When Sebonack Golf Club—with its windswept links overlooking Great Peconic Bay and memberships that cost more than $600,000—opens officially in August, one question will be on everyone's mind: How does it compare to Shinnecock Hills Golf Club and the National Golf Links of America, its legendary and immediate neighbors on the South Fork of Long Island?
Even in the rarefied soil of the Hamptons, which in recent years has produced a crop of showpiece private clubs with six-figure initiation fees, Sebonack is a breed apart. Part of its intrigue owes to the fact that the course was designed by the surprising duo of Jack Nicklaus and Tom Doak. (As an aspiring architect years ago, Doak roundly criticized Nicklaus for imposing his will on sites rather than working with the natural land.) And then there's Sebonack's location—on some of the most prized golf real estate in America. A sweeping expanse of dunes, hillocks and pockets of hardwood, pine and scrub oak, the course sits on a headland just west of the National, enjoying the borrowed scenery of its iconic windmill. Barely out of sight across the National lies Shinnecock, renowned for its rugged U.S. Open course and gabled clubhouse designed in 1892 by Stanford White.
Remarkably, Doak and Nicklaus have a created a layout that, despite its proximity to those two fabled courses, looks virtually nothing like them. While Shinnecock's fairways are lined with knee-high fescue, at Sebonack there is almost no tall grass to be found. At 7,286 yards from the back tees, Sebonack is much longer and more imposing than the National, Charles Blair Macdonald's ode to classic Scottish golf architecture, which opened in 1911. It is also far less green—actually, closer to a linksy Scottish beige—than either of its neighbors. The palette comes from an environmentally friendly combination of colonial bent grass and creeping fescue that Nicklaus calls "European blend."
"If anything, Sebonack is closer in character to Friar's Head, because of all the sand off the fairways," says Doak, referring to the Bill Coore/Ben Crenshaw course built a few years ago in the nearby North Fork hamlet of Baiting Hollow. "But I think they are distant cousins rather than twins."
After driving through Sebonack's gated entrance and up the winding road to where a temporary clubhouse and a cluster of cottages stand, the first things you notice are how sandy the property is and how exposed it is to the bay. Sebonack's fairways unfurl in a moonscape of mounds and hollows, with bunkers tucked into natural folds in the land. There's a seamless flow from greens to tees, many of which, although laser-leveled, are amorphously shaped to blend into the surroundings. Similarly, on the half dozen holes that play along the water, the frayed edges of greenside bunkers melt into the surrounding dunes.
"The look is more Tom's," Nicklaus acknowledged during a tour of the course while it was under construction last year. "The golf is a combination of both of us."
Initially, owner Michael Pascucci, who made his fortune in the auto leasing business, hired Nicklaus to design Sebonack on land he acquired in 2001 for $46 million. (The two are neighbors and friends in North Palm Beach, Florida.) Then, at the urging of his project manager, a Welshman named Mark Hissey who sang the praises of Doak, Pascucci flew to Bandon, Oregon, to see the designer's celebrated Pacific Dunes. Impressed by Doak's artfully minimalist hand, Pascucci decided that he wanted to hire both architects and have them work as a team. He arranged a meeting in Florida. At first the two were chilly toward one another. Nicklaus did most of the talking while Doak said little. Pascucci made an excuse to leave the room, hoping to force the two of them to interact. The strategy worked: When he came back fifteen minutes later, Doak and Nicklaus were laughing, and they soon agreed to team up.