Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to brave subways, cabs, ferries, commuter lines, and crowded highways — all in pursuit of 18 holes of golf in New York City.
New Yorkers don’t have it easy. Rent is high. The hours are long. Space is limited. And when the realities of a terrorist attack or a pandemic hit, a round of golf seems insignificant.
But New Yorkers are different. To them, challenges aren’t problems so much as they are opportunities.
You have to jump through so many hoops just to play a round of golf, which then takes you six hoursKyle Senatore
Between the five boroughs, there are fifteen municipal golf courses. The only borough lacking is Manhattan, which is home to zero golf courses, one driving range, and a handful (but growing) number of indoor golf simulators.
And while the New York metro area is home to some of America’s most famous courses, like Shinnecock or National Golf Links in the Hamptons, Baltusrol in New Jersey, or Winged Foot north of the city, the only time most golfers will ever set foot on their hallowed grounds will be when they host a PGA event. Some dedicated New Yorkers might trek out to Bethpage on Long Island—about an hour and forty-five minutes east by train—but even then, tee times are limited and expensive. Even the “people’s country club” has its limits.
“You have to jump through so many hoops just to play a round of golf, which then takes you six hours,” says Kyle Senatore, an instructor at The Turn indoor golf facility in Midtown Manhattan, and a lifelong New York golfer himself. Indoor facilities like The Turn or Five Iron have grown in recent years because, as he explains, “nobody has time to go anywhere during the week.”
“It requires so much effort. It takes up a full day just to get out and play one round. The transportation—whether it’s a train, or cab, or Uber, you know, you’re looking at thirty minutes to an hour commute easily, and that’s just one way.”
Put a little more directly, Senatore says, “public golf in New York is a pain in the ass. But everyone is willing to do it, and city players are probably the most committed to getting out.”
Think of it this way. Imagine you are one of the 9-ish million people living in New York City. Monday through Friday, you’re up early, and working until at least 6PM, probably much later. For the most part, there is no golf around you. No course that’s a twenty-minute drive. Also, you probably don’t have a car. So, actually nothing is a twenty-minute drive. But you have a MetroCard. And 15 municipal courses to choose from, which may seem like a lot, until you realize that 15 courses are being divided up by tens of thousands of golfers, and very few are directly accessible by the Subway. So, to get out, you need to be dedicated. More than dedicated, you need to be driven. You need to be obsessed.
In other words, you need the traits of a New Yorker.
For Paul Sliva, the head pro at Van Cortlandt Golf Course in the Bronx, New York City golf is all about community. Sliva has been at “Vanny” since 1999 and is “on a first name basis with about 30,000 people,” as he says. He grew in Kingsbridge, about five minutes from the course, and played it for the first time when he was about 11 or 12. That was in the 1970s, when “rough would be a nice description” of New York City at the time.
Van Cortlandt is New York City’s most accessible course. For New Yorkers, its name is synonymous with the 1 Train. Van Cortlandt Park is the northernmost stop on the train that runs all the way down to the southern tip of Manhattan. The train itself could be an embodiment of New York City—it covers wealthy neighborhoods, poor neighborhoods, and has riders of all colors and ages—but when they step into the Subway car, they are literally all in it together. Kind of like Vanny.
“It’s so classically New York,” Sliva says. “A complete cross-section of everything we are. You have seriously wealthy guys playing with blue-collar guys. You have ladies who regularly play with firemen. It’s absolutely a cross-section. You’re just players at that time of day.” In other words, it’s a community.
Sliva can remember where he was when he felt that community come together.
“I was standing on the 7th tee when the first plane hit,” he said. “One of the guys’ wives called.”
The 7th hole at Van Cortlandt Park is a long, downhill Par 3, about 222 yards from the back tees. It’s the highest point of the front nine. Paul and his friends must have been able to see nearly every player on the previous four holes, golfers that were all New Yorkers like them, enjoying a beautiful Tuesday morning and one another’s company. And like so many that morning, Paul and his friends must have figured the first plane hitting was a tragic, but accidental, plane crash.
Two holes later, as they were about to tee off on the Par 4 9th hole, she called back. “She called to say another plane had hit—we were under attack.”Paul Silva
“We had not finished teeing off when the F14’s came over the tree tops.”
The course, buzzing on a cloudless September morning, emptied out. Nearly 50 golfers gathered in the Van Cortlandt Park clubhouse, which has lockers that once belonged to the likes of Willie Mays, Babe Ruth, and the Three Stooges. The lockers now held the belongings of golfers worried about the fates of their family, their friends, and their fellow New Yorkers.
“In New York you can live in a building your entire life and not know who lives next to you. This was the first time I’d ever seen New Yorkers, total strangers, truly be a family.”Paul Silva
About 12 miles south, David Beltre, now Chelsea Piers Golf Club’s general manager, was driving down the West Side Highway when the first plane hit.
“By four or five o’clock the FBI was using our facilities as satellite offices.”
Chelsea Piers is Manhattan’s only outdoor driving range, made up of four tiers, open 6AM to midnight, and has become somewhat of a New York institution. Beltre says in a year, golfers hit about 16.5 million golf balls at Chelsea Piers—the most he’s seen at any range in the world.
And while 9/11 rocked lower Manhattan, Chelsea Piers’ itself was spared. “We shut down for 2 weeks,” Beltre says. “People slowly came back. They used the range as a home base to retain some kind of normalcy.” Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case 11 years later when Hurricane Sandy hit. As he says, “we’ve been through a lot.”
Chelsea Piers is on the water, located on Pier 60 on Manhattan’s west side—about 28 blocks south of the Intrepid. When you hit off one of the four tiers, you are looking out onto the Hudson River that separates New York and New Jersey.
“There was five and half feet of water on the first level.” The range itself was submerged. That was on October 29, 2012. After months, and millions, in renovations, Chelsea Piers reopened on December 15th that same year. “When we came back, so did our players. For them, it’s an outlet. It’s a therapy. We can provide a sense of normalcy. A community.”
But right now, that community is on pause. Van Cortlandt Park is closed. So is Chelsea Piers, and all of the indoor facilities, too. In the last two months, New York City has faced more uncertainty, and endured more death, than any time in recent history. More than 16,000 people have died of COVID-19 in New York City alone. By the time you read this, that number will have gone up. The city that never sleeps is on life support.
Golf is just a game. But it brings us together, and the community it creates matters. It especially matters in New York City, where isolation can define the day even in normal times. It forces players to brave harrowing commutes, long rounds, and often less than desirable playing conditions—together. It’s not 17 Mile Drive, or Pinehurst, or Bandon. It’s New York City. And for the people that live there and play there, they wouldn’t have it any other way.
Golf will come back in New York City—and when it does, it will help bring New Yorkers together again.
Will welcoming non-golfers via on course walking paths help grow the game?
Tim Barnicle is a native of Lincoln, Massachusetts. He has worked in podcasts, television, music, and politics. In other words, entertainment. He has a B.A. from Georgetown University and a M.A. from Columbia University. He’s currently pursuing a PhD at Harvard University studying American culture. Tim has one Ace—a one bounce pitching wedge on the 8th hole at Rustic Canyon in Moorpark, CA.