The Good Life

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
| By Jeff Williams | From Alec Baldwin, May/June 2004
America's Golf Gateway

In a June afternoon in 1972, two teenage house painters arrived at the 18th tee. They had said little to each other for most of the round, unusual for two kids who generally talked each other's ears off. Looking at the elegant shingle-style clubhouse on the hill, Chris Quackenbush had a pragmatic question for his buddy Jimmy Dunne:"How much do you think we would charge to paint the clubhouse?" said Quackenbush.

"Well, do we get to play the course, too?" replied Dunne. "I'd say about $600."

At the end of their first rounds at the Shinnecock Hills Golf Club, which had been arranged by a member whose house they had painted, Dunne announced that Shinnecock Hills was the greatest golf course in the world. "There's no way there's a better golf course anywhere," proffered Dunne in his burgeoning baritone. Quackenbush harrumphed. How could a 16-year-old who had never played golf anywhere off Long Island make such a statement? How could someone who had never been to Scotland or Ireland or anywhere say this was the greatest?

Over the next 30 years Jimmy Dunne went everywhere to play golf. He traveled around the world to play the top 100 courses on the Golf Magazine list. As his fortunes rose as managing partner of the investment banking firm of Sandler O,Neill & Partners in Manhattan, Dunne played all the best courses on a regular basis. Garden City Golf Club, Deepdale, National Golf Links of America, Pine Valley, Seminole, Royal Portrush. And Shinnecock Hills.

"So I play the top 100 in the world and I still think it's the greatest course in the world," Dunne says in 2004 with the same certainty he had in 1972. "It's just a fantastic golf course, a fantastic place. I remember when we got to the course, we checked in with [professional] Don McDougall and then went to the practice range and hit a few balls. We hardly said a word until we got to the third tee and I said, 'What about this place?, But that's the thing, I think, about truly great courses. When you get to them, you are quieter. As two 16-year-old kids we knew not to talk. We just reveled in it."

This June, the world gets to revel in Shinnecock Hills once again. The United States Open Championship will be played at Shinnecock for the fourth time, coming back to a course and a club that are virtually the soul of the game in America. Shinnecock Hills was one of the founding members of the United States Golf Association in 1894 and was host to the second U.S. Open in 1896. After being practically ignored for the next seven decades, the USGA rediscovered its roots by choosing Shinnecock to host the U.S. Senior Amateur in 1967 and the Walker Cup in 1977.

In 1986, the Open finally returned. On a perfect Monday morning of that Open week, Frank Hannigan, then executive director of the USGA and a driving force to get the Open back to Shinnecock, was walking in front of the clubhouse near the door to the men's locker room when former U.S. Open champion David Graham emerged. Graham won his U.S. Open at Merion Golf Club in 1981, and it was during that week that the USGA announced that Shinnecock would get the 1986 championship.

"Frank, you've finally done it," exclaimed Graham, his arms spread wide as if to gather in the whole course. "It's absolutely perfect."

Shinnecock is America's true championship links, even if it isn't exactly a pure links course. While Pebble Beach calls itself a links, it's actually a headland course on a rocky outcropping. Shinnecock has the requisite sandy soil, though most of it was deposited by glaciers and not the ocean. Shinnecock occupies the high ground outside the village of Southampton, New York, one of the if-you-have-to-ask-how-much-it-costs-you-can't-afford-it-Hamptons of the east end of Long Island, about 90 miles from Manhattan.

Shinnecock is a marvel. From the veranda of the simple Stanford White clubhouse, the course magically unfolds beneath you. It is one of the most stunning views of a golf course anywhere in the world, a vista that includes Peconic Bay to the north and a smidgen of an adjoining course, the National Links of America. The view alone highlights a fact: there are many great courses on Long Island, courses not only of beauty and challenge, but of historical importance. They are the kind of courses where you get quiet when you step into the clubhouse or when you walk onto the first tee.

"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."

Macdonald imported to National his versions of the Road Hole at St. Andrews, the Redan at North Berwick and the Alps hole at Prestwick. Another hole at National, the eighth, is known as Bottle and was modeled after a similar par 4 at Sunningdale outside of London. A series of fairway bunkers cut across on a sharp angle, the closest being on the left side, the farthest being in about the middle, creating a split fairway. Good players try to hit over the bunkers to the left side of the fairway for the best approach to the green. Lesser players can hit up the right side of the fairway, but will face a more difficult shot to the green, which is guarded with severe bunkering. For a 400-yard hole, it's menacing.

The clubhouse at the National, all dark wood, leather and of another time, serves a famous lobster lunch and has a full-size statue of Macdonald in the library. Lore has it that Macdonald had the statue commissioned and then billed the membership. When a member thought a windmill would look nice on the hill above the 16th green, Macdonald had one built and billed the member. Macdonald was not short on either brilliance or foresight or gall, and those qualities served him well in creating a course and a club that is a seminal experience for every first-time player.

Twenty-five miles to the east, you,ll find the alluring links of the Maidstone Club. Shinnecock, National and Maidstone are looked upon as The Triumvirate by those who get precious invitations to play them, and no tour of east end golf clubs would be complete without a round at this East Hampton gem. Maidstone has had many variations of a golf course dating back to the mid-1890s. Another Scotch Willie, this one Willie Park Jr.' had a hand in the original 18-hole course and the present one, which touches the Atlantic with two of the best short par 3s in the game and the sweeping par-4 ninth. The latter hole raises the spirits, and can greatly raise your score on a windy day.

If the courses of The Triumvirate conjure up thoughts of desire and envy, the Black Course at Bethpage State Park can conjure up another thought—fear. The Black Course was the site of the 2002 U.S. Open won by Tiger Woods, the only player to break par for 72 holes. It is the quintessential parkland golf course, rolling through endless acres of prime woodland, and is the alpha male of an amazing five-course complex that surely has become the symbol of American public golf. It doesn't take connections and a seven-figure salary to get a tee time on the Black. You can do it by telephone reservation or the die-hard method—sleeping overnight in the parking lot.

The Black is the last great work of architect A. W. Tillinghast, who designed three courses at Bethpage in the 1930s as part of a public works project. The Black opened in 1936 and was immediately proclaimed one of the toughest courses in the United States, and certainly one of the longest. The course's penal greenside bunkering was suggestive of the iconic Pine Valley in New Jersey, but then, "Tillie" was a close friend of Pine Valley designer George Crump.

"The Black is an incredible place," says Davis Love III, who parked his lavish recreational vehicle on the property during the 2002 Open. "To think that it is a public golf course, and costs just thirty bucks to play, is just awesome. And I don't know that I have ever putted on better greens in my life. Just the whole experience of being there was terrific." All the best players will be there again for the 2009 Open. The USGA, with record-breaking crowds and revenues and rave reviews from players, couldn't pass up bringing the national championship back. The Black, as always, lies in wait.

But there's more. Long Island virtually spills over at its coasts with great golf courses. Piping Rock, The Creek, Meadow Brook, Rockaway Hunt, Deepdale, Inwood, Westhampton, Fresh Meadows—these are names that ring loudly across the golf landscape, yet are just a few of the more than 130 courses on the island. All the great designers have left their marks on Long Island, and all the great players have walked its fairways.

"The quality of the courses is fantastic," says Jimmy Dunne. "The quality of the experience is sensational. It's that X factor. It's the whole feeling of playing golf here, knowing that you are playing courses that have great history, great players. The whole ambience thing. It doesn't get any better."

Jeff Williams is a sportswriter for Newsday on Long Island.


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