At last count there were quite a number of golf capitals of the world—resorts where the local golf courses are a major tourist attraction and are rather too enthusiastically praised. A few in this country, notably the sandhill country around Pinehurst, N.C. and the rugged coastline of the Monterey Peninsula in California, offer the kind of golf that is almost worthy of so formidable a title. So does a small stretch along the south fork of eastern Long Island, although it is scarcely known beyond earshot for anything except its potatoes and summer visitors and homegrown Carl Yastrzemski. Nonetheless, it nurtures three superb old golf courses—the kind, as the saying goes, that they don't make anymore.
Old-fashioned is probably the best word for describing the common characteristics of golf at the Shinnecock Hills Golf Club, the National Golf Links of America and the Maidstone Club. With their turbulent fairways, their clumpy margins of rough, their acres of sandy hazard and their stiff breezes off the Atlantic, the three courses have a strong affinity with the great seaside links of Scotland and England. The clubs themselves are old-fashioned, too, and not just because they still try to operate in the quietly private and unostentatious manner of the genteel era that bred them. Most of their members shun the kind of public attention that is courted by more recent enclaves of privilege. Only four times have these courses entertained a national or international event. The USGA amateur and open championships of 1896 were held at Shinnecock Hills, the 1922 Walker Cup matches at the National and last year's USGA Seniors Championship at Shinnecock Hills.
Despite their conservatism and their proximity to one another—Shinnecock Hills and the National are contiguous to the outskirts of Southampton Township, while Maidstone is some 12 miles down the Montauk Highway at East Hampton—these three clubs differ greatly. Shinnecock, which has the oldest course, provides golf only from May through October, and its members are mostly summer visitors of both sexes. The National is a men's club, also seasonal, whose membership embraces some of the most imposing names on the U.S. capitalist roster—people like Henry Ford II, John Hay Whitney, William S. Paley and Henry F. du Pont. Maidstone is a family country club for the "summer people" of East Hampton, a growing number of whom have taken to spending their winter weekends there as well. So the golf course is open the year round. Fine as it is, it is of no more importance to club life than the tennis courts, the beachside cabanas and swimming pool, the plethora of children's events and the Saturday night dinner dances in fancy dress and funny hats.
The National Golf Links of America was founded in 1908. As much as any such institution can be, it was the creation of one man, an eccentric and truculent Chicago golfer named Charles Blair Macdonald, who was the first amateur golf champion of the U.S. He was also indirectly responsible for the formation of the USGA in 1894 following the unseemly brouhaha he raised over the two unofficial championships that were contested the previous year. He had been runner-up in the first one at Newport, losing a close final after driving his ball into a stone wall on the course. He went away complaining loudly that the Newport course was no fair test of championship golf. A few weeks later he lost in the finals of the second "championship" played at St. Andrews, and he blamed this loss on a massive hangover. But when the infant USGA conducted its first championship at Newport the following summer, Macdonald was finally the winner.
May 19, 1968
Although that was to be Macdonald's only national championship, there is no doubt that he was one of the ablest of the early golfers in America. This large and boorish man was devoted to golf, which he had first learned while a student at the University of St. Andrews. Some years later, in 1892, he helped start the Chicago Golf Club, and eventually it became his ambition to build the ultimate golf course in his native land. He spent the summers from 1902 through 1906 taking meticulous notes on the celebrated seaside links of Great Britain and recording the exact measurements of what he considered the best holes. Macdonald also searched the Eastern Seaboard for the kind of linksland he felt would do justice to his dream course. He eventually settled for a parcel of some 245 gently rolling acres on the border of Peconic Bay, overlooking Southampton and the Atlantic Ocean to the south.
Seventy wealthy sportsmen contributed $1,000 apiece to get the club under way, and among them were quite a few of the more illustrious tycoons of the time: W. K. Vanderbilt (railroads), Clarence Mackay (mining and telegraph), Charles Deering (farm machinery), J. Borden Harriman (railroads), Harry Payne Whitney (streetcars and Thoroughbred racing) and Robert T. Lincoln, son of the President (Pullman cars).
With every blade of grass and every grain of sand fastidiously supervised by Macdonald, the National was nearly four years in the building and was first played in 1908. The original version was, by today's standards, relatively short at 6,100 yards, but subsequent modifications have stretched it to its present moderate length of 6,639 yards from the back tees. Distance, however, is not the yardstick by which one measures the National. There is scarcely a day, even in midsummer, with the air thin and the fairways hardened by the sun, when either the outbound nine or the incoming holes are not lengthened formidably by the wind. It is the weather that brings out the ingenuity and forethought of Macdonald's design, for virtually every two-shot and three-shot hole offers a variety of routes, the choice of which depends on the wind as well as the strength and nerve of the player. There is seldom any agreeing on the best line to take under given conditions.
Five of the holes at the National are close replicas of celebrated holes in Britain, and three of these are encountered at the very start of the round. National's 2nd is modeled after the Sahara at Royal St. George's. It is a short 4-par with the direct line from the tee requiring a carry of better than 200 yards into the teeth of the prevailing wind and across a wide, dispiriting expanse of sand. As with all his problem shots, Macdonald offered a shorter, safer shot for those unable to crank up their courage.
The 3rd reproduces the problems of the Alps at Prestwick. It is a 418-yard 4-par requiring a blind second shot over a sharply rising hill to a very wide and steeply contoured green that is protected from end to end by bunkers. The bigger the drive on this hole the better the opportunity to avoid the worst of the hill and to see at least something of the target ahead; but the better route asks for a very brave tee shot, again into the prevailing wind, to carry the huge bunker that precedes the fairway.
The 4th hole is a copy of North Berwick's Redan, a middle-iron par-3 with a long green falling off diagonally to the left. Here the direct shot to the pin flirts dangerously with a deep bunker on the left that will virtually destroy any hope of par. The more cautious shot to the right leaves a long and dicey downhill chip or putt.
The two remaining copies—the 7th and 13th—were both designed to re-create two classic moments on the Old Course at St. Andrews. The former, a 5-par, is more suggested by than modeled after the Road Hole, where so many championship hopes have died. In place of the railroad sheds on the right in Scotland is a large expanse of scrub-filled bunkers, and that removes a great deal of the terror implicit in the tee shot at St. Andrews. Yet the plan of attack remains much the same—the safer the tee shot the more difficult the second—with the third shot into the green demanding a most delicate touch if it is not played from perfect position on the right of the fairway. It is the kind of hole where trouble can be many times multiplied by a foolish refusal to accept the penalty of a bad lie.
The 13th is an excellent par-3 of medium-iron length across a pond, with punishing pot bunkers fronting the green to both right and left. It is fashioned after the 11th at the Old Course, where the River Eden runs behind the green. So there would be no mistaking its derivation, Macdonald named his 13th Eden.
Despite its inspiration, the National, like Shinnecock Hills, is not a linksland course in the British sense. The soil is of inland nature, giving the fairways and greens a soft texture. It is the sprawling bunkers, some 500 in number, and the stretches of sandy rough filled with huckleberry bushes and other clutching scrub that simulate the linksland hardships and frustrations.
From the time Macdonald first opened the National for play until his death in 1939, he dominated the club. He dictated club policy and altered the course with regal arrogance and little regard for the feelings and opinions of others. Such was his strength of purpose that he usually got what he wanted, leaving enemies strewn in his wake. He "stole" the chef from Shinnecock Hills amid cries of outrage and thus inaugurated the tradition of superb cuisine that is almost as important a part of the National's reputation as is its golf. When he tried to hire away Shinnecock's pro, Charlie Thorn, it was a different story. "I wouldn't be there 10 minutes before I would wrap this golf stick around your neck and make a bow tie for you," Thorn told Macdonald in refusing the offer.
Once, in a rare mood of self-criticism, Macdonald made a most uncharacteristic admission while discussing the National. "I am not confident," he said, "that the course is perfect and beyond criticism today."
Nonetheless, even the legendary Bernard Darwin, golf's most graceful and perceptive writer, was duly impressed by Macdonald's achievement. While covering the 1922 Walker Cup matches for The Times of London, Darwin was called upon to replace an ailing member of the British team, so he had firsthand knowledge of the course under competitive conditions. Later he wrote, "Those who think it is the greatest golf course in the world may be right or wrong but are certainly not to be accused of intemperance of judgment."
In recent years an outing at the National has come to be one of the happier consolations of businessmen's golf as it is practiced in the New York area. Setting the mood, there is the arrival at the imposing iron gates, with the sign warning motorists to halt if golfers are putting on the 17th green or driving off the 18th tee. When all is clear, there is the short trip up the hill to the gray, fortresslike clubhouse, finished in 1912 and offering a spectacular view across Peconic Bay toward the north fork of Long Island. A three-foot-long telescope in the screened porch opposite the front door is a reminder of that more sumptuous era when the club manager had to identify the approaching yachts of members and prepare for their docking at the club marina (now gone with the times).
Indoors, the clubhouse has that musty, darkly protective atmosphere that seems to accumulate inside well-aged men's clubs—the heavy furniture, the British sporting magazines on the big table, the deeply upholstered chairs, the writing table with the club stationery in a discreet corner. The walls of the spacious bar are covered with esoteric relics of golf's history—fine old prints and photographs and even a marble cast of Harry Vardon's hands clasped in the immortal grip he pioneered. It was here, seated in an armchair by the window overlooking the 18th fairway and the bay beyond, that Macdonald presided when he was not on the course.
At the end of the building is the large library with its imposing oil portraits of former club presidents glaring out from the walls and, dominating the scene, a life-size bronze of the founder in his golfing togs. This room houses one of the rare collections of golf literature in America. Lunch at the National is an eating experience unsurpassed in the environs of sport. It opens with a clam broth and then proceeds gently to the chicken lobsters, just barely legal in size, that are awaiting the diners as they take their seats. After that come the fluffy fish cakes, served with a tomato sauce and pureed sweet corn. Then there is the main course—a choice of shepherd's pie, beef-and-kidney pie or the roast of the day accompanied by the appropriate trimmings. This is followed by another of the specialties of the kitchen, rice cakes smothered in cinnamon and syrup. The meal tapers off with some pie or pudding, perhaps a little ice cream and finally some fresh fruit and cheese. More than one afternoon of golf has come to a premature halt right there in the dining room.
Upstairs the National's clubhouse provides sleeping accommodations for 18 guests, and these are frequently in use during the good golfing months from May through October when business groups or congenial outings of less pragmatic purpose settle in for a couple of days of golf and companionship. On some such occasions students of the good life who reside nearby are apt to take a drive over to the East Hampton airport just to count the lineup of private jets that have brought their companies' executives to the National for a respite from their labors in the marketplace.
Adjoining the 10th hole of the National is the 3rd hole of Shinnecock Hills, a club some 17 years senior to the National, and a club, in fact, whose roots go all the way back to the origins of golf in this country. Willie Dunn, one of the first of the Scots to teach their game to Americans, was imported in 1891 by the club's founders to lay out some golf holes. As far as these pioneer duffers knew, no other golf course existed in the U.S. at the time, although in truth the six-hole course of the St. Andrews Golf Club in Yonkers—often regarded as the country's first—was already 3 years old. There also were rudimentary facilities at such places as Newport, Tuxedo Park, N.Y. and Philadelphia. Shinnecock's original 80 acres were bought for $2,500, a sum that today would scarcely buy enough of that land for a decent putting green. With the help of 150 Indians recruited from the nearby Shinnecock Reservation, Dunn completed 12 holes over the scrubby rolling hills in time for play in the late summer of '91. By the following spring there was an attractive white-shingled clubhouse, complete with grill room, lockers and shower baths, which was designed by Stanford White, the most celebrated architect of the day.
As Shinnecock's golf moved into full stride during the summer season of 1892 there were 70 members, each paying annual dues of $25. Greens fees for guests were $1 a day. A complete set of woods and irons cost around $24, a canvas bag $6, a ball cleaner $1 and a rubber golf tee 25¢. Balls were 50¢ to 60¢ apiece, and the fee of a caddie ranged between 20¢ and 35¢ for a full round. It was at these prices that the elite of Southampton, then in breakneck competition with Newport for recognition as the nation's smartest watering spot, helped to stamp golf with the cachet of a rich man's game.
Just three years after the launching of Shinnecock Hills, the U.S. Golf Association was formed for the purpose of conducting a national championship, and Shinnecock was one of the five founding clubs, along with Newport, St. Andrews, the Chicago Golf Club and The Country Club of Brookline, Mass. The first championships—both amateur and open—were held the next year at Newport. The following year, 1896, they moved to Shinnecock Hills.
Certainly one of the major milestones in Shinnecock's history was the arrival from Scotland, in 1906, of the 25-year-old Scotsman named Charlie Thorn to assume the duties of club pro. A stocky, powerful fellow with opinions as strong as his arms, Thorn clinched the job by shooting a 33-33—66 to beat the course record by five strokes on the weekend he first visited the club for an interview. Until his official retirement in 1961 after 55 years as head pro, Thorn was as much a Shinnecock landmark as the enormous white clubhouse on the hill. Oldtimers love to tell how Thorn would dress down some of his more notable member pupils—among them Andrew Mellon, to whom he once said in his brusque Scottish burr, "Now there's the ball. Don't be letting your mind wander over to Europe and thinking what money's to be made over there. The ball's here, so keep your eye on it till you hit it."
And then there was the time Charlie called at the office of another member-pupil, Charles Steele, who was a Morgan partner. Told that Steele was in a board meeting and not to be disturbed, Thorn sent a note saying, "The King of Shinnecock is waiting to see Mr. Steele." He was immediately ushered into the Morgan boardroom, introduced all around and handed a $20 gold piece by J. P. Morgan himself with the comment, "I don't ever want anyone to say he wasn't paid for the time he spent here."
Throughout his first two decades at Shinnecock Hills, Thorn taught and played with the founders and offspring of families whose names are like chapter headings in the financial and social history of early 20th century America—names like Root, Mellon, Byers, Potter and Havemeyer. These were the people who put the gloss on the Southampton of that day.
Thom saw Shinnecock Hills through many vicissitudes, the most drastic of which began with the Great Depression. Just as this somber decade was starting but before the club had felt its full effect, a new highway was built through the southern portion of the course. The architectural firm of Toomey and Flynn was commissioned to make a major rearrangement of the holes. The late Dick Wilson, who was to become one of the two most prominent golf architects of his time, worked on the project with Toomey and Flynn, and the course today bears such familiar Wilson imprints as craftily planned doglegs and tiers of bunkers leading toward and cutting deeply into the greens.
At 6,697 yards from the back tees (6,204 from the members') the revised Shinnecock Hills is not of spectacular length, but the shorter holes play mostly into the prevailing wind, while the downwind 4-pars run to 450 yards or better. The closing holes on both the front and back nines are doglegs of superb quality, with the wind blowing in from the right. Each calls for a carefully placed drive with violent punishment on either side and then a strong, nerve-testing approach to the green.
Shinnecock is like that most of the way around. The shots it calls for are difficult but rewarding. It is errors in judgment and ever-gnawing doubt that defeat one. After playing a round there a few years ago with his friend and business partner, the late Paul Shields, Ben Hogan wrote, "To me it is very strange why so many courses have deteriorated in their requirements of good golf shots. This is not true of Shinnecock. Although Shinnecock is a very old course, it has not succumbed to the pattern of 'make golf easy' because of the hacker's inability to hit decent shots. By this I mean each hole is different and requires a great amount of skill to play it properly. As I think back, each hole has complete definition. You know exactly where to shoot, and the distance is easy to read. All in all, I think it is one of the finest courses I have ever played, and I can say that I had a great amount of pleasure the day we played there."
The expense of the new course designed by Toomey and Flynn, the decline in golf during the Depression, the gradual disappearance of the very rich and finally the maladjustments of World War II brought Shinnecock Hills close to extinction. In 1948 some devoted members refinanced the club, and it began a new life in a world that was as different from that of Charlie Thorn's early years as the Volkswagen is from the Packard Twin Sixes that were once parked alongside the clubhouse on a summer Sunday. The present membership of 330, while by no means impoverished, is a far cry from the landed gentry who started the club. They are, in large measure, the young to middle-aged core and fringe of the Jet Set that has turned Southampton into a more swinging if less austere and dignified vacation colony.
Now a salty 87-year-old with mind and memory as sharp as ever, Charlie Thorn is still a vital part of the Shinnecock scene. His charming two-story cottage, rich with mementos of the past and with his original workshop still intact, stands behind a tall hedge a few yards off the 9th green. On fine days Thorn emerges, his bowed legs now a bit shaky but his Scottish burr as robust as ever, to greet his old friends, to call Bill, a tame and obese sea gull who returns to spend each summer with him, and to express a few uninhibited opinions on the modern era. "There's a lot of people play here today," he said recently. "I don't even know who they are. I don't want to know 'em, and they don't know who I am, and they don't care."
Along the 30-mile stretch of eastern Long Island known collectively as The Hamptons the mood and character changes sometimes subtly, sometimes abruptly from town to town. Even though it is a mere 12 miles from Shinnecock Hills and the National to the Maidstone Club, in the minds of the summer residents of these two areas the distance is almost interplanetary. Southampton, with its grandiose summer "cottages," oozes wealth and dash and is apt to occupy a good deal of space in the writings of Suzy Knickerbocker, the unofficial chronicler of the rich. In describing East Hampton the society writers have always used such expressions as "conservative and close-knit." Its houses, while lavish by almost anyone's standards, tend toward discreet understatement.
East Hampton's first settlers arrived in 1648 and called the place Maidstone after the town in Kent from which they emigrated. The name was soon changed, but nearly 250 years elapsed before a colony of artists started using East Hampton as a summer resort. By the time the railroad arrived in 1895 the rich were just beginning to nestle in among the artists.
With annual dues of $15 to make it accessible to "impecunious artists" as well as millionaires, the Maidstone Club was born in 1891. There was always a mixture of sports offered, with lawn tennis taken the most seriously. Then, in 1894, three rudimentary golf holes were built at a cost of $28.50. In the succeeding few years the course was enlarged to nine holes, and a 16-year-old Indian of partly Negro ancestry was hired as the first pro. His name was John Shippen, and, having learned the game as a caddie at Shinnecock Hills, he entered and tied for fifth in the 1896 Open at that club just before taking up his duties at Maidstone. It was to be 60 years before another pro of Negro descent would do as well in professional competition. Golf continued to take a back seat to lawn tennis at Maidstone until the early 1920s, at which time Willie and John Park, a couple of the early Scottish pros who made their mark in the U.S., laid out the basic design of the present course.
Some of the original nine holes at Maidstone traveled over 29 acres of land owned by William Wheelock and Dr. Everett Herrick, the first president of the club and a man who presided over its activities with a kind of benevolent paternalism. Since he charged no rent for the land, Herrick felt justified in adding a clause to the lease that forbade its use on Sundays. It was not until the club bought the property from Herrick and Wheelock in 1905 that this ukase against Sunday golf was eased to the point of allowing play after 12:30 p.m. when most members presumably would have attended to their spiritual obligations. After Herrick died in 1914 the members finally felt free to play golf all day Sunday without giving offense.
Herrick's moral principles lived after him at Maidstone, however. A health faddist and teetotaler, he had bequeathed the club $7,500 with the stipulation that if intoxicating beverages were ever sold on the premises the legacy would revert to the East Hampton Free Library. Following the repeal of Prohibition an anonymous member sent the club a check for $7,500, thus contributing to the happiness of both the reading and drinking members of the community.
As with Shinnecock and the National, Maidstone's history evokes a powerful nostalgia. The prevalent golfing attire of the earlier days was white flannel trousers, gaiters and red jackets with brass buttons, a getup that even Doug Sanders and Jimmy Demaret never surpassed in their later day. In 1916 Charles Evans Hughes, while campaigning for the presidency, stopped by for a round of golf. Judge Samuel Seabury, the great reformer who finally ended the rambunctious career of former New York Mayor Jimmy Walker, was the club's president from 1920 to 1921. So, too, was Sportswriter Grantland Rice, and to this day Rice's locker, with his nameplate still intact, is maintained for honored guests.
It was in this atmosphere that Maidstone grew to maturity. There is a wholesome ambience to the place that knits in well with the quiet gentility of vast Hampton. With children romping about, it bespeaks the togetherness of suburbia along with a warm sense of security. Even so, Maidstone—like Shinnecock Hills—had trouble weathering the Depression. In 1935 the club defaulted on the payments of its bonded indebtedness of a quarter of a million dollars, the money that had been borrowed through the years to pay for its huge, rambling clubhouse on the dunes overlooking the ocean, its lovely grass courts, its two 18-hole golf courses, its Olympic-size swimming pool and adjoining complex of dressing rooms and cabanas.
As was the case with so many overextended country clubs at that time, Maidstone was saved by the manipulations of a group of loyal members who devised a workable reorganization, placing the ownership of the club in the hands of the dues-paying members and freeing it from the grip of the bondholders. During this period Maidstone's burden was weighted by the great 1938 hurricane that ravished Long Island's South Shore. Some $40,000 had to be raised by private subscription among the members to repair the damage.
After World War II Maidstone modified its golf accommodations, leaving just one 18-hole course and a short nine-hole course, a sporty little layout that is a source of much pleasure to older members. But it is the larger course, a synthesis of the best prewar holes, that is now the pride of the club and among this country's finest seaside links.
The course starts atop the lovely dune on which the clubhouse rests. Three relatively prosaic holes take it down to Hook Pond, one of scores of tidewater ponds behind the Hampton dunes. It is at this point that the course takes on its true character. A fine middle-iron 3-par played into the prevailing wind off the ocean is the start of a succession of magnificent linksland holes that continue off and on from the 4th through the 14th. The course then finishes with a couple of well-designed holes built around Hook Pond before returning up the hill to the clubhouse. When one thinks oft the challenging excitement of Maidstone golf, it is in terms of the eight middle holes that run alongside and through the dunes. The 7th is a sporty dogleg skirting Hook Pond, its water lapping at the fairway as far as the green with dunes threatening on the left. No. 8 is a little blind one-shotter played right inside the heart of the dunes and, with the wind from the sea on the right, it can have the same emotional impact as a trip to the dentist. No. 9 asks for the utmost in courage and accuracy, for the tee shot is hit from atop the dunes into a narrow, winding ribbon of fairway with dunes looming on either side. The 10th doubles back parallel to the 9th, and then 11 and 12 ease away from the seashore for a moment. The 13th—a 5-par into the wind—returns to the sea with all kinds of sticky linksland trouble on the left. No. 14 is another dune-to-dune one-shotter to tighten the nerve strings before the course turns inland again at the 15th with a tee shot over the last of the dunes.
Most of this country's 10 million golfers do not have the opportunity to play more than a few, if any, rounds of golf on the kind of old-fashioned linksland that gave birth to the game. Seldom are today's courses built anywhere but on level inland terrain with artificial hazards precisely installed at conventional spots along the route. As a result, a passion for uniformity is taking hold of the American version of the game. Golfers come to believe they are being dealt a crooked hand if they get a bad bounce into uncompromising trouble or if they have to hit their shots from an awkward stance with the elements against them.
Yet, as the late Francis Ouimet used to say, "Golf is a game that should combine both skill and speculation." And the Scots, whose game it was in the first place, believe that the character to withstand adversity is as essential to success in golf as a reliable swing. It is at superlative courses like the National, Shinnecock Hills and Maidstone that one finds this important extra dimension in the game.