The two courses at the Westchester Country Club were laid out just after the end of the Great War with the West designed as a championship layout for tournament play and the shorter South used for more recreational purposes.
The three-time US Amateur Open champion turned golf course architect Walter Travis designed the two layouts at Rye in upstate New York and the hilly terrain provided the perfect setting for Travis to route the West course fairways in a unique, challenging manner.
In actual fact, the West was cleverly constructed with additional greens and bunkers for reversible play so a number of different combinations with the nines could be used to create a stipulated round of 18 holes – now apart from one week a year at St Andrews Old Course nowadays, we’ve never heard of a course being played backwards.
The property in the 1920s had very few trees and Travis installed numerous fairway bunkers to direct golfers to greensites but over the years, many of these traps have been removed and thousands of trees have been planted. The open views of the natural terrain may have gone but thankfully, the routing and greens have remained largely intact.
The back nine starts with a par three and the tee shot must find the front of a two-tiered green as making a par from the back is tough whilst going over the putting surface results in an almost certain bogey. The signature hole is the par four 17th which doglegs left to a green where the approach shot has to carry over water
The Country Club held its first PGA tournament in 1963 with the Thunderbird Classic Invitational which later became the Westchester Classic. Multiple winners over the next forty years included Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Seve Ballesteros, Ernie Els, Sergio Garcia and Vijay Singh.
The event may have changed its name over the years due to sponsorship by American Express, Manufacturers Hanover, Buick and Barclays but golf fans (and many of the pros) still know it as “The Westchester” – even after it moved away from the course to Ridgewood Country Club, New Jersey in 2008.
Westchester is certainly a difficult challenge for a first time player due to a number of blind shots over hugely rolling terrain. Walter Travis opened the West course with a hugely strategic short par 4 that undulates violently in front of you. There is a healthy balance of exciting downhill shots as there are steeply uphill shots. The terrain in Westchester County is famously rugged, and the West course is just that. The undulation is not just with the overall topography, Travis outdid this with the green surfaces. The contours have tested the greatest of golfers for almost 100 years, and I found them to be superb.
The land around the turn (holes 9-11) are flatter and give the player a welcomed short-term respite, but just as you move away from the clubhouse, you return to the roller-coaster fairways. Please ensure you take a caddy or play with an experienced member as (especially playing uphill) too many shots out there will seriously confuse you, and ultimately slow down play.
The course tests your depth perception, challenges your ball-striking accuracy and overloads your sense with classic architecture. The doglegs wrap their way naturally around the land with deep thirsty bunkers galore. There are no easy holes here and making par is a gift, especially when a blind shot is required. Travis will bring countless golfers to their knees and shoot very high numbers, so be prepared to be exhausted. Many players are surprised with the par 4 17th, which is a 90-degree dogleg left that plays beside a very large body of water. Without question, the hole visually doesn’t feel like it’s related to any other hole and is a little non-descript off the tee.
Overall, the West course utilizes the natural contours into an exciting routing and is arguably the hilliest test of golf in the country.
New York State is blessed with arguably the deepest roster of private clubs in the United States. The concentration of that depth rests primarily in two locations. Long Island -- with both Nassau and Suffolk Counties contributing the likes of Shinnecock Hills, National Golf Links, Friar's Head, Garden City, Engineers, to name just a few. The other location is Westchester County. Located immediately north of the border with New York City -- Westchester is laden with a series of stellar courses that highlighting a slew of design treasures with the likes of Winged Foot, Quaker Ridge, Sleepy Hollow and Fenway to name just four.
One of the real stalwarts and equally one of the most undervalued layouts in the county is Westchester Country Club in Rye and its storied West Course.
The Walter Travis layout is situated on hilly terrain and provides a wide array of fascinating holes that never lack for overall beauty, mandating clear thinking and adroit shotmaking.
For 41 consecutive years Westchester Country Club hosted the best of professional golf. Initially started as the Westchester Classic in 1967 -- the first event was won by the legendary Jack Nicklaus. "The Westchester" would grow in stature rapidly and was a showcase of the some of the greatest names in the sport. The course was also well-appreciated by the players for a design that provided a wide array of holes superbly crafted to deal with the rolling topography and the various rock outcroppings found throughout the course. The timing of the event was also smartly done -- in the early years held in August, however, the event would find a more suitable time line either immediately before or after the US Open. That placement meant an infusion of non-Americans in the field given the similar manner in which the course would replicate conditions found at the forthcoming US Open site.
With the development of the Fed-Ex Cup Playoffs the event has since left Westchester Country Club and is rotated among several different courses in the greater NYC metro area and is now played once again in late August.
Among the winners of the event were Arnold Palmer, Julius Boros, Gene Littler, Johnny Miller, Ray Floyd, Hale Irwin, Ernie Els, Seve Ballesteros, Curtis Strange, Sergio Garcia and Vijay Singh, to name just a few of the standout players.
The strongest element of the course is its routing. The West Course moves in all sorts of directions so that no specific wind pattern can be counted upon when playing. For the tournament the nines were reversed and I believe that sequence of holes is the better presentation. During the tournament the round would commence with a par-3 hole -- actually the 10th for regular play -- an unusual situation and reminiscent of Royal Lytham.
Four of the holes at the West -- the 2nd, 3rd, 6th and 17th holes were regularly included among the most demanding faced on the PGA Tour. All are stout par-4's -- with the 3rd playing as a par-4 when the Classic was played. The 2nd sweeps downhill turning gently left in the drive zone. The approach then having to find a putting surface that's well defended on all sides. The 3rd is even longer -- to a fairway that rises slightly before plunging downhill. The green is set on an elevated bluff and if one doesn't find the fairway the likelihood in getting to the green becomes extremely problematic. The 6th is a fine dog-leg right -- protected by a series of trees that guard the corner in a manner similar to a dog protecting the junkyard. The strongest of players can attempt to cut the corner -- those succeeding are left with a short pitch to one of the smallest greens on the course. The 17th provides an abrupt dog-leg left and it's one where driver is eschewed for a fairway metal or even iron for the strongest of players. Water comes into play for those who go too far off the tee. Like the other putting surfaces -- the 17th is well crafted with a series of baffling internal contours.
As I stated earlier -- the rolling nature of the property is magnificent. There are a range of lies and stances encountered throughout the round. Fairways have sufficient movement so knowing what specific line of play to aim at is always needed to score well.
Travis also created a range of alluring short holes -- tempting to attack but just as capable in biting back. The 1st hole is a short par-4 of 314 yards that beckons the launching of the big tee shot. Such a play needs to be carefully calculated as Seve Ballesteros found out in a playoff loss in 1987 and then a win the next year. In the former the Spaniard hooked his tee shot wildly and simply gave the title to J.C. Snead. The next year -- in a four way playoff which included Greg Norman -- Seve hit his tee shot into the front left bunker and then made a superb shot to tap-in range and victory.
The par-4 8th is also well-conceived at 378 yards. The fairway slides gently to the left -- the deeper one goes off the tee the narrowed the landing zone. The green is situated slightly above the fairway and is only large enough to handle a surely played approach. On the inward nine the dog-leg left 16th is another fine short hole of 350 yards. Strong players will attempt to cut off the hole with driver and those who can pull it off can land on or near the front of the green. Those who miss left will face a supremely demanding pitch from deep rough to a green that includes three different levels. The 16th is the kind of hole where you always believe you should make birdie but rarely do because of poor club selection and ill-timed faulty execution.
Each of the nine ends with a quality par-5. The 9th, a dog-leg left, played as the final hole during "The Classic" and witnessed one of the great endings when Bob Gilder holed his second shot for a double eagle in winning in 1982. The green, like so many at the West, provides for a range of contours and elevated areas where placement is critical for putting success. The 18th is listed at 532 yards, but climbs abruptly uphill for the final third of the hole Long hitters can get to the green in two blows -- but the shot must be laser-like straight with sufficient height to land and hold on the green.
The West Course not only provides movement through its gifted routing but it is the varying nature of the holes played that adds to is character. Travis never provides the same type of hole -- there are constant adjustments -- between long and short -- uphill and downhill -- and those moving right or left.
Unfortunately, when the relationship between the club and the PGA Tour ended after the playing of the '07 event it was akin to a bitter divorce. The club did host the '15 KPMG Women's PGA Championship and it provided an opportunity for the West Course to once again have its spotlight. I personally hope there can be a return of some sort on a periodic basis.
As I stated at the outset -- Westchester County has a number of top tier golf outlets -- nearly all on the private side of the ledger. The West Course, even after hosting a professional event for so many years, never really received its due for whatever the reasons.
While the West does not have the quality to be ranked in the top ten in New York State -- by no means is that an indicator the course is deficient. The bar in The Empire State is rightfully very high -- but I do believe the West has the goods to be among the top 20. When I look at the roster of champions produced at "The Classic" it proves conclusively the quality of the course was front and center. The Travis design is one of several he produced and it's a testament to the man that he was both a player of high caliber and an architect of equal peer.
By M. James Ward