“Country clubs and cemeteries are the biggest wasters of prime real estate!”
—Al Czervik (Rodney Dangerfield)
As I write it’s been a month since the Ryder Cup—it’s Halloween in fact—and I’ve been thinking about the thirteenth hole. The back tee on the thirteenth hole on Medinah’s Course Three is about a hundred yards behind the most forward tee-box on the par-three hole, and perhaps fifteen feet higher; during the Cup, viewers often witnessed Michael Jordan lying on the grass next to that tee, watching the players send their shots soaring through the slot in the trees and out over Lake Khadijah where, for the first time, the golf ball is exposed to whatever wind is there. It’s one of the most photogenic spots on Medinah’s property: while the first tee is a popular spot, the reigning photographic champion of Medinah’s Course Three is the back tee on the thirteenth hole. There are, it seems, a number of people who think they know why.
The thirteenth, for those who haven’t been there, is a very long three-par hole: two hundred and fifty yards long, give or take, and the tee shot has to carry part of Medinah’s Lake Khadijah (named after Muhammad’s wife) in order to reach the green. Most amateurs are content to take a picture from the height, then climb down to a more comfortable elevation—their cameras, after all, usually have more chance of capturing the green than their clubs do. It’s at this point, as a writer named Steve Sailer might put it, where the Anglo-Irish writer Edmund Burke (chiefly remembered as being a member of the British Parliament not unfriendly to the American Revolution, who later was an enemy of the French one), comes in.
Burke, to those with uneasy educations, first came to prominence via a book about the distinction between the beautiful and what he called the sublime. In an essay entitled, “From Bauhaus to the Golf Course: The Rise, Fall, and Revival of Golf Course Architecture,” Sailer notes that Burke’s distinction fits golf courses quite well, because while for Burke the “beautiful is … meadows, valleys, slow moving streams, grassland intermingled with copses of trees, the whole English country estate shtick,” the “sublime is nature so magnificent that it induces the feeling of terror because it could kill you, such as by falling off a mountain or into a gorge.” Or at least, the golf course is “the mock sublime, where you are in danger of losing not your life, but your mis-hit golf ball into a water hazard or ravine” or such.
The thirteenth is a good example of the “mock sublime”; while it’s true that no one is likely to die by falling off the tee, it is true that a great many hopes have been dashed, or at least threatened, there. Sam Snead, who had four runner-up finishes in the US Open over his career, missed the green during the final round of the 1949 edition, made bogey—and missed a playoff with Cary Middlecoff by a stroke. Ben Crenshaw saw his chances to get into the playoff at the 1975 US Open dowsed in the lake. In 1999 Tiger Woods, like Snead fifty years before, missed the green in the final round and it led to a double bogie—though, while Tiger’s over-par score allowed Sergio Garcia’s dramatic shot from behind a tree on the sixteenth hole to matter, it didn’t end up costing him the tournament.
At any rate, at times I’ll find myself behind somebody’s iPhone taking a picture of the foursome on that tee, looking down towards the distant flag. People like Sailer are dissatisfied by answering the question, “Why?” with invocations of past disasters or the musings of 18th century philosophers. For Sailer and the rest it seems that a Harvard biologist has produced just the right balm for this intellectual itch. Sailer himself notes the source of that balm in his essay, but it’s also been mentioned by David Owen—author of The Chosen One (about Tiger Woods) and a writer for the New Yorker among other places—in his blog.
Owen has been reading the biologist Edward O. Wilson’s recent book, The Social Conquest of the Earth, and in it the esteemed Harvard sociobiologist claims that human beings desire three items in their surroundings: they “want to be on a height looking down, they prefer open savanna-like terrain with scattered trees and copses, and they want to be close to a body of water, such as a river, lake, or ocean.” The reason for these three desires is, Owen says that Wilson says, because of an “‘innate affiliation’ that humans feel with landscapes that resemble ‘those environments in which our species evolved over millions of years in Africa.’” An affiliation that, surely, is satisfied by the heights of the back tee on the thirteenth hole; QED.
All of it sounds quite tidy as an explanation. People who think like this, however, might consider Sam Snead’s remark at a major championship contested only three years before the contest at Medinah. As his train pulled into town for the 1946 Open Championship (the proper name for the British Open), Snead infamously remarked that St. Andrews’ Old Course—the one that’s had golfers on it since the fifteenth century—looked like “an old, abandoned golf course.” (Unlike Medinah three years later, and despite his remark, Snead won the tournament.) At first look, Snead’s comment sounds like the same kind of humorous remark made by the “hillbilly” who once asked his agent how his photo got into a New York paper “when I ain’t never been there.” (Snead said later that he was just pulling legs.) But what Snead said isn’t just that.
It’s also a marker of time’s passage: how the look of St. Andrews had, by the 1940s, stopped being synonymous with “golf course.” By then, “golf course” meant something different. Not long before, that is, Snead’s comment would not have been understandable. “The chosen home of golf, its ‘most loved abode,’” wrote the writer and artist Garden Grant Smith in The World of Golf in 1898, “is the links, or common land, which is found by the seashore.” As John Paul Newport wrote in the Wall Street Journal about St. Andrews in 2010, links courses were built on “coastal waste land used for golf initially because it was unsuitable for farming.” And what’s most noticeable, or perhaps rather unnoticeable, about links golf courses as opposed to other kinds of golf courses is just what links courses don’t have: trees.
If trees could grow on that land, in other words, Scotsmen would have farmed it. So no true links course has any trees on it, which is how all golf courses looked—until the end of the nineteenth century. The course whose building signaled that shift was Willie Park, Jr.’s design of Sunningdale’s “Old Course” (it wasn’t called the Old Course when it was opened, of course) in 1901. The construction of Sunningdale’s first course had such an impact in part because of who its designer was: in addition to winning the Open twice himself, in 1887 and 1889, Park was the son of Willie Park, Sr., who not only had won the first Open Championship ever held, at Prestwick in 1860, but then won it again three more times. Junior’s uncle, Mungo Park, who is not to be confused with the explorer of the same name, also won the Open, in 1874.
Whatever Park did, in other words, came pretty close to defining what golf was: imagine the kind of authority Gary Nicklaus would have if in addition to his dad’s victories, he’d won the US Open twice, and so did one of his brothers. Anyway, according to Wikipedia’s entry on Sunningdale Golf Club Park’s design was “set in a heathland area, with sandy subsoil amid mixed treed foliage,” and was “among the first successful courses located away from the seaside, as many people had thought at the time that turf would not grow well in such regions.” The success of Sunningdale and Park’s Huntercombe—also opened in 1901 and where, later, James Bond would own a 9 handicap—proved to the traditionalists that golf could be played away from the sea.
Park’s later designs, like Olympia Field’s North course, further demonstrated that golf courses could be designed with trees on them. In retrospect, of course, that move would appear inevitable: as Garden Grant Smith observed in 1898, “we cannot all live by the seaside, and as we must apparently all play golf, we must take it where and how we can.” If proximity to the ocean was necessary to the game, it would still be a curious Scottish custom and not a worldwide sport.
It’s hard to think, then, that somehow golf is popular because it replicates the look of a landscape that, surely, only a small percentage of human beings ever experienced: the landscape of some percentage of Africa’s vastness. Consider, for instance, the description offered in 1865 by a Scotsman named William Saunders about a project he was working on: “The disposition of trees and shrubs is such as will ultimately produce a considerable degree of landscape effect” by working together with the “spaces of lawn provided” to “form vistas … showing … prominent points.” The effect aimed for by Saunders, in other words, sounds similar to that described by Wilson: grassy lawns interrupted here and there by copses of trees, arranged so as to open up what Saunders calls a “pleasure ground effect.” Saunders’ project, in short, sounds very like a modern golf course—and support for Wilson’s theory.
Yet what Saunders was describing was not a new golf course, but rather the design for a new kind of park: the national cemetery at Gettysburg, built in the aftermath of the great battle. I found Saunders’ remarks contained in a book entitled Lincoln at Gettysburg, and the book’s author, Garry Wills, takes pains to trace the connections between what ultimately got constructed in that Pennsylvania town and its forebears. The American source for the design of the Gettysburg burial ground, Wills says, was a cemetery built outside of Boston in 1831. Called Mount Auburn, it was it seems a place so well-known in the nineteenth-century that it even introduced the word “cemetery”—a word whose origin is Greek—to American English.
Like that of its Pennsylvania progeny a generation later, Mount Auburn would consist of “shady groves in the neighborhood of murmuring streams and merry fountains,” as Justice Story of the United States Supreme Court would say in a speech at Mount Auburn’s opening. These new places were to be unlike the churchyard, the former place of American burials; rather than urban, these places would be rural: “an escape from the theological gloom of churchyards, a return to nature,” as Wills says.
Mount Auburn, in turn, had its genesis in Pére Lachaise, the cemetery in Paris now best known to Americans as the final resting place of Jim Morrison, leader of the American band the Doors. Opened in 1804, Pére Lachaise was meant to be an alternative to the crowded churchyards of Paris; “outside the precincts of the city,” as the place’s Wikipedia entry reads. Alexandre Brongniart, the cemetery’s architect, imagined “an English garden mingled with a contemplation place,” as one website describes it. And Pére Lachaise was meant to supersede the old churchyards in another way as well: “Every citizen has the right to be buried regardless of race or religion,” declared Napoleon Bonaparte on the occasion of the cemetery’s opening—a line with an especial resonance in the context of Gettysburg.
That resonance, in fact, might intimate that those who wish to trace golf’s attraction back to Africa have other motives in mind. “In the US,” writes David Givens—director of the Center for Nonverbal Studies—in Psychology Today, “according to Golf magazine, ninety-eight percent of CEOs play golf.” According to Givens, golf’s centrality to modern American business culture is by no means arbitrary. “Stalking through grassy fields in close-knit, face-to-face groups, sticks in hand,” Givens says, “business people enjoy the same concentration, competition, and camaraderie their ancestors once experienced in Africa.” In other words, golf is popular because it is a lot like hunting a wildebeest.
“On the geological time scale,” writes John McPhee in Annals of the Former World, “a human lifetime is reduced to a brevity that is too inhibiting to think about deep time”—sometimes human beings like to castigate themselves for not thinking sufficiently long term. But it’s also wise, perhaps, not to follow all leads down to the rabbit hole of deep time’s abyss: this notion of golf’s appeal doesn’t do a great deal to explain why the golf course only began to resemble the African plain—if it has—within the past century, nor does it particularly explain why golf courses should resemble nineteenth-century cemeteries.
To believe Wilson and his followers, that is, we would have to believe not only that golf courses are more like Kenya than they are like Pennsylvania, but also that somehow those infinitely tiny bits of plasma known DNA somehow contains within it memories of an African past, and that those bits somehow trump the ideas championed by Napoleon and Lincoln—and those ideas are, perhaps, at least as plausible as the idea that a player’s golf clubs, and not just his cell phone’s camera, can capture the green from the back tee at the thirteenth hole.