How large is the good life at Westchester Country Club? Its 1,500 members and their families and guests enjoy three golf courses, a world-class golf-practice facility, an eight-story clubhouse with 400 rooms, every paddle sport known to man, and not just a swimming pool but an entire 62-acre beach club with 1,000 feet of sand beach on Long Island Sound. It’s easily the largest country club in the county.
As NBC Golf broadcaster Jimmy Roberts says, “It’s grand. They just don’t make places like this anymore.” The Rye resident is a longtime member of WCC and adds, “There’s an intimacy about it, despite the size. It’s a club where you can get close to people.” Roberts, a 13-time Emmy Award winner, believes the golf courses are among the finest he’s seen. “The West Course has true character, perhaps the 18 best green complexes you’ll find on tour.”
A hundred years ago, hotelier John Bowman had a vision. The president of Biltmore Hotels hoped to cap a stellar career by building a planned community for millionaire sportsmen on 583 acres of land in Harrison, purchased from the Hobart Park estate. He added several other parcels, including 62 acres on nearby Manursing Island, in Rye. When it opened in 1922, the community had everything a Golden Age sportsman could want, including golf courses, polo grounds, tennis, stables, boating, swimming, and shooting, a luxurious hotel with both private apartments and guest rooms, and land for private homes that would be serviced by the hotel’s staff.
Money was no object to Bowman, but lack of it proved to be his downfall. By 1929, he had spent more than $6 million to build the facilities (three times his initial $2 million budget) and was more than $6 million in the red, jeopardizing the health of the parent hotel corporation. The members of the club banded together and bought the properties for $5.8 million to preserve their interests and ensure their big slice of heaven would survive.
Golf remains the centerpiece of the club, with two world-class 18-hole courses, a nine-hole par-3 course, and one of the most complete practice and learning facilities anywhere. When John Bowman built the courses, he hired Walter Travis, one of the leading architects of the day, as well as a stellar player who won many major tournaments, including the U.S. Amateur three times. Travis was the first American to win the British Amateur.
The West Course is known as a challenge for even the best players in the game, but its original design was a real monster. When it opened, the course played to par 76 at 6,733 yards, which was a long, long golf course in 1921, when steel-shafted golf clubs were novelties. It also had more than 100 bunkers, including many cross-bunkers that pestered short hitters, which included just about everybody. Today, following extensive renovations by the Fazio Group, the course measures 6,718 yards, par 72, but has 40 fewer bunkers.
Travis intended the South Course to be less difficult, so everyday golfers would have a course to play that wouldn’t break their spirits every time they teed it up. The South retains that purpose today but can be quite challenging. From the tips, the course plays 6,623 yards, nearly as long as the West, with par of 71.
“One unusual feature that Westchester has is two completely different, both very good, golf courses,” according to Director of Golf Ben Hoffhine. “The West Course is hard enough to challenge the best players in the world. The South Course is a challenge from the back tees but is very user-friendly for the shorter-hitting player. The course designs indicate how inclusive the club was meant to be.”
Hoffhine points out that when the club was founded, it had full, bond-holding women members. Today, he says, “Our ladies’ associations have 300 members, and 50 percent of our junior players are girls.” With an eye toward the future, Hoffhine says the club has placed particular emphasis on young golfers. “The goal of our junior program is to expose children to the game so that they will fall in love with it. “We have over 100 kids involved in junior golf every day,” he says. “We’re starting a program for 3-year-olds this year.”
On May 15, 1922, opening day for Westchester Biltmore Country Club was marked by an exhibition match played by the reigning 1921 PGA Champion, Walter Hagen, teamed with “Long Jim” Barnes, who held the 1921 U.S. Open title, earned while serving as head pro at newly opened Pelham CC. They took on WCC’s first head professional, Cuthbert Butchart, and then-amateur Tommy Armour. The “locals” beat the national-headline-makers 2-up.
That same year, in October, the club hosted the concluding half of the “Golf Championship of the World.” The 72-hole contest between Walter Hagen and Gene Sarazen had begun the day before, at Oakmont CC in Pittsburgh, with the two boarding an overnight train for New York to finish the match in Westchester. The pair were inarguably the leading golfers of the day. Hagen was a four-time major winner at that point in his career, including the 1922 British Open. Local hero Sarazen, who was born in Harrison and caddied at the Apawamis Club next door, had won both the U.S. Open and the PGA Championship that year. Sarazen came from behind to top Hagen 3-2 in the 36-hole final, collected his $2,000 prize check, then went to St. Luke’s in Yonkers for an emergency appendectomy.
WCC hosted its first national golf championship in 1923 and its second in 2021. Both were the USGA’s U.S. Women’s Amateur. Underdog Edith Cummings won the 1923 event the week before the Yankees and Giants were to meet in the World Series. Last year, another underdog, Jensen Castle, battled through 36 holes of medal play, three rounds of single-elimination stroke play, and a 36-hole medal-play final match to take home the Robert Cox Cup.
The PGA Tour made Westchester its home for nearly 50 years, beginning with the 1963 Thunderbird Classic, won by Arnold Palmer, and ending with the Senior Players Championship in 2011, where Fred Couples took home the first-place trophy. The club is best known, however, as the venue for the Westchester Classic, which began in 1967 with a win by Jack Nicklaus. An ugly dispute between the club and the PGA Tour marked the beginning of the end when the FedEx Cup was inaugurated by the playing of The Barclays in 2007. Steve Stricker won that event, joining a gallery of Classic winners that included nearly every outstanding player in the game. Vijay Singh won three times; Nicklaus, Sergio Garcia, Ernie Els, and Seve Ballesteros won it twice.
The most recent professional championship to be played at WCC was the 2015 KPMG Women’s PGA Championship, a major formerly known as the LPGA Championship. Inbee Park became only the second player to win the tournament three times in succession, tying Annika Sorenstam.
Westchester CC President Mark Christiana says, “The future of WCC is very bright. We continue to make investments in all areas of our facilities to meet the needs of current and future members.”
The success of the KMPG and the U.S. Women’s Amateur drew the attention of the sport’s governing bodies. It wouldn’t be surprising to see announcements that Westchester Country Club will host more world-class events soon.
Some highlights of the Classic over the years have included a double eagle by Bob Guilder (left) on the closing hole of his third round in 1982. Only the spectators saw him hit the 251-yard three wood, however, since CBS TV’s broadcast of the event had paused for a commercial break just before he hit it. A plaque marks the spot in the fairway of the 9th hole (as members play the course).
Ben Hogan, 58 years old, played his final competitive round at the Classic on July 30, 1970, carding a 78 and withdrawing from the tournament.
J.C. Snead, nephew of Sam Snead and onetime assistant pro at Century CC in Purchase, defeated Seve Ballesteros in a one-hole playoff in 1987. The aggressive Spaniard tried to drive to the green on the short 1st hole (as played by the members) but pulled his shot into an impossible position. Snead calmly played a four iron from the tee to the middle of the fairway, pitched on and won the tournament.