North Shore CC: Back from the Brink

Beyond the fact that I’m sick and tired of shoveling, I want the snow here in New England to melt as quickly as possible. The sooner it melts, the sooner I’ll get a chance to see and play the revamped course at North Shore Country Club on Long Island’s fabled “Gold Coast.” (Long before the Hamptons were in vogue, robber barons built their mansions along the north shore of Long Island).

When I toured North Shore in Glen Head, N.Y. last September in the company of new owner Don Zucker and golf designer Tom Doak, it was abundantly clear that this delightful layout, falsely attributed to A.W. Tillinghast, would be reinterpreted by Doak for what it is: the handiwork of C.B. Macdonald and his protégé, Seth Raynor.

A little background. With golf gaining in popularity in the early years of the 20th century, the Harmonie Club, a German-Jewish social club on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, bought the former Glenwood Country Club and its golf course, a  Devereux Emmet design, in 1914.

There is something about hearsay and the tyranny of print that can be difficult to counter. For reasons unknown, area historians and even the club’s oldest members insisted that A.W. Tillinghast had revised North Shore Country Club. In point of fact, he did no such thing.

Flash forward to November 2009. Don Zucker, a wealthy New York housing developer, buys ailing North Shore from its membership. A sizable percentage of the club’s members had been fleeced by Bernie Madoff, the now-jailed felon serving a 150-year sentence who entwined several New York and Florida country clubs in his $65 billion Ponzi scheme. Faced with total ruin, many of North Shore’s members were forced to leave the club. Zucker stepped in to save North Shore in more ways than one: Located roughly 15 miles from Manhattan and desirable to commuters, the 150-acre site was being sized up as a housing community by a national developer, a project that would have cannibalized the golf course.

It gets better. The 78-year-old Zucker streamlined the club’s ways and means and declared North Shore to be a non-denominational “mixed club” open to all tribes and creeds. “We’re close to breaking even,” Zucker beamed, noting that upwards of 40 new members have joined since he assumed control of the club.

To solve the mystery of who had redesigned North Shore’s course, the new owner hired Mark Hissey, a golf consultant attached to Sebonack in Southampton, one of five clubs to which Zucker belongs, to uncover the truth about its provenance. After diving into research stacks at the New York Historical Society and perusing the Harmonie Club’s own dusty records, Hissey discovered incontrovertible proof that Seth Raynor had been paid to advise the club on its course changes.

Hissey theorizes that Macdonald, who maintained a home on Long Island’s north shore not far from Glen Head, joined forces with Raynor at North Shore CC “around the same time they were creating The Lido Club on Long Beach Island, arguably the greatest golf course ever built that no longer exists.”

As a native of Westchester County and a long-time admirer of the National Golf Links of America in Southampton, it was very clear to me that North Shore’s double plateau green, bathtub-shaped bunkers and Scottish replica holes (Road, Redan, etc.) were not the work of Tillinghast, who was known for creating site-specific courses a la Winged Foot and Quaker Ridge.

Zucker eventually came to grips with the fact that he had purchased a Macdonald-Raynor course. Lucky guy! Zucker got in touch with Doak, co-designer of Sebonack, to ask him about restoring North Shore along the lines of what Macdonald and Raynor had built nearly 100 years ago.

When North Shore reopens this summer, it will rank among the best neo-classic courses in the New York Met area.

Doak, who I first met in the mid-1980s while working at The Golf Club, an ill-fated, short-lived  publication aimed at the country club set, told me he doubted from the moment he saw North Shore in 1990 that it was a Tillinghast design. While he abhors reporting to a club committee—“they go back and forth all the time on what they want to do”—his deal with the new owner is different. Zucker, who has earmarked upwards of $2 million to refurbish the course, assured Doak that he alone will authorize his proposed changes.

Zucker, who took his inaugural golf lesson at North Shore more than 20 years ago (it was his Irish-Catholic wife’s idea), has come full circle. “In my entire career as a developer, there’s nothing I’ve enjoyed more than making changes to this golf course,” he says, a spring in his step. Clearly he relishes the opportunity to work with the hottest designer in the business to breathe new life into North Shore. “It’s unbelievably fortuitous that we got Tom to work his magic here on the heels of Old Macdonald at Bandon Dunes.”

Opened in June 2010, Old Macdonald is owner Mike Keiser’s tribute to C.B. Macdonald, the guiding hand behind the National Golf Links of America. On a sprawling clifftop parcel overlooking the Pacific, co-designers Doak and Jim Urbina were asked to conjure a links that Macdonald and Raynor might have built were they alive today. While Old Macdonald resembles a brawny version of the Old Course (a proper comparison given the fact that Macdonald was introduced to the game in the 1870’s by Old Tom Morris of St. Andrews), North Shore hews more closely to a scaled-down version of the National.

“It’s interesting, I felt more bound by Macdonald and Raynor at Bandon Dunes than I do here,” Doak muses. His early discussions with Zucker revolved around whether or not to restore the course or recast it in the spirit of the original designers. “If we restored North Shore as is, it simply wouldn’t compete with Piping Rock and The Creek,” a pair of Macdonald-Raynor designs in nearby Locust Valley.

“The toughest part,” Doak continues, “is that North Shore was designed in the teens. Back then, even a well-struck drive only went 180 to 200 yards. A lot of the design features here—the coolest parts of the fairways, the turning points on the doglegs—are roughly 200 yards off the tee.” Unsurprisingly, Doak notes that North Shore had a “decent reputation among women and seniors,” but not among strong young men with 5 handicaps.

On a brilliant sunny day last September—9/11, to be exact–I joined Zucker, Doak and Hissey on a tour of the course to review the design changes, which had begun in earnest the previous month.

The new par-four first hole now occupies the former corridor of the 18th fairway and plays in the opposite direction. The short par-four second, inspired by the Sahara hole at the National, has been dropped into the corridor occupied by the former 17th. The new hole now stares down players with a huge sandy mound that conceals a green tilted from front to back. Big hitters who can carry the ball 250 yards in the air can attempt to drive the green, but a well-placed drive to the right of the hazard opens up a clear view of the target.

Our next stop is the 14th green, a large double plateau, its sunken middle flanked by higher sections fore and aft. “You wouldn’t want to change this,” Doak says admiringly, though he did remove a cluster of small trees behind the green to improve the view.

Subtle changes are planned at the par-four 15th, its steeply pitched green set in a valley. “We’ll rearrange the bunkers, pull the green forward and create a second tier for more pinnable positions,” he says.

We then proceed “to the one hole North Shore didn’t have, a short par three with a wild green,” Doak says. His new par-three 17th is dainty at 135 yards from the tips but potentially dangerous. Modeled after the sixth hole at the National, called Short, the new hole hopscotches a ravine and plays to a large, heavily contoured putting surface defended by deep, menacing bunkers. Doak says a player needs to hit the “correct 2,000-square-foot area” of the green to have a chance at birdie or par.

“A hole like this is not unique to the Met Area,” Doak remarks, pointing to classic examples at three New Jersey clubs, Morris County, Essex County and Forsgate. Zucker has the last word on No. 17: “Either you’re on the green or you’re in big trouble.”

We circle back to the front nine. The third hole, a short par five that simulates the Road Hole at St. Andrews, will be converted to a sturdy 479-yard par four. “We’ll shift the fairway to the right and create a hollow in front of the green so that players have a better view of the target,” Doak says. The cone-shaped Road Hole bunker that eats into the long, narrow green will be left intact.

Refinements are planned for the fourth hole, a short par five flanked by a ravine. Ditto the fifth, a long par three that will be extended to 240 yards. Doak will counterbalance the steeply pitched fairway at the par-four sixth and also reinstate its punchbowl green, which had atrophied over time.

The seventh, previously an awkward short par four with a tee set in a hollow well below a rising fairway, has been completely transformed. Doak has built a new tee on higher ground 100 yards to the right of the old tee, providing an entirely new orientation and angle of attack. The green is in the same location, but Doak recontoured it and tilted it from right to left. He’s also added a cavernous bunker 40 yards in front and to the left to punish the short hooked drive; created a prominent nose at the green’s entrance to carom wayward approaches; and dug a pair of nasty bunkers on the right side of green to catch those who bail out. He retained a pair of banana-shaped bunkers cut far below the back of the green, which drops off sharply. Everything short of barbed wire was used to defend the target

At roughly 320 yards from the back tees, the new seventh will be driveable by long hitters when the ground is firm, but the penalty for a misplayed drive will be severe. There are now multiple options at this risk-reward hole, which will soon take its place as one of the finest short par fours in the Met Area. “We dangle the bait, Doak chuckles. “You’ll be tempted to try something.”

Doak himself can take a bow for North Shore’s stellar new seventh. The hole closely resembles the 316-yard sixth hole at Pacific Dunes, Doak’s epic links at Bandon Dunes that vaulted him into the front rank of designers when it debuted in 2001. “We borrowed from Macdonald’s bag of tricks throughout our renovation, but this one I borrowed from my own bag of tricks,” Doak says, barely blushing.

We skip ahead to the green at the par-three ninth, the Redan. “Take a narrow tableland, tilt it a little from right to left, dig a deep bunker on the front side, approach it diagonally, and you have the Redan,” Macdonald wrote, who copied the original from North Berwick in Scotland and reproduced it at nearly every course he and Raynor designed. Doak points out that the green has been tampered with over the years. The proportions are off. The shoulder above the front bunker is too high. Doak and Zucker step away to confer. Another classic hole at a club brought back from the brink is being sized up for repair.

Twenty years after he first saw North Shore, a mature designer at the top of his game has returned to reassemble the pieces and devise a course “that can hold its head in polite company,” to paraphrase none other than Mr. Tillinghast.

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