It’s a beautiful sunny day with a perfect temperature in the upper 60s, I’ve arrived by boat to one of the most beautiful spots I’ve ever seen and I’m about to play one of the world’s top rated golf courses. This is one of those moments in my life where I ask myself the question “How in the heck did I get here?”
In this particular instance “here” is the 1st tee at the Fishers Island Club located on Fishers Island, NY. At the time of this writing Fishers Island Club is ranked #11 on the Golf Digest 100 Greatest Golf Courses in America list and considered one of the finest spots in the world for a game of golf. From what I’ve seen in my first 15 minutes on the island it’s already pretty tough to dispute that claim.
Fishers Island is a 7 mile long and 1 mile wide island that is home to one of the most exclusive clubs in all the land, Fishers Island Club. The Fishers Island story begins in 1614 when it was “discovered” by a Dutch explorer. The island was purchased from Native Americans in 1644 and was used primarily for farming and as a private hunting and fishing preserve from that time until the late 19th century. In the 1870s everything on the island changed when the second owner of the island’s heirs began selling lots and summer rental cottages began popping up. The island rapidly became a popular tourist destination from that time through 1889 when two prominent businessmen purchased nine-tenths of the island for $250,000 with the intent to turn it into an exclusive summer resort which stopped the steady flow of tourists that had been visiting Fishers Island.
Golf was first played on the island in 1897 and ten years later in 1907 the island’s first club, Hay Harbor Club, was established. In 1925 the eastern two-thirds of the island was acquired for the purpose of a development project that would include home sites as well as a Seth Raynor designed golf course. On July 1 the following year the club opened for business and the rest, as they say, is history. Fishers Island and Fishers Island Club became an exclusive getaway for the wealthy.
So, back to my question of how did I get here, to Fishers Island Club specifically. This is not the type of place that an average person like me finds themselves playing golf. The club had been on my radar for quite some time. Surprisingly I had learned that there were a number of members who lived in my hometown, Richmond Virginia, and belonged to the same club that I do. I did not know any of the Fishers Island members directly, but was optimistic that I might have a mutual friend with one of them and an opportunity to play may come up. That never came to pass so I just put Fishers Island on the back burner until another time.
During the course of my Top 100 quest I have literally met dozens of new people who are either well wishers, supporters, sponsors/hosts, general golf nuts or some combination of all the above. One of the folks I’ve met along the way is a fellow named Hans who hosted me for a game at The Country Club in Boston. Hans is just as much of a golf nut as I am and has played about as many of the Top 100 courses that I have. He is an enthusiastic golfer with a love and appreciation for great golf courses who also happened to know a member at Fishers Island. One day as I sat in my office wishing I was somewhere playing golf I received an email from Hans. As I read through the contents of the email I nearly missed the final line which stated “Want to come up for Fishers Island on 10/7?” Of course I gave a resounding yes and immediately booked my flight as the date was less than a month away.
Getting to Fishers Island is no simple trip. The only way onto the island is by boat as there are no bridges from the mainland. The best place to catch a boat is out of New London, CT. There are no flights into New London, so I was going to have to either fly into New York City and drive two and a half hours or fly into Boston and drive a little over two hours. Coming into Providence is another option but from Richmond there are no direct flights so that makes New York or Boston the only logical choices. I elected to fly into Laguardia and rent a car for the drive to New London.
Once in New London there are multiple options for the boat ride to Fishers Island. There is a slow moving ferry that runs on a regular schedule and drops it passengers on the end of the island farthest from the club. From there the ferry riders need to catch a cab over to the golf course. The second choice is to hire a water taxi that will shuttle four players to the east end of the island where the club has a boat dock just off the 17th green. This takes considerably less time and is definitely the favored option.
So I landed at Laguardia the night before we were to play, picked up my rental car and hit the road. Without a hitch I reached my New London hotel in a little over two and half hours. Well, there was a slight hitch. Hans emailed me late that night to say he was going to have to work the next day and that he and his friends were not going to be able to make it. Uh oh, this is not good. After about 45 minutes of driving and being bummed out about having to spend my day at Fishers by myself I got another email saying that he was just kidding. I was relieved and returned to my previous state of anticipation and excitement. What a prankster.
The hotel where I stayed was just a few blocks from the dock where we would meet the water taxi in the morning so I was all set. The next morning I woke up, had a hearty breakfast and drove to the dock to meet the other guys. Hans and two of his buddies from The Country Club, one of whom was a Fishers Island member, had left early that morning from Boston and were scheduled to arrive around 7:45AM.
At the dock we unloaded our gear, drove the cars to the parking deck, hopped onto the boat and were on our way in no time. It was a small boat and moved much quicker than the ferry, but it was not exactly a high speed watercraft and it took us a good 30 minutes to reach the dock on the east end of the island. Below is a picture of the boat. I’m thankful that the waters were not choppy as it would have been quite a ride in this little guy.
Upon arrival we walked up the dock to a spot just off the 17th green where the club had left golf carts for us to drive to the clubhouse. The weather was shaping up quite nicely and I shed my windbreaker that I had been wearing on the boat ride over. Below is a photo of the clubhouse which was built in 1964 after the original clubhouse burned down. Ironically, the club had tried, unsuccessfully, to demolish the clubhouse with dynamite just a few weeks before the fire.
Our host Chip checked us in and we headed down to the practice green to roll a few putts while we waited for our turn to tee off. There is a driving range available but is a little distance away and not used very often. I’m usually a trunk slammer at home, so that didn’t bother me a bit.
As we walked down to the practice green I caught my first real view of the coastline from on the island. Spectacular. The practice green alone was one of the most beautiful golf spots I’d ever see. Below are a couple of photos.
When it was our turn we headed to the 1st tee and were off. I’m going to try something different and do my course comments in a little different format. We played from the 6,544 yard blue tees which play to a par of 72.
Hole 1 – Raynor’s Start – 396 yards – Par 4
Here we have a nice start with a fairly lengthy par 4 that features a wide fairway with some moderate undulation. The photo below was taken from the tee.
The front of the green is void of hazards which allows for approach shots to be run up onto the green. The bunker on the left is fairly deep and can be a problem for players who find themselves in it.
Below is a view across the 1st green towards the 2nd tee.
Hole 2 – Redan – 172 yards – Par 3
The redan hole is one of Raynor’s infamous template holes and is named after the original redan at North Berwick in Scotland. Typically what makes a hole a redan is a bunker at the front left side of the green and a putting surface that slants from the front right to the back left. The photo below was taken from the tee box here and the lighting makes it pretty tough to see the flag. The green on this redan hole is not quite as pronounced as some of the others I’ve seen.
Here is another look at the 2nd green from the 17th tee. The slant is more visible here and Raynor was clearly more subtle with this one than some of his others.
Hole 3 – Plateau – 335 yards – Par 4
As I often say on this website I love short par 4s and this one is no exception. A 200 yard shot is all that is necessary to get into position for a short iron or wedge into the green. The ideal line is to play the drive right over the walking path towards a rock in the distance that is not visible in the photo below. Choosing a line too far to the right on the drive runs the risk of not reaching the fairway.
Here is a closer view of the hole with the group in front of us standing on the green.
The photo below is what the approach shot into the 3rd green looks like from the fairway. Its a little uphill so it may be wise to play a little extra yardage, especially if there is any wind . . . and there usually is.
And below is a photo of the glorious view from atop the green on this hole.
The same view from another angle.
Note the severity of the drop off around the green in the photo below. Being long here can easily lead to bogey or worse.
Hole 4 – Punch Bowl – 397 yards – Par 4
The punch bowl is a dyed in the wool template hole at Raynor’s courses and Fishers Island has one of the best. The drive requires a somewhat substantial carry in order to reach the fairway as illustrated in the photo below.
The approach shot into the green will likely be blind and require the use of the directional flag shown in the photo below in order to find the green.
Players living on the edge, quite literally the right edge of the fairway, might have a less obstructed, but more dangerous shot into the green as shown in the photo below. Note the rocky beach out to the right below. Chip told a story about one day hitting his drive WAY out to the right which he was certain would result in dropping a ball and taking a penalty stroke. When he reached the area to begin looking for his ball one of his playing partners found it sitting in the middle of the fairway in perfect position after being deflected off the rocks on the beach. Talk about a members bounce!
The punch bowl green certainly lived up to its name as can be seen in the photo below.
And in this photo . . .
And in this one too. I really like the double flags and shadows in this one. All these photos are clickable, so just click to see a larger view.
Hole 5 – Biarritz – 207 yards – Par 3
Another tried and true template hole at Raynor courses is the biarritz. This is a par 3 with a large swale in front of the green. It may be that when the hole was designed that the swale was actually in the middle of the green but today most of these holes do not have the front pad mowed to putting green height which places the swale at the front of the actual putting surface. The biarritz at Fishers Island plays uphill which is something that I had not seen before. I feel safe saying that there is not another biarritz hole out there that has as beautiful a setting as the one at Fishers Island Club.
Here is a little closer look at the green which shows the swale a little better.
Hole 6 – Olinda – 520 yards – Par 5
The first par 5 on the course is the 6th hole. As shown in the photo below the drive requires a small carry to reach the fairway and is to a blind landing zone. The ideal line is right down the middle towards the trees in the distance.
This is a tough hole to reach in two not only because of the distance, but also because the hole climbs uphill as it nears the green. The photo below was taken from where I hit my third shot.
Below is a look back down the hole at the undulating fairway.
Hole 7 – Latimer – 363 yards – Par 4
The 7th is one of the more picturesque holes on a course loaded with picturesque holes. Note the lighthouse out in the water behind the green. This lighthouse chimes continuously and is audible from nearly every spot on the course. I couldn’t figure out what it was when I first heard it. It was making the same sound that an Mac computer does when it receives an email,so for the first couple of minutes I heard it I thought someone had an iPhone in their bag getting emails every 30 seconds. The scrubby area off to the right is a pond and is definitely in play off the tee. This tee box is also the spot where players can use the halfway house phone order service to request a Fishers Island signature peanut butter, jelly and bacon sandwich. Its sounds strange, but it is unbelievably tasty. I guess bacon really does go with everything!
Below is a photo of the approach into the green.
Hole 8 – Road Hole – 465 yards – Par 5
The 8th hole is the first of two short par 5s that actually play as par 4s from the black tees. From what I could tell the only real difference between the blue and black tees is that the 8th and the 18th both play as par 4s which makes the course a 6,544 yard par 70 rather than 72.
The drive shown in the photo below looks much more intimidating on camera than it is in reality. A well executed drive certainly helps, but we were able to find balls that missed the fairway on both the left and the right. The left is probably a little less forgiving than the right. One bad bounce on the gravel path and a ball can kick badly left.
Below is a photo of the green at the 8th hole. This is Raynor’s Road Hole template and there is the requisite green side bunker, but it is not as severe as the original at The Old Course. Unfortunately its not really visible in this photo.
Hole 9 – Double Plateau – 364 yards – Par 4
I think the tee box at the 9th hole, pictured below, is very cool. Believe it or not this is the original tee box. At first I thought it was was something done in modern times in order to lengthen the hole, but Chip confirmed that it is indeed the original tee box. The surrounding area is wetlands and the club would NEVER be allowed to build a tee box like this today. As a matter of fact, Chip pointed out how uneven the tee box was and how much it needed to be leveled. Because of its wetlands status the only thing the club is allowed to do is cut the grass. Any disruption of the dirt on this tee box would bring all sorts of environmental regulations and restrictions so the club is forced to keep it as is.
Below is a view from the tee box. The drive is to a blind landing zone and the ideal line is just over the aiming post in the middle of the fairway.
Below is the vista that greets us as we walked over the hill . . . a gorgeous two tiered green and a short iron approach.
Here is a little closer look. I love the boats cruising by in the back ground. I suspect in the height of summer there are dozens of boats out there making quite a cool scene.
And here is a close up view of the double plateau green.
Hole 10 – Knoll – 401 yards – Par 4
This hole has a generous fairway and runs straight uphill which makes the hole play a little longer than the yardage on the scorecard.
The green here sits on top of a hill and definitely requires a little extra consideration when pulling a club for the approach shot.
Below is a view looking back down the hole at the fairway.
Hole 11 – Eden – 164 yards – Par 3
The 11th hole is another of Raynor’s template par 3 holes, this one being an eden. The green sits on the edge of the island and is one of the prettiest par 3s I’ve seen. I found it a little difficult at times to focus on hitting solid golf shots when there is so much beauty all around to soak in.
And here we have a little closer look.
Hole 12 – Winthrop – 389 yards – Par 4
I loved the 12th hole which is another par 4 that plays uphill to a very difficult green. With the firm and fast conditions at Fishers Island Club a little extra run in the fairway goes a long way to shortening the approach shot.
Below is a photo of the 12th green. Note that the left side of the green is considerably higher than the right. There is also a significant mound in the middle of this green that makes long putts quite treacherous.
The putt from Chip’s location on the side of the green in the photo below was a nasty one and with the greens running around an 11 on the stimp meter it was no small task to get it anywhere close to the hole. This shape and contour of this green makes it a bit of a reverse redan.
Here is a look back down the fairway of the 12th hole and across the 13th fairway. The views here are absolutely unbelievable. The water is visible from every single hole on the course. It really is a breathtaking setting for golf.
Hole 13 – Waterloo – 400 yards – Par 4
The drive on this hole is fairly straight forward and hitting down the middle is the ideal play. In comparison with the last couple of holes played this one fairly flat.
The approach into the green on the 13th hole requires a carry over water to a heavily slanted green moving from front to back and left to right.
Hole 14 -Cape – 425 yards – Par 4
The cape hole is another of Raynor’s templates. The photo below was taken from the tee box and the ideal drive favors the left side of the fairway for the shortest shot into the green.
Below is the shot into the green from about 180 yards out.
And here is a closer look at the green.
This photo doesn’t really highlight any features, I just kind of like it.
Hole 15 – Long – 533 yards – Par 5
The drive here is to a blind landing zone and it is best to keep it down the middle as there is serious native grass on both the left and right sides of the fairways that can gobble a golf ball right up.
Below is a photo of the green at the 15th hole. With no bunkers in front it is pretty receptive to a long second shot that lands short and bounds its way onto the green for a chance at an eagle putt. At 533 yards hitting the green in two is for the long hitters or when the wind is favorable.
Hole 16 – Short – 146 yards – Par 3
Raynor pays homage to the short hole at The Old Course in St. Andrews with his template at the 16th. I loved this tricky little par 3 with it green sloping back to front and the hole location at the front of the green. We played this hole twice and we had three players who’s ball went from on the green to off the front of the green in one fashion or another. I thought this was a fun hole that played considerably more difficult than it looked. The backdrop for this hole is pretty amazing as well.
Here is a closer look at the green, although this photo does not do the slope justice.
Hole 17 – Coast Guard – 415 yards – Par 4
The 17th is a fairly straight forward hole that plays fairly long at 415 yards. The drive requires a short carry over a body of water which is really more of a visual intimidator because it shouldn’t be an issue for most players.
Below is a photo of the green which again, does not have any bunkers in front. Fishers Island Club is known for playing firm and fast which is great considering that’s how Raynor designed it. As suggested earlier in this post there are a lot of greens at Fishers Island that will readily accept a running shot.
Hole 18 – Home – 452 yards – Par 5
The 18th hole is the other par 5 that plays as a par 4 from the black tees. Since we were playing from the blues we got to play it as a three shotter. Hans and I won the match on the 17th hole and then both proceeded to duck hook our tee shots into the exact same place on the beach in front of the tee box. We all got a big laugh out of that.
The best idea here is to just hit it straight out in the middle and give yourself the best chance you can to hit the green on the second shot.
Below is a photo of the approach shot. Unfortunately I don’t have one of the green which is a pretty tricky one. The hole was cut in the far left where the group in front of us is standing. This hole plays very tough as a par 4 and very friendly as a par 5.
Once we finished up our game we did my number 1 favorite thing to do after a round of golf . . . play again. Chip went up to the pro shop to check in and within five minutes of finishing we had balls in the air for our second round of the day. It always amazing to me how different the second time around feels after having picked up on some of a courses nuances. We ended up running a little short on time and had to cut our second round short by a 2 holes. When we finished up and got to the dock by the 17th green our boat was right there waiting for us as promised. We jumped in and hightailed it back to the mainland so I could get on the road to New York City and catch my 9:15PM flight. I ran into some traffic in Connecticut that slowed me down, but with some NASCAR-esque maneuvers I managed to make my flight just in the nick of time.
Sitting on the plane back to Richmond I flipped through the photos on my camera and marveled at what an incredible day it had been. The golf course, the beautiful setting, the perfect weather and the great playing companions. I think I can safely conclude that my Fishers Island Club experience is one of the best days of golf I’ve ever had. No question about it, Fishers Island is indeed a special place.
I’m not sure what it is about Seth Raynor courses that I love so much. Raynor was an engineer by trade which is very easy to see when examining his golf courses. His designs have many geometric features and sharp edges which are in direct contrast to the rough and natural minimalist designs from Coore & Crenshaw and Tom Doak that I’ve grown so fond of. I do believe there is something to the clubs that have Raynor courses. The ones that I have played all had a similar low key, understated, no nonsense, pure golf vibe to them. Fishers Island Club, Yeamans Hall Club, Chicago Golf Club, Shoreacres, Camargo Club . . . all of these places have great club cultures AND Seth Raynor designed courses. Probably just a coincidence, but maybe there is something to the correlation. Regardless of what it is that makes me like Raynor so much I have continued to be smitten with his designs and Fishers Island has definitely been added to my list of places not to be missed and to play as often as possible.