National Golf Links of America
NY, USA pg iii

Fourteenth hole, 360 yards, Cape; The Cape hole is a Macdonald original, a strategic marvel the equal of any of the holes that he copied from Great Britain. The ‘bite off as much as you dare’ aspect of a diagonal carry remains as fresh today as it was in Macdonald’s day even though the aggressive line off the tee continues to slide to the right with advances in technology. As George Bahto points out, this present green complex and the one on the 17th are the only two non-original ones from when the course first opened. Macdonald shifted this green thirty yards backwards and inland in the 1920s when today’s entrance road was created in the 1920s (the 17th was shifted 35 yards back at the same time). Orginally, both the tee ball and the approach flirted with the same water hazard and indeed, that remains the accurate definition of a true Cape hole.

The thrilling diagonal carry off the tee has not diminished with time.

In true links fashion, the rolling 14th fairway rarely provides a level stance for one’s approach.

Fifteenth hole, 395 yards, Narrows; Robert Tyre Jones’s favorite hole, the 15th shares a common design trait with the other two shotters on the course: they play equally well downwind or into the wind. Macdonald’s design secret was not to seal off the fronts of the putting surfaces. Only in that manner is a player given the freedom to land a ball well short of the green downwind and conversely, hit a low runner for an approach when into the wind. That message was totally lost among architects from 1950 until Pete Dye’s first version of Crooked Stick and The Golf Club.

The view from the 15th tee captures both the 15th hole with its white flag just left of the tree in the middle of the picture and the 16th hole (the people are on that tee) as it swings uphill past the huge bunker.

The bunker in the right foreground is 60 yards from the front edge of the green and though it may not look it, there is actually 30 yards of fairway between the left bunker and the putting surface.

Note the proximity of the 16th tee to the 15th green.

Sixteenth hole, 405 yards, Punchbowl; Macdonald captured some of the fun and sporting spirit of the game when he designed this blind approach to a punchbowl green. Though Macdonald thought that Prestwick and Royal St. George’s had too many blind shots (‘more than three blind shots are a defect and they should be at the end of a fine long shot only’), he clearly liked the element of chance and mystery that a random blind approach shot afforded a course. His associate Seth Raynor would later build the ultimate Alps/Punchbowl hole at the 4th at Fishers Island.

Uphill shots are generally visually unappealing. Not so here, thanks both to the windmill and more importantly, the huge bunker that breaks up the slope and adds interest to the golfer’s eye.

This unique bunker is fifty yards shy of the punchbowl green. Note the directional marker in the background.

Seventeenth hole, 360 yards, Peconic; Playing angles abound off the 17th tee, with Macdonald doing little to guide the golfer as to how the hole should best be played. Should one go well right and flirt with the central bunkers in the fairway for the sake of a look at the putting surface? Or should one go down the middle and have a shorter though semi-blind approach? Perhaps downwind, the golferis willing to risk the longest carry off the tee in exchange for the best view of the putting surface? Of course, whichever decision one makes today, the odds are that the wind will be suchas to elicit a different decision tomorrow.

Should the golfer go long left, straight or to the right off the 17th tee?

This man didn’t quite make the needed carry for going long left.

The man who went right has this reasonable view of the 17th green, though he had to flirt with the central fairway bunker.

From this angle in the center left of the fairway, the white flag is barely visible through the grasses atop the sand ridge and the green is completely obscured.

Eighteenth hole, 510 yards, Home; Like the Home hole at St. Andrews, this one is not the hardest hole on the course but it is capable of producing swings of fortune. According to Bernard Darwin, ‘Finally, there is, I think, the finest eighteenth hole in all the world. The tee shot must be hit straight and long between a vast bunker on the left which whispers ‘slice’ in the player’s ear, and a wilderness on the right which induces a hurried hook. Then if the drive had been far and sure there is a grand slashing second to be hit over a big cross-bunker, and at last comes a little running shot at once pretty and terrifying on to a green of subtle undulations backed by a sheer drop into speakable perdition.’ And with technology having brought the green in reach in two for some (though that can involve throwing a ball out over the cliff and letting the wind bring it back), any score from a 3 to an 8 awaits, which is why it is such a favorite Home hole.

When play commenced in 1909, the course measured 6,100 yards and when Macdonald died in 1939, it measured 6,700 yards. Every hole had had something done to it. As Macdonald stated, ‘A first-class course can only be made in time. It must develop. The proper distance between the holes, the shrewd placing of bunkers and other hazards, the perfecting of putting greens, all must be evolved by a process of growth and it requires study and patience.’ A few tees like the 2nd and 8th have been since been extended and today’s course now measures almost 6,900 yards.

How then does Macdonald’s masterpiece stand up today versus the great courses built since its opening? Does it feature thrilling topography as at Pine Valley? Yes. Does the setting inspire like those at Pebble Beach and Cypress Point? For many, yes. Does The National Links feature width of play and enjoyment for all levels of golfers as at Royal Melbourne? Yes. Does it reward approaches from particular spots in the fairway like Merion? Yes. Does it enjoy an expansive feel like Sand Hills? Yes. Is the wind a key factor as at Royal County Down? Yes. Is there any disappointing aspect to The National Links? Yes, that subsequent architects evidently failed to appreciate many of its design merits.

In sum, does National Golf Links of America still deserve to be considered amongst the handful of greatest courses? Yes, absolutely. To quote Darwin again, ‘Those who think that it is the greatest golf course in the world may be right or wrong, but are certainly not to be accused of any intemperateness of judgment. The National Links is a truly great course; even as I write I feel my allegiance to Westward Ho! to Hoylake, to St. Andrews tottering to its fall.’

The End