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10 American Beauties

All golf clubs claim prestige, but these are the 10 american beauties. The clubhouses ooze tradition and the courses challenge anyone lucky enough to play them
Jeff Williams
From the Print Edition:
J.P. Morgan, Mar/Apr 00

(continued from page 1)

Macdonald learned about golf when he attended St. Andrews University in Scotland, and many holes are tributes to holes found on Scottish courses. The 207-yard par-3 seventh hole, known as Redan, is Macdonald's version of the Redan Hole at North Berwick, outside of Edinburgh. The sixth hole has a pair of bunkers shaped like nostrils, Macdonald's ode to the Principal's Nose bunker at St. Andrews.  

The clubhouse has a reverential quality. All around are pictures and scorecards from the greats of the game. If some great golf clubs have a single thread, it's that the immortal amateur Bobby Jones played them, and Jones played the Chicago Golf Club. If it was good enough for Bobby Jones, it has to be good enough for you.    

NO. 7 SAN FRANCISCO GOLF CLUB, SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA  

Just down the road from the San Francisco Golf Club is the Olympic Club, a sprawling 36-hole complex with a sprawling clubhouse. Olympic garners all the glory of San Francisco golf, having been host to U.S. Open Championships. And that's exactly the way the members of the San Francisco Golf Club want it.  

San Francisco is one of A. W. Tillinghast's first courses, and many say that it is his best. On a delightfully rolling piece of property close to downtown San Francisco, Tillinghast created a memorable golf experience. The seventh hole is one of the best par 3s in the country. It's known as the Duel Hole. Its location, in a small valley, was the site, in 1859, of a pistol duel between a U.S. Senator and a California Supreme Court Justice. (The Justice won the duel.)  

That historical tidbit notwithstanding, the tradition here is one of golf. The club fairly reeks of it, although its membership isn't a bunch of old fuddy-duddies. Women are given equal rights and the club looks to keep its membership young and vital.   Among its traditions is a Scottish golf day, when members are encouraged to dress the part of ancient linksmen--knickers and all.

Some of the furniture is creakingly old and the woodwork in the clubhouse seems well polished by the loving caresses of the members. The showers are a hoot, the huge heads providing a waterfall at the end of a round. San Francisco Golf Club is eternally precious and endlessly enjoyable. And Bobby Jones played here. Jones's son, Bobby Jones Jr., is a current member of San Francisco Golf Club, as well.    

NO. 8 MERION GOLF CLUB, ARDMORE, PENNSYLVANIA  

Driving off the first tee of the East Course at Merion is one of the more interesting experiences in the game. When the dining terraces are full, you have a built-in gallery that provides a continuous murmur until you address the ball. Suddenly, there is a loud silence, an awkward moment when a first-time player realizes he is the focus of attention. By the time he finishes his follow-through, the lunch chatter resumes.  

Merion is a 36-hole complex west of downtown Philadelphia, a club for those well-connected in the Philadelphia social and business communities. It's a family club in which both the men and the women are very active and accomplished. It has a history of holding U.S. Opens, though its short length has rendered it obsolete. Bobby Jones (there's that name again) completed the old Grand Slam on the East Course at Merion in 1930 by winning the U.S. Amateur Championship.  

The East Course is a gem and the West Course is merely delightful, both courses tucked into a wealthy suburban setting. They were laid out by the little-known Hugh Wilson, who spent time in the British Isles. It was thought that the wicker baskets that sit atop the pins at Merion were a quirk that Wilson brought back from Great Britain, but he denied it and the history of the tradition has been lost.  

There is another tradition you would do well to follow. Don't wear your hat into the locker room or the dining room. In Old World style, it's frowned upon.    

NO. 9 WINGED FOOT GOLF CLUB, MAMARONECK, NEW YORK  

To get another historical fact out of the way: Bobby Jones won the 1929 U.S. Open here.  

Now that the Jones Factor is established, Winged Foot Golf Club, in New York City's northern suburbs, is a terrific 36-hole complex with a delightful stone clubhouse and one of the friendliest locker rooms in the game. Winged Foot also has the strongest playing membership in the New York City area.  

Winged Foot is certainly the busiest of the clubs in our Top 10. Its members are devoted and hardy, the most avid of which will play on the snow-free but frostbitten days of winter. More than 25 percent of Winged Foot's members are single-digit handicappers--a real accomplishment considering the difficulty of these Tillinghast courses, which feature troublesome greens and tough sand bunkering as well as a bountiful collection of trees. Its challenge is why U.S. Opens and PGA Championships have been contested on the West Course.  

Everything about Winged Foot speaks of golf, even if a swimming pool was added a few years ago for family considerations. The Grill Room is a dark, wooden place, with plaques for all the club's major competitions lining the walls. The stone terrace in front of the Grill is filled during the warm months with members settling up their bets and guests on corporate outings, or in charity tournaments which outnumber the business outings 7 to 1. Winged Foot just might be too busy for some, but there is no denying the charm of the clubhouse nor the challenge of the golf courses.    

NO. 10 LOS ANGELES COUNTRY CLUB  

An avid New York golfer once told me that there was only one good thing about Los Angeles--the Los Angeles Country Club. While many will consider his a narrow view of L.A., few would question that this 36-hole club, traversed by Wilshire Boulevard, is the best club in town.  

These courses, designed by George Thomas, sit smack in the middle of an urban metroplex, with Century City to the south, Sunset Boulevard to the north and Wilshire running right through it. The club makes every effort to remain low-key, and Hollywood celebrities are not courted for the membership roll, which is generally made up of prominent businesspeople and the best players in the city.  

Los Angeles Country Club has a surprisingly long history, going back to 1897 when its first course was crudely built. On its present site are some superb holes and an elegant clubhouse with guest facilities. The long par-3 11th hole of the North Course has the Los Angeles skyline as its backdrop. The club maintains a small herd of Colombian black-tailed deer on the property. Members regularly catalogue the various species of birds that pass through.  

Once the site for the Los Angeles Open golf tournament, the club now maintains a low profile. A persistent rumor is that the USGA has inquired about holding a U.S. Open on the North Course, but the club prefers to retain its status as the perfect urban retreat. Neither the club nor USGA officials will go on record about this issue.  

There you have it, 10 clubs that are the most desirable and difficult to join in the United States. They are perfect specimens of what a golf club should be, for at the center of their clubby souls, the game reigns supreme.  

Jeff Williams writes on golf for Newsday.


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