The 2006 opening of Southampton’s Sebonack Golf Club was one of the most eagerly anticipated in many a decade. For a start the course was built immediately beside the hallowed golfing grounds of the National Golf Links of America. Secondly, it was the result of a rather unlikely design collaboration between Tom Doak and Jack Nicklaus. Despite fundamental differences in their approach to golf course architecture, the pair was brought together by the club’s developer Michael Pascucci. Pascucci had initially offered Nicklaus the design job, but after seeing Doak’s work at Pacific Dunes decided to persuade them to work together.
Built partially atop the bluffs that overlook the Great Peconic Bay, the Sebonack site was first considered for golf back in 1906, when it was part of a larger estate that Charles Blair Macdonald was inspecting for his golfing monument at The National. Macdonald eventually bypassed the land in favor of neighboring links ground that ran alongside Bullhead Bay. Interestingly, his club again passed on the property several years later when it was offered as a gift from one of its founding members. When Pascucci purchased the site in 2001 it was much as Macdonald had left it, heavily treed but with an ideal sandy base and an abundance of raw golf undulation hidden beneath the brush.
Given the nature of the land and its proximity to some of the world’s greatest golf, both designers poured a great deal of time and energy into this course, working hard to ensure it would stand alongside its esteemed neighbors. The routing of the layout was crucial to its success, and it was Doak who came up with the final plan, setting the holes partly within a sloping inland forest and partly atop an elevated bayside ledge. He also had a major influence on the look and feel of the course, particularly the manner in which the undulating fairways, free-flowing tees, lumpy greens and shaggy bunkers blend with the native terrain. This was a genuine collaboration, however, and thanks to the Nicklaus team the holes are longer and the wild green complexes smaller than on other Doak courses, making things a little more challenging for accomplished players.
Throughout the round there are a number of standout moments, including the short par four opening hole and the majestic three-shot closer, which occupy the open dune ground and rather unconventionally head toward the same area. Enhanced by classically handsome bunker shapes, the 2nd is the first real fearsome test, its tee shot played through a pair of stately elm trees and its approach uphill into a nasty, pimple green that features a large frontal hump to torment golfers taking the aerial route. The 3rd green is again elevated and equally severe on those unable to throw their ball beyond its steep false front. Most of the remaining holes are among the forested section, with outward half highlights including the downhill par three 4th and the driveable 5th and par five 9th, both bunkered to entice bigger hitters to attack.
The final nine starts with a couple of exciting par fours, the 10th rising into a tightly contoured green atop a ridge and the 11th falling across a crest and then staring straight down toward the bay. Also enjoying a superb water backdrop, the par three 12th is a great hole with its small putting surface set attractively on a natural spur. Other highpoints include the finishing work on the 14th and the greenside shaping on the par five 15th, its cascading target cut into a shallow dune and framed by sprawling sand traps. Hopping along the shoreline, the 18th completes a terrific collection of long holes and provides a fitting end to a magnificent day’s golf. Aside from uninterrupted views across the bay, the hole is noted for beautiful bunkers that pinch its landing zones and a fascinating green site built with a sunken front section, an upper tier and a cool central ridge.
Although there are a couple of uncomfortable areas here and a few fairway traps that seem unnecessary and out of sync with the general design principals, the compromises made by Doak and Nicklaus on this course fail to take the shine off what is a wonderful place to play golf. Sebonack may not have turned out precisely how either would have wanted, but it is an elite golf experience with exceptional grooming standards and superb amenities. Whether it was an astute decision to bring such divergent design ideas together on this project will ultimately depend on how many golfers pay the club’s lofty initiation fees.