Classic Courses: Inwood CC

It's been several generations now since the invasion of Kennedy Airport and the Belt Parkway tarnished the luster of the westernmost of the glitzy Five Towns at the root of the Rockaway peninsula. The drive down the JFK Expressway and Rockaway Boulevard takes you past blank-looking freight warehouses and the backsides of strip malls, with an occasional, promising glimpse of scrub pines or a bait shack.Then you make the turn through the Inwood Country Club gates and down the short, narrow road to the clubhouse and to your right is the pond fronting the tiny 106-yard par-3 10th -- the one where, as they'll tell you, Hogan sank a ball one while playing an exhibition with Snead, Demaret, and Runyan in 1941. Over there is the 17th tee, where the members planted a willow tree during the 1921 PGA Championship to prevent eventual winner Walter Hagen from taking his preferred route down the 18th fairway; as you pass the 18th green, where Bobby Jones won his first US Open by hitting a miracle shot to six feet, you may likely reflect that a golf course can have a life of its own, nearly independent of the movements of time and traffic and trends.Welcome to Inwood Golf Club, one of the more quixotic and tenacious old clubs in the metropolitan New York area. Having survived into the twenty-first century by determination and serendipity, Inwood retains the cherished subtlety and grace of a family's old, treasured Tiffany lamp -- clearly a throwback, yet durable and as elegant as ever, and more capable of giving pleasure than countless more contemporary rivals. Thanks to the remarkably subtle character of Inwood's small, sloping greens and its unique South Shore meld of linksland and parkland -- and thanks no less to the club's dedication to preserving its personality -- Inwood stands among Long Island's very best golf courses.The beginning, over a hundred years ago, is practically storybook -- a tobacco merchant named Jacob Wertheim fell in love with a girl who was crazy for golf, and leased a potato field for $950 a year. At first things didn't work out very smoothly: fifty of the original eighty members resigned after the first year, and the club's professional, a Scotsman named Martin who had laid out the first few holes, left for a better-paying job driving a horse and carriage. The club applied to A.G. Spalding & Bros. to get a new club pro but after the candidate turned up drunk at the Spalding office on the morning he was supposed to head out to Far Rockaway, the company's manager looked around the office and picked out an ex-baseball player named Edward Eriksen who had thrown his arm out."But I know nothing about golf," said Eriksen."Neither do they," came the answer. Eriksen held the job for eight years and came to be a respected golf professional in Nassau County.By 1917 the club had secured the land for itself and built a clubhouse, and four years later the PGA Championship came to Rockaway. Hagen won a tournament that was also noteworthy for placing a 19-year-old former caddie named Gene Sarazen in the limelight thanks to a decisive victory over fledgling British Open champion Jock Hutchinson.The PGA proved Inwood could host a major, and two years later the club provided a pivotal moment in Bobby Jones' career. Going into the 16th, the 21-year-old held a comfortable lead, but bogeyed after driving out-of-bounds, and then bogeyed 17. Driving from the 425-yard 18th, Jones was still in front by three strokes, but hooked his approach, and then flubbed a chip into a sand bunker, finishing with a six. Now a birdie would give Cruickshank a tie for the lead. Cruickshank hit his approach to twenty feet, and after studying the putt for a long time, sank it to force the playoff.The next day, Jones and Cruickshank arrived at the 18th tee all tied up. This time it was Cruickshank's turn to falter: the Scot duck-hooked his tee shot behind a tree, and had to lay up. Meanwhile Jones had left his tee shot out just a bit to the right, and found his ball sitting down in a cuppy lie on hardpan. Jones hit a magnificent approach into the wind with his mid iron and proceeded to make the six-footer to win the playoff, the first of his thirteen major championships. One cool Monday in September, 1993 the golf course was closed, and while superintendent Pete Ruggieri was trying to oversee the aerification of his greens, he kept getting reports from his crew of a mysterious young man trekking the course. "One of my guys says, 'Somebody's walking around the golf course,'" Ruggieri remembers. "I says, 'What's he doing, is he playing?'"'No, he keeps on popping up in different areas.'"I said, 'Maybe he's one of the kids in the neighborhood, and he got lost, leave him be.'"Around five o'clock, we see this fella walking towards us, and my guy says, 'That's the one who's been walking around here all day!' So he came up and he was very quiet, and I says, 'Can I help you?'"He says, 'Is the superintendent around?'"'Yeah, I'm the superintendent.'"'I'm Tom Doak.'" Doak, a hard man to get a hold of, was working on a number of other area courses, and arrived a few days before his scheduled meeting with the club's greens chairman and Ruggieri.Some years earlier, one designer had done a thorough job of redoing a green complex, but Inwood's members decided they rather preferred the course's original character. Assistant pro Cameron Wood had read Doak's Anatomy of a Golf Course and showed it to the chairman of the greens committee, who passed it on to Ruggieri. It didn't hurt that Doak's minimalist approach suited an economical maintenance budget. Ruggieri remembers the designer saying, "This golf course doesn't call for bluegrass bunkers to be maintained, mowed and fertilized -- you don't need them here, it's not that type of golf course." Doak's restoration philosophy is simple. "For any club I look at, the first thing I'm looking at is 'What good things about this course have been lost over time?' Before you start thinking about your own ideas for making it better, it's like 'What was here that was really good that they've kind of messed up?'"With the help of photographs from the club's collection along with county aerial studies done in 1926, Doak set to work restoring the course to something like its original state. One obvious change was dozens of trees that had been planted along the shore of the peninsula that juts out into Jamaica Bay, possibly with the intention of blocking the wind, or the view of JFK, nee Idlewild, constructed in 1948. Doak removed the trees and opened up the view, and now the par-3 14th, which for a time was backed with trees hanging onto the peninsula for dear life, presents an lovely green backed by the blue ribbon of the bay waters. An odd byproduct of Kennedy Airport's presence is an almost primeval view of Jamaica Bay: glorious in its solitude, with a lone scrub oak just to the right of the green, the hole is pure Long Island South Shore scenery. Like so much else about this course, the routing at Inwood is oddly charming. Early on, three consecutive par-5s are followed by a pair of par-3s. The first of the three-shot holes is the elegant third: driving from a tee set among the reeds and marshes, you need to keep your ball as far left as possible without slipping into the massive fairway bunker. The hole plays uphill, but so slightly you may hardly notice: the first time you eye your approach, you will sense that your target should be toward the right of the green, because the slope will push shots left. You will see, as you near the soft crest of this long, gentle not-quite-a-hill, that the designer has done you the mixed favor of splitting the peak in half -- between green surface on the left (and falling-off-to-the-left-into-a-hollow green surface) and a very tricky little bailout/collection area. With green complexes like this, no wonder at the last Met area PGA championship held here last fall, with the greens Stimping to 15, only Darrell Kestner finished under par.The two par-3s turn in opposite directions, and then the routing moves from behind the clubhouse to the main stage in front, a big square with old oak trees and willows, looking more Westchester than Long Island. First is the 415-yard eighth, which requires a straight drive, mostly because the approach affords very little room for error. From the fairway you can see what looks like a little mountain on the right-hand side of the broad green -- it's a big crease that seems to emerge from the middle of the downward slope of left-hand side, intersecting with a slightly smaller one to create a remarkable hillock -- a mini-tier, you might call it, although when the hole is sitting on top of it you may come up with some less printable names for it. The par-3 10th, "a neat little hole" in Tom Doak's words, is the shortest par-3 played in U.S. Open history.There is a plaque near the spot from which Jones won his title in 1923, but the hole isn't quite the bear was then: a solid drive will put most golfers a 6- or 7-iron from the green. As Doak put it, "It's a members' club and they want it to be as good as it can be for the members. The ironic thing is that a great championship course in 1923 is a really good members' course today." If it's not likely to host another U.S. Open, Inwood is doing much better than maintaining itself as a footnote -- it's a memorable, dramatic, and rewarding old classic.