St. George’s Golf & Country Club, NY, USA
Nearly all GolfClubAtlas.com aficionados know of Charles Blair McDonald’s travels to the United Kingdom to study its great courses and his subsequent monumental achievement, National Golf Links of America, which helped earn him the moniker “father of American golf architecture.” What is less familiar is the name of Mr. McDonald’s frequent and well-heeled golf and travel partner. A very accomplished player, who also measured the great links and became a prolific designer, he “could not possibly conceive of any other use to which any given piece of real estate could be put except to lay out golf links.” Macdonald’s close friend? Devereux Emmet.
By 1911 Emmett had already achieved success building such New York gems as Garden City Golf Club and Leatherstocking. (Walter Travis would later help elevate Garden City to its present all-world status). Emmet went on to build scores of courses, many more than his confrere but the opening of National Golf Links of America that year changed everything. NGLA’s scale and its design sophistication which infused every hole with character made it the standard against which all other works in America would be judged. Apart from Seth Raynor, who was Macdonald’s construction supervisor, no one had a better vantage point to watch as NGLA unfurled than Emmet who intently studied the entire process. A few years later and after Francis Ouimet’s historic 1913 US Open victory propelled interest in golf to new heights in America, Emmet decided to build his own interpretation of what constituted great golf. The result is his undisputed masterpiece, St. George’s Golf & Country on the north shore of Long Island.
Emmet spent months scouring central Long Island. He closely examined a handful of sites before selecting today’s 150 acre parcel, which is located two miles inland from Long Island sound. Formerly the Williamson farm, the one-off landforms left from the glacial moraines that shaped Long Island piqued his interest. While the soil content is less sandy than on the southern part of the island, it is deemed sandy loam, a critical attribute for anyone who hopes to capture the finest characteristics of courses in Great Britain & Ireland.
As a man of means, Emmet was free to devote his full energy to the design and construction of St. George’s. This was going to be his course for his friends and relatives and he spent his time getting it right. It is a certainty that he gave it his all, a fact that is borne out by the quality of the individual holes today. Play commenced in 1917 and golfers were given something pleasurable to mull over on virtually every shot. The first three club champions were named Emmet but Devereux himself didn’t win until 1919; Richard and Temple Emmet won the first two. Tough family in which to get ahead!
Play back then originated from the 200 year old Williamson farmhouse located behind today’s thirteenth green and the sequence was today’s twelfth through eighteenth followed by the first through eleventh. Yes, that’s right, the course finished with a par 3 hole just like Emmet’s Garden City and Congressional. Before too long, today’s fourteenth became the opener, which meant that the epic thirteenth was the Home hole. Regardless of the sequence of holes, Emmet’s routing gives the golfer a clear sense of the property’s virtues and provides a superb mix of holes. Its downhill holes appeal for different reasons: the twisting fairway at the third, the tenth’s blind shot to a green that runs away, the roller coaster thirteenth where perfect views alternate with blind shots. What goes down has to come up and if the uphill holes are a slog, the overall merit of the course suffers proportionately. Happily, some of the climbers – the superb fifth and fourteenth – are among the course’s best.
Architecture buffs hold the Golden Age in reverence because so many enjoyable courses were produced during that 1900-1938 time frame. Yet, it’s a mistake to lump all Golden Age courses together. Styles and green sophistication evolved dramatically through this era until the start of World War II. Emmet’s crown jewel, composed in the middle of the Golden Age, was much more influenced by Macdonald than Alister MacKenzie whose naturalistic works define the latter period. Emmet and Macdonald were long time friends who traveled together extensively here and abroad. To eavesdrop on their countless conversations as they steamed to and from the British Isles and during their numerous train rides would be priceless!
Macdonald and Emmet had no compunction about building artificial mounds or bunkers with hard edges. To the author, their work symbolizes the first half of the Golden Age and exudes a charm attached to the sport’s foundation in this country. When playing NGLA, Chicago Golf Club or St. George’s, golfers can’t help but feel an intense connection to the game’s roots in the United States. Indeed, that’s very neat. And yet, St. George’s is emphatically not a museum piece, far from it. According to Canadian golf course architect Jeff Mingay, Emmet’s work remains a source of inspiration for modern architects. Mingay explains,
When we started rebuilding the Derrick Club’s course in Edmonton, Alberta earlier this year, my colleague, George Waters, and I talked a lot about how we were going to make a course that stands out as distinct in the region. There’s a dearth of classic architecture in western Canadian, so giving the Derrick an old-fashion look and feel was obvious. The real question was what flavor, exactly. Waters worked on the grounds crew at St. George’s as a kid. He has some great photos of the course that we began studying and I fell in love with the look of St. George’s. The blind hazards, deep bunkers, bizarre-looking mounds and tilted greens are clearly inspired by the classic links of the British Isles. To my eye, each and every hole at St. George’s seems to have a feature or two that makes it unique and memorable. Before we knew it, George and I were talking about Emmet’s architecture for the Derrick. Unlike a lot of his Golden Age contemporaries, Emmet didn’t seem to employ strict rules about needing to see every hazard from the tee or slavishly ensuring that every single feature perfectly harmonized with nature. As a result, parts of his courses look manufactured and certain features are quirky by today’s standards. In many ways, the attractiveness and interest of Emmet’s courses stems from this very awkwardness. The general style of his architecture is truly distinct.
In recent years, St. George’s Golf & Country Club set about highlighting what makes the course unique rather than masking its idiosyncrasies. As recently as 1995, noted course architect and critic Tom Doak was dismissive of its qualities because the course was shrouded in non-indigenous plantings which framed the greens and robbed the holes of the grandeur that existed in Emmet’s day. In the late 1990s, things took a turn for the best when the club engaged Gil Hanse to provide a Master Plan. The adoption of that plan got a shove in the right direction when Adam Jessie arrived from Shinnecock Hills as Green Keeper in 2007 and after the club board led by President John Ammerman embraced the details of Hanse’s vision the following year.
When the right Master Plan, Green Keeper and Board come together, great things can ensue – as they did here in grand fashion! Today’s course bears little resemblance to 1995’s and displays all of the charm and character that existed when Emmet was alive. Put another way, today it is easy to appreciate why Emmet became so enamored with the property and the one of a kind landforms that gave him the platform to build his defining work. Also, the open farmland lent the course a sense of spaciousness generally reserved for links or heathland golf. Add in the texture that Jessie and the club have since carefully cultivated and you end up with a visually striking course. According to Ammerman,
To maintain our focus during each phase of the restoration project we continued to revisit the overarching purpose of the project. That purpose being to unearth the true heart & soul of St. George’s, which is rooted in the great links courses of the British Isles that Emmet understood so well. He conducted detailed studies of those courses with the aim to bring their enduring qualities back to American soil. As Emmet’s home course, it was our goal to have St. George’s once again represent his opus to those great courses. To do so, our restoration efforts were somewhat akin to an archeological dig. With the guidance of Gil Hanse, the historic bones of our course have been uncovered for all to see. Our green committee and Green Keeper Adam Jessie really sank their teeth into the project, patiently following Gil’s plan of restoring width and shot options throughout the design. We now have 31 acres of short fairway grass versus 22 acres when we commenced and that has brought many of Emmet’s bunkers back into play. In essence we peeled back the folds of time to reveal the classic course Devereux Emmet envisioned.
Though National Golf Links is bigger (it is built on more land with wider fairways and longer holes), St. George’s shares its defining characteristic: startlingly unique holes on American soil. Many of NGLA’s holes have famously been used as templates and their design principles replicated at several dozen courses. The same is not true for St. George’s; most of it is as fresh today as when the course opened. Its most distinctive holes (and there are many) are featured below.
Holes to Note
Third hole, 410 yards, Perfection; Considering Emmet’s love of classic golf it’s no surprise that the golfer is unlikely to see his ball finish in the fairway on a third of the holes. Here the fairway plunges sharply downhill and out of view over the hill’s brow but its cant to the left provides golfers the real opportunity to have their tee ball find the only level patch of fairway long down the left side.
Fourth hole, 360 yards, Stey Brae; Though Golden Age architects generally didn’t believe in doubly penalizing golfers, stacked bunkers (i.e. one bunker in front of another) are featured here. Rare Golden Age examples include the pair of bunkers at the foot of the ninth green at Essex County north of Boston and the ones front right at the seventeenth green at Southern Hills. Yet, everywhere with which the author is familiar, the front bunker is always the lower one. In a positively unique twist, Emmet built the front bunker at grade with the fairway and hid a seven foot deep moat bunker behind it. The massive pushed up green pad is equally bold and is bunkered left, right and wrapped behind by a good old fashioned ninety degree inverted L shaped bunker. Though Emmet moved a lot of dirt in the creation of this green complex, he did so in a manner that appears as if he hadn’t. This is one of the most distinctive green complexes in world golf, all thanks to the imagination and creativity of Emmet. The blind drive up a hill isn’t riveting and this finger of the property up top is uncharacteristically featureless, yet Emmet built a singular hole. That’s architecture at its best with man creating the golfing appeal when nature didn’t.
Eighth hole, 380 yards, Dog’s Leg; Measuring less than 6,300 yards, the tiger might think that he will have his way with St. George’s. Yet, par is a tight 70 and bunches of birdies never seem to materialize. This hole with its two magnificent bunkers and imaginative green contours epitomizes how Emmet packed a punch every step of the way.
Tenth hole, 375 yards; The original access road to the Williamson farmhouse runs through the course with holes four through ten located on the opposite side. As its delightfully antiquated name ‘Lower Sheep Pasture Road’ implies, the road was an integral part of Emmet’s routing. The placement of the tenth green at the base of the hill sandwiched against the road was especially clever. Similar to the one shot seventh, the area five to twenty yards short of the green becomes the golfer’s focus.