ROCHESTER, N.Y. – There are good reasons why Rochester should come to mind when you consider golf destinations. After all, the legendary player Walter Hagen grew up here and one of the most prolific course designers, Robert Trent Jones Sr., was not only born in Rochester but his very first design, Midvale, is also within the city limits.
Then there’s the venerable Oak Hill Country Club in suburban Pittsford. Its East Course is a Donald Ross design that dates back to 1901. The course has hosted three U.S. Opens, three PGA Championships (a fourth one is coming in 2023), two U.S. Amateurs, two Senior PGA Championships, one U.S. Senior Open and the 1995 Ryder Cup. The LPGA has played several of its majors at another Rochester club, Locust Hill.
Chicago’s own Jeff Sluman also developed his game in Rochester before becoming a fixture on the PGA Tour and PGA Tour Champions.
Golf in Rochester, though, is about a lot more than major championships, top players and course designers. The Rochester area is also a great place to visit just for the purpose of just playing golf. Not only are there plenty of good courses, they’re also affordable and the distance between them is manageable.
Those are some big pluses, and they weren’t lost on Rod Christian, who created the New York Golf Trail. Christian’s trail is the largest in the country in terms of courses (34). He has divided it into eight regions and, he says, “the most popular of the regions is right here (in Rochester).’’
Four of his New York Trail courses – The Links at Greystone in Walworth, Ravenwood in Victor, Bristol Harbour in Canandaigua and Mill Creek in Churchville – are around Rochester and they also form the Finger Lakes Golf Trail. If another course is needed to accommodate those trail packages 27-hole Deerfield, in Brockport, gets the call.
Christian operates his trail in regions to facilitate travel for participating golfers. That sets New York apart from many of the other trails, most notably the more well-known Robert Trent Jones Trail in Alabama.
“There’s a lot more driving on that trail,’’ said Christian. “Rochester is a great place to work with. Here you plant yourself in one (hotel) location and there’s no more than a 20- to 30-minute drive to the courses.’’
The best course on our visit was a trail course — The Links at Greystone, a facility owned and operated by the Odenbach family. Its top greens fee is $67 – a bargain given the quality of the sport course with intriguing elevation changes.
Golf has been a labor of love for three generations of the Odenbach family, who opened a quarry and mining business in the Rochester area in 1920. Using equipment from that business, the Odenbachs built three courses between 1979 and 1995, sold them in 2000 and then bought them back 16 years later. They now operate two of the courses with family members playing a variety of lead roles.
Brothers John and Gardy Odenbach own The Links at Greystone. John’s son Alex is general manager and Gardy’s son Dusty is the director of golf. John’s wife Julie, a well-known high school coach of both boys and girls teams in the area, oversees the gardening and floral arrangements at the course.
“Our family tree is large here,’’ admitted Dusty Odenbach. The superintendent, Tim Hahn, may as well be a family member, too. The son of a one-time superintendent at famed Oak Hill, Hahn has been at Greystone since it opened.
“Golf started as a sidelight for us,’’ said John Odenbach. “There was always a lot of ground around our quarries, and my Dad (also named John) loved to build golf courses.’’
The Odenbachs ventured into golf by building Shadow Lake in Pennfield in 1979. It’s a 27-hole facility with Pete Craig the designer. Craig was also the designer of Shadow Pines, which was built nearby several years later.
Craig Schreiner, who worked with the Hurdzan Design Group, collaborated on courses with tour players Larry Mize and Nick Price and produced his own designs in 10 states. The Odenbachs hired him to create the Greystone Golf Club.
“At that time there were about 40 golf courses in and around Rochester,’’ said John Odenbach. “Now there’s about 80, so there’s lots of competition.’’
In 2000 the Odenbachs sold everything – the quarry business and the three golf courses — to Old Castle Materials, an Irish company, to settle a family estate. Family members, though, continued to run both the quarry company and the courses.
Four years ago Old Castle wanted to get out of the golf business, and the Odenbachs wanted to stay in. John and Gardy bought Greystone and another brother, Fritz, became the owner of Shadow Lake with a partner. Shadow Creek was built on land that was more valuable for development rather than golf. It is now a park.
Since the re-acquisition the family has re-branded Greystone, and that included the name adjustment.
“Originally there was a lot of traditional links-style to it,’’ said Dusty Odenbach. “We’ve made several improvements to enhance the links roots. We took out a lot of trees and added a starter’s hut on the first tee.’’
Ravenwood is good, too, and probably a better tournament course. It has hosted the New York State Amateur twice and its top green fee is $65 in the summer months. Mill Creek, in Churchville, has one of the longest public facilities in the area at 6,861 yards from the tips, and its top fee if $50.
The city of Rochester has 12 golf facilities within its borders and three are municipally owned. Oldest of the courses is Country Club of Rochester, built in 1895. Like Oak Hill, it’s a private club, but Genesee Valley — one of three facilities operated by the Monroe County Department of Parks — has two seasoned 18-holers. One opened in 1899 and the other in 1925.
The Rochester area has other attractions that are also appealing – especially if you schedule your visit during the annual Rochester International Jazz Festival. It keeps the downtown area hopping with its series of free concerts.
Of the year-around offerings, The Strong National Museum of Play most accurately bills itself as “the ultimate play destination for all ages.’’ It has the world’s largest collection of toys, dolls, board games and electronic games and its Toys National Hall of Fame honors such innovators as Milton Bradley, Walt Disney, Jim Henson and George Lucas.
Then there’s the George Eastman Museum. Eastman, founder of the Eastman Kodak Company, was a pioneer in the photography and motion picture industry and the museum is housed in his mansion. It has one of the oldest film archives in the U.S. and its artifacts include the world’s largest collection of camera technology.
If you want a non-golf outdoor activity take a guided cruise down the Erie Canal on the Sam Patch, a replica of the boats that traveled in the canal after its opening in 1825.
Dining is more than ample, too. We tried out The Cub Room, which specializes in American fare but has nothing to do with Chicago’s baseball team. We also sampled the Italian dishes at Branca Midtown, the unique atmosphere of the Genesee Brew House and the wines at the Casa Larga Vineyards.
All made for a great escape but the golf was in the forefront.