Swing states: Eddie Jordan's East Coast golf cruise
by Eddie Jordan
Golfing on Long Island – and sailing from course to course along the US East Coast – is as good as it gets for Eddie Jordan.
It’s funny what a taste of adventure can do to you. I had travelled the world in my Oyster 885 and, when the new summer season rolled around, I wanted something different from the usual European run: I decided on the East Coast of America. Of course, being Irish, the lure of Boston was great, but it was the golf along this stretch of coast towards New York that really inspired me. When we embarked on the trip, back in 2010, my wife Marie was captain of Berkshire’s Sunningdale Golf Club; I was an 11 handicap and she was three. We had heard about these amazing links courses on the East Coast so we made a plan and set off on board my Oyster 655.
We started in Newport and played the courses on the islands there – we particularly enjoyed Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket. We would have breakfast and go for a sail in the morning and then stop and play in the afternoon. Sailing from one little bay to another was so beautiful, as was a longer cruise across from Nantucket to Long Island, which has some of the oldest, most challenging and exclusive golf courses in the world. We had written to all the courses beforehand and in nearly all cases we were invited to play; I was doing the BBC Formula One programme at the time so that probably helped.
It’s amazing how they created these unbelievable golf courses out of the barren land and sand dunes. Many were founded in the late 1800s and have stood the test of time, through the Depression and through wars. There are at least 20 on just the eastern tip of Long Island but for me four truly stand out – Shinnecock Hills, the National and Sebonack, which are pretty much next door to each other, and Maidstone West. All are right on the water, but the one that really made me quiver was Shinnecock. The back nine here are particularly dramatic and, having watched the great US Open duel between Phil Mickelson and Retief Goosen in 2004, it was even more crazy to be able to play those same holes.
But it was actually a course away from this cluster that I felt an instant connection with. The Bridge Golf Club, five miles north of Bridgehampton, is spread across about 300 acres and has great views over Sag Harbor. It was once home to the Bridgehampton Race Circuit and they used to have great sports car races there; I remember visiting back in the 1960s. “The Bridge” had a reputation for being a fearsome circuit – Stirling Moss called it the “most challenging course in America” – and sadly a couple of my friends died in races there.
The track closed permanently in 1998 but Bob Rubin, a former commodities trader and car fanatic who now owns the property, has turned the track into a golf course that pays homage to its racing days. It is fairly isolated and very much at the far end of Long Island but it’s sensational; I loved it. The track is still there, so you are playing around it, and they have chequered ags instead of traditional ones. All the paraphernalia has been left, including the big fuel bowsers, water towers and the spectator bridge emblazoned with the words Chevron Gasolines. In the clubhouse you feel like you are at a grand prix because it is packed with memorabilia. It has a nostalgic atmosphere. It’s a private club but if you are a motor racing guy or a keen golfer it’s a must, with a welcoming attitude, particularly for foreign guests.
This whole stretch of coastline may be scattered with unbelievable courses but getting between them by boat is just as thrilling. The wind was good, so we managed to spend a lot of time sailing, and even in the middle of summer the weather is not too hot – in fact you need to remember to pack a jumper for the evenings.
You are also cruising an affluent part of America and the houses are incredible. If you were in a car on the road you would never see some of the dwellings that have been built along the coastline by well heeled families of years gone by – it’s spectacular to cruise past them at sunset, with a nice gin and tonic in hand.
Although Marie and I got on while on board, that wasn’t always the case on the fairways: she beat me all the time, even when she gave me two holes each nine. Sadly, in both our cases, we have more or less put our golf clubs to one side and now play only on special occasions. So this trip was all the more refreshing – we had a great competition, great fun and any time I got the chance to win I relished it.
As we moved closer to New York we headed inland to what is, to my mind, one of America’s most spectacular courses – Bethpage Black. It was originally designed by AW Tillinghast, who had lost nearly all his money in the Great Depression.
He was doing odd jobs for the Professional Golfers’ Association and was asked to put down a number of courses in a public park a few miles east of Manhattan. He created five unbelievable courses but the real daddy of them all is Bethpage Black. After further investment at the end of the last century the course won the rights to host the US Open in 2002. The course was so long that it absolutely killed the players. Tiger Woods took the title – he was the only player to be under par after four rounds.
Bethpage Black played host to the US Open again in 2009 but one of the amazing things about it is that, despite its celebrity status, it is still a municipal course. When I was there I was asked to provide a written note from my golf club to state my handicap but then I was let loose on this monster, with its rolling terrain, brutally long holes, gigantic bunkers and speedy greens. Bethpage is also a serious physical challenge; by the time you get to the 14th hole (unless you have chickened out and opted for a buggy) your legs are ready to fall off.
A lot of people concentrate on the di culties of the par-threes but it’s the par-fours, especially the 15th hole, that stick in my mind. It is ridiculously long – 478 yards off the back tee – and the gradient is unbelievable. Even if you hit a monster of a drive you have still got another 230 yards to go and with the slope that feels more like 250 yards – it is even worse if the wind is against you. The whole front of the green is surrounded by bunkers and if you don’t quite get it long enough they are going to catch you. The best approach is to pace yourself and be sensible, to lay it up and make sure you are in the best position to pitch and putt. Even once you make it to the green it’s not at because of the natural lie of the land. Don’t even think about getting a par there, just forget it and enjoy the moment.
We thought that the experience of Bethpage couldn’t be topped, so we decided to wait for the tide and sail all the way up to the Statue of Liberty. We moored there in Newport Yacht Club and Marina, about 150 metres from Ground Zero, and for me it was a remarkable thing. You have to be careful with the tide because it is wicked and will drag you along at 20 knots. You also have to be careful with your height so your mast doesn’t clout the bridges – we had just enough to spare at low tide.
It was an indescribable experience to be in the middle of New York, having done this incredible trip. Finishing at Bethpage may have been the icing on the cake but watching the sun going down over the Statue of Liberty was the cherry. I had to pinch myself at this point, something I had to do frequently during this trip. If you are keen on golf, love the sea and like sailing, this route should be your next great adventure.
Eddie Jordan spoke to Sophia Wilson