SI Vault
November 12, 2007
Returning to his hometown, Bayonne, the author marvels at the incongruity of an ultraexclusive golf club sharing a zip code with a city that's best known as a punch line
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November 12, 2007

Garden State

Returning to his hometown, Bayonne, the author marvels at the incongruity of an ultraexclusive golf club sharing a zip code with a city that's best known as a punch line

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"It's like another world," says Mike Solski, 33, who works at Pompei Pizza (est. 1961) and has little time for golf. "Not that it brings in a lot of revenue for other people in the town."

Sometimes the steam from the pizza can get in a workingman's eyes. Maybe the economic impact doesn't create a giant ripple in the Bayonne economy—10.1% of residents were below the poverty level in 1999, higher than the state's 8.5% average— but there are at least 25 city residents working at the golf club, a number that figures to double when the $20 million clubhouse opens next year. The club also employs the services of a number of local companies. Bayonne Golf Club pays more than $1 million in property taxes, and it has built a public-access walkway to the edge of New York Bay, an area that once belonged to stray dogs at the dump.

But the hidden benefit to the city provided by this hidden gem of a golf course came to the environment. The old landfills did not have a closure plan to keep contaminants out of the bay. The cost to the city for closure of the landfills, to bring them up to environmental code, was going to run into the millions. Bergstol put it on his tab. O.K., the place still isn't Kiawah Island, but the wetlands mitigation around the course has been a resounding success. In an early environmental study there were 189 fish in the area. A recent study pegged the number at more than 10,000.

"When I came to town, people didn't know me, everybody was suspicious," says Bergstol, a 6' 5" former forward at King's College in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., who has designed five courses, developed 11 and still owns nine. "What they really wanted to see was a $20 greens fee, public- access course. That was impossible to do here. It wasn't feasible at $20 a round, probably even $500 a round, not in Hudson County with the level of mitigation required to bring this property back.... This now has become a cleaned-up site, and it allowed people to identify the property with the community when we named the golf club Bayonne."

There is an element of Irish-Scottish tradition to the club—courses like Carnoustie are named for their towns—but there is also some reverse snobbery at work. You, well-heeled person, are not playing New York Harbor Golf Club or New York Bay Golf Club but Bay-freaking-onne. Like the breeze off the water on the 16th, we are unapologetically in your face. "I told the planning board and city council that one day people will be talking about Bayonne in a different way," says Bergstol, "that people will know it nationally and internationally because of the club. There won't be a negative perception."

This private club might indeed become the public face of the city, but the visage will remain veiled for members of the old Bayonne Golf Club. This is not a course but an actual club that operates out of a building on 16th Street where it maintains two indoor hitting nets and a puttting green. A local tugboat captain started it around 1960, according to Walter Kiczek, a 70-year-old 16 handicapper (up from an 11) who offers free lessons for Bayonne residents at the club through the city's recreation department. The membership has dwindled from nearly 100 to less than 40. The members play eight tournaments a year at public courses, of which there are none in impossibly dense Hudson County. (The only other course of any kind in the county, Lliberty National, built on reclaimed bayside land in Jersey City, also opened in 2006. Its entrance fee is $400,000.) Says Kiczek, "We're trying to keep [Bayonne Golf Club] together."

But the Bayonne golf scene received an added fillip on July 21. The city opened a nine-hole miniature course, constructed at a cost of $125,000. There is no bent grass, no superb mounding, no thoughtful bunkering, no names for the holes and no caddies. The fairways are brick-lined, water hazards are dyed royal blue, and between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. the cost to go around twice is $3. In the first two weeks the mini-putt was averaging 160 rounds a day. The signature hole is number 3. The golfer has the option of puttting over a bridge or into the water, where, if the ball floats onto the right groove on the steel grate, he has a splendid chance for a hole in one. Local knowledge.

THE SIGNATURE hole at Bayonne Golf Club is the 16th, Heaven's Gate, a par-4 that stretches 486 yards from the tips. The tee box is elevated. fairway bends gently to the right and down to the bay with the magnificence of New York City looming four miles away. Behind the undulating green the 54-foot Bayonne Golf Club boat approaches the dock, ferrying members from Battery Park in lower Manhattan. (There is also a club-owned helicopter.) Of the 200 members who are considered local—people who reside within 150 miles; only a couple live in Bayonne—there is a healthy Wall Street/Masters of the Universe representation. (There is also a sporting touch: Members include Greg Anthony, Boomer Esiason, Dan Marino and NBC golf anchor Dan Hicks.) For perhaps three quarters of the 250 members, among them four women, Bayonne is a second or even a third club.

The 16th is as visually arresting as it is challenging. ("Good courses look much tougher than they really are," insists Bergstol, a two handicapper.) But Heaven's Gate is eminently playable. All it takes is a shortish drive, a botched wedge layup that goes 50 yards instead of the prescribed 90, a career three-wood to 25 feet and two putts. Bogey. No problem.

For someone who grew up in Bayonne, who appreciated its rough-hewn charms but was blind to the city's possibilities, the best spot on the course is the tee of the 12th, a 442-yard par-4 named Seven Sisters, Six Brothers because of the bunkers that stand sentry along the fairway. Maybe the hole should have been called Seven Bridges because a 360-degree view from the tee includes the Goethals, the Verrazano Narrows, the Bayonne, the Brooklyn, the Manhattan, the Williamsburg and the New Jersey Turnpike extension. Beyond the 40-by-70-foot U.S. flag that waves from the 150-foot-tall flagpole near the clubhouse is a glimpse of the Statue of Lliberty and the Empire State Building. There are also sublime views of the spires of Bayonne's churches and, yes, the city's oil tanks. The course might whisper Ireland, but the tableau is unabashedly American—— leisure and work, starched collar and blue collar, sylvan calm and a city with its head down and eight hours to put in.

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