Bellevue Country Club in Syracuse, NY
Tee Time: July 21, 2015, 11:00, 90 F, overcast
Designer: Donald Ross, 1914
Playing Partners: Charlie Cline, Jerry Wallace, my dad
Tees: White, Par 71 (70.7 rating/132 slope/6,157 yards)
Course Handicap: 10 (8.2 index)
Stats: 89 (42-47); 31 putts; 2/14 fairways; 2/18 greens; 1 penalty stroke
As much as I love playing courses designed by old school architects, I’ve amazingly only played one Donald Ross course to date: the Biltmore down in Miami, recently featured on Ballers! Luckily, I was able to get a second taste of the famed architect. Upstate in Syracuse is Bellevue Country Club, a design from 1914 that still has teeth today. All the freshest movable-weight drivers, speed-enhancing gradational core golf balls and spin-milled wedges on the market couldn’t get me around this place any better than a member playing 1930’s Spaldings and hickory-shaft persimmons. The setting is spectacular; a quiet country club atmosphere that focuses on pure golf.
The opening par 4 is long and straight, with an undulating fairway that kicks balls to the left. The second is a short, 365-yard par 4 with a creek that bisects the hole in the landing area. It’s carryable, if you want to risk missing to either side of the fairway and being caught in one of the million trees here by hitting driver. The 3rd is a tiny par 3 of 95 yards uphill to a green you can’t see. The green rejects a lot of approaches and keeps only the very best. The 4th is a dogleg-right 418-yard par 4 with an extreme elevation drop to the fairway. The first par 5 is a 475-yard uphill straight hole that finishes with a little hook to the left to an elevated, hard-to-hold green. It’s reachable in two, from the right side of the fairway, but the green is best attacked with a wedge from the atop the hill. The 345-yard 6th is a blind tee shot, but from the fairway is the most attackable approach shot.
The downhill 7th is just 136 yards, but looks and plays at least 20 yards longer. The tiny green is surrounded on all sides by five sand traps. The total size of the green can’t be much bigger than a dwarf planet with its orbiting bunkers like small moons. I’ll call it the Pluto hole and the bunkers can be Charon, Styx, Nix, Kerberos and Hydra in honor of the recently completed New Horizons mission. It might be impossible to go long here. Take a second and enjoy the view from the highest tee box on the course before hitting. You can see way off into the town of Syracuse, featuring old brick architecture and pointy church steeples. It’s the most scenic spot at Bellevue. The 8th is a fun, downhill par 4 that plays about 260 yards to the edge of a pond. If you stayed dry, it’s not a tough shot over the water and close to the pin. Just don’t chunk it (positive thoughts). The front side closes with a fun 373-yard par 4 before making the turn into even tougher golf on the back nine.
The 10th is another short par 5 in the same mold of the 5th. You get to tee off through a narrow chute to a green that is even more reachable than #5, but like that hole also plays uphill and to an elevated green left of the fairway. Another narrow par 4 is the 347-yard 11th, playing up, over and down the hill to a wide green. The 13th is a lengthy par 3 of 178 yards to a green that slopes back-left to front-right. The 14th to me is the most confusing hole in New York state. Off the tee, I could tell it was a hard-right dogleg, but after that I had no clue what would happen. By now, you’re in the bottom of the old quarry the course was built on, the basement of Bellevue. I had no clue how far the stone walls were from the tee and ended up too far and all over the place en route to a triple bogey. But it is a really cool location, playing with the quarry stone and trees towering over you at the low point of the course. In hindsight, it’s an easy par with an accurate tee shot. The 15th is a 153-yard par 3 downhill to a well-guarded green.
The 434-yard 16th is a long, narrow, dogleg par 4, which is a common theme here at Bellevue. Donald Ross sure can design a difficult course. The 17th plays like a short, par-4 version of the twin par 5’s. At 316 yards, it’s easy to put a tee shot way out there and have a wedge to the green from atop the fairway. The 433-yard 18th is a classic finishing hole. One lone fairway bunker juts in from the right at the perfect landing zone, effectively cutting the fairway target in half. It’s a dramatic elevation change and on the walk down to your ball (mine happened to end up on the 17th tee box) you can reflect on how many little things you could’ve done differently here.
That’s my biggest takeaway from this golf course. My dad thinks I hated it. That’s not true. It is true that he loved it much more than I did. He enjoyed watching me try to take the power game that I thought I could play on such a short layout fail so miserably. I didn’t swing all that poorly, probably left some putts out there. But in the end, on each hole I did something the course didn’t want me to. Bellevue isn’t the course that crushed my spirits with long carries, stiff winds and oil slick greens. This was death by a thousand cuts. You have to play chess here. Hit your current shot with the next two in mind. Sometimes at home I’ll watch Bauer try to complete a task. His excitable brain takes a few minutes to slowly process what he needs to do. First, he’s gonna pick up his bone, turn it sideways and then place it in the doggy door before going around and pulling it out from the other side. He had to think the whole plan through before executing.
That’s how I should’ve approached Bellevue. You see a yawning expanse of fairway that isn’t impossibly narrow on a 470-yard par 5 and think green light, tee it high and let it fly. Well, you need to be thinking about the exact cut of the fairway you want to land in so you can hit a reliable lay-up and get the best approach to a hole you’d think would be a slam dunk just looking at the yardage. That’s how a lot of the golf courses have been up here in the Northeast region. Out west, especially the expansive valley in Phoenix, it’s a bomber’s paradise. Hit it far, because the rough is just as easy to hit crisp approaches from as the fairway. And trees? If you hit a cactus, you seriously messed up. The trees back east tower over you and lean in over the fairways, begging you to hit them like a Craig Biggio at bat. But oh man when you figure it out, it’s so much more fun. I didn’t figure it out here, but three days later after digesting this round, I shot my best round at Leatherstocking, the course that’s been eating my GHIN index alive ever since I first set foot on it. I just had to adjust my approach. This round at Bellevue finally taught me that lesson.
#12, Par 5, 488 yards, 18-handicap, My Score: 6
The final par 5 doglegs hard to the right almost ninety degrees and plays the longest on the course, at 488 yards. It’s the 18-handicap because once off the tee, there is minimal trouble as it’s straight off to the green with a few tiny bunkers. The green is the site of the most amazing atmosphere at Bellevue. You are surrounded by overgrown vegetation towering sixty feet into the air above from the base of an old quarry. I could grab a blanket and just gaze up at the sky here all afternoon and be stress free. If you get to the 12th green, mark your ball and just take in that 360 of blissful nature, before going back to slowly bleeding shots again.
Layout: B+; any Donald Ross design gets instant bonus points, and while the course had nothing overly memorable, it’s a place that challenges you and you will remember having a great experience.
Amenities: B; a good snack bar that you can swing by twice is nice, and the old clubhouse is historic and interesting to take a stroll through.
Staff: B; I didn’t really come into contact with many employees; it was a quiet afternoon. I’m sure they’re excellent.
Difficulty: B; well, with my 89 I might rate it tougher, but it’s a solid B. The trees are responsible for half of the slope rating alone.
Scenery: B; with all the elevation changes, you get some cool views of the rolling hillsides of Syracuse off in the distance.
Value: n/a; I have to thank Jerry Wallace, who is the member here at Bellevue, for inviting my dad and I out along with Charlie. New York is spoiled with amazing golf throughout the state, and this course is a worthy stop
Overall GPA: 3.06 (B); mentally exhausting, visually intriguing and physically challenging. A good combo