We were finally together on the course. Lido Beach was still hidden from us by the surreal dunescape beyond the green. With the wind pushing salty air into our faces as we approached the tee, we could feel the pull of the great Atlantic gyre. As I pulled the club I thought would cover the front hazard, the sea breeze freshened again. I looked to my caddie for reassurance, for sage advice about the shot at hand. Ours was a relationship built over a lifetime. The caddie put a finger to the air, looked at me shrewdly, then screamed at the top of her lungs, kicked the ball off the tee into a bush, and sprinted, giggling, toward the green and her waiting mom.
The caddie was my 21-month-old daughter, Adah. The course was tiny Nickerson Dunes Pitch & Putt. My wife Marisol and I brought Adah here for fresh air and exercise. We get to enjoy each other’s company on our only shared day off, and for $10 I get to play a fun round of golf in less than an hour.
Nickerson Dunes Pitch & Putt. Photo credit: Shaun Smith
Tucked between the dunes and two parking lots on a 10-acre section of Nickerson Beach Park, the Dunes is one of two golfing options in the town of Lido Beach, New York (yes, that Lido). There’s the Robert Trent Jones-designed Lido Golf Club, a half-hearted replica built from faint memories of the lost C. B. Macdonald-Seth Raynor original. And there’s Nickerson, designed in 2015 as part of a post-Sandy redevelopment project by Tom Gordon, superintendent at the nearby Eisenhower Park facility, and Tom Lewis. The diminutive course honors the neighborhood’s golf history admirably.
Totaling under 600 yards, this nine-holer is small even by pitch-and-putt standards. Some holes are mere chips of 50 yards or fewer. The longest hole on the card is 100 yards. Yet this course is not about length. It’s about adventure available to any skill level or age.
There is a punchbowl green. There is a short Biarritz. One hole plays over a sandy waste area and a railroad-tie bulwark to a surface you can’t see from the tee. The dunes separate these holes from one another, lending a feeling of intimacy. The seaside setting and the intelligent design features, combined with the smart, low-input maintenance, create a visual appeal rarely found at such an accessible course.
The 7th hole at Nickerson Dunes. Photo credit: Shaun Smith
On a course as short as Nickerson Dunes, shots rarely end up where you can’t find them. As a result, the architects can lead you right up to the trouble. You aim your shots precariously at tiny targets, at pins cut just feet away from hazards. As you walk the landscape from hole to hole, often on hurricane-salvaged wooden planks, you discover a series of fresh challenges and arresting moments.
The first moment happens on the 2nd green. It’s relatively large and has the routing’s first bunker. At the back is a ring of small pines. Native plants and wildflowers bloom everywhere. We saw a bunny. This is the place where any non-golfing companions you’ve dragged with you realize they may not hate this experience. It’s also the first hint that you might be in for a more interesting round of golf than you expected. The green is well shaped, with a narrow, raised rear section and another shelf front-right.
After chipping a few balls up the plateaus, retrieve your gear, take the path through the pines toward the 3rd, step up onto the wooden tee box, and take it all in.
The 3rd green—with the 5th in the background—at Nickerson Dunes. Photo credit: Shaun Smith
My daughter must have been exhilarated on this hole, running through the mounds and moguls between the tee and the green. To her, it must have felt like National Golf Links of America would have to me.
The hole plays up toward the back of the dunes fronting the beach, usually into the wind. The hillocks and dunes, a deceptive bunker well short of the green, and the 5th green in the distance make the 100 yards seem anything but. I had 8-iron through sand wedge in my carry bag. You could bring just a 7-iron, or just a lob wedge. Add a putter, or not, and you’re set. I hit a pitching wedge, and my daughter picked up the ball before I could get to it.
At this point, we saw the only other golfer on the course that Sunday morning. He was finishing the 7th hole. Just a young man and his AirPods, the place to himself (almost). I’m not sure if Nickerson Dunes is ever busy, but in my three visits I’ve encountered exactly three people golfing, four walking their dogs, and a single attendant who opens the course, closes it, and takes the money. The attendant told me that the entire facility is maintained by one individual—a young woman sent over from her regular duties at Eisenhower Park, where she works under Nickerson Dunes designer Tom Gordon.
The amenities at Nickerson Dunes. Photo credit: Shaun Smith
The Nickerson Dunes concept strikes me as so portable. You could work a couple of Nickersons into just about any town—nine holes on 10 acres, or four holes on five acres. At that size, golf courses cost far less to build and maintain, and could even fit into existing parks. We need more ambient golf. If my daughter wants to pick up tennis or basketball or baseball in the future, it will be easy because the playing spaces will be right there. Golf may never be that open, but it could get closer.
Our day reached its peak at the back of the property, near the ocean. The 5th green is the highest point on this part of the course. It’s a beautiful spot. To the left of the green, a steep blowout in a dune creates a subtle slope. It has become one of my favorite details. If you pull your pitch, the slope can either kick you back toward the putting surface or send you out of bounds, off the sandy cliff. As we looked out over the dunes toward the Atlantic, I thought about how we’re all drawn to the sea. How lucky we are to play a game on its shores. I thought about how lucky I was to be there with my soulmate and our little creation. And how lucky I am to be her father.
Photo credit: Marisol Juarez-Smith
That day, I didn’t need the bounce off the dune. I was swinging pretty well. I lined up my putt and rapped it across the shaggy grass. Just before it got to the hole, my daughter laughed, pointed up to the sky at a seagull, and hollered…
Shaun Smith is a horticulturalist based in New York. You can follow him @GorseNod on Twitter and @plantreligion on Instagram.
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