Now and Forever

[B]ehold the … ensign of the republic … bearing for its motto, no such miserable interrogatory as “What is all this worth?” nor those other words of delusion and folly, “Liberty first and Union afterwards” …
—Daniel Webster. Second Reply to Hayne. 27 January 1830. 



The work on Medinah’s Course #1, older-but-not-as-accomplished brother to Course #3, began almost as soon as the last putt was struck during this year’s Ryder Cup. Already the ‘scape looks more moon than land, perhaps like a battlefield after the cannon have been silenced. Quite a few trees have been taken out, in keeping with Tom Doak’s philosophy of emphasizing golf’s ground (rather than aerial) game. Still, as interesting as it might be to discuss the new routing Doak is creating, the more significant point about Medinah’s renovation is that it is likely one of the few projects that Doak, or any other architect, has going on American soil right now. Yet today might be one of the best opportunities ever for American golf architecture—assuming, that is, Americans can avoid two different hazards.

The first hazard might be presented by people who’d prefer we didn’t remember our own history: in this case, the fact that golf courses were once weapons in the fight against the Great Depression. While immediately on assuming office in early 1933 Franklin Roosevelt began the Federal Emergency Relief Agency—which, as reminds us, had the “authority to make direct cash payments to those with no other means of support,” amazing enough in this era when even relief to previously-honored homeowners is considered impossible—by 1935 that program had evolved into the Works Project Administration. By 1941, the WPA had invested $11.3 billion (in 1930s dollars!) in 8 million workers and such projects as 1,634 schools, 105 airports, 3,000 tennis courts, 3,300 dams, 5,800 mobile libraries. And lastly, but perhaps not leastly, 103 golf courses.

As per a fine website called The Living New Deal, dedicated to preserving the history of the New Deal’s contributions to American life, it’s possible to find that not only did these courses have some economic impact on their communities and the nation as a whole, but that some good courses got built—good enough to have had an impact on professional golf. The University of New Mexico’s North Course, for instance, was the first golf course in America to measure more than 7000 yards—today is the standard for professional-length golf courses—and was the site of a PGA Tour stop in 1947. The second 18-hole course in New Orleans’ City Park—a course built by the WPA—was host to the New Orleans Open for decades.

Great architects designed courses built by the WPA. Donald Ross designed the George Wright Golf Course in Boston, opened in 1938. A.W. Tillinghast designed the Black course at Bethpage State Park, opened in the depths of the Depression in 1936. George Wright is widely acclaimed as one of Ross’ best designs, while the Black hosted the first U.S. Open held at a government-owned golf course, in 2002, and then held an encore in 2009. Both Opens were successful: Tiger won the first, Lucas Glover the second, and six players, total, were under par in the two tournaments. In 2012, Golf Digest rated it #5 in its list of America’s toughest courses—public or private. (Course #3 at Medinah ranked 16th.)

Despite all that, some time ago one Raymond Keating at the Foundation for Economic Education wrote that “Bethpage represents what is wrong with … golf.” He also claimed that “there is no justification whatsoever for government involvement in the golf business.” But, aside from the possibility of getting another Bethpage Black, there are a number of reasons for Americans to invest in golf courses or other material improvements to their lives, whether it be high-speed rail or re-constructed bridges, at the moment.

The arguments by the economists can be, and are, daunting, but one point that everyone may agree on is that it is unlikely that Americans will ever again be able to borrow money on such attractive terms: as Elias Isquith put it at the website The League of Ordinary Gentlemen, the bond market is “still setting interest rates so low it’s almost begging the US to borrow money.” The dollars that we repay these loans with, in short, will in all likelihood—through the workings of time and inflation—be worth less than the ones on offer now. That’s one reason why Paul Krugman, the Nobel Prize-winning economist, says that “the danger for next year is not that the [federal] deficit will be too large but that it will be too small, and hence plunge America back into recession.” By not taking advantage of this cheap money that is, essentially, just lying there, America is effectively leaving productive forces (like Tom Doak’s company) idle, instead of engaging them in work: the labor that grows our economy.

America, thusly, has an historic opportunity for golf: given that American companies, like Tom Doak’s or Rees Jones’ or Pete Dye’s or Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore’s, or any number of others, are at the forefront of golf design today, it would be possible to create any number of state-of-the-art golf courses that would first, stimulate our economy, and secondly, reward American citizens with some of the finest facilities on the planet at what would be essentially little to no cost. And, it might be worth bringing up, maybe that could help us with regard to that troublesome series of golf events known as the Ryder Cup: maybe a generation of golfers weaned on fine public, instead of private, courses might understand the ethos of team spirit better than the last several ensembles fielded by our side.

Unless, that is, another faction of American citizens has their sway. On the outskirts of San Francisco, there is a golf course known as Sharp Park. It was originally designed by Alastir MacKenzie, the architect who also designed Cypress Point and Pasatiempo, in California, and public golf courses for both the University of Michigan and the Ohio State University (both thought to be among the finest college courses in the world)—and also a course for a small golf club named the Augusta National Golf Club. Sharp Park remains the only public course MacKenzie designed on the ocean, and MacKenzie’s goal in designing it was to create “the finest municipal golf course in America”—a goal that, present-day conditioning aside, many experts would say he succeeded, or nearly succeeded, in doing.

Unfortunately, a small number of “environmentalists,” as reported by San Francisco’s “alternate” newspaper, SFWeekly, now “want the site handed over to the National Park Service for environmental restoration.” According to a story by Golf Digest, the activists “contend it harms two endangered species, the San Francisco garter snake and California red-legged frog.” A year ago, though, a federal judge found that, contrary to the environmentalists’ accusations, “experts for both sides agree[d] that the overall Sharp Park frog population has increased during the last 20 years.” Ultimately, in May of this year, the judge found the evidence that the golf course’s existence harmed the two endangered species so weak that the court in effect dismissed the lawsuit, saying it were better that the public agencies responsible for monitoring the two species continued to do their job, rather than the judiciary.

I bring all of this up because, in investigating the case of Sharp Park, it is hard to avoid considering that the source of the environmentalists’ actions wasn’t so much concern for the two species—which, it must be pointed out, appear to be doing fine, at least within the boundaries of the park—as it was animosity towards the sport of golf itself. The “anti-Sharp Park” articles I consulted, for instance, such as the SF Weekly piece I mentioned above, did not see fit to note Alister MacKenzie’s involvement in the course’s design. Omissions like that are a serious weakness, in my view, to any claim of objectivity regarding the case.

Still, regardless of the facts in this particular case, the instance of Sharp Park may be illustrative of a particular form of “leftism” can be, in its own way, as defeatist and gloomy as that species of “conservatism” that would condemn us to lifetimes of serving the national debt. Had we a mass “environmental movement” in the 1930s, in other words, how many of those golf courses—not to mention all of the other projects constructed by the WPA and other agencies—would have gotten built?

That isn’t to say, of course, that anyone is in favor of dirty air or water; far from it. It is, though, to say that, for a lot of so-called leftists, the problem with America is Americans, and that that isn’t too far from saying, with conservatives and Calvin Coolidge, that the “business of the American people is business.” We can choose to serve other masters, one supposes—whether they be of the future or the past—but I seem to recall that America isn’t supposed to work that way. The best articulation of the point, as it so occurs, may have been delivered precisely one hundred and forty-nine years ago on the 19th of November, over a shredded landscape over which the guns had drawn quiet.

I’ll give you a hint: it included the phrase “of the people, by the people, for the people.”


Telegraphing A Punch

From his intense interest in the telegraph, Lincoln developed what Garry Wills calls a ‘telegraphic eloquence,’ with a ‘monosyllabic and staccato beat’ that gave Lincoln a means of ‘say[ing] a great deal in the fewest words’”
—Sarah Luria, Capital Speculations: Writing and Building Washington D.C.

“Well,” I said, “I wanted to indicate to you that, while I had not shot the distance”—that is, used a rangefinder to measure it, since I don’t have one—“yet still I felt pretty confident about it.” We were on the eighteenth hole at Butler, which was our ninth hole. Mr. B., the member I was working for, was rebuking me for breaking one of the cardinal rules of looping: a good caddie never adds a caveat. All yardages are “154” or “87” or such; never “about 155” or “just shy of 90.” He was right: what I’d said was “either 123 or 24,” which isn’t exact in a narrow sense, but conveyed what I wanted it to convey. The point raised, however, became apparent only recently; in a broader sense because of the recent election, and in a more particular sense because of a party I’d attended shortly before.

The party was in Noble Square, one of those Chicago neighborhoods now infested with hipsters, women working at non-profits, and “all that dreary tribe of high-minded women and sandal-wearers and bearded fruit-juice drinkers who come flocking toward the smell of ‘progress’ like bluebottles to a dead cat,” as George Orwell once referred to the tribe. The food provided by the host was not just vegetarian but vegan, and so just that much more meritorious: the woman whose guest I was seemed to imply that the host, whose food we were eating, was somehow closer to the godhead than the rest of us. Of that “us,” there were not many; most were women while, of the three men present, one was certainly gay while the other wasn’t obviously so, and the third was me.

All of which sounds pretty awful, and almost certainly I’m going to catch hell for writing such so I’ll hurry to explain that everything wasn’t all bad. There was, for instance, a dog. So often, when attending such affairs, it’s necessary to listen to some explanation of the owner’s cat: how it cannot eat such and such, or needs such and such medicines, or how it was lost and became found—stories that, later, can become mixed up with said owner’s parallel stories of boyfriends discovered and discarded, so that it’s unclear whether that male of the species discovered in an alley outside of the Empty Bottle was of the human or feline variety. But a dog is usually a marker of some healthy kind of sense of irony about one’s beliefs: dogs, or so some might say, encourage a sociality that precludes the aloofness necessary for genocide.

I bring this up because one of the topics of conversation; one of the women present, a social worker by training, was discussing the distinction between her own leadership style and that of one her colleagues, both being supervisors of some kind. One of the other women present noted that it was difficult at times for women to assert that role: women, she said, often presented their ideas with diffidence and hesitancy. And so, as the women around nodded in agreement, sometimes ideas that were actually better got ignored, just because of what was essentially a better rhetorical technique.

As it happens, all of the women at said party—all of them, presumably, Obama voters—were white, which is just why I should have remembered the event just after the presidential election, upon reading a short John Cassidy piece in the New Yorker. There, Cassidy points out that, in the aftermath, a lot of ink has been spilled on the subject of why Obama lost the white male vote so disastrously—by twenty-seven percentage points—while simultaneously winning the women’s vote: Obama “carried the overall female vote by eleven [percentage] points” Cassidy notes. (The final total was 55% to 44%.) Yet the story of the “gender gap” papers over another disconnect: it’s true that Obama won over women as a distinct set of people, he actually lost one subset of women: white women.

Romney’s success among white women, in fact, is one reason why he did better among women in general than did the previous Republican candidate for the presidency, John McCain. In 2008, “Obama got fifty-six per cent of the female vote and John McCain got forty-three per cent,” which, even if the margin of error is taken into account, at least indicates that Obama did not make further inroads into the woman vote than he’d already made four years ago. And the reason Obama did not capture a greater percentage of women voters was that he lost white women: “Romney got fifty-six per cent of the white female vote; Obama got just forty-two per cent.” The question to be put to this fact is, obviously, what distinguishes white women from other women, or at least what it was about Mitt Romney that appealed to white women, and only white women.

Clearly there must be some commonality between Caucasian women and men: “Surely,” Cassidy says, “many of the same factors that motivated white male Romney supporters played into the decision-making of white female Romney supporters.” After all, both “are shaped by the same cultural and economic environment.” The explanatory factor that Cassidy finds is economic: “The reason Romney did a bit better … among white women is probably that they viewed him as a stronger candidate on economic issues, which are as important to women as to men.” Obviously, though, this begs the question: why did white women find Romney more persuasive on economic matters?

That, to be sure, is a very large question, and I wouldn’t presume to answer it here. What I would suggest, however, is that there might be a relationship between those results, the first presidential debate, and the anecdote with which I began this piece. If white people voted more for Romney, it might be because of one of the qualities he exhibited in the first presidential debate in early October: as many commenters noted afterward, Romney was “crisp and well-organized” in the words of one pundit, while President Obama was “boring [and] abstract” in the words of another. Romney was gut-punching, while Obama was waving his fists in the air.

Maybe Romney’s performance in that debate illustrated just why he should have been the candidate of white America: he, at least in early October if not elsewhere during the campaign, understood and used a particular rhetorical style to greater effect than Obama did. And, apparently, it worked: he did have greater success than Obama among the audience attuned to that appeal. In turn, what my experience at Butler might—perhaps—illustrate is just how that audience might be constructed: by what mechanisms is power sorted, and how are those mechanisms distributed?

If Romney achieved success among white Americans because he was briefer and more to the point than Obama—itself rather a whopper, it may be—then it remains to understand just why that should appeal to that particular audience. And maybe the experience of caddies demonstrates just why that should be so: as I mentioned at the start, the habit of saying “154” instead of “155 or so” is something that’s inculcated early among caddies, and while it might be taught in, say, the public schools, there’s something wonderfully clarifying about learning when there’s money at stake. White kids exposed to caddieing, in other words, probably take the lesson more to heart than other kids.

All of this of course is a gossamer of suppositions, but perhaps there’s something to it. Yet, if there is, Obama’s election in the teeth of Romney’s success among Caucasian voters also may forecast something else: that the old methods of doing things are no longer as significant, and may even be no longer viable. In caddieing, the old methods of saying a yardage aren’t as important: since everyone has a range finder (a device that tells the distance) it isn’t nearly as important to suppress uncertainties about what the actual distance is because there aren’t any uncertainties any more. (This actually isn’t true, because range finders themselves aren’t as accurate as, say, pin location sheets are, and anyway they still can’t tell you what club to hit.) Maybe, in part because of technologies and the rest, in the future it won’t be as necessary to compress information, and hence the ability to do that won’t be as prized. If so, we’ll exist in a world that’s unrecognizable to a lot of people in this one.

Including, I suspect, Mr. B.