, we took a few wrong turns). We learned from Todd at the end of our round that Knickerbocker would expand to 18 holes in 2002.
Initially a nine-hole course designed by Hank 42 years ago, five holes were added a while back making it a unique 13-hole layout. Through creative tee placement, five of the holes were played twice to fill out the 18-hole round. That’s where are troubles began last year, but that is a story for another day.
Cutting a swath through the heavily wooded family property, the quintet of holes was added – a par-three and a par-five to go with three short par-fours. Bob and I were impressed with the vision of the new Knickerbocker holes, and while the holes are still in their infancy, we see them soon matching the excellence of the other 13. “What’s the usual maturing process for new holes, four or five years?” Todd asked. “I like the new holes, in fact I like all of the holes.”
We like the holes, too. The layout and length of Knickerbocker Golf Course makes it a playable layout for any level of golfer. Still, even a course as playable as Knickerbocker can bring you to your knees. As Bob commented later in our round, “sometimes the course wins.”
Speaking of winning, my little head-to-head matchup with Bob ended in a four-shot victory. But Mr. McNitt made a strong back nine charge reminiscent of Arnie Palmer, a surge that had me quivering in my Etonic shoes.
I went out in 39 over the front nine despite two three putts, two missed putts under five feet, and a double bogey to lead Bob by five. Bob’s putting woes extended to his mid-range and long game. Three uncharacteristic double bogeys led to a 44.
My lead grew to seven after Bob’ s errant tee shot on the 345-yard downhill 10th ended in yet another double. That’s when my wheels fell off and Bob found a spare tire. He chiseled that seven-shot deficit down to zero in four holes. His highlight: A dead-on short-iron to the newly-constructed 153-yard 13th hole. After toying with club selection, Bob’ s shot landed just short of the hole and curled behind it to around three feet. It was nearly the first-ever ace recorded on the new hole.
Looking for his first birdie in two rounds, he rolled his putt over the right edge. Bob shook his head in disbelief, he couldn’t believe there was a break slightly to the right.
Still, Bob’s charge continued, and my tee shot into the pond at the 300-yard 15th hole helped his cause. The 15th is one of the many holes requiring course knowledge and proper club selection. Things I obviously didn’t have.
Noticing the pond around 50 yards from the green, I intended to layup with a 3-iron. Heck, Bob hit a lofted 3-wood and seemed to be okay. I smoothed my ball down the right center of the fairway with a slight draw. It took one bounce off a side hill and was gone. Literally gone by way of water hazard.
Noticing my second double bogey on the scorecard and seeing the ever-growing confidence in Bob’s demeanor, I offered a well-timed compliment: “Boy Bob, you’re having a real good back nine.” That was just the tonic I needed to rejuvenate my game, and it seemed to be the knife that started to twist in Bob’s back.
I finished the final three holes in 1-under-par, the birdie came after a chip on the par-five 16th hole that hit the back of the flagstick for eagle, and just bounced away. Bob matched my birdie, but pulled a Van de Velde on the fairly simple 305-yard 17th making a triple bogey.
Heading back to the clubhouse, the feeling of home returned. It was the haven we needed to nurse our wounds after a much more difficult outing than expected.