St. George’s stands the test of time

The par-3 15th hole at St. George's

The par-3 15th hole at St. George's

Every once in a while a course pops up on the radar screen and just speaks to you powerfully and relentlessly.

In another realm of life it might be called “falling in love,” but in golf the experience of such a discovery too often gets reduced to the cheap cliché of “hidden gem.” But that’s to presume the course has been under wraps, whereas in the case of an enchanting place such as St. George’s Golf & Country Club, it just has been sitting there in plain sight on Long Island’s North Shore since 1917.

Well, maybe not exactly in plain sight. For the last few decades this unique Devereux Emmet-designed layout has been shrouded in a kind of tree-induced fog, its quirky mounds and bubbling cauldrons of bunkers struggling for recognition under dense canopies of amateurishly planted conifers. Now, thanks to a sustained tree-management program, the course has been freed of its nuisance evergreens. Tall, proud, century-old white oaks dot the site and define perimeter areas, but the interior hole corridors have been opened to the point where the fairways seem to melt into one another.

The effect, looking out from the clubhouse onto the property, is simply transformative. Of all the retro-movements in golf architecture of late, perhaps the most revealing is the widening of playing corridors to the point where they overspill onto one another. That means less rough and more room for the ball to run askew. It means wind is a greater factor. And it allows the moraine topography of the site to emerge synergistically rather than having to start over on every tee.

At 6,232 yards, this par-71 layout (70.8 rating/130 slope) is not long or severe. But it is fun, and it does demand ball control. And what a relief to see only three sets of tee markers on each hole. Surely, the proliferation of tees in the name of liberal social values is among the most regrettable in all of golf design.

Emmet (1861-1934) was a fellow traveler of Charles Blair Macdonald’s and helped him on the planning of National Golf Links of America. When it came time for St. George’s, Emmet saw it as his chance to stake his claim to an artisanal approach to course design. Here he displayed a flair for modestly scaled bunkers, some of them linear if not coffin-like. In an era where earthmoving was virtually unheard of, Emmet nudged some mounds into shape by piling dirt over semi-buried rocks and tree stumps and letting native fescues and bluestem overtake them. Some bunkers are placed strategically to create optional landing areas; others are strung in linear fashion like pearls on a chain and serve double duty on adjoining holes.

At St. George’s, Emmet’s inventiveness has found new life through a long-term restoration plan by designer Gil Hanse. The work was embraced by superintendent Adam Jessie, who came on board in 2006 – only the fourth greenskeeper in St. George’s history – and ran with the plan for widened fairways, recaptured greens and mounds, and firm, springy turf.

Each green has its own personality – in part because of the irregular mounding and deep-dish, flat-bottomed bunkers that defend these putting surfaces. The epitome of St. George’s comes at the 360-yard, par-4 fourth hole. Here, at what looks like Emmet’s version of the Alps hole (17th at Prestwick in Scotland), a gun-platform green with a wraparound moat of a bunker sits at the base of a two-tiered cross hill. The image is so quaint, so Arts and Crafts in its vertical protrusion and horizontal scope, that all you can do is marvel at its basement-lab wizardry.

There are some limits to the course – all of them externalities. A garish science building on the neighboring campus of SUNY-Stony Brook looms over part of the course. More problematic is a road that divides Nos. 4-10 into its own enclave. It runs too close to a pair of greens and presents a scary crossing (for golfers and for maintenance equipment) that easily could be resolved if the town would agree to the club’s request to build a tunnel. But those liabilities aside, the place is simply charming and unlike anything I have seen on Long Island.

It’s a museum piece with timeless appeal.

• • • 

RATER’S NOTEBOOK: ST. GEORGE’S GOLF & COUNTRY CLUB

1. Routing: 8

Non-returning nines, easily walkable thanks to intimate green-to-tee spacing, and ideal use of open land and more varied terrain. One drawback is some potential crossfire from the drive on the par-5 18th tee to the tee on the par-3 17th.

2. Quality of shaping: 8

Flat-bottomed bunkers and nearly conical mounds have substance; a few too many of the tees are small, raised platforms that pop up out of the grades and look a touch conspicuous.

3. Overall land plan: 7

Ideal terrain; 66 feet of elevation change, with a modest clubhouse looking out upon rolling ground, but the flow of the course does get misdirected with that road. Course will get better as more of the macadam cart path is converted to natural-looking gravel.

4. Greens and surrounds: 9

Bentgrass/Poa annua greens are very modest size, averaging 4,600 square feet, but have all manner of shape, from near square platforms to rococo curves at grade level, with carefully sculpted mounding around as well.

5. Variety and memorability of par 3s: 8

The five par 3s all seem to offer a big space to play through in the air to get to a small target. Shots run the gamut, from 9-iron to 3-hybrid, with the toughest shot to the shortest of all, the 122-yard 17th, into a prevailing wind and a green whose false front tumbles into sandy oblivion below.

6. Variety and memorability of par 4s: 7

The early par 4s are on the shorter, fun side – and then you get to the 420-yard-plus 12th and 13th holes, where the moraine land form kicks into high gear.

7. Variety and memorability of par 5s: 7

One three-shotter (second); one reachable (sixth) and one in-between (18th), all with distinct bunkering that ranges from modest cross-hazards to a virtual necklacing of the fairway at the last.

8. Tree and landscape management: 9

Conifers that had garroted the place are largely gone; the plan allows the mature, high-canopy white oaks to lord over sections without impeding play, views or turf.

9. Conditioning: 9

Greens expansion has recaptured original shapes; fairways have been expanded from 23 to 29 acres; and some areas of out-of-play bluegrass roughs are being converted to native fescue and bluestem. Fairways are firm and fast, so that all sorts of new angles of play have been created. Rebuilt bunkers are low-lying and don’t wash out.

10. “Walk in the park” test: 9

Like a round of golf at the other end of a time machine. Why can’t more courses be as elegant and uncluttered?

Overall: 7.5

If more membership courses were as modest and as compelling as this, the private club market would be much more secure. St. George’s deserves a place among the top 100 Golfweek’s Best Classic Courses.

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