National Golf Links of America
Green Keeper: Bill Salinetti
In the formative years from 1860 to 1905 of golf course architecture, the game was very fortunate to attract men who were filled with passion for the sport and who were willing to devote sizable portions of their life to the development of particular courses. Men like Old Tom Morris at Prestwick and then The Old Course at St. Andrews, Laidlaw Purves at Royal St. George’s, Willie Park at Huntercombe, H.C.Leeds at Myopia Hunt, Walter Travis at Ekwanok, Herbert Fowler at Walton Heath set standards prior to 1905 that any architect today would do well to emulate.
However,in 1906, golf course architecture was raised to an even higher level as so began Charles Blair Macdonald’s life long involvement with National Golf Links of America. Not immodestly, he anticipated that it would be viewed as his lasting monument. From the care he devoted to the selection of the property to the refinements he made to it over the next 30 years, he was determined to build the most noteworthy course outside the British Isles.
Others would famously follow, especially William C. Fownes continuing on from his father at Oakmont, Hugh Wilson at Merion, George Crump at Pine Valley, and Ross at Pinehurst No. 2 but Macdonald’s obsession with the strategic qualities of golf holes was revolutionary in the United States in 1909 when National finally opened for play.
Starting with his schooling years in St. Andrews in the 1870s and finalized with his 1902 and 1904 trips to the Great Britain, Macdonald gained an understanding as to what made some golf holes more special than others. He grasped that strategy makes holes as appealing to play the 100th time as the first, if not more so. Furthermore, he understood that sandy soil was a must for the ‘ideal’ course, that wind was crucial, and that the setting should be predominately treeless, as trees reduce the challenge by blocking the wind and providing depth perception.
Convinced of the merits of his convictions, he stumped around eastern Long Island in search for a site that would allow him to capture the playing qualities of the most famous holes that he had seen overseas.
Once he found what is today’s property, it didn’t take him long to spot a fine location for a Sahara hole from Royal St. George’s and an Alps hole from Prestwick, and a Redan hole from North Berwick. Not surprisingly, given his extended time in St. Andrews, The OId Course heavily influenced his thinking both directly in the Eden, Long and Road Hole versions he created and indirectly through wide fairways and large, rolling greens.
Thus, like The Old Course, The National Links remains to this day much more than a historical relic or museum piece – the dilemmas posed by its golf holes have never dulled. In fact, their timeless appeal highlights a strategic void painfully apparent in many courses built since WWII.
A primary reason that The National Links plays exceptionally well today is because of the work performed by its last two Green Keepers. Firstly, beginning in the late 1980s, Karl Olson began reversing several decades of neglect by clearing trees and brush, restoring fairway width and playing angles to the course, and recapturing lost bunkers and green sizes.
Then, with the full support of the club board behind him, Bill Salinetti, who replaced Olson on February 1st, 2003, has taken the course to the next level by focusing on how the course actually plays. Gone are the days where the fairways played slow and where practically the only way for a ball to end in a bunker was if it went in on the fly. Fast and firm playing conditions are the rule now with the ball bouncing every which way on both the fairways and the greens. When coupled with many ‘new’ vexing hole locations that haven’t been used in years, The National now has plenty of teeth. For instance, in the 2003 Singles which annually comprises one of the strongest amateur fields in the country, only three players broke the par of 73.
Set over a whopping 350 acres, the holes match the grandness of the rolling property and the golf here is bold and broad shouldered. The golfer feels like he can hit out as opposed to guiding the ball through narrow playing corridors. In the past decade, such architects as Bill Coore & Ben Crenshaw, Gil Hanse, Tom Doak, Mike Devries, Mike Strantz, and Brain Silva have returned to this fundamental concept of giving the golfer room to play.
Equally as impressive as the tee to green aspect of the course are its putting surfaces. At the point that Macdonald and Raynor commenced construction on The National Links, the finest greens in the country possessed more pitch/tilt than imaginative interior contours. With the greens at St. Andrews at the forefront of his thought process, Macdonald created a superlative collection of 18 putting surfaces. Similar to the ones on The Old Course, they are immense in size (some 170,000 (!!) sq. ft. in total) and run the full gamot from wildly undulating (e.g. the 1st, 6th, and 11th) to pitched to punchbowl to a few relatively flat ones (e.g. 9 and 17). The greens far and away surpassed any other than those at Oakmont that had been built in the United States when the course opened for play in 1909.
Holes to Note
First, 330 yards, Valley; One of the game’s finest openers, options are presented to the golfer straightaway: take a shorter club and go down the safer right side and face a blind approach or hit driver down the left and have a short pitch to the visible green. Of course, Greg Norman played it a third way: he blasted a three wood into the front left bunker, splashed out to a foot, and was off with a quick birdie. No matter which tact the player selects from the tee, he will eventually have to negotiate one of golf’s most severe greens, made so not by tilt but by savage interior contours. More than one player has taken a seven (including four putts) after driving within 60 yards of this green.
Second hole, 330 yards, Sahara; Bernard Darwin’s description of the Sahara 3rd hole at Royal St. George’s perfectly captures the merits of the 2nd hole here as well: ‘When a name (Sahara) clings to a hole we may be sure that there is something in that hole to stir the pulse, and in fact, there are few more absolute joys than a perfectly hit shot that carries the heaving waste of sand which confronts us on the third tee. The shot is a blind one, and we have not the supreme felicity of seeing the ball pitch and run down into the valley to nestle by the flag. We see it for a long time, however, soaring and swooping over the desert, and when it finally disappears, we have a shrewd notion as to its fate. If the wind be fresh against us, we must play away to the right for safety, and the glorious enjoyment of the hole is gone, but even so a good shot will be repaid, and every yard that we can go to the left may make the difference between a difficult and an easy second.’ Darwin was no longer around when the Sahara at Royal St. George’s was converted into a one shot hole in the 1970s (which is probably just as well!) but at least he would take delight in how this half par hole at The National Links confounds golfers to this day.
Third hole, 430 yards, Alps; Macdonald’s homage to the Alps at Prestwick is an improvement on the original as the drive holds more interest. The approach over the top of a fescue covered hill is one where it is difficult for the golfer not to look up and sneek a peek before he has completed the downswing. The 35 yard wide (!) green has some twenty yards of fairway in front of it, just enough room and margin of error for a long approach. The vast green is fiercely contoured and four putts can occur. The author considers the approach the game’s finest blind shot.
Fourth hole, 190 yards, Redan; Of all the versions of the oft-copied Redan, this one is supreme thanks to a) its glorious natural location and b) its pitched green whose slope is severe enough to help the ball continue to roll while at the same time not too severe as to reduce the number of interesting hole locations. Interestingly enough, the high to low point on the green is a whopping five feet. In terms of routing, this hole represents a fine change in direction in a relatively straightforward out and back layout.