BY JOHN STEINBREDER
For aficionados of golf course architecture, few layouts possess the mystique of the one that served as the centerpiece of the old Lido Club.
Part of that is a result of its very short existence. Located on New York’s Long Island and formally opened in spring 1918, the Lido prospered through the Roaring ’20s, with robust membership rolls that included many of the area’s most socially prominent families. But the club struggled mightily through the Great Depression before closing down in 1942 when the U.S. Navy declared the area a strategic defense site in the wake of America entering World War II. A new Lido was constructed on a neighboring site in the post-war years by Robert Trent Jones Sr., and it operates to this day as a public facility. But that course never has enjoyed the cachet or acclaim of its predecessor.
Another reason for the original Lido’s hold on design enthusiasts is the quality of the layout and the stature of the men who created it. Charles Blair Macdonald acted as the lead architect, and he entrusted construction to his chief engineer and protégé, Seth Raynor. Together, they produced a par-72 masterpiece that measured just longer than 6,600 yards from the back markers and featured several of the template holes the designers invariably included in their courses, among them a Biarritz, a Redan, an Eden and a unique Punchbowl/Cape combination.
Perhaps the course’s most notable hole was No. 4. Called Channel and inspired by the 16th at Littlestone Golf Club on the English coast, it included a pair of alternate fairways (one of which was a kidney-shaped island surrounded by a man-made lagoon), two shots over water and a cross bunker some 50 yards in front of the green. Another winner was the 18th, a meaty par-4 that initially was created for a Country Life magazine contest in the U.K. by a budding, 34-year-old course architect named Dr. Alister MacKenzie. Yes, that MacKenzie, of Cypress Point and Augusta National fame. And Macdonald, who had helped conceive of the competition with the great British golf writer Bernard Darwin, liked MacKenzie’s concept so much that he eagerly adapted the design for Lido’s finisher.
Upon completion, the golf course quickly came to be regarded as among the finest in the world, a tough and very strategic track with several forced carries over water and sand and brutally tough rough. Near-constant winds from the nearby Atlantic Ocean only added to the degree of difficulty. Darwin was a big fan and went so far as to say several years after its opening that “the Lido, judged as a battlefield for giants, is the best, not only in America but in the world.”
The layout was certainly a marvel of engineering, a factor that also has captivated the golf world through the decades. Built on a 113-acre parcel of tidal marshland bordering Lido Beach, which today lies just southeast of John F. Kennedy International Airport, it was a landfill project for which Raynor used some 2 million cubic yards of sand from the bottom of nearby Reynolds Channel in its construction. With characteristic immodesty, Macdonald described it as “the most daring experiment of golf course architecture ever conceived.” Not surprisingly, it took four years to finish.
Another part of the Lido’s allure comes from its price, which made it the most expensive course ever built at the time. While the cost of constructing an 18-hole layout on a mostly rock-free site back then might have been $50,000, the Lido project came in at $1.43 million.
In his biography on Macdonald titled The Evangelist of Golf, author George Bahto captured the sheer audacity of the endeavor when he wrote that the architect received “a blank check and a blank canvas.” That certainly seems to be the case, and reviews of Lido at its opening, which occurred only a few years after Macdonald and Raynor had collaborated on the National Golf Links of America, indicate they were more than up to the task.
Given those elements, it’s little wonder that the Lido’s aura has remained strong through the decades. To many in the game, the course is golf’s equivalent of the Lost City of Atlantis. And they have long pined for its rediscovery.
But unlike Atlantis, which is considered by most historians to be only a literary creation of Plato’s, the Lido really did exist. And thanks to the vision of developers Michael and Chris Keiser; the deft eye of designer Tom Doak; and the digital modeling skills of Peter Flory, a course architecture hobbyist, it is being brought back to life at the Sand Valley Golf Resort in central Wisconsin.
“We are restoring the Lido,” said Michael Keiser. “We are rebuilding it as it originally was.”
Construction already has begun, and the plan is for this Lido to open for preview play in 2022 – and to come fully online the following season.
Once that happens, the Keiser brothers, whose father Mike founded Bandon Dunes, will have recreated the most epic ghost course in North America. They also will have given golfers a chance to do more than just wonder what the Lido was really like. They will be able to play it.
“I have been adamant that no project should be called the Lido unless it was a faithful re-creation of the original course.”
Doak remembers talk about recreating Lido first surfacing with the Keisers about 15 years ago, when he was working on the design for the Old Macdonald layout at Bandon Dunes. That course, which opened in 2010, was conceived as something of a tribute track to the iconic architect, and the biographer Bahto was among those who consulted on the job. “George pitched the Lido idea to Mike, and while we were all intrigued, we eventually concluded that the site at Bandon did not really fit,” said Doak. “While we could certainly build the holes from Lido on the property we had, we could not build the actual course. So, Mike dropped the idea.”
It resurfaced several years later after Michael and Chris Keiser established Sand Valley on a vast tree farm that was covered by acres of red pines and blessed with sandy soil. First, Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw built a lovely, inland links called Sand Valley. That opened in 2017 and soon after, David McLay Kidd produced an equally enticing layout in Mammoth Dunes. Next, Michael and Chris asked Doak to fashion a third course at the resort. Named Sedge Valley, it would be somewhat smaller in scale and evoke traditional English courses like Rye, West Sussex and Swinley Forest.
Then came COVID-19, however, and suddenly the construction and operation of another purely public-access golf course was not so viable financially. As a result, the Keisers put Sedge Valley on hold.
But an alternative idea quickly emerged, and that was to finally take on the Lido project, creating a private club around it that also offered weekday access for Sand Valley resort guests.
But what really made that a possibility was the discovery of a site at Sand Valley that was as flat as the land on which the original Lido was built. It even had the same wind lines as the Long Island location.
“Michael asked me if I might be interested in building the Lido on that terrain, and I said yes,” explained Doak. “But only if we had enough information to do it authentically.”
Enter Peter Flory.
A scratch golfer now 45 years of age, Flory ran a consulting company in Chicago for many years that focused on the acquisition of distressed banks. “But business started to slow down a couple of years ago, and I got more and more into digital golf course design,” he said. “I loved old courses and drawing my own hole and course designs.”
With newfound time on his hands, Flory began to create golf courses on his computer at his home. “Eventually, I hit on the idea of designing the Lido,” he explained. “People had only a fragmented sense of the course and what it was really like. So, I tried to educate myself by gathering what I could in the way of articles and photographs. Then, I started asking people on Golf Club Atlas for anything they had.”
Eventually, he accumulated enough data to begin “designing” the old course, sharing his progress on the GCA site, which architecture buffs visit frequently, and amassing even more information. A turning point was getting images and information that allowed Flory to see Lido in more of a 3D form.
“That was the key,” says Michael Keiser. “It made it possible for us to accurately restore the golf course.”
It is also what compelled Doak to reach out to Flory on a phone call – and then take on the project when the Keiser brothers decided to proceed.
“I have been adamant that no project should be called the Lido unless it was a faithful re-creation of the original course,” Doak explained. “And I doubted that anyone could gather enough information about the course to do it. But when I saw what Peter Flory had done, I changed my mind. We now have the information as well as the will to rebuild the course the way it was, and my team can supply the talent and enthusiasm to build it in every detail.
“So, I am no longer a skeptic. I would not have signed up for the project unless I was confident we could make it happen.”
Keiser is confident as well – and very excited about the prospects of doing so. “Lido really was the perfect golf course,” he said. “And the more I learned about it, the more it sucked me in.”
According to Keiser, the greens, fairways and tees at the modern Lido will be exactly like those at the original. So will the micro-undulations on the flattish site – thanks to the details that Flory was able to produce in his digital model – and the lagoon between the fourth and 12th holes. The only design deviation will be the creation of some spacing between the holes, largely to ensure the safety of golfers (as the original Lido was quite compact). And Doak will add some back tees that will allow the resort to stretch the course out to just longer than 7,000 yards.
The Lido initially was designed to be a tough course, and this modern version will have plenty of teeth.
“It will bite you if you end up in the wrong spots,” Keiser explained, adding that this is exactly the sort of layout he and his family have avoided building at Bandon as well as Sand Valley. Those cater largely to what he calls “the retail golfer,” who is generally looking for something less challenging. But Keiser believes the Lido will work just fine as a private club populated mostly with golfers who have a passion for the work of Macdonald and Raynor – and who ache to play a course that for the past 80 years has existed only in their imaginations.
“Mystique is certainly part of attraction,” said Keiser. “But what is really driving us is the quality of the golf holes and how they come together as a routing.”
It cannot open soon enough.
Background image: A computer-generated view of the Channel hole
On the cover: A computer-generated rendering of No. 18 at the Lido