6,556 yards, 144 slope from the Blues
The boat rises and falls in relaxing rhythm with the lapping waves. The man rests along the foredeck with his feet kicked up, indifferent to the world. Elsewhere, we’re in a Subaru station wagon with someone we just met. I forget the name of the driver but do know she is Bill’s daughter. Bill drove us about the island and asked his daughter to pick us up and drive us to the dock when we were done with the golf. The only problem with that was we left our bags in Bill’s pickup. So Bill’s daughter drove us around the island to her father’s “hangout spots.” We were bound to run into him at some point. Bill didn’t have a cell phone or wasn’t answering it, so traversing the island to his various haunts was the best and only plan to locating our bags for the return to the mainland. As we drove to this house and through that neighborhood and that fishing spot, the man kept resting on that boat, gently rising and falling, his feet kicked up.
There was no sign of Bill but we finally found his truck. It was unlocked and we were able to get our stuff. We made it to the dock where the man finally had to stand up and pilot us back to where we came from. Sitting on the stern as the island became smaller and smaller, that magnificent ocean smell you can only get out on the open sea remained. That ocean smell pervaded the island. Pervaded that Subaru we were in. And certainly without question, pervaded the glorious golf course. The boat ride back was sublime. The way the sunlight hit the water and houses lining the coast. The sound of the boat as it pushed its way over the waves. All of it so vivid. I’m sure these details remain because that deep fulfillment had returned. Places matter. The sea, the coast line, the careening fairways leading to rocky promontories where those greens are on display like works of art. The sense of place, unmistakably mesmerizing. How it was used, incorporated, treasured then preserved; otherworldly.
The day ended as it started, on a boat. We chartered our own instead of taking the ferry, so it was about a ten minute trip each way. I couldn’t imagine a better day for it. No wind, clear and sunny yet not that hot. The water glistened as the sunlight danced off of it. We reached the dock and saw a parked golf cart, waiting for us. To the clubhouse. We would walk from there.
Seth Raynor designed the course in 1925, with collaborative efforts from Frederick Law Olmstead, Jr., who designed the housing sites on the island within the club’s land. Raynor died of pneumonia in January 1926 six months before the course opening, so his associate Charles Banks completed what needed to be done. This is another tragic instance of the artist not being able to experience his finished work of art, or to receive the various reactions and responses to it, which surely comes with joys of its own. Save for a few holes on the back nine that circle tidal ponds, very little earth was moved. Some of the green at the Second was lost during a hurricane in 1938 but otherwise, the course is very much as it was when it opened, especially with Gil Hanse consulting here since 1995.
Fishers is widely considered Raynor’s best design. The green sites are largely on various idyllic coastal points and are heavenly in their shape and movement. The greens stood out to me a great deal, as did the routing, which I felt was excellent. Charting the twisting paths to each of the greens on those magnificent sites on such jutty terrain was no easy task, yet was accomplished brilliantly. The holes play in various directions as well, which brings the wind into play eclectically throughout the round. There are none but a couple fairway bunkers; the firm and fast conditions and the finality of most off fairway areas are sufficient strategic challenge. Those firm and fast conditions are just as heavenly as those greens. There is no fairway irrigation system and the fairways are allowed to firm up in those golden rustic colors, true to links form. Those in search of lushness will be forlorn. This is golf as it should be. The firmness of the fairways adds an entire cornucopia of strategy to each shot, which likewise provides much more of an arsenal for the golfer to choose from in attacking each hole. With the scarcity of bunkers, the golfer must face those fairways and their speed. In this way, the coastal terrain, contours and ground game demand to utmost attention.
Based on those I have played, I would agree this is Raynor’s best design. There is no question that the sense of place dramatically enhances the round but if you took the course and planted it thousands of miles inland, I would feel the same. This is because of how the course plays above all else. It is one thing for a course to play firm and fast, yet it is quite another for it to play firm and fast well. Here, it plays firm and fast superbly. With the whims of the wind at hand, the golfer can have as much fun or challenge as he wishes in crafting the shots to the green. Once at the green, he is met with plenty of variety and intrigue with the sidewalls and contours rising and turning tremendous degrees. There are some blind shots that add that excitement and suspense the right way, with the approach to the Punch Bowl standing out. The greens deserve lavish praise. There are so many facets to my appreciation of greens. Ideally, greens should open up an entirely new and exciting dimension to the round. Figuring out lines and movement, where the missed putt should end up and where it should not, can the ball be coaxed in to the hole or does it need to be compelled forcefully, and so on. The ideal greens should also force the golfer to think backwards to the tee, knowing how the various slopes, contours and configuration to the fairway will influence the approach shot, which of course influences the tee shot. They should evoke feelings of fun and excitement with the occasional thoughts of challenge and slight intimidation. They should look cool. Fishers Island has such greens that accomplish all of the above with aplomb. It got to a point where I hoped my ball ended up further away from the pin so I could spend more time putting. My swing had no problem obliging.
The best way I cam sum up my thoughts, Fishers Island made me happy I was a golfer.
The First is a 396 yard par 4 (from the Blues). Raynor’s Start. The water, long grass in their various shades of hue and even the trees in distance coalesce as one looks out from the tee. The fairway is within this meld but is easy to notice and the opening tee shot is a welcoming plunge. Enjoy it, as most other tee shots are much more formidable. The fairway is slightly downhill to the green and with the wind most often running towards the hole, the golfer can utilize the ground game to run his ball on to the green or decide on the air, so long as the wind is accounted for. Long, slender bunkers varying in depth surround the green on all sides except the front. The green is large and mellow, the introduction continuing and assuring the golfer has all opportunity to acclimate before moving on to more challenging affairs.
The Second is a 172 yard par 3. The Redan. Not even five paces from the First green the tee for the Second sits, a pond hiding off to the left yet we intuitively know this is a carry to the green. The front apron is sufficient yet does have a slight uphill bump that means most shots need to get closer to the right rear bunker than they’re comfortable with in order to get that run across the green that make Redans so fun in the first place. The lower left bunker is there to collect shots overdone, acting as a buffer between the pond and green.
The Third is a 335 yard par 4. The Plateau. The water is close at hand off to the right. Tee shots in that direction run the risk of starting their voyage to neighboring Long Island. The fairway a left to right angle from the tee and uphill, the golfer knows his line mostly from experience. The green is decidedly a plateau, sitting at the top of the hill beside the water. The sides of the green run off steeply into the bunkers on each side. In fact, those approaches that don’t find at least the bunkers are likely lost at sea or the hillside on the left.
The Fourth is a 397 yard par 4. The Punch Bowl. One of the more famous holes here and rightly so. A blind tee shot to hills unknown, the water very much in play on the right. Driver is not the only club in play. We again find that course knowledge is advantageous in how best to go about it here, first in club and line selection from the tee and again at the approach, which is also blind. A wooden board with a peg at the tee lets us know today’s pin position, which helps shape our plans. The green enjoys an otherworldly location on a promontory, sett below and to the right of the fairway. Some approaches will need to carry the coastline while most every approach needs o be aerial to the blind green below, the top of the pin possibly visible for some hint of direction. The fun then takes a different direction at the green, where the golfer can take advantage of the sidewalls as they ramp up.
The suspense of the blind shots is thrilling yet both deserve some strategic finesse. The wind adds its own complications while the rich contours of the green are plentiful and welcome an array of approach shots. The versatility in play, the thrill of the shots, the strategy; all of it makes the Fourth a tremendously complete golf hole.
The Fifth is a 207 yard par 3. The Biarritz. There is no hiding on this hole. If one hits a poor shot, they can only help they land in one of the bunkers so that they at least have a chance at recovery. The green and fairway area before it is big enough to accommodate many less than perfect shots as well. The swale likely perplexes me in particular ways that it probably does not most others. When the front is fairway and the green is after it, it only seems to come in play if the shot is short. If you hit the green, it is not in play and is rather inapplicable. In terms of intimidation, however, it is there, just as it is in the other great Biarritz holes I have faced before. It’s likely only a coincidence that Wreck Island is right next to the green.
The Sixth is a 520 yard par 5. “Olinda.” The prior three holes encapsulated the vision I had of Fishers before stepping foot on the island. The sea close at hand, the greens, altars of golfing legend shining beacons at the forefront. The Sixth, however, began to introduce all the incredible variety here and how remarkable the firm and fast conditions assert themselves. It all starts with the the tee shot, blind yet visible enough to see the ridgeline plunging downwards to who knows where. The fairway is straight but it never seems that way. The sides tilting one way then another, shots are liable to bounce and roll into the shrubbery if the mood hits right. This leads to the green, on a hillside of its own, the front exposed to the ground game while the sides run with bunkers. The water comes back into view beyond the green and all is right with the world.
The Seventh is a 363 yard par 4. “Latimer.” We continue towards the water. The shrubbery some what conceals the ponds lurking on each side of the fairway; Ice Pond on the left, Mud Pond on the right. The fairway flanges out to the right towards Mud Pond before narrowing and leading a bit uphill to the green, where we again have the front feeding in while the sides are bunker bound. Like the hole prior, there are areas on both sides of the fairway that will bounce and/or roll the ball into trouble, yet these same areas provide advantageous lines into the green, so there’s a balance of whether one wants to tempt fate.
The Eighth is a 465 yard par 5. “Road Hole.” Directly behind the Seventh green are the tees, which present a precarious drive. Ice Pond on the direct left, the rocky beach to the right, which must be carried to reach the fairway. The beach serves the same strategic hurdle as the hotel at St. Andrews and the more one favors the right, the better angle into the green as it reveals itself more fully on that side. The green is a bit elevated, the right side lined with a bunker as the road, the front left bunker where no one wants to be. It’s a great hole and one I wish to have my approach done over. I ended up rear left of the green and then ended up in my own parade of strokes getting my ball to finally fall in.
The Ninth is a 362 yard par 4. “Double Plateau.” The halfway house is here and after something quick, we found a hill in front of us. It must be conquered with the tee shot. The fairway on the other side is inviting and wide, as well as downhill, rewarding the well-belted tee shot. We are reunited with the water and the fairway leads to it, narrowing as we get closer and closer to the green. There is nothing standing in the way of the golfer and the green. With nothing but grass between and the blue sea beyond, the golfer is free to get his ball there as he chooses. This sudden freedom has it own overwhelming tones and once we reach the green, there are the two plateaus to deal with, making the approach a little more important than simply getting on the green. It was one of my favorite holes of the round.
The front nine has an excellent collection of par 4’s while the par 5 relishes in elite level ground game structure. The par 3’s fit in well and come with their own praiseworthy shotmaking attributes. My ranking of them is 9, 4, 8, 3, 6, 7, 2, 5, 1.
The back nine starts with the 401 yard par 4 Tenth. “Knoll.” I wouldn’t hesitate to say Fishers has some of the best straight golf holes you can find any where in the world. This is due to how the terrain is used, which rises and tilts across the fairway, and of course the greens, which are usually pushed up in some fashion and come with their respective fascinations. The Tenth is no different. Straight as can be without ever feeling that way, with the fairway contorting mostly to the right, then ascending dramatically to the top, where the green rests and the sea sits idly nearby. The approach will be blind and an aggressive run shot can work out nicely but likely needs to be hit just as well as a full aerial shot. Yet another spectacular hole.
One other note. The hole is void of fairway bunkers, which is a universal theme with the course save for the larger one off the tee at the Ninth, and the one in the middle of Twelfth and Thirteenth. The course is very much terrain based, relying on the contours much more than bunkers, which are mainly relegated to lining the sides of the greens, where in most cases the golfer is thankful the shot is caught in sand as opposed to the fickle depths of the hills and hollows. It’s yet another characteristic of the course that makes the playing experience joyfully unique.
The Eleventh is a 164 yard par 3. “Eden.” I have grown quite fond of the Eden template. This one does not have the traditional bunker scheme but one of its key attributes is the risk and fear of an overaggressive tee shot going beyond the green, which is strongly evident here. The bunkers on the side of the green are deep-set, reminiscent of Bank’s inclination to keep digging with that Steamshovel to create these chasms of despair.
The Twelfth is a 389 yard par 4. “Winthrop.” Speaking of deep bunkers, one should consider the bunker in front of the green on this hole. A wide fairway before us at the tee with the left to right movement easy to discern. The approach shot is the main focus here, the green well above the fairway and an entry point shifted to the left. The deep front bunker is not one to be trifled with, even though it is glorious in its efficacy. The green and area before it is pleasantly romping, inviting a thoughtful ground game regardless of where the pin has decided to set that day.
The Thirteenth is a 400 yard par 4. “Waterloo.” Enjoy the ground game from the hole prior; the next couple holes feature carried approaches over water. It all starts with the tee shot here. The ridge in the distance makes the landing spots blind, yet the right side has a lot more room to work with. The green is straight out, on the other side of water with bunkers on the sides. There’s a good amount of room to accommodate the approach but of course, anything too far sideways will likely be lost forever.
The Fourteenth is a 425 yard par 4. “Cape.” Both the tee shot and approach must be aerial. The tee shot can be most any club less than a driver over the pools to the bunker less fairway. The low lying nature of this land has subjected it to a good share of flooding. The green is on the other side of more water, at about a 10:00 angle from the fairway. It’s large with a bunker running the outline of it except for the front.
The Fifteenth is a 545 yard par 5. “Long.” The tee shot has us moving out of the lowlands and is yet again blind. East Harbor is on the right while the fairway is nondescript leading up to the green. The green is pushed up some what and the bunkers we have come to expect guard the sides. Perhaps it’s more of a reprieve, giving the golfer a chance to recover his wits before making a run at the finishing sequence.
The Sixteenth is a 146 yard par 3. “Short.” An inlet at the shore sets up this green site, which is surrounded by bunkers. A left to right tilt should be accounted for at the tee as well.
The Seventeenth is a 415 yard par 4. “Coast Guard.” The tee shot carries the same pond we encountered at the Second and the fairway is straightaway with a left to right cant. The bunkers at the green are substantial and have a good deal of depth to them as the interior contours of the green seem to linger much more than can be seen visually. The fairway and green are plenty big but woe is the golfer who manages to find his shot misplayed where it is off of either.
The Eighteenth is a 452 yard par 5. “Home.” An incredible setting for the final tee shot. The clubhouse in the distance and an inlet cutting in ahead of the tee shot soothes the golfer, no matter how he is playing. Indeed, home harkens and we are once again reminded of the ethereal setting we find ourselves in. The tee shot must carry the water yet those who belt it into the fairway will most likely need to decide whether to go for the green on the second or lay up for a preferred approach position and/or angle. The front left bunker is abruptly steep and the green has a left and right tier, with the left lower. There’s really no where to miss on the approach and the green is such that certain areas will make it a challenge to close out the round, but the hole defends itself at the last admirably with the green’s fortifications.
The par 4’s of the back nine are very strong while the par 3’s are very close behind. The closing par 5 is the best of the bunch in my opinion. The back nine starts off in more undulating terrain before taking on much flatter land by the water yet does well to exact variety and excitement throughout.
Generally, Fishers Island is an outstanding golf course in almost every sense that’s important to me. It uses the jutty coastline and lower lying tidal areas in an extraordinary routing that found the best green sites, then focuses on a fascinating structure of play where the golfer must take command of the natural elements as best he can. Wind and earth conspire to move the ball in unfathomable directions while the ball is in the air and once it lands. The greens are stunning and some of the best templates one can find, all while the setting is undeniably sublime. The course very much plays like a links and does it well. My round here was one of my favorite playing experiences. Everything suited my personal concepts of an ideal course and club.
Clubhouse/Pro Shop: Stately yet understated, it finds that balance of abundance without imposing itself on the landscape. The clubhouse is pleasant with its selection, boasting one of the better insignias of the game.