American golf’s crown jewels

On Wednesday, Rory McIlroy spoke of how much fun he had prepping for the 118th US Open at courses such as National Golf Links of America, Friar’s Head Golf Club, and Garden City Golf Club.

American golf’s crown jewels

“It’s cool to see the architecture that’s been brought over from Scotland, like you’ve got basically a road hole bunker, and a Principal’s Nose,” McIlroy said.

“You’ve got all the stuff you had where this game started, which is really cool. So it was nice to see that.”

Well, the way he played in the opening round of the championship at Shinnecock Hills Golf Club, McIlroy may be able to book another tee time for Saturday at one of Long Island’s other gems.

This spit of land known as the South Fork is considered home to some of American golf’s crown jewels. To Shinnecock’s north is the famous windmill marking the adjacent National Golf Links of America, which played host to the 2013 Walker Cup.

Just how close to each other are Shinnecock and its quieter cousin, National?

When I played Shinnecock several years ago, my caddie joked as we marched to the third tee that if we were thirsty we could order drinks at National’s halfway house, a mere 50 yards away.

A few days later our caddie at National explained how members have been known to play its front nine, then slip on Shinnecock’s second tee and play a full 18 there, and resume on National’s 10th tee. Talk about an emergency 18.

At nearby South Hampton Golf Club, a Seth Raynor design, members have been known to play its first six holes and then the final 12 holes of Shinnecock. These are good neighbours to have, and apparently with few fences.

“Imagine if God had placed the Old Course, Turnberry, Dornoch and Muirfield within five miles of one another,” I described it in a story I once wrote for Golfweek.

“That would provide some sense of what this part of Long Island is like.”

If Shinnecock, National and Maidstone Golf Club in East Hampton evoke the elegantly jewelled Hamptons lady — three courses that personify the Golden Age of golf course architecture — then Atlantic Golf Club, Sebonack Golf Club and Friar’s Head are the super-model girlfriend — younger, sexier, yet with just as much class.

The embarrassment of riches in this land of wealth personified has blossomed with these three modern gems (Atlantic being the oldest of the newbies at 26) that have also adopted the enduring principles of strategic design.

Already, they share a timeless quality, their layouts tailored to the existing terrain, each with its own character, and turning this corner of eastern Long Island into one of the golfing capitals of the world.

That’s not all these six courses share: they are among the most private and exclusive clubs in golf, at least one of which requires an initiation fee of $500,000.

These are the Hamptons, a summer retreat for business tycoons, the scions of wealth, and the Gatsbys of the world. Yes, membership has its benefits.

Having once played them all in a four-day span, allow me to give you a peak behind the curtain. Sebonack, the new kid on the block (circa 2006), hosted the 2013 US Women’s Open but is still relatively unknown compared to its illustrious neighbours.

This Tom Doak-Jack Nicklaus design is built in the middle of a former estate overlooking Great Peconic Bay.

Sebonack’s 10th green is positioned such that the highest point on the site affords a stunning view of Shinnecock’s clubhouse in the distance, and later Sebonack’s tee shot at the 18th lines up with National’s flagpole in the distance.

Friar’s Head is located on the North Fork, in the hamlet of Baiting Hollow, if you can find it. Look for the little black mailbox, the attendant at the auto care centre down the road told me after blazing by it (there’s no sign).

Designed by Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, Friar’s Head features enormous greens with dramatically contoured putting surfaces and equally challenging bunkering.

Your score is an after-thought on the walk to the 14th tee, which offers a panoramic view across Long Island Sound with Connecticut visible in the distance.

“I’m a big fan of what Coore and Crenshaw have tried to do with their golf courses, and Friar’s Head is one of the best I’ve played. Not just for the design, but just for the setting and the scenery,” McIlroy said.

“I think 14 and 15 are two of the prettiest golf holes I’ve ever seen. It sort of reminds you of a Cypress Point.”

National evokes a feeling of the British seaside links, and for good reason. Several of National’s holes designed by C.B. Macdonald, the father of American golf architecture, mimic celebrated holes in Great Britain.

The 426-yard third hole reproduces the challenges of the Alps at Prestwick. The fourth is America’s first copy of North Berwick’s Redan, and at all costs, avoid descending the six steps into the greenside bunker at the par-5 seventh hole, which is based on the Road Hole at St Andrews.

To the east of Shinnecock along the edge of the Atlantic Ocean, Maidstone is the toughest 6,560 yards I’ve ever played. The estates lining some of the fairways aren’t too shabby either.

McIlroy wasn’t the only pro that warmed up for the US Open playing off-site.

On Tuesday, Rickie Fowler took part in a money game with Phil Mickelson and New England Patriots QB Tom Brady, and investment banker Jimmy Dunne, who is a member at Royal County Down.

“I haven’t played Southampton next door,” Fowler said. “I haven’t played Montauk Downs.”

Get in line, Rickie. But Fowler’s played enough courses on the south shore of eastern Long Island to know he’ll back soon.

“This is a place where people want to come and play golf,” he said.

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