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Shelter Island’s nine-hole course highlights the 7 best things in golf this week

August 28, 2019

Every week (pretty much) GOLF senior writer Michael Bamberger identifies — and ranks — the absolute, undeniably, very best (or at least mildly interesting) things in golf right now. This week, he’s going deep on the best nine-hole course on Shelter Island, N.Y.

7. Best Website for Pasture Golf

Regular readers of this space have possibly noted your correspondent’s interest in nine-hole golf in general and rugged golf more specifically. The best TV show related to this theme had to be Steve Elkington’s The Rural Golfer on RFD-TV. (Not that I ever saw it, but you gotta love the show’s name and the network’s, too.) The best website for this subject is PastureGolf.com. No need to hurry over there. As best I can tell, it was last updated in 2014. From the website: “At its birth [golf] was the game of a rural people, played simply on the fells and fields where sheep and cattle grazed. Pasture golf celebrates the undercurrent, the backwash maybe, that returns to these grassroots.” Sign me up.

6. Not in the Top-100

There is not, not should there be, a Top-100 list of pasture golf-courses. But I was surprised to see no mention of the nine-hole Shelter Island Country Club course, in Shelter Island, N.Y. I cite the full name with an ironic wink; all locals refer to it as Goat Hill. The Goat Hill pro shop (a large broom closet) sells caps marked Goat Hill. It is a par-33 for the fellas, 2,500 yards, all stretched out, with a “driving” (iron) range and charming weathered clubhouse, up high on a hill and the site of a restaurant called The Flying Goat. I’ve been playing the course irregularly since 1990. Its fairways — a mix of weeds and crabgrass with little swatches of fescue here and there — have never been greener. The walking green fee is $25. The round-trip ferry, for you and your car and your party, will be about the same. There are two ferries to Shelter Island. One is from Greenport, on Long Island’s North Fork. The other is from Sag Harbor, on Long Island’s South Fork. Or, you could go by boat.

5. Goat Hill

The course is aptly named, or nicknamed. The first hole starts beside the clubhouse and is straight down a hill and for the next eight you’re making a gradual climb back whence you came. Playing it the other day, after a one-swing warmup, I hit about the best opening tee-shot of my golfing life. When I got out there, I was amazed to see my drive was almost hole-high. I hit a beautiful pitch right at the flagstick, only to discover that the flagstick marked not the hole’s location but the direction of the hole. I still had another 60 or so yards to go. The green was smooth and slow. Pasture golf does not emphasize putting. Putting is closer to chipping on most pasture courses.

The first tee at Shelter Island Country Club.
The first tee at Shelter Island Country Club.
Michael Bamberger

4. Best Bunker at Goat Hill

Also, the only one, near the fifth green. This is what nonresidential bunkers should look like, rough-hewn and nasty. A residential bunker is what you see at Brora, in northern Scotland, where the bunkers are made by sheep, seeking shelter from the wind. I played Brora because Herb Wind took Tom Watson to Dornoch, but I’ll save that for another time.

Michael Bamberger

3. Pasture Course in Ye Olde Country

There is, or was, a course in Scotland called Auchnafree, near nowhere. Charles McGrath once mentioned it in The New York Times: “One of the best courses I’ve ever played is Auchnafree, which was laid out by a shepherd, John Pollock, in a glen in Perthshire, Scotland. The cups were tin cans, and the groundskeeping crew consisted entirely of sheep, who took care of the mowing and the fertilizing.” Chip McG played the course (using second-cousin-twice-removed logic here) because Herb Wind took Tom Watson to Dornoch. All golf in Scotland is pasture golf.

Auchnafree Golf Course in Scotland.
Auchnafree Golf Course in Scotland.

2. Best in Class

The best bell I have ever seen on the tee of a par-3 hole has to be the one on the fifth at Goat Hill. You don’t often see bells on tees. The purpose of this one is to let players on four know that they may play their second shots. Should there actually be a group behind you. 

Michael Bamberger

1. Closing Time

The 200-yard ninth at Goat Hill has to be one of the best par-3s on Shelter Island. (There’s an 18-hole Seth Raynor course on the island called Gardiner’s Bay with five par-3s. I have not played the course but the pro emeritus there, Bob DeStefano, is a legend. When the U.S. Open was at Shinnecock Hills last year, Bob had a memorable exchange with Dustin Johnson during a pre-tournament press conference. Bob asked, “Dustin, I was just curious: as you’re actually moving through a shot, is your mind on where the ball is going, or is your mind on something in your swing?” And Dustin answered, “That’s a good question, because I have no idea. Hopefully, it’s not really doing anything.”) My tee shot on the closing hole at Goat Hill the other day would have made Dr. Johnson proud. It’s an uphill shot, over a grassy ravine, to a plateau green, flat as a table-top, no greenside traps (as you know) and a tall grass wall as a backstop behind it. As I hiked up to the ninth green I was so surprised not to see my ball I looked (casually) in the hole for it. All dark in there. It remains unfound. Must have buried in that grassy wall. I was thinking 1 but made an X. Maybe I should say 10. By custom, that’s the most you can take on any hole at Goat Hill.


Michael Bamberger may be reached at Michael_Bamberger@golf.com.