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Friday, May 6, 2016

A History of Dinsmore Golf Course

This blog entry was written by Tom Buggy, a graduate of Villanova University and a Hudson Valley resident since 1961. An avid golfer, Tom was always interested in the history of Dinsmore Golf Course as he played it over the years.  He started researching Hudson Valley golf courses in the 1990s when he authored a book for the centennial of the Dutchess Golf and Country Club in Poughkeepsie.  His interest led him to expand his research to include Dinsmore and write a recently published book entitled The Golf Courses of Dutchess County.  See this article for more information about his recent publication.  We thank him for contributing this essay to the blog!

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Golfers who play Dinsmore Golf Course today may come away from their experience thinking “it’s nice but no big deal.” After all, it’s only 5,759 yards long with very generous fairways, modest rough and few hazards. Longtime local players might add remarks about the significant improvement of the greens and the creation of attractive naturalized off-the-fairway areas over recent years. However, few will realize the depth of the course’s history.

The Dinsmore course of today dates to 1962 when the North Nine (Holes 1 to 9 on the scorecard) opened for play, and 1964 when the South Nine (Holes 10 to 18) replaced nine holes that were put into play on the same site 121 years ago in 1894. The original nine holes, which still existed when work on the South Nine began in the early 1960’s, have a history rooted in the beginnings of golf in the United States.

A modern view of Dinsmore Golf Course with the clubhouse in the background.

Early Years


When the first golf boom in the United States took place in the 1880's and 1890's, several of the early golf courses were built by wealthy individuals on their family estates.  New York’s Hudson Valley shared in the boom.  John Dutcher built a 3-hole course in Pawling in 1885 for his friends and in conjunction with a hotel he operated, and expanded it to nine holes in 1890; James Roosevelt, FDR’s father, built a 6-hole course on his Springwood estate in Hyde Park in 1890; John Jacob Astor had a course in Rhinecliff in 1895.1  The Dinsmore Golf Course had its beginning as an amenity to the estates of a group of families in Staatsburg.

A claim that Dinsmore is the third oldest golf course in the U.S. is incorrect but it is very likely among the first fifty courses.2   In 1893 the Staatsburgh Golf Club was formed by wealthy Hudson Valley families – Dinsmore, Mills, Hoyt, Rogers, Astor and others.  William B. Dinsmore II was the club’s first president, and Ogden Mills and Archibald Rogers3 were members of the Executive Committee.  Construction of a golf course began in 1893 and it opened for play in the following year.4

There’s a question about who designed the original course.  An 1896 New York Evening Post newspaper article attributes the design to William Dinsmore Jr. assisted by Willie Davis.  It is more likely that the designer was Robert P. Huntington.3  The book The Architects of Golf, considered the “bible” of architects and their courses, designates Robert P. Huntington as the designer, as do several local newspaper articles.  Huntington was a wealthy local resident and club member, and an intercollegiate and national tennis champion; he was also the father of the woman who would eventually donate the course to the State of New York

This illustration is an undated painting of the course by Lew Stoneman.


Course Architecture and Features


For orientation purposes the upper left corner of the illustration shown above (northeast) is the approximate site of the first tee of today’s South Course (10th hole); the lower right corner (southwest) is the approximate site of the seventh tee (16th hole).  The painting does not illustrate the course’s topography and its hole numbers are difficult to see (an illustration on the next page shows these) but it does reveal three notable features.  One is the rigid rectangular shape of several greens, something that was not uncommon on early courses but is rarely seen today.  Another is the several streams and the many bridges that traverse them, things that are absent today.



Most notable are the several bunkers with something dark in front of them.  As illustrated in a key to the painting, that “something” is earth-covered stone!  These bunkers, remnants of which remain along the left side of the present 12th hole, are not as imposing as they seem to be in the illustration – they were only about two-feet high.  The ring of three bunkers in front of the sixth green had earth faces.  These bunkers, now with grass bottoms, remain intact today along the left side of the present 15th hole.

  

This illustration shows an overlay of the original course on a map of the present South Nine.  The course was 2,591 yards long with a Par of 34.  Some features are noteworthy.
While the present South Nine runs mainly up and down valleys, the original course had some dramatic cross-valley holes, notably Holes 2, 3 and 4.  Hole #3 is especially dramatic – a “peak-to-peak” 192-yard Par 3 to a very small green with severe falloffs on all sides.  The green site was the forward tee of the present 12th hole.

A feature not uncommon on early courses but rarely seen today is congested areas that were a source of danger to players.  Note the closeness of the 1st and 9th fairways, and the presence of the 2nd and 9th tees in the playing area of the first hole.  Other examples are the closeness of the 4th and 6th greens, and the potential danger from tee shots on the 5th hole.

Play of the Course

What must it have been like to play this course in the 1890’s?  Consider that the golf clubs of the day had hickory shafts and iron clubs had club-faces without grooves.  Golf balls were made of a solid rubber-like material called gutta percha and were without dimples to aid flight (it was common to nick up the balls with a sharp instrument).  Wooden tees had not yet been invented; balls were teed on mounds of wetted sand.  Mowing was done with a rudimentary horse-drawn mower; a flock of sheep was also used for turf maintenance.  These factors coupled with the course’s topography and natural hazards presented quite a challenge.  Scores from an 1896 tournament ranged from 48 to 60 for nine holes.

The course’s challenge and William Dinsmore’s commitment to its quality – there was a “golf keeper” and three assistants – earned it an outstanding reputation.  An obviously boastful 1896 article in the Poughkeepsie Daily Eagle newspaper claimed that the course was one of the best in the country and that “The grounds are pronounced by expert golf players as the ideal course of the world.”  (The folks at St. Andrews in Scotland would have respectfully disagreed.)

Club Life

Aside from the golf course, the activities of the Staatsburgh Golf Club and its members merit mention.  Most players came to the course in horse-drawn carriages driven by a coachman or groom; others rode a horse that was tied up in a Dinsmore barn during play.  Because the very wealthy and socially-conscious people of the era spent their summers in Newport, Rhode Island, on trips to Europe or in other vacation activities, autumn was the primary golf season for both regular and tournament play.  Often there would be a tennis tournament on the Mills’ courts on the same weekends of golf tournaments, weekends which included large parties and dances at the house of a club member (the original club did not have a clubhouse).  A 1952 newspaper article in the Poughkeepsie New Yorker captures the atmosphere as related by Mrs. Tracy Dows, a club member as a teenager in the 1890’s.


The house would be filled with young people and older ones too. Those were wonderful parties and very gay days at the Staatsburg station. The Mills would send any number of carriages for the guests. Then they’d send a buckboard to get the trunks. Almost everyone traveled with a maid or valet. It was all very smart, very chic. If there were to be a dance, a band would come up from New York, whichever one happened to be the best. I suppose there would be 40 or 50 at dinner. You ate off of a gold plate. It was very regal and very gay, the gayest thing in the world. Nobody lives that way any more.

In 1896 the gaiety was interrupted briefly when the club was confronted with an issue faced by many early golf clubs – Sunday golf.   A Rhinebeck merchant and a Methodist minister from Poughkeepsie threatened to seek arrest warrants for Sunday players.  The threat was short-lived when the protesters learned that the local Justice of the Peace and the Constable were both employees of club president William Dinsmore, one a gardener, the other a farmer.

Evolution


How the original golf course and club evolved to the present day is interesting history.  Apparently, the golf course remained private through the 1930’s.  It is not known how long the Staatsburgh Golf Club remained active.  A 1940 newspaper article announced that all but the main house and adjoining buildings of the William Dinsmore estate was to be divided into parcels and sold, possibly including the golf course.  In 1941 the golf course property was inherited by Mrs. Lytle Hull, a granddaughter of William B. Dinsmore II.  As evidenced by a newspaper account of a 1941 tournament, the golf course remained in place.  However, it was closed during the World War II years.

A 1946 newspaper article announced that the golf course would reopen and that a new Staatsburg Golf Club had been formed (note the absence of an ending “h” in Staatsburg); the course property was leased from Mrs. Hull.  The course became semi-private at this time.  The scorecard shows that there were daily fees, but annual memberships were offered as well ($25 in 1948).

It appears that the new operation was not successful.  A 1948 newspaper article reported that there would be no golf professional at the course and “Instead there will be a box in which non-members may put their money and a book in which everyone is asked to write his or her name.” 
In 1950 the course was used as a sheep pasture and reports surfaced that the Taconic State Park Commission was considering a proposal to purchase the golf course.  In 1951 the golf course and adjoining land to the north were donated by Mrs. Hull to the Taconic Commission, with the conditions that the golf course would be maintained as a public course and named Dinsmore Golf Course.  The course opened for play under its new owner and new name on June 1, 1952.

A Historical Twist


We have now come full circle from the original 9-hole private course to today’s 18-hole public course.  But, our story does not end without a curious and interesting historical twist.  We know that well known golf course architect Hal Purdy is the recognized designer of today’s 18-hole course.  However, it appears that he had some help. 

A 1960 newspaper article reveals that famous professional golfer Gene Sarazen, who owned a fruit farm in nearby Germantown, NY, and famous local amateur golfer Ray Billows, a 3-time runner-up in the U.S. Amateur, played roles.  The article says that “Paul T. Winslow tells us that Gene is directing, free of charge, the job of transferring the Dinsmore course into an 18-hole layout.”  In Paul’s words, “We (the Taconic Commission) are giving him pretty much a free hand and he is having the time of his life.  He wants the grass to be greener, the sand to be whiter and the flags to be more vivid than any other course in the country.  He says you have to have glamour and he is doing his best to give it to us.  When he comes down, Ray Billows often joins him and they have a great time planning – and playing.”

Quite a history for a public golf course in little Staatsburg, NY!

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Footnotes
1 Dutcher is the oldest municipal golf course in the U.S.  It was donated to the Town of Pawling with the stipulation that it remain a golf course forever.  The Roosevelt and Astor courses no longer exist.

2 There were 44 recognized U.S. golf clubs with courses by the end of 1893.

3 Archibald Rogers reached the quarterfinals of the first U.S. Amateur Championship in 1895.  Robert Huntington participated in the 1896 U.S. Amateur; he did not reach the match play portion of the event.

4 There’s an unconfirmed claim that the original course started with three holes in 1887 or 1888.  If so, it would mean that the Staatsburgh Golf Club was among the first seven continually operated golf clubs in the United States.

Author’s Note
I came to the Hudson Valley in late 1961.  By the time I learned about Dinsmore, work on the South Nine was well underway and the original nine holes were lost to me.  Now that I’ve had the opportunity to walk the area of the original layout, I’m sorry I missed the opportunity to play what was a wonderful example of a historic 19th century golf course.

Acknowledgements
Thanks to Al Van Leuvan, who played the original course as a teenager, and Assistant Park Manager Mike Bucholsky for their encouragement and guided tour.  Thanks also to Rudy Zocchi, former historian of the Dutchess County Golf Hall of Fame, for use of his collection of newspaper articles about Dutchess County golf clubs and courses. 

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