GEARY: Top-15 golf courses in Western New York

A whirlwind summer of golf has come to an end

Nate Geary
September 24, 2019 - 12:11 pm
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Last year, I finally made it back to the golf course after a two-year hiatus due to nagging back issues. I got roughly 10 rounds in by the time the season came to a close, but I officially caught the bug and had big plans going into the 2019 season.

I committed to working on my game all winter – taking lessons and updating some of the arsenal in my bag.

The weather this spring, though? Really killed my vibe, but I did ridiculous things like golf in 40-degree temperatures with standing water and 30 mile-per-hour winds; just to give you an idea of how bad the itch was. Through nearly 100 rounds and the end of the season upon us, I decided along the way that I wanted to play as many public courses in the Buffalo/Western New York region as I could.

What I also noticed was a serious lack of recent rankings of Buffalo’s public courses and a corresponding breakdown of some of the best holes across Western New York. In fact, the most recent ranking from anyone came all the way back in 2014.

Since then, there’s been new ownership at courses like Glen Oak and Diamond Hawk. There’s been significant upgrades to courses like Elma Meadows and Harvest Hill.

It’s time that someone put together an updated list of the area’s top public courses and I’m just the guy to do it.

It’s important to note that this list only includes courses in the 716 area code (predominantly), or at least within a 30-minute drive of the city. I didn’t include Rochester or Southern Tier courses like Peakn’ Peak or Ravenwood; strictly because I wanted to focus on courses worthwhile in the 716.

After several rounds at each of these great establishments, I compiled a list of my top-15:

 

1.) Seneca Hickory Stick – Lewiston

Hickory Stick has long been touted as the top public course in the area and arguably a top-three or four courses in all of New York State.

I played it for the very first time this summer and it absolutely lived up to the hype. Sure, it can be a little pricey at peak hours, running folks a hefty $75, but it’s well worth the small investment.

The first five holes are as good as they get – with hole No. 1 challenging you right out of the gate with a long par-4 protected by water in front of the green and the driving range in close-quarters to the right of the fairway. Hole 2 is puzzling for golfers not confident in a shot from 150 yards out. The back-pin location still gives me nightmare as does the trouble to the left and significant elevation changes to the right. The par-5 third hole is the perfect combination of trouble, fairway elevation, and distance. No. 6 literally offers you two separate fairways to attack with trouble in the middle of each.

The back nine really opens up with plenty of scorable par-4s, if you can keep it straight off the tee.

The best part about Hickory Stick is that there always seems to be available tee times for those that want to get out. I’ve absolutely fallen in love with the difficulty, scenery, and availability of the best public course in Western New York, and I look forward to playing it a half-dozen more times before the end of the season.

*A note to all players – Repair your ball marks. For whatever reason, this needs to be said to people playing Hickory Stick.

Favorite hole:

Has to be 16 for me – playing a very modest 324-yards from the blue tees with water along the entire left side of the fairway, 16 plays as one of the more scorable holes on the course. The hole has everything you want; water, sand, and green elevation. The fairway gives you ample room to pull out a 3-wood or hybrid to put yourself within distance to hit a 9-iron into the green for a birdie opportunity. The 17th fairway can come into play on the right side for people who hook it right, which essentially plays as a safe haven away from the water on the left.

  • Times played: 5
  • 2019 Peak Rates: $75 for 18 with a cart
  • Green Rating: 8/10
  • Upkeep Rating: 9/10

 

2.) Harvest Hill – Orchard Park

Since new ownership took over a few years back, there’s been a noticeable increase in green quality, an amazing club house build to add to the beautiful aesthetics, and further development of the best practice facilities you can find, making Harvest Hill my No. 2 golf course in Western New York.

The second hole is one of the toughest par-5s in Western New York with a blind tee shot, lots of distance and really difficult pin placements.

The fescue remains the single most agonizing feature Harvest Hill has to offer, effectively creating trouble on every hole.

When I think of Harvest Hill, two holes really stand out; No. 9 and No. 18. As you drive up Transit from Southwestern, the ninth hole is the first hole you see. It’s also one of the most difficult par-4s on the course. No. 18 comes right up to the beautifully built club house/restaurant and features one of the most scenic views around.

Favorite hole:

Maybe it’s a cop out, but I love the first hole. A par-4 with sand on the right that I always somehow find at about 250-yards out and woods to the left. To score, you must hit the ball straight, which is really tough to do on your first shot of the round. The real MVP here isn’t any particular hole though; it’s definitely their world class practice facilities. Whether it’s the driving range, short game center, or 3-hole family/practice course, Harvest Hill makes for a one-stop shop for Western New York golfers. Their practice facilities alone put them in contention for best Western New York public course.

  • Times played: 4
  • 2019 Peak Rates: $62 for 18 with a cart
  • Green Rating: 8/10
  • Upkeep Rating: 8.5/10

 

3.) Tri-County Country Club – Forestville

What an absolute gem Tri-County is – seriously.

I’m really upset with myself that it took me this long to finally make the 50-minute trip from the city to Forestville to get out there. I mean, even the initial drive up pulling into the parking lot you realize you’re about to play a damn good course.

Tri-County is a semi-public course that offers all the amenities a private golf club has with the pricing and availability of a public course.

The elevation changes just within the fairway of nearly every hole keep you on your heels. I was lucky enough to get paired up with a member that shared the many nuances of the course, including just how unbelievably difficult the greens can play in the middle of summer. It goes against all experience and judgment, but most, if not every hole on the back-nine somehow (defying physics) all break toward the club house. I don’t know how, but it does.

There is plenty of water throughout the course that come into play, especially on the early holes.

It has several short par-4s, but don’t let their lack of distance trick you into thinking that they’re in anyway easy.

Overall, one of the more fun tracks in Western New York you can play and is worth the trip.

*Insider tip – you do not want to be above the pin. It can get real, real ugly. I ended my round shooting an 84 with 38 total putts – the greens really were in my head.

Favorite hole:

For me, No. 4 was a hole to remember. From the whites, you’re looking at a 260-yard par-4; easy right? Well, for a first timer, your club choice in this instance is vital. With water guarding the green at roughly 220 yards, your drive must carry at least 235 yards to clear the water and safely reach the green. Easier said than done since most of us don’t have a 235-yard club in the bag we can fly to the green accurately with enough back spin to stop it from going off the green. Water cuts the fairway in half and forces folks attempting to layup to choose between the left side – which is guarded by woods to the left and the creek to the right – or the right side which is the safe layup option with no immediate trouble outside the creek to the left. It’s a very strategic hole, so you better bring your A-game.

  • Times played: 3
  • 2019 Peak Rates: $59 for 18 with a cart
  • Green Rating: 9/10
  • Upkeep Rating: 8/10

 

4.) Glen Oak – East Amherst

There may not have been a public course in need of TLC more than Glen Oak, and new management has absolutely delivered.

If you don’t know, East Amherst has an ash tree problem – and there’s no better example of that issue than Glen Oak. Ownership has personally cut down over 250 ash trees from around the course and it’s really opened the layout up, especially around the tee boxes. Unnecessary trees towering over greens and tee boxes have been cleared and it’s like a new course. Management has also made noticeable investments into the greens, which play much faster than in years past. But their best investment, by far, were the new carts, equipped with Bluetooth speakers, satellite radio, and super-accurate GPS technology.

The biggest gripe I’d always had with the Oak was how wet the course can get – which is out of everyone’s control.

By mid-summer, there’s an argument to be made it’s one of the best courses in Western New York.

Favorite hole:

This is a really tough decision for me, but it always comes back to No. 3 for me. The hard dogleg left, and reachable green make for one of my all-around favorite holes in Western New York. You can make the case that 18 should be the choice here and I’d probably agree with most arguments, but three has everything you want in a golf hole. Trees and houses to the left with a sand trap conveniently placed within striking distance past the tree line, sand around the green, and a lightning quick green that breaks toward the water; this hole alone will keep me going back.

  • Times played: 8
  • 2019 Peak Rates: $59 for 18 with a cart
  • Green Rating: 7/10
  • Upkeep Rating: 7.5/10

 

5.) Links at Ivy Ridge – Akron

If you were to poll me last year, I probably have Ivy Ridge ranking third overall in my ranking, but the improvements made to Glen Oak simply couldn’t be ignored.

Having said that, Ivy Ridge is still one of those gems you tell people traveling to Buffalo about.

It’s long with elevation everywhere you turn. The greens are downright scary throughout, and boasts one of the coolest layouts you’ll find in Western New York.

For the most part, you’re going to get a little bored with how straight the course can be at times but the par-4 seventh hole comes in and throws a serious wrench in your game plan. On top of that, you’ll have several blind tee shots due to the rolling hills in the middle of nearly every fairway and ridiculous amounts of sand, which I’d be a fool not to mention.

Favorite hole:

I’m going with the par-3 fifth hole as my favorite for several reasons. Playing over 200 yards from the tips, it is both difficult and fun with trouble in the middle and right side, forcing players to put it on the green or face an impending bogie. It’s rare to come across a par-3 that you really like, especially at that distance, but No. 5 comes in as one of my favorite par-3s in town.

  • Times played: 4
  • 2019 Peak Rates: $57 for 18 with a cart
  • Green Rating: 7.5/10
  • Upkeep Rating: 8/10

 

6.) Diamond Hawk – Cheektowaga

Perhaps I’ve grossly underrated this course coming in at sixth overall – it truly is one of Western New York’s hidden gems, and by hidden I mean literally hidden. If there wasn’t a big sign past the airport on Genesee St., it’s likely no one would know about Diamond Hawk.

Much like Hickory Stick, I played Diamond Hawk for the very first time this year and have been hooked ever since. It’s probably the closest course to me, living in the city, and provides everything a seasoned golfer would want.

My main issue is that it’s very difficult to score tee times – because of leagues and just general demand. If I could, I’d play more.

Which, at the end of the day, is truly a compliment to the folks upkeeping the course.

Like Arrowhead, the 18th is just ridiculous and nearly impossible to score. It’s long, there’s sand, and there’s an elevated green that’s very difficult to reach in two. Hole 1 has a similar difficulty level with sand everywhere you turn, and a green that you could argue is unfairly difficult. If you can start with a par, the rest of your round should follow suit.

Favorite hole:

What a difficult decision this turned out to be. There are just too many really cool holes to come up with just one you can consider a “favorite”, but I did what I could. I settled on the par-4 fifth hole because it really is my personal favorite. After what I consider to be an extremely difficult first hole, No. 2 bounces back with what should be a birdie opportunity for everyone – that’s right, everyone! Dogleg right, with only trouble to the right side,No. 2 gives you an opportunity to score early on and put yourself below par.

  • Times played: 15
  • 2019 Peak Rates: $57 for 18 with a cart
  • Green Rating: 8/10
  • Upkeep Rating: 7.5/10

 

7.) Byrncliff – Varysburg

Another one I tried for the first time this year, Byrncliff is a bit of a drive, but worth every penny in gas you have to spend.

It’s likely because I shot an 82 the first time playing, but Byrncliff really does have it all.

I also found that of every course in this ranking, the one that forces you to play the most strategic golf is definitely Byrncliff. There aren’t many sand traps throughout the course, but boy is there some significant elevation. From the second hole on, I’m not sure you see a flat layout until maybe 11 and 12. There are holes that your second shot has to be played significantly below your feet right from the middle of a fairway. If you hit the ball straight off the tee box, you’ll have an opportunity to score on just about every hole.

Varysburg has some of the best golf Western New York has to offer between Ironwood and Byrncliff – the true golf capital in the area.
    
Favorite hole:

This is probably the most difficult course to pick just one hole as your favorite. So many great holes come to mind, but the one that sticks out the most is the par-5 seventh. From the championship tees, you sit perched at the top of the hole with a beautiful dogleg left with sand directly in the middle of the fairway. If you can draw (for a right hander) past the second sand trap, you’re in position to reach the green in two. Put it too far left, you’ll be forced to punch back into the fairway. Put your tee shot too far right and you’ll be hitting off of a giant hill with the ball either significantly below or above your feet.

  • Times played: 5
  • 2019 Peak Rates: $49 for 18 with a cart
  • Green Rating: 7/10
  • Upkeep Rating: 8/10

 

8.) Arrowhead – Akron

Arrowhead is probably one of my more frequented courses in Western New York. At this point, I’m probably at 10 rounds played just at Arrowhead alone.

The par-4s are short, but challenging, and aesthetically is probably one of the more gorgeous tracks to play in Western New York.

If you can find a way to score the par-4 15th, you’re some sort of wizard. It plays over 400 yards with one of the narrowest safe zones in all of Western New York with sand and trouble to the left and a pond to the right and very little fairway to give yourself a chance to score.

The first and 11th holes remain two of the more strategic par-5s in town with a creek seemingly in play for everyone’s tee shots. No. 7 forces you to carry 240 yards to play over sand in the middle of the fairway, and the 14th hole is one of those par-4s (276 yards from the whites) that everyone thinks they can reach in one, but end up double bogeying because of the trouble to the left and right sides.

However, due to construction, the ninth hole is currently not playable – which is not a great look for the course. They’re lucky to find themselves in my top-eight.

Favorite hole:

So many damn holes to choose from, but I have to go with my gut and say my favorite hole is 18. Maybe that’s a cop-out, but what’s not to love? Sand along the entire left side, water to the right; 18 provides both scenery and difficulty. If you’ve ever played Arrowhead, there’s likely no better feeling than being able to birdie 18 – for the select few who have, tell me your secrets..?

  • Times played: 8
  • 2019 Peak Rates: $59 for 18 with a cart
  • Green Rating: 7/10
  • Upkeep Rating: 6.5/10

 

9.) Holiday Valley Double Black Diamond Golf Course – Ellicottville

If you love Ellicottville, there’s a good chance you’d love the Black Diamond course at Holiday Valley.

Beautifully located within the ski-resort, Black Diamond has some unbelievable scenic holes – one could argue some of the most scenic views in all of Western New York. The scenery is very nice, but the elevation can be overwhelming if you’re not ready for it.

Located in the heart of the ski-resort, you have a handful of holes with over 50-foot elevation changes (some even more).

The front-nine poses some challenging par-4 holes tucked away behind part of the resort.

The back-nine, though, is why you pay the ticket at the door. No. 10 plays about 50-70 feet below your tee shot and is surrounded on three sides with sand and water short and to the left. How fun. No. 11 is another beauty where your second shot (or third if you’re not careful) lays about 65-feet below your shot. Holes 17 and 18 rounds out the calf exercise with brutal upward slopes to the 17th and downward to an almost-island green on 18.

All-in-all, it’s a great course, but is particularly pricey.

There were a couple of fairways I wish were kept in better condition, but overall, the Double Black Diamond Course is one I’ll enjoy playing a few more times.

Favorite hole:

It’s really hard not to pick one of the par 3s – 9, 10, and 15. Especially 15, because in order for you to hit the green, you’ve got to club down at least two clubs and you’ll still find yourself hitting from the broad side of the hill or behind the green – it’s just such a difficult green to reach without experience. At the end of the day, No. 13 has my heart. The 440-yard par-4 gives you two separate fairways to land your tee shot on to really let you open it up and swing away. Your tee shot from the championship tees starts from 50-75 feet above the green, as well giving you that extra confidence boost as you scoot past the 150-yard markers. Beware however, the right side; it’s the best way to hate this hole.  

  • Times played: 2
  • 2019 Peak Rates: $70 for 18 with a cart
  • Green Rating: 7/10
  • Upkeep Rating: 7/10

 

10.) Ironwood Golf Course – Cowelsville

One of the most referred courses I’ve played to date; Ironwood lived up to the hype it got from many friends, social media followers, and amateur players alike.

The rolling hills, blind tee shots, and open concept make Ironwood a deceptively difficult play, while also giving golfers ample opportunity to score throughout. Although they limit the amount of high grass or fescue you’ll see throughout your round, there’s no doubt you’ll find a way to find some whether it’s the right side of fairway one and 10 or the hidden fescue on the left side of the third fairway, you’ll find yourself searching for golf balls one way or another.

There are also numerous holes where water will come into play and can be downright difficult to judge if you’re not familiar with the course.

Favorite hole:

That water sure came into play at the par-4 seventh hole. Just when you’re thinking to yourself that seven has a birdie in play, the water that jets out slightly into the fairway can come out and snatch your ball without even noticing. Had I been playing with an experienced Ironwood golfer, I likely wouldn’t have made the mistake of putting my tee shot in the drink and laid up to the left side giving myself a shot at an easy green in regulation, but I wasn’t so lucky. I did, however, end up saving par (somehow), which made me appreciate the hole that much more.

  • Times played: 1
  • 2019 Peak Rates: $45 for 18 with a cart
  • Green Rating: 8/10
  • Upkeep Rating: 5.5/10

 

11.) Elma Meadows – Elma

Looking for soul crushing par-4s, fescue, tree’s, and lots of green-movement? If so, Elma Meadows is the place to be.

For the modest price of a yearly membership, Elma Meadows is likely the best bang-for-your-buck course in all Western New York. Nevermind that it’s an Erie County course, it’s stunning. It has country club quality at a municipal price and for that, I say cheers.

The 18th hole is just mean – playing nearly 500 yards from the championship tees, you better bring the big guns if you have any aspiration of scoring.

In terms of overall play, Elma really forces you to be long off the tee box with a number of 400-yard-plus par-4s.

No. 10 – considered to be Elma’s signature hole, has a severally elevated championship tee box with a slight dogleg left and plenty of fairway.

The greens were in absolute perfect condition in mid-July, noting they were rolling the greens well into the late morning.

The only true downfall is how straight the course is. With true doglegs on only two holes (four and five) the course can get a little stale after a while.

Favorite hole:

I’m going to stick with the hole most consider their favorite – No. 10. The view of the giant club house to your right and the slight dogleg left about 75 feet above the fairway make for a real fun play.

  • Times played: 1
  • 2019 Peak Rates: $49 for 18 with a cart
  • Green Rating: 7/10
  • Upkeep Rating: 6.5/10

 

12.) Sheridan Park Golf Course – Buffalo

Sheridan Park is an interesting animal. Widely considered as one of the more difficult municipal courses in the area, Sheridan has everything you could want in a $30 round – the only problem is that for non-residents, your round can cost you north of $50, which is just outrageous. That pricing competes with and, in some cases, exceeds the cost of playing courses like Harvest Hill, Glen Oak, and Arrowhead courses respectfully.

It’s a challenge without a doubt, just not one I’m willing to pay that amount for.

There are a number of real long par 4s throughout; water and trees to both the left and right of most fairways. For whatever reason, the wind always seems to play a factor at Sheridan so be ready to club up at each hole.

Favorite hole:

This is might be a cop-out, but the first hole plays as one of the more difficult opening holes in Western New York, especially for right-handed players. A full dogleg to the right with water and trees completely protecting the green, No. 1 forces all you cold golfers to dial in a great drive on your first swing of the day, which is no easy task.

  • Times played: 2
  • 2019 Peak Rates: $54 for 18 with a cart (non-resident)
  • Green Rating: 5.5/10
  • Upkeep Rating: 5/10

 

13.) Cazenovia Golf Course – South Buffalo

The wonderful nine-hole city-run course is one of my favorite tracks in Buffalo.

Out of the three city courses, there’s no denying Caz boasts the best layout and upkeep between both South Park and Delaware Park.

The greens are traditionally in great shape, but always play a bit slow, even in the heart of summer. The only real drawback is the fact they don’t take tee times and things can often get backed-up.

Otherwise, Caz has a great mix of length, speed, and difficulty with a ton of opportunities to score, especially if you have an innate familiarity with the course like so many do.

My advice – play with a regular. Whether you pack up and head out by yourself, pairing up with one of the many regulars at the first tee or a buddy who plays in their various leagues – playing with someone who’s played the course, you’ll always get a few tips that help you lower your score.  

Favorite hole:

With only nine holes to choose from, you think this would be a rather easy decision, right? Well, it’s harder than you might think. I’m firmly between holes six and eight as my favorite hole, and probably give the slight edge to No. 6 on the sole fact that it’s one of the course's tougher holes. With Caz Creek along the entire left side and trees to the right of the fairway, No. 6 forces you to put away the driver in favor of your long iron or hybrid club. That doesn’t mean everyone will do it, but the strategic players recognize that putting a shot in the fairway on six is the key to scoring and going out of bounds on the left or taking a punch shot out of the woods on the right simply won’t help your cause.

  • Times played: 2
  • 2019 Peak Rates: $27 for nine with a cart (city resident)
  • Green Rating: 5.5/10
  • Upkeep Rating: 4.5/10

 

14.) Buffalo Tournament Club – Lancaster

I played BTC once in late April and felt there was no way to fairly judge the course in, what turned out to be, frigid, windy, and wet conditions. I needed an opportunity to play it once things dried out and I did that the last week of July, which gave the course ample time to dry.

It wasn’t bad.

I just didn’t feel the course was in very good condition considering the conditions we got in the spring and the dry streak we had throughout July. Whether it was deep trenches on the middle of fairways, torn up cart paths, and standing water (somehow), BTC disappointed.

With how dry it was, you’ve certainly got an extra dozen or so yards on every dry, but the first three holes are pretty boring and straight forward. I found myself going driver then a 60-degree wedge on all three holes finishing with par all three times. No. 4 opens things up for the courses first par-5, but in terms of difficulty, the beginning of your round is rather light.

Obviously, I’d be remised if I didn’t mention the unreasonably large greens throughout the course meant to create some difficulty on your approach, but I found in most cases that size really doesn’t matter.

Favorite hole:

I actually really liked the par-5 seventh hole with a blind tee shot and slight dogleg to the left. With a giant tree guarding the green to the left side, you have a serious decision to make on your second shot, especially if your tee shot ends up on the left side of the fairway. You can decide to cut the left corner, sky the tree and hope to land on the green or right around it, or lay-up to the right of the tree to give yourself an easy approach shot under 100 yards. I like holes that force you to ponder strategy with each shot and No. 7 definitely fits the bill.

  • Times played: 2
  • 2019 Peak Rates: $51 for 18 with a cart
  • Green Rating: 6/10
  • Upkeep Rating: 4/10

 

  • 18-Mile Creek Golf Course – Hamburg

The course formerly known as the Town of Hamburg Golf Course; 18-mile creek has always held a special place in my heart. Y

ou might think because there aren’t any sand traps throughout the course that you’re on track for a great round, but that’s not always the case. With several twists and turns throughout the layout of the course, 18-mile Creek can trick you into several poor decisions.

Favorite hole:

The par-5 third, for starters, forces you to place your drive far enough past the tree line at the dogleg, which may sound easy, but sits inconveniently out of range with a full 3-wood but not quite long enough to hit a full driver. The green is surrounded by several large trees on the right and left, and nearly no room to miss behind with the tee box for the fourth hole just feet away. To makes things even trickier, there’s a small pond about 100 yards short and to the right of the green for those who hit the ball just far enough to make a play at the green. It’s a tough choice because I just love me some 12. The 12th brings elevation and distance into play with woods to the right. But the third will always have a special place in my heart.

  • Times played: 2
  • 2019 Peak Rates: $51 for 18 with a cart
  • Green Rating: 4.5/10
  • Upkeep Rating: 4.5/10

 

Well, I sure hope you all enjoyed the ride. It was an awesome summer filled with some great courses.

Good luck the rest of the season and into 2020!

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