Evidence of the polo field is very obvious to this day. In fact, the polo field services primarily as the club's driving range. It's massive in size at over 250 yards wide--large enough to probably handle the fields of two US Opens! I would loosen up on the range and roll some putts to kill some time before I had the change to tee off. I was supposed to be joined by another threesome of accompanied guests--we were supposed to share a forecaddie and head out together. However, that group was running well behind, and eventually the caddiemaster started making plans for me to go out on my own rather than wait for them. Since this was a Monday, and their staff was very limited, he didn't have any caddies to go with me as a single. The only option was for him to shut down his shack, put on a bib, and take me out himself, which he happily offered to do. To avoid another group that had just teed off the first hole, he suggested we head out to the 10th hole and play the back nine first. To do that, we'd grab a cart and head out in that direction as the 10th is a few hundred yards away from the clubhouse. We could have left the cart there and hoofed it, but I had already walked 18 holes at Nassau Country Club that morning, walked 36 holes the prior day, and had another 36 holes scheduled for the following day, so when he said he could ride, I decided to take him up on it.
The Gold Tees are the tips at Piping Rock, and extend to 6,877 yards with a par of 71 and a rating and slope of 73.2 and 132. While there is another set in front of them at 6,370 yards, I decided to give the tips a try. I'll quote those yardages below. As with most Raynor/Macdonald, the holes have names to them, which I'll also mention as we go:
#5, "Woods," Par 4, 310 Yards
We caught a group on the fourth green and I was asked to play through. Unfortunately, that meant I was in a hurry to play and didn't get a chance to take any pictures of this hole until I finished it. This is a shame, because it was a really cool short par four. I was able to take a picture of the green from the next tee. This is from the perspective of the back left corner, looking back over the side of the green. Unfortunately, it doesn't show much of the hole.
#7, "Twin," Par 4, 450 Yards
You can aim right at the pin or even at the fairway bunker that encroaches from the right on this hole. The primary obstacle is its length until you get to the green. A bit of a stair step that crosses the fairway will send balls caroming further if you can get to it. The green is defended by a bunker short right and one back right that are both shared with the neighboring second green. This is the #1 handicap hole on the course.
#18, "Home," Par 5, 538 Yards
The final hole at Piping Rock is a long and narrow final test. Bunkers encroach on the landing areas for the first and second shots, and also into the green. There are 11 of them in total, and they're well placed. Beyond the bunkers, there is also a road that could come into play on a second shot--not a hazard or anything, but it could certainly impact the yardage you have into the hole if your ball lands on it. The final shot climbs up the hill and back to the clubhouse and requires a shot that carries all the way to the green.
#17, "Short," Par 3, 168 Yards
For a Short template hole, this one is a little longer than some. The green is also just a bit smaller than I would have expected for a short. Therefore, it's not an easy shot onto the green like some of them. However, the green is just as difficult as a typical short, and requires a deft touch, or a precise approach to guarantee a two-putt.
#2, "Polo," Par 4, 425 Yards
The majority of the routing at Piping Rock is divided in half with the front nine laying to the north of the clubhouse and the back nine primarily to its south. The first hole heads out alongside the polo field / driving range, and then the second hole angles behind it. As with many of the Raynor/Macdonald courses, at least the ones who have been restored or stayed true to their original intent, the moving lines follow very sharp edges and result in a lot of squarish geometric corners. It's a really cool look when you're not terribly used to it. The second hole is quite straight-forward with a slight bend to the right on the second shot.
#15, "Brow," Par 4, 437 Yards
For me, the 15th was just a touch out of character. I would have thought they would have cleared out some of the trees on the left to open up more of a vista up to the green. There also isn't much strategy to the tee shot. You just have to hit one long and straight to leave a reasonable second shot all the way up the hill to the green. The second photograph below looks back down the hill from the green where you can see all the way to the clubhouse.
#16, "Valley," Par 4, 398 Yards
In some ways, this is like a shorter version of the 15th, if they were to open up the left side by cutting down some trees, as I suggested. A draw off of the right bunkers is the ideal line to leave a short iron up the hill. A bank to the left of the green will kick a ball back onto the putting surface, if desired.
#13, "Knoll," Par 4, 300 Yards
The 13th hole is drivable for the big boys, but attempt at your own risk. The green sits atop the knoll which produced the hole's name with a large bunker in the front and a slender bunker in the rear. It's a blind drive, but a straight shot will face no issues as the bunkers are off to the sides of the fairway.
#11, "Eden," Par 3, 204 Yards
Somehow I didn't get a picture of the Eden template hole from the tee. I was apparently more consumed with the grass tennis courts that border the hole. I did get a picture of the green, but it doesn't really show much.
#14, "Field," Par 4, 450 Yards
On this long par four, the right half of the fairway is definitely the preferred side, as it allows for an easier angle into the green, and will make a run up shot more possible, if desired. However, that side of the fairway clearly appears like a tighter shot from the tee. In reality, there's more than enough room on that line for most players. The cross-bunker doesn't come into play until over 300 yards from the back tee.
#3, "Redan," Par 3, 187 Yards
The first of the template holes at Piping Rock is the Redan. As with most Redans, the green runs diagonally away from the player from right to left with a cavernous bunker protecting the front of the left half of the green. A slope lays short and to the right of the green, which allows for a well-struck shot to land there and bounce to the left, running back to the middle of the green. If done correctly, this is the safest way to play a Redan, and incredibly satisfying when executed correctly. I always get a little nervous playing a Redan, because I know exactly what I'm supposed to do, but rarely pull it off. This was one of the times when I hit a perfect shot to the front right and got to watch the ball carom to the back--such fun when done right.
#6, "Long," Par 5, 527 Yards
After rushing through the fifth hole, I could settle back in for the best of this, my back nine. This is the only par five on the front nine, and one of three on the course. No less than 17 bunkers are on this hole. Fourteen of them straddle the fairway and get in the way on the drive and second shots. A The green is in the shape of a backwards "L" with the front being quite wide and the rear quite narrow. Surrounding bunkers require a very precise shot when the flag is on the rear.
We didn't mosey our way around at Piping Rock. Playing by myself and with a forecaddie, it took well under three hours and went way too quickly. It was a really enjoyable course and one I would happily play over and over again. Piping Rock doesn't get the attention or notoriety of some of the other Raynor/Macdonald courses around the country, but probably deserves more than it receives. I wouldn't put the course quite at the level of some of the others, but it's still very strong and undoubtedly worth a visit if you get an invite.
Below is a view from the right side of the green. The bunkers on the right represent the road, with the Road Bunker being the dark chasm visible on the left.
My Quest to Check Off Golf's Best Experiences
#9, "Biarritz," Par 3, 227 Yards
The Biarritz template hole is the first one Macdonald/Raynor built, as there was not land at NGLA suitable to make it work there. As is the case with a majority of the Biarritz holes around the country, the front plateau before the swale is maintained as fairway. There is some debate whether this is proper or not, but I've found it to be the most common maintenance practice. Even when the front is cut as green in front of the swale, the best pin locations are clearly in the rear. This was my final hole of the day, and with a fairway wood into the green, it was a demanding finish.
#10, "Corner," Par 5, 555 Yards
The back nine plays through a hillier and, honestly, more visually interesting part of the property. This was my first hole of the day, so opening up with a long hole made me get my long game in order right off the bat. The drive is to a flat landing area, before turning a little to the left and heading up the hill to a green perched part-way up. Two bunkers intrude into the fairway in the landing area for a second shot. Heading up the hill, this was way too much to consider getting home in two for me.
#12, "Apple Tree," Par 4, 403 Yards
A huge bunker is the primary strategic obstruction from the tee. Hitting a drive down the right half will enable you to have a better view into the hole, but will also bring three bunkers into play that guard that side of the fairway. The punchbowl green has bunkers on three sides.
Looking back at the tee, you can see the stair step I was talking about
The Golf Bucket List
#1, "First Hole," Par 4, 408 Yards
Since I played the back nine first, this was actually my 10th hole of the day, but I'll post the holes in the order that they're intended to be played. The first tee sets immediately behind a white picket fence and plays straight away. A Principal's Nose bunker complex awaits in the dead center of the fairway, but is not in reach off the tee. Four bunkers away on the right side, with another bunker on the left, but there's plenty of room to get one out in the middle to get off to a good start. Aiming right at the Principal's Nose, or even a bit left of it, would be a great line.
#4, "Hillside," Par 4, 445 Yards
The next two holes play into and out of a narrow extremity that is the northernmost portion of the property. Three bunkers line the fairway on the left of this long par four From the fairway, the trouble around the green is somewhat blind, but rest assured, it's there. Small bunker protect the front corners and a bunker in the rear will ideally prevent a shot over the back from going through the property.
#8, "Road," Par 4, 445 Yards
I have played several Road Hole templates before and after Piping Rock. Some of them play as par fives, but this one is a long par four. This one doesn't have a blind aspect off the tee, at least it didn't when I was there. Perhaps they could let the native grass grow to obstruct the view, but that would arguably lead to more lost balls from the members. This green was something else. Luckily for me, the pin was in the right when I faced it. I have no idea how one would get a ball near the small back left corridor, with the Road Bunker in the way.
While St. Andrew's, Scotland is arguably the origin of what we know today as the game of golf, it wouldn't be too much of a stretch to consider Manhattan the epicenter of the modern game. It's truly astounding how many world class golf courses there are within about 90 miles of New York City's most famous borough. Stretching from the tip of Long Island, to Upstate's Westchester County, down to Northern New Jersey, top notch club's are everywhere. Their cultures range from peaceful, to golf factories. Their courses range from championship tests that host major golf tournaments to quirky, sporty tracks that are just plain fun. Several golden age golf architects put their stamps on the NYC area, but probably most notable were the works of A. W. Tillinghast, and the duo of C. B. Macdonald and Seth Raynor. Macdonald and Raynor first worked together with the building of National Golf Links of America. Very shortly after finishing work at NGLA, they worked their way back to The City to build the golf course at Piping Rock Club.
While NGLA is purely and simply a golf club, Piping Rock is not. NGLA has a golf course and a clubhouse--nothing more. However, Piping Rock is a club for the upper crustiest of New York's aristocracy. In the United States, I sometimes find it amusing to define the level of swankiness of a club by what its tennis courts are made of. Hard court--pretty standard. Clay court--a nice classy club. Grass courts--in the US, those are only found in the "top 1%." Speaking of grass tennis courts, Piping Rock has 16 of them! If grass isn't your thing, there are 10 clay courts, plus an indoor tennis facility when the weather gets sketchy.
When the club was founded in 1911, the club membership roles included some of the nation's wealthiest and most powerful families, including the Morgans, Vanderbilts, Doubledays, Astors, and more. When the golf course was to be laid out, it's important to note that golf still wasn't that big a thing in America. Therefore, this club's biggest focus at the time was the sport of polo. The polo field was the priority, and the golf course would need to be worked around that. When the club hired C. B. Macdonald to design the course, this bothered him to no end. While he begrudgingly completed a routing of the course, he was rubbed the wrong way by playing second fiddle to the polo field and left Seth Raynor to handle the build-out and final design of the course. However, in retrospect, this wasn't necessarily a bad thing as Raynor would prove himself to be plenty capable of building world class courses, with or without Macdonald. As with all of the other designs they worked out, either separately or together, the holes at Piping Rock pay homage to some of the best holes in Europe, with "template" holes that are recognizable as rough recreations of their originals.
In my travels to play Top 100 courses, I've said before that there is no normal. I've played in groups, as a single, and everything in between. I've played as a guest of members, a guest of staff, and completely unaccompanied. Piping Rock was one of the times I played largely unaccompanied, as I was able to get access on a Monday afternoon, on a day that the club was closed to member play. Therefore, it was extremely quiet during my visit. My first stop in my visit was to the locker room to change my shoes. The mens' locker room is on the second floor of the original clubhouse, built by Guy Lowell in 1911. The locker room is classic, with a peaceful sitting area by the windows.