6,712 yards, 142 slope from the Blues
A lunch long ago. In a hotel amidst snowy Boston, my travel companion and I deep in discussion on the subject of golf. I was still in the beginning stages of learning the game and course architecture. My companion, much more well traveled. The lunch was first recounted in my review of Wilshire, where my companion praised Wilshire and proclaimed it was much better than the more generally acclaimed Riviera. I had played neither course at the time, but filed away such enthusiastic declarations. I have since played both Riviera and Wilshire, loving them both.
Two other courses were mentioned in such a fashion that day. I could not remember them for the longest time. A complete blank. Yet as I sat in the dark wood clubhouse overlooking the New York harbor, it struck me like lightning. Bayonne. It was Bayonne, he said. Bayonne was infinitely better than Liberty National, he didn’t care what anyone else thought, mark it down as gospel. He went on extolling its virtues, claiming Bayonne played just as well as most of the well known Irish links. He told me I needed to go post haste and play it. That was over a decade ago. I knew of Bayonne vaguely. My friend lived there when I was in law school and a few years beyond. I would visit and we would then go to Manhattan to this haunt and that. I remember a diner here and there we would then go to for breakfast the next morning. Based on my time there, I had no idea where a golf course could be.
I have never played Liberty National. I walked it during the President’s Cup in 2017 but that was the extent of it. But I have now played Bayonne. I still have no idea where a golf course could be there, it is that well placed.
Where the golf course is placed is fascinating indeed. The course was designed by Eric Bergstol and opened in 2006. The site was an abandoned landfill that began receiving dredge from the Hudson in the 1990’s. A man named Rinaldo D’argenio is identified on the club’s website as who introduced the concept of building a golf course on the site to Bergstol and then assisted with the construction and permitting process during development, which was painstakingly extensive and restrictive. The dredge material was transformed to a more substantial consistency and then used throughout the site to form the massive hills on which the course is set presently. This process took over six years and turned out to be 135 acres. Roy Case was also involved early on, who had experience with building golf courses on landfills and superfund sites, his Lincoln Park West nine holes nearby.
Bergstol designed Pine Barrens, New Jersey National and Minisceongo, and was also involved with Tom Fazio on such courses as Hudson National and Pine Hill (Trump Philadelphia). He indeed took inspiration from those Irish links like Lahinch, Ballybunion and Royal County Down. Bergstol envisioned a course in the same vein as these large duned links and sought that each hole would play separately from the next so that it didn’t feel like each group was on top of the other. This was accomplished with terracing and switchbacks, all of which revolves around the highest part of the of the property; the center, where the clubhouse is. Indeed, the clubhouse sits above and is in almost constant view through the round from different angles, which provides panoramic views of the harbor and surrounds from its perch. The height of the property (which was all built up), allowed for more space to work with in terms of routing and fitting the holes not just functionally but aesthetically, all of which Bergstol had to do as the property continued to receive dredge material and grow.
The design and build process of Bayonne is fascinating. A significant transformation from what the land was designated to be, the course is now a command destination for just about any golfer. Set in the middle of an industrial part of Bayonne, the golf is mesmerizing. The playing structure is uncanny with every mound, contour and hollow placed with precision to impart a healthy dose of randomness one should expect on links or its ability to transport the golfer to the wispy Irish dunes with its wind and befuddling landscape (so I’m told) while the urban harbor industrial of New York metropolitan is close at hand. The contrast of that harbor and Gotham in the air while the refuge of the abrupt determined links heaves and writhes for attention is a one of a kind experience. The variety of the holes and shotmaking is impressive, even while the tee shots are fairly inflexible in their insistence on hitting it straight. The wind, contours and elevation changes focus on that joyful randomness where the inventiveness and resolve of the golfer flourish. You will have shots out of the long grass. There will be blind shots. Shots will roll in unfathomable directions. And the smile should remain through all of it.
While I do not yet have a basis for comparison, I imagine my friend’s proclamation all those years ago had a lot to do with how Bayonne plays very much like a true links. The course is molded to play different every time the golfer tees it up, his knowledge and experience of past rounds surely helps with the next while there are plenty of ways to get around and recover from all of those rub of the green moments. All of it makes one feel like he is alive out there amongst the elements, travails and victories. That lunch was my friend applauding that experience and identifying with that rich experience more than anything else. Now all these years later, I can now applaud right along with him.
The First is a 343 yard par 4 (from the Blues). The Dell hole. A smattering of a fairway is among those wispy dunes off in the distance. Driver isn’t the club; it will be something less, which is fine since finding the fairway is vital. The approach shot is to no where. We hit over a couple nondescript dunes and watch the ball disappear, until we walk closer and realize the green is hiding on the other side. There’s a good amount of room off the green to play with, the green moving briskly back to front.
The Second is a 386 yard par 4. The Wee Burn hole. The Eighth fairway to the right may look appetizing but our fairway is the smaller one on the left. Less than driver is most likely the play as the playing structure starts to seep in. Ball striking and strategy are paramount. Here, left is no good, even though the fairway seems to suggest otherwise. The green is off to the left, on the other side of the stream that serves as our burn, but moving away from it gives the golfer a much better chance at a manageable approach. The green is a nice size but woe any shot that is off of it, including the deep front bunker. Two very good shots are needed just to stay in it.
The Third is a 170 yard par 3. The Redan. After the first couple holes demanding you have your act together, this gives us a little time to collect ourselves. An elevated tee shot with a nice kick on the side board to the right short of the green, the green also tiers from front to back, which could leave shots even to the center of the green moving well to the rear. The green is well-sized and making sure your tee shot lands some where on it is the primary concern. The dance to the hole may be long and winding, yet it leads to your door, and will never disappear.
The Fourth is a 534 yard par 5. The Church Spire hole. Driver may be in play but like most holes, staying relatively straight and in the fairway is more important than trying to get out as far as possible. The fairway begins to narrow quickly, however, and into a group of bunkers that breaks up the fairway. The fairway moves slightly downhill on the other side where another larger bunker complex calls for most approach shots to be aerial. The green is wide yet shallow, so getting the distance in is vital. Placement strategy continues its hold on the reins.
The Fifth is a 140 yard par 3. The Butterfly’s Feet hole. This hole reminded of the Fourteenth at Pacific Dunes, perhaps since both are interior and switch back in the direction of the prior hole. This hole is a little more elevated than the PacDunes green and a scary sod faced bunker confronts us head on, making sure we know he is not to be trifled with. And he really shouldn’t be with all the green to work with beyond him, yet I imagine this is another story when the wind is up and against the tee shot.
The Sixth is a 331 yard par 4. Bay’s End. One begins to understand this is a treacherous driver’s course, yet options other than driver are completely fine, but ending up in the fairway is almost necessary. Most fairways are wider at the start than narrow as they get closer to the green, which incentivizes short clubs off the tee. Of course, the longer the tee shot, the shorter the approach and some times, the complexity of the greens and approach shots makes this a valuable advantage. This short par 4 that moves downhill seems to prove this playing structure off the tee. Favoring the left side ensures the ball will roll to its full potential. The green is off to the right, below the fairway and a long bunker in front of it. The green moves towards the water and this approach is indeed precarious; Butterfly’s Feet may be more apt for this shot than the hole prior.
The Seventh is a 415 yard par 4. The Beach Rose hole. Moving up the other side of the bay, the tee shot is uphill and allows a little more leeway than the holes prior. Bunker mounds are on the left but with the water on that side, it’s some where to avoid entirely. The fairway narrows before widening one last time before narrowing just before the green, truly giving it that hourglass or bottle feature. The green is above the fairway, with the apron running uphill to it a healthy amount.
The Eighth is a 565 yard par 5. The Salt Marsh hole. The walk from the Seventh green to this tee is a longer one that has us crossing over the Second and Fourth tee in search of a clear take off. This tee shot is to the left of the Second, so we cross over their lines and vice versa, which is fairly old school and requires a bit of coordination if a group is on the Second tee at the same time. The fairway is ahead of the tee, with the added bonus of the Second fairway to the left for the hookers among us (although it is downhill to our fairway). Bunkers on the right mark where the fairway narrows, as well as the drop off point on the left side moving forward. The fairway also moves from right to left, so favoring the right side on the tee and even second shot is a good idea. The green is below and off to the left. Similar to the Sixth in how it requires a delicate aerial approach, there’s more room here to work with yet mind the bunkers short and below, as well as the devious bunker far and off to the left.
The Ninth is a 390 yard par 4. The Plateau hole. The terracing structure of the course is evident from this tee, as we tee off from a lower level diagonally to a higher one. I got into some playful banter with one of the caddies whether I could hit the fairway on a certain line. He did not think I could so I of course had to pretend I could and went for it anyways. It’s unusual when something works out for me when it comes to golf, but I ended up hitting the fairway and got to act like that was the plan all along. The further right your tee shot, the longer it must be to reach the green while short and left is the other side of it. The fairway continues uphill to the green and ends altogether at the walking path. Approaches must carry to the green and there’s a lot of off green contours to use even though the movement of the green complex can get a bit wild.
The front nine starts off by asserting its identity strongly with short sharp par 4’s that require precision and thought from the get go, which prepares the golfer for the journey ahead before giving a little more ground to work with at the later holes. The par 4’s stood out with a lot of character and variety while the par 3’s and 5’s were also strong in their own right. I would would rank them 6, 2, 1, 9, 3, 4, 7, 8, 5.
The back nine starts with the 440 yard par 4 Tenth. The Highlands hole. Teeing off on the other side of the clubhouse, there seems to be a suggestion of a fairway out there within the dunes that darts off to the right. Indeed, the fairway turns sharply and is full of quick mounds and terraces that will throw the ball into a fit. This all leads to a green above the fairway, with mounding roughly around it.
The Eleventh is a 210 yard par 3. The Nook. A longer par 3 made a little longer being uphill and while it sits down in the mounds, you never know how the wind will manage to sneak in and change things. If you feel the need to miss, miss short. Otherwise, you’ll be some where in the hills of long grass, wondering how to extricate your ball and manage a decent score.
The Twelfth is a 417 yard par 4. The 7 Sisters 6 Brothers hole. We head out to the point below that starts at the elevated tee overlooking it all. Enjoy the wider fairway that is mostly visible from the tee, as we have learned this is a rarity. The fairway cascades down to a string of bunkers that breaks up play. I imagine this is the reference to the sisters and brothers in the hole name. The siblings must be carried to reach the green, which moves slyly towards the nearby water on the left.
The Thirteenth is a 544 yard par 5. Old Glory. The immense American flag waves in the distance and we now march uphill to it. There is plenty of room off to the left for the tee shot but the further left, the more the second shot becomes a blind carry over the hillside to stay on the fairway. The fairway lends some cues as to where to end up in each shot in its widening and narrowing. The green is welcoming, recognizing the travails in reaching it, so use its contours wisely and enjoy the wisely.
The Fourteenth is a 202 yard par 3. The High Tide hole. Steps away from the clubhouse we plunge back down the hill to this pool of a green that is a bit of a turtleback in how it falls off on every side. The sheerest fall off is at the front, so much so that favoring the rear center of the green isn’t the worst idea you’ll come up with during the round. There is a good amount of width as well but of course this puts the work on the putter to negotiate the contours.
The Fifteenth is a 293 yard par 4. Sheep’s Bed. We climb back up to the clubhouse from another angle and while the hole is on the shorter side, the wind and elevation make sure it’s longer than it looks. The bunker complex off to the right hides from the tee but is the main culprit in thwarting scores here. Whether the tee shot lays up short of it or an attempt is made to move to the left of it, the main theme is that the more successful and challenging the tee shot, the easier the approach will be, and vice versa.
The Sixteenth is a 453 yard par 4. Heaven’s Gate. Heaven’s Gate is where my tee shot ended up, as I finally nuked one and it seemed to have hit the downslope and disappeared into the ether. There is plenty of room out there and with the forced carry approach to the green off to the right. This will likely be one of the tougher approach shots, especially if the tee shot is out of position or even off to the left. If you feel the need to miss, miss short, that is where the bulk of the off green room is.
The Seventeenth is a 450 yard par 4. Water’s Edge. Down near the harbor, the tee shot moves to the left along the water’s edge and driving range area. The crook of the hole is where the width is for the tee shot while any shot too far off to either side will end up with an array of problems. The green is deep yet narrow, so sideways shots remain no good. Precision is the name of the game.
The Eighteenth is a 429 yard par 4. The Lighthouse hole. Climbing from the harbor to the lighthouse, the fairway starts out wide before tightening moving closer to the hole. Widening once again closer to the green, and climbing uphill in what seems like levels, the final green is comforting and inviting; a welcome mat acknowledging the adventure the golfer just had about the hills.
The back nine sets into a cadence early and gets a little sharp and abrupt with some of its turns, climbs and drops, yet the test on the golfer is comprehensive while the barrage of views are relentless. Only the Seventeenth felt confined, the rest of the holes worked together well, each a distinct presentation of challenge. I would rank them 13, 10, 14, 18, 15, 12, 16, 11, 17.
Generally, Bayonne is a marvel in how such a place came about from what it was and the playing structure is likewise praiseworthy for its breadth of challenge and versatility. The course suits various styles of play and demands a broad based skill set to get around while accuracy may be valued above all else. Sideways shots are most likely lost most of the time but dunes and long grass do well enough to hold those shots in play when possible. Most of the greens allow for a wonderful ground game, with the elevation changes adding to the excitement and fun of those. The blind shots, sharp turns and sudden drops are all part of the fun, which conspire to transport the golfer from the industrial scene of the New York Harbor to the Irish links, the wind imposing itself often and the course urging inventiveness and creativity from the fairway in. It has surely secured its place as a pleasantly unique identity, where luxury and convenience off the course swirl about with grit and raw resolve on it.
Clubhouse/Pro Shop: The lighthouse structure is impressive and memorable, serving as a guiding light on several of the holes. The views from the upper level (as well as the lighthouse level) are one of the better Nineteenth holes once could expect, with panoramic views of Gotham and the surrounds.
Practice Area: The range is down by the water next to the Seventeenth, where you hit directly into the bay. The practice green is just behind the clubhouse.
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