Mohonk a 9-hole gem in historic Hudson Valley

By Patrick White, Contributor

MOHONK, N. Y. -- There's no question that course designers like Pete Dye and Jack Nicklaus know a lot about golf. But if you put either of them on the first tee of the Mohonk layout, they'd be confused. There are no railroad ties, no waterfalls, no contrived mounds, no massive bunkers, no convention center-size greens.

Yet, since 1897, golfers have put their bags over their shoulder and known just what to do: Have fun.

Little has changed with the layout's early American architecture over that time. Nine holes were eliminated in the 1920s (they played on a steep slope below the current holes and simply proved too severe), but the nine remaining holes of the Mohonk Golf Course offer as charming a round of golf as you'll find anywhere. Features are small and subtle; the natural movement of the 55-acre site dictated the layout 107 years ago and still determines strategy today.

The first hole is a par-3—not common by today's architecture/routing standards, but that's what the site called for 100 years ago. The tee is just across the road from the quaint pro shop (the same rustic 1903 structure, by the way, that has served for more than a century) and plays 210 yards up toward a green set atop a plateau. It may be the only shot on the course where length is a real factor (the entire course plays just 2,707 yards from the longest of three teeing options), but precision is paramount.

Generally, the course is open with few trees on the internal portion of the layout, and even fewer bunkers. The fairways are well groomed, and the rough is generally non-penal. About the only place the course gets gnarly is around the seventh green, where a deep front bunker is surrounded by grass so tall and thick that even the USGA's U.S. Open course set-up crew would be impressed.

The ninth and final hole at Mohonk is memorable primarily because of the two towering pine trees that protect the green—more or less from the middle of the fairway. The trees weren't around when the course opened, but they've been standing sentry for decades. It's the kind of less conventional challenge the Mohonk course presents, and calls for creative shot-making rather than brute power.

Greg Sorrentino and Jeff Cunningham, friends from Pennsylvania, were in town for a wedding recently and took advantage of a break in the festivities to play the Mohonk course. Sorrentino, an 18-handicapper, found that, "The course looks easy, but I scored about average for me." Cunningham, with an 8-handicap, said he welcomed the opportunity to leave the driver in his bag: "I could try to do something with every shot, rather than just blasting it 250 yards ahead. I'm getting more used to hitting driver and a short iron on courses. Here I got to work on my long irons." Both said the greens were a little on the slow side.

The course has become fully certified in the Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary program, and was honored several years ago with a prestigious environmental Chapter Award by the Golf Course Superintendent's Association of America (GCSAA). The entire resort is environmentally proactive, from its laundry program to an advanced compost program.

The golf course is part of the Mohonk Mountain House, a luxury hotel that's been welcoming guests since around the time of the Civil War. Set on more than 6,300 acres just 90 minutes drive from Manhattan, the Mohonk resort offers a quick escape into nature, while providing for more than a little pampering. The resort sits a few miles up an access road from the golf course, but only guests are permitted past the gatehouse. Those unable to afford nightly fee freight can pay what seems like an even more ludicrous $10 just to hike up to marvel at the intricate architecture and lavish grounds.

Room rates at the Mohonk Mountain House range from $226 to $735 per night, depending on the view. Ironically, the best view is from the outside looking inward at the grand hotel building. Golf is complimentary for guests. Also free to those staying at Mohonk are recreational activities such as fishing, boating, swimming (there's a mountain lake on the property with a comfortable beach), croquet, platform tennis, lawn bowling, shuffleboard and more; skiing, skating and snowshoeing opportunities are provided in the winter months.

Those more in the mood for relaxation will find a spa offering every type of treatment, therapy and massage available. Those new to spa treatments can opt for the "Mohonk Sampler," and try them all to help select a favorite.

To the Mohonk Mountain House's credit, even those with a budget that prohibits staying at the resort can enjoy the atmosphere and the golf course. The public is welcomed, and with green fees of $14 for 9 holes and $20 for 18 holes. It's probably the most fun you'll ever have for the price. You'll get a look at how golf was played a century ago in America—it's amazing how much courses have advanced and how much joy has been lost in the process.

Places to stay and eat

Looking for a cheaper place to stay and eat? New Paltz, N.Y., just down the road, is a bustling, surprisingly hip college town with a combination of inns and chain hotels, plus small cafes and generic restaurants. The world-famous Culinary Institute is located in nearby Hyde Park, so the entire region benefits from an infusion of talented chefs who fall in love with the Hudson Valley and stick around after graduating.

Serious food connoisseurs can go to a special page ( on the school's Web site to find information about Culinary Institute graduates operating restaurants in the area. The center of commerce in the area is Poughkeepsie, which offers an abundance of hotels and shopping.

Fast fact

Those who haven't played the Mohonk course in the last five years or so will notice a dramatic difference in the color of the layout: It's now green—all summer long. A (modest, by modern standards) single-row irrigation system installed in 1998 to help Superintendent Tom Wright and his hardworking staff keep the fairways green. Prior to that, greens and tees were the only areas that received irrigation during the hot, dry days of July and August.

The verdict

Nine-hole golf courses are too-often overlooked. As more golfers complain that the sport has come to cost too much and take too long, courses like Mohonk might see their reputation grow. It isn't uncommon on weekdays for the Mohonk course to host only a handful of rounds. With proximity to New York City (it's a 90-minute drive from Manhattan) and northern New Jersey, it's the perfect escape.

The atmosphere—quiet, secluded, open—is unmatched by any public-access course in the Metro area. Low-handicap golfers might find the course too short and too easy, but it would be a great place to take kids or a spouse just learning the game.

Patrick White, Contributor

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