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“The Hard Truth About The Lido”
Golfers Journal, Autumn 2021




Written by
BRETT CYRGALIS


The tee time wasn’t until Friday, so with a few free hours on Wednesday, I went down to see something with my own eyes for the first time.

I had played Lido Golf Club a lot growing up, first with my dad when I was learning the game as a teenager, then occasionally in practice rounds with my high school golf team.  It is down on the south shore of Long Island, on the north side of a barrier island just west of Jones Beach and just east of the Rockaways.  It is dead flat, but has some nice holes along Reynolds Channel and some real tough ones around internal ponds and marsh.  That’s what I see now, when back then all I did was complain about the goose shit and the slow greens.  I was always good at petulance. 

It took a while before I cared enough to find out about the history.  The sign out front read “1914,” but that was a lie.  What started in 1914 was construction on a golf course that Gil Hanse later described to me as “the white whale.”  It was known as The Lido Resort, a C.B. Macdonald design that stretched from the beach along the Atlantic Ocean in the south up to the channel in the north, playing along two distinctly different bodies of water.
 Macdonald and his team, including Seth Raynor, dredged almost two million cubic yards of dirt and sand from the channel and moved it onto the marshy land to create a blank canvas upon which to craft the ideal golf course.  There was a massive hotel with two artfully spired domes, tennis courts, and cabanas along the beach.  The course had all the template holes to make the historians quiver, and the old praise seemed hyperbolic.  Bernard Darwin called it “the finest golf course in the world,” and Claude Harmon said it was “the greatest golf course — ever.”

But the Depression came and wiped away the holes on the beach.  Then World War II came and the Navy took over the course for training, and it never reopened.

What did open in 1948 was the current golf course, a Robert Trent Jones piece — we’ll leave out the “master” prefix.  It is on land just east of the old property, and doesn’t go south of Lido Boulevard, which used to split the old course like an equator.  I had memories of my own at this new place, so going down there to play felt like a short step back in time for me, with a greater step back not too far away.  Funny how that proximity can feel so meaningful.




The new course was actually a joy in the winter, when most places in the northeast are bundled up for hibernation.  Lido never aerated, and they still have the best winter greens anywhere on Long Island.  (Not much different than their summer greens.)  The wind whips off the water, sometimes to extremes, and when the marshy soil gets a few good freezes underneath its belt, the ground can actually play fast and firm. 

I would tell people about it, and they would seem interested but rarely join me.  Surprisingly, I had two takers for a Friday in mid-December, when it was going to reach a high of 50 degrees.  With the pandemic surging and the holidays around the corner, a day out there seemed heaven-sent for all of us. 

Yet for all I had talked about the Lido and its history over the past two decades, I had never actually seen the dunes where some of the old golf holes were.  So on Wednesday I made the trek down the Meadowbrook to Loop Parkway, down Lido Boulevard just passed the current course, and swung a left into the parking lot for Lido Beach West Town Park.  As I went through the unattended security gate, there was a wispy, wet snow falling.  A few other cars were parked in the lot.  What were they doing here?  What was I doing here? 

I pulled up a screenshot of the old course laid over the current map — taken from the terrific segment that Golf Channel produced about the old Lido just before the 2019 PGA Championship at Bethpage — and followed it to the end of the parking lot.  I then drove down a little path to a small opening in the dunes.  I parked and got out.  There on the ground was a memorial, stones and shells scattered in a semicircle.  Next to some frozen flowers was a plaque for 1st Lieutenant Michael L. LiCalzi, USMC.  He was 24 years old when he died in Iraq in 2006.

I had played golf with his twin brother two weeks before.

***







Golfers are far more predisposed to nostalgia than the average sportsman.  If you’ve ever walked down an ancient fairway and not thought about the footsteps in which you follow, you are in the minority.  You can’t repaint the Sistine Chapel, but you still have to carry Hell Bunker.

When I went searching for the remnants of golf history, I got hit with something quite different.  The Lido is remembered in sepia tones, a wistful piece of history and a small bit of abstract longing for what could still be there.  But this monument was raw, it was immediate.  It had colors and life and feeling.  Both deaths were part of worldwide happenings, but suddenly losing a golf course didn’t seem all that important.

I played in my club’s annual Turkey Shoot with Greg LiCalzi, as nice a guy as you’ll ever meet with a beautiful family and a less beautiful golf swing.  We missed finishing in the money by one shot.  He and his brother grew up in Garden City, two years in front of me at Chaminade High School.  Mike went to the Naval Academy, then to Camp Lejeune, then Fort Knox for tanker school, where he graduated first in his class.  Then to Al Anbar Province, where less six weeks went by before he was killed along with three other soldiers in his unit — the oldest of whom was 22, the youngest just 20 and already a father.  I have a belt with Mike’s name on it, next to an American flag and an image of the Twin Towers.

The two brothers used to go down to this beach, called Lido West, and Greg would hang out while Mike surfed.  Right next to the memorial is an outdoor shower and tall surfboard holders pockmarked with stickers.  A few years ago, a new wood walkway was built to get down to the beach.  Halfway down the walk, look left and the dunes create a little alleyway, rising on either side with gentle humps and dells in between.  That was the Biarritz.  To the right was the eighteenth green, which was the first hole in the United States designed by Alister MacKenzie after his drawing for the tri-option par-4 won a contest in Country Life magazine in 1914.  Oddly enough, from there you would have to walk around the ninth green to get to the hotel, which still stands in its Depression-era elegance, converted into beachside condos.








As the snow lightly flittered, I walked into the weather-hardened dunes, carefully avoiding the newly planted bitter panicum [cq] grasses and the half-buried fences, there to mitigate erosion.  I wanted to know what it felt like to stand in the same place that a century ago was so revered.  I squinted, and thought about flighting a 3-iron to the front of the Biarritz, hoping it was firm enough to get through the swale and to the back pin.  I walked closer to where the green was, hoping to find a discarded Haskell or maybe a Vardon Flyer.  I thought I saw one, too, in a flat area where seagulls dropped clamshells en masse.  But it turned out to be a ping pong ball, sitting next to a faded red plastic cup and a Bud Lite can.  Deeper in the dunes, down in a swale that could have given comfort to sheep on a cold Scottish day, was an old, faded Budweiser tallboy.  Comfort comes in different shapes and sizes.

On the way out, I dropped a couple bucks in a metal box above the memorial.  In 2008, Greg founded the Ace in the Hole Foundation in honor of his brother, with the proceeds having a special emphasis on the Second Tank Battalion of the Marine Corps, Mike’s old unit.  They do a two-mile beach run every year around May, and I need to get in shape not to embarrass myself in front of a bunch of Marines.


***




Two days later, the ground at the Lido Golf Club was still trying to absorb the little bit of rain that followed the light snow.  It didn’t have the wintery teeth it normally does, instead spinning back drivers in the fairway and — somebody warn Bubba Watson — leaving mudballs.  (“Mudball! MUDBALL!”)

The golf course itself is largely unchanged in the 20 years that I’ve known it, but it’s not quite the same place.  In 1997, the year I started playing golf at age 13, a management group known as Double Eagle took over running the facility for the Town of Hempstead, which owned the land.  But in 2017, with a change in the local political landscape and some overriding cronyism, the town declined Double Eagle’s winning bid and decided to run it for themselves.  Now there is no liquor license for the small bar, no food concession for the built-in barbecue near the putting green, and business for outings has become non-existent.  The second floor dining room which looks out over the course and has a long view of the channel is home to cobwebs and not much else.

“It’s a tragedy,” said one person familiar with the situation.  “It’s like they threw the baby out with the bathwater.”




I explained this to the two men who braved traffic out of the city to join.  First was Jofie Ferrari-Adler, the stupendous book editor at Simon & Schuster who humbled me in publishing Golf’s Holy War in May 2020.  He brought along the affable literary agent and urban golfing companion, Farley Chase.  As we chipped and waited our turn to tee off, a man in a Yankees windbreaker, old jeans and sneakers approached and asked if he could round out our foursome.  His name was John, and he wore a hat that said only “158” on the front — his old ladder in the FDNY, based out of Springfield Garden, Queens.   

John was like so many public-course golfers I had grown up around.  He had a cheap cigar he waited until the tenth tee to unsheathe, accompaniment to a couple of beers in his bag.  It reminded me of the time I played Douglaston with my dad, first off at 7 a.m., and the guy who joined us drank a six pack of Bud and ate three full-size Snickers.  I was 15, and he offered me one of each.



The memories kept coming as I went to the back tee, which for the past few years has been covered in rusting pipes.  Yellow tees on Nos. 2 through 18, only.  I told Jofie about the one time I played by myself into a winter gale and hit driver, 2-iron, 2-iron, short of the first green, which stretches back to be a 470-yard par-5.  This day, I hit driver, 7-iron, pin high.  On that same blustery, lonesome day, I turned in the other direction and drove the third green with an Olimar 4-wood, from 358 yards.  This time, 2-iron, 6-iron put me short of the greenside bunker left.

The fifth is a nice little par-3 that plays along the bulkhead where I’ve seen turtles protecting their eggs and where the fat seagulls feast on fish.  The sixth has always been confounding, even before they turned that soggy land left of the fairway into a pond.  The stream that cuts across the ninth fairway wasn’t there when I was younger, and for some reason they took out the little monument for a local guy that was behind the twelfth green.  Thirteen is still a dazzler, going the other way along the bulkhead with a back tee coming out of a chute between some tall reeds and water lapping against the rocks.  They finally replanted the fourteenth tee box, getting rid of the crabgrass that occupied it forever.




Everybody leaves speaking of sixteen, which was Trent Jones’ truncated replication of Macdonald’s famous “Channel Hole.”  It was atop a 2003 list in the New York Post for local golf holes that need to be “blown up with dynamite.” It has a fairway shaped like a “Y” that is essentially an island.  John alone sent four balls to their watery grave.  The town used to hire a scuba diver to go down into the water at least once a year to fish out all the balls, and they sold better than any new balls in the pro shop.

The penultimate hole is a great par-3 over the corner of that same body of water.  Maybe the first winter round I played down there was with my dad, both of us in full winter coats.  We weren’t too familiar with the course, and the ree

ds had grown so high that we couldn’t see the seventeenth green.  We laughed our way in, and still laugh about it now.

The aiming point for the drive on eighteen has always been the two spires of the old hotel, as good a time as any to start telling the story of the old golf course.  But with the sun low in the afternoon and into the prevailing wind, good luck spotting the tee shot.  We found Jofie’s on the right side of the fairway, and he then hit a 3-wood left near a rusted white tank.  Farley had unintentionally played down the first hole, way left, and met us at the green. 

If the ghosts were watching, they must have laughed at us touching elbows after we holed out.


***




The old Channel Hole is now mostly covered by Long Beach High School, a hulking concrete building raised on stilts with ground-level parking.  I used to hear stories about that school, where bad kids would roll apples on tabletops so as not to break the skin but turn the inside to mush, and then they’d toss them like grenades at the overhanging faculty lookout in the cafeteria.  The green would have been just on the other side of the high school, where there was a house going up with floor-to-ceiling windows to take advantage of the view.

“Do you even think the homeowners know, or care?” messaged Brian Schneider, who is the Senior Design Associate under Tom Doak at Renaissance Golf. 

I was chatting with Schneider because he had posted some pictures on Twitter of the area, including where The Short had been, now a baseball field.  Turns out he and Doak were preparing to build a recreation of The Lido with Mike Keiser out in Wisconsin.  Did you know they almost did that for the fourth course at Bandon Dunes, but the land was so interesting — rather than flat, like the original Lido — that they built Old Macdonald instead?  In an email, Keiser called the new project “a restoration,” even though there was no existing course being worked on and it was 1,000 miles from Long Island.  Asked why he used that word, and Keiser responded, “It’s the verb that fits best!”




They were just a little bit behind Gil Hanse, who built “a Lido” in Thailand called Ballyshear, which was set to open in the summer of 2021.  The property was a different shape than the original Lido, but the course had the exact same sequence of template holes, and the scale of the hazards were as close as could be approximated.  Had obsession with template holes now made "doing a Lido” the template golf course, especially on flat land?  Hell, the Lido was even digitally recreated in a video game, PGA Tour 2K21.

“What adds to that mystique is that it’s no longer here,” Hanse said.

A lot of great things are no longer here, but they still echo.  Look close enough, and you can still see some of those old holes.  Listen close enough, and you can still hear the sound of persimmon on gutta percha.  In a moment of focus, the din of modernity can soften, and then you’re a part of the story.

“History is about people, and history is human,” the author and historian David McCullough said a few years back.  “It’s a marvelous antidote to the hubris of the present.”