Thursday, June 21, 2007

Sebonack Golf Club

The stakes are high when you are building a new course next to two of the world's greatest courses. Sebonack Golf Club is located next to both the National Golf Links of America and Shinnecock Hills in Southampton, NY. Sebonack is located nearer to Peconic Bay than Shinnecock, immediately to the west of The National.

Sebonack is an old native American Indian word that roughly translates into "golf club for the filthy rich." The Indians were very prescient in their naming of this land, which seems like it was always destined to be a golf course. It has the perfect sandy soil for golf with gorgeous views overlooking the bay. Similar to the benevolent dictator model that was the genius behind The National (Macdonald), Oakmont (Fownes) and Pine Valley (Crump), so it is with Sebonack and Mike Pascucci. Pascucci made his money in the car leasing business. He reportedly paid $46 million for the 300 acre property. It is also reported that the course and the club cost between $100 and $120 million to build all-in, plus or minus a couple of million, but whose counting among friends?

The price of entry into Sebonack is a tad high. There is a $650,000 initiation fee and membership is by invitation only. Similar to The National Golf Links, Sebonack has "founding" members. These ten gentleman shelled out $1 million each for the privilege and can nominate and sponsor new members. The total net-worth of the ten founders combined exceeds the gross domestic product of many countries. Sebonack will probably be the first golf club not only ranked in the top 100 golf courses in the world, but also as a stand-alone entity will rank in the World Bank top 100 GDP rankings. If it were a sovereign state, it would rank between Mozambique and Estonia.

I have been getting feedback from my readers accusing me of being a golf snob. I can assure you my dear fans, that nothing is further from the truth. I learned to play the game playing on municipal courses, waiting for long stretches on tee boxes and without any of the perks and thrills that these elite courses offer. I can also assure you that I could not join Sebonack even if I was invited to, which I have not been. I have perfected the art of networking and have an unflappable determination to play all the world's top courses; in many cases, simply by asking the right people. I may be a pompous charlatan, but I am not a snob.

The entrance gate to Sebonack

The Golf Course

Pascucci hired the unlikely team of Jack Nicklaus and Tom Doak, who have very different styles, to design Sebonack. The idea was that Doak would do the major routing and be responsible for the look of the course, while Jack would help on the risk/reward decisions and design. Who knows what the real truth is or what the dynamics of the two partners were when designing and building the course? Rumor has it that it was a tense relationship. If the rumor is true, then tension produces a good golf course. Now that this beauty of a course is in place, it hardly matters how they got along; the course is spectacular. The bunkers on most holes were clearly influenced by Doak; it has the same look and feel as many holes on Pacific Dunes. I personally saw the Nicklaus influence on the par threes, particularly the fourth and eighth holes.

Although I haven't read anywhere that Doak or Nicklaus set out to replicate holes from other courses at Sebonack, I found that, similar to what Macdonald did at The National, many holes here are strong replicas of other classic holes from around the world.

Sebonack 1
The exciting opening hole at Sebonack

Sebonack is a golf course that both lives up to the potential of this unique site and the pedigree of its designers. Although it is a new course, having opened in 2006, I believe it instantly has one of the best starts in golf; rivaling Merion and Prestwick with opening holes that get the juices flowing. Like these two grande dames, the first hole at Sebonack is a very short par four, at 337 yards. Like at Merion, it is a dog-leg right and it is set so that as you walk toward the green, the bay starts to become visible in front of you. I personally like a short starting hole, which gives the opportunity to start your round with a birdie or par. Don't be fooled by the short yardage on the card into thinking it is a complete lay-up hole, however. The real fun starts when you take out the flat stick. The first green is wild and crazy with wicked undulations. Walking up to putt on the first green is like getting hit in the face with a wet dish rag. It hurts. Never-the-less, the green shocks you into the round and unmistakeably lets you know that you are in for a unique round of golf.

The second hole is the best on the course in my view, and one of the best in the world. It is the number one handicap hole and plays 414 yards with an uphill second shot. The prevailing wind is in your face, so it plays longer than the card. You have to hit your tee shot through two large American elms that frame the fairway about 100 yards off the tee box. The shot plays down a hill into a valley that is covered with sand and bunkers. It requires a well struck ball to find the middle of the fairway, but the hole has classic risk-reward characteristics that rewards a well played shot hit between the bunkers with a favorable kick forward. The second hole reminded me of a combination of the 12th at Prairie Dunes, with the two trees serving as sentinels on either side of the fairway; and the 8th at Crystal Downs, with the severely sloping green that repels a short shot.

Sebonack 2nd tee
The second hole seen from the tee box - world class

This second shot into the green is an instant classic in the golf world, although I can see how it may be controversial. Some may call the green unfair because the foreword one-third of it is such a severe drop-off. I can't even imagine how they mow the grass. A shot hit too far goes into the devilish downhill bunker beyond the green. If you hit your shot to the right spot on the green past the drop-off, but short of the bunker, it is a rewarding shot because the ball feeds down to the center of the green. Because of the steep drop-off, this is effectively a postage-stamp green. The margin for error is almost nil. It is difficult to see the severity of the drop-off coming into this green from the photograph (below). The green is elevated probably eight-to-ten feet above the fairway, so severe is not too strong a word to describe it.

Sebonack 2nd green
Approach to the second hole

As if the second hole wasn't great enough, what also makes it more interesting is the history behind the trees. This property at one time was the summer estate of Charles H. Sabin, former president of The Guaranty Trust Company. Sabin was an original founding member of The National Golf Links of America and a friend of Charles Blair Macdonald. The trees used to be on either side of his manor house ("Bayberry Land"), which was taken down when the course was built. The entrance gates you drive through to get into Sebonack (picture of the gates is at the top of this post) are also from the original Sabin estate.

The fifth hole is noteworthy as a short, down-hill par four with great risk-reward characteristics. It reminds me of the world-class seventeenth at The National. According to our host, this was a hole Nicklaus was responsible for and Jack feels it is similar to the 12th hole at The Old Course at St. Andrews. The hole is only 360 yards and plays downhill, with a pot bunker in the middle of the fairway, so you have to choose to either lay-up or go left or right and are duly penalized or rewarded.

Sebonack 12th
The par three 12th green

The par three twelfth hole (above) reminds me of the 14th hole at nearby Maidstone, which I like. It is a 136 yard par three that plays down into sand dunes with the bay as the back-drop. Nicklaus says this hole is modeled after the Postage Stamp hole at Royal Troon, but I don't see any likeness.

Sebonack 11th green
The 11th green

The routing at Sebonack is interesting. The whole property gently slopes downhill toward the bay. The first three holes play near the water, then the character of the course changes as you go in-land into a forested area. Several holes are then in a sandy/scrubby area. Once you get back to the green at the eleventh hole you are back near the water for two holes, then the course goes back in-land. There is a great vista that unfolds before you when you are finished playing the 17th hole. You walk through a clearing out onto a high bluff overlooking Peconic bay. The 18th plays immediately next to the bay on your left the entire way home.

Approach to the 16th green - notice the "Doak" influence on the bunkers

The course is set on prime Hamptons real estate in an idyllic setting that helps you to sometimes forget where you are as you snake around the course. In a lovely surprise, as we were walking to the ninth tee, a group finishing the 'Alps' hole at the adjacent National Golf Links rang the bell as they were walking off this blind green to signal to the group behind them that they were done playing the hole. The 'Alps' hole is as close a 50 yards from you as you tee off on this uphill par five. It is very charming.

I wouldn't say all 18 holes at Sebonack are standouts. The par three fourth is nothing special. The eighth and thirteenth holes are also not standouts and the water carries over the in-land ponds seem a bit forced to me. The greens were a little slow when we played which is chalked up to the course being new, although they were in excellent condition. The course plays pretty difficult so I imagine when the greens fully grow in and are fast, it will be a stern test of golf, especially when the wind is up. I also liked several of the green complexes, like the third hole, that allow you to hit shots into the back of the greens and slope back down to the center - serving as a backstop effect. Particularly on uphill shots this allows you to be aggressive on a well-struck approach shot. To me, this was one of the defining characteristics of the course.
Seconack 9

The ninth green
As it turns out, the match I was playing ended up tied on the 18th green so we played the 'bye' hole, or 19th hole. The 19th hole is a short par three near the 18th green that plays back toward the bay. The idea of this extra hole is exactly what we used it for, which is as a tie-breaker for matches. The genius of it is that it's a short hole. I hit an eight iron, as did my playing partner. It's very exciting to both have birdie chances to win a playoff. Well done Jack and Tom!

The down-hill 11th hole from the tee box

I enjoyed playing Sebonack a lot. Although the course is too new to be ranked yet, my sense is it will soon become recognized as one of the world's top courses. I had a dream day of golf when I played Sebonack. I played The National Golf Links in the morning, had their famous lobster lunch, followed by an afternoon round at Sebonack. Thanks to my Ecco shoes, two great caddies and lots of adrenaline, I happily played the 37 holes and was not fatigued in the least as the sun started to go down. I don't want to rub it in, but I am living la dolce vita in my golf travels, although all the lobster and walking caused both my gout and my lumbago to flare up. Occupational hazards.

When I grow up, I want to retire to the Hamptons and have my choice of playing Shinnecock Hills, Maidstone, The National and Sebonack. There are no finer collection of courses located so close to each other anywhere in the world.

It almost feels like you are back in the roaring 20s on the eastern end of Long Island these days. We are fortunate to live in a second "Golden Age" of golf course architecture fueled by rampant economic prosperity globally. The Sabin's were one of the most prosperous families of the Jazz Age and spent time during the summers entertaining at their Southampton home. It is hard not to feel just a bit like Gatsby while at Sebonack.

Modern Day Golf Course Development

In an interesting case study of golf course development today, I stumbled across the public relations strategy many new courses engage in. I always research all the courses I play and try to read as much as possible about them. For Sebonack, I read about fifteen magazine and newspaper articles about the course. I found it funny that they almost always use the same canned phrases, stock photos and quotes. My research revealed that Sebonack uses the Hunter Public Relations firm to spin its story. Coincidentally, it appears to be the same firm that markets Trump courses as well. It is pretty sad to me how the media basically just reprints press releases and works with P.R. firms to do stories and prints canned quotes. How about some original reporting and thoughtful commentary? How about getting out there and getting some sand in your shoes and eating some lobster?

Part of the reason I write this blog is to give an undiluted opinion and behind the scenes look without the fear of pissing off a course or a potential advertiser. I am the editorial board, the legal department and the in-house fact checker. I like my independence. That, plus, I have never even remotely been offered a writing job; but let's not quibble over a small point.

The "cottages" under construction at Sebonack

I suppose it makes sense for a course like Sebonack to market itself from a P.R. standpoint. It certainly helps eliminate the perception that this is a playground for the ├╝ber wealthy; it helps to "position" the story of development in an environmentally friendly way; and it no doubt helped Jack and Tom stay on the same page publicly.

Mike Pascucci is described in all the press accounts as a local guy made good and is very philanthropically oriented. Based on my own research, and unlike the horses-ass-of-the-world Trump, the P.R. here does not distort. I know two people who know Mike, are unaware of my secret identity, and without solicitation both confirmed that he is the genuine article. He's the anti-Trump. I commend him for living his dream and building Sebonack. The course lives up to everything I have seen written about it.

The "cottages" and clubhouse are still being constructed at Sebonack. For the Hamptons, the "cottages" are relatively modest - each will hold a fore-some. They reminded me of the cottages at Bandon Dunes and Sand Hills. The clubhouse is being built at the highest point on the property and will have majestic views looking down on the National clubhouse, Peconic bay and the course. From the look of the skeleton of the building that was present when I was there, it does not look like it will be a modest building. It looks like, when complete, it will be the Parthenon of the golf world and will shortly assume an exaulted place in the world of golf that obesssive golfers such as myself will clamor to be invited to.

The interesting history of the Sabin estate "Bayberry Land"

Monday, June 11, 2007

Golf in the Hamptons - Shinnecock, Maidstone Club and The National

I am not in the habit of re-posting previous write-ups but I couldn't resist this one. I was fortunate enough to visit The National Golf Links again and this time went crazy with my digital camera. This post has been updated for your viewing please with a rare insiders look inside the National Clubhouse. Enjoy.

Inside the National Golf Links of America clubhouse

"The National” is how those inside refer to it. Those not familiar could be excused for assuming the reference is to Augusta National. However, within golfing circles, the National is just as exclusive as Augusta. The full name is The National Golf Links of America (ranked #20 in the world) and it is located immediately adjacent to its better known neighbor in Southampton Shinnecock Hills.

View of the fifteenth and sixteenth holes at the National Golf Links of America

The National was the brainchild of Charles Blair Macdonald, one of the founding fathers of golf in America. Macdonand's idea was to build an "ideal" golf course and he modeled most holes after famous holes in the British Isles from courses such as Prestwick, The Old Course at St. Andrews, Sandwich and North Berwick.


The Library at the National

The National has been dominated by financiers and bankers since its inception. The founding members were senior executives at Guaranty Trust, National City, First National and the House of Morgan. Given its proximity to New York City, the club retains its ties to Wall Street and the houses of Morgan to this day.


17th hole at National looking back from the green

Like the other great risk/reward course on the East Coast of the United States, Merion, you must play the National with your head as much as your clubs. Macdonald's design philosophy was to provide a safe line of play if you want to play cautious, but also to offer a more difficult but rewarding shot to those willing to take risk. How many times have you heard that a certain piece of land is perfect for a golf course? In the case of the National Golf Links it is true. Every hole at the National is good. After playing the National I felt that at least five holes are truly world class: the third Alps, the fourth Redan, the fourteenth Cape, the sixteenth Punch Bowl and the seventeenth Peconic. The seventeenth is a 360 yard risk/reward hole that, along with the tenth at Riviera, are probably the two best in existence.

C.B. Macdonald remains a commanding presence in the library today

I could write pages of accolades about The National but won't. Instead I will share what many of the game's greatest writers have to say about it and I agree with them all: Bernard Darwin calls it: "endearing"; Herbert Warren Wind calls it: "a majestic monument"; John de St. Jorre calls it: "the most scenic in America"; Horace Hutchinson says: "it has no weak points".


The card table in the "green" room at the National

The National has a large windmill set on a hill overlooking Peconic Bay. You aim at the windmill as you play the uphill sixteenth hole. The sixteenth has a punchbowl green sunken into the surrounding land. When you are finished putting out on the sixteenth you can't see much of anything except the sides of the punchbowl. It is also very quiet because you are sunken down into the landscape. To proceed to the next tee you walk up the hill and at the apex you see the beautiful expanse of Peconic Bay out ahead of you; the windmill and clubhouse are on your left and the seventeenth hole is beneath you. I know there are those who won't necessarily share my view that The National is one of the very best courses in the world. However, it would be hard to argue that standing on the seventeenth tee here, along with walking up the ninthth fairway at Royal County Down, is unquestionably one of the finest views in all of golf. I invite those who differ to post something that you think is better.

The ambiance of the "green" room, a national treasure

The National is also famous for its lunch, which hasn't changed since the course opened. It is a lobster lunch that includes fishcakes, crab cakes, beef and kidney pie, shepherd's pie and macaroni and cheese. The overall ambiance of The National is very good, if a little formal. If you get the chance to stay overnight at The National and experience the full treatment you are among a very select and privileged group.

The dining room for the finest golf lunch in America

For me, an overnight stay at The National and a round of golf is as good as golf gets, bar none.


The view of the fifteenth green, looking up the sixteenth toward the windmill at the National Golf Links


National's Grand Clubhouse


Shinnecock Hills Golf Club (ranked #4 in the world) deserves a special place in the world of golf because it was the first club incorporated in the U.S. in 1891 and one one of the five founding member clubs of the U.S.G.A. It has a rich and storied history and is unquestionably a championship course. I have had the honor of playing Shinnecock Hills several times and think it is a great golf course, but not necessarily in the top five in the world, in my estimation. Perhaps, like the Old Course at St. Andrews, it takes a longer period of time to reveal its greatness. I must say that I have appreciated it more each time I have played and can see how it has many subtleties and nuances that have to be mastered. The Redan seventh hole is probably the hardest rendition of this hole design anywhere outside of the original at North Berwick. In the five attempts I have made thus far I have been unable to hit the green, which tilts sharply away from you.

The seventh hole at Shinnecock as seen from the bunker

The clubhouse at Shinnecock is certainly historic but I was taken aback at how close it is to both Highway 27 and the road running through the course. Don't get me wrong, I would at any time make the long drive out to Shinnecock to play the course, sit on the porch and look out at the landscape below, but in my opinion the clubhouse ranks only as the fourth best on Long Island behind those at The National, Maidstone and Garden City, although I am splitting hairs, they are all great. The Shinnecock clubhouse was designed by McKim, Mead and White, the designers of the Main Post Office in New York, the Morgan Library and the original Penn Station.


Comparing Shinnecock and The National is inevitable since the two courses are immediately adjacent to each other. It is in some ways like comparing Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer. I will paraphrase the famous quote comparing Nicklaus and Palmer: "God will give you the talent (Nicklaus) but they will like you more (Palmer)". To my mind, Shinnecock is Jack Nicklaus and The National is Arnold Palmer. Maybe Shinnecock is a better course, but I like The National more.

As you can see from the photos, Shinnecock is a very different style of golf than the National. National has about a dozen blind shots, maybe more depending upon where you hit the ball. Shinnecock is a much more straightforward course. There are areas of brown fescue throughout the course, this view is from the tenth tee. Ten plays down into a very large swale and is a very difficult hole. Your second shot plays up a massive hill to a difficult green set at the top.


Shinnecock has one of the best routings in the game and there is a continual change in direction, an important consideration since the wind is typically a large factor in playing here. The greens are small and Shinnecock places a large premium on approaching the green from the proper angle in order to best hold the shot. The great hilly terrain at Shinnecock is seen on the twelfth hole, here:


The 447-yard par four at Shinnecock ranks among the composite best eighteen holes in the world in the book the 500 World's Greatest Golf Holes. This par four like almost all at Shinnecock is a dogleg with a difficult to hold green. Shinnecock is the ultimate test of a golfer's ability: hit good shots and be rewarded, mis-hit shots and be penalized.

Maidstone Golf Club (ranked #61 in the world) is the least known of the three top ranked courses in the Hamptons. The course is located about 10 miles further east of Shinnecock and The National in East Hampton. While the course itself doesn't have the grandeur of the National or Shinnecock, it is worthy of its world ranking. It is the only one of the six top ranked courses on Long Island that is set on the Atlantic Ocean. Designed by John and Willie Park Jr. in 1891, it is a short course that has a weak start and a weak finish but shines in between. The fourteenth hole, a par 3 set among the sand dunes right next to the Atlantic defies description. Even the pictures I have attached here doesn't do it justice. The views are from the tee, below the hole and the view of the ocean from the green. It is on the short list of fine one shot holes in the world.

14th hole from behind
The world class 14th at Maidstone

9th fairway
The world-class par four 9th hole at Maidstone

View of the Atlantic Ocean from Maidstone tee box

Maidstone is also a beach and tennis club and may be the most family oriented course on the list. One thing a married man needs to attempt this top 100 quest is an understanding wife. Mine is a saint and rarely complains about my golf trips. She accompanied me to East Hampton when I was invited to play Maidstone. Taking her for a nice weekend of laying on the beach while I played a guilt free round of golf got me at free pass for at least ten more courses! It was a perfect August day played with a member who was the perfect gentleman. I enjoyed the Maidstone experience very much. The place has an understated flair to it.

8th green back 
The eighth green at Maidstone from the 9th tee 

 For those not familiar with the level of wealth present in East Hampton and to understand the psyche of Maidstone a short anecdote sums it up best. Juan Trippe, the founder of Pan Am was an early member of Maidstone and served as club president. Juan used to fly his own plane with pontoons out from New York City and land on nearby Georgica Pond.. Fast forward sixty-plus years. Today's Maidstone members have their G-4s land at nearby East Hampton Airport and then take the five minute ride over to the course. A pressing issue currently is that the runway is too short to land a G-5. Any questions?

For a in-depth review of Maidstone with more pictures click here.