National Golf Links of America

6,505 yards, 130 slope from the Greens (Regular Tees)

Course:  In Southampton, NY, or the Hamptons, is the National Golf Links of America, a course designed by Charles Blair Macdonald, with the assistance of Seth Raynor, in 1908.  After living over  St. Andrews for some time, Macdonald set out to create a golf course in the U.S. that would rival anything you would find in Scotland.  He did this through the use of template holes, modeling certain holes existing in Scotland and designing them to fit the landscape upon which the course would be built.  The template holes include the Second, “Sahara,” modeled after a par 4 at Royal St. George; the Third, “Alps,” modeled after a par 4 at Prestwick; the Fourth, “Redan,” modeled after a par 3 at North Berwick; the Seventh, “Road Hole,” modeled after a par 5 at St. Andrews; the Eighth, “Bottle,” modeled after a par 4 at Sunningdale; and the Thirteenth, “Eden,” modeled after a par 3 at St. Andrews.  I also believe the Punchbowl green on the Sixteenth is a template, but can’t be sure.  Regardless, Macdonald and Raynor thereafter took these template holes and used them to design a number of other courses, always modifying the holes to accommodate the existing terrain to make each course unique, yet with the well established framework of each hole intact.

National is one of the best golf courses in the world.  Because of my fascination with Raynor and Macdonald, it has been one of the courses I have sorely wanted to play for a number of years.  There are a number of courses on Long Island that are well regarded, including Bethpage Black, Shinnecock Hills, Maidstone, Sebonac, Garden City, Piping Rock, The Creek, Friar’s Head and Fisher’s Island (I’m sure I am missing some).  Several of these are all-world courses.  The soil, the proximity to water, the rolling terrain and the architects involved have made Long Island historically one of the best and prestigious collections of courses in the world.  Even though a mere few hours away from me, of course  have never set foot on Long Island all these years, until now.

The quality of these courses is paralleled by their exclusivity.  Many of them, including National, have limited memberships and are difficult to find a way to play.  I was extremely fortunate for the opportunity to play 36 holes at National recently.  As I walked around the locker room, trying to find the guest area, the names on the lockers were astounding.  Let’s just say many of them were immediately recognizable.  Despite the prestige of the club, not once did I feel out of place or unwelcome.  Everyone was friendly, down to earth and easy to talk to.  To me, that’s a strong indication of a special place.

As for the course, it was as spectacular as I had built up in my mind.  There were no weak holes.  Each hole had a variety of options and strategy, which means that the course likely never plays the same way twice.  The out and back style that is traditionally seen with links courses means the wind comes into play, usually into it on the front and behind you on the back.  The closing stretch of holes is probably the best I have played.  There are a handful of holes that were simply the best I have ever played.  But most of all, the course was a lot of fun.  While it is engaging and makes you think how you will attack each shot, you have a blast figuring it out.  There is no OB and it’s extremely difficult to lose a ball, which adds to the fun.  We heard of some who hit a wayward shot off the First tee playing their second shot off of the clubhouse roof, since all is in play.  The terrain, especially coming in from the Fourteenth on, around the bay, then next to it as you climb the Eighteenth, with the water ultimately well below you just off the Eighteenth green, is spectacular terrain.  The tranquility and majesty of that area is very special and will remain one of my favorite memories of golf.

As a links course, utilizing the ground is just as important as aerial shots.  The green complexes are fascinating, forcing you to consider its undulations and frequently landing the ball away from the hole to get it running towards it.  A lot of the fun comes around the greens, where you need to get creative based on your lie and location.  For example, the only shot I had out of the narrow bunker on the far side of the Sixth was to get on one knee and take a batter’s swing at the ball.  The next time I was in there for the second round, I realized chopping at it away from the hole would make the ball release towards it and was able to get my par.  On the Seventh, the pin was at the front of the green with a mound protecting it.  The hole was on an upper tier, so anything hit too hard would roll at least 20 feet by, so everyone in my group tried to putt it close, which didn’t work out as well as we thought.  I could have stayed at the green from a half a day thinking through the best approach to it.  And those kinds of decisions and shots happen throughout the entire round.  And if the wind is up, the course gets even more fun, figuring out how the ball will move in the air, then again once on the ground.  There’s no restraint or feeling of hesitancy in steering the ball away from the trouble here; the freedom of playing various types of shots on a course with no OB and a lie from virtually anywhere is liberating and links golf at its finest.

After a few swings at the range (the bay is immediately next to you on the left), we met our caddies and were immediately informed of a longstanding club rule; you don’t walk off the First tee until you’re happy with your shot.  We took advantage of that breakfast ball and set out on a spectacular day of links golf in Long Island.

The First is a 315 yard (from the Regular tees) par 4, “Valley.”  The tee shot immediately sets the theme of options and risk/reward, as the more direct path to the green is the left side, which brings the fairway bunkers on that side into play and requires a much longer carry to the fairway.  The further right you go, the safer you are but the longer you have to the green.  In almost all cases, your approach to the green will be blind with the center bunker and mound obstructing your view.  Make sure you carry that center bunker a good bit because there is long grass after it and the green is an impressive set of rumples and undulations.  An all world opening hole.

The First
The Green
A look at the First green from the Second tee

The Second is a 290 yard par 4, “Sahara,” named after the immense bunker on the left side of the hole that comes into play off the tee.  The same principle applies off the tee, the more left you go, the more risk you take yet the shorter your approach will be.  I took that to the extreme by yanking my tee shot left over by the windmill, which left me a short wedge into the green.  A lucky miss for sure, but worth it, as hitting over to the right leaves you with a much longer, and blind, approach shot.  The green is huge, but don’t go off the far side since it falls off steeply.

The Second
Moving down the fairway
A look at the green
A closer look

The Third is a 407 yard par 4, “Alps.”  The tee shot is slightly elevated to a fairway that runs left to right at an angle, with a long trench bunker on the right presenting the risk/reward option.  The real fun is the approach shot.  Even the most well struck tee shot in the fairway will have no idea where the green is.  It is in fact on the other side of the hill, so another risk/reward shot awaits.  You can go directly over the hill to the green, which is a longer shot and if not well executed, means you’ll likely have a hell of a recovery shot.  Of course, you can hit off to the right, which reveals the green and a much easier approach shot.  You’re either playing for bogey or need to get up and down from there for your par.  The green is wide and runs from back to front.  It was one of my favorite on the course. And that approach shot is one of the better blind shots I can think of.

The Third
“Approach” shot territory
The Green

The Fourth is a 181 yard par 3, “Redan.”  A template par 3 that’s seen frequently, what sets this one apart is the terrain it’s set upon and the slope starting from the front of the green, which can be used a number of ways to get the ball to the pin.  In fact, this is one hole where trying to stick it close may end up being the incorrect play.  The green also moves right to left, so it’s better to aim for the front right of the green and let it release towards the hole.  Yet another incredibly fun hole to play.

The Fourth

The Fifth is a 451 yard par 4, “Hog’s Back.”  The name of the hole refers to the fairway that creases in the middle, eschewing balls out to the sides of the fairway once they land.  So a draw or a fade off the tee, where the ball is coming from the outside towards the center of the fairway, is ideal.  In fact, the slope on the right side of the fairway is so severe early on that aiming for the left side with a fade has to be one of the safer shots.  The approach is to a wide open green on a hill side, running from right to left.  There are some bunkers in the middle of the hole that will usually need to be carried on the approach as well.  Using the hillside of the green to try and feed the ball to the pin position on the right side was a lot of fun.  I had a lot of success with a lower ball flight that released and bounced, cozying right up.

The Fifth
Moving down the fairway

The Sixth is a 123 yard par 3, “Short.”  No explanation needed on the name of this hole, it’s short yet defends itself well by requiring precision with the the shot.  The green is quite large and is actually three different complexes joined as one, meaning you can land on one of the greens and general collection area, yet have over 50 yards to put through the contours to get to the actual pin.  What I found tough was the trench bunker getting very steep and narrow on the back side.  The pin was on the right side, which is where the green gets pretty shallow, so even though I hit a great shot on line, it was a tad long, hit the slope and went in.  Yada yada yada I walked away with a double, mainly because it was so tough to figure out a stance to hit out of the bunker.  For my second round, I actually took less club and ended up yet again in a bunker on the far side, but played it much better and was able to get up and down for par.  So while it’s short, it’s still providing a similar challenge and options to the other holes.

The Sixth
Such a devious bunker area
Which continues on most of the back side

The Seventh is a 467 yard par 5, “St. Andrews.”  The hole replicates the Road Hole at St. Andrews, which comprises of a deep set bunker angled along the right and rear of the green.  There’s also a gigantic bunker to the left of the green that you literally can’t see out of if you get in it.  There is lots of room off the tee, but setting up the best approach shot is critical since the green is challenging.  The right rear portion slopes into the bunkers on that side and a mound in front means you can’t baby the ball to the pin.  Only the most precise shots will get close to the hole.  A great par 5.

The Seventh
The deep bunker off to the left of the green

The Eighth is a 385 yard par 4, “Bottle.”  I believe the name of the hole refers to the manner in which it narrows as you get closer to the green.  I believe it also refers to the fairway bunkers lining each side of the hole, which narrows the acceptable landing area significantly.  The green is raised from the fairway and there are bunkers along its front that must be carried on the approach.  Anything off the right or back side falls off as well.

The Eighth
Right side of the fairway
Moving towards the green on the right side
A look at the green

The Ninth is a 534 yard par 5, “Long.”  No explanation needed on the name.  For most of us, this is a true three shot par 5.  The raised tee shot is a forced carry over water and bunkers, but anything too far left will end up in a larger bunker on that side.  There’s a lot of room for the second shot to the approach, but the trees come into play on the right and there’s long grass off to the left, along with some nicely placed bunkers.  The green falls off the right side as well.  

The Ninth
Along the left side of the fairway, near the tee shot landing area
Looking back from the green

The front nine marches away from the clubhouse and is typically against the wind.  There really isn’t a weak hole.  The par 3’s are excellent and some of the par 4’s became instant favorites of mine.  My order of liking them is 3, 2, 1, 6, 4, 7, 8, 9, 5.

Turning around and going back in the direction whence you came, there’s a great halfway house.  The gingers with peanut butter were a nice touch and with transfusions in hand, we were ready to take on the back nine, which is possibly my favorite stretch of nine holes.

The Tenth is a 420 yard par 4, “Shinnecock.”  The famous Shinnecock Hills GC is off to the right side of the hole, simply bordered with a row of trees to signify one course over the other.  Their clubhouse can be seen perched above the course.  I don’t know if there’s a better and more convenient 36 holes than playing National and Shinnecock in one day. As for the hole, There’s cross bunkers to account for off the tee, while the green is on the larger side and tilts left.  Yet another nice warm up to the nine and refreshing from the longer Ninth just played.

The Tenth
Shinny is on the other side of those trees
The Green

The Eleventh is a 418 yard par 4, “Plateau.”  The double plateau green here is incredible, so much so that I forgot to take photos of it.  The tee shot is over a ridge and blind, with the fairway bounding down from the ridge to the road and giving you a nice roll after your tee shot lands.  The approach is over the road to the green, which was one of my favorite of the course.  Sunken bunkers interspersed with short grass collection areas and the double plateau made for some great chips and putts to get close to the hole.  It was a lot of fun.

The Eleventh
The other side of the ridge, with the green in the distance

The Twelfth is a 427 yard par 4, “Sebonac.”  With the bay coming into the background, the the shot is angled to the right, but there is a sunken bunker on that side if hit too far over.  The green is pitched and wavy, making for a lot of fun putting and approach shots.

The Twelfth
Moving down the fairway
The right side of the hole
The green
The bay beyond the green

The Thirteenth is a 159 yard par 3, “Eden.”  With a forced carry over the tidal pools and road I drove in on, the raised green awaits with bunkers scattered around it.  The green is rumpled and pace is important to avoid falling off one of the sides.  As an aside, the drive into the course  had to be one of the best I’ve been through.  Sebonack Inlet Road takes you past the Eighth and Ninth, then circles around to the Eden hole, then you get a view of the Fourteenth through Sixteenth and the windmill with the bay on the other side, then you enter to see the Seventeenth and Eighteenth, leading right up to the clubhouse.  With the bay, windmill, and all of the holes in view, you can’t wait to get out there and experience everything for yourself.

The Thirteenth
Another look

The Fourteenth is a 341 yard par 4, “Cape.”  The Cape template was actually created by Macdonald and consists of the hole curving around a hazard and presenting the risk/reward option of cutting off as much as possible of the curve for a shorter approach shot.  The approach should also consist of the same risk/reward option, which it did here initially, but the green was moved more inland and back by Macdonald in the 1920’s, providing a safe approach shot if you advance far enough down the fairway.  It’s a great shorter par 4 that features one of the very few places you can actually lose a ball; in the tide water pools.  And yep, I certainly did end up losing one in there when I had an awkward lie from my tee shot and I tried to fly all the trouble to reach the green.  It’s a fun hole on what starts out to be the most gorgeous stretch of the round.

The Fourteenth
Walking to the fairway
A look at the green

The Fifteenth is a 368 yard par 4, “Narrows.”  There are several long horizontal bunkers around the fairway, along with a longer one running along the right side.  While getting on the fairway off the tee is manageable, it’s necessary in order to ensure a decent chance at the approach shot to the green that allows shots to run up from the front, just avoid the bunkers on all sides (except the front) as well.

The Fifteenth
Approach shot territory
From the left side
A closer look at the green

The Sixteenth is a 394 yard par 4, “Punchbowl.”  The tee shot is to an uphill fairway that falls off the right side if hit to the right of the large bunker.  Most second shots will be blind to the green, but the punchbowl nature of the green adds a lot of character and fun into this hole, allowing for a lot of different shots and use of the banks to get the ball close to the pin.  With the windmill looming over the green and the bay now below you, it’s in a great part of the course as well.  It was one my favorite holes here.

The Sixteenth
Approach shot territory
The right side of the fairway
From the left side
The green in all its punchbowl glory
Me
On the Seventeenth tee looking back at the windmill and Sixteenth 

The Seventeenth is a 342 yard par 4, “Peconic.”  There are several options off the tee, which looks down on the fairway and green.  A longer tee shot to the left can roll past the center bunker and leave you with a short wedge into the green.  Those that are long enough, bold enough, or both can try to carry the center bunker for a much shorter shot into the green. and those that want to play it safe can hit short of the bunker for a little longer approach that must then carry the bunkers.  The tee shot was one of my favorites for these options and the view of the bay in the background.

The Seventeenth
Before the bunkers, with the green on the other side
The Green
Another look

The Eighteenth is a 483 yard par 5, “Home.”  A sense of calm takes hold as you walk onto the tee.  The fairway seems to ascend to the sky with nothing in sight except for the clubhouse and the sounds of the bay on the right.  The tee shot is generous enough but the water is in play if you slice.  The second shot must carry cross bunkers while the approach is to a green set off to the right, up against the cliffs with the bay below.  The lapping waves, clouds moving along and sounds of the golf shots are all that is out here as you make your way to the green.  Like the tee shot, the water is in play for all shots without asserting itself too obviously and I’m sure there have been shots making their way onto the terrace of the clubhouse on the opposite side of the bay.  The setting, the subtle nature of its design and place during the round make it one of the favorite holes I’ve played.

The Eighteenth
Moving up the fairway
From the left side
Great views of the bay the entire length of the hole

The back nine has the advantage of using the bay for many of its holes and although but two are par 4’s, it’s tough to notice since they all play so differently.  I’d order them 18, 16, 11, 17, 14, 10, 12, 13, 15 but again, there is no weak hole.

In general, the National is a classic masterpiece.  The green complexes, variety, character and setting all contribute to one of the finest courses I have played.  There is difficulty and challenge but most of the appeal and memories are more from the creativity and freedom you have on each shot.  While the blind shots are kept to a minimum, the ones that you have are a lot of fun and add chance and randomness to where your ball is.  A course that is more strategic than anything else, it’s less penal or heroic than many of the modern courses out there.  Just as many courses back in the day emulated these characteristics, we’re seeing a trend in returning to these types of identities, which in my opinion shows just how fun and satisfying this game can get.  Indeed, it’s a very special place.

As we finished the day by sitting on the terrace and watching the clouds roll in while the sun set recounting the rounds and shots, it was one of those times that crystallized much of why I got into this game.  To stop very now and then, appreciate the splendor and beauty around you and move on with a renewed sense of fulfillment.

Gripes:

Bar/Grill:  There are several eating and drinking areas.  The dining area overlooking the bay and terrace were both terrific.

Clubhouse/Pro Shop:  A separate structure just next to the First tee, it is very well stocked and impressive.

Practice area:  A scenic range right next to the bay and putting green just in front of the pro shop.

Nearby:  Shinnecock, Sebonac, other world class Long Island golf courses and the Hamptons.  Not too shabby.

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