COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. -- It was at some point between the $23 overnight parking and screaming BMWs trying to run me off the freeways around New York City that I fully realized the appeal of upstate New York and the New York Golf Trail.
A few hours north, the endless suburbs and tollways are long gone. Traversing the area isn't usually a direct route. Many roads are winding, two-lane highways passing through small villages with little general stores and restaurants displaying signs for the next "Friday Fish Fry." But taking the long way feels more appropriate around here.
Discovering these many little treasures is what inspired the New York Golf Trail, which was established in 2008. It's a collection of 16 golf courses in five regions versus a straight-lined trail. You can combine a few regions like I did, going between Saratoga Springs and Cooperstown, or spread out even farther. In fact, the longest possible drive you can make is between Mill Creek west of Rochester and Saranac Inn up north. But minimal driving options exist by sticking to one golf-loaded region such as Rochester's Finger Lakes.
Golf upstate tends to be overshadowed nationally by the historic country clubs on Long Island and Bethpage Black. But six of New York's 20 best public courses as voted by Golf Magazine are represented on the New York Golf Trail, and they're a mix of old and new.
The darlings of the bunch are the oldest courses, which take advantage of coveted locations and are part of historic resorts. The Whiteface Club, which is in the Adirondacks and overlooks Lake Placid, originally opened in 1898. The Leatherstocking Golf Course, just a couple of home runs away from the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, is fresh off its own centennial in 2009. It predates the Hall of Fame by nearly 30 years, and the golf course's location, set on the shores of Lake Otsego, is worth a peek as much as any baseball memorabilia.
To discover The Sagamore Golf Course, a Donald Ross design, you'll have to head about 30 minutes north of Saratoga Springs into the foothills of the Adirondacks in remote Bolton Landing. Once you find it, the mystery becomes how a golf course with such a spectacular clubhouse and first hole, overlooking Lake George and the mountains, could slowly rot away for decades before a massive restoration project of the golf course and nearby hotel in the 1980s.
There are new layouts that complement these older gems. Saratoga National Golf Club opened in 2002, but you don't have to drive far to find another historic sporting venue: the Saratoga Race Course (established in 1863). For 40 days each summer, you can play 18 holes in the morning and head to the track afterward.
Deciding which region to play will be a matter of taste or convenience if you're driving. Rod Christian, who founded the New York Golf Trail, says New York attracts a fair share of visitors from the north, too. Lake Placid is a short drive from Ottawa, while Toronto is near New York's golf-loaded Finger Lakes region around Rochester.
"Over half our business is Canadian," Christian said. "They tell me the courses are better and the prices are lower than in Canada."
The trail provides discounted tee times and hotel room rates at most courses, while also providing an itinerary easy to traverse. Two-round, two-course packages start at $250-$270 in each region. Summertime is peak season upstate, but not necessarily the best season in upstate New York. When autumn arrives and the trees change color, it becomes not only a more spectacular sight, but also a better bargain.
"The rates go down, you get the fall foliage and the crowd tends to drop a bit," Christian said. "It's a great time. The temperature is a lot more comfortable, too."
For more information, see www.NYGolfTrail.com.