Golf/Golf Architecture

The Charles Blair Macdonald Trail: National Golf Links of America

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This is the third installment of a weekly series. Previous chapters:

I. The Old Course, St. Andrews

II. Mid Ocean Club, Bermuda

III. National Golf Links of America, Southampton, NY

I’m hesitant to go straight from Mid Ocean Club to the National Golf Links of America because, as Tom Doak said when I told him about my project, “It’s all downhill from there.” National is the ultimate living example of CB Macdonald’s architecture. It is the most well-preserved of his courses and it was where he realized his vision for golf in America – the culmination of years of playing and studying the best golf courses in the world. At National, Macdonald first re-created the holes – North Berwick’s Redan, Prestwick’s Alps, Royal St. George’s Sahara, St. Andrews’ Road and Eden, etc. – he would use as templates on subsequent designs. It’s also where he met his protege and partner, Seth Raynor, who carried on where Macdonald left off. But even if it is the “be-all, end-all” of Macdonald courses, it is also a fitting beginning to the Trail here on American soil because it’s the ultimate canvas by which to judge the rest of his courses. I found myself referring back to it every step of the way.

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It was roughly thirty years after Macdonald finished his influential twenty-five months in St. Andrews that he broke dirt at National. Golf was fairly well established in the United States by that time, with several fine courses across this country and Canada, including Macdonald’s own Chicago. Still, I can’t shake this vision I have of a man way ahead of his time out there on the property at National, choreographing an army of plows and saws, piles of dirt being pushed up into mountains and brush fires burning everywhere. It must have looked like the apocalypse to the innocent bystander, and all because of a silly game of “tiddlywinks.”

The peak of this lunacy would come several years later at Long Island’s Lido Golf Club, where even Macdonald himself was amazed by the scale and cost of the project. The greenskeeper he brought over from England, Peter Lees, took one look at the swampy property and asked, “Where is the course goin’ to be?” When told he was looking at it, he said, “Well then, if that’s the case, I am goin’ ‘ome!”

An article from the Chamber’s Edinburgh Journal in 1842 describes golf in Scotland: “It is curious to observe how even such a matter as sport is determined by local circumstances. Cricket may be said to be a natural result of the existence of the village greens of England. In like manner Golf exists in Scotland by virtue of the previous existence of a certain peculiar kind of waste ground called Links…being low undulating tracts composed of sand which has been blown up from the sea and covered with a slight herbage, varied here and there by patches of broom and furze. On these prairies of the north, the game of golf has been naturalized for hundreds of years, without spreading to other places, and this simply because in no other places is there ground adapted for the sport. A links and golf go, it may be said, hand in hand together. Where there is no links there can properly be no golf…”

To which Macdonald responded, “I wonder what he would say if he could see the Lido course which was built on a marsh with a lake some four to six feet deep covering ten to fifteen acres. The marsh and the lake were filled up according to a topographical map with valleys and hills, bunkers and water hazards, all costing some $750,000. The Yale course was built through woods and a very rocky country at a cost of $440,000. The Mid-Ocean course in Bermuda, built over coral rock and through semi-tropical valleys cost some $800,000. Certainly the writer would marvel and cry: ‘Crazy! Crazy!’ And from his point of view I am inclined to think he would be right.”

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But even National, with its sandy soil, was not without problems. It didn’t have any of the aforementioned “herbage” that is so suitable for golf. When Macdonald finally laid seed on his fine combed layout, the grass, to his horror, came up in crabby clumps that looked like cabbage and were completely unplayable. This setback delayed the opening of National for more than a year and led Macdonald into the study of agronomy. He created turf farms and tested different grasses and learned how to spread the seed in a special uniform manner to grow the grass thickly and evenly. It was this process of trial and error, combined with the quickly adaptable technical genius of Raynor, that ultimately grew golf beyond the links out onto inhospitable terrain, eventually even the desert. National started it all.

It was the first major American golf course. Even the Brits admired it. In the September 30, 1910 issue of the Times of London, Bernard Darwin wrote:

“…How good a course it is I hardly dare trust myself to say on a short acquaintance; there is too much to learn about it and the temptation to frantic enthusiasm is so great, but this much I can say: Those who think it is the greatest golf course in the world may be right or wrong, but certainly not to be accused of intemperateness of judgement…”

He also wrote a line that every person upon their first visit to National can relate to:

“…It is with perceptible thrill that one catches one’s first glance of the course…”

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After winding down the quiet wooded roads behind Shinnecock you turn onto Sebonac Inlet Road (above) and cross the tiny causeway. Here you are tracing the edge of Bullhead Bay right next to the Cape hole. But it’s hard to say what you will focus on because – especially now with all the clearing they’ve done – you can see clear across the course up to the hill where the Redan sits, and to the right, further up past the Narrows to the top of an even higher hill where the windmill sits next to the Punchbowl. It is a magnificent sight and one, if you are lucky enough to be playing or crafty enough to be caddying, you will bask in for hours to come, for this is the view of the home stretch. And when you turn left through the iron gates, just before the road dead ends at the beach, you will find yourself looking straight up 18 at the tiny flag fluttering on top of the hill beyond a huge walled bunker that is, as my caddie informed me, “a long carry into the wind.” The clubhouse, lording over Peconic Bay, is a sight unto itself – a living relic from a golden age… something like the “cottages” of Newport, Rhode Island, but much more intimate.

But the most amazing thing about National is not how timeless it is, but how timely. After all these years, changes in equipment and conditioning (both of the course and the players) it still stands up. That is not to say National cannot be had. I once saw Louie, the old assistant pro, light it up to the tune of about six under and another time my friend Colin shot about that on the front nine alone. But on the day I played it most recently, the winds were up fiercely out of the west blowing from an angle that seemed to make every hole save 11-13 play into the wind. I am not a long hitter, but after a well struck drive at the 14th, the 350 yard Narrows, I drilled a four iron to reach the back pin, and after my best drive of the day on the next hole, the 390 yard Punchbowl, I hit the same club. Then on the 480 yard 18th, where I didn’t even come close to clearing that aforementioned bunker off of the tee, I hit two more four irons and was still ten yards short of the green.

Granted, those were extreme conditions and without a strong wind National isn’t nearly as well defended. But it is not defenseless. For starters, hitting one of the massive, heaving greens in regulation nowhere near guarantees a two putt, and the angles off of the tee require as much patience and thought as they do power.

This is no mistake. Macdonald explains as much:

“The object of a bunker or trap is not only to punish a physical mistake, to punish a lack of control, but to punish the pride and egotism. I believe in leaving a way open for the player who can only drive 100 yards if he keep that drive straight. But the one I am after is the golfer who thinks he can carry the ball 180 yards when one hundred sixty is his limit. So I believe one of the best systems of trapping or arranging bunkers is to let the player make his own choice, from either the shorter or the longer route and go for that. This helps to make the man know and study his limitations and if he is inclined to conceit, he will find his niblick has drawn a hard day’s work.”

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I’ll concede that 180 yards doesn’t sound like much of a carry by today’s standards, but many of the tees have been moved back so some of the carries today are considerably more than that. The eighth hole, Bottle, for example, is characterized by a row of bunkers that bisect the fairway, giving players the choice of driving toward either the left or right half of the fairway. A long hitter can try to blow it over the bunkers completely (and in fact the longest hitter in our group did just that) but for us mere mortals the Bottle (pictured above) still forces us to choose.

And on other holes the decision is not so much about carry as it is about running out of fairway. At the 450 yard par four twelfth, the apparent line down the middle of the fairway can result in a bunkered ball or worse (my shot completely disappeared.) The play is actually over the bunkers that appear to guard the left side of the fairway. And on the 300-yard second, the play is straight toward the green over the massive Sahara bunker – a shot that looks more intimidating off the tee than it actually is. Sometimes the intimidation alone is enough to wreak havoc, though I’m sure back in the day it really was nearly impossible for all but the longest hitters to even consider this bold route to the green. Conversely, today a long hitter can easily hit it through the bailout to the right, almost mandating a carry over the Sahara (or a shameless iron off the tee).

The Cape hole was specifically intended to present this challenge – a driver straight away will almost certainly run out of fairway – the gamble being to hit it as far across the corner as you dare. But the Cape at National has been altered from its original form. The green used to sit where the road into the club passes today. The repositioning of the green has straightened out the Cape and softened, if not eliminated, the temptation of hitting driver. The Cape at Mid Ocean (the 430 yard par four fifth), on the other hand, begs you to hit driver if only to show your mettle – one of the few examples of a Macdonald hole from another course that plays truer than its sibling at National.

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Of National’s most celebrated holes, and there are many, the finest and most popular must certainly be the Alps and the Redan (above). I have not played North Berwick’s Redan, but have heard that Macdonald’s version (National’s fourth) is even better than the original. Given the way it plays this doesn’t surprise me… it is near perfect. We played it downwind and my caddie gave me the front yardage minus one club to reach the back pin – a properly struck shot will land on the front edge and follow the right to left slope all the way to the back. A ball that is hit too long or too far right (as mine was) will end up in the back bunker. A brave (arguably foolish) shot toward the pin that falls short will result in a bunker shot straight up over the equivalent of a castle wall. There is no better example of a hole forcing the player to take what he is given – even the most talented pro will probably take the same route here as the humblest amateur.

Macdonald’s Alps hole varies from the original at Prestwick in that he offers an alternate route to the daring, blind shot over the Alps hill. Take the brave second shot to the green if you think have it (the signature cross bunker in front of the green awaits those who come up short) or lay up to the right for an easy, visible third. This is classic Macdonald – an exemplification of the passage quoted above.

There is much to be enjoyed about the National “experience” – the famous lobster lunch, a sunset drink on the porch overlooking the 18th and Peconic Bay, the Museum-like bar and library (where you will find a full-sized statue of C.B. Macdonald and countless other memorabilia), staying in the dorm rooms upstairs and waking for the first tee time,  etc. But my favorite National experience happened after the club was closed, one week before they pulled the pins for winter.

I was caddying that fall at both National and Shinnecock – Shinnecock has the wonderful tradition of allowing caddies to play seven days a week after Election Day. This wouldn’t be such a treat in say, Maine, where the snows come early, but eastern Long Island often enjoys long, warm Indian summers and that year (I think it was 1999) there was a particularly long one – until mid-January. As a result I played nearly 100 rounds at Shinnecock in the sixty days between Election Day and the first snow. And on one of those days in early November, my friend Colin and I teed off at National at around ten in the morning. We played the first nine holes (match play) and then teed off the ladies tee at number ten and fired our drives over the trees into Shinnecock’s third fairway, where we were left with a long second shot (four iron I think.) We then played the rest of the front, the entire back and the first and second. We then teed off the championship tees of Shinnecock’s third and played back over the trees to National’s tenth and finished from there.

I am proud to say that I won the match 3 and 2 – probably the last time I beat Colin, whose handicap is now something like plus two – while, sadly, I’ve trended the other way toward double digits. One of the reasons I was able to beat him is that in those days Shinnecock was kept in very dry condition and in the fall would turn literally rock hard (it was almost impossible to hold even a sand wedge on the flat par four 15th green.) But Shinnecock is so well designed that even under these extremes it always offers a play. For example on the Redan (the infamous par three seventh that caused such trouble at the U.S. Open – and one of four original Macdonald holes William Flynn incorporated into his 1928 design) there is a wide, flat collection area behind the green offering an easy uphill pitch back up to the pin. This is the case on almost every hole, so the clear strategy under very firm conditions is to play a game of positioning and up and down. Obviously, as Colin was my opponent, I was tight-lipped and gave no advice at all. I just plodded my way around and chipped him to death (kudos to him for keeping it close anyway).

We called this round the “Double Helix” because of the way the routing we played coils in around itself. I’m sure we aren’t the first ones to play it, but it’s obviously not something that can be accomplished in-season and was a very rare and special treat. Most definitely, architecturally, the finest thirty-six consecutive holes I’ve ever played.

A funny side story: For all intents and purposes, Shinnecock was closed for the winter – the water on the entire property was turned off. Colin and I went out the night before and drank a few beers and by the time we reached the famous par three eleventh at Shinnecock (the shortest par five in the world) we were more than a little parched and had long since finished the water bottles we’d brought. When we climbed the hill up to the green and saw National’s windmill in the distance (behind which my car was parked) it was so far away it nearly induced panic. Are we really that far away from the nearest drink of water? Not having much choice (and not even considering ending the match) we played on.

Finally, at the fifteenth, my thirst reached the point where I was croaking instead of speaking and my tongue was like a piece of clay in my mouth. I told Colin to wait for me and  disappeared into the woods on the right side of the fairway. I knew there was a neighborhood back there somewhere and I decided to try to bushwhack it to find water. I made it through, but not before the thick brambles tore my arms and legs and clothes to shreds.

The second door I knocked on was answered by a kind old lady who looked at my bedraggled, dehydrated person and said, “My goodness! Where did you come from?”

“Shinnecock.” I said. “They’ve turned the water off. We have nothing to drink.”

I can’t imagine what she thought of a golfer from Shinnecock appearing on her doorstep as if from the Mojave, but she disappeared dutifully into the house and returned with a cup of water. The most amazing thing about this cup was that it was one of those 32 ounce wax paper milkshake cups that they serve at beach clubs in the summer…it even had a plastic lid and straw and was filled with crushed ice. I was so thirsty, I didn’t even bother to ask her why she randomly had one in the house, but clearly I’d knocked on the right door. She refilled it when I was done and, renewed, I bushwhacked back to the golf course.

When Colin saw the cup he said, “Where the hell did you get that?”

I told him and we nearly peed ourselves laughing. What are the chances?

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I have many memories like these from National and Shinnecock – of great matches with friends, drinks on the patio afterward, toasts and stories over dinner. My most recent round with a group of three very fun, competitive members was no exception. There was only one other foursome on the course, the wind was howling and the setting sun sparkled on Peconic Bay as we crested the hill overlooking the spectacular downhill 17th (the Leven hole, pictured above). And of course the match came down to the eighteenth, my lipped putt resulting in the parting of an extra twenty bucks that was taken from me with a smile.

I am aware of how lucky I am to have caddied at National (thank you, Billy) and to have played it as many times as I have. And while I am hesitant to say that National embodies the true spirit of the game, because it is not a public course, there is no doubt that the experience of playing it does.

Golf is both a social game – foursomes, beers, banter – and a solitary game – silence, focus, contemplation. In parts of this country it is increasingly a challenge to come by that solitariness, but I can’t imagine loving the game as much as I do without it. That is probably one of the main reasons I’ve caddied and traveled for as long as I have – to be able to enjoy those rounds alone. And one of my absolute favorite solitary moments – one that embodies the spirit of the game for me – happened at National.

I drove into the course one afternoon many years ago and saw a young man about my age speeding out of Bullhead Bay on an 18-foot fishing boat with his Labrador retriever standing up on the bow, his tongue and ears flapping in the wind. I played alone that day and when I climbed the hill at 18 in the day’s last light, that same boat was drifting along the edge of the sandbar outside the bay, the young man casting for blues or bass. And I thought, there’s no difference between how he feels right now and how I feel right now. He may have been casting in hopes of a strike while I was swinging in hopes of a birdie, but both of us were living completely in the moment – and not wanting to be anywhere else on earth.

Next week: The Course at Yale

Discussion

4 comments for “The Charles Blair Macdonald Trail: National Golf Links of America”

  1. and not wanting to be anywhere else on earth.

    That’s the same way I felt my one trip out there.

    Really enjoying the series, even though it’s making me very jealous.

    Posted by John M | June 19, 2010, 10:04 am
  2. These stories are really good.

    Keep up the great work.

    I am looking forward to the story about Yale which I thought would be published by now, but I am unable to find it.

    Thanks again,

    Arthur Little

    Posted by Arthur Little | August 21, 2010, 7:05 am
  3. The “Double Helix” game between Colin and you must have been amazing. I had the privilege of playing The National last week and when I was on top of my 65 yard 3rd shot from the 18th fairway, I turned to my brother and muttered that there was no other place on earth I’d rather be.
    Great article! I cant wait to read the rest of your work.

    Posted by Ankur | October 14, 2010, 9:14 pm
  4. great story, i have started
    cadding at national and just
    love Billy, by the way I am
    almost 60 and have not caddied
    in almost 45 years

    Posted by Chuck Glowacki | June 17, 2011, 3:45 pm

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