Choose Saratoga for golf and you’re off to the races
By Ted McIntyre
The instinct is to stay close to home when the nice weather rolls around—particularly when one has languished in the frosted purgatory of a seemingly perpetual spring. But you never know what’s waiting for you around the corner until you take a peek—even if requires a little cross-border hopping to acquire the view.
One of the most intriguing examples for those with a golfing bent is Saratoga Springs, New York. And while it still costs Canucks an extra quarter to buy a U.S. greenback, there’s a truly unique experience to be had in this mid-east section of the Empire State.
Looking for directions? It’s an easy drive south on I-87 for residents of Quebec, and just under five hours from the Ontario border in Niagara Falls. Coming from New York City? “Drive north for about 175 miles, turn left on Union Avenue, then go back 100 years in time,” penned legendary sportswriter Red Smith.
Saratoga Springs is not so much lost in time, though, as having consciously found a time that best suits it purposes. Tree-lined streets, pristine gardens and porch swings adorning the exteriors of immaculate Victorian homes complement the town’s history—especially that of its renowned horse racing track. Founded on August 3, 1863—a month to the day after the tide-turning American Civil War Battle of Gettysburg—the Saratoga Race Course is, by many accounts, the oldest sporting venue of any kind in the United States. Home to the Travers Stakes, the country’s oldest major thoroughbred race, the track is a bustling hive of pomp and ceremony from its July 22 opening day to its Labor Day wrap-up on September 5.
“For both people-watching and horse-watching, I think it’s something everyone should experience at some point,” advises Rod Christian, founder of the New York Golf Trail, a sterling collection of 26 courses and 20 accommodations (from traditional chains to quaint boutique inns) that meanders its way from Buffalo to New York City. “The track is in its own world—the pageantry of it all, with jockeys and owners from all over the world. It’s quite a spectacle. And grandstand admission is just $5!”
While many a cork has been popped here to celebrate all things horse-related, Saratoga owes its more enduring legacy to ancient history. The result of a geological fault that allows water trapped in shale layers to surface, Saratoga’s water is rich in minerals and offers among the few naturally carbonated springs in the country. Mohawk and Iroquois tribes once drank and bathed in these springs to celebrate the waters’ strong healing and curative properties, and a long list of luminaries followed in the years after to take advantage of the luxuriant liquid, including the Vanderbilts, Whitneys, J.P. Morgan and “Diamond Jim” Brady.
Of today’s 18 active spring locations, there are two public-access mineral baths: the Roosevelt Baths and Spa at the Gideon Putnam Resort (located within the Spa State Park) and the Crystal Spa on South Broadway in downtown Saratoga Springs.
And while the modern crowd is also lured by the performing arts, 10 museums, a historic battlefield, and fabulous boutiques, antiques and restaurants, savvy golf enthusiasts also know this as a special little part of the world.
“Saratoga was the first golf trip I ever set up on my own—before the days of the New York Golf Trail—and my friends and I are going back there in September,” says Christian. “It’s their favourite place for a golf trip and mine as well, because of the town itself and the value of the courses. The opportunity to stay at hotels and inns right on the main street of Broadway is also a big benefit, particularly with a few of the courses a short drive away.”
Christian has a fabulous foursome in this part of his Trail, including Saratoga Spa Golf Course, rated four stars among Golf Digest’s Best Places to Play, and listed as one of the 10 Best Courses in the U.S. under $55.
“To get there, you drive through a good portion of the State Park, which is gorgeous,” says Christian. “You’ll see cyclists and hikers, well-kept grounds, an outdoor swimming pool open to the public, the mineral baths… and the park probably has the best Upstate New York concert schedule—SPAC (Saratoga Performing Arts Center). For anyone who grew up on outdoor concerts, this should be on their bucket list!”
For anyone who grew up golfing, the same applies to the park’s golf course. Although the original holes were designed in 1936, course architect William Mitchell provided a major redesign in the 1950s, notably celebrated with commemorative rounds played by Arnold Palmer and Gary Player. Majestic pines frame several holes, giving golfers a sense of seclusion and an appreciation for the traditional layout’s timeless beauty. Numerous bunkers add flavour to the landscape, yet the landing areas are generous. Large greens and heavily wooded areas imbue further definition.
In addition to the championship course, there’s also a nine-hole par-3 course and the newly renovated Catherine’s in the Park restaurant, which overlooks the beautiful Victoria Pool—itself a unique and refreshing perk for Spa golfers.
Another nearby gem is Saratoga Lake GC. Just 6,284 from the tips, it’s carved in the midst of a lush, forested 200 acres of hilly terrain on the south end of Saratoga Lake. Apart from its many elevation changes, the layout is marked by a stream running through its core, a number of sparkling ponds and beautiful wetlands. The view from the deck of the pro shop, with the Southern Adirondacks just 30 kilometres away, doesn’t hurt either.
Next on the list is the renowned Saratoga National Golf Club. Among its many accolades, the Roger Rulewich design has been previously ranked by Golf Digest as one of America’s Best 100 Public Golf Courses. Constructed on a former horse farm, the track is dotted with wetlands throughout, with water often coming into play and 16 holes requiring forced carries off the tee.
“Although it peaks at around $200 during racing season, it’s one of the top public courses in New York state and is just five minutes outside of town,” says Christian.
The club also boasts a majestic clubhouse and Prime steakhouse, rated 4.5 stars by Trip Advisor.
Last, but not least, is The Sagamore on Lake George. Situated a scenic 45 minutes north of town, this magnificent 1928 Donald Ross creation offers a glorious elevated opening tee with a striking view of Lake George and the Adirondacks beyond. One of New York’s oldest courses and featuring one of the top two resorts in the state, it’s ranked No. 5 by Golf Digest among the best public courses in New York State.
The holes are routed naturally through an upland meadow and the Adirondack woods, which lights up with fall colours. To add an accent to the mountainside terrain, Ross planted heather from his native Scotland.
Although it tops out at just over $100 in peak season, New York Golf Trail packages offer discounted rates for guests—all part of a one-stop-shop that allows guests to make just a single call or email, with the Trail staff handling the rest, including tee times, hotel reservations at group rates.
Although hotel fees traditionally jump during racing season, golf and accommodations can be as little as half-price the remainder of the summer and fall, Christian observes. And there’s always harness racing and gambling to be had at the nearby Saratoga Casino and Raceway. But for those wanting to take in the splendour of the thoroughbreds during track season, Christian often books clients in Lake George to keep costs down—“and they’re usually playing Sagamore anyway, so it’s a convenient place to stay.”
But while the golf is staggeringly good, the town itself might be the most intoxicating draw. “Broadway on Saratoga is a lot of fun, with great restaurants and bars, lots of shops—Caroline Street in particular has probably a dozen bars,” says Christian.
Among the establishments brimming with character is the Tin & Lint Company, an energetic basement dive bar at the corner of Caroline and Broadway, replete with a great jukebox, pool tables and dartboards. “We always go there. It’s an institution—the oldest running bar in Saratoga—with memorabilia all over the walls,” Christian says.
Even in a place oozing in history, it’s always nice to toast the present.
New York Golf Trail: nygolftrail.com; (800) 614-7450