Just before noon, rather than sit in my comfortable yet overpriced hotel room and do school work, which I of course should have and for which I paid dearly upon my return home, I ventured down to Bethpage, with the intention to walk around, hit some putts, and drink a warm-up beer. My tee-time at Piping Rock was “sometime after 2pm”, a schedular vagueness you quickly get used to in this pursuit. I figured that the fine folks at Piping Rock wouldn’t take too kindly to a rater showing up a few hours early to hog the practice facility, lounge in the library, sip a scotch near the fire place in the men’s locker room, and just generally pretend to be a member of the “Gold Coast” WASP gentry.
Anyways, there was only so much window shopping I could do at the Americana Manhasset, an “outlet” mall near my Holiday Inn Express, featuring Gucci, Prada, Burberry, and the like. Furthermore, I hadn’t returned to Bethpage in twelve or thirteen years. “The Black” was the first major championship course I ever played. To do so, my father and I spent the night in our car, received our bakery ticket from the flashlight bearing marshal, queued outside the pro shop at some ungodly hour of the morning, paid our rather reasonable fee, and warmed up on the sharply downhill range until it was time to tee off, eyes bloodshot and bodies ragged. We hadn’t planned on doing this the first evening of the trip, but, this being at the very infancy of the smart-phone era, the hotel we’d booked through some call-in service on the way down turned out to be, let’s just politely say, not what we’d been sold. Even my father, whose idea of a fine overnight establishment was a Motel 6, was shocked (and probably scared like I was) when we pulled in and saw open and missing doors, cars on cinder blocks in the parking lot, and folks sitting in white plastic chairs on the outdoor concourse, beadily eyeing us while drinking malt liquor wrapped in brown bags. It seemed as good a place as any to get your pockets cleaned and ass kicked. Frankly, I can’t recall why we didn’t just decide to go to another hotel.
I can’t admit that I overly enjoyed the whole buildup to Bethpage experience, and that I am dying to go through it again. I’ll take an overly priced hotel bed, a shower, a sit down breakfast, and a tee-time set well in advance, thank you very much. But it’s an experience. And I imagine it’s different with a bunch of buddies than with your old man.
Even at that age, I could already recognize that Bethpage had its flaws, especially on and around the greens thanks to Rees Jones’ neutering of them, yet the scale was truly awe-inspiring and so far greater than anything I had experienced up to that point in my golfing life. The only thing I could compare it with was when I first emerged from the cramped, dark, humid, and gloomy concourse of the Stade Olympique in Montreal and saw sprawled out in front of me, from one edge of my eyesight to the other, the sharp green field, the yellow bleachers, the massive scoreboard, and the white canvas roof overhead. In fact, Frank Lloyd Wright often used this experiential effect—termed “compress and release”—in his works, as the restrictiveness of the first space makes the expansiveness of the second all the greater.
Upon rounding Bethpage’s red brick clubhouse, which is perched almost at the edge of the ridge overlooking the massive plain where the Red and Black courses begin and culminate, even the most well-travelled of golfer’s breath is sure to be momentarily halted by the scene that awaits him/her: to the left, the winding first fairway of the red course that, in its last hundred yards, snakes up a nearly vertical ridge atop which its green is set amidst towering pines; in the middle, the 18th fairway of the Black Course, and the sprawling bunker complexes that tightly pinch it from both sides; in the background, the similarly massive and fingered bunkers fronting the 17th green; further back, the 16th green and 15th fairway; in the front and center, the 1st fairway which is engulfed by an ocean of golden fescue and bends sharply to the right around a handful of miniscule looking trees; and to the right, the first hole of the green course (I believe), which similarly opens with a plunging tee shot off the ridge to a ribbon-like fairway at the bottom.
The scene that greets the golfer at Piping Rock is of a similar scale. Upon emerging from the tight alley that passes between the main clubhouse and detached ladies locker room, the awed reaction I had to the grandeur of the driving range (which originally served as the club’s polo field and is, I joke not, three hundred yards, or so, in width), the terrifying height of green-side bunker face guarding the inside of the redan 3rd beyond the back of the range, and the cluster of bunkers just short of the first green traced back to when I first entered the cavern of Olympic Stadium, when I first rounded the clubhouse at Bethpage and, later, at Augusta National, when I first chased my tee-ball over the ridge of Old Macdonald’s 3rd hole and saw the rest of the course juxtaposed against the bright blue backdrop of the Pacific Ocean.
Being at Piping Rock feels akin to being in a Fitzgerald novel. With its white pillared colonial clubhouse that overlooks the front nine, to the dozen grass tennis courts (where it is still required to wear white from head to toe), to the crocket court set near the putting green and range, to the wood paneling and brown-leather upholstered furniture all throughout the interior of the clubhouse, it’s not hard to think that you are walking in the footsteps of those after whom Fitzgerald modelled his Gatsbys, Buchanans, Bakers, Divers, and Patches. As someone who considers Fitzgerald his favourite writer and the greatest one that America has yet produced, I felt like a comic book fan dressing up to go ComicCon (or whatever the hell those people do).
Not even the rapidly eastward sweeping thunderstorm, in which a mad flurry of pelting hail was mixed for a few minutes, could dampen my spirit. Frankly, even a few weeks later, as I sit here writing in my study ten hours away, I still haven’t fully sobered for the narcotic of the round. Prior to playing it, I must confess that I didn’t really “get” the whole infatuation with C.B. Macdonald, from his words to his work to reconstructing the Lido, but now I do, now I fully am a converted member to the Evangelist’s congregation. And since, as I’ve plodded along comparatively uninspiring and spiritless modern links, I’ve felt akin to Nick Carraway starring with awe at Gatsby’s effervescent mansion, or even to Gatsby eyeing the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock across the day.
The majority of those who frequent and are members of Piping Rock, C.B. Macdonald’s first course after National Golf Links of America, belong to a stratosphere of society, a world that is and will always be inaccessible to those such as myself, and even to those such as Gatsby, the new money set. This is East Egg, not West Egg, and Piping Rock, like Fitzgerald’s fictional neighborhood and all that it symbolizes, is a club of the blood, not of the wallet. As my caddy joked, “you’ll find more people here with bloodlines back to the Mayfair than not.”
I don’t mean to imply, however, that the club is pretentious or stuffy; in fact, like most clubs I’ve yet visited of this stature, there is a laid back comfort, a sense of assurance and aplomb that prevails in its atmosphere. New money tends to show off, to need to make its new money visible, to make sure that you know that you don’t have as much new money. There were not any fire red Ferraris, or dazzling Porches, or tank-like G Wagons in the parking lot. There were no personalized carts. There is no halfway house, nor music being piped onto the range, and cell-phones are prohibited anywhere around the clubhouse except in the designated phone booths. The members dawned tame clothing and quiet dispositions, and the staff was friendly if slightly business like. In fact, I saw as many members under the age of twenty as I did fully grown ones. This is a proper club of the old school. A family club, if your family’s lineage traces to the Whitneys or Rockefellers, of course.
Legend goes that C.B. Macdonald, who, according to all accounts, was never the most easy-going and co-operative person to work with, was upset that the club forbade him to route any holes over the polo ground (which is now the range), and, as a result, essentially let Seth Raynor, then still a relative novice at the craft, run the project for him. My caddy, who seemed extremely knowledgeable about the history of the club, said that Raynor mostly built the back nine himself. In truth, the back nine, which occupies the more tumbling and better portions of the property to the south and east of the clubhouse, does feel a lot more geometrical and “angly” than the front, two characteristics I tend to associate with Raynor. Perhaps this is just me, and frankly I am not well versed enough in the history of the club to know with certainty if this is true.
My caddy also mentioned that the 4th and 5th holes, which run in opposite directions through a little corridor jutting out from the northern most boundary of the property, are also unoriginal. This I can also believe, and, in truth, they’re probably the two worst holes among the eighteen. My first drive on the insanely right to left canted 4th landed in the right edge of the fairway, yet finished in the left bunker. For fun, I attempted a second, which I hit into the right rough with a fade, and it still ran down almost across the fairway. There’s nothing wrong with the fifth, a short and semi-blind driveable par 4, but it’s not up to the standard of the rest. I also found odd the fact that the club opts to mow the front and lower sections of the Biarritz (the 9th) at fairway length, but, according to my quick search on GCA, they’ve done so forever; considering the firmness of the ground, however, a scooting ball that lands at the front, or down in the trench, can still climb up to the back platform.
Everything prior and everything after them, however, is impeccable. I don’t particularly enjoy hole-by-hole tours (and I tend to not like to snap many pictures when I play), so, out of selfishness, I won’t write one. Yet I will highlight the redan 3rd, the knoll 13rd (in particular), and the up and down 15th and 16th as my favourites.
Currently, Top100golfcourses ranks it 52nd in the U.S., Golf Magazine 56th, and Golfweek 40th (classic). I’d say, with certainty, that it’s still underrated.