Nicklaus and Doak at Sebonack

The fifth hole at Sebonack shows the old-school polish of Nicklaus admixed with the untame touches espoused by Tom Doak

I  spent the 1990s as a full-time freelancer, drifting from assignment to assignment. Top golf getaways of Central Delaware. Choosing the right sunglasses for your game. And how about those Internet tee times—wave of the future?

One day a different sort of project came along, one that strummed my ethical sensibilities. It was for a non-profit group trying to ease tensions and improve communication between golf course developers and environmentalists. They were paying me to compile a sourcebook full of glossaries and fact troves that would help cut through prejudice and enlighten parties on both sides. The core of the book would be a long series of case studies describing disputes between developers and environmentalists that were settled through patient dialogue. I set to work and began to find a few.

In the course of my research I got hold of some permit applications for a daily fee course to be built on former ranchland between two good-sized towns in Montana. The developer had done his paperwork thoroughly and more than met the standards of local law, but still faced stiff opposition. The head of the non-profit looked the case over for me. “Apparently the locals have no specific objection on ecological grounds,” he said, “they just don’t want the course.” I referred him to a regional map that showed mile after mile of grazing land and one tiny rectangle devoted to fairways and greens. “I know what you’re going to say,” he added, “but this is more a cultural thing. To people in that part of the country, golf doesn’t fit. To you and me it’s open space, green space, whatever, but to them golf is by definition a suburban landscape—‘flatlander’ stuff, and too prissy.”

Being a golfer raised in the Eastern suburbs, this made my blood rise. Then some time went by and I grasped the point. After a little more time I realized I agreed with it. Not at its essence, but in the current context, yes. The golf aesthetic in most of the U.S. through most of the 20th century had been increasingly clipped and coiffed, trimmed and tamed, mild and made-over, all in one or two fertilized shades of green. The only unmanicured golf landscapes I ever saw growing up were that way unintentionally —municipals ravaged by excess play and insufficient maintenance. You could wax eloquent to an anti-golf faction about the rugged, natural, bushy, sometimes barren glory of golf’s original landscapes in Britain, but in the U.S. at that time it would generate only shrugs.

But things were beginning to change already, in part due to the influence of environmental groups. The golf industry was learning that a foliage border (as opposed to fairway-height grass) around ponds and lakes is a huge boon to an ecosystem, allowing amphibians, bugs and pollinators forage and cover. That every foot of open waterway you pipe and bury is a blow to biodiversity. That dead trees shouldn’t all be “cleaned out” unless you want to clean out rare woodpeckers as well.

Meanwhile, course designers and course superintendents were coming into their professions with a new aesthetic much less blandly suburban. Even working on American parkland terrain they were finding more ways to echo the un-prissy appearance of golf’s first landscapes.

During last year’s U.S. Open week, there was a three-ring press conference and groundbreaking ceremony just down the road from Shinnecock Hills at what will someday be a private club called Sebonack. In front of the microphones sat Jack Nicklaus and Tom Doak, co-designers of the course. There were introductory comments from each, then questions. But the project was in such an early stage of planning that many a question (Will this course ever host a major? Will it go straight to the top of the rankings?) seemed unreasonably hypothetical. All the more so given how little communication there had been to that point between the two course-crafters.

So I asked something pretty basic: What will this look like? Will its visual style be polished and pretty or scraggly and unkempt?

Doak and Nicklaus looked at each other. They hadn’t necessarily discussed this. “I’m hoping it will have more of a scraggly look,” Doak said. Nicklaus gave a little nod and said he felt the same way.

Three cheers for scraggly. It took us a long time to get there.

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