Great Lengths

‘A first class hole must have the subtleties and strategic problems which are difficult to understand, and are therefore extremely likely to be condemned at first sight even by the best of players.’
Alister MacKenzieThe Spirit of St. Andrews (1933; pub. 1995)

Both men were over two hundred yards from the hole when we arrived at their golf balls, far to the left side of Streamsong Red’s thirteenth. My player, though not as skilled a golfer as his companion, was slightly closer to the green; the other player was further away. His caddie counseled him to take a long club, and play up to the right of the dune fronting the thirteenth’s green. The man did, hitting a heroic shot that flew over the center fairway bunker, to the right of the dune. It left him with a short wedge into the green, only partially obscured by the massive dune. My player looked at me, presumably expecting me to counsel similarly. But while I told the other player, “good shot,” I was handing my guy a wedge.

My reasoning, had there been time to follow it at length, had much to do with a golf course nearly three thousand miles away: Riviera Country Club, outside Los Angeles. The thirteenth hole on Streamsong’s Red Course draws from that golf course on two distinct levels: in the first place, it is a short par five, designed to follow the long par four twelfth—a rehash of a trick the Coore and Crenshaw team had already used on the first and second hole of the same course: a short par five following a par four of nearly the same length. The artifice is inspired by the opening holes of Riviera, a course that begins with one of the easiest par fives in golf and is followed by one of the most difficult par fours. But the Red Course, and specifically the thirteenth, also draws much from the thought of Riviera’s architect, George Thomas.

“Each hole at Riviera,” reads the course’s review at the website, Golf Club Atlas, is a ‘how to’ of golf architecture.” One of these is the contrast between the first and the second holes: one of the easier par fives on tour (often not even requiring a driver to reach in two shots) followed by the course’s number one handicap hole. The idea is a kind of rhyme, where what happened on the previous hole matters in a way not often found in less sophisticated designs.

One way the first two holes at Riviera rhyme, for example, is by contrast of their greens: the first hole’s green is very wide, yet not very deep, while the second’s is the opposite. Hence, the one mitigates a shot that is the correct distance but is indifferently aimed, while the second mitigates the opposite kind of shot. Conversely, each also punishes the “wrong” sort of shot—the sort that might have been just the thing on the previous hole. It’s a subtle but far-reaching effect, one that can be hard to detect—unless you happen to read the scorecard.

A careful reading of any course’s scorecard can, in other words, reveal holes of extremely similar distances; the lesson Coore and Crenshaw, following Thomas, would impart is: “Pay attention when two holes of similar lengths have different par values.” The numbers are a clear signal to the careful golfer, because the choice of length is not haphazard; it is a sign that those two holes have a relation to each other. In the case of the thirteenth and the twelfth on Streamsong’s Red, each is—in part—a funhouse version of the other. Where one is downhill (the 12th) the other is uphill (the 13th), and where one offers a clear view of the green the other obscures it. But the dune of the thirteenth is not just a mirror; it is a razor.

It’s a razor because the thirteenth on the Red Course embodies George Thomas’ thought in an even more subtle sense. “The spirit of golf,” Thomas wrote in his Golf Architecture in America, of 1927, “is to dare a hazard, and by negotiating it reap a reward, while he who fears or declines the issue of the carry, has a longer or harder shot for his second.” Everything in golf revolves around that axis mundi; it is the turtle upon which the disc of the world, as the recently-deceased Terry Pratchett might have appreciated, rests. Proceed by one path, and others become unavailable—every choice, like Borges’ “Garden of Forking Paths,” is determined by previous choices.

One way the thirteenth does this is by separating the golfer from a clear view of the green until he nearly stands upon it. But it does not do that entirely: from the extreme left it’s possible to see the flag, if not the green itself. The trouble—and of course, as George Thomas’ maxim advertises, there is a trouble—is that, from the left, a player must traverse nearly a hundred yards of sand; not so from the right, where a smooth road of fairway grass chases gently to the green. The architecture appears to be designed, in Thomas’ sense, to reward a “spirited carry” over the dune.

Some version of that thought, presumably, is why my colleague counseled his player to play up the right side with the strong shot he hit. Yet two wedge shots of just more than a hundred yards would easily reach the green—a shot that even the worst golfer can usually manage. So, why have a player choose a club far more easily mishit, like a long iron, to a target that grants only a modest advantage? I didn’t ask the other caddie for his rationale, but I’d presume it has something to do with the conventions of golf, at least as played by Americans in the early 21st century—conventions that seem to ignore the second part of George Thomas’ remarks about the “spirit of golf.”

That second part is this: “yet the player who avoids the unwise effort gains an advantage over one who tries for more than in him lies and fails.” In other words the player who can pull off a difficult shot should get the edge over the player who can’t—but the player who knows his own game ought to get the edge over the player does not. In that sense, the thirteenth’s “spirited carry” over the dune rewards, as it should, the player with a possible eagle—but as few seem to realize, it does not reward a heroic second shot that does not finish on the green. In fact, it positively threatens the player who makes that choice.

Just out of sight from the fairway, concealed from anyone standing at a distance from the green, about eighty yards short and to the right of the green, Coore and Crenshaw dug a deep bunker that threatens any ball hit past the beginning of the tall dune, but not onto the green itself. In other words, to try to hit a long shot that does not attempt the green risks sticking the struck ball in that bunker. Needless to say, it is a difficult recovery that more or less takes par—and certainly birdie—off the table. The player who know he cannot carry the dune, and lays up in front of the dune, has a much easier time of it than the golfer who hits a long second shot that does not reach the green.

The answer for most American golfers, I’d say, is to hit it as far as possible anyway—even if there isn’t a reward at the other end. But that is the ruse of the Red’s thirteenth: sometimes it’s actually more “daring” to decline the dare. It may be worth noting that Thomas himself, at least as ventriloquized by the golf writer Geoff Shackelford, was rather pessimistic about that possibility of such a lesson ever being learned: “I sense that that the combination of technology, refined conditioning, the aerial game and the overall curiousity with fairness have combined to eliminate strategy,” says “Thomas” in an interview published in Golf Club Atlas, and these are signs, the great Californian concludes, of “a society willing to go to great lengths to avoid thought.” This may yet be unfair, however: the existence of the thirteenth at Streamsong’s Red is an argument to the contrary.

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Is Streamsong Real?

“Young man, the Soviet Union is our adversary. Our enemy is the Navy.”
    —General Curtis Le May

Just finding Streamsong, the new golf resort ballyhooed as the “Bandon Dunes of Florida,” is an exercise in navigation: miles from any interstate highway, it’s surrounded by what appears, alternately, to be the savannah of the Serengeti Plain or an apocalyptic post-industrial hellscape. Either a lion pack or Mad Max appear likely to wait around the next turn. It’s a Florida unknown to the tourists on either coast—but Streamsong exists where the real map of Florida is being drawn, where the real history of the state is being written. That, even if one of Florida’s major exports is a denial that history exists, and the resort’s operations may in one sense dispute the very idea of maps.

Streamsong is located in the central part of Florida, far from the tourist beaches; there are no other big-time golf courses in the area. It consists, so far, of two 18-hole golf courses, the Red and the Blue. The Red was designed by Tom Doak’s Renaissance Design team, and the Blue by the partnership of Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, the Masters winner who is a connoisseur of golf course design. Both teams are grouped together as part of golf’s “minimalist” design movement; according to Renaissance Design, the “minimalist’s objective is to route as many holes as possible whose main features already exist in the landscape.” The landscape at Streamsong, however, that faced the two architectural teams was by no means natural.

This part of Florida is the preserve of enormous cattle ranches and massive phosphate mining operations. They’re industries that don’t often make it into the tourist brochures. Yet as dependent as Florida is on tourism—and at least some of it is definitely golf-related—Streamsong is the result of changes in the second of those industries. And, as it happens, it’s mining that’s at the center of a debate over the future of the state itself, as reported in the Tampa Bay Times in 2010.

Phosphate mining is, according to the director of the Tampa Port Authority Richard Wainio, “a singular industry … Florida doesn’t have a lot of big industries, and this is at or near the top of the pile as far as economic benefit for the state.” The phosphate industry, which ships its product through Tampa Bay, is in other words the economic machinery that the gloss of Disney World and South Beach obscures. Most of the state’s visitors, and likely by far the majority of its citizens, have little notion of what phosphate mining is nor how it can affect their lives. A little backstory might be in order then.

It begins somewhere around 50 million years ago, during the Eocene era—when the piece of Africa that would become Florida broke away from its parent plate and attached itself to the North American plate during the event that shattered the super-continent Pangea. In the eons since, shallow seas rose and fell over the rock, depositing the fossils that, when they were discovered in the 19th century, led to the central part of the state to be called “Bone Valley.” Animal bones and teeth concentrate phosphorus, as does the existence of animal life generally: phosphorus contains a lot of energy within its chemical bonds, which makes it necessary for nearly all life on earth—and thus, valuable.

“Bone Valley” is drained by the Peace River, which rises near the town of Bartow, the nearest larg(ish) town to Streamsong. A report by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on the river—done because the Corps manages the slow-flowing “river of grass” called the Everglades—not long ago held that “phosphate mining had led to the loss of 343 miles of streams and 136,000 acres of wetlands in the Peace River region.” That finding was a major piece of the evidence introduced by the enemies of phosphate mining in their lawsuit.

The largest company to mine phosphates in the Bone Valley is a company called Mosaic, a behemoth corporation formed out from a merger of two predecessors: IMC Global and the crop nutrition department of Cargill, each of them massive companies in their own right. Mosaic “is the largest producer of finished phosphate products, with an annual capacity greater than the next two producers combined.” If any one company has contributed to the degradation of the Peace River, then Mosaic—whose corporate forebears have operated in the Peace River watershed since before 1909—is the primary suspect. And Mosaic is, also, the owner of Streamsong—despite being such a large company, the resort is the company’s first foray into golf, or anything like tourism at all.

It’s an odd kind of timing, of course, since the numbers of golf courses in the United States are declining, not rising these days. Golf is an industry that took a major hit during the recent economic troubles: “Over the past decade,” said the New York Times in 2008, “the leisure activity most closely associated with corporate success in America has been in a kind of recession.” Nevertheless, Mosaic went ahead and built two courses by top-name design teams at just the time many courses in the United States were shutting down. Just what that timing may, or may not, have to do with a lawsuit filed in 2010 by environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, seeking to limit phosphate mining is unclear.

If building Streamsong is a tactical exercise meant to further a long-term corporate goal—and there’s no knowing at the moment if it is—then it’s well-within a Florida tradition of commercial strategy. European intellectuals, for instance, have long noted that Florida is, perhaps even more than California, known as a place with a tenuous connection to reality: the homeland of what the sophisticated Europeans call “hyperreality,” a place where signs no longer refer to an external “reality.” Where, in fact, the difference between signs and their referents no longer exists.

One such thinker, the Frenchman Jean Baudrillard, conjured up the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges’ fable, “On Rigor In Science,” to describe Disneyland. Borges’ short, one-paragraph tale describes an imperial society so wedded to precision that nothing less than “a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire” would do. In such a place, the difference between a place and its representation would break down; so too, Baudrillard argues, are the Disney parks “perfect model[s] of all the entangled orders of simulation.” Another such Florida place, which as it happens was the starting point for my own trip to Streamsong, was that seemingly-dull “retirement community” (as they’re called), “the Villages.”

According to one resident, the Villages are “one of the places the Spanish looked for the Fountain of Youth.” But where Ponce de Leon left empty-handed, the new residents of the place are more fortunate: “‘we found it!’” Just how the Villages found this “Fountain of Youth” is something that the Mosaic Company might do well to examine. Assuming, to be sure, that it hasn’t already.

The real history of the Villages is that they began as a way to sell Florida swampland in the Lady Lake area of the state when the previous way of selling it—mail order—was outlawed by federal law in 1968. (Because it lent itself to fraud so easily, obviously.) Partners Harold Schwartz—significantly, a former Chicago advertising executive—and Al Tarrson’s attempts to develop the land as a mobile home park throughout the 1970s largely failed until in 1983 Schwartz bought out Tarrson and brought his son, H. Gary Morse (also a Chicago ad man), on to run the company. Morse’s idea was to re-aim their company towards a higher-income bracket than potential mobile-home owners; the master-stroke was building a golf course and not charging greens fees to play it. Tens of thousands of residents followed.

That isn’t, obviously, the history that the resident who talks about Ponce de Leon refers to when he mentions the Fountain of Youth. THAT history, it seems, comes from another source: according to a story from the St. Petersburg Times in 2000, “the Morse family (with the help of a bottle of Scotch and a case of beer) concocted a ‘fanciful history’” of the Villages; complete, in fact, with a reference to a tale of a visit from Ponce de Leon himself. The reason for this fabricated history is simple enough: as Gary Morse himself told the St. Petersburg Times reporter, “We wanted a town to remind them of their youth.”

Yet while the original “town center” development in the Villages—“Spanish Springs”— began the idea concocting “history” out of whole cloth, it’s the newest,—“Lake Sumter Landing”—that sails to a farther shore. “It features,” one Timothy Burke, a student at the University of South Florida notes in his paper, “An Economy of Historicity: The Carefully-Crafted Heritage of the Villages,” “no fewer than 76 ‘historic’ locations”—despite the fact that many of these sites “hadn’t existed six months prior.” Nearly every shop in the shopping district has a plaque adverting the building’s antiquity, complete with some tale or other of a previous tenant or notable: as Umberto Eco, author of “Travels in Hyperreality,” might say, Lake Sumter Landing “blends the reality of trade with the play of fiction.” So, the local movie theater not only claims to be an old vaudeville palace, it asserts that a traveling magician once “threw a playing card from the stage at the ceiling of the theater so hard that the card lodged in a crack in the plaster—where it remains to this day.” The top? Yeah, we’re over it.

Still, the idea behind the plaques isn’t just for entertainment value. Reading these plaques, nearly all of which refer to how the “original” inhabitants of the place arrived there from somewhere else—as, perhaps not coincidentally, do the current residents. It’s one way that, as Burke says, “the stories contributed to their adaptation of the Villages as a ‘home’”: the fictional characters described in the fictional histories inevitably come from places like Maine or New York, not Alabama or Tennessee. So, for instance, the fictional Upton family, proprietors of the eponymous Feed and Tack Store—“now” a restaurant—came to Lake Sumter from Pennsylvania. Almost certainly, the meaning of these varied origins is meant to reflect the varied origins of the current residents: the former Nebraska businessmen or Cleveland dentists who chose to spend the rest of their lives there. The “fanciful history,” in other words, allows each new resident to imagine themselves already having “roots” in what is, in reality, a landscape almost wholly ignorant of what actually preceded it.

Burke interviews one resident, for instance, about the fictional history, and asks whether “she felt there was an authentic heritage to the Lady Lake area that was being overlooked” by the fictional history of Spanish Springs and Lake Sumter Landing. “‘Oh,’” the former New Jersey schoolteacher says, “‘but this is Florida. It probably wasn’t the nicest history.’” Perhaps so: actual local historians, Burke says, report that before the “northern invasion” of the Chicago advertising executives, “the Lady Lake area was ruled by cattle baron Clyde Bailey”—who, given the history of the cattle industry in America, was presumably not a Boy Scout.

Assuming though that we can juggle the distinction between “real” and “fake” on top of “nice” and “not nice”—a pretty complex mental operation—maybe we can presume that—though the “fake” history of Lake Sumter Landing is likely “nicer” than the “real” history of Clyde Bailey’s Lady Lake—it doesn’t necessarily mean that the real history of the Villages is all that much different from that of Lady Lake. Like the old-time robber barons of a company town, Gary Morse owns “all or part of pretty much everything worth owning in the Villages, including the bank, the hospital, the utilities, the garbage collection company, the TV and radio stations, and the newspaper,” according to a story in Slate. But not merely that—which is what got Morse in trouble with the IRS recently.

This summer, the IRS ruled that government bonds issued by the Villages’ governing board—called a community development district, or CDD—“did not deserve to be tax-exempt” like other bonds issued by CDDs throughout Florida. Why? “Because,” as Slate said, “everyone who sits on the district board—like everything else in the Villages—is controlled by Morse.” Or as the New York Times reported: “the IRS states that the district does not function like a true government.” An actual government, for example, is usually worried about what its voters might think about how that government spends its money.

That’s why IRS agent Dominick Servadio questioned “why the Village Center Community District used $60 million in bond proceeds to buy guardhouses, golf courses, and small parks that cost Mr. Morse … less than $8 million to build,” according to the Times. “‘If I was a resident of The Villages,’” Mr. Servadio wrote, “‘I would be outraged by this transaction.’” The Villages, it seems, has responded by saying that Mr. Servadio is not nice: “‘It’s really been upsetting the residents,’” the Times quotes Janet Tutt, district manager for the Villages, “‘to deal with the stress and anxiety.’” One imagines that yes, there is likely some stress involved when discovering that one’s government has been swindled for a 700 percent profit—but just where that blame lies is perhaps not so clear-cut as Ms. Tutt might say.

None of this, to be sure, has anything directly to do with Streamsong which, so far as I know, does not pretend to have always been there. It is true that a golf course—particularly one built in Florida, which was unaffected by the Ice Ages—is always a kind of fakery, because despite what Tom Doak might claim no golf course simply takes the land it’s built on as is: “All over the world,” says geologist Anita Harris in John McPhee’s Annals of the Former World, “when people make golf courses they are copying glacial landscapes.” Yet fairly obviously, the resort wasn’t built simply because the company felt that its land demanded a golf course to be put upon it, in the way that some say that the sea by Monterey, California demanded Pebble Beach be built. Almost certainly, the company expects some return for its investment: a return that may or may not have any reference to the Sierra Club’s lawsuit.

Yet even were there some “plot” involved in the building of Streamsong, the judgement of whether it actually signifies something “nefarious” or not ultimately comes down to what value you place on phosphate mining generally. As it happens, phosphates are part of all living things: it’s an essential nutrient for plants, for instance, and necessary for nearly all metabolic processes in animals. Phosphates also allow muscles to store energy for immediate use, and they build our teeth and bones. This is not even to address industrial uses—without phosphate mining, in short, a great deal of the contemporary world, “natural” and “artificial,” falls apart.

Countering those points, the Sierra Club notes what opponents of mining always note: that the benefits of mining rarely accrue to those living near the site of the mine. Sixty percent of the ore shipped out of Florida, for example, leaves the United States—historically, mostly to China—and while the mining industry provides some jobs, those numbers are dwarfed by the numbers of jobs in Florida that depend on a clean Peace River watershed, including the hundreds of thousands that drink Peace River water. As with nearly all mining operations, phosphate mining leaves behind it a cleanup trail—and in the case of Florida, that includes small amounts of radioactive uranium that will likely outlast even the corporations that do the mining, much less any of us human beings alive today.

To which Jean Baudrillard, for one, might reply “Just so.” Already, in 1975, the French intellectual had published “Simulacra and Simulations,” which argued that, today, the distinction between the Real and the Imaginary had fallen: in his words, the “territory no longer precedes the map.” “Disneyland,” he says, “is presented as imaginary in order to make us believe that the rest is real, when in fact Los Angeles and the America surrounding it are no longer real.” Or, to put it in a way that might be more applicable to those residents of the Villages who appear quite ready to believe that the place was built by Santa Claus, Disneyland “is meant to be an infantile world, in order to make us believe the adults are elsewhere, in the ‘real’ world, and to conceal the fact that childishness is everywhere.” Is Streamsong a cover for iniquitous business practices, or an attempt at an “enlightened” capitalism that recognizes the (alas, completely necessary) damage it does?

Or, to put it another way: Is Streamsong Real?

The World Forgetting

In August was the Jackal born;
The Rains came in September;
‘Now such a fearful flood as this,’
Says he, ‘I can’t remember!”
—Rudyard Kipling.
The Second Jungle Book. 1895.


“In the beginning,” wrote Pat Ward-Thomas, whose career as golf writer for the Guardian began in 1950, “it knew no architect but nature; it came into being by evolution rather than design, and on no other course is the hand of man less evident.” He was, obviously, speaking of the Old Course, at St. Andrews; the place where many say the game began and, it seems by the hysteria overtaking certain sectors of the golf world, is about to end. “I was horrified,” the golf architect Tom Doak—who is supervising the renovation of Medinah’s Course #1—recently wrote to the presidents of the American, Australian, and European societies of golf course architects, “to read of the changes proposed to the Old Course at St. Andrews.” The Old Course is aiming to beef up the course once again and Doak, for one, objects, on the grounds suggested by Ward-Thomas. But while Doak may be right to object, the reasons he gives for objecting are wrong.

Before getting to that, though, it needs to be established that there is some kind of hysteria. Luckily, Ian Poulter is involved. “I know lets draw a Moustache on the Mona Lisa” reads one of Poulter’s ungrammatical tweets (which is how you know it’s really from him). Another reads “if they make changes to the Old Course St Andrews they are insane.” I’d love to be able to reproduce the image here, but it’s worth remembering the look on Poulter’s face at Medinah during the late afternoon on Saturday. (Try here: http://www.cbssports.com/golf/blog/eye-on-golf/20408062/usa-10-europe-6-ian-poulter-goes-absolutely-crazy-to-give-europe-a-chance).

Instead of reproducing Poulter’s look, however, et’s look at the changes a bit more dispassionately. The R & A’s architect, Martin Hawtree, plans to work this winter on the second, seventh, eleventh, and seventeenth holes, while next winter working on the third, fourth, sixth, ninth, and fifteenth holes. The headline event seems to be the widening of the Road Hole Bunker—the infamous “Sands of Nakajima”—but most of the other work appears relatively innocuous: bringing the greenside bunkers a bit closer in on the second hole, for instance, or lowering a bit of the eleventh green to create a few more pin spots. According to the R & A, in short, all this seems just so many nips and tucks.

The reasons for the steps taken by the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, the body responsible for the Old Course, are clear: Stephen Gallacher for instance, who won the Dunhill Links Championship at St. Andrews in 2004, told the Scotsman “I take it they don’t want 59 shot on it.” The increasing distances hit by the professionals requires, as it has worldwide, longer and tougher courses, and the Old Course is no longer judged to be invulnerable to the modern power game. Most of the changes appear, without seeing a detailed map, designed to force professionals to be a bit more precise, whether off the tee or approaching the green.

Doak however views all this as, quite literally, sacrilege: “I have felt,” he says in his letter, “for many years that the Old Course was sacred ground to golf architects.” He appeals to history: “It [the Old Course] has been untouched architecturally since 1920, and I believe that it should remain so.” In so saying, Doak casts his lot with Ward-Thomas’ view of the Old Course as the world’s only “natural” course: built, as they say, by sheep and the winds blowing off the North Sea. In this, Doak is not only just in some technical sense off, but spectacularly wrong. The Old Course has the “hand of man” all over it.

“We do not know exactly when or how the current layout of the Old Course at St. Andrews developed,” writes the anonymous author of Scottish Golf History at the eponymous website, but as it happens this is not true, as the author somewhat uneasily relays within the same sentence as the above: “by 1764 St. Andrews consisted of twelve holes, ten of which were played twice, making a round of twenty-two holes in all.” It was in that year that the Royal & Ancient (not yet known by that name) decided that the first four holes, “which were also the last four holes” were too short, and turned them into two holes instead. But this was only one of a long line of changes.

These days the Old Course is played in a counter-clockwise fashion: the nine “out” holes lie closest to the North Sea to the town’s east and the nine “in” holes lie just inland. But prior to the nineteenth century the Old Course played clockwise: since there were no separate tee boxes then, play proceeded from the eighteenth green to what is now the seventeenth green, and so on. That created, as it might be imagined, some issues: “Because the middle holes … were played in both directions, it meant that golfers might often be waiting, not just for the group in front to clear the green, as today, but also for a party playing in the opposite direction to do the same.” One can only suppose there were the occasional disagreements.

The Old Course, as it stands today, is the handiwork of one man: “Old” Tom Morris, the legendary four-time winner of the Open Championship (the British Open to us on the left-hand of the Atlantic), and father of another four-time winner (“Young” Tom Morris). “Old” Tom seemingly had a hand in half the courses built in the British Isles at the end of the nineteenth century and from his shop virtually all of the great players and designers of the following generation or so issued. It was Old Tom who decreed that the Old Course should be played counter-clockwise (or widdershins). It was he who built the first and eighteenth greens. And, maybe most interestingly at this time of year, he introduced the concept of mowing to golf. (“Golf was a winter game until the middle of the nineteenth century,” says Scottish Golf History, “when mechanical grass cutters allowed play in the summer as well.”)

In any case, any serious investigation will demonstrate not only that the Old Course wasn’t designed by “Nature” but that long after Old Tom had been buried in the town cemetery, the Old Course was still undergoing changes. New bunkers, for instance, were constructed in 1949, which is one reason why Peter Dawson, leader of the R & A, said that the course has been “largely” unaltered over its history in the press release regarding the changes: Dawson, knowing the real history of the course, knows it has been tweaked many times.

Doak and Poulter’s stance, in other words, is historically inaccurate. That isn’t really, though, what’s so bothersome about their position. It isn’t in the facts, but rather in their logic, that their argument is ultimately faulty. But to understand why requires knowing something about a human activity whose origins also lie in Scotland; more specifically, just south of the Grampian Mountains.

That’s where Charles Lyell was born in 1797, within sight of the Highlands. He grew to become a lawyer, but it is for his book The Principles of Geology that he is best-known for today. And the reason why he is known for that book is because it expounded Lyell’s contention that “the present is the key to the past”: what Lyell argued was that it is by examining what happens today that geologists can learn about what happened to the earth ages ago, not by consulting religious books for signs of supernatural intervention.

What Lyell taught, in other words, is that in order to investigate the past the researcher should presume that processes existing today also existed then; that there wasn’t any sharp break between the present and the past. But Doak and Poulter’s argument necessarily implies a break with the past: if we should know so much regarding the changes in the Old Course since the nineteenth century, why should we presume that—prior to the intervention of “Old” Tom—the course, as Ward-Thomas put it, “knew no architect but nature?”

What Doak and Poulter’s argument rests on, in other words, isn’t an assertion about the superiority of God and/or Nature over Man, but rather on the superiority of “Old” Tom Morris as opposed to all other golf architects before or since. Which, it must be pointed out, is entirely arguable: as mentioned, at times it seems that Morris had a hand in half the golf courses in Britain. Still, there’s a considerable difference between chalking up a design to the hand of the Nature (Or the wanderings of sheep) and a particular man. Doak certainly may argue that Morris’ conception of the Old Course ought to be preserved—but he’s wrong to suggest it might be flouting the Divine Will to tinker with it.

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.”

3-Irons and Three-Jacks

Where France?
The Comedy of Errors III, ii

 

The guest wanted the 3-iron. Already, after only six holes of Course 3, we were at loggerheads, after he’d shaken me off twice on club calls. The first time had been on Medinah’s second hole, a brute of a 3-par over water to what’s virtually an island green. Our group was playing the white tees, however—due to the age of some members of the foursome—so, given that it was only 135 to the front of the green and my player was an 8 handicap, I thought a 9-iron would be plenty of club. Because he hit the ball on the top of the clubface (instead of the bottom where the mass of the clubhead is), it wasn’t. Twice.

The second time was on the second shot to the first 5-par, the fifth hole. Having 260 in from the middle of the fairway, uphill, he wanted to hit a 3-iron. This, despite the fact that, as I told him, there was no necessity to hit such a long club since there was no chance of reaching the green and the risk that, because such a long club is difficult to control, the possibility that an erroneous shot might end up in thick trees or even, possibly, out-of-bounds. Nonetheless, he hit the 3-iron which, perhaps predictably, hit the trees on the right and, less predictably, rebounded out into the fairway—to about where a decent 6-iron would have put him. I did not, despite my own inclinations, point this out to him.

Now we were on the approach to the sixth, after a mediocre drive that left him nearly 220 yards to the center of the green (even from the whites Medinah is long). But he was only 195 yards to the front of the green, with a pin in a difficult middle-left location that meant any ball past the hole would leave a tricky putt. The wind was directly behind. Thinking only of the distance to center, he wanted the 3-iron.

I ventured that I was not convinced the 3-iron was not correct. Immediately concluding that I wanted him to hit more club—he had only a 1-iron in the slot between the 3 and the driver—he said he did not like to use his 1-iron. (At which pointed I wondered to myself, not for the first time when confronting an amateur’s bag, why he had it.) I said, quite the contrary, I was thinking about less, rather than more, club, for the reasons I’ve already delineated. This did not appear to compute for him—he appeared ready for a throw-down over hitting more club, but unable to understand why I’d like to hit less.

The approach on the sixth hole on Course 3 is often long, but the hole, uphill on the tee shot, is downhill for the second. Nothing intervenes between the player and the green down the fairway, and in the front of said green the fairway is pitched, which often throws the ball forward onto the green. Particularly downwind, as we were, the shot often requires less club than the inexperienced player might suspect. This was one of those times, I thought.

I bring this story up not only because it happened a few days ago, but also because of a comment I came across quoted in John Huggan’s often-informative and usually-amusing golf column in The Scotsman. Huggan is interviewing Gil Hanse, designer of Castle Stuart—site of this week’s Scottish Open and a course that’s been called the best British course built since the Second World War. Castle Stuart is a links course, unlike the course that’s been the site of the Scottish Open for years, Loch Lomond, which is an American-style course.

The quote that interested me from Huggan’s interview was this one, where Hanse talks about what makes Castle Stuart different from most American-style courses. “It is odd,” said Hanse, “that so many people don’t realize how interesting and difficult short grass can be when used as a hazard.” In support of the point, Hanse recalls the playoff in the 1989 Open Championship (which we know over here as the British Open).

That playoff ultimately rode on the moment when Greg Norman “had missed a green but had nothing but short grass and a bank between him and the hole”:

He stood there and thought about it. Then he switched clubs. Then he thought about it more. Eventually he just chunked the shot. The best player in the world had been perplexed by the subtlety of what was in front of him. His mind was full of doubt.

Apparently, Hanse has applied the lesson to Castle Stuart, which has very wide fairways but yet still, in Hanse’s estimation, will present its own difficulties because, despite their width, the effective fairway—i.e., the best place to approach the green—won’t be any wider than the best players are used to playing. But by being so wide, the fairways will allow those players with the skill to play interesting shots even after missing the “correct” landing zone.

That was the original theory behind Augusta National as designed by Alistair MacKenzie and Bobby Jones: to allow multiple lines of play to the same hole instead of the architect dictating the player’s shot. But American golf—even Augusta is radically different than the course envisioned by its founders—has largely lost the insight: golf courses like, as Tom Doak has observed, Firestone (and Course 3) have told the golfer how to play them rather than allowing the player to choose among various options. But as my anecdote about the sixth hole is meant to illustrate, even Course 3—and especially since the renovation—still makes use of short grass as the best, because most deceptive, obstacle.

What happened to the guest is, of course, anti-climactic. After insisting on hitting the 3-iron, the ball took off, landed in front of the green, and took a huge jump forward. It certainly reached the pin; in fact, as you probably already know, it rolled well past it. Eventually it came to rest in the rough just over the green, perched on a cliff above the hole and leaving an incredibly difficult downhill putt with a severe break that, again predictably, the guest left short (fearing the slope). As you’ve probably also already realized, he missed the downhill eight-footer for par.

What the anecdote also, and perhaps more importantly, illustrates is something of the myopia of American golf—a myopia that was perhaps also displayed recently during PGA Tour player Bubba Watson’s recent Parisian adventure. Watson, according to many, acted out the European fantasy of the Ugly American while playing the French Open at the course that will be the site of the 2018 Ryder Cup competition, Le Golf National. When asked about his tour of Paris prior to the tournament, Watson said that he seen “the big tower, Eiffel Tower, an arch, whatever” and that he been to “it starts with an L, Louvre, something like that.”

Watson’s remarks would be merely a faux-pas, but some see in them a sign of something greater. Chubby Chandler, Rory McIlroy’s agent—he’s also Charl Schwartzel’s agent, which means that he’s on track for the Agent Slam this year—said in response to Watson (and his T-102 in the tournament) that it’s indicative of how Americans “don’t see any reason to play outside America.” And Jack Nicklaus himself sees in Watson a measure of how American golf is losing competitiveness: “Too many Americans know little beyond American golf.” What the golfers Nicklaus is speaking of don’t know, I’d submit (and I’d enter my guest as an exhibit in such a case) is how to play short grass—which American courses, too often, fail to use properly.

Maybe that’d explain why American teams, after decades of dominating the Ryder Cup, have been relatively unsuccessful (4-10) since at least the “War on the Shore” on the Ocean Course at Kiawah Island in 1991. Maybe that record will only change when American golfers are no longer surprised when their caddies tell them that a 220-yard shot only requires a 5-iron. Until then, when I think about the Ryder Cup and American success in it (or lack of it), I’ll think about the look on that guest’s face when I suggested it—and the look on his face while he watched his ball jump past the hole.

The Vanity of Art: Tom Doak Vs. Medinah

… why hath thy queen
Summon’d me hither, to this short-grass’d green?

The Tempest IV, i

Looping for one of the incoming officers at Medinah about a month ago, I was told that Tom Doak had been selected to be the architect for a renovation of Medinah’s Course 1—Course 3’s older, but far-less heralded, brother. The Ryder Cup, coming next year, will use a lot of Course 1’s terrain for parking lots, staging areas, and corporate tents, which means the course will be torn up—a perfect opportunity to use that repair work to rethink the entire golf course. The redesign idea is thus no surprise. What is a surprise, however, is using Doak: he’s on record as disparaging Medinah, both in his (infamous) Confidential Guide to Golf Courses (which ripped on lots of famous old courses) and later. Doak is a wild card, and by picking him Medinah is taking a roll of the dice—not least because Course 1, as it now stands, is a paradigmatic example of everything Doak hates in golf architecture.

That makes it like its brother course, Course 3, which has always stood, to Doak, as a pinnacle of bad golf architecture. Here is Doak, for instance, in an interview with Golf Digest in October of 2005: “The most overrated courses,” he said, “tend to be ones that hold important tournaments and major championships.” “Invariably, they’re long, tight, and repetitive, with virtually every hole offering similar shot values,” he continues; “Firestone and Medinah are classic examples.” Many Medinah members would, and have, bristled over statements like this, and my informant tells me that there was quite a disagreement among the members about hiring Doak—the vote, it seems, broke down along generational lines: older members were against, and younger ones were in favor.

Presumably, the older ones remembered Doak’s longstanding opinion of Medinah, while the younger ones were captivated by Doak’s resume since publishing The Confidential Guide in his mid-twenties. As of now, four of his designs are in Golf magazine’s “Top 100 Courses in the World” list: Pacific Dunes (at Bandon Dunes in Oregon), Barnbougle Dunes in Tasmania, Ballyneal in Colorado, and Cape Kidnappers in New Zealand. Cape Kidnappers, in particular, is spectacular in photographs, with holes routed along massive cliffs along the ocean. But photographically-spectacular courses are not really, according to the man himself, Doak’s design aim.

Everything about Doak, in fact, seems contrary to the way in which golf design has headed since the 1980s. While golf courses have gotten longer and longer, Doak says—in an interview with Golf magazine published this month (June 2011)—that “modern courses are too long.” And where a lot of courses designed in the last 30 or 40 years have tried to stand out with flashy, or even kitschy, bunkers (Cantigny’s “Dick Tracy” bunker comes to mind) and “water features” (Donald Trump, anyone?), Doak says that his “favorite hazard is short grass.” That, to a lot of golfers, might not make sense: isn’t short grass the fairway?

Well, yes, it is, but the short grass Doak has in mind isn’t the flat sort of fairway you might find at your local muni. What he’s thinking of is the “collection areas” at Pinehurst #2, Donald Ross’s Carolina masterpiece. “Short grass,” Doak says, “is always subtle and sometimes diabolical.” He’s thinking of the “steeply banked fairway that repels a slightly errant drive into an area where the approach shot is more difficult” (a feature, by the by, of Course 3’s hole 12). He’s considering “[w]ide expanses of fairway that lull the player to sleep so he doesn’t pay attention to the best position for his tee shot, and which makes it hard to determine the distance of a fairway bunker he’s tempted to carry” (a feature of Course 3’s hole 10, among others). Like Carl Spackler in Caddieshack, who made explosive “models” of his enemy the gopher’s “friends” (the bunny and squirrel), Doak believes in using the golfer’s ally (the fairway) against him.

This is nearly unthinkable heresy for American golfers, but it isn’t unknown to golf: it is, in fact, how the game began. St. Andrews for instance is well-known to have nearly infinitely-wide fairways and nevertheless it has been confounding golfers for over 500 years—which brings up another point about Doak’s biography. For two months in the summer of 1982, he caddied at St. Andrews, where presumably he learned of the Scottish methods of playing the ball on the ground instead of, as is usual on American tracks, through the air. It isn’t unusual there, from what I understand, of hitting a 6-iron like a putt from 85 yards. An American would, of course, be likely to use his 60-degree wedge from such a distance (and inevitably mishit it), but to the Scots such a choice has never made any sense. A 60-degree shot requires a precise strike on the clubface; a 6-iron merely needs something nearly precise. Or even imprecise.

Yet it’s difficult to picture making use of that philosophy on Course 1. It is the antithesis of Doak’s (or should we say, Scottish) ideas. Doak isn’t much of a believer in bunkers, water, or trees (I haven’t mentioned it, but Doak is on board with the anti-tree movement of the past decade or so.) Course 1 however, built in 1924 (the first of Medinah’s three courses, which explains why it’s Course 1), is built around water, sand, and trees. The 10th hole of the course, for instance, gives an idea of how Course 1 operates.

The 10th on Course 1 is a short par-5 of only 460 yards or so, which is shorter than many of Course 3’s par-4s. The tee shot is governed by a pond that stretches along the entire right side of the fairway, all the way to the green. A big drive, however, can easily get within 200 yards—at which point the approach is blocked by a set of massive willow trees that require the golfer to either go around them or over them to get to the green. Any approach that manages to climb over the willows, though, risks landing in a huge bunker directly in front of the green—so you have to judge not only how high you can hit your club, but also how far it will carry. It’s a classic risk-reward hole, but without water, sand, and trees, it’s a kind of lengthy par-4, not a par-5 you might be still be talking about five years from now.

The 10th is also a problem for Doak in terms of routing: it’s the sort of hole that needs to be played toward the middle of a round, after a player has found his rhythm. Only if you’re confident of your swing would you try to take on the willow trees—which is one reason why it is the 10th hole in the current routing. The problem is that the 9th hole—a marathon 600+-yard par-5—is the perfect finishing hole for the course, which in the current routing ends with a difficult-but-sub-200-yard par-3. It’s unusual for a golf course today to end on a par-3—though Congressional, site of this year’s U.S. Open, does in its non-tournament routing—and the current routing has often been a topic of discussion. But to get the ninth as a finishing hole while preserving the 10th’s status near the middle of the course as a whole is a difficult juggling act; it might require demolishing and rebuilding several other holes.

That isn’t hard to imagine Doak doing because many of the holes on the course are fairly pedestrian, especially during a rather mediocre slog through the middle of the back nine. Still, the course is often ranked within the top 20 in Illinois—Course 3 is usually #1—which means that many holes are of high quality. The 7th through the 9th, for instance, are nearly the equal of several of the best holes on Course 3, and it would be a shame for the course to lose them.

Doak though has demonstrated the kind of imaginative ability that a design problem like this one requires—and more than that, a species of contrariness that he’s going to need if he’s going to bring whatever vision he creates to the turf. If he means to implement his stated design philosophy on Course 1 he’s going to have to re-imagine the course completely, which will be difficult to do on a track that’s nearly 90 years old—not to mention the members nearly that age. What he does may just be a kind of tweaking—fixing a bunker here, cutting a tree there. But I don’t think Medinah is paying him for that.

I think that what Doak—and Medinah—may be aiming at is nothing less than a revolution in American course design. If Course 1 can be re-made in line with Doak’s vision, then virtually nothing is impossible for golf architecture. Nothing of Doak’s plan has been made public as yet—I am not sure at this writing whether it even exists. But the canvas Doak has been presented with is virtually unique: he’s been handed the keys to the family’s ancient Rolls Royce and told to pimp it out, with a budget presumably paid for by the proceeds from the Ryder Cup. Where some of Doak’s architectural contemporaries would be tempted to add, say, 22-inch rims and flatscreen TVs, Doak’s impulse seems rather the other way: he appears to question why anyone’s carriage ever needed an engine rather than a horse.

That sounds like rather a diss, but it isn’t: Doak’s object, it seems to me, isn’t just to churn out another sequence of holes that look like, and play like, every other set of holes anywhere in the world, but rather to get at something fundamental, something about how we play the game. Maybe even why we play this game. My choice of the word “philosophy” to describe Doak’s ideas about golf architecture isn’t meant lightly: it’s a word that’s often bandied about, but in Doak’s case I think it actually means something, because he’s a guy who’s actually thought about very, very fundamental matters. This doesn’t mean that his ideas are right, or the only ones, but it does mean that what he does is carefully thought out, and that’s something that’s rare enough in any profession. It also doesn’t mean that Doak’s redesign of Course 1 is destined for greatness—but it does mean that there he has been given a very, very rare opportunity. It remains to be seen what he does with it, whether it be spectacular success or merely, as Prospero says in The Tempest, “Some vanity of mine own art.”