Meadow Brook Club

6,473 yards, 136 Slope from the Red Composite tees

Things have a way of working themselves out. Maybe even, turning out the way they should have in the first place. It sure as hell didn’t feel that way though as we were hurtling towards Long Island in the middle of the night, after watching another horrid loss by the Phillies. Early Spring and the forecast called for mid 50’s temperature with a little rain. That’s essentially par for the course this time of year, especially up in Long Island. Yet for some reason, it was enough for the host of our morning round to cancel on us. We still had the afternoon round but it was too late to arrange something else at that point, at least that night. The only chance was for a Hail Mary first thing in the morning at some courses nearby. Worst case scenario, we’d have to hang out at the hotel in the morning and go over early to the afternoon round.

Then a miracle happened. Meadow Brook let me know if we were able to get over there in the next half hour, we could get out. Done deal.

The origins of Meadow Brook date back to 1881, when it was the Meadow Brook Hunt Club. A nine hole course was built on its grounds in 1894. In 1895, it hosted the women’s first national tournament, which was won by Lucy Barnes. Devereaux Emmet then did a complete re-design and expanded the course to eighteen holes in 1905. Roadway development forced the club to re-locate in the 1950’s. The polo club and golf course moved to separate locations, with the golf course moving to its current home in Jericho.

The golf course on the grounds current day was designed by Dick Wilson in 1955. Dick is an interesting figure in golf course design. From good old Philadelphia, Dick worked with William Flynn for several years before going out on his own. The main rival to RTJ as most of the Golden Age architects and era began to fade, the compare and contrast between Dick and RTJ is worth a deep dive Bourbon Chat that will be coming in the near future. For now, suffice to say that Dick was heralded and in demand at the time he designed this course. Dick returned to build six new holes in 1967 when the club sold off land associated with the original course. Joe Finger re-worked some of the course in the 1970’s. Tripp Davis restored the bunkers in 2005, then Brian Silva came in and repositioned fairway bunkers, widened fairways in spots, softened a couple greens (Ninth and Fourteenth) and built seven new tees in 2016, restoring the Dick Wilson character that had been lost over the decades.

The course has evolved since its inception but has captured the initial aura that struck those that played it back then. Herbert Warren Wind wrote of the course after its opening the following, which crystalizes a lot of my thoughts on it:

When we had finished the round, I found that I could visualize each of the 18 holes as distinct personalities. This has always seemed to me a dependable criterion for judging the quality of a course—the number of individual holes you can remember—and I would like to recommend another yardstick of a different type. If the greens, the bunkering and the fairway contours appear to have been built by nature and not by bulldozers, the designer has created a successful course. When we walked Meadow Brook only three months after the fairways had been seeded, it looked as if it had been in business for 50 years.

. . . the course is loaded with wonderful golf shots—tee shots on which a player must decide with care whether to play safely or gamble on carrying traps that beset the more direct line to the green; a fine variety of approaches to exceedingly large and irregularly shaped greens with sharp, Scottish-type traps frequently nipped in to the very edge of the putting surface. The routing of the holes has a nice change of pace. The first nine has a definite British complexion to it, the fairways tumbling like dune land, the trapping reminiscent of Muirfield. On the second nine, you move into a semi-coastal American-type stretch, the greens somewhat more plateaued, the fairways shut-in a shade more consciously by the lovely woods of oak, dogwood, evergreen and birch. From the back tees the course rambles some 7,101 yards, and the par is a very stiff 35-36-71.

As you can deduce from the drawings of the 8th and 17th holes, you must think strategically every shot of the way at Meadow Brook. These holes were selected for illustration simply because they are a strong par five and a strong par four, but it shouldn’t be inferred that they tower in difficulty or design over the other holes.

Wind concluded that Meadow Brook is, “a born classic” and the finest course built in this country since Augusta National. (Sports Illustrated, October 31, 1955).

Try as I might, there’s still a lot of golf courses and design history I haven’t come across yet and as we drove on to the grounds, Meadow Brook fell into that unfortunate list. Yet some times ignorance is bliss and while I did not know much, my eyes told me know all I needed to know. The expansive hills showed remarkable fairways turning this way and that with bunkers nicely placed about the immense, bold structured greens. It looked, felt, special. I couldn’t wait to get out there and be among it all. Once I returned home and began to read about the course, Wind’s words rang true as if read from my mind during the round. What really struck me of the course as exceptionally unique was the marrying of Golden Age strategic character with modern age shaping, Dick’s own style along with remnants of his origins with Flynn. The variety of dog legs mired with risk reward decisions and those massive greens allowing for countless pin positions and showcasing a brilliant yet subtle plotting of angles with each expanse. Indeed, it’s an enabling layout that stirs an intelligent game and execution of a spectrum of skills while never really doing so by penalizing or intimidating. The rich Golden Age concepts within such a majestic frame work made for a splendidly unique round.

So began two separate journeys that day. The first was to seek out a lot more of Dick Wilson’s work and learn more about him and his style. This design is a far cry from the calls this was a dark age in course architecture (which by the way was also used by generations before us about the eras before them). There’s a level of sophistication here different from RTJ’s dominant style and the compare and contrast between these two is worth exploring intensely. The second is Long Island in general. I have visited in the past to visit its more famous courses, but it is evident there’s an extremely deep portfolio that needs to be included in my sojourns. This review coming months after my round here, both of the above have been undertaken enthusiastically.

The serendipity of golf comes in several forms, pleasant all the same. That day as I stood above the course on the hill of the First tee, the excitement of discovery was reborn joyously.

A thank you note will follow to that first guy who cancelled.

The First is a 506 yard par 5 (from the Red Composite). An elevated tee shot with the fairway moving downhill and to the left early, around bunkers on that side. There’s plenty of room to the right but those that take the bunkers on and carry them are rewarded with slopes that spring the ball forward towards the hole. A bunker on either side of the fairway short of the green are contended with on the second shot, depending on the positioning of the tee ball. The green of course is gigantic and one learning quickly that simply landing on it means nothing in terms of strokes to go. The golfer will be putting miles of green during the round, so pace becomes king in getting the ball close. It’s a component of links golf used here well.

The First
The start of the fairway
Second shot territory
Approach shot territory
The green

The Second is a 389 yard par 4. The bunkers are a little more hidden in the hills here but our caddie told us right was better than left. Our tee shots disappeared over a crest in the fairway and once we walked out, it was only then we noticed the right to left movement and just how prevalent the bunkers were on each side. The entry point is on the left side of the green and a greenside bunker on the rear right is out of view but just waiting for those overly aggressive approaches.

The Second
Approach shot territory

The Third is a 389 yard par 4. The grand scale starts to settle in about now, depth perception starts to adjust. The features always look closer than they really are and there’s a lot of room where one aims for the middle of the fairway. Bunkers are in play off the tee as the fairway leads some what uphill to the green. A greenside bunker short right is perfectly placed while a couple others are further back on either side. With such large greens, it becomes maddening when an approach ends up off line and in a bunker; there’s so much room on the green!

The Third
Approach shot territory

The Fourth is a 389 yard par 4. I’m not sure if it’s ever happened before to me, but that’s three holes in a row with the same yardage but we were playing composite tees. They all play differently and here, it’s a slow dog leg left around a bunker on that side. The green is probably more bunkered than we’ve seen at this point, a large hourglass with the bunkers lined at an angle on both sides below it. Even with the large green, it’s an exacting approach to avoid those bunkers, likely because of its movement and narrowness.

The Fourth
Approach shot territory

The Fifth is a 330 yard par 4. The course kicks into another gear. After a quartet of grand holes with dignified presentation, the Fifth is a much stronger strategic quandary asserting itself boldly at the outset. A hill with bunkers stands prominently from the tee with the fairway off to the right of it. The green is beyond the bunker hill to the left. The golfer must deal with the temptation to carry the hill and get close to the green, or think better of it and take the path off to the right. Knowing what I know now, I would have played conservatively but I decided to play fast and loose, of course ended up in the bunkers. They are a nasty lot and it took a few strokes to extricate myself from the tangles of the hill. When one sees how close the green is after the hill, a stress free shot off to the right would set up a short approach in to the green, which is with its complications as well. Wide and shallow and wrapping around a bunker front and center, the movement of the green is a prevalent factor in how to go about the approach to get the ball close, all while avoiding the bunkers. The course begins to show its depth.

The Fifth
A peek at the flag
A little closer
The green
Pretty good looking bell

The Sixth is a 190 yard par 3. Water is off to the right and the hillside some what obscures the green but otherwise it’s one of the more straightforward shots you’ll see, save for pin positions that could have you favor too much of one side.

The Sixth
The green

The Seventh is a 374 yard par 4. A sharper dog leg left that moves downhill as it turns, all of which is in play from the tee. The hill is significant and once at the bottom, it moves back uphill with the same vigor into the green, with a bunker on either side of the throat of the green. A bit of a refresher before the closing duo of the front.

The Seventh
Around the turn
The green

The Eighth is a 523 yard par 5. The course isn’t afraid of dog legs, with this hole showcasing two of them. The first is off the tee and moves downhill to the left, with a couple bunkers on that side to keep everyone honest. A bit narrower than we’ve grown accustomed, the fairway moves back uphill and then turns right a little slower than the first with bunkers crowding the sides near the green, all of them below ground. There’s a number of ways to go about this hole with all its turns and angles but ensuring a good angle into the green on the approach is the most important since those bunkers have a way of becoming omniscient.

The Eighth
Moving up the fairway
Approach shot territory

The Ninth is a 145 yard par 3. The closing hole of the front is an uphill par 3, playing much longer than it looks. There is a bail out apron short that still leaves you well downhill while bunkers are off to the sides of the green to collect those offline shots. Getting it up the hill on the green, yet not past the hole, are the two main objectives here to avoid a parade of strokes on the score card.

The Ninth
Looking back

The front nine has a stately opening sequence before ramping up the quirk and strategy, then brings it down a bit while letting the terrain dominate with the closing salvo. The par 4’s and 5’s shine in how they vary all in such larger scale. I would rank them 1, 2, 5, 8, 4, 6, 3, 9, 7.

The back nine starts with the 539 yard par 5 Tenth. A longer dog leg left around a grove of trees. The turn is slow and clearing it is paramount. Once straightened out, the green is ahead with the fairway moving one way and the green tilting to the other, one can use the ground just as much as the air in addressing the green. It’s a great approach configuration, especially for a par 5 where the approach can be set up a bit more.

The Tenth
Moving down the fairway
Approach shot territory
The green
Looking back

The Eleventh is a 365 yard par 4. Another dog leg left with bunkers now the main culprit for both shots. They crowd the green, narrowing the entry point and making the rear an attractive landing area, until one sees the undulations that must be overcome in getting back across to the pin. The age old principle of the game holds true here the same as elsewhere, confront the hazards to avoid confronting the hazards.

The Eleventh
After the turn

The Twelfth is a 413 yard par 4. More of a long bend than a dog leg, the ridge just past the left fairway bunkers is in play off the tee. Tee shots that get to the other side of the ridge will move towards the green with interest. The green is a little above the fairway with a couple bunkers nestled below off to the sides.

The Twelfth
Approach shot territory
After the turn

The Thirteenth is a 184 yard par 3. A bunker on the left is a lot larger than it appears from the tee, extending from the left side short of the green and wrapping around to the center line. There’s also a bunker on the right that can’t be seen at all from the tee. The green moves towards that bunker at a strong pace, similar to a reverse Redan with that bunker on the right as well. It’s a par 3 that plays wonderfully.

The Thirteenth
The green and bunkers in hiding
A closer look at just how large they are
The tilt of the green is impressive

The Fourteenth is a 373 yard par 4. A slight dogleg left with a nicely angled bunker on the left mischievously in play off the tee. There’s plenty of width after the turn leading up to the pear-shaped green with expansive bunkers off to the sides at the entry point.

The Fourteenth
Approach shot territory

The Fifteenth is a 363 yard par 4. Some dog legs are stronger than others and this one is among the strongest. The green can be seen through the trees on the right but the golfer should be cautious just how much he tries to cut off with the tee shot. There are bunkers, rough and trees to contend with and the larger scale can be deceiving just how far out they span. Those opting for the sanctuary of the fairway have a downhill to the green, which curls left and ramps up as an array of bunkers are at its sides. Lots of options and a green that must be attacked with proper thought and care.

The Fifteenth
Approach shot territory
Looking back at the tee through the trees
A preview of the next hole

The Sixteenth is a 171 yard par 3. A fantastic looking par 3 that once again does well to conceal what I’ll call “dispositive features.” The bunker on the right, the slope before the green that will propel the ball off the rear of the green; the golfer is unaware of these lurking complications unless he has met them before but they have the ability to prolong the amount of time it takes to play this hole to its end. The entry point on the left is safe territory even though the slopes and contours must then be confronted head on. It’s a great par 3 and my favorite on the course.

The Sixteenth
The green

The Seventeenth is a 353 yard par 4. A dog leg left with a narrow looking tee shot that significantly widens after the turn. The bunker configuration is fantastic in how it jealously guards the left side; a deep bunker on that side conceals its enormity and must be avoided at all costs, then the trio of bunkers guarding the front of the green, yet bunkers at the rear and right rear ensure that the approach is precise while still allowing ground options with the right line in.

The Seventeenth
Moving up the fairway
Approach shot territory
Looking back

The Eighteenth is a 465 yard par 4. A strapping finish running against the Tenth to the left, the tee shot must properly calculate carrying the long trench bunker to the right of the fairway (yet directly in front of the tee) without moving through the fairway altogether into the rough on the other side. Getting as far out to the fairway as possible is sorely needed, as the green is well uphill amidst an assortment of bunkers. The green actually wraps around the center grouping of them, allowing the golfer to approach the green from the front right or rear left. The movement of the green is fast and with the whims of the hillside.

With that, the round was over. That sense of discovery does wonders and the jubilation in finding ourselves here so serendipitously was special. Coming at the beginning of the season was impeccable timing, in more ways than one.

The Eighteenth
Moving up the fairway
The green
The bunkers intruding at the center of the green

The back nine plays more in the trees and relies on a diverse mixtures of dog legs while the par 3’s are decidedly stronger. I would rank them 10, 16, 18, 17, 13, 15, 14, 12, 11.

Generally, Meadow Brook is a uniquely grand golf course with character derived from two different eras of design. Its modern elements intertwine with the classic well, each complimenting the other. The challenge is not contrived, there are no forced carries or terribly heroic shots the golfer must pull off. Instead, it’s a game of managing the turns and adjusting to the day’s pin positions, taking note of the terrain and using it accordingly. There’s subtle concealment and deception the golfer must learn over time. Much of this is typically reserved for smaller, more intimate courses that cannot rely on length but here, the course certainly could overly rely on length and its brawn but smartly decides not to. Instead, it’s a component of the whole, rightly so. Grandiose intricate elegance to a superb degree.

Paths cross for a reason. This round became an impetus of things to come in my journeys but as it stands, Meadow Brook is a highly notable masterpiece that deserves the praise Herbert Warren Wind heaped upon it all those years ago.

Clubhouse/Pro Shop: Stately and charming all at once, its place atop the hillside overlooking the course is perfect. The pro shop on one end with a great collection.

Practice area: The grass range heads down the hill while a short game area and putting green are close at hand.