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Tuesday, May 7, 2013
Classic course set for reintroduction

By Farrell Evans
ESPN.com

In 1922 at the National Golf Links of America off the scenic Peconic Bay in Southampton, N.Y., the U.S. beat Great Britain and Ireland 8 to 4 in the inaugural Walker Cup matches. The U.S. team was led by Bobby Jones, Chick Evans, Robert Gardner and Francis Ouimet.

As great as those players were then and would become in the years that followed, the real star that weekend in August was the National Golf Links, which opened in 1911 under the most meticulous supervision by designer Charles Blair Macdonald.

Though it was a young club, the National was by then already a museum piece, a visual archive of some of the game's greatest golf courses. On 250 acres, adjacent to the Shinnecock Hills Golf Club, Macdonald conceived a links-style course that contained bits and pieces of the character and design of some of his favorite holes in the British Isles.

Walker Cup Trophy
The return of the Walker Cup will bring the spotlight back to National Golf Links of America.

There is the fourth, the "Redan" hole, modeled off the 15th at North Berwick in Scotland, and "St. Andrews," the par-5 seventh hole, which is based off "The Road Hole" at St. Andrews, among others that pay homage to a game that dates back to the early 1400s.

For the first time since the '22 Walker Cup, the best amateur golfers in the world will return to the National in September for the biennial team competition.

The world will get a chance to see a private course that few people have seen through the years, despite its near mythical reputation.

The equipment and the balls today are very different from those used by Jones and Ouimet when they helped the U.S. win these matches in '22, but the strengths and character of National have endured over 90 years.

"The National and historic courses like it have a responsibility to give back to the game," said Mike McBride, the vice president of the club.

On Monday, I had the pleasure of playing National with Chris Millard, a freelance writer who is doing a history of the club.

"The beauty of National is that it has changed very little over the years," said Millard, who wrote a book on golf course design and architecture with Jack Nicklaus. "It's one of the few old golf courses that hasn't been changed by time and equipment.

"The way we play it is pretty much the way Macdonald would have remembered it."

Millard said that Macdonald wanted National to be a fun course. Macdonald, who won the first U.S. Amateur in 1895, wasn't interested in making National as difficult as its older neighbor, Shinnecock Hills. Still, it is a place where a good shot is rewarded and a poor one is punished.

National is perfectly suited for match play. It's short by modern standards (6,957 yards), and the fairways are generous. Longer hitters will have a chance of driving the green at the first two holes. It's a shotmaker's dream.

But this course will bite you in other ways.

The green complexes are fascinating: heavily bunkered, massive, severely undulating and full of enough intricate details to fill dozens of notebooks. The competition committee will have a good time selecting pin placements.

Then there is the issue of the wind.

"Wind I consider the finest asset in golf," Macdonald wrote in his book, "Scotland's Gift: Golf." "In itself it is one of the greatest and most delightful accompaniments in the game."

National contains plenty to defend itself against today's oversized drivers and multilayer golf balls. But the USGA doesn't have any anxiety about the course's vulnerability, perhaps in the way that it does around many of its major championships. The USGA understands, as does National's membership, that this is mostly an occasion to celebrate the legacy of one of America's oldest clubs.

"The National appreciates its place in the game and know that they have a gem," Millard said. "I think they feel it's time to share it with people who haven't seen it in 90 years. They are so happy to show the world what they have."

It will be a busy time on Long Island this summer. The U.S. Women's Open will be staged next door to National in late June at the Sebonack Golf Club, a grand Jack Nicklaus and Tom Doak design that stretches out to more than 7,500 yards.

Yet, the grandfatherly grace and maturity of National will bear witness to everything that is lasting and noble about the game.

Come September, if Bobby Jones, Francis Ouimet and C.B. Macdonald are somewhere watching the Walker Cup, they might not recognize the players, but they will surely know the golf course.