The Sands Point Club was founded under a different name, and was open for just a few years with a nine-hole course before it was bought out from the previous owner. That group — with the majority of decisions being made by future Governor of New York Averell Harriman — aimed to bring the course to 18 holes and a minimum distance of 6,000 yards. They wrote to A.W. Tillinghast in the pursuit, who replied with typical frankness: “Is the property worthy of modern course? Most assuredly. Is the present plan good? No. It is very bad.”
Tillinghast most assuredly managed to find a championship course among the rubble of the existing very bad nine, and the result is the Sands Point Club. Robert Trent Jones extended the course to a more modern length during 1961, but the approach of play remains the same. Although the original polo field disappeared long ago, replaced by the current practice area, the original design elements of Tillie are well-recognizable, thanks to a number of renovation projects over the years from Ron Forse, Keith Foster, and Kevin Hargrave.
I wouldn’t go as far as to say either A.W. Tillinghast or Pete Dye were the “best” golf course architects, however few have combined oversized personalities with strong design foundations to better effect than this pair, hence why they’re at least my personal favorites. A round earlier in the week, at Bethpage Black, gave a proper reminder at just how “big” Tillie’s personality could be. Sands Point offered a refreshing change of pace and an insight into the mind of a maximalist when faced with conditions not ideal for his mantras.
The Sands Point property is small, especially when compared to the wandering acreage of the aforementioned Black. The plot supports the existing 6,800 yard route but further/farther expansion won’t be possible anytime soon. I frequently think about Donald Ross’s numerous Rhode Island clubs when it comes to fitting a worthwhile “championship” course into a tight parcel...does Tillinghast have such routing talents?
Sands Point suggests that he does, with the architect filling the vast majority of the plot without creating any fear — for this duffer, at least — of ending up on another fairway. My caddie has been employed by the club at two points in his life, and shared how many fewer trees exist now compared to his previous stint. Keith Foster has many celebrated Tillinghast restorations on his résumé and it’s only fair that the same success be acknowledged at Sands Point.
There are just a few points where some trimming could be used. Faders may struggle with the oak off the tee at No. 1, and drawers may have the same issue at No. 8; both are long doglegs and wise members may be keen to employ the incorrect fairway to shorten the hole. Management at Sands is between a rock and a hard place, admittedly. We GCA folks are too clever for their own good, especially on a compact property.
The subtlety at Sands Point is a break from what one expects from the Tillinghast oeuvre, and not in a negative way. Although the visual appeal of “Great Hazards” and the like frequently finds Tillie affiliated with par fives and long fours, there simply wasn’t room for such extravagance here. But if one is unsatisfied with hazards that include A) the mini-”Great” ahead of the green on the aforementioned No. 8, B) the deep trench around the front of the No. 12 par three, and C) the Raynorian “Corner Pocket” at the front right of No. 15 (among others), perhaps you haven’t earned the right to tackle Tillinghast’s biggest hazards yet. The greens also employ less aggressive movement than other putting surfaces from the architect, which is not to dismiss the danger of their subtle breaks.
Although the one-two punch of the par fours at Nos. 3 and 4 may have been my favorite stretch thanks to their differing approaches to flexing muscle, Sands Point is a rare instance where the par threes are the true highlight at a Tillinghast club (as mentioned above, his distinctive longs often steal the show). No. 2 is the only true “Tillie Template,” an example of the short “Tiny Tim” hole. No. 7 is an uphill knock over a valley...No. 12 is the only “short” to break 200 yards (but also has the largest green on the course to provide a landing area), and No. 17 provides a more “table-top” target from 170.
If there is anything keeping Sands Point from matching the other Tillinghast championship entries on Long Island, it may — however unfairly — be memorability alone. Black showcases Tillie’s grandest hazards, and the Rockaway Hunting Club happens to sit on the water...a somewhat unfair advantage when analyzing course architecture. It may take a more nitty-gritty GCA appreciator to grasp what’s on display at Sands Point.
There are many fine clubs on Long Island...it can be tough to remember all of them. But it would also be a colossal shame to forget a specimen as skilled as Sands Point.