From atop the 18th green at Bethpage Black -- the top of the heap of Long Island public golf -- there are two directions one could go to challenge a course widely regarded as the next-best golfing destination on the Island. Just a few paces to the right is the first tee of Bethpage's Red Course. And then there's a short walk straight ahead to the parking lot, where a car and a half-tank of gas await for a trip east to the farthest reaches -- "The End" -- of Long Island. While Bethpage Red wins in the convenience department, Montauk Downs, in one of the most unique golf settings on Long Island, is worth the travel and the traffic (plus any necessary motel fees).
Shielded from many by the Hamptons car crawl and protected from birdies by the winds and terrain of far eastern Long Island, Montauk Downs State Park is Suffolk's own destination golf course, an 18-hole monster (not to be confused with the "Montauk Monster") as feisty as the lobsters hauled in daily (and steamed deliciously) at nearby Gosman's Dock. The course occupies high ground north of the village that's surrounded on all sides by water, most notably Block Island Sound to the north and the mighty Atlantic to the south. Though these water bodies are unseen from the Downs, their converging winds are a tremendous part of the course's rugged character. Even from the men's middle blue tees, Montauk Downs plays to a 139 slope rating.
The land has been home to golf since 1927, but the present-day course debuted in the late 1960s as a redesign crafted by Robert Trent Jones and assisted by sons Rees and Robert Jr. Decades later, after restoring Bethpage Black for the 2002 U.S. Open, Rees Jones returned to the South Fork to give Montauk Downs its own facelift. Today's course is a 6,988-yard headliner that's no stranger to attention. Golf Digest gives the course 4-1/2 stars in its Best Places To Play listing and highlighted the course in a February 2010 "Long Drives" feature. Newsday rates it as Long Island's #2 public course, behind only Bethpage Black.
The approach to Montauk's first green gives an uphill glimpse of what's in store on many of the course's remaining 17 holes. The shot comes from a fairway with a subtle right-to-left tilt. Two bunkers standing by on each side of the green's front prepare players for approach shots later in the round, as well. The journey uphill continues at #2, a short but tricky par-3 (pictured right; click to enlarge) with barely any margin for error. From the green, enjoy the view of #7 and Montauk Manor in the distance, but to get there you'll first need to avoid three deep traps and a false front that spits shots back down the apron. In an odd twist of course routing, the 448-/418-yard third heads straight back toward the clubhouse. The downhill drive is the easy part; more challenging is the approach into an angled, strongly shielded green.
A short jaunt through the driving range leads players to the fourth tee, where Montauk Downs begins to bare its fangs. Even from prime position in the middle of the fairway, the elevated target (pictured left) appears microscopic behind two heavy-duty bunkers. Then at #5, Montauk's first par-5, the course tosses some curves into its repertoire. The 521-/505-yard fifth favors a soft fade off the tee, then straightens out into an ever-narrowing fairway. Any heroic attempts to reach the green in two will prove fruitless unless there's a shot in the bag that could safely reach another angled surface wedged between two traps. Three fairway traps inside the 100-yard marker make even the lay-ups dicey.
Playing in the opposite direction as Montauk's first par-3 and heading downhill instead of up, the 184-/171-yard eighth looks simple enough. But a wicked false front puts underclubbed tee shots and even some misread putts on a fast track back to the fairway. Shadowing #8 is the 214-/194-yard 14th, where a water hazard sinks anything short of the green on the right side. Just beyond these two greens is #12 -- to many Montauk's signature hole (pictured at top) -- where the downhill tee shot is into the wind and over a valley. In fact, all three of these par-3s pit you against the prevailing wind. Given the elevation -- especially on #12 -- and the gusts, careful club selection is vital on these one-shotters.
The back nine begins with a tight-looking drive, a discouraging way to start a relatively short par-5 and a particularly diverse stretch of holes. But the fairway opens up after the initial soft right turn and leads gently uphill to a deep and narrow green sand-wiched by side traps. One of the back side's few scoring opportunities awaits at the 331-/306-yard 11th. Whether the plan is to go ahead with the driver or stay farther back with a fairway wood or hybrid, if you can avoid the five bunkers along the way, you'll briefly enjoy a rare position of control.
Water does not have a huge on-course presence at Montauk Downs, but when it makes its occasional cameo, it commands attention. The 13th (pictured above) isn't memorable or picturesque like its par-5 predecessor at #7 (more on that below in "Holes to Remember"), but it does threaten players with swimming strokes from tee to green. Though most players don't have the distance to worry about the drink on the blind tee shot, the hazard, which runs up the right side from the 175-yard mark before cutting across the front of the green, influences every shot from there on out, especially the second. From 200 yards, do you scoff at the razor-thin margin of error and go ahead with a water-carry blast to an elevated green? If that effort backfires, at least you can redeem yourself at #16 (pictured right), where the straight fairway dead-ends at a small pond about 50 yards short of a very shallow putting surface.
Before launching one final wind-blown drive (at least this one's downhill), take a moment to enjoy the view from Montauk's 18th tee. The unique pyramid-shaped clubhouse pierces the sky in the distance. Short of the clubhouse is the wide, shallow green of the ninth hole, perched confidently behind three bunkers. On that hole, a 452-/432-yard par-4, players often find themselves positioned to hit that small target with long irons. Here on #18 -- at 459/443 yards just a touch longer than its front-nine counterpart -- the fairway passes two recently remodeled traps on its way to a slightly more welcoming green. Try to make your final strokes look impressive for the gallery overlooking from around the patio and starter's booth.
If the strong and generally unpredictable wind is public (golfer) enemy #1 at Montauk Downs, the fast greens are its 18 trusty sidekicks. The greens were arguably the biggest beneficiaries of the Rees Jones touch-up last decade. Now stretched closer to their original dimensions and rolling down the slopes at incredible pace, the surfaces test the nerves of the most confident short-game performers. Chips from above the hole on the two-tiered seventh green race toward the water hazard. Next, the par-3 eighth is capable of sliding putts clear off the green. Two recent playing partners, both Montauk Downs veterans, stood over pin-high putts to a front hole location. Both missed their mid-range attempts underneath the cup and watched helplessly as their balls rolled 10 yards back into the fairway. Scarier than that was their forecast for later rounds. "The greens will play faster than this in the afternoon," they said.
The same goes for the wind, they added. At times the wind can be strong enough to make a three- or four-club difference, especially in the PM hours. "We played with a guy once who hit driver on the [par-3] 12th," one said. "He was a good player too; just had no other way to reach the green with the wind up."
The Rees Jones facelift also extended to the bunkers, which were reshaped and refurbished around the course. Continued investment in the grounds has left East End locals and tourists with pristine conditions. "It's like playing at a private club," said the two vets.
Summer brings the masses out to the East End, and Montauk Downs is not immune to the tourist crush. Tee times fill up quickly in the summer months. New York State residents, of course, have a leg up on out-of-state visitors, provided they are registered in the phone reservation system.
HOLE(S) TO REMEMBER:
Montauk Downs rarely offers a full view of the green and its surroundings on approach shots, but one hole where the entire green complex is laid out for examination from afar is the par-5 seventh. Of course, the visual audit must be conducted from the other side of a pond. Shaped like a question mark, #7 asks players to leave their inhibitions at the tee and indulge in a good old-fashioned grip-and-rip over water. From the tips, the 535-yard hole runs straight out for the first 300 before beginning a wide loop around the pond's right side. It then curls sharply back to the left toward the green. It's up to the player to decide whether to forge ahead on the longer, drier route or take the heroic shortcut over as much as 100 yards of water to a two-tiered green. If you're playing from the shorter tees (520 from the blues, 485 from the whites), a strong drive puts the green in close enough range that the memorable approach and potential eagle putt becomes almost impossible to pass up.
A blend of disarming scenery and demanding proportions, the par-3 12th is a pleasure until the ball is in the air. Then its flight and your score are at the mercy of the wind. The downhill hole (first picture above) plays as long as 221 yards into the prevailing wind and over a valley. Short is more than likely in the sand, and overpowering shots left and long leaves tough recoveries from far below the green. You'll need to take the elevated tee into consideration when choosing a club, though it's not until you look back from the flag that you get a real feel for the downhill nature (pictured left) of the hole.
AREA(S) TO AVOID:
Montauk's par-3s get a good laugh from any tee shot that doesn't reach the green. For the one-shot holes, short is the main defense against par. Three of them face the prevailing wind head on, and two run quickly from back to front. Except on #14, failing to reach the green means you're either in a deep bunker, pitching over a deep bunker or sitting at the foot of a slope. Up-and-downs for par from these positions are tall orders. It might be best to take a longer club and hope the swift breezes blow your shots away from any trouble behind the greens. Though coming down from above the hole is no picnic, at least you won't have a problem getting your ball to the cup.
[Pictured below: This ball took the roll of shame after failing to scale the false front on #8.]
Fans of golf history and architecture should set aside a few minutes to linger in the clubhouse's main hallway. The walls are lined with old scorecards, course diagrams, routing maps of the original and redesigned courses, hole sketches penned by Rees Jones, photos and magazine articles. Anyone curious about the evolution of Montauk Downs during its 85-year existence will likely find the answers to their questions somewhere in this corridor.
50 South Fairview Ave., Montauk 11954
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