Tallgrass Golf Club
James Krajicek
Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Like the swallows that return every spring to San Juan Capistrano in California, the bums flock each summer to Montauk Downs State Park Golf Course on the eastern tip of Long Island. Golf bums, that is -- sleeping in their cars and awaiting 5:30 a.m. access to walk-up tee times. If you thought these hardy perennials were unique to Bethpage Black 85 miles to the west, then their presence at Montauk Downs should tell you something about the quality of the course and the scarcity of public-access alternatives.

American golf has roots in the South Fork of Long Island, home to members-only masterpieces like Shinnecock Hills Golf Club, Maidstone Club, National Golf Links of America, Atlantic Golf Club and The Bridge. The town of Riverhead marks the gateway to the Hamptons, a collection of villages with so many celebrities milling around in the summer you'd swear the streets were paved with red carpet. Despite the seasonal throngs, Montauk Downs is the only public-access, 18-hole facility in the 40-mile, west-to-east stretch between Riverhead and the iconic lighthouse at Montauk Point. This only partly explains the predawn crush; it is also a terrific golf course.

"Things used to be a lot worse, before we installed the telephone call-in system six years ago," says head pro Kevin Smith. The bad news is that the South Fork probably won't get a new public course until several more Opens have passed at Shinnecock Hills, due to entrenched environmentalist opposition and skyrocketing real estate prices. The good news is that a new crop of enjoyable and challenging public tracks has sprung up on former farmland within a 60-minute drive of venerable Montauk Downs, which itself is undergoing an overdue overhaul.

Heading back toward Riverhead, check out The Stephen Talkhouse in Amagansett, where the live music is the best on the island. Woodstock legend Richie Havens headlines this month. And you might even catch locals Billy Joel and Paul Simon.

In Riverhead, Long Island National Golf Club is a 1999 design by Robert Trent Jones Jr. conceived as a complement to his family's impressive local legacy, which also includes Atlantic and The Bridge, two Rees Jones gems. The first upscale daily-fee in the area, Long Island National's 6,838-yard course is a links-parkland hybrid, excavated and elevated from a once-flat sod farm that today flourishes with lush fairways and thick fescue rough. If you like bells and whistles, this is your stop (a Long Island Rail Road station is four miles away).

Facts & Contacts
Montauk Downs State Park Golf Course
Greens fees $30-$36 (New York residents), $60-$72 (nonresidents)
631-668-5000; nysparks.state.ny.us/golf

Long Island National Golf Club
Greens fees $99-$129
631-727-4653; longislandnationalgc.com

The Links at Shirley
Greens fees $65-$95
631-395-7272; linksatshirley.com

Tallgrass Golf Club
Greens fees $55-$90
631-209-9359; tallgrassgolfclub.com

After a day of playing dodge ball on the fairways, quench your thirst and salve your wounds with a tour of North Fork wineries on Route 25, where you can sample the local vino and see how the labels are produced. But don't overdo it -- you'll want to stay sharp for two more worthwhile courses.

Cruise 18 miles southwest of Riverhead to The Links at Shirley in the town for which it was named. It's a welcoming respite from the traffic and social congestion of the South Fork. It's also the best after-dark golf option on the island. Along with its 7,030-yard championship course and double-ended driving range, the facility boasts a floodlit, 2,222-yard par-3 track that stays open until 3 a.m.

Designed by Jeff Myers, the big course has the longest, toughest finishing holes of any public layout in the area, with three par 4s averaging more than 460 yards, a 223-yarder and an ulcer-inducing 549-yard closer backed by a lake.

From Shirley, it's a 20-minute hop on County Highway 46 across the island to the North Shore town of Shoreham and Tallgrass Golf Club. Playing here is like dining at a great, unheralded restaurant -- you really want to tell folks about the experience, but you're afraid of the crowds that might ensue. Tallgrass was fashioned by architect Gil Hanse from yet another one-time sod farm and might be Long Island's closest approximation to links-style golf you can experience -- this side of the Shinnecock Hills gates.

The fairways are hard and fast, and the subtly contoured greens -- some elevated, others hidden behind hogbacks -- demand an array of approach shots, from high floaters to running stingers. The most memorable hole is the deceptively difficult, 384-yard 11th, where an imposing grass berm flanks the entire right side of the fairway and curls around the green to form a natural amphitheater. Serial slicers can only hope for a friendly bounce.

The east end of Long Island doesn't have a plethora of options for golfers who lack blue blood or greenbacks, but what is here is undeniably worth the trip. There's no reason to hang out in the shadow of the exclusive clubs in the Hamptons, wondering how the other half plays. Those clubs might share an illustrious heritage, but the spirit of golf in New York is found in the eager overnighting crowd at Montauk Downs. Just be sure to pack a sleeping bag.

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