Golf Course WebsitesGolfRevText Golfer

From Trash to Trophies: A New Golf Course Grows in the Bronx

By: Wayne Mills


As part of last fall's PGA Tour FedEx Playoffs, the Barclays Classic was contested at Liberty National Golf Club in New Jersey amid great fanfare. Television coverage kept panning to the spectacular views of the New York skyline and also covered the conversion of the former industrial waste site to tournament golf venue.

John Sanford & Jack Nicklaus at Ferry Point

In 2011 New York City will have its own tournament-worthy links-style golf course with its own spectacular views of Manhattan, the East River, and the Throgs Neck and Whitestone bridges. New York City is home to the first municipal golf course built in the United States, Van Cortlandt Park, which opened in 1895 and now, 116 years later, is scheduled to unveil a world-class municipal golf facility.

There was a prior attempt at building the course with private developer money. That project during Rudy Giuliani's time as mayor in the late 1990's had Jack Nicklaus as the course designer, but it failed amid claims of mismanagement. Ultimately, the city paid the developers a termination fee and canceled the agreement.

Ferry Point Rendering

Current New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg revived the golf course proposal as a city-financed (to the tune of $70 million) project when the city Parks Department issued a Request for Proposal in 2008 that stated: "DPR is seeking an imaginative and innovative design/construction management team to oversee the development and construction of a premier quality, state-of-the-art, public golf course facility on the Site Proposals should reflect this rare and unique opportunity to create a world-class recreational amenity for the Bronx, the City and the region."

Florida-based golf course architect John Sanford won the contract for design and construction management services at Ferry Point. Sanford had previously done design and construction at Quarry Hills in Quincy, Mass., on another blighted site that included two former landfills and abandoned granite quarries. That 27-hole facility was built with nearly 8 million cubic yards of fill taken from nearby Boston's Big Dig tunnel project. Sanford described his Quarry Hills experience as "invaluable" in getting the Ferry Point contract.

Although Sanford is a golf course architect with his own impressive resume, he decided to have his Florida neighbor, Jack Nicklaus, continue to be involved.

(Left to right): Frank O'Dowd, John O'Dowd, Jim Lipe,
Joe Voss, Jack Nicklaus, John Sanford

The prior group didn't get to finish the project, but Nicklaus never lost his enthusiasm for Ferry Point. What was the appeal? "It had several appeals to me," the Golden Bear said. "One was obviously doing a golf course in the heart of New York City. How many opportunities do you have to do a golf course in the center of such a populated area, where the project will get almost instant awareness and recognition, and you can actually end up doing something impactful for an urban area. You don't have many opportunities to do something like this in an urban area and hopefully bring some green space and recreation to the citizens of that area. Plus, it will be a public golf course, which is nice and was very appealing. I like that aspect a lot. One of the key initiatives in the effort to grow the game of golf, nationally and internationally, is to create public-access golf. This is an important project for what it represents now and in the future, and it could serve as a wonderful model.

"As we saw and got involved with the site, and with it being so open, we were able to create a 'dunesy' sort of look. We felt a links-style golf course with a 'dunsey' look might fit well on that site because it had enough openness to be able to create that, which is kind of unique. I just think it's got the opportunity and potential to be that. In addition, Mayor Bloomberg, as did Mayor Giuliani prior to him, wanted a golf course that had the ability to host a tournament. Both of them wanted it to be a special golf course and be able to host a global event or national open, for that matter. They wanted something special. As a designer, you can't help but get excited when somebody wants to do something special."

Asked if the current course design has varied from his layout of more than 10 years ago Nicklaus said "Well, when we first did the golf course, we thought 7,100 yards was the right length. I think we have the course at about 7,300 or 7,400 yards now. Times have changed. Eight or nine years have passed, and the golf ball has changed, equipment has changed and we figured out how to stretch more yardage out of it. I think the golf course is not going to be an extremely long golf course, but I hope not too difficult for the everyday person playing it. At the same time, if you are going to have a golf course that could host a national open, you have to have some spice in it. Our goal is to have it play well on a daily basis as a public facility, but be able to drop the tees back and hide the pins, and be able to handle a tournament if and when we do that."

How then do you design a course that will accommodate the daily-fee golfer and a possible national open? "You have to figure out how to give the average golfer bailouts, which can be bailouts for the pro, but the pro is not really interested in bailouts because he's got to play to a certain level," Nicklaus said. "If he bails out every hole, he is not going to make a score. But the average golfer can't make a score probably, so he needs to be able to have the bailout areas to be able to chip and to be able to create pars through using his head."

In the future, New York City will issue RFPs for the maintenance of Ferry Point Golf Course, including the construction of an 8,200-square-foot clubhouse and another for the construction and operation of a 25,000-square-foot banquet facility. In addition to the golf course, there will be a 19-acre buffer park and a seven-acre park with ball fields and playgrounds for public use. The course operator will be involved in setting greens fees. But the city will have the final say and is committed to having the price be reasonable considering the quality of the facilities and comparable to other high end daily fee courses in the Greater New York area.

Although the city consulted with PGA Tour facilities' personnel as to what was needed logistically to hold a big-time tournament, Nicklaus, the once and still greatest golfer ever, doesn't need any help in designing a big-time tournament-worthy track. "I do what I think is right. I go from my own experiences and my own memory bank," he said.

When you take the greatest golfer in history and motivate him to build a spectacular golf course on a waterfront site with tremendous views in the world's greatest city, the result promises to be quite special.

Wayne Mills is a New England-based freelance writer who has been producing golf stories for over 20 years. He has written for national publications such as Golf Inc. and superintendent-related, regional golf-lifestyle magazines and websites in the Northeast, Midwest and Southwest and was a golf columnist for two daily newspapers. He has played over 700 golf courses from Canada to the Caribbean and from Cape Cod to California. He carries a single-digit handicap and has scored four holes-in-one.