Monday, June 11, 2007

Golf in the Hamptons - Shinnecock, Maidstone Club and The National

I am not in the habit of re-posting previous write-ups but I couldn't resist this one. I was fortunate enough to visit The National Golf Links again and this time went crazy with my digital camera. This post has been updated for your viewing please with a rare insiders look inside The National Clubhouse. Enjoy.

Inside The National Clubhouse

"The National” is how those inside refer to it. Those not familiar could be excused for assuming the reference is to Augusta National. However, within golfing circles, the National is just as exclusive as Augusta. The full name is The National Golf Links of America (ranked #20 in the world) and it is located immediately adacent to its better known neighbor in Southampton - Shinnecock Hills.

The most "ideal" golf course in the world

The National was the brainchild of Charles Blair Macdonald, one of the founding fathers of golf in America. Macdonand's idea was to build an "ideal" golf course and he modeled most holes after famous holes in the British Isles from courses such as Prestwick, The Old Course at St. Andrews, Sandwich and North Berwick.

The Library at The National

The National has been dominated by financiers and bankers since its inception. The founding members were senior executives at Guaranty Trust, National City, First National and the House of Morgan. Given its proximity to New York City, the club retains its ties to Wall Street and the houses of Morgan to this day.


17th hole at National looking back from the green

Like the other great risk/reward course on the East Coast of the United States, Merion, you must play the National with your head as much as your clubs. Macdonald's design philosophy was to provide a safe line of play if you want to play cautious, but also to offer a more difficult but rewarding shot to those willing to take risk. How many times have you heard that a certain piece of land is perfect for a golf course? In the case of the National Golf Links it is true. Every hole at the National is good. After playing the National I felt that at least five holes are truly world class: the 3rd Alps, the 4th Redan, the 14th Cape, the 16th Punch Bowl and the 17th Peconic. The 17th is a 360 yard risk/reward hole that, along with the 10th at Riviera, are probably the two best in existence.

Macdonald remains a presence in the library today

I could write pages of accolades about The National but won't. Instead I will share what many of the game's greatest writers have to say about it and I agree with them all:

Bernard Darwin calls it: "endearing";

Herbert Warren Wind calls it: "a majestic monument";

John de St. Jorre calls it: "the most scenic in America";

Horace Hutchinson says: "it has no weak points".


The card table in the "green" room at The National

The National has a large windmill set on a hill overlooking Peconic Bay. You aim at the windmill as you play the uphill 16th hole. The 16th has a punchbowl green sunken into the surrounding land. When you are finished putting out on the 16th you can't see much of anything except the sides of the punchbowl. It is also very quiet because you are sunken down into the landscape. To proceed to the next tee you walk up the hill and at the apex you see the beautiful expanse of Peconic Bay out ahead of you; the windmill and clubhouse are on your left and the 17th hole is beneath you. I know there are those who won't necessarily share my view that The National is one of the very best courses in the world. However, it would be hard to argue that standing on the 17th tee here, along with walking up the 9th fairway at Royal County Down, is unquestionably one of the finest views in all of golf. I invite those who differ to post something that you think is better.

The ambiance of the "green" room

The National is also famous for its lunch, which hasn't changed since the course opened. It is a lobster lunch that includes fishcakes, crab cakes, beef and kidney pie, shepherd's pie and macaroni and cheese. The overall ambiance of The National is very good, if a little formal. If you get the chance to stay overnight at The National and experience the full treatment you are among a very select and privileged group.

The dining room for the finest golf lunch in America

The view from a National "dorm" room on the 3rd floor

For me, an overnight stay at The National and a round of golf is as good as golf gets, bar none.

Shinnecock Hills Golf Club (ranked #4 in the world) deserves a special place in the world of golf because it was the first club incorporated in the U.S. in 1891. It has a rich and storied history and is unquestionably a championship course. I have had the honor of playing Shinnecock Hills several times and think it is a great golf course but not necessarily in the top 5 in the world. Perhaps, like the Old Course at St. Andrews, it takes a longer period of time to reveal its greatness. I must say that I have appreciated it more each time I have played and can see how it has many subtleties and nuances that have to be mastered. The Redan 7th hole is probably the best rendition of this hole design anywhere outside of the original at North Berwick. In the five attempts I have made thus far I have been unable to hit the green.


7th at Shinnecock as seen from the left bunker

The clubhouse at Shinnecock is certainly historic but I was taken aback at how close it is to both Highway 27 and the road running through the course. Don't get me wrong, I would at any time make the long drive out to Shinnecock to play the course, sit on the porch and look out at the landscape below, but in my opinion the clubhouse ranks only as the 4th best on Long Island behind those at The National, Maidstone and Garden City.

Comparing Shinnecock and The National is inevitable since the two courses are immediately adjacent to each other. It is in some ways like comparing Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer. I will paraphrase the famous quote comparing Nicklaus and Palmer: "God will give you the talent (Nicklaus) but they will like you more (Palmer)". To my mind, Shinnecock is Jack Nicklaus and The National is Arnold Palmer. Maybe Shinnecock is a better course, but I like The National more.

Maidstone Golf Club (ranked #61 in the world) is the least known of the three top ranked courses in the Hamptons. The course is located about 10 miles further east of Shinnecock and The National in East Hampton. While the course itself doesn't have the grandeur of the National or Shinnecock, it is worthy of its world ranking. It is the only one of the six top ranked courses on Long Island that is set on the Atlantic Ocean. Designed by John and Willie Park Jr. in 1891, it is a short course that has a weak start and a weak finish but shines in between. The 14th hole, a par 3 set among the sand dunes right next to the Atlantic defies description. Even the pictures I have attached here doesn't do it justice. The views are from the tee, below the hole and the view of the ocean from the green. It is on the short list of fine one shot holes in the world.

The world class 14th at Maidstone

The 14th green at Maidstone from the rear

View of the Atlantic Ocean from Maidstone tee box

Maidstone is also a beach and tennis club and may be the most family oriented course on the list. One thing a married man needs to attempt this top 100 quest is an understanding wife. Mine is a saint and rarely complains about my golf trips. She accompanied me to East Hampton when I was invited to play Maidstone. Taking her for a nice weekend of laying on the beach while I played a guilt free round of golf got me at free pass for at least ten more courses! It was a perfect August day played with a member who was the perfect gentleman. I enjoyed the Maidstone experience very much. The place has an understated flair to it.

For those not familiar with the level of wealth present in East Hampton and to understand the psyche of Maidstone a short anecdote sums it up best. Juan Trippe, the founder of Pan Am was an early member of Maidstone and served as club president. Juan used to fly his own plane with pontoons out from New York City and land on Georgica Pond, which the course snakes around. Fast forward sixty-plus years. Today's Maidstone members have their G-4s land at nearby East Hampton Airport and then take the five minute ride over to the course. A pressing issue currently is that the runway is too short to land a G-5. Any questions?

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