High Anxiety

Now for our mountain sport …

Cymbeline 
Act III, Scene 3

High Hampton

Wade Hampton Golf Club Sign

Entrances to Wade Hampton Golf Club and High Hampton Inn and Country Club, North Carolina

Walt Whitman once said, as anyone who saw Bull Durham knows, that baseball would function to draw America together after the Civil War: the game, the poet said, would “repair our losses and be a blessing to us.” Many Americans have not lost this belief in the redemptive power of sports: as recently as 2011 John Boehner, then-Speaker of the House of Representatives, played a much-ballyhooed round of golf with President Barack Obama—along with many other outlets, Golf Digest presented the event as presaging a new era of American unity: the “pair can’t possibly spend four hours keeping score, conceding putts, complimenting drives, filling divots, retrieving pond balls, foraging for Pro V1s and springing for Kit Kats off the snack cart,” argued the magazine, “without finding greater common ground.” Golf would thusly be the antidote to what the late Columbia University history professor Richard Hofstadter, in 1964, called the “paranoid style”: the “heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy” that Hofstadter found to be a common theme in American politics then and whose significance has seemingly only grown since. Yet, while the surface approval of the “golf summit” seemed warranted because golf is, after all, a game that cannot really be played without trust in your opponents—it’s only on the assumption that everyone is honest that the game can even work—as everyone knows by now the summit failed: Boehner was, more or less, forced out of office this summer by those members of his party who, Boehner said, got “bent out of shape” over his golf with the president. While golf might, in other words, furnish a kind of theoretical model for harmonious bipartisanship, in practice it has proved largely useless for preventing political polarization—a result that anyone who has traveled Highway 107 in western North Carolina might have realized. Up there, among the Great Smoky Mountains, there sits a counterexample to the dream of political consensus: the Wade Hampton Golf Club.

Admittedly, that a single golf club could be strong enough evidence as to smack down the flights of fancy of a Columbia University professor like Hofstadter—and a Columbia University alumni like Barack Obama—might appear a bit much: there’s a seeming disconnect between the weightiness of the subject matter and the evidential value of an individual golf club. What could the existence of the Wade Hampton Golf Club add (or detract) from Hofstadter’s assertions about the dominance of this “paranoid style,” examples of which range from the anti-Communist speeches of Senator Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s to the anti-Catholic, “nativist” movements of the 1830s and 1840s to the Populist denunciations of Wall Street during the 1890s? Yet, the existence of the Wade Hampton Golf Club does constitute strong evidence against one of the pieces of evidence Hofstadter adduces for his argument—and in doing so unravels not only the rest of Hofstadter’s spell like a kitten does a ball of string, but also the fantasy of “bipartisanship.”

One of the examples of “paranoia” Hofstadter cited, in other words, was the belief held by “certain spokesmen of abolitionism who regarded the United States as being in the grip of a slaveholders’ conspiracy”—a view that, Hofstadter implied, was not much different than the contemporary belief that fluoridation was a Soviet plot. But a growing number of historians now believe that Hofstadter was wrong about those abolitionists: according to historian Leonard Richards of the University of Massachusetts, for instance, there’s a great deal of evidence for “the notion that a slaveholding oligarchy ran the country—and ran it for their own advantage” in the years prior to the Civil War. The point is more than an academic one: if it’s all just a matter of belief, then the idea of bipartisanship makes a certain kind of sense; all that matters is whether those we elect can “get along.” But if not, then that would suggest that what matters is building the correct institutions, rather than electing the right people.

Again, that seems like rather more question than the existence of a golf club in North Carolina seems capable of answering. The existence of the Wade Hampton Golf Club however tends to reinforce Richards’ view if, for nothing else, on its name alone: the very biography of the man the golf club was named for, Wade Hampton III, lends credence to Richards’ notion about the real existence of a slave-owning, oligarchical conspiracy because Hampton was after all not only a Confederate general during the Civil War, but also the possessor (according to the website for the Civil War Trust, which attempts to preserve Civil War battlefields) of “one of the largest collections of slaves in the South.” Hampton’s career, in other words, demonstrates just how entwined slaveowners were with the “cause” of the South—and if secession was largely the result of a slave-owning conspiracy during the winter of 1860, it becomes a great deal easier to think that said conspiracy did not spring fully grown only then.

Descended from an obscenely wealthy family whose properties stretched from near Charleston in South Carolina’s Lowcountry to Millwood Plantation near the state capital of Columbia and all the way to the family’s summer resort of “High Hampton” in the Smokies—upon the site of which the golf club is now built—Wade Hampton was intimately involved with the Southern cause: not only was he one of the richest men in the South, but at the beginning of the war he organized and financed a military unit (“Hampton’s Legion”) that would, among other exploits, help win the first big battle of the war, near the stream of Bull Run. By the end of the war Hampton became, along with Nathan Bedford Forrest, the only man without prior military experience to achieve the rank of lieutenant general. In that sense, Hampton was exceptional—only eighteen other Confederate officers achieved that rank—but in another he was representative: as recent historical work shows, much of the Confederate army had direct links to slavery.

As historian Joseph T. Glatthaar has put the point in his General Lee’s Army: From Victory to Collapse, “more than one in every four volunteers” for the Confederate army in the first year of the war “lived with parents who were slaveholders”—as compared with the general population of the South, in which merely one in every twenty white persons owned slaves. If non-family members are included, or if economic connections like those to whom soldiers rented land or sold crops prior to the war are allowed, then “the vast majority of the volunteers of 1861 had a direct connection to slavery.” And if the slaveowners could create an army that could hold off the power of the United States for four years, it seems plausible they might have joined together prior to outright hostilities—which is to say that Hofstadter’s insinuations about the relative sanity of “certain” abolitionists (among them, Abraham Lincoln) don’t have the same value as they may once have.

After all, historians have determined that the abolitionists were certainly right when they suspected the motives of the slaveowners. “By itself,” wrote Roger Ransom of the University of California not long ago, “the South’s economic investment in slavery could easily explain the willingness of Southerners to risk war … [in] the fall of 1860.” “On the eve of the war,” as another historian noted in the New York Times, “cotton comprised almost 60 percent of America’s exports,” and the slaves themselves, as yet another historian—quoted by Ta-Nehisi Coates in The Atlantic—has observed, were “the largest single financial asset in the entire U.S. economy, worth more than all manufacturing and railroads combined.” Collectively, American slaves were worth 3.5 billion dollars—at a time when the entire budget for the federal government was less than eighty million dollars. Quite literally, in other words, American slaveowners could buy the entire U.S. government roughly forty three times over.

Slaveowners thusly had, in the words of a prosecutor, both means and motive to revolt against the American government; what’s really odd about the matter, however, is that Americans have ever questioned it. The slaveowners themselves fully admitted the point at the time: in South Carolina’s “Declaration of the Immediate Causes which Adduce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union,” for instance, the state openly lamented the election of a president “whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery.” And not just South Carolina: “Seven Southern states had seceded in 1861,” as the dean of American Civil War historians James McPherson has put observed, “because they feared the incoming Lincoln administration’s designs on slavery.” When those states first met together at Montgomery, Alabama, in February of 1861 it took them only four days to promulgate what the New York Times called “a provisional constitution that explicitly recognized racial slavery”; in a March 1861 speech Alexander Stephens, who would become the vice president of the Confederate States of America, argued that slavery was the “cornerstone” of the new government. Slavery was, as virtually anyone who has seriously studied the matter has concluded, the cause motivating the Southern armies.

If so—if, that is, the slaveowners created an army so powerful that it could hold off the power of the United States for four years, simply in order to protect their financial interests in slave-owning—it then seems plausible they might have joined together prior to the beginning of outright hostilities. Further, if there was a “conspiracy” to begin the Civil War, then the claim that there was one in the years and decades before the war becomes just that much more believable. And if that possibility is tenable, then so is the claim by Richards and other historians—themselves merely following a notion that Abraham Lincoln himself endorsed in the 1850s—that the American constitution formed “a structural impediment to the full expression of Northern voting power” (as one reviewer has put it)—and that thusly the answer to political problems is not “bipartisanship,” or in other words, the election of friendlier politicians, but rather structural reform.

Such, at least, might be the lesson anyone might draw from the career of Wade Hampton III, Confederate general—in light of which it’s suggestive that the Wade Hampton Golf Club is not some relic of the nineteenth century. Planning for the club began, according to the club’s website, in 1982; the golf course was not completed until 1987, when it was named “Best New Private Course” by Golf Digest. More suggestive still, however, is the fact that under the original bylaws, “in order to be a member of the club, you [had] to own property or a house bordering the club”—rules that resulted, as one golfer has noted, in a club of “120 charter and founding members, all from below the Mason-Dixon Line: seven from Augusta, Georgia and the remainder from Florida, Alabama, and North Carolina.” “Such folks,” as Bradley Klein once wrote in Golfweek, “would have learned in elementary school that Wade Hampton III, 1818-1902, who owned the land on which the club now sits, was a prominent Confederate general.” That is, in order to become a member of Wade Hampton Golf Club you probably knew a great deal about the history of Wade Hampton III—and you were pretty ok with that.

The existence of the Wade Hampton Golf Club does not, to be sure, demonstrate a continuity between the slaveowners of the Old South and the present membership of the club that bears Hampton’s name. It is, however, suggestive to think that if it is true, as many Civil War historians now say, that prior to 1860 there was a conspiracy to maintain an oligarchic form of government, then what are we to make of a present in which—as former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich recently observed—“the richest one-hundreth of one percent of Americans now hold over 11 percent of the nation’s total wealth,” a proportion greater than at any time since before 1929 and the start of the Great Depression? Surely, one can only surmise, the answer is easier to find than a mountain hideaway far above the Appalachian clouds, and requires no poetic vision to see.

Advertisements

Green Jackets ’n’ Blackfaces

But if you close your eyes,
Does it almost feel like
Nothing’s changed all?
—“Pompeii”
    Bastille (2013)

 

 

Some bore will undoubtedly claim, this April week, that the Masters is unique among golf’s major tournaments because it is the only one held at the same course every year—a claim not only about as fresh as a pimento cheese sandwich but refuted by the architectural website Golf Club Atlas. “Augusta National,” the entry for the course goes on their website, “has gone through more changes since its inception than any of the world’s twenty or so greatest courses.” But the club’s jive by no means stops there; just as the club—and the journalists who cover the tournament—likes to pretend its course is timeless, so too does the club—what with the sepia photos of Bobby Jones, the talk of mint juleps, the bright azaleas, the “limited commercial interruptions” and the old-timey piano music of the tournament broadcast—like to pretend it is an island of “the South” in a Yankee sea. The performance is worthy of one of the club’s former members: Freeman Gosden, who became a member of Augusta National as a result of the riches and fame thrown off by the radio show he created in 1928 Chicago—Amos ’n’ Andy.

Gosden played Amos; his partner, Charles Correll, played Andy. The two actors had met in Durham, North Carolina in 1920, and began performing together in Chicago soon afterwards. According to Wikipedia, both were “familiar with minstrel traditions”: the uniquely American art form  in which white performers would sing and tell jokes and stories while pretending to be black, usually while wearing “blackpaint”—that is, covering their faces with black makeup. The show they created, about two black cab drivers, translated those minstrel traditions to radioand became the most successful minstrel show in American history. Amos ’n’ Andy lasted 32 years on the radio—the last performance came in 1960—and while it only lasted a few years on television in the early 1950s, the last rerun played on American air as late as 1966.

The successful show made Gosden and Correll made so rich, in fact, that by the early 1950s Gosden had joined the Augusta National Golf Club, and sometime thereafter the actor had become so accepted that he joined the group known as “the Gang.” This was a troop of seven golfers that formed around General Dwight Eisenhower—who had led the amphibious Allied invasion of France on the beaches of Normandy in 1944—after the former war hero was invited to join the club in 1948. Gosden had, in other words, arrived: there was, it seems, something inherently entertaining about a white men pretending to be something he wasn’t.

Gosden was however arguably not the only minstrel performer associated with Augusta National: the golf architecture website Golf Club Atlas claims that the course itself performs a kind of minstrelry. Originally, Augusta’s golf course was designed by famed golf architect Alister MacKenzie, who also designed such courses as Cypress Point in California and Crystal Downs in Michigan, in consultation with Bobby Jones, the great player who won 13 major championships. As a headline from The Augusta Chronicle, the town’s local newspaper, once proclaimed, “MacKenzie Made Jones’ Dream Of Strategic Course Into Reality.” But in the years since, the course has been far from timeless: as Golf Club Atlas points out, in fact it has gone through “a slew of changes from at least 15 different ‘architects.’” As it now stands, the course is merely pretending to be a MacKenzie.

Nearly every year since the Masters began in 1934, the course has undergone some tweak or another: whereas, once “Augusta National could have been considered amongst the two or three most innovative designs ever,” it has now been so altered—according to the Golf Club Atlas article—that to “call it a MacKenzie course is false advertising as his features are essentially long gone.” To say that course Tiger Woods won on is the same as the one that Jack Nicklaus or Ben Hogan won on, thus, is to make a mockery of history.

The primary reason the Atlas can make that claim stick is because the golf club has flouted Jones’ and MacKenzie’s original intent, which was to build a course like one they both revered: the Old Course at St. Andrews. Jones loved the Old Course so much that, famously, he was later made an honorary citizen of the town, while for his part MacKenzie wrote a book—not published until decades after his death in 1995—called The Spirit of St. Andrews. And as anyone familiar with golf architecture knows, the Old Course is distinguished by the “ground game”: where the golfer does better to keep his ball rolling along the ground, following its contours, rather than flying it through the air.

As Golf Club Atlas observes, “Jones and MacKenzie both shared a passion for the Old Course at St. Andrews, and its influence is readily apparent in the initial design” because “the ground game was meant to be the key at Augusta National.” That intent, however, has been lost; in a mordant twist of history, the reason for that loss is arguably due to the success of the Masters tournament itself.

“Ironically, hosting the Masters has ruined one of MacKenzie’s most significant designs,” says the Atlas, because “much of the money that the club receives from the Invitational is plowed back into making changes to the course in a misguided effort to protect par.” Largely, “protecting par” has been interpreted by the leadership of the golf club to mean “to minimize the opportunity for the ground game.” As Rex Hoggard—repeating a line heard about the course for decades—wrote in an article for the Golf Channel’s website in 2011, it’s “important to hit the ball high at Augusta National”—a notion that would be nonsensical if Jones and MacKenzie’s purpose had been kept in view.

In short, the Atlas understands—perhaps shockingly—that “an invitation to play Augusta National remains golf’s most sought-after experience,” it thus also believes that “fans of Alister MacKenzie would be better served to look elsewhere for a game.” Though the golf club, and the television coverage, might work to present the course as a static beauty, in fact that effect is achieved through endless surgeries that have effectively made the course other than it was. The Augusta National golf course, thus, is a kind of minstrel.

Similarly, the presentation of the golf club as a specifically Southern institution—perhaps above all, by ensuring that the chairman of the club, the only member who regularly speaks to the media, possesses a Georgia drawl (as recent chairmen Hootie Johnson and Billy Payne have)—is belied by the club’s history. Consider, in that light, a story from the beginnings of the club itself, a story ably told in Curt Sampson’s The Masters: Golf, Money, and Power in Augusta, Georgia.

In January of 1933—the depths of the Great Depression—a New York investment banker named Clifford Roberts approached the Southern Railroad System with a proposal: “comfortable conveyance for one hundred New Yorkers to and from Augusta, Georgia”—at a discount. “Business was so bad,” Roberts himself would later write in his history of the golf club, “that the railroad promised not only a special low rate, but all new Pullman equipment with two club cars for card players and two dining cars.” In this way, Sampson writes, “the grand opening of the Augusta National Golf Club began in a railroad station in New York City.”

Most golf fans, if they are aware of the club that holds the tournament at all, only know that it was founded by Bobby Jones when he retired from competitive golf following the annus mirabilis of 1930, when Jones won the Grand Slam of all four major tournaments in the same year. But, as Sampson’s story demonstrates, it was Clifford Roberts that made Jones’ vision a reality by raising the money to build it—and that money came largely from New York, not the South.

Sixty of the 100 men Roberts recruited to join the club before it opened were from New York City: the Augusta National Golf Club would be, as Sampson puts it, “a private enclave for rich Yankees in the heart of the South, just sixty-eight years after the Civil War.” Sampson calls the idea “bizarre”—but in fact, it only is if one has a particularly narrow idea of “the South.” Augusta National’s status as a club designed to allow Yankees to masquerade as Southerners only seems ridiculous if it’s assumed that the very idea of “the South” itself is not a kind of minstrelry—as, in fact, it arguably is.

Links between New York finance and the South, that is, long predated the first golf shot at the new course. It’s often forgotten, for instance, that—as historians Charles and John Lockwood pointed out in the New York Times in 2011—after South Carolina declared it would secede in December of 1860, “the next call for secession would not come from a Southern state, but from a Northern city—New York.”

On 7 January of the bleak “Secession Winter” of ’61, the two historians note, New York’s mayor, Fernando Wood, spoke to the city council to urge that it follow the Southern state and secede. The mayor was merely articulating the “pro-Southern and pro-independence sentiment” of the city’s financiers and traders—a class buoyed up by the fact that “the city’s merchants took 40 cents of every dollar that Europeans paid for Southern cotton.” The Southern staple (and the slaves whose labor grew that crop), had in other words “helped build the new marble-fronted mercantile buildings in lower Manhattan, fill Broadway hotels and stores with customers, and build block after block of fashionable brownstones north of 14th Street.” Secession of the South put all those millions of dollars at risk: to protect its investments, thus Mayor Wood was proposing, New York might have to follow the South out of the Union.

Such a move would have had disastrous consequences. The city was the site of the vast Brooklyn Navy Yard, which in the months after the fall of Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor would assemble the fleet that not only would blockade the Southern coast, but would, in November of ’61, land an army at Hilton Head, South Carolina, the heart of secessionism—a fleet only exceeded by the armada General Eisenhower would gather against Normandy in the late winter and spring of 1944. But even more importantly, in that time the taxes collected by the New York Customs House virtually paid the entire federal government’s budget each year.

“In 1860,” as the Lockwoods write, “tariffs on imported goods collected at ports … provided $56 million of the $64.6 million of federal revenue, and more than two-thirds of imports by value passed through New York.” If New York seceded, in other words, the administration of president-elect Abraham Lincoln would be bankrupt before it took office: the city, as it were, held the nation’s government by a golden leash.

But New York City did not follow the South out of the Union: when the cannons fired at Fort Sumter that April, New York joined the rest of the nation in confirming the sentiments of Daniel Webster’s Second Reply to Hayne: “Liberty and Union, Now and Forever, One and Inseparable!” Over a hundred thousand would turn out to the “Great Sumter Rally” at (the appropriately-named) Union Square in the city on 20 April, after the fall of the federal fort in Charleston Harbor. It was, perhaps, the largest expression of New York’s patriotism before the fall of the towers overlooking the city at the dawn of the twenty-first century.

Mayor Wood himself spoke at that rally to affirm his support for “the Union, the government, the laws and the flag”—reversing his course from mere months before, a turn that perhaps has served to obscure how close the city’s ties were to a region, and economic system, that had turned away from all of those institutions. But just because it was politically expedient to deny them did not conjure them away. Indeed, the very existence of the Augusta National Golf Club is testament to just how enduring those ties between New York and the Deep South may be.

Still, of course, none of these acts of minstrelry—the golf course’s masquerade as the work of a designer whose work barely survives, the golf club’s disguise as a Southern institution when in fact it has been largely the work of Yankee financiers, or even the South’s own pretense—could be said to matter, really, now. Except for one detail: those links, some might say, extend into the present: perhaps the biggest story in American political history over the past century is how the party that would win the Civil War, the party of Lincoln, has become the defender, instead of the antagonist, of that vision of the South portrayed every year by the Masters tournament. It’s an act of minstrelry that lies at the heart of American political life today.

In 1962, wrote Ian Haney-Lopez (John H. Boalt Professor of Law at the University of California, Berkeley) for Salon in 2013, “when asked which party ‘is more likely to see that Negroes get fair treatment in jobs and housing,’ 22.7 percent of the public said Democrats and 21.3 percent said Republicans, while over half could perceive no difference between the two.” The masks of the two parties were, on this issue, interchangeable.

Yet, by the summer of 1963, conservative journalist Robert Novak could report from the Republican National Committee’s meeting in Denver that a “good many, perhaps a majority of the party’s leadership, envision political gold to be mined in the racial crisis by becoming in fact, though not in name, the White Man’s Party.” It was a harvest that would first be reaped the following year: running against Lyndon Johnson, who had—against long odds—passed the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the Republican nominee, Barry Goldwater, would outright win five states of the Deep South: Louisiana, Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, and South Carolina. It was the first time a Republican nominee for president had won in those states, at least since the end of Reconstruction and the beginning of Jim Crow.

Still, those states—and electoral votes—were not enough to carry Goldwater to the White House. But they formed the prelude to the election that did make those votes count: 1968, won by Richard Nixon. According to one of Nixon’s political strategists that year, Kevin Phillips, that election demonstrated the truth of the thesis Phillips would lay out in his 1969 book, The Emerging Republican Majority: “The Negro problem, having become a national rather than a local one, is the principal cause of the breakup of the New Deal coalition”—the coalition that had delivered landslides for Franklin Roosevelt and, in 1964, for Johnson. Phillips predicted that a counter-coalition would emerge that would be “white and middle class,” would be “concentrated in the South, the West, and suburbia,” and would be driven by reaction to “the immense midcentury impact of Negro enfranchisement and integration.” That realignment would become called Nixon’s “Southern Strategy.”

The “Southern Strategy,” as Nixon’s opponent in 1972, George McGovern, would later remark, “says to the South:”

Let the poor stay poor, let your economy trail the nation, forget about decent homes and medical care for all your people, choose officials who will oppose every effort to benefit the many at the expense of the few—and in return, we will try to overlook the rights of the black man, appoint a few southerners to high office, and lift your spirits by attacking the “eastern establishment” whose bank accounts we are filling with your labor and your industry.

Haney-Lopez argues, in the book from which this excerpt is taken—entitled Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class, published by Oxford University Press—that it is the wreckage from Nixon’s course that surrounds us today: economic attacks on the majority enabled by nearly transparent racial coding. He may or may not be right—but what might be of interest to future historians is the role, large or small, that the Augusta National Golf Club may have played in that drama.

Certainly, after all, the golf club played an outsize role in the Eisenhower administration: according to the Augusta Chronicle, Eisenhower made 45 trips to the golf club during his life: “five before he became president, 29 while president and 11 after his last term.” And just as certainly the club provided more than recreation for the general and president.

One Augusta member (Pete Jones) would, according to Sampson and other sources, “offer Ike $1 million for his 1952 campaign for president.” (“When Pete Jones died in a plane crash in 1962,” Sampson reports, “he had $60,000 in his wallet.”) Even before that, Clifford Roberts had arranged for one Augusta member, a publisher, to buy the general’s memoirs; the money made Eisenhower financially secure for the first time in his life.

It was members of the golf club in short who provided the former Supreme Commander of the West with both the advice and the financial muscle to reach for the Republican nomination for president in 1952. His friends while in Augusta, as Sampson notes, included such figures as Robert Woodruff of Coca-Cola, “Bud (washing machines) Maytag, Albert (General Motors) Bradley, Alfred S. (Singer Sewing Machines) Bourne” and other captains of industry. Another member of the golf club was Ralph Reed, president of American Express, who would later find a job for the general’s driver during the war, Kay Summersby.

All of which is, to be sure, a long way from connecting the club directly to Nixon and the “Southern Strategy.” There’s a great deal of testimony, in fact, that would appear to demonstrate the contrary. According to Golf Digest, for example, Nixon “once told Clifford Roberts”—the storied golf club’s sometimes-malevolent dictator—“that he wouldn’t mind being a member of Augusta National, and Roberts, who didn’t like him any better than Eisenhower did, said “I didn’t know you were that interested in golf.” “And that,” goes the story, “was the end of that.” Sampson’s work tends to confirm the point: a few of Ike’s cronies at the club, Sampson reports, “even urged Ike to dump Dick in 1956,” the year the general ran for re-election.

Still, the provable is not the same as the unimaginable. Take, for instance, the testimony of Charlie Sifford, the man Lee Trevino called the “Jackie Robinson” of golf—he broke the game’s color barrier in 1961, after the attorney general of California threatened to sue the PGA of America for its “whites only” clause. Sifford fought for years to be invited to play in the Masters tournament, only to be denied despite winning two tournaments on the PGA Tour. (The 1967 Greater Hartford Open and the 1969 Los Angeles Open.) In his autobiography, Just Let Me Play, Sifford quoted Clifford Roberts as saying, “As long as I live, there will be nothing at the Masters besides black caddies and white players.”

Sampson for one discounts this as implausible—for what it’s worth, he thinks it unlikely that Roberts would have actually said such a thing, not that Roberts was incapable of thinking it. Nevertheless, golfers in the Masters tournament were required to take “local” (i.e., black) caddies until 1983, six years after Roberts shot himself in the head beside Ike’s Pond on the grounds of the club, in late September, 1977. (The chairman, it’s said, took a drop.) Of course, the facts of the golf club’s caddie policy means nothing, nor even would Clifford Roberts’ private thoughts regarding race. But the links between the club, the South, and the world of money and power remain, and whatever the future course of the club, or the nation, those forged in the past—no matter the acts of minstrelry designed to obscure them—remain.

Now, and forever.

Hallow This Ground

“Country clubs and cemeteries are the biggest wasters of prime real estate!”
—Al Czervik (Rodney Dangerfield)
Caddyshack, 1980



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.

Hunting For (a Golden) Bear With Bubba Watson

 

“Nobody has pointed out,” William Shawn of The New Yorker wrote in early December of 1943, after Berlin had been turned largely to rubble by Allied bombers, “that the destruction of Berlin established the fact that it is now possible to destroy a city and that every city, but for the hairline distinction between the potential and actual, is afire.” If Berlin could burn, then so could New York (and, though the delivery system was different than Shawn might have imagined, it did). Shawn could have been a sports psychologist—he already knew one of the key techniques of modern golf shrinks, one advocated by Jack Nicklaus himself. But such is the state of golf instruction that not even Nicklaus can command unanimity: judging by certain remarks he made a couple of weeks ago while leading at Doral after the Saturday round, Bubba Watson disagrees.

Watson, a man who can’t be as unsophisticated as his name or his speech appears, said after Saturday that despite leading the golf tournament he didn’t need a sports psychologist to help him prepare for the final round. “If anybody says they are not nervous going into Sunday … they are just lying to you,” Watson said. “Their sports psychologist is telling them to lie to themselves.” The sentence, bad grammar and all, is apparently a reference to the common psychological technique of “visualization,” or in other words, of imagining that a given event has already happened: that a crucial putt has fallen, or that the player has already won.

The technique is best known, in golf anyway, because its champion has been the man who is (as of this writing) the best player ever, Jack Nicklaus. “I never hit a shot, not even in practice,” Nicklaus once said, “without having a very sharp, in-focus picture of it in my head.” He elaborated: “First, I see the ball where I want it to finish … Then … I see the ball going there: its path, trajectory and shape … the next scene shows me making the kind of swing that will turn the previous images into reality.” It’s an odd thing: Nicklaus is not only telling us he sees things that aren’t there, but that he actively tried to see them, before they happened.

Watson’s comment draws attention to just how odd this is. It is odd to see things that aren’t there, and it’s even odder to hear someone who was once at the top of their profession confessing to it—indeed, ascribing their professional success not to an ability to suppress what he sees (but isn’t there), but actively cultivating those visions as a source of that success. This is deeply strange, not least because while he was playing Nicklaus was widely thought of as the stereotypical golfing automaton.

In Jack Nicklaus: Golf’s Greatest Champion, Mark Shaw notes that a Bruce Ogilvie, “a professor of psychology at San Jose State University,” once conducted a study for Golf Digest expressly about why people disliked Nicklaus early in his career. “The most common complaint” of Ogilvie’s report? That “Nicklaus was considered to be a mechanical man, one who ‘played like a robot.’” Even if Nicklaus’ actual experience of his golf was as a flight of the imagination, the audience experienced it quite differently.

Similarly, Bubba Watson—like Arnold Palmer—is one of those players that golf writers like to say has “imagination,” by which they seem to mean “occasionally the ball curves, instead of going directly toward the target.” Bubba, we’re told, “doesn’t like to hit the ball straight,” because it “bores him.” Or as another blogger wrote: “it is Watson’s imagination and ability to shape his shots that we golf fans find the most captivating.” Or as a third notes: Bubba’s “personality is like his golf game: creative.” But it seems clear that even if the golf world experiences his golf one way, Bubba himself experiences it differently.

It’s the “mechanical man” who’s belaboring the “power of the imagination,” while it’s the “creative” shotmaker who’s putting on the cranky Samuel Johnson act—and that isn’t the only oddity about this exchange. Watson, for instance, is a Southerner: a region characterized, said Mark Twain long ago, by its “love for dreams and phantoms.” Twain wasn’t being complimentary; he went on to call it “the jejune romanticism of an absurd past,” and said that without it “the South would be fully a generation further advanced than it is.” So for a Southerner to reject the power of the imagination is distinctive and strange: much as it would be, for instance, for a Northerner to reject what Twain calls “practical, common-sense, progressive ideas.” To compare Nicklaus and (Bubba) Watson is, thusly, like conceiving of a world in which Ulysses Grant fought for Jeff Davis, and it was Robert E. Lee who led Mr. Lincoln’s army.

Maybe that’s just a hairline distinction these days.