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In this increasingly hard-to-impress age, where golfers speak jadedly about rounds at Balinese retreats and helicopter schedules between links in Scotland, it's sometimes tough to get enthusiastic about the old resorts—particularly those that are located in small towns in the United States. That's not to say such ambivalence isn't warranted at times: Breakthroughs in equipment—such as clubs and balls that produce staggeringly long drives as well as innovations in course design—have made many older venues feel cramped and fusty.
But golf is—and always has been—about much more than the latest gear or fashionable location, a fact I was reminded of just recently at an early-morning round at Leatherstocking Golf Course in Coopers-town, New York. This 95-year-old resort track is short by today's standards (6,416 yards from the back tees), but as I walked down the fairway of the first hole I was struck by how gracefully it incorporates elements that make up a perfect golf experience. Situated on the southern shore of Lake Otsego, Leatherstocking has all the pleasures (and pitfalls) of playing next to a large body of water. The holes are peppered with challenging bunkers and doglegs, and the surrounding landscape—upstate New York's famous rolling hills—is breathtakingly visible from pretty much every tee. Best of all, unlike so many of today's "golf-sorts," the course is located smack in the middle of a charming old town and near interesting cultural institutions (not the least of which is the National Baseball Hall of Fame) that can derail even the most passionate players.
My companions had played top resorts, from Florida to France, but they all agreed that there was something unique about Leatherstocking. Eighteen-year-old Nick Feinberg, a frustratingly agile one handicapper, had the most pragmatic take: "It's the sort of track you never get tired of," he said of the Devereux Emmet-designed course. "I tee it up here every day in the summer, and it rarely plays the same way." Fifty-one-year-old Duncan Christy, who sports a considerably higher 18 handicap, told me, "I was struck during my first visit by how the golf course is integrated into the community, nestled right in the village in a way that is so unusual in the States, and so common in the British Isles." Peter Severud, 57, a Cooperstown native who carries a two handicap and who has won the club championship 20 times, talked about how Cooperstown was home to America's first literary star, James Fenimore Cooper (the town was founded by his father, William Cooper, in 1786). The author used the surrounding lakes and woods as the setting for his most famous volumes, among them The Last of the Mohicans. The course, in fact, is named after Cooper's character Natty Bumppo, who was known as Leatherstocking. "I had a copy of The Pioneers when I was a child, with illustrations of Natty watching townspeople hunting pigeons," Severud recalled. "I've always felt it looked like that scene took place on this course."
In the late 1800s, Cooperstown, like nearby Saratoga Springs a half century earlier, became a popular summer destination for city folk (Manhattan is, after all, only 185 miles away) escaping the urban heat. In 1909, Edward Severin Clark—an heir to the Singer sewing-machine fortune—built the Otesaga Hotel, a grand old Federal Revival-style resort on the shores of Lake Otsego.
"In those days, it was common to take much longer vacations," says 84-year-old Cooperstown resident and Leatherstocking devotee Dick White. "After spending three or four weeks at the Otesaga, many of the high-society people who came to visit ended up building homes in the town."
And just as a thoroughbred racetrack and casino opened to entertain Saratoga's new arrivals, Cooperstown accumulated its own diversions such as the National Baseball Hall of Fame, the Fenimore Art Museum, the Glimmerglass Opera, and the Farmers' Museum. Visitors, including many professional baseball players, were delighted to find that the town also had a topnotch course. Over the years players such as Yogi Berra, Mike Schmidt, Johnny Bench, and Warren Spahn have played the course during the annual Hall of Fame Invitational.
Course architect Devereux Emmet is best known for designing two acclaimed U.S. Open layouts, the Garden City Golf Club on Long Island, New York, and the Congressional Country Club, outside Washington, D.C. Leatherstocking is in many ways just as engaging as those challenging courses. Players are presented with crafty bunkering, side-hill lies, and the occasional blind shot. What makes the course a truly formidable test of golf, however, are Emmet's subtler design elements, such as having most putts break toward the water and giving many greens devilish false fronts.
Take the par-five fourth: It runs only 513 yards from the tips, but requires an accurate drive up a slight hill and a precise second shot that must clear a sinister cluster of bunkers some 120 yards from the green to gain a safe route to the pin. But while that final approach requires only a short iron for most, it must avoid the seven bunkers guarding the green. Anything even a bit off-line quickly puts bogey—and even double bogey—into play.
Nowhere did Emmet meld design and natural beauty so deftly as in the last four holes. Start with the par-five 15th, teeing off toward the lake and eventually hitting a wedge to an ample green backed by four huge beech trees. A downhill par four, 16 demands a precise iron over a creek to the green; 17 is a 182-yard par three with water running down the entire right side.
As for 18, it evokes Pebble Beach's classic final hole. Only this one has an island tee, making players decide just how much water they want to bite off with their drives. The hole doglegs sharply left and finishes two shots later on a challenging green just below the Otesaga's veranda. Once the last putts are made, the impulse is to retire to that spot and watch other groups come in. Drink in hand and eye on the setting sun, it's easy to imagine the thousands of people over the past century who have done this very same thing before and even easier to see why golfers keep coming back.
Covering all the bases in Cooperstown
Where To Stay and Play
Just like The Sagamore on Lake George, another grand turn-of-the-century upstate New York resort, THE OTESAGA RESORT HOTEL was built to impress. The imposing 95-year-old brick building is located on the edge of Lake Otsego, and its veranda offers one of the area's best waterside views. Rates, $365-$530; 60 Lake Street; 800-348-6222.
The first tee of the LEATHERSTOCKING GOLF COURSE, which is run by the resort, is an easy walk from the lobby. Greens fee, $80; 607-547-5275.
Cooperstown is famous for the NATIONAL BASEBALL HALL OF FAME AND MUSEUM, an exhaustive monument to the national pastime. Literally thousands visit each day in summer, so it's best to arrive early. (A word to the wise: The arcana can be overwhelming, so non-fanatics may want to limit their visit to one exhibit—say, for example, Dressed to the Nines, A History of the Baseball Uniform.) Each summer the Hall hosts two big events: This year INDUCTION WEEKEND begins July 24, when pitcher Dennis Eckersley and hitter Paul Molitor take their places in the shrine; the annual HALL OF FAME GAME is June 14 and features the Atlanta Braves and Minnesota Twins. It's held at Doubleday Field, a great old-fashioned, 10,000-seat park, built on the site of Elihu Phinney's cow pasture, where the first baseball game is said to have been played. At 25 Main Street; 888-425-5633; www.baseballhalloffame.org.
For the musically inclined, the GLIMMERGLASS OPERA features four productions this season (July 1 through August 24), including Handel's Imeneo and La Fanciulla del West by Puccini. Tickets, $29-$108; Route 80, eight miles north of Cooperstown; 607-547-2255; www.glimmerglass.org.
THE FENIMORE ART MUSEUM is one of those great, somewhat random repositories. Along with first-rate examples of local folk- and decorative art, it has many personal effects of James Fenimore Cooper, the country's first internationally acclaimed novelist. On another note altogether, it also houses the Eugene and Clare Thaw Collection of North American Indian Art, hundreds of pieces strong (some dating back to 200 B.C.); included are ceremonial masks and beaded clothing. On Route 80, one mile north of Cooperstown; 888-547-1450; www.fenimoreartmuseum.org.
As a general rule, it's wise to avoid any institution featuring actors in period dress, but the FARMERS' MUSEUM is the rare exception. Its exhibits, chock-full of fascinating information on 19th-century agrarian life, offer examples of rare tools and livestock breeds. On Route 80, one mile north of Cooperstown; 888-547-1450; www.farmersmuseum.org.