If you have even a passing familiarity with the New Jersey side of New York Harbor—that lovely jumble of petroleum tanks, exit ramps and garbage-strewn swampland—the words "Bayonne Golf Club" probably sound like a cruel joke. But think again: Come stand on the new club's eighteenth tee and gaze up a fairway that seems to climb all the way to the sky, your view of the world blinkered by towering, fescue-clad hills. You might be in the heaving heart of some hallowed linksland—at Cruden Bay, perhaps, or Lahinch. Instead, you're a stone's throw from Manhattan, and this hole is the final movement of one of the most audacious feats of golf course engineering in recent memory: a wild links built entirely from scratch on what was once a flat industrial wasteland.
But that's only part of what makes this private course so incredibly cool. If you scramble to the top of some of Bayonne's woolly dunes, it almost feels as if a veil has been lifted—you can see the club's neighbors, which include a nondescript warehouse and a movie theater. Yet sometimes the greatness of New York is revealed in a way that is seldom seen, especially from a golf course—from certain points you can see eight bridges, not to mention the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State Building and the rest of the Manhattan skyline.
"You don't hide the stuff that makes the city neat," says Eric Bergstol, Bayonne's owner and designer, who clearly revels in this vantage point. "You stand here, and what are you looking at?Tugboats, cruise ships and tankers coming in through the Kill Van Kull. There's always something going on. Right at that pier are cargo containers arriving from distant ports all over the world."
A six-foot-five former semipro basketball player, Bergstol is a one-handicap who could be an even better golfer were it not for the fact that he prefers designing courses—"painting with a bulldozer," as he puts it. He never considered hiring the Bayonne job out, partly because he couldn't imagine anyone enduring the permitting process, which he knew would be especially long and tedious, but mainly because he wanted the treat of doing it himself.
Bergstol has played the classic links of Great Britain and Ireland, and he's tried to reproduce some of their more quirky features here. Thus the tee shots at numbers two and eight crisscross, and there are two short par fours that tempt big hitters to go for the green. Thirteen holes touch the water, and on the entire course there is not a single tree for shelter. "Sometimes you'll get crazy strong winds," warns Bergstol. There are blind shots and greens tucked away in hollows. The third hole features a Redan green, which, like all the greens at Bayonne, has been hand-shaped with rakes.
Purists will carp that, by definition, you can't build a links course—you can only uncover one where nature has left it. Bergstol wouldn't disagree, but he's tried to make Bayonne look as natural as possible. Agronomist Rich Hurley brought in seventeen varieties of plants similar to those native to the British Isles. The fairway bunkers, for instance, are fringed with shaggy sedge, while raspberry bushes line the path from the fifth green to the sixth tee. Most importantly, though, the course is designed with an eye to encouraging the creative shot making that makes links golf so challenging.
"You've got to pick and choose how you're going to get somewhere," Bergstol says. "You can't just go straight there."
He's talking specifically about putting the Biarritz-style thirteenth green, which is bisected by a swale that might force you to start your ball rolling north if you wish it to end up south, but he might as well be describing the decade-long process he went through to build a course on this unusual spot. One major obstacle was a Department of Environmental Protection regulation forbidding slopes that rise at steeper than a three-to-one (horizontal to vertical) grade. This was a potential deal breaker since the site is only 150 acres. "Golf requires space," says Bergstol, explaining that space protects not only golfers but par, especially in this era when it seems a new course must top seven thousand yards in order to be taken seriously.