6/26/17

Raynor’s final symphony: Fishers Island Club

An in-depth profile of the Seth Raynor designed Fishers Island Club

by

Architects are often judged by their masterpieces. For Alister Mackenzie, it’s Cypress Point. For Charles Blair Macdonald, it’s National Golf Links of America. For Donald Ross, it’s Seminole. For A.W. Tillinghast, it’s Winged Foot.

For Seth Raynor, it’s the Fishers Island Club.

Special thanks to Jon Cavalier for use of his photos in this profile.

Seth Raynor was cast as C.B. Macdonald’s right hand man for the early years of his career. But as Macdonald’s interest in designing courses waned, job inquiries trickled down to Raynor, who perfected his architecture craft and gained a deeper understanding of the game at courses like Shoreacres, Camargo, Blue Mound, Yeamans Hall and the Course at Yale. Fishers Island was Raynor’s final and greatest symphony.

During his short but illustrious career, Raynor often turned less-than-desirable land sites into spectacular courses. His portfolio of template holes – the redan, cape, short, biarritz and double plateau – ensured a course delivered a fun, thought-provoking and strategic test. At Fishers he got a waterfront property with tremendous natural land movement. He turned it into one of the finest courses in the world.

Unfortunately Raynor didn’t live to see the end product. He caught pneumonia as Fishers Island was nearing completion, forcing his associate Charles Banks to finish the course.

The experience

Entrances are often talked about at golf courses. The drive into a club builds anticipation and excitement for the day. Fishers offers a truly unique “entrance” – a ferry ride across the Long Island Sound to the island. Coming from the Nauck Harbor, we rode the Popeye shuttle and arrived at the dock situated off of the 17th hole. After a quick stroll down the wood planks, our carts awaited us and we drove to the clubhouse. Unlike many exclusive clubs, Fishers Island is the furthest thing from “stuffy,” offering a laid-back vacation vibe that makes you feel at home.

We met the superintendents, Don Beck and David McIntyre, by the putting green, each of whom quickly apologized for how “green the course was,” music to our group’s ears. It was subtle, but the comment exemplified what Fishers is – a golf course architecture fan’s nirvana.

For first-time readers, let me make it clear that there is nothing I love more than a firm and fast golf course. I believe that the effort to present a green golf course is one of the major issues with golf, creating sustainability issues and promoting poorer playing conditions for the average player.

Raynor was known for his bold green concepts; the redan, the double plateau and the punchbowl have massive ridges that make them easily distinguishable. But the subtle ridges, rolls, spines and humps in his putting surfaces at Fishers are what places them among the best in the world. These design subtleties are woven in from the tee through the green on every hole at Fishers Island.

I often judge a golf course by whether it inspires an immediate replay. At Fishers, my play was not good, but on the 17th hole I was sad to see the round nearing its end. The course and club deserve all of the acclaim and possibly more. It’s one of the finest golf courses in the world.

A quick history lesson

Started by the Ferguson family in 1925, the Fishers Island Club was set out to be modeled after Mountain Lake, the vibrant country club community in Lake Wales, FL. Naturally the Fergusons went after the man behind Mountain Lake, Seth Raynor, to design their golf course on the farmlands of Fishers Island. Upon walking the property, Raynor found two superior sites for 18 hole golf courses, one where Fishers Island sits today and another that was planned to be developed until the Great Depression cut plans short and the additional course’s development was abandoned. Over the years, Fishers has done an exemplary job of keeping the original golf course intact and staying true to Raynor’s intentions, planting few to no trees, maintaining firm and fast conditions and recently undergoing work to recapture the original green sizes.

The course

The 6,636-yard par-70 course is filled with jaw-dropping vistas of the Long Island Sound and Raynor’s famed template holes. Two of Raynor’s standout skills – routing and building green complexes – are on full display at the venerable site. His routing maximizes the holes on the water, providing drama at every turn while using the natural land movement as his fairway hazard, only employing two fairway bunkers on the course. The overlooked aspect of Fishers’ routing is how nearly every hole plays in a different direction, which allows the course’s best defense, the wind, to play a starring role. Golfers are kept in a constant state of confusion as they try to find the exact direction and strength of the wind on a given hole.

While a few holes are similar in direction, none are identical

HOLE #1 “Raynor’s Start” – 396 yards – par 4

As is customary with most Raynor designs, the first is a friendly start. The wind is typically at your back and the tee shot plays downhill. The water on the right comes into play 300 yards from the tee, requiring longer players to choose whether or not to play aggressively. The fairway cants from left to right, and the green is perched with a light back to front slope playing slightly uphill. One of the subtle, strategic aspects of the 1st is how the safe play off the tee is down the left side, but on that half of the fairway the left-to-right slope is severe. Consequently, a shot to the left of the fairway yields a more challenging approach shot than the flatter right half, which carries the risk of the water.

HOLE #2 “Redan” – 184 yards – par 3

The original green for the 2nd hole was lost to a hurricane, forcing the club to rebuild the green. The hole plays slightly downhill and the wind is a critical factor. As with all redan holes, the green slants from front-to-back and right-to-left around a deep front bunker. Unlike most golf holes, the ideal miss on the redan is long which leaves an uphill putt or chip to the pin. This rebuilt version of the template is gentler than most, and therefore plays more tamely, especially with regard to the kick slope.

HOLE #3 “Plateau” – 335 yards – par 4

One of the most memorable holes at Fishers Island is the short par-4 third, which plays uphill and seemingly to the edge of the world. The hole doglegs slightly to the right and tests the appetite for risk. The safe play is a long-iron up the left side, but a well-struck driver can get long-hitters close or even home. The dominant features at the 3rd are treacherous greenside bunkers, which flank the right and left sides of the narrow back to front sloping green.

HOLE #4 “Punch Bowl” – 412 yards – par 4

The fourth is considered by many to be the greatest golf hole in the United States. It’s a variety of the Alps template and perhaps the greatest version in golf. The strategy of the hole is dependent on the day’s pin position, which is noted by a peg board.

If the flag is on the right side of the green, the left side of the fairway is preferred and vice versa. A smart play is to pull long iron and play it up the fairway, leaving a short to mid-iron approach to the blind green. If you choose to play boldly, a driver that cuts the corner will leave a wedge shot and maybe even a partial view of the green. For those who lay up, the second shot requires trust in your line off of the Fishers Island flag that marks the center of the green. The yardage to the pin cannot be measured by lasers and your swing will feel unstable as the wind typically is whipping down and off the Sound.

Coming over the hill and seeing the punchbowl green set back against the ocean is a sight to behold and one that is truly unforgettable. While it has bold exterior contours, Raynor’s subtle spine which runs through the middle is the true genius of this putting surface. The simple contour plays a factor in nearly every pin for shots just a little off-target.

HOLE #5 “Biarritz” – 229 yards – par 3

Continuing on the jaw dropping stretch of holes is the biarritz fifth, which plays parallel to the Long Island Sound, giving the long par-3 the added challenge of strong winds. With the water on the right, the natural bailout for golfers is left, where Raynor places two deep trench bunkers. The front of the biarritz is kept as fairway and when the course is firm and fast, the approach is conducive to low-iron shots that bounce the ball onto the green. The green complex is a big square, which has back to front slope and another subtle ledge that comes into the play on the back half. This divides the left two-thirds of the green from the back-right corner, which is slightly elevated for a devilish pin position.

HOLE #6 “Olinda” – 555 yards – par 5

The first par-5 plays from the shore back into the mainland and shows off the incredible natural land movement on the island. The new tee box is back to the right and semi-blind, favoring a fade to the fairway, which slightly angles right. After reaching the top of the hill, a beautiful view of the green awaits, giving a preview of the terrific seventh hole as well. The 6th often gets overlooked among Fishers’ amazing waterfront holes, but Raynor’s restraint from using fairway bunkers is beautiful, opting to allow the natural rolling land to obstruct players shots and layups. Finding a relatively flat lie is difficult and makes it a challenge to go for the green in two or even lay up in the correct position.

The green is another square complex, which slopes from back to front. In the last year the back portion has been recaptured, which repels balls off the green. An interesting aspect of Raynor’s design approach is how on the lengthy par-3 second and the fifth he rewarded players who boldly miss long, while on the shortish par-5 sixth, a bold player who misses is penalized with a very difficult recovery.

HOLE #7 “Latimer” 363 yards – par 4

Perhaps the most overlooked great hole at Fishers Island is the strategy-packed short par-4 seventh. Playing from an elevated tee, the first decision posed to the player is whether to play aggressively with a driver or lay up short of the salt marsh. The second choice is which side of the fairway to favor. The safe side is left but it leaves a poor angle, while the ideal approach comes from the right side but brings the salt marsh into play. Due to the elevated nature of the green, an approach from the fairway is necessary to hold the firm, wind-blown putting surface, which slopes from back to front and features a dramatic false front.

HOLE #8 “Road Hole” 465 yards – par 4

The eighth was converted to a par-4 in the early 2000s and is a challenging rendition of the road hole. With the sound on the right and a pond on the left, a good tee shot is a must to this fairway that slopes heavily from right-to-left. Typically playing into the wind, a solid tee ball still yields a lengthy approach to the tough template green, which is guarded by a deep front pot bunker. There is plenty of room to bail right but it leaves a tricky chip across the green, which slopes from right to left and back to front.

HOLE #9 “Double Plateau” – 365 yards – par 4

Fishers’ front nine comes to a dramatic close with a short par-4, which features one of golf’s greatest green complexes, the double plateau. The tee shot is blind, up over a hill and one of two fairway bunkers on the property. After navigating the tee ball, Raynor treats golfers to another great reveal, as the double plateau green seemingly floats out over the sound. Its bold undulations divide the putting surface into three distinct segments that, when playing firm and fast, make the proper approach angle critical. If the pin is front-left, the proper angle is from the left; front-right, the right side is preferable and with the back pin the center to left side of the fairway is best.

HOLE #10 “Knoll” – 401 yards – par 4

Make the turn and players are treated to a rare sight, an unchanged and original knoll hole, one of Raynor’s templates that was often ruined by greens committees who thought they knew better. Completely bunkerless, the 10th is one of the toughest holes on the course. Finding the fairway is a must to set up a reasonable approach to the elevated green, which repels balls that are slightly short, long, right or left. Depending on the pin position, the favored approach angle will change, giving players a little more green to work with on their approaches. As the wind picks up the 10th only gets tougher.

HOLE #11 “Eden” – 164 yards – par 3

Photos don’t do the 11th justice. The short par-3 is perhaps the best representation of the famed Eden hole at St. Andrews. The green slopes severely from back to front and right to left making any putt from above the pin dicey. The worst place to miss on this challenging par three is in the devastatingly deep “hill” bunker.

HOLE #12 “Winthrop” – 389 yards – par 4

After the truly remarkable waterfront stretch of the Nos. 3-11, Raynor navigates players inland toward a stretch of overlooked holes that possess incredible strategic challenges and phenomenal green complexes.

The first of those is the 12th, which embodies a great deal of strategy stemming from its elevated, reverse-redan green complex. Off the tee, players have to decide how aggressively they will play, taking anything from a driver to a long iron. The fairway has ample undulation that moves from left to right and has a large hump which can obstruct approach shots with an uphill or downhill lie. The green slopes hard from left to right and front to back and has a subtle knob in the middle that affects putts to almost every pin. The hole typically plays downwind, which makes the approach shot extremely difficult to hit close because of the green that slopes severely away and is perched some 30 feet above.

HOLE #13 “Waterloo” – 400 yards – par 4

The 13th plays back towards the 12th tee and is a slight dogleg right. Much like the twelfth, the strategy is influenced significantly by the wind direction. If it’s into the prevailing wind, the play off the tee is a driver down the right side of the fairway which opens up the ideal approach angle to the large squared off green, avoiding the second and final fairway bunker, which is blind from the tee. The second shot plays over a pair of ponds and into the green complex, the star of the show. It has a false front and bold kicker on the left corner, which feeds shots toward the center. Raynor bisected the green with a small spine that penalizes players who miss their mark to the right or left and the front-left section of the green has a small bowl that makes for a fun pin.

HOLE #14 “Cape” – 425 yards – par 4

On the flattest piece of the property, Raynor went to the fail safe template he used at every course he designed – the strategy-packed cape hole. Long hitters will be tempted to carry the water down the left at 290 yards, but the prudent play is an iron to the right. The ideal line is down the left side of the fairway, which drastically shortens the approach shot into the green but carries the added risk of the water. I fanned a 3-iron to the right side of the fairway and was left with 200 yards into the green, a number that could have been 30 yards less had I taken my tee shot down the left side.

The green is another special one with bunkers on the right and left, and a severe false front. It requires an excellent approach shot to make a birdie. I found the back-left portion of the 14th green to be the most interesting as it features a small ridge that allows for a slightly bolder approach to the green with the comfort of a backstop.

HOLE #15 “Long” – 541 yards – par 5

The 15th starts Fishers’ closing stretch with a reachable par-5. The tee shot is blind and over a marsh obscuring a generously wide fairway. The right side of the fairway opens up the green, especially the back-left corner for those attempting to get home in two. The green slopes heavily from back to front and is guarded by bunkers on either side. The left bunker is particularly deep and a brutal spot to find yourself if the pin is on the left side. Like most greens at Fishers, the 15th has many small intricacies. The right third of the green plays into a small bowl with the left two-thirds elevated and on its own tier.

HOLE #16 “Short” – 146 yards – par 3

This photogenic short hole is extra difficult at Fishers because of the always-present wind. Despite playing less than 150 yards, I was forced to hit a 6-iron because of the prevailing wind, which typically is in player’s face. The green is surrounded by trouble with bunkers catching small misses and marsh penalizing the wide misses. As is typically the case, Raynor saved his wildest green for the short, making par a formidable test on the seemingly easy par-3.

The 16th green’s exterior slopes funnel shots on the edges into the bunkers while the center slopes to the right, with a thumbprint on the back half making any putt not directly below the flag extremely fast. The unique aspect of Fishers’ short is the right side, which is obstructed from the tee but allows for a pin that seemingly floats above the marsh. Getting to that pin is a tall task and the prudent play is just slightly left of it, allowing the slope to funnel the ball to the corner.

HOLE #17 “Coast Guard” – 415 yards – par 4

The 17th features one of the widest fairways on the course, which allows players to set up a proper angle to attack the day’s flag. The prevailing wind at Fishers typically has the 17th playing into a strong left-to-right crosswind, which makes the second shot to the big green difficult. The green is sloped from back to front and has a false front which repels any shots slightly short or with too much spin. There is a small spine that runs down the left third of the green, creating an added obstacle for any pin on the left half of the green.

HOLE #18 “Home” – 452 yards – par 5

The closer at Fishers Island is a long and challenging par-4 that plays into the prevailing wind. The tee shot favors a fade and will leave a mid- to long-iron into a boldly-contoured green. The second shot plays uphill and the large, wide green is guarded by bunkers in front and to the right. Raynor gave players an ample opening to play a low running shot into the green, which is divided into three distinct sections: the front-right portion, which slopes significantly from back to left; the back ledge; and the front-left bowl. Hitting the green in two is an accomplishment, but a player who finds themselves on the wrong ledge will be left with a challenging two-putt to close out the round.

Following the round, I proceeded to burn copious amounts of cash in the pro shop before heading back to the pier to catch our ferry off the island. The ride back to reality allows for reflection on what a laid back place Fishers Island is. The breathtaking views are enough to make Fishers an unforgettable course, but Seth Raynor’s superb architecture makes it one of the world’s best.

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