Saratoga National Golf Club Review: Upstate New York’s Golfing Gem
For the last four years, I’ve had the honor of being invited to play golf in the Adirondack Open. If you’re scouring the internet for what mini-tour event this is, you won’t find it. It’s an annual buddy trip to the Adirondack region of New York. It usually plays out over three days on three different courses with varying formats. While there are low-stake prizes on the line to be won by one of two “Ryder Cup” teams, it’s mostly about fun.
For each of the years I’ve attended, the first round of the Open is at Saratoga National Golf Club. Roger Rulewich designed the course in 2001. Initially, Rulewich worked under Robert Trent Jones, but went on to design many great courses around the country.
Some notable examples of his work are Aronimink (host of the 2018 BMW Championship) and Bellerive (host of the 2018 PGA Championship). In my home state of New Jersey, he has worked on or principally designed most of the courses at the Crystal Springs resort, including the perennially top-ranked Ballyowen. Much of his work speaks for itself, and you’ll find little you won’t appreciate concerning design, quality, playability, or challenge at Saratoga.
The layout at Saratoga National is a standard par 72; ten par 4s, four par 3s, and four par 5s. It may not be a course that will ever be known for a truly unique hole, but there is good variety throughout the layout. I doubt anyone could play it and feel that any holes are repetitive.
The Par 3s
The par-3 5th hole at Saratoga has my number. Through three trips to the course, I am +7 on this hole alone. In the Adirondack Open, we play from the Preferred tees and the 5th is 165 yards on the card. But I can tell you that this hole consistently plays longer than 165. There is junk to carry off the tee and a bunker to the right that you must navigate. Other than that, it is a straightforward shot to a relatively flat green. Unfortunately, I had to chip in to “salvage” double-bogey this year.
Of the par 3s, the 15th will be the most memorable. It is not a difficult hole, but for the average golfer, it can be visually daunting from the tee as your shot it needs to carry water almost entirely to something of an island green. There is room all around the green surface itself to land – which is why this is more of a “green on an island” as opposed to an island green – but bad hops can have your ball trundling over the rocky surround and into the hazard.
One item of criticism that some may have with Saratoga is that, at least in the scorecard yardages, there is very little variety in the par 3s. You will very likely need at least two, and possibly three different clubs to play them.
The Par 4s
The 1st is a good overall reprenstation of Saratoga National. There is a safe, desired landing area where you can play to a yardage, but your approach shot will be over a marsh hazard. If you try to bomb a drive, either the danger comes into play, or you have to clear a bunker and fescue complex into a much narrower landing area. The green is sloped back to front and full of character, which will test your lag putting if your approach is not accurate.
The 3rd hole is an exercise in par-4 tee shot decision making. A dog-leg right, there is plenty of fairway to the left, but it will leave you a mid- or even long iron approach shot. Take a straighter line, and you will have to carry a large fairway bunker area. Cheat to the right in an attempt to cut the dog-leg corner, and you’ll have to carry a small hill with a small tree perched atop it.
Other notable par-4 holes include the 8th which is a long test, the 11th which plays to a limited fairway and has a demanding second shot, and the short 16th which – with a smart play off the tee – should be a scoring hole. The 18th hole is direct but beautiful, and with a long green front-to-back, it will play very differently depending on pin placement.
The Par 5s
The par-5 4th has the longest forced carry on the course off the tee and it routinely plays into the wind. The further left you are off the tee, the more marsh you’ll have to carry so be aware of your landing area. If you’ve managed a long drive that found the short grass, the green could be reachable in two. But the hole does play a bit uphill – and again, usually into the wind – this is typically a three-shot hole.
While there is plenty of fairway to hit from the tee, the third-shot approach on the par-5 6th can be one of the most challenging on the course if you haven’t played your first two shots well. It plays uphill to the green and there is a water hazard short and right that must be avoided. The hole would only be reachable in two for the longest hitters, and your second shot would require a bomb of a fade with a parachute landing (think Justin Thomas’s second shot on 18 in Round 3 of the 2017 US Open at Erin Hills).
The 10th is a fun par 5 that is trisected by a couple of small brooks. The second landing area turns rightward toward the green and would require quite the carry to be reached from the tee. If you land wisely near the end of the first section of the fairway, the green is reachable, but it would be all carry as it is bunkered front center.
What might be considered the signature hole, the par-5 13th runs along the (out-of-bounds) entrance road to the clubhouse and is also the most challenging hole on the scorecard. The entire hole is lined on the left by water, which eventually wraps all the way around the back of the green. The fairway is split in two diagonally by the water hazard coming all the way to the road, leaving the first section with a peninsula at its longest point on the left. Being a long hole that will likely require three shots, your last decision will be whether or not to go directly at the pin depending on its placement.
Saratoga National Golf Club is a first-class experience. If you elect not to pull up to the clubhouse to drop your gear off, an attendant will more than likely walk out to your car to greet you and offer help. You’ll check in at the pro shop while your bag is loaded onto a cart, and from there you can head down to the sprawling practice facility.
At the driving range, attendants will clean your clubs between shots and give you laser yardages to targets. The short game area has a great mix of fairway, rough, and bunkers, and the putting green is manicured to reflect the green conditions around the course accurately.
You’ll get around the course in an interactive-GPS-equipped golf cart, which is a wonderful alternative to a caddie or forecaddie for first-timers, at least in giving you the ability to see yardages to safe landing areas and the potential results of a couple of semi-blind shots
Parting Thoughts on Saratoga National
After multiple Adirondack Opens, I’ve heard many opinions and takes on Saratoga National. It’s a course whose prestige – at least regarding public golf – can be intimidating (see: my experience on the par-3 5th). If you dare to decide to play further back than the suggested-based-on-your-handicap tees, you’re likely in for some uncomfortably long forced carries over either water or native wetland areas. This includes tee shots at the 3rd, 4th, 5th, 7th, and 15th, and potentially some approaches elsewhere. The greens are true, but they will also roll faster than most public courses.
But, it’s also a course that has been described as “gettable”. Something of a cross between a heathland, moorland, and a parkland course, you can probably count on one hand the number of trees that are really in play. There is almost always room to land a shot, and there is more than one way to score on most holes.
Personally, it’s something of a magical course for me. It’s easily one of the most beautiful and most challenging I’ve played, and yet I’ve shot my best score there by a margin of five strokes. It’s a score I haven’t come close to sniffing since. I went into this year’s Adirondack Open with serious swing troubles and confidence issues, and while we played in windy conditions described by some in the group as being “worth a stroke or two on each nine,” I played to my handicap.
If you make it out there, Saratoga National will easily be one of the finest golf courses you will play. You may even want to add it to a rota of courses for an annual buddy trip of your own.
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