Hole by Hole: Sebonack doesn't look its age
Wednesday, June 26, 2013
SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. And now for something completely different.
When the world’s best women golfers tee it up this week at Sebonack Golf Club in Southampton, N.Y., for the national championship, they’ll be playing on a decidedly retro new course that looks like it’s been there for a century.
Good thing Sebonack has that classic feel, because its immediately adjoining neighbors are a couple of legendary Long Island living museum pieces: Shinnecock Hills, home to U.S. Opens in 1896, 1986, 1995, 2004 and again in 2018; and National Golf Links of America, which was home to the inaugural Walker Cup in 1922 and gets that event again later this summer, Sept. 6-8.
This time, it’s Sebonack’s time to shine – and to debut on the international scene. It’s got an unusual pedigree, not only for its upscale location in the Hamptons but also thanks to its status as the collaborative product of two of golf’s most iconoclastic designers, Jack Nicklaus and Tom Doak. They combined their efforts on a sparkling, dunes-flecked site along Great Peconic Bay. Credit goes to owner/founder Michael Pascucci for his commitment to getting the two architects to work together. The result is a stirring mix of links-inspired holes that demand shot-making, featuring crumpled ground for lots of running shots and some of the more intense green contours ever to mark the championship circuits.
For on-course spectators and stay-at-home TV followers, here’s a hole-by-hole guide for what to expect. Note that to facilitate ease of flow around the golf course and to simplify the crossings of the nines, there’s been a slight adjustment to the front nine sequencing: Play will commence from what is normally the second tee and the standard first hole will be played as the ninth. The back nine, meanwhile, will play in its normal sequence, and that means the round will end on Sebonack’s iconic 18th hole, a par-5 along the bay.
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Sebonack Golf Club: Par 72, 6,796 yards
No. 1: Par 4, 396 yards
This hole displays Sebonack at its liveliest: classic American elm trees; wrinkly fairway contours; scraggly bunkering scattered on offset lines; wide berths of play. Two elms frame the tee shot, and while the landing area is generous, players can easily reach a grouping of diagonal bunkers on the far end. The longer the intended drive, the more the ball needs to stay left into the narrower landing area. The approach is uphill to a green sporting a big false front. Most players will disregard the day’s hole location and aim at the left edge. From there, the ball will amble on and allow players to miss the extremely punitive sand fronting the right side of the green. The only thing worse than missing it there is hitting long, where a very steep bunker tipped toward the green makes a (downhill) recovery a near-miracle.
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No. 2: Par 4, 421 yards
The dominant feature here is obvious: a green perched way above the fairway and protected by a frighteningly deep bunker. The fairway is massive, but a very reachable fairway bunker occupies the left center and forces players to carry it (240 yards in the air) or steer wide right – leaving a better angle in, even if a longer approach. That gaping greenside bunker is 17 feet deep, leaving those who dump their shot there with a sheer sand wall to negotiate. It’s a good thing the green here is one of Sebonack’s bigger ones. And while it’s also one of the most contoured on the course, co-designers Nicklaus and Doak backstopped it enough that it will hold a bold shot and even feed it back toward the center.
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No. 3: Par 3, 205 Yards
This beautiful, long hole plays downhill and into the prevailing wind. There’s more run-up area short than shows from the tee, though anything coming in low and strong on the left will be whipsawed away from the green's center. Too bad that anything hit short right gets steered into a flat or bunker on that side, as well. The green, measuring 9,690 square feet, is easily the largest at Sebonack. The hole illustrates a basic principle of golf at Sebonack; while there’s room to run the ball in, that space tends to be narrow. Anything hit off-line slightly will be misdirected even further offline. Or, to recount a phrase from links golf, miss it a little and you’ll have missed it a lot.
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No. 4: Par 4, 341 Yards
This short par 4 evokes the tee shot at the 12th at St. Andrews, though at Sebonack, by contrast, everything is visible. The downhill fairway and the ability to line up a preferred target line might tempt strong players to have a whack at the green, or at least the area in front of it. But this can also leave players with a very difficult little half-wedge without spin to the smallest (3,000 square feet), most elusive green on the course. There’s a small but much-visited pot bunker mid-fairway that’s easy to reach off the tee (261 yards downhill) with a driver but needs to be avoided at all costs. The more the tee shot is played to the (apparently safe) wide right side of the fairway, the more difficult it will be to hold the green with the approach from that angle. The beauty of this short hole is that players face lots of options off the tee – drive it long; bail out right, thread it down the tight left side or simply lay up short and leave a full shot in. There’s some talk of making this a drivable hole for a day – likely a weekend round. But the problem here is that there’s reward for a bold greenside drive without much threat of risk to world-class players. Our bet is it won’t be set up as drivable.
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No. 5: Par 4, 381 Yards
No tee shot at Sebonack has more of a parkland feel to it than No. 5. The drive is uphill through a narrow chute of hardwoods, with the ideal landing area just aside the yawning fairway bunker that looms atop the hill on the right. A solid drive to the left of that bunker will find an ideal flat spot, or might even catch a kick-point and scoot well down the slope. From center/left, 140-155 yards out, the second shot has to deal with a pair of oak trees that are 50 yards short of the green and seem to be in the way. In fact they are easily carried from the ideal landing spot, though those trees are a factor for players who pull their drive and find the rough. The green has some vexing internal contours that serve as partial backstops to cushion recovery shots. Because of its convex slope, it’s one of those rare holes where a player is better off missing to the same side of the green as the hole is cut.
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No. 6: Par 4, 423 Yards
This hole is a delayed dogleg, with the left turn toward the green coming beyond the tee-shot landing area. The line off the tee down the left side – partially protected by another of Sebonack’s American Elms - is shorter. But this leaves a more difficult angle into the green because approach shots have to carry a corner of a dune and a pronounced bunker that intrudes on that side to a putting surface that cants away and to the right – leaving a very tough third shot. With the front left very well defended, there’s a much-used bail out to the front right.
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No. 7: Par 3, 167 Yards
Here’s an unusual forced-carry hole where the bailout is actually long, not short. Nicklaus and Doak worked hard to make a big reservoir pond fit in on what is essentially a links-inspired site. They did it by angling the green so the water is more in play for a pulled shot and doesn’t have quite the feel of a perpendicular forced carry. They also created interesting ground features on the right that a player has to deal with – sand, mounds and a chipping area. The green, while narrow and pinched like an hourglass with bunkers front and back, is aligned diagonally, with its axis running front right to back left to match the terrain. The ideal shot is a high draw. In fact, the short flag up front is by far the hardest to get close to.
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No. 8: Par 5, 500 Yards
This uphill par 5 is Sebonack’s homage to the fourth at Bethpage Black. It’s also a clear birdie opportunity that’s going to be reached in two by longer hitters who can take advantage of the prevailing downwind. The tee shot is complicated, thanks to a trio of bunkers arrayed diagonally across the landing area and the need to carefully pick and choose one’s intended path. Bold players with ambitions to reach the green, or get near it, in two need to carry the ball 250 yards in the air over the middle bunker when the (helping) wind is up. There are safer lines left and right, both of them making their own demands for safe, smart second shots that would leave wedges in for third shots. From either side, the crucial factor is to avoid a long, gaping bunker down the right side of the second-shot landing area. There aren’t many par-5s where each position leaves multiple options for the next shot – so that play here proceeds as if tacking in the wind.
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No. 9: Par 4, 334 Yards
Here’s a deceptively difficult short par-4 – usually the starting hole at Sebonack, but shifted in the rotation to make it easier to handle the flow of players. The hole starts out looking contained, and then opens to a long vista with Great Peconic Bay on the horizon behind the putting surface. With the fairway sloping down from the left, it takes some care to keep the ball in play without it drifting or rolling right into very deep trouble thanks to dunes, bunkers and a stand of trees on the low side of the fairway at the inside of the dogleg. A mound in the middle of the green seems to scatter approach shots every which way but close, making it harder than the mere yardage would suggest.
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No. 10: Par 4, 380 Yards
In typical Sebonack fashion, the left side, while more inviting, leaves a more difficult second shot. Bold players can challenge the sharp falloff on the right and take the shorter if riskier route that brings a lot of trouble into play. The mid-fairway bunker requires a 235-yard carry to clear, often in the face of a prevailing breeze from the southwest. The danger isn’t just the carry, because there’s also danger that the ball will drift rightward into deep, gnarly rough and a very steep fairway bunker. There are some level lies out there beyond that central bunker, and the women will need them because the elevated, table-top green allows for less margin of error than any putting surface at Sebonack. Short of the green functions as a false front that repels the ball back down the fairway. The left side is protected by arguably the deepest greenside bunker on the course. There’s a precious bit of room at the front right to run an approach in. But land an approach shot deeper than halfway onto the surface and the terrain of this domed green starts to fall away. Many golf balls simply overrun their target and wind up long, leaving a very racy recovery to a domed putting surface.
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No. 11: Par 4, 434 Yards
The view from the top of the fairway is perhaps the most dramatic of any at Sebonack. Here’s a hole that has it all: trees, dunes, dramatic long views of Great Peconic Bay and, for the first time, the chance of hitting a wayward shot onto the beach. As players walk down to the landing area, it all unfolds before them, including a long view ahead of the next green and the beach way behind. The tee shot must be slightly to the right side in order to get an optimal look at the green past a dune that pinches the fairway on the left and partially blinds the second shot from that side. This green fits very naturally above the bluff line but offers precious little room up front to run the ball in. Few putting surfaces at Sebonack are harder to hold. In fact, by week’s end, this and the second hole will vie for hardest to hit in regulation.
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No. 12: Par 3, 161 Yards
Designed to follow the concept of Royal Troon’s Postage Stamp eighth hole, this is the shortest of the par 3s at Sebonack and comes with terrific background of the bay. The difficulty comes with a downhill tee shot from elevated dunes into a crosswind that prevails from the left. Deep bunkers on the right and left guard the slender green. A shot missing long left or right will find a steep greenside embankment that requires the women to choose how to play the delicate little recovery — anything from a lob wedge to a hooded iron to a rescue or putter. When it comes to championship golf, the decisive moments often come with these “twitchy” little half shots, whether from the tee here or around the green.
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No. 13: Par 5, 549 Yards
This interesting par 5 plays into the prevailing wind and is unlikely to be reached in two – certainly not regularly. t also plays down a prevailing wind from the right but is unlikely to be reached in two. As with all of Sebonack’s par 5s, there are commitments to be made at each step – starting with a tee shot that affords the option of a safe play right (on the way to three shots) or a bolder line alongside the fairway bunker to the left in hopes of reaching or getting near the green in two. A drive running out at 285 yards will get players past it. A big lake lapping the right side of the second shot landing area shapes strategy on the next shot – whether to risk a full-bore carry over or play wide left with a middle-iron or rescue and leave a wedge shot in to the green from there. The green has a lot of cant, most of it from left to right, but also enough upslope so that anything hit short runs back to the fairway. The temptation here is to hit a little extra and force the approach shot, but should the ball bound over, the recovery from behind is hard to keep under control.
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No. 14: Par 4, 428 Yards
This long, downwind par 4 plays along the widest fairway on the course and invites a freewheeling drive. That’s crucial because with one of Sebonack’s most vexing greens as a target, players will want to get as close as possible for a more lofted approach shot. The proper tee-shot line is over a foreshortened mid-fairway bunker that’s far easier to carry than it looks. A massive Pine Valley-style waste bunker dominates the entire right side of the hole. The green here, the most recent alteration at Sebonack, is a personal favorite of course developer Michael Pascucci for its pronounced slope and integrated tiers. A small, low receptive punchbowl section of the green area sits at the foot of a dramatic, wrap-around second level where nothing plays as simple as it might appear.
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No. 15: Par 5, 574 Yards
This three-shot par 5 transitions the golfer from the densely forested interior of the course back to the coast – or at least a view of it. A massive diagonal bunker dominates the inside right of the dogleg. The 235-yard carry is tempting but carries considerable risk without much reward. Anything short off the tee or blocked into the woods right means little more than a lateral pitch out, and in any case the green isn’t reachable in two, so the smart play is to avoid the bunker and leave ample room for a second shot. The goal on this intermediate stroke is simply to work the ball left of center fairway, past a little blind spot 170 yards short of the green, and by all means to avoid the heavily treed, heavily bunkered right side. The green site is nestled low into a natural dune. The design team worked closely with superintendent Garret Bodington to open the view through the trees behind and make the putting surface look like as if it sat right in front of the bay behind it.
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No. 16: Par 4, 403 Yards
Here’s the last of Sebonack’s par 4s, and it’s a stout one thanks to a relatively narrow driving area and an elevated green. The tee shot must deal with a commanding bunker out on the right that the players can reach – but, at 257 yards to fly, can’t carry. It cuts deeply into the landing area and forces players to steer a little left, bringing the tree line into play along that side of the hole. From the landing area, some 140-175 yards to the green, the second shot has to avoid a well-placed front bunker and find the proper level on a three-tiered green. It’s easy to come up short here or to face a delicate third shot recovery to a green that seems to repel marginal shots outward into low-lying spillover areas.
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No. 17: Par 3, 176 Yards
This demanding par 3 plays back into large dunes with Great Peconic Bay as its backdrop. The dune edges into the right side of the green and cuts off a direct line to that side of the putting surface and tends to lead golfers on the tee to realign to the left. A high, left-to-right shot is ideal here. Right-to-left shots tend to rocket across the putting surface at the shallowest angle of the green and wind up in the bunkers at back left.
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No. 18: Par 5, 523 Yards
Nicklaus and Doak wanted this hole to be a strenuous par 4 along the bluff of the bay. But at Pascucci’s urging it has become one of golf’s iconic finishes. The tee shot is rewarded when played down the left, close to the bluff. While the fairway is wide for shorter tee shots, the second is more demanding because of an ominous cross bunker – the scene of a famous sunken garden designed a century ago by famed landscape architect Marion Cruger Coffin that was subsequently abandoned. The massive hazard is called, appropriately enough, Coffin Bunker – not only to honor its designer but also because many hopes for a good score have been buried here. Women’s Open players not absolutely confident of carrying it on the second shot will lay-up with a short iron, even though it leaves a third shot of 150-160 yards. Sunday’s hole location is likely to be very favorable – at the bottom of a punchbowl formation left of center. And with the tees up, as expected, and the prevailing wind favoring, there’s every chance that this singular hole will yield a few eagles – maybe even the decisive one.
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