I have an article in this week’s New Yorker about a golf school in a place where you wouldn’t expect to find one.
Mike B., Tim D., Rick, and I played at Fairchild Wheeler Golf Course today. The weather was actually pretty balmy, but the ground was frozen and we hit some monster drives. We also had trouble with the bunkers, even though they’d left the rakes.
I have a little essay on the New Yorker’s website about golf’s new rules. A new rule I didn’t mention is the one about taking drops. Like the new rules about what used to be called hazards but are now called penalty areas, it seems to address a rules-committee disagreement rather than a golf problem.
When the Gentlemen Golfers of Leith, in 1744, hit balls “among watter, or any wattery filth,” they were allowed to remove the balls, at the cost of a stroke, and tee them up behind the hazard (using little mounds of dirt—not wooden pegs, which hadn’t been invented yet). A decade later, the Society of St. Andrews Golfers required that such balls be thrown behind the hazard, “six yards at least.” In 1776, the Edinburgh Burgess Golfing Society stipulated that the throw be made “over your head, behind the water,” and in 1809 the competing Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers replaced throwing with dropping. In subsequent years, dropping over the head evolved into dropping over the shoulder, and it stayed that way until 1984, when the U.S.G.A. and the R. & A. first allowed golfers to aim their drops, by making them at arm’s length from shoulder height. There was discussion, while the current revisions were being weighed, about allowing golfers to drop balls from as little as an inch or two above the ground; the rule as adopted requires that balls be dropped from the height of the knee—a compromise whose only real effect is to demonstrate that a compromise was reached. The simplest solution would have been to allow players to do what they’ve long been required to do in certain relief situations: to simply place their ball on the ground.
From David M., an honorary member of the Sunday Morning Group. That pushcart is a Big Max Blade.
I can’t answer that, but I can tell you that in 1995 I played eighteen holes at Shadow Creek, the Las Vegas golf course where Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods will slug it out on Black Friday. My host was Kenny Wynn, Steve’s younger brother. Two years earlier, Kenny had lost his gaming license, temporarily, after admitting that he had a drug problem. (Nine years after my round, local police confiscated his computers in some kind of child-pornography investigation.)
When I called Kenny to ask for driving directions, he told me to take the freeway to a certain exit north of town. “As you look toward the mountains, you’ll see a forest rising out of the desert,” he said, and we both laughed. But he was right. Las Vegas has sprawled past the golf course since then, but at the time Shadow Creek was an Oz-like quadrant of green surrounded by miles and miles and miles of sand. At the front gate, I spoke my name into a telephone and smiled at a closed-circuit television camera. Then, as I drove to the clubhouse, I shared the road with a ring-necked pheasant, a chukar, and a long-eared rabbit—a small sampling of the non-native species with which Steve Wynn had ornamented the grounds. When Shadow Creek opened, there were also wallabies and African cranes, but they turned out to be too large to coexist with mishit golf balls. I left my shoes in the (alleged) locker of Davis Love III. No photographs allowed.
The course was designed by Tom Fazio and completed in 1990. The cost has been estimated at $40 million, $50 million, $60 million—who knows? Shadow Creek can probably be considered our best look into Fazio’s artistic soul, since he was given not only a blank check but also a blank canvas: he built the course, basically, by digging a gigantic hole in the desert and filling it with money. Every hill, every pond, every bump, every dip, every bounce, every break is there because he put it there. The stones in the artificial creek that circulates through the property (and tumbles over an artificial waterfall on the seventeenth hole before returning to its artificial headwaters) were glued in place by Fazio himself, maybe. The pine trees that surround you on every hole only look as though they run all the way to the snow-capped mountains in the distance. The rye grass on the fairways would die if the maintenance crew ever stopped flooding it with the ground-up life savings of slot-machine players. There’s a par 3 that you enter and leave through a tunnel. It’s a virtual golf course—except that it’s real.
The two other members of our foursome were a professional from a nearby country club and his wife, who arrived in a white Porsche Carrera and were wearing more gold and diamonds than I’m used to seeing on a golf course. “Ah, the life of a Las Vegas club pro,” the pro said, smiling. Kenny Wynn—an impatient, slashing 18- or 20-handicapper—quit after a few holes, and once he was gone we had a relaxed, pleasant round. No other group entered our field of vision, although later, in the clubhouse, I did see the well-known golf nut and occasional actor Joe Pesci. Our golf carts had built-in coolers, which were filled (and, at the turn, refilled) with ice and soft drinks. We were accompanied by an affable caddie/chauffeur, who paced yardages, filled divots, repaired ball marks, read putts, and urged us to drink something at any moment when we weren’t swinging a golf club. I chugged roughly a gallon of Gatorade per nine—it gets hot at the bottom of a hole—but didn’t pee until a day or two later. On with The Match!
The golf dream I wrote about in my previous post appears to be an example of a universal type. (See the comments—and I’d be happy to hear about others.) Here’s a similar one I had, almost twenty-five years ago:
I was getting ready to tee off on a 193-yard par three on a fancy country-club course that I knew nothing about. The first player to hit used a nine-iron. His ball cut low between two big maple trees, threaded its way through a partly opened wrought-iron gate in a high stone wall, and landed pin-high on a green the size of a mattress. There were some cars parked near the green, and, in fact, the green sometimes seemed to be situated in an empty parking space on a crowded city street. It was now my turn to hit, and I felt embarrassed that I was going to have to use a three-iron after the first player, whom I didn’t seem to know, had used a nine. I had a great deal of trouble finding a place to tee my ball, because half a dozen golfers were sitting in large armchairs arranged haphazardly on the tee. They were laughing and talking loudly, and paying no attention to me. As I moved anxiously among them, I was also somehow crawling near the green, and I found several balls hidden in some thick rough. I seemed to know that one of these balls belonged to the first player, and I believed that by studying it closely I would learn something that might help me with my own shot. I was having trouble concentrating, because I was worried about something the first player had done before teeing off. He had teed his ball three club lengths behind the tee markers, a distance he had measured with his club, and while I crawled among the big chairs I tried to decide whether I should inform him that the rules of golf permit teeing the ball no more than two club lengths behind the tee markers. I was worried that my concern about his violation of the rules would affect my ability to hit my own shot. My struggle seemed to go on for a very long time. Before I got around to hitting my ball, I woke up.
Most of my recent golf dreams have been like the one I had last night:
I was at a fancy golf club with Hacker (real name) and two other friends from home. Teeing off ahead of us was Jack Nicklaus and three his-age old guys. The teeing area was at the top of what looked like a miniature ski jump. At first I thought the guys with Nicklaus were friends of his, but then I realized that they were part of some outing—like, maybe they had won their round in a contest, or had bought it in an auction. They were taking forever, and they were kind of hard to see, and after a long time Nicklaus waved to my friends and me and told us to go ahead. We ran to get our clubs, which for some reason we had left somewhere else, then climbed up the ski-jump thing—the top of which was now indoors and looked like an olden-days railroad office, with lots of desks and chairs and boxes and dark wood paneling. I was going to tee off first, but I had a hard time finding room to swing, because I now saw that I was going to have to hit my drive through a fairly small window and there were chairs and desks in the way. This went on for a long, long time. I tried to tee up my ball on a chair cushion and wondered why the only holes in the cushion were the ones that I was making now, with my tee: had no one teed off from this chair before? Then I realized that I was aiming toward the wrong window, and had to start over, in a new place. Then I realized that I really ought to be aiming at a third window, and after more struggling with my stance I realized, furthermore, that this third window could be opened in a different way—a way that made the opening somewhat larger. Everything kept taking forever, and I never seemed to have enough room to swing, and I worried about hitting a bad shot in front of Nicklaus, and I wondered if Nicklaus was now regretting having told my friends and me to go ahead. I also wondered why no other golfers had come up behind us. Then Nicklaus said something supportive, and I woke up.
I took the photo above last Thursday at Keney Park, a muny on the east side of Hartford, Connecticut, a little over an hour from where I live. Barney, Paul, and I couldn’t scrounge up a fourth, mainly because the temperature when we left home was in the thirties. But the sign above says it all. Even if you live to be 100, you don’t get so much time on this side of the wall that you can afford to squander golf days.
Eight or ten years ago, the Sunday Morning Group played quite a few winter rounds at Keney, mainly because it was one of the few courses we knew about that stayed open. It was in terrible shape, but you could tell that at some point it had been terrific. Then it closed, and underwent a big renovation. This was the first time any of us had been back.
When we first played Keney, I assumed that it had begun as a private club. But it’s always been a muny. Devereux Emmet designed the first nine in 1927, and Robert Ross, a city engineer, added a second nine in 1930. The clubhouse was built in 1934, using bricks from an old orphanage and a demolished post office. The workers were employed by the Civil Works Administration, a federal relief agency during the early years of the Great Depression. The city of Hartford closed the course in 2013, spent $11 million restoring and renovating it, and reopened it in 2016. It’s awesome, and worth playing in any weather. And the green fee, for Barney and me, walking, was $19. (Paul isn’t sixty-two yet, so he had to pay full price: $30.)
The Friday forecast was for thunderstorms all day long: on wunderground.com, the little icon for every hour of the day was a dark cloud with a lightning bolt streaking out of it. But Barney, Mike B., Tim D., and I decided keep our morning tee time at the Links at Union Vale, about an hour west of where we live. And we were right to ignore the forecast. During our round, there wasn’t even a distant hint of thunder, and we had a total of maybe ten minutes of light rain. Mike B., above, was the only one of us to carry an umbrella, and he used it only briefly. We all took off our rain jackets after a few holes, and wished we’d worn shorts. And, because other golfers have more faith in meteorologists than we do, we had the place virtually to ourselves.
The course was built in the late nineties by New York City golfers. A group of Irish players from Van Cortlandt, Pelham Bay/Split Rock, and other munis in the metropolitan area got fed up with the summer crowds and decided to build a place of their own within weekend commuting distance. Roughly eighty of them bought shares, at ten thousand dollars apiece, then found two hundred acres of cattle-grazing farmland and hired Stephen Kay and Doug Smith to design a course for them. The investors knew of Kay because he had done some work on the bunkers at Van Cortlandt and because he had designed an Irish-style course, the Links of North Dakota, that they liked very much. He built the course for about two and a half million dollars—a pittance even then.
Many of Union Vale’s members belong to one or another of the many Irish golf associations in and around New York City. They allow themselves preferential tee times and charge themselves reduced fees, but their club is open to everyone. The course itself looks and plays more than a little like an Irish links course, and every tee box is sponsored by a different metropolitan-are Irish golf club, and the clubhouse is well stocked with Guinness. We paid the winter rate—thirty-five bucks for eighteen holes, walking—and we’re going back next Friday, forecast be damned.
We learned today, during the Travelers Championship broadcast, that Bryson DeChambeau uses a compass (see above) when he studies the green-slope diagrams in his yardage book. The CBS announcers, more than once, called it a protractor (see below). Calling all math teachers!