The biennial Walker Cup Matches set up shop this weekend at historic National Golf Links of America in Southampton, N.Y. In returning to the site of the first Walker Cup in 1922, the event will showcase match play on one of the quirkiest and most interesting of American layouts.
NGLA was designed and built by pioneer course architect Charles Blair Macdonald, with help from his protégé, Seth Raynor. Their intent was to adapt classic British and European holes, which they did on a sandy, scrubby, windswept parcel of Long Island’s South Fork alongside Great Peconic Bay. Immediately upon its debut in 1911, it was hailed as a living-museum piece and became a shrine for architects looking to study the history of golf course design.
Ranked No. 4 on Golfweek’s Best Classic Courses list, the par-72, 6,995-yard NGLA is a riotous concatenation of bunkering, extreme slopes and enormous putting surfaces that average 10,000 square feet. The result is akin to a Surrealist Manifesto of golf design, where the exaggerated contours are most compelling. Some of it is playful, some of it absurd. All of it will challenge these amateurs during two mornings of alternate-shot matches and two afternoons of singles play.
Among NGLA’s more interesting holes:
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No. 4, Redan, par 3, 194 yards
Rare is the copy that’s better than the original, but NGLA’s fourth hole really is an adaptation of the much-emulated 15th at North Berwick in Scotland. The key here is a huge green that’s tipped right to left and front to back, falling away 6 feet from beginning to end. A huge cross bunker short of a hill defends the front of the putting surface, and a yawningly deep bunker protects the entire left side. For all the attention on that bunker from the tee, the right side is actually the most ingeniously shaped, thanks to an up-and-over falloff into sand so deep that it leaves you seeing nothing but sky on your recovery. The prevailing wind, from the southwest, holds approach shots a bit out to the right, making it difficult to work the ball close if the hole is cut back left. The ideal shot is to land an iron shot on the front edge or just short and let the slope take the ball the rest of the way.
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No. 14, Cape, par 4, 391 yards
This seemingly short dogleg right – a Macdonald original, not a copy – plays into a prevailing crosswind from the left and can cause havoc given the complex nature of each landing area. The drive must carry a lagoon and flirt with a Bullhead Bay, leading to a tendency to hit it long or a touch left and run through the fairway into rough, broken ground. From there, the green juts out as if at the tip of hazard-laden peninsula (the “Cape” effect) that includes a steep falloff, a marsh pond and bunkering that runs the gamut from a massive wrap around waste hazard behind to tiny dollops up front that pinch possible run-up space. With the basic rule in alternate shot being to keep it in play so your teammate can play his next shot, conservativeness likely will rule each morning. However, there should be moments of bolder play in the afternoon, particularly if the ground remains firm and the wind holds off or shifts and blows from tee to green. In that case, the hole is nearly drivable – at considerable risk, of course – though it’s a calculated one for a long hitter who is two or three holes down.
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No. 18, Home, par 5, 501 yards
This hole is easily reachable in two, but at some danger given all the trouble on a routing that plays uphill and straight into a prevailing headwind. The shorter path to the green from the tee starts with a long shot over a deep bunker on the left that requires a 265-yard carry, often into that headwind. For those finding the rough, a pitch out back to the fairway is not an automatic thing given the pinched nature of the intermediate fairway, the proliferation of sand and the manner in which the right side of the upper fairway tumbles up a cliff into Great Peconic Bay. As for the green, it sits exposed to the elements on an infinity edge, with a long, safe runway of firm ground down the middle for a bounding approach. However, it is defined sharply by hazardous ground on both sides, whether sand (left) or the bluff (right). There is a great contrivance of the elements here, both natural in the shape of the landforms and artificial in that the hole passes directly in front of NGLA’s iconic clubhouse.