At Bidermann golf course in northern Delaware, members like to tell a tale from their club's first incarnation—back when it was the Winterthur Golf Club, the personal preserve of Henry du Pont, the club's only member. The game had so besotted du Pont that in the late 1920s he hired prominent golf course designer Devereux Emmet to build him a course on a corner of his property.
One morning, the story goes, du Pont's nephew called from Philadelphia saying he'd like to come out to play that afternoon. Quite impossible, du Pont's personal pro and greenskeeper, Percy Vickers, informed him; the course was full. That made no sense to the lad; for even on the busiest weekend, Uncle Henry never asked more than, say, twenty guests to join him on the tough nine-hole journey. And this was a weekday; there should be no traffic at all. So the nephew persisted. He wanted to know just who was playing. Vickers's reply was as succinct as it was pointed: "Mr. du Pont, of course."
Whether it's a full eighteen-holer or just a couple of greens connected by a fairway with a series of tees around the perimeter (like the one Robert Trent Jones Sr. designed for President Eisenhower at Camp David), a backyard course forms the clearest red stake between golf's haves and its have-so-much-mores, and there's been a boomlet in them over the last decade. When the good times roll, so do the putts—behind high walls and gated entrances.
Granted, personal golf courses are nothing new. In 1892, Charles Blair Macdonald cobbled together seven holes for an Illinois senator, about the same time that Rudyard Kipling—yes, that Rudyard Kipling—was converting the meadow beyond the front door of his Vermont manor into his new course for his new world. By 1901, John D. Rockefeller was already remodeling his first course, hiring Willie Dunn, the original designer of Shinnecock Hills, to turn four ho-hum holes known as Pocantico Hills at the family compound in Tarrytown, New York, into a comparative thirteen-hole bonanza.
But it was during the ostentatious Roaring Twenties that the personal course took hold. The leviathans of commerce and industry, accustomed to filling wall space with Rembrandts and Renoirs, sought the imprint of golf's own masters on their landscapes: During that decade, the Mellons commissioned Donald Ross to design two full nines for the family. For their Long Island estates, Harry Payne Whitney asked Macdonald (who, as an aristocrat himself, never accepted a design fee) and Otto Kahn asked Seth Raynor (who did) to design nine-holers. USGA treasurer Eddie Moore had Macdonald and Raynor create a three-green, three-tee practice course on his. Meanwhile, on the other side of the continent, the movies' reigning comics, Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd, viewed golf as no laughing matter; each cast none other than Alister Mackenzie to fill their Tinseltown yards with nine-hole par-three tracks.
The necessary rules for these endeavors had, by then, been set: There are no rules. If it's your property, you build what you want and what you can. And over time, architects have devised remarkably novel routings to squeeze in as much golf as fits an owner's checkbook: Fairways crisscross and play both hither and yon since there's rarely anyone in the way. "You can't do that on a regular golf course," says Robert Trent Jones Jr.
Some backyard courses, although seemingly exclusive, have themselves been borne from the exclusion of others. In 1926, advertising titan Albert Lasker found himself blackballed from Chicago's established clubs because he was Jewish. He showed them, employing William Flynn to overlay a 7,000-yard behemoth of a course on his 480-acre estate. Walter Annenberg reportedly built his own Sunnylands when he was rejected for membership at nearby Thunderbird Golf and Country Club in Palm Springs. A few years later, shipping pooh-bah Henry Mercer built Hominy Hills in Colts Neck, New Jersey, when members of his home club objected to the Asian clients he'd bring out to entertain.As ostentatious as these courses may appear, their creators' motivations are often anything but. "Most of the people who do this are private types, even if their names are familiar," says Tom Fazio. "They're not trying to impress anybody. They don't have to."
Nonetheless, should you be invited to play one of these courses, you will be impressed.