Devereux Emmet, the accomplished early-20th century golf course architect, was proud of Congressional Country Club. He surely would have been happy to know that his creation, near Washington, is hosting the U.S. Open again this week. But the truth is, Congressional was not the layout closest to his heart, or his house.
St. George's Golf & Country Club in Setauket was the one he built, cherished and played on as his home course. He lived in St. James and conceived of the idea for St. George's in 1915, talked some financiers into buying 140 acres at $300 an acre and had the links-style course opened by 1917.
"And here we are today," club president John Ammerman said, "more than 90 years later, with the same basic design. It truly has stood the test of time."
That makes it like the Open, which always draws interest at St. George's (members serve as marshals whenever the event comes to Long Island). They will be especially interested this year because of the connection they feel with Congressional through Emmet. "He's our founding father, so to speak," Ammerman said, acknowledging that Emmet is not as famous as his mentor, Hall of Famer Charles Blair Macdonald. "He is kind of an unsung hero."
Emmit still is a major figure in Long Island golf because he was a founding member of the Macdonald's National Golf Links of America and then designed or co-designed Cherry Valley, Glen Head Country Club, Huntington Crescent, Huntington Country Club, Sands Point Golf Club and Seawane.
But his legacy is strongest on Lower Sheep Pasture Road in Setauket, now more than ever. St. George's has spent the past four years doing a restoration project, trying to make the course look more like it did during the years when Emmet won three club championships. Members hired Gil Hanse, one of this generation's top architects and a Long Island native, to plant fescue grasses, redefine bunkers, expand greens and recover old vistas.
The result was seeing St. George's included this year among GolfWeek magazine's Top 100 Classic Courses. "That was totally unexpected," head pro Rod Heller said, mindful that the club never has been big on self-promotion.
All these years, the membership has just been quietly proud of its challenging greens and its tradition. Even though the club was designed after Emmet and Macdonald had toured the courses of the British Isles, St. George's was not named after Royal St. George's, which will host the British Open this year. The club in Setauket was named for St. George's Manor, the 17th-century estate founded by Col. William "Tangier" Smith, who had served English interests in Africa as mayor of Tangiers.
Golfers at the club always have paid homage to the legend of St. George slaying the dragon. The club's crest depicts St. George wielding a golf club rather than a sword. Ever since the beginning, members have sworn that the dragon must be buried under the heavily sloped 15th green.
"Everyone likes their own club," said Ammerman, who first played St. George's with his dad 45 years ago. "We are not a big-name club. We are a modest local club that happens to have a damn fine golf course."
O'Meara once LIer
O'Meara was at Westchester Country Club on Tuesday for media day to promote the Senior Players Championship to be held there in August (he is the defending champion). He said that his parents were born in New York and moved all over the country, accommodating his father's job in the furniture business.
"I remember sitting at the bus stop, waiting for the bus in a blizzard, wondering if it was so bad they wouldn't come, and we could walk home and make a snowman or something. I remember getting stung by jellyfish -- all the positives," O'Meara said, adding that he took up golf when his family moved to California.