Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Whippoorwill Club

I am lucky enough to live within driving distance of thirteen clubs ranked in the world's top 100. I try not to take this for granted, rather, I try to take advantage of it every chance I get, particularly if I can play on weekdays instead of working. It was in this vein that I recently played the Whippoorwill Club in Westchester County, New York.

Westchester County is chocked full of good golf courses. There are the well known ones ranked in the top 100 such as Quaker Ridge and both the east and west courses at Winged Foot. There is the 36 hole Westchester Country Club which hosts PGA tournaments. There are also a whole host of below the radar private clubs built long ago by famous architects during the golden age of course design. A small sample: The Apawamis Club (Willie Dunn, 1899), Blind Brook (Macdonald/Raynor 1916), Century Country Club (Colt & Alison, 1926), Fenway (A.W. Tillinghast, 1924), Old Oaks Country Club (Tillinghast & Alison, 1925), Siwanoy (Donald Ross, 1901, site of the first P.G.A. championship), Sleepy Hollow (C.B. Macdonald and A.W. Tillinghast, 1911), Knollwood Country Club (Tillinghast and Banks, 1921) and the Whippoorwill Club, founded in 1928 and originally designed by Donald Ross with revisions done by Charles "Steamshovel" Banks.

Whip Clubhouse
The elegant shingle style clubhouse at Whippoorwill

The heritage and tradition of the Whippoorwill Club dates back to the mid 1920’s when Donald Ross designed the course which lay entirely on the east side of Whippoorwill Road. At that time Ross was at the pinnacle of his career and was the most recognized architect of the day. Everything changed in 1928, when Fred Ruth, developer of the Mid Ocean Club hired Charles Banks, with whom he had worked at Mid Ocean, to redesign the Ross course. Banks is credited with the design and remodeling of more than thirty golf courses from 1921 until his death in 1931. It is said that he believed Whippoorwill to be his masterpiece.

Whippoorwill took on its most unique characteristics when Banks was brought in and when holes four through nine were built on the west side of Whippoorwill Road. Steep terrain, tree-lined fairways and no parallel holes characterize this section of the course. These holes play in roughly a semi-circle on dramatic, hilly terrain squeezed in between large rocky outcroppings left from the last ice age.

The first three holes play near the clubhouse on open terrain and are very good. All three are dog-leg holes with challenging greens. However, when you cross Whippoorwill Road to the par three fourth hole the course becomes exceptional. They should put a warning sign up near the road crossing as you walk from the third green to the fourth tee that you are entering a unique set of golf holes.

The next six holes have an originality and distinct appeal that you find only rarely on a golf course. Banks put extra polish on the holes across the road. Thus far in my worldwide travels I have been dazzled by a unique stretch of holes only rarely: Cypress Point holes 14-17, Crystal Downs holes 11-15, Morfontaine Valliere holes 3-8, Pine Valley holes 2-6.

The stretch of holes begins with the fourth, a prototype "Eden" hole and plays 157 yards downhill with dramatic, deep bunkering surrounding it. A shot hit over the green results in serious trouble.

Whip 4

Par three "Eden" fourth hole

4th green
The newly rebunkered fourth hole at Whippoorwill

The fifth hole, a par four of 455 yard is the #1 handicap hole. You drive the ball through a chute of trees into rugged terrain. If you hit long and left, the ball will run down the hill leaving you a shorter shot to the elevated green.

Whip 5

View from the tee on the par four fifth hole

Whip 5-1
Approach to the fifth green

The approach to the green plays uphill with a large, deep bunker protecting the left hand side in the front.

The sixth hole was my favorite on the course, a par five of 538 yards where you also have to hit through a chute of trees into a valley with large rocks on both sides. Your third shot plays downhill to an elongated green that slopes back to front and has a dramatic horseshoe shape in it similar to the green on the third hole at Yeamans Hall.

Whip 6

Tee shot landing area on the par five sixth hole

When the pin is in the back of the green, as it was on the day I played, the effective landing area you have to hit to is a flat surface of about ten feet by twenty feet. If you don't make it up on that plateau, the ball rolls back to the front of the green.

Whip 6-1

Approach to the green on the par five sixth hole

6th hole back from green

The sixth hole from behind the green, showing the amazing terrain down the hill

The seventh hole is a 425 yard par four that is a sharp dogleg left. The tee shot plays over a pond. Allegedly a steam shovel rolled into the pond during construction and is still there. The second shot plays up a narrow valley between big rocks to a well protected green set down in a hollow. Notice how narrow the fairway area is and also note the large boulders, which hems in the hole on both sides.

Whip 7

The second shot on the par four 7th hole

The 8th is a "Biarritz" hole with a big swale in the middle of the very long and tough to hit green.

Whip 8

The eighth green as seen looking back from the 9th tee box

The ninth hole is 379 yards but plays close to 450 since it essentially plays straight uphill. The ninth is known as "Cardiac Hill". The hole is to steep that when you get to the green, you are at the highest point in Westchester County at 740 feet. It is a challenging small, elevated green. The ninth caps off one of the most exciting stretchs of holes a golfer can play and really define the experience at Whippoorwill. I found them exhilirating. A very interesting characteristic of the front nine is the sequence of shots that you have to hit into the greens. The front nine alternates between uphill shots and downhill shots. The 1st hole plays to an uphill green, the 2nd to a downhill, the 3rd to an uphill, all the way through the 10th hole. I don't know if this "roller coaster" effect was by design or by accident, but it creates a nice varied routing.

The back nine has more of the Ross influence and feel to it, although Banks re-did the greens. The back has more open vistas and rolling hills rather than dramatic hills and does not have many of the large rock outcroppings. The course has a nice selection of short par fours that require precision iron shots and good putting such as the 347 yard second hole and the 320 yard thirteenth. While the rest of the course isn't as exciting as holes four through nine, the fourteenth hole stands out as a cracker hole on the back nine. It is a 440 yard par four that plays uphill to the green and has a split fairway, leaving the golfer with a nice strategic choice depending upon how far you hit the ball and the wind. The wild, winding hilly terrain and length make that a par four and half hole on a good day!

Whip 14 approach
Approaching the 14th green at Whippoorwill

Whippoorwill is a fantastic course that, along with Piping Rock, Myopia Hunt Club and the Seaside Course at Sea Island are under-rated courses in the United States. In my view, they are better than several courses ranked in the top 100 such as East Lake, Scioto, Ocean Forest or Medinah. I played Whippoorwill with a learned friend who has also played a lot of good golf courses. We both independently felt that Whippoorwill at times reminded us of Merion. Partly, this has to do with similar terrain in some places and with the general overall short nature of the course. Like at Merion, the course is split in two by a road and you have to be able to hit the ball to the correct side of the fairway or the correct side of the green in order to shoot a good score. A strategy of playing to the middle of the green won't work here due to the green shapes, slopes and severity. You must be on the right quadrent of the green depending upon where the pin is to shoot a good score.

Why is Whippoorwill overlooked and under-rated? Perhaps because the course is only 6,636 yard from the back tees. Perhaps, because it doesn't get much press or outside play given that it is a very private course in a very affluent area. Whatever the reason, I believe the front nine is worthy of cult status. Golfweek Magazine comes closest to recognizing the genius of Banks' work here, ranking the course as #73 in its list of the top 100 classic courses in their 2009 rankings. I have enjoyed all the Banks courses I have played, especially his course in central New Jersey at Forsgate, which has similar green complexes to Whippoorwill and a truly spectacular par five hole (the 8th) that also uses very hilly terrain as artfully as he does at Whippoorwill.

Aside from the great golf course Whippoorwill has a great clubhouse, a nice relaxed feel to it and great caddies. Play it if you ever get invited.

Many thanks to Robert Mercer Deruntz for allowing me to use his pictures of Whippoorwill.

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