Whippoorwill Club, New York, USA
Some sites better suit certain architects and some architects are better suited for a particular site. Alister MacKenzie and the sand in California, Donald Ross and the Pinehurst sandhills and Seth Raynor in the rocky Northeast at Yale and Fishers Island are marriages made in heaven. So too is Charles Banks and the Whippoorwill Club.
In 1928, Fred Ruth sought an architect to build a high quality 18 hole course over heaving, rocky terrain 35 miles north of New York City. Such land would have been deemed too inhospitable at the start of the Golden Age but by the late 1920s, modern machinery made such course construction feasible. However, it required the right architect, one capable of massive yet graceful earthmoving. Ruth knew just who to call: Charles Banks, with whom he had worked a decade earlier at another of his developments, the Mid Ocean Club on Bermuda.
Interestingly enough, a nine hole Ross course existed on the current clubhouse side of the road and it is not clear why it was deemed expendable. Nonetheless, as part of the new development, Banks was given land west of Whippoorwill Road that Ross never had access to and where holes 4 through 9 and 12 through 14 now reside.
What Banks created is a course that possesses all the necessary ingredients of a cult classic – beauty, strategy, one-off landforms, hazardous hazards and greens with great character. Indeed, the author doesn’t understand why Whippoorwill doesn’t have a legion of devoted followers like a Cruden Bay or St. Enodoc. Perhaps it’s because too many ill-advised tree plantings and small cramped bunkers impeding the scale of Banks’ masterpiece existed a few years ago. Under the watchful eye of Tripp Davis, architect on record, and Green Keeper Paul Gonzalez, such blemishes have been steadily removed. Today, the course is a design standout that showcases Banks’ distinctive style.
Who is this man Charles Banks and how did a former English teacher at the famous Hotchkiss preparatory school and graduate of Hotchkiss and Yale become interested in golf course architecture? George Bahto, the preeminent authority on Charles Blair Macdonald, Seth Raynor and Charles Banks, explains in his 1993 book The Legend of the Knoll:
Banks was a member of the school’s building committee, which in 1924 hired Raynor to build a first-rate golf course for Hotchkiss, a nine-hole course featuring two sets of tees. Banks worked closely with Raynor and, as he watched him work, reversing the original routing of the course and adding eight new tees and greens, he became fascinated with course design and construction. Soon he left the school and joined Raynor’s firm. He quickly became a partner and they collaborated on the construction of many outstanding courses. Less than two years passed and, just as Banks was beginning to attain recognition on his own merit, Seth Raynor died of pneumonia. Raynor’s death, in January 1926 at the age of 47, occurred while the firm had more than 10 courses in various stages of construction. Although grief stricken by the loss of his dear friend, Banks immediately took charge and went on to complete those courses as well as almost 20 more he designed on his own.
Sadly, George Bahto passed away in March 2014. During the previous fall, he forwarded me the following quote (source unknown) from Banks on his work at Whippoorwill:
……. theoretically, it is desirable to select ideal land, yet, practically, it is often out of the question. The Whippoorwill property, owned by the Whippoorwill Holding Corporation, is about eight hundred acres in extent. Most of this property is very rocky. Great areas through the valleys were of solid granite with scarcely any covering of soil. The land on the top of the hill had been improved for golf course purposes, but about half of this had to be abandoned and the remainder entirely reconstructed and reconditioned to make a first class course, suitable for a very high class development. The layout made by the golf architect was finally settled upon with three main things in mind: (1) To secure an outstanding course; (2) To utilize a large amount of acreage which was not suitable for building sites; (3) To beautify and enhance the value of the adjoining property. The operation was a costly one from the standpoint of comparative figures, but the results will more than justify the expense. This is a case (and there are many such) where a first class course was vital to the interests of the development. The architect had in this case to make his choice, under certain restrictions, from land, all of which was difficult in topography and expensive to build on.
Bahto spoke glowingly about Forsgate and The Knoll (where people from Jackie Gleason to Gene Sarazen once hung out) but he considered Whippoorwill to be Bank’s unquestioned masterpiece. From Banks’ statement, one can readily appreciates the challenges that he faced with this project. Yet, the course turned out so well, it is tempting to compare it not to Banks’ own work but to his mentor’s, Seth Raynor, whose name is attached to five courses in the current GOLF Magazine world top 100.
If anything, Banks is seen to be more daring than Raynor, building taller green pads (and therefore deeper bunkers) and more pronounced green contours. After all, Banks worked on and ultimately completed Raynor’s most jaw-dropping design (Yale) after Raynor’s untimely death. Both men had a knack for routing courses and were staunch disciples of the Macdonald school of strategic design. Given their appreciation of the principles found within Macdonald’s favorite template holes, Raynor and Banks courses are guaranteed to pose one appealing question after another to the golfer, as we see below.
Holes to Note
First hole, 375 yards; A really fine opening hole where Banks introduces the golfer to one of the primary challenges at Whippoorwill: controlling the flight of the ball from a sloping stance. Here, a well placed tee ball ends up below the right handed golfer’s stance, forcing him to make some minor adjustments to avoid seeing his approach bleed too far right. At 7,100 square feet, the modified, reverse Redan green provides an appealing target as one eases into the round. Yet, similar to Yale hitting the green in regulation only introduces the golfer to the challenge of getting down in two putts from 40-80 feet throughout the round.
Second hole, 350 yards; Some members consider this their least favorite hole. That’s saying something because this hole still has presence. Well bunkered, the golfer tries to fit a tee ball between the short bunkers right and the one long left. The sight of a well struck tee ball falling nearly 70 feet into the landing area is a most pleasing one. So why the muted applause? Because the green is a rare tame one on the course and an oddity for a downhill hole of modest length. Still, the putting surface at 4,500 square feet is the smallest target on the course, has a false front, and deep bunkers wedge against its base left and right. If this is the ‘worst’ hole on the course; this is one exceptionally fortunate membership!
Fourth hole, 155 yards; After crossing Whippoorwill Road, the character of the property changes and Banks takes the golfer on an adventure across one of inland golf’s most rollicking run of holes. The fourth introduces the golfer to the first prototypical Macdonald/Raynor/Banks hole, their famous Short. Tripp Davis did well to unwind the consequence of two small oval bunkers in the front that diminished the scale of Banks’ design and that were woefully out of place on this big boned property/course.
Fifth hole, 455 yards; Located in golf rich Westchester County, Whippoorwill’s trump card is that it possesses more ‘Oh My Gosh’ moments than any other course in the area, including even Sleepy Hollow. This is the first and standing on the back tee, the golfer can’t help but feel a little inadequate against the burly challenge before him.
Sixth hole, 540 yards; Banks follows a par 4½ hole with another ½ par but this time it’s read as a par 5. Par is irrelevant and many modern architects must learn to make the game a pleasurable challenge. On such rambunctious terrain, it would be quite easy to overwhelm the golfer and Banks shrewdly sandwiched this potential birdie hole between the toughest two shot holes on the course. Ross never worked on this portion of the property so one can only wonder if he would have routed such a hole. Since Banks was so integral to the construction of Yale, he had intimate knowledge of its iconic Home hole and that surely helped him exploit the possibilities here.