'Backbreaker Sundays' part of Dyker Beach's Brooklyn attitude

By Chris Baldwin, Contributor

BROOKLYN - Eddie Kwan felt like he was serving his golf ball to Andy Roddick. The ball kept coming back to him, harder and harder, at worse and worse angles. Not exactly what you expect in a leisurely Sunday round.

As the ball rolled back off the fifth green yet again, Kwan could only shake his head. Everyone knows life, and especially golf, isn't fair, but this was getting ridiculous. Heck, it had passed ridiculous three putts ago.

"I don't know what's up with these pin placements today," Kwan said. "Crazy. Just crazy."

Kwan might as well have been one of Paul Newman's marks in The Color of Money. For he had unwittingly stumbled upon Dyker Beach Golf Course's Backbreaker Sundays. This is when the Brooklyn institution places its flags in the most difficult spots possible on the greens.

Some Dyker Beach regulars live to putt on Sundays. Others avoid the backbreakers at all costs. "All right, I'll clean out the garage, honey. Just don't make me play golf."

And then are the golfers like Kwan who have no idea what they're getting into.

"I've played here a number of times before during the week and it's never been like this," Kwan said, shaking his head.

Ah, the innocents. Dyker Beach changes its pin placements every day to reduce the wear and tear on one of the busiest golf courses in the country. There is a population of eight million in New York's five boroughs. Dyker Beach is one of the few real courses that's a relatively easy subway ride away from many of them. The math is easy, adding up to 80,000 rounds played per year on average (this in a northern climate where it's often not possible to play year round).

Every golf nut and his buddy have been here, building up a storied past fit for both the History Channel and Court TV. The late baseball Hall-of-Famer Pee Wee Reese used to be a regular, back when he was playing for the nearby Brooklyn Dodgers. In the one infamous 1990s stretch, the FBI became a regular, searching for bodies around the sixth hole.

Yes, you too could be raking over Jimmy Hoffa's cousin!

Of course that was back when the neighborhood was a little different than it is now. There was a time in the late 1980s and early 1990s when burnt-out automobile shells used to end up on the fairways over night. Hey, there are not a lot of places as conveniently dark and empty to dump big problems in Brooklyn as a golf course at night.

It has all changed now though. A cleaned up neighborhood and a new management company (the giant American Golf Corporation) have allowed a dedicated staff to return Dyker Beach to its glory days. Now it is one of the most coveted rounds in the city, a place where sanitation workers and stock brokers alike get in their golf fix.

Charles Pepio has been playing here long enough and well enough to have collected holes-in-one on three of the four par 3s. Retired now, he lives across the street and still chases his Moby Dick -- that fourth par 3 -- two to three times a week.

"I've been on this golf course for 35 years and I still see some of the same faces,'' Pepio said. "These guys don't ever leave."

Dyker Beach isn't paradise, but it easy to see how it can get a hold over a golfer. It is a course without gimmicks or a fancy PR campaign behind it. It just presents decent challenges in a honest, sometimes surprisingly picturesque fashion.

On a clear day, you can see the Verrazano Bridge -- the most underrated of New York's suspension bridges -- from the 7th hole. It is sight to behold, but this is not the place to get distracted. Not if you're looking to post a decent number. The seventh is a 423-yard, uphill par-4 that can play with your mind. Shooting up the hill adds an extra 20-30 yards in distance that you will not find on any yardage marker.

After the beauty of the Verrazano on the 7th, you get the view of an ugly highway sign on the eighth. This is how it goes at Dyker Beach. Whenever you forget you are in midst of one of the largest cities in the world, and you can forget on a few holes, reality is waiting around the bend.

This is not a course with a particular theme. The long-forgotten architect simply made use of the natural surroundings, which are surprisingly varied for a city course. So on the 461-yard par-5 15th, you are suddenly battling a long fairway filled with hills and dips.

The closing stretch is the strength of Dyker Beach, particularly the 211-yard, par-3 17th, which has left more than one golfer feeling like Captain Ahab. And not chasing a hole-in-one. Chasing par. It hugs the trees on the left side off the tee, forcing a golfer to go right immediately. Then, it is an uphill approach to an elevated green guarded by decent-sized bunkers on both sides. When the pin is placed on the edge of green, like it is on this Backbreaker Sunday, survive and move on is the optimum strategy.

"The 17th is one little tough par 3," said Matt Glynn of Brooklyn, one of the golfers who relishes Backbreaker Sundays. "Actually it's not that little for a par 3."

Dyker Beach can surprise you like that. You expect the course to be urban. You expect it to be run down. Instead you get a track with plenty of trees and extremely playable fairway lies. The course superintendent is known for arriving at 4 most mornings and staying till 6 at night, the better to battle the effect of all those feet.

"Most of the people who do work here are golfers," Mike Spano of the operations department said. "And they keep it in the condition that they would want to play it. It's very important to them."

Dyker Beach is very important to a lot of people, a rare golf oasis in a sea of New York concrete, a character from the very beginning.

The Verdict

Dyker Beach may be the best course you find on a subway ride from New York City. It is certainly the best with the least attitude. Its staff is largely a collection of regular working guys retired from other jobs and it shows. These aren't golf industry insiders. They're just golf fanatics. They are here because they love the game, they love their course and they want everyone else to enjoy it.

On a non-Backbreaker Sunday, Dyker Beach isn't the most challenging course. It measures only 6,538 yards from the back tees and many of its holes are straightforward. Still it is an enjoyable, honest test of golf. This isn't the place to go if you have to wowed by vistas during your golf round. There is nothing designer about it, no manufactured ponds or unnatural-looking bunkers.

It almost comes across as stripped down golf in today's age. With so many marquee courses that look better in a postcard than they play though, it can make for a very refreshing change. There is something pure about this little course, something worth experiencing.

Places to eat

Brooklyn offers almost as many great dining options as Manhattan. A Table ((718) 935-9121) is an unpretentious little French bistro with high ceilings, long wooden tables and tasty traditional dishes. For something with a little more daring kitchen, though still a low-key scene, The Grocery ((718) 596-3335) offers a menu that changes often and an extensive wine list.

Places to stay

The Marriott at Brooklyn Bridge ((718) 246-7000) is a sleek, glass-tower branch of the chain in the shadows of the Brooklyn Bridge. Overall, the hotels in Brooklyn are much cheaper on average than similar accommodations in Manhattan and if you have a car, it's not a far trip. Avoid the Lincoln Plaza Hotel which combines a questionable neighborhood with questionable service.

Chris BaldwinChris Baldwin, Contributor

Chris Baldwin keeps one eye on the PGA Tour and another watching golf vacation hotspots and letting travelers in on the best place to vacation.

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