The golfing world will turn its eyes to Long Island later this month when Shinnecock Hills Golf Club, once again, hosts the US Open. And there is an argument to be made that this area hosts one of the best stretches of golf courses anywhere in the world.
If you stand at the Shinnecock clubhouse you are within a 30 minute drive of four of the world's top 100 golf courses, with a fifth, just outside the top 100, bang in the middle. I’ve been lucky enough to play four of the five (Maidstone is still to be tried) and have summarised what you can expect from the courses and clubs if you can get a tee time. Click on the links to read my full reviews.
One of the key reasons (and this may come to appear a bit silly, depending on how the USGA set the course up in a couple of weeks) is that I found it tremendously playable. We played it as a par 70, off the 6,500 yard tees, and it was an absolute joy. We could open our shoulders on the tee - the fairways were wide and running fast and firm - and, while there was some rough, I don’t think we lost a ball between us.
It was a wonderful second shot course. Coore and Crenshaw have increased the playing area of the greens, but the run offs were pretty punishing if we didn’t hit the right spots. The greens have fantastic nuances and it’s, all round, a great course - fun but challenging, when set up for the members and their guests.
There have been changes to the course for the US Open, and I’m sure it will play very differently when the pros do battle. Some of the new tees they have put in are breathtakingly far back and the rough has been grown in. Let’s just hope the USGA puts the course back the way they found it when they’re done!
Our caddies were tremendous. Mine had caddied for Woods, Nicklaus and Clinton so he had seen a few things, but made us feel relaxed and the advice was spot on.
The clubhouse is small but perfectly, architecturally formed. The food is exactly what you expect from a club of this stature, but I would say the welcome is a little more formal than jovial. That was fine, but we saw a few more smiles from the staff at the other places on this list.
In a nutshell, this must be as close as you get to golfing perfection and it is going to take a lot to knock it off my number 1 slot!
National Golf Links of America (ranked 6 in the world)
Of all the courses I have played, this is the one I most want to see again. I didn't get quite the feeling of euphoria that I had expected playing here. Don’t get me wrong, it’s pretty darn good, but from what I had read, I had expected to fall head over heels in love with it.
Famously, the course is CB Macdonald's recreation/interpretation of some of the best holes he had seen in the UK. He took the concepts behind the classics and tried to weave them into a course which is both challenging and fun to play. Anywhere with driveable par 4s, windmills in play and bunkers straight out of St. Andrews will be somewhere to remember.
The course is definitely fun to play, but at times they take 'quirky' to extremes. This is a course where you need to need to be prepared to take the rough with the smooth and, if you have the right mentality, you will have a blast.
In recent years the National has been ‘discovered’ by the world. Back in the mid-1980s, Golf Digest didn't rank it in the top 50 golf courses in the USA! Well, they sure have noticed it now and it is seen by many as close to a national monument!
The welcome was very warm. The caddie shack was a well-drilled operation and Threewood, my caddy, was Mayor Bloomberg’s regular guy and had caddied for Matt Fitzpatrick in the Walker Cup so there were no bad reads!
The clubhouse was phenomenal. Packed with history, full of quirks (like the course) and incredibly welcoming. The steward gave us a tour and encouraged us to take plenty of photos. There is a whole blog to come on the best lunch in golf, but NGLA is certain to feature high up on the list. The amuse bouche was a whole lobster, and it just got better from there - think high-end comfort food - and the Cloudy Bay wine was priced with no mark-up! No wonder the members here were all smiling from ear to ear.
Friar’s Head (ranked 22 in the world)
Friar's Head is ranked as the third best course in the world to have been built in the last 50 years according to my Ultimate World Rankings - only Sand Hills and Bandon Dunes rank above it - and it continues to rise up the list. I rate it in my own list above courses such as Muirfield and Royal St George’s and it beats NGLA too. Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw have created something simply stunning.
Holes are carved out of the dunes and the trees and the course transitions effortlessly between the two. This course is very true to the Coore and Crenshaw philosophy that ‘traditional, strategic golf is the most rewarding, and the creation of courses that present this concept with the greatest artistry is the ultimate goal’.
This is not a course you can overpower. It will challenge you mentally and physically and ask questions of every club in the bag. So many holes will live in the memory forever that it feels rude to pick out one, but the walk up the ‘stairway to heaven’ to the magnificent 15th tee and from that green to the 16th tee will take your breath away.
The course is incredibly underplayed. I’ve played it twice and on both occasions there was no more than a handful of other people there. On my second outing they were struggling a little with a couple of the greens but even that didn’t diminish the experience.
The welcome was warm, the practice facilities may be the best I’ve ever seen and there is a lovely 9 hole warm up course for your short irons. The clubhouse is huge, but in no way intimidating. The people here seemed interested to find out more about us and to talk golf. They did seem to be in a battle of the hot dog with Sebonack! It’s Wagyu dogs here, Kobe at Sebonack.
The course wouldn’t be long enough to host a pro event, and that isn’t what they’re looking for, but it is a real shame that only a few people will ever get to see this course. It deserves to be recognised more widely for the masterpiece that it is.
I can't wait to get to Sand Hills and Bandon Dunes to see with my own eyes if they can surpass Friar's Head. If they do, they will be as close to perfection as anything built in my lifetime.
If the National is a museum to golf, then Sebonack is pretty much the opposite. The clubhouse is a monument to opulence, towering over the 1st and 18th holes and the clubhouse of NGLA nestles like a maintenance building beyond. The membership fee is rumoured to be well north of $500,000. When I played, in early October, the course was busy and showed signs of being pretty heavily played. The hedge fund managers of Manhattan seem to make the trip here a lot.
The course was designed by the surprising pairing of Tom Doak and Jack Nicklaus. Doak is famous for designing courses which flow naturally from one green to the next tee, using the ground that God has given us - or certainly making you feel that way. Nicklaus is known for deploying a cookie-cutter approach, creating amphitheatres around ‘signature’ holes which invariably move from left to right, often making the courses unwalkable.
And yet when the owner came calling they found it impossible to resist the offer and they collaborated to design a course which has been described, slightly cattily, as Nicklaus’s best work, if not Doak's.
I found the course perfectly pleasant, but it is a marked step down from the other courses reviewed here. While it has flirted with the top 100 rankings, I don’t think we will see it there again.
The greens are fairly wild in places (Doak went to town on these) and there are a few pretty ordinary holes - holes 5 - 8 in particular. However, things liven up on the back 9 and the holes by the water have a particularly Scottish feel to them.
Don't get me wrong, in many other parts of the world this golf course would be the best in the area. But alongside the majesty of Shinnecock and the delights of NGLA it was probably always going to take more of a back seat.
So there you have it. I don't think there is anywhere else in the world that has such a concentration of great golf course design and I can't wait to see the world's best do battle over Shinnecock again in a couple of weeks.