Engineers CC: One of America’s First Great Courses is Restored

Growing up in the New York metropolitan area as a caddie, I became quite good at eavesdropping on players’ conversations. Sure, I should have paid more attention to the stock tips—this was in the go-go ‘60s–but instead I found myself reveling at the names of the storied clubs I’d hear my charges talking about. Places like Winged Foot, Quaker Ridge and Sleepy Hollow, each a Westchester County standout. In New Jersey, Baltusrol, Plainfield and Ridgewood.  On Long Island, it was Garden City and the Hamptons trio of Shinnecock Hills, the National Golf Links of America and Maidstone.

I rarely heard a word about Long Island’s North Shore, a.k.a. the “Gold Coast,” a favorite retreat of the rich and famous over a century ago. Long before high society headed for Southampton, the Astors, the Vanderbilts and other wealthy families built splendid mansions along the North Shore east of Great Neck. In the gilded land of Gatsby, there were fox hunts and polo matches and formal balls. And golf.

Less than an hour’s drive from Manhattan, the region is home to some of the finest and least-appreciated golf clubs in the New York Met area, if not the entire nation. A couple of the courses have collected dust, a handful have been torn asunder, but a precious few have been beautifully preserved. They offer a style of golf that harks back to the match-play era. Damn the score. In days of hickory shafts, it was all about defeating your opponent. The courses built for this game were rollicking, adventurous, even controversial.

A recent round at Engineers Country Club in Roslyn Harbor, N.Y. was an eye-opening peek into another age, a time when the game was less scientific, more sporting—and lots more fun.

The club was incorporated in 1917 by members of the Engineers Club in Manhattan, an elite coterie of professionals who purchased the Willet Manor estate near Hempstead Bay, setting aside 150 acres for golf. The engineers brought in Herbert Strong, an Englishman who had emigrated to the U.S. in 1905 and who had expertly remodeled Inwood Golf Club in Far Rockaway. According to an account in Golf Clubs of the MGA by Dr. Bill Quirin, the founding members gave Strong a simple mandate: “Build 18 holes unlike any others in the country.”

A.W. Tillinghast, another Golden Age architect, once had this to say about giving individuality to golf holes: “A round of golf should present eighteen inspirations—not necessarily thrills, for spectacular holes may be sadly overdone. Every hole may be constructed to provide charm without being obtrusive with it. When I speak of a hole being inspiring, it is not intended to infer that the visitor is to be subject to attacks of hysteria on every teeing ground as he casts his eye over the fairway…”

A typically classic hole at Engineers

In the wake of a course restoration directed by Oklahoma-based architect Tripp Davis, extensive tree removal has resulted in fairway corridors that are wide and inviting. There is plenty of room to drive the ball at Engineers. The hysterics happen on the greens, which are boldly contoured and which run at speeds far beyond what they did in Strong’s day.

Strong, who began his career as a pro and clubmaker at Royal St. George’s in Sandwich, did his own surveying and supervised construction at Engineers. The club’s reputation grew quickly. One year after it opened for play, Engineers hosted the 1919 PGA Championship, followed by the 1920 U.S. Amateur, which Chick Evans won, 7&6, over Francis Ouimet. (A 20-year-old Bobby Jones was defeated by Ouimet in the semi-finals). Prior to the event, a noted sportswriter wrote, “No young club in the history of golf, let it go back 400 years, has come in for as much discussion and comment as Engineers. The main nerve test will be on the greens. You will find strong men weeping as they finish a round.”

Personally, I ran out of tissues before the turn. My sniffles came at the very first green. A lovely par 4 that doglegs gently to the left, the hole concludes at a putting surface with a split personality. The top left half is a scimitar-shaped plateau. The lower right side appears to have been neatly scooped by a giant dipper. The pin the day I played was placed all the way in the back on a sliver of the topmost shelf. My putt for birdie from the trough was on a good line—until it broke 15 feet and darted into the frog hair. After four-putting for a double bogey, I understood why many early dissenters believed Engineers was no more than a “bag of tricks.”

After successfully hosting two national championships, Engineers took its place among the nation’s top clubs. Nevertheless, Devereux Emmet, a prominent golf designer and high society hobnob, was brought in to remodel the course in 1921, creating steep, grass-faced bunkers in the Macdonald-Raynor style. According to Davis, Emmet’s handiwork “politically” elevated the course even higher in the minds of early golf aficionados, though the layout’s ingenious routing and innate strategy belong to Strong, an unsung Golden Age  stylist.

Despite its phenomenal rise to stardom, Engineers was hit hard by the Great Depression. A bank ran the club until 1938. It later operated as a public course called Rolling Hills. Engineers languished for years in relative anonymity, overshadowed by Met area clubs that had survived the economic downtown and prospered in the post-War era.

Happily, a new generation of members has taken an interest in restoring this brilliant creation. Davis, a very fine player and the man behind The Tribute, a classic links-style design outside Dallas, has served as the club’s consulting golf architect for the past 11 years. “Since that time,” he said, “we have rebuilt five greens, restoring characteristics that were lost with increased green speeds; rebuilt most of the bunkers throughout the course; and redid or restored nearly every tee.” Just as important, Davis removed encroaching trees that over the years had detracted from the original inland links character of the course.

The original 16th green, set well below the fairway, was larger than today's version

Many first-time visitors to Long Island’s North Shore are surprised by the hilliness of the terrain. Several of the holes at Engineers are spaced along the tops of ridges. There are a few climbs to hilltop greens, as at the short par-4 seventh, but many holes, notably the dramatic par-4 16th, mount billowing hills and tumble down to slippery, well-defended greens tucked in shady dells. Strong made masterful use of the up-and-down landscape, and he capped off each hole with a memorable, if exasperating, target. If a putting green, as Tillinghast once noted,  has features just like a human, be assured that 18 characters with rugged profiles await at Engineers.

While each and every hole on the course is in some way distinctive, there is one unforgettable prospect at Engineers that gives every player pause for thought. That is because the club has 19 holes.

As you’d almost expect on an iconoclastic one-off, there are two scorecards in use at Engineers. The club’s Tradition course employs the rather mundane par-3 11th, a newer creation, as its back nine one-shotter. The Tribute course regales players with the tiny par-3 14th, the infamous “2 or 20” hole. While the Tradition was the card used the day I played, an accompanying member showed me what all the fuss has been about for nearly 100 years.

Listed at 122 yards from the back tee, the Tribute’s treacherous 14th hole at Engineers plays downhill to a tiny perched green that drops off on all sides to slit trench bunkers and long grassy slopes. It was once written about the 14th that “more malediction, praise, and lamentation has been bestowed upon this particular creation than any other short hole in existence.” Among many others, Bobby Jones and Gene Sarazen recorded “double figures” on this little piece of poison. Miss the green on this all-of-nothing hole, and you’ll need the skills of a Seve or a Mickelson to save par. Placed in historical context, the 14th is a quintessential match-play hole. If you’re trying to post a score and lack nerve and/or touch, if may not deliver the intended amusement.

The National Golf Links of America will host the 2013 Walker Cup on a relatively short, wide antique that opened in 1911. Now that the design features at Engineers have been fully restored, surely a club that hosted back-to-back national championships in its infancy and raised plenty of eyebrows in its heyday can be rewarded with another major event. A U.S. Women’s Amateur, perhaps, or a U.S. Junior Amateur might be appropriate. I’d be happy to volunteer to set the pins for either event—Mr. Davis left more than a few trees to hide behind.

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