New York City municipal golf was my introduction to the game. It started with an 18-hole pitch-and-putt course up near the old World’s Fairgrounds, across the street from the home of my beloved New York Mets. Having discovered the path to Shea Stadium – a bus, a subway, and then transfer to the elevated No. 7 line – I soon realized that there was also a little golf course nearby, Flushing Meadow Pitch & Putt, and so I traveled there via bus and subway with my putter and two short irons in tow.
Having made my high school golf team – against what could only be described as a lack of serious competition – I was soon pitted against much better players from Queens County on that borough’s municipal golf courses. This time we arrived by car, courtesy of our coach, Mr. Brown. And I quickly became enamored with the likes of Kissena Park, Forest Park, Douglaston and Clearview Park. I found myself enjoying these tracts more than I did the rigors of our nine-hole matches.
My benchmark of progress as a youthful golfer came by way of the opening tee shot at Forest Park – a golf course whose location in the middle of advanced urban decay made the first tee a welcome refuge. From there, confronting me on this opener was a forced carry of 160 yards over a rocky stream, broken ground and all sorts of undesirable junk. In matches my first year I laid up to the short fairway - a less than ideal start on a par 5 but at least one that provided safety.
When I went back to Forest Park two years ago to have a look about I was dismayed at first to find the opening hole had no such hazard in the middle. It took me a few minutes to realize they had rerouted the numbering so that what used to the first hole was now No. 4. As for the first of the course, it seemed far more heavily wooded than ever. Such are the limitations of course management amidst the scrupulous oversight of New York City’s Department of Parks and Recreation.
Five boroughs, 15 munis
Growing up in New York City in the 1960s meant I had access to 14 municipally owned courses. Since then there’s been only one more added. That’s not a lot of golf for a city with a population of 8.4 million. No wonder these layouts are busy. Crowded might be a better word. Van Cortlandt Park Golf Course in the Bronx, opened in 1895 as the country’s first municipal layout, is open every day of the year except when there’s snow cover. It registers about 60,000 rounds per annum. On the Saturday before the 2019 PGA Championship the pro shop recorded 287 rounds.
In addition to the country’s oldest municipal tract the city boasts one of the newest: Trump Golf Links at Ferry Point. The sprawling faux-links, co-designed by Jack Nicklaus and John Sanford, occupies an iconic urban setting. The golf is played atop an old, capped industrial landfill, with the immediate scenery including the East River to the South, residential apartments to the east, a cemetery to the north, and the Whitestone Bridge towering over the west side.
Bridges seem to be a staple of the city’s golf landscape. What else would you expect in a town where only one of the constituent boroughs, the Bronx, is part of the U.S. mainland and the other four boroughs comprise, or are part of, islands. Dyker Beach Golf Course in Brooklyn occupies the extreme western tip of Long Island and lies under the approach roads to the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge linking that island to Staten Island and its three municipal layouts – LaTourette Golf Course, Silver Lake Golf Course and South Shore Golf Course. Clearview Park Golf Course in the north of Queens County sits astride the ramps to the Throgs Neck Bridge over to the Bronx.
When it comes to quality golf, the Bronx might well be the standout. Van Cortlandt Park Golf Course has benefited from recent upgrades and offers a charm befitting a golf course that is within walking distance of the No. 1 subway line. It’s like popping out into an urban idyll. Right next door, on the other side of the Major Deegan Expressway (Rte.87) is another parkland layout, Mosholu Golf Course, the city’s only nine-hole layout, along with a First Tee of Metropolitan New York course – all of it run by an entity of that name.
Over on the east side of the Bronx, pinched between Interstate 95 and the tidal marshland along Long Island Sound, are Pelham Bay Golf Course and Split Rock Golf Course. Both are well-kept gems and widely considered to be the premier city golf courses.
My own preference for setting and ambiance is Marine Park Golf Course at the bottom end of Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn. Here in a crowded borough of 2.6 million people – enough to support their own NHL and NBA franchises – lies an isolated golf course, separated from urban build up by a nature preserve and salt water marshes and within ear shot and odor in the air of adjoining Jamaica Bay.
This Robert Jones Sr. design, opened in 1964, was the last city course to open for half a century – until Ferry Point. What I love most about Marine Park is the sense of near remoteness it provides – as if just on the other side of the door from metropolitan intensity. It’s a reminder of what is best about municipal golf: a refuge, a momentary escape.