Escape from New York: Hudson Valley offers good golf

The 18th hole at Union Vale.

The 18th hole at Union Vale.

STAATSBURG, N.Y. -- Six years ago, I left Brooklyn for the Hudson Valley, two hours upriver. There were many reasons. Foremost, the mortgage on my beautiful 1860 Victorian on two acres in the picturesque village of Staatsburg was half the rent of my two-bedroom apartment in bustling Brooklyn Heights. Not far behind: I was sick to death of fighting traffic to and from the golf course. Eastbound, the Long Island Expressway, famously “the world’s biggest parking lot.” Westward ho, the Holland Tunnel and Brooklyn Bridge.

As choices go, this was chip yips versus putting yips. Ticked off before I’d teed off and spent by the time I got home – assuming I could find a parking spot – the logistical nightmares of golf had become almost unbearable.

The Hudson Valley isn’t Pinehurst, Scottsdale or Myrtle Beach. You don’t move here, or visit here, for bucket-list golf. We don’t have a course ranked on Golfweek’s Best state list; trophy-hunting types should look elsewhere.

Everybody else, stick with me. What we do have is a bucolic, sumptuous, history-rich getaway with hugely enjoyable golf a vital ingredient.

Five minutes up the road from Staatsburg is the chic village of Rhinebeck. On the southwest corner of its one traffic light sits the elegant Beekman Arms Inn, the oldest continuously operating hotel in America, opened in 1766.

Yes, George Washington slept here, as did Alexander Hamilton and Benedict Arnold. Rhinebeck is an ideal hub for area golf, centrally located and flush with upscale boutiques and restaurants, with the chef-owned The Local a personal favorite for its farm-to-table emphasis and vibrant, friendly atmosphere. This is farm country, and good food is crucial to a Hudson Valley trip. En route to the first course, Casperkill Golf Club, 30 minutes down the road in Poughkeepsie, you pass the Harvard of haute cuisine, the Culinary Institute of America, or CIA. Leave time for breakfast at its Apple Pie Bakery Café – the pain au chocolat or brioche turnover with sautéed spinach and goat cheese will prove a gratifying warm-up.

Built by Robert Trent Jones Sr. in 1944, Casperkill GC was in its previous incarnation the private IBM Country Club, one of several such company clubs. IBM’s area presence has declined in recent years, and the course went public in 1996. If, like me, you regard the prolific Jones as something of a “macro” designer – a creator of strong, solid courses anchored by long, well-bunkered par 4s, not inclined toward the idiosyncratic or handcrafted details – Casperkill will surprise. The course is only 6,690 from the tips but plays closer to 7,000 yards because of an unusual (and slightly excessive) number of raised greens. So, yes, it is strong.

Still, it is holes such as the 353-yard, 90-degree-dogleg, dead-uphill-approach ninth, and Nos. 3, 8 and 12, handsome par 3s with water hazards that lurk less than linger just offstage, that stay with you after the round. That and the greens, which are so pure, fast and sloped that I recently recorded the rarest of one-putts, knocking a 40-footer off the green and into the fringe/rough border before petulantly banging in the comebacker. Hard par, indeed.

A year after Casperkill opened and just months before the Allied victory in World War II, Franklin Delano Roosevelt died. Roosevelt grew up in Hyde Park, halfway between Rhinebeck and Poughkeepsie, and the town now houses his brainchild, the circa-1941 FDR Presidential Library and Museum, the nation’s first such facility. (The Presidential Records Act, which made official presidential papers public property, was enacted more than three decades later.) The library’s new permanent exhibition opens this summer and promises to enrich an already fascinating place for history buffs. You can contemplate FDR or your Casperkill loop on the lovely half-hour walk through the woods between the library and Val-Kill, the Eleanor Roosevelt National Historic Site, the only one dedicated to a former first lady.

The area is equally rich if your historical bent tilts toward titans of finance. Also on your trip back to Rhinebeck are two Gilded Age country homes of considerable bling: the Vanderbilt Mansion National Historic Site and the Staatsburgh State Historic Site, aka Mills Mansion.

Each astounds, though I am partial to Staatsburgh not only for its presence in my hamlet and its Hudson River access – former U.S. Treasury Secretary Ogden Mills’ power was such that the Hudson River train line was routed around his manse – but also because of its connection to Dinsmore Golf Course.

I don’t generally recommend 5,700-yard courses featuring a blind, uphill, 95-yard par 3, but Dinsmore is special, on several levels. Its first nine holes date to 1892, making them among the nation’s oldest. (The course was built as an amenity to Staatsburgh and shared by several prominent families; nine more holes were added in the 1960s as part of a deal to donate the property to the state.) The elevated opening tee shot, with the Mills Mansion and the glorious Catskill Mountains as backdrop, is one of the prettiest anywhere. The rolling, well-treed property is soothing and graceful, and during rounds here I often daydream about Tom Doak being given a blank check to overhaul the place.

Regardless, Dinsmore has several outstanding holes – from the back tee almost 200 yards away, the par-3 17th green looks as if it were assembled from a handful of potato chips – and, at $26 on weekends, you leave feeling you got a lot for the modest fee. It’s an ideal place to take a Sunday bag with just a few clubs and remember what golf was like before we became obsessed with optimized launch angles.

Design buffs next will want to head 45 minutes north. First stop: Olana, the glorious Persian-style home of the renowned Hudson River School painter Frederic Church, with grounds designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, who more famously produced New York’s Central Park. The river views may tempt you to trade clubs for brushes.

Continue a few miles up the road into Hudson, the antiques capital of the Northeast and often ranked among “the coolest small towns in America” by magazines inclined to make such lists. Hudson’s main drag, Warren Street, offers a slice of Brooklyn, with great window-shopping, urban architecture, and, yes, food, with the barbecue at American Glory and Mexican at the Tortillaville food truck particular standouts.

A half-hour due east, past a newly refurbished, idyllic country practice range called New York Golf Park, is Copake Country Club. The charming, hilly 1921 course is generally accepted as a lost work of Devereux Emmet. (In 2006, the design team of Mark Fine and Scott Witter, asked to visit the site for a possible renovation by its new owners, concluded this with “90 percent certainty.”) Emmet, who built the original layouts at Congressional Country Club in Bethesda, Md., and Garden City Golf Club on Long Island, redesigned another Hudson Valley course in 1921, the private Powelton Club in Newburgh, and did a fair amount of work around the region.

Blunt and colorful, Emmet wasn’t the most sympathetic of architects.

He once wrote, “I know of courses about New York where the greens are so unprotected that they can be approached with an umbrella handle as a weapon, with entire impunity.”

Whether Copake is indeed his work, what stands out are sophistication and variety, not difficulty: Someone knew what he was doing.

What caught Fine’s eye during his early visits were the thoughtful green complexes, imaginative routing and clever bunkering. Yes, the 228-yard uphill par-3 fifth is a beast now, never mind in the Golden Era, but you’re more likely to remember the downhill, 160-yard 12th, where perhaps the smartest play is to carry the sight bunker that ends some 20 yards short of the green and have the ball trundle down the mowed runup area. Sadly, they don’t build holes like this anymore. The same could be said of the course more generally, where consecutive, diabolical little par 4s measuring 281 and 288 yards are highlights, not a lull.

And if the greens at Copake are good, The Greens, the club’s restaurant, is even better, thanks to the handiwork of chef Glenn Strickling. How’s this for proof: I left the clubs home and took my wife there for our most recent anniversary dinner, to rave reviews.

There are plenty of non-golf activities to consider – from a visit to the astonishing Frank Gehry-designed Fisher Center for the Performing Arts on the campus of Bard College to early aviation shows at the Rhinebeck Aerodrome – but one more round beckons, at the Links at Union Vale.

The course lies in Lagrangeville, about 40 minutes southeast of Rhinebeck, and the verdant, rolling countryside en route makes you think, not for the first time, of Ireland. Around the turn of the millennium, some 500 members of the Irish Golf Association and other New York-area golf associations had the same thought. Sick of struggling with metropolitan golf’s complications – men after my own heart – these fearless pioneers pooled their money, bought 200 acres of cattle farmland and hired Stephen Kay to build a course reminiscent of the old country.

Though the cows had no doubt loved it, this isn’t firm, fast farmland, so the result is links-style golf. Still, it’s mostly as good as it is good-looking, and tough enough from the tips to have twice hosted a U.S. Amateur sectional qualifier. Union Vale is the rare course where the opening and closing holes are the most peculiar. You begin your day laying up short of wetlands on a par 4, leaving an uphill shot off a downhill lie, and end with a blind approach to a long par 5. That you are almost guaranteed to leave smiling regardless speaks volumes for the strength and beauty of the other 16.

The bunkering in particular highlights the craftsmanship at work here, from the quartet of diagonal cross-bunkers at the ninth to the wee pot bunker fronting the 15th green and unusual forms and placements in abundance. The passion for the game inherent in the club’s founding narrative is ingrained in the layout.

The Hudson Valley may not replace that dream trip to Ireland, but for the well-rounded, well-traveled golfer looking for variety, serenity and a true sense of place, it sure as hell beats Brooklyn.

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