My Quest to Check Off Golf's Best Experiences
The Golf Bucket List
#5, "Hog's Back," Par 4, 478 Yards
This is a hole where you'd better hope the wind is out of the North, because it is long, and if it plays into the wind, good luck! A bunker in the shape of the letter "p" divides the fairway in two around the landing area, and starts around 270 yards from the back tees. From there, it's still a 200-yard shot into the green, although there is a lot of fairway to run a shot up onto the surface if you favor the right half of the green.
#14, "Cape," Par 4, 393 Yards
The Cape holes that were designed by C.B. Macdonald are actually his original ideas rather than paying homage to a hole from overseas--probably because playing over ponds isn't very common over there! The general logic is a diagonally angled fairway that makes the player decide how much of the hazard to carry. The more hazard he/she carries, the shorter yardage left into the green. I can proudly say that this was my only birdie of the day.
#15, "Narrows," Par 4, 417 Yards
If you're not a bit in awe of the views you'll see the rest of the way, then golf might not be the sport for you. The rising land that takes you back to the clubhouse, with native grasses, bunkers, and eventually Peconic Bay are something else. Of course, there's that windmill too! The story goes that there was originally a water tower in this spot. Dan Pomeroy, a member of the club suggested that it was ugly and recommended a windmill be built around it. Macdonald made the requisite addition, and then billed Mr. Pomeroy. So, there is stands today. As far as the 15th hole goes, this one is fairly straight-forward as long as you avoid the omnipresent bunkers. The second shot will need to carry bunkers that are not immediately visible from the tee.
#12, "Sebonac," Par 4, 459 Yards
This is the last of the stretch of quite long holes at National. From my recollection, hitting it out at the water in the distance is a pretty good line off the tee. The shot into the green is challenging with a few small bunkers, water on the right, and a road and water to the rear. Getting out of here with a par will definitely win the hole more often than not.
#13, "Eden," Par 3, 174 Yards
This the last par three on the course. NGLA has three of the standard four template par threes, missing only a Biarritz. An L-shaped bunker surrounds the rear and right of the green. The front bunkers are all proper representations of the originals. The green falls off in all four corners with a spine in the middle. At 35 yards deep and 56 yards wide, this is another green where just getting on the putting surface bears no correlation to the likelihood of making par.
#9, "Long," Par 5, 540 Yards
The longest hole on the course is appropriately named, and plays to the southern edge of the property before turning back home. It's another wonderfully angled fairway off the tee with bunkering that requires thought. It's only about 180 yards to clear the bunkers in the foreground, but there are more bunkers that lay in the shadows on the right that come into play if you hit it on that line.
One thing I LOVED about NGLA is that there is no typical bunker. There are large bunkers, small bunkers, and everything in between. Some are just barely scars in the land with hardly enough room to even stand in. These can be some of the most penal bunkers as stance and swing can be very impeded. However, with a green more than a 1/4 acre in size, you deserve to be penalized if you miss it.
#4, "Redan," Par 3, 195 Yards
Somehow I left the tee of one of the better par threes in the world without getting a picture--what is wrong with me? With a view of Bullhead Bay in the rear, this is one of the more photogenic Redans built. The bunker on the left is definitely a hazard worth avoiding, and the kick-plate on the right seemed plenty functional to give a well struck right-to-left shot a way onto the green without aiming over the bunker. Alas, I didn't hit a good enough shot to see it first-hand, but from rolling balls, it seemed to work. The perspective of this photo doesn't do it justice.
#16, "Punchbowl," Par 4, 415 Yards
There is a back back tee that exists on this one, well behind the Championship Tees--probably for use in the Walker Cup only. From there, it's a 270-yard carry to the top of the hill over the bunker. However, from our tees, it was only about 215 yards on that line. Getting to the top provides a lot of fairway width and makes for a reasonably approach into this great punchbowl green.
While the gate was open, I didn't have the gall to drive through, so I had to be satisfied with a look from the outside. The following year, I would be back in the area to see Maidstone, but it wasn't until the fall of 2018 that I secured a game at NGLA. On this day, I actually was a guest of the staff, not a member. From a golf standpoint, this was completely fine. However, I wouldn't have access to the clubhouse or locker room. The lunch at NGLA is apparently legendary, but I can't tell you anything about it, because that wasn't a part of my visit. The club was extremely generous in allowing my to have a close friend join as well, so it was like Christmas morning when we were able to drive through the gates to see this phenomenal place.
Open entry, the parking lot is down the hill a little ways from the clubhouse. A cart met us to drive us up toward the clubhouse and to the pro shop, which is separated from the clubhouse by a couple hundred yards. There is a really small practice range, but we were told that it gets very little use. Many members of NGLA are also members of Shinnecock or some place else, and they do their practicing elsewhere. The vibe of NGLA is incredibly relaxed and understated. Where New York clubs like Winged Foot have a hustle and bustle about them, National is a place to come, relax, and exhale away from the stresses of the outside world. After doing some shopping, and rolling some putts, it was time to go. My buddy and I had played The Bridge earlier that morning, and were both playing relatively well. Additionally, we'd be playing with one of the assistant pros who obviously had some game. So, to make things a little more interesting for him, we decided to play the Championship Tees, which play to a par of 72 and play to 6,935 yards. From there, the rating is 73.6 and slope of 137. NGLA is known to play firm and fast, so we didn't think the distance would be unreasonable. The regular member tees are 6,505 yards with a rating and slope of 71.7 and 133. I'll quote the Championship Tees that we played below:
Of the many cool bunkers--this is just a tiny scratch in the ground really--barely big enough to fit a couple golf bags it.
#5, Top 100 Golf Courses in the World (2020-21)
#4, Top 100 Golf Courses in the U.S. (2020-21)
#8, America's 100 Greatest Courses (2019-2020)
#2, Best in the State of New York (2019-2020)
#10, "Shinnecock," Par 4, 450 Yards
As you begin the second nine, you turn back for home and the remainder of the holes play generally to the north. As you mentioned earlier, this was originally the first hole, when the Shinnecock Inn stood nearby. That would have been a bear of a first hole--I like it much better the way it stands today. On the other side of the trees is the 2nd green and 3rd tee at Shinnecock. A drive at the right edge of the green would work well on this wide fairway, though the further right you hit it, the better angle you'll have in--just don't go too far right!
#18, "Home," Par 4, 502 Yards
The final hole at National requires a heroic final climb back to the clubhouse, with the club's logo flag short and to the right of the green. Heading up hill all the way, this one plays longer than the yardage on the card. Playing down the left side will give the player the best view of the green, but playing from the right half will actually the better strategic angle--options/choices yet again. Playing into the setting sun was another challenge that made this a tough finish.
#17, "Peconic," Par 4, 375 Yards
Perched at the top of the hill, the 17th tee offers a commanding view of the hole below and Peconic Bay in the background. Hitting it down the left side is the ideal line to give you a view into the green. A shot on the right half will be obstructed visually by a sandy berm
We had an absolutely incredible afternoon at National Golf Links of America. The course really has no weaknesses and with changing winds/weather/hole locations, I could see how this course would present a different challenge every single time you played it. I can see why the well-healed spend their summers out here, away from the hustle and bustle of Manhattan. I regret that I missed a couple photographs of relevant spots, and I recommend this page, which does a better job than I ever could in describing the holes as well as documenting them with pictures. What a wonderful course and a wonderful day--bravo NGLA!
#1, "Valley," Par 4, 330 Yards
One of the items that makes NGLA so highly revered is it playability and the many options available on so many shots throughout the round. This is immediately evident on the first hole--a short one, where nearly any club in the bag can be hit off the tee. A large bunker catches your eye from the tee, and lays about 275 yards from the tee. A short distance past that bunker is one of the most difficult greens you'll face all day. Even though this is a short hole, there is plenty to bit to it to get in the way of a good start. Contrary to the overcast pictures I posted above from my first "visit" to National, this was a Chamber of Commerce day in Southampton. The sky was a gorgeous blue and there was barely a cloud in the sky all day. Depending on where you play your tee ball, the view of the green may very well be obstructed on the second shot.
#11, "Plateau," Par 4, 432 Yards
Hitting up over the hill, the a shot right over the walking path is ideal. From there, the second shot needs to cross a public road and carry a second Principal's Nose bunker complex before landing safely onto the green. There are a lot of bunkers between the road and the green, so if you're not able to hit it all the way to the surface, or are hitting out of trouble on your second, you need to be thoughtful on where you're hitting it. I can't say I've hit over many active roads in my life, but there are two of them in Southampton alone, as Shinnecock's 12th hole does the same. The green here is one of Macdonald's double plateaus and is outstanding.
#8, "Bottle," Par 4, 400 Yards
A diagonal line of seven bunkers divides this fairway in half. A drive that carries about 260 yards from the back tees will clear them all. Otherwise, you need to make sure you select the side of the fairway you'd like to end up in. The left side will provide a better look into the green, but it's more challenging to hit it over there. A bomber can't just mindlessly swing away on the tee as once you clear the bottle bunkers, there is a Principal's Nose bunker complex waiting to catch a drive of 295-310 yards right smack in the middle of the fairway.
Just like in fashion or in art, trends and tastes in golf courses change. There are courses that were once thought to be among the best, that have now largely been brushed aside by the Top 100 lists as afterthoughts. While they are less common, there are also opposite instances where a course has risen through the years. The National Golf Links of America, shocking as it may be, is the latter.
There was a period of time where the longest, hardest, lushest, and greenest golf courses were rewarded with acclaim by the magazines. In fact the first time a "list" was published by Golf Digest in 1967, it was explicitly titled "America's 200 Toughest Courses." In that initial list, National Golf Links (also called "The National" or "NGLA") was included. After that, for the several years, the magazine experimented with calling the list the "Most Testing" or "Greatest Tests" in golf and NGLA was nowhere to be seen. In the mid 70's, Golf Digest changed the title of its list to the one it uses today--"America's 100 Greatest Golf Courses," and for roughly the first decade of this list, NGLA was still absent. In fact, a full 15 years passed without any mention of The National on these lists. Even when it first came back, it was only ranked at #56! However, slowly and steadily, more people got access to NGLA, studied it, and realized what a masterpiece it is, to the tune that now it's consistently in the top 10 of essentially every list there is.
The historical relevance of NGLA on American golf is tough to overstate. In fact it's creator, Charles Blair Macdonald, is arguably the most influential figure in early American golf, and it wouldn't be a stretch to call him its founding father. While Macdonald was actually born just over the border in Canada, he grew up in Chicago, before heading to Scotland to study at the University of St. Andrews. While there, he met Old Tom Morris, learned golf, and developed quite a skill for it, playing with many of the best Scottish players. When he headed back to the United States in 1874, at the age of 18, there was nowhere to satisfy his fix for golf, and he would rarely play for a nearly two decades, a period he called his "Dark ages."
There were a few small courses in the eastern United States where immigrants from the British Isles played, but no regulation 18-hole courses existed in America before Macdonald built Chicago Golf Club in 1893 (Chicago would move from this original location to its current Wheaton property in 1894, which Macdonald also built). Not only was Macdonald involved in building Chicago Golf Club, but he maintained a strong playing ability, and finished second in national tournaments that year.
While golf was probably Macdonald's true love, finance was his day job, and he moved to New York in 1900 to become partner in a brokerage firm on Wall Street. At that time, he was unimpressed with the courses he had seen in America, and set out to create a course that would improve upon some of the best holes he had seen in his travels. To complete this goal, he sought out a piece of land that would be suitable to the emulate the seaside links he saw in Scotland. Eventually, in late 1906, he settled on a piece of land about 90 miles east of Wall Street, in the South Fork of the Hamptons. This 205-acre plot was considered quite useless, because it included bogs, swamps, and insect-infested bushes of many varieties. However, after a couple days of riding horses over the land, Macdonald and a partner, Jim Whigham, found the property to be a good piece of land that they could get at a reasonable price. The property bordered Shinnecock Hills Golf Club, a founding member of the USGA, and occupied a slender, snaking piece of land heading north to Peconic Bay. Macdonald raised the necessary money to begin building from 70 founders who contributed $1,000 each and began building in the spring of 1907.
Initially, the club was designed to begin and end near the Shinnecock Inn, at the southern edge of the property, because the club didn't have enough money to build a clubhouse. However, the Inn burned down in 1909, which forced the club to build a clubhouse. At that time, they decided to build the clubhouse elsewhere, on the high ground overlooking Peconic Bay. In doing so, they would change the beginning/ending point for the course, which essentially resulted in the nines flipping--the out-and-back routing would now start from the north and work its way south before returned home, rather than beginning in the south. There was some play at NGLA in 1909, but 1911 was arguably the true opening year, at which time the clubhouse was formally opened and the first invitational tournament was held. Further to the historical relevance that has taken place here, the first Walker Cup Matches were played at NGLA in 1922. A second round of Walker Cup matches would take place nearly a century later in 2013.
As I alluded to earlier, rather that inventing holes of his own from scratch, Macdonald decided to take inspiration from some of the best holes he had seen elsewhere and build similar versions. Over time, these have become known as "template holes," and many of them are found on the courses he was associated with. One of his associates on the NGLA project was Seth Raynor, who would become an extremely notable golf course architect as well, and would expand on the template concept as well. NGLA was Raynor's first project.
This wasn't my first time to the South Fork of Long island for golf. A little over two years prior, I had the opportunity to play neighboring Shinnecock Hills. Before teeing it up there, I had to drive by NGLA to get a look. It was a complete tease, but I took these pictures on that visit to get a taste of what I would hopefully be able to see in the future:
#2, "Sahara," Par 4, 330 Yards
Another hole of exactly the same distance, and that's the only thing similar between the first and second holes. The aggressive line is up and over the hill and a little to the left of the portion of the "Sahara" bunker that you can see where the big hitter can try to drive the green. The windmill is roughly in line with the left edge of the green, so you really do need to aim that far left if you're taking the bomber line. Or, you can hit a shorter shot out to the right and leave a fairly easy pitch into the green. From there, you do run the risk of falling into a low-lying area, from which the view of the green may be blind....choices.
#6, "Short," Par 3, 141 Yards
As with most Short template holes, getting on the putting surface in regulation doesn't mean much of anything. It's getting on the right portion of the green that matters. Greens on the short template tend to be large and very undulating--often with a "thumb print" in the center to make putting from one side to the other very difficult. This green is no exception. It's about 40 yards deep and 50 yards wide. The front right section (where the hole was located for us) is much shallower and brings the bunkers into play a bit more.
#3, "Alps, Par 4, 426 Yards
In the old days, it wasn't common to hit a bucket or two of balls to warm up before playing. In fact, having a practice range at all wasn't all that common for many courses. Therefore, you'll find the opening one or two holes are sometimes a bit on the easier side at classic courses as the designer gives the player a chance to loosen up a little. After a couple sporty par fours to get started, Macdonald fought back on the third. This is just a difficult golf hole. The farther right you take your tee shot, the most bunker you have to carry--but the better angle you'll have into the green. The second shot needs to carry over the "Alps" to reach the green, with a bell tower in the rear. Just in case you thought this heroic shot over the hill was easy, there are bunkers in front of the green to catch a shot that doesn't make it all the way there. If you don't feel like you have that shot in you, you can always take the long away around to the right and try to get up-and-down on your third shot. After you're finished, ring the bell to let players behind you know the coast is clear.
The fairway here is where a laid up second shot would be played. The dark chasm in front of the green is the Road Bunker.
#7, "St. Andrews," Par 5, 500 Yards
Even though it doesn't bear the name of the Road Hole, this is NGLA's version of the famous 17th hole at The Old Course. Instead of a building, you're hitting over a large native/bunker area to a blind landing area. From there, a decision must be made as far as what to do with your second shot. Going for the green is an option, but the menacing Road Bunker waits for a shot that isn't on the perfect line--you don't want to be in it. Therefore, only go at the green if you're completely confident that you can avoid it.