Sebonack Welcomes U.S. Women’s Open

As evidenced by its bunkering, Sebonack presents a strategic test

The sheer incongruity of Sebonack Golf Club, the fact that it claims a Southampton, N.Y. address and is hosting a U.S. Women’s Open a mere seven years after it debuted, adds luster and intrigue to this week’s championship.

Most startling is the club’s location, a spectacular 300-acre site propped up on bluffs high above Great Peconic Bay. Sebonack’s immediate neighbors? National Golf Links of America, the nation’s first great course (1911); and Shinnecock Hills Golf Club, which will host its fourth U.S. Open in the modern era in 2018.

The club has quite a back story. Owner Michael Pascucci was a founding member of The Bear’s Club in Jupiter, Fla., where Jack Nicklaus is the major domo. Jack, the sport’s greatest champion and designer of 270 courses at the time, was Pascucci’s architect of choice for the rugged headland parcel he had acquired at auction for $46 million after Donald Trump (all hat, no cattle) reneged on the deal at closing.

But then Pascucci, on the advice of a consultant who realized the site’s rolling expanse of sandy hillocks might need another pair of eyes, paid a visit to Bandon Dunes. There he played Pacific Dunes, Tom Doak’s masterful gem. On the spot, Pascucci, a self-made man who his fortune in the auto leasing industry, decided the Golden Bear needed a collaborator. A master salesman, Pascucci somehow convinced Nicklaus that he needed to share the billing with a firebrand who had blasted his work in his torchy, no-holds-barred Confidential Guide to Golf Courses.

Listed at 6,796 yards, par 72 for the Open, Sebonack presents exceedingly wide fairways, fescue-fringed bunkers and topsy-turvy greens. These are attributed to Doak, as is the routing. Nicklaus “strategized” the course from the tips for the game’s top players. The course is a hybrid, but Pascucci was also involved. He wanted a par 5 finishing hole that would give the members a chance to close with a par or birdie. Nicklaus and Doak both staunchly advocated for a long, strong par 4. The owner got his way. It must be said that the 523-yard 18th hole, a majestic par 5 that skirts a bluff high above Great Peconic Bay, is the most distinctive on the course and may be the finest finishing hole on Long Island.

As an aside, Sebonack’s 18th has a deep massive bunker that eats into the right side of the fairway. This sand pit occupies the former estate’s sunken gardens and reflecting pool. It was here that Mrs. Pauline Morton Sabin, a progressive woman, hosted parties in the 1920’s to raise money to abolish Prohibition. The women competing this week should raise a glass in her honor.

Based on a visit I made to Sebonack earlier this week for a practice round, the gals are in for quite a treat. The sand-based fairways are tightly knit. They’ll play firm and fast. There is no distinction between tee and fairway—the look is monochromatic. The jagged edge bunkers could double for the ones at Pacific Dunes. The greens, with their dips and swales, are heart-stopping. On longer putts, expect to see the women play for 10 or 15 feet of break, maybe more. A la Cypress Point, there are many more exposed sandy areas at Sebonack than at the National or Shinnecock Hills, enhancing the links-like appearance and burnishing the club’s naturalistic reputation. This is a grand piece of land that’s going to show well on TV.

Says Casey Alexander, a member of The A Position and a standout Met Area amateur who carries a 1.9 handicap, “So much of how the course is going to play will depend on green speed. Given their contours, they shouldn’t be allowed to be higher than 9 or 10 on the Stimpmeter.” Otherwise, expect hockey, not golf.

“The USGA would be well-advised to have slightly slower greens to provide a greater variety of pin placements, as opposed to speedier greens that will severely limit the number of available pin positions,” Alexander continued, noting the pronounced false fronts and steep drop-offs at several putting surfaces. With its extremely generous fairways, he believes the world’s top female pros and amateurs, who tend to rely on precision and accuracy over power, will not spend much time in the tall fescue rough. Sebonack, he says, will show itself to be what it is: a second-shot course that rewards short-game wizardry.

Superintendent Garret Bodington acknowledges the layout’s broad fairways (up to 100 yards wide in places), but emphasizes that “our greens will be our defense.” He also says the wind is going to have a major impact on the championship. If it blows stronger than what is forecast, watch out.

Asked to name a favorite, Alexander picked Inbee Park, a steady player and former U.S. Women’s Open champion he says is in “total control of every facet of her game. The other players on tour are in awe of her putting prowess. She’s not a long hitter by any means, but she’s so good from 10 feet in. The winner will have to sink a lot of clutch four- and five-footers to triumph.”

As a note to those familiar with the course, the USGA has reconfigured the front nine slightly for better traffic flow. The actual first hole, a gentle 334-yard left-to-right dogleg that proceeds to the edge of the bluff at the east end of the course, will play as the ninth. That means the opening hole for game’s top female players is the normal second hole, a spectacular par 4 with a tee sited below the regal clubhouse that serves up an unobstructed view of the bay, the holes ahead, and the dramatic par-5 18th, which it parallels. The fairway here rolls past a series of fearsome bunkers to a blistered potato chip of a green that will get everyone’s attention. Expect this charmer to set the tone for the championship, Long Island’s first U.S. Women’s Open. While it may lack the storied history of its neighbors, Sebonack is about to write its own chapter.

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