Saturday, February 24, 2007

The Links Club

I have just returned from one of the most elite golf clubs in the world. I have been trying for years to visit this club and finally succeeded through the generosity of my favorite WASP. You won't find The Links Club on any world rankings because it has no golf course. It functions as a social and eating club, but has a very strong association to the world of golf.

The Links Club is located on 36 East 62nd Street in New York City between Madison and Park avenues. It is housed in a stunning four-story townhouse with a mansard roof that was built in 1890. Like many of the elitist clubs in the world, there is no sign announcing that this building houses The Links Club. There is no grand entrance and no grand staircase. In fact, truth be told, I walked right past The Links Club on the first try in my attempt to find it. A small stairway leads you down to an entry door located below street level, then you enter through a set of double doors. As you open the first door and close it behind you, you are in a small vestibule. You then open another door and enter this private sanctuary. It is as if standing between these two doors you have entered the transporter on Star Trek. Or, if you are from a different generation, if feels like being transported to Hogwarts in Harry Potter. You have just entered a different world.

This particular part of Manhattan is home to many private social clubs, among them, the Grolier, Lotos, Union League, Union, Metropolitan, Yale, Harvard, Century, Cornell, Princeton, Colony, Knickerbocker, Cosmopolitan, Vassar, University, Harmonie, Brook and of course The Links. Each club was founded with a different constituency in mind, The Links Club being formed by prosperous golfers. While New York City is probably the most meritocratic city on the planet, it has a whole "underworld" of these social clubs that most people never see.

As you enter you are greeted by a gentleman wearing a green jacket with black lapels and a "links man" logo on the sleeve. All the employees at The Links Club wear this sharp uniform, many with a bow-tie. If there were a place in the golf world where they would actually take your ticket and punch it, this is it. Entering here, you have arrived. Unfortunately, I forgot to bring my ticket with me so the manager just gave me a suspicious stare. You know the type of stare that says, "You don't belong here, do you?" Fortunately, I was wearing the requisite jacket and tie and got the members name right, so he let me stay.

The Links Club was founded by Charles Blair Macdonald and his friends in 1916. C.B. Macdonald was one of the founders of the U.S.G.A. and the founder of the National Golf Links of America (ranked #20 in the world). The objectives of The Links Club are " promote and conserve throughout the United States the best interests and true spirit of the game of golf as embodied in its ancient and honorable traditions, endorsing the rules of the game as it is played in Scotland and as adopted by the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews."

Macdonald's friends were the powerful and elite of New York during this era including Charles H. Sabin (President of Guaranty Trust), Harry Payne Whitney (a sportsmen and man of leisure), James Stillman (President of National City Bank), William C. Potter (a future President of Guaranty Trust) and Frank L. Crocker (a prominent attorney). Like many private clubs, The Links Club was started because someone couldn't get in - in this case a friend of C.B. Macdonald couldn't get into the Brook Club so C.B. quit that club and started The Links as a place where those that played at Shinnecock and The National could meet in the city.

The Links Club is a U.S.G.A. type-two sanctioned club. Although not widely known, you don't have to have a golf course to be a U.S.G.A. golf club. The requirement is merely that you must have a reasonable and regular opportunity for the members to play golf with each other. A type-two club is one whose "members are affiliated or known to one another via a business, fraternal, ethnic or social organization." Given its historic founding, the U.S.G.A. regularly holds its annual dinner at The Links Club and every current president of the U.S.G.A. is given an honorary membership during their tenure.

The Links Club is the archetypical private club. After you go through the double doors you are in the entrance lobby, and on a cold day the fireplace will likely be crackling to warm you up. In the rear of the building on the first floor is The Oak Room - a private dining room. You have already sensed that you are somewhere special by this point, although the best is yet to come. Since The Links Club is not the type of place where a guest walks around snapping pictures, I will try to describe as vividly as possible the look, feel and ambiance of the place.

As you stand in the entry foyer your eye is immediately drawn to the centerpiece of The Links Club - the green oval spiral staircase adorned with wrought-iron railing. The staircase runs the height of the townhouse - from the first floor to the fourth. A wonderful original, it creaks as you walk up and down and you notice the staircase was built with wooden pegs holding the treads, and not with nails. At the top of the staircase there is a circular glass sky light. As throughout the Links Club, there is architectural detailing everywhere that gives the place its special qualities, including decorative trim along the outside of the staircase as it spins upward in a counter-clockwise fashion. Around the spiral staircase there are small alcoves. The primary color used through The Links Club is a pale "links green". It is a rich hue that adds to the sense of warmth and refinement found in the club. The hallways on each floor and other common areas are painted in the "links green" and contain old early American black and white prints throughout. Herringbone patterned hardwood floors in the halls also add character to the place.

The manager of the club stands behind a glass-topped, wooden, built-in counter which holds a treasure trove of items adorned with The Links Club logo, such as ties, shirts, playing cards and the club history book. I made my usual forthright inquiry if any were available for purchase and was snubbed with alacrity.

The bar area at the Links Club

The second floor of The Links Club is its piece de resistance. The front of the building contains The Sir Christopher Wren room which serves as the library for the club. If you like dark wooden paneling, this is the room for you. The paneling was brought over from England, from a room designed by Sir Christopher Wren. To say that the room has wood paneling is to understate the case. Not only does it have wood paneling, but architectural detailing extraordinare. Like most of The Links Club, it contains molding and detailing taken to a level rarely seen, but to great effect. There is barely an inch in any of the rooms where there are not casings, cornices, curve moldings, baseboard moldings, crown moldings, panels, stiles or rails. As if that is not enough, it is accented with raised panels and flat panels. Cornice molding is pervasive. There are also ornamental bands and dental molding and trim everywhere. Even the moldings at The Links Club have moldings.

The entrance to the library is highlighted by the federal style triangle above the door. Hanging in the prominent position above the fireplace is a large portrait of The Right Honorable William Pitt 1758-1810, a former British prime minister.

The Links Club has sufficiently high-quality artwork hanging, that if it were not a private club, it could serve as a museum or gallery. Also hanging in the library is a Rembrandt Peale portrait of George Washington, flanked by portraits of Abraham Lincoln and Captain James Lawrence. Lawrence is the famous American naval officer who is known for his dying command, "Don't Give Up The Ship". There are also portraits of British military officers throughout the room.

The library also has clusters of leather chairs and sofas spread around. In each cluster is a discrete "buzzer", should you require service. When seated near the fireplace on one of the green leather sofas, on each side are eight foot long hanging fabric cords with tassels on the ends that you pull for service. Either touch the buzzer or pull the tassel and a server will appear through a hidden passage or door. The room also has two little writing tables with ink wells and a selection of high quality Links stationary and envelopes, should you need to dash off a quick note. There is no recognition on the part of The Links Club that we are in the 21st century. The club doesn't acknowledge that people no longer sit down at writing tables and dash off a little note on Links Club letterhead in our modern era of instant messaging and cell phones. Being somewhat of a Luddite myself though, I like it.

Located at the far end of the library is a large table that holds various golf and sporting books and magazines including Yale Magazine, Harvard Magazine, and most importantly, lest we forget where we are, there are copies of the last three years Social Register easily accessible should the need arise to check someone's pedigree on short notice.

In the rear of the building on the second floor is the C.B. Macdonald Room. The room is dominated by a life size painting of Macdonald with a caddie above the fireplace, with the National Golf Links windmill in the background. He is wearing plus-fours and surveying the room below. The remainder of the room is large panel paintings and large paneled windows on the west side of the building.

In between the library and the C.B. Macdonald room is the bar area. The bar area of The Links Club is my favorite part of the club. It is one of the most idiosyncratic places I have ever been in. Above the bar is a large original large painting of "The First Meeting of the North Berwick Golf Club" which is the picture on the scorecard of the North Berwick Golf Club in Scotland (seen above), painted by Sir Francis Grant. The bar also has dark woods and extensive paneling. It has several little notched-out areas and a small corridor lined with oak-paneled liquor lockers, each about two feet by two feet in size. The back of the bar area, down a narrow corridor is a small area that has leather bench-seating. Crammed into this intimate space is also a leather backgammon table and above are three skylights. It is dark, intimate and cozy in a way you would imagine a premier men's club would be (although there are now women members). You can just imagine Links Club members sitting in here during prohibition drinking their private stashes and smoking cigars.

The third floor has the Dining Room in the front the building. Above the fireplace in the dining room is a painting of one-time member Dwight D. Eisenhower, wearing his Links Club patterned tie. The fireplace is adorned with original 18th century Dutch delft golfing tiles, which were the inspiration for Macdonald for the "links man" logo. The "links man" is the same one that adorns The National Golf Links logo. Sitting in the dining room is an experience. The membership appear to share a common wardrobe style - a Saville Row tailored suit with a hanky sticking out and a shirt with a thread count of at least 180. It also has the highest concentration of Herm├Ęs ties per-capita in the world. Although I felt welcome at The Links Club, when my host went to the mens room during lunch I got the distinct impression that the waiting staff were keeping an extra close eye on me for fear that I might take some of monogramed tableware.

The fourth floor contains the Auchincloss meeting room and has a large painting depicting an early Harvard v. Yale boat race. In the front of the building are two modest bedrooms for overnight stays for out of town members. The entire Links Club feels like a throw-back to an earlier era. There are little phone booths built into the walls on each floor, each with a little black fan above the phone to keep you cool on a hot summer's day. There is also a quirky, small, slow moving antique Otis elevator located in the central hallway.

Business is not allowed to be conducted in public areas of The Links Club. You cannot sit in the library, dining room or bar and have work papers or briefcases present or talk business. You cannot have a cell phone or a blackberry or any other electronic devices in the club. Gentleman must keep their jacket and tie on at all times when in public areas of the club. While you can certainly conduct business behind closed doors in the meeting rooms, the primary purpose of The Links Club is "social intercourse" as Macdonald called it.

Interior of the Links Club

The club holds events each year at various golf courses. To give you a sample of the quality of golf we are talking about, I noticed on the bulletin board a list of the successful events that the club held the prior year. Included on the list were events at Shinnecock Hills, Maidstone, The National Golf Links of America, The Chicago Golf Club, Deepdale and Somerset Hills. The Links Club is a useful club for me to stay close to, given my golfing aspirations. I can just hang around and beseech help to get on some key golf courses on short notice. I'll bet they don't take well to groveling at The Links Club, so I'll have to be my usual charming self and work the crowd.

The Links Club has 1,000 members, 500 of whom are non-resident, consistent with its national charter. Membership is by invitation only. I looked through the current membership directory and on page thirty-three alone recognized the names of three current or ex-CEOs. I'm not stupid enough to publish the names of the members out of respect for their privacy and because I would like to get invited back, but it is a tempting thought. Suffice it to say, like the founding members, they remain well-heeled and connected.

As I was sitting in the second floor bar talking about the club, its tradition and its membership rules, the board-certified WASP who was my host mentioned that it takes five members to sponsor a new member. Things were going well and he asked what clubs I was a member of. Note the presumption in the plural nature of the question among this crowd; it is assumed you are a member of multiple clubs. I sensed an opening; that if I was affiliated with some good clubs, maybe he was considering sponsoring me. This would be the ultimite coup for me. A home run. A grand slam. When I mentioned that I am a member of Sam's Club, The Hair Club for Men and the mile-high club, I saw the blue-blood drain out of his face.

One always has a keen sense of where you are in the social hierarchy when you are at The Links Club. It is clear you are in the pantheon.

As the club history describes it, The Links Club is "ageless", "old fashioned", has "traditional elegance", likes "quiet breeding", and is "of considered good taste", and "timeless".

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