Turning Stone Casino Resort: Is it the Northeast's Best Golf and Gaming Getaway?

Reprinted with permission from Golf Odyssey.

If you like to mix golf and gaming, there's no better place to play in the Northeast than Turning Stone Resort in Central New York's Mohawk Valley. Conveniently located just off exit 33B of the New York State Thruway, some 30 miles east of Syracuse, Turning Stone offers more golf, 72 holes, than any casino resort in the country. It may be hard to conceive of this area as stellar for golf (the closest legendary course, Oak Hill, is a good hour away), but Turning Stone is a shining star. All three of its eighteens graced "best new course" lists when they opened. Meanwhile, its casino, nightclubs, and Las Vegas-style entertainment are a magnet for over 4.5 million visitors each year. While the casino, like so many others, presents a measure of glitz as well as a modicum of depression, the supremely elegant boutique Lodge at Turning Stone can provide a tranquil retreat complete with spa pampering and fine dining. Better still, Lodge guests who so choose can completely escape any hint of the casino experience.

Turning Stone features three tough championship-caliber eighteens, a nine-hole par-three course, and a nine-hole knockabout. The resort's pride and joy is Atunyote, a Tom Fazio creation that hosted the final rounds of the 2006 PGA Club Professional Championship and the four-year run (2007 to 2010) of the PGA Tour's Turning Stone Resort Championship (Matt Kuchar and Dustin Johnson were the most noteworthy winners). If you play Atunyote, you may feel like you have the course to yourself, for perhaps no marquee resort course east of the Mississippi receives less play. Whereas Atunyote is a few miles from Turning Stone's main campus, Rick Smith's Shenendoah and Robert Trent Jones, Jr.'s Kaluhyat share a clubhouse right next door to the Lodge. Lodge guests can walk from their rooms to the golf shop in less than five minutes.

Turning Stone is yet another Native American-owned casino golf playground. The resort is writing a new chapter in the history of the proud Oneida Indian Nation. The Oneidas were members of the historic Iroquois Confederacy and once roamed a vast portion of the territory between the St. Lawrence River and Pennsylvania. Known as America's "first ally" for their efforts in helping defeat the British in the American Revolution, the Oneidas fought at the Battle of Saratoga and brought corn and other provisions to George Washington's starving soldiers encamped by the Delaware River. Alas, despite treaty guarantees, the Oneidas' homelands, which once exceeded six million acres, eventually dwindled to a paltry 32 acres.

Thanks largely to first the profitability of bingo and then New York State's first legal casino, which opened in 1993, the Oneidas have enjoyed a renaissance engineered by purchasing the lands that now encompass Turning Stone's golf courses, hotels, and resort property. The resort has courted upscale guests not only through its golf offerings, but also its showplace accommodations. The 19-story Tower Hotel, a AAA four-diamond property, is the tallest building between Syracuse and Albany. It is a popular choice among guests who wish to immerse themselves in the resort's casino and nightlife. Most GOLF ODYSSEY readers will gravitate to the Lodge at Turning Stone, a structure of noteworthy architectural and interior design that provides the most luxurious resort experience.

Although the courses opened in April this year, Turning Stone's peak golf season runs from late May through September. October is nice for the fall foliage when the weather cooperates. By the time you get into November, things get iffy. The closest airport is Syracuse. Turning Stone is a 4.5-hour drive from New York City and 2.5 hours from Buffalo.

THE GOLF

Turning Stone's marquee eighteen, Atunyote Golf Club (Rating: B+), is the best and most expensive ($200 per round) public-access course in Central New York. Tom Fazio was given a virtually limitless budget to create an elite championship golf course with a country club aura. Fazio pushed prodigious amounts of earth around, planted nearly 1,000 young trees, carved out numerous water hazards, and added ornamental details and plantings.

If you talk to Turning Stone's golf pros or PR department, they will tell you Augusta National provided the inspiration for Atunyote. The two-mile club driveway, heralded by an elaborate metalwork gate that alludes to the history of the Oneidas and their harmony with the natural world (Atunyote is the Oneida word for eagle), is Atunyote's "Magnolia Lane." Likewise, the club strives for pristine Augusta-like grounds and playing conditions. During its brief stint as a PGA tournament site, Atunyote earned a reputation as one of the best maintained courses on tour. The sand in all the bunkers is the same crushed white marble sand used at Augusta National, and the greens benefit from a sub-air system like Augusta's.

Atunyote also cultivates a rarefied country club air with an elegant clubhouse (jazz music wafts through the player's lounge) and assiduously managed sparse play. A typical "busy" day is 25 to 40 rounds. On "really busy" days, there might be 60 names on the tee sheet. More common are the slow days, when only one or two groups go off. We played on Mother's Day and were first off at 8:15 a.m.. The only tee time the rest of the day was a foursome at 2:30 p.m. No matter how many groups are scheduled, Atunyote strives to make each individual feel like they are privileged in their own private realm.

The 7,315-yard, par-72 golf course (75.6 par rating/140 slope) itself is full of very nice, if not overly dramatic, holes. Built on what was fallow farmland, Atunyote's open and exposed playing field provides panoramas of the Mohawk Valley. On the front nine, the most secluded hole is the par-three 6th. Though there's a pond short right and a bunker by the left side of the green, a false front and an extremely wide green present greater threats to par. The number one handicap 9th, a long (320 to 468 yards from five sets of tee markers) uphill par four that finishes near the New England-style clubhouse, is Fazio's ode to the famed 18th hill at Oak Hill.

On the back nine, a 13-acre lake and a stone-lined creek run the length of holes 11-14 and 18. When the pros played here, 13 and 14 gave them fits. Both par fours are tougher than they look, especially from the tee. The wind, almost always a factor at Turning Stone, is generally hindering. The 14th gets extremely narrow as the meandering creek widens so as to infringe on the fairway and then blanket the left front portion of the green. Holes 15, a sweeping dogleg right, and 16, a well-bunkered one-shotter, play beside a stunning deadwood swamp. At 603 yards, the home hole, with the lake looming to the right, is a classic three-shot par five that narrows the closer you get to the putting surface.

Note: Atunyote has exquisite, tour-quality practice facilities. Most noteworthy is the expansive short game area.

Shenendoah (Rating: B), a circa 2000 Rick Smith design named after one of the great chiefs in Oneida history, is Turning Stone's original eighteen. It hosted pre-cut rounds during the 2006 PGA Club Professional Championship. Routed over flat or modestly rolling terrain, the layout moves from wide open spaces to wetlands to areas sheltered by stands of trees. Five sets of tees extend the playing field from 5,185 yards to 7,129 yards (75.1/146). Shenendoah is the most heavily played of Turning Stone's three championship courses, but it isn't gentle resort fluff. Beware going off key, as rough, tall grass, and wetlands present imminent danger.

The game begins with a pretty, downhill par four lined by sugar maples. Both the tee shot and the approach require a carry over a cross hazard. The remainder of the front nine moves through a flatter and more open stretch of terrain. Wetlands trail up the left side of the 3rd and 4th holes, a pair of two-shotters that sweep to the left. Whereas the 3rd is Shenendoah's number one handicap hole because of its length, the much shorter 4th provides more intrigue with its strategically placed bunkers that dictate an aerial entry for one of the only times during the round.

A pair of par fives bookend the back nine. Much like the 1st, the 10th starts from a ridge just in back of the clubhouse and works downhill. On the uphill finishing hole, the fairway runs out into thick native vegetation and a creek about 225 yards from the green. Although there's ample bailout room to the left, the angled green is fronted on the right by a devilish bunker.

One of the joys of the Turning Stone experience is playing courses entirely free of housing or development. Shenendoah, Kaluhyat, and Atunyote immediately received Audubon International Sanctuary status when they opened. Still, despite this mostly natural realm (the New York State Thruway and the resort pop into view occasionally), Shenendoah isn't an especially memorable course. Sometimes the holes look a little repetitive. Two members of our group momentarily thought the par-three 9th and 12th holes were one and the same.

Kaluhyat (Rating: B+), a circa 2003 Robert Trent Jones II design, alternates between grasslands, woodlands, and wetlands. Don't let this highly aesthetic layout fool you. Kaluhyat, whose five tees stretch from 5,293 yards to 7,105 yards (75.6/150), is a brute. The staff in the golf shop will tell you that only Bethpage Black rates tougher from the tips in New York State. Little letup is to be had from the 6,724-yard blue markers (73.3/142), either. Thankfully, the challenge is more manageable from the 6.183-yard white (70.9/130) and the 5,690-yard gold (69/3/120) markers.

Once Kaluhyat breaks from the gate, it doesn't come back to the clubhouse until the conclusion of play. The round starts gently with a par five whose wide landing area is an anomaly on this generally tight layout. The par-four 2nd features Kaluhyat's most dramatic tee shot. Starting from the top of a ridge, you drive downhill over a tall grass cross hazard. The fairway cants decidedly to the left.

We especially like the more rugged and still tighter back nine. Numerous cross hazards, mostly in the form of tall grass, add further challenge. Thankfully, the groundskeepers don't let the grass get too high, though finding your ball is still an iffy proposition. The toughest stretch on the course comprises holes 11-13. The par-five 11th, rated the number one handicap test, is very long. It tops out at 621 yards and features two shots with carries. If you play all the way back, the carry is 230 yards over wetlands just to reach the fairway. The hole then bends to the left. On this three-shot hole, your final approach must cross a marsh that begins 100 yards from the severely elevated putting surface. Following the aptly named par-four 12th (Straight and Narrow), we come to another par five, Big Water. The fairway on this sweeping dogleg wraps around a lake looming to the right.

Turning Stone provides course guidebooks for all three courses. Most of the text presents Oneida folklore, traditions, and some of the natural history of the area rather than playing tips. The courses are meticulously maintained, and we found the greens especially nice. Each day, Turning Stone posts the stimp meter reading for its three premier courses. When conditions are dry, the resort ideally pegs them at around 10.5

In addition to its three eighteens, Turning Stone also has a couple of nine-hole courses. Sandstone Hollow is a Rick Smith designed par-three layout. Although you won't necessarily think of Smith's famous Threetops at Treetops Resort in Gaylord Michigan, this well-groomed course incorporates some elevation change and is fun to play. From the middle of the three sets of tee markers, the holes range from 88 to 144 yards. Pleasant Knoll is a player-friendly, 3,368-yard par 36. Like Sandstone Hollow, the course is heavily played by families, locals, and Turning Stone employees.

Note: Turning Stone's Sportsplex includes a large indoor golf practice range, complete with its own well-stocked golf shop.

LODGING

Turning Stone encompasses some 700 rooms in a variety of hotels, inns, and lodges. There's something for every budget. The most noteworthy, secluded, and sophisticated option is the Lodge at Turning Stone (Rating: A), a stunningly attractive building with a pitched metal roof and lots of fieldstone and glass. It shows influences of Frank Lloyd Wright and Adirondack Camp architecture and is adorned with Native American art and artifacts. The central Great Room features a towering fireplace, a player piano, a glass wall, and a variety of comfortable chairs and couches.

The Lodge is an all-suite boutique hotel. The interiors showcase contemporary lines, furnishings, and fixtures with abundant natural light. Standard features includes a bedroom with one king or two double beds and a flat-screen television; a separate living room (French doors divide the bedroom and living room) with a sofa, easy chairs, a flat-screen television and entertainment center; floor-to-ceiling windows; and a pass-through bathroom with a separate glassed-in shower and soaking tub. Many suites also have a balcony or terrace with teak wood outdoor furniture, and the marquee suites have a fireplace. Other amenities include L'Occitane toiletries, free Internet access, and complimentary valet parking.

Note: A few smoking rooms are available in the Lodge.

Although the Lodge connects to the casino via an indoor "bridge" walkway, its ambiance and rhythm are diametrically opposed to the noisy, smoky, fast-faced casino. There's no registration counter at the Lodge. Check-in is a personal experience and throughout your stay you can count on devoted individual attention. We found the staff knowledgeable, well-trained, and eager to assist. The receptionist/concierge called us soon after we settled into our suite to see if it was satisfactory and if she could make any reservations for us.

RESTAURANTS

Turning Stone (Dining Rating: B) boasts 19 different restaurants. Most are concentrated near the busy casino floor. You will find everything from the stereotypical buffet to a Brazilian-themed steakhouse, classic Italian, Asian, and American cuisines. We had a nice meal at Peach Blossom, Turning Stone's Asian fusion restaurant. The spare ribs and Chiang Mai Chicken in Lettuce Wraps appetizers were both very good, as was the filet mignon special.

The Lodge at Turning Stone has its own intimate fine dining restaurant, Wildflowers, just off the Great Room. Breakfast is served off a menu beginning bright and early at 6 a.m. and features a juice of the day. At dinner, the favorite dishes at our table were the filet mignon wrapped in prosciutto and the peanut and molasses lamb rack with butternut purée. The five spice crusted roasted pheasant with tamarind glaze was a little dry. Service was very good.

NON-GOLF ACTIVITIES

The Lodge's elaborate Skana Spa is a 33,000-square-foot facility with an indoor mineral pool, 12 treatment rooms, and a VIP suite. Treatments are derived from traditional Native American healing practices using nature-inspired ingredients. We found the Arnica Muscle Repair Massage an excellent post-round treatment.

The Lodge has its own workout room and indoor pool. The resort's Sportsplex features a tennis bubble with tennis and racquetball courts and an indoor golf driving range.

Although gaming constitutes Turning Stone's primary everyday lure, the resort features notable performances and concerts several times a month.

Turning Stone Resort
5218 Patrick Road, Verona, NY 13478

Tel: 800-771-7711, 877-748-4653, or 315-361-7711
Web: http://www.turningstone.com
Lodge at Turning Stone: 95 suites from $420 to $600.
Green fee: Atunyote, $225 resort/$225 public; Shenendoah or Kaluhyat $120/$150 May through September; $95/$115 early and late season; Sandstone Hollow or Pleasant Knolls $15 walking/$20 with cart.
Aerification: none performed in season.

Craig Better is one of the founding editors of Golf Vacation Insider. In addition to traveling to 15 foreign countries, he has twice traveled across America to play golf courses in all 50 United States. Prior to joining Golf Vacation Insider, Craig was a freelance writer who contributed to GOLF Magazine, Travel + Leisure Golf, Maxim Magazine, USAToday.com, and co-authored Zagat Survey’s book, America’s Top Golf Courses.
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Turning Stone Casino Resort: Is it the Northeast's Best Golf and Gaming Getaway?
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