Course Name: Shelter Island Country Club
Designer: Wesley Smith (1901)
Location: Shelter Island Heights, New York
History: Shelter Island Country Club opened in 1901 laid out by its groundskeeper and amateur architect Wesley Smith. The course itself, affectionately known as “Goat Hill” to locals, is basically unchanged from this primitive and wild design. Shelter Island was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2009 and operates as a semi-private Club.
Conditions: 3/10, Shelter Island gets credit for playing firm and fast, but is essentially full of hardpan fairways, rare yet overgrown bunkers, and barren teeboxes. The greens, while slow, roll true and are likely the only part of the course that is maintained. Traditionalists will love watching their ball roll and ricochet on these wild fairways, but I cannot give the conditioning a high score here.
Value: 7/10, Although semi-private, Shelter Island offers great deals for the general public at $20 on weekends and $15 on weekdays.
Tee Par Yardage Rating Slope
White 32 2512 32.4 107
Red 33 2103 32.3 101
Hole Descriptions: I’ve played Tobacco Road, I’ve played Wolf Creek, I’ve played a number of nontraditional courses, but I’m not sure I’ve ever played a course as polarizing as Shelter Island. As a 9 hole par 32 with four par threes (including a string of three in a row) and five par fours, this routing is unconventional to say the least over one of the most dramatic and wild hilly terrains I’ve ever seen. With completely blind shots on no fewer than 7 of the 9 holes and several featuring multiple blind shots, Shelter Island is one of the most difficult courses relative to par I’ve played. This is especially true the first time as you’re hitting into false flags that only serve a purpose to show you the correct aiming point. If any designer laid out this design today, they would be fired on the spot, but there’s something incredibly endearing and quirky about Shelter Island that I can’t ignore. The variety on display in just 9 holes is far superior to that on many 18-hole courses, and it’s truly hard to imagine a better hickory course. While this course will be hated by a fair share of golfers that play it, I certainly hope to play here a second time in the future and really hope to pair it with nearby Seth Raynor’s Gardiner’s Bay for an epic 27-hole day. Speaking of which, I can’t help but draw the parallels to Shelter Island and nearby Fisher’s Island with its “Big” and “Little” Clubs.
After a ferry ride to build your excitement, the opening hole features the most beautiful and exhilarating teeshot on the course as a downhill 350 yard par 4. With the teebox at the top of a hill adjacent to the clubhouse, you can see Little Peconic Bay in the distance as you swing for a firm, right-to-left sloping fairway with OB right. What I thought was the flag is actually at the top of the fairway plateau about 50 yards short of the hidden, back-to-front sloped circular green.
Playing along busy West Neck Road, the 407 yard par 4 2nd is the longest hole at Shelter Island and a legitimate hole. Playing straightaway with OB right and trees on both sides, this hole features a completely blind approach to a shallow, front-to-back sloped green with numerous internal contours. Because so many golfers will need mid-iron or longer in, the Goat Hill veteran knows to keep this approach short and let it run onto the green.
The 305 yard par 4 3rd hole runs parallel to the 2nd but plays uphill and is only reachable for the longest of hitters. Again playing straightaway, this hole features a semi-blind teeshot to a generous fairway that plateaus and then levels out. This oval-shaped green plays steeply back right-to-front left with no surrounding danger.
At 226 yards, I initially thought the 4th hole was a par 4, but was shocked to discover it was a par 3. I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say this might be the most difficult and unfair par 3 I’ve ever played. This teeshot is completely blind and plays directly into a steep mountain. At about 165 yards, this mountain peaks with a strange walkway of shells and then plays directly downhill for the remaining 60 yards. For a hole of such length and blindness, this green is remarkably small and steeply slopes right-to-left with OB long. Not waiting for the bell to ring could be a fatal mistake here!
The 5th is the first of two non-blind holes at Shelter Island as an 157 yard par 3. Although the shortest and “easiest” hole on the course, this hole is no breeze with a downhill teeshot set at an awkward angle to a severely left-to-right sloping green. Due to the surrounding trees, I found it difficult to judge the wind and elevation here. This hole notably features the only bunker I could find at Goat Hill, but it was pretty overgrown with grass and calling it a bunker would be libelous.
The third par 3 in a row, the 6th hole plays downhill at 183 yards. From the teebox, you can barely see the top of the flag, as this relatively flat green sits in a swale well below the fairway.
At 380 yards, the par 4 7th hole is a deserving number 1 handicap. Although it plays straightaway, this hole features two blind shots with an uphill teeshot over a plateau and a green that’s hidden until the final 50 yards or so at the bottom of the hill. OB lines the right side the entire way with the fairway sloping left-to-right. This green is quite intriguing with a square shape and surrounding rough that is MacRaynor-esque.
Running parallel to the 7th, the par 4 8th hole plays very similarly with two blind shots but is only 303 yards. Featuring an immediately blind uphill teeshot to a severely right-to-left sloping fairway, this hole continues uphill until dropping down and to the left towards the green. Don’t go long here due to a steep slope behind the green.
In terms of traditional architecture, the 9th hole is probably the best hole at Shelter Island and the most memorable. Another very difficult par 3, this 201 yard one-shotter plays uphill over a valley of rough to an elevated green defended by a steep false front and steep backstop of rough. This is a truly stunning hole.
General Comments: Despite the small property and primitive course, Shelter Island found room for an irons-only driving range, practice green, and a beautiful Colonial Revival-style clubhouse that sits prominently on top of the hill. Pace of play was average at best and this quickly becomes unsafe given how many blind shots there are. On the 7th hole, a group behind us hit into us, refused to apologize, then had the gall to skip ahead to the 9th hole and later complain to the Pro shop. Apparently they were members and felt they could treat guests like that. Newsflash buddy, this is Shelter Island, not Shinnecock!
Verdict: Wonderfully quirky, old-school, and surprisingly challenging, Shelter Island A.K.A. Goat Hill is a step back in time for the golfer. While this won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, the wackiness and variety alone make this a worthy stop for this who appreciate interesting golf architecture.