Just after Ken Bakst finished his final round of the Ike Championship at Friar's Head in Riverhead Tuesday, he gestured to course superintendent Bill Jones and said, "The real star of this tournament was you." He was joking, of course.
Both men knew that the real star of the Metropolitan Golf Association's major amateur championship was Friar's Head.
"It's got to be the best around here," said Cameron Young of Scarborough, New York, who won the 54-hole event at 7-under par. "The golf course . . . just looking out over the water, and having every single shot being so difficult, it's such a special place. There's no other way to describe it, really."
Young, an incoming freshman at Wake Forest, and his mom/caddie, Barbara, both enjoyed the ambience -- the bluffs on Long Island Sound, the thick trees, the steep hills and natural sandy areas -- while securing the biggest win of the young golfer's career. They did it on one of the greatest courses that most people never will see.
That's the way they like it at Friar's Head, which has been compared to other hidden treasures, Pine Valley and Cypress Point. It is not built for major professional tournaments and it doesn't even have a sign out front, only a mailbox with a number on it. But once you get on the grounds . . . Suffice it to say Phil Mickelson has called it his favorite course to play.
He gets no argument from Bakst, 57, a former U.S. Mid-Amateur champion and Masters participant. Along with being a player good enough to tie for 13th in a field dominated by college kids, Bakst also is the club's founder and owner.
"I just want people to have fun. I want to see them enjoy it. These are the best amateurs in the Met section and to see them take on this course . . . if they play well they can shoot a great score and if they don't, the course is kind of going to get at them. That's what a golf course should do," he said.
Bakst and his members do take the "private" part of the private-club title seriously. They like the exclusivity. But they also believe that the Ben Crenshaw-Bill Coore layout needs to be seen and shared occasionally. So, having opened in 2002, it hosted the Met Amateur in 2008 and invited the MGA back this year.
"I think that you have an obligation to give back to the section. This is the way we've done it so far," he said. "Thanks to the members that they're willing to walk away for a few days and let the guys enjoy it. Some of the members came out and watched."
They saw a heck of a show from Young, who birdied the 14th through 16th in a 5-under-par final round. They also saw a stellar effort from George Zahringer III, 62, who tied for ninth at 4 over. "We really don't have anything quite like it in the New York area. It doesn't replicate or duplicate anything at National or Shinnecock or any of the links courses further out east. It's really superb," said Zahringer, a Deepdale member who, like Bakst, has competed at Augusta National.
Joe Saladino of Huntington, a finalist here in 2008, said the course has matured in seven years. "You kind of forget when you make that left turn at the mailbox, what's on the other side. That bridge on 15 is one of the most spectacular walks," he said after finishing 7 over. "It's just an extremely fair golf course. If you're playing well, you can make some birdies, but if you're off a bit, there's a double out there. That was kind of the story of my week."
Bakst promised to host more events. That was good news for golfers such as Matt Lowe of Farmingdale, the Atlantic 10 freshman of the year for Richmond, who tied for ninth. He said: "It's probably the nicest course I've played. That walk from 15 to 16 is the bee's knees."