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 Encyclopedia.com 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.”

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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 djmedinah@yahoo.com. Thanks for reading!

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