Almost anywhere else in the U.S., two courses by Charles Blair Macdonald in the same town would be a remarkable tally. But Locust Valley, New York, is merely a gateway to Long Island’s bounty of golf heavyweights, places like Shinnecock Hills, National Golf Links of America, Maidstone, Friar’s Head, Bethpage Black and Sebonack. And the folks in Locust Valley prefer it that way.
Long a quiet, affluent enclave of grand homes and good schools, Locust Valley is home to Piping Rock and The Creek, two top-tier courses whose memberships have for decades happily deferred the headlines to their neighbors.
Despite the golf density on Long Island, courses here still manage to have different feels. Shinnecock and Bethpage are brawny championship venues. The National—another Macdonald masterpiece—is the Sistine Chapel of template holes. Maidstone, Friar’s Head and Sebonack use their sandy base and sea views to awe players with their natural, windy beauty.
I’d heard from afar that The Creek somehow managed to blend several of these attributes into one unforgettable loop. Those who know Long Island golf prize it as a coveted invitation, so when I finally received my own, I ventured to see Macdonald’s lesser-known opus for myself.
Spotting a small sign and the club’s telltale logo—a sandpiper holding a club under its wing—I turned down a long, straight driveway. Under a canopy of linden trees, with an American flag blowing in the distance, The Creek’s parkland beauty was striking. These were lush, tree-lined holes with complex greens.
What wasn’t immediately obvious was why it was called The Creek. It looked like what it had once been: a grand estate for a wealthy lawyer. Distracted, I went left when I should have turned right and immediately saw what all the fuss was about: Before me was an uninterrupted view of the Long Island Sound and a stunning hole playing down to the water.
And to think this had once been someone’s backyard view.
Vestiges of the property’s past owner remain, from the cemetery overlooking the sixth green to the rocks from the foundation of the original mansion on the tee box.
No Golden Age
The land that is The Creek today has changed hands only a few times. It was originally owned by a Native American tribe, the Matinecocks. In the 1660s, when the British were colonizing New York, they bought about 250 acres from the Matinecocks for settlers. By 1674, the land was owned by the Frost family, who would farm it for the next 215 years.
In 1890, Paul Cravath, one of the best-known and most powerful attorneys of his day, bought the land and turned it into an estate.
Lest there be any doubt about Cravath’s shrewdness, he’d enticed the Frost family to sell by giving the surviving sisters a life tenancy on the lower part, near the creek that today gives the club its name. According to former club president Peter Keogh, it came with a few odd restrictions, like how many oysters the sisters were allowed to harvest each week.
Cravath built his mansion at the end of the estate’s grand entrance and called it Veraton, naming it after his daughter. But luck wasn’t on his side. The mansion burned down not once, but twice, in 1908 and again in 1914, when he opted to sell the estate to a group of financiers intent on building a golf club.
That original group included Vincent Astor, J.P. Morgan, Marshall Field and Macdonald, who had designed Piping Rock and the National a few years earlier. Macdonald brought in Seth Raynor for the buildout of what would become The Creek. Then, as now, it is one course playing over three different terrains: forest, dunes and ocean.
A year after it opened, the course was labeled the “Million Dollar Golf Club” and its veil of exclusivity rose higher. Like many wealthy clubs, its members could not resist the urge to tinker with the course. Trees went up where none had been in the 300 years the land had been farmed. And changes to holes crept in. One member stands out: Joseph C. Dey, a USGA official who would become the first PGA Tour commissioner.
“From a golden age architecture perspective, he was probably pretty bad for the golf course,” Rich VanderMass, chairman of the greens committee, tells me. “He had these minimalist views. He went to fescue fairways. He was also cost-conscious and very traditional.”
Dey was a product of his times. “Embracing golden age design didn’t exist in the ’50s and ’60s,” VanderMass says. “He actually brought in Robert Trent Jones to consult. None of his ideas were implemented, which is a blessing.”
Gil Hanse has been the architect of record at The Creek since 1992, and over the years he has been slowly undoing what Dye and others wrought, restoring the course to what Macdonald and Raynor originally envisioned.
Hanse remembers what the course was like when he began. “They had tried to unify it,” Hanse tells me. “Joe Dey had been the power broker at The Creek, and he was morphing it into Augusta National, pulling bunkers out, adding in trees.”
Yet in the 1990s, the membership wasn’t ready for a full-scale restoration, so they renovated what was there. That was a time when appreciation of the work of Macdonald, Raynor, A.W. Tillinghast, Donald Ross and other golden age greats was still emerging. But as clubs have come to place more value on their architectural roots, Hanse’s reputation for original design and restoration has grown.
He restored Winged Foot East in 2014 before being given the keys to Winged Foot West, one of the sternest tests of U.S. Open golf in the USGA’s de facto rota. Hanse would go on to stitch together a magnificent 18 holes from the three nines at The Country Club for the 2022 Open, and Los Angeles Country Club, a classic 1920s course designed by George Thomas, will soon get its star turn as another U.S. Open venue restored by Hanse.
In an interview with The New York Times in 2020, Hanse was labeled the Open Therapist—a contrast to Robert Trent Jones, who was called the Open Doctor. The comparison is apt.
Whereas Jones bulldozed a course into his idea of a championship test, with the game’s governing bodies supporting him and the memberships of many elite, private clubs falling into line, Hanse aims to bring out the original architect’s intent—even if that means undoing decades of changes. Hanse tells me he treated The Creek the same as those U.S. Open venues.
“In a way,” he says, “we were trying to differentiate and create disharmony at The Creek, with three different parts of the course. This latest restoration [in 2017] came close to finishing the deal and really stamping the transitional part of the course and expanding the holes down by the water and the sandy areas.”
Golf fans with active social media accounts have likely come across The Creek’s spectacular oceanside 11th hole and its island Biarritz green. But for strategic value, Hanse believes two other holes stand out. No. 6 is the No. 1 handicap hole, a snaking downhill beast. No. 10 is a wispy watercolor wedged between the beach on the left and the creek on the right. They’re both par 4s, and while they look completely different, they share one of Hanse’s favorite qualities: different choices on how to play them. When forced to make his own decision between the two, Hanse narrowly went with the sixth.
Dubbed the “Million Dollar Golf Club” in the 1920s for its wealthy membership, touches like the deep mahogany lockers and clubhouse bowling alley should be no surprise.
Finding the Leak
As you walk off the devilishly tucked, bunkered and pitched fifth green, you emerge from the forest, cross a path and crest a hill. In front of you is the reason Cravath, Macdonald, Hanse and, eventually, I got here: the view of the Long Island Sound.
The sixth hole’s tee shot happens to be the very view that captured my imagination on the drive in. It opens the second section of the course, where the parkland ends and the dunes, which take you to the ocean and back, begin.
Standing on the ruins of Cravath’s mansion, the elevated tee is the foundation upon which the mansion was built. The fieldstone that formed the base of the house shores up the tee.
Now fully restored, we can see the vision of Macdonald and Raynor: The 450-yard par 4 offers two routes off the tee. Blast a drive down the right-center to a generous landing area on a fairway that’ll give up some extra roll, or draw the ball down the left for a better angle into the punchbowl green.
I went right. My playing partner was Tom Cooper, The Creek’s director of golf, and he took the pro route left. I was sitting pretty in the fairway, or so I thought. My approach was now over a cavernous bunker that guarded the entire front right side of the green. Cooper was in the rough, close to the natural area, but he had a clearer view of the green. A plus-3.4 handicap, he hit a gorgeous shot that landed safely on the front of the punchbowl.
I couldn’t get the bunker out of my mind and ended up short of it, leaving a delicate, high pitch to a green that sloped severely—like, ski-slope severe—to the right.
The punchbowl is one of the easiest template holes for an average golfer to picture. Toss out terms like “Biarritz” and “Redan” and golfers who aren’t architecture aficionados might be left scratching their heads. At the sixth, Macdonald put a twist on the standard: Some members call it a “leaky punchbowl.” Instead of collecting all balls in the center, it pulls them to the back-right portion of the green (where one can glimpse the Frost family cemetery before hoping like hell to two-putt).
When I got to the green, I thought Cooper’s ball would be sitting snugly by the hole. Instead, it had been caught by the leaky punchbowl and run about 80 feet past the pin.
“I missed my landing spot by a couple of feet,” he said with a shrug.
I hit a decent pitch over the bunker, but faced a downhill, sidehill slider from the top of the bowl. Excitement and relief washed over me in equal parts when my putt came to rest within inches for a tap-in bogey. Cooper reared back and unleashed a ferocious stroke that shot his ball back up the bowl. It killed the ball’s speed, and he was left with a testy 5-footer, but he’d clearly had that look before and confidently rapped it into the back of the cup.
After our round, I came to agree with Hanse that No. 6 is a wonderful, strategic hole. But for my money I believe No. 10 is better. Why? I parred it.