Founded in 1891 on the southern shore of Long Island in East Hampton, New York, sits Maidstone Club -- home to one of the few true links golf courses in North America. Established initially as a tennis and beach club with a handful of golf holes as almost an afterthought, Maidstone claimed its place as one of the great golf courses in America in the early 1920s, after the club acquired an additional 80 acres of land between Hook Pond and the Atlantic Ocean, where Willie Park, Jr. designed some of the best golf holes in the country.
Nearly 90 years later, the design team of Coore and Crenshaw led a significant restoration that introduced new tees, cleared trees and brush that had cluttered the course, made the dunes more prominent, and -- perhaps most significantly -- reclaimed ground around the greens that had been lost through years of mowing. The work on the greens returned them to approximately their original designs, enlarging the greens by nearly 50 percent, which reintroduced hole locations that had been lost to time while making the course more playable.
Maidstone has one of my favorite logos -- the spouting whale.
Today, Golf Digest and Golf Magazine rank Maidstone 64th and 29th among their respective lists of the top 100 courses in North America. Even just 20 miles or so from American golf gems Shinnecock Hills and National Golf Links of America, with its understated charm and old school facilities -- a small, intimate golf shop and a locker room that emphasizes function over form, in rich contrast to the extravagance of some wealthy clubs -- Maidstone is sometimes said to be the most elite and difficult club to get into of all of the clubs in the Hamptons.
Stories of Maidstone's exclusivity are legion. The club is famously believed to have denied President Clinton a tee time during his years in the White House. And for many years the club was believed to be less than welcoming to Jewish guests and members. When a member told Groucho Marx that he wouldn't be able to join because he was Jewish, Marx is said to have responded, "My kids are only half-Jewish; can they at least play the front nine?"
Today, the club remains one of the most private and elite in the country, which made it all the more remarkable when my friend Gregg and I were invited to play the course unaccompanied this summer. And I have to say that while we felt a bit like interlopers -- as is often the case visiting a club as unaccompanied guests -- every member of the staff that we met during our visit absolutely went out of their way to make us feel welcome, even to the point of offering me a riding cart on what is normally a walking-only course when they noticed the brace I'm currently wearing due to a couple of torn tendons in my left ankle. (Special thanks to Marino Martin for this photo of the Members Only sign near the Maidstone parking lot.)
We played Maidstone on a day when early blue skies out over the ocean quickly gave way to low grey cloud cover that never really relented. And between the grey skies and the relative flatness of the land so close to the sea, I don't think my amateur photography really does the course justice. It is a gorgeous piece of land on which to play the game, and I actually think the weather and grey conditions added something to the experience that may not come through in the photos. I've never played in Scotland, so I don't have first-hand knowledge of what that's like, but there were times -- especially as we played holes like 8, 9, 14 and 15 -- when it sure felt like we could have been playing a British Open course.
The course itself measures 6,742 yards from the tips. Gregg and I played from the blue tees, at 6,481 yards, and I'd say that we probably would have been better suited playing the white tees at 6,004 yards had we considered the degree to which the wind would make the course play longer. I mention this both as a word of caution for those who might play the course in the future and to acknowledge that all yardages mentioned throughout the remainder of the blog will reflect the blue tees from which we played unless otherwise specified.
Hole 1 - 380 Yards - Par 4
The first hole offers a very generous landing area for the opening tee shot. With the ocean at your back and a stiff breeze blowing off the Atlantic, players may find they get a bit more distance on the opening tee shot than they are used to. Large bunkers left and right of the fairway may look like hazards from the tee but only require a shot of about 200 yards to clear. Any ball hit between 200 and 250 yards will safely find the short grass, and balls hit down the right side of the fairway will bound left toward the center. Long players may want to hit 3-wood or hybrid off the tee just to avoid the risk of going long left into the high grass fronting the tee on the 18th hole.
The approach on No. 1 plays to an elevated green with bunkers guarding the front half of the green and out-of-bounds long of the hole. From the fairway, most players will have just a wedge or short iron into this green and may elect to play a low running shot to the right half of the green in order to ensure they find the putting surface. But beware the false front as balls that fail to make it at least 10 or so yards onto the green may roll back into the fairway or, worse, into the large, deep bunker on the front-left side.
Hole 2 - 548 Yards - Par 5
The second hole is a long par-5 that plays straightaway. A solid three-shot hole, the real challenge is simply keeping the ball in play. The forced carry over water may be visually intimidating, but the greater danger comes from a narrow stream that flows down the left and the out-of-bounds along Dunemere Lane that runs down the entire left side of the hole. Meanwhile, dense hedges and trees create a the look of a forest wall down the entire right side, which also is lined with out-of-bounds stakes. Unless you're a very long hitter willing to risk a big number for the chance of being able to go for this green in two, the smart play may not be driver off the tee but rather the longest club you can play with the certainty of keeping your ball in bounds. If that means playing a 200-yard club off of the tee, at least you know that another 200-yard shot and a mid-iron will help you to safely reach the green in regulation.
Big hitters may be able to reach this green in two. Hole positions in the front of the green are relatively accessible, but the huge bunker left of the green will make it much more challenging for anyone trying to reach a back pin position.
In addition to the large front-left greenside bunker, the putting surface is also guarded by a bunker right that runs the entire length of this long green. Any ball hit right of the green, be even a couple of feet, will find the sand. For players who layup with their second shots, this hole presents an early scoring opportunity, offering those who can play a wedge or short-iron into this green a chance at birdie -- provided they can land their ball on the same third of the green as the day's hole location.
Hole 3 - 388 Yards - Par 4
Hole No. 3 is another challenging driving hole with OB, trees and high grass all down the right side, a 70-yard-long bunker just right of the fairway beginning about 210 yards off the tee, a smaller but no less treacherous bunker at about 230 yards on the left, and water far left for those who are thinking about just bailing out to avoid all the trouble on the right. Having watched me hit two decent drivers on the opening holes, our caddie, Tomas, suggested I play a hybrid off the tee on this hole, and I was glad I took his advice as I pulled my ball in the direction of the fairway bunkers on the left but found myself short of the trouble.
The approach on three plays to a two-tier green that slopes from back to front. The green sets up well for shots played along the ground, up the throat between the bunkers. Short is the better miss than long here in order to leave yourself with an uphill pitch that you can be aggressive with against the natural backstop that the slope of the green provides.
Hole 4 - 176 Yards - Par 3
The fourth hole -- Maidstone's first par-3 -- measures 242 yards from the back tees and requires a carry of about 210 yards over water. This is the first of the holes added by Willie Park, Jr. and begins the real adventure that is Maidstone Club. From the blue tees, the hole is a more manageable 176 yards to a green guarded by four deep bunkers. As Tomas warned us, take enough club to reach the center or back of the green, leaving yourself a relatively flat putt, even if the flag is nearer to the front of the green. The putting surface isn't severely undulating but features a false front that will send anything short or left either down a steep bank to the collection area short of the green or into one of the deep greenside bunkers. Par on this one-shot hole is an excellent score.
Hole 5 - 325 Yards - Par 4
The short par-4 fifth hole is potentially drivable for long hitters or in the right wind conditions. It's also an easy double bogey for the player who gets too aggressive if the play doesn't pay off. Going for the green off the tee requires a soft cut (for right-handed players), but overcut it and risk finding sand, high grass or water down the right side of the hole.
For players who find the green -- or for those who take a more conservative approach off the tee to set up a short wedge approach -- No. 5 offers one of the best opportunities on the front nine for a birdie. But scoring is not guaranteed. The front of this green is protected by bunkers left and right, and finding the putting surface is made more difficult by the way Hook Pond wraps around the back third of the green. Even with a wedge in hand, it's going to take a precise shot into this green to set up a makeable putt.
Hole 6 - 403 Yards - Par 4
As on the fifth hole, the ideal tee shot on No. 6 is a cut. But a massive penalty area and water combine to make anything right of the fairway a disaster. A bunker in the middle of the fairway about 240 yards off the tee offers players a line on which to aim off the tee.
The approach on No. 6 plays into an elevated, two-tier green that slopes significantly from left to right. The bunker right of the green isn't a terrible place from which to play, blasting out and into the slope of the putting surface. But the bunker left of the green is almost an automatic loss of a stroke. From inside the bunker, players may find it difficult to even see the surface of the green, which slopes so dramatically away that it may be impossible to stop a ball on the putting surface at all, let alone near the hole. Like many holes at Maidstone, the seventh was designed to give players choices about how to play the hole -- either through the air or along the ground. And It may not be a terrible strategy to even layup short of this green in order to avoid the bunkers and set up a short pitch in the hopes of scrambling for a par and, at worst, ensuring a bogey.
Hole 7 - 349 Yards - Par 4
No. 7 is risk-reward at its finest. For short or average hitters, a simple 200-yard shot aimed just right of the sandy dunes in the distance will set up a mid- to short-iron approach into this hole. But for big hitters willing to take the risk, the straight line to the green is just 270 yards of carry over the pond. If the wind is blowing hard off the ocean to the south, that may play more like 330 yards through the air. But if the wind is at your back, that might not even be a driver swing for long-ball hitters. Really, though ... if this is you're one chance to play this great course, are you really going to lay up?
For most of us, the answer should absolutely be yes! Don't think about the green. Aim right of the sand dunes, hit a fairway wood, hybrid or even a long-iron and just get your ball in play. Set up the short shot into this gettable green -- one of the flattest on the course, guarded by two shallow bunkers that shouldn't really come into play for most players and shouldn't present much of a challenge for those who do find the sand.
In my case, I tried to play smart -- hit my hybrid off the tee and pured it -- only to find I'd aimed a little too far left, meaning my ball ran through the fairway and wound up in the hardpan waste area left of the hole. Still, it didn't take much more than a little punch shot to run this ball along the fairway, up and onto the green.
Hole 8 - 151 Yards - Par 3
The next couple of holes were two of my favorites on the course. The fact that I birdied both of them might have something to do with that.
The eighth hole is a wonderful short par-3 -- 150 yards to a green that is mostly hidden behind the high dunes as players make their way toward the ocean. Depending on the wind and hole location, Tomas told us this hole can play anywhere from a sand wedge to a 4-iron. The wind wasn't too stiff this day, and we could just see the flag from the tee. Still, Tomas warned us to aim well right of the flag as the wind was likely to be more of a factor as the ball rose up above the dunes, and the last thing you want is to see your ball curl in the wind and wind up left of the green in the deep bunker that sits below the putting surface. I decided to give it a go with a smooth 8-iron aimed well right of the flag, and I was rewarded for the effort.
My ball came to rest maybe 12 feet or so from the hole, and I had a relatively straight putt for birdie. This two-tiered green can be tricky for players who don't land the ball close, and as you can see in this picture -- taken from just left of the green -- anything the wind pushes near the left edge is doomed to drop off, either down the fairway cut to the collection area well below the putting surface or into the deep bunker left of the green.
Hole 9 - 398 Yards - Par 4
Gregg and I took a moment for a quick picture on the ninth tee, just steps away from the beach and the ocean, and I'm sorry to say it's the only picture I got of Maidstone's signature hole from the tee box. The ninth is a long, challenging par-4 that plays between the dunes. The narrow fairway snakes through a valley between sand and high natural grasses. And the 10th hole, to the left, is out-of-bounds. At nearly 400 yards, with an approach that plays significantly back uphill to an elevated green, most players will need to hit driver off of this tee in order to give themselves a mid- to long-iron shot into this green. But with the wind blowing hard from the right, off the ocean, stepping to the tee and hammering a full driver swing down the middle of the tight fairway takes nerves of steel.
For those whose tee shots do find the fairway, the approach on No. 9 plays longer than the yardage, uphill, over sand to a green that almost seems to hang upon the dunes. Miss the green right, and you'll find yourself at the bottom of a bunker some 20 feet or more below the putting surface. Bail out to the left, and you've got to play a shot dead into the wind to a green with edges that have been cut tight and shaped to send any ball that doesn't find the center careening off toward the fairway short of the green or into the deep bunker you were trying to avoid when you hit it left in the first place. I was fortunate. I somehow managed to hit another terrific 8-iron out into the wind on the right and drawing back into the heart of the green where it settled just a few feet away from the hole for a relatively easy birdie.
Hole 10 - 402 Yards - Par 4
The 10th hole turns inward from the water and plays roughly parallel to the ninth. This straightaway par-4 features tall, sandy dunes left of the hole and high fescue down the right. A small bunker on the right side -- only 150 or so yards off the tee -- rises up to obscure the much larger fairway bunker in the distance. it'll take a tee shot of about 220 yards to clear the second bunker on your way to this green.
Like the ninth, the 10th green is significantly elevated, playing atop the dunes with sand and gnarly native grasses all around, just waiting to catch an errant shot. The false front will send any ball hit short into this green either back down the fairway, far below the putting surface, or into the huge bunkers short left and right of the green. This hole calls for a precision approach as balls hit long or left will also fall off the green into collection areas from which recovery can be dicey. Aim for the center of this green, and be very pleased with yourself if you can walk away with a par.
Hole 11 - 442 Yards - Par 4
If No. 10 beat me up a bit -- and it did! -- No. 11 stole my lunch money! This long par-4 is a beast of a hole. From the tee, it's about a 230-yard carry to cover the bunkers and cut a little bit of distance off of this hole as it turns to the left. A high draw that flies 235 or more is the ideal tee shot on this hole. Overcook your draw, however, and the bunkers become the least of your worries. The native grass and high fescue down the entire left side of the hole is thick, and the odds of finding a ball -- never mind playing it -- in the high stuff are pretty low, even with the eagle eyed help of a Maidstone caddie.
This hole is long enough that average-length hitters may want to mentally approach it as if it were a par-5. Let par feel like birdie, and don't beat yourself up if you take away a bogey on this big hole. Even from the fairway, the play may be to lay up short of the bunkers and set yourself up with a pitch into this green. The long serpentine bunker on the right and the bunkers left of this green can all be score killers. But the green is one of the flattest on the course once you get beyond the false front. So, laying up to set up a pitch into the green may actually be the best road to par for many players. (Someone please remind me to come back and read this bit of advice ahead of time if I ever get another opportunity to play Maidstone!)
Hole 12 - 184 Yards - Par 4
No. 12 is an excellent mid-length par-3 with one of the smaller greens on the course guarded by four massive bunkers and high natural grasses and fescue pinching in on both sides. the green is made smaller by the fact that it is essentially crowned such that balls hit to the edges of the green will fall off in all directions to either one of the fairway collection areas below the putting surface or into one of the deep bunkers. While the green itself is 37 yards deep, the surface on which players must land the ball to hold the green is perhaps 25 yards deep. Make your club selection with the middle of the green in mind, regardless of where the flag may be flying on this hole.
Hole 13 - 490 Yards - Par 5
The first of Maidstone's three back-nine par-5s, the 13th is both reachable in two and devilishly difficult to par. The narrow fairway features bunkers down both sides, along with thick native grasses and fescue ready to snag any ball hit slightly off-line. The dunes and brush down the left side can make it difficult to properly judge the wind as you choose your clubs for each shot on this hole.
Avoid the bunkers and the other trouble this hole invites, and your approach shot into this big green will still be anything but easy. As you can see from this photo, the false front here is no joke. Hit your ball at least 20 yards onto the green to avoid having it roll all the way back down to the fairway. But avoid playing your ball too deep into this green unless the hole is tucked way in the back because it is possible to putt a ball from that tier downhill to a hole somewhere on the lower half of the green and watch the wind and the slope take it all the way back to the fairway. The bunkers around this green are deep and feature high faces that will make escape a challenge and should be avoided at all costs.
Just beyond the 13th green is Maidstone's halfway house. It's a charming place to stop for a quick bite -- the homemade cookies are delicious -- and a little boost of energy as you prepare for the home holes. It also offers a beautiful view of Wiborg Beach and the ocean beyond the dunes.
Hole 14 - 152 Yards - Par 3
While No. 9 may be Maidstone's signature hole, the 14th may be it's most photographed. This terrific short par-3 offers an expansive view of the ocean and all the challenge you could want playing golf among the dunes -- wind; a small green that will reject balls hit short, long and left; sand; and dense vegetation everywhere. It's visually stunning and intimidating for a hole of just 150 or so yards.
I'd like to say I'm including this photo just to show how close the ocean the 14th green really is and what a beautiful view it provides of the Atlantic. But let's face it; I wanted it show off how close I hit my tee shot. It's my blog, after all! I'm also humble enough, though, to admit I lipped out the birdie putt. Dang it!
Hole 15 - 493 Yards - Par 5
Hole 15 is the second of three par-5s on the back nine and the first of two consecutive par-5s. Teeing off, the beach and ocean are directly behind you, and if the wind is blowing off the water, you feel like you could hit your ball a mile. Unfortunately, with OB down the entire right side of the hole, it's not completely safe to just grip it and rip it. What's more, bunkers on the right side of the fairway begin at about 170 yards from the tee and stretch for nearly 100 yards, offering little room to land safely right of the fairway. The best play here is to aim at the bunkers down the left side of the hole -- 290 yards away -- and hope for a little cut that the wind can carry right down the middle of the fairway.
With the wind, most players will likely be able to challenge this green in two provided they've hit their tee shot into the short grass. But this isn't an easy hole to reach in two simply because the bunkers left and right pinch the opening to the green to just about 15 yards wide. The bunker on the right begins about 75 yards out from the green and runs nearly to the back of the green on the right side. The bunker on the left is deeper. And in either case, a player who finds the sand even on their second shot should be happy to come away from this hole with a par. One other point worth noting about this green is that it falls off significantly to the back, and any player who goes long will be faced with the challenge of playing uphill back to a green that then runs away from you with bunkers right and left just waiting to receive balls that roll through the green on the return. Maidstone's par-5s may not be exceptionally long, but they are certainly not easy.
Hole 16 - 485 Yards - Par 5
They say fortune favors the bold, and there may not be a hole at Maidstone on which that is truer than the 16th. No. 16 shares a tee box with the fourth hole and plays across water to a fairway angled across the player from left to right. Visually, the tee shot begs you to aim at the wide expanse of fairway out to the right -- to take a big swing and give yourself a short shot into this par-5. But it's a longer carry than it looks. The small bunker you can see to the right in this photo -- just a few yards from the water -- is about a 265-yard carry. Better to aim just right of the fairway bunkers down the left side of the hole, where a 250-yard tee shot will set you up nicely to either go for the green with a wood or hybrid or to lay-up in order to play for a birdie opportunity.
The green on 16 is protected by deep bunkers left and front-right but does offer ample room to run a ball in along the ground to the left side. A false front will prevent balls hit short from holding the putting surface, but make it up to the middle of the green, and the ball will feed from the left even toward a hole cut on the right side of this green. Assuming you've successfully carried the water with your tee shot, this becomes a scoring hole and is one of the reasons Bobby Jones is said to have believed Maidstone's final three holes made it one of the finest match-play courses in America.
Hole 17 - 328 Yards - Par 4
If No. 16 was a good match-play hole, the 17th is a fantastic hole for that format! This short par-4 offers just about everything you could want in a match-play hole. It's drivable -- 328 yards on the scorecard but just a 274-yard carry from the blue tee to the front of the green ... if you've got enough nerve to aim out over all that water and take dead aim. Balls that go long will find OB on the Highway Behind the Pond (that's literally what the road is called that runs down the right side of the hole and behind the green). Pull it left, and even if you don't find the water you're likely going to be lost in a sea of high grass and fescue. And with bunkers dotting the landscape, there's almost no safe play on this hole except, perhaps, to just hit a 5-iron off the tee at the far fairway bunkers.
The green on 17 is pinched between the Highway Behind the Pond, Dunemere Lane and a big, deep bunker left-front. This is the smallest green on the course, but don't dare miss it or this easy short hole can quickly blow up into a big number. The safe approach -- to avoid the false front and the sloped back of the green that will kick balls toward the out-of-bounds area -- is a wedge into the middle of the green. But if you need a birdie, this hole dares you to come and take it with a shot aimed right at the flag.
Hole 18 - 390 Yards - Par 4
Having made it safely back to within sight of the clubhouse, the 18th hole is an opportunity to close out your day with what ought to be an easy par or maybe even a birdie. The fairway is wide and inviting. It plays uphill off the tee, and there are bunkers to avoid, but players have essentially the entire first and 18th fairways in which to land their drives. The only truly bad shot off the tee on 18 is far right, into the fescue or the driving range.
From the fairway, with the ocean in the distance and into the wind, players likely aren't going to have much more than a short-iron in hand and may want to just hit a little knockdown shot to run the ball into this two-tiered green that feeds everything from right to left. The bunkers that surround the green aren't particularly deep or difficult, so there isn't much more to worry about here than choosing the right club for the distance you need to play the shot.
From the 18th green, you can look out and take in the view of the ocean with Maidstone's tennis courts and beach club down below. The sounds of the surf crashing upon the sand make it easy to understand why New York's wealthy elite have chosen this location to vacation for the last 130 years and more. And as you sink your final putt of the round, it's a joy to have shared their club if only for a day.
Gregg and I had a fantastic time with our caddie, Tomas ... who never once let the smile fall from his face as he helped us hunt for our golf balls in places we ought not to have hit them. Here we are on the 15th tee, just a wedge away from the Atlantic.
Overall, Maidstone absolutely lived up to its reputation. I think initially my impressions of the club were unfairly influenced by the fact that Gregg and I had such an incredible experience visiting Friar's Head just a day before. It would have been difficult for any course/club to really blow me away in the immediate aftermath of that experience. For that reason, I'm really glad I've given myself some time before writing this blog to reflect and sort of isolate my thoughts on Maidstone.
It is sometimes said of the course that it opens with a couple of weak holes and closes with a couple of weak holes and that it has absolutely amazing holes in the middle. I wouldn't quite put it that way. Rather, I think the course eases you out from the clubhouse like the fishing trawlers that set out to sea from the glassy waters of nearby Gardiners Bay. From the fourth hole to the 16th, the course will test every aspect of your game the way high winds and crashing waves test the mettle of the region's longshore fishermen. And then -- provided your tee shot safely carries the water hazard on 17, the last two holes ease you back into the clubhouse like a boat coasting back into its home berth. As much as the course might beat you up -- and it certainly beat us up! -- a couple of relatively easy pars to end the day ... with legitimate opportunities for birdie on both of the last two holes ... will put smiles on the faces of even the grumpiest players and remind us why we love the game. That seems like pretty solid design to me.