In The Bronx, Oldest Public Golf Course In America
Swinging 18 holes in an urban oasis
Situated between 2 elevated subway lines in the north Bronx, Van Cortlandt Park is home to the country’s oldest public golf course.
“What makes it special is the history. Babe Ruth, Jackie Robinson, Willie Mays, the Three Stooges. They all played here,” says Chris Ryan who manages the venerated facility.
On any given weekday during the season, the course sees 120-200 recreational golfers. On weekends, the numbers can swell to over 300 guests playing through the 6,000-yard course.
‘Vanny’, as the course is affectionately known to locals and regulars, is open all year-round and golf warriors suffering from winter blues are always willing to make the trip as long as the grounds are clear of snow.
“Climate change has been good to us,” laughs Ryan, referring to the recent mild winters that saw club swingers leave their cramped apartments to tee-up in the Bronx fairways.
On a balmy April afternoon, Richard stepped off his golf cart carrying a club ready to take on the 5th hole. “I grew up in New Rochelle and I’ve been playing here since the 1960s,” says the 72-year-old. Today, he lives on the upper West Side and makes the 20-minute trip by car.
A few holes farther down, Ivan is joking with 2 of his buddies, mocking an errant shot that disappeared in the woods.
“It’s cheap and accessible,” says the 30-something who hops on an Uber with his friends from Manhattan whenever they feel the itch to golf. “In my opinion, it’s the best public golf course in the city.”
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Named after the Dutch family that settled on the land in the late 17th Century, Van Cortlandt Park sprawls 1,146 acres and is Gotham’s 3rd largest. The property was sold to the city in 1888.
The brainchild of local businessmen, the golf course opened in 1895 as a nine-hole links. At first, the city balked at the idea of a private course on municipal land, but then settled on a public one with only 2 days a week allotted for private use.
It was an experimental idea that would be followed in other cities. Four years later, Vanny grew to 18 holes with a clubhouse.
Caddies cost 15 cents a round and 25 cents for two. Not surprisingly, large crowds with poor golf etiquette overwhelmed the grounds in the early years, which saw as many as 700 golfers on a Saturday, or Sunday.
The renovation in 1899 was overseen by accomplished golf architect, Thomas Bendelow, who expanded the course from 55 to 120 acres with his signature eye for natural surroundings.
Bendelow’s imprint on Vanny can still be appreciated today as the fairways flow like undulating, tree-lined valleys with no hint that an urban jungle bustles just beyond the park forest.
The Scottish-born designer also introduced management practices such as reserve tee-time, golf instruction, and caddie training, bringing order to the playing chaos at Vanny.
Bendelow went on to design hundreds of golf courses across the country and was known as the ‘Johnny Appleseed of American Golf’. A number of his works were added to the National Register of Historic Places.
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In 1905, Vanny held the nation’s first professional tournament on a public course. Under its column titled ‘Sports Of All Sorts’, The Evening Star, a Washington, DC, newspaper, reported on July 14, 1905:
“For the first time in the history of the United States a professional tournament was begun yesterday on a public links. Fifty-two of the most prominent professional golfers of the Alleghanies started in this tournament over the Van Cortlandt Park links, New York…”
Isaac Mackie walked away with the honors after firing 152 in a ‘double journey’, as The Evening Star referred to the 2-round contest.
Mackie held off runners-up Willie Anderson and Bernard Nicholls who jointly finished with a score of 157.
Two months later, Anderson would claim his 4th U.S. Open victory, placing him first in the pantheon of Bobby Jones, Ben Hogan and Jack Nicklaus.
Over the years, because of its proximity and easy access from Manhattan, Vanny played host to a number of sports figures and show business celebrities.
Reading like a lunch menu at a nostalgic diner, the holes are named after famous people of the day. The lengthy 619-yard, par-5, hole 2 is aptly called ‘The Babe’ after the renowned Yankees slugger.
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Willie Mays and Joe Louis lay claim to holes 6 and 12, respectively, while the lovable Three Stooges- Moe, Larry, Curly- are played on holes 3, 11, and 13.
“We still get Broadway actors and TV personalities who show up,” notes Ryan.
By the 1970s and 80s, Vanny slipped into neglectful disrepair, a victim of New York’s budget woes that impacted most of the city’s municipal parks.
Following a $5 million, 7-year capital improvement project, the course finally got a makeover in 2014 with new greens, a drainage system, and a restored clubhouse.
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The timber-framed clubhouse evokes Vanny's Edwardian roots with vintage golf photos, including action shots of old-time champions Harry Vardon and Jim Barnes.
The pro-shop sells Vanny-themed golf shirts in addition the usual golf accoutrements, and a grill-minibar is open for those who want to relax with food and drinks after coming off the 18-hole challenge.
A patio in the back, which can be rented out for parties, looks out to the picturesque Van Cortlandt Lake. The park’s extensive walking paths, hiking trails, and playing fields are just steps away from the clubhouse.
But the standout feature that transports visitors to golf’s bygone era is the second floor of the clubhouse where rows of original wooden lockers mix in a haze of sunlight under a gabled roof.
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That room served as the backdrop to a scene in Oliver Stone’s 1987 film “Wall Street”, which starred Michael Douglas and Charlie Sheen.
For $60 a year, golfers can still rent out the lockers. “We have old-timers that have been renting out lockers for decades,” Ryan points out.
NYCGolf, the private company that operates Vanny under a 20-year lease, manages 5 other municipal golf courses in the city- Douglaston, Forest Park, Kissena, Flushing Meadows, and Silver Lake. Though, none are as easily accessible by mass transit as Vanny.
While each club has its own unique story, few can match the Three Stooges’ favorite playground in the Bronx.
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