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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

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The vast majority of private clubs convey status at the local level, stamping a new member with the instant gratification of being a big fish in a small water hazard. The bigger the hazard, say major metropolitan area versus small rural city, the greater the prestige of membership. More people know that you belong--and they don't.  
But there exists in America a number of private clubs that are so stratospheric in prestige and prominence that their cachet exceeds any geographical or   political boundaries, their desirability exceeds any limitations. Their membership is a distillation of personality, personal achievement and playing ability drawn from around the country. Their courses are among the best and, in some cases, the most famous. Their clubhouse facilities are impeccable. They are the American Beauties.  
This package of prestige ultimately conveys to members an extraordinary status in the golf world--that of envied elite. To be sure, these golfing anointed didn't become members by calling the manager and asking for an application. They were invited, summoned to the altar, knighted even.  
So which are the best, most desirable, most drop-dead American Beauties? Which clubs have that magical mix, that aching allure?  
These are my choices, my Top 10, made for Cigar Aficionado. The choices reflect more than 20 years of intimate involvement in the game as a professional golf writer, one privileged enough to play the best courses, dine in the best clubhouses, socialize with the members who have reached the top of the pyramid.  
In appraising these clubs, it is not enough to simply evaluatethe golf course. Naturally, the courses must be top-notch, and more often than not they've been laid out by some of history's best designers. Some host major golf tournaments. But the whole package must be considered. What is the overall ambience of the club? How does it feel to walk through the front door, to walk into the locker room, to take a seat at the bar, to talk to a member? And who are those members? The atmosphere must be thick with history and understated elegance. There must be a sense of devotion to the game, a devotion to maintaining its standards of fair play and etiquette. So now on to the choices, in order, of the Top 10 golf clubs in America. Bagpipes, if you please.    
Seminole Golf Club may be the purest expression of the game in America. Its course, by legendary Scottish designer Donald Ross, is delightfully old-fashioned, with a wonderful set of greens and a perfect setting against the Atlantic Ocean. Its clubhouse is traditional Florida-Spanish. The air seems left over from a different era. Its men's locker room is without question the finest in the game, its walls lined with dark, old wooden lockers and pictures and placards that depict the history of the game in America. The names that surround you are Bobby Jones, Gene Sarazen, Sam Snead, Byron Nelson and Ben Hogan. Seminole became Hogan's winter digs and he proclaimed the sixth hole as the most perfect par 4 in the United States. His locker was No. 50.  
The members at Seminole have one thing in common--a palpable love of the game. Former United States Golf Association presidents Jim Hand, Stuart Bloch, Bill Campbell and Buzz Taylor are members. So, too, are prominent amateurs like Buddy Marucci, Vinny Giles, Dick Siderowf and Spider Miller. Some of America's most active corporate players--IBM chief Louis Gerstner and General Electric CEO Jack Welch--are also members. But as one insider puts it, "If you are the chairman of IBM, you will get into Augusta National. You might get into Seminole."  
Seminole is for golfers who deeply understand the shot values and character values of the game. It may have the best playing membership in the United States. Taken as a whole, it is the perfect club. Jimmy Dunne, a Seminole member, is a New York investment banker and an avid golfer (and avid cigar smoker) who has played all the best courses all over the world. His assessment: "It's the greatest golf club in the world. Period."    
For one week in April every year, Augusta National Golf Club is the most visible club in the world. For the other 51 weeks it is a Pinkerton-guarded sanctuary shut off from the outside world and held exclusively for its very exclusive membership.  
As the host of the Masters golf tournament, one of the world's four majors, Augusta National is ingrained in the national consciousness. For the 40,000 or so spectators (Masters officials call them patrons) who get to walk the course during the week, and for the millions at home watching on television, Augusta is nothing less than a cathedral to the game. Indeed, when you walk down the 10th hole with the large pine trees flanking the fairway, it can seem nothing less than Notre Dame cathedral itself.  
Avid followers of tournament golf in America can tell you the length and par of each of the holes on the back nine, can recount the triumphs and disasters that have befallen the greats who have played in the Masters. Most people can tell you that the club was founded by Bobby Jones and designed by Jones and Alister MacKenzie. Many can tell you that Jack Nicklaus won six Masters, that Arnold Palmer won four and that Gene Sarazen's double eagle 2 on the par-5 15th hole in 1935 was the shot that established the Masters as a major tournament.  
That's the public Augusta National. The private Augusta National is one of the most relaxing places on earth, with an exquisitely manicured course and a par-3 short course that may have no rival for sheer beauty anywhere. It is a club whose membership is rife with some of America's top corporate leaders (IBM's Gerstner is a member here, too), but the atmosphere is neither snooty nor stifling. Members and their guests may stay in the private cottages on the grounds. To be sure, decorum is maintained and no one walks around in cutoffs and a T-shirt. But there is a very casual, friendly air. If you meet a member, you had better remember his name, because he will remember yours.  
The name to remember for membership in Augusta National is Hootie Johnson, a South Carolina banker who is the Masters tournament chairman. He is ruler of the club and arbiter of all things that happen there, including an invitation for membership. If you get a letter from Hootie Johnson on Augusta National stationery, you have been blessed.    
For decades Pine Valley was generally considered the most difficult golf course in the United States, maybe the world. In the early 1900s Philadelphia businessman and sportsman George Crump went looking for land near Philadelphia that could accommodate an absolutely first-class golf course. In southern New Jersey, he found that land, a rolling plot of scrub forest sitting atop deep layers of sand.  
From this land, Crump, with the advice of such architects as A. W. Tillinghast, H. S. Colt and William Flynn, fashioned a marvelous and treacherous test of golf that became a challenge to all the best players. Its vast waste areas of deep sand bunkers and undulating greens still stand the test of time, even if modern golf equipment and maintenance procedures have softened the course a bit.  
Pine Valley's fame and formidability have drawn a truly national membership over the years, and it may number as many as 1,000 now, with a huge waiting list. You have to be able to play the game to have any hope of membership. Hackers need not apply. The president is Gordon Brewer, a USGA Senior Amateur champion. Former amateur great and current Senior PGA Tour player Jay Sigel is a member.  
Like Augusta National, Pine Valley is self-contained, with cottages on the grounds and all meals served on the premises. Like Augusta, it also has a beautiful short course. Unlike Augusta, it doesn't host a major professional golf tournament, but an invitation to the Crump Cup, a mid-amateur event, is highly prized. Pine Valley can feel a little too corporate at times, but the course feels mighty special.    
The funny thing about the Shinnecock Hills Golf Club is that by the 1960s it was nearly forgotten, a relic from the beginnings of the game in America. Now, it is again one of the most desirable of all clubs.  
Its rediscovery came in 1986 when it hosted its second United States Open Golf Championship, 90 years after it hosted its first. What was rediscovered was a magnificent links-style course overlooked from a magnificent Stanford White clubhouse. Shinnecock has two of the greatest vistas in the game--one looking from the porch over the course, the other from the course facing the clubhouse.  
Shinnecock Hills was one of the five founding members of the U.S. Golf Association, in 1894. Despite that instant prestige it was known for decades only to the cognoscenti of the game because of its relatively remote location on the eastern end of Long Island and its decidedly low profile.  
This is a real family golf club, a club in which women hold equal membership rights. For the most part its membership is drawn from wealthy New Yorkers who summer in the Hamptons and from locally prominent businesspeople. The club was looking for members in the 1970s but now has a substantial waiting list.    
Sandy Tatum, a Cypress member and former president of the U.S. Golf Association, calls Cypress Point the Sistine Chapel of golf. He has good reason.  
This rocky headland just north of the Pebble Beach Resort is one of the most beautiful sites in the world for a golf course, and Augusta National designer MacKenzie did a superb job of finding the holes rather than creating them. The massive par-3 16th, played across a chasm with the roiling Pacific below, is one of the most famous holes in golf. Little known is that the preceding 15th is another par 3 across a chasm and an exceptional hole in its own right.  
For many years Cypress Point was, like Augusta, publicly known for one week a year when it was one of the three courses that hosted the Pebble Beach AT&T (née Crosby) National Pro-Am. But when the PGA Tour demanded that Cypress Point diversify its membership in 1990, the club refused to honor the PGA's timetable and withdrew as a host site. Now, its public viewing is limited to tourists, who can still cruise through the property on 17-Mile Drive. There are golfers who even jump out of their cars and hit balls off the 16th tee just to say that they did it.  
Even if the holes weren't so good, the views would be outstanding. Black-tailed deer walk the fairways, casually chomping on the rough. A seal may bark during your backswing as you play the ocean holes. Seabirds may trill as you sacrifice another ball to the Pacific. The old California colonial clubhouse is appropriately worn, aged like a prime steak. Like Tatum, you occasionally may feel like genuflecting when you play Cypress Point.    
About 25 miles west of Chicago's bustling Loop is the Chicago Golf Club, a windswept prairie of old-fashioned golf with an old-fashioned clubhouse and a generally older membership. Chicago has the feel of the old inland courses of the British Isles, always has, and probably always will. That's exactly what the members want.  
Chicago is another one of the founding members of the U.S. Golf Association, and contends that on its original site in 1890 it constructed the first 18-hole course in America, edging out Shinnecock Hills. Charles Blair Macdonald and his right-hand man, Seth Raynor, laid out old and new (1922) Chicago Golf Club courses. While the property is mostly flat, odd mounds, deep sand bunkers and tall fescue rough combine to give the course a links feel even though it is about as far from the sea as you can get.  
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.  
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