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Over the last half century, Deepdale Golf Club has been swallowed up in three great controversies. The first was in 1955, just before its original course was cleaved by the Long Island Expressway and the club was moved from the village of Lake Success to neighboring North Hills. A better ball tournament with a $45,000 Calcutta pool turned into a murky mess that involved an impostor, a ringer and phony handicaps. The shenanigans outraged USGA executive director Joseph Dey, who declared, "Consciously or unconsciously, the men who support these pools are using golf as a medium to prostitute golf." � Scandal number 2 unfolded that same year at the club's new home on the sprawling estate once owned by tycoon W.R. Grace. Though three of Grace's grandchildren had agreed to sell his beloved Tullaroan estate to Deepdale for $950,000, the fourth, Michael, refused to transfer his share or move out of the 40-room Georgian mansion intended for the clubhouse.
In a lawsuit Deepdale's owners accused the young scion of trying to distract duffers with noisy tractors, speeding cars, galloping horses, unleashed dogs, women in scanty swimsuits and actors "auditioning" for a Broadway musical. The feud ended in 1958, when Michael was evicted.
The figure at the heart of Deepdale's latest entanglement is North Hills mayor Marvin Natiss, a 23-handicapper who wants to use powers of eminent domain to turn the elite private course into an elite municipal course for dues-paying village residents. "Deepdale would be a wonderful amenity for the people of the village," he says, as if the club were a mint on a hotel-room pillow. Not that Natiss's constituency lacks links (or much of anything else: The U.S. Census Bureau has judged North Hills to be one of the wealthiest communities in the Northeast, with a per capita income of $100,093). There are 20 courses within five miles of the village and 51, including 11 public tracks, within 15 miles.
The members of Deepdale, of course, are outraged by the mayor's proposal. When he ordered environmental-impact statements and appraisals, they sued to head off a hostile takeover. "It's an undisguised land grab that would set a staggering precedent and affect every golf club in America," says Theodore Mirvis, one of the club's attorneys. "It's about stealing a golf club to increase property values in the village. It's about greed and putter-envy."
Joseph Grundfest, a law professor at Stanford and one of the preeminent authorities on eminent domain, views the standoff through a slightly different lens. "On one side you have the very rich," he says. "On the other, the filthy rich. It's a kind of class struggle Karl Marx never anticipated."
Neither, perhaps, has the U.S. Supreme Court. In a landmark eminent-domain ruling last June, the Supremes voted 5-4 to uphold the right of the city of New London, Conn., to demolish homes in an aging neighborhood to make way for an urban redevelopment zone. "The political leaders of New London were trying to address the economic distress that gripped the city after major employers had left the region," Grundfest says. "But the People's Republic of North Hills has something altogether different in mind."
Deepdale members believe that particular "something" goes against the intent of the court's decision. "To condemn a blighted property and develop it into a hospital or an orphanage--to do something for the public good--I could understand," says club member John Wilson, a retired Wall Street trader. "But the mayor is using eminent domain for private gain, not public use. The law is being perverted. There's nothing distressed in North Hills."
Snuggled on the tony Gold Coast of Long Island's North Shore, North Hills is a bedroom community of 1,800 households about 20 miles from Manhattan. Most of the 4,500 villagers live in gated enclaves; one is even called the Enclave. North Hills has no firehouse, police department, library or school. (If there's a blaze or a disturbance, departments from neighboring towns are summoned.) It does have two golf courses. The membership of North Hills Country Club includes 60 village residents, one of whom is the deputy mayor. Deepdale, which has about 250 members, is not only more expensive (initiation: $100,000) but also more exclusive. Only one of its members-- Wilson--lives in North Hills.
During its 79-year history Deepdale has counted Dwight Eisenhower, Baron Guy de Rothschild and the Duke of Windsor as members, and more recently has had on its rolls Tiki Barber, Tom Brokaw, Sean Connery, Sidney Poitier and New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg. "None of our members are notorious," says Wilson, who never had to fill out a foursome with the most infamous Deepdaler, Richard Nixon. "Maybe some are nefarious." Wilson adds, "Membership is by invitation only."
The idea to have the townsfolk snatch the course from the landed gentry was first floated by John Lentini, the previous mayor of North Hills. In 2002, shortly before his death, Lentini said, "We believe our acquisition of the Deepdale Golf Club will be the crown jewel of our community and bring us a new level of North Shore Gold Coast affluence."