On those inevitable summer days when New York boils, those long afternoons that find golfers unwillingly cooped up in air-conditioned offices waiting for a thunderstorm to break the spell, the Rockaway Hunting Club is one of the few places (in the immediate vicinity, at least) where the game happily and comfortably continues. Situated on the south shore of Long Island, six miles from JFK Airport and just over a half-hour drive from midtown Manhattan, only the slender Long Beach Barrier Island separates the club from the open waters of the Atlantic, exposing the golf course to cooling breezes in the summer and scouring winds in the shoulder seasons. Though not a true links, the kind of golf played on this low-lying table of land by Brosewere Bay is at times reminiscent of the game across the pond, a mix of quirk and raw challenge.
The Rockaway Hunting Club was founded in 1878, making it one of the oldest country clubs in America. As the name might suggest, the club’s first years were defined by equestrian sports. Fox hunting and steeplechase were popular, and along with the Meadowbrook Polo Club (which is still active today), Rockaway was one of the twin powers of early American polo. Golf arrived a few years later—a rudimentary 9-holer was in place by 1895 and a full 18 by 1900. The history of the course is that of an architectural hybrid, with Tom Bendelow, Devereux Emmet, A.W. Tillinghast, Perry Maxwell, and others contributing to a design that—while settled into its current routing by the mid-20th century—has continued to evolve. The most recent phase is now nearing completion in the form of a comprehensive update by Gil Hanse and Jim Wagner, one that sees the course poised to move from the category of “hidden gem” to that of “must see.”
Working in phases, Hanse and company went at the project with the restorationist’s now-familiar arsenal of tools: Thousands of trees were removed, fairways were widened, and every bunker was rebuilt. Some of the team’s most successful improvements, though, fall under the heading of renovation, i.e., new design concepts. On the par-five 6th, design partner Bill Kittleman came up with an inspired idea for a back-left green expansion, pushing the putting surface right up to the water’s edge and creating exciting and strategic hole locations. Elsewhere, sinuous new bunker complexes were created, usually by scraping away at natural landforms but occasionally (on the low-lying coastal holes) by building up. “Our goal was to recapture the feeling of a seaside course,” says Wagner. “We wanted to show some more sand and give the place some ruggedness by getting some fescues up.”
While Hurricane Sandy slowed the establishment of the new fescues, the course otherwise weathered the storm. “The cool thing about Rockaway,” Wagner added, “and how you can tell it’s been there a long, long time, is that the bent grass has adapted to salt water just from being exposed to sea spray on a daily basis.”
The effect of raising the quality of the holes is that golfers now enjoy the routing to the fullest. It’s an unusual but memorable journey, a smooth walk that begins with a par four that runs straight toward the water, then doubles back inland and wanders through a suburban neighborhood from holes 3 through 5. These holes, which are attributed to Emmet, have plenty of interest. The 159-yard 5th manages to be both quirky and terrifying: It’s just a short iron downhill but the green is nestled into the arrowhead-shaped intersection of a pair of streets, creating out-of-bounds situations both long and right. As if that weren’t enough, it also plays over the previous hole’s green. It almost feels like backyard golf.
Following this parkland diversion, the course emerges into the open and the wind and water really come into play. The 7th presents a thrilling Cape-style tee shot, while the next pair of holes—a tricky short par four and a beater of a long one—parallel the bay in thrilling fashion. After some enjoyable tracking around on this point of land, Rockaway unveils its card-wrecker, the par-three 14th, 210 yards of heroic, wind-cheating carry over the same channel first crossed at the 7th. It’s the kind of hole one worries about long before actually playing it. After a couple of more “neighborhood holes” at 15 and 16, the routing shoots back down to the water one last time on the 17th, a tricky mid-length two-shotter where golfers trying to skirt the corner of the dogleg may run afoul of a cluster of cantankerous bunkers, another Hanse addition.
With all Rockaway has to offer, it’s curious the course hasn’t garnered more acclaim, but that is surely bound to change soon. Those fortunate enough to visit Rockaway will discover a club with a knack of delivering a truly fine day of golf in a spirit that’s traditional, yet unpretentious. Wagner sums it up perfectly: “It’s almost like a rustic old beach house,” he says. “It’s great architecture that’s a little worn around the edges—and that’s the charm of the place.”