NATIONAL GOLF LINKS OF AMERICA - 18 POINTS
There are bucket golf courses which everyone has heard of, courses like Augusta, St Andrews, Pebble Beach. Then there are the courses which many are familiar from great US Opens and Ryder Cups - courses like Shinnecock, Merion and Winged Foot. But then there are courses which many will not have heard of but are simply amongst the very best in the world. Pine Valley would be a great example of this and the National Golf Links of America is another.
NGLA, or The National, is set on the north side of Long Island, adjacent to both the classic of Shinnecock Hills and the pretender of Sebonack. The course is deemed one of the true classics of architectural design. CB Macdonald was the man with the vision to put together a collection of some of the greatest holes from the UK on this wonderful links land overlook Peconic Bay.
Following several years visiting the best that the UK has to offer, Macdonald returned to the US and copied many of the best holes he had seen, as well as some of his own originals, to produce the National.
In terms of that idea I think that it would be true to say that these holes are more 'inspired by' the originals rather than real copies. You wouldn't necessarily stand on the tees and call the holes they are copied from in all cases - although the Redan fourth is a pretty good effort!
This course has a more members feel to it than some of the new courses in the area like Friar's Head and Sebonack. The locker rooms were wonderfully old school. There was an exotic array of painkillers available to get you through the round, powders to cover all conditions and an honesty box for cigars and playing cards by the door.
There were a couple of members ahead of us so we went out to the range. Inspired maybe by the UK links ranges there was nothing special here. No island greens to aim to - just a nice big field. No complaints at all and the setting by the dunes and the beach was great. Here's a little video to show you what it was all about.
The practice green indicated that there was going to be a good speed to the greens and running very true and after a few nerve-racking putts we went to the first tee.
A word before going on about the caddies. We had a gentleman beamed Threewood carrying for two of us and a younger caddie taking the other two bags. Threewood has been caddying here for 10 years and caddied for Matt Fitzpatrick in the Walker Cup. The caddies get to play the course 4 days a week - what an amazing perk.
Billy the caddie master proudly displays a cup in his desk by the first tee which is awarded to the winner of the annual caddy competition between National and the next door Shinecock. NGLA have won 19 of the last 20 events, something they were very proud of! Threewood is a stalwart of the team and proved to be a great caddie, his reads on the green were wonderful and did his best to keep us out of trouble.
I will not attempt to describe it hole by hole - this article on Golf Club Atlas does a great job of that. What I will say is that the course does quirkiness to quite an extreme level. You get a feel of that from the very first hole with just a rescue needed down to a dell before wedging up to a very well guarded green which has massive ridges and slopes on. The second is then modelled after the fourth at Royal St Georges which if you manage a longish carry then gives you the benefit of a run down to a very drivable green for the longer hitter. My opponent got a really close up look at the windmill as his Pro V1 struck it smack full on!
The holes are really memorable and will stay with you for a long time. The Redan hole that comes at the fourth is definitely a worthy copy of the 15th at North Berwick. I think it plays a little easier as there is a bigger layup area short right at National but the bunker short left is probably more penal.
This is the kind of course which you know if you played a second time you would score better, there are so many trap to fall into - quite literally in the case of the 'Road Hole' bunker short on the hole styled after the 17th at St Andrews.
Do make sure you take the time to enjoy some ginger snaps and cheese spread at the halfway house before taking on the bank 9. You will need plenty of energy for the challenge ahead. 10, 11 and 12 are all incredibly tough pars 4s. The wind had turned after 9 so we played the whole course pretty much into the wind and these holes were a real challenge. The last holes are probably the strongest part of the course.
After the par 3 Eden on 13 (modelled after 11 at St Andrews) you turn for home, using the windmill as a guide all the way up to the 17th tee. These holes don't require massive length off the tee to get home but do require the right line in to avoid very well guarded greens.
The 16th 'Punchbowl' is great fun with everything around the green funnelling the ball towards the hole and the view from the 17th tee shot is breathtaking. This hole requires a long an accurate tee shot before a precision wedge into a green surrounded by sand. It was a nice place to get my first birdie of the round.
The 18th is the only hole on the course really next to the waters, a par 5 which played a good three shorter into the wind despite being under 500 yards.
The course was a delight to play. I had expected this to be something special, given it's top 10 in the world ranking and I think it pretty much delivered. The only thing I would say is that in places it felt a little too quirky. Several times I found myself in lies where I was standing a over the ball in a tiny bunker which was incredibly hard to play and while I totally accept they are hazards they did try the patience a little!
The condition of the course was just excellent and this is probably the highest 18 I have played, I just can't quite tip it into 19 territory - maybe my next visit will change that!
The course at the National is only half the story. The clubhouse is something of a national treasure too with a huge amount of memorabilia from the history not only of the National but of American golf. The drawing room has tables for a game of backgammon or draughts under the intimidating figure of CB MacDonald and make sure you spend time looking at some of the great pictures, cartoons and statues dotted around the place.
The ritual of lunch at the National is not to be missed if you get the chance. While you are deciding on your choices for starter and mains you are served a whole lobster, as an 'amuse bouche' which is quite something. Following that there will be a soup or other starter (the oysters were good) before having one of the traditional main courses such as cottage pie served with a healthy side of Mac and cheese. Washed down with a Southside cocktail and bottle of very well priced Cloudy Bay wine it was quite a treat.
If truth be told I was expecting to leave the National with this as a shoe-in 19 but when I compared it to the great courses with that score I have come to the conclusion that it is just a touch behind. The course is just a little too quirky for me. Maybe if I played it a few times it would help me appreciate it all the more, but for now I will leave it at that. The lunch, well that was a 20!
BOOKING THE COURSE
Like so many of the great courses in the US this is a hard tee time to get. You normally need to be introduced by a member (and there aren't too many of them knocking around). However, unlike courses such as Merion and Pine Valley you can play here without the member being actually on the premises as 'introduced' guests can tee off post 9am, and with a following wind this can still apply at weekends.
Many of the top courses have charity days which you can pay for a place at, however I haven't found any before at NGLA so you really need to have a direct, or fairly direct, relationship with someone at the course to make this work. It's worth setting up a Google Alert though for the charity day option in case one comes up.
If you check out the Shinnecock review you will see tips for a golf trip to this area and some good places to go if you have the chance to visit.
National Golf Links of America
325 Sebonac Inlet Rd,
Phone: +1 631-283-0410