23 The Bridge Crossing Over Christian Hafer

Crossing Over

With classic cars, modern art and heavy-metal golf, The Bridge stands out among the institutions of Long Island for chasing its own definition of cool

You recall the class—Drama in Performance—and the professor who quizzed you on proscenium arch, taken from the Greek pro + skene and translated to “in front of the scenery.” It’s the archway that divides the dramatic space from the audience, she explained, a metaphorical plane behind which anything was possible, where fantasies became as real as this very classroom. You’re reminded of it as you pass beneath a wide and rusty truss bridge holding the remains of a Chevron sign, because you can’t shake the feeling that you’ve crossed over into something, that maybe you’ve left behind the ordinary and stepped into a show.  

Things had started to change a few miles back, when you’d left the Hamptons as you’d expected them—shingled estates at the end of pebble driveways, golf flags atop hills of fescue, main streets crowded with boutiques and café tables where men’s necklines plunged lower than the women’s—and suddenly found yourself in the woods. You roll through a dark canopy of leaves, up and down hills and around corners lined with conifers, and you wonder if you’ve gone from the beach to the middle of Maine. And then, up around that bend, it clears for a moment, and your GPS says you’ve arrived. There’s no sign to tell you that you’re at a golf club, but over there in the trees a Phillips 66 billboard declares that It’s Performance That Counts! Is it a remnant? A challenge? You’ve heard the course is a beast, and the next sign, to your right, doesn’t offer much hope: There Will Be No Miracles Here it reads in lightbulbs welded to steel. You’ll later learn that it’s the work of a Scottish artist and a line from an ancient papal edict responding to a miracle-peddling heretic—but, at the moment, all you can think about is whether you’ve brought enough balls. You pass what looks like a lunar landing module—it’s an homage to Buckminster Fuller, the architect who patented the geodesic dome—and you wonder if it’s the pro shop, or a hangout, or if it’s in bounds or out. You’ve yet to strike a shot and The Bridge is already in your head. The show has started.

23 The Bridge Crossing Over Christian Hafer
“I can get away with [The Bridge’s] differences because the golf course is so nice. If it wasn’t, I would have less wiggle room on the rest. When people first saw the drawings of this clubhouse, they freaked out.” – Bob Rubin

Long before the golf course existed, before the racetrack you’re unknowingly driving on, before the art installations in the trees, Bridgehampton got its name from a bridge built on the South Fork of Long Island in the late 17th century. The area was mostly potato farms back then; it’s mostly second and third homes now, some perched on beaches that are public by law but private by practice (thanks to a strategic lack of parking). It’s the Hamptons, but decades before it was the Hamptons, in 1915, the local fire department sponsored an automobile race around Bridgehampton. The annual event lasted until 1921, when someone crashed into the town monument, but the racing seed had been planted and would be revived after World War II with the establishment of the Bridgehampton Sports Car Road Races. Though they lasted only four years (spectator-lined streets and 130 mph speeds didn’t mix well), modern sports-car racing was essentially invented with the Road Races. They brought out celebrities and the world’s fiercest cars and drivers; the first Ferrari to race in America did so on the streets of Bridgehampton, and when a local syndicate decided to build a proper circuit nearby, it would become Enzo Ferrari’s favorite American track and the place where he introduced a driver named Mario Andretti.

Remnants of Bridgehampton Race Circuit’s past dot the landscape, but none is more prominent than the Chevron sign under which racers roared for decades.

Constructed atop sand dunes north of town, the Bridgehampton Race Circuit opened in 1957 and became a top destination for both sports- and stock-car drivers; as America’s first purpose-built road-racing venue, its events drew north of 30,000 spectators who came to watch drivers maneuver its eight turns and 2.85 miles of undulating asphalt. Its Millstone Turn, where the Circuit’s straightaway suddenly dropped out from under drivers and tossed them into a corner that’s still out there somewhere, maybe near the 18th tee or 17th fairway, was famous the racing world over. Your tires can still test the straightaway, but only at a modest clip. It leads down to the teaching center, and the bag drop is over there if you hang a right.

It would be easy to frame The Bridge’s conversion from racetrack to golf course as another greedy-golf-developer story, if only The Bridge had been built by a developer. Or a golfer. Rather, the course was constructed by a man who used to take the Millstone Turn in his own Ferrari. Only when the local government told him that roaring engines were no longer welcome near real estate that had become impossibly valuable did he turn to golf as a fix. Thankfully, for those of us who chase unique golf experiences, he had no idea what he was doing.

It’s a real problem for cheetahs. Show dogs, too. Genetic diversity is essential to a species’ longevity, and for the world’s speediest mammals, genome variability is nearly nonexistent, leaving their breed defenseless against a pathogen in wait. Uniformity, at least in nature’s eyes, can be dangerous. It’s a lesson to consider if you’re dreaming up a business or a guest list or a golf club, and if you happen to be planning all three, you might do well to mix things up. Bob Rubin did, and what he built in Bridgehampton is proof that even golf can benefit from a little dissidence.

Rubin grew up in Monmouth County, New Jersey—“Springsteen country,” he calls it—his mother a nurse and his dad an appliance repairman. He won a scholarship to Exeter and attended Yale. You’d think such a CV would come with golf lessons, but Rubin was into art and screenplays and cars. Very into cars. But if not for a fortuitous kill fee, Bob Rubin’s dream of being a writer may have come true. He might not have become a commodities trader with enough capital to save The Bridge, and he might be writing about sports cars instead of collecting them.

“When I was in college, I’d written a piece for Esquire,” he explains, “and right before they went to press the editor calls me to tell me they undersold the ads and had to take a couple of pages out. He said, ‘We’re going to pay you the kill fee, but we can’t run the story.’ I was devastated. I thought my life was ruined.”

Rubin bounced back when a friend asked him to rewrite a report about the price of gold that his boss had torn up and thrown in his face. The boss liked Rubin’s version so much that he hired him to research the precious-metals market; he soon got apprenticed to a trader and was in the right place when the sector boomed in the late ’70s, a rush that scored him a whip worth showing around the Hamptons.

“With my first significant bonus, I was determined to buy an exotic car,” says Rubin. “It was a Ferrari 275 GTB—the two-cam, a ’64 or ’65—for which I had paid the whopping sum of $45,000. This was 1980, and I was driving it around Bridgehampton. I parked in front of the Candy Kitchen and a guy says to me, ‘Are you going to the Ferrari club?’ I said, ‘What’s that?’ He said, ‘Well, it’s a group of guys with cars like this.’ I said, ‘Where is it?’ He says, ‘Up at The Bridge,’ and I said, ‘What’s The Bridge?’ He says, ‘There’s a racetrack north of the highway.’ I’m like, ‘There’s a racetrack here? Are you kidding me?’ And I drove straight up here.”

What he found was a property that was terminally “a day late and dollar short.” A new generation of shareholders were less enthusiastic about race cars and lawsuits, and a plan to turn the Circuit into a subdivision was on the table.

“I couldn’t let them plow it under,” explains Rubin. “The place was too cool.” He was able to amass enough shares to beat back the condos, and he operated The Bridge as a racetrack for 12 years, hoping to raise money and resurrect it as a private track for car collectors. But the investors never came—“The liability issues were quite significant,”—he explains—and the town grew less tolerant of the noise. “One day somebody said, ‘Golf course?’ and I said, ‘Why not?’”

“The art is meant to stimulate the imagination  and entertain you.…What I did was come into this with no preconceptions other than to try to make a place that I would sign my name to and to make happy members.  One of our members said this is a hip place you can bring your mother-in-law. I think that’s a good description of what we’re about here.” —Bob Rubin

Jeff Warne is about as Hamptons as a dollar store. Augusta, Georgia, born and raised, he drives a 10-year-old Suburban to The Bridge every morning and is the only reason the staff stocks XL shirts.

“I’m sort of the opposite of most of the members here,” he says. “I’ve got the pleated pants on and the baggy shirt. You look around and the members are fit; they’ve got tight, fashionable stuff on. All my assistants are young and dressed like they’re on the tour, and they’re ordering all these high-end brands, and I tell them, ‘I’m here for the outing guy, the guy from up the Island who weighs 230 pounds and needs a Donald Ross shirt.’”

Tall with a long-armed swing, the 59-year-old doesn’t have much time for home games, but he still grinds in the PGA’s Met Section and managed to qualify for the Senior Open at Gleneagles. He’s consistently ranked among the top-100 teachers in America, and he came to The Bridge via Sleepy Hollow and Jim McLean. “I wrote Jim a letter telling him I wanted to work with him, then I called him 22 days in a row. He got the concession at Doral and called me and asked me to start tomorrow, and I said, ‘Done.’”

Warne spent his winters teaching at Doral in Miami and his summers up at Sleepy Hollow in Westchester. From Sleepy he landed the head of instruction job at Atlantic in Bridgehampton, and that’s where he met Rubin, who would soon hire him to run operations at a yet-to-be-built golf club up the road from Maidstone. “We didn’t have a GM,” he says, “so it was basically me and Bob doing everything.”

Rubin’s original plan for The Bridge property was two courses—one private, one public—but the town would grant permission for only one, citing environmental concerns. “They did Bob a favor in that regard,” explains Warne. “I don’t think he could have sold too many memberships for X dollars if you could just walk across the street and play for $150.” What X dollars is, precisely, is the stuff of Hamptons legend. You’ve heard whispers of seven figures; you’ve asked folks at The Bridge if that’s true, and you haven’t been told you’re wrong. All you know for sure is that there’s a waiting list, and that the clubhouse vista of Peconic Bay and the North Fork of Long Island is, perhaps literally, a million-dollar view.

23 The Bridge Crossing Over Christian Hafer
There was talk early on of calling the club Peconic after the nearby bay. But Rubin never wavered from naming The Bridge after the racetrack within which it was built.

Thanks to Rubin’s eclectic taste and his affection for the property’s racing history, that initiation fee comes with accoutrements unavailable at most golf clubs, like a professional race-car simulator in the basement and a full-size sports-car sculpture in the locker room, where Rubin decided the view was too spectacular to interrupt with drywall. Floor-to-ceiling glass awaits you as you step out of The Bridge’s sleek showers, so grab a towel, because they’re having lobster rolls out there on the patio and the glass isn’t mirrored on the other side. Lucky for you, there are plenty more beautiful, more intriguing items to see here—the design aesthetic is modern and clean, more Andy Warhol Manhattan than Ina Garten Hamptons—and Rubin uses the space to showcase a portion of his art collection. Much of it is automobilia—car hoods and model racers—but not all. He’s collecting more golf art, like Sammy Davis Jr.’s gold-dipped Ping Eye 2s, a sculpture of a knickers-clad golfer with an Uzi submachine gun, and that Don Rickles golf bag by the bar. There are room-size murals made by Rubin’s artist friends, people like Richard Prince and Rashid Johnson. Both are members who have crafted some of the large-scale installations you’ll snap photos of out on the course.

“The art is meant to stimulate the imagination. It’s meant to entertain you,” says Rubin. “You don’t have to overthink it. There’s a sign out there that says ‘There Will Be No Miracles Here,’” he laughs. “What the fuck does that even mean?”

You laugh as well and ask if you can see the inside of that space pod by the entranceway, and he assures you that you will. It’s the work of Tom Sachs and is a great hang, apparently, with air-conditioning and a bed and a Chanel liquor cabinet. Then you recall what Warne told you about the most curious corner of the property, and you ask about the speakeasy. Rubin smiles.

“Oh, you are definitely going to see that.”

23 The Bridge Crossing Over Christian Hafer
Art, art everywhere: Some offer only a conceptual connection to golf or automobiles, while other works are direct representations of the pastimes that anchor The Bridge.

When The New York Times sent the social columnist instead of a sportswriter, Rubin knew he was in trouble.

“I only acquiesced because my architect was excited about them putting the clubhouse on the split page,” he says. “But I’ve been living with the legacy of that article ever since.”

The article (“The Untucked Country Club”) introduced The Bridge to the world not as an exciting new golf property, but as an anything-goes club built in opposition to golf’s staid traditions and a metaphorical middle finger to the Hamptons’ elites.

“The article sucked,” says Rubin, whom you’ve already realized wouldn’t be interested in taking on the golf establishment or the Long Island bluebloods. He just likes things he thinks are cool. “One of our members said this is a hip place that you can bring your mother-in-law,” he says. “I think that’s a good description of what we’re about here.”

When his wife was sent back to the pro shop at another Hamptons club after her skirt was deemed too short, there was no chance Rubin was going to enforce a dress code at his golf club. “As we look back on it, the fact that having no dress code was so controversial at the time, it’s amazing. Who gives a shit?” But as you look around the clubhouse, hoping to spy a tank top or some flip-flops, you’re disappointed. Aside from NBA first-round pick and ESPN personality J.J. Redick sitting at the bar with his shirt untucked, the outfits are the same as at any other golf club, if not a bit tighter. (Warne was right: It’s a fit-looking lot). The only real difference in the membership here, you learn, is that they aren’t here because of their last names. The Bridge doesn’t defer to legacies like most other East End clubs, where bloodlines can be essential.

“You can’t pick in advance whether you’re going to be born lucky or not,” explains Rubin. “One of the hallmarks of this membership is they are mostly self-made people, so they tend to be self-assured in a low-key way. They made the money; they’re not getting it from Dad or feel like they’re under some family pressure to join.”

“And it’s not like we don’t have rules,” Warne explains. “You can’t go out as a sixsome.…I remember when one of our members, the chairman of one of the biggest investment banks in the world, showed up with a bow and arrow and said he wanted a cart so he could go hunting. It was 70 degrees in October and I had a course full of golfers. He was like, ‘I’m going to go get some deer. Do you want to come with me?’ I had to tell him no, I was not going to go shoot deer. And neither was he.”

A common-sense code seems to rule at The Bridge, and whether Rubin wants to admit it or not, that means that his club does stand in opposition to most of the country club world, where collectives are saddled by slow-moving, ego-driven governance. Club committees are the wellspring of most bad ideas in golf, but, as Rubin didn’t grow up around club culture, he never thought to start any.

“We had an advisory meeting once,” Warne recalls. “It was our second or third year; we probably had about 50 or 60 members at the time. People had some concerns about some things, and Bob said, ‘I’ll tell you what I’m going to do. Each faction of members, nominate someone and we’ll have an advisory board.’ We met down at the American Hotel. It was myself, Bob and the eight members on the advisory committee.

“Bob says, ‘Anyone want to go first? Do you have any concerns?’ One of the guys gets up, and he gives us an impassioned speech about why we should have a dress code. He gave this really good, logical speech on why we needed a dress code. Bob goes, ‘Jim, that was really a great speech. I really appreciate it. That was very well thought-out. I really liked your insights. We’re not doing that, but thank you.’ There’s just silence in the room. Bob looks around and says, ‘Does anyone else have anything?’” Warne smiles. “That was the last advisory meeting we ever had.”

The downside of being different, at least for a golf club, is that the golf can struggle to make an impression. You’ve seen golf holes before—lots of them—so the green stuff can’t help but feel ordinary when set against such a nuanced aesthetic. And that’s a shame, because the holes here are among the more dramatic offerings in New York, let alone on Long Island. From the forever views to the heaving hills and valleys, there is not one timid yard at The Bridge, where the greens appropriately roll at race-car speeds.

The only potentially uncool detail about the club might be its course architect, Rees Jones, whose name doesn’t carry the contemporary cachet of a Green or Doak or Hanse. But rest assured that in the early ’90s, Jones was high atop golf’s It List. Since its opening in 2002, the course has been thoroughly reworked, re-bunkered and reborn by superintendent Gregg Stanley. Pruning the overgrown scrub oaks not only opened up vistas, but also let the sun find native flora, and Warne worked with Stanley on fairway angles and bunker placement to create a more strategic player experience. A new par-3 course by Brian Schneider does lend The Bridge some hot-name prestige. And though it might never host a major or top the magazine rankings like its golden-age neighbors, ask anyone lucky enough to have played them all and they’ll tell you that The Bridge is the toughest of the bunch. Whether that’s cool or not is up to the members to decide, but, as with a lot of things here, the holes are damn hard to stop looking at.

It’s another proscenium arch of sorts, this one hacked into the basement drywall. As you duck your head and slip through the opening, you’ve stepped into a world within a world, and it looks like a DVD bodega from 1998. Among Rubin’s interests (When does he sleep? you wonder) is the history of stand-up comedy. “Stand-up is a relatively new development that really came from the margins of society,” he explains, “because, until the 1960s, comedians were people who played in between musicians and strippers. Comedy in and of itself was not valued as an art form.”

You study the 300 or so DVDs on the shelves—they’re part of a project that Rubin commissioned from artists who create hyper-environments, or art that you can walk around in—and notice that the boxes are all custom-made fictitious movies, faux classics like Droids on Roids and Hog Ballin’. From the DVD shop, you step through an anonymous woman’s bathroom—the nail polish on the vanity still looks wet—and into your destination, a dark-wood speakeasy with tables and leather benches and a small stage in the corner. It’s an approximation of New York’s famed Rat Fink Room, where stand-up comedy as we know it was born. It had all been exhibited in Manhattan in 2016; when it was time to take it down, Rubin figured there was plenty of room in The Bridge basement for it, and while COVID-19 interrupted his plans, he expects to host karaoke and comedy nights here for the members.

As you stand on the stage and look back into the room—no windows, a spotlight pointed at your chest—your head is spinning and your golf shoes feel all wrong. The place has turned around, and you’re not sure, but you think that suddenly you’re the art, and you don’t know how or why that happened, but you know that you are smiling—a big, dumb comedy-club grin—and decide not to overthink it, and just enjoy the show.

23 The Bridge Crossing Over Christian Hafer

More from The Bridge: Go inside The Bridge Car Show, where priceless rides and golf collide.