Back-Roads Scotland: Tain Golf Club

Tain is an Old Tom Morris layout on southern side of Dornoch Firth. It’s less than five miles in a straight line from Royal Dornoch, and less than ten miles by car. I played it in 1992, on my first golf trip to Scotland. Jerry Quinlan, of Celtic Golf, who planned my trip, had arranged for me to play with the club’s general manager and one of the members. I got lost in the town and didn’t arrive at the club until exactly eight, when we were supposed to tee off. Here’s where I got lost:

The manager, whose name was Norman, and the member, whose name was Ian, were already on the tee when I pulled up. Ian looked peeved and impatient. I jumped from my car, pulled on my shoes, breathlessly hit a drive without a practice swing or a waggle, and took off after them.

Norman and Ian, it turned out, where playing in a club competition. Even so, they played at a pace that would have staggered the average American golfer. I have friends at home who think I play ridiculously fast, but I had to concentrate to keep up. I watched them closely, to make sure I put down my bag on the side of the green that was nearest the next tee, and I always had to be aware of whose turn it was to do what. No plumb-bobbing!

If there was any doubt about the playing order, one of them would quickly establish it. “First David, then myself, then Ian,” Norman said on one hole as he pulled the pin. Each golfer was expected to line up his putt or select his next club while the others were putting or hitting. Even so, we played more slowly than the two players behind us, who occasionally had to wait.

Tain is surrounded by farms and separated from Dornoch Firth by fields full of sheep; at one point, I had to retrieve my ball from a pigpen, which was out of bounds. Still, my round was one of the happiest of my trip. After I had jogged along with Norman and Ian for a couple of holes, they apparently forgave me for being late, and from then on we chatted between shots. Norman told me where to aim on every tee—the bunker on the left, the last tree on the right—and I manged to hit my ball on the proper line surprisingly often. Later, it occurred to me that my unaccustomed accuracy was probably the result of my aiming at something. Before that day, I don’t think I had ever aimed a drive at anything smaller than the entire fairway—in effect, aiming at nothing.

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After our round, Norman and Ian bought me a beer in the clubhouse bar. The two players who had been behind us were also there. Ian good-naturedly complained to them that they had talked too loudly during their match, and that their voices had bothered him. “If you had been playing at the proper pace,” one of them said, “you would have been too far ahead to hear me.”

Atlantic City Country Club: Great Golf Course, Great Locker Room, Great Bar

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Every autumn, the Sunday Morning Group takes an end-of-season golf trip to Atlantic City, which, in addition to being a cesspool of sin, depravity, and despair, is a terrific low-cost, high-quality golf destination. During this year’s trip—our seventeenth—we added a new course to our rotation: Atlantic City Country Club. It’s now one of our all-time favorites, along with Twisted Dune, the Bay Course at Seaview, Renault Winery, and Scotland Run—courses that would stand out anywhere. Here are a few reasons to visit ACCC, which has been open to the public since 2007:

  • The club was founded in 1897, so next year will be its 120th anniversary.
  • In the olden days, a bell was rung to warn golfers that the last trolley back to Atlantic City was about to depart. Timing was an issue because high tide sometimes covered the tracks, making the schedule irregular. Also, everyone was drunk.

  • The term “birdie,” in its golf application, was coined there in 1903, when Abner Smith, a member from Philadelphia, hit his approach stiff on the what was then the twelfth hole. He exclaimed that he had hit “a bird of a shot,” and the term caught on, partly thorough his own encouragement. (That hole, with a different green, is now the second. The original second green has been preserved, for historical reasons, as a remote practice area.)
  • The men’s locker room is one of the greatest male sanctuaries on earth:

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  • The U.S. Amateur was held there in 1901.
  • The U. S. Women’s Open has been held there three times. In 1948, it was won by Babe Zaharias, who celebrated afterward by playing the piano in the club’s Taproom.
  • Arnold Palmer played there often in the 1950s, when he was in the Coast Guard and stationed nearby, and he has an honorary locker (which was shrouded in black, to mark his death, during our visit):

  • Al Capone, Bob Hope, Willie Mays, and Joe Namath also played there and also have honorary lockers.
  • Oh, yeah, and the course—which was designed partly by Willie Park, Jr., among others, and was reworked in 1999 by Tom Doak—is swell, too:

Troon is a Time-travel Wormhole to Machrihanish

Machrihanish is a legendary links course on the Kintyre Peninsula, in western Scotland. Part of the routing was created by Old Tom Morris in 1879, when what was then called the Kintyre Golf Club acquired additional acreage and expanded from 12 holes to 18. Machrihanish has one of the awesomest opening tee shots in golf. Here’s the first tee:

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The rest of the course is terrific, too. The only difficulty with Machrihanish is that it’s tricky to get to. The drive from Glasgow Airport can take more than three hours, with little or no hope of golf along the way. But there’s a shortcut, if you do what 11 friends and I did in 2014: charter a boat from an outfit called Kintyre Express. The trip from Troon Harbor (which is just up the road from Royal Troon) to Campbeltown Harbor (which is just down the road from Machrihanish) takes 75 minutes. That means that the round trip saves you more than enough time to squeeze in one entire bonus round at either Machrihanish or Machrihanish Dunes. Here we are getting ready to set out from Troon:

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And here’s some of what we saw along the way:

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And here’s what Tony looked like when the skipper gunned his engine:

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And here’s what we saw as we approached Campbeltown:

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And here’s where we stayed, just up a long ramp from the dock:

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Three days later, we took the same boat to Northern Ireland—which is even closer to Campbeltown than Troon is. All our golf bags and suitcases went into the hold:

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Kintyre Express has lots of other routes, too. The Troon-to-Campbeltown trip starts at £500 for up to 12 passengers. Thanks to Brexit, that currently works out to only about $55 a head. Kintyre also operates regular ferry service to a number of destinations in the same region. Ask for Mairi!

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Every Course Should Copy These Awesome Features

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On Saturday, Addison, Todd, Hacker (real name), and I took a field trip to Wintonbury Hills, a muny that’s roughly an hour and fifteen minutes from where we live. The course, which opened in 2005, was designed by Pete Dye and Tim Liddy. There are four sets of tees, at 6,700, 6,300, 5,700, and 5,000 yards. As is seldom the case at golf courses of any kind, though, the scorecard at Wintonbury lists ratings and slopes for both men and women from all four sets:

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Furthermore, neither the scorecard nor any of the course signage mentions “women’s tees,” or “senior tees,” or “regular men’s tees,” or “championship tees,” or anything else. There are just four different sets, at four different yardages, and the scorecard contains enough information to enable players of both sexes, at all levels, to calculate handicaps for matches of all kinds, in all conceivable combinations.

Every course should do this.

Addison and Todd played from the black tees, I played from the greens, and Hacker played from the whites, and we were able to adjust our handicaps accordingly. (The USGA actually makes doing this much, much harder than it needs to be—but that’s a semi-complicated issue, which I’ll explore in a couple of future posts.) We played three matches, switching partners every six holes, and everything came out virtually even. (Todd and I each lost a dollar.) And if Michelle Wie and my mother had joined us we would have been able to work them into the game, too.

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Another awesome Wintonbury feature—and one that should be copied by public courses everywhere—is generous fairways accompanied by challenging green complexes. This is a feature that Wintonbury shares with Muirfield Village and Augusta National, to name two member-friendly golf courses that great players don’t dismiss as too easy. Wide fairways keep play moving. None of the four of us lost a ball.

Addison, Hacker, Todd.

Addison, Hacker, Todd.

Another awesome thing about Wintonbury: the Bag of Beer, available in the grillroom (which is called the Tap Inn):

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That’s what the guy in the photo below was picking up. Weirdly, though, he had ordered just two beers—both Budweisers. What was he planning to drink when he got to the third hole?

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The only thing I didn’t like about Wintonbury: they charge you extra if you walk. (They don’t think of it as a walking penalty—in their view, they give away carts, since carts are included in the greens fees—but a walking penalty is what it is, since you don’t pay less if you don’t take a cart.) As far as I could see, though, we were the only walkers, so they probably don’t get a lot of complaints.

Still, it’s a terrific course. We’re definitely going back.

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Golf in New Zealand: Cape Kidnappers

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I visited New Zealand on a reporting assignment in 2007. I was the guest of the hedge-fund billionaire Julian Robertson and his wife, Josie, who has since died. We spent most of our time at Kauri Cliffs, a huge property Robertson owns at the northern end of the North Island. (You can read about that part of my trip here and here.) On Sunday, the Robertsons attended the early service at the tiny Anglican church in Kerikeri. “If you believe in a deity, you owe that deity an hour a week,” Robertson told me.

This is the church. They spell some things differently in New Zealand, apparently.

This is the church. They spell some things differently in New Zealand, apparently.

Then we headed south, to Cape Kidnappers, Robertson’s other big real-estate holding on the North Island. (He also owns 11,000 acres on the South Island.) The trip takes about ten hours if you go by car, but it’s quicker if you travel as we did: by helicopter to Auckland and then by Gulfstream to Hawkes Bay.

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The Gulfstream part of our journey was so short that the plane never really flew level: we went up, then we went down. In fact, the most grueling leg was probably the final one, the drive from the front gate at Cape Kidnappers to the clubhouse, a five-mile trip that, if you observe the posted speed limit and brake for wandering cattle, can take a half an hour.

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We made that drive in a rental car, which we had picked up at the little airport in Hawkes Bay. I went into the terminal with Diana McCarty, Robertson’s director of New Zealand operations, to make the arrangements. As we crossed the tarmac, she commented that people inside the terminal would probably be wondering who I was, since I had just emerged from a $40-million aircraft accompanied by a blond who was young enough to be my third wife. A useful rule of thumb, when evaluating any remark made to you by an attractive woman much younger than yourself, is that if you aren’t sure whether the remark was an insult, it was an insult. Nevertheless, I sucked in my gut and walked a little taller.

That little building in the distance is the clubhouse.

That little building in the distance is the Cape Kidnappers clubhouse.

The golf course at Cape Kidnappers was designed by Tom Doak, but it wouldn’t have been if Robertson, back in 2001, hadn’t received what he initially believed to be shabby treatment at Bandon Dunes, which had opened two years before. He was visiting with his sons and had expected to play the already legendary Bandon Dunes course twice. Sorry, he was told; you’ll have to play our new course, Pacific Dunes, first. Robertson was furious—he has a temper, which he has worked for years to control—but his anger vanished after a few holes, and he hired Doak to design a course for him, too.

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Doak creates magical golf holes by seemingly doing little more than identifying them in the existing terrain, rather than by dynamiting them out of bedrock. He views a bulldozer as a construction tool of last resort, and he likes brown grass and doesn’t like chemicals. “Cape Kidnappers cost half as much to build as Kauri Cliffs,” Robertson told me, “and it costs half as much to maintain.”

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Both courses are laid out on sheep-and-cattle farms on high cliffs above the Pacific, but the climate, topography, and general feel are very different. The most visually impressive holes at Kidnappers, if you view the course from the air, are the ones that run out and back over several finger-like promontories, which reach out toward the water, high above the waves — although the best holes, I think, are inland. (From the ground, the promontory holes don’t really feel as though they’re perched on promontories. You need a helicopter to get the full effect.)

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The lodge at Cape Kidnappers is called the Farm, and it’s just as nice as the one at Kauri Cliffs. If you’re pretty rich, you should spend a couple of weeks there with your wife:

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It was still under construction, so we stayed in Te Awanga, at a bed-and-breakfast place called Merriwee, which Doak discovered. The Robertsons had stayed there often, and had become good friends with the owner, a divorced woman with grown children who filled in occasionally as a substitute kindergarten teacher, and several of her neighbors. Her house is more than a century old.

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Here’s Robertson, sneaking something from the breakfast table:

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The Robertsons left the next day, because they had business elsewhere. I rented a car of my own and drove back to Kidnappers for a final round. A huge rainstorm had been predicted for the afternoon, but it disappeared somewhere over the Pacific, leaving only tremendous banks of fast-moving clouds, which the setting sun lit up. I had the course virtually to myself, and got around on foot in just a couple of hours. I had a new driver—one of those big square ones that sounded like fungo bats—and it echoed all over the course. I tried to swing it quietly so that the pro wouldn’t know how many balls I was playing. The only tiny seed of disappointment, lurking in the back of my mind, was my knowledge that, the following evening, I would be on my way home.

Josie and Julian Robertson, Cape Kidnappers, March 11, 2007.

Josie and Julian Robertson, Cape Kidnappers, March 11, 2007.

Golf in New Zealand: Kauri Cliffs

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One of the most remarkable things my wife has ever said to me is that, if I ever told her I thought we ought to live in New Zealand, she’d be ready to move that minute. This was highly surprising, both because she doesn’t really even like to travel and because Donald Trump wasn’t running for President yet. I think her interest was based partly on the scenery in The Lord of the Rings movies and partly on the fact that New Zealand is so far from everywhere else that if you holed up there you would no longer have to think quite so much about the world’s most serious problems. I myself might be tempted to move, if I could persuade all my regular golf buddies to go, too.

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I visited New Zealand in 2007, in the company of the hedge-fund billionaire Julian Robertson and his wife, Josie—who has since died.

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We spent the first few days at Kauri Cliffs, a resort the they had created on a 6,000-acre farm in the Bay of Islands region, near the northern end of the North Island. “I had no idea what I’d bought,” he told me. “It turned out to be one of the most magical pieces of land you will ever see, but when I bought it I didn’t even know that it had waterfalls. I saw it at the worst time of the year, August, and it was nothing but a filthy wet sheep farm, and I really bought it mainly because it was cheaper than a modest New York City apartment.”

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In 1997, he hired David Harman, a golf architect he admired, to design a course for the eastern edge of the property, along cliffs that rise high above the Pacific. That course is now No. 49 on Golf Digest’s list of the World’s 100 Greatest Golf Courses. It’s just ahead of North Berwick Golf Club, in Scotland—one of my favorite golf courses of all time. Kauri Cliffs is a terrific course, too, and the views from the ocean holes are spectacular.

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Josie didn’t see the place until the course was almost finished, and when she did she said they would have to build a lodge, too, in order to attract enough golfers to keep the course in operation. “I said, That’s ridiculous, this is a great golf course and they will come,” Julian told me. “Well, Josie was right; they wouldn’t have come. Kauri Cliffs is about as far away from everywhere else as you can get, so it was a real stroke of genius of hers that we did it. And, as it turns out, the lodge business down here has been very, very good.”

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The accommodations at Kauri Cliffs consist of eleven two-bedroom cottages arranged along a secluded walking path, plus the Owner’s Cottage, which is larger, has its own garden and infinity-edge swimming pool, and can be rented (for more than $6,000 a night in the high season) when the Robertsons aren’t in residence. Each suite-size half-cottage has a porch, fireplace, dressing room, and spa-like bathroom, and it looks out over the golf course to the sea. This was the view from my room:

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When the resort was being designed, Josie had a big fight with the architect over air-conditioning: the architect argued that no self-respecting five-star hotel could possibly do without it, and Josie argued that it most definitely could. The winner, naturally, was Josie—and she was right. The outdoor daytime temperature at Kauri Cliffs hovers around room temperature virtually all year long, and one of the great pleasures of staying there is waking up to birds and ocean breezes rather than the cold hum of an HVAC system.

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To be continued.

Reader’s Trip Report: Tarandowah Golfers Club

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When my friends and I look for places to play during the winter, we usually go south—to Bridgeport, Brooklyn, or the Bronx—but maybe we should go north instead. John Wilson, a reader in Canada, wrote recently to say he had just played a round at Tarandowah Golfers Club, in Springfield, Ontario, a few miles north of the northern shore of Lake Erie, about halfway between Buffalo and Detroit. Pictures of the course made me want to jump in my car.

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Tarandowah was designed by Martin Hawtree, who has done big projects at Lahinch, Portmarnock, Formby, Royal Liverpool, and Royal Birkdale — all among my favorite courses in the world. He also designed Trump International in Aberdeen, Scotland, and has done a major renovation and redesign at Trump International in Doonbeg, Ireland. His firm, Hawtree Ltd., was founded more than a century ago by his grandfather Fred; it’s the oldest continuously operating golf-architecture firm in the world. (All three generations of Hawtrees have worked on Royal Birkdale.) Tarandowah is very much in the spirit of all those great old links courses. Here’s a photo Wilson took during his recent round:

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And here’s another:

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His report:

“I work on the greens crew at St. Thomas Golf & Country Club, in Union, about half an hour away. It closes every year after the third weekend in November, so it has been shut down for a while. Tarandowah is one of several public courses in this area that stay open as long as the weather permits. I played with a St. Thomas member I see every day when I am working but rarely get to make a game with. We played in three hours (walking) at a cost of $25 per person — not bad for a Hawtree design.”

St. Thomas, which was founded in 1899, has a heck of a course, too. Here’s the third hole, on which nearly every shot has a decent chance of ending up in that creek:

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During the past three winters, St. Thomas has undertaken a major tree-thinning project — something many old golf courses need to do. “Joe Vargas, from Michigan State University, and David Oatis, from the U.S.G.A., were the primary consultants on the project,” Wilson told me, “and my superintendent, Wade Beaudoin, wrote an article about it.” (You can read Beaudoin’s article here.) So far, more than a thousand trees have come down. Here are some of them:

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During a round at Tarandowah a little over a year ago, Wilson noticed that a sorry-looking dog was following his foursome. “I assumed she was a stray, because she was covered in burrs and thick mud,” he told me. “My friends thought I was crazy to rescue a dog during a round of golf, but I took her home and cleaned her up. Later, I learned that she belonged to a farm near the golf course. I shed a few tears when I dropped her off with her rightful owners. During my round last week, she came running across the fields, and my smile was a mile wide. Her name is Gracey.”

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“The forecast for next week calls for temperatures in the mid-forties,” he continued, “so there’s still more time for December golf in Ontario. On Tuesday, though, I’m heading to L.A. for a family visit. I already have a tee time for Rancho Park, which I haven’t played yet. Hopefully, the round will be less than five hours.”

Well, good luck with that one. Maybe less than six.

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All the Way Inside the Ropes With Annika, Chi-Chi, and the Black Knight

Gary Player Invitational - Pro-AmA couple of weeks ago, three friends attended the Gary Player Invitational, a two-day charity event, at GlenArbor Golf Club, in Bedford Hills, New York. The course was designed by Player, and it’s awesome:

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The field for the event was awesome, too:

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It included Player, Chi-Chi Rodriguez, Annika Sorenstam, Tom Lehman, Retief Goosen, Natalie Gulbis, Ian Woosnam, Jason Dufner, Mark O’Meara, many others.

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Bob G.—an honorary member of the Sunday Morning Group, who also happens to be a member of GlenArbor—sent me these notes:

Way better than any golf tournament. No ropes, could walk anywhere. Players were relaxed and easy to engage. Although there was some press around, they weren’t in the way. It wasn’t like a big media event, so there was no pressure on the pros to be ‘on.’ Just us and these great golfers hanging out. A bit like having Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera over to play a little baseball in your backyard.

Chi-Chi, who is 79, looks 65. On the fairway of No. 16, he comes up and says, ‘Hi, I’m Chi-Chi. Things are so bad in Puerto Rico that the Mafia had to lay off three judges.’

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Annika Sorenstam hits a nice draw with about a 250-yard carry. Ian Woosnam looked grumpy. Mark O’Meara told Grant Gregory, who founded the club, that the greens were faster and better than the ones at Augusta during the Masters.

Lehman drinks beer; Goosen drinks wine. I had a drink with Rich Beem. Nice guy, but called me ‘Sir.’

Hacker (real name) was there, too. He followed Player and Sorenstam for several holes, and walked right along with them in the fairway. There were only about 40 people in the entire tournament gallery, so he was able to get plenty close:

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Peter A. was also there. “It was better than the last U.S. Open I attended, at Torrey Pines,” he told me. “And all the LPGA players are smokin’ hot.”

I couldn’t join them, because my daughter and her family were visiting, and I was busy teaching my granddaughter, who is about to turn two, how to eat goldfish crackers the way the guys in the Sunday Morning Group eat potato chips:

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The Ideal City for Golf?

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If you’re thinking about moving to maximize your year-round access to golf, you could do worse than to study a map of the nation’s air bases. The reason isn’t that pilots play more golf than other people; the reason is that the Air Force tends to locate its facilities in places that are relatively free of the kinds of weather that keep flyers on the ground—which happen to be the kinds of weather that keep golfers indoors. By that metric, the most golf-friendly micro-climate in the United States may be in and around San Antonio, Texas, where thousands of new airmen and airwomen are trained each year. At least, that’s the theory of Scott Anderson, a fortyish information-technology consultant, whose wife is a major in the Air Force Reserve. She spent five months in Afghanistan, and, during her deployment, their Skype conversations were sometimes broken off by explosions. “I hate this role reversal,” he told me. “She’d be under attack somewhere, and I’d be home, hand-washing the dog bed.”

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That’s Anderson in the middle in the photo above. He told me that he took up golf because he figured it would be a good way to meet people, especially while following his wife through her military career. I met him and two of his friends—Dustin New, on the left, and Evan Zickgraf, on the right—on the first tee at Brackenridge Park Golf Course, a few minutes from downtown San Antonio and roughly midway between Lackland and Randolph Air Force bases.

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Old Brack—as regulars refer to it—opened in 1916 and was the first municipal course in Texas. It was designed by A. W. Tillinghast and built partly with convict labor, and for many years it was the home of the Texas Open. The clubhouse was built in 1923, after the original clubhouse burned down; it does extra duty as the Texas Golf Hall of Fame & Museum.P1110062On the thirteenth hole, Anderson, New, Zickgraf, and I were joined by Stephen Escobedo, an assistant pro, whom I’d met the day before.

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His father, Marshall, caddied on what’s now the Champions Tour, and when Stephen was three or four Marshall took a photograph of him on the Old Brack practice green, pretending to smoke a corncob pipe. Stephen played baseball in college. He took up golf in a serious way during a five-year stint in the Marine Corps, and he liked the game so much that he decided to build his post-military existence around it. Today, in addition to giving lessons and working in the golf shop, he coaches the golf team at a local middle school.

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Stephen and Marshall are both members of the Pan-American Golf Association, a predominantly Latino group that was founded in San Antonio in 1947 and now has 44 chapters in nine states. The organization’s national archives and hall of fame are next door to the golf course, in a building that also serves as both a clubhouse and a public bar.

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Marshall and a large group of his golf buddies were there having a post-round beer when I stopped by, late on Saturday afternoon. They play most of their rounds at Old Brack, although they occasionally take field trips. “There’s a course they sometimes play that’s 30 miles away from here,” Stephen told me. “But even when they travel they always come back to their own clubhouse to do the scorecards.”

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How To Play Golf With a Broken Neck

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My column in the August issue of Golf Digest is about my friend Thomas Tami, an ear-nose-and-throat doctor in Cincinnati, who broke his neck when he was in college, forty years ago, and took up golf a decade later even though he can’t turn his head without turning his torso.”When I take the club back,” he told me, “I completely lose the ball, and I never pick it up on the way down.” He’s a player, though. His best score for 18 holes is 76 at his home course, Hyde Park Golf & Country Club, which was designed mostly by Donald Ross. Here’s a video of Tami hitting a shot at Hyde Park two years ago:
Try that yourself sometime (on the range) if you think it looks easy.
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