A pilgrimage is a journey to hallowed ground for the purpose of venerating it, where travelers often seek to amass some form of sacred knowledge. The word evokes strong religious connotations, as it is frequently affiliated with spiritual motive and some form of divine awakening. As an aspiring golf-course architect, a similar search placed me on Long Island, on the southern shore of Peconic Bay, in the fall of 2014.
There sits a golf course known to most simply as the National. Among the many historic golfing gems on Long Island, the National Golf Links of America is considered by many to be one of the true golfing institutions of the Western Hemisphere, equal with the likes of Augusta National, Pine Valley and Cypress Point. Its name alone alludes to the intent of its audacious designer, Charles Blair Macdonald, who believed that he was the man destined to save golf in the United States.
In his book The Courage to Teach, Parker J. Palmer suggests that no scientist can know the world merely by holding it at arm’s length. He writes, “Science requires an engagement with the world, a live encounter between the knower and the known. That encounter has moments of distance, but it would not be an encounter without moments of intimacy as well.”
As a passionate student of the game, I had consumed many of golf-course architecture’s greatest tomes, but I also needed that intimacy. Epics such as Scotland’s Gift, by Macdonald, and The Evangelist of Golf, by George Bahto, cemented the importance of getting to this golfing mecca. As with Macdonald and his own education into the nuances of golf-course architecture in Britain, I had to make the journey myself to absorb the impact that comes only with experiencing the real thing.
While this might surprise the Bag Tag Barrys of the world, I still have never played the course. During what remains my only visit, it was closed for play on a “maintenance Monday.” I planned it that way; how else to get the course to myself? Unencumbered by other visitors or, perhaps more importantly, my clubs and golf game, I was able to truly focus on the course.
To understand the marvel of the National, one must understand its foundations. In the formative years of golf-course architecture, from 1830 to 1905, the game benefited greatly from the efforts of a few passionate men who devoted sizable portions of their lives to its advancement through the development of groundbreaking layouts. Men like Old Tom Morris at Prestwick and the Old Course at St. Andrews, Laidlaw Purves at Royal St. George’s, Willie Park Jr. at Sunningdale and Huntercombe, Walter Travis at Ekwanok and Herbert Fowler at Walton Heath all set new standards during this fertile time. In 1906, golf-course architecture would be raised to an even higher level as Macdonald began construction on his ideal layout—a project that would take some 30 years of tinkering to perfect.
Having already studied at St. Andrews under Old Tom in the 1870s, Macdonald was well-versed in the Scottish ideals. In 1900, after finishing several (self-dubbed) rudimentary designs in Chicago, Macdonald relocated to New York. Almost immediately, he embarked upon a quest to create the finest golf course outside of the British Isles. With a vision based around his idea of “trans-Atlantic translation,” Macdonald’s concept was to take the principles of the greatest holes found in the British Isles and Europe and assimilate them into a single site in the United States. Macdonald was initially ridiculed by his peers for attempting to replicate the world’s best holes, but his ideology was more than simple paint-by-numbers. He sought to fully understand the key features, angles and strategies of the greatest holes and courses in order to apply his accrued knowledge to any site, utilizing the inherent landforms as inspiration.
From 1902 to 1904, Macdonald took extended trips to Europe to study the most well-respected courses. To define the elements of the day’s best golf holes, he combined detailed field study and surveying with interviews with 30 prominent golfing figures in Britain.
In 1906, Macdonald returned to the United States well-armed with detailed concepts—they would come to be known as templates, although that specific term would not be coined until later—for his ideal course. In 1907, he hired Seth Jagger Raynor, a local engineer, to survey his chosen site on Long Island. Construction began that same year on what would become the National Golf Links of America. It did not take long for Macdonald to find the location for a Sahara hole from Royal St. George’s, an Alps hole from Prestwick and a Redan hole from North Berwick. Given his ties with St. Andrews, it is not surprising that Macdonald was heavily influenced by the Home of Golf. His renditions of the Eden, Long and Road holes also were tailored to his newfound New York site. The club was officially formed in 1908, but the golf course would not fully open until 1911.
Just over a century later, I passed through the majestic Macdonald Gates guarding the entrance to the club from Sebonac Inlet Road and found myself standing on the first tee just before sunrise. As the sun began to warm the distinctive clubhouse and iconic windmill, I took a moment to let it sink in. I spent the next 10 hours walking the golf course both forward and backward, crisscrossing fairways and examining green complexes, attempting to absorb as much as possible. Armed with only a camera and a golf ball to throw around the putting surfaces, I was able to study and fully appreciate the features that Macdonald and Raynor had so eloquently sculpted.
Laid out over some 250 acres, the holes at the National mirror the grandness of the property itself. Abundant width invites players to choose their own path. As with most great golf courses, the contour of the land and placement of the hazards suggest a multitude of options for play from tee to green. Further, the variety in the bunkering is spectacular. The seemingly erratic shapes, sizes and depths vary from large waste areas to 7-foot-deep pot bunkers to sand scraps barely wide enough to make a backswing.
The putting surfaces are equally impressive. The St. Andrews influence is clear: Macdonald constructed 18 putting surfaces that cumulatively span more than 170,000 square feet. At a time when most greens in North America were of the small, single-pitch variety, Macdonald and Raynor constructed a collection of greens that run the gamut. From wildly undulating to falling away from play to punchbowl to relatively flat, each complex is uniquely different. Variety was their primary consideration and it shows.
To reduce the efforts of Macdonald at the National to stencil work—simple templates—is missing the point. His understanding of the factors that made the original holes great allowed him to often move past mere homage and improve on several originals.
One of my favorite two-shotters in all of golf is the third hole, Macdonald’s magnificent rendition of the Alps. In fact, I believe the drive holds more interest than the original at Prestwick. Further, the approach to a 35-yard-wide green perched on a fescue-covered hill is arguably the greatest blind shot in the game. In opposition to the first two holes, which are shorter with fairways tilting right to left, the Alps is a long, uphill hole with a fairway moving from left to right. This contrast only adds to an already intriguing hole. While hitting this curvaceous green in two is a memorable feat for any golfer, ringing the bell in the tower behind the green after making birdie is one they will certainly never forget.
The turn north toward Bullhead Bay, an excellent switch of direction in a primarily out-and-back routing, reveals Macdonald’s fourth hole: the Redan. He described it as follows: “Take a narrow tableland, tilt it a little from right to left, dig a deep bunker on the front side, approach it diagonally and you have a Redan.”
The original Redan at North Berwick gets its name from the famous fortification the British unsuccessfully stormed during the Crimean War. Though several changes have occurred since David Strath, keeper of the green at North Berwick from 1876 to 1879, devised the original (including a substantial lengthening of the hole in 1895 by Tom Anderson), no hole has better stood the test of time. In fact, the Redan is the single most copied template in golf. Perhaps this is due to the quality of the original, but one can’t help but wonder if the superiority of the version at the National did not cement its architectural reputation. In fact, while visiting America, Ben Sayers, North Berwick’s famous professional, was moved to state unequivocally that the National Golf Links’ Redan bested the original.
Before making the turn at the most inland portion of the property, the front nine concludes with a strong 5-4-5 punch. The Scots believe the best holes develop their own names through an understanding of their unique characteristics. Macdonald delivers in this stretch with St. Andrews, Bottle and Long. Based on the most famous hole at St. Andrews—indeed, possibly in all of golf—the par-5 seventh is modeled after the Road hole 17th at the Old Course.
Following Shinnecock, the aptly named 10th hole that borders No. 3 at neighboring Shinnecock Hills Golf Club, golfers leave the thrilling topography experienced to this point and play the next two holes over more-subtle ground. However, Macdonald again holds all the cards, because No. 11’s double-plateau green and No. 12’s steeply pitched (front to back) green complex are two of the most severe on the property.
After taking in Macdonald’s final nod to St. Andrews with his rendition of the Eden at the 13th, golfers play the final stretch of holes heading homeward toward Peconic Bay. At the 14th, players are confronted with a true Macdonald original: the Cape hole. Today, the Cape hole at the National is a heroic marvel where golfers are asked to bite off as much as they can chew. Originally, as Bahto pointed out in The Evangelist of Golf, the 14th hole played some 30 yards shorter, with a green located farther right and bounded on three sides by the same water hazard tempting those from the tee. This original design remains the accurate definition of a true Cape hole.
On the heels of playing Bobby Jones’ favorite hole on the course—better known as Narrows—at the 15th, golfers experience a fine Scottish classic with the punchbowl green at the 16th hole. A blind tee shot greets golfers, while a deep, massive bunker creates an up-and-over challenge similar to that previously featured on the second hole. While the green itself is tiny, surrounding mounds create the punchbowl effect that contains shots that miss the target.
Climbing out of the punchbowl and walking toward the 17th tee, through the afternoon shade of the National’s famous windmill, golfers are confronted with my favorite hole on the property. Named Peconic for the picturesque body of water providing its backdrop, No. 17 is based on the Leven template. Like the original at the Lundin Golf Club in Scotland, this hole is hard to figure out upon first sight. As varied as the wind that torments this most exposed of tee locations are the options available to the golfers who play it.
Having walked up the 18th hole, one that Bernard Darwin once termed “the finest 18th hole in all the world,” I again stood in the long shadows of the clubhouse, this time as the light began to fade. Fully satisfied with myself and my newly expanded knowledge, I began to plot my return.
Then, from the shadows of the clubhouse, an older gentleman materialized and ambled toward me. To me he did not seem real; besides the maintenance staff, I had been on my own for the entire day. He asked me my name and said he had seen me on the course during his lunch several hours before. I explained my journey and he proceeded to tell me stories from his youth when he caddied at the National. My eyes must have popped when he declared he had even looped for the great Macdonald himself on several occasions.
Walking back to my car, still astounded by the events of the day and doing the math in my head to confirm my new friend’s incredible stories, I was acutely aware that this was a life-altering experience. Since that trip, the features seared into my mind have made their way to almost every project I’ve worked on. Asking myself if Macdonald and Raynor would approve is now a standard part of my thought process. I often find myself critiquing my work to ensure there is enough variety, most notably during my recent renovation with Rod Whitman at the Algonquin Golf Course in St. Andrews By-the-Sea, in New Brunswick, Canada.
Though my Long Island pilgrimage ended almost five years ago and the wider journeys of life have conspired against my return, I still feel a special connection to this living library of classic architecture. And a burning desire to go back.
Keith Cutten is a golf-course architect and the author of The Evolution of Golf Course Design. Specializing in design-build, Cutten has worked with his mentor, Rod Whitman, for more than a decade. His work can be found at CuttenGolf.com.