Dual personalities are not uncommon on Long Island golf courses. Venture deep into eastern Suffolk County and you'll find a handful of courses that change demeanor as suddenly as the Incredible Hulk. In Manorville, the Rock Hill Golf Club opens with a straight, tree-squeezed front nine before a more forgiving back half that offers roomier fairways and sharp doglegs. At Calverton Links -- a former nine-hole course expanded in 1999 into a full 18 -- a strip of pines and ponds separates the original clubhouse-circling layout from its expansive seven-hole extension over rolling, fully exposed terrain.
But even that split in personality is not as stark as the one found just a few miles east at Riverhead's Indian Island Country Club, a Suffolk County municipal course as two-faced as the notorious Batman villain. Laid out over a peninsula where the Peconic River meets Flanders Bay, Indian Island is bliss for lovers of scenic waterside golf -- for the first ten holes, that is. After #10, Indian Island reemerges behind Cross River Drive and slips into something different, specifically a more familiar parkland layout with tree-lined playing corridors and no water hazards.
What remains constant from #1 through #18, however, are Indian Island's big, fast greens. Control and feel with the putter, as well as careful placement of approach shots, are the keys to a strong showing on this par-72. At 6,516 yards from the back tees and 6,077 from the middle, Indian Island will not make players uncomfortable under the strain of overwhelming length. None of the par-5s break 505 yards even from the tips, and from the middle tees, half of the par-4s play under 350. It's the short game that makes all the difference (and the ability, at least in the beginning, to not stray left).
Contrary to everything written above, Indian Island begins with a 439-yard par-4 (454 from the tips) that is brutal when playing into the wind. Ah, yes, the wind. Indian Island's bayside half is exposed to stiff gusts that can add at least a club or two and blow down high-trajectory shots. If the wind is in your face for the opener, you'll get a break on #2, the course's longest par-5 at 482 yards.
The next four holes play around the edge of the peninsula and put some added pressure on left-handed slicers and hook-prone righties. Left is where par opportunities go to die in this section of the course, beginning on #3, a 342-yarder that starts straight before fading right toward a semi-blind landing area. A lone bunker is a moderate threat inside the turn. Two more guard a green with a center-to-front slope. Balls off the left side of the fairway here and ahead at #4 will tumble down into a waste area of trees and underbrush. The 367-yard fourth offers plenty of open space on the right side, though a right-to-left green and a strategically placed cluster of trees make this a poor angle of approach.
Indian Island's first par-3 is also its most memorable. The 122-yard fifth plays toward the tip of the peninsula, with an arm of the river running up the left side and a sweeping bay view as the backdrop (pictured left; click to enlarge). Instinct urges you to play away from the water, but missing right sets up delicate and dangerous recoveries. The back tee, perched at river's edge next to #4 green, tacks 60 yards onto the hole and brings more of the water into play. On the 476-yard sixth, the river runs along the entire left side, with only a slim stretch of rough serving as a buffer. From the 150-yard pole into the green, a small inlet cuts into the right rough as a second hazard. Misses left and long have a chance to bound off behind red stakes.
Coming up short at #8 and #9 will likely result in a sandy landing. The 153-yard eighth is shielded by two bulky traps in front, and a third for good measure on the left. Beyond two fairway traps on the 375-yard ninth, another bunker pair clogs the neck of the green. Before leaving the bay side of the course, players must once again steer clear of the river dominating the left side of the 433-yard tenth, a short par-5. This hole fades very softly to the right, its ideal landing area slightly obscured by the right-side treeline.
Indian Island's greener, drier identity introduces itself at the 11th tee. On this side of Cross River Drive, the wind and the yardage are down, while scoring chances are up. The 11th is a 195-yard par-3 that comes off as uncomfortably tight following the open air of the front nine. The same can be said for #12, a 329-yard par-4 (pictured right) that draws very subtly to the left through another relatively narrow corridor.
Like #3 and #4, Indian Island's 13th and 14th fall off steeply on the left side. Both holes offer roomy fairways, minimizing the danger on the tee shot, especially since the par-4s are short enough (329 and 312 yards, respectively) to hit hybrids and long irons off the tee for control, if necessary. Drivers belted with precision might leave nothing more than a short pitch into the green, but the threat to less accurate swings is the heavier volume of trees looming close to each fairway inside 100 yards. The fading 458-yard 15th features an interesting green with a horizontal ridge across the center that sends deep shots off the back.
Indian Island comes to a close back on the bay side with the 367-yard 18th. There is nothing here to discourage an aggressive swing with the driver. Final approaches must avoid two large bunkers protecting the left and short right sides of the green.
The difference between a satisfying score and a frustrating head-scratcher of a round is in Indian Island's sizable and speedy greens. Nearly all of the putting surfaces are tilted in one, sometimes two directions with run-off areas that funnel balls into the surrounding fringe and rough. The first green is pitched steeply from left to center; next, the par-5 second green scoots balls off the right side. Ahead at the par-4 fourth, a high right side slides balls toward the center, which itself feeds shorter shots downhill toward the front. The par-3 fifth green runs quickly toward the river from back right to front left. On the back nine, a horizontal ridge on the 15th green repels balls to the front and back.
If you carefully stay below the hole, you can maintain some control on and around the greens. But if you're putting, chipping and pitching from above, give it a tap and hope for the best. Frequently during our last round playing alongside some Indian Island regulars, downhill chips and short-side bunker shots were followed by pleas to the heavens for something to stop a careening Callaway. The scary part: "This is slow," said one course vet. "Doesn't look like they rolled the greens today."
Wind is another major factor, mainly on the bay side of the course. "When the wind is up," said another vet, "this course can get really tough." Not surprising for a course surrounded on three sides by water. On the other side of Cross River Drive, holes 11 through 17 are less exposed to the bay breezes.
Cart paths are paved in close proximity to greens and bunkers on some holes. Shots left of the green on the par-3 17th are at risk of an unfortunate bounce off the path and over a fence. On #18, the access road to the clubhouse is very much in play left of the fairway.
HOLE(S) TO REMEMBER:
The par-3 fifth is Indian Island's signature hole, mostly for its picturesque location at the tip of the peninsula but also for its pitched green. Water borders the left side of the hole; from the left fringe, the hazard is only a few paces away. Simply put, there is very little space to work with off the left edge. To the right are two bunkers and a generous amount of bail-out rough. But missing to the right (pictured) sets up delicate second shots to a green that runs with speed from back right to front left. If the pin is on the high right side, a short-side miss is almost an automatic bogey. Worse, a thin pitch off a choppy lie or an overly explosive sand shot will race toward the hazard without brakes.
AREA(S) TO AVOID:
Aside from the fact that your tee shot isn't swimming in the river, there is nothing really positive about missing the #5 green to the right. As described above, there's a decent chance your ball will go for a dip anyway if you misplay a second shot that requires a deft touch from sand or rough. Ahead at #10, you can start your tee shot over the treeline to gain perfect position on this reachable-in-two par-5, but blocking the shot into the trees will cost a stroke and maybe more, as white stakes mark OB just a few steps farther right.
661 Riverside Drive, Riverhead 11901
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