GARDEN CITY, NEW YORK | One of the things that distinguishes golf is that its fields of play are not static stadia but living, breathing things. Courses change and evolve through the years, and as a result they require fairly constant care and consideration. Not surprisingly, the best ones in the land are run by people who understand that in order for their layouts to remain relevant while staying true to original design intents, they must be managed. Which means that on occasion, trees need to be felled and fairways, greens and bunkers restored to their former shapes and sizes.
The Garden City Golf Club on Long Island, N.Y., is one such spot. Last week, the retreat hosted the Walter J. Travis Invitational for the 110th time, and it is worth noting how well its members have tended to what is one of the finest and most historic courses in the country. Most recently, that stewardship has come in the form of a three-phase restoration project overseen by Garden City’s longtime architectural consultant Tom Doak. The results are nothing short of a triumph.
“The idea has been to take things back to 1936, when Garden City hosted the last of its four U.S. Amateurs,” says Merrick McQuilling, 58, who is chairman of the club’s historical committee as well as both its reigning club champion and senior club champion. “In Tom’s view, that is when the golf course played its best and was still very true to its original design intent. We also had aerial photographs from that period that showed us things we could reference from that era, like the sizes and positionings of the greens and bunkers and the fairway lines.”
Garden City is located some 25 miles from midtown Manhattan on a part of Long Island called the Hempstead Plain. The gentle rolling terrain and sandy loam soil are ideal for golf. In 1897, the Garden City Co. hired Devereux Emmet to construct a semi-private nine-hole course as an amenity for residents as well as guests of the Garden City Hotel. The architect routed part of the layout, which was dubbed the Island Golf Club, around a huge gravel pit and over several roads. Soon after, Emmet added a second nine, by which time an old farmhouse was serving as a locker room and an Englishman was charging 50 cents an hour for lessons.
In 1899, the Garden City Co. decided to convert the course to a private club. That spring, the Garden City Golf Club was born. Among the first to join were the great course architect and winner of the inaugural U.S. Amateur, Charles Blair Macdonald, and Walter J. Travis, a native Australian who would become perhaps the finest amateur player of his era. A year later, Travis won the 1900 U.S. Amateur at Garden City. Then in 1902, the club served as the venue for the U.S. Open, with the winner being St. Andrews native Laurie Auchterlonie. The Scotsman played brilliantly that week and became the first man ever to break 80 in each round of the then nascent national championship.
One reason for his success was the recent introduction of the wound, rubber-core Haskell ball, which flew farther and ran longer than the gutta percha. That concerned Garden City members, who did not want their course made obsolete by advances in golf equipment. They asked Travis for help.
Decades later, Garden City brought in Doak. One of his first moves involved the cutting down of trees, including volunteers that had sprouted throughout the property and others that had been planted in the late 1960s as part of a beautification program.
Travis backed up tees and relocated bunkers, and when his work was done, the par-73 course measured nearly 6,500 yards from the back markers, up from a tad more than 6,100. Thankfully, that expansion did nothing to negatively impact what was largely regarded as a testy yet terrific track, with smallish, sloping greens onto which shots in most cases could be run up; short walks between tees and greens; field grass that became wispy and turned a lovely brown-blond in the summer and fall; and devilish cross bunkering. In fact, the general feeling was that the Old Man, as Travis had come to be called, made a good golf course even better. Players loved how much it played like an Old World links, especially when the wind came up, as it so often did on the plain.
Travis continued to make alterations to Garden City through the early part of the 20th century. But little was done to the course after the Old Man went on to his great reward in 1927. The club installed a fairway watering system in 1957 and three years later asked Robert Trent Jones Sr. to make changes to a few of the greens. It also built a short-game area near the 18th green.
Decades later, it brought in Doak. One of his first moves involved the cutting down of trees, including volunteers that had sprouted throughout the property and others that had been planted in the late 1960s as part of a beautification program. Like Travis before, Doak made alterations to accommodate the greater distances golfers hit the ball. Doak also restored the green complex on No. 12 to its initial splendor and used the old aerials to restore the other ones to their old sizes.
“Tom’s work on the tee boxes has been terrific as well,” says McQuilling. “What we hadn’t realized before was how all the topdressing over the years had made the tees anywhere from 18 to 36 inches higher than they were a century ago. And the idea when they were originally created was to have the tees, fairways and greens on more or less the same levels, so golfers’ eyes could be confused by the lack of depth perception. But that element went away as the tees got higher. We did half the tees this past year and will finish them up in the fall.”
Doak also lengthened two of the holes. “He added 45 yards to No. 4 and 36 yards to the eighth,” McQuilling says. “That brought the total yardage of the course to just under 7,000 yards, and we want to keep it there, with par remaining 73. We don’t want to be just another golf course that measures more than 7,000 yards.”
At the same time, Doak has taken care of the shorter hitters by putting in a set of senior tees on every hole, creating a layout that measures 5,650 yards from those markers. “He says that he wants it to be something that 8-year-olds can play, and 88-year-olds, too,” McQuilling adds.
No matter who plays Garden City, they should find plenty to like about the golf course these days. And also in the future, given the ethos of a place that keeps evolving.
Top photo: No. 2 at Garden City Golf Club
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