… show us here
The mettle of your pasture …
—Henry V III, i
Today, through a series of fortunes mis- and otherwise, I ended up looping at Butler National Golf Club for the first time during what the club called “U.S. Open Day”: in honor of the tournament going on at Congressional this weekend, the course was set up like it was hosting an Open. (It’s never going to get one, due to its men’s only membership policy.) Never having seen the course in person (the Western Open stopped coming here prior to my interest in golf), I was looking forward to the course that Golf Digest called the “Al Capone” to Medinah 3’s “Frank Nitti.” I was prepared for lightning-fast greens, evil fairway slopes, and, above all else, water and more water; Butler’s reputation for difficulty rests, so I understood, on the amount of water in play. I was ready to be shocked and awed. But Butler disappointed on nearly every count.
Before getting to golf course proper, though, I’d like to talk a bit about what the Golf Digest analogy gets wrong—not to be pedantic (that’s merely a bonus)—but in order to talk about just how much my own judgements must differ from those of the golf writers of the world if Golf Digest can throw an analogy like that around. In the first place, if any course is the “Al Capone” of Chicago golf, you’d think it would be Medinah—it’s a course, after all, that Capone could have actually played as it was built in 1926. (No record exists, so far as I know, showing Capone did play Medinah, though he did golf and, given Chicago’s—and Medinah’s—history, it wouldn’t be that surprising if he teed it up there.) Nitti was Capone’s junior partner—despite being older—so you’d think the analogy would go the other way.
And that’s not the only way in which the analogy is a lazy one: though Brian DePalma’s film of The Untouchables depicted Nitti as actually carrying out “hits” himself, Nitti wasn’t a “button man,” believing (as Capone did) that “hits” were jobs to be done by others. Death wasn’t an end in itself, it was just a cost of doing business. Nitti himself was kind of a fearful sort: he committed suicide after World War II to avoid imprisonment because he was a sort of claustrophobe. The real Nitti, in short, wasn’t the kind of villain depicted in the DePalma film: a villain, sure, but not that kind.
All of which is more of a complaint about Golf Digest’s laziness (and East Coast bias) than it is about Butler, so let’s get to the course. The greens were as advertised; very fast and true, and the density of the grass on them was quite amazing. Overall, the maintenance was very, very, good, though there was the occasional (very occasional) brown spots in the fairways and even, in one case, on the greens. It was close, though maybe not better, than the standards set locally by Bob O’Link—and certainly nothing close to Augusta. Still, Butler’s maintenance is a great deal better than Medinah’s, though Medinah has gotten much better since the re-grassing last year.
Yet something bothered me about the course and, after doing some research online, I did find one voice who thought less of Butler than Medinah. That person, as it happens, was a character who’s begun appearing in this blog recently: golf architect Tom Doak. The Chicago Tribune, happily enough, reprinted some of the Chicago entries from Doak’s Confidential Guide several years ago, and I reproduce what he had to say about Butler here: “Unfortunately, the golf course, even though it once provided one of the toughest tests on the PGA Tour, doesn’t possess the same kind of character [as Chicago Golf Club]. Many of the individual holes are less than memorable, and a couple of the ones that are, are so because they’re impossible.” Doak’s comments sound hyperbolic, until you’ve seen Butler.
The fifteenth, for instance, is perhaps one of the most ridiculous holes I’ve ever seen. It’s long for the sake of length, and length only: its routing seems to have been designed in order to take up the space between the fourteenth and sixteenth. It’s straightaway for 300 yards (from the back tees) up a hill, then takes a 90 degree turn back down the hill to the green. It’s a hole that seems entirely determined by a carpenter’s “ell.”
Earlier, the eighth hole had impressed me with the way in which trees can grow—the hole, a 3-par, sits on a creek, and the trees on each side of the creek overhand so much that their appears to be less than ten yards to thread a shot through on the way to the flag. It’s a problem that also affects the long, 4-par, ninth hole, whose fairway is squeezed by overhanging trees in the last 200 yards. Sure, that makes a hole hard, but I don’t think of it as golf because it takes away any choice a player has: in effect, the architect is saying “play it like this, or else.” Holes like these are pretty much the opposite of what Doak thinks of as good architecture.
To be fair, Doak says something similar about Medinah. In the Confidential Guide Doak calls Course 3 “a maximum-security prison,” with a “lack of strategic challenge” and decried the “total lack of finesse play required.” But the Confidential Guide was published in 1996, before the two (!) Rees Jones reworkings. I don’t agree with everything Jones did (the new fifteenth, for instance, isn’t really like any other hole), but he did open up the course to allow for different avenues to the green. Doak’s criticisms, in other words, were fair at the time but he might not have the same points to make when he revisits to work on Course 1. And what’s interesting in light of those remarks is that, even at the time of the Confidential Guide, Medinah received a 7 to Butler’s 6 in Doak’s rating system. Butler’s obviousness even extends to the greens. “Undulating topography is the soul of great golf courses,” Doak once said in an interview, and while Butler is a flat course (especially by comparison with Medinah), you’d think that wouldn’t hold when it came to the greens. But while Butler’s staff certainly can grow grass, the greens’ surfaces—hyped by so many publications solemnly invoking their “subtlety”—were absurdly easy to read. Maybe that’s simply a measure of my own experience: I’ve seen Augusta’s, and read greens in Palm Springs, where “everything breaks towards Indio,” and read Riviera’s, where everything breaks towards the Pacific. But I didn’t miss a read all day, from the first hole to the last, despite my golfer’s distressing tendency to hit everything by the hole by five feet. If the greens are subtle, it’s rather in the way that regular type appears tiny if you’ve been reading “Large Type” books from the library’s senior section.
All of which just sounds like a slag job on my own place of work’s biggest rival, which to some degree or other it is. Yet there is a rather more significant point here, which is that by praising Butler golf publications reward a particular kind of architecture—a kind whose day, it might be, has come and gone. Butler’s labor and capital-intensive kind of course maintenance is a peculiarly American kind of extravagance, the kind Doak likes to go out of his way to criticize. It’s the kind of thinking that leads greens committees to think their greenkeeper is a failure if every blade of grass doesn’t mirror the color of Augusta in spring—a kind of thinking that leads to overwatering and the kind of muddy golf courses that use tremendous amounts of water and, in the end, aren’t that fun to play.
Thinking of Butler as a great golf course is, in short, exactly like thinking a 1975 Cadillac Eldorado convertible is a great car: it is, to be sure, but not because of its qualities as a car. ‘75 Eldos are many things, but they’re also great big behemoths that got terrible gas milage, weren’t particularly safe, and aren’t even all that fun to drive. They’re fun to ride in, sure, but unless you’ve got some particular nostalgia for 70s Detroit iron, you aren’t buying one. As it happens, with its membership apparently down, nobody’s buying into Butler these days either—which, aside from present members of Butler, may be a hopeful sign for the game as a whole.