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Is This Golf Heaven? No, it's Long Island

By Nick Nicholas, Contributor

Long Islanders are allowed to blow their horn as much as they want about the wealth of links-style golf courses in their backyard. As deafening as they want, too.

Technically speaking, you could watch the U.S. Open Thursday at Shinnecock Hills Golf Club and the next day, if you're incredibly lucky or highly resourceful, you could play Bethpage Black, the 2002 and 2009 U.S. Open. That's a scenario most eminent golf destinations can't claim.

There are more than 100 courses on Long Island, a stretch of land approximately 120 miles long and 40 miles wide. Many are private venues, the kind where, unless you have friends in sky-scraping places, the front gate will be the closest you ever get.

And there are plenty of famous gates to visit near Shinnecock. Like the ultra-private National Golf Links, the Charles Blair Macdonald course that some Long Islanders claim is better than this year's U.S. Open venue. Willie Park Jr.'s Maidstone and Rees Jones' Atlantic also are in this exclusive vicinity. You simply won't find many better foursomes than that anywhere in the world.

Don't stop there though. Closer to New York City in western Long Island sits Deepdale Golf Club, home course to actor Sean Connery when he visits, as well as NBC anchor Tom Brokaw. Bob Hope was a member there, too. Not far away is another tradition-rich course, the Piping Rock Club designed by Macdonald and Seth Raynor. Garden City played host to the 1902 U.S. Open. And Bobby Jones captured his first major championship at Inwood Country Club when he won the 1923 U.S. Open.

Then there's Meadow Brook Golf Club where Gary Player and Lee Trevino each posted multiple victories in the Long Island Classic. The Champions Tour event continues to be held on Long Island, but now on Eisenhower Park's Red Course.

Relatively new ultra exclusive gems on Long Island include Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore's Friar's Head (about $300,000 to join) and Rees Jones' Bridge (can you spare $500,000 for a membership?).

In fact, Long Island's wealthy aura, especially the well-to-do bunch in the Hamptons, can petrify most folks. But plenty of affordable opportunities exist are on Long Island. And they're not simply run-of-the-mill public courses, but an ideal mix of layouts within a three-wood of some of the country's foremost links courses.

Is there anywhere on Long Island with more honored fairways for public play than Bethpage Black in Farmingdale? In 2002, the A.W. Tillinghast design/Rees Jones $3 million makeover stretched 7,214 yards, creating the all-time longest U.S. Open site. Today, the first municipal course to play host to a U.S. Open continues to top New Yorker's yearly must-play list. But earlier this year that wasn't the case.

It hasn't been too long ago when the Black thawed from a nasty winter. Mother Nature put its bite on its greens, forcing players to play many temporary surfaces until the originals healed. But the last temporary green - the par-4 opening hole - has been removed and it's back to normal at the 2009 U.S. Open site. If you're planning to play the Black the day after Sunday's final round at Shinnecock, look elsewhere. The Black is closed on Mondays.

The facility's four other courses maintain their consistent popularity as regulars also camp out to play the Red, Blue, Yellow and Green courses. It's the Red Course, according to facility director Dave Catalano, which gets more play than the Black.

Green fees continue to be reasonable. In-state residents pay less than $40 - including the Black, but you have to walk. And, while rates aren't that cheap for non-New Yorkers, they're still more reasonable than most resort courses.

The Links at Shirley opened four years ago east of Bethpage and right off the Long Island Expressway. The 7,030-yard, par-72 course is known for its distinctive swales, waste bunkers, and reasonable rates. It also has an elaborate 18-hole lighted par-3, with holes ranging from 90 to 171 yards.

There is a solid mix of short, lengthy and risk-reward tests. The Links at Shirley experience includes a diminutive 137-yard par-3 and 340-yard par-4 from the back tees, and a back-to-back monstrous par-4 challenge (Nos. 14-15) of 466 and 457 yards, respectively. Rates are $65 Monday-Thursday and $80 Friday-Sunday. Players are not charged for carts during mid-day and twilight rates.

Tallgrass in Shoreham is another newly unveiled course in Linksland USA. Routed on a sod farm, Tallgrass is considered a more player-friendly version of Long Island National.

The links-style course gives off a relatively flat appearance, but there is a 30-foot valley that defines three holes. "When people go to Shinnecock, that's a links-style course and that's what we have here," says Tallgrass attendant Rich Hartill. "But you're not going to see rough like they have on their course." Weekday rates are as high as $60 (there are early-morning and mid-afternoon specials) and $75 on weekends.

Hailed as one of the country's must-play public courses, Montauk Downs is near the tip of Long Island's eastern edge. In many ways it's similar to Bethpage Black. It's managed by the state, a renowned architect designed it, and during summer months plenty of players arrive before sunrise. New York residents have an advantage before reaching the first tee. Their green fees are $30 on weekdays and $36 on weekends. Simply double that for out-of-state visitors.

Long Island golf connoisseur Jim Moeller estimates he's played more than 500 rounds on the 6,762-yard Robert Trent Jones design. While he's never played Shinnecock he has tackled both Atlantic Golf Club and Maidstone.

"As far as layout, I've played Maidstone and I'd rather play Montauk Downs," Moeller said. "I'd say the same thing about Atlantic. (Montauk Downs) is the standard. That's just one man's opinion."An ocean breeze, a second cut of rough that devours golf balls, and slick putting surfaces can be expected at Montauk Downs.

Island's End in Greenport is located in Long Island's wine country and may be getting better with age. Long Island Sound borders the memorable 210-yard par-3 16th with bunkers hugging a bowl-shaped green. "The phone has been ringing off the hook all week," said Island's End professional Chris Vedder, anticipating a solid week of play during U.S. Open week. "It' s unique to the extent (for Long Island courses) that it has a hole on the water and is very quiet. There are no parkways." Play usually begins at 6:30 a.m. and golfers are drilling tee shots off No. 1 until 4 p.m. Rates are $37 during weekdays and $48 on weekends.

Lido Golf Club (Lido Beach) rivals the aforementioned traditionally rich Long Island courses. But you don't have to be a Hamptons millionaire to drop $50 for a day at Lido. Macdonald designed the 6,896-yard course in 1914, but the Navy took over the seaside layout during World War II. Robert Trent Jones was hired to get Lido back in shape, and he did his best to maximize Macdonald's original design.

Lido, which at one time was a private facility, has a half dozen holes next to Reynolds Channel. Included in that mix is a tricky par-5 that has not one, but two forced carries over the channel.

Long Island National is one of the area's most expensive public courses, charging rates of $100 and change. Its claim to fame? It's the only Robert Trent Jones II public design from Washington D.C. to the East Coast. The course can be stretched to 6,800 yards, but maintains its difficulty from the 6,200-yard men's tees largely because of its rolling fairways, knee-high fescue and pesky winds.

Oyster Bay Town Golf Course (Woodbury), Harbor Links (Port Washington) and 1926 PGA Championship host and Champions Tour regular-season stop Eisenhower Park (a 54-hole facility in East Meadow) are additional public venues worthy of luring golfers tired of staring at imposing gates in front of Long Island's more storied, private layouts.

Nick Nicholas, Contributor

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