Golf club membership is more than access to a private course, more than an ability to play the game at an accepted level, more than a hefty income statement. Golf club membership is an indicator of individual status and an entry into the inner sanctum of the privileged few. You have been accepted. You have been anointed. You have arrived.
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.
NO. 1 SEMINOLE GOLF CLUB, JUPITER, FLORIDA
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."
NO. 2 AUGUSTA NATIONAL GOLF CLUB, AUGUSTA, GEORGIA
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.
NO. 3 PINE VALLEY GOLF CLUB, PINE VALLEY, NEW JERSEY
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.
NO. 4 SHINNECOCK HILLS GOLF CLUB, SOUTHAMPTON, NEW YORK
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.
NO. 5 CYPRESS POINT GOLF CLUB, PEBBLE BEACH, CALIFORNIA
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.
NO. 6 CHICAGO GOLF CLUB, WHEATON, ILLINOIS
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.
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.