Piping Rock Club

6,712 yards, 132 slope from the Gold tees

There are some golf courses I’m glad I still get to experience for the first time. It’s easier to fully appreciate, instead of wondering if I’m missing something or just outright not enjoying it altogether. It’s like tasting a really good bourbon. Those who don’t drink a whole lot of whiskey might like it anyways but it’s likely they’ll miss a lot of its finer points unless they have some history with other whiskies and get a sense of their own personal preferences and what a really good whiskey is to them as well as a really bad whiskey. Those who have a solid base of whiskey tasting experience are more likely to know how it measures up and then, realize its potential and enjoy it that much more. This is speaking in generalities of course.

For me at least, Piping Rock is one of those courses I’m glad I played when I did. Its unique visuals and shaping are enough for it to stand out to most everyone but I’m not sure I would be able to notice and appreciate all the intricacies of the routing and hazard placement and how unique some of the holes were and how distinct their character. Realizing it as it is happening and being able to regard it all with each shot gave the round a very vivid sense of now. I’m sure others are able to enjoy the course and appreciate it just the same but for me, I think past experiences enhanced the round. Maybe it would have been intuitive anyways but that’s what stuck out at the time. And in a lot of ways, it’s as pure a joy as I know on golfing grounds.

An earlier design by Macdonald in 1911, just three years after National Golf Links opened, and constructed by Raynor. The walk to the driving range is one of the better ones in the game, as it’s to the rear of the clubhouse where the polo fields used to reside. Macdonald was tasked with routing around the polo fields so as not to interfere with the more popular sport of the time. Macdonald was famously unhappy with this arrangement yet designed a masterpiece anyways. It’s the first inland course the duo built which is one of its important characteristics. The design doesn’t have anything else to rely on, it is the only focal point. Moreover, the parkland nature is a more unique backdrop to the grandeur of the fairways and greens, which enjoy more than enough space for creative versatility in playing them, as well as allowing the terrain to influence playing structure. The course is also well preserved, the Macdonald character intact and playing superbly. As this was the first course built after National, the design carries a similar aura of grand templates adjusted within the landscape, exuding artistry and remarkable constitution. Perhaps the brilliance in their finished forms of these two earlier courses spurred them to continue on with this design style.

The craft and polish of the course is self evident while knowing how exactly to use the intricacies of the terrain is something that is surely learned over time. Some of the cants and tilts are large and sweeping yet there are others like a slanted contour line or hidden hollow that drive a golfer’s fortune or tribulation more than they likely realize at first blush. The hazard placement is once again impressive and true to Macdonald form, laid out strategically in stringent efficiency.

The golfer warms up at the old polo field that is no more while remnants of the old race track are among the course as well. The golf course now reigns supreme, its genius flourishing. Perhaps that was part of Macdonald’s motivation all along, perhaps not. What it does show is that he was able to make do when faced with limitations and adjust in splendid fashion. For the game in golf in general, we are fortunate for its perseverance here.

The First is a 399 yard par 4 (from the Gold tees). “First Hole.” Starting off on the left hand side of the property, the slightly elevated tee shot gives us a glimpse of the bunker placement. This allows us to chart our opening shot, which essentially should favor the left side while minding the center line bunker arrangement. The right side will make you pay. There is an entry point at the front of the green while bunkers encase it at various sides. The chess match begins.

The First
Moving down the fairway, the strategic bunkering at hand
Approach shot territory
The green

The Second is a 414 yard par 4. “Polo.” We’re circling the polo field and now cross on its far side. The hole drifts to the right a little with bunkers perpendicular to the fairway on each side. This theme continues at the green, which has a bunker on each side at the front.

The Second
Approach shot territory
The driving range and clubhouse, off to the right

The Third is a 182 yard par 3. “Redan.” It’s a blind shot yet the hilly undulation tells us all we need to know. Heavy right to left movement and it almost appears the tee shot can’t go right enough. There’s plenty of green to accommodate such movement but moving too close to the rear could mean going in the bunker on that side. Of course, moving too far off the left will mean a herculean recovery back up to the green but at least you have the enormous backboard of a green to work with.

The Third
The green
The bunkering moving from the right corner and rear

The Fourth is a 440 yard par 4. “Hillside.” A straight hole that in no can be played as such, indeed the hillside is prominent and must be thought of constantly. The right to left concept from the last hole never leaves both tee and approach shots must seek the high high side to ride out the hillside before coming to a rest. The low left is merciful with a bit of rough to keep the balls from rolling into the woods and just like the Redan, going long off the green here means ending up in a tidy little hidden bunker on that side.

The Fourth
The hillside fairway
Approach shot territory
High side of the green

The Fifth is a 306 yard par 4. “Woods.” The hillside is not done with us as we now turn back and play along its high side. It’s much shorter yet the trees on both sides near the green some what temper the long hitter’s hopes of putting on the second shot. The left side is now high and as we have by now surely learned, we must strive for that high side so the ball can fall down it to get in preferred position for the next. I really enjoyed the run up to the green here, which flattens out and runs to the green like a calm river. It’s a welcoming lead up yet mind the bunkers below off to the sides, which should not really be trifled with.

The Fifth
Approach shot territory
Looking beyond the rear of the green

The Sixth is a 552 yard par 5. “Long.” In short, this hole is textbook genius with respect to hazard placement and routing. The bunkers are meticulously placed about the sides yet below grade, playing with visuals in terms of what shots will stay on the fairway and which will drop into one of these mini unknowns. The bunkers likewise are placed at construction and expansion points, which further dances with these visuals, ultimately creating a cornucopia of interest and sophistication in a relatively straight flat hole. Routing-wise, the hole moves to a corner of the property and then switches back into the opposite direction, yet at an angle where most shots in either hole are heading away from the other so the golfer barely notices just how close the holes get. The green here in this corner is remarkable for its shaping, which some how has spots that tell you as gently as possible, you are walking away with a stampede of putts no matter what.

The Sixth
Moving up the fairway
Approach shot territory
The green, from the right

The Seventh is a 440 yard par 4. “Twin.” Switching back yet at an angle away from the hole prior, the tee shot is straightforward enough except for the bunkers on the left, then right. The old race track is also still evident down the fairway, running across it in the direction of the clubhouse. The green is adjacent to the Second green, creating a nice little nook within the course and an entry point as wide as can be imagined. The bunker short right is best to be avoided yet some how comes into play a lot more than it looks it should.

The Seventh
From the right side
The old race track, moving across the hole and Eighth
Approach shot territory
The green

The Eighth is a 426 yard par 4. “Road.” Once again we switch back yet angle away from the hole prior, the fairway barely visible uphill from the tee. The bunker placement once again sticks out as marvelous, on the sides and especially the one off center right. And my goodness the green, one of my favorites on the course. How it forms around the bunkers and moves, left to right. The pot bunker front left center, then the one left and two rear, lining the entire right rear side, sets the framework within which the approach must come in and settle. Recoveries will be on the entire spectrum depending on the miss while putting will be precarious for just about any spot on the green. It’s simply brilliant and with the Sixth green a stone’s throw away, one of the more notable corners of a golf course in the world.

The Eighth
Approach shot territory
Looking back, the Ninth in the distance

The Ninth is a 223 yard par 3. “Biarritz.” The final hole of the front will be seen as a reprieve by some and a climax of challenge for others. No doubt a longer shot yet it’s into a large green where the swale is dominant, shrouded in fairway grass, just before the green. Use the swale or try to carry it altogether, or lay up to it, its scale is impressive and the green beyond it as well. I found it an almost perfect end to the front nine.

The front nine does so much with a couple hillsides and the outer perimeter of the property on which Macdonald was tasked with placing the holes to avoid the polo grounds, which I found to be an eminently remarkable set. I thoroughly enjoyed every hole yet if pressed, would rank them 8, 6, 2, 5, 3, 9, 1, 4, 7.

Unfortunately, the review doesn’t include photos of the back nine due to circumstances beyond my control. There are plenty of photos of those holes online, however, and while it would have been great to include them here as well, there are some descriptions and notes that are almost better than the photos. That is at least what I am telling myself.

The back nine starts with the 538 yard par 5 Tenth (“Corner”), which completes the turn around the polo field and leads us to the other side of the clubhouse from the First. A dog leg left with a substantial climb uphill, two prominent bunkers on each side close to the green give the golfer all of the thinking he needs as he also deals with one of the bigger elevation hikes of the round. The Eleventh is the Eden, a 170 yard par 3 that moves back to the rear of the clubhouse near the racquet courts. The bunkering scheme is a good one for the template yet not much of an uphill tee shot. The green is well sized and it’s a good Eden for the most part based on that and the bunkering. The Twelfth moves away from the clubhouse and gets even further out, a 392 yard par 4 (“Apple Tree”). We start to see a transition into the trees that continues throughout the back, showcasing the genius of ideal parkland playing structure. The fairway is divided by a Sahara bunker starting on the left but the rest of that area still needs to be carried and forces the golfer to hit something shorter than driver off the tee unless they’re confident in carrying it altogether. The other side of the fairway leads a bit uphill to the green, the largest bunker at the rear and the sides of the green lined with sand as well. Distance control of the approach is fairly important. We see the well devised switch back at an angle yet again with the short 300 yard par 4 Thirteenth (“Knoll”), which leads downhill from the tee to the green, which is set upon, well, a knoll. The golfer must decide on getting his tee shot close to the green from the tee and come what may with the wedge or settle on something shorter off the tee to set up a manageable approach. And the approach is a glorious one, as this knoll is not shy about shots or even putts rolling off its sides to the depths below. One of my favorite holes of the back.

We head out even further away from the clubhouse with a longer par 4 of 437 yards (“Field”). The Fourteenth is another brilliant showcase of bunkering. Even the two just after the tee add a sense of artistry to the fairway beyond. Macdonald was genius at a less is more concept and the center bunker slanted at an angle is a prime example of this. This is all that is needed to flummox the golfer’s approach and inject interest between tee and green. The green is slightly raised and as we have become accustomed, bunkers surround the green below it. The dog leg left par 4 Fifteenth (“Brow”) takes us to the furthest point away from the clubhouse. Similar to the Tenth in how it turns and climbs to the green, bunkers on both sides of the dog leg are the first attention demanding feature off the tee, then it is the bunkering near the green, where the one on the right creates a large false front impression. The green is large yet undulates terrifically, leaving those above the hole justifiably on edge.

The march to the clubhouse begins now with the 388 yard par 4 Sixteenth (“Valley”). Teeing off the hill upon which the Fifteenth green is set, the fairway is below and turns early on to the left, enough that tee shots will need to account for it, then leads back uphill to the green. The green leans heavily to the right towards a couple bunkers on that side, so favoring the left on the approach is advisable. The final par 3 is the Seventeenth Short at 149 yards. A grand wide green, the bunkering does its best impression of a moat circling the green, which basks in the sun above with its interior contours giving golfers fits, especially those needing to get from one side to the other. The final hole gets us back to the clubhouse with a 545 yard par 5 Home hole. Similar to the Valley hole, the tee shot moves us initially downhill where navigating the bunkers on either side is paramount to take advantage of the hill. We then move uphill to the green, so determining exactly where the second shot should end up to set up the third in conjunction with the hills is part of the fun while the green pulls back to the fairway and bunkers remain about the green, below. The hills used the right way make it a shorter par 5 yet those out of position seem to find themselves with a much steeper return to the road home.

The back nine is set on hillier terrain that relies more on the woods for playing structure than the front. This leads to a little more challenge yet the variance in distances keeps it strategic and fun as well. I would rank them 13, 14, 12, 18, 10, 11, 17, 15, 16.

Generally, Piping Rock is one of the elite showcases of Macdonald’s template design style. The routing about the hills, along with transitioning from fields to the woods while the placement of green sites is remarkable. What I found to be excellent and perhaps one of the best examples I can think of, however, is the hazard placement here. Every bunker well thought out without monopolizing the terrain or visuals. They are strategic hurdles that must be grappled with, yet those who have tangled with them from past experience are able to use that knowledge to their advantage. The use of width here is likewise notable, demonstrating that trees can be an effective design component without confining playing corridors. It’s a proper golf course, a shining example of what can be done with sound and meticulous design concepts, even when the terrain is inland and is relegated to secondary grounds. Macdonald is legendary for a reason and Piping Rock is one of the courses emphatically showing us why.

Clubhouse/Pro Shop: A stately affair that shows off throughout the front nine, it adds to the prominence of course and club in its design and central placement.

Practice area: The walk from the rear of the clubhouse to the driving range, the old polo field, is a grand one and provides the golfer all he needs to sharpen up for the travails ahead.