Golf/Golf Architecture

A Slogfest at Tallgrass

P1050368 Recently I decided to escape the airless blast furnace that has been New York City in July of 2010 for what I hoped would be greener pastures–a little golf and the cooling breezes of eastern Long Island. First I’d have to endure the waking nightmare of the Long Island Expressway (it’s seventy-five miles of dead straight highway, people, why do you insist on playing demolition derby on it basically every day?), but two hours after leaving Brooklyn I was relieved to finally roll into the parking lot of Tallgrass Country Club.

Tallgrass is a Gil Hanse design that dates to 2000. Contrary to its “country club” appellation, it’s an affordable public facility ($50 green fee). I’ve visited the course maybe half a dozen times over the years and have always enjoyed the place. Those familiar with Rustic Canyon in Moorpark, Calif., which Hanse produced at a similar point in his career, would recognize Tallgrass as a first cousin. Although the latter’s site isn’t as appealing (former potato farm? turf nursery? I can’t remember…), both are skillfully routed, ground-hugging designs with rugged bunkering, clever greens, and plenty of native vegetation on display.

Unfortunately, they have another point in common–neither plays nearly as firm and fast as Hanse’s design warrants. Angelenos who wistfully remember the glories of a lightning-fast Rustic Canyon in its early days should know that even today it plays practically like the Old Course compared to Tallgrass. When I mentioned “greener pastures” at the top, I wasn’t expecting to find such a literal delivery of my wish. The course was about as lush as you could imagine. I do not mean this as a compliment. Every step had “give”, and walking through the rough was like treading on a Tempur-Pedic mattress–I half-expected to see footprints in my wake.

I played from the tips, and (re-)learned the basic truth that a 6,600 yard course can be quite demanding when you have to play every inch of it through the air. The problem is, this kind of golf is tedious. Maybe some readers are nodding their heads right now–this is a common experience in American muni golf.  But it’s offensive when these conditions appear on a course that is so obviously better than a muni, and was designed to provide the golfer with alternatives. Tallgrass, which bills itself as a “Scottish links-style course”, has been reduced to a one-dimensional, aerial bore.

P1050369Here’s an example. Pictured left is the 295-yard sixth, a nifty little short four that’s probably my favorite hole on the course. (I like to pretend I’m playing the tenth at Royal Melbourne West when taking on that big bunker on the left–a bit of a stretch, I know, but we can dream, right?)

Anyway, let’s agree that this hole was designed to tempt the golfer into trying to drive the green. But unless you carry the ball 300 yards, it’s meant to be more than an exercise in brute force–in order to gain an eagle putt, the tee shot must also have the correct shape, as the ball threads its way between the prominent fairway bunker and the smaller right greenside bunker (see second photo, below).

P1050370I hit a good, solid drive that started on the bunker edge with a slight left-hander’s draw–a shot I’ve hit before, and one that on previous visits would have scampered straight into the greenside bunker. (I mention this not because I presume that you care about my golf game, but to make a point.) Instead, my ball plunked down a few yards from its pitch mark (yeah) in the middle of the fairway.

P1050371The next photo shows my second-shot view. Pretty straightforward, eh? I suppose a more-appreciative golfer would say, “What’s your problem? You’d rather be in the bunker?” Not necessarily, but a pair of astute eyes might notice that something is wrong with this picture.

I won’t prolong the drama. Photo 4 shows the truly offensive aspect of this golf hole (and yes, the result of my second shot–not that you care).

Let’s say I went to the gym now and then, or simply had a better golf swing–one that allowed me to carry the ball an extra 20, 25, 30 yards. This is not an unreasonable thing to ask–we’re talking about LPGA Tour length. So I catch one on the screws, ball’s tracking toward the flagstick aaaaaand…..oh, I just got hosed, because they’ve grown an apron of rough short of the green to slow the ball down and make you chip and putt.

As for my real-life drive, a bit further back, I’m left with a brain-dead sand wedge. There’s no other reasonable option. I happen to be exactly the kind of golfer that would play the bump-and-run here–not because I’m good at it, but because it’s fun. Never mind that I’d probably blade it over the green and make double…the basic concept is that short grass around greens creates options.

P1050372Instead I hit my brain-dead wedge, rolled in the birdie putt (not that you care), and stalked off the green feeling…vaguely resentful.

Tallgrass has gained something of a local reputation for its salubrious rough, and I’m more or less at peace with that–it’s a short course, and the staff/management clearly decided this would slow the wild drivers down a bit and defend the scorecard. What’s not okay is growing rough where it shouldn’t be or, as I noticed elsewhere, watering short grass approaches to render them so soggy that they basically function like rough.

P1050377It’s too bad, because Tallgrass really does have some very good holes. The tenth (pictured below) is another fun and strategic short four that features a central bunker complex which the golfer has to contend with–by playing over, around or short of it–and then face the variety of resulting angles for a wedge or short iron approach to its card-table green. I happen to have singled out two short-fours, but the course does have a strong variety of holes, in general.

In the past, I’ve mentioned Tallgrass as a good gap-filling round for traveling golfers visiting the East End (there are some halfway decent private courses out that way, you know), but I can’t recommend it right now. Tallgrass is not a naturally dramatic property–Hanse’s green complexes are the strength of the course, but the thoughtful nature of their design is severely diminished when only a limited array of shots can be played into them. There’s a good chance Tallgrass will round into better shape in the fall–I’ve seen it in very good shoulder-season condition in years past–so if I have a chance I’ll check back in a few months to see if it has cooled off and dried out.

Tallgrass Country Club. Shoreham, NY. Architect: Gil Hanse, 2000.

Card & Pencil:

+ One of Gil Hanse’s early works, Tallgrass holds the golfer’s interest throughout with good hole variety and strategically solid design.

+ Not long, but sneaky tough. Considerably more challenging than its slope and rating (72.3/124) might suggest.

+/- A long drive from NYC, but pace of play is pretty good once you get out there. Half an hour past Bethpage, but rounds are often an hour shorter–a wash, basically.

+ A tight-knit routing (and easy topography) makes Tallgrass a pleasure to walk.

+ Good flame-broiled burgers in the clubhouse!

- Loses a lot of its charm when maintained soft and slow. Though this review has been critical, this is a condition that can change from season to season. One only hopes the course isn’t being maintained in this fashion out of fear that its clientele will rebel at the sight of the color brown.


4 comments for “A Slogfest at Tallgrass”

  1. I’m afraid that as a local who plays 2-3 times a week in suffolk county, I can tell u that almost every public suffolk course is in similar condition. soft & mushy since most owners would rather keep their places green in this hot summer rather than let them play brown, firm & fast. sad but true! BTW, it’s 94F as i type this on July 24th.

    Posted by fred jones | July 24, 2010, 11:08
  2. Fred, thanks for writing in. With a lot of public courses, it doesn’t really matter if they play f&f or slow & soggy (s&s?), because the design features that allow multi-dimensional shotmaking aren’t there in the first place. Tallgrass is different, though, in the sense that it has a design that actually *can* do this–and yet it’s just been hosed down into mindlessness.

    All this to avoid a little brown?

    Posted by td | July 24, 2010, 11:24
  3. Love Tallgrass because its designed with the original idea of golf – links less trees – but I really miss Shirley!

    Posted by brian | July 24, 2010, 17:05
  4. Tom

    I have spoken to the Super there in the past (assuming it is the same Super) and considering budget and clientele that he serves, I always thought he did a very good job. Perhaps he deserves a little wiggle room as this appears to be a record month for heat and humidity.

    Headed to the LIE today, I will report back on traffic patterns!

    Posted by Mike Sweeney | July 25, 2010, 02:36

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