America’s First Muni: Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx

Municipal golf in America got its start in and around big cities. So, it’s only fitting that the oldest muni in the game—Van Cortlandt Park in New York—today has not one, but two highways cutting through an everyman course that has holes named after Babe Ruth and each of the Three Stooges.

“Vanny,” as it’s known to locals, opened back in 1895—it’s first nine holes built for about $625—and a year later hosted the country’s first public golf tournament. It soon expanded to 18 holes and was a public golf oasis in the Bronx during an era when golf in the U.S. was decidedly private, drawing as many as 700 golfers on Saturdays and Sundays.

Golf’s original muni has seen changes over the years that extend well beyond the overhaul of its 700-yard 9th hole that was once crisscrossed by two brooks and two stone walls. In the 1940s and 1950s, playing through took on an entirely different meaning. Construction of the Major Deegan Expressway and Moshulu Parkway Extension resulted in two hillside holes being eliminated, several others being rearranged, and four new holes added.

The course fell on hard times in the 1970s. Paul Silva, who grew up about five minutes away, recalls on-course hazards that included abandoned cars and greens that seemingly had more broken glass than grass. It looks entirely different today, a tribute to local support as well as a renewed national appreciation for the egalitarian nature of municipal golf.

“We’ve brought it back to a position of prominence,” says Silva, the head golf pro at Van Cortlandt Park as well as a proud native New Yorker. “She should be treated like a grand old dame. It’s back where it should be.”

Of the 15 city-run municipal courses, Van Cortlandt is the closest to public transportation. The clubhouse sits a mere 350 yards from the final, northernmost stop on the city’s No. 1 Subway line. The train runs every hour of every day, going from the Bronx to the southern tip of Manhattan, with riders of all ages, colors, and cultures. The diversity isn’t unlike the customer base Van Cortlandt Park sees every day.

“Early in the mornings, you might have Wall Street big shots trying to get in a quick nine. An hour later, it’s the retired firemen and then the social security crew,” says Silva. “Then you’ve got the public-school kids who get their first taste of golf. You really get all walks of life here.”

In more recent days, the locker room and its old wooden lockers were featured in a scene from the movie Wall Street, which also happens to be the name of the 18th hole. But in the course’s earlier years, it was a post-round hangout for athletes like Babe Ruth, Willie Mays, Jackie Robinson, and Joe Louis. Larry, Moe, and Curly of Three Stooges fame also made Van Cortlandt their course of choice.

Athletes and actors still visit the Bronx to tee it up on a daily basis.

“They’re just players to us,” says Silva. “One of the things they like about it is they get paired up with whoever’s on the tee sheet. That’s part of the beauty.”

As for the layout itself, the scorecard doesn’t tell the whole story. It’s just 6,100 yards from the tips, but like many great old courses, Van Cortlandt Park has her defenses: small greens, narrow fairways, awkward angles, and beautiful, mature trees.

The 700-yard hole is gone, but the 619-yard par-five 2nd hole presents a challenge out of the gates. The 17th hole is surely the toughest par three on the course, requiring a 215-yard uphill shot to a green that’s roughly the size of a Manhattan studio apartment.

“It’s a par three and a half,” chuckles Silva, who’s coming up on his 23rd year at Van Cortlandt and remains appreciative of the opportunity and access the facility provides.

The peak weekend rate is $54 while juniors can play during the week for less than $8.

“Every single day it exposes people to the game of golf,” says Silva. “That’s the greatest thing about it.”

Have you played Van Cortlandt Park Golf Course?