From the porch of my Hudson Valley home, you can see and hear the action on the back tee of Dinsmore Golf Course’s 16th hole. The tee sits just beyond the stately St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church, with stained-glass windows from famed Chartres Cathedral in France, and the Carpenter Gothic–style Staatsburg Library, lovingly run by my wife, Lorraine. In season, the crack of tee shots and jocular banter join the rumble of Amtrak trains heading to and from New York City and the sirens from the volunteer fire station as the local chorus. All that makes the hamlet of Staatsburg sounds positively bustling, as it was back in its Gilded Age zenith, when there was a train station and several hotels here. But if the late 19th century and early 20th century were hopping, nowadays ours is a tranquil place; the chorus performs infrequently.
Dinsmore began life in 1892 as a private course for a trio of wealthy local families. Among them was that of the financier Ogden Mills, whose 65-room Beaux-Arts colossus, Mills Mansion, now a state historic site, sits deep beyond an imposing stone wall across the street, its massive backyard tumbling straight down to the Hudson River. (The stained glass windows were Mills’ gift to St. Margaret’s.) The course closes for the season on the early side, as its bare-bones maintenance staff shifts over to work the grounds of the surrounding state parks. This generally leaves plenty of time before the first snow to partake in what has become a seasonal family tradition: The Hunting of the Balls.
Lorraine, our 9-year-old son, Ike, and I clamber over the wooden picket fence, recently refurbished by a local Boy Scout for his Eagle Scout Service Project, and onto the 15th tee. (I never do this in-season with clubs, promise.) Then we do what any golf-savvy ball picker would do—head straight for the right rough. We start out with a disciplined three-astride approach for maximum coverage, a search-and-rescue team looking for remnants from the wreckage of bad swings.
“Found one!” Lorraine says, more pleased than she knows logic dictates. After years of these excursions, including the occasional in-season scavenger hunt at dusk, we’ve got several hundred balls in various shag bags in the barn. Family time outdoors instead of screen time indoors is the real, unstated purpose.
“What is it?” Ike asks excitedly. Like most kids his age nowadays, he is remarkably brand-conscious, and as a serious little golfer himself, all the more so. “Titleist?”
Ike nods—the find is sufficiently high on the food chain. Leaf-peeping season has passed, but it is still a gorgeous, crisp fall afternoon, and as we move toward holes on higher ground the Catskill Mountains become visible. I’m the first in our crew to start spending more time with eyes up on the scenery than down on the job at hand. Hudson River School painters had it as good as PGA Tour pros.
Despite my meanderings and owing, perhaps, to the golf gods deciding to even the score with me before accounts close for the year, I begin to catch up with my task-oriented wife on the ball-hawking front—so much so that Ike, with only a few finds to his name, grows irritable. Like a friendly round where your buddy suddenly tells you he’d be 2 up, our outing has turned competitive without warning. Not even a Titleist unearthed by Mom cheers him.
A scowl. Soon enough, however, as the stockpile multiplies—more than three-dozen by the time our four-hole loop is complete—giddiness sets in. Ike giggles upon wiping the encased mud off the “i-Tech” I’d just dug out to discover that it’s in fact a “Hi-Tech.” (Weird off-brand finds are winners, too.) Lorraine tries to make it a teaching moment about what archeologists do. Ike waves her off; he already knows. They grow up too fast.
Nikes and Top-Flites and Pinnacles—oh, my! A neon-yellow Pro V1 suddenly appears like a unicorn. When did those come on the scene? It’s a fitting flourish, a closing birdie.
We scale the fence and make the short walk back home. Come early spring, before the course reopens, we will shake off the winter rust by beating these balls in an empty field nearby. We’ll pick up the ones we see and lose others in the high grass and mud. The cycle continues. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, urethane to urethane.