Oldest golf venue is new again

Operator says Vannie’s improvements are par for the course


Any Riverdale resident worth their salt knows of the great history of Van Cortlandt Golf Course. When it opened in 1895, it was the first public golf course in America – which means, consequently, that now it is the oldest such course.

It was once the preferred golf home to such luminaries as Babe Ruth, Willie Mays, Jackie Robinson and Joe Louis. Some of them now have holes named after them. And even the Three Stooges called Van Cortlandt home. They, too, have their own holes.

Over the years, out-of-town Major League Baseball teams, in New York to take on the Yankees or Mets, would get a quick 18 holes in before game time, while many a Manhattan high roller would make the trip north to the Bronx for a break away from the daily grind. Even famed Hollywood director Oliver Stone filmed scenes for his classic Wall Street in the clubhouse’s historic locker room. 

But over the years the old girl began to show her age. The course was badly in need of repairs to its greens, fairways and tee boxes, while the ancient clubhouse, completed in 1902, needed a facelift.

“When I first got here, there was no grass on this golf course, except greens,” said Paul Sliva, Van Cortlandt’s head golf professional and tournament director. “You had constant problems with kids running on the golf course and harassing the golfers. But now we have this whole change of atmosphere.”

As Silva describes it, the transformation that has occurred at Van Cortlandt was to come in four stages – restoring the course to championship caliber, conducting a complete makeover of the ancient clubhouse, upgrading the dining and beverage options for patrons, and reminding the community they have a hidden gem in their backyard.

“It is so hard to explain to somebody how historic a location this is,” said Sliva, who is now in his 17th year at Van Cortlandt. “It is the oldest public golf course in America. The PGA of America is celebrating its’ 100th year this year. We were here already. We opened in 1895. People need to know about us.”

Pricey renovation

So Van Cortlandt LLC, the operators of the course, invested in a “multi-million dollar renovation,” according to Sliva. And after the mother of all facelifts, suddenly the old lady has that youthful glow about her again.

While the course itself saw its renovation completed a few years ago, the clubhouse renovation and the upgrade to its food and beverage service was finished only recently, and has helped give the old public course the look of a high-brow, members-only suburban club – but not the feel of one. And that is all by design.

But some people coming to the course for the first time still ask how they can become members. Sliva related a recent story in which Steve King, Van Cortlandt Golf’s Food and Beverage Director, was approached by a woman who wanted in on the new private Bronx club. You know, the one that is not actually private.

“Steve told me a story where somebody walked up to him after they saw the new patio and how different it is now because that was renovated as well, our huge deck overlooking the largest freshwater lake in the city,” Sliva said. “So this lady came up to Steve and said, ‘How much is it to join this club?’ And we laughed about it. We sat them down and told them it didn’t cost anything. We told them we want them to come here, become a regular. But they are always surprised when we tell them we’re a public golf course.”

King came aboard just over a year ago and has since turned the cuisine at Van Cortlandt from one of bacon and egg sandwiches to one that includes salmon in a ginger-and-lime glaze, grilled paninis, omelets, salads and – wait for it – the yogurt breakfast platter.

Golfing gourmets

“It always strikes me as funny when I come in here sometimes and I see some of the regulars sitting down and having the yogurt platter, which is fresh fruit, trail mix and yogurt,” Sliva said. I’m like, ‘What happened to the bacon and egg on a roll?’ It’s just so different now. Now people come in and say, ‘We’re not golfing today. We just came in to eat and watch the Sunday final of the British Open.’ A lot of them play, but some just come for the environment. They are also surprised when we tell them about our food selections. We have a vegetable platter or the chicken cutlet salad and things like that. We’re serving fresh food here now. There’s almost no frozen, everything is fresh.”

That is the work of King, who comes to Van Cortlandt after a very successful 20-year stint as a chef in San Francisco. His mission was to turn over the menu, turn on the people’s taste buds and help make Van Cortlandt a destination. Mission accomplished.

“I started here in March of last year and I wanted to lift the quality of food in the café, and the other goal was for us to get the events part of this going better,” said King, who has transformed the former bare-bones dining area into the inviting Lake House at Van Cortlandt Park Golf Course. “We have a beautiful deck with the lake and an inside dining area, and it just wasn’t being utilized at all. When I got here, wedding season booking was already over and they had just two wedding receptions in place. But after I got here, we booked a lot of bar mitzvahs, birthday parties, graduation parties, bridal showers, things like that, and we filled up the calendar pretty good last year. This year I booked 14 weddings, compared to two last year, and we did a lot of baby and bridal showers and several graduations.”

Tall tales in the tent

The outdoor lakeside deck now comes with a tent to keep golfers from roasting in the afternoon sun while they enjoy a post-game beer and discuss (or lie about) their game.

“The thing with the tent is it makes it nice for our golfers to go out and have a pitcher of beer and something to eat in comfort, King said. “We do very nice food here. We do club sandwiches, we do hot dogs, the all-beef Hebrew Nationals, black angus burgers. I have a lot of people tell me we have the best burgers.”

And along with the renovations and transformations has come an uptick in golfers and out-of-town Major League baseball teams returning to the course. Some of those golfers include people from the entertainment field.

“We get ballplayers here all the time,” Sliva said. “Every day we have someone come through here, whether it’s Broadway actors or DJs or athletes. They are all just players here and they are part of the family. Jack Mulcahy, a pretty famous New York actor who was in ‘The Brothers McMullen,’ comes here. DJs Ken Dashow and Ian O’Malley from [rock station WAXQ] 104.3 play here. The famous writer Israel Horovitz comes here, too. They are just some of the guys who come here. It’s not a big thing when they are here, it’s just like, ‘Hey, there’s Israel.’ And to them that is a big deal. They’re just treated like part of the family. We know what they want to eat. We know what they like to drink. We know what time they go out and who they play with.”

And word is beginning to spread about the quality of Van Cortlandt – on and off the course – and not coincidentally, its events bookings are way up.

“We have booked so many new events early in the season because the golf course is in such incredible shape and the food is better and the staff is better prepared,” Sliva said. “We ended up booking events that we haven’t had here in 15 years. We now have events that have come back and they are like, ‘I can’t believe the difference. It’s incredible.’ And others who have come back are neighborhood events, which for some reason left. But now they are coming back, too”

Charity events

Something else the course is getting involved with is charity events, like the 2nd Annual Military Outreach Charity Golf Outing slated for Friday Sept. 30. It’s a cause that Sliva, King and general manager Chris Ryan are thrilled to be involved with. 

“That’s the biggest one we do, our Military Outreach outing,” Sliva said. “Last year we had almost 90 players compete. This year we have a full field, hole sponsorships and gift bags. It has grown exponentially. I have people coming from upstate New York, people coming from South Jersey. We’re maxed out at 120 golfers. We could actually do more than that, but we want the event to be fun for everybody. We could probably do 150 players but then the golf is slow. And except for the cost of running the tournament, everything else goes to charity. Last year in a single day we raised $7,000. Our goal this year is to do $20,000. We host the tournament in conjunction with the Westchester-Putnam Masonic District and they do a lot of work with the Veteran’s Hospital up in Montrose.”

There is still more Van Cortlandt is looking to do. First and foremost is keeping the course in pristine shape, while also looking to expand its reach into the community. One idea King has is setting up tables with umbrellas for locals to stop by for lunch, with or without a side order of golf.

“A lot of the people walking by in the park don’t know that we are public,” King said. “They see the tent on the deck, they see people out there eating and they may know nothing about golf so they just assume that you have to play golf to come here. So we try to spread the word that we are public and get more locals to come by. We have a lot of regulars coming in, but we also have some new people and some who have come back after not being here for a while. I had one person tell me they hadn’t been in here in 10 years and how great the place looks. I think what we’ve done with food and beverage and with the golf side of things, I think everything has come together really well for us. We’ve got a ways to go and we’re going to build on it. But right now I think we’re in a pretty good spot.”

A spot that Sliva, who played golf at Van Cortlandt as a youth, wasn’t sure he’d ever see.

'Shock and awe’

“When they did the renovation here, this place was actually stripped right down to the rafters,” Sliva said. “This place was originally finished in 1902 and it was completely renovated. The whole place was really taken down and it looks gorgeous now. I’ve been here 17 years, and when I first came here, the idea of having silverware and eating off a real plate didn’t exist. Now when people come in here, shock and awe is exactly what it is. Before the renovations, even the pro shop was run down and the carpet was old. Now you have a pro shop that is fully stocked and it’s clean and neat and organized. When you walk in here, you realize you are in a beautiful place and it starts right from the first person who sees you outside.”

That would be John Long, the head of outside operations.

“He greets you when you get here,” Sliva said. “You’ll hear, ‘Good morning sir. Good morning ma’am. Can I take your bags?’ It’s just so different here now. This place is a part of me. Having grown up in the Bronx in the 70s, during the famous ‘the Bronx is burning’ time, it was tough. I played here when I was 13 years old and it was a pretty rough place. But she has her shine back now. People need to come by and check us out.”

Sean Brennan