Iconic structure points to the club’s history as an innovator in golf course agronomy September 6, 2013 By Scott Lipsky, USGA

The iconic windmill at the National Golf Links of America sits beside the 16th green, and plays a significant role in the history of the game of golf. (USGA/Chris Keane)

SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. – The National Golf Links of America is one of the most revered clubs in the game, but the first thing that usually comes to mind is not a particular hole, or a unique flagstick. Instead, it is the iconic windmill that sits on the high point of the course beside the 16th green that will easily be the most recognizable feature of the C.B. Macdonald layout when it takes center stage during the Walker Cup.

While some of the details behind the construction have been lost, it is known that a water tower originally sat on the site. According to George Bahto’s The Evangelist of Golf, in 1916, Daniel Pomeroy, an early member of the club and at the time the president of Condé Nast, suggested to Macdonald that a windmill would be a nice touch. In response, Macdonald – who not only designed and built the course but also owned the property on which the club sat – ordered the windmill and had it assembled to enclose the water tower. Whether Pomeroy initially paid for the construction or Macdonald simply passed along the bill to him (there is historical evidence to support both versions of the story), he is credited with gifting it to the club.

The origins of the water tower are unclear, but there is evidence to suggest it was installed during NGLA’s early years. A Golf Illustrated article from 1915 credits the National with being one of the first clubs in the country to have its own watering system, which apparently stemmed from Macdonald’s early frustrations with a particular aspect of the National’s construction.

When it came to the National, everything went according to plan with Macdonald, except for the grassing of the course, said Chris Millard, a contributing editor at Golf World who is working on a book about the history of the club. He could not grow grass. Macdonald spent thousands of dollars and close to two years trying to find the right type of seed that would grow on the sandy soil of Long Island’s East End.

Despite his struggles to get the grass properly established, Macdonald still hosted play at NGLA beginning in 1909, just three years after he bought the property, according to Millard. With the help of Charles V. Piper and Russell A. Oakley from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the proper combination of seed was finally found and the course was opened for play to Macdonald’s satisfaction in 1911. Piper and Oakley would go on to become the first co-chairs of the USGA’s Green Section, which continues to serve the game as a chief authority in turfgrass management.  

The water tower still sits inside the windmill, and a look inside the door reveals that the interior plays an important role in preserving the club’s present as well as its history. The bottom level of the three-story structure is used to store items such as flagsticks, ball washers and maintenance equipment, while the second level contains the original steel pan scrapers that were used in the construction of the course. From both a symbolic and a practical standpoint, the famous windmill next to the 16th hole continues to play a significant role in the history of the National Golf Links of America.

Scott Lipsky is the social media specialist at the USGA. You can contact him at slipsky@usga.org.