Long Island Golf Trip: A Tale of Two Courses
by Jeff Skinner
Last week I was able to get back to Bethpage Black and spend some time taking in the pros at The Barclays. I rarely miss the chance to get on one of the best courses in America whether to play or just check out the course. The Black was just as vicious as always as the PGA pros found out.
But my trip wasn’t all about watching the FedEx Cup playoffs. I was able to get a few rounds of golf in myself. My brother and I were able to spend a few days together checking out The Barclays but we also explored a pair of Long Island’s best golf courses.
Long Island is home to some of the most famous and exclusive golf courses in the world. Shinnecock Hills, National Golf Links, Maidstone, Friar’s Head and Sebonack head the list of great private courses. But Long Island isn’t all Bushwood and Judge Smails. There are plenty of fine public courses on Long Island with Bethpage Black at the top of the Golf Week’s Best Public Course list for New York. And its sister, The Red Course, which we played last season, also makes the list.
But since the boys of the PGA were camped out at Bethpage we headed out on the island to find some less crowded links. We looked at Golf Week’s list and selected two courses that had both great appeal and reviews.
Tallgrass Country Club in Shoreham looked very inviting as it was designed by Olympic course designer by Gil Hanse and was ranked as the ninth best public course by Golf Week. It boasted a “Scottish links style golf course.”
Formerly a sod farm, Tallgrass opened in 2000 and has a linksy feel. We were interested in seeing what The Castle Stuart designer could manufacture on the island. Tallgrass is certainly laid out like a links course. There are few trees and raised tees give you a view of most of the golf course. The holes are dressed with tall fescue and with a little breeze you get a bit of a feeling of links golf.
There were plenty of raised greens and all of them were very well guarded by big, deep bunkers. Hanse decorated many holes with waste areas and there was enough thick bushes that did a fine imitation of that ball eating gorse which usually marks a Scottish course.
The layout was challenging and the greens had plenty of contours to challenge your putting game. My brother and I both agreed that the course was interesting and challenging. But we wouldn’t make an effort to play it again. It had nothing to do with the layout but everything to do with the condition.
It appears that the owners of Tallgrass may have cut back significantly on their maintenance budget. All the “waste bunkers” or “sandy areas” as they were called at the PGA were overgrown with tall weeds and hadn’t been maintained at all. The same was true for many of the regular sand bunkers. Many were overgrown with weeds and even greenside bunkers played like hardpan since they hadn’t been maintained for a long while. It was impossible to play a normal shot from all these areas and I am certain this type of maintenance wasn’t in Hanse’s design plans.
The fairways and greens were great but it looked like they only maintained those two segments of the course. The layout was excellent but due to the poor conditions I wouldn’t consider going back.
The next day we headed out to the very eastern end of the island to try out Montauk Downs. The Downs was originally built in 1927 but none other than Robert Trent Jones Sr. redesigned it in 1968. It has a reputation as a tough course that usually plays in that constant Montauk wind. It is also ranked as number twelve on Golf Week’s list.
The day we played was warm and bright with a bit less wind than normal. After our disappointment at Tallgrass we were hoping for something better: we weren’t disappointed. Montauk Downs certainly lived up to its reputation. It was challenging, interesting and very well conditioned.
It has a great mix of holes all with plenty of character. Even though you’re not on the ocean you definitely get that feel. Many holes are guarded by thick vegetation that swallows any wayward ball and there is enough water in play to keep you honest. Straight drives and a solid putter are required to have any success here.
Many greens sit above the fairway and the bunkering will test every level of golfer. Each green has plenty of contouring and the greens were fast and true. A little bit of local knowledge goes a long way here as there are a few blind shots that pose a challenge.
Montauk Downs was great and even though it’s a state run golf course they do it right. It was well run and has all the facilities you need. For New York State residents it’s a steal, I paid $51 plus the cart. But they do get a bit more for out of staters, my brother, who now lives in Massachusetts had to pay double that. I say it’s their way of making him pay for his defection from the Jets and Yankees to the Patriots and Red Sox.
The only tough thing about Montauk Downs was the drive. It is way out there on the island and traffic heading in and out can be a real pain. But it was definitely worth it, especially since I was able to beat my brother which I rarely do.
We both agreed that Montauk Downs deserves all the accolades it gets. It’s a great course. But next time we’ll helicopter in and beat that traffic.