The Coast of Earth Beneath

Obviously, we cannot proceed to lay our law upon the ground regardless of geological law …                                                                   

—Max Behr. “Art in Golf Architecture.” 1927.

“Don’t worry about it—he buys his balls by the truckload,” I said to the other looper in the group, who was hunting around for the ball my golfer had just sent sailing into the trees off the right side of the fairway on the fourth hole of Medinah’s Course Three. My golfer, a guest, happened to be the CEO of a company named Top Golf, whose business it has become to try and reinvent that long-standing mainstay of golf practice: the driving range. Mr. Top Golf, who’s on a first-name basis to the golf ball companies, wasn’t concerned about losing a ball.

I bring up the story now because driving ranges and travel are the only ways to escape the golfless Chicago winter, and so, because it may that many of you may frequent Top Golf during these dreary months, it might be worth discussing the company here. Top Golf’s idea is to take the featureless pasturage of the typical driving range and implant it with various targets wired to a central computer. By means of chips embedded in the specially-made balls used by the company—chips that, in case you wondering, he didn’t have installed on his personal supply—the computer could calculate how close a particular shot came to a particular target. That data is then used to generate a “score” for that shot. Top Golf, in other words, turns range rats into a kind of videogamer, making what had been work—how the pros think of their range time—into a game itself.

As it happens, however, the fourth hole of Course Three might demonstrate just how quixotic an endeavor—if one imagines it to supplant the game—Top Golf’s enterprise is, though to understand the point requires knowing something about the fourth hole. The fourth shares something in common with two other holes that are, very often, named by Medinah’s members as their favorite holes on the course: numbers 16 and 12. Both of those holes are extremely dramatic, picturesque par fours that are also at the edge of playability most days, and impossibly so on windy ones. Both are long and have a dogleg to them (though in opposite directions), and both make use of the same slope that arises near the shore of the lake that borders much of the golf course, Lake Kadijah, named for the Prophet Muhammed’s first wife and, not so coincidentally one imagines, his first convert to the religion that became Islam.

The lake is like a religion in its own way, one supposes, because it is artificial: it was created by a dam that stands at the edge of the property, about halfway between the driving range and the gun club. But the ridge that borders the lake presumably is much older, and it is this ridge that, quite literally, connects all three holes: the greens of all them sit atop it. The reason the greens all make use of that same geologic feature, I would argue, is also the reason that, while the golf practiced at Top Golf is diverting in its own way, it will never replace golf as it is played on a golf course.

If, that is, golf were played on a uniform, flat, and well-defined field like most other games (or as it is played at Top Golf’s ranges), it would be difficult enough; it is the addition, however, of height to the two other dimensions that makes golf the sport that it is. In the case of the fourth hole, for instance, just knowing the actual yardage to the hole—easy enough in this age of laser rangefinders and global positioning systems—is not enough. It’s also necessary to calculate the likely trajectory of the envisioned shot: a ball that flies too high will not reach the green, while one that isn’t high enough is likely to bounce past the green, leaving a difficult downhill chip that, in all likelihood, is also likely to roll through the green—and then trundle back down the fairway slope towards the tee. Often that can leave another pitch of thirty yards or more back up to the green again.

It is that third dimension, I think, that lends the game the interest that it has, and it is also, perhaps, the reason why the home of the game is a country not renowned for much else: Scotland. In John McPhee’s Annals of the Former World, that gigantic tome on the geology of North America (at least as it now exists along the corridor created by the construction of Interstate 80), he quotes a geologist named Anita Harris: “Golf,” she says, “was invented on the moraines, the eskers, the pitted outwash plains—the glacial topography—of Scotland.”

“All over the world,” Ms. Harris goes on to say, “when people make golf courses they are copying glacial landscapes.” While the concept of golf (hitting a ball with a stick to a predetermined target) doesn’t seem very hard to grasp (hence perhaps the claims of the Dutch and, more improbably, the Chinese to have invented it), the game developed in Scotland because of Scotland’s glacially-scoured landscape.

Chicago too was scoured by a glacier during the last Ice Age: the Wisconsin ice sheet. Although the specific provenance of the ridgeline on which the fourth green sits isn’t known, the little topographical relief that exists in what is now northern Illinois largely owes to that glacier. That doesn’t mean, of course, that Chicago was destined for golf, much less that this particular hill was destined to be the fourth green, but it does perhaps say just why it was that Chicago was fertile ground when Scotsman Charles Blair Macdonald introduced the game here in the 1890s.

(That Chicago has been fertile ground could be said by flashing a lot of statistics. But here’s the senior travel editor for Golf Digest on the occasion of his first visit this summer: “Wow, there are a LOT of good, moderately priced public golf courses in Chicago.” “People always say that about this city,” the editor, Matt Ginella, went on to remark, “but you have no idea of the volume of courses till you get there and start driving around.”)

Without the glaciers, in other words, no golf: a game in which every club, struck the same, creates a similar result will, so I imagine, quickly lose interest. If every shot from, say, 158 yards required the same club, I would argue that there would be very little point because the “game” could as well be played at a driving range. Changes in elevation, in other words, is one way to create the need to discuss the proper club for a particular shot—another is wind—and that may be to say that not only did the Wisconsin ice sheet create golf, but the art of caddieing—which, in a sense, is golf. If club selection is the intriguing part of the game, and club selection is the highest skill of caddies, then, well, if A=B, and B=C, then A=C. Quod erat demonstrandum. 

All of this, of course, may sound like the merest air—even if, once upon a time, golf courses needed to be constructed near the terminal moraines of the vast ice sheets, that’s no longer true. Anyone with a bulldozer and a few days or weeks available can build a reasonable imitation of such a landscape on the couple hundred acres a decent course requires. The entire state of Florida, for instance—now covered with golf courses, yet during the Wisconsonian covered by a shallow ocean—stands as a rebuke to the notion that golf is inextricably tied to glacier-formed topographies.

Yet there’s a winter (or, more likely, early spring) golf destination that stands as a rebuke to that rebuke: that stands, in other words, as a reminder that natural processes have not been completely overcome by bulldozers and computers. This example is the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail, located in Alabama. On the surface—a geological metaphor wholly in keeping with the topic—it would seem to be an example of how bulldozers have freed golf architecture from the tyranny of geology, because the Trail consists of contemporary golf courses presumably built with contemporary methods. A further examination, however, demonstrates that natural topography is, even yet, still a determining factor for golf—and, perhaps, for more significant facets of our lives.

The Trail was conceived, according to the Encyclopedia of Alabama (available online), by Minnesota native David G. Bronner, the chief executive of the Retirement Systems of Alabama. (Retirement Systems invests and manages the pension plans for Alabama’s public employees.) Bronner took over the fund in 1973, and at first kept the company focused on conservative investments. But by the late 1980s the fund was so successful, and thus so overflowing with cash, that Bronner needed some place to park the money. Inspired, says the Encyclopedia, “by Field of Dreams, a 1989 Hollywood film in which a farmer builds a baseball field to attract tourism”—one way, one supposes, to describe that movie—Bronner decided “to fund construction of a series of championship-caliber public golf courses in the state.” These courses would attract retirees, boost tourism, and thereby spur Alabama’s economic growth—which would, in turn, boost the fund Bronner controlled.

Bronner thought of his plan as a “trail” because the courses were constructed on the basis that “winter residents of the Gulf Coast”—retirees—“could play golf as soon as they crossed over the Tennessee line and continue all the way down to Mobile Bay.” For that reason, the trail would follow the interstate highways—themselves engineered so that cars and trucks could be free from the dictates of geology—from the north of the state to the south, with courses spaced so that each was less than a day’s drive from the next. Geology, in other words, wasn’t the first consideration: it wasn’t as if a number of sites were just so perfect for golf that they demanded architects put courses on them, and that it just so happened that they then formed a series of breadcrumbs, scattered by the sides of the interstates, that snowbirds could follow to Mobile.

What’s interesting though about the trail, which one might think would be scattered according to the dictates of modern needs and not the necessities of prehistoric geology, is that the trail’s eleven courses are not distributed in what might be thought a rational manner. Seven of the courses are concentrated in the northeast portion of the state, east of a line that sweeps from Opelika on the eastern border, through the state capital at Montgomery, to Muscle Shoals in the northwest. Perhaps there are reasons—like, say, the intersection of two interstate highways—for the arrangement of the RTJ Trail courses to be concentrated as they are. But consideration of three other maps raise doubt.

The first of these maps is relatively easy to find: any topographical map of Alabama will show that the region that holds the majority of the RTJ courses—aside from a few near Mobile on the Gulf of Mexico—is also the region with the state’s highest elevations. Most of the RTJ Trail, in other words, is on the state’s hilliest topography, in the region known as the Appalachian Highlands, where the Appalachian Mountains—themselves created, its worth noting, in part by the Caledonian Orogeny, which also helped to create Scotland since both were part of the same landmass at the time—extend to their furthest southern reaches. In Alabama, the point at which the East Coast’s coastal plain meets those mountains—in geologic terms, the fall line—is located, as it happens, just north of Montgomery.

Montgomery is also a site that is notable in terms of the second map, as it was the destination for voyagers of a different sort than Bronner’s hoped-for snowbirds. Those were the marchers of the three marches from Selma to Montgomery in March of 1965, who were marching for civil rights and famously ran into “Bull” Connors tear-gas treatment on the other end of the Edmund Pettus Bridge leading to the state capital. What’s significant about those marches, in geologic terms, is that they traced the line of what’s known as the “Black Belt,” a region of rich, black soil extremely suitable for agriculture that extends across the state south of the Appalachian Highlands.

The “Black Belt”’s rich soils were created during the Lower Tertiary Period, from about 66 million to about 38 million years ago. They are the remnants of marine sediments formed when this part of Alabama, up to the rising slopes of the Highlands, lay underneath a shallow ocean, which created what geologists call the “Selma Chalk,” a layer of marine limestone. When the sea later retreated and exposed this chalk to air it created prairie land that, like that of the Great Plains, would become perfect for agriculture millions of years later.

When that agriculture arrived in Alabama though, it arrived in a form quite different from that of the homesteaders of the American West—a manner that provided the impetus for the marches that initially came to grief at the Pettus Bridge. The rich soils were perfect for cotton, so that this portion of the state became dominated by large cotton-raising plantations. The high productivity of those plantations is testified to by the second map, which was produced just prior to the Civil War. The purpose of that second map—whose significance was recognized by Professor Allen Gathman of Southeast Missouri State University in 2008 and later picked up by the New York Times’ blog, Strange Maps—is to show the value of cotton production throughout the South: on the map, black dots represent the production of more than 2,000 bales of cotton per year. The central part of Alabama is covered with black dots, mirroring the deposition of sediments millions of years ago.

The third map makes the connection to the civil rights movement clear: it’s a map of voting patterns by county throughout the United States during the 2008 election. The blue-colored ones, marking counties won by Democratic candidate Barack Obama, trace just the same swoosh as the maps mentioned previously—as it happens, the counties of the “Black Belt” are also overwhelmingly African-American by population, all more than 45 per cent. This isn’t, obviously, an accident: the black residents of those counties are the descendants of slaves originally imported to Alabama in order to work the fields of the vast cotton plantations.

When the marchers from Selma to Montgomery marched, then, they demarcated not only a geologic feature, but also a racial one. Alabama, as a state, is roughly a bit less than 70 per cent white and a bit more than 25 per cent black. But those percentages are not equally distributed throughout the state. While the counties with the greatest concentration of African-American residents correspond to the black soil counties of the Black Belt, the northern counties that correspond to the ancient shorelines of the Lower Tertiary, and the beginnings of the Appalachians, are nearly all more than 85 per cent white.

Now, whether it is a matter of topography or some other factor, it is true that the Jones Trail golf courses are largely concentrated in counties likely to be majority white. Even those courses that don’t precisely fit the boundaries formed millions of years ago—the four courses located south of Montgomery—are located in counties that are over 66 per cent white. (And the one exception is a course whose name seems to draw attention to Alabama’s mixture of prehistory and topography: Cambrian Ridge.) If the golf courses, in short, were supposed to help the state and its public employee pensioners, somebody seems not to have had the whole state in mind.

While present-day Alabamans didn’t decide where the hills were going to go in their state, to just give up because economics favored one kind of geological feature (rich soil for cotton) at one point and now favors another (hilly country for golf) seems to evade the purpose of human organization entirely. If, that is, government or anything else is just going to favor those upon whom fortune has favored already, what’s the point of it? It’d be like buying home or auto insurance only on the solid assurance that you will never get any benefit, no matter how many hurricanes destroy your house or robbers steal your car. Which was exactly the point of the marchers from Selma to Montgomery: as the relevant entry on Wikipedia puts it, the “Alabama legislature consistently underfunded schools and services for … African Americans in the segregated state, but did not relieve them of paying taxes.”

One reason why the Alabama legislature could get away with doing that for so long was that it operated under a constitution written in 1901, and according to the president of the convention called to do the writing, John B. Knox, the purpose of that constitution was “to establish white supremacy in this state.” Most of us, I’d say, assume that such a constitution was long since done away with (or at least rendered ineffective), by the measures won in part by the Selma-to-Montgomery marchers of that early spring—a year that also saw the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Such an assumption would, in the case of Alabama at least, be dead wrong.

Alabama’s 1901 constitution is, in fact, still the peculiar law of that land, aside from the U.S. Constitution. And while it might be thought that even if a few oddities still remain in it from 1901, it’s basically been cleaned up by the Supreme Court decisions and acts of the United States Congress since—or that the only ill effects such a constitution has had have fallen on African-Americans—such a thought would also be dead wrong. Any document that is the longest government constitution—it has over 340,000 words and 827 amendments—in the history of the world maybe can’t avoid having its difficulties.

For instance, because one of the ways the 1901 constitution’s authors sought to ensure “white supremacy” was to take virtually all power away from local officials and centralize it in the state legislature, it’s meant that if, say, you want to regulate bingo operations in Huntsville, you have to amend the constitution. (That’s Amendment 600.) Or if you’d like to promote the raising of catfish. (It’s Amendment 492.) Or if you’d like to have the residents of Mobile pay for their own mosquito control. (That’s Amendment 351, later itself amended by Amendment 361 in order to correct a single word in the first amendment—and then later expanded to cover “other general health purposes” by Amendment 393.) All of which, according to Alabama, can only be handled by the state legislature—and no one else. If you think that maybe that means more than African-Americans are getting short-changed by this constitution … well, it isn’t clear enough to Alabamans yet.

All of which takes us a long way from golf, sure enough. In terms of the RTJ Trail, the difficulty would seem to be that the (already made) choice is between topographically-interesting sites for golf courses, and effectively shutting out a sizable minority of the state from the benefits that ought to accrue equally to all Alabamans. One way to solve this problem, perhaps the CEO of Top Golf (remember him?) would say, is through facilities like his driving ranges—which, quite literally, “level the playing field.” But just as obviously, that also effectively spells the end of golf—without a course, you might as well be playing a videogame.

I’m told that it’s true that, in places like Japan or New York City, there are “golfers” who’ve never set a tee in the ground before. I’m just not sure that hitting balls at Chelsea Piers or some other range, even one as technologically advanced as the ones Top Golf provides, is actually golf. In real golf, after all, you have to remember where your last ball went—and play it where it lies.


Please let me know what you think! Also, if you are having trouble with posting a comment, please feel free to email me personally at Thanks for reading!

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