On the shore edge of Peconic Bay at Southampton on Long Island is the National Golf Links of America. “I will not describe that delightful spot again.” Wrote Bernard Darwin in Golf Between Two Wars. “It is one of the best and most enchanting of courses.” Known simply as 'National', this is the ultimate design creation from the father of American golf course architecture. Charles Blair Macdonald apparently coined the term 'golf architect' and his National is a complete masterpiece.
Macdonald’s ambition was to create the greatest course in the United States and he started his mission in 1902 by making the first of five annual summer trips to the UK. He complied details of important features of golf holes analysing why weak holes were often dull and what really made good holes good. In 1907, using his extensive knowledge, he set about creating the greatest golf course of its time. The National Golf Links finally opened for play in 1909 to a rapturous standing ovation.
This is a golf course of monumental historical importance, it’s a “Bear’s Best”, or “Blair's Best” of the early 20th century. Each hole at the National is named and the 2nd, called “Sahara” is based on the 3rd at Royal St George’s. The 3rd, called “Alps” replicates the challenging blind approach shot taken from the brilliant 17th at Prestwick, where a confrontational hill and a huge bunker protecting the undulating green front must be carried. The 4th, called “Redan” copies the 15th at North Berwick where the long green is set at an angle. The 7th, called “St Andrews” uses features of the famous “Road” hole and the 13th is indebted to the “Eden” hole of the Old course.
The National is set in more than 250 acres of gently rolling Long Island landscape. The varied topography is not only beautiful but it’s dramatic too, holding you captivated from the opening tee shot to the last putt. With theatrical green complexes that are extremely varied, putting at the National can be the ultimate challenge. Many greens undulate wildly while others are flat as pancakes but they all share a common denominator and that is their size… they are simply huge. The routing is ostensibly nine out and nine back, but somehow the holes seem to zigzag up and down making the wind an ever-present obstacle.
If you haven’t played the National, you need to hold on to the “six degrees of separation” theory, which proposes that anyone can be connected to a member of the National Golf Links of America through a series of acquaintances that has no more than four intermediaries. Keep that thought in mind. Who knows? One day perhaps?
In Southampton, NY, or the Hamptons, is the National Golf Links of America, a course designed by Charles Blair Macdonald, with the assistance of Seth Raynor, in 1908. After living over St. Andrews for some time, Macdonald set out to create a golf course in the U.S. that would rival anything you would find in Scotland. He did this through the use of template holes, modeling certain holes existing in Scotland and designing them to fit the landscape upon which the course would be built. The template holes include the Second, "Sahara," modeled after a par 4 at Royal St. George's; the Third, "Alps," modeled after a par 4 at Prestwick; the Fourth, "Redan," modeled after a par 3 at North Berwick; the Seventh, "Road Hole," modeled after a par 5 at St. Andrews; the Eighth, "Bottle," modeled after a par 4 at Sunningdale; and the Thirteenth, "Eden," modeled after a par 3 at St. Andrews. I also believe the Punchbowl green on the Sixteenth is a template, but can't be sure. Regardless, Macdonald and Raynor thereafter took these template holes and used them to design a number of other courses, always modifying the holes to accommodate the existing terrain to make each course unique, yet with the well established framework of each hole intact.
As for the course, it was as spectacular as I had built up in my mind. There were no weak holes. Each hole had a variety of options and strategy, which means that the course likely never plays the same way twice. The out and back style that is traditionally seen with links courses means the wind comes into play, usually into it on the front and behind you on the back. The closing stretch of holes is probably the best I have played. There are a handful of holes that were simply the best I have ever played. But most of all, the course was a lot of fun. While it is engaging and makes you think how you will attack each shot, you have a blast figuring it out. There is no OB and it's extremely difficult to lose a ball, which adds to the fun. We heard of some who hit a wayward shot off the First tee playing their second shot off of the clubhouse roof, since all is in play. The terrain, especially coming in from the Fourteenth on, around the bay, then next to it as you climb the Eighteenth, with the water ultimately well below you just off the Eighteenth green, is spectacular terrain. The tranquility and majesty of that area is very special and will remain one of my favorite memories of golf.
As a links course, utilizing the ground is just as important as aerial shots. The green complexes are fascinating, forcing you to consider its undulations and frequently landing the ball away from the hole to get it running towards it. A lot of the fun comes around the greens, where you need to get creative based on your lie and location. For example, the only shot I had out of the narrow bunker on the far side of the Sixth was to get on one knee and take a batter's swing at the ball. The next time I was in there for the second round, I realized chopping at it away from the hole would make the ball release towards it and was able to get my par. On the Seventh, the pin was at the front of the green with a mound protecting it. The hole was on an upper tier, so anything hit too hard would roll at least 20 feet by, so everyone in my group tried to putt it close, which didn't work out as well as we thought. I could have stayed at the green from a half a day thinking through the best approach to it. And those kinds of decisions and shots happen throughout the entire round. And if the wind is up, the course gets even more fun, figuring out how the ball will move in the air, then again once on the ground. There's no restraint or feeling of hesitancy in steering the ball away from the trouble here; the freedom of playing various types of shots on a course with no OB and a lie from virtually anywhere is liberating and links golf at its finest.
In general, the National is a classic masterpiece. The green complexes, variety, character and setting all contribute to one of the finest courses I have played. There is difficulty and challenge but most of the appeal and memories are more from the creativity and freedom you have on each shot. While the blind shots are kept to a minimum, the ones that you have are a lot of fun and add chance and randomness to where your ball is. A course that is more strategic than anything else, it's less penal or heroic than many of the modern courses out there. Just as many courses back in the day emulated these characteristics, we're seeing a trend in returning to these types of identities, which in my opinion shows just how fun and satisfying this game can get. Indeed, it's a very special place.
While many courses around the world refer to themselves locally as ‘The National’, the majority of us can agree that this one is the granddaddy of them all. It has the fairytale architect, the legendary history and the fabled template designs. Debating flaws is a pointless exercise as this layout deserves more respect than all of us combined can offer. In a century from now, I feel most confident that generations to come will protect its immeasurable value and respect its unparalleled significance.
Setting aside the magnificent land formations for a moment that represent the playing canvas, I always find that it is a tough course to prepare for on a windy day. One of the nines will require plenty of downwind wedges, and in the blink of an eye the other nine will require piercing 1 irons and 3 irons into ruthless greens!
I’ll go on the record and offer one specific observation, which might make people think for a moment.
Scrubland Road dissects the front and back nines in a couple of spots where cars and trucks freely move along. This has obviously increased in volume over the last 100 years with the evolution of the motor car. But I’ve seen that before and it doesn’t bother me. What caught my attention on this trip more than any of my previous trips is the very active gravel path that dissects the entire middle strip of the course from the first hole all the way down through the property to the 9th, and then all the way back up through the inward nine holes. On the afternoon I played it, I found myself noticing maintenance and green-keeping vehicles more times than I was used to, and upon looking at a satellite aerial of the course afterwards, I plotted out this massive gravel path that runs internally all the way through the property.
I point this out in a very distinct context – it is NOT a criticism, but more of an observation that interested me.
NGLA is undoubtedly a traditional old course meant for walking, which is true as you don’t see many golfers using carts on the course. So who is this bright gravel path for that splits the course in half? I thought it was interesting this time that you can stop to let cars go by on Scrubland, and very soon after you can stop to wave at a parade of John Deer machinery riding between parallel fairways. The property of NGLA is a narrow out and back layout, and I completely understand that such paths have to go somewhere. As a point of relevant historic comparison, I also viewed satellite aerials of The Old Course and North Berwick, and the only visible depictions of paths around the course are via grass, not gravel.
The word transformative speaks to those situations and outcomes that clearly provide a benchmark never seen previously. In American golf some might say Augusta National, Pinehurst #2, Merion / East, Oakmont or Pebble Beach provided such situations respectively.
But there is one specific course that sits atop them all -- National Golf Links of America (NGLA).
This storied layout in Southampton, NY is the embodiment of the man quite correctly called the "Father of American Golf Architecture" -- Charles Blair Macdonald. Through force of will Macdonald brought to life golf in a America that was only beginning. Golf was still in an embryonic phase and many designs at that time were simply low level and quite ordinary. Macdonald's love of the game took many forms. He was a gifted competitor -- winning the first US Amateur in 1895 at Newport Country Club. Macdonald was also the man responsible for the creation of the oldest 18-hole course in North America. with Chicago Golf Club in 1892.
When you come to the entrance of the property you drive past a regal setting -- stone columns and iron gates -- grandiose certainly but entirely appropriate given Macdonald's stature and bravado. The clubhouse is far more than just a "clubhouse" -- it is riveting to the eye -- conveying a clear statement of strength -- no less than its founder.
NGLA is ideally located at the start of the southern fork of eastern Long Island with the Great Peconic Bay to its immediate north -- the Atlantic Ocean nearby to the south but never in view when playing. Both Shinnecock Hills and Sebonack -- two top tier layouts in their own right -- abut the property and one would be hard pressed to find three other courses positioned so near to one another and providing nothing less than world class golf.
Macdonald was greatly influenced from his time as a student at St. Andrews University and many of the architectural elements he saw firsthand in Scotland are carried out at NGLA.
When playing NGLA -- you never return to the clubhouse until holing out at the final hole. The course starts with a short par-4 and the best way to get the round going in a smooth manner is not to attempt to overpower the hole. Fine advice -- often rarely followed. There is a pesky center-placed fairway bunker that must be avoided at all costs.
The terrain at the 1st is a good indicator for what you find throughout the round -- there's sufficient roll -- especially at the start and closing of the round but never so much as to distort well-played shots.
The 2nd hole is called "Sahara" and is reminiscent of the 3rd at Royal St. George's but only partially so. Here you encounter a blind shot at the tee -- the anxiousness can cause a quickening of the pulse as you ponder one's line of attack. The safe smart play is to favor the right side -- leaving a short pitch. Those opting for a more aggressive line can reap a major benefit -- provided the line chosen is achieved.
All of the putting surfaces at NGLA are fairly large with a wide variety of maddening contours and turns in all sorts of directions.
The stretch of holes from 3-8 is simply dynamic and rousing. The par-4 3rd is Macdonald's recreation of the famed 17th hole at Prestwick -- the Alps. The player must determine how much risk you wish to take at the tee. Going down the right side can be advantageous but the fairway bottlenecks to a narrowing swath of fairway. Playing down the left is a better choice but the shot cannot go too far as bunkers and rough await. The approach is grand stuff -- blind to a green set above the fairway. The rush of adrenaline is clearly present -- not knowing if the approach played has finished near to the hole.
At the 4th -- you play a replica of North Berwick's famed 15th hole -- Redan. Candidly, I have played the original -- the facsimile is truly even better. The green angled beautifully from high right to lower left -- with a bracing shoulder in the upper right area. A frontal bunker is devilishly placed to protect the far left two-thirds. There is an alley way allowing those who wish to run the ball in and allow the contours of the ground to take the ball to the pin placement. When people talk about the best par-3 holes in golf -- the 4th at NGLA is clearly in the discussion.
The remaining portion of the outward nine is solid. Macdonald recreated his version of The Road Hole with the 7th here. The green is a bit more "friendly" than the original but the effort is quite good. The par-4 8th is called "Bottle" and it provides a split fairway which is especially well done. The golfer must decide their line of attack with the utmost care and there is a trio of bunkers placed in the heart of the fairway which can also prove to be quite annoying.
The inward half commences with three consecutive long par-4's -- each uniquely different than the other with green complexes that are well-crafted. The only slight minus is that the prevailing wind pattern -- is usually behind the player for each of them.
The par-3 13th is called "Eden" and is good representation of the famed 11th hole from The Old Course at St. Andrews. There are two deep bunkers which rigorously guard the far right of the green.
The concluding three holes at NGLA provide a winning climax on the day The 16th, called "Punchbowl," is 415 yards with a green set accordingly. When you leave the green you ascend to the 17th tee and the sight is one of the most awesome you can experience in golf -- on par with the walk to the 16th tee at Cypress or the 18th tee at Pebble Beach. The Great Peconic is in the far distance and the hole you're about to play is a scenic and strategic masterpiece. There's also a windmill set between the 16th and 17th green -- more on that in a moment.
The 17th plays downhill and the decisions to make are numerous. A daring tee shot can be slotted just to the left of a massive bunker complex that squeezes down the available fairway space. Should one succeed -- the approach angle leaves a simple pitch. The player can also lay-up but that option is not a simple matter. Bunkers squeeze in on that front too. The key thing is that those who decide to play conservatively will face a much more demanding approach -- the green is well fortified and vexing in figuring out the subtle contours.
The concluding hole, a par-5 of 502 yards is aptly called "Home" - playing uphill with the majestic clubhouse situated on the high ground to the left. The key is playing more to the left than you might realize. There is a large directional pole meant to give the players a mark on just how far right one can safely play. Be especially mindful of it -- anything right of it -- is a quick "adios" for one's golf ball.
The hole ascends a hill so the green itself is not in view. Stronger players can get home in two shots but it requires supreme confidence in one's abilities. When you stand on the green the sum total of what you have experienced that day is overwhelming. The combination of stirring holes -- with Mother Nature playing no less a starring role makes for moment one will long remember.
NGLA is a clear link to the past -- but what it provides today is no less meaningful. Fun golf lies at the heart of the course -- it is not based on overwhelming the player with inane slogs of relentless difficulty. It is this clear embrace in maximizing "fun holes" that makes NGLA so endearing -- so utterly memorable.
As mentioned earlier -- one of the members suggested a windmill would look appropriate at the back of the 16th green and near the 17th tee. During a visit to Europe -- Macdonald purchased one and had it shipped to the States. Upon its placement -- he then billed the respective member. For those fortunate to play the course be sure to enjoy the sumptuous lunch buffet -- it's no less top tier than the course itself.
The Southampton area is clearly one of the true hotbeds in all of golf. The seeds planted in eastern Long Island and throughout much of the New York metropolitan area were the foundation in which the game germinated in America. Macdonald provided the key spark that eventually developed into a brush fire of course creation in the Golden Age that soon followed in the 1920's. For those wish to know more about this fascinating man I urge them to read George Bahto's definitive book -- "Evangelist of Golf: The Story of Charles Blair Macdonald."
NGLA has only staged two major outside events -- both Walker Cup Matches -- hosting the initial one in 1922 and the most recent hosted on American soil in 2013. The course will in all probability never host a major championship for logistical reasons and because of next door neighbor Shinnecock Hills. In so many ways NGLA for me is the Prestwick of American golf. That scintillating Scottish course is now seen as a relic to the past by ill-informed people -- but it still commands a powerful presence for the inherent design ingredients that endure to this day.
Whenever golf in America is discussed NGLA is clearly a permanent part of that story line. Anyone able to sample the golf menu in the Southampton area will never forget the time spent here. Macdonald's vision remains to this day embodied in NGLA -- purposeful and forever enduring.
by M. James Ward
The National is not as well-known as its next door neighbor Shinnecock, but it is one of the grand dames of American golf. Playing at the National is a treat for the senses from the first tee until the last green. Among its eighteen equally good and unique holes the 16th—named “Punchbowl”—stands out as primus inter pares, first among equals. The par-4 plays up a rising hill with the iconic National windmill at the top, and its punchbowl green is one of the best in golf. When you finish putting out on the 16th you can’t see much of anything except the sides of the punchbowl. It is noticeably quiet because you are sunken down into the landscape. Macdonald’s philosophy about golf was that the primary purpose was to allow you to be alone with nature, and he achieved his goal here in spades. Standing in the splendid isolation of the punchbowl green, you feel as if you are the only person on the planet.
John Sabino is the author of How to Play the World’s Most Exclusive Golf Clubs
the National Golf Links of America is the pinnacle of classic golf architecture. It has stood the test of time and has kept golfers from all over the world intrigued to play this great track for decades! Some of the nooks and crannies of the course are unique, including the bunkers on holes like 6, 17, and 13. The greens have tested even the best golfers including the Walker Cup players from 2013. If you ever secure a tee time at this masterpiece, take full advantage of it, and enjoy every minute of it!
I have been playing this course annually for the last 15 years, and have seen its transformation. At the time it was ranked 30th in the US, you had trees on the course and women were not allowed. Since then, the members have decided to open up (a bit). In turn that has led the course actually being played by selected outsiders. It’s ranking is now 11th in the world. Tthe course has gone back to a true links as all trees have been removed and the wind is a constant, and the ladies are truly welcome. The course itself is just incredible – the more you play it the more you appreciate it. If you do get to play it just once, take a caddy and ask Billy to get you a real good one, that will ensure you truly appreciate your round. As you play the course, you will be reminded that each hole is a ‘copy’ of an existing hole…don’t bother comparing. Enjoy the holes for what they are, incredible golf holes. A little advice: aiming at the pin is rarely the way to go and ask the caddy for the grain before hitting into greens. If the greens are fast, as they often are, you'll hit shots into the greens which you are unlikely to ever hit again (how often do you not try to land the ball on a green on a par 3...that will be the way to play the 4th hole)
C.B. Macdonald re-created some of the famous holes of Great Britain at the National. The Road hole from St Andrews (Number 7) and the Redan from North Berwick are his most well known designs. Many of America’s early golf architects frequently visited the National to study its challenging and enduring features. The redan, for example, is probably one of the most copied holes in history. You may have played one without knowing it: a medium-length par 3, the green running diagonally from front right to back left, with a large, deep bunker fronting it. The contour of the green falls away in the rear, so the forward right pin position is very difficult to reach. Number 10 is called Shinnecock, as it shares a fence line with its famous neighbor. I strained to see as much as I could across that fence line, not knowing if I would play there tomorrow or some day in the future. Larry Berle.