Bringing together two great designers was just the first step in creating Sebonack Golf Club in Southampton, New York
Right from the start, skeptics proclaimed there was no way that a design partnership between Tom Doak and Jack Nicklaus could be successful. In the world of golf architecture, Doak, the maven of the natural and Nicklaus, the doyen of the finely cultivated, profess design philosophies that appear to be diametrically opposed. But developer Michael Pascucci was determined to make the collaboration work, and he wisely chose superintendent Garret Bodington as part of the glue that would cement the arrangement.
Never mind permitting, protecting endangered plants and animals, fitting into the sophisticated neighborhood or building on sand dunes, coordinating the two camps was the biggest concern facing Bodington. “There were a lot of issues here,” says Bodington. “But having two architects that were so different and Michael Pascucci putting them together and having the ideas that they both had for every hole; trying to get them to gel and carrying that through into construction–that was the biggest challenge.”
Bodington is no stranger to challenge. Prior to this assignment, as superintendent of the Black Course he helped Director of Grounds Craig Currier prepare Bethpage for the 2002 U.S. Open. “Working real hard for five-and-a-half years with Craig Currier at Bethpage prepared me; and I just brought that work ethic over here,” says Bodington. “We’re just not really happy until it’s perfect and that’s going to take a while. But doing a golf course when my only construction experience was being part of a major renovation at Bethpage was a lot more on my plate than I ever had before.”
Even before the 2002 U.S. Open, Bodington had seen the magnificent piece of property that adjoins the National Golf Links and would become Sebonack. “The first time I came out here was in October 2001,” recalls Bodington. “The Pascucci family had purchased it in August 2001. There was a spine across the middle of the property and everything went down to the bay and a pond, the rest of it went down to National and wetlands and you could just see from the topography that it was pretty awesome. We didn’t really go into it but you could see some of the dunes along the existing roads.”
Charles Blair Macdonald had an opportunity to purchase Sebonack’s current site in November 1906 when he was establishing the adjacent National, as it was part of the 450 acres that was available. “This property was little known and had never been surveyed,” wrote Macdonald in Scotland’s Gift: Golf. “Every one though it more or less worthless. It abounded in bogs and swamps and was covered with an entanglement of bayberry, huckleberry, blackberry and other bushes and was infested by insects. The only way one could get over the ground was on ponies. So Jim Whigham and myself spent two or three days riding over it, studying the contours of the ground. Finally we determined it was what we wanted, providing we could get it reasonably.”
Macdonald chose 205 of the 450 acres, bypassing the grandeur of Sebonack’s waterfront site for inland terrain more suited for the specific replica golf holes he wished to build. The 245 acres he didn’t buy remained undeveloped for another decade before Charles and Pauline Sabin created the Sabin Estate, later to be known as Bayberry Land. They spared no expense in erecting an elaborate mansion, eight outbuildings, a two-tier sunken Italianate garden and landscaped grounds. Yet by 1942, the property was abandoned and after World War II it sold for $131,250 to a New York City-based electrical union, who used it as a retreat for educational workshops. In 2001, Pascucci purchased the land from the union for $46 million.
When you’ve paid that much for raw piece of sandy land covered in brush and infested with deer ticks you don’t want to quibble over who will build the golf course. But what do you do when two architects–each with their own highly-regarded construction company–both want to do the work? “We were our own golf course contractors for this,” says Bodington of the crew he assembled. “Tom Doak did some training with us and we would go out with his crew, and they would do the rough grading and we would do the fine grading and the finish work. It seemed to work pretty well. When you build something yourself the quality control is there. You don’t have a contractor on a fixed price who’s trying to get done as fast as possible and he doesn’t really care about soil compaction or making sure the job site is clean. We were able to control all the clearing and stump removal as well as can be.”
As per everything else, both camps had grassing ideas that they advanced; and once again Bodington listened, assimilated and made his own decisions. “We made the grassing choices. I talked with University people; Frank Rossi at Cornell; Marty Petrovic, who represented the town as the agronomic advisor on this; and I brought Dave Oatis of the USGA on early–and that was probably one of the best decisions we made,” notes Bodington. “When do you usually call in the USGA? When you have problems after you build it. We brought Dave in before we built it to help us tackle and prevent some of those problems. Dave helped with permitting and took out a lot of that nonsense science, snake oils that people were trying to approach the project with, things that haven’t been proven in research studies. So he was a big help with grassing selections.”
Everyone–from the town, to the owner, to the turfgrass professionals–wanted grasses that would require the smallest amount of chemical control. “We looked at Colonial bentgrass and Chewings fescue and we were lucky that Friars Head and Easthampton, two Coore and Crenshaw courses within 20 miles of us had done similar grassing schemes,” says Bodington. “It’s low input. It has that European look to it, as Jack liked to call it, and it’s worked out pretty well. I prefer the Colonial over the fescue. The fescue does take the Take All pretty well and the most susceptible thing about Colonial is Brown Patch. So I’ve seen that as an obstacle, but with Brown Patch you can let it ride a little longer without getting decimated. It’s more of a cosmetic thing in the beginning. Dollar Spot has not been bad yet; it does exist, but what I’ve found and what Bill Jones has found at Friar’s Head is that when you get some Dollar Spot on Colonial on sandy soil it doesn’t pit out like it might on a native soil.”
For the greens, Bodington asked around, and once again benefited from local experience. “On the greens we have A4 which is obviously a Cadillac. Laurel Links, which is a new golf course on Long Island and Friars Head both have that and I just talked with two local guys that have used this grass and what the advantages and disadvantages of it are, so it seems to work pretty well out here,” says Bodington. “Tom Doak likes to add a lot of humps and bumps in the greens so he wanted to go with an older variety, but I said we have the technology, this is a proven great grass, why don’t we go with this. I just knew with the clientele we had here I’d rather put in a grass that if I had to let it get slower it would get slower but it wouldn’t be that difficult to get it going fast.”
To tie all the elements together, Bodington used the same mixture of grasses on fairways, tees and approaches. “It’s all the same: two Chewings fescues and two Colonial Bents. So we have Tiger II, Glory, Ambassador and Ambrose,” details the superintendent. “We hydro seeded everything and people said, ‘Why are you doing that?’ Well, first of all you’re on sand; it’s very windy so keeping moisture around that seed is very important. And they did that at Pacific Dunes, they hydro seeded everything and the concept really worked well. With all the slopes we have here, it kept everything intact. We didn’t really have that many washouts. We had a good summer when we did most of the holes here anyway. We had some heavy rain in the spring and some heavy rain late in the fall. But every thing held up well considering it was a grow-in year.” The primary rough is 100 percent Chewings fescue.
Bodington didn’t use any sod on the property, though he now has a ready supply for repairs. “With our fairways here, including the range, we have 56 acres of fairway: pretty much what a lot of golf courses have for 27 or 36 holes. We keep the range at fairway height in case we have to take sod off in the fall or the spring for projects.”
Two unique features at Sebonack are the teeing grounds and the out-of-play areas. There are no tee boxes or precise lines marking them off from other surfaces; they just flow, often from the collar of the previous green. “Tom Doak was the one who came up to me and talked about flowing the fairways into the tees. He really likes what Mackenzie did at Augusta National and Cypress and where the tee is right next to the green and flows into it, and with my experience of working at Augusta National I could really grasp that concept,” says Bodington. “Since the 1990s there have been so many golf courses that went to the square tee boxes, but who knows, maybe in the next five or ten years more courses will be going back to this. It really seemed to fit into our design here.”
Outside of the rough, Sebonack quickly returns to a natural environment that looks similar to what Charlie Macdonald found when he rode the property on horseback a century ago. “Outside the fairways we did not put any organics in or any irrigation. Our irrigation stops before our native areas. Part of our permit here is that we have to restore at least 85 acres of native reveg and we have six different scenes. There are coastal maritime, woodlands, inland mix and all those different areas on the golf course have a diversity that’s going to help wildlife and birds here do well. It’s a lot of color and its part of the program. I knew from day one what we had to achieve here. And when you go over to National and you do see prickly pear cactus and that was part of our reveg here. The native areas are not going to be a clean grassing scheme, and that’s definitely a nice contrast.”
Bodington spent two years building Sebonack, managing a crew that grew to 70 at times. “It’s a team effort,” he says. “Everyone has their strong points and we’d work with that.” He interacted with the architects and their construction superintendents and put in an amazing amount of time on site, all for a boss with patience, class and reason. But during that time span he also got married, had a daughter and has another child on the way. “I live about a half-mile away. No one in this industry is a nine-to-five, 40-hour a week guy. As long as you have an understanding wife you can make things work.”
The future looks bright for this special place. “Sebonack is still evolving and it will evolve for playability and to improve on things that were overlooked. In our neighborhood, being surrounded by great golf courses all over Long Island, Sebonack is a modern classic and it’s going to stand up with its length and the challenge of the greens,” says Bodington. “Hopefully, eventually I’ll get back to not working 90 hours a week and play some more golf.” He’s got a great place to do it.