Monday, January 14, 2008

Friar's Head

Friar's Head is located on New York's Long Island, home of the best golf in the world. Three-quarters of the way out into the Atlantic Ocean, Long Island splits into two distinct peninsulas of land. The southern fork contains Shinnecock, The National Golf Links, Maidstone and Sebonack. Friar's Head is located in the town of Baiting Hollow, on the northern fork of Long Island.

Friar's Head is about a thirty minute drive from Shinnecock, although in a distinctly different area. Shinnecock and the other great courses on the Eastern end of Long Island are located in the posh, consumption-oriented Hamptons. Baiting Hollow is quite a contrast. It is a quaint little town and a throw-back to the way most of Eastern Long Island used to be. It is still primarily a farming community, and approaching the course you drive past farms growing sod, corn, potatoes and past even vineyards.

The term "Friar's Head" is derived from a large sand formation that early sailors thought looked like a Friar's head when approaching this part of the North Shore from the water.

The current pro shop at Friar's Head

When you turn off the road and drive behind the high hedge rows and into the Friar's Head parking lot, it is clear that this is an understated affair. There is only room for about thirty cars, and the pro shop and caddie shack are old buildings left over from the farm that used to occupy this land.

The Golf Course

Friar's Head was built by the team of Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, and it has all their signature design features including the natural blown-out bunkers and wildly undulating greens.

The first and ninth holes are at the far end of the property, close to Long Island Sound. There is a new clubhouse under construction near these holes. Since the clubhouse is not finished, however, many groups start on the third hole (as we did), which is nearer to the driving range and club entrance. Friar's Head is a walking only course with caddies required, and a brisk pace of play is encouraged.

The unique scorecard

Take a quick look at the Friar's Head scorecard and see if you notice anything missing. Note that there are no yardages, no hole handicap rankings and no hole names. The lack of hole handicapping is apparently due to the shifting winds; hole difficulty depends upon the direction of the wind. Keeping with the natural feel of Friar's Head, no cart paths, no rakes anywhere (like Pine Valley) and no frills. There is no slope rating on the card either. I had to look up the Friar's Head slope rating from the Metropolitan Golf Association's website in order to post my humbling score. The slope and course rating are 74.1/144 from the back by the way.

The course is built on very sandy soil along a massively sloping ridge of land that rises up as it approaches the water. No holes play along the water and it is only visible from two or three holes. As you can see, the sand is a vibrant shade of white - it has the appearance of refined white sugar. This is the natural sand color and is in stark contrast to the more subdued sand color at other courses on Long Island. I'm highlighting the sand color here, because it really is one of the defining characteristics of the course and gives Friar's Head its unique look and feel, which some have likened to Cypress Point. Also, unlike many courses, which have very white sand in their bunkers, at Friar's Head, the sand is omnipresent and is not just in the bunkers.

The first hole bears some likeness to the second hole at Pine Valley, although, here the hole is a bit shorter. You hit your tee shot over a waste area to the fairway. Your second shot plays blind, sharply uphill to a fast green that slopes back to front and side to side.


The par five 2nd hole

The second hole, seen from the tee above, is a downhill par five with a snaking fairway.

7th fairway

7th fairway

The seventh fairway, seen above, shows the signature Coore/Crenshaw look, similar to their masterpiece at Sand Hills. At Friar's Head, on virtually every hole, there is a severe penalty for missing the fairway on the wrong side of the hole. On the fifth hole, missing to the right puts you in a waste area. Similarly, on the sixth and seventh holes, missing left puts you in the same waste area.

Also consistent with the Coore/Crenshaw design philosophy, there is usually a driveable par four on every course. At Friar's Head, the fifth hole is a short par four (280-290 yards if I remembered from the caddie correctly), with artfully placed, and difficult bunkers in the fairway in front of the green for those that dare go for it and miss.


The world-class par three 10th hole

The tenth hole, pictured above, starts off the back nine with a jolt. It is a very interesting par three that plays about 200 yards to a green that is semi-blind with a couple of very large sand dunes guarding the front. It took a great deal of imagination to design this hole. It would not be immediately intuitive that a hole would fit in this narrow corridor. The Long Island Sound is behind you when you are on the tee, and the wind is very tricky on this particular part of the course. This is exacerbated by the alley effect that is created between the rows of trees on either side of the green. It was also a brilliant decision to leave the over-sized sand dune on the left side, in front of the green.

The hole is all carry. Being just a few yards short leaves you in serious trouble, as I can personally attest to. Do I hear seven, anyone?

I thought that the back nine was clearly superior to the front nine. I thought the front, which is on the flatter terrain away from the water, was not as interesting. I absolutely hate to say anything negative about Coore or Crenshaw, since they are such gentlemen, and I love their overall design philosophy, but the front didn't grab me.

The best stretch of holes on the course are numbers fourteen through seventeen. This brilliant succession of holes include the par five uphill 14th, the downhill, signature par four 15th, the blind tee shot, par four 16th, followed by the postage-stamp, par three 17th.

14th hole

14th hole

The fourteenth hole, pictured above, is a hole reminiscent of the second hole at Gullane's #1 course in Scotland. It plays up a big hill and the fairway gets narrower as it rises up. To the left of the hole is a massive blown-out sand dune. The green is interesting and, consistent with Coore/Crenshaw courses, has many humps and bumps.

Stairway to heaven

When you leave the fourteenth green, you walk up an infinity staircase, seen above, which looks like it rises to the heavens. Like all Coore and Crenshaw designs, everything fits into the natural surroundings beautifully.

15th hole

The par four 15th hole

When you finish climbing the stairs after playing the fourteenth hole and continue walking up the hill, you then walk through a clearing of trees. You are now at the most dramatic vista on the golf course, which is the fifteenth tee box. The hole from the tee is pictured above.

15th green

The shot from the fifteenth tee plays down a large hill into a valley with the dog-legged fairway stretched out below you. Your second shot approaching the green plays uphill and has a false front, as do many of the greens at Friar's Head.

Fourteen and fifteen are as good a pair of back-to-back holes as you'll find in the world of golf. They are beautifully designed, challenging and offer great risk/reward options for all levels of golfer.

The seventeenth hole is a short par three with a postage-stamp size green and a dramatic fall off on the right side of the hole. As with many holes at Friar's Head, the penalty for being short or on the wrong side of the hole (the right side in this instance) is serious. Local lore has it that Raymond Floyd took double digits on this hole.


Postage Stamp par three 17th

17th green

The Golf Bubble

Clubhouse at Friar's Head

The clubhouse at Friar's Head, which is still under construction, is pictured here, and it's a real monstrosity. There are also six cabins being built near the clubhouse for overnight stays. The clubhouse seems over the top to me. Everything else about Friar's Head is understated, but this looks like some sort of 21st century Gatsby contraption. The Eastern end of Long Island has always been a show place for Wall Street money, and when building becomes excessive it usually means it is not sustainable. This second 'golden age' of golf course architecture has been fueled by gangbusters economic growth in the world over the last 20+ years, allowing the new generation of newly-minted money-men to spend vast fortunes building their dream courses and clubhouses.

The building of a clubhouse like this seems to me to signal that we are probably getting near the end of the party, and the punch bowl will soon be taken away. The excesses of wealth have reached obscene proportions and the bell is ringing to indicate the end of the bull market. Not that I'm complaining about this, since its been one hell of a run and I've been privileged enough to experience many of these new world-class courses first hand.

Personally, I prefer the quaint, older and more understated original buildings and shingle style of architecture found on this part of Long Island. But then again, I have always preferred something like the clubhouses at Bandon Dunes or the under-stated style of clubhouse found at a place like Sunningdale or Royal Liverpool.

The current pro shop at Friar's Head

Friar's Head has been rocketing up the world rankings since it was built in 2002. It made its debut at #71 and, on the most recent ranking, jumped all the way up to #33. Even though I am a major fan of Coore and Crenshaw designs and think that Sand Hills is probably the best course in the United States, I think Friar's Head is getting way ahead of itself. Having now played all the top courses on Long Island I would rank them in order: 1) National Golf Links of America; 2) Shinnecock; 3) Bethpage Black; 4) Garden City; 5) Sebonack; 6) Maidstone; 7) Friar's Head; 8) Piping Rock; and 9) Fishers Island.

No doubt there will be complete unanimity among my fan base regarding my well thought out rankings.

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Anonymous said...

Maidstone better than Friar's Head?

NO WAY...........

Anonymous said...

Seems like a great track!

I just found your blog and am adding you to my blogroll.

What other courses do you have on tap for 2008?

Anonymous said...

Couple of things:

1 Friars Head is not on The East End or even the North Fork. It is the North Shore of Long Island, close to The North Fork.

2. I want to see the final clubhouse before I weigh in. In person it does not look as big, but you comments are not wrong. I will miss the temp clubhouse atmosphere.

3. I think you short change the front and give the back too much credit. Yes 14 and 15 are all world holes.

4. Without having played Sebonac, third best course on Long Island.

5. Where did the term "great track" originate?

6. Another fun review.

Anonymous said...

Was lucky enough to get on this "track" last fall... I loved it. You did an excellent job on this review.

Anonymous said...

The same way Friar's Head went up the rankings, it will also go down the rankings. With the exception of Garden City, I agree with your LI golf rankings. Friar's Head is no Maidstone, and certainly no National. Never will be.

Anonymous said...

I agree completely with your LI golf rankings... Garden City Golf Club deserves much more credit than it has now. Most people have not heard of it or seen it because it is a mens club. Don't hate on Garden City before you have played on it, which you clearly have not Norberto.

Unknown said...

I agree with your top courses, and even the order in which you have ranked the LI tracks, however no one ever mentions in their greats a course 20 min from Augusta National called Sage Valley---truly the best all around golf course you may every play!!

Anonymous said...

I completely agree with your rankings but believe that Garden City might be better than the rankings say it is. Friar's Head is a great track with some great holes but it doesn't have the same feeling like National and Garden City have.

golfnut said...

ive played garden city 200 times , its short theres only about 7 difficult holes the rest are way short , id play montauk if it were closer over garden city

Anonymous said...

you can't do a review of Friar's Head without commenting on the playground they have for a practice area. 2nd to none.

NGLA > Shinny > Sebonack > BP Black > Garden City > Friar's Head > Fishers Island > Maidstone, Deepdale, Piping, Meadow Brook, The Creek, Gardiner's Bay

Anonymous said...

I've been lucky enough to play Friar's Head now three times. I've also been lucky enough to play Sebonac once. Other notables on my golf resume include Bethpage Black, Quaker Ridge, Garden City Golf Club and MANY of the golf courses in Nassau County on Long Island.

I must say that Friar's Head is OFF THE CHARTS!!!!! The first time I played it (after hearing the hype) I was very impressed, but didn't think it was golf heaven on earth. However, after my 3rd time playing, I feel otherwise. The clubhouse if BEAUTIFUL. (perhaps a little too beautiful)

I agree that the front nine is not as "signature" as the back nine, but there are some FANTASTIC holes on the front. Hole #9 is perhaps one of my favorite golf holes on Long Island. Hole Nos. 14-18 are a true test of golf and are AMAZING.

Sebonac was AMAZING, but I think after playing Friar's Head a 3rd time, I like the overall design more. However, Sebonac has much more beautiful vistas and visuals! Holes 1-3 and 18 are BREATHTAKING.

Friar's Head can truly rival Bethpage Black in terms of best track on Long Island. However, I have still not played National Golf Links or Shinnecock Hills or Maidstone. Hopefully one day, but I'm already so lucky to have played such great courses already.

Anonymous said...

I also disagree that Friar's Head will come down in the rankings. They've really got something special out there.

I know you cannot manufacture the history that clubs like Shinnecock, National and Maidstone have. However, I think Friar's Head and Sebonac will stand the test of time.

Anonymous said...

Friars is better than Maidstone. Mickelson was quoted as saying, "Friar's Head is my favorite course in America behind Augusta." But I am a NGLA fan, friars is 3rd best on LI

Unknown said...

I have been fortunate enough to play Frair's Head on numerous occasions. It really is an experience that needs to be relished the entire time you are there. Sitting on the patio overlooking the Long Island Sound is an unbelievable place to grab some great food before or after the round. The new locker room and cliubhouse... while I prefer the old understated one, is truly beautiful. The practice area is the best that I have ever seen and everybody playing here should take ample time to practice while here.

As far as the course goes, I think this course is extrmely unique and a true joy to play. The variety in holes and the natural blown out bunkers and feskew create an unbelievable setting. The lack of handicaps, yardage, and dependance on caddies on the course is unique. I love not being allowed to have a cell phone and getting a repreive from the world for a couple of hours. The caddies are all very knowledgeable of the course and make up for the lack of range finders, sky caddies, or yardage markers.

The only flaw I can find if there is one is the lack of views of the water on the course. The 15th Tee used to have the best view of the water but for the summer of 2010 a new addition is incredible. From the 15th green to the 16th tee, a bridge has been built that runs along the side of a cliff. IT is a rather long walk along this bridge with a view that can match any other golf course on the east end.

East End Golf courses I have played I would rank like this
Friars, Sebonack, Maidstone, Montauk Downs, Hampton Hills, Bridge, Atlantic, Noyack. No I have never played NGLA or Shinnecock.

Anonymous said...

Played it in its first year open and thought it would be a very special place once matured. My LI Rankings are:1)Shinny- No question the toughest test. Used every club in the bag. 2)National- Great ambiance. 3)The Black- Second to Shinny as for a pure golf test. 4)Maidstone 5)Friars- Going on gut of what it will be. 6)Garden City Men's- History 7)Piping 8)Creek 9)Meadowbrook 10)Westhampton- Love the Raynor/CB Designs.

Anonymous said...

Maidstone is a nice course, and beautifully situated but really shouldn't be mentioned in the same breath as Shinny, Friars, NGLA, Sebonack. If Maidstone were in the UK or Ireland it would be a mediocre town course, notwithstanding the beautiful clubhouse and gilt location.

Bridge is a tough golf course, don't know why they insisted on every tee being elevated, but its also streets ahead of the Maid.

Anonymous said...

This blog is great, but I have to comment on your rankings of Long Island golf courses. I am a top-ranked amateur player and member at two of the top 5 ranked clubs in the US. From a pure golfing standpoint, here are my rankings of Long Island golf courses: (1) Friar's Head, (2) Shinnecock, (3) Bethpage Black, (4) Sebonac, (5) Fisher's Island, (6) Maidstone, (7) National, (8) Garden City. Again, just my opinion.

Anonymous said...

It must have been a while since most of you have played Westhampton!

Anonymous said...

Friars Head is understated elegance with brilliant course design.. The course is enjoyable and challenging at the same time, but leaves you with relaxed peace both while playing and then while sitting outside on the terrace.. Great practice facilities and some truly outstanding golf holes.. Well done and a credit to a truly caring owner..

Anonymous said...

Played here yesterday, after reading your post. Nice representation all the way around. As of spring/summer 2014, the course was in top notch shape, 10.5 greens (fast and consistent for this early in the season) and outstanding service/caddie experience. It's easy to see why this course does so well in the rankings. My only complaint was that my ball found itself in two different deep footprints in the sand, and the website reminds golfers to play the ball where it lies. Obviously, my fault for finding the sand (it's though not to on this course), but some very difficult lies to try to save a reasonable score. I would have found another way to rack up a few extra strokes, so no real complaints here. Well done!