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My favorite hole: An old-timey par 4 along the cape in Long Island

November 29, 2018

This is the first of a multi-part series where our writers and editors will wax poetic about their all-time favorite golf hole. Look for more entries throughout the holiday season. Enjoy! 

Mood affects my answer, but this morning, as I type this, my favorite hole in golf is the 15th at Bellport, on the South Shore of Long Island and on the Great South Bay. The hole comes right out of the bay. I’ve played it hundreds of times, in foursomes, threesomes and twosomes, with golfers I know and golfers I don’t — and most often by myself. Fifteen never seems to never play precisely the same way twice, owing to the direction of the brackish wind, the temperature of the air, the position of the hole, the depth of the rough, the raking of its traps and the quality of the golfer on that day. In other words, like all great golf holes, she’s moody.

Bellport is a short, flat and old-timey municipal golf course in the village of Bellport, about 60 miles east of the Empire State Building. It is also, in places, exceptionally beautiful, 15 most especially. In the mid-1970s, when I started caddying and playing at Bellport, nobody would have known the name Seth Raynor, because nobody talked about Golden Age golf-course architects then, not in my experience. Years later, when that kind of conversation became high fashion in the game, Bellport golfers were pleased to learn that their course was a Raynor, first lieutenant to Charles Blair Macdonald and a noted architect himself. Waialae Country Club, where the lodge brothers gather each January for the first full-field event of the year, is a Raynor course. (Once the United Airlines Hawaiian Open and now the Sony Open in Hawaii.) I don’t know how Raynor got there in the 1920s. He didn’t fly United.

When I learned that Bellport was a Raynor course, I started to think of 15 differently. It’s a classic cape hole, as is the famous fifth hole at Mid Ocean, in Bermuda, designed by Macdonald with Raynor, as engineer/construction genius, on the scene. I guessed that the Mid Ocean hole had to be Raynor’s inspiration at Bellport. After all, Bellport’s 15th is an almost comically severe dogleg right. The first part of the hole runs beside Howell’s Creek and up a slight hill, then, after hanging a hard right, runs parallel to the bay. The green is small, round, raised, exposed and well-trapped. You can’t cut the dogleg, or at least, I can’t. The air of often too heavy and the bunker-and-rough penalty for going too far right is too severe. The bayside wind going to do some wacky thing to your approach shot, and to your putting, too.

This is getting too wonky. Bellport’s 15th (it used to be No. 7) is my favorite hole because of the people I have played it with and walked it with, at various times of the day and night. When we were kids, we heard once that a real estate agent had shown John Lennon a house you could see from the tee, a white house with a golden dome. Just the rumor itself was titillating. (Fame had far more mystery then.) I make more putts on that green than anywhere and I can putt it blindfolded. You can trip off the green and onto the 16th tee, going west. In another direction you’re in a bunker with heavy sand. In another, the bay, with Fire Island yawning across it. You can launch approach shots right into the bay that the wind will blow back to the green. How much fun is that?

Ten or so years ago, I was talking to Rees Jones about Bellport, and telling him about the old seventh and describing its excellence as a cape hole, Raynor channeling Macdonald, etc. Rees knew the hole. One summer in the early 1960s, Rees’s father, Robert Trent Jones, was doing renovation work at Bellport, Rees told me. Rees, a budding architect himself then, worked for his father that summer and logged long days at Bellport. He and his father had inherited a hole that was straight and plain. They turned into the bent-elbow hole it is today. In other words, it’s modern. But it looks like its been there a hundred years, that the land was meant to host that hole.

As a teenage golfer, I hit a lot of pop-up drives and now and again I could get a 4-wood to stick on that green. I can still feel the hard rubber grip in my hands, in need of replacement, but I always figured the money was better spent on the 25-cent water balls in the Bellport pro shop. The bay takes, and the bay gives.