Saturday, February 24, 2007

The Links - New York City


I have just returned from one of the most elite golf clubs in the world. I have been trying for years to visit this club and finally succeeded through the generosity of my favorite WASP. You won't find the Links (the club is called the Links, not the Links club) on any world rankings because it has no golf course. It functions as a social and eating club, but has a very strong association to the world of golf.

The Links is located on 36 East 62nd Street in New York City between Madison and Park avenues. It is housed in a stunning four-story Georgian townhouse with a mansard roof that was built in 1890. The Architectural Record describes the club in 1917 as showing "the effects of quiet breeding, traditional elegance, of considered good taste." Like many of the elite clubs in the world, there is no sign announcing that this building houses the Links. There is no grand entrance and no grand staircase. In fact, truth be told, I walked right past the Links on the first try in my attempt to find it. A small stairway leads you down to an entry door located below street level, then you enter through a set of double doors. As you open the first door and close it behind you, you are in a small vestibule. You then open another door and enter this private sanctuary. It is as if standing between these two doors you have entered the transporter on Star Trek. Or, if you are from a different generation, if feels like being transported to Hogwarts in Harry Potter. You have just entered a different world.

This particular part of Manhattan is home to many private social clubs, among them, the Grolier, Lotos, Union League, Union, Metropolitan, Yale, Harvard, Century, Cornell, Princeton, Colony, Knickerbocker, Cosmopolitan, Vassar, University, Harmonie, Brook and of course the Links. Each club was founded with a different constituency in mind, the Links being formed by prosperous golfers. While New York City is probably the most meritocratic city on the planet, it has a whole "underworld" of these social clubs that most people never see.

As you enter you are greeted by a gentleman wearing a green jacket with black lapels and a "links man" logo on the sleeve. All the employees at the Links wear this sharp uniform, many with a bow-tie. If there were a place in the golf world where they would actually take your ticket and punch it, this is it. Entering here, you have arrived. Unfortunately, I forgot to bring my ticket with me so the manager just gave me a suspicious stare. You know the type of stare that says, "You don't belong here, do you?" Fortunately, I was wearing the requisite jacket and tie and got the members name right, so he let me stay.


The Links was founded by Charles Blair Macdonald and his friends in 1916. C.B. Macdonald was one of the founders of the U.S.G.A. and the founder of the National Golf Links of America (ranked #20 in the world). The objectives of the Links are "...to promote and conserve throughout the United States the best interests and true spirit of the game of golf as embodied in its ancient and honorable traditions, endorsing the rules of the game as it is played in Scotland and as adopted by the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews."

Macdonald's friends were the powerful and elite of New York during this era including Charles H. Sabin (President of Guaranty Trust), Harry Payne Whitney (a sportsmen and man of leisure), James Stillman (President of National City Bank), William C. Potter (a future President of Guaranty Trust) and Frank L. Crocker (a prominent attorney). Like many private clubs, The Links Club was started because someone couldn't get in - in this case a friend of C.B. Macdonald couldn't get into the Brook Club so C.B. quit that club and started The Links as a place where those that played at Shinnecock and The National could meet in the city.

The Links is a U.S.G.A. type-two sanctioned club. Although not widely known, you don't have to have a golf course to be a U.S.G.A. golf club. The requirement is merely that you must have a reasonable and regular opportunity for the members to play golf with each other. A type-two club is one whose "members are affiliated or known to one another via a business, fraternal, ethnic or social organization." Given its historic founding, the U.S.G.A. regularly holds its annual dinner at the Links and every current president of the U.S.G.A. is given an honorary membership during their tenure.

The Links is the archetypal private club. After you go through the double doors you are in the entrance lobby, and on a cold day the fireplace will likely be crackling to warm you up. In the rear of the building on the first floor is The Oak Room - a private dining room. You have already sensed that you are somewhere special by this point, although the best is yet to come. Since the Links is not the type of place where a guest walks around snapping pictures, I will try to describe as vividly as possible the look, feel and ambiance of the place.



The Links clubhouse on East 62nd Street

As you stand in the entry foyer your eye is immediately drawn to the centerpiece of the Links - the green oval spiral staircase adorned with wrought-iron railing. The staircase runs the height of the townhouse - from the first floor to the fourth. A wonderful original, it creaks as you walk up and down and you notice the staircase was built with wooden pegs holding the treads, and not with nails. At the top of the staircase there is a circular glass sky light. As throughout the Links, there is architectural detailing everywhere that gives the place its special qualities, including decorative trim along the outside of the staircase as it spins upward in a counter-clockwise fashion.

 


Around the spiral staircase there are small alcoves. The primary color used through the Links is a pale "links green". It is a rich hue that adds to the sense of warmth and refinement found in the club. The hallways on each floor and other common areas are painted in the "links green" and contain old early American black and white prints throughout. Herringbone patterned hardwood floors in the halls also add character to the place.

The manager of the club stands behind a glass-topped, wooden, built-in counter which holds a treasure trove of items adorned with the Links logo, such as ties, shirts, playing cards and the club history book. I made my usual forthright inquiry if any were available for purchase and was snubbed with alacrity.




The bar area at the Links


The second floor of the Links  is its piece de resistance. The front of the building contains The Sir Christopher Wren room which serves as the library for the club. If you like dark wooden paneling, this is the room for you. The paneling was brought over from England, from a room designed by Sir Christopher Wren. To say that the room has wood paneling is to understate the case. Not only does it have wood paneling, but architectural detailing extraordinaire. Like most of the Links, it contains molding and detailing taken to a level rarely seen, but to great effect. There is barely an inch in any of the rooms where there are not casings, cornices, curve moldings, baseboard moldings, crown moldings, panels, stiles or rails. As if that is not enough, it is accented with raised panels and flat panels. Cornice molding is pervasive. There are also ornamental bands and dental molding and trim everywhere. Even the moldings at the Links have moldings. The building was designed by the architectural design firm of Cross & Cross, who designed several other iconic building in New York including the RCA Victor building on Lexington Avenue. The two partners were also members of the Links. John was also a member of the National Golf Links of America and his brother Eliot played at the Piping Rock club.

The entrance to the library is highlighted by the federal style triangle above the door. Hanging in the prominent position above the fireplace is a large portrait of The Right Honorable William Pitt 1758-1810, a former British prime minister.


The Links has sufficiently high-quality artwork hanging, that if it were not a private club, it could serve as a museum or gallery. Also hanging in the library is a Rembrandt Peale portrait of George Washington, flanked by portraits of Abraham Lincoln and Captain James Lawrence. Lawrence is the famous American naval officer who is known for his dying command, "Don't Give Up The Ship". There are also portraits of British military officers throughout the room.

The library also has clusters of leather chairs and sofas spread around. In each cluster is a discrete "buzzer", should you require service. When seated near the fireplace on one of the green leather sofas, on each side are eight foot long hanging fabric cords with tassels on the ends that you pull for service. Either touch the buzzer or pull the tassel and a server will appear through a hidden passage or door. The room also has two little writing tables with ink wells and a selection of high quality Links stationary and envelopes, should you need to dash off a quick note. There is no recognition on the part of the Links that we are in the 21st century. The club doesn't acknowledge that people no longer sit down at writing tables and dash off a little note on Links Club letterhead in our modern era of instant messaging and cell phones. Being somewhat of a Luddite myself though, I like it.

Located at the far end of the library is a large table that holds various golf and sporting books and magazines including Yale Magazine, Harvard Magazine, and most importantly, lest we forget where we are, there are copies of the last three years Social Register easily accessible should the need arise to check someone's pedigree on short notice.




 In the rear of the building on the second floor is the C.B. Macdonald Room. The room is dominated by a life size painting of Macdonald with a caddie above the fireplace, with the National Golf Links windmill in the background, seen above. He is wearing plus-fours and surveying the room below. The remainder of the room is large panel paintings and large paneled windows on the west side of the building.



In between the library and the C.B. Macdonald room is the bar area. The bar area of the Links is my favorite part of the club. It is one of the most idiosyncratic places I have ever been in. Above the bar is a large original large painting of "The First Meeting of the North Berwick Golf Club" which is the picture on the scorecard of the North Berwick Golf Club in Scotland (seen above), painted by Sir Francis Grant. The bar also has dark woods and extensive paneling. It has several little notched-out areas and a small corridor lined with oak-paneled liquor lockers, each about two feet by two feet in size. The back of the bar area, down a narrow corridor is a small area that has leather bench-seating. Crammed into this intimate space is also a leather backgammon table and above are three skylights. It is dark, intimate and cozy in a way you would imagine a premier men's club would be (although there are now women members). You can just imagine Links Club members sitting in here during prohibition drinking their private stashes and smoking cigars.

The third floor has the Dining Room in the front the building. Above the fireplace in the dining room is a painting of one-time member Dwight D. Eisenhower, wearing his Links patterned tie. The fireplace is adorned with original 18th century Dutch delft golfing tiles, which were the inspiration for Macdonald for the "links man" logo. The "links man" is the same one that adorns The National Golf Links logo. Sitting in the dining room is an experience. The membership appear to share a common wardrobe style - a Saville Row tailored suit with a hanky sticking out and a shirt with a thread count of at least 180. It also has the highest concentration of Herm├Ęs ties per-capita in the world. Although I felt welcome at the Links, when my host went to the mens room during lunch I got the distinct impression that the waiting staff were keeping an extra close eye on me for fear that I might take some of monogrammed tableware.

The fourth floor contains the Auchincloss meeting room and has a large painting depicting an early Harvard v. Yale boat race. In the front of the building are two modest bedrooms for overnight stays for out of town members. The entire Links Club feels like a throw-back to an earlier era. There are little phone booths built into the walls on each floor, each with a little black fan above the phone to keep you cool on a hot summer's day. There is also a quirky, small, slow moving antique Otis elevator located in the central hallway.

Business is not allowed to be conducted in public areas of the Links. You cannot sit in the library, dining room or bar and have work papers or briefcases present or talk business. You cannot have a cell phone or a blackberry or any other electronic devices in the club. Gentleman must keep their jacket and tie on at all times when in public areas of the club. While you can certainly conduct business behind closed doors in the meeting rooms, the primary purpose of the Links is "social intercourse" as Macdonald called it.




Interior of the Links


The club holds events each year at various golf courses. To give you a sample of the quality of golf we are talking about, I noticed on the bulletin board a list of the successful events that the club held the prior year. Included on the list were events at Shinnecock Hills, Maidstone, The National Golf Links of America, The Chicago Golf Club, Deepdale and Somerset Hills. The Links is a useful club for me to stay close to, given my golfing aspirations. I can just hang around and beseech help to get on some key golf courses on short notice. I'll bet they don't take well to groveling at the Links, so I'll have to be my usual charming self and work the crowd.

The Links has 1,000 members, 500 of whom are non-resident, consistent with its national charter. Membership is by invitation only. I looked through the current membership directory and on page thirty-three alone recognized the names of three current or ex-CEOs. I'm not stupid enough to publish the names of the members out of respect for their privacy and because I would like to get invited back, but it is a tempting thought. Suffice it to say, like the founding members, they remain well-heeled and connected.

The window grill's on the clubhouse feature L's and C's

As I was sitting in the second floor bar talking about the club, its tradition and its membership rules, the board-certified WASP who was my host mentioned that it takes five members to sponsor a new member. Things were going well and he asked what clubs I was a member of. Note the presumption in the plural nature of the question among this crowd; it is assumed you are a member of multiple clubs. I sensed an opening; that if I was affiliated with some good clubs, maybe he was considering sponsoring me. This would be the ultimate coup for me. A home run. A grand slam. When I mentioned that I am a member of Sam's Club, The Hair Club for Men and the mile-high club, I saw the blue-blood drain out of his face.

One always has a keen sense of where you are in the social hierarchy when you are at the Links. It is clear you are in the pantheon.

As the club history describes it, the Links is "ageless", "old fashioned", has "traditional elegance", likes "quiet breeding", and is "of considered good taste", and "timeless".

Saturday, February 10, 2007

The Country Club at Brookline


I was lucky enough this past Fall to be invited to play The Country Club at Brookline (ranked # 33 in the world). One of the five founding member clubs of the USGA, The Country Club was built in 1895. Brookline is a leafy suburb surrounded on three sides by the City of Boston and the club is built right in the middle of it all. Brookline was described in the 19th century as the richest town in America. The mansions still visible today as you drive around Brookline are a testament to that. John F. Kennedy was born in Brookline. Driving past the course you wouldn't even know The Country Club is there, it is surrounded by fences on all sides. If you manage to see the discrete sign for The Country Club, you drive up the tree lined entry driveway. A couple hundred feet in you are greeted by a guard house manned by the ever present Woody (pictured below). Look closely since Woody is not a person but a wooden dummy, although a well dressed one with a jacket, tie and top hat. He's the golf world's equivalent of a scarecrow and your first sign that maybe the WASPs in this part of the world have a sense of humor after all.



As you continue down the entry road (you are crossing the 15th fairway between Woody and the clubhouse) you come upon one of the most beautiful clubhouses in the golf world, which fits perfectly into the landscape with its beautiful ochre color.

CCCH


The Country Club has a unique name not because they are pretentious but because they were the first country club in the U.S., and I would have to say that they did it right. It would be difficult to improve on anything they've done here. You approach the clubhouse around an oval driveway. Ahead of you is an old building that is the men's locker room. To your right are several other buildings - one used for curling, another houses the enclosed tennis courts, another for squash, etc. The place is a bee-hive of activity. Although it is only five miles from downtown Boston, when The Country Club was built it truly was a club located in the country with a variety of sporting activities including, originally, horse racing, which is no longer present. A club for all seasons, there is an ice skating pond with an associated club house down near the middle of the course.


CC #9

The view from the 9th fairway

I was lucky enough to play The Country Club on a brilliant day, and it was very enjoyable. The course has the most varied routing I have ever seen. It follows the contours of the land and meanders its way around the property. More than a half dozen times I was surprised when the member or caddy pointed in the opposite direction of where I thought we were going to go to the next tee box. The course was designed by a variety of people; originally by Willie Campbell, with modifications by William Flynn, Geoff Cornish and Rees Jones with no singular influence being exerted. One of the features that you find throughout the course are the glacial rock formations that holes are routed through and around, such as the par five 11th hole, aptly called Himalayas, seen below. You hit your tee shot on this hole from a high, elevated tee to a crevice in the rock canyon on the left side of the fairway. Midway between the bottom of the canyon and the elevated green is a creek that runs through the bottom of the hole. Not the type of hole you see every day and one that really uses the geography present to maximum advantage.


CC #11

Rocks from the last ice age feature prominently on the 11th hole


The terrain for the 18 holes is quite hilly and used to good effect, although it is not a terribly difficult course to walk. I know I am beating a drum on this topic, but I am again struck by how the world's great golf courses contain so many blind shots, which I really like. The #1 handicap hole, the third, seen below, is another case in point with a blind second shot to the green.


CC #3


Blind second shot on the 3rd hole at The Country Club


CC #3.1


View of the green, hole #3, from the fairway

The course also has a Redan hole, the short 12th, although it is a non-traditional version of the Redan. The hole plays from an elevated tee sharply down hill and is only 130 yards. Although it's not a typical Redan hole, I thought it was very good and guarded by a plethora of bunkers in the front. We had just completed playing the front nine and were walking down the hill back toward the tenth tee. The tenth and first tees essentially share the same very large tee box. If a group is teeing off on one tee box, good etiquette calls for you to wait for the other group to hit before you do so and vice versa.

As we were coming down the hill there were about 15 young golfers mingling around by the first tee, all wearing khakis and crimson polo shirts. As we approached, I noted that they all looked perfect. Perfectly fit, perfectly groomed, good looking, confident and athletic. It was the Harvard golf team (men's and women's), with monogramed Harvard golf bags, who use The Country Club as their golf course. It really made me think how privileged they were. Let's see, you look like Richard Gere or Jennifer Aniston, you go to (arguably) the best college in the world, are athletic, smart and play on the golf team. Is it possible to have a brighter future? These kids have got life by the balls. If anyone has ever told you that life was fair, they were lying.

I had a good caddy at The Country Club, although I had a tough time understanding him with his heavy Boston accent. After my drive on the first hole I had "143 yaawds" to the green and somehow managed a "great paah" after missing the green.

The 17th hole at The Country Club is one of the most historic in the game. It is where Francis Ouimet won the playoff against Harry Vardon and Ted Ray in 1913 to pull off one of the biggest upsets in golf history by winning the U.S. Open at age 20 as an amateur, against two of the world's best. It is also the famous green where Justin Leonard made his monster putt during the 1999 Ryder Cup and then the Americans had the unseemly, but justified, celebration on the green. I would say that the green looks a lot different than it does on TV. The green is long and narrow and is two-tiered. The putt Leonard made is even more impressive to me now, having seen how much break there is, given the two tiers.

The greens at The Country Club are all small. Along with Inverness and Pebble Beach, among the smallest in championship golf. Another unique feature of the course are the small chocolate-drop style mounds that are present around some of the greens. They force you to play from an uneven lie as a penalty for a missed green.

Like other turn-of-the-century clubs, The Country Club jealously guards the traditions of the game, thankfully. The Country Club is an old-school place to play. Like at Oakmont, you need a medical exemption to take a cart. They believe, rightly, that you should walk if you can. This policy also has the positive impact of allowing them to continue to support the noble profession of caddying.

Truth be told, Boston is not one of my favorite cities. I have always found it a bit uptight and stuffy. I was pleasantly surprised by my experience in Brookline. The club is family oriented, welcoming and not pretentious. Sitting in the dining room is a treat since the place drips with history. Most of the women sitting having lunch the day I was there were modeled after Julia Child: big-boned, elegant and proper. I also noted more than a fair share of men wearing bow ties at the club. No doubt, they still have a number of Boston Brahmins around with names like Saltonstall, Cabot, Peabody and Putnam!

Brookline

The idyllic setting at The Country Club


The Country Club at Brookline actually has 27 holes, the 18 hole course that the members play every day and also a nine hole "Primrose" course. Championships are held on a composite course which includes a handful of holes from the Primrose course mixed in with most of the holes from the 18 hole course. I played the members 18 hole course and not the composite course.


If you get a chance to play, I recommend wandering around the buildings around the oval driveway before or after your round. They are all old and impressive. It must be a New England thing not to modernize, and like Fenway Park, we should be greatful for that. The locker room is untouched from when it was built with old historic lockers and pipes hanging from the ceilings. There is an old glass-doored telephone box from the turn of the century in the locker room. The curling pavillion is a wonderful old musty place done in "Green Monster" green. The Country Club is proudly guarding its provenance and is one of the most historic and special places in the world of golf.

"To me, the property around here is hallowed. The grass grows greener, the trees bloom better, there is even warmth in the rocks. And I don't know...but somehow or other the sun seems to shine brighter on The Country Club than on any other place that I have ever seen" -- Francis Ouimet