April 1991 | Volume 42, Issue 2
When you’re lining up a putt on the close-cropped green, there are ghosts at your shoulder. More than any other game, golf is played with a sense of tradition.
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.
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.
Wherever or whenever golf was established in America, it came of age at The Country Club, in Brookline, Massachusetts, outside Boston. Brookline may not have been the first country club in America, but from the beginning it was known simply as The Country Club. Chartered in 1860, the facility was originally intended to be a place where members of the Boston gentry could take family carriage rides, “free from the annoyance of horse railroads.” It was thirty years before the club put in the first nine golf holes and another twenty before the course was extended to the full eighteen. The course is in the classic mold of New England layouts. Not long by today’s championship standards, it measures some sixty-nine hundred yards, but its small, dazzlingly fast greens make it a supreme test. Julius Boros won the U.S. Open there in 1963 shooting nine over par.
Golf as it was first played at places such as Brookline was, according to a nineteenth-century society reporter, “pre-eminently a game of good society.” That all changed in 1913 when a twenty-year-old former caddie named Francis Ouimet did the unthinkable. He beat a pair of British immortals, Harry Vardon and Ted Ray, to win the U.S. Open. The seventeenth green at Brookline is a sacred place in American golf. Professionals will tell you the hardest thing to do in golf is score a birdie when you absolutely must have one. Ouimet did it. He hit a fine drive and then put a jigger (something between a 5- and 6-iron) twenty feet past the hole. Ignoring the horn blast of a passing automobile as he was stroking the ball, Ouimet finessed a sliding, downhill putt into the hole and forced a play-off. The next day the scrawny young amateur outsteadied the two best professionals in the game to win by five shots. Ouimet’s victory was front-page news all over the country. He showed you didn’t have to be British or wealthy to win a major golf tournament. All you had to do was hit the ball better than anyone else. Almost overnight golf became an American national game.
With the generosity of spirit that is frequently the hallmark of golf, Ouimet later became the first non-Briton to be elected captain of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, in Scotland.
Picking out the most significant historic sites in American golf since Ouimet’s startling victory is like selecting the best paintings in the Louvre. I prefer those where not only an extraordinary shot was made but where the game was profoundly affected.
Using that criterion as our guide, you must come with me to the Augusta National Golf Club, in Augusta, Georgia. The course is almost certainly the most photographed in America. Set on what was the old Fruitlands Nursery, Augusta is a 365-acre garden with so many flowers that each hole is named after a different variety: Flowing Peach, Magnolia, Yellow Jasmine, and so on. It was here on the fifteenth fairway in 1935 that Gene Sarazen loosed his fearful thunderbolt. The year before, Bobby Jones, retired from active tournament play, had started an informal competition for his golfing friends to be played at Augusta every spring. No one thought of the event as anything more than a pleasant outing. Sarazen had played well but was trailing Craig Wood by three shots. As he teed up on the par-five fifteenth hole, Sarazen figured he needed three birdies on the last four holes to catch the leader. Sarazen drove well and stood about 235 yards from the green. The stolid professional wrenched a spoon (4-wood) through the turf and sent the ball flying. From the start it was a glorious shot that lifted Sarazen’s expectations with each yard it traversed. The ball flew easily over the water hazard in front of the green and looked like a possible birdie in the making. As it landed, the ball rolled toward the hole and raised the possibility of a one-putt for an eagle. The ball kept going and dropped into the cup for a double eagle. Sarazen had his three birdies in one hole. He paired in to tie Wood and beat him the next day in a play-off. With a single stroke, which the golfing historian Herbert Warren Wind called the most sensational shot ever played in tournament golf, Sarazen did more than win a competition. His heroic effort helped lift Jones’s informal get-together into The Masters, a tournament that took its place with the U.S. and British opens and the Professional Golfers Association (PGA) Championship as one of the four most important titles in international golf.
Unlike most tournaments, which are held at different courses, The Masters is always played at Augusta. After holding more than fifty Masters, the course has been crowded with incident. Rae’s Creek, which runs along “Amen Corner” on the back nine at Augusta, ranks with Swilcan Burn on the Old Course at St. Andrews, in Scotland, as the most famous body of water in golf. As a graveyard of golfing hopes, Rae’s Creek is much more devastating. In 1954 Billy Joe Patton was close to fulfilling every Sunday golfer’s fondest dream. A little-known amateur from North Carolina, Patton played a maniacal final round, including a hole in one to gain five shots and catch up with Ben Hogan and Sam Snead. Knowing no other way to play except all-out, Patton tried to carry Rae’s Creek in front of the par-five thirteenth in two. He lost the shot in the water, and the tournament by one stroke. “I didn’t come here,” he said, “to play safe.”
If ever there was proof of the bromide that those who forget the lessons of history are condemned to repeat them, it can be found at the bottom of Rae’s Creek. In 1965 Arnold Palmer, who won The Masters four times, missed his chance for a fifth victory when he splashed a 7-iron shot into the creek at the twelfth. In 1985 Curtis Strange, the most meticulous of American golfers, threw away his best opportunity for a win when he crashed two shots into the water on two different holes. Looking on, wearing the blue blazer of an official of the U.S. Golf Association (USGA), was Billy Joe Patton. And just last year Raymond Floyd lost his bid to become the oldest winner in The Masters when he put a shot into Rae’s Creek on the eleventh.
The opening hole at the Cherry Hills Golf Club, in Denver, doesn’t have the look of historical importance about it. A 346-yard, par-four that’s downhill all the way, it’s a benign business that easily yields to par. In the thin mountain air of the Colorado Rockies, long-hitting, reckless golfers might even think of trying to drive the green. Most of the players in the 1960 U.S. Open, however, didn’t. The rough, grown to U.S. Open standards, was murderous, and a deep grass bunker stood guard in front of the green. It was much safer to hit an iron short and pitch up to the hole. Arnold Palmer wasn’t thinking like that at all. A brash young player who had been a professional for five years, Palmer was the kind of golfer who relishes what he called the “sweetness of risk.” He decided to grab the course by the throat and “shake it to death.” At first his strategy did not go well. On the opening round he put his tee shot in a ditch and scored a two-over-par double bogey. Next time, Palmer took a bogey, and on the third round he scratched out a par. By the afternoon round on the last day, Palmer was seven shots back. He hitched up his pants and banged away once more. This time he made the green and two-putted for a birdie. Palmer then went off on a ferocious tear and shot a 65, the lowest final round that had ever been posted by a winner of the U.S. Open. The Arnold Palmer era had begun. With it came a vigorous, attacking style of golf, cheering crowds, and “Arnie’s Army.” When those images were magnified through television, they helped power a national surge of golfing popularity that has not abated to this day.
Another unprepossessing hole, but one filled with historical significance, is the eleventh at Merion Golf Club, in Ardmore, Pennsylvania, near Philadelphia. This is where Bobby Jones closed out Gene Homans to win the 1930 U.S. Amateur. The match itself was of little consequence. Homans was a gifted player, but not in the same class with Jones, the finest golfer America had yet produced. In winning, Jones, the ultimate amateur who played mostly on weekends, completed a season in which he took the four most important tournaments of the time: the British Open, the British Amateur, the U.S. Open, and the U.S. Amateur—the Grand Slam of golf.
Farther up the back nine at Merion is another view that reminds us that golf requires not only mechanical excellence but something of the heart as well. In 1950 Ben Hogan was struggling to stay in contention during the final round of the U.S. Open. By rights he should have been in bed. Seventeen months before, Hogan’s legs had been shattered in an automobile accident, and now he was playing in his first national championship since getting out of the hospital. His blood circulation was so sluggish that every night after the competition he went to bed in his hotel room with his legs in traction. On the last day, thirty-six holes of it, Hogan wobbled off in pursuit of Lloyd Mangrum and George Fazio, who posted respectable final scores of 287. The pain in his legs was so fierce he couldn’t bend over, and he had his caddie take the ball out of the hole for him. By the thirteenth he almost withdrew because he didn’t think he could walk any farther. But Hogan persevered, although faltering badly, with bogeys on the fifteenth and seventeenth. He came to the eighteenth, a demanding 458-yard par-four, needing a par to tie for the lead so he could then play another eighteen holes the following day. Hogan held himself together to drive well and selected a 1-iron for his shot to the green. Remember that even with two good legs, the 1-iron is the most difficult club in the bag. Lee Trevino says that a golfer caught in a lightning storm should hold one up for protection because “not even God can hit a 1-iron.” Hogan puffed on his cigarette and then nailed the shot wide left but on the green. He made his par and the next day, drawing on the last of his physical reserves, stroked a sixty-foot birdie putt on the seventeenth to seal a fourstroke victory.
Afterwards, Hogan, who was not known as the Ice Man for nothing, said he should have hit his Sunday 1-iron twenty-five feet closer to the hole so he could have had a makable birdie putt.
It is axiomatic that records are made to be broken. There is, however, one golfing record that is likely to stand at least as long as Cheops’s pyramid. This one was begun by Byron Nelson in 1945 on the pleasant confines of Myers Park Country Club, in Charlotte, North Carolina. Nelson had already established himself as a fine player. In 1945 he proved he was one of the greatest. His battle with Sam Snead in the Charlotte Open was an epic struggle. After four rounds they were tied at 16 under par. An eighteen-hole play-off found them still tied at 69. Another eighteen-hole play-off was required, and this time Nelson’s 69 won by four. Nelson then reeled off an incredible winning skein by capturing the next ten consecutive tournaments. It is easy to say Nelson did not face the quality of competition we have today, when a golfer who wins four tournaments in a season is almost automatically acclaimed the dominant player of the year. Nelson, however, did beat everyone who was around at the time, and his record still stands as a breathtaking achievement. No one had ever won more than three consecutive tournaments on the professional tour. Nelson won eleven. In all, he won nineteen tournaments, and in 120 rounds of professional tournament play, he averaged 68.3 strokes.
Golf, however, is not all triumph, and there can be as much perverse pleasure in visiting the sites of disaster as there is in following the paths of glory. For this sort of thing, the Pebble Beach Links is a natural destination. Pebble Beach, designed by a pair of amateur golfers, Jack Neville and Douglas Grant, is perched over the Pacific Ocean on the Monterey Peninsula in California and comes as close to capturing the spirit of the rugged oceanside courses of Ireland as any layout in America. The course has two meaningful distinctions. It is one of the few stops on the PGA tour that is played on a public course, and it is the only public layout to host a U.S. Open. Anytime you play a game involving hitting a small ball in the open air, odd things are apt to happen. This is especially true if you are trying to work the ball through the winds alongside an ocean. No golfer is more familiar with the vagaries of seaside play at Pebble Beach than Arnold Palmer. In 1967 he played in what was then called the Bing Crosby National Pro-Am. Trailing Jack Nicklaus by one shot, Palmer tried to muscle a 3-wood to the green on the par-five fourteenth hole. His ball hit a tree and caromed out of bounds. Palmer dropped a new ball only to hit the same tree and again departed course property. Eventually Palmer recorded a nine and finished third. It was an old story for Palmer. In 1964 he had been in contention until he reached the 218-yard par-three seventeenth hole, where he slashed a shot onto the rocks by the ocean near the eighteenth hole. Palmer dutifully flailed away and took a quintuple bogey. It was my pleasure to first play Pebble Beach on a still day, and I managed to get a workman-like par on the seventeenth. I was struck by the happy thought that if Palmer had let me play the hole for him, he might have added one more title to his long list of victories. No other sport offers players this Walter Mitty dimension. It is one of the things that keeps us playing when intelligence tells us we are hopeless.
Golf is traditionally linked with stories of business being conducted on the course between shots. This aspect of the game has been overstated. When they are playing, golfers generally discuss earthier matters than a balance sheet. Nevertheless, what was then the biggest deal in the history of American business was swung at a golf course. Andrew Carnegie, a transplanted Scot and an avid golfer, was playing a round with Charles Schwab at St. Andrew’s in New York when Schwab finally talked Carnegie into selling out his steel interests to a new combine. Later Carnegie calculated the price he wanted and wrote out the figure on a piece of paper; one legend maintains it was the back of his scorecard. The figure was $480 million. U.S. Steel was born, and Andrew Carnegie became the richest man in the world.
It is generally accepted that the best hole on any golf course is the nineteenth. This is where we can repair to the bar and drink gin until the disappointments of our round have been assuaged or its elories discussed until our friends can bear it no longer. This is also where the great golf stories are told. One of the most cherished concerns the National Golf Links of America, in Southampton, New York. National was the creation of Charles Blair Macdonald, America’s finest player at the turn of the century as well as a skilled golf architect and one of the founders of the USGA. Macdonald was particularly fond of National and lived in a house by the course until his death in 1928. A wealthy man in his own right, Macdonald was notoriously short-tempered. He was less than enthralled when his favorite nephew and principal heir, Peter Grace, came down from college rather full of himself and declared National to be something of a cheesy course. He didn’t think much of a first hole that could be driven from the tee. Macdonald said it was impossible and challenged his nephew to try. Grace teed up and, as they say in golf, hit the ball “on the screws.” The ball fled down the breaking fairway and finally came to rest on the green some 320 yards away. Macdonald said not a word but turned away and went home. That night he sent his attorney instructions to strike Peter Grace from his will.
One favorite nineteenth-hole story actually did take place at the bar of the Pine Valley Golf Club, in Clementon, New Jersey, just outside Philadelphia. Pine Valley is routinely regarded as the best golf course in America and the most penal. In effect, the course is a pitiless tract situated inside a 184-acre bunker. One day Woody Platt, a strong amateur, started out by getting a birdie on the first hole and an eagle on the second. The third hole is a tricky par three with a tilted green difficult to putt. Platt solved that problem by getting a hole in one. The fourth hole is a monstrous 461-yard par four, which Platt birdied by sinking a 30-foot putt. Platt stood six under par after four holes. The course swings back toward the clubhouse before heading out to the fifth. Platt stopped at the bar for some refreshment before continuing his scorching round—and didn’t come back out until it was safely dark.
The game of golf has spawned several interesting museums. The largest is the extremely handsome museum and library at Golf House, which also serves as the national headquarters of the USGA in Far Hills, New Jersey. The collection is extensive and well ordered, tracing the evolution of the game from the earliest days up to the present. Principal among its treasures are two of the most famous golf clubs in the world: “Calamity Jane II,” the putter used by Bobby Jones in most of his famous victories, and the club that the astronaut Alan Shepard took with him to the moon to work on his mid-iron game.
Pinehurst, North Carolina, a busy center of golf in the United States is also the home of the PGA Hall of Fame, designed along the lines of the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. In addition to plaques of the great figures in the history of the game and an excellent research library, the facility encompasses some of the antic aspects of the game. One charming display holds a collection of more than ten thousand small pencils used for keeping score. The local town library has a special wing that holds much of the personal memorabilia of James W. Tufts, founder of Pinehurst. It is an informal gathering of material, and going there is like sitting down with your grand-father as he shows you his favorite albums. There is a nice collection of old pictures of the area, and you can get a sense of what it was like when you could come to Pinehurst for golf and stay at the gracious Carolina Hotel for eight dollars a day.
The only public golf-research facility in the Western United States is housed in the Ralph W. Miller Golf Library/Museum, in City of Industry, California. The collection is small but deftly organized with an especially good reference library that reaches back to the sixteenth century.
Of all the artifacts of this enduring game, my favorite is at Golf House. It’s the 1-iron Hogan hit at Merion. Fact and fantasy have gathered about this implement until it has taken on the mythical quality of Excalibur. The iron was stolen from Hogan’s bag shortly after the 1950 Open and kicked around for more than thirty years until it was discovered among a group of undistinguished old clubs in a collector’s shop. Over the years, we had been told Hogan was such a flawless striker of the ball with a swing so constant that he wore an impression the size of a dime on the face of his 1-iron. Now that we can actually see the club, we realize that Hogan was human after all. The impression, dangerously near the hosel, is closer to the size of a silver dollar. It serves to remind us that Ben Hogan was not the perfect golfer. Merely the best.