Monday, August 01, 2011

A Mulligan at Fishers Island

The shoe that fits one person pinches another; there is no recipe for living that suits all cases - Carl Jung

I am always trying to get better, so in the interest of being objective, I subjected my first Fishers Island writeup to a peer review. The simple conclusion of the learned and well-traveled group of golf aficionados that read it was that I am a moron.

They suggested I go back and check out Fishers Island again and in the interim repeat the following sentence often, "Every day, in every way, I'm getting better and better." I finally found a member brave enough to invite this heathen back to experience Fishers Island again. It is my hope that by coming clean I can avoid the road to everlasting perdition. Bless me father for I have sinned.

I always like to start with my conclusions, which are, that I liked Fishers Island a lot more the second time around and can really see why people fall in love with it.

I took a lot of heat for my original description of being stared down by a state trooper as we disembarked from the ferry and of a kid sitting at a checkpoint looking at us as we drove down the entry road to the course. People have accused me of making it all up.


It was all true. I subsequently learned that there was a very simple explanation for it. The then head of the CIA, Porter Goss, has a home on Fishers Island and was there, thus the heightened security. All very cloak and dagger. I'll bet the innocent looking kid probably had an Uzi in that little shed in case things got out of hand!

I didn't take the ferry over this time. Instead, it was a little water taxi from Groton which drops you off by the seventeenth tee. I must admit that there is really no better way to get to a golf course than skipping across the water on a little Boston Whaler on a perfect, bluebird day with the sun shining down on all God's creation and spray coming off the boat splashing in your face.

Fishers Island is a seven mile long island, located on the narrowest part of the Long Island Sound between New York, Connecticut and Rhode Island. It is quite small, the entire island being only 3,200 acres, and is one of the most affluent places in the world. It is hard for a U.S. locale to have a WASPier origin or a better pedigree. Fishers Island was granted to John Winthrop Jr., Governor of the Colony of Connecticut in 1640. The family owned the island for several generations and finally sold it in 1863. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, it evolved into a retreat for families with last names like Dupont, Firestone and Whitney. Fishers Island remains a secluded enclave, and more than a handful of billionaires summer on the island.

The Golf Course

I entered the pro shop with some trepidation since I'm on their 10 most wanted list. I kept my camera hidden and my sunglasses and fake mustache on so as not to be spotted, and then off we went to the first tee.

I'm not a huge fan of the first hole, a 396 yard, straight par four. The second hole is a Redan hole of 172 yards. I'm a traditionalist and don't think a Redan should have water in front of it. Where is the treacherous bunker? Where is the green sloping away? Now that I have played over a dozen of the world's greatest Redan holes, I can tell you that this one is one of the least interesting.

redan green

The Redan green as seen from the rear

Although I was a bit disappointed in the opening holes, nine of the next ten holes (the eleventh excepted) are fantastic golf holes, some of the best in the world, in fact.

The 335 yard third hole named "Plateau," is a fabulous one. The fairway is set at an angle to the tee, and the hole plays uphill the entire way. The green sits up on, you guessed it, a plateau, which falls off sharply on three sides. It's a great, fun hole with beautiful views.

3rd green

The third green with its sharp falloff

The fourth hole, "Punch Bowl," is without a doubt one of the best in the world. It is 397 yards of delight. Your tee shot has to carry over a ravine to a broad fairway. Your second shot is a blind one over a hill. The hole takes its name from the green, which is true to its name. The approach shot to the green is aimed at a big Fishers Island flag over the top of the hill. It is really exhilarating when you hit a good shot to run up and see where your ball has rolled to and whether it is near the pin.

4th from tee

The fourth "Punch Bowl" hole from its daunting tee

4th punch bowl
The huge Punch Bowl Green

The next hole is world-class also. It's a true terror. A 207 yard "Biarritz," it is on a scale that is hard to describe. Everything about it is big. The carry from the tee is over a big ravine. The size of the green is big. The swale that splits the green is big. The view in all directions is expansive. The bunkering is both deep and oversized. The fescue hazards are big. And more than likely, your score when you walk off the green will also be big. It's a doozie of a hole!


The big "Biarritz" hole as seen from the tee

biarritz and water
A wider view of the "Biarritz" hole shows how it is perched on the shoreline

The next hole, the sixth, "Olinda" is also a "big" hole. A 520 yard par five, its proportions are outsized. Your tee is over a daunting ravine to a fairway that slopes severly upward. Over the crest of the hill, the incline back down the hill is just as severe. Any shots pulled to the left on this hole would be painful. The hole reminded me quite a bit of the twelfth hole at Shinnecock, which has a similar feel and shape to it.

6th hole

The 6th hole with its heaving fairway

The seventh, "Latimer," is a great downhill par four with dramatic views of Long Island Sound. When you are on this green, you are closest to the stubby red and white lighthouse, which has a charming ping that lulls you throughout your round.


The idyllic setting of the seventh hole at Fishers Island

The finishing hole on the front nine is also world-class. "Double Plateau" is the hole's name and it plays 364 yards. It reminded me of the fifth hole at New South Wales, also one of the world's best. You hit a blind tee shot into, and hopefully over, a big hill. After you walk up the top of the hill, the rest of the hole is below you, again, with a sweeping view of the Sound. The hole takes its name from the treacherous and fun green, seen below.

9 green

The "Double Plateau" green

The tenth hole, "Knoll," plays a lot longer than its 401 yards. The green sits at the top of a massive hill. If you ever get to play Fishers Island, I would bet money that someone in your group (more likely more than one person) lands the ball short and watches it painfully travel 50-60 yards backward to the bottom of the hill!

10th hole

The 10th hole from the tee

I also liked the twelfth hole named "Winthrop". A 389 yard par four, the hole is named for the Winthrop family house left of the green. The hole sweeps from left to right with a green set high on a steeply declining hillside.


The 12th hole with its big slopes

For my taste, the rest of the holes are good but not great holes, although I think seventeen is decidely weak. I also think the "Short" hole (sixteen) doesn't compare with prototype "Short" holes at a lot of other great courses such as Camargo and the National Golf Links. The "Long" hole (fifteen) also didn't strike me as brilliant.

Fishers Island Place in the Golf Rankings

The first time I played Fishers Island it was in quite poor condition, which I thought really detracted from it. Aside from the fairways being really burned out, the sand traps were in poor condition and the greens were bumpy. There is a fine line between 'fast and firm' and not maintained, and the first time I played it, it was just over the line. This time around the conditioning was great: the sand was in good condition, and the greens were quite good.

I originally played Fishers Island early on in my quest and thus didn't have a lot of other courses to compare it to. Now that I'm virtually done I can better articulate it. I took a lot of heat for not appreciating the designs of the course architect Seth Raynor. Unfortunately, Fishers Island was my first exposure to his work; thus, I came away thinking he was overrated. Having played several of his courses including Yeamans Hall, Camargo and Shoreacres, I can honestly say he is one of the greatest to have ever plied the trade. I count these three among my personal favorites. They all have a uniqueness and polish about them that are memorable. The other thing that they all have in common is that they have been restored and refreshed over the last fifteen years and were in great shape when I played them.

Despite all the vitriolic comments I have received, I don't hate the people who disagree with my initial assessment. My initial point about Fishers Island was (to some degree still is) a simple one: Should a course with nine great holes and nine ok/good holes be ranked as the #29 course in the world? My initial impression was that it was overrated, although, in fairness, I have always said it is a delightful and memorable place to spend a day.

As an aside, I have learned a lot about why a great deal of what you read in the newspaper and see on TV tends to be negative. I have written great things about some unbelievable courses and received minimal comments. My initial Fishers Island post is by far the most commented on of any of my course reviews. Negativity attracts people like flies to honey. I have enjoyed this ongoing debate more than any other as I travel around the world and compare notes with people and with my readers.

Three things have led me now to upgrade my opinion of Fishers Island: 1) I am older and wiser and have seen a lot more great golf courses, thus I am better able to compare it to others than I was when I first saw it. 2) The course conditioning had improved significantly since the last time I played it. The greens are also in the process of being expanded back to the size they were when originally built, and the edges are now squared off on many of them, like on other Raynor designs. 3) I played better this time around. As much as we like to say that how we play doesn't affect how we like a course, we're all human, and it definitely does. Brilliant weather conditions don't hurt either.

For the record, my two hosts at Fishers Island have been among the most down to earth and gracious hosts I've had in all my travels.

beach club from plateau hole

The idyllic setting of the beach club as seen from the Plateau hole

While I have for sure upgraded my opinion of Fishers Island, let's not get carried away either. Many people have left me comments that the views at Fishers are as good as Pebble Beach, and I don't agree. You can see water on every hole, the argument goes. Old Head has water views from almost every hole also, but does that make it a great golf course in and of itself? No. The knock on Old Head, Tralee, Bayonne or any number of courses that have great water views is that they don't have great holes. I think there is a lot of confusion about Fishers Island because the water holes blind most people's perception. Water views shouldn't give a free pass to criticism or to questioning whether a course is ranked in the right place relative to other great courses. As I stated in my original post, all water views are not the same. I'm sorry, but looking over to Connecticut, as beautiful as it is, is not the same as looking at Monterey Bay, the Irish Sea or the Tasman Sea.

I had not yet played Cypress Point when I first played Fishers Island. I received several comments that Fishers Island could be compared to Cypress Point. Comparisons between the two are not in order. Visually and routing wise, it is another Long Island course, Friars Head, that is a closer comparison to Cypress in my view, although Cypress is really beyond a direct comparison to any other course.

I have now completed playing all of Seth Raynor's courses ranked in the top 100. I think his best, in order, are Yeamans Hall (1925), followed by Camargo (1921), then Shoreacres (1919) and Fishers Island (1926).

The overall experience at Fishers Island is a unique one: The boat trip, the exclusiveness of the island, the lighthouse pinging, the laid back beach atmosphere and an overall experience that feels like you are going back in time. It wouldn't be hard to imagine it was still 1954 while you're on Fishers Island. While I personally prefer Maidstone, which has a similar set of characteristics, I can see why a lot of people love Fishers Island.

Hell, if this trend continues and some brave soul invites me again, who knows, I may continue to raise my opinion and write an unqualified glowing review of Fishers Island!