While there are any number of golf courses that just happen to be in the Finger Lakes, there are very few that embody the splendor and spirit of the Finger Lakes as does Bristol Harbour Golf Club. Many courses occupy the land on which they lie by some geographic coincidence or by the design of a heavy-handed course architect. You could easily pick them up and place them on another tract of land without altering their character. Not so with the championship course at Bristol Harbour. It is so inextricably entwined with the hills in which it resides, it is as if it could exist nowhere else.
Part of the joy of playing Bristol Harbour might just be the journey there. Rolling terrain and mountains have always had a certain hold on me. As I drove Route 21 South toward my destination on a pristine Sunday afternoon, the hills south of Canandaigua rose up to meet me. As the ground rose, so too did my spirits. Shortly after passing through the hamlet of Cheshire, I topped the crest of a hill and glimpsed the magnificence of Canandaigua Lake. It only hints at the promise of the views and vistas that Bristol Harbour holds for golfers who make the short drive to South Bristol.
Say what you will about the beauty of golf courses by the sea, but for all its charm, the ocean is unquestionably and unavoidably flat. Golfers, like the characters of JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, often wrestle with their love of both the sea and the wooded mountains. Tolkien’s elves are inevitably won over by the sea. But after walking the hills of Bristol Harbour’s championship course, breathtaking golf could no longer be exclusively defined by a course by the sea.
The Robert Trent Jones 6,732 yard design takes full advantage of the topography of the land to the west of Canandaigua Lake. It would be a bit presumptuous for Mr. Jones to take full claim for the course without an assist from a slow-moving glacier and eons of time. The hills of Bristol Harbour aren’t man-made mounds manufactured by bulldozers moving around truckloads of topsoil. Upon seeing the land in the Finger Lakes that gave birth to Bristol Harbour, Jones was convinced of its inherent need to host a golf course. Decades ago, a toy was sold that came out of the box as a block of stone. With a few taps of a chisel, the stone fell away to reveal a sculpture that lay hidden inside. It must have been with that child-like joy that Mr. Jones began molding the raw land that became Bristol Harbour. The course does everything in its power through the natural beauty of the geography and his deft hand to avoid the mundane. If it’s straight, it’s not flat. If it’s flat, it bends gracefully to the left or right.
The clubhouse and lodge that greet you are now befitting a course of this stature and beauty. For some years, the amenities didn’t match the quality of golf. But within the last few years, Bristol Harbour has undertaken an overhaul that includes the new clubhouse and a hotel. Like the area of the Finger Lakes themselves, they epitomize rustic elegance. Like the course, they blend seamlessly into the terrain through a careful choice of native materials and colors.
The outgoing holes are links-style—open, where the wind and rough can have their way with your game. The first five holes alternatively rise and fall as you journey toward the first truly remarkable hole on the course, the par five 6th. It begins at perhaps the highest point on the course and affords the most breathtaking view. In the distance, even higher and closer to the sky, horses grazed in a hillside field. On a clear, early summer day, it is inspiring. On a day in early fall with the leaves aflame, it defies description. On this day, while the fall colors were absent, those of spring were not. The lilac trees in full bloom added purple to the palette of color: the cobalt of the lake below, the blue of the sky above and the green of the fairways and surrounding hills.
The 6th hole drops dramatically from the tee to a shallow green that sets up a little reminiscent of the 12th at Augusta, with bunkers behind and water guarding the front. Play it safe and long and you’ll face a treacherous sand shot that could easily trickle into the water. With a good drive, the hole taunts you to attempt to find the green in two. Today my drive was long and ran even longer. My ego told me I was too far down the hill to lay-up and I found what countless players before have no doubt discovered. What the 6th giveth, the 6th taketh away. I walked away defeated.
The 6th might look more impressive than the 7th, but the latter cleverly hides its status as the number two handicap hole behind a relatively open fairway with few signs of trouble. It plays up hill, and the green is well protected by bunkers, but I still scratch my head wondering why it is as difficult as it inevitably is.
In what proves to be a much needed respite, the 8th and 9th bring you home and gently ease you into the back nine. The openness of the front gives way to the tree-lined back nine. Instead of greeting you with a sign for the 10th tee, perhaps it should say, “Abandon hope all ye who enter here.” The back nine at Bristol Harbour has long been the death of many golfers with uncertain skills in driving the golf ball. In years past, the back nine and the front were reversed. Now, the course extends the courtesy of nine holes where driving accuracy is not as essential before going in for the kill, much like a cat playing with a mouse before settling down for dinner.
On a course marked by stunning natural beauty, the first few holes after making the turn show the only sign of civilization with an increasing number of homes, some of which are stunning in their own right. Ironically, in the area of the course that is closest to man, we had our closest encounter with nature. Standing in the 10th fairway about to hit to the green, I had to pause and wait for a family of deer to play through. Like me, they traversed the course slowly, contentedly.
After the heavily treed par three 11th, the next couple of holes give the perception that the course has thrown everything it has at you. The 13th lulls you with one of the course’s easiest layouts. The open fairway and green can actually make you feel that you’ve left most of the challenge behind.
But beware. Bristol’s true character only begins to fully shine on the par four 14th, one of the great holes of golf to call the Finger Lakes home. The first time you play this course, the most memorable moment may be as you approach your tee shot, provided you have the good fortune of having it rest in the fairway. On the tee, you are aware that the green is nowhere in sight, but only as you approach the fairway bunker do you see the magnificent manner in which it lies hidden. Below you, more than 120 feet below you, lies the green, serenely awaiting your approach shot. Each time I play, I walk away marveling that Mr. Jones was able to see, in this unforgiving terrain, the superb golf hole that was waiting.
The par three 15th inspires awe for a different reason. As you ascend to the tee, it looks, for lack of a more elegant description, mean if mean can, in any context, be a good thing. You are greeted by trees, gullies, and a green protected by deep ravines in front and to the left. It looks absurdly small from 160 yards away. As you cross the wooden bridge to the green, somewhere in the recesses of your mind you expect to hear the whisperings of a troll, taunting you.
The experience in playing the 17th is a microcosm of most rounds at Bristol Harbour. Within the confines of one hole you experience the soaring highs and dramatic lows that epitomize both the natural landscape and the golf. More than on any other hole, on the 17th you feel surrounded by nature. In the valley where a good tee shot comes to rest, with the heights of the tee behind and the green in front, you are encircled and alone among the trees. Here, at moments like this, no golfer could long for a seaside course. You emerge to play the 18th and reflect on the day.
There would be ways of improving the golf experience at Bristol Harbour, of course. If only the leaves could be perpetually red and yellow and orange.
by Duane Bombard
Duane Bombard is a communications manager at a software company in Pittsford NY.