Long Island's North Fork is renowned for its miles of wineries and vineyards, farm stands, waterside charm and rural setting. As day-trippers and bachelorette-party limos make their way single file along Sound Avenue, most are unaware (or not interested) that the North Fork has some fantastic public golf as well. Long Island National and the courses at Cherry Creek may fly into and out of passenger-side windows without a second glance, but LI golfers know they are there.
Long Island National, a Robert Trent Jones Jr. design, is simply a fantastic challenge for golfers, one that is well worth the journey to the eastern limits of Riverhead. It is one of a dozen courses on the Island to receive four or more stars from Golf Digest in its 2008-09 Places To Play list, and is ranked fifth by Newsday behind only Bethpage Black and Red, Montauk Downs and Tallgrass. According to Jones Jr.'s company website, the designer was so proud of LI National that he celebrated his 60th birthday there when it opened in 1999.
Rolling fairways, slick greens and a series of well-placed bunkers give a sharp bite to a course that, at just over 6,200 yards from the men's middle tees, doesn't rely on its distance for intimidation -- especially when the wind is whipping through the open layout. Naturally, our first experience at LI National came on one of the windiest days of the season.
The path to the first tee offers a brief preview of what's in store for the next four-plus hours as it passes behind the second green. Looking out over the green back to the fairway in the distance, one can't help but notice the dropoff behind the putting surface, the deep rough and bunkers on the hole's left, and a fairway that seems to approach in waves. The flag sits all alone in the middle, so it seems, but it is closely guarded.
Three medium-length par-4s get you on your way, all of which provide the rare opportunity to miss the fairway by a sizable distance and still not be in terrible shape. In fact, #2 and #3 share a fairway, so hitters who keep the ball left will have a hard time finding trouble. The first hole jukes left halfway up the fairway and leaves a large bunker in play in the center of your sight line while on the tee.
The two holes that follow are significantly less forgiving. A slope of tall grass and brush cuts the bi-level fairway in two on the par-5 fourth and begs you to swat a drive right into the thick of it. Short is safe, but who wants to play safe on the tee of a par-5? Those who do take the safer route and then try to make up the yardage on their following shots will have to use caution -- small bunkers short of the green and a large trap behind it will punish carelessness. A small, elevated green is the target on the par-4 fifth, but it'll be harder to get there if you miss left off the tee where the fairway drops off, leaving you to fight your way back up through the rough and a potential sidehill lie.
After a water-free front nine, splash landings become a major concern early on the back. Three ponds await errant or miscalculated shots on holes 10 through 13, but no shot is more testy than the par-3 11th, where water stretches from the tee to the front edge of the green. A bailout area is available to the right for those lacking faith in their irons. On #12, another pond waits for balls sent left to run down the fairway and into the drink. And unless you have a nice angle to the green from the right side on your second shot, you'll once again have to deal with a partial water carry depending on pin placement.
The 11th isn't the only demanding par-3. In fact all four of them pose different challenges, and during our round, the relentless wind caused chaos. The 159-yard sixth (195 from the back) looks rather innocent, and from the tee the sand trap in front appears harmless. Don't be fooled. Trees can also come into play -- a rarity here -- on pulls. Missing left on the 148-yard ninth will leave you scrambling uphill out of the rough or a pair of traps. The 193-yard 14th, which played dead into the wind, also employs a tremendous bunker short and left to dish out its punishment.
Long Island National finishes with three of the longest and most difficult holes on the course -- 429, 451, and 556 yards, respectively. The 17th, rated the #1 handicap hole, shares a double green with #15. It also shares a deep gully with #18 into which balls can funnel and leave you with totally blind shots out of sticky rough.
One month into the Fall, fescue was less of an issue than I assume it is during the Summer. Most areas deep into the rough were still playable, but there were still a number of spots where weed-whacking or dropping were the only options. The course was still nasty; I can only imagine what it's like when the fescue is at peak height.
As it is on all open links layouts, wind is a huge factor. Strong, blustery winds can wreak havoc. Eighteen holes in such conditions -- fighting gusts, up and down hills, into and out of bunkers -- can be grueling. Of course, hitting straight will do wonders when it comes to conserving your energy.
Greens are small and roll true. The only minor issue overall was the overabundance of dirt plugs from the aeration of some fairways, but this of course is a necessary inconvenience a few days out of the year.
HOLE(S) TO REMEMBER:
The fifth hole is a prime example of how important it is to execute shots properly at LI National. Simply going a shade left will damage a chance at par. That's because the sloped fairway falls off to the left into a valley of rough and tangle. A bunker sits in the mess as well. If you stay right and safely on the fairway, you're rewarded with a great angle and a shot at the elevated pin.
The water on #11 makes the par-3 one of the more memorable holes on the course. Wind must be taken into account as it can make a one- or two-club difference. With a vicious wind blowing straight at us, a two-club change was nowhere close to enough. I hit 3-wood on a 156-yard hole and didn't think twice about it. And though I wound up off the green in the back rough, I'd do it again under the same circumstances. No matter what, it's always fun to face down a water carry.
AREA(S) TO AVOID:
The left rough on #5, as described above, is a poor place to be if you're trying to avoid aggravation. Targeting an elevated green is difficult enough without having to recover from rough sunk below the fairway. Worse, the sharp dropoff ups the potential for hideous sidehill lies. My second shot on #5 more closely resembled a baseball swing than it did a golf swing, as the ball sat above my feet at about knee level.
It's also best to avoid the wrong side of the double green on #15/17. Of course, it's always nice to hear a playing partner say "You're on" as you watch your ball come to rest on the putting surface. But how often does that mean you're left with a 200-foot putt? Well, it's possible here. And if there's ever a time that you'd sign for a three-putt, it's when you've got to navigate three different ridges across 60 yards of green.
- Reward yourself afterward by stopping for a fresh pie and apple cider at Briermere Farms, right down Sound Avenue to the west. You are in farm country, after all.
- The view of the sixteenth green (right) from the third tee looks more Honolulu than Riverhead, in my opinion.
1793 Northville Turnpike, Riverhead 11901
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