Unique course awaits the TOUR’s top 125 players
August 22, 2017
By Sean Martin, PGATOUR.COM
Fashion. Food. Do-or-Die Drama on a World Stage
They could only share a laugh while looking over their creation and considering how far it had come.
Hosting one of the PGA TOUR’s top events was not the goal when they started the renovation of Long Island’s Glen Oaks Club. But there they were, standing on the scaffolding behind the 17th green, mere weeks before the club would host THE NORTHERN TRUST -- the first event of the 2017 FedExCup Playoffs.
“Craig turned to me and said, ‘Never in my wildest imagination would I ever think we’d be getting ready for a TOUR event,’” said Joel Weiman, the course architect whom Craig Currier hired for Glen Oaks' renovation. A composite of the club's 27 holes will be used to create a 7,346-yard, par-70 course for this week's THE NORTHERN TRUST.
Craig Currier is Glen Oaks’ superintendent. He has some experience preparing courses for prestigious events. He was hired at Bethpage Black for the 2002 and 2009 U.S. Opens. Currier came to Glen Oaks a year after the second Open, lured to the private club to lead a dramatic renovation of a tired, tree-lined course that had undergone little change in almost 40 years of existence.
Some golf enthusiasts refer to Glen Oaks as “the Augusta National of the north” because its wide fairways flow into each other, the deep hues of green dotted by bright white bunkers. Of course, the Alister Mackenzie design down in Georgia holds an incomparable place in the sport. Weiman insists that they weren’t trying to copy one of golf’s most famous courses, but Glen Oaks’ crisp, clean look is the inspiration for the comparisons.
Stewart Hagestad has played both Glen Oaks and Augusta National. He was the low amateur at this year’s Masters (T36) and played Glen Oaks in the 2016 Metropolitan Open, finishing 11th with a 54-hole score of 7-over 217. He called Glen Oaks’ conditioning “pretty elite.”
“They really nailed the aesthetics,” said Hagestad, winner of the 2016 U.S. Mid-Amateur.Hole No. 2 at Glen Oaks Club.
'It was like walking through a forest'
BK Sweeney’s Parkside Tavern is a watering hole just outside the grounds of Bethpage State Park that advertises “family-friendly dining and delicious, hearty foods” on its website. It’s where Howard Smith went to meet the man he wanted to lead Glen Oaks’ transformation.
Smith, a longtime Glen Oaks member, was the club’s president. Currier’s reputation, as the man who prepared a municipal course for two U.S. Opens, preceded him. They had never met, but Smith was able to procure his phone number and arrange a meeting.
“I had heard, ‘If you want to hire the best, hire Craig,’” Smith said. “Based on that, I told myself that I had to give it a try. It was a process. I was doing a lot of selling on Glen Oaks and trying to convince him that going from a public course to a private course ... would be a great next step. I guess I was appealing.”
Currier grew up on a dairy farm in upstate New York, which gave him an appreciation for hard labor and long hours. A small private club, The Cedar Lake Club, was adjacent to the family farm. He started working on the course as a teenager.
“I think my dad almost pushed me away from farming, told me I should do something else,” Currier said. “After growing up on a dairy farm, almost any job you do seems easy.”
He worked at several clubs, including two winters at Augusta National, before becoming the superintendent at Bethpage in June 1997, months after the U.S. Golf Association announced it was taking its biggest tournament to the course. The $2 million Rees Jones renovation to toughen up the Black Course started two months after Currier arrived. It was a dramatic renovation that transformed a run-down municipal course into a worthy host of a major championship.
“Craig had a reputation as being one of the best, certainly in the Met Section, but also the nation, based on what he had done with Bethpage,” Smith said. “I just saw the passion. I saw how dedicated he was. I saw his love for what he does.”
Smith saw that dedication first-hand while he was playing Glen Oaks on a dreary Sunday. He spotted Currier, who had yet to accept the job, scouting the property.
“He came somewhat unannounced, but he walked all 27 holes by himself, envisioning what he could do on each hole,” Smith said.
What did Currier see during that visit?
“It was like walking through a forest,” said Currier, who became Glen Oaks’ superintendent in 2010. “I’m not going to tell you I loved it. I liked the greens. Every hole looked the same to me. It was really tight. Literally, if you hit it off the fairway, you were punching out sideways.
“They were looking to turn over a new leaf so to speak and re-do the whole place. It looked like a great challenge.”The fifth hole of Glen Oaks' composite course shows the dramatic work done during the club's renovation. (Courtesy of Joel Weiman)
'The sky's the limit'
Long Island is home to some of the best courses in the United States, including Shinnecock Hills, the site of next year’s U.S. Open and the National Golf Links of America. Even the local courses that aren’t built on links land use fescue to create a rugged look. Glen Oaks wanted to do something to differentiate itself. Currier and the course's head pro, Tim Shifflett, took a trip to one of Currier's old haunts, Augusta National, for inspiration.
“A lot of the courses in the area have a lot of native fescue, like Bethpage Black, a big, rugged golf course,” Currier said. “We were certainly trying to separate ourselves a little bit with a real clean, elegant, sharp, manicured look. ... I think one thing I'm really proud of is that no matter where you stand on the property, you can look around and see a lot of holes and the bunkers popping out at you all over. It's the kind of feel you get at Augusta."
Said Weiman, “We couldn’t do Shinnecock better than Shinnecock, or National Golf Links better than the National Golf Links of America, so we went 180 degrees in the opposite direction.”
Weiman called the course’s metamorphosis a “bold transition.” Mother Nature helped the process. Hurricane Irene in 2011 and Superstorm Sandy a year later removed approximately 1,000 trees from the property.
“The golf course was very tight, narrow and nondescript,” Weiman said. “It didn’t have a lot of memorable holes. It wasn’t very strategic by any stretch. We opened it up, created angles and options and gave each hole its own identity.”
Weiman estimates that 30 percent of the property’s bunkers were removed, but the ones that remain were strategically placed to make players take risks to open up the best angles for playing the hole. The wide fairways encourage players to be aggressive and hit driver.
Weiman uses the 472-yard fifth hole, a dogleg-left par-4, as an example. Before the renovation, players had to nearly snap-hook their tee shot to keep it in the fairway. With the trees gone, fairway bunkers were built on the inside corner of the dogleg. Now players can take a risk by trying to carry those traps, or they can play safely to the right, leaving a longer approach.
There is no rough between the fairway and bunkers. Short grass leads directly into the sand traps, and connects green complexes to the next tee. It’s a look that is reminiscent of that famous course down in Georgia, and shows how dramatically Glen Oaks has changed.
Although Currier provided input with the strategic design elements, his main contribution, according to Weiman, was “to always push the envelope. In each instance, his first thought was grounded in the impact to the overall golf experience – not the impact to the future maintenance program.”
Currier was dedicated to creating a truly unique facility in Long Island. Now Glen Oaks gets its opportunity this week to shine.
“We were running with a bold vision,” Weiman said. “He never said, ‘That’s too much, that’s over the top.’ He was always willing to take the challenge, and that’s why it’s so spectacular now. That was the attitude, that the sky’s the limit.”Another before-and-after look at the changes to Glen Oaks. (Courtesy of Joel Weiman)