The story of National Golf Links of America begins with Charles Blair Macdonald – the man who is widely recognized as the de facto father of American golf. Macdonald was born in 1855 to an affluent family of Scottish heritage which meant that he was predestined to receive all the benefits in life that come along with wealth. One of those benefits was a proper education, so in the early 1870s a teenaged Macdonald was sent from his home in Chicago to live with his grandfather in Fife, Scotland where he would attend the University of St. Andrews. Upon arrival to St. Andrews Macdonald was introduced to golf by his grandfather, a member of the Royal & Ancient, and over the next couple of years fostered a very deep affinity for the Scottish pastime. Macdonald had the great fortune to be able to develop his game under the tutelage of Old Tom Morris and even played regularly with four time Open Champion Young Tom Morris. Once his university studies were completed Macdonald returned to Chicago and found that there was simply no place to play his beloved golf which was something he regularly and vocally bellyached about to his friends. Macdonald suffered for nearly 20 years without playing golf in America, a period he refers to as the “Dark Ages”, before an opportunity finally arose for him to introduce his treasured game to Chicago.
In 1892 Macdonald finally cast some light on the Dark Ages when he founded the Chicago Golf Club, the first 18 hole golf course in America. Shortly thereafter he played an instrumental role in the creation of the USGA. From that point forward it was full steam ahead and he ended up devoting much of the remainder of his life to developing the game in America. The man was a fascinating character and I believe that it is safe to say that he did more for golf in America than anyone has to date. For those who are interested in learning more about Macdonald there are two wonderful books available on Amazon – Scotland’s Gift: Golf by Macdonald himself and Evangelist of Golf: The Story of Charles Blair Macdonald by golf historian George Bahto. Both books are excellent, but we warned that Bahto’s book is a bit of a rarity and can be quite expensive.
During Macdonald’s jaunts back to the British Isles in the Dark Ages he developed both a great understanding for what made a particular hole strategically interesting as well as a keen eye in general for golf course architecture. Because of this he became known as the American authority on the subject. Although he was never paid a fee for his services he helped design some of the earliest courses in America and ultimately had a significant impact on American golf course architecture of the period.
In the early 1900s Macdonald set out to design the “ideal golf course” and part of his methodology for doing so was to recreate, or draw inspiration from, some of the great strategic holes he had encountered on his travels through England and Scotland. After an exhaustive search for property he settled on a swampy piece of land adjacent to Shinnecock Hills Golf Club and it was purchased in 1907. Shortly thereafter in 1908 National Golf Links of America was founded and four years later in 1911 the course officially opened for play.
When I first visited National Golf Links it was the sixth course I had played on my Top 100 quest. Being so early in my journey I was a complete neophyte and the significance of this golf course in the annals of American golf was largely lost on me. I knew only a little bit of the history and vaguely understood the template holes, but to be honest, I wasn’t ready for it when I played there the first time. Luckily another opportunity materialized for me to visit the course and I couldn’t have been more excited as I felt like I would be seeing it through a different lens and effectively for the first time.
Our game at National Golf Links would be the first round of a three day Long Island trip and after spending the night in Philadelphia the night before we arrived in Southampton around 11am. After stopping off at the hotel to check in we made our way to National and drove through the gates buzzing with excitement. Once we got settled we skipped the practice tee and decided to hit some putts on the practice green next to the proshop while we waited for our turn to tee off. Below is a picture of the cool little proshop that sits just off the 1st tee.
The first thing we all noticed when we dropped a couple of balls on the practice green was that they bounced . . . a real bounce. I’m not talking some sort of little half inch thing, but a good solid bounce that put about 3 inches of air under the ball when dropped from shoulder height. Wow, I’d never seen greens this firm before. It was pretty amazing. The balls also rolled as true and as fast as can be. If the fairways were playing as firm as the greens we were really in for a treat. When it was our turn to tee of the caddiemaster gave us a nod and we walked up to the 6,505 yard green tees and put our balls into the air.
Hole 1 – Valley – 315 Yards – Par 4
The course begins with a short par 4 that could be drivable for long hitters when teeing off with a favorable wind. The bunker in the distance is in play for those who elect to hit driver here, but can easily be avoided by making a safer play and hitting a 200 yard shot.
Playing to the right side of the fairway will leave a blind shot into the green while a line down the left side of the fairway will afford a view of the green but require a longer carry over the fescue to reach the fairway. Below is the view into the green from just left of the fairway bunker. Careful on this approach shot as there are bunkers all around the back of the this green.
The 1st green is wildly undulating which means that there are no easy two putts unless the approach shot finds the right section of the green.
Here is another look.
Hole 2 – Sahara – 290 Yards – Par 4
This hole is another short par 4 and one that is definitely drivable for many players. Just to the right of the windmill the two caddies are just barely visible to give players on the tee a line to hit their drives.
With the firm and fast conditions usually found at National Golf Links balls that land on the downhill slope have a very good chance of rolling onto the putting surface. Drives that come up short of the green will require just a short pitch to the green.
A look backwards at the tee shot landing area.
Hole 3 – Alps – 407 Yards – Par 4
Here we have a long par 4 that is modeled after the Alps hole at Prestwick Golf Club in Scotland. The green sits high on the hill and many players, if not most, will have a blind shot into the green.
A view of the approach shot. Note that from this position the flagstick is not visible but the directional flag will help players find their way here.
The putting green. The tower contains a bell which is to be rung once the green has cleared so the next group knows it’s safe to hit their shots.
Another look at the green. The fairway is down the hill off to the left side of this photo.
Hole 4 – Redan – 181 Yards – Par 3
The first one shot hole on the course is modeled after the famous Redan hole at North Berwick’s East course and like the original is fronted by deep bunkers and has a severely sloped green from right to left.
A look at the putting surface from the top right side of the green. With the firm turf a ball hit on the right side of the green will meander down towards the middle of the green.
Hole 5 – Hog’s Back – 451 Yards – Par 4
Here we have a stout par 4 with a blind landing area for the drive. Unfortunately I hit my drive way right and only saw this hole from the right side.
A view of the green from the right side of course.
Hole 6 – Short – 123 Yards – Par 3
Next we have a tricky little one shot hole that with an undulating green that puts a premium on accuracy off the tee. Long distance putting across this green is not likely to result in anything but a 3-putt.
Hole 7 – St. Andrews – 467 Yards – Par 5
Modeled after the very famous Road Hole at St. Andrews this particular version plays as a par 5. Its worth noting that it is only 17 yards longer than the par 4 Hog’s Back that we played two holes previously. The tee shot is to a blind landing zone and a caddie will go ahead to give the players on the tee a line. Anything left of the caddie in the distance is a good line for the tee shot.
The approach shot into the green with the ominous Road Hole bunker just to the left of the flagstick. I only had 190 yards into this green and made a bad decision here. The smart play is to hit a shot just short of the putting surface and putt the third shot onto green. I was not smart.
Below is the bunker behind the green where my second shot ended up. As I walked up to it I said “At least I didn’t go into the Road Hole bunker”. My caddies response . . . “Not yet.”
Clearly the caddies at National Golf Links know their stuff because here I am hitting my forth shot . . . and the fifth, and the sixth, and the seventh. I lost count, but I’m told that I got it out on my fifth attempt. Based on the numerous footprints and club swipes in the sand I’d say thats about right.
The photo below illustrates what I did not know when I hit my 5 iron on my second shot. The green is very narrow and there is no way for the shot to hold, especially when the course is as firm as it was that day. In my opinion, playing short of this green is really the only way to play the hole.
Hole 8 – Bottle – 385 Yards – Par 4
The next hole we come to is a mid-length par 4 that was inspired by the Bottle Hole at Sunningdale Golf Club outside of London. From the tee players much choose to aim down the left or right side of the fairway. The mounding in the middle of the fairway below are a series of bunkers that bisect the fairway. There is also a principal’s nose bunker on the right side of the fairway that could come into play on the drive.
The approach shot into the green with deep bunkering on the front and left side.
Hole 9 – Long – 534 Yards – Par 5
To end the outward nine we have a three shot hole that takes its name after the a hole at St. Andrews Old Course. It’s worth noting that National Golf Links is routed in a traditional “out and back” routing where the outward nine does not return to the clubhouse. The fairway here is split by a series of bunkers and fescue grass. There is not much fear for most players of running out of fairway as long as the drive is played to the right side.
A view of the green from about 130 yards out.
Hole 10 – Shinnecock – 420 Yards – Par 4
After a quick stop at the halfway hut we began the inward nine and faced three long and difficult holes to start things off. Again, we have another hole with the fairway bisected by a patch of rough and waste area. Only players who hit the ball over 300 yeards need to worry about running out of short grass on their tee shots. This hole is named for National’s next door neighbor Shinnecock Hills Golf Club which borders this hole.
A view into the green from the end of the fairway.
A look at the large 10th green from the 11th tee.
Hole 11 – Plateau – 418 Yards – Par 4
Here we have another long par 4 with a drive to a blind landing zone. The caddies will go out ahead here to give the players on the tee a line for their drives. the fairway runs out where a road crosses the hole, so longer hitters may want to think about a 3 wood here.
I love this view of the Shinnecock Clubhouse from the 11th fairway.
The approach shot on the 11th hole requires hitting over the same road we hit over on the 8th hole. Just beyond the mound in the photo below is where the road is. They did an excellent job of concealing the road with the bank.
Below is a view of the hole after crossing the road. Note the principals nose bunker on the left side of the photo.
This green is one of my favorites and it is a three tiered affair. We had a very friendly hole location with it being in the middle and lowest tier.
Hole 12 – Sebonac – 427 Yards – Par 4
Finally, we have the last of the three 400+ yard two shot holes that start the inward nine. This is a fairly straightforward hole that calls for a long drive down the middle. There are bunkers surrounding the edges of the fairway that are in play on the tee shot. Reaching the green in two will be very difficult for players who find their drives in one of these hazards.
A view of the green from about 140 yards out.
Here is another view of the green from the 13th tee. This photo does not do it justice but the green is severely sloped from back to front. Being long here will make it very difficult to hold the green on a chip back down the slope.
Hole 13 – Eden – 159 Yards – Par 3
This hole is based on the 11th at St. Andrews’ Old Course. It is a mid-length par 3 with a large green and a long bunker that wraps around the putting surface from the right hand side across the back as well as three other bunkers on the left and front of the hole. The green slopes from back to front which makes reaching a hole location at the back of the putting surface a very difficult shot.
Hole 14 – Cape – 341 Yards – Par 4
These five closing holes at National Golf Links of America are among my favorite holes of all time. The 14th is a short par 4 that moves to the right where the drive is hit over the water. It is possible to be aggressive and hit a tee shot all the way up near the green, but the smart play is a 200-220 yard shot that will leave a short club in to reach the green.
The approach shot into the green. One of the guys in our group hit his drive into the first bunker on the left. With the extremely firm turf conditions there was quite a bit of extra roll out there on the course that made club selection on the tee very important on some holes.
Hole 15 – Narrows – 368 Yards – Par 4
Here we have another shortish par 4 with a variety of bunkers in play off the tee. Again, a driver is an aggressive play here and all that is really needed is a little more than a 200 yard shot.
The approach shot into the green. Note the bunker in the foreground of the photo below. With the firm turf conditions and a well struck drive this bunker is most certainly in play off the tee.
Hole 16 – Punchbowl – 394 Yards – Par 4
Next we have the infamous Punchbowl Hole which is a lengthy par 4 that plays quite a bit uphill. Drives hit to the left side of the fairway will avoid the depression on the right side that makes the approach shot even more blind than than it is from the left side of the fairway.
Below is a photo taken from part way down the depression on the right side of the fairway. All the way down at the bottom the tall directional flag behind the green is not even visible. Unfortunately because of the sun angle I was not able to get a good picture of the punchbowl putting surface.
Hole 17 – Peconic – 342 Yards – Par 4
The next hole is another shortish par 4 that plays downhill. Drives hit down the left side of the fairway will provide the best view into the green.
Here is a look at the approach shot into the green. Drives hit down the right side of the fairway will have an approach shot obscured by the mound and the green will not be visible.
Hole 18 – Home – 483 Yards – Par 5
The home hole is a shortish par 5 that looks to be reachable in two based on the yardage but plays straight uphill which makes it significantly longer. Its difficult to see with the sun setting, but the bunker on the left is in play off the tee.
And a view back down the hole from the behind the green.
After the last putt was holed we lingered on the 18th green (we were the last group on the course) and soaked in the view for a few minutes before saying goodbye to the course. As I mentioned above, I first played National Golf Links at the very beginning of my Top 100 quest which means I did not quite have the same perspective as I do after playing a significant number of top rated courses. I’m happy to report that the course was only elevated in my eyes after seeing it again. To put it simply, I was absolutely smitten with National Golf Links of America. What I love about the course are the quirkily fun holes with blind shots, the playability for all skill levels, the nice mixture of different types of holes and greens that are presented across the course, the aesthetics and texture of the course with its fescue grass, water hazards, bunkering and ever present windmill, and of course the incredibly firm turf we had didn’t hurt matters either. I can say without any shadow of a doubt that National Golf Links on that particular day is the best conditioned course I have ever seen . . . ever. Keep in mind folks that I’m not talking about the lushest, greenest, most manicured course, but the course that has the best playing qualities and that allows for a golf ball to behave the way it was intended to when the game was originally designed so long ago. Kudos to the superintendent at National Golf Links for really knowing how to get the course playing so perfectly. It doesn’t get much better than a great golf course with a staff that knows how to dial it in to perfection.
As we walked back to the parking lot I caught one last final look at the infamous windmill which is shown below. I love the shadow of the single player with his bag about to tee off on the 17th hole. There is something about seeing a fellow golf nut out for a solo round as the sun goes down that just warms my heart and makes me love this game even more. That’s just the sort of thing that I do at home so it’s always comforting to know I’m not alone in my obsession. A perfect end to a perfect day on a perfect golf course.