Maybe outspoken Phil Mickelson has a point. Though he didn’t win the Scottish Open held at Castle Stuart Golf Links in July, he had good things to say about the tournament venue, a newcomer co-designed by Gil Hanse and Mark Parsinen.
In a rambling discourse, Mickelson told The Scotsman, “Most of the greatest holes that have ever been designed have been designed 60 to 100 years ago. I don’t see that type of greatness in a lot of modern-day architecture.” His main point was that fun, thought-provoking courses are in short supply as modern-day architects continue to build longer, tougher courses to counteract advances in equipment and player ability.
“Longer and harder is just longer and harder,” Mickelson went on to say. “It’s monotonous and ultimately not very thought-provoking. (The game) is about fun and creativity, and it doesn’t have to beat you up all the time.”
Mickelson’s comments call to mind a recent round I played at Metropolis CC in White Plains, N.Y. Now, I’m a native of Westchester County, the leafy suburb north of New York City. I caddied at many of the top clubs throughout the county as a teenager, including Westchester CC. I even went to high school in White Plains. And yet somehow Metropolis had escaped my notice.
What a revelation to play a genuine classic, a majestic spread with rolling, tree-lined fairways, subtle doglegs and slippery greens. This well-groomed course relies on natural contours, not excessive length, for its challenge. Founded in 1922, the club’s golf course, routed up, down and across a large hill, was designed by Herbert Strong, with later revisions by A.W. Tillinghast. It is utterly free, as my friend Jim Finegan might say, of chicanery, though there is just enough caprice to keep things interesting. In other words, the course is not standard-issue great, like a Winged Foot or a Quaker Ridge. The short, sporty front nine has a few decidedly funky holes. (The members probably would prefer to have them described as eclectic). Chief among them is the par-4 sixth, one of the great holes in the New York metropolitan area.
From an elevated tee, the fairway at No. 6 tumbles down a narrow corridor, with a thick forest to the left and well-placed bunkers cut into a hillside on the right. The approach shot, usually played from an awkward downhill or sidehill lie, is played to a two-tiered green defended in front by a deep sand pit. There’s also a little creek and a small pond to the right, but only career slicers need worry about them. This naturalistic gem is the number-one handicap hole on a course that stretches to 6,784 yards (par 71) from the blue tees, but which gave our group all it could handle from the white markers at 6,518 yards.
The back nine at Metropolis displays its grandeur and grit, with longer, more spacious holes routed across higher ground. Several of these holes serve up unobstructed views of wooded ridges free of development. For example, the par-5 11th, 587 yards at full stretch, is a true three-shotter that proceeds uphill off the tee and then plays downhill to a green that, were it not the club’s expert Jamaican caddies, would be impossible to read. There is no evidence of earthmoving at this one-of-a-kind goliath. From the high points of the course, it’s hard to believe the club, originally founded as a “country adjunct” of the Metropolis City Club, a Manhattan social organization circa 1879, is a scant 20 miles from Gotham as the crow flies.
There’s something else about Metropolis that sets it apart: its roll call of legendary head professionals, many of them World Golf Hall of Fame members. The first of note was Paul Runyan, a.k.a. “Little Poison,” the short game whiz who won the 1934 and 1938 PGA Championships while on staff Metropolis, including a memorable 8 & 7 victory over Sam Snead in the 1938 event. Jack Burke Jr., a two-time major winner, served as the club’s head pro from 1948-50 and won the 1949 Met Open by six shots over Gene Sarazen. “Lighthorse” Harry Cooper, a perennial U.S. Open contender in his prime nicknamed for his quick pace of play, was head pro at Metropolis from 1953-1978. (Cooper also gave lessons at Westchester CC during the time I caddied there. Active into his nineties, he was one of golf’s great gentlemen).
Of course, Mickelson at Metropolis would be a mismatch. Even if he left his driver and hybrids in the trunk of his car, there isn’t enough golf course at the Golden Age course for a big hitter like him. But it is fun, thought-provoking and rewards creativity. Few modern layouts can say as much.