The Hard Truth About Lido

A walk with the ghosts of America’s greatest lost course, and its rusted remains

The tee time wasn’t until Friday, so with a few free hours on Wednesday, I went down to check on something with my own eyes for the first time.

I had played Lido Golf Club often growing up, first with my dad when I was learning the game as a teenager, then occasionally in practice rounds with my high school golf team. It is down on the south shore of Long Island, on the north side of a barrier island just west of Jones Beach and just east of the Rockaways. It is dead flat, but has some nice holes along Reynolds Channel and some real tough ones around its internal ponds and marsh. That’s what I see now; back then all I did was complain about the goose shit and slow greens. I was always good at petulance. 

It took a while before I cared enough to find out about the history. The sign out front reads “1914,” but that is a lie. What started in 1914 was construction on a golf course that Gil Hanse later described to me as “the white whale.” It was known as the Lido Resort, a C.B. Macdonald design that stretched from the beach along the Atlantic Ocean in the south up to the channel in the north, playing along two distinctly different bodies of water. Macdonald and his team, including Seth Raynor, dredged almost 2 million cubic yards of dirt and sand from the channel and moved it onto the marshy land to create a blank canvas upon which to craft the ideal golf course. There was a massive hotel with two artfully spired domes, tennis courts and cabanas along the beach. The course had all the template holes that make today’s historians quiver, and the praise seemed hyperbolic. Bernard Darwin called it “the finest golf course in the world,” and Claude Harmon Sr. said it was “the greatest golf course—ever.” 

But the Depression came and wiped away the holes on the beach. Then World War II came and the Navy took over the course for training. It never reopened.

What did open in 1948 was the current golf course, a Robert Trent Jones piece. (We’ll leave out the typical “master” prefix.) It is a municipal course, situated on the land east of the old property, and doesn’t go south of Lido Boulevard, which used to split the old course like an equator.

That said, the new course is actually a joy in the winter, when most places in the Northeast are bundled up for hibernation. Lido never aerates, and it still has the best winter greens anywhere on Long Island. (They’re not much different than the summer greens, which are not the best anywhere on Long Island.) The wind whips off the water, sometimes to extremes, and when the marshy soil gets a few good freezes, the ground can play fast and firm.

I would tell people about these vaguely Scottish conditions, and they would seem interested but rarely join me. Until I had two takers for a Friday in mid-December, when the high was forecast to peak at 50 degrees. With the pandemic surging and the holidays around the corner, a day out there seemed heaven-sent for all of us. 

Yet for all my time with both iterations of the Lido, I had never made the effort to actually see the dunes that housed some of the legendary old holes. So on that Wednesday I made the trek along the Meadowbrook to Loop Parkway, down Lido Boulevard past the current course and swung a left into the parking lot for Lido Beach West Town Park. As I went through the unattended security gate, a wispy, wet snow began to fall. A few other cars were parked in the lot. What were they doing here? What was I doing here?

I pulled up a screenshot of the old course laid over the current map and followed it to the end of the parking lot. Then I drove down a path to a small opening in the dunes. I parked and got out. There on the ground was a memorial, with stones and shells scattered in a semicircle. Next to some frozen flowers was a plaque for 1st Lt. Michael L. LiCalzi, USMC. He was 24 years old when he died in Iraq in 2006.

I had played golf with his twin brother two weeks ago.

Golfers are far more predisposed to nostalgia than the average sportsman. If you’ve ever walked down an ancient fairway and not thought about the footsteps in which you follow, you are in the minority. You can’t repaint the Sistine Chapel, but you still have to carry Hell Bunker.

In every article and video, the Lido is remembered in sepia tones, a wistful piece of history that still has so many longing for what could have been. But for those of us who actually go there, the reality of today is a different story. The monument to Lt. LiCalzi was raw and immediate. It had bright colors and life and feeling. Both deaths were part of worldwide happenings, but losing a golf course suddenly didn’t seem all that important.

I played in my club’s annual Turkey Shoot with Greg LiCalzi, as nice a guy as you’ll ever meet with a beautiful family and a less-beautiful golf swing. We missed finishing in the money by one shot. He and his brother grew up in Garden City, two years in front of me at Chaminade High School. Mike went to the U.S. Naval Academy, then to Camp Lejeune, then to Fort Knox for tanker school, where he graduated first in his class. He then went to Al Anbar Province, where fewer than six weeks went by before he was killed along with three other soldiers in his unit—the oldest of whom was 22, the youngest just 20 and already a father. I have a belt with Mike’s name on it, next to an American flag and an image of the Twin Towers.

A high school and a beach sit on the original Lido design, but the course will live on in legend and with recreations by Gil Hanse and the Keiser family. And different memories are still being made on the current Lido.

The two brothers used to go down to this beach, called Lido West, and Greg would hang out while Mike surfed. Right next to the memorial is an outdoor shower and tall surfboard holders papered with stickers. A few years ago, a new wooden walkway was built to get down to the beach. Halfway down the walk, look left and the dunes create a little alleyway, rising on either side with gentle humps and dells in between. That was the Biarritz. To the right was the 18th green, which was the first hole in the United States designed by Alister MacKenzie after his drawing for a tri-option par 4 won a contest in Country Life magazine in 1914. Oddly enough, from there you would have to walk around the ninth green to get to the hotel, which still stands in its Depression-era elegance, converted into beachside condos.

As the snow lightly flittered, I walked into the weather-hardened dunes, carefully avoiding the newly planted bitter panicum grasses and the half-buried fences, there to mitigate erosion. I wanted to know what it felt like to stand in a place that a century ago was so revered. I squinted and thought about flighting a 3-iron to the front of the Biarritz, hoping it was firm enough to get through the swale and to the back pin. I walked closer to where the green was, hoping to find a discarded Haskell or maybe a Vardon Flyer. I thought I saw one, too, in a flat area where seagulls dropped clamshells en masse. But it turned out to be a pingpong ball, sitting next to a faded red plastic cup and an empty Bud Light can. Deeper in the dunes, down in a swale that could have provided comfort to sheep on a cold Scottish day, was an old, faded Budweiser tallboy. Shelter comes in different shapes and sizes.

On the way out, I dropped a couple bucks in a metal box above the memorial. In 2008, Greg founded the Ace in the Hole Foundation in honor of his brother, with the proceeds having a special emphasis on the 2nd Tank Battalion of the Marine Corps, Mike’s old unit. They do a 2-mile beach run every year around May, and I made a note to not embarrass myself in front of a bunch of Marines this year.

Two days later, the soft turf at Lido Golf Club was still absorbing the rain that followed the snow. It didn’t have the wintery teeth it normally does, instead spinning back drivers in the fairway and—somebody warn Bubba Watson—leaving mud balls.

The golf course itself is largely unchanged in the 20 years that I’ve known it, but it’s not quite the same place. In 1997, the year I started playing golf at age 13, a group known as Double Eagle took over management on a lease of the facility from the Town of Hempstead, which owned the land. But in 2017, with a change in the local political landscape and some overriding cronyism, the town declined Double Eagle’s winning bid and decided to run it. Now there is no liquor license for the small bar, no food concession for the built-in barbecue near the putting green, and business for outings has dried up. The second-floor dining room, which looks out over the course with a long view of the channel, is home to cobwebs and not much else.

“It’s a tragedy,” one person familiar with the situation told me. “It’s like they threw the baby out with the bathwater.”

I explained this to the two men who braved traffic out of the city to join me. First was Jofie Ferrari-Adler, my stupendous book editor at Simon & Schuster. He brought along affable literary agent and urban golfing companion Farley Chase. As we chipped and waited our turn to tee off, a man in a Yankees windbreaker, old jeans and sneakers approached and asked if he could round out our foursome. His name was John, and he wore a hat that said only “158” on the front—his old ladder in the FDNY, based out of Springfield Garden, Queens. 

John was like so many public-course golfers I grew up around. He had a cheap cigar he waited until the 10th tee to unsheathe, an accompaniment to the handful of beers in his bag. It reminded me of the time I played Douglaston with my dad, first off at 7 a.m., and the guy who joined us drank a six-pack of Bud heavy and ate three full-size Snickers. I was 15, and he offered me one of each.

The memories kept coming as I went to the back tee, which for the past few years has been covered in rusting pipes. I told Jofie about the time I played by myself into a winter gale and hit driver, 2-iron, 2-iron and still found myself short of the first green, which stretches back into a 470-yard par 5. This day, I hit driver, 7-iron to pin high. On that same blustery, lonesome day, I turned in the other direction and drove the third green with an Olimar 4-wood from 358 yards. This time, 2-iron, 6-iron put me short of the greenside bunker left.

It took a while before I cared enough to find out about the history. The sign out front reads “1914,” but that is a lie.

The fifth is a nice little par 3 that plays along the bulkhead where I’ve seen turtles protecting their eggs and where the fat seagulls feast on fish. The sixth has always been confounding, even before they turned that soggy land left of the fairway into a pond. The stream that cuts across the ninth fairway wasn’t there when I was younger, and for some reason they took out the little monument for a local guy that was behind the 12th green. Thirteen is still a dazzler, going the other way along the bulkhead with a back tee coming out of a chute between some tall reeds and water lapping against the rocks. It was a pleasant surprise to see they’d finally replanted the 14th tee box, getting rid of the crabgrass that had occupied it forever.

Everybody leaves speaking of No. 16, which was Jones’ truncated replication of Macdonald’s famous Channel Hole. It was atop a 2003 list in the New York Post for local golf holes that need to be “blown up with dynamite.” It has a fairway shaped like a Y that is essentially an island. John alone sent four balls to their watery grave. The town used to hire a scuba diver to go down into the water at least once a year to fish out all the balls, and they sold better than any new balls in the pro shop.

The penultimate hole is a great par 3 over the corner of that same body of water. Maybe the first winter round I played down there was with my dad, both of us in full winter coats. We weren’t too familiar with the course, and the reeds had grown so high that we couldn’t see the green. We laughed our way in, and still laugh about it now.

Photo by Pat Candido/NY Daily News via Getty Images

The aiming point for the drive on No. 18 has always been the two spires of the old hotel, as good a time as any to start telling the story of the old golf course. But with the sun low in the afternoon and into the prevailing wind, good luck spotting the tee shot. We found Jofie’s on the right side of the fairway, and he then hit a 3-wood left near a rusted white tank. Farley unintentionally played way left down the first hole and met us at the green. 

If the ghosts were watching, they must have laughed at us touching elbows after we holed out.

The old Channel Hole is now mostly covered by Long Beach High School, a hulking concrete building raised on stilts with ground-level parking. I used to hear stories about that school, where bad kids would roll apples on tabletops so as not to break the skin but turn the inside to mush, and then toss them like grenades at the overhanging faculty lookout in the cafeteria. The green would have been just on the other side of the high school, where a house was going up with floor-to-ceiling windows.

“Do you think the homeowners know, or care?” messaged Brian Schneider, who is a senior design associate under Tom Doak at Renaissance Golf. 

We were chatting after he’d posted some pictures of the area on Twitter, including where the Short hole had been, now a baseball field. Turns out he and Doak were preparing to build a re-creation of the Lido with Mike Keiser out in Wisconsin. Did you know they almost did that for the fourth course at Bandon Dunes, but the land was so interesting—rather than flat, like the original Lido—that they built Old Macdonald instead? In an email, Keiser called the new project “a restoration,” even though there was no existing course being worked on and it was 1,000 miles from Long Island. Asked why he used that word, Keiser responded, “It’s the verb that fits best!”

They were just a little behind Hanse, who built “a Lido” in Thailand called Ballyshear, which is set to open in the summer of 2021. The property was a different shape than the original Lido, but the course had the exact same sequence of template holes, and the scale of the hazards was as close as could be approximated. Had this obsession with the Lido turned it into an actual template golf course? Hell, it was even digitally re-created in a video game, PGA Tour 2K21. 

“What adds to that mystique is that it’s no longer here,” Hanse said. 

Many great things are no longer here, but they still echo. Look closely enough and you can still see some of those old holes. Listen closely enough and you can still hear the sound of persimmon on gutta-percha. In a moment of focus, the din of modernity can soften, and you’re briefly a part of the story.

“History is about people, and history is human,” author and historian David McCullough once said. “It’s a marvelous antidote to the hubris of the present.”