It has been generations since the Belt Parkway and Kennedy Airport bestowed their mixed blessings on the town of Inwood. Today a drive down the JFK Expressway and Rockaway Boulevard carries you past blank-looking freight warehouses and the backs of strip malls, with occasional, reassuring glimpse of scrub pines or an old bait shack.
But you can turn back time by entering Inwood Country Club and proceeding down a short, narrow driveway. You’ll catch sight of a pond fronting the tiny 106-yard 10th—the hole where, as they’ll tell you in detail, Hogan splashed a tee shot during a 40th-anniversary exhibition in 1941. Across the way is the 17th tee, where then-head pro Jack Mackie planted a tree during the 1921 PGA Championship in a failed attempt to prevent winner Walter Hagen from taking his preferred detour down the 18th fairway. And you may indeed reflect that a golf course can have a life all its own, nearly independent of time, traffic and trends.
Welcome to Inwood, which while clearly a throwback, remains as elegant as ever, more able to give pleasure than countless clubs that have come after. The beginning, more than a hundred years ago, is storybook stuff. A tobacco merchant named Jacob Wertheim fell in love with a girl who was crazy for golf and, as part of his courtship, leased a potato field for $950 a year. Soon Wertheim’s friends (and their friends) wanted in. There were immediate setbacks: Fifty of the original 80 members resigned after the first year, as did the pro.
The club appealed to A.G. Spalding & Bros. to find a new pro. When the first candidate turned up drunk, a member of Spalding management looked around the office and settled on an ex-baseball ballplayer named Edward Eriksen who had thrown his arm out.
“But I know nothing about golf,” protested Eriksen.
“Neither do they,” came the answer. Eriksen would go on to hold the job for nine years and become a respected pro.
Inwood was the site of the first of Bobby Jones’ 13 major championships, the 1923 U.S. Open. His winning stroke was a mid-iron from 190 yards to six feet in the 18th hole of his playoff against Bobby Cruickshank.
Seventy years later, on a cool Monday in September 1993, the ancient course was closed and crews were out aerifying its greens. Superintendent Pete Ruggieri, overseeing the work, received reports of an unidentified man wandering the property.
“Around five o’clock,” recalls Ruggieri, “we spot someone coming toward us, and my guy says, ‘That’s the one who’s been walking around here all day!’ I introduce myself and he says, ‘Hi, I’m Tom Doak.’”
The stage had been set for Doak’s intervention some years earlier, when a member of the golf staff had read Doak’s Anatomy of a Golf Course and showed it to the green chairman, who passed the book on to Ruggieri. Its concepts appealed to Inwooders, in part because Doak’s minimalist approach would suit their conservative maintenance budget.
Using photographs from the club’s collection and aerial studies done in 1926, Doak set to work. One obvious change was a long border of trees planted along the shore of the peninsula jutting out into Jamaica Bay, to block the wind or to screen the view of JFK Airport, built in 1948. Doak removed the trees and now the par-3 14th affords an almost primeval bay view.
The routing at Inwood is oddly charming. Early on, three consecutive par 5s are followed by a pair of par 3s. A sense of legacy pervades your entire Inwood round, down to the final hole—along which you’ll spy a plaque near the spot where Jones hit the shot that won him his title in 1923. Of course, Inwood’s 18th isn’t quite the bear it was then: A solid drive will leave a or 7-iron to the green.
Unlikely to ever host another U.S. Open, Inwood is doing much better than maintaining itself as a footnote—it’s a memorable, dramatic and rewarding old classic.
Year founded: 1901
Architects: Edward Eriksen, Herbert Strong, Jack Mackie