Tee times for you! Today's Saranac Inn is a great golf play for all

By Chris Baldwin, Contributor

SARANAC LAKE, N.Y. - The last owner of the Saranac Inn Golf & Country Club frequently sat on the clubhouse porch next to the first tee, watching first-time visitors tee off. Golfers who took an ugly divot out of the owner's beloved tee box would often get their money handed back to them.

Saranac Inn - Par-3 Seventh
The flag's but a glimpse of red over the hill on Saranac Inn's Par-3 seventh.
Saranac Inn - Par-3 SeventhSaranac Inn - No. 9Saranac Inn - Par-3 16thSaranac Inn -  No. 17
If you go

The message was unmistakable. Thanks, but no thanks. No golf for you!

Seinfeld had the Soup Nazi. Upstate New York had the Golf Nazi - a guy named Walter Smachlo who protected his golf course with the fierceness of a mother bear.

You think putting under major-tournament pressure is a big deal? Try hitting your first drive of the day with your chances of continuing depending on it.

"The old owner was a little ... let's say, eccentric," Saranac Inn Head Professional Chris Stevens said. "He'd open at eight, close at two. Basically just do whatever he wanted to do."

Including kicking off golfers he sized up as hacks.

Thankfully, Saranac Inn has had its gates - and porch chairs - thrown wide open to public play.

The wonders and quirks of a 104-year-old Seymour Dunn design, once the province of Vanderbilts and Rockefellers, are available to average folks under the ownership team of Jim Conners and Steve Wilson. (The lavish inn itself burned down in a 1978 fire, but the course name was kept out of tradition.)

These days Saranac Inn is one of the most history-steeped, reasonably priced plays in the Lake Placid region.

Modern royalty can still be found out on Saranac Inn's narrow fairways. "We've had guys who are members at Baltusrol and Pine Valley out here," Conners said. "They love this course."

Only now they're loving it alongside teachers, electricians and salesmen who've plunked down the $65 green fee (including cart).

The atmosphere may be a little different than at Pine Valley, but Saranac Inn aims to please in its own way. When a golfer requests a special made-to-order sandwich, Conners is likely to jump in his truck and deliver it on the course.

More important to most golfers, Saranac Inn rakes its bunkers every day. There may be more divots than in Walter Smachlo's day, but they're still obsessive about repairing them.

"You won't find clover in the fairways," Conners said.

You will find a grassy hill in the middle of one fairway. It blocks the green on the par-3 seventh. From the tee all you see is the top corner of the red flag flapping behind a hillcrest. Hit that iron short and you're looking at a difficult pitch from an awkward hill stance.

"I love that hole with the cute little hill. It's my favorite," vacationing golfer Lori Daniels said.

"I'm not a fan of that hill hole. I don't know what they were thinking on that one," another vacationing golfer, Dave Stopera, said.

Such is life at Saranac Inn - it's love or hate on several holes. This course doesn't do ambivalence, and it doesn't do cookie-cutter.

Take the opening two holes. Saranac Inn begins with a 415-yard par 4 that usually plays right into the wind (the better to uncover hacks from drive one). No. 2 is a monster 560-yard par 5 that partly plays uphill.

Welcome. Here's a slap across the face.

"I tell golfers to remember that there are 18 holes on the golf course," Stevens said. "You can't get too intimidated by those first two. You've got 16 more to go."

And probably some big numbers to work off.

The verdict

Nine miles out from downtown Saranac Lake, Saranac Inn really gives you the feeling of being out in the Adirondack woods. On No. 9 you really hear the birds squawking in the tall trees. But you'll be even more wowed - and bowed - by the three-tier green at the end of this par 5 - it looks like a green wave, and it sends approach shots flying off like a discarded surfer.

There's also a great closing run: a par 4 with a mountainous plateau green, a long par 3 with a lake clear, a long par 4 with trees and fescue pinching the fairway opening tighter than Jessica Alba's waist and a long, long uphill climb to a par 5 exclamation.

At least the bentgrass greens, a rarity for this region, give you a chance to sink some putts.

"It's in great shape for a public course," said Stopera, on his fifth overnight trip to play Saranac Inn. "It gives you a new idea of what a public golf course can be."

Stay and play

The namesake luxury hotel is gone, but Saranac Inn does have a modest 10-room motel (518-891-1402) that's not much farther from the first tee than the clubhouse. Golfers' groups give it something of a tailgate/dorm atmosphere. Just hope you like the people you're staying with: Once it gets dark and the course is closed, there's nothing out here but conversation and card games.

For those interested in non-golfing activities, a hotel in downtown Lake Placid's a better bet. The Mirror Lake Inn (518-523-2544) and the Crowne Plaza Resort (877-570-5891) are the top choices.

Dining out

Golfers can order lunch in that charming porch clubhouse before they tee off and have it delivered out on the course. If you're looking for a special meal, you're not going to do better than The View (518-523-2544) at the Mirror Lake Inn. This is sophisticated food served up by a doting staff.

Fast fact

Saranac Inn is 6,631 yards with a 124 slope rating - but it plays much tougher than the numbers indicate.

Chris BaldwinChris Baldwin, Contributor

Chris Baldwin keeps one eye on the PGA Tour and another watching golf vacation hotspots and letting travelers in on the best place to vacation.

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