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The Hamptons Has The Best Private Golf Clubs

Originally Posted: April 16, 2008

Tom Clavin

The spectacular terrain at the East Hampton Golf Club.

When the U.S. Open returns to Bethpage State Park next June, once again golf writers and commentators will praise the quality of public golf on Long Island. The first Open was held in 1895, at Shinnecock Hills in Southampton, yet it wasn't until 2002 that the National Championship was held at a public course. That Bethpage was chosen for the event by the U.S. Golf Association was certainly an honor, but the acclaim tended to overshadow the fact that no region in the country rivals Long Island for the quality and variety of its private golf clubs. And in my humble opinion, nothing rivals the quality of the private golf clubs in the Hamptons.

The 2nd green at Montauk Downs State Park.

Recently, when Golf Magazine issued its annual survey of the "Top 100 Courses in the U.S.," seven Long Island courses were listed in just the top 40, with five of those seven being on eastern Long Island - Shinnecock Hills and National Golf Links in Southampton, Fishers Island, Bethpage (the only public one), Friar's Head in Baiting Hollow, Garden City Golf Club, and Maidstone in East Hampton. This was a feat achieved by no other region.

Ironically, some of the earliest private clubs on Long Island were not originally intended to include golf. A prime example is the exclusive Maidstone Club. It was formed in 1891 by summer residents from New York City as a place to play tennis and swim in a freshwater pool with the ocean steps away. The first "course" designed was just a casual three-hole affair three years later, but with a golf craze sweeping the New York Metropolitan area, a nine-hole course was created in 1896. The original members of Shinnecock Hills were also more interested in tennis and a recreational extension of the Meadow Club.

Of its approximately 115 courses, Long Island has only a handful of public ones, yet a few of them approach being some of the best municipal golf courses in the country. Bethpage Black is getting most of the attention by virtue of being a U.S. Open site in 2002 and 2009, but second place has to go to Montauk Downs, which opened in 1928, and is now being given an upgrade by noted golf architect Rees Jones, who lives in East Hampton. Long Island National opened in 1999 in Riverhead. It was carved out of potato farmland by Robert Trent Jones, Jr., Rees's brother, and to the southwest is the Links at Shirley, which opened the following year. Both Nassau and Suffolk Counties operate fine courses, such as Indian Island in Riverhead which has water on three sides on a couple of its nine holes. Though there are fewer public courses the farther east a player goes (though Island's End in Greenport is definitely worth the trip), Long Island can accommodate any weekday or weekend warrior willing to pay greens fees ranging from $18 to $80.

However, the most distinctive courses can be found at private golf clubs. There are several factors in achieving distinction. Certainly at the top of the list is that some of the courses are dripping with history and tradition.

Long Island played an important role in the origins of golf in America. In 1888, a set of golf clubs purchased from Old Tom Morris in St. Andrews, Scotland were presented to John Reid, a wealthy businessman in New York City. He and five friends created a three-hole course in Yonkers and quickly became infatuated with the game. The enthusiasm spread through the upper class who brought golf with them to their vacation communities on Long Island.

In the 1890s and into the early decades of the 20th century, private clubs were formed, designers and architects were hired, and some of the best golf courses in the country were constructed, among them Shinnecock Hills in 1891, Maidstone several years later, and National Golf Links in Southampton in 1911.

The Maidstone Club.

Certainly, some people join private clubs for reasons other than history. Most clubs are active social centers, providing dining and hosting special events. The clubhouses alone appeal to female as well as male members. The legendary Stanford White designed the original Shinnecock Hills clubhouse, and typically members want as much attention paid to the clubhouse as the course - especially older members, who might spend more time indoors than out. Amenities help too, such as electric golf carts, caddies, and ninth hole refreshment stations. Some private clubs are expanding their activities and amenities to become more family-oriented.

But let's face it, when you're paying upwards of half a million dollars (or more) to join a club, it is because of the quality and accessibility of the golf. "For some people, a private course is just a toy, and for others it is a symbol of how successful they have been," said Paul Fuller, executive secretary of the American Society of Golf Course Architects. "But for many people, it is an opportunity to consistently play a game they love on beautiful, challenging, and well-maintained golf courses."

Since the 1890s, Long Island private clubs have attracted most of the finest course architects produced by Scotland and America: Charles Blair Macdonald, A.W. Tillinghast, Walter Travis, Devereaux Emmet, Seth Raynor, the Jones family, Pete Dye, and Tom Fazio. But the quality of a course wouldn't matter if you couldn't get on it. That is why accessibility is so attractive at a private golf club on Long Island. There are oft-told tales of duffers sleeping in their cars the night before at Bethpage in hopes of securing a tee time the next day. If that was the scenario at the Westhampton Country Club or the Atlantic Club in Bridgehampton, heads would roll. While every private club, like LIPA, has to contend with summer peak-usage times, being a member means never having to be told "I'm sorry."

Though the population of Long Island has not increased significantly in the last decade and the number of 18-hole rounds played in the New York metro area has gone from 23,200 in 1999 to 17,000 last year, the appeal of private clubs has grown as evidenced by the excellent new ones that have been developed, especially to the east. Two-time Masters champion Ben Crenshaw and his design partner, Bill Coore, created East Hampton Golf Club in 2001 and Friar's Head the next year in Baiting Hollow. With the former club, the initial membership fee was $400,000. Add $200,000 and you can join The Bridge, designed by Rees Jones on the site of the former Bridgehampton Race Circuit. For those who really want to golf in private and enjoy a personal clubhouse that includes a 3,000-bottle wine cellar, one can buy the Gordon estate in Bridgehampton for $75 million that contains a Rees Jones-designed six-hole course that can be played as 18 holes.

What has shouldered its way in as the newest crown jewel of private clubs on Long Island is Sebonack in Southampton. Nestled next to Shinnecock Hills and National Golf Links with extensive water views, it opened last year, was built by Michael Pascucci (owner of TV-55 in Melville), and was designed by Jack Nicklaus and Tom Doak, the golf equivalent of Clint Eastwood and Robert De Niro collaborating on a movie. The entry fee is $650,000, and helping to sell those spots is that Sebonack was chosen by Golf Magazine as 2007's best new private course in the U.S.

Earlier this year ground was broken for a new 25,000-square-foot clubhouse at the 138-acre Baiting Hollow Club (www.baitinghollowclub.com), the new incarnation of the former Fox Hills Golf and Country Club. The golf course was originally built in 1966 by Robert Trent Jones, Sr., and indeed the new version could signal an emerging trend on Long Island as open space for new courses becomes more scarce.

The 15th hole at Sebonack.

Perhaps a particularly good example of that trend is the South Fork Country Club in Amagansett. It opened as a nine-hole course in 1948 and for decades was viewed as a "blue-collar club" compared to Maidstone down the road. Twenty years ago, the initiation fee was $5,000. But as the waiting lists at other private clubs grew and land for new clubs dwindled, South Fork began to look more and more attractive. In 2003, the members had the course expanded to 18 holes and a new clubhouse is being built. Today's membership fee is $75,000 - still a bargain in the Hamptons, which has become the gold coast of golf.

Big news: The Sag Harbor Golf Club annual membership fee has gone from $300 to $360 this year. Shhh, don't tell anyone!

Some other beautiful private golf clubs that you might not know about here in the east: Bellport Country Club, Bridgehampton Club, Gardiner's Bay on Shelter Island, Hampton Hills Golf and Country Club in Westhampton, North Fork Country Club in Cutchogue, Noyac Golf & Country Club just west of Sag Harbor, Quogue Field Club, and the Southampton Golf Club.

There are excellent golf clubs with terrific courses elsewhere in the New York metropolitan area, but for golf lovers there really is no place else like eastern Long Island because of the ocean and the bays and the particular quality of the sunlight. No wonder one feels blessed teeing it up at one of the clubs here.

Photos courtesy of their respective clubs.

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