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Inwood Country Club: A Classic Course in the Shadow of the City

p1020972A couple of weeks ago something caught my attention on the homepage of this very website. I don’t always pay close attention to the advertising provided by the good people at Golf Audience, but here was a surprise–an ad for golf-only memberships at Inwood Country Club on Long Island. This is a historic club we’re talking about–site of Bobby Jones’s first major championship and a Walter Hagen victory in the ’21 PGA. Yet another sounding line measuring the depths of this recession. I suppose only the very top tier of Met section clubs–Shinnecock Hills, Winged Foot–might be remotely “recession-proof.” Anyway, I thought it might be interesting to see how the course is faring these days. The club was nice enough to host me for an afternoon, so I headed out to the far side of Jamaica Bay to see what I could find.

I like to think I know the New York metro area pretty well, having lived here all my life, but I have to admit I got pretty lost on my way out there. As the crow flies, Inwood is less than twenty miles from Times Square, but there are obstacles in the way–namely Jamaica Bay, the boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens and, most significantly, John F. Kennedy International Airport. When the club was founded, in 1901, Long Island’s south shore was fairly rural, a string of farms, woodlands and small beach communities. It’s hard to believe, given the extent to which Inwood has been engulfed by urban sprawl. Of course, it is far from the only club to have experienced this 20th century phenomenon–a certain club in Clementon, NJ is surrounded by a similarly unlovely commercial zone.

For the most part the course remains within its pocket of woodland, but when it forges out toward its shoreline the imagination is stoked by unexpected collisions of past and present. Lindbergh was still four years away from completing the first transatlantic flight when Bobby Jones strode these fairways in 1923; today, mammoth 767s rumble by so low that you can see the rivets on their bellies. And maybe it’s the way it contrasts with bold, modern courses built on urban waterways (Bayonne, Chambers Bay), but I found it refreshing to see Inwood’s gentle, low-profile green sites and smooth green-to-tee connections.

As befits a course that has evolved under at least five different architects, Inwood comes across as something of a palimpsest of 20th-century architecture. In some places, the tightly-knit routing, steeplechase hazards, archaic-looking banks and chocolate-drop mounding shine through as remnants of early Golden Age design. In others, amorphous, low-lipped saucers of sand and ruler-straight corridors of trees give a distinct midcentury impression. In still others–particularly around some of the more shapely bunkers–one senses the presence of Tom Doak.

There are a few average holes mixed in with some excellent ones (for my money, I’ll take the 3rd, 6th, 13th and the Carnoustie-esque 18th), and the flatness of the site limits the number of unconventional shots one might play, but the course easily holds the golfer’s interest throughout. Part of this is due to the fact that Inwood is both a parkland and a coastal course, and the layout continually mixes the aesthetics and challenges inherent to each setting in an appealing way. I saw the course on the kind of day that gets real estate agents hopping, but I can imagine on a breezy fall day it must be quite intriguing to play out of Inwood’s treelined chutes toward the exposed, coastal greens.

Finally, engaging in conversation with the club’s affably verbose professional, Tommy Thomas, one also senses that history still matters at Inwood. Thomas recited the well-known story of the shot that saved Bobby Jones’s budding career–how the young Georgian struggled to close out tournaments, how the night before the final round of the U.S. Open he’d vowed that if he didn’t win he’d hang up his spikes, how indeed he blew a three-stroke lead over Bobby Cruickshank down the home stretch only to find a hero’s redemption in the playoff. Standing in the rough on the eighteenth, it’s impossible to imagine what golf in America would be like had Jones pushed that all-important shot into the watery moat guarding the green. No Grand Slam? No Augusta National?

While Inwood’s days as a major championship venue are clearly past, one simply can’t argue with the power of that moment. Today a very fine course remains, a green oasis in the shadow of the city, a place where amid the honest challenges of the day a visitor might catch a few enchanting glimpses of golf’s Golden Age.

Inwood Country Club. Inwood, NY. Architects: William Exton & Arthur Thatcher, 1901; Herbert Strong, 1911; Hal Purdy, 1959; Francis Duane, 1972; Tom Doak, 1998. inwoodcc.org.

Card & Pencil:

+ Inwood does a great deal with a compact piece of property. Despite a few parallel holes, there is a strong sense of the journey here, as the course fans out in three- and four-hole loops to reveal the best pieces of both its interior and waterfront.

+ The course has a natural rhythm. Many individual holes keep a low profile, but they stick in the memory very well.

+ Any coastal setting with this type of proximity to a major city has to be viewed as a plus.

- I admit it’s not really fair to call out Inwood on this as tons of clubs and resorts have the same policy, but I’m not a fan of caddie or cart-only before twilight (at ICC it’s 4:30 PM, I believe). Like Pinehurst #2 (which has a similar policy), Inwood is tailor-made as a walking course. The difference, of course, is it’s not nearly as hard, and doesn’t have the kind of intricacies that really require a looper’s wisdom on a day-to-day basis. Granted, I’m only drawing from a single day’s experience, but I didn’t see a single caddie on the course. Everyone rode, and on such an old school layout it just didn’t look or feel right. Caddie programs can be great, but not if they’re propped up by taking options away from the membership. That’s only one writer’s opinion–it’s entirely possible such an arrangement suits the club and its members just fine.

+ It’s a joke how many courses market themselves as being playable by “golfers of all skill levels”, but it’s also a shame because the cliché takes some of the power away from those courses, like Inwood, that really are. Forced carries of any significance are non-existent–the approach to the 18th notwithstanding–making Inwood’s challenges readily accessible to women, juniors and seniors, while the greens are small and well-defended enough to provide plenty of interest to the flat-bellied low-handicappers. It’s a good balance.

Discussion

7 comments for “Inwood Country Club: A Classic Course in the Shadow of the City”

  1. Tom,

    Nice piece.

    I think we’ve got to get you out on a windy day. You’d have fun. The breezes are an important aspect of our course.

    Regarding walking the course, there are many days when I too would like to grab a hand cart and go for a nice stroll. Unfortunately, if we didn’t force the issue we’d have no caddies at all

    Thanks for an intelligent, objective assessment.

    Bill Ain

    Admissions Chairman

    Inwood Country Club

    Posted by Bill Ain | May 29, 2009, 6:23 am
  2. I am an Inwood member and Ben Ross, who you worked with briefly at T&L Golf, father. Loved your comments and describtion of the course. By the way, I hold the 14th hole, along Jamaica Bay, in much higher regard.

    Regards,

    Jim Ross

    Posted by Jim Ross | May 29, 2009, 11:47 am
  3. YOUR ANALYSIS OF INWOOD COUNTRY CLUB GOLF COURSE WAS WELL WRITTEN.AS FORMER GREEN CHAIRMAN AND MEMBER FOR 17 YEARS,I HAVE HAD THE PLEASURE OF PLAYING INWOOD IN ALL TYPES OF WEATHER CONDITIONS AND I CAN BE OBJECTIVE BECAUSE OF THE NUMBEROUS COURSES I HAVE PLAYED. INWOOD WAS ALWAYS A PLEASURE TO PLAY.IT IS WHAT YOU CALL A ENJOYABLE MEMBERS COURSE! INWOOD HAS HELD MANY MAJOR LOCAL TOURNAMENTS AND THE FEED BACK FROM THEM WAS NOTHING BUT RAVE REVIEWS ABOUT THE LAY OUT AND ESPECIALLY THE CONDITION OF THE GREENS. THERE ARE A LOT OF VERY DEDICATED MEMBERS WHO HAVE AND STILL NURTURE THE CLUB TO A POINT WHERE THE GOLFER WHO IS LOOKING FOR A LOT OF NICE GUYS AND A GREAT COURSE THAT IS FAIR AND REWARDING INWOOD IS ABSOLUTELY A FINE CHOICE.THERE ARE FINE TEACHING PRO’S TO HELP YOUR GAME AND A BOARD OF GOVERNERS WORKING EXTREMELY HARD TO ACCOMODATE MEMBERS AND THEIR NEEDS.

    JOEL GARYN

    FORMER MEMBER

    Posted by Joel Garyn | May 29, 2009, 12:50 pm
  4. Tom:

    Just one other thought. On the left side of number 13 under a small tree is a plaque from the members of INWOOD that says WE WILL NEVER FORGET SEPT 11. That plaque will be a reminder to all who come to play INWOOD for many years to come that Inwood and its members are a family who cry together and honor our fallen heros.

    Joel Garyn

    Posted by Joel Garyn | May 29, 2009, 12:57 pm
  5. Thanks to everyone who has written in so far.

    Mr. Ain: Yes, I realized at a certain point how tough it must be to figure out what the wind is going to do when you go from the protected treelined areas to the more open ones. As for the caddie thing, I know it’s a conundrum lots of clubs face…

    Mr. Ross: Good to hear from you, and give my regards to Ben. Hope he’s doing well these days. His passion for and knowledge about the game was evident from day one. As for #14, I wouldn’t say I hold it in low regard. I guess this is a case of my biases coming through–I’m heavily influenced by the Macdonald/Raynor style and would have enjoyed seeing something really bold on that piece of the property. That said, the hole is consistent with Inwood’s overall design, and there’s no doubt given its location that it’s a testing iron shot.

    Mr. Garyn: You’ve definitely proved the point that there’s so much great stuff at Inwood that it’s hard to be comprehensive in a single article. Tommy Thomas told me there’s a Walter Hagen plaque out there as well, but I forgot to seek it out–I was probably caught up with actually playing the course!

    Posted by td | May 29, 2009, 2:16 pm
  6. [...] more here: Inwood Country Club: A Classic Course in the Shadow of the City … .cbadss{ background-color:#FFFFFF; font-family:; font-size:12px; color:#000000; width:400px; [...]

    Posted by Inwood Country Club: A Classic Course in the Shadow of the City … | Golf Resorts | September 30, 2010, 9:21 am
  7. Inwood is a really cool golf course. As you mentioned, #3 is a really good hole…but I’d add it has a perfect green. I thought #14 was a terrific golf hole and was the climax of the penninsula holes in my opinion. I really enjoyed playing Inwood.

    Posted by Mac | November 1, 2010, 2:46 am

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