[This flyover was updated on March 8, 2011.]
[NOTE: Hamlet Wind Watch G&CC and Hamlet Willow Creek G&CC were sold by the Holiday Organization to ClubCorp in June 2011 and are now known as Wind Watch G&CC and Willow Creek G&CC.]
Willow Creek Golf & Country Club in Mount Sinai shares many characteristics with its sister course at Wind Watch in Hauppauge, most notably the designer. Stephen Kay, who completed a redesign of the original Wind Watch layout in 1996, carved Willow Creek out of Suffolk's north shore in 2005 and put the finishing touches on one of Long Island's newest and most visually impressive golf courses. Like Wind Watch, Willow Creek has the look and feel of a destination golf course, one that is typically seen on television in March, from the comfort of a living-room recliner. Two of its holes were spotlighted in "dream courses" compiled by Newsday and Golfing Magazine.
Sand and water are everywhere at Willow Creek. The number of bunkers -- from small greenside pot bunkers to eye-candy waste areas -- ventures close to triple digits, surpassing the total at sand-heavy Wind Watch. Water lurks to the sides on a half-dozen holes and dominates on a half-dozen others. Once the hazards are set in the rearview mirror, the real challenge begins -- putting on the Creek's wildly undulating, hyperspeed greens. The course is 6,611 yards from the black tees, 6,311 from the blues, and refuses to offer any simple shots in between. Willow Creek would inspire a slew of curses if it wasn't such an amazing thing to look at.
Willow Creek sits below street level, which, I presume, allowed for previously open land to be dug down and rebuilt back up in the form of undulating and expertly contoured fairways and greens. The magnificent clubhouse overlooks the course's closing holes. Players and guests milling around the area outside the pro shop are treated to an elevated view of the 16th hole's peninsula green. Action on this par-3 plays out from tee to green under the watchful eye of spectators on a clubhouse patio. The image of water snaking around the fairways and greens of Willow Creek's formidable closing quartet will undoubtedly linger in the backs of players' minds as they navigate the course's much drier opening holes.
If the vistas preview the challenges to be found later in the round, the bunkers on Willow Creek's opener preview the sand play on seemingly every shot. They don't look particularly threatening from the tee, but the three fairway traps on #1 -- especially the two on the right -- leave little room for inaccuracy. An undulating fairway leads to a two-tiered green. The first putt of the day will come off the club like a rocket on Willow Creek's greased-lightning greens -- putting down the ridge to a pin on the lower tier might put the ball into orbit.
An enormous sandy waste area in front of the tee on #2 does its best to fool golfers into overthinking what is merely a tame, 130-yard par-3. A deep pot bunker shields pins on the left side of a wide green, but holes on the right are exposed to attacking short irons. Sand is confined to the fairways on the 347-yard third, another short par-4 that is more complicated than the scorecard indicates. The drive zone narrows between two traps, and though the green is not protected by any bunkering, a knob obscures any look at the surface on a short approach. Like #2, the par-3 fourth uses impressive visuals to its advantage, but this time around those gaping traps are much more penal. The hole plays 197 yards, often into the wind, and coming up short on either side of the green nets a tremendously difficult recovery shot from the sand. The green is out of sight from the left-side bunker. Its front wall towers over the heads of golfers within. The putting surface slopes down off the sides into wide fringe chipping areas.
That ends the dry portion of a round at Willow Creek. From the fifth tee forward, 12 of the remaining 14 holes feature water hazards, some far removed from the line of play, a few others devouring it. A pond stays off to the right on the 472-yard fifth, Willow Creek's first par-5. Cross bunkers divide the far end of the fairway into an upper tier beyond the traps and a lower level to the right. Fly over the bunkers and let gravity do its work as the upper fairway tumbles down into the green. The 367-yard tenth is similar, with water pushed somewhat harmlessly to one side (this time on the left) and a cross bunker that baits the shooter. Beat this trap in the center of the fairway and pick up a few extra yards of downhill roll. That extra distance will come in handy on the uphill approach to a green hidden behind a fortress of bunkers. Water influences second shots on #13, a 563-yard behemoth with a thin drive zone and hefty traps spaced out in the left rough. The hole's coolest feature might be the punchbowl green (above), surrounded on three sides by mounding that kicks balls toward the pin. Its flat surface is a Willow Creek rarity.
The first showdown with Willow Creek's more intrusive water bodies comes at #6, a 414-yard par-4 with a hazard running the length of the hole on the fairway's right. Drawing the ball away from the water would be a fine play if not for a landing area that tightens on the left side about 250 yards from the tee. There is plenty of room for those who wish to play short, but this strategy sets up a demanding second shot toward a freakish green. A ridge sends shots careening from the center to the right side of the surface, and another slope funnels balls to a back-left collection area.
Pick your poison on #8, a classic cape par-4 (pictured left, with player deep in strategic thought) with a fairway that gently fades around a large lake. Safe plays to the left will stay dry -- perhaps too dry, if you find the lone fairway bunker -- but a look at the distant green will be obscured by a large mound. Cutting the hole down with an offensive play along the water's edge is a daring strategy, one that will require a second shot over the drink to reach the green. The 555-yard ninth is a monster that doesn't tolerate inaccuracy. It earned a spot in Newsday's Dream 18 thanks to the water hazards that border both sides of its endless fairway. The water is so prevalent that it's easy to forget about the three spacious bunkers that redirect your aim on every shot. A corner of another pond chokes the far end of the 12th fairway, leaving players with a slight water carry on any approach from the center or right. A deep pot bunker makes sure those on the left side of the fairway aren't left out of the challenge.
Willow Creek's closing holes utilize all of the course's finest assets. The 15th is a member of Golfing Magazine's Long Island Dream Club. From the tee, the 526-yard par-5 looks boundless, a sweeping expanse of both desert and oases. In this case though, the oases are lateral hazards. A massive, multi-fingered sand trap dominates the left side of the fairway, and the course's namesake creek sloshes through the fairway twice. It takes a pair of brilliant and powerful shots to reach the elevated green in two, a feat most players are ill-equipped to even consider. The logical play is a safe drive away from the bunker and a controlled shot to the second level of fairway. Another huge sand complex guards the green's left and center, so the key to the hole is in the placement of the second shot.
Your group takes center stage at #16, the peninsula par-3 with its own gallery. It's not exactly the stadium 16th at TPC Scottsdale, but it can still bring on some jitters, especially if your irons have been misbehaving. A wide trap guards the green on this 150-yarder, but the hole's main defender is the nasty center-to-front slope and the ledge that houses a backside pin.
The 17th and 18th are Willow Creek's two longest par-4s. Both fairways are squeezed by water and bottleneck as they approach the putting surface. On #18, long, wiry traps act as buffers between your ball and the hazard and help keep your final shots in play. Bunkers around the green are not as friendly. A small pot bunker collects deep balls behind the green. There is a severe ridge on the left side of the green that separates the surface into two tiers (pictured left). If the cup is below the slope, missing above the hole -- or worse, in that backside pot bunker -- could be your biggest blunder of the day.
Willow Creek is a visually stunning golf course. What puts it in the top echelon of Long Island's public courses is that the aesthetic elements are also, more importantly, demanding features of a challenging design. Scattered bunkers work together, and in cooperation with water hazards, to take lines of play away from the shooter. Generous landing areas are always available -- with a sacrifice of distance or optimal attack angles, of course. Offensive position must be earned, either with accurate shots to deceptively small landing areas or by executing high-risk shots over or near hazards. Any player off their game may find their round at Willow Creek perpetually spiraling out of control.
And that's without mention of the fast and turbulent greens. Almost every surface features rises and drops, slippery twists and unexpected turns. Poor position in relation to the hole is good for a three-putt; for mentally defeated putters, even worse. The green on #6 features a severe slope from the center to the right, and in one round, with the cup several feet left of the slope, I made sure to keep a 20-foot putt away from the slick side of the hole. Of course, the putt rimmed around the edge and hurled itself directly at the slope. Just like that, a near-perfect stroke became an inevitable three-putt.
Greens are often surrounded by collection areas (pictured left at #4) that make the surfaces appear larger than they really are. Players must decide between putting over a lengthy stretch of fringe or chipping from a tight lie. It's an interesting short-game element that is not often found in these parts.
GPS units in the carts are helpful on a course with so many obstacles to consider. Purists may not be fans of the technology, but for those willing to embrace it, the GPS system provides yardage to water, bunkers and all sides of the green.
HOLE(S) TO REMEMBER:
The 555-yard ninth is a member of Newsday's Dream 18, and the 526-yard 15th (below) was selected last fall to Golfing Magazine's Long Island Dream Club. Check out the links (or the descriptions above) to see why.
Many of Willow Creek's other 16 holes are equally as memorable, even without the recognition. In fact, it's difficult to find any holes that are unworthy of extra attention. The eighth, however, stands out. There is a risk-reward element from the moment you set foot on the tee of this 377-yard par-4 (402 from the black) that curls around a lake. Players must decide how much of the fairway they want to bite off with their drives and what kind of second shot they wish to face. Nibbling at the fairway to the safer left side is dry and comfortable, but the approach will be long and blind, the flag hidden away behind a hump short of the green. A voracious player can knock two, maybe three clubs off the approach by clearing the lake farther up the fairway. Of course, a misfire can leave this player choking on a penalty stroke, and a short drive that stays on the right side of the fairway leaves part of the lake in play on the approach.
AREA(S) TO AVOID:
Several holes along the perimeter of the property play at the bottom of slopes that descend from grade level. Be aware that bad pulls off the tee, especially early in the round at #1 on #3, can leave awkward sidehill shots out of the rough on a course that's difficult enough without flirting with OB.
The waste area on #2 is more of a distraction than a hazard, but don't ignore the pot bunker in front of the green. Keep that sentiment in mind at the downhill fourth, where waste bunkers short and left of the green are closer to the action and perilously deep.
As noted above, and shown in the video below, leaving yourself on the wrong tier on the 18th can be extremely problematic, especially if the pin is at the foot of the slope. Just imagine trying to putt from the back of this green.
One Clubhouse Drive, Mount Sinai 11766
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