Any golf course architect worth his salt should feel some pressure when constructing a course on the Peconic Bay, due to the number of World Top 100s located around the estuary. Thus was the challenge inherited by Kelly Blake Moran when he came to the property at the onset of the new millennium.
There are a number of nods to those who came before, namely in the strategic clusters of bunkers that dot the property, which seem to be a tribute to the work of C.B. Macdonald at National Golf Links of America, which sit just across the water.
One of the most eye-catching holes is the penultimate one, which seems to be a hybridization of Macdonald’s template-based approach, combined with the daredevilry of Pete Dye. At 536 yards, it is reachable for the best players, but the first shot will require biting off much as one can chew from the hard dogleg-left across the property’s pond. The next shot will require pinpoint accuracy to dodge the Road Hole-inspired green (and there’s a bunker waiting long as well).
The No. 18 hole was also chosen by the Metropolitan Golf Association as one of its "Modern Dream 18." With just a few homes in sight from the field, members at Laurel Links can appreciate playing at the next generation of Long Island classics.
Without question, going ahead with a course project when located in the eastern area of Long Island is no small task given the clear pedigree of a number of pre-existing clubs. Any course opening will invariably face the pressure of being immediately compared and then judged accordingly. When the bar is THAT high -- the pressure to succeed can be overwhelming.
Kudos to Kelly Blake Moran because Laurel Links -- minus the faux connection to being a "links" -- is truly engaging.
In addition to the area courses in direct competition -- the key was creating a routing needing to account for housing located in the middle of the course. Often times when those competing situations meet -- it's the golf side that takes a back seat. That did not happen here and Moran deserves plaudits in handling that complicated task.
The most fascinating aspect of Laurel Links is the vexing putting surfaces. Moran has been keen to do in his various layouts with the likes of Hawk Pointe in NJ and Lederach in PA -- but Laurel Links take those efforts to another level. You see this immediately at the par-5 1st. The green provides for tongue areas to both the right and left. What you find at the opening hole is repeated time after time. Moran smartly varies the angle, shape, contours, false fronts and surrounding areas with great aplomb. One can never rest easy because missteps of even the minor variety can quickly escalate into bigger headaches for those asleep at the golfing wheel.
The series of par-4's that follow from the 2nd thru the 4th is a quality mixture of different two-shot holes. And at all times, Moran puts a premium on getting approach shots to the proper area of the putting surfaces.
At the 2nd the fairway is both angled and tapered. Players have to decide when on the tee just what kind of shot will achieve the best result. Brawn alone at Laurel Links does not carry the day.
Fairway bunkers play a pivotal role at Laurel Links and here too Moran makes sure players realize the kind of "bite" they can provide for any hapless play.
One of the key ingredients for Laurel Links is the continuity of the experience. Far too many courses feel the need to return to the clubhouse after nine holes and then restart the round. Often, it pays for clubs to forego such a routing and keep the players involved with the round.
If there's one thing missing at Laurel Links, it's having a long par-3 in the mixture. The quartet is quite good but the ones on the outward side are two near one another in total yardage and positioned in a similar manner when wind influences occur.
The other minor deficiency comes with the par-4 15th and 16th holes. Clearly different in terms of their routing but the overall challenge is fairly similar.
The ending two holes round out the experience in grand style. The par-4 17th is a cape hole where players have to decide how much of the dog-leg left is worthwhile to cut off. The closing par-4 18th is a frightful challenge because the tee shot must confront a series of devilish bunkers intruding from the left. The fairway area to pass them is quite narrow so players have to decide -- should they attempt to fly over them -- stay to the right of them -- or opt to stay short of them. The challenge is then raised with an approach that must be hit with precision to a green that clearly differentiates the level of execution provided.
The Empire State contains the greatest depth of private club in the USA. Laurel Links is a youngster when compared to the array of superior old-time classic courses that clearly deserve the accolades they receive. Yet make no mistake about it -- Laurel Links is easily among the top 50 in New York and with a bit more awareness can certainly rise even higher.
M. James Ward