going green: 10 nyc public golf courses

Joe Bargmann

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A few years back, Bob Garafola, a deputy commissioner of the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation, was asked to play in a golf event at Clearview Park Golf Course in Queens. Frankly, he was reluctant to do it, as he hadn't swung a club in decades. He ultimately decided to play—and ended up going two rounds that day. “Walking toward the Throgs Neck Bridge, we had these tremendously beautiful views of the Long Island Sound at sunset. It was one of the best golf experiences of my life.”

The golf courses in New York's five boroughs are among the oldest and most played public layouts in the nation. It's a good thing, then, that the City has stepped up efforts in recent years to improve conditions at its golf facilities. Millions of dollars have been poured into making over tees, fairways and greens. New practice grounds have been added at some courses and several clubhouses have been upgraded to private-club standards. The money has come largely from private concessionaires, who hold leases to operate the courses and share profits with the City.

As a mark of the City's continuing commitment to the game, Garafola points to the Jack Nicklaus design for its newest golf course in the works, Ferry Point, in construction at the foot of the Whitestone Bridge in the Bronx. “The greatest player ever, with the possible exception of Tiger Woods—that's a pretty good guy to have building a golf course for you,” Garafola says with a chuckle. The course doesn't have a firm opening date yet, but when it debuts it should be spectacular.

Golf in NYC, which was truly laughable 20 years ago, has become a mainstay for tens of thousands of players—and a boon to the City. “We see it as a win-win,” says Garafola. “The concessionaires who run the courses have an incentive to invest in the courses—the better they are, the more play they get. The City benefits from this, too, of course, in many ways. Playing golf supports a healthy lifestyle, and it's something people of all ages can enjoy.”

For more about courses in New York City, read on, and be sure to check out NYC's driving ranges. A full list of the City's public golf courses and driving ranges can be found on nyc.gov/parks.


Photo: Marley White

Clearview Park Golf Course (Queens)
The busiest of the City courses, logging more than 75,000 rounds a year, Clearview could test the patience of any golfer; the crowds all but guarantee a round in excess of five hours. But Clearview must be doing something right, because golfers return there time and again. Part of the appeal is the 8,000-square-foot practice putting green and a newly renovated clubhouse with an above-average restaurant and a lively bar. Out on the course, the views are inspiring; from the 17th tee, even the homely Throgs Neck Bridge looks beautiful. The course has recently undergone numerous improvements, including a major clearing of undergrowth between holes, which opens the course and allows for improved conditions. Standout holes include No. 4, a 179-yard par 3 with an uphill tee shot over a water hazard.

SCORECARD
19th hole: 5 (out of a possible 5)
Views/ambience: 5 (out of a possible 5)
Accessibility: 3 (with 5 being the most accessible)
Level of difficulty: 4 (with 5 being the most difficult)
Course conditioning: 4 (out of a possible 5)
Overall: 21 (out of a possible 25)

Photo: Marley White

Kissena Golf Course (Queens)
Kissena is a laid-back little course, with equal emphasis on both attributes. Par is just 64, the layout measures less than 5,000 yards and, as one website notes, the dress code is “shirt and shoes required.” We might also recommend pants or a skirt, but, hey, whatever floats your boat, right? Kidding aside, Kissena is a great place to practice: its groundskeeper is responsible for some of the best-conditioned greens in the area, so head out and enjoy the course.

SCORECARD
19th hole: 3
Views/ambience: 2
Accessibility: 2
Level of difficulty: 2
Course conditioning: 3
Overall: 12

Photo: Marley White

Douglaston Golf Course (Queens)
At par 67 and less than 6,000 yards from the back tees, Douglaston won't be challenging Bethpage Black as a U.S. Open venue. The course originally opened in 1927, during the golden age of golf course architecture, but layout revisions over the years have obscured any old-school feel (with all due respect to designer Stephen Kay, who has worked on many City courses and oversaw upgrades to Douglaston in 2004). With all of this in mind, golfers aren't rushing to Douglaston expecting to play the round of their life. What the place has going for it is rolling terrain; wide fairways; beautiful, old trees; and spectacular views of the Manhattan skyline. You want a decent walk in the park and a pleasant place to whack the ball around? Head to Douglaston. Holding higher expectations will lead to disappointment.

SCORECARD
19th hole: 4
Views/ambience: 3
Accessibility: 2
Level of difficulty: 2
Course conditioning: 2
Overall: 13

Photo: Marley White

Forest Park Golf Course (Queens)
Designed in 1896 by Fredrick Law Olmsted, the 543-acre Forest Park is something of a draw for bird-watchers, who find many species among the towering trees and numerous ponds. Golfers looking for birdies won't have as much luck: with tree-lined fairways, elevated greens and three water hazards, Forest Park Golf Course presents a solid test, even though it maxes out at just 6,053 yards in a day when championship courses routinely measure 7,400 yards. Opened in the early 1900s and redesigned in 1995 by Stephen Kay, the course features a nice variety of holes, including No. 4, a surprisingly tough, 475-yard par 5 that calls for a long tee shot over a gulch and an uphill approach to the green. Forest Park scores trivia points for a 1997 incident in which a golfer received keen attention from Secret Service agents for directing shots toward President Bill Clinton's motorcade (Clinton was on his way to an event honoring baseball great Jackie Robinson). The man was deemed harmless, sort of a Squeaky Fromme with a 5-iron.

SCORECARD
19th hole: 4
Views/ambience: 3
Accessibility: 2
Level of difficulty: 3
Course conditioning: 3
Overall: 15

Pelham/Split Rock Golf Course (Bronx)
One of the five New York City golf facilities managed by the California-based American Golf Corporation, which boasts an impressive portfolio of courses nationwide, Pelham/Split Rock is also the only 36-hole complex in the five boroughs. Located in the northern reaches of the Bronx (almost in the hallowed golf territory known as Westchester—but not quite), Pelham/Split Rock has the benefit of more acreage, so both courses reach reasonably challenging lengths (Split Rock is about 6,700 yards; Pelham Bay is just shy of 6,500 yards). Built with Works Progress Administration funds in 1936, Split Rock is noted for its conditioning, varied topography and handful of genuinely tough holes, including Nos. 15, 16 and 17—the Bronx's answer to Augusta National's Amen Corner. American Golf Corporation completed a $10 million renovation of the courses in 2009, a nod to their potential as the City's showpiece. The flatter Pelham Bay bears the “links-style” moniker, which means that it's wide open—rather than an authentic seaside course—and thus more forgiving of crooked shooters.

SCORECARD
19th hole: 5
Views/ambience: 4
Accessibility: 2
Level of difficulty: 4
Course conditioning: 4
Overall: 19

Photo: Marley White

Van Cortlandt Park Golf Course (Bronx)
First opened for play in 1895, the nation's oldest public golf course is also the City's most accessible from Manhattan, just a short walk from the 242nd St. stop on the 1 train. “Vannie,” as regulars know it, has benefited over the past few years from renovations of several greens and tee boxes, improved drainage and bunker restoration. Hilly and challenging, Van Cortlandt is a tough slog on the back nine, where the elevation changes are more severe. The ancient wooden lockers in the clubhouse provide a glimpse of golf's past—and you've got to hand it to the City for resisting the urge to modernize that part of the facility, which gives Vannie much of its character. The 7th hole, a 222-yard par 3 that plays downhill to a heavily sloping green, stands up to any par 3 in the metro area, public or private, for its difficulty and classic design. Van Cortlandt bears the distinction, such as it is, of being the home course of Andrew Giuliani, son of the former mayor and one helluva golfer, garnering the 2006 Metropolitan Golf Association Player of the Year honors.

SCORECARD
19th hole: 5
Views/ambience: 4
Accessibility: 5
Level of difficulty: 4
Course conditioning: 4
Overall: 22

Photo: Marley White

Dyker Beach Golf Course (Brooklyn)
One of the oldest courses in the United States, Dyker opened in the late 1890s as the private Dyker Meadow Golf Club and was redesigned in 1935 as a public facility. Dyker holds a vaunted position in golf history as the place where Tiger Woods' father, Earl Woods, started playing the game, when he was an Army colonel stationed at Fort Hamilton in the early 1970s. Consequently, Dyker has become the site of a junior golf facility. Free for kids ages 6 to 17, the facility features a six-hole course, a driving range and a 4,275-square-foot clubhouse with classroom space. At more than 6,400 yards, Dyker is considered perhaps the best City course for its variety of holes and the integrity of its layout, which retains a pleasing old-school feel. All that, and the views from the course of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge would make Tony Manero proud.

SCORECARD
19th hole: 4
Views/ambience: 4
Accessibility: 5
Level of difficulty: 4
Course conditioning: 3
Overall: 20

Photo: Marley White

Silver Lake Golf Course (Staten Island)
Situated on a mere 125-acre plot, tight and hilly, Silver Lake is a shot maker's course with a lot of promise. Under new management since 2007, what was once a hardscrabble layout with serious drainage problems and holes obscured by overgrown vegetation is now a tidy little course that's fun to play. The current owner/superintendent has steadily improved playing conditions, enlarging greens and clearing trees that had choked the original footprint, including several holes abutting the eponymous Silver Lake. He recently added a pond on hole No. 5, and has even planted an acre-and-a-half vineyard on the course with a plan to produce wine. In the meantime, a renovated clubhouse features a restaurant called The Veranda, so golfers can soften the blow of a bad round with cold beer, juicy burgers and nice views. Oh, and the problem with the squirrels, who were burying and then digging up their nuts from the putting greens? That's been solved. Two pairs of hawks have taken up residence at Silver Lake. Poor little squirrels.

SCORECARD
19th hole: 5
Views/ambience: 5
Accessibility: 3
Level of difficulty: 4
Course conditioning: 4
Overall: 21

Photo: Marley White

La Tourette Golf Course (Staten Island)
La Tourette is a wonderful facility, with touches of the 1935 course design by John Van Kleek—whose work includes the top-notch Taconic Golf Club, on the Williams College campus, in Massachusetts—still very much in evidence. The classic layout hews to the hilly terrain, the golfing experience oddly interrupted by a park road traversing the course. In any case, La Tourette is still impressive, with a historic three-story brick clubhouse featuring a pro shop and restaurant. Among the City's courses, La Tourette comes the closest to offering the experience of a private club, with a driving range with 40 stations, plus a practice sand bunker and putting green. Standout holes include the 200-yard, par-3 No. 12, which plays to an elevated green. A new green has been built at the par-4 No. 4 hole, a dogleg also calling for an uphill approach. La Tourette is open year-round, so if you get a golf jones in January and there's no snow on the ground, the course is all yours.

SCORECARD
19th hole: 5
Views/ambience: 5
Accessibility: 3
Level of difficulty: 4
Course conditioning: 4
Overall: 21

Photo: Marley White

South Shore Golf Course (Staten Island)
Of all the City golf facilities, South Shore is the best-looking kid in the class—and has the pedigree to go with it. It was designed by golden-age course architect Devereux Emmet—whose work also includes Garden City Golf Club, on Long Island, site of the 1902 U.S. Open—and the course, clubhouse and on-site catering facility have been so gussied up recently that South Shore has become a popular wedding venue—as if it were a private country club. As for the quality of the golf course itself, one only needs to know that South Shore was given a 4-star (out of a possible 5) rating from Golf Digest in 2008, the best among the City's courses. South Shore receives high marks for conditioning, thanks to a renovation a few years back including new teeing grounds, improved drainage and irrigation and restoration of bunkers and greens. Few public golfers get a chance to play a course designed by Emmet, who favored wide fairways and small greens, rewarding power and precision—the two fundamental marks of a good player. The extra effort required to get here is rewarded by a satisfying day at the park.

SCORECARD
19th hole: 5
Views/ambience: 5
Accessibility: 2
Level of difficulty: 4
Course conditioning: 5
Overall: 21


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