Golf Course Architecture: Monster’s return awakens the Catskills

Golf Course Architecture
Monster’s return awakens the Catskills
By: Toby Ingleton
October 31, 2023

There’s a revival afoot a couple of hours north of New York City, in a region that many felt had seen its heyday.

Central to the revitalisation of the Catskills is the opening of a new casino resort and the rebirth of the celebrated Monster Golf Course, brought back to life by golf course designer Rees Jones and his associate Bryce Swanson.

From the 1920s to the early 60s – when golf architect Joe Finger, along with pros Jimmy Demaret and Jackie Burke Jr., laid out the original Monster at the Concord, once the largest resort in the US – the Catskills was thriving.

Families from the New York metropolitan area would head to the mountains annually to escape the summer heat at one of the many thousands of bungalow colonies, summer camps and hotels in the Catskills. Grand resorts – like the Concord, Kutsher’s, Nevele and Grossinger’s, the inspiration for the fictional Kellerman’s in the movie Dirty Dancing – were the proving grounds for some of the country’s best-known entertainers, from Joan Rivers to Jerry Seinfeld.

By the 1970s however, in an era of air conditioning and cheap air fares, the mountain region had rapidly fallen out of favour. It was the onset of a decline that would last for decades and ultimately see off the Monster.

But the area’s fortunes took a major turn in 2018, when Resorts World Catskills opened – with a performance by a returning Seinfeld – on the site of the original Concord, near Monticello. Its development was possible thanks to New York’s legalisation of casinos in 2013, a measure that was designed to create jobs, generate revenue, attract people and improve real estate value in communities like the Catskills.

The resort – with two hotels, casino, a spa, pool, Topgolf Swing Suites, and an array of dining options – proved to be a driving force for investment in the local economy.

A buzz returned to the Catskills, and with the appeal of city life fading post-pandemic and destinations like the Hamptons being stretched to capacity, each year has seen more openings – from rejuvenated lodges to new boutique hotels, along with stores, restaurants and more to support the increasing flow of visitors.

Resorts World Catskills was ready to bring back the Monster, and they turned to Jones for the job.

This new creature is actually a hybrid of the former Monster and the Concord’s International course, which also laid dormant. The construction of the hotels and a nearby waterpark resort had taken some holes from each layout out of play. Jones and Swanson therefore created a routing over the land of the original Monster’s first and ninth holes and most of the back nine, plus the International’s first six and last three holes. Some of the original hole corridors have been reused and some new hole corridors have been created in the redesign, but it is, to all intents and purposes, a new course.

“The beauty of it is that we were able to utilise more of the valley where the creek runs through the site, with a network of lakes,” says Swanson. “It’s a gorgeous setting, with striking areas of rolling terrain that offer dramatic views.”

Holes at the new Monster shift in direction and there are significant changes in elevation. “Already, people have talked about the variety,” says Jones. “There’s no repetitive hole. Every hole has its own distinct characteristics. We were given a wonderful piece of property to create the new course.”

A key goal was to deliver a course that could be enjoyed by all. It would remain the Monster, but should be more playable than the name suggests.

“We made it more flexible, with more shot options and bailout areas,” says Jones. “You can avoid the trouble. The era of the very difficult golf course with only forced carries, whether it be over sand, fescue or water, has passed. Architects are still building championship-worthy golf courses, but by the same token we give the average golfer an alternate shot.”

This approach is typified on the twelfth, which plays alongside the Kiamesha Creek that runs through the centre of the property.

Previously, the hole was a challenging par-five. “After the drive you had to carry water to a tiny little landing area, then again to the green,” says Jones. “This was a do-or-die situation. Now any type of player can finish the hole.”

“The most significant thing we did was to move the green to a location in front of the creek,” says Swanson. “Then we backed up the tees so we were able to keep the yardage. The creek still protects the right side of the hole, and the long hitter has a heroic opportunity to challenge the green if they want.”

The Monster’s greens are unrecognisable to returning golfers. “We added a whole lot of variety,” says Swanson. “We designed them with more contour and movement, and changed them from simple ovals to a real mix of shapes. Every day will provide a different experience for the player.”

On that twelfth hole, for example, “the left portion is easier to access, while the front right is harder,” explains Jones. “You have to think about the shot, depending on the pin location and distance required that day. If a guest is there for a week, they’re going to have a different golf course every day. The greens are sizeable enough to rotate the pin positions and change the character of the hole.”

The new Monster has six sets of tees, allowing it to be played from 5,250 to 7,325 yards – which is still 325 yards shorter than Finger’s 1960s design.

There are moments of familiarity, particularly on the back nine. The corridors of the former seventeenth and eighteenth have been used for the sixteenth and eleventh. And the new closing hole occupies the former ninth, but now the green has been moved onto a rock outcrop. “Golfers are going to be treated to a beautiful but challenging hole which could be considered one of the strongest holes you’ll see in the state of New York” say Jones.

This Monster may be kinder, but it still has some bite.