Don't believe the hype: Saratoga National Golf Club a nice play but no must-play

By Chris Baldwin, Contributor

SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - One of Saratoga National Golf Club's owners once likened the course to Scottsdale's famed upscale haven, Grayhawk Golf Club.

Saratoga National Golf Club - New York course - marsh clear
You'll be shooting over plenty of marshlands at Roger Rulewich's 143-slope-rated Saratoga National.
Saratoga National Golf Club - New York course - marsh clearSaratoga National Golf Club - New York course - No. 15Saratoga National Golf Club - New York course - No. 13Saratoga National Golf Club - New York course - green
If you go

I know Grayhawk. I played Grayhawk. And you, Saratoga National, are no Grayhawk.

A little harsh? Perhaps. But somebody needs to cut through the overblown accolades accorded this Roger Rulewichdesigned golf course on an erstwhile horse farm.

New York state's late-summer Eden for horse-racing enthusiasts had long needed a high-end public golf course, and it can be argued that since its 2001 opening Saratoga National has filled that niche. What's hard to credit is the gushing praise the club's received from publications that should know better.

Golf Digest gave Saratoga National four and a half out of five stars, putting it in the company of such great public courses as Troon North and Wolf Creek. Golfweek tabbed it the third best course in New York.

Reading raves like build anticipation for a round at Saratoga National. I teed off fully prepared to be wowed.

Eighteen holes later, I'm still waiting.

Saratoga National isn't a bad course. But to place it in the same golf-quality solar system as Troon North makes about as much sense as likening Danielle Steele to Ernest Hemingway. This course is as overhyped as Michelle Wie. Heck, Garrison Golf Club - a relatively unknown Hudson Valley course - turned out to be a more satisfying play.

Saratoga National isn't even one of the better Rulewich designs. It's a mostly flat course with some wetlands that won't make anybody who's played a Southern marshland course forget the real thing. There are tons of forced carries off the tee, and you can lose some balls in tricky spots. The front nine is mostly secluded in the woods. Parts of the back nine are up near the road. There's also much more water on the back.

You keep waiting for wows, sure a host of them are coming. Instead, you walk off the course thinking that at $125 ($175 during the July-September racing season), this place is rather overpriced.

Admittedly, for some golfers price is the only problem here.

"I can't afford it, but I'd play it every day if I could," said Boston-area golfer Lorenzo DiStefano said. "It's just a PGA Tour-caliber course."

The bigwigs at Saratoga National would certainly agree. Management is so obsessed with projecting the private-club vibe that it left the course without any hole markers.

"They thought [hole markers] were ugly," the bag-drop kid told me. "They're very particular about everything."

In this case, particularity breeds confusion as golfers pull up to tee boxes unsure if they are in the right place. The tiny green signs on the ground pointing toward the next tee don't exactly remove all doubt. No matter how much Saratoga National tries to play itself off as a private club - and does it ever try, with an impressive 33,000-square-foot faux-mansion clubhouse that sports TVs over every urinal - this is essentially a public resort course.

Vacationing golfers are usually playing a course for the first time. Hole markers come in handy for them.

Once you figure out where you're going, there are some nice runs. The fourth through the seventh is a tough, interesting stretch alternating between long par 5s and long par 3s. Driving from the raised tees across a large marshy waste area to the raised green at the 238-yard No. 5 can be intimidating, especially when the flag is set all the way back.

"Rulewich will test your knees, Saratoga National regular Mike Maloney said.

He'll also test your commitment. When you get to the 208-yard 7th, the fifth is still so fresh in your mind that you're liable to take too much club and blast over the green on this slightly downhill par 3. The tall grass in all the marshes can make holes look longer or shorter than they really are.

Saratoga National's definitely deceiving, from the course to its press clippings.

The verdict

Saratoga National is a worthy play. If you're in the area for race season or another reason, try to work in a round here.

But don't travel here to play the course, whatever the hype suggests. That's a recipe for disappointment. Even with a staff that couldn't be nicer or more professional, from the pros to the bag attendants.

There are some fun holes. It's cool to shoot down No. 10 with the crowd drinking on the wraparound clubhouse balcony as your sometimes jeering peanut gallery. No. 13 is a 590-yarder with water dissecting the fairway in two spots and a knee-knocking peninsula green. No. 15 is a postcard par 3 on a sunny day; you shoot over a pond to an island green with a huge lake behind.

Of course, while playing you're liable to see a white stretch Hummer limo pulling up the clubhouse drive. The kind of thing even real rich people view as style over substance. It's the best symbol for Saratoga National.

Dining out

Sarago's - the only AAA Four Diamond restaurant in upstate New York, with prices to match - is in Saratoga National's ornate clubhouse. For a less trendy, less costly but still innovative meal try Scallions (518-584-0192) on Broadway, Saratoga Springs' main drag. The crab-cake appetizer is particularly tasty.

For a good hamburgers or soups in a neat historic setting, call in at the Olde Bryan Inn (518-587-2990). Parking can be a pain and the place is packed at lunch, but it's located in a circa-1773 building and the hostesses are some of the friendliest old ladies you'll ever meet.

Stay and play

A lack of quality, reliable hotels is one of Saratoga's drawbacks. Gideon Putnam Resort in Saratoga Spa State Park, a short drive from downtown has a pleasant exterior, a golf-friendly setting (the park's course is right next door) and a very nice staff. But it also has smallish rooms with lumpy beds and no individual room-controlled air conditioning. Batcheller Mansion Inn is hosted by a particularly pretentious innkeeper who forces guests to ring a bell to gain entry at check in the middle of the day and visitors to make an appointment to tour the house.

Fast fact

Saratoga National has greens larger than the fields many kids grow up playing touch football on. They are the biggest greens in the area by far.

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.

Reader Comments / Reviews Leave a comment
  • Saratoga National review

    John Behan wrote on: Dec 12, 2011

    I am afraid Mr. Baldwin missed the fairway in his shot at panning Saratoga National. What is missing is recognizing how mature the course feels in terms of character and challenge--especially in consideration of the fact that the course is still a young lad of only 10 years. The way the course integrates and enhances the natural setting is exceptionally well-done. This makes the play exceptionally enjoyable. Saratoga National is best played walking, in my opinion, so one can better appreciate the landscape. Thank you for your consideration of this counterpoint. John J. Behan


    • RE: Saratoga National review

      William Tucker wrote on: Nov 25, 2014

      I have to agree with John J. Behan, Saratoga National is one of my favorite courses and I've played all over the world. Each hole has its own challenge, from the excellent opening hole requiring two great shots to the 18th which requires an accurate second shot to a large but narrow green. The greens are superb as long as they keep them at a reasonable speed, which they have in the past couple of years. It's obvious this is an old review, as the restaurant Mr. Baldwin cites downtown is no longer on Broadway, nor is Sargo's the restaurant at Saratoga National. Both Golf Digest and Golfweek carry more credibility than this reviewer and they are correct in their rating of this fine course.