Rediscovering Raynor: North Shore polishes a gem

View of the 6th green at North Shore Country Club.

View of the 6th green at North Shore Country Club.

GLEN HEAD, N.Y. – Consider it a healthy sign of the times. The old card-room bar, where out-of-shape members wiled away the hours with drink in hand, has been converted into a high-tech golf and fitness center.

North Shore Country Club is back, thanks to a bold and risky plan by the club’s new, visionary owner, Don Zucker. A veteran of the high-stakes New York real-estate market, Zucker, 80, has built, by his own account, “4,000 apartments in Manhattan alone.” He’s also an avid golfer, playing to a handicap in the midteens at three tony Long Island golf clubs and a prestigious club in Palm Beach, Florida.

photo

North Shore Country Club owner Don Zucker

For all his access to fine courses, Zucker always wanted his own to operate. He tried developing one on Long Island, but the roadblocks proved overwhelming. Then he turned his attention to acquiring an existing facility. The once-thriving Long Island private-club market was faltering, a victim of changing demographics, financial uncertainty and the reluctance of older, established clubs to adapt. That’s when he affixed his gaze upon North Shore, a 1914 gem designed by A.W. Tillinghast.

Or so everyone thought. Zucker figured he was buying a genuine “Tillie” when he negotiated a $12.5 million purchase price in November 2009. Detailed research proved otherwise. Mark Hissey, a golf-operations consultant whom Zucker hired to help with North Shore, burrowed into the club’s archives. The golf course, as it turns out, had been created as a country retreat by The Harmonie Club, a prominent midtown New York association of businessmen, lawyers, physicians and engineers. Club records showed no involvement by Tillinghast; instead, terms had been reached to hire a virtually unknown, non-golfing civil engineer who was then a protégé of Charles Blair Macdonald’s. His name was Seth Raynor.

Rumors of North Shore’s true lineage quietly had been circulating for years. Among those who had wondered about it was architect Tom Doak, who upon first visiting the site in 1990 had figured it was done by Raynor associate Charles Banks. When Zucker brought Doak in to assess the course for restoration, it already had been confirmed as a Raynor design, but in Doak’s typically candid judgment, not one of his better layouts. “It came early in Raynor’s solo design career,” Doak said. “And there were half a dozen other Raynor courses right in the neighborhood that were really good. There were some really cool features out there we wanted to focus on: the double-plateau green at the 14th, the wild Road Hole green at the third. But restoring that would not have been enough for what Mr. Zucker needed.”

Doak has earned a reputation for being a traditionalist and a purist. “I’ve always believed that the best work of the best old architects should be preserved,” he said. But in his view, North Shore wasn’t quite there. The land was cramped, its holes severe and at times not up to the templates that Raynor usually had in mind. And many of its key features were placed so short to the tees – 180 yards out from the back markers – that preserving them would have been lost on even the average golfer. “In terms of distances, shaping and vision,” Doak said, “I’ve learned that there is a world of difference between the work Raynor did in 1915 and the work he did in 1922.”

With Zucker’s blessing, Doak and his design team had more free reign than normal on a classical venue. At North Shore, they ended up reversing the first two and the last two holes of the course, built a total of seven new putting surfaces, regraded fairways and repositioned bunkers – in addition to the normal work of greens expansion, tree removal and squaring off existing tees and adding back tees. All told, the construction work, undertaken in 2010 with only minor interruption of play, cost $3 million, including an expanded range, a short 19th hole and a putting course in the lawn circle fronting the clubhouse.

Best of all, it looks like a Raynor, replete with the trademark set of par 3s (Short, Eden, Biarritz and Redan) and such familiar elements as the drivable par-4 Sahara, a Punchbowl green and a vexing Road Hole bunker/green complex.

Plans call for a May 7 opening-day fete at North Shore, where there will be much to celebrate. Not only is the par-71, 6,543-yard layout in fine shape, but the membership rolls are expanding as interest grows in the most ambitious Long Island golf venture in five years. In an effort to draw attention and capture revenue, North Shore already has booked 18 full-day outings for the season. And it has made itself attractive to a new, younger membership by suspending initiation fees and going to straight annual dues of $17,000.

Apparently, the plan is working. When Zucker bought North Shore a year and a half ago, the club was down to 91 golf members. Now, it’s up to 138.

A sign of the times, indeed.

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