SI Vault
Alfred Wright
May 20, 1968
On the South Shore of Long Island three old and conservative golf clubs—Shinnecock Hills, the National Golf Links of America and the Maidstone Club—fight to save traditions of the game long since abandoned in many areas
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May 20, 1968

Last Bastion Of Elegance

On the South Shore of Long Island three old and conservative golf clubs—Shinnecock Hills, the National Golf Links of America and the Maidstone Club—fight to save traditions of the game long since abandoned in many areas

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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.

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.

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