[UPDATE -- Winter 2014: Long Island National GC is now a members-only private club. Course updates and design modifications made after the 2013 season are not covered in this overview.]
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.