By Dave Eaton | Rochester District Golf Association
The entire 18th hole at Locust Hill Country Club can be seen from the elevated patio on the east side of the clubhouse, as well as the balcony off the main banquet room on the main floor - all of which gives the club's finishing hole a spectator-friendly atmosphere.
This year, the Rochester District Golf Association's flagship event - the RDGA District Championship John H. Ryan Jr. Memorial - returns to famed Locust Hill Country Club for just the 10th time in the 87-year history of the Championship, second only to the Country Club of Rochester and Brook-Lea Country Club
Although the RDGA and Locust Hill share a history that goes back to the earliest days of the District Championship, eight decades ago, it's been a while since the RDGA was last there for the Ryan Memorial - 16 years, in fact - which means that some of the players in this year's starting field weren't even born the last time the District Championship was held there.
One of the main reasons for the long absences between RDGA Championships at Locust Hill - only twice since 1974 - is the fact that the club hosted an annual LPGA Tour event for 38 years. A major undertaking for any course, hosting a major women's pro tour event also toughened Locust Hill.
In 2010, when the LPGA in Rochester was elevated to major championship status, Tour officials requested that the club make a few changes to the course to reflect the importance of the event - including lengthening the course to more than 6,500 yards.
Although certain aspects of Locust Hill's playability - such as the speed of the greens - might not be as challenging as they were for the LPGA, the course that the best amateur golfers in the Rochester area will see during this year's RDGA District Championship will actually be longer than it was during the LPGA years - measuring between 6,606 and 6,624 yards - and will still provide a challenge throughout the week.
"Overall, players will encounter a friendlier course than some of them saw that last time we hosted the District Championship in 2001," says Steve Barber, the long-time PGA Head Professional at Locust Hill. "It's not as tough as it was then, but it will also depend on the weather."
Locust Hill to Test All Aspects of Players' Skills
A classic northeast parkland style venue that has played host to the Rochester District Golf Association Championship nine times since 1932, Locust Hill offers a challenging test of golf for players of all levels.
Since the most recent upgrades made to the course seven years ago, Locust Hill's 18-hole, par-72 layout now measures more than 6,500-yards. Characterized by mid- to large-sized greens and generous landing areas, Head Pro Steve Barber sees two factors influencing the difficulty of the course during Championship week.
"Locust Hill is defended by rough and firmness," he points out. "If we get weather, she is vulnerable."
There's no denying that weather will play a large role in how the course plays during the Championship. Excess rain might make the greens softer and able to hold more shots than drier, firmer greens - but then again, wet conditions will make what is expected to be thick rough even more difficult.
"There will be no mowing of the primary rough during the week of the Championship," adds Rick Slattery, Locust Hill's award-winning, long-time superintendent. "And the fairways will be narrowed by a 14-inch first cut of rough."
Also posing a challenge to RDGA Championship players will be the strategic lengthening of three holes during the last two rounds of competition - something that was done during the later years of the LPGA at Locust Hill. Between Thursday's second round and Friday's third round, the par-5 fourth hole, the par-4 10th hole and the par-4 18th hole will all be lengthened significantly by moving the tees back to adjoining tee boxes or playing surfaces.
But, there will also be a couple of risk-reward-type changes made that week that will also entice players to "go for it" duing the latter stages of the tournament, including shortening the par-5 11th hole by almost 50 yards (making the creek drive-able for some players) during Round 4, and shortening the par-4 12th hole by nearly 30 yards in Round 3, making the hole potentially drive-able for some.
From a player's perspective, the changing tee lengths will make the Championship fun, under the right conditions.
Long and narrow, the 515-yard 4th hole at Locust Hill Country Club - with a pond lying just off the tee on the left side of the fairway and an elevated green - rewards accuracy from start to finish.
"It will definitely be challenging – but more fun than anything because a lot of the things we are going to do, as a member, you don't see day-in, day-out here, so that will be new, even for the Locust Hill members," says Adam Condello, a Locust Hill member and multiple Club Champion.
"We have the ability to make this golf course longer and we're going to do that, at least for a couple of days."
For members such as Condello, Locust Hill's conditioning is what makes it a great championship venue.
"Rick (Slattery) does such a great job with the golf course – the greens are second to none," Condello says. "So there's the condition of the golf course, plus how difficult it is – players in the area know how difficult it is. It will be highlighted that week as being fun but challenging for everybody."
Celebrating it's 90th Anniversary in 2017, Locust Hill Enjoys a Storied History
This year, Locust Hill Country Club celebrates its 90th anniversary - making it one of the oldest and most storied clubs in the area.
Originally founded in 1925 by a small group of businessmen and professionals from the Rochester area, the grounds upon which Locust Hill Country Club is located were originally owned by farmer Frank Zornow. The "Locust Hill Farm," as it was known, included 89 acres of farm land on the north side of Jefferson Road in Pittsford.
Upon its initial opening, Locust Hill featured a modest 9-hole layout, while Zornow's original barn was converted into the clubhouse which included a pro shop, showers, lockers, and lounge room where food was served.
The Club soon expanded to 225 members and in 1927 purchased 52 acres South of Jefferson Road and expanded to eighteen holes. Seymour Dunn, a well-respected architect and golf club maker from Scotland who had previously designed The Lake Placid Golf Club, was hired to complete the project. Dunn was born in Scotland in 1882, his ancestors had been golfers, club makers, greens keepers and golf course architects for more than 100 years. In fact his ancestors can be traced back to Mary Queen of Scotland and the first golf course ever built.
That same year, Silk Callahan was hired as the club's first golf professional with Harry Boyce as its superintendent and George Pappart as Club Manager.
Over time, the Locust Hill clubhouse experienced many changes – including a devastating fire in 1936 which virtually destroyed the original barn structure. The clubhouse was soon rebuilt, however, and many new features were added in the following decades.
By 1998, Locust Hill members were ready for a complete overhaul of the clubhouse structure and a $3 million interior renovation was completed, which included the addition of the three-story octogon "Loggia." The master plan for the clubhouse was completed in 2006 with an addition to the ballroom, a fitness center, exterior decks and patios overlooking the golf course.
The view from just off the No. 15 tee at Locust Hill shows one of the "forever wild" areas cultivated by Head Greens Superintendent Rick Slattery.
Through the years, the Locust Hill Country Club golf course has been only slightly modified, to keep up with the times and the technological advances of golf equipment. Today, the course is kept in its pristine shape by head greenskeeper Rick Slattery while PGA head professional Steve Barber attends to the golfing needs of the club's membership and John McCurdy oversees the entire day-to-day operation as General Manager.
Over the past 10 years, the course itself has undergone some dramatic changes. Under Slattery's stewardship, Locust Hill has become one of the leading facilities in the Audubon Society's Sanctuary program - making it more "green-firendly," while adding more natural-wild areas to the course. In addition to that, Locust Hill has also removed many trees, following a popular trend among some of America's elite courses - including Oakmont Country Club in Pittsburgh.
"Since the LPGA days – you can go back 20, 30 years – we used to have over 3,000 trees on the golf course and now, we have just over 700, I think, so we've taken out a lot of trees," says Condello. "The golf course is much more open than it used to be - not so much playing-wise, but visually. You can see more of the golf course standing on certain holes. The views are just more open."
Although these changes might not greatly affect the course's playability, Condello thinks that players will like what they see during the Championship.
"We've grown-in a lot of natural areas around the golf course, so there's some long grass out there. Not really any of it is in play - but just for aesthetic purposes – it looks very different than it used to," he says. "There's 15, the areas off 6 and 8, we have areas on 4, 7, 6, 12 – they are everywhere now. We are adding more and more as we go. It helps the maintenance and I think it just makes the course look better."
The RDGA District Championship Ryan Memorial Returns to a Venue Steeped in Championship History
When the RDGA District Championship John H. Ryan Jr. Memorial returns to Locust Hill this year, the eventual winner will join a distinguished list of past winners at the club. Although there have been a handful of players who have won multiple District titles since Locust Hill last hosted the District Championship - including John Kircher, Larry Sand, Gavin Hall and Trevor Sluman - Locust Hill itself has crowned multiple District Champions throught its' illustrious history.
In 1932 - just the third year that the RDGA conducted its District Championship - Jack Tucker won the second of four consecutive RDGA titles, something that no one, not even the great Don Allen and Chip Lillich have ever done.
The RDGA returned to Locust Hill just six years later, when Dan Gaskill won the first of two titles.
By the time the Championship came back to Locust Hill, in 1945, Cliff "Skip" Goodrich won the first of two District titles, the second of which he won six years later - again, at Locust Hill.
In 1958, Warren Simmons kept the streak of multiple winners going with the second of two RDGA titles at Locust Hill.
In 1966, Gerry Liebel finally did what no other District Champion at Locust Hill had done - capture his only RDGA title there - but in 1973, Oak Hill's Chip Lillich, the RDGA's all-time District Championship winner, recorded the fourth of his record eight District titles at the club.
With the arrival of the LPGA to Locust Hill in 1976, the RDGA Championship took a long break from the regular rotation of District Championship hosts, not hosting the event again until 1994, when Bob Chalanick won the title there, becoming just the second single-title winner at a Locust Hill-hosted Championship.
The last time Locust Hill hosted the District Championship, in 2001, another player won the title for the first - but certainly not his last - time: Jim Scorse of Stafford Country Club.
Of course, there have been other multiple winners of the his year, the question is, will Locust Hill Country Club produce another multiple District Championship winner - or will a first-time winner beat the historical trend?
A Look Ahead To This Year's Championship
The schedule for this year's RDGA District Championship John H. Ryan Jr. Memorial begins with a practice round and opening ceremonies on Tuesday, July 11, followed by the annual Champions Dinner that evening.
The Locust Hill clubhouse provides a scenic backdrop for the par-3 9th hole.
Following a long-standing tradition of the RDGA Championship, there will be a ceremonial "first tee shot" during Tuesday's (July 11) pre-tournament Opening Ceremony. This year's honorary first tee shot will be made by Dr. Jim Infantino, a long-time former Locust Hill member who will be commemorating the 50th anniversary of his RDGA District Championship victory in 1967.
The Championship begins with the first two rounds on Wednesday and Thursday, with a field of 116 players starting off holes No. 1 and No. 10. After 36 holes, the field will be cut to the low 40 players (plus ties) and will conclude with Rounds 3 and 4 on Friday and Saturday, July 14 and 15.
Following the conclusion of the Championship on Saturday, July 15, an awards presentation will be made to the 2017 RDGA Champion.
One recent tradition of RDGA Championship week - the RDGA Women's Championship - will, unfortunately, not take place this year. Earlier in July, due to an unusually low contestant registration this year, the RDGA made the difficult decision to cancel the 2017 Women's Championship. Although disappointed with this announcement, the RDGA will continue to explore ways that will eventually help to create a championship in which women can be proud of and will look forward to, each year.
Other items of interest to watch for at this year's RDGA District Championship at Locust Hill:
- Only the Country Club of Rochester and Brook-Lea Country Club have hosted more RDGA District Championships (11 each).
- Five contestants in this year's starting field (Jack Bailey, Tyler Buddendeck, Casey Ditzel, Jason Lohwater and Jeremy Summerson) were not yet born the last time Locust Hill hosted the District Championship.
- Seventeen (18) Locust Hill members were attempting to win the 2017 RDGA Championship on their home course this year - a record turnout for an RDGA Championship host course. UPDATE: Seven (7) Locust Hill members made the 36-hole cut to the final round of the 2017 RDGA Championship.
- Two generations and three members of the same family - Robert Condello (father), Adam Condello and Kelly Condello (sons) - were in the starting field. All three are also members at Locust Hill.
- The youngest players in this year's field are 16 years old (Jack Bailey, Tyler Buddendeck, Casey Ditzel, Jason Lohwater and Jeremy Summerson); the oldest players are 70 (Ken Andrychuk and Jack Mahan).
- This year's District Championship marks the 35th anniversary of the tragic passing of tournament namesake John H. Ryan Jr. in a boating accident. Ryan was killed just two weeks after winning his second consecutive RDGA District Championship title in July of 1982. The RDGA soon thereafter renamed the tournament as the John H. Ryan Jr. Memorial in 1983. (Ken Andrychuk was the first to win the District Championship title as the Ryan Memorial in that year).
The 18th hole at Locust Hill Country Club has witnessed many memorable finishes through the years as the former host of the LPGA Tour in Rochester, above. (Photo: Rochester Golf Week/Maddie Hoose)