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Engineers Country Club

This Long Island club has taken steps to restore its Herbert Strong design, which once held a lofty perch in the American golf scene

By: Anthony Pioppi

Appeared in January/February 2008 LINKS

Herbert Strong’s name today brings scant recognition. Renowned in his day as a player, teacher and course architect, the Englishman has all but been forgotten. For decades, so too was his masterpiece—Engineers Country Club, located on the north shore of Long Island, considered when it opened one of the best courses in the United States.

Founded in 1917 by a group of blueblood engineers from Manhattan, the club boasts a bold course with titanic, undulating green complexes and wide hole corridors built on terrain that at times slashes upward or cascades sharply to greens protected by dramatic bunkers. Within those features are subtle touches that only those familiar with the course recognize: the well-placed roll in the fairway or the slight green contouring that sends putts in directions that seemingly defy the law of gravity.

Strong, who learned the game at Royal St. George’s Golf Club, must have recognized the potential of the Long Island site when he took the job. He resigned as head professional at nearby Inwood Country Club, which he also designed, and lived on the grounds at Engineers until the course opened in 1918.

Then as now, Strong’s bold features elicited extreme responses—mostly positive but some negative. Within a year of opening, Engineers hosted the PGA Championship, followed shortly by the 1920 U.S. Amateur, during which newspaper columnist and Bobby Jones biographer O.B. Keeler wrote, “so excellent an authority as Walter Travis, the grand old man of American golf, was heard to state rather freely that several of the holes were too severe.”

Strong’s elements and strategic demands are apparent from the opening green, which is 50 paces deep and 34 paces wide. The left side is at fairway level while the right side forms a punchbowl. No matter the hole location, a putt for birdie on the 420-yard hole requires precise execution from the correct portion of the fairway.

On the 292-yard 7th, the tee and severely bowled green sit nearly 30 feet above a wide fairway. For the longest hitters the putting surface is reachable and at least two holes-in-one have been recorded in recent times.

In addition to the greens themselves, Strong’s daring style could also be found in the way he defended them. The green of the par-3 9th sits 15 feet above the putting surface of the adjacent 11th green, and the two once shared a massive bunker that was thought to be the largest manmade sand hazard in the United States at the time. This formidable bunker was at least 50 yards long, 20 yards wide and dotted with tufts of long grass.

On the 365-yard 16th, the last 50 yards of fairway drop sharply to a hollow with the green benched into a steep hill on the left. The multi-tiered putting surface slants to the right, where a large, sinewy bunker awaits misplayed shots.

Despite the magnitude of its features, Engineers was most notorious for its smallest green, on the shortest hole: the old 14th, just 95 yards. Club lore has both Jones and Gene Sarazen making double-digit scores on this hole, although there is no confirmation of either. But others must have made large numbers, because it was known as the “2 or 20” hole. Measuring just 2,000 square feet and guarded by sand on all sides, the miniscule target appears to be almost floating in air. Think Royal Troon’s Postage Stamp—only smaller.

The Strong design seemed to be on its way to becoming one of the elite courses in the country until the Great Depression exacted a heavy toll on the club. In the ’30s and ’40s, first financial institutions then the town of Roslyn Harbor ran the course as a public facility
under various names.

In 1952, 149 members of Oceanside Golf and Country Club looking for a new home joined others from the area to purchase the club, reinstituting the original moniker. But the course did not recover as well. Over the ensuing decades, tree planting had choked off lines of play, putting surfaces had shrunk and increasing green speeds had rendered many hole locations on Strong’s greens unputtable. On the 2nd green, for example, it was not possible to cut a hole on the entire left half of the left-to-right-sloping surface.

In the mid 1990s co-green chairman Ed Gibstein, an accomplished player who has reached the quarterfinal of the U.S. Amateur and the semifinal of the U.S. Mid-Amateur, enlisted the services of Oklahoma-based course architect Tripp Davis, a fellow competitor on the national amateur scene.

Davis’ primary task was to massage Strong’s most severe undulations so entire putting surfaces could once again be used. In all, Davis reworked more than half the greens. In some cases the work was simply reinstituting areas lost to mowing patterns, while other surfaces required recontouring large areas to soften slopes, as at the 2nd hole. To avoid even more work on the greens, Engineers keeps them rolling at nine and a half on the Stimpmeter, relatively benign by today’s standards.

In addition, Davis restored Strong’s bunkers, filled in non-original hazards and took down dozens of trees to reclaim long-lost vistas on this hilly site—from the 14th green, the highest point on the course, the skyline of New York City, 18 miles away, is visible on a clear day.

Finally, Davis restored the 2 or 20 hole, which members had come to hate and took out of play in the 1960s. Current members once again have come to embrace this notorious short hole, now 122 yards, thanks to a renewed appreciation brought on by the restoration.

Troy David, Gibstein’s co-chair, has been a 30-year Engineers member and is enthusiastic about the changes. “The 2 or 20 represents the entire course: It’s all or nothing,” he says. “It was designed for match play. You can blow a round on any one hole.”    

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