Liberty National

Liberty National
By Toby Ingleton

Manhattan's masters of the universe can now complete a deal in the office and celebrate on the golf course ten minutes later. Toby Ingleton finds out more.

In one of the world's most densely populated and wealthy areas, you might expect a superbly conditioned course with some great strategic design to be swarming with players. Not so at Liberty National, the ultra-exclusive course located in the lee of Manhattan Island.

With little more distance than a Bubba Watson drive between its clubhouse and Wall Street, at any one time there are probably more millionaires in the surrounding area than at any other golf club. That category of golfer tends not to expect a fight for tee times, so it's taken a joining fee of US$450,000 to balance the potential oversupply of members with the expectation of exclusivity. Not to mention the need to chip away at the reported US$150 million it cost to build the course.

But Liberty National reveals more than millionaire golf and big bucks glitz. The course has provided a mechanism to clean up one of the United States' 'Superfund' hazardous waste sites. It was the original terminus for the Standard Oil Corporation of America and, since the late nineteenth century, pollutants have been leaching into the ground. Even after its closure, rainfall continued to push the toxins downward into the aquifer below.

Course architect Bob Cupp explains: "The course cut off the danger of the spills by capping with impervious soils, forever sealing the oil below the surface, safe from human exposure on the surface. It was a home run, if you'll pardon the Americanism, in every sense."

This process doesn't happen at the speed of a home run though. "Permission was a near twelve year journey," says Cupp. "Any open land in population as dense as New York draws fire from every direction. Everybody tried to get their piece of the pie, though only a few succeeded."

The pie belongs to Paul Fireman and his son Dan. Fireman was responsible for bringing Reebok to the United States and, since its acquisition by Adidas, his attention has turned towards a small golf portfolio that began with the acquisition of the Michael Hurdzen-designed Willowbend in the early 1990s.

Liberty National is his most ambitious project yet, with a unique location that sets it apart. Fireman appointed Cupp and Tom Kite to design a course over the former industrial wasteland with spectacular views of Manhattan Island and the Statue of Liberty.

So how much does this iconic backdrop influence an architect's routing? Cupp explains: "For Tom and me, the most important things were, in order of importance, the nature of the hole as it relates to the preceding and following holes, the direction of the wind, the turn of the hole, the length of the hole, the position of the hole on the property – the course moves from a links quality near the open water to more of a heath, almost park style, away from the water – and finally, the views from the hole. The latter worked very much in our favour because the holes near the water are best for strategic and wind reasons but also have the sensational views." They might have been a low design priority, but the impressive backdrops appear just at the right time in the round, being most prominent in the opening and closing stretches. This delivers a sense of awe as the round begins, then allows the golfer to get stuck into the teeth of the course before delivering a strong closing impression.

With a tour professional involved in the course design and the PGA Tour coming, one might expect Liberty National to rank pretty high on the difficulty scale. But in the main, it's very playable. "Tom knows what mere mortals do on a golf course. He is too honourable to offend or even annoy them. He wants them to have a good time. But he also knows how to twist the knife toward his brethren," explains Cupp.

There are occasions where the knife seems to be twisted to us mortals too. There's little room for error on the par four fifth hole, with the drive needing to find a sliver of fairway between a lake and out of bounds, and no bail out to speak of on the approach shot to a green guarded by water. But this is the exception rather than rule, surprising for a location where land is hardly in plentiful supply.

Three holes on the closing stretch stand out. The fourteenth has been design to echo a links, with its humps and hollows and shoreline location. A short par three, the wind will dictate strategy on the tee. The sixteenth is a driveable par four, a style of hole that seems to please everyone and promote decision-making from the tee. An iron from the tee minimises the water threat, yet a precise drive can reach the putting surface. The final hole is memorable for its toughness. At 480 yards and playing slightly uphill, this par four is heavily bunkered, and a wayward slice can be lost out of bounds.

It's common for those in the golf business to be sceptical about the role of a player-designer, but Cupp is quick to point out that Tom Kite is the antithesis of this view: "The first time we worked together in the mid-80s I sent him the green settings for an entire course, not knowing what I would receive back. I sent the existing situation and the general proposed contour of the area. He sent me back a complete set of greens plans, drawn to as fine a point as six-inch contour lines."

Kite was on his way to an engineering degree when his golf game blossomed at the University of Texas. "Drawing plans is as natural to him as his swing," adds Cupp. "I have never met another player who can do that, and it's always fun to see what he does." There's no doubting that Liberty National's greens have been crafted by an expert. Most impressive is the third, a complex that is completely bunkerless but falls away severely at each side and the front of a small green. It's a fine example of hazard in the form of undulation, able to instil at least as much uncertainty in the player's mind as could bunkers or water.

In August 2009 the media spotlight will fall on Liberty National, as it plays host to the Barclays, the first event of the PGA Tour's FedEx Cup Playoff series. With up to 7,500 yards to work with, the Tour has plenty of setup options. "Most clubs fret over this," says Cupp. "They don't want the best players in the world to tear up their course. Conversely, the Tour can't allow a course to thwart their players. It is a balance. What they see in Liberty and what Tom and I know is that great events require great tests of skill. It will be fun." It's inevitable that the Tour's television audience will remember Liberty National for its stunning backdrops.

Visiting golfers will too. Members are likely to be a little more blasé about the familiar views, so it's a good job the course holds up.

This article first appeared in issue 14 of Golf Course Architecture, published in October 2008.

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