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
Date: February 20, 2017