[UPDATE - April 2014: South Bay Country Club is now The Golf Club at Middle Bay.]
[UPDATE - April 2015: Middle Bay reconfigured its layout in the 2014-15 offseason. The flyover below reflects the original routing, and will be updated shortly.]
There's a new beginning on the bay in Oceanside, right on time in the season of rebirth. Half a year since Hurricane Sandy pummeled Long Island, new beginnings are emerging all across the south shore, but from a golfer's perspective, one stands out.
South Bay Country Club, formerly the private Middle Bay Country Club, opened to both members and public golfers in May 2013. Just a few months earlier, it appeared the last putts had already dropped on Oceanside's waterfront 18. Hurricane Sandy destroyed the clubhouse and catering facility, flooded parts of the course and caused $3.5 million in damage (per Newsday). Middle Bay announced its closing in January. But in April, a Middle Bay member struck a deal to reopen the course as the semi-private South Bay. (Read more in this Newsday profile.)
Its arrival as a publicly accessible golf course has filled a blind spot on the south shore of Nassau County, where there's long been nine-hole municipal golf on one side of the void, exclusive Five Towns clubs on the other, and nothing in between for the public player but the isolated and often-jammed Lido Golf Club in Lido Beach. Sitting opposite Lido on the mainland side of the bay, the 6,819-yard South Bay is a blend of parkland and waterfront golf. Fairways throughout much of the course are guarded by tree limbs and ponds. Sand and undulating mounds defend the greens. Both picturesque and penal, the bay is only steps away as the course heads for the turn. Forceful wind is an ever-present playing partner that keeps every club in the bag at the ready.
South Bay's most memorable and recognizable holes curl up against the bay, with Point Lookout prominent on the horizon and Jones Beach's landmark tower rising in the farthest reaches of the wide, uninterrupted vista. But a couple of parkland holes warm you up before you get there. In fact, South Bay packs three styles in one, and the waterside, links-ish setting is just a small portion in the middle. South Bay opens with a tree-lined sextet. Later, turning away from the bay, parts of the back nine incorporate into the scenery the adjacent Oceanside wetlands, calling to mind marshland golf found farther south down the coast. It closes with a return to tree-bordered fairways.
A par-5 begins the round. When the wind is blowing off the bay, you'll get a generous boost on #1, nice enough perhaps to find the green with two very strong clouts. The 533-yard opener takes what will become a familiar route at South Bay -- a left turn toward the green. The leftward bend is a little more subtle on #2, a 378-yard par-4 with a water hazard midway up the fairway on the near side. Stay right for the best angle to the flat green -- a strand of trees past the hazard can interfere with the second shot. Straight and narrow, #3 is one of South Bay's tighter holes with trees lining both sides of the fairway. As an additional hurdle, the fairway abruptly ends 30 yards short of the green and gives way to a stretch of mounded rough. Four bunkers guard the front and sides of the back-to-front surface.
The course turns toward the bay with its first par-3. Finding a level section of the green is tough on the 187-yard fourth, which slopes from the center to the front and also runs hard to the back-right corner. Deep shots end up among the mounds. Like #3, the 402-yard fifth employs a truncated fairway to prevent run-ups and complicate short approach shots. A small bunker in front and a raised knob (pictured left) -- in addition to a spread of mounding to the green's right -- raise the potential for unstable footing and uneven lies around the green.
A long trek through #6 (more below in Holes to Remember) serves as the segue to the bayfront section of the course. Suddenly, the only wood framing the fairways is the bulkhead. Beyond it is a panoramic view of Nassau waters and wetlands.
Wind direction dictates the strategy on #7, a fully exposed 200-yarder (190 from the middle) where almost every iron in the bag is in play, save for the wedges. (In our first visit, 7- and 8-irons were the popular play with the wind at our backs.) A wide entrance to the green works in your favor. Ahead, #8 is the most unique hole on the course. Take aim at a diagonal fairway running from right to left, but be wary of the two bunkers easily within reach in the far rough. It's easy to overlook those, however, when the nearside "rough" -- from tee to green -- is a 10-yard-wide sandy waste area separating fairway from Atlantic bay. A sand complex in front of the green -- dotted with a couple of raised grass pads -- fortifies the 331-yard par-4 (308 from the middle) against wind-aided driving attempts.
The front nine concludes with South Bay's longest par-4. Playing straight away from the water, the 446-yard brute (437 from the middle, longer than any of the other par-4s from their tips) hops over a pond and starts drawing left at the midpoint of the fairway. A tailwind can only help so much -- #9's green is one of the narrower surfaces on the course, and missing to either side leaves you in sand or mounds. A center-to-front slope aims to wreck your bid for par.
On the back nine, the presence of danger lurking left continues until it becomes a recurring theme. Mishits there don't leave mere bad angles or obstructed shots -- they pile up penalty strokes. A pond closely flanks the par-4 11th for the first 200-plus yards before the fairway turns toward the flag. A false front and a small, hidden bunker behind the green provide additional defensive measures. Another diagonal fairway awaits at #13. From a slightly offset tee, almost any pulled drive is headed for a dip. A bordering creek spells trouble for overshot approaches, as well. As few as five paces separate the back of the green from an unplayable lie or lost ball in the reeds.
One of the few arrow-straight holes on the course, the par-5 14th nearly scrapes 600 yards from the back tees. Its fairway is interrupted about two-thirds of the way home by a 25-yard stretch of native grass (pictured left). Keep your expectations modest here -- the 14th green is the tiniest on the course, and two side bunkers can bury any birdie plans. And, of course, all 592 yards are bordered on the left by a dense treeline and, beyond that, out of bounds.
After #16 -- complete with lost-ball potential in the wetlands and vegetation on the left -- South Bay u-turns back toward the clubhouse and the sea. Two of South Bay's larger fairway bunkers help squeeze the already narrow drive zone on the 415-yard 17th. The putting surface is nestled comfortably between front traps, a couple of trees long and a grass bunker on the left. It's been a while since a hole moved to the right, but #18 bucks the trend and veers in that direction before straightening out into South Bay's final stretch. It takes a powerful and accurate drive to secure an ideal spot in the diagonal segment of fairway on this 561-yard closer. Laying up in the far end of the fairway leaves a final approach to another green hugged closely by all of South Bay's goodies -- trees, two traps, even some shrubbery. A front bunker makes a right-side pin on the angled oval green difficult to reach.
Ironically, it was a previous hurricane and some unseasonably poor weather that allowed South Bay to reopen after Sandy sporting lush green fairways and smooth greens. Hurricane Irene in August 2011 forced the club to make modifications to limit flooding, which were vital the following year. The maintenance staff pumped standing water off the course immediately after Sandy, according to golf director Ron Wright, and a snowstorm the week after Sandy helped flush salt from the fragile turf before it could inflict more lasting damage. Recovery through the winter and spring took place with minimal equipment -- all of it was destroyed by flooding. Amazingly, in Wright's words, the course was back up to a "B-plus" upon its reopening less than seven months removed from Sandy.
There's no avoiding the stiff gusts that blow through the layout. When the wind blows hard toward the bay (like it did in our initial visit), you'll start the round and close the front nine fighting for every yard. But you'll get quite a boost along the water and again on the finishing holes. All of that reverses when the wind arrives from the ocean. A hole can play driver/5 iron one day, driver/wedge the next. The worst for players is when the wind is out of the west. "That makes it a par-78," Wright says.
The greens impressed on South Bay's opening weekend with smooth rolls and fairly quick speeds. Like the course as a whole, they should only get better and better with time. Every green is defended on each side by bunkers. A half-dozen holes also throw in a front trap. Mounding is a prominent design element. Waves of rough around the greens -- including a handful of grass depressions -- force uncomfortable pitches and chips, turning otherwise simple short-game recoveries into tense stroke savers. In some spots, like the short par-3 15th, mounds in the front block a clear view of the green and pin position.
HOLE(S) TO REMEMBER:
South Bay doesn't turn to the right very often, but when it does, it does. #6 seeks to make up for all the leftward veering around the rest of the course with a fairway that bends a little, then a lot, then turns on a dime en route to the flag. Start to finish, it's a 549-yard par-5 that twists a full 90 degrees. Water ripples on the near side the whole way, and a second hazard joins the fray in time for the final 150 yards. The fairway is relatively narrow, meaning any aggressive lines can send shots running through to the rough, or worse. Not to mention the wind -- such a sharp angle means drives and approaches will face totally different gusts.
AREA(S) TO AVOID:
Given the open entrances to many of the greens and the prevalence of slopes tilted toward the front, going deep is generally a poor miss. In many cases, long shots will run downhill off the rear mounds. Among the worst greens to miss deep are #11 and #13. South Bay's only rear bunker is an unwelcome surprise on the 11th. Just a couple of paces wide, the sunken, circular trap can be a nasty sucker prone to stealing a stroke or two, especially when working in tandem with the green's false front on thinly struck escapes. A bounce over the green at #13 puts you out of play into the reeds, an inexcusable result considering the surface's wide and unprotected front door.
Next to the clubhouse and behind the seventh tee, there is a practice hole for chipping and bunker prep.
3600 Skillman Ave., Oceanside 11572