On this journey we‚??ve had the privilege of spending time in some pretty amazing places. ¬†Some clubs are amazing because their courses are sublime; at others it‚??s more about the culture, the ambience, the history. ¬†A few very special clubs have it all. ¬†This morning we had the honour of visiting one such club ‚?? The National Golf Links of America. ¬†Set overlooking Peconic Bay which flows out to Long Island Sound, it sits right next door to the eponymous Shinnecock Hills, which we played in the afternoon. ¬†Out in The Hamptons (Southampton to be precise). ¬†Where a lucky few play their golf.
Where to begin? ¬†So it‚??s about as exclusive as golf clubs get. ¬†My understand is that the club has been dominated by City financiers and bankers since its inception; you know, JP Morgan and his pals. ¬†[NB. Because of all the information we try to absorb, it‚??s sometimes difficult to separate suspicion from actual knowledge, so you‚??ll have to forgive me if wires get in any way crossed.] ¬†I don‚??t think it‚??s a stretch to say that NGLA is the preserve of those with significant means. ¬†And I might add it‚??s certainly not the sort of place (unlike others in the area which I won‚??t name) where you can buy your way in; candidates of appropriate character and background are invited to join, much as is the case with all the other Great Clubs we‚??ve been privileged to visit for a day.
The course was designed by Mr. C. B. MacDonald, who reputedly drew his inspiration from the great Scottish golf courses like Prestwick and North Berwick. ¬†That influence is apparent when you play the course; it has an authentic feel unrivalled as far as I‚??m concerned in the US (based on my personal experience). ¬†A proper links. ¬†On a pretty phenomenal piece of property. ¬†Speaking of which, our good host Paul Kaned pointed out Charlie‚??s old house across the Bay (pictured below), as well as his gargantuan boat house (which - pictured below - would put most mansions to shame). ¬†The lad had style.
A word about Paul. ¬†Gentleman. ¬†Talented one at that. ¬†Standing by the pro shop I was approached by this All American looking mountain of a man, looking dapper in a pink polo and sunglasses. ¬†Paul was a college tennis player and picked up golf in his 20s. ¬†Now he‚??s a scratch player and plays tournaments for Pine Valley (where he‚??s also a member). ¬†Although it sounds like he plays as much golf as us, Paul in fact works, and has a successful residential real estate business located in North Palm Beach, Florida, which services the area bordering Seminole Golf Club (where you won‚??t be surprised to hear Paul also keeps a membership). ¬†Bottom line: charming and successful guy, and gracious host.
The 1st tee at ‚??The National‚?Ě sets the tone. ¬†Off to the left your gaze is drawn at the spectacular old clubhouse; down below you is a fairway guarded jealously by some pretty severe (and in some cases concealed) bunkers; up ahead you see a red flag on a raised green, fluttering in the breeze (of which sadly there wasn‚??t much); and behind the green is the iconic windmill that the National is famous for. ¬†You can go for the green if you dare, but do so errantly at your peril. ¬†A grand setting indeed. ¬†
The 1st green gave me good wake up call too, as if I needed one. ¬†With 120 yards I felt good standing over my ball with a 54 degree sand wedge nestled invitingly on the carpet. ¬†¬†What I didn‚??t know and couldn‚??t tell from down below was that the green had a false front which the pin was tucked behind. ¬†My perfect sand wedge didn‚??t seem so perfect when it landed atop the ridge and zipped 25 feet back off the front of the dance floor, leaving a mildly terrifying pitch. ¬†It‚??s never gracious or clever to blame one‚??s caddy, but on this occasion I could‚??ve throttled the 16 year old Danny for omitting quite an important detail. ¬†
On number 2 you get a more intimate look at the famous windmill, which lies probably 50 yards to the left of your line from the tee. ¬†It‚??s a blind tee shot, so you‚??re staring straight up the hill; hard not to get distracted by the magnificent structure erected by our pal Rory Corrigan‚??s grandfather & father. ¬†You can reach the green with a well struck 3 wood, as Paul did. ¬†So really the first two are birdie holes if you‚??ve got your act together. ¬†If you know what you‚??re doing, 1 under is probably par for the course by the time you get to the 3rd tee, where things change a little. ¬†
The 3rd (‚??Alps‚?Ě) is as Scottish a hole as I‚??ve seen in 10 years since I left the place. ¬†An open tee shot across acres of whispy fescrew to a fairway framed by a couple of low slung bunkers (a notable feature of the course; quite different to Dr. MacKenzie‚??s fiercesome hell holes). ¬†I managed to hit by hooking 3 wood so badly that it came up just short of the traps; the others hit proper golf shots. ¬†Then you have to heave it up over a tussock covered hill to a hidden green sunk into the hilltop. ¬†Thinning a 3 iron isn‚??t a good idea, but then I should‚??ve known that. ¬†Anyway when you climb over the brae ‚?? calf muscles starting to ache ‚?? a quite remarkable sight greets you. ¬†Not your average American green complex ‚?? see below ‚?? and a good old fashioned bell which you ring when leaving the green, to let the group behind know it‚??s safe to fire. ¬†Paul very graciously bestowed upon me the honour of ringing that bell, a duty I undertook with equal parts excitement and reverence. ¬†Which is a wordy and pretentious way of saying I walked up and rang the dam thing.
I‚??m going to spare you the chore of trawling through a hole by hole analysis, but the scene must be set and the 4th hole must be mentioned. ¬†‚??Redan‚?Ě is a name that crops up quite often in these parts ‚?? at Somerset Hills, here and at Shinnecock (I‚??m sure we‚??ve seen others). ¬†It‚??s a hallmark of C. B. MacDonald‚??s design work, and something he and his chums ‚?? messrs Seth Raynor and Charlie Banks ‚?? incorporated into most of their layouts. ¬†Correct me if I‚?? wrong, but the (golf) term traces its roots to the Redan fortification used in years gone by by the Russians and the French. ¬†For present purposes, it means a hole with a green that slopes downwards and away from the point of entrance ‚?? typically front right to back left (oft quoted description from The Man Himself in ‚??Scotland‚??s Gift: Golf‚?Ě: ‚??Take a narrow tableland, tilt it from right to left, dig a deep bunker on the front side, approach it diagonally and you have a Redan‚?Ě). ¬†The theory being you use the contours of the land to steer your wee white thing towards the hole, rather than being bold enough to fly the thing all the way at the stick. ¬†That‚??s very much the case with the 2nd at Somerset; the 7th at Shinnecock; and the 4th here at The National. ¬†Aiming at the back left pin is just not sensible. ¬†In fact it‚??s down right reckless, unless you hit a fade (which, as those who know me will know, I certainly don‚??t!). ¬†A great golf hole. ¬†And a thrilled Jamie who walked off with par.
5 is another gorgeous hole, this time a par 4 with a blind approach. ¬†I‚??ll waltz right past it, because for me it holds unhappy memories of a perfectly struck 4 iron straight over the pin into Hell, courtesy of a questionable yardage from a caddy who wasn‚??t quite The Full Shilling. ¬†Still I can appreciate MacDonald‚??s prowess, and consider it a gem of a golf hole (particularly liked the decision making required by the split fairway and the understated green complex). ¬†7 and 8 (pictured below)¬†were quality too.
As good traditional links layouts do, The National takes you out for 9 holes, and brings you back. ¬†Hence you can feel like you‚??re in control of things when there‚??s a gentle breeze behind you on the front 9, but then find yourself rudely awoken when you turn back into its teeth. ¬†Apparently the original clubhouse sat in the woods behind the par 5 9th green (a hole that‚??s creatively named ‚??Long‚?Ě - yes, there‚??s a ‚??Short‚?Ě too, the 6th). ¬†It must‚??ve burned down, we suspect. ¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†
At the half way house we paused for sober reflection and an Orangina. ¬†And some peanut butter smothered crackers ‚?? just the ticket. ¬†Then we stepped out onto the ominously named ‚??Shinnecock‚?Ě (evidently named after the local Native Indian tribe and the track directly next door, which you can see through the trees on 10), and braced ourselves for a sterner examination. ¬†Little did we know what a cracking back 9 we were about to experience.
10, 11 ¬†and play long at 450, 432 and 459, especially into the wind and by National standards. ¬†10 has a humungous flat green pitched slightly towards the fairway ‚?? no need for a postage stamp here. ¬†On 11 at the end of the fairway is a dyke (or burn, as Paul called it) just short of the road which apparently was erected to stop cars getting hammered with tee shots. ¬†They‚??ve managed to make it look as If it‚??s been there since biblical times.
The 12th green (pictured below) is a devil to hit, and beware, is guarded at the front by a well concealed sprinkler head that catches unsuspecting pitches like mine. ¬†When I say ‚??catches‚?Ě I mean kicks sideways into a nasty bunker. ¬†Anyway the green is a beautiful piece of craftsmanship, and is split into 3 quadrants the left and right of which are raised above the depression in the middle. ¬†A good fun chipping green if ever there was one. ¬†(And I suspect most people are chipping on this hole).
Standing on 15 tee you see perched on the horizon that famous windmill once more. ¬†It‚??s probably appropriate at this point to share a story about the structure‚??s genesis. ¬†Apparently a member had travelled overseas and got some ideas in his head about golf courses having iconic features. ¬†A windmill would be a good idea, he thought ‚?? an idea he mentioned to the chap in charge. ¬†Months later, so the story goes, when he returned, lo and behold a windmill had been erected. ¬†And a bill was sitting wedged in the door of his locker. ¬†That‚??s how they roll at The National, you see!
It‚??s a stunning view, walking the fairways of 15 and 16, looking up ahead. ¬†The golfer must be careful however not to miss what‚??s right in front of him, namely two awesome golf holes. ¬†As Paul noted though, if there was any criticism with the course it‚??s that 15 green could be flattened because the false front eats too far into the green, leaving only a sole possible pin position or maybe two. ¬†Nonetheless it‚??s a gorgeous hole ‚?? just don‚??t hit it in the fairway bunker left as I did, because you won‚??t have a stance and will have to sink long putt for par, if you‚??re lucky that is.
The ‚??Punchbowl‚?Ě 16th is one of my favourite holes we‚??ve played all year. ¬†Another semi-blind tee shot, this time to a fairway that splits from a central ridge (some half a dozen yards wide) into two chasms. ¬†Unless you hit the perfect drive ‚?? and I do mean perfect, because there ain‚??t much margin for error ‚?? you‚??ll be playing your second blind too, to a green hidden inside a punchbowl. ¬†The contours of the punchbowl gather any half decent approach towards the hole, so it‚??s not as hard as it looks ‚?? but incredibly fun to play. ¬†Particularly since the windmill by this point is right above you on the hill. ¬†We also had an audience in the shape of an elderly couple who were perched on a bench 20 yards along the ridge, evidently just out and about taking in the beauty of what I assume is their club (might‚??ve been too hot to play for them ‚?? at 95 degrees...).
At risk of exhausting you all with superlatives, the view from 17 tee is breathtaking. ¬†Across to your left is the clubhouse; ahead the Peconic Bay; below a magnificent golf hole; and behind the grandiose (if not very narrow) gates to the club. ¬†When the wind‚??s up I imagine the hole could give you some problems, but today is was benign ‚?? a 3 wood and sand wedge to a straightforward green. ¬†Just short of the tee there's a commemorative stone that you could miss if you're not careful, engraved with the letters "KEV". ¬†Kev was a young lad in his teens who came out here to caddy, and who lost his life on September 11 2001, when the World Trade Centre fell. ¬†One of several lucid moments we've had recently where the tragedy has taken on a more tangible character than it did from afar in New Zealand.¬†
The symphony comes to a fitting crescendo on 18, as you walk up the hill between said clubhouse and an 80 foot high flagpole bearing the club‚??s colours. ¬†An easy hole but a tremendous one ‚?? just the thing to whet one‚??s appetite for The Lunch At The National, which is as famous as the windmill.
The original plan was to meet our host for the afternoon, Dave Jennings, at Shinnecock for a bite. ¬†Paul called him to see whether he could be tempted to lunch down the road instead ‚?? Dave being a food lover and The Lunch being what it is, a new plan was hatched and soon we found ourselves sitting in that amazing dining room, overlooking Peconic Bay once more. ¬†There can be few more thrilling places to take your seat at lunch in this world.
Ever since friends we met in back San Francisco at the Olympic Club on Day 133 briefed us on ‚??The Lunch‚?Ě, it‚??s an experience we‚??ve been hoping to have. ¬†When Paul offered, my first instinct was to refuse out of politeness. ¬†Then my better senses kicked in, given it may be some time before I may it back to NGLA and am fortunate enough to receive the same invitation. ¬†
We took our place at the far end of the dining room, in the bulbous section beyond the iconic long table that on this occasion was filled by 32 guys chatting and looking suave in their jackets. ¬†(You have to wear a jacket to lunch ‚?? even if it‚??s 120 degrees). ¬†An almost unsettlingly articulate and competent waiter approached to confirm with us that we‚??d begin with the lobster. ¬†¬†But of course. ¬†My first ever taste of the crustacean, would you believe it. ¬†Not a bad spot to pop my lobster cherry, so to speak.
Before the lobster arrived came a round of ‚??South Sides‚?Ě, the cocktail of choice in these parts. ¬†It‚??s mixed at the old clubs in these parts, and to my knowledge not found in ordinary watering holes. ¬†You can either have it with vodka or Mount Gay rum; and if you think you‚??ll find out what else is in it you have got another thing coming. ¬†They‚??re lethal too. ¬†Paul sensibly limited us to one each, with our best interests in mind ‚?? knowing we were about to play the 4th ranked golf course in the world after lunch, across the road. ¬†As he quipped: ‚??They‚??re like women‚??s breasts: one‚??s not enough and three‚??s too many.‚?Ě ¬†Paul himself had had 4 on a recent flying visit before going to dinner, and reportedly not remembered much about what followed.
After the lobster you have a range of choices, from the famous crab cakes, fish cakes, beef and kidney pie and shepherd‚??s pie. ¬†There are cold soups on offer too, as an appetizer (one of which I chose, a potato leek and chive concoction that was quite beautiful). ¬†And on this occasion a veal special for the main event, which I chose over the beef and kidney pie (too hot for such a heavy dish). ¬†Paul and Dave had a plate of Bay Scallops, which apparently are smaller and sweeter than normal ocean scallops. ¬†They looked rather good.
What an experience. ¬†The consensus is that of the two, Shinnecock is the stronger golf course, and playing at The National is more about the experience in a holistic sense. ¬†That‚??s not to say that C. B. MacDonald‚??s is far behind Flynn‚??s work next door ‚?? only that at The National you really feel like, for one day, you are a billionaire. ¬†I know I did. ¬†And it was a true privilege.
Walking out of the dining room we paused for a moment to examine the grand paintings on the walls of the sitting room. ¬†And to imagine the evenings members and their guests have had here over the years. ¬†Cards would be played; bottles of whisky consumed with lusty enthusiasm; cigars puffed decadently; and lies told around the fireplace. ¬†Quite a place, let me tell you.
A very sincere thank you must go to Paul, who invited us at short notice, and who as I said was an incredibly gracious host. ¬†Michael and I thoroughly enjoyed your company and were humbled to experience a day in such majestic surrounds. ¬†I‚??d love to take you to Paraparaumu Beach in New Zealand, but can‚??t promise the food will be quite the same!
Part 1 of Surely The Best Day Of Golf Ever Played was surreal. ¬†Part 2 wasn‚??t half bad either, as Mike will tell you shortly.
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