National Golf Links of America
Green Keeper: Bill Salinetti
In the formative years from 1860 to 1905of 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 sizableportions 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 Purvesat 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 woulddo well to emulate.
However,in 1906, golf course architecture was raised to an evenhigher levelas 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 next30 years, he was determined to build the most noteworthy course outside the British Isles.
Others would famously follow, especially William C. Fownescontinuing on fromhis father at Oakmont, Hugh Wilson at Merion, George Crump at Pine Valley, and Ross at Pinehurst No. 2 but Macdonald’sobsession with the strategic qualities of golf holes was revolutionary in the United States in 1909 when Natioanl finally opened for play.
Starting withhis schooling years in St. Andrews in the 1870sand finalized withhis 1902 and 1904 trips to the Great Britain, Macdonaldgainedan understanding as towhat made some golf holesmore specialthan others. He grasped that strategy makes holes as appealing to play the 100th time as the 1st, 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 better 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 ofthe most famous holes that he had seen overseas.
Once he found what is today’s property,it didn’t take him long to spota fine location for a Sahara hole from Royal St. George’s and anAlps hole from Prestwick, and a Redan hole from North Berwick. Not surprisingly, given his extended timein St. Andrews, The OId Courseheavily influenced his thinking both directlyin the Eden, Long and Road Holeversions he created at The National Links and indirectly through wide fairways andlarge, rolling greens.
Thus, like The Old Course, The NationalLinks remains to this day much morethan a historical relicor museum piece – the dilemmas posed by its golfholes has never dulled. In fact, their timeless appeal highlights a strategicvoid painfully apparentin many courses built since WWII.
A primaryreason that The National Links playsexceptionally well today is because of the work performed by its last two Green Keepers. Firstly,beginning inthe late 1980s, Karl Olsonbegan reversingseveral decadesof neglect by clearing trees and brush, restoringfairway width and playing angles to the course, and recapturing lost bunkers and green sizes.
Then, with the full support of the club boardbehind him, Bill Salinetti, who replaced OlsononFebruary 1st, 2003, has taken the course to the next level by focusing on how the courseactuallyplays. 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, Macdonaldcreated a superlative collection of 18greens. 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 beenbuilt in the United States when the course opened for play in 1909.
Holes to Note
1st, 330 yards, Valley; One of the game’sfinest 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 playerselects from the tee, he will eventually have to negotiate one ofgolf’s most severegreens, 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.
2nd hole, 330 yards, Sahara; Bernard Darwin’s description ofthe Sahara 3rd hole at Royal St. George’sperfectly 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 thethird 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 forsafety, 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 longeraround when the Sahara at Royal St. George’s was converted into a one shot hole in the 1970s (which is proably 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.
3rd 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. The35 yardwide (!) 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.
4th hole, 190 yards, Redan; Of all the versions of the oft-copied Redan, thisone is supreme thanks to a) its glorious natural location and b) its pitched green whose slope is severe enough to help the ball continue torollwhile at the same time not too severe as to reduce the number ofinteresting 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 finechange in direction in a relatively straightforward out and back layout.