Links With History

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The oldest golf joke I know is one about the player who threw his clubs into the ocean after a terrible round and the next day was drowned trying to get them back again. To people who don’t play golf, this is a silly story; to those of us who do, it isn’t. Trying to comprehend the appeal of this frustrating game has engaged the interest of poets and lunatics for centuries with limited success. Passion cannot be explained, only endured.

One component of the game’s appeal, however, is tangible and yet frequently overlooked. More than any other game, golf is played with a sense of history. All tennis courts look pretty much alike, and while there are still a few distinctive baseball parks left in the land, you have to be a professional athlete to compete in them. In golf, however, the rankest amateur can stand where the greatest players in the history of the game have stood and face the same challenge. Just as an infantry veteran visiting a battlefield site can survey a piece of sloping land and know how to position troops, so a golfer can look down a fairway and know how to shape the appropriate shot for the attack. Whether, in the heat of the contest, he will do so properly is another question.

Comparing a historic battlefield to a famous golf course is irresistible. Each has provided the setting for fierce struggle. The difference is we can fight the old battles over and over again with nothing more important at stake than a sporting wager between friends on the outcome.

Let there be some plain speaking here at the outset. I love the look of a good golf course. The artful arrangement of trees and grass and sand and water at the Cypress Point Club, in California, is to me as aesthetically pleasing as any arboretum I can think of. That man has devised a game as absorbing as golf that can be played within such a natural setting is close to miraculous.

Once Ouimet showed that you didn‘t have to be British or wealthy to win a tournament, golf became an American national game overnight.

As a writer and a golfer I have had the good fortune to be able to play the game throughout a large portion of the world. Over the last twenty years or so the myriad triumphant arches and equestrian statuary I have gazed upon tend to run together in my mind’s eye, but I can recall with reasonable clarity almost every golf course I have ever played. Sometimes it’s the vista I remember. The view in front of the first tee at Castle Pines Golf Club, in Colorado, for example, stretches from Pikes Peak to Denver. Sometimes it’s the spirit. The first time I played Kék Duna, outside Budapest, it was hardly a golf course at all. Just a few holes scraped out of the woods. But the Hungarians who play there love the game deeply. One of the members, a former circus acrobat with a silver spine from an old injury, spent the afternoon before our match mowing the course by hand so we could have better sport.

 

Each golf course has its own personality and its own story to tell. In the United States we are blessed with golf courses, both public and private, of infinite variety. The Pebble Beach Golf Links, on the Pacific shore, is as public as a municipal bus stop. Its counterpart on the Atlantic, the Seminole Golf Club, in Florida, is closed, as my grandmother used to say, “tighter than a Pullman window.” Both of them are considered to be among the top dozen courses in the country.

This selection of historic American golf courses and sites is necessarily weighted in favor of private institutions because that is where most of the history of golf in America was made. But even the most private of clubs mentioned here is not a walled city. Most of them are venues for golf tournaments to which the public can buy tickets just as they do to any other kind of sporting event or which can be watched free on television.

Trying to fix a date for the start of golf in America is a matter of furious historical contention. In 1988 several American golfing institutions celebrated a largely bogus centennial of the game by commemorating the one hundredth anniversary of the founding of St. Andrew’s Golf Club, in Hastings-on-Hudson, New York. In fact, there is clear evidence that some kind of golf was played in America during the eighteenth century. By 1886 the game was sufficiently well known that the Tribune Book of Open Air Sports could report that golf constituted a happy compromise between “the tediousness of croquet and the hurly-burly of lawn tennis.” Pride of first place among American golf clubs in continuous operation belongs almost certainly to the Dorset Field Club in Vermont, established in 1886 with a course that required members hitting off the first tee to drive over a state highway. The green on the ninth hole is still in use, and the first clubhouse, originally a few rooms in the back of the home of A. W. Harrington, Jr., stands today.