Saturday, January 28, 2006

Fishers Island Club

Most people have never heard of Fishers Island or Fishers Island Club (ranked #29 in the world). It is a seven mile long island, located on the narrowest part of the Long Island Sound between New York, Connecticut and Rhode Island. It is quite small, the entire island being only 3,200 acres and is one of the most affluent places in the world. It is hard for a U.S. locale to have a WASPier origin or a better pedigree. Fishers Island was granted to John Winthrop Jr., an early governor of Connecticut, in 1640. The family owned the island for several generations and finally sold it in 1863. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, it evolved into a retreat for families with last names like Dupont, Firestone and Whitney. Fishers Island remains a secluded enclave. I was lucky to get an invitation to play the course this past summer. I had heard great things about the course and about the island in general.

The day held much promise. We slept well the night before in a local hotel and then went down to New London, Connecticut to catch the seven am ferry. Although geographically part of New York's Long Island, you access it via Connecticut. The day was scheduled to be over 100 degrees with high humidity. The morning was quite foggy and misty and you couldn’t see more than ten feet off the pier. As we waited for the ferryboat to arrive, the workers started to arrive. The painters, gardeners and other day laborers who make the daily journey over to Fishers Island to work. The island itself seemingly has no resident workers, only the ultra-wealthy. There is nowhere for workers to live on the island, and even if there was they could not afford to live there.

The boat pulled out with the fog horn constantly going. As we traveled southward down the Thames River, we passed the submarine base (excuse me, General Dynamics facility) on the eastern shore, although the fog was so thick that you couldn’t see much of it. The facility we passed is not trivial. It supports twenty-one attack-class submarines and is one of the largest in the world. As we exited the channel there were several buoys and a lighthouse. All were in full operation this morning, beeping and whirling through the thick fog. As the ferry was exiting the river and about to enter Fishers Island Sound we could see a Los Angeles Class attack submarine floating in the water on the western shore. Getting to Fishers Island has to be the most dramatic and unique approach to any course in the world. At all the others you drive in, and no matter how grand the approach, there is something special about arriving by boat with the smell of the salt air and the rhythmic pounding of the waves. The forty-five minute ride went by quickly with the fog lifting along the way. We soon began to see the outskirts of Fishers Island. Once docked, we let the workers off first then slung our golf clubs over our shoulders and disembarked.

As the ferry was docking a New York State Trooper on shore began looking everyone over. I am sure this is a great assignment for a NY State Trooper based on Long Island. It sure beats patrolling the Long Island Expressway. Dressed formally, he was wearing his full grey dress suit, light brown smokey the bear hat with purple band and his reflective sunglasses. Unlike the L.A.P.D., he is not there “to protect and to serve”. He is there to chase you off public land. If you are not recognized or greeted by a resident you risk being put back on the boat. Although Fishers Island is part of the Continental United States, they have their own unwritten, but enforced rules. No day-trippers here. As passengers disembarked, the trooper stood near the stern of the boat with his arms at the parade rest position, peering at everyone through his sunglasses. There was no Chamber of Commerce welcoming you here.

The member we were playing with picked us up in his rusted 10 year old Range Rover. The beat-up car is consistent with the Fishers Island Weltanschauung. There are no overt displays of wealth on Fishers Island. You would see no Bentleys or Rolls Royces tooling around the Island. If you saw a BMW it was at least 20 years old and slightly beat up. This was money of the understated variety. The anti-hamptons. Residents' cars are your only means of transportation. The island has no taxis. There are only a handful of paved roads on the island. The place is an odd mixture of a small New England village with the distinctly Caribbean island feel.

The closest land mass is actually the State of Rhode Island, less than a mile away. Connecticut is two miles away. This helps explain the New England feel of the place. However, they have taken the New-England-protestant-work-ethic-chic to the extreme.

We wound our way around the main road past the old movie theater and then through what passes for a town on the island. A small general store, a post office and an ice cream shop, then past Barlow pond and Middle Farms pond. As you get toward the eastern end of the island you approach a small guard station. It was a little white sun bleached shed. Sitting outside the guard station was a teenager on a beach chair. He makes sure that your car has the Fishers Island Club sticker on it, although it really seems like overkill. Everyone on the island knows everyone else. But, it is the last fail-safe to make sure no un-invited guests get to the club. Up the long winding road and finally you arrive at the Fishers Island Club. This is not a golf club or a country club; it includes tennis courts, a beach club, thus the more generic name of Fishers Island Club.

The course was designed by Seth Raynor who was a protégée of Charles Blair MacDonald. Raynor was the town surveyor in Southampton when MacDonald was constructing the National Golf Links in Southampton. Actually, Raynor’s official title was “street commissioner.” In his autobiography Macdonald raves about Raynor's abilities to drain water, lay pipe, clear land and seeding; Raynor had no peer, Macdonald felt. Fisher's Island is supposed to be Raynor’s masterpiece. Masterpiece is meant to imply an outstanding piece of artistry. Not here. If Michaelangelo had stopped painting halfway through the sistine chapel and then the Vatican hadn't maintained it, would it still be considered his masterpiece? Same with Fishers Island. Raynor designed but never fished the course and the paint is peeling!

Apparently, Raynor’s idea of designing a golf course was to walk around and put in tees and greens without much else. While this can sometimes be the purest way to do a golf course as evidenced by many designers that did it properly, most famously Old Tom Morris, it does take some imagination and skill, which Raynor clearly did not possess while designing this course. The first hole is ruler straight with little character. The second, an attempt at a Redan hole is weak. Last time I checked, Redan holes don't have water. In the interest of fairness, I didn't dislike the entire course. The next four holes including the “Punchbowl” and “Biarritz” holes are quite good and interesting. Then the course becomes a let down. Seventeen is a poorly conceived and executed hole with flat terrain, minimal bunkering and a benign green.

Exhibit 'A' is seen above, which is an aerial view of the seventeenth hole. The brown is the fairway. This picture was taken from the club history, taken in 1999. I played the course under similarly poor conditions, which I don't get. Yes, I understand that links golf is supposed to play firm and fast, but burning out the whole course doesn't make sense. Courses in the UK don't irrigate because it rains all the time. Maintaining a course in the eastern U.S. like this does not create a world-class golf course.

The fifteenth hole, like the seventeenth and first is essentially a straight hole tee to green with a flat green. I didn't think eighteen a particularly strong finishing hole either at 452 yards for a par five. Someone needs to explain to me again how a golf course ranks so highly in the world with so many average holes. Oh, I see, it's the exclusivity and the water views of Connecticut.

I heard rave reviews about Fishers Island, most people citing the views of the water from every hole. So, a water view is the mark of greatness alone? Not exactly. Even water views from every hole can’t save Fishers Island. Let’s admit it, not all water views are the same. Looking out at New London, Connecticut is not exactly the same as looking out on the Monterey Peninsula or the Irish Sea. Having worked with one of the great course designers of his time, Charles Blair MacDonald, Raynor should have done better. He should have stayed a municipal employee, laying pipe.

Apparently, it wasn’t all his fault. He died half-way through construction and never let anyone know where he wanted his bunkers put in. So, they never put them in. The course was never really finished. Maybe it is because they are trying to show what frugal yankees they are even though the members have a higher net worth per capitia than any course in the top 100. You’d think they could have paid someone to finish the course? It any event, maybe I am being unfair to Raynor who has been dead for many years. It’s not entirely his fault. In fact, I admire his work at Yeamans Hall very much and can see where he can use his skills in a very artful fashion. He just didn't have the inspiration here. Fishers Island reminds me more of his design at Morris County, New Jersey, than it does of other world class courses.

Fishers Island is arguably the most difficult club in the top 100 to get accepted into. We are told that you need twelve letters of recommendation and only then once admitted, you are let in as an associate member. Realistically, you have to own a house on the island to be a member and since there are less than 500 residents on the entire island, it’s not happening.

I have been lambasted for not saying positive things about Fishers Island. Sorry, folks, but I call 'em as I see 'em. It's a bit too exclusive for me. Also, a course that is ranked #29 in the world should be held to a higher standard and should be impressive. I simply think it is over-rated, particularly by people who compare it to Pebble Beach or Cypress Point. Not even close.

Post Script

Despite my misgivings about Fishers Island, the member we played with was a perfect gentleman all day and we are still very thankful we got invited.

Additional Post Script as of March 2006

It's no surprise to us that in this month's Links magazine in an article written by George Peper, the original creator of the top 100 world rankings the following quote is attributed to a representitive of Fishers Island: "We do not wish our course to be ranked, visited or for that matter, known. Please convey that message to your panelists." We rest our case.

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