CORTLAND – Long before I knew there was such a thing as attention deficit disorder, there was a pervasive need within me to experience something new, something different, and something exciting. It was that line of thinking that led to conceiving a weekly summer golf column.
Self-analysis revealed “homer” tendencies when it came to my longtime recreational passion, so off I went in pursuit of new golf challenges.
Earlier this week I found that elusive diamond in the rough – pun certainly intended – when I toured the 18-hole layout at Walden Oaks Country Club in Cortland. Unlike every course I have reviewed the past two years, Monday, June 29 was the absolute first time I had laid eyes on the course.
Yes, Walden Oaks proved the perfect example of why I write these golf treatises.
While I had heard of Walden Oaks, I can’t claim the suggestion of playing the course. My oft-partner, Rick “O’Shea” Ferris, had a few rounds under his belt at Walden Oaks, and he invited his good friend, Sam “STN” Scafidi to round out our threesome. Sam, too, had four or five previous rounds on the course. Sam would soon be dubbed “Sammy Cold Cuts” for the feathery fade he used to find the fairway during the morning’s spritzing rainfall.
Indeed, the forecaddying those two provided during the round proved invaluable in shot selection and placement. It also helped that Rick remembered to bring his GPS. Somehow I managed to get through my first 30 years of golf by eyeballing the 150- and 100-yard markers, and estimating yardage to the hole from there.
That GPS? Well, it almost feels like cheating.
Unlike most of the golf courses in Cortland County, Walden Oaks is a mere babe in the woods. It opened for business in 1993, and current head professional – and operations manager – Marcus Bernardo came on board one year later.
“Basically, the developer (of the course) was paired with the home builders, and the golf course was built around the housing development,” Bernardo said.
It was about 15 years ago that the Walden Oaks housing development really blossomed, Bernardo said, and the course has continued to flourish under the ownership of 16 individuals, who make up a for-profit stock corporation.
With 500 current playing members, 60 corporate outings, one or two leagues every weekday, and numerous high-level Central New York stroke play events hosted by Walden Oaks, business is indeed good.
As the newbie of our threesome, I quickly learned why Walden Oaks Country Club is in such demand. Even on a rainy, drizzly morning, the drainage was exceptional, and the greens were immaculate and quick. Said Bernardo: “I wish you could have came on a day when it didn’t rain. The fairways are usually much tighter and the greens are quicker.”
Really, tighter and quicker?
We’ve played tightly mown fairways this year, so I wasn’t in fear of that. However, those greens…oh, those greens.
Even with several inches of rain absorbed on the course in June, the greens were fast – the fastest we have played this season – and probably the quickest of any course we have seen over the past two years. I noticed that not only were they cut down – likely below 3/16th of inch – but there was liberal use of verticutting to thin out said grass.
A device called a stimpmeter is used to measure the speed of greens. An average public course is about an eight – an eight-foot roll of a golf ball released from a stimpmeter on flat terrain. Walden Oaks was probably closer to a 10 earlier this week, it’s likely an 11 on a dry day, and when the greenskeepers are feeling a tad wicked, watch out.
I pulled up the scorecard at Walden Oaks the day before I played. There were four par-fives with an average length from the blue tees of 483 yards. From the white tees, that average drops to a modest 460 yards. Certainly manageable for the ball striker of average length off the tee.
There isn’t one par-four from the white tees over 400 yards, and there are six par-fours of 330 yards or less. All told, the course plays to just over 6,000 yards from the tips, and about 5,570 yards from the white tees.
Sounds innocuous, right? It’s not – at all. Walden Oaks attacks every golfer’s fear at nearly every turn. There are tight driving areas, hazards left and right, out of bounds stakes, water hazards, sand bunkers, raised tee shots, blind tee shots, and doglegs left and right that require pinpoint distance control. Those are just some of the possible failings a golfer faces at address.
Even if you manage to avoid all of the trouble that awaits, the putting surfaces are the great equalizers. Greens are tiered, undulated left or right, back to front…you name it. Knowing where to place your ball on the green with an approach shot is critical. I didn’t get too much of that information from Sam and Rick, who, like me, were just trying to get from the tee to the green in a reasonable number of strokes.
The phrases I heard the most from my partners were, “you don’t want to be left,” “you don’t want to be right,” and “you don’t want to be long.” I’m not close to a scratch golfer, so throughout the day, I went left when the shot required I go to the right, I went to the right when it demanded I shoot it left, and I was long when I needed to be short.
Still, I survived, and nearly broke 80 my first time on the course. Bogeying four of the last five holes did not help. One of those bogeys, though, was worth the experience.
Number 14, a short par-five, provided the most spectacular view on the course, and the choices for shot selection made for some fun – and wet – shot making. A big dogleg left with a maple tree at about the 200-yard mark, one can play it safe on 14 by driving right of the tree, and trek toward the green from there.
Or, one can try to draw the ball left of the tree where it will catch a slope down to a flat fairway. From that angle you can take your chances with a shot toward the green. The rub, however, is that a large pond protects the entire left side all the way to the green. From the lower flat area, one must carry water to reach the green. There is a slim walking area to the right of the pond that takes you to the green, but to the right of that walk-up is another pond.
It’s a risk/reward scenario the whole way, and I was all risk with the hope of reward. After drawing the ball to the flat area, I was in good position to hit the green in two. Unfortunately, I caught the ball fat, and splashed down about five yards short of clearing the water.
I wasn’t dismayed at all, and it was a fun option that I just didn’t execute. Plus, it was hard to get angry with the sublime aesthetics. “To me, this really is the signature hole on the course,” Sammy Cold Cuts said, who asked that his final score for the day stay “off the record.”
A number of holes aside from 14 left a positive impression, mainly for their beauty, their difficulty, and the thought that went into the architectural design. Bernardo said improvements on the course are ongoing, and after asking what I thought of the course, he invited me and my partners back for another loop.
I know one thing, Bernardo won’t have to ask me twice.