Tee Time for Nine – Playing the East End’s Nine Hole Golf Courses

Teeing off at the Sag Harbor Golf Club.
Teeing off at the Sag Harbor Golf Club.

By Gavin Menu

I chipped in for birdie on our 34th hole of the day. After golfing our way through the farm fields of Sagaponack and across the woods at Barcelona Neck and the hills above Shelter Island Heights, we arrived at the charming executive course at Cedars in Cutchogue to discover a sublime ending to a marathon day of golf.

Sign at Poxabogue

It has been a long, cold winter in New York and even now, with Memorial Day upon us, it was not too long ago when temperatures dropped toward freezing and playing golf was a distant memory. Which made breaking the doldrums all the more pleasurable one recent Friday as myself and three friends — all average golfers at best — traversed north across four vastly different, but entirely entertaining, 9-hole public courses. It was a day that reminded us, after being stuck inside for many months, that golf can be a great escape, good medicine and a welcome break from the busy days of spring and the nervous anticipation of the summer season ahead.

Long Island is blessed with some of the most spectacular and well-known golf courses in the world. The private courses at Shinnecock, National, Atlantic, Maidstone, East Hampton and Sebonack reside among the upper echelon of golf in terms of history, design and construction. Several have hosted major professional championships and all require six-figure membership fees to join. Even Montauk Downs, the East End’s own 18-hole gem of a public course, is considered one of the most challenging and well-kept municipal courses in the United States.

But if you put all the grandeur aside and prefer golf as a more casual pursuit, you will find the East End home to several truly original 9-hole courses, all of which are public and perfectly suited for children, families and casual players looking to steal a few hours from their otherwise busy summer day.

The sport of golf has taken a hit in terms of participation in recent years, even locally, as clubs and professional golf associations face the harsh reality of competing for attention in an age of instant gratification. Could it be true that golf, supposedly one of the world’s great relaxers, has become more burden than pleasure?

Our four rounds earlier this month painted a different picture. All of us have lived on the East End for decades but still found ourselves blessed by good fortune as we traveled from the foot of the Atlantic Ocean to the shores of Long Island Sound, playing courses where two-hour rounds won’t totally interrupt summer days filled with the beach and family. Our day began early, around 7 a.m., at the Poxabogue Golf Center off Montauk Highway in Sagaponack, where breakfast at The Fairway Restaurant is an East End institution. It took about an hour and fifteen minutes to finish the well-manicured, 1,583-yard course, which my friend Andrew Botsford described as “punishingly short” as he knocked a ball around the 62- yard, bunker-filled 5th hole. In addition to the course, with weekend rates between $28 and $40 per round during the peak season, Poxabogue features one of the top teaching facilities on the East End, with a driving range and staff of professional instructors.

From Sagaponack we drove through the hamlet of Wainscott northeast past the East Hampton Airport to Route 114, where the Sag Harbor State Golf Course is carved among 50 acres of woodlands, bluffs and wetlands on the peninsula at Barcelona Neck, a nature preserve flanked by Sag Harbor Bay to the west and Northwest Harbor to the east. Sag Harbor has evolved over the years from a locals-only type course with its famed sand greens to a larger attraction complete with manicured holes, affordable fees and, of course, greens made of grass instead of sand.

Sag Harbor stretches its legs a bit more than Poxabogue, with a length of 2,661 yards. Its signature hole is probably the par-4 6th, which doglegs right and leaves little room for error as woods tower along either side of the fairway. For $18 per round on weekdays or $27 on weekends, golfers at Sag Harbor can play 18 holes if they wish, or twice around, and, if their lucky, might even get the pleasure of a cold beverage aside a past club champion on the back deck overlooking the scenic 9th green.

Which brings me to one of the great glories of golf, namely not playing golf while sitting at the bar or having lunch at the turn (which, in our case, came after the first two rounds at Poxabogue and Sag Harbor). In route to the Shelter Island Country Club, appropriately nicknamed Goat Hill, we stopped for lunch at Redding’s, a bustling deli and marketplace along the main drag of Shelter Island Heights. There we washed down steak sandwiches with ice cold Blue Point Toasted Lager and sat on the back porch, which is more of a dock really, overlooking Dering Harbor and some of the most spectacular estates on the entire East End.

We marched on after lunch and made our assault on Goat Hill, which was established in 1901 and sits atop one of the highest points on Shelter Island. The course, with greens fees between $15 and $27 per round in the summer, covers 2,512 yards of hilly and challenging terrain. The word “blind” is used quite a bit at Goat Hill, where seven of the nine greens are unseen from the tee box and where rolling hills obstruct a large percentage of the shots. Goat Hill is a golf experience unlike any other, and easily the most challenging course of our day.

Growing weary from our travels, but committed to the journey from South to North Fork, we left the picturesque clubhouse at Goat Hill and its views of water in every direction on a ride to Greenport aboard the North Ferry. We arrived late in the day at Cedars in Cutchogue, which is under new ownership and is an absolute gem of a par-3 course. The longest hole is 175 yards, most of the greens are reachable with short irons or wedges and the course is impeccably manicured with picture-perfect greens and deep, soft sand traps. The new owners, Paul Pawlowski and Tim McManus, grew up playing Cedars, and since taking over, have made major renovations in an attempt to make the course more challenging. Rates remain wonderfully low at $13 per round, $15 on weekends, and $12 for seniors and $10 for kids under 12 anytime. This month the club will unveil a new indoor HD Golf Simulator aside the clubhouse, making Cedars a true golf destination for the entire family.

Following our round at Cedars, we sipped a few more beers (this is a golf story after all) on the porch at First and South, a delightful restaurant in downtown Greenport. We reflected on our day’s journey and I mentioned a recent article in The New York Times referencing discussions about loosening the rules of golf to make it easier, perhaps even making the holes 15 inches wide, or nearly four times the size of a standard hole.

According to The Times article, the Professional Golfers Association of America believes that golf has “become so expensive and time consuming, and is so hard to play, that it is rapidly losing participants.” Few would argue the game’s expense or challenges. Equipment is constantly improving, which has prompted designers to make the courses more difficult. Greens fees and cart rentals — golf balls themselves — can set back even the most causal golfer hundreds of dollars in a single afternoon.

But as I watched that miracle birdie fall into the back of the cup on my 34th hole of the day, I whispered a phrase common among golfers who’ve hit a great shot during an otherwise difficult round or, in our case, a marathon day of golf.

“It keeps you coming back,” I said, shaking my head as I walked toward the cup sporting a smile that money can’t buy.