Some years after the creation of The National Golf Links of America, Charles Blair Macdonald declared the project a success: “The National has now fulfilled its mission, having caused the reconstruction of all the best known golf courses existing in the first decade of this century in the United States, and, further, has caused the study of golf architecture resulting in the building of numerous meritorious courses of great interest throughout the country.” Immodest, perhaps. But for true connoisseurs of the art of golf course design, Macdonald’s summation is 100% on target.
“The National Golf Links is where golf course architecture truly got started in America,” said Tom Doak. “The project, at its conception, was to build the best 18 holes in the country. Some holes are copies of Macdonald’s favorite holes from other courses, famed layouts in Scotland. The holes he created are not complete replicas; they’re adapted to rolling terrain of the National. They go far beyond replication to stand on their own as timeless, classic holes.”
C.B. Macdonald was a great student of the game of golf, and let his ideas percolate before putting them into play. Reared in Chicago, he attended St. Andrews University in Scotland in the early 1870s, where he befriended Old Tom Morris. Under Morris’ tutelage, he developed into a fine player (he would later be the first amateur champion back home in 1895). Macdonald designed the first 18-hole course in America in 1893, the original Chicago Golf Club, and after coining the term “golf architect” in 1901, began making notes for what he deemed ‘the ideal course.’ Much tromping about Long Island in search of a site with sandy soil and an absence of trees eventually exposed a 250-acre plot near the town of Southampton along Peconic Bay, the canvass on which he would work his artistry. (Twenty years later, architect William Flynn would realize one of his greatest accomplishments on adjoining land, at Shinnecock Hills.) Like Donald Ross at Pinehurst #2, Macdonald was never completely happy with his masterpiece, and tinkered with The National Golf Links until his death.
Tom Doak has spent a good deal of time walking The National, learning to appreciate its subtle wonders. “I grew up across the Long Island Sound in Connecticut;” Tom continued. “I used to go out there in the fall. The staff didn’t care if I wandered around after September. The course is beautiful in the fall. There aren’t many trees, but the bushes have lots of color. For me, part of the appeal of The National is its rich history. But it’s also a beautiful links setting, and there are lots of great golf holes there. It stands on its present merits as well as on its past.”
Until The National was created in 1911, American courses were rudimentary at best, and required little thought on the part of the player. Macdonald changed all that, bringing strategy squarely into the game. Take the par-4 420-yard 8th hole, styled after Willie Parks’ 12th hole at Sunningdale (Old Course). Bunkers angle across a section of the fairway, beginning on the left and ending in the center, leaving a split fairway. Shorter hitters can avoid the bunker by laying up along the right side, though they’ll face a longer second shot over some menacing greenside traps. Stronger players can risk playing over the bunkers on the left, and will be rewarded with a clearer shot to the green…if they clear the fairway bunkers. Macdonald had great insight into his playing public, and strived to design for them, not against them. He once said, “I try not to make the course any harder, but to make it more interesting, never forgetting that 80 percent of the members at any club cannot on average drive more than 175 yards. So I always study a way to give them their way out by taking a course such as a yachtsman does against an adverse wind, by tacking.”
There are no weak holes at The National, but there are a few so well-conceived that they stand out above the rest. One is the 197-yard par-3 4th, “one of the greatest par 3s in the world,” in Tom’s opinion. This is Macdonald’s first “Redan” hole, based on the 15th hole on the West Links at Scotland’s North Berwick links. In “The World’s 500 Greatest Golf Holes,” Brian McCallen explains that the term Redan is “derived from a fortification fronted by long deep trenches, which was assaulted by the British during the Crimean War.” He also goes on to say that with his Redan, Macdonald not only embodied the strategic principles of the concept, but improved upon them. True to the risk/reward credo, players have the option of bailing out with their tee shot to the right, then pitching on for a chance at a two-putt bogey. More adventurous or gifted players can gun for the pin, damning the torpedoes that lurk in the long, deep bunker that guards the front of the green, though if they over gun, there’s a ten foot deep bunker waiting to swallow their ball on the other side. On sunny days, Peconic Bay shimmers in the distance, indifferent to the putts that slide haplessly by the hole on this considerably pitched green. (Though the total pitch on the green is five feet, number 4 is tame when compared to the putting surfaces on number 1 and number 6.)
The 368-yard par-4 17th is another favorite of regulars at The National, and with good reason. The hole blends strategic play with a splendid backdrop of Peconic Bay. Even The National’s iconic/eccentric windmill is on display to the left of the tee; the story goes that a member wanted a windmill built and that Macdonald said “Fine” and built the windmill, and proceeded to bill that member for the added cost. A wide expanse of fairway is visible from the tee, though a small desert of sand must be carried to reach it. One must make decisions – should you/can you carry the bunkers on the left to gain the best perspective of the green? Or, should one sacrifice vision for proximity and favor the right and its shorter carry, and hazard the blind second shot over a bunker-riddled mound? Is the wind your friend this day or your foe? The National will not tell you; you’ll have to look into your heart and fathom this for yourself.
“I’ve had a half dozen designers who have worked for me over the years,” Tom reflected. “Once I take them there to play, every one of them, to a man, has come away saying that The National is their favorite course.”
C.B. Macdonald could not have hoped for higher praise.
After graduating from Cornell University, Tom Doak spent a summer caddying at St. Andrews, and then traveled the next seven months playing and studying every Scottish course of note. Here, he discovered a challenging, natural outdoor sport played by all ages, on exciting courses which had cost nothing to build and which were affordable for all to play. When he returned to America, he set out to build courses which reflect the ideals of the game as the Scots still play it. After three years working on construction projects for Pete Dye and his sons, he had the opportunity to do his first solo design, and he hasn’t looked back. Among his most noteworthy designs are Pacific Dunes in Bandon, Oregon and Cape Kidnappers in New Zealand.
If You Go…
Getting There: Southampton, New York, an elite retreat on Long Island immortalized in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, is 2 hours from Manhattan by car or by train, via the Long Island Railroad (www.mta.nyc.ny.us/lirr/)…though during Fridays in the summer, the car ride can be quite a bit longer.
Course Information: The par-73 National Golf Links of America plays 6873 yards from the back tees, and has a slope rating of 141. A very private course like its neighbor Shinnecock Hills, The National does permit guests in the company of members, at a fee of $175.
Accommodations: Southampton thrives on visitors, and you’ll find a large selection of quaint inns and bed & breakfasts here and in the neighboring burgs of Easthampton and Bridgehampton. Many of them are listed at www.southamptonchamber.com.
(from Fifty Places to Play Golf Before You Die)