Chautauqua Golf Club at the Historic Institution is filled with charm

By Dave Berner, Senior Contributor

CHAUTAUQUA, NY -- It's one of the stupidest movies ever made, but "Revenge of the Nerds" is just what might jump into your head when you think about the Chautauqua Institution.

How in blazes can anyone put these two things together? How can a historic enclave in southwestern New York dedicated to uplifting the spirit, the mind and the body have anything to do with a goofy 1984 movie about brainy, but socially challenged adolescents? And, for goodness sake, what does all this have to do with golf?

It's really pretty simple.

For more than a century the Chautauqua Institution, sitting on the shoreline of the 18-mile long Lake Chautauqua about an hour outside Buffalo, has been an academic retreat. Not a resort, not really a vacation spot, but rather a campus of Victorian homes on streets hugged by trees and surrounded by university-like buildings that remind you of any one of the Ivy League colleges. It's a place for enrichment through lectures, lessons and the arts. You might be inclined to call it, well, "nerdy." But in this nerdy world, unlike the snobby academic existence depicted in the "Revenge" movie, the nerds at the Chautauqua Institution believe golf is the perfect complement to a brainiac's getaway.

The real "revenge" for the nerds of Chautauqua is this -- when they put their pocket protectors away, they can just walk across the street from the Institution and play some of the region's best golf.

Chautauqua Institution

You cannot understand golf's connection to this unique place without first understanding the place itself.

The best way to describe the Chautauqua Institution is to call it an experience. It's a place to renew your soul and your intellect in a collegiate atmosphere centered on education, the arts and world events. High school and university students come to study. But doctoral students, middle-agers, grandmas and grandpas also spend weeks at a time to expand their knowledge and their horizons.

The Institution was founded in 1874 by inventor and manufacturer Lewis Miller and Methodist minister John Heyl Vincent and designed to be a secluded community for uplifting the mind, spirit and body. It not only became a center for continuing education, but also a coveted destination for musically talented youngsters, blossoming stars, and important policy speeches. In 1925, George Gershwin composed his Concerto in F in one of the Chautauqua practice cabins that still stand on the property. Franklin D. Roosevelt delivered his "I Hate War" speech from the Amphitheater platform in 1936. Ronald Reagan addressed the Third General Chautauqua Conference on Central America in 1987. The list is nearly endless -- heads of state, musicians, and world-renowned artists have all come to Chautauqua to study, share, lecture and learn. Many of them also have come to play golf.

Historic Golf

The historic Chautauqua Institution and its welcoming golf courses, touched by the legend of Donald Ross, have been a part of this part of New York since the early part of the 20th century. But despite its history and the Institution's world reputation, the golf courses are not terribly well-known, even to the long-time residents of this southwest corner of New York State. The Chautauqua Golf Club has a rather quiet, understated existence.

You shouldn't put the golf at Chautauqua on the level of a premier resort course, or even a mid-range private club. Not every fairway is trimmed perfectly, not every sand trap is raked with precision, not every green is without a bump or blemish. Don't look for pristine playing conditions. But, what the club lacks in fastidious maintenance, it makes up in charm.

The first links was laid out at the Institution in 1896 by a number of golf enthusiasts who believed the game helped round out many of the activities at the Institution. The first nine-hole course was built in 1914 and in 1924 the original 18-hole Donald Ross design opened up. The Lake Course at Chautauqua is still very much the same Ross course it was 80 years ago - relatively open fairways, but tricky, undulating greens. It plays out to 6400 yards and demands a par-72. The toughest holes are the 10th, a 521-yard par-5, and the 15th, a 172-yard par-3 entirely over water.

The second course at the Institution is The Hill Course designed by Xen Hassenplug. And, just as the name implies, the layout is much hillier, plus it has tighter, tree-lined fairways and runs a bit longer -- 6,500 yards. There are marvelous short par-4s and a truly knee-knocking par-3, the 7th, that plays from an open tee box but forces you to make a tight shot through the trees to a small, shaded and elevated green.

Enjoying the courses is one thing, but feeling comfortable in the surroundings is also part of the package. Take note of the clubhouse. It's a traditional, white, 1920s American style design. It's not big or small, but adequately sized. The club also has a serviceable range, a couple of putting greens and the tee boxes for the number-one holes for both The Lake and The Hill courses are just a short skip from the clubhouse doors.

The Chautauqua Institution and the Chautauqua Golf Club are throwbacks to simpler times. The entire atmosphere allows for leisure, but it's always punctuated with serious academics, current events, the arts and athletic challenge. And golf is an important part of the Institution's overall mission.

The founding fathers, the original Chautauqua nerds, really knew their stuff. They believed, as they do today at the Institution, that a nose buried in a book needs to breath fresh air every now and then, and golf is the perfect refresher.

Fast Fact: The Chautauqua Institution values education and the arts. After getting in the golf for the day, open up your creative side with lessons and lectures on art, dance, music and creative writing.

A sweet little town just up the lake from the Institution is Bemus Point, New York. The lakeside village has great shops, waterfront restaurants and one of the best breakfasts anywhere in southwestern New York at the Bemus Point Inn. Try the "bodacious cinnamon roll". A breakfast feast fit for two, or three.

Green Fees - $20-$40, carts - $24.

The Chautauqua Institution and the Chautauqua Golf Club are located in the southwestern corner of New York State. From the New York State Thruway (Interstate 90), take exit 60; turn left onto NY-394/North Portage Street. Continue to follow NY-394.

Dave BernerDave Berner, Senior Contributor

Dave Berner is a long-time journalist for CBS radio in Chicago and has freelanced for CNN, National Public Radio, and ABC news. He created and produced the popular radio feature "The Golf Minute" for CBS-owned radio station WMAQ in Chicago along with writing a regular column for Golf Chicago Magazine. He is also author of "Any Road Will Take You There: A journey of fathers and sons" and "Accidental Lessons: A Memoir of a Rookie Teacher and a Life Renewed." Follow Berner on Twitter @DavidWBerner

Reader Comments / Reviews Leave a comment
  • Ancient History

    John Sortore wrote on: Oct 3, 2016

    My father lived in Chautauqua and caddied at the course as a teenager. He told me that he once caddied for a very young & confident Arnold Palmer and a quite snobbish Jackie Gleason. However, the star's attitude never stopped "The Honeymooners" from being a mainstay on my father's TV watching list.


  • chautauqua golf course

    norm schwendler wrote on: Aug 22, 2010

    the course is breathtaking in early october


  • Good Memories

    Roger Swart wrote on: Oct 20, 2008

    I started my life of golf at Chautauqua in the mid-1950's, (55-58) as a caddy during summers. I graduated 1958 from CCS and hold fond memories of this course. I have been back many times and played both courses. Mr Al Rice was one of my teachers at CCS and he too worked at the course during summers.........