The first wind of autumn crept in during the Walker Cup earlier this month, the kind that always invigorates the National GL of America. More than 100 years old and less than 7,000 yards long, National
is one of our country’s oldest and arguably most ideal golf
grounds, yet it regularly confused, confounded and occasionally embarrassed the best of the amateur game when they
visited Long Island, the Americans topping their Great
Britain & Ireland counterparts, 17-9.
It was a pleasure to watch elite golf played in such a
classically idyllic—and too long unseen—setting, one that
offered young talent such a valuable education. So much so,
that, not long after the opening ceremonies, it occurred to
me that for all of us architectural purists, 2013 has been a
very good year.
Against what seemed like all odds in the era of bomb and
gouge, a very representative sampling of revered, shortish,
artistic and charming creations surprisingly (and delightfully) held their own at major professional and amateur
championships. The one-by-one succession of Merion,
Omaha CC and Oak Hill and The Country Club all proved the
virtues of classic architecture are timeless. Overseas,
Muirfield was its usual superlative representative for the old
guard. Meanwhile, perhaps the best barometer of how the
conception of ideal golf is shifting toward venerable gems was
illustrated by the way many British Open competitors raved
about the course outside their hotel window, little North Berwick.
The first domino fell at Merion, which since it last held the
U.S. Open in 1981 was widely considered too short to host the
championship again, another old gray mare from the Golden
Age. The USGA’s decision to return was widely second-
guessed, with the winning score commonly estimated at
double-digit under par. Instead, with the help of some extra-
narrow fairways and a few holes stretched to the max, Merion
was regal, requiring all-around skills too often absent from
today’s elite golf. In the end Justin Rose beat a stellar group
of contenders with a winning total of one over par.
The theme was confirmed at National GL. The course,
tweaked continuously by its founder and designer Charles
Blair Macdonald (with some help from Seth Raynor) from its
opening in 1911 and to Macdonald’s death in 1939, stood
virtually unchanged for the three-quarters of a century
leading up to the 2013 Walker Cup. For the matches the only
alterations to what the membership faces daily involved 38
additional yards to the back tees.
Macdonald’s “Ideal Golf Course” offered a stout history
lesson. The billowing ribbons of wide and firm fairways,
incorrigible fescue, genius-infused bunkering and the
heirloom putting surfaces tested 20 participants in ways that
were new and difficult, but ultimately inspiring and plain fun.
It could have been onerous; course superintendent Bill
Salinetti told me that the greens, which were not rolled Friday,
Saturday or Sunday, still had a full two feet of speed in reserve.
But National is strategic, not penal. Its primary defense is
wind, which Macdonald once described as “the finest asset
in golf.” The 14th hole, Macdonald’s famed Cape, in particular
wore the contestants thin, to the point that U.S. captain Jim
Holtgrieve took time on the first tee Saturday to suggest an
unorthodox approach to his young pinseekers when they got
to the subtle 391-yard par 4. “Just hit the very, very front part
of that green, maybe not even hit the green,” Holtgrieve said.
“But even after we had told a number of people, they were
still not able to play it the way we were telling them.”
All this renewed appreciation for the past bodes well for the
U.S. Open’s visit next June to Pinehurst No. 2, where Bill Coore
and Ben Crenshaw have done a loving renovation that has the
Donald Ross masterpiece looking like it did in the sandy 1950s.
Maybe it was just the autumn wind at National GL, or maybe
the breeze blowing in from Peconic Bay was the fresh wind of
history revisited. Either way, it felt pretty good. N S T E P
BY CHRIS MILLARD ARCHITEC TURE
A good year for classic courses
NATIONAL GL WAS THE LATEST VINTAGE DESIGN TO HOLD ITS OWN WHEN TESTED BY THE MODERN GAME
The 14th hole at
National GL of America