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America's Golf Gateway

Some of the country's first courses were built at the turn of the twentieth century on long island, and one of them, Shinnecock, will host this year's U.S. Open tournament
Jeff Williams
From the Print Edition:
Alec Baldwin, May/June 2004

(continued from page 1)

"Think about it," says Dunne. "What other part of the world can you play 36 holes a day easily on truly great golf courses? You can do it easily on Long Island. That's what sets Long Island apart, in my opinion. It has great golf courses, it has a lot of them, and they are so close together. You don't really get that anywhere else, not in Scotland or Ireland or places like Chicago or Monterey. You can play for days on Long Island and be playing great golf courses."

The history of golf on Long Island, which traces its roots to Shinnecock, begins before the turn of the twentieth century, and that alone perhaps explains why there are so many great courses on the island. Though some golf was being played in the United States on small, crude layouts as far back as the 1870s, it took a winter vacation to France by several distinguished members of the Southampton summer colony to foster the dream of the game on Long Island, to plant the seed for Shinnecock. William K. Vanderbilt, Duncan Cryder and Edward Mead, pillars of business and industry in New York City, took a holiday to Biarritz in the winter of 1890-91. Biarritz was a fashionable place for the royalty of Europe, with a grand Atlantic coast beach and access to the skiing slopes of the Pyrenees.

During their winter holiday, the boys from Southampton heard that a golf course was being built under the direction of Willie Dunn, a professional from Scotland, and decided to see what this game of golf was about. Dunn showed them the layout, hit some shots for them, and invited them to duff it around themselves. The boys from Southampton were smitten and decided that all their wealthy friends from the summer colony would be, too. When they returned from France, they rounded up their fellow moguls, regaled them with the virtues of golf, and formed a club to build a course on former Shinnecock Indian reservation land. They imported another Scotch professional, Willie Davis, to lay out and oversee the construction of the course in the summer of 1891. Davis, then the professional at the Royal Montreal Golf Club in Montreal, gave the club a 12-hole golf course. Ironically, that's as many holes as the penurious budget would allow.

The game was an immediate hit with the privileged patrons of the summer colony, particularly among women. Among the club's many distinguishing elements, it has granted women full membership status from the start. They played in such great numbers at Shinnecock that a nine-hole course was built just for them. Willie Dunn was brought over from Europe to expand the first course into 18 holes in 1895.

That previous winter, Shinnecock and four other golf clubs formed the United States Golf Association. The Newport Golf Club in Rhode Island hosted the first U.S. Open, in 1895. Shinnecock hosted its first Open the following year. In the early 1910s, the club engaged C. B. Macdonald, who had laid out the Chicago Golf Club, to strengthen its course. When a county highway was expanded through the Shinnecock property, Philadelphia architects Howard Toomey and William Flynn were called in to design a virtually new course, which opened in 1931. That's the layout that now hosts U.S. Opens in the modern era, and the one that has come to symbolize the historic nature of Long Island golf.

Within a few years of Shinnecock's original construction, others on Long Island had gotten wind of the game and were forming clubs. The Queens County Golf Club was founded in Glen Cove in 1896, and when that area of Queens became part of Nassau County, the name was changed to the Nassau Country Club. Its original members designed the first course; the present layout is the work of prolific Long Island architect Devereux Emmet and a subsequent reworking by Herbert Strong. Jim Maiden was the professional at Nassau when Bobby Jones came there to practice for the Open championship in 1923. (Maiden's brother Stewart was Jones's mentor at the Atlanta Athletic Club.) Jones complained to Jim Maiden that his putting was off, and Maiden retrieved an old putter from his shop. Jones immediately began holing putts and took the putter with him to Inwood, where he won the Open. He never gave it back.

Not far away, the operators of the Garden City Company decided that golf would be a fine amenity for its idyllic community in the leafy suburbs 20 miles to the east of Manhattan, about 70 miles west of Shinnecock. Emmet was commissioned to do a nine-hole layout that opened in 1897. It was expanded to 18 holes the following year. The course was turned into a private club in 1899 and hasn't changed much since. Known as the Garden City Golf Club, it's an English parkland course in the middle of an upscale village with an old clubhouse that has metal lockers with screen-like doors, worn carpet, the unmistakable aroma of cigars and the overriding sense of maleness. It's a men's club, with many of the members also belonging to nearby Garden City Country Club or Cherry Valley Country Club so that their wives have a place to play.

The Men's Club, as it is known to its members and the village people, has been the host to four U.S. Amateur championships and a Walker Cup. Bobby Jones walked these fairways. Its most celebrated member was the Australian-born Walter Travis, who won the 1900 Amateur at Garden City and was known as a great putter and ardent cigar smoker. An invitation to play the Men's Club is an enticement to step back to another era, nearer to Old Tom Morris than Tiger Woods. It's another one of those places where you get quieter.

It's remarkable how quiet you can get when you arrive at National Links of America, just north of Shinnecock Hills Golf Club, with several holes that abut its neighboring club. It is on this rolling sandy terrain that C. B. Macdonald found his St. Andrews. It's not exactly the Old Course, but it is an amalgam of all that Macdonald found great about Scottish and British courses when he was a student at St. Andrews University in the 1870s. He was a strong-minded, stubborn and bombastic man, and a great player. Macdonald conceived the notion of "transatlantic translation." By that he meant he would build a course in America that replicated the style, strategy and principles of the great courses he had seen abroad. It was at this site on Peconic Bay that Macdonald set about to "build a course that would serve as an incentive to the elevation of the game in America." When he opened the course in 1911, that's exactly what it did.

"National is what really brought the game from Scotland to America," says golf architect Rees Jones, who has designed two courses near Shinnecock and National—the Atlantic Golf Club and The Bridge, both built in the last 15 years. "The other courses that were built at that time were pretty rudimentary and took in whatever natural features they could. But I am always fascinated when I play National. Macdonald really brought your head into the game there. You really have to think about what you are doing. I was working for my father [Robert Jones] in the 1960s when we designed a new irrigation system for the National, so I got pretty closely acquainted with it and I absolutely love the place."


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