National Golf Links of America was the last round to fall into place during the New York trip. Whenever I mentioned that I would be playing the course to friends ahead of the round, they all said the same thing, “You won’t find another course like National anywhere else! You’ll love it.” Quirky, fun, and unique were the words that kept coming up, and my excitement for the day steadily grew, especially as we played Shinnecock the day before and peeked through the trees over to National.
The course was designed by C.B. Macdonald and it remains relatively unchanged from its original layout. National Golf Links has never had the pressure to adapt the course for professional tournaments, since it has never hosted a US Open or the like. The only major changes were a new set of tees added for a recent Walker Cup. Although we didn’t play those tees, a friend who has says they elevate the course to an even higher level. Like many MacDonald courses, the layout is comprised of template holes from Scotland. However, at National, they seem to fit the landscape better than nearly anywhere else in the US. National Golf Links of America was formed in 1908 and the Macdonald course opened three years later in 1911.
The round at National Golf Links of America started early in the day. We drove through the imposing gates, changed shoes in the classic and understated locker room, and made our way to the range. The range borders Peconic Bay down the entire left side, which made for a distractingly good view… We met our member host on the range, struck a few more shots, and made our way to the first tee.
Right off the bat I had trouble finding my rhythm at National. I thought I had hit a good drive on the first, but it was too far left, so I lost the ball. I hit my provisional on target down the right, but it went through the fairway, leading to another lost ball in the rough. Two balls lost on the first tee… The tee shot is blind on the 2nd hole and the approach shot is blind on the 3rd. I finally began to settle into the round by the 4th hole. The start reminded me of so many Scottish links that make you think, “I will play that so differently next time!” There is a lot of local knowledge at National, and despite having caddies, they can only help so much when they don’t know your game or distances off the tee. Like so many of the great Scottish links, your strategy and understanding of National would evolve and deepen over time.
I wasn’t able to take as many photos as usual at National, so instead of my typical hole-by-hole review, I want to touch on my favorite points (which are numerous…).
Hole #4 – 181 yards – “Redan” – Similar to the original at North Berwick, this hole slopes from right to left and has a series of bunkers guarding the front. The angle is slightly different than the original, but it may be the closest replica that I’ve seen. As with many other Redans, the margin for error is small on this tough one shot hole.
Hole #6 – 123 yards – “Short” – This was one of my favorite greens on the course. It is massive, and depending on the pin position, it could play in an infinite number of different ways. The front right pin made the effective size of the green much smaller. We aimed about 15 feet left of the pin where a slope carries the ball to the right. The green is very undulating, so make sure you hit to the correct area.
Hole #7 – 467 yards – “St Andrews” – How am I not going to like a hole that is modeled off of one at St Andrews?! The blind tee shot isn’t pictured below, but the approach to the green looks innocuous enough… right? Well, there is a massive bunker behind the green the requires staircases to descend. The bunker on the left – the Road Hole bunker – is almost as deep as Pine Valley’s Devil’s Asshole. It’s not easy.
Hole #8 – 385 yards – “Bottle” – A group of small, narrow bunkers split the fairway down the left. Longer hitters can try to carry them up the left, but most players take it down the right. The green is raised with an intimidating group of bunkers short that collect mishits (see photos below).
Hole #11 – 418 yards – “Plateau” – This was yet another interesting green that marks one of the best back nines you will find in America. Drives end up short of the berm for most players, leaving a semi-blind shot into the green. Two well-placed bunkers prevent thoughtless approach shots. I ended up playing mine out left because of a bunker, even though I now realize I didn’t need to. Congrats, CB Macdonald. You beat me. Does anyone else see the similarities to the sharp mound in front of the fourth on the St Andrews Old Course?
Hole #13 – 159 yards – “Eden” – The Eden green is another nod to St Andrews (Old Course, 11th hole), which is most obviously seen in the bunker in the front center of the green. Distance control is important here, as you want to avoid those front bunkers, but don’t want to go long.
Hole #14 – 341 yards – “Cape” – This hole is a dogleg right with a drive over water. The smart play is a 220-yard shot out to the left, leaving a better angle into the green. A bunker runs down the entire right side of the hole, which is where I took the picture directly below. The second photo shows the small bunkers guarding the left side of the approach shot.
Hole #15 – 368 yards – “Narrows” – The back nine at National Golf Links of America is special, but these final four raise the bar to another level. While this tee shot is fairly straightforward, the approach to the green isn’t easy. Any shot hit long can run over the green and into a lake behind it. Short shots roll back and a bunker collects shots leaked right. Aim center of the green and don’t miss!
Hole #16 – 394 yards – “Punchbowl” – Some of my favorite holes in golf are Punchbowls. In fact, the Course Reviews page on the site uses the Fishers Island Punchbowl for a background image. Well-struck drives can reach the top of this hill on the 16th, but the approach shot is blind no matter where you go. There is an aiming pole behind the green and bunkers short, so take plenty of club and hold the line.
Hole #17 – 342 yards – “Peconic” – The 17th is one of the best views on the golf course. Bunkers down the left and in front of the green capture and misplaced tee shots. The best play is to hit a 220 shot running into the downhill fairway. If you click the photo below to enlarge it, you will see the entrance to National Golf Links just over the right side of this green.
Hole #18 – 483 Yards – “Home” – This hole may seem short, but it plays straight uphill. Big hitters can carry the bunkers on the left side of the fairway, leaving a straightforward approach to the putting surface. It is a great birdie opportunity with a jawdropping view of Peconic Bay.
After the round we enjoyed lobster sandwiches and Arnold Palmers in the Birds Cage, which is the casual screened-in porch overlooking the 18th hole. If the view from Shinnecock’s back porch is the ultimate golf course view, neighboring National Golf Links must have the ultimate water view. You could happily spend all afternoon there soaking in the atmosphere and wondering how you ended up lucky enough to play the course!
I was amazed at how different Shinnecock and National Golf Links are. The two courses border one another, but they couldn’t have been more different. Shinnecock’s layout is right in front of you, while National’s blind shots and hidden features mean you would notice more each round. There are a multitude of different ways to play each hole at National, and like links courses in Scotland, you stand on each green and look back thinking, “Next time I will play this hole differently…” I completely understand why people love NGLA so much and I hope I am able to return one day to peel back the next layer of genius.