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BOLD, BEAUTIFUL BAYONNE

A LinksGems course tour and appreciation of the Eric Bergstol designed Bayonne Golf Club by Jon Cavalier

Bayonne Golf Club is, to put it mildly, one of the more unique golf clubs in the United States. Built entirely from scratch by Eric Bergstol, the course represents the antithesis of the “minimalist” trend in golf course architecture, and yet, somehow, appears more “natural” than many other courses built in the last 20 years.  The result is, in a word, spectacular.

The course winds its way through man-made dunes, some nearly 100 feet high, constructed from muck and filler dredged from New York Harbor. Look to the north from the course’s high points and you’ll know you’re within the shadow of one of the world’s largest metropolises. But down in the dunes, you’d be forgiven for losing yourself for a moment and imagining you’re walking the fairways at Pacific Dunes or Ballybunion.

Meanwhile, above this dreamscape looms a gorgeous clubhouse reminiscent of a New England lighthouse and one of the largest American flags you’ll ever see. It is fair to assume that the melding of these three elements—the distant cityscape, the rolling dunes, the majestic clubhouse and flag—would be at best disjointed and at worst an overblown disaster. In the case of Bayonne, however, such an assumption would be completely wrong.

Bayonne is a club that, perhaps due to its youth or the fact that it has yet to host a significant event, flies under the radar of many people outside its immediate geographic area. In fact, when brought up as one of my favorite New York-area courses, no course generates more quizzical looks than Bayonne. One purpose of this tour is to shine much deserved light on this modern architectural gem.

With the possible exception of Shadow Creek, no course more clearly illustrates what a golf course can be with a blank canvas, ample funds, and a dedicated and motivated developer. From this standpoint, Bayonne warrants our study. I hope you enjoy the tour.

The Clubhouse and Flag

Together, Bayonne’s clubhouse and accompanying flag play a larger role in the club’s identity and have a greater impact on the feel of the golf course than at perhaps any other modern club. Situated on the highest point of the property, the flag and the clubhouse are the first things the player sees when approaching Bayonne by car, and they are the most identifiable aspects of the property when approaching by air or sea. 

The clubhouse itself is spectacular. Built to suit the club’s location on the water, the lighthouse-inspired building manages to impress without seeming ostentatious and feels welcoming rather than forbidding (no small feat with a building such as this). 

The lighthouse contains an incredible bar and grill room with spectacular 360 degree views. A terrace provides a wonderful place for a post-round lunch. The interior of the building is entirely hardwood and gives the appearance of a rustic retreat.

The top of the lighthouse affords the club’s members and guests some of the best views in New Jersey.

Bayonne’s flag is perhaps even more impressive than its clubhouse. Flying at the top of a 150 foot pole, the 40×70 foot flag is the second largest American flag flying on the East Coast.

The flag is so large that the flagpole is 22 inches thick at its base and is set 15-feet into a concrete block to anchor it against the tremendous forces on the pole that are generated by the wind catching the flag. In a nod to tradition, the flagpole is topped with a 24-inch, 70 pound gold plated copper ball.

The massive flag is easily visible from tall buildings in Manhattan, including the new World Trade Center, and is a memorable and distinguishing element of the club’s presence.

Getting There

The drive into Bayonne is…interesting. To say that the club’s immediate surroundings give no clue as to the beauty within is an understatement. From the south, the club is minutes off the Bayonne Bridge from Staten Island. From the north, it is accessed via the Newark Bay Bridge or the Manhattan tunnels. Regardless of the direction of travel, the golfer passes industrial sites, harbor terminals and empty lots before hitting the entrance.

Though an overused description, entering the gates at Bayonne is quite literally like entering a different world. Industry gives way to a driveway bordered by tall dunes, with Bayonne’s massive flag and clubhouse emerging on the horizon. The experience is truly one of crossing a threshold.

For those who prefer a different method of travel, Bayonne has its own ferry to shuttle members and their guests to and from Manhattan, as well as a helicopter landing pad. These fine amenities are located at the far end of the property, adjacent to the 16th green and 17th tee.

Practice Facilities and Driving Range

Bayonne provides players with a typical practice green, set mere paces from the clubhouse and the first tee. The practice green affords the player a view over much of the golf course and city skyline, heightening the pre-round sense of anticipation.

The range at Bayonne is yet another unique aspect of the club. Pressed for space, the club’s range is the harbor itself. Golfers tee off from a narrow strip of manmade land out into a section of water roped off with floating line.

The range balls used at Bayonne perform like regular golf balls, but they float. The prevailing currents and tides typically push the balls into a corner of the range, where they are scooped up with a net by a club staffer in a small boat. The views from this range are impressive, as the Verrazano Narrows Bridge looms large to the south.

The Golf Course

As noted above, the course at Bayonne sits on an entirely manufactured landscapes with dunes rising to nearly 100 feet. The result is a winding, thrilling ride up, down and across some of the largest dunes in the East. The course is maintained in impeccable condition and provides its members with true links style golf—firm fairways, fast greens and ever-present wind—and despite the size of the dunes, the course remains quite an enjoyable walk.

The course stretches to a Championship yardage of 7,120. Typically, members play from a respectable 6,712 yards (the yardage used for this tour) or 6,303 yards. Each of the holes at Bayonne is named—a practice I wholeheartedly endorse—and can, on several occasions, give the golfer an idea of how a hole is meant to be played.

The routing at Bayonne is superb, beginning in a northwesterly direction and meandering out to a corner of the property, turning back and forth on itself before returning to the clubhouse at the turn. The back nine begins by playing to the southern edge of the property before returning to the clubhouse after the 13th, 15th and 18th holes. No two consecutive holes play in the same direction.

HOLE #1 – “Dell” – 343 yards – par 4

The first tee at Bayonne is so close to the pro shop, the player almost feels as if he is teeing off from inside the building. A gorgeous tee shot it is.

From the elevated tee, the first plays down through a canyon of dunes to a generous fairway. The Bayonne Bridge is visible in the background.

This undulating fairway, standard at Bayonne, is sure to provide an array of interesting and challenging lies to the golfer. Notably, the green sits hidden to the left and is only visible from the far end of this fairway…

…and only then is the magnificent punchbowl green revealed.

The greens at Bayonne are quick, firm, undulating and extremely challenging. Their brilliant design allows for numerous interesting hole locations on each putting surface.

From the green, only the dunes, the clubhouse and the flag are visible. The first at Bayonne would be a signature hole on most golf courses. Here, it’s merely an appetizer. 

HOLE #2 – “Wee Burn” – 386 yards – par 4

Like its namesake in Connecticut, Bayonne’s “Wee Burn” does indeed have such a feature running through it. But first, golfers must find this rolling and partially hidden fairway with their tee shot, which given the stunning background, is easier said than done.

From the fairway, the approach to the second green is a short iron or wedge over the burn, here a wide tidal depression from which there is no recovery.

The green itself is small, and there is little room for error—there is simply no good miss on this tough but fair two-shotter.

HOLE #3 – “Redan” – 170 yards – par 3

An exceptional rendition of this classic template, the third at Bayonne plays like a traditional redan and has all the traditional elements, save for the drop-off and bunkering behind the green (though missing long here might be more of a penalty).

The beautifully sculpted green will direct balls to the left-hand pin locations, though here, care must be taken to ensure a kick to the proper tier.  The pin position on the high back shelf is the most difficult to access.

The back half of the redan green, as seen from the walk to the fourth tee. Gorgeous.

HOLE #4 – “Church Spire” – 534 yards – par 5

The first three-shot hole at Bayonne is named for the spire of the church visible from the tee. The hole demands a tee shot to a generous fairway that runs out into a large bunker.

The bunker, reminiscent of Hell’s Half Acre, will catch overly-aggressive drives and/or meek second shots, depending on the day’s wind.

The fourth green, like the second at Myopia Hunt Club, sits below fairway height and is thus invisible for all but the final few yards of the hole.

The green can be reached in two by longer hitters electing to use the right side of the fairway, which leads down into the approach, but the fronting hazard makes for a difficult recovery.

The putting surface on the fourth is one of your author’s favorites at Bayonne.

HOLE #5 – “Butterfly’s Feet” – 140 yards – par 4

Playing back in the direction of the clubhouse, the one-shot fifth is slightly uphill to a blind green fronted by a large, deep pot bunker.

As the name of the hole implies, a high, soft iron is the preferred shot to this well-protected green.

The green itself, while not small, is divided by a ridge crossing from 3 to 6, while another ridge protruded into the green from the 12 o’clock position. Precision is a must on this hole.

HOLE #6 – “Bay’s End” – 331 yards – par 4

An exceptional short par-4, the sixth runs out to the far northwestern end of the property. As all great short two-shot holes do, the sixth at Bayonne offers a choice: lay up to a preferred distance and approach the green over the waste area on the right…

…or go for the green via the fairway to the left, using the terrain to circumvent the hazard.

A brilliantly designed hole that one would never tire of playing.

HOLE #7 – “Beach Rose” – 415 yards – par 4

Changing directions once more, the seventh transports the golfer back to the higher ground amongst the dunes. Playing to an angled, rising fairway, the it demands a long, straight tee shot if the green is to be reached in two, especially when playing into the wind.

Once again, a rumpled, canted fairway provides an added degree of challenge and interest on this long two shot hole.

Entirely open in the front, this green is built to encourage and accept running shots which, due to the length of the hole and the wind, will be the preferred choice for many players. However… 

…accuracy is still in high demand, as the encroaching finger of rough must be carried or avoided.  A challenging hole.

HOLE #8 – “Salt Marsh” – 565 yards – par 5

The longest hole on the course, and the most difficult of the three par-5s, the eighth begins on an elevated tee and plays back toward Manhattan. Most of the hole, including the green, is not visible from this tee.

The eighth offers the brave player an opportunity to attack the green in two, but such a shot requires negotiation of a salt marsh and is all carry. The typical player will lay up down the right side of the marsh.

Even from the safer right side, the approach is no bargain—the marsh must still be carried from this angle, and the green is well protected on all sides.

The green is heavily contoured and, once past the halfway point, slopes substantially from front right to back left.

The slope of the green makes front right pin placements very challenging…

…and putting to a back left pin position can easily result in a chip for one’s next shot. This is an exceptional green.

HOLE #9 – “Plateau” – 390 yards – par 4

Bayonne’s ninth asks for a tee shot to an angled fairway and allows the golfer to pick his line. Generally, the preferred line is just left of the bunker shown below. Any ball left short will end up in deep grass on the side hill, making for a nearly impossible recovery. Bayonne’s clubhouse and flag loom large above this hole.

The approach to the ninth must carry a break in the fairway and negotiate a false front before reaching a green set in a bowl. The contours on the ninth green are some of the wildest on the property. Putting from back right to a front left pin on this green is an adventure, and then some.

HOLE #10 – “Highlands” – 440 yards – par 4

The back nine begins with a tough par four. The length of this difficult two-shot hole is mitigated by the fact that it plays substantially downhill, but the hard dogleg right nonetheless requires accurate placement of the tee shot.

The tenth fairway can assist shorter players who are able to use its contours to negotiate the dogleg.

Once again, the green is entirely open in front to encourage a ground attack, and the undulating putting surface provides one final challenge on perhaps the most difficult hole on the course.

HOLE #11 – “The Nook” – 210 yards – par 3

An outstanding one-shot hole, the eleventh requires a wood or a long iron to a green surrounded by large dunes. In the background, only the very top of One World Trade Center pokes into view.

Partially obscured from view by dunes, the eleventh green is roomier than it appears from the tee and provides an apron to allow balls to be run or bounced onto the green.

HOLE #12 – “7 Sisters, 6 Brothers” – 417 yards – par 4

This stunning par-4 runs downhill away from the clubhouse directly toward New York harbor. The tee shot must carry scrub and waste area before finding the wide fairway below. The Verrazano Narrows Bridge is visible behind.

Once in the fairway, the approach must carry the ridge of a crossing dune pocked with the bunkers that give this hole its name.

The horizon green makes judging distance difficult, and the surroundings make focusing on the task at hand a challenge.

A beautiful spot for golf.

HOLE #13 – “Old Glory” – 544 yards – par 5

Your author’s favorite three shot hole at Bayonne, the thirteenth, playing back up through the dunes toward the clubhouse, appears ripped from Turnberry or Lahinch.

The movement in this wide fairway and the bordering dunes make attacking this beautiful hole in two an enticing proposition, but it plays longer than it appears.

As is the case with nearly every long hole at Bayonne, the green is open across the front. But this double-plateau is no pushover—being on the wrong tier of the putting surface can easily lead to a three putt…or worse.

This view from behind the green illustrates the severity of the slope in the green and the fairway, and gives a sense of the elevation change in this excellent par-5.

HOLE #14 – “High Tide” – 202 yards – par 3

This long downhill par-3 backdropped by the harbor and the New York skyline plays to an elevated green that falls substantially on all sides.

Once again, simply hitting the green does not guarantee a par, as the many ripples and hollows can frustrate even the best lag putter.

HOLE #15 – “Sheep’s Bed” – 293 yards – par 4

The fifteenth begins the outstanding closing stretch at Bayonne. A wonderful short, uphill par-4, it plays over a large ridge in the fairway which hides most of the landing area from view, adding tension to this otherwise straightforward tee shot.

The fairway narrows considerably the more aggressive the tee shot, and a large waste area right provides a formidable hazard for wayward drives.

The putting surface is protected by a massive false front that will repel tee shots up to 50 yards back down the fairway.

The elevated green and the false front make judging even a wedge shot into this hole a challenge.

The fourteenth green, though relatively tame by Bayonne standards, can nevertheless create challenges—any putts from above the hole on this green are terrifying.

A flat out gorgeous hole, and a superb short par-4.

HOLE #16 – “Heaven’s Gate” – 453 yards – par 4

The back to back 15th and 16th holes are equally spectacular but diametrically opposite. The sixteenth plays downhill toward the harbor to a wide fairway. The view from the tee is one of the best on the course.

A dogleg left, the sixteenth plays to a green tucked into a far corner of the property and bordered on all sides by dunes and bunkers.

Like the 17th at National Golf Links, tee shots out to the right play shorter into this hole but are left blind by the dunes…

…while the farther left one plays, the better the view of the green.

Open in front to receive shots on the ground, the sixteenth green is slightly elevated and substantially contoured.

The view from the sixteenth green is almost as good as the view from the tee. A stunning hole.

HOLE #17 – “Water’s Edge” – 450 yards – par 4

The aptly named seventeeth is a long, cape style par-4 that hugs the shoreline of the harbor. The player has the option to play farther to the left to shorten the hole…

…but the penalty for misjudging one’s ability is high.

Playing safely out to the right side of the fairway allows for a full view of the open green.

Once again, the green abuts the water so tightly as to make judging distance difficult and to inject an element of perceived challenge into even the most standard approaches.

Use of the ground to approach the green is again an option.

Water’s Edge indeed. Beautiful.

HOLE #18 – “Lighthouse” – 429 yards – par 4

Perhaps the prettiest tee shot on the course, the final hole of the day requires a drive over a large dune obscuring the left half of the fairway. Befitting the name of this hole, the ideal line is directly at the lighthouse. Standing on this tee, it is hard to believe Manhattan is over your right shoulder.

The final approach at Bayonne is to a green ringed by a stone wall and set at the base of the gorgeous clubhouse.

From this fairway, nothing is visible beyond the green besides the clubhouse and the flag.

As nothing else would suffice, the eighteenth green confronts the golfer with one last putting challenge. Walking off, the view back down the final fairway instills players with a deep sense of accomplishment.

To be frank, I was quite surprised with the impact that Bayonne had on me after my first visit. Like most architecture geeks, I tend to prefer my golf courses old and traditional. But I found myself continually flashing back on my round at Bayonne. The course is truly unique in modern golf, and certainly on the East Coast, and is unquestionably an achievement in engineering and design for which Eric Bergstol is to be commended. But more than that, and unlike some of its neighbors, Bayonne is a course that focuses on providing its members with enjoyable golf. In that regard, Mr. Bergstol truly does deserve our acclaim, and our thanks. After all, isn’t that what golf is all about?

Copyright 2019 – Jason Way, GeekedOnGolf


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THE MIDWEST MACKENZIE – CRYSTAL DOWNS

An in-depth look at the collaboration of Dr. Alister MacKenzie and Perry Maxwell at Crystal Downs C.C.

Crystal Downs is not Dr. Alister MacKenzie’s only Midwest design, but it is certainly his most highly regarded work in the region. The greatness of the course can be linked to the interest and variety inherent in the land, and MacKenzie’s visionary ability to embrace what a site offered. He was fortunate to have as his collaborator Perry Maxwell who expertly translated ideas into reality on the ground, adding his own touches and creative flourishes as he went. For nearly a century, Crystal Downs has been challenging, delighting and inspiring its members, including architects Tom Doak and Mike DeVries. More recently and in spite of its remote location, pilgrims have eagerly followed in the footsteps of a young Ben Crenshaw, making the journey to little Frankfort, Michigan to get a taste of MacKenzie and Maxwell’s genius.

A Connection of Like Minds

It was a pilgrimage of sorts that led to the initial connection between Perry Maxwell and Dr. Alister MacKenzie. In his biography The Midwest Associate, author Christopher Clouser chronicles the journey that Maxwell took to his ancestral home in Scotland to explore his family roots. Additionally, he aimed to study the finest links in the home of golf, much as C.B. Macdonald had done before him. Naturally, he made his way to St. Andrews and it was there that he first met MacKenzie, a man who struck Maxwell as a kindred spirit. They had each entered golf course design as a second career. They both drew inspiration from the great courses they saw, most notably The Old Course. They shared a common belief that the best courses were not forcibly made—they were found on suitable land by making use of and accentuating natural features to present players with a series of strategic questions to answer. Upon Maxwell’s departure for the States, they agreed that a design partnership would be desirable were MacKenzie to ever make his way to America.

Although the collaboration of MacKenzie and Maxwell was not as prolific as that which The Good Doctor had with Robert Hunter in California, or Russell and Morcom in Australia, the pair did work together on several courses during the late ‘20s and early ‘30s. The mutual affinity felt in St. Andrews grew during their time working together, as evidenced by the letter that MacKenzie penned after visiting their first course collaboration, Melrose Country Club outside of Philadelphia. It read in part:

“My Dear Maxwell, When I originally asked you to come into partnership with me, I did so because I thought your work more closely harmonized with nature than any other American Golf Course Architect. The design and construction of the Melrose Golf Course has confirmed my previous impression. I feel that I cannot leave America without expressing my admiration for the excellence of your work…Few if any golfers will realize that Melrose has been constructed by the hand of man and not nature. This is the greatest tribute that can be paid to the work of a golf course architect.”

Crystal Downs Collaboration

Through Robert Hunter, the founders of Crystal Downs were able to convince MacKenzie and Maxwell to take a detour north on their cross-country trip east. Being unfamiliar with the Northern Michigan duneland topography, the architects did not bring high expectations for the project. What they did bring was a proven approach to creating compelling greens and beautiful bunkering, and a desire to find interesting land on which to practice their craft. Upon arriving at Crystal Downs, the men were immediately impressed. The site seemed to manifestation of the sentiment from MacKenzie’s writing found in The Spirit of St. Andrews:

“…there are few things more monotonous than playing every shot from a dead flat fairway. The unobservant player never seems to fully realize that one of the chief charms of the best seaside links is the undulating fairways such as those near the clubhouse at Deal, Sandwich, and, most of all, at the The Old Course at St. Andrews, where the ground is a continual roll from the first tee to the last green and where one never has the same shot to play twice over. On these fairways one hardly ever has a level stance or lie. It is this that makes the variety of the seaside course, and variety in golf is everything.”

The duo set to work laying out the course, and designing the greens and features. MacKenzie spent ten intensive days finalizing his vision and Maxwell worked diligently over the following three years to bring it to life. Stories of the course’s creation have become mythologized: MacKenzie getting intoxicated and only routing eight holes on the front nine; Maxwell having a lady friend in town; which of the two came up with the idea for a particular green site or feature. The veracity of these tales might be questionable, but this much is certain—the final product is a masterpiece of wildly varied strategic design and the collaboration clearly had a synergistic effect.

Although he is firmly in the camp of those who consider Crystal Downs to be an Alister MacKenzie design, Mike DeVries does not minimize Maxwell’s contributions. In the foreward to The Midwest Associate, he wrote:

“Maxwell’s respect for a landscape’s inherent qualities and use of those features in it is one of the great aspects of the golf course at Crystal Downs…he made the course better due to his recognition of the intricacies of the land.”

DeVries has spent decades at The Downs. He grew up playing the course with his grandfather, worked on the grounds crew, and now as a member, continues to study it for inspiration in his own design work. When asked what makes Crystal Downs so special, his answer was a chuckle and a question. “How much time do you have?” He continued, “The rhythm and flow are as good as any course in existence. It has a cadence, like a piece of music or drama.”

Drilling into the dramatic theme, DeVries went on to describe the different acts, each of which brings the player to a climactic high point. Act 1 begins at the clubhouse with a walk down the stairs to the jaw-dropping reveal from the 1st tee. Act 2 takes place across the hillside and valley of the front nine, peaking at the 8th green. Act 3 takes the player away from the clubhouse along the dune ridge that separates Lake Michigan from Crystal Lake, ending with the long view north from the 14th green. Act 4 is the return journey home with one final thrill at the 17th green. The closing hole is an understated epilogue, giving the player an opportunity to reflect and absorb the entirety of the drama, as well as the holes and shots within it.

DeVries’s romantic language speaks to his love of Crystal Downs, but also to his recognition that it is a true work of art born out of the trust that the artists felt for one another. “Every day I am at The Downs,” concludes DeVries, “I learn something new about architecture.”

The Course Today

The spirit of collaboration continues in the preservation and presentation of Crystal Downs. Tom Doak plays the dual role of happy member and consulting architect, working with long-time Superintendent Michael Morris and his team to present the course such that the greatness of the design and features shine through. The turf is fast and firm, the fescue gorgeous and the tree management darn near perfect. If MacKenzie and Maxwell came back today, they would approve.

DeVries, Doak and Morris are proof of the gravitational pull of Crystal Downs, which has had the same effect on Head Professional Fred Muller for forty years. Muller wrote the course guide and sums up The Downs:

“Crystal Downs is a thinking person’s golf course, where long is good but not necessary…where the position you leave your ball is critical, and where the wind always blows. Crystal Downs is the coming together of golf’s greatest architect, Dr. Alister MacKenzie, at the zenith of his career (after designing Cypress Point and just before Augusta National), with a marvelous piece of property.”

The outward half is intimately routed over the rolling duneland below the clubhouse. An argument could be made that it is among the best nines in all of golf.

The inward half shifts gears, taking players on an out-and-back adventure through a wooded area along a dune ridge. The difference in the two nines further adds to the wondrous variety of The Downs.

That tour that follows features the photography of Jon Cavalier (@LinksGems) as well as a few of my own, complemented by Mr. Muller’s hole descriptions (in quotes). One more time, collaboration revealing just how special Crystal Downs is.

Click on any gallery image below to enlarge with captions

The opener is no gentle handshake, from the undulating fairway through the severely sloped green, it tells players everything about the holes to come. “Although downhill, this hole plays every bit as long as its 449 yards suggest. It is usually into the wind, and like many holes at Crystal Downs the tee shot lands into a rising fairway. Sneak up on a wildly undulating green with a shot that lands short and pitches on. A miss to the left is a bogie, a miss to the right is a disaster.”

The next three holes are subtly brilliant, working off the side of the hill and requiring both well conceived and executed shots. “Avoid the bunkers left and right of the fairway on the 2nd and you’ll face a medium iron or fairway wood to the green. Although generally downwind, the green is 25 feet above the tee. Take enough club.  Golfers have putted off every green at Crystal Downs, and the front pin here is one where it happens often. Downhill and into a swirling wind, the 3rd is a most difficult hole for club selection. Remember how much the wind was helping on #2, and that’s how much the wind is hurting here. The green sits on an angle to the tee, one more club to the left side than the right. Fade the drive on the 4th or risk running through the fairway into the left hand rough. The long second shot will run up into the green only from the right front, however, pitching from the left front of the green is no disaster.”

This set of three four-pars are incredibly creative and could be played on a continuous loop without ever getting remotely boring. Birdie is a real possibility on each, as is double. “The 5th is one of MacKenzie’s great holes and most complicated, and is rated by Golf Magazine as one of the best par fours in the world. Hit the tee shot over the left edge of the giant oak, leaving a hanging lie 7 or 8 iron to a green that slopes dramatically from left to right. Or ‘bite off’ some more of the ridge on your tee shot to leave a pitch. Don’t bite off too much. Always pitch to the left portion of the green or risk rolling into the right hand green side bunkers. The 6th hole is MacKenzie’s idea of a ‘forced carry’. If you make the crest of the hill, the short iron to the largest green on the course is fairly easy. If you fall short on the drive, a blind long iron or wood awaits. The famous ‘Scabs’ are the bunkers to the right off the tee. Don’t even think about that route. On the 7th, a 210 yard tee shot leaves a short iron to a most unusual green—a kidney shaped ‘MacKenzie green’ in a punch bowl. A 230 yard drive leaves a short pitch to the green, but it’s a blind shot. It’s your choice, but be sure to get your second shot on the proper lobe of the kidney.”

This outstanding par-5 is lay-of-the-land architecture and its finest. No need for fairway bunkers when nature has provided such heaving contours. “Crystal Downs’ first three-shot hole is rated as one of the world’s best par fives. Drive down the middle on the 8th, fairway wood up the right side and a medium iron into the green. No problem…except you will encounter all kinds of uneven lies. You are at the mercy of the fates. The 150 yard mark is one of the longest in golf, and the green’s not very big either with lots of undulation.”

The next three holes make the turn at the clubhouse hill, and then take the player out to the long dune ridge. Each requires precise judging of distance to avoid punishment. “The green on the 9th is over 30 feet above the tee, which slopes from back up to the front (yes, it’s an uphill tee). Do not attack this hole. Hit a low shot and bounce the ball onto the front center of the green. Be careful with your putter. A careless shot could send you back for a wedge. The perfect tee ball on the 10th from an elevated tee is something inside the 150 yard mark in the right fairway. This leaves a middle iron shot over a pot bunker and straight up the slope of the green. Hit an extra club to carry the bunker yet avoid going long and left. You’ve heard those wonderful words of wisdom ‘stay below the hole’. Do that on the 11th.  The green is some 20 feet above the tee so it plays long. With that in mind choose a club that will get you to the front level of this three level green. Putt or chip uphill to the pin. Now, change philosophy and get the ball to the hole or you’ll be stepping aside as the ball rolls back past you, and maybe off the green.”

This pair of par-4s illustrates how MacKenzie and Maxwell were comfortable demanding shot-making from players. Fades and draws are optimal to navigate the bends, side-slopes and greens. “The magnificent beech tree straight ahead is on the left side of the fairway on the 12th. Your tee shot must be to the right of the tree. The green slopes from front to back, and unless you hit a large drive leaving a short iron, you should hit a low running hook shot that will bounce up and onto the green. A pitch back to the green from behind is no problem. The 13th is the most difficult par at Crystal Downs. Hit a hard fade off the tee that will run with the contour of the fairway. The shot into the green is determined by the pin placement. The green is very small, with a tiny front portion, dropping off to a larger rear portion of the green. Choose a club for your second shot that reaches just short of the green and then pitch it at the pin if it is in front. Try to hit the ball deep into the green for the rear pin. The greenside bunkers are easy to roll into and difficult to recover from.”

The peace and beauty of being at this point on the property tend to distract from the task at hand—hitting a good shot with a short club to collect a safe par, rather than carding an other. In the vein of other great Golden Age short threes, the 14th adds an important component to the examination of a player’s game. “This beautiful little gem is a straightforward 139 yard shot. The green on the 14th slopes less from back to front than it looks. Enjoy the view of Sleeping Bear from the back of the green and stay out of the sand.”

The next two holes, a short four and long five, turn and head back toward the clubhouse. In keeping with the theme of variety, they present very different challenges. “We call the 15th ‘Little Poison’. The fairway is narrow, the green is tiny and elevated, and the wind is usually in your face. The key to this short par-4 is a long drive. It takes 225 yards to crest a hill that will leave a short pitch. Not cresting the hill can leave an uphill blind shot. This green repels shots, so hit for the center of the green. Hit your tee shot hard on the 16th. Hit it hard again. And if the wind is blowing, hit it hard again. This green slopes from back to front; don’t putt it too hard.”

The 17th is the wildest and most polarizing hole on the course and the 18th one of the most benign. The two combine to give players one last set of thrills before making the walk back up the hill to the clubhouse. “The 17th is three hundred and one of the most frightening yards in golf. A 200 yard tee shot leaves a 9 iron or wedge. A 180 yard tee shot leaves an unplayable lie. A 215 yard tee shot leaves a blind, uphill, difficult pitch to the green. Now, if the wind is helping, you could drive the green. The greenside bunkers mean bogey or worse, and you don’t want to putt off the front of this green, because it won’t stop rolling for 50 yards. Drive your tee ball straight on the 18th. Don’t cut the corner, it won’t work. Your target is the 150 yard mark. The beautifully bunkered green is well above the tee shot landing area. On your second shot, hit enough club and keep the shot to the right. Anything to the left will kick into the bunker.”

Crystal Downs cannot be muscled or overpowered. It not only encourages creative shot making, the course demands it. Players who like to have their minds engaged and who are willing to experiment will be hard pressed to find a more stimulating golf course in America. The Downs has its secrets, and those secrets must be teased out. That is what places it in such high favor, and what makes it a joy to revisit repeatedly. The like minds of MacKenzie and Maxwell, working with exceptional land, created a midwest masterpiece.

Copyright 2019 – Jason Way, GeekedOnGolf


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TILLY’S TALE AT SOMERSET HILLS

An in-depth look at the A.W. Tillinghast designed Somerset Hills Country Club

Somerset Hills embodies a rare opportunity for golf architecture aficionados and players alike. For the design enthusiast, it is a course to be studied closely as an integral step in the progression of one of America’s greatest architects, A.W. Tillinghast. This pivotal work remains frozen in time, largely free of alterations that befell his later courses, especially those that host championships. For the avid player, whether duffer or stick, Somerset Hills is a course to be enjoyed for its beauty and wildly varied set of challenges. A single play only begins to unlock the riddles that Tillinghast put in the ground in Bernardsville, N.J., employing equal parts respect for the land, creative flair, and knowledge of design history.

An Afternoon Walk

Step back in time and imagine that you have been invited to spend an afternoon touring the newly opened course at Somerset Hills in 1918. You get your first intriguing glimpse as you travel along Mine Mount Road, making the turn into the unassuming club entrance. Arriving at the clubhouse, you are surprised to find that your guide for the day will be none other than A.W. Tillinghast himself. A well-heeled and well-traveled Philadelphian, Tilly explored the British Isles, including spending time in St. Andrews with Old Tom Morris, undoubtedly absorbing the oral history of the game that was taking hold of his imagination and heart. Before designing courses, Tillinghast was an accomplished player and writer at a time when the golf craze in the U.S. was peaking. You quickly realize that your walkabout will be complemented by stories born of a particular breadth and depth of experience.

Somerset’s Redan 2nd – Credit: Simon Haines

A good storyteller does not immediately begin yelling at you, maintaining that intensity from start to finish. There are ebbs and flows that build toward a climax, all delivered with creative color. It is clear to you that A.W. Tillinghast is a master storyteller as he strolls along telling tales of his sources of inspiration, his design ideas and how they manifested on the site he was given at Somerset Hills. Of course, a great design begins with taking a player on an exploration of the land. You notice the way his holes meander, change direction, and bend, coherently combining to create moments of quiet intimacy contrasted with expansive views. He pauses on many greens to direct your focus backward as a reminder that what lies behind often foreshadows what is to come.

Like Macdonald before him, Tillinghast was entranced by North Berwick’s redan and created his version at the 2nd. Other “ideal hole” elements can be found throughout the course on the 13th, 14th and 16th. He points out the classic quirk of rugged mounds and bunkers cut into humps that were built by man, as well as the contours and creeks provided by nature for hazards. The greens are of such character and quality that you want to stop and spend extended time at each, but your guide will not allow for interruptions to the natural flow. As your tour and the story unfolds, the theme of variety becomes apparent throughout, maintaining the level of engagement even in moments of rest. With the afternoon light fading and Tilly’s cigarette smoke wafting by on the breeze, you find yourself mildly intoxicated by the combination of the journey completed and the stories told. Departing the property with a final glance back, it occurs to you that A.W. Tillinghast shared the story of golf architecture up to 1918, and his course at Somerset Hills embodies that history.

The 10th green, with 17th and 18th behind – Photo Credit: Jon Cavalier

An Inflection Point

Somerset Hills was not Tillinghast’s first design, but it would come to be known as his first great one. He drew upon the standout courses and holes he had seen in the U.K., as well as home grown offerings like Myopia Hunt Club, Garden City, National Golf Links, Pine Valley and Merion. His experience afforded him a treasure trove of strategic and visual elements into which he dipped liberally, always adding his own creative flair. Somerset was not just important as an homage to the first twenty years of American design though. It was a jumping off point for an incredible run of courses—Quaker Ridge, San Francisco G.C., Philadelphia Cricket Club and Baltusrol, among others—each expressing Tilly’s grasp of the principles of strategic architecture and his commitment to variety, while always staying true to the unique sense of place of each site. His portfolio stands as a testament to his versatility, as well as an inspiration to the architects who followed in his footsteps.

Taking the time to look backward from each green at Somerset Hills provides insight into how the holes on all of his courses remain brilliantly relevant to this day. He had a gift for finding good green sites, and for building wonderful putting surfaces and surrounds on those sites. Working back, the ideal angles into the different sections of the green become apparent. Tilly positioned his tees and routed his fairways over the topography, accented by varied hazards, giving players a chance to work those angles to their advantage. Well conceived and executed shots are rewarded. From the tee forward, the ideal route is often not apparent. Somerset has its fair share of blind, semi-blind and visible-but-intimidating shots. Like many in the Tillinghast portfolio, it is a course that hides its secrets from first-timers, only revealing itself through repeat play.

The Course

A round at Somerset Hills is a tale of two nines. The outward half is routed intimately in a gentle valley below the clubhouse in a space previously occupied by a race track. Tillinghast incorporated remnants of that track into the design. The inward nine makes its way into the woods, past a lake, through wetlands and then takes a final hilly ride back up to the clubhouse. The only meaningful change Tilly’s original is a repositioning of the 10th green to stretch it from a par-4 to a par-5.

Although each nine has a distinct feel, the course retains its cohesion. Interestingly, the front nine is compact but feels more expansive than the back, which works back and forth over a ridge. Throughout the course, Tillinghast alternates between narrowing and widening the player’s focus, creating an enjoyable rhythm. Playing Somerset is truly like taking a journey.

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There is an optimal presentation standard that Superintendent Ryan Tuxhorn and his team nail on the head at Somerset—everything is done, but nothing is overdone. This is an old course and they allow it to exude that classic feel, without any hint of it being tired. Brian Slawnick from Renaissance Golf Design has consulted over the years on fairway lines, green expansions, bunker edges and tree management, but has thankfully not changed the character. Further, Tuxhorn takes what Mother Nature gives and provides the best playing conditions possible. The course is allowed to change with the weather and the seasons, very much in tune with the spirit of variety that Tillinghast intended. The course tour that follows, with photos from Jon Cavalier (@LinksGems) is meant to convey Somerset’s gorgeous seasonal range.

The opener is a solid par-4 that bends right through the orchard and then runs downhill to a green that is open in the front. The 2nd is Tilly’s appropriately famous rendition of the redan with forebunkers center and a deep bunker left. The green is severely sloped from high front-right to low back-left and can be used to advantage, or spell disaster. Good shots are required right out of the gate.

The 3rd through 6th are intertwined on the interior of this portion of the property. Creativity abounds with the elevated 3rd green, the dolomites on the 4th and 6th, and the gloriously bold contours of the putting surface on the 5th. At no point does the player feel like they are on a bland march.

The final stretch of the front nine works around the perimeter and back up to the clubhouse. The 7th is a tough par-4 featuring a blind drive to a fairway that slopes all the way down into the front of the large green. The one-shot 8th plays perilously along a rock wall boundary to a green flanked by created bunkering. The 9th is a right-to-left par-5 where Tilly employed his trademark great hazard.

The back nine opens with the only hole that has been altered from Tillinghast’s design. The left-to-right dogleg now plays as a par-5 uphill to a green set on a hillside. The par-4 11th bends right past a lake and over a creek, and features one of the wildest greens on the course. The idyllic setting of the green at the par-3 12th distracts players from the punishment that awaits wayward tee balls.

The next two holes play on top of the ridge and have shades of Macdonald-Raynor influence. The par-4 13th features a left-center principal’s nose and a biarritz green. Quite the creative combination! The 14th turns around and heads back to a large, plateaued green that demands a much more precise approach than its footprint would indicate. A pair of outstanding two-shotters.

The par-4 15th is blind off the tee and requires a left-to-right shape to take advantage of the downhill fairway. The large green is fronted by a creek, creating a picture-perfect scene. The final one-shotter on the course, the 16th has hints of the Eden template, with Tilly’s creative twists of course.

Somerset Hills provides one last rollercoaster ride with its final pair of four pars. The 17th begins with a blind drive over a chasm to a fairway that rolls severely downhill. The 18th plays back uphill into the shadow of the clubhouse to one more boldly contoured green. Two par-4s that are ideal for match play as birdies and doubles are equally likely results.

By the time he arrived at the site that would become Somerset Hills, A.W. Tillinghast had a story to tell. It was a tale of where golf had come from, with hints of where it might be headed. He poured his heart and mind onto this land in the New Jersey countryside. Members and visitors ever since have been the beneficiaries, as they loop around and around, learning Tilly’s tricks and experiencing his tale for themselves.

Copyright 2019 – Jason Way, GeekedOnGolf


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ROUTING PERFECTION AT SAND HILLS

A look at routing and the creation of Coore & Crenshaw’s modern masterpiece, Sand Hills Golf Club

Sand Hills Golf Club is generally considered to be a modern masterpiece. Bill Coore & Ben Crenshaw’s design has been credited as the original spark that lit the fire of the minimalist movement in golf course architecture, and the club proved that players will travel to experience great golf in far flung locales. The combination of minimalism and destination golf has been nothing short of revolutionary for the game. There is a case to be made though that Sand Hills is more than just a great course—it is perfect. That perfection has at its core the routing that Coore & Crenshaw discovered through the Nebraska countryside, and the effect that it has on those fortunate enough to play it.

In a discussion with Dunlop White about what gives a golf course character, Bill Coore said, “The routing is how a golf course lays on the land; how it showcases the landscape and brings out interesting golf in terms of the individual holes and how they fit together as an entire course.” That description makes intuitive sense, but just how does one go from a raw piece of land to a brilliant course like Sand Hills? For the average geek, the process seems quite mysterious—equal parts method and magic, akin to alchemy. Although routing is complicated, to grasp what transpires conceptually does not require that one be an architect or an alchemist. Before returning to Mullen, let’s take a quick look.

Assembling the Pieces

The process of routing a golf course can be compared to putting together a puzzle. The first order of business is assembling the edges, which is the equivalent of determining design constraints. Typically, a good puzzle-building strategy is to next look for pieces that comprise standout elements of the picture. Landmarks, if you will. And finally comes the painstaking effort to fill in the remaining pieces around those landmarks to produce a cohesive whole.

The comparison to puzzle building is, of course, a dramatic oversimplification. The end puzzle picture is known at the outset, which is clearly not the case for the golf course architect. The analogy does hold true at a basic level—both activities are difficult, even painful at times, and ultimately reward the patient and persistent practitioner. It also hints at an issue inherent in the approach to routing by some architects, an issue that can be the difference between a good golf course and a great one. While incorporating special features or landmarks into a design is always a worthy aim, fixating on any single element of the site can have a deleterious cascade effect. The course may indeed have a “signature” hole, but incorporating that hole into the routing necessitates including weaker “connector” holes.

In some unfortunate instances, course designs relied so heavily on the signature hole or stretch of holes that the overall quality of the course was diminished. That would be like assembling the feature portions of the puzzle, and then dumping the rest of the pieces inside the border willy nilly and calling it finished. One does not get to a level of quality approaching that of Sand Hills by trading signature hole photo ops for the integrity of the whole. As Bill Coore implied, he is not willing to make that trade, “The routing…brings out interesting golf in terms of the individual holes AND how they fit together as an entire course.”

Tough Decisions

Bill Coore is regularly asked some form of the question, “Was it enjoyable to work with land as great as Dick Youngscap gave you for Sand Hills?” His answer is a consistent and unequivocal “No.” Outside of getting the chance to work on seaside linksland, Coore & Crenshaw could not have dreamt of a better site than the one they got in Mullen. The ideal nature of the ground for golf heaped pressure on the duo to produce a special golf course. They feared that if they did not capitalize on this opportunity, it might be a long time before another came along, if ever.

As illustrated in the example above, a site typically has distinct features off which the architect can play—a ridge, a creek, stands of specimen trees or a dune. Average land yields a finite number of high quality holes which can be incorporated into a cohesive routing. A site like Sand Hills has nearly infinite potential for such holes. What’s a designer to do when everywhere they look, there is another feature, contour, or vista that would make for great golf?

In their customary fashion, Coore & Crenshaw started with knowing the land intimately. While tales of Bill Coore camping out like a frontiersman might be exaggerated, they contain a kernel of truth. Using a helicopter, topo maps and their feet, the team explored the property and made note of more than 100 potential holes that could be incorporated into the design. Those explorations and notations have been memorialized in the constellation map.

The Constellation Map with Sand Hills overlay – Credit: Scott Griffith (@bottomgroove)

Having catalogued the possibilities, the time came for the final, difficult cut down to eighteen. At this point in the process the experience and instincts that Bill & Ben possess combined to yield an alchemical result—the foundation of a course that works perfectly and fits perfectly onto the land it occupies. Looking at the constellation map, is it possible that there exists a single hole that would have been better than any of the eighteen that were eventually incorporated into Sand Hills? It is indeed possible, but the question is moot. After walking off the 18th green, one realizes the wisdom in prioritizing the entirety over any single part. The course is perfectly satisfying, as is.

The Course

It is easy enough to assert that there are no weak holes at Sand Hills. To understand just how strong each and every hole is though, it is fun to play a little game with those who have seen the course. Ask them which hole is their favorite. Within a group, there is likely to be a very wide variety of answers. Poll enough people and every hole will ultimately get a vote. Next, inquire of those same players which hole is their least favorite. After qualifying their answer with a reminder that there are no weak holes, they will sheepishly offer up their pick. Once again, within a large group, answers vary greatly. When no consensus exists about favorites, the course must be exceptional.

We know from Mr. Coore’s routing thoughts above that a golf course is meant to be more than a batch of holes. Sand Hills exemplifies this ethos. The course works in two loops out from and back to Ben’s Porch. Each of those loops has holes that take players up, down and around the dunes, producing all manner of interesting and sometimes terrifying shots. It also touches the property edges at several points—a reminder of the vastness of the setting that produces a keen sense of awe.

The flow of the course is further enhanced for walkers by the proximity of greens to tees, and the paths connecting tees to fairways. The cohesiveness of components creates a connection to the land and nature as one walks along. This is a hike that would be nearly as enjoyable without clubs.

Superintendent Kyle Hegland and his team provide terrific playing conditions and Mother Nature adds the unpredictability. The wind blows, sometimes delivering dramatic squalls that give way to brilliant sunshine. As is the case with world’s great links courses, the elements are always a factor. Jon Cavalier (@LinksGems) and I have collaborated to attempt to convey the Sand Hills experience—colors, textures and shapes that stir the soul.

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The opener at Sand Hills is a par-5 that epitomizes strategic golf. A conservative route to a straightforward par is provided. Play away from the fairway bunker left, lay up to the middle short of the base of the hill and approach safely into the middle of the green set up in a dune-top saddle. Easy enough. But for players who desire to get out of the gate with a birdie, risk must be taken on by working angles and challenging the edges, which opens up myriad ways to make a bogey or worse. This conservative vs. aggressive choice is a consistent theme throughout the course that makes it so intriguing to play repeatedly.

The 2nd is a unique par-4 that plays over a gully to a partially blind fairway and then up to an infinity green that features a fantastic ripple contour running diagonally across. Sand Hills’s first one-shotter next plays downhill to a green with a severe slope created by a high left shoulder. Lag putting on the 3rd is a real challenge.

The story goes that the 4th green was a point of contention between Bill Coore and Dick Youngscap. Perhaps inspired by the Maxwells’ work at Prairie Dunes, Coore proposed to bench it into the hillside. Mr. Youngscap preferred to place it down in a bowl. After a lengthy discussion, both men thought they had won the argument and went off to attend to their business. Coming back to find the green where Bill wanted it, Mr. Youngscap was dumbfounded and has remained a bit salty ever since. With all due respect to the owner, we side with Bill Coore on this one—the 4th is a standout par-4, exactly as is.

The 5th turns back and heads slightly uphill past a center-left bunker to a green flanked by more bunkers left and right. The putting surface on this par-4 lays gently on the land with subtle internal contours. The par-3 6th plays slightly downhill over a large forebunker to an angled green that is canted, with pronounced ripples and rolls. Short grass surrounds provide recovery options—the deep bunker right, not so much.

The 7th and 8th are short fours that begin a stretch of six consecutive two-shotters. This anomalous sequence illustrates Coore & Crenshaw’s willingness to take the great golf that the land gives. The devilish 7th is drivable, but failed attempts can leave tough recoveries from the front left bunker or slope right. The 8th plays over rumpled ground to a lion’s mouth green in an amphitheater setting. Both holes burst at the seams with strategic options.

Each of the next three par-4s has a distinct feel. The 9th swings right and heads back up into the shadow of Ben’s Porch. The at-grade green falls subtly away on three sides and is one of the trickiest to putt on the course. The 10th runs downhill, snaking between bunkers to a putting surface that flows off a high left slope. The tee shot on the 11th must take on a massive blowout bunker left to get into position to approach the elevated green. All three holes require thoughtful positioning and creative shotmaking.

The final two-shotter of this stretch plays to a wide fairway with a single blowout marking the ideal line for approach into the green which is guarded front and right by one large bunker. The 13th is a stout par-3 that sits at an angle to the tee, causing alignment challenges when attacking the well-defended putting surface. The wind plays a significant role on both of the inward half’s three pars.

The 14th is one of Coore & Crenshaw’s all-time greatest par-5s. The key for success is to get left, as the tiny, severely sloped green is nearly impossible to hold from the right. Not surprisingly, a deathly blowout sits in the perfect spot for a layup. Players stand in the fairway and must decide if their drive was good enough to get beyond that hazard, or if they need to lay back of it. Seems simple enough, but it certainly doesn’t feel that way over the shot.

The par-4 15th plays straight along a high ridge. Cheating to the right from the tee opens up the angle into a green fronted left by an imposing bunker. The final three-shotter is a roller coaster ride downhill through sandy blowouts of all sizes. The day’s pin position relative to a fronting mound dictates positioning of a player’s approach on the 16th.

In his essay for Geoff Shackelford’s Masters of the Links, Ben Crenshaw wrote of the short par-3, “In this era of obscene power…why not strive to induce a little fun into the mix and at the same time present a true test of delicacy and accuracy?” In the spirit of the shorties built by the Golden Age greats, the 17th is the answer to Ben’s question. A hole this short presents a birdie opportunity, but only for tee shots struck perfectly after accounting for the wind. Bunkers and slopes that make for difficult recoveries await the indelicate or inaccurate.

The home hole at Sand Hills plays long uphill with huge blowouts running along the entire left. The large green sits in a bowl atop a dune, making it difficult to get the line and distance just right for a good birdie look. Players need to focus long enough for one last lag putt on the final C&C putting surface.

Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw routed a course through the hills that takes players on an adventure with moments both thrilling and sublime. Combined with their minimalist approach to construction, the collection of holes is intellectually and emotionally evocative. At the end of a Sand Hills journey, visitors are left with lasting memories of their exposure to perfection.

Copyright 2019 – Jason Way, GeekedOnGolf


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TIMELESS IDEALS AT NATIONAL GOLF LINKS

An in-depth profile of C.B. Macdonald’s National Golf Links of America and the design ideals it embodies.

The National. Two words that, especially for devotees of classic architecture, hold so much meaning. These words are not just shorthand for the club named National Golf Links of America, they carry the weight of one man’s incredibly lofty aspiration. An aspiration that history has proven to have been fulfilled.

Charles Blair Macdonald set out to create the ideal links on Long Island after having spent years studying the great golf holes of the British Isles to ascertain what specifically made them great. With assistance from H.J. Whigham, Devereux Emmet, and most notably Seth Raynor, he then poured all of that greatness into one eighteen hole loop that opened for play in 1909.

Not long after its opening, Bernard Darwin summed up the feeling the course has evoked from so many subsequent visitors:

“How good a course it is, I hardly dare trust myself to say on a short acquaintance; there is too much to learn about it and the temptation to frantic enthusiasm is so great, but this much I can say: Those who think that it is the greatest golf course in the world may be right or wrong, but are certainly not to be accused of any intemperateness of judgment.”

Perhaps Darwin was unwilling to pronounce the course the greatest back then, but at this point time, he would likely agree with the assertion that the greatness of the National is timeless. The combination of strategic design, beauty and fun transcend the fads of any particular era. I tapped Jon Cavalier (@LinksGems) and Simon Haines (@Hainesy76) for this collaboration – the historical perspective of Macdonald and his contemporaries is complemented by Jon’s terrific photos, which make abundantly clear how beautifully the course is currently presented by Superintendent Bill Salinetti and his team.

After a tour through all eighteen holes, I am confident that this contrast of past and present will prove the case that Charles Blair Macdonald’s ingenious approach to designing and building The National ensured that it would stand the test of time.

The Course

“Any golfer conversant with the golf courses abroad and the best we have in America – which are generally conceded to be Garden City, Myopia and the Chicago Golf Club – knows that in America as yet we have no first-class golf course comparable with the classic golf courses in Great Britain and Ireland. There is no reason why this should be so, and it is the object of this association to build such a course, making it as near National as possible, and further, with the object of promoting the best interests of the game of golf in the United States. With this end in view, it is proposed to buy two hundred or more acres of ground on Long Island, where the soil is best suited for the purpose of laying out a golf course…As to the building of the golf course, it is well known that certain holes on certain links abroad are famous as being the best considering their various lengths. It is the object of this association to model each of the eighteen holes after the most famous holes abroad, so that each hole would be representative and classic in itself.” – C.B. Macdonald, from the Founders Agreement

Imagine a band holding a press conference at which they announce that they are headed into the studio to record their next album. They have studied the greatest songs in the history of music and have settled on the best tracks. They are not simply going to do an album of covers though. They have distilled the essence of greatness from each song and will create new songs that not only embody the essence of the originals, but also work together as a cohesive album. The cohesiveness is born of the adaptation of the songs to suit the current musical landscape while simultaneously harmonizing with each other. If the media and fans were even able to grasp such a plan, they would not likely believe that it would be possible to pull off. Essentially, that was exactly what C.B. Macdonald told prospective Founding Members of National Golf Links of America he would do, and then he delivered.

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Drawing inspiration from his beloved links, Macdonald routed NGLA in a traditional out and back fashion. He found and used the best features of the land to deliver both beauty and variety. That variety is reflected in the sequence of holes – distance, direction, difficulty…consecutive holes are never repetitive. There is interest throughout the entire routing, but there is also a palpable slow build. It starts on the first tee with views of the 18th green, Peconic Bay, the clubhouse and the windmill. Players are then taken on a thrill ride over the Sahara and Alps hills with views of Bulls Head Bay, naturally drawing their attention to the all-world Redan 4th. The course then runs out on gentler land across the road, to the turn and back across the road. The first glimpse of the windmill on the hill comes on the 11th green, signaling the start of the adventure home. That iconic landmark grows bigger with every hole completed until players reach the cripplingly gorgeous home stretch, with the Eden and Cape hard against Bulls Head, the trek up and over the 16th fairway to the Punchbowl, and then the view from the 17th tee, which is as pretty as any in golf. Finally and sadly, the climb from the gates up the 18th fairway, with the Jarvis Hunt clubhouse on the left and the wide expanse of Peconic Bay to the right, the breeze coming in off the water and if timed just right, the sun going down behind the sand. It is no wonder that a routing so clearly designed to conjure magic bewitches those fortunate enough to make the journey.

Course map of NGLA – Credit: Keith Cutten

HOLE #1 “Valley” – 326 yards – par 4


From the first tee with the Jarvis Hunt clubhouse left of the fairway

This beautiful little opener gives the player an idea of what he will confront constantly during his round – choices. Playing left to right, the choice of tee shot could be anything from a mid-iron to driver. Overly timid or indifferent tee shots will catch a string of bunkers laid out short of the fairway. The carry to the left is significantly farther than it appears from the tee. While the aggressive line makes the green reachable for longer players, these bunkers will extract a severe price from an overly ambitious tee-shot hit by an overly confident player. The green is elevated, obscuring parts of the putting surface and surrounding area from view on the approach. A severe false front will repel shots that come up short. Balls missed left will find deep bunkers, while those right will encounter a series of random humps and mounds. The first green is rife with undulations and ridges, placing added importance on an accurate approach. Simply put, this is one of the best openers in golf.

HOLE #2 “Sahara” – 302 yards – par 4


From the tee on the 2nd, with the imposing sandy waste, and pre-windmill water tower

“The short player who cannot carry even 150 yards must avoid the bunker altogether by aiming to the right. He has a perfectly open fair green there, but he cannot reach the brow of the hill and he is left with a blind and extremely difficult second. The principle of the hole is to give the player on the tee a great number of alternatives according to his strength and courage. If he plays for the green and succeeds he has the advantage of at least one stroke over the opponent who takes the shorter carry to the right, and probably more than one stroke over the player who avoids the carry altogether. But if he fails, he may easily take a five or six and lose to the short player who goes around. The Sahara at the National is a better hole than the Sahara at Sandwich, first because the edge of the main bunker is more clearly defined, and secondly because the second shot for the player who makes for safety is far more difficult…At the National the second shot is always difficult unless the big carry is made; in fact, a fairly good tee-shot played only a little to the right is apt to run down to the bottom of the hollow, and result in too difficult a second…In the main the National Sahara is one of the most inspiring holes in golf; the carry is stupendous and awe-inspiring, and there is great reward for the perfect shot; but there are plenty of alternatives, and for those who cannot go for the flag there are infinite possibilities in the approach. Fifteen years ago a 270-yard hole was considered a very poot affair; with the rubber-cored ball and natural features like those of the Sahara properly taken advantage of it is perhaps the finest hole in golf.” – C.B. Macdonald and H.J. Whigham, Golf Illustrated, 1914

HOLE #3 “Alps” – 473 yards – par 4


The Alps green, with its tricky internal contours

“A long tee-shot played directly on the flag or anywhere to the left of the flag leaves the ball at the foot of the large hill called the Alps, and then the second shot is extremely difficult; for the ball must be raised abruptly and must still have a very long flight. The best line is to the right where the hill slopes down to the level and where the ball will get a longer roll and the second shot is much easier. But to get to the right the long carry must be taken off the tee, and when the tee is back the extreme carry is nearly 190 yards. Therefore, although the Prestwick tee-shot has to be placed rather more exactly, the National tee-shot is more spectacular. And at the National the second is more difficult on account of the extra length and the higher position of the green. In other words, the third hole at the National is an improved Alps, and as a test of golf it is beyond reproach. It is impossible to reach the green in two unless the tee-shot and the second are real big golfing strokes, hit in the middle of the club, and that can be said of very few holes with a maximum distance of only 413 yards.” – C.B. Macdonald and H.J. Whigham, Golf Illustrated, 1914

HOLE #4 “Redan” – 194 yards – par 3


A crowd watches a match on the Redan green

“Take a narrow tableland, tilt it a little from right to left, dig a deep bunker on the front side, approach it diagonally, and you have the Redan…The principle of the Redan can be used wherever a long narrow tableland can be found or made. Curiously enough the Redan existed at the National long before the links was thought of. It is a perfectly natural hole. The essential part, the tilted tableland was almost exactly like the North Berwick original. All that had to be done was to dig the bunker in the face, and place the tee properly. The National Redan is rather more difficult than the North Berwick hole, because the bunker at the back of the green is much deeper and more severe. Some people think the hole is too difficult altogether. But anyone who gets a legitimate three there, especially in a medal round, is sure to say that it is the finest short hole in the world. There is no compromise about it. Whichever of the various methods of attack is chosen, the stroke must be bold, cleanly hit and deadly accurate. At the ordinary hole of 180 yards it is a very bad shot that does not stay on the green. At the Redan it takes an exceedingly good shot to stay anywhere on the green; and to get a putt for a two is something to brag about for a week…In reality there are only about four or five kinds of good holes in golf. The local scenery supplies the variety. Here is one of the four or five perfect kinds. The principle of the Redan cannot be improved upon for a hole of 180 yards.” – C.B. Macdonald and H.J. Whigham, Golf Illustrated, 1914

HOLE #5 “Hog’s Back” – 474 yards – par 4

The third of three difficult holes, the 5th at National asks for a tee shot over a formidable cross bunker cut into the hill to a fairway humped down its spine so as to shed balls to either side. The fairway’s natural ripples provide added visual and playing interest. Longer drives will contend with a unique trench bunker that bisects the fairway. The wide, downsloping fairway leads straight into the green and will carry running approach shots a long way, allowing even shorter hitters to reach this long par-4 in two shots. Two bunkers left of the green strongly suggest that the player use the sloping right-to-left fairway to access the green.

HOLE #6 “Short” – 123 yards – par 3


The original Short 6th, with Royal West Norfolk inspired sleepers fronting the green

The diminutive sixth might be the shortest hole at National, but with one of the largest and wildest greens on the property, it is as fun as it is maddening. From the tee, the greens for Sebonac and Eden are visible to the right. To say this putting surface on this Short template is heavily contoured is to understate the matter substantially. The large mound in the center sheds balls in all directions, as does the larger green itself. Any ball that fails to find (or hold) the green is likely to end up in a bunker – some more penal than others.

HOLE #7 “St. Andrews” – 505 yards – par 5

The first three shot hole at National is Macdonald’s tribute to the Road Hole at St. Andrews. A blind tee shot over a waste area is the first order of business. The bunkering down the right, which is largely invisible from the tee, will catch any shots that stray that way. The National is replete with interesting and unique terrain features, like the slash of a bunker and fronting mound. Two small bunkers in the area short of the green are so flat that they are invisible from a distance, adding to the uncertainty and challenge of the approach. The road bunker looms to the left of the elevated and large green, adding exponentially to the difficulty of judging and hitting an approach shot. A brilliant feature. The most formidable Road Hole bunker that Macdonald ever created, this monster has allegedly been softened over time. The green, while largely flat, slopes away on all sides and is harder to hold than it appears. A large, deep bunker runs down the entire right side of the green, ready to catch those who decline to challenge the Road bunker. An exceptional three-shot hole in every respect.

HOLE #8 “Bottle” – 407 yards – par 4

“A few such bunkers are excellent, diagonal or en echelon. Variety is what one wants in a hole properly laid out. Long carries should not be compulsory, but if taken, the player should have a distinct advantage. Where there are bunkers at varying distances from the tee, the player has the option of going around or over according to his judgment. Bear in mind that a course must be absorbing and interesting, and not built for crack players only.” – C.B. Macdonald, Scotland’s Gift: Golf

Another template that has been largely lost with time, Macdonald’s “Bottle” hole presents the options while playing over Shrubland Road. Take the straightforward tee shot down the right side, or attack the left side of the fairway and challenge the bunkers in return for a better view and angle into the green. The Bottle bunkers that bisect the 8th are unique in design and formidable in their defense of the hole and they play bigger than they look. Between the Bottle bunkers and the green, Macdonald installed a Principal’s Nose bunker complex. The green is substantially elevated with steep drops on three sides, and missing right is particularly penal.

HOLE #9 “Long” – 534 yards – par 5

The aptly named ninth is the longest hole at the National, which is perhaps surprising to some, since it measures only 540 yards. But what this hole lacks in length, it more than makes up for in other ways. The ideal line off the tee is to remain as far right as possible while still carrying the short set of bunkers. Shots hit down the left will run through the fairway and feed into the “Hell’s Half Acre” complex. Once past Hell’s Half Acre, a large green defended by steep bunkers short left and long right awaits. Certain pins will force the player to challenge the right bunkers and the side slope of the green, which will shed balls up to 25 yards away.

HOLE #10 “Shinnecock” – 445 yards – par 4

The 10th at National, drawing its name from its neighbor, borders Shinnecock Hills and turns the player back northward toward the clubhouse. It is a hole that ranks as a favorite among many. Two low profile cross bunkers encroaching into the fairway from either side add challenge to the tee shot. What looks like a rather straightforward approach shot from the safer, right side of the fairway is soon revealed to be more challenging than it first appears. Again, Macdonald maps the terrain to allow approaches to the green along safer, if at times less rewarding routes.  Here, if the proper angles are played, no hazards need be crossed. Shinnecock is punctuated by a wonderful green complex, to be sure.

HOLE #11 “Plateau” – 430 yards – par 4

A blind tee shot awaits the golfer at the eleventh hole, and care should be taken to avoid the left side as gathering bunkers collect shots hit in this area. The approach on eleven crosses back over the road, obscured here by a berm. A second Principal’s Nose bunker complex sits short of the green. Macdonald’s exceptional Double Plateau green speaks for itself, with bold front left and back right sections set at an angle and divided by a deep trough. The small bunkers arrayed around this green have a much larger footprint than their actual size. It’s very possible to putt into some of them. The large bunker behind guards the lower portion of the green and will catch balls that skirt through the middle of the plateaus.

HOLE #12 “Sebonac” – 459 yards – par 4

This two-shotter calls for a tee shot to an ample but angled fairway guarded by deep bunkers down the left side. Approach shots confront a small, slightly elevated green fraught with hazards on all sides. The lack of any background makes gauging distance difficult to a green that runs hard away to the right and rear.

HOLE #13 “Eden” – 166 yards – par 3

The third of the National’s three one-shot holes, Macdonald’s homage to the original at The Old Course at St. Andrews is fronted by the famous pond, which prevents players from having a go at the green with a putter. The result is a gorgeous hole. The Hill, Strath and Shelley bunkers are all present and accounted for, as is the namesake Eden bunker wrapping behind the green, which is particularly menacing. Tucked into a corner of the property, the Eden green is one of the most peaceful and beautiful spots in golf.

HOLE #14 “Cape” – 391 yards – par 4


The nerve-racking tee shot on the Cape 14th

“The fourteenth hole at the National Golf Links is called the Cape Hole, because the green extends out into the sea with which it is surrounded upon three sides. It is today one of the most individual holes in existence and there is probably not another one like it anywhere. In a straight line to the green over the water the distance is 296 yards. The direction of play however is to the left, over a neck of the sea and then over a sharp face of rising ground. The shortest way over the water, a carry of 120 yards, is the longest way to the hole, whereas the shortest way to the hole is to the right, a carry of 150 yards. This carry, may not in yards appear very formidable, but the sea hugging closely to the right of the fairgreen, extends such a compelling invitation to a slice, that as a moral hazard it has proven very disastrous to the golfer. One who has been accustomed to the ordinary hazard placed to penalize a slice can have no conception of the effect which this limitless expanse of water has; and especially so because it stands mercilessly guarding the straightest line to the hole. The ordinary echelon bunker asks no more that to be carried, but here, not only a good carry is demanded, but the most precise direction. The temptation to risk it is very great, for the line to the middle of the fairgreen at a distance of 210 yards, is but a shade to the left of this longest carry, and as at this point the fairgreen is but forty-seven yards in width, with a series of four large sand traps to catch a pull, the risk is mandatory upon the long driver. If the shot is successful, the player is left with a niblick pitch over a pebbly beach onto a flat green which from his position is one hundred feet in width. An over approach is disastrous, consequently, a far four to this hole, which by land is but a little over 300 yards, is very satisfying.” – C.B. Macdonald and H.J. Whigham, Golf Illustrated, 1914

HOLE #15 “Narrows” – 419 yards – par 4

“Composite first shot of the 14th or Perfection at North Berwick, with green and bunker guards like the 15th at Muirfield.” – C.B. Macdonald in Outing, 1906

Perhaps the most beautiful hole at National, the fifteenth plays out to a fairway flanked with bunkers on all sides. Missing the fairway into the left bunkers cut into the hillside all but guarantees a missed green. Macdonald’s strategic bunkering including one in the middle of the fairway some 60 yards short of the green, which is offset slightly to the left and is well guarded. This is the most heavily bunkered hole at National. The green slopes substantially from back to front, aiding with approaches but making putting difficult. Long is a brutal miss here, as the player must not only confront the deep bunker, but the slope of the green running away. Once again, Macdonald gave the player no close background for reference, and the horizon look only adds to the challenge.

HOLE #16 “Punchbowl” – 476 yards – par 4


A gallery follows a match up the fairway on the 16th

An Alps/Punchbowl – this surely must be heaven. The 16th hole begins with a tee shot up a rising fairway, ideally reaching the level portion of the ground beyond the first crest. Straying too far to the right, however, will lead a ball to a deep hollow, similar to the feature on the second hole.  While all shots into the sixteenth green are blind and uphill, an approach from the bottom of the hollow is doubly so. It also shares a Sahara-like bunker feature with the second hole, visible from short of the green. The putting surface itself is tiny, although the surrounding punchbowl features contain shots that miss. Having cleared the fronting bunkers, the player must still contend with the ridge running from the back of the hazard to the front of the green, which will deflect balls in random directions. Two bunkers set high into the face of the left hill provide a formidable hazard for shots that are far enough offline to deserve such a fate. An incomparable hole.

HOLE #17 “Peconic” – 370 yards – par 4


From the tee, the rugged Leven 17th rolling downhill

“The view over Peconic Bay is one of the loveliest in the world.” – Bernard Darwin

Indeed. The penultimate hole at NGLA is a gorgeous in every respect, but it is also a world class short par-4 Leven template. From the tee, the player is forced to lay up short of the two fairway bunkers or drive over them to the left. This hole is reachable for longer hitters. On approach from the right, the player confronts an odd sandy berm that runs the length of the green and hides parts of the putting surface. The berm also hides the small pot bunkers, which stand ready to catch any shot left short. This defense is a unique feature, and one that can’t be found elsewhere.

HOLE #18 “Home” – 501 yards – par 5

“Finally there is, I think, the finest eighteenth hole in all the world.” – Bernard Darwin

Playing far longer than its listed yardage, the three shot eighteenth hole plays back up to the clubhouse with full views of Peconic Bay. While headed up the home fairway, one appreciates what Bernard Darwin meant when he wrote of the beauty of golf along Peconic Bay. In approaching the green, the left side affords the better view, the right the better angle of play. The green provides ample room for a ground approach but falls away rather steeply on all sides – long does not work well here. Cresting the hill and putting out, the first time player senses that the game will never be quite the same for them again.

“There are no more beautiful golfing vistas in all the world than those from the National Golf Club.” – C.B. Macdonald

Charles Blair Macdonald had panache, but he was also a man of purpose. These two sides of his personality are reflected in the design of National Golf Links. Looking at the aerial and ground photographs, one can’t help but notice that there is quite a bit going on. The experience of playing the course is similar. So much to see and take in. The wealth of artistic features should not be mistaken for mindless clutter though. Every mound and bunker has a purpose, every contour a use. Taken together, these features combine to form holes that have asked players complex questions for more than a century. The answers do not come easily. Repeat play and careful study are required of those whose aim is to discover all of NGLA’s secrets.

Macdonald was not an architect for hire at National Golf Links. This was his club. He was deeply invested in its success financially, intellectually and emotionally. He was not just building the next in a long line of golf courses. He was creating a masterwork. That devotion showed in the product of his work in Darwin’s day, and its timelessness endures.

For those wishing to dive even deeper into the history of the club, more knowledgeable men have already covered that ground. I cannot recommend highly enough George Bahto’s The Evangelist of Golf: The Story of Charles Blair Macdonald, Chris Millard’s NGLA club history book, and Macdonald’s own Scotland’s Gift: Golf.

Copyright 2019 – Jason Way, GeekedOnGolf


4 Comments

LinksGems Shinnecock Hills GC Photo Tour

JON CAVALIER’S LINKSGEMS 2018 U.S. OPEN PREVIEW

Shinnecock Hills Golf Club

The rich tradition of championship golf at Shinnecock Hills continues this summer.  The collaboration between Superintendent Jon Jennings and Coore & Crenshaw has brought out every ounce of the brilliance of William Flynn’s Long Island masterpiece.  Shinny is ready to test the best.

Once again, Jon Cavalier has provided us with a hole-by-hole preview featuring his stellar photography and commentary.  My course doodle has been included for your reference, and additional resources are at the end for an even deeper dive.  Enjoy!

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SHINNECOCK HILLS GOLF CLUB

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(click on image mosaics to enlarge)

No. 1 – 399yds – Par-4

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A relatively easy dogleg right with an ample landing area to open, and certainly one of the better birdie opportunities on the course.  However, long is serious trouble – bogey or worse lurks behind this green.

No. 2 – 252yds – Par-3

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A new back tee installed for the 2018 Open stretches this monster uphill par-3 to over 250 yards to a green guarded by bunkers on both sides and a false front.  Make par here and you’ll gain on the field for sure.

No. 3 – 500yds – Par-4

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This par-4 has been lengthened via a new back tee and narrowed from the left side, bringing the bunkers on the right very much into play.  The open green slopes mostly back-to-front but abruptly falls away behind.

No. 4 – 475yds – Par-4

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“Pump House,” so named for the outbuildings the hole doglegs around, has seen its fairway tightened up.  Its real challenge is the undulating green, which features a false front and falls away on all sides.

No. 5 – 589yds – Par-5

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“Montauk” is the first three-shotter of the round, but rest assured, many will be going for this green in two despite the narrow fairway and the large bunker guarding the dogleg. Distance control is key, as once again, long is dead.

No. 6 – 491yds – Par-4

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“Pond” features the only water on the course, a retention pond unlikely to see a single ball this week, and a scruffy waste area right of the fairway that will.  The green is among the toughest at Shinny.

No. 7 – 189yds – Par-3

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This Redan, built in 1931 by William Flynn on the site of C.B. Macdonald’s original, is a hole as intimidating as it is beautiful.  Playing at a more oblique angle and with a smaller opening than most makes this tilted green incredibly difficult to hit, hold, chip to and putt.  Any misses to the right will be lucky to save bogey.  In 2004, Kevin Stadler putted from 2-feet into a bunker. Buckle up.

No. 8 – 439yds – Par-4

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“Lowlands” is likely the flattest hole at Shinny, and at “only” 439 yards, players will be looking for birdie here before the brutal 9-10-11 stretch.  Beware the green though, which is among the most undulating on the course.

No. 9 – 485yds – Par-4

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“Ben Nevis,” named for the highest mountain in the UK, is one of the world’s greatest uphill par-4s, and the start of the heart of this golf course.  A dogleg left at the clubhouse to a heaving fairway, and then up to a green seemingly perched on the edge of a cliff, mere paces from the steps leading in to Stanford White’s iconic shingle-style clubhouse.Par is a good score on this breathtaking hole.

No. 10 – 415yds – Par-4

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The aptly named “Westward Ho” plays to a fairway cut through a dune hiding a precipitous drop, a left turn and a green with 50 yards of false front.  Short is dead, long is deader; better be dialed in on distance.

No. 11 – 159yds – Par-3

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The 11th at Shinnecock has been called many things: Hill Head (its official name), the shortest par-5 in golf, and the best uphill par-3 in the world, among others.  What it has never been called, is easy.  The green sits atop a small dune ridge exposed to the wind and falls off to all sides.  Standing on the tee, the landing area looks impossibly small.  A hole that could determine the Open winner.

No. 12 – 469 – Par-4

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After surviving the crucible at 9-10-11, players will be looking for birdie at this downwind, downhill par-4.  Playing across Tuckahoe Road, the approach is slightly uphill to an open green.  Look for big drives here.

No. 13 – 374yds – Par-4

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“Road Side” once again changes direction and plays back over Tuckahoe Road toward the clubhouse.  The shortest non-par-3 on the course, the 13th is a prime candidate to be shortened to a drivable par-4.

No. 14 – 519yds – Par-4

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One of my favorite holes, “Thom’s Elbow” has been lengthened by a whopping 75 yards, turning this well-bunkered two-shotter into a monster that should require driver off the tee from the entire field.  The saddle-shaped green at the 14th is more receptive than most, and will direct balls from its flanks to the middle.  Shots hit too firmly will scoot through and will leave a difficult up-and-down.

No. 15 – 409yds – Par-4

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The 15th is one of the most beautiful holes in golf, its tee set high on the glacial moraine that serves as the backbone of this astonishing golf course.  Finding the fairway is critical, as the green is small, sloped and well-guarded by six terraced bunkers in front (one of the few greens fronted by bunkers at Shinnecock).  Simply put, this is just a breathtakingly beautiful golf hole.

No. 16 – 616yds – Par-5

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Shinnecock, the eponymous 16th, begins our home stretch.  The second of Shinny’s two par-5s, this hole has a new tee which adds 76 yards in length, but downwind, players can still have a go at this green.  As with so many holes at Shinnecock, the defenses of this hole are found around and on the green.  Five bunkers guard the layup zone and ten more guard the green.  Most players will happily take par here.

No. 17 – 180yds – Par-3

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A devilishly tricky one-shotter frequently buffeted by confounding crosswinds and featuring a pushed up green with no background to help with judging distance, the 17th may well determine this week’s winner.

No. 18 – 485yds – Par-4

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A new tee 35 yards back brings the bunker at the dogleg back into play, but Home is all about the approach and the wickedly sloped green, which will return anything indifferent 20 yards back into the fairway.

And there you have it – all 18 holes at one of America’s very best championship venues, an iconic piece of golden age architecture.  Hope you enjoyed the tour, and that you enjoy the 118th United States Open!

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Bonus Aerials

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MORE ON SHINNECOCK HILLS

 


MORE LINKSGEMS TOURS

 

 

Copyright 2018 – Jason Way, GeekedOnGolf


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Whippoorwill Club Tour by Jon Cavalier

WHIPPOORWILL CLUB – A COURSE TOUR & APPRECIATION

Armonk, NY – Charles Banks

Whippoorwill, in my view, is one of the most underrated clubs in the United States.  I played Whippoorwill in the fall, and I found the course to have a distinct flavor, and one worth the time to display.

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The 6th at Whippoorwill – surely one of the great par 5s on the East Coast

As you’ll see in these photos, I played Whippoorwill on a cloudy October day on which the remnants of a Carribean hurricane were scheduled to blow through the area, hence the cloud cover.  Nevertheless, there were Whippoorwill members out trying to sneak their rounds in, and I found them all to be very welcoming.  Though I played solo, I played several holes with three different members each, and all were very hospitable and justifiably proud of their golf course.

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Fall at Whippoorwill

Whippoorwill is a Charles Banks design and is generally considered to be his masterpiece.  I’ve had the great pleasure of playing several Banks courses, including Forsgate, The Knoll, Rock Spring, Essex County, Cavalier, the fourth nine at Montclair and the excellent Tamarack (which is minutes from Whippoorwill and possesses some of the boldest templates I’ve seen), and Whippoorwill is in a class by itself.  While this course is smack in the middle of one of the most golf rich areas in the world, the degree to which it is overshadowed by its neighbors borders on criminal.  This is simply a fantastic golf course, and it contains one of the most dramatic and memorable stretches of holes that I’ve seen.  I have yet to meet anyone who has played Whippoorwill and who does not rate it among their favorite places to play golf.

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Whippoorwill’s Biarritz

I hope you enjoy the tour.

Whippoorwill Club

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Although the original course at Whippoorwill was designed by Donald Ross, the present iteration was built in 1928 by Charles Banks, using the principles and templates he learned from Seth Raynor, passed down by C.B. Macdonald.  The four template par-3s (redan, short, eden and biarritz) are present.  Banks moved a great deal of earth to get this course built, but the result feels natural, and the course suits its surrounds.  You can read more about Whippoorwill’s history here.

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Though I actually teed off on 10 and played the back nine first (which some might argue is a more interesting way to play the course), I’ll run the tour through the layout from 1 to 18.

Hole 1 – 377yds – Par 4

Whippoorwill opens rather gently, given the contrast of what is to come.  Much like The Creek’s first few holes hide the drama that begins with the 6th, Whippoorwill’s first three holes play over more gently rolling parkland.  The dogleg left first hole provides a generous fairway for the player’s opening ball, with only a miss right exacting a high price.

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The horizon green at the first is typical Banks, with a deep bunker front and left, and a steep falloff behind.

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The further left the tee shot, the more open the approach to the green becomes.

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This view from behind the left side of the green shows that even the more subtle holes at Whippoorwill have elevation change.

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Hole 2 – 346yds – Par 4

Most consider the second, a short, downhill par 4, to be the easiest hole on the course.  An aggressive tee shot will attempt to carry the right fairway bunkers, while the conservative play will be short of the left hand bunker.

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A short approach to a pushed up and attractively bunkered green is all that remains after a solid tee shot.  This is the smallest green on the course.

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The view from behind the second green.

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Hole 3 – 485yds – Par 5

This short, uphill dogleg left par 5 is the last of the “easy” opening holes at Whippoorwill.  The courses does a fine job of allowing the player to find his swing over these holes before entering the gauntlet.

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The uphill approach to this half-par hole.

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The third fairway bleeds seamlessly into the green, encouraging long second shots and running third shots.

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Hole 4 – 159yds – Par 3

And so it begins.  This “short” template par three begins one of the most exciting stretches of golf I’ve played.  It’s downhill, and the continuous bunkering is reminiscent of other “short” templates, including the 16th at Sleepy Hollow.

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Misses left at 4 can end up anywhere.

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Hole 5 – 453yds – Par 4

This is a truly gorgeous hole, and a standout par 4 at Whippoorwill.  The ideal line is left of center, where a well struck ball will take the slope and bound down the fairway and around the dogleg.  Anything to the right of center typically ends up in the right rough, or worse, as the drop-off to the right of the playing corridor is extreme.

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The approach on 5 is typically a mid iron back up to a raised green, or a long-iron or hybrid from a downhill lie.  The front left bunker is HUGE.

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Looking back up the fairway on 5 illustrates the magnificent terrain that Banks had to work with, and tame, to construct this course.

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Hole 6 – 556yds – Par 5

One of my favorite par 5s in golf, and one of the most spectacular holes in this region.  The 6th starts off rather innocuously, with a tee shot over a steep rise in the fairway.  After climbing this hill, the golfer is treated to . . .

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. . . an amazing sight.  The size of the rolls and banks in this fairway and the steepness of the decline down to the green are, quite frankly, shocking.  This hole is simply a blast to play.

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A long view to the green from left of the fairway.

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They called him Steamshovel for a reason.  This green appears carved from stone.  That Banks built this hole nearly 90 years ago is amazing.  Perhaps the most surprising aspect of this hole is that despite its extreme nature, it remains very playable for all skill levels.

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The 6th green is sloped back to front and is bisected by a ridge running laterally across the green.  This pin placement comes with a backstop, but the hole becomes more difficult if the pin is back.

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Hole 7 – 427yds – Par 4

This is Banks’ version of the punchbowl template, but with his own twists, the first of which comes in the form of a downhill tee shot over a pond to a fairway that bends nearly 90 degrees left.  The 7th tee at Whippoorwill, with the 6th green and fairway behind and above you, and the 7th fairway below, is one of the more picturesque spots in golf.

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The approach on 7 is uphill and narrows considerably as the fairway climbs to the punchbowl green.  The granite walls press inward and make for an intimidating, but exciting, shot.

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The mouth to Banks’ punchbowl green is open in the front but guarded closely by two large mounds that will deflect low or running shots.

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Having scaled the 7th hole, a look back down the fairway brings a sense of accomplishment.

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Hole 8 – 226yds – Par 3

I’ve long thought that Banks’ bold style was most suited to the adaptation of the biarritz, and the 8th at Whippoorwill is a fine example of that.  This hole calls for a long tee shot over a road to one of the most beautiful green sites on the golf course.  In terms of sheer beauty, this biarritz ranks behind only the 5th at Fishers Island among those I’ve played.

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The long biarritz green, with waterfall behind for effect.

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Hole 9 – 373yds – Par 4

The 9th hole closes the dramatic stretch that began with the 4th, and this steeply uphill two-shotter is no slouch.

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This wide shot from below the 9th tee illustrates the steepness of the terrain.

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Even the green is elevated, requiring one last climb.