This summer, golf fans will get rare look at elite Hamptons clubs

Sebonack in Southampton, N.Y., during the 2013 U.S. Women's Open.

SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. -- This tony hamlet sits on the south shore of eastern Long Island, along what is known as the South Fork. It is the epicenter of the greatest collection of classically styled courses in the United States. Imagine if God had placed the Old Course, Turnberry, Dornoch and Muirfield within five miles of one another. That would provide some sense of what this part of Long Island is like.

Yet other than the occasional U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills, the courses along the South Fork are little more than phantoms to most of the golf populace. Golfers might have heard stories about Shinnecock or National Golf Links or Maidstone or Sebonack or others. They might have seen them ranked highly in Golfweek and other publications. But that’s usually the extent of it. Visiting these courses typically is reserved for the monied set, many of whom escape from New York City.

Starting this week, however, the golf world will get a rare look inside two of the best South Fork clubs – Sebonack Golf Club and National Golf Links of America, Shinnecock’s neighbors along Great Peconic Bay. Sebonack, ranked No. 7 on Golfweek’s Best Modern Courses list, plays host to the U.S. Women’s Open this week. National Golf Links of America, No. 4 on Golfweek’s Best Classic Courses list, will stage the Walker Cup on Sept. 7-8. (Shinnecock Hills, No. 3 on the Classic list, has the 2018 U.S. Open.)

That prompted this reporter to make his first visit to the area since the 2004 Open, when a shopkeeper in nearby Sag Harbor memorably left a note on his door reading: “Closed. I am at the Open. When Open closes, I will be open.”

This is Gatsby’s neighborhood. My assignment, so to speak, was to crash the soiree, if only briefly. Sounds great, right? Trust me, it wasn’t easy.

Shinnecock’s head pro informed me that all of the slots allotted for unaccompanied guest play – at $350 plus caddie fee – were reserved months ago. Maybe a member will host you, he suggested. I met my new best friend, a Shinnecock member who asked for anonymity so he won’t be inundated with further requests, on the range shortly before our 1 p.m. tee time.

The sky already hinted that rain was imminent. At least one of the elements leaned in our favor.

“The wind is down,” my benefactor noted, pointing to the flagpole near the clubhouse. “We might have a chance out there.”

What is striking, at first blush, is the amount of extraordinary golf crammed into a relative sliver of land. As I approached Shinnecock’s third tee, my caddie joked that if we were thirsty we could order drinks at National’s halfway house, 100 yards away. At National our caddie explained how members occasionally play the front nine, slip over to Shinnecock’s second tee, play a full 18, then resume on National’s 10th hole. Talk about an emergency 18.

Weather conditions deteriorated throughout our round, leading one fellow competitor to don a ski cap, then quit after 13. My host, though, was a gamer. We pressed on.

To single out a hole for praise seems unfair to the others, but I will say this: Shinnecock features an extraordinary collection of par 3s.

All four show utter disdain for imperfection. Among them are the seventh, which garnered headlines at the 2004 U.S. Open when its green sloping back-to-front and left-to-right became impossible to hold. But the truth is, it requires precision any time you play it. The 17th forces golfers to flirt with a deep bunker on the left.

My playing partner’s ball appeared to land safely on the left portion of the green, but by the time we arrived it had trickled into a bunker.

“Got Shinnecocked,” he said.

• • •

The next morning brought a sun-drenched early tee time at Sebonack, which opened in 2006 and remains relatively unknown compared with its neighbors. This Tom Doak-Jack Nicklaus design is built in the middle of a former estate overlooking the bay.

Sebonack projects a more macho image than Shinnecock; it can be cruel in its length and savage in its spirit. It’s also easy to be unnerved by the speed and slope of the sadistic greens, some of which felt forced. The notion of playing them in August, when they Stimp at 13-plus for the member-guest, is unfathomable. For lesser players, even off the extreme forward tees, Sebonack can be humbling and unforgiving.

A kinder, gentler USGA won’t have the greens running at 13-plus for the U.S. Women’s Open, but it does no favors by starting contestants off the second tee, the hardest hole on the course. For the ladies, Sebonack will be very much a second-shot golf course to greens that are invitingly large and will hold well-struck approaches; two-putting here, though, is by no means a formality. The drama of the reachable par-5 finishing hole, which runs the length of a bluff along the coastline, means no lead likely will be safe.

That afternoon took me to Atlantic Golf Club in Bridgehampton, where Rees Jones converted another potato farm into the 62nd-ranked course on Golfweek’s Best Modern list. It is only 21 years old, so it lacks the pedigree of some of the other Hamptons clubs. But Atlantic is immediately likable; if money were no object, I’d happily apply for membership.

Jones created a layout on which no two holes are alike, with fast greens that are irregularly shaped and subtly contoured. When you stick your tee into the ground, here more than any of the other local clubs, you feel as if you have a fighter’s chance to make a few birdies.

Friar’s Head has a similar appeal. It opened only 10 years ago and sits at No. 4 on Golfweek’s Best Modern list. Located in the North Fork town of Baiting Hollow, it has a decidedly understated presentation. After futilely trying to find the entrance, I sought help. Look for the little black mailbox, the attendant at the auto-care center down the road told me (there’s no sign).

Friar’s Head is the brainchild of 1997 U.S. Mid-Amateur champion Ken Bakst, and under his direction there are no yardages on the scorecard, at the tee, nor on the sprinkler heads. Players must rely on their judgment and their caddies.

Course architects Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw are traditionalists who are at home in these parts. Half of the rugged landscape at Friar’s Head is rolling former farm land, tracking through tree-lined, 60-foot sand dunes and giving way to 200-foot bluffs that overlook Long Island Sound.

All three of these modern tracks are throwbacks. They are meant to be walked. There are no cart paths. And they already feel as if they have been there for some time, with the rugged look of true links.

• • •

Maidstone, east of Shinnecock along the edge of the Atlantic Ocean, sits at No. 45 on Golfweek’s Best Classic list. Even after a recent renovation, it still stretches to only 6,560 yards, but that modest number shouldn’t fool anyone.

As at most seaside courses, wind always is a factor. The breeze illustrates the ingenuity and forethought of Willie Park Jr.’s design, for virtually every hole offers an alternative route to suit the elements, along with each player’s strength and nerve.

Before leaving, I rose early one morning with great anticipation to play National Golf Links, not that I was welcomed with open arms.

A member reprimanded me for changing my shoes in the parking lot. That isn’t done here, he informed me. Tsk, tsk. Little did he know that for me, the clubhouse and the practice tee were strictly off limits. The assistant pro who accompanied me wasn’t even sure whether I could enter the halfway house and partake in the Ritz crackers and gingersnap cookies.

Nevertheless, National feeds the golfer’s soul like few others.

The course was designed by C.B. Macdonald, winner of the first U.S. Amateur in 1895 and so-called father of American golf architecture. It should make for a spectacular match-play setting between amateur teams from the U.S. and Great Britain & Ireland in the Walker Cup, just as it did in the inaugural edition, in 1922.

Macdonald’s imaginative flair has stamped its greatness. Several of National’s holes mimic celebrated holes in Great Britain. The 426-yard third hole reproduces the challenges of the Alps at Prestwick. The rolling character of the land dictated several blind shots, none more so than the second shot hit over a sharply rising hill to a wide and steeply contoured green. The fourth, America’s first copy of North Berwick’s Redan, calls for a mid-iron to a long green that falls off diagonally to the left. At all costs, avoid descending the six steps into the greenside bunker at the par-5 seventh hole, which is based on the Road Hole at St. Andrews.

Aside from its golf course, National also is famous for its lobster lunch. Sadly, I left hungry. For this visitor, National’s welcome mat, such as it was, already had been rolled up and stowed away.

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