I’d been a bit late to the course that day, as the traffic from the city was slightly delayed due to the Chicago teachers’ strike, but I’d made it soon enough to find myself saying to the head pro from some course in Michigan I’d never heard of a few hours earlier that “It doesn’t matter what club you hit, so long as it’s straight.” He didn’t seem to follow what I was saying, so I just let it go. After a point, there’s little to be gained—the student, after all, has to want to learn, as the golf instruction manuals like to say. But he did hit it straight, and it was only once he was out in the fairway again that it occurred to me just what it was that bothered me about this hole.
“It makes you hit a good shot,” the pro said, and so he concluded with “what a great hole.” The hole in question, the fourth on Rich Harvest Farms’ Silver nine (which is usually the thirteenth for the members), is named the “Devil’s Elbow” on the yardage book. (I’m not usually a fan of naming holes, unless they’ve been around so long they’ve acquired their own.) The Farms’ own website calls it the “most demanding tee shot in golf,” because it “requires an absolute[ly] perfect shot to a small landing area.” I don’t know about whether it’s the “most demanding”; what I do know is that the shot is through an unbelievably narrow chute of trees. You expect Luke Skywalker at the tee to tell you how it’s just like hitting Whomp Rats.
What he left out was that the hole’s design actually forced a good shot (or rather, a particular shot), and that a lot of people would think that a sign of poor, not great, design. Here, for instance, is the website Golf Club Atlas, that Internet bastion of golf architecture snobbery, describing the fourth hole at Riviera: “On this option-strewn one-shotter, every golfer is free to chart his own path based on the day’s playing conditions and the state of his game.” Real golf architecture types, I’ve discovered, revere courses like St. Andrews, or Augusta, or Riviera, because on those courses you can play each hole differently from day to day. The point made by the Golf Club Atlas people would be, I suppose, that the notion of a single “perfect” kind of shot is laughably provincial.
It’s a provincialism that seems epidemic to Chicago’s golf courses, at least according to many architecture buffs. Chicago has, I think, become known for long and utterly penal golf courses, the kind of course that demands one and only one type of shot every time. That’s one reason why the Golf Club Atlas’ entry for Lake Bluff’s Shoreacres should sniff that “among the many 7,000 yard broad shouldered courses around this area, Shoreacres remains unique as it provides quite the challenge while still measuring under 6,600 yards.” Or that Bradley Klein, of Golfweek, should have once called Medinah’s Course Three “stunningly mediocre.” Were it not already used by a failed television series, Golf Club Atlas could perhaps go on to describe a “Chicago Code”—a kind of totalitarian ethos of golf.
I should maybe backtrack here a bit and describe how I’d ended up at Rich Harvest in the first place: after leaving Medinah in August, when Course Three had basically shut down, I’d gone to Butler National, the only club in Chicago generally thought to possess Medinah’s equal as a golf course. But the loops there were mostly single bags; by working there I was essentially cutting my income in half.
In late August, though, I’d played Butler for the first time; as dusk descended on the course, I ran into a buddy who had a guy who worked at Rich Harvest with him—and that guy essentially pleaded with me to come caddie at his golf course. They had almost no one to caddie there now, with the kids back in school. (At least, the ones way out here—some fifty miles from Chicago—who were unaffected by the teacher strike.) Meanwhile, demand to play Rich Harvest, in part because of the coming Ryder Cup, was rising.
Hence I’d ended up at Rich Harvest, and looping for Jerry Rich, because Jerry is the kind of micro-managing bazillionaire—totalitarian, one might say, if that didn’t cheapen the word—who needs to approve everything about his place down to the level of the caddies, and so to get the highest rate of pay I needed to have his approval. Yet despite this autocratic method of operating—of a kind laughable since The Great Gatsby, which was a rewriting of Horatio Alger’s myths of the self-made man, like Ragged Dick—it’s still likely Jerry would object to the notion of his course being in anyway comparable to Medinah or Butler’s heavy-handedness.
After all, he could point to the fact that Rich Harvest was built originally using only six greens, but played to 18 holes anyway because of the strategic use of multiple tee boxes, which allows some holes to be played anywhere from par-3s to par-5s. Some holes, like the seventh on the Silver nine (the sixteenth for the member routing), have more than one fairway. Yet there are still a number of oddities about the place that, I think, would disallow it the favor of the Golf Club Atlas types.
The approach to the eighth hole on the Gold nine is, for instance, a pretty ridiculous shot: the green is only 22 yards deep (the course description calls it a “narrow” green when what is meant is “shallow”) while fronting a pond. And even 22 yards is an exaggeration: the green is boomerang-shaped, so that each side (right and left) is actually even shallower. The fifth green on the Silver nine is even worse: only 18 yards to a similarly-boomeranged green, and that green is even more absurdly sloped. These aren’t really golf holes so much as they are carnival rides.
Still, there is something annoying about the Golf Club Atlas people, but it took me a while to realize just what it is. They are militant defenders of the idea of “choice”—a fraught notion these days, when so many people are in favor of “choice” when it comes to schools but not so much when it comes to women’s bodies. One of the issues of the teachers’ strike in Chicago, for instance, is the machinations of an organization called Stand for Children, a group the Huffington Post has described “a non-profit education reform group advocating for the inclusion of standardized test scores in teacher evaluations, charter schools and decreased teacher union power.” The million dollars—funded, it seems, by “hedge fund billionaires” and other such characters—the group’s PAC has spread around to politicians in Illinois helped to fund Illinois Senate Bill 7, “which made teacher tenure and layoffs contingent on achievement and rearranged teachers’ salary schedules to align with evaluations instead of seniority”—and also made it so the Chicago Teachers’ Union could only strike with a 75% majority vote.
The approved notions of golf architecture, that is, also map onto America’s changing relations to the wealthy: Golf Club Atlas describes the 1920s as the “Golden Age” of course design (and they are by no means alone in that), while conversely the period from “1949-1985” is the “dark ages of course design,” because “the vast majority of the courses built” then “were based on length, contain little variety and offer few options.” Or, in other words, were too much like Medinah.
Yet while, as the phrase goes, “correlation does not imply causation,” it’s interesting to meditate on the fact that, according to the statistics, the 1920s were the age of the greatest income differences in American history—until now, when (as one Thomas Frank has remarked), “gradually we are becoming reacquainted with pervasive inequality, the wrenching ‘social issue’ of our great-grandparents’ time.” And the period after the Second World War was also the age of the highest income taxes in our history: up to 90 per cent some years for people like, say, James Gatsby. (Or Jerry Rich.) Choice, in other words, is something that people like to hold up as something that’s just good, in and of itself—and maybe it’s true when it comes to golf, where everyone perhaps ought to be free to choose his own route to the goal of the target.
But maybe, sometimes, everybody ought to have the same, straight, shot.