The Muny Life: The Wrath of Cobbs Creek

Cobbs Creek 7I wrote about Cobbs Creek Golf Club, in western Philadelphia, in the June issue of Golf Digest. The main course—which regulars call the Crick—was named after its most diabolical hazard, which also runs along the eastern edge of Merion Golf Club, a few miles away. The Crick’s creek has always been both an asset and a liability. Hugh Wilson, who also designed Merion, brilliantly incorporated it into his routing, and Charles Barkley once got so angry at it—on the third hole, a short par 4—that he threw his clubs into the water, then stormed back to the golf shop and bought another set. But when the creek floods, as it did on Labor Day, it can carry away entire greens. Most of the photos in this post were sent to me by Paul Cornely, the head of the regular men’s group, which is called the Cobbs Creek Publinks Golf Club. Cornely and I played back in March, when the water was better behaved.

Cobbs Creek 5-001

Cornely writes:

The rain started at 10:45, and in an hour the course and nearby area got four-plus inches. We had twenty-five guys, and the last group was on the eighteenth green when the rain started. It was coming down so hard that we had to stay in the clubhouse. These pictures were taken between about 11:45 and 12:15.

In normal weather, this is a golf hole with a creek running down the center of the fairway.

In normal weather, this is a golf hole with a creek running down the center of the fairway, as you can see in the photo below.

Here’s what the hole in the photo above looked like back in March:


The next photo, below, was taken near the clubhouse during the rainstorm. The river you see at the bottom of the hill had been the first fairway until an hour or two before. As bad as things look in these pictures, though, they were worse in 2006, when an August flood swept away the third and fourth greens.

Cobbs Creek 1-001

In recent years, a group of Crick aficionados led by Chris Lange,a local businessman, has developed a plan to deal with the flooding problem, which also affects a neighboring facility owned by the city’s transit authority. The group also wants to repair many years’ worth of erosion damage and restore Wilson’s routing, which was modified in 1950, when most of the original thirteenth fairway was appropriated for a missile base. (Today, it’s a driving range.)

Here's the driving range next door. During the early years of the Cold War, it was a missile base.

Here’s the driving range next door, four months before the flood. During the early years of the Cold War, it was a missile base.

The 1950 reconfiguration, by George Fazio, was cleverly done, since it preserved all eighteen of the Crick’s original greens. But no one believes the current course is as good as the one that Wilson designed, and the architects Gil Hanse and Jim Wagner, whose office is nearby, have created a restoration plan. The Golf Association of Philadelphia has endorsed the project, most of which will be financed privately, and has agreed to move its headquarters to the course if the city approves it. Maybe the Labor Day Flood will move things along.

Cobbs Creek 3-001

Reader’s Trip Report: 19-Year-Old Son in the U.S. Amateur

Francis Ouimet's childhood home, across from the seventeenth hole at The Country Club. All photos by Bob McIver.

Francis Ouimet’s childhood home, across from the seventeenth green at the Country Club. All photos by Bob McIver.

Bob McIver, a reader and an executive of a small air-services company in Montana, attended the recent U.S. Amateur, in Boston. He went because his son, Brandon, who plays for the University of Oregon, was a competitor. Brandon had qualified by shooting 65-70 at Old Works Golf Club, Anaconda, Montana, the month before. (The 65 was a course record.)  Bob McIver writes:

The event was held at the Country Club, in Brookline, and Charles River Country Club, in Newton. The differences in their setup was stark. Charles River is a Donald Ross course, built in 1921. The fairways were wide, sometimes fifty or sixty yards; the greens were very large, with big undulations; and the greenside bunkers were nicely trimmed. One volunteer, a member, told me it was playing the way it does for members: rough not too long, greens about 11 on the Stimpmeter, fairways as wide as they normally are.

Brandon McIver, Charles River Country Club, No. 17/

Brandon McIver, Charles River Country Club, No. 17.

By contrast, the Country Club was unruly: fairways about thirty yards wide; first cut of rough just two yards wide; primary rough very thick and very lush. Brown, knee-high grass came into play around the greenside bunkers and some fairways. The greens were tiny, perhaps only a third the size of those at Charles River. They didn’t have much undulation, but many were steeply pitched from back to front or side to side. The back quarter of No. 18 could’t accept a hole location, because of the slope. An employee told me that many members had quit playing several weeks back because the U.S.G.A. setup was just too tough.

Greenside bunker, No. 18, The Country Club. That's Brandon in the sand.

Greenside bunker, No. 18, the Country Club. That’s Brandon in the sand.

The event itself resembled a very large college tournament: lots of young bucks running around with college-logo golf bags and very nice golf swings.

US am

Perhaps most impressive were the the Country Club’s facilities. I counted fifteen separate buildings in an aerial photo, including a clubhouse, horse stables (U.S.G.A. headquarters of the event), swimming pool, warming house for ice-skating, skeet-shooting facility (the range is over the first fairway, and is presumably used only when the course is closed), golf shop, men’s locker room, a museum building, and several others. It looked more like a compound than a country club.

Second green, The Country Club.

Second green, The Country Club.

Brandon shot 71-78, and missed match play by five shots. “After that, he decided it wasn’t so fun anymore,” his father told me, “so I sucked up some airline travel penalties and we came home early.” Next year!

The Muny Life: Swope Memorial, Kansas City

Clubhouse, Swope Memorial, Kansas City, June, 2013.

Clubhouse, Swope Memorial Golf Course, Kansas City, June, 2013.

My Muny Life column in the current issue of Golf Digest is about Swope Memorial Golf Course, in Kansas City. The course and the huge urban park that contains it were named for Thomas H. Swope, who gave the city thirteen hundred hilly, wooded acres in 1896. (Five hundred more acres were added later.) Swope died in 1909, and many people suspected that he had been poisoned by Dr. Benjamin Hyde, who attended him in his final illness and was the husband of one of his heirs, a niece. Swope’s body was disinterred and checked for strychnine, and Hyde was tried for murder but not convicted. In 1918, Swope was reburied, about a hundred and fifty yards from the tenth tee, under a monument that overlooks downtown.

IMG_1750Among the people I played with was James Armstrong, at right in the photo above. He spent thirty-eight years in the shipping department at Hallmark Cards, a job that was good for his game, because his shift was late. He’s one of the best putters I’ve ever seen, including on TV—his nickname at Swope is Drano—so I was surprised when he said, toward the end of our round, “This year is going to be my last.” I asked him how he could even think of giving up golf when he was still playing so well, and he said, “No, this is the last. Starting next year, twice a week is going to be it for me.” I asked him whether he really considered playing twice a week to be quitting. He thought about that for a moment, then said, “Sometimes I might squeeze in three.”

Drano, sinking a long one.

Drano, sinking a long one.

Like me, Armstrong believes in customizing his gear. Here’s his pushcart, a Sun Mountain Speed Cart, which began as a castoff from another player:

Note the improved cupholder and pencil caddie.

Note the bespoke cupholder and pencil caddie, which he made from an old headcover.

Armstrong has added distance off the tee by giving his driver an improved paint job:

P1070243Two days later, I played with Joe Cutrera, a Vietnam veteran, who owns a liquor-and-grocery store not far from the golf course. The store is in a high-crime area, he told me, but he hasn’t been robbed since 1984.

Joe Cutrera, Swope Memorial.

Joe Cutrera, Swope Memorial.

Cutrera’s job, like Armstrong’s old one, leaves plenty of time for golf, since he doesn’t need to be in his store all the time. He had customized his pushcart, too:

P1070354Swope Memorial was redesigned by A. W. Tillinghast in 1934. The city thoroughly refurbished it in nineteen-nineties, and when I visited it was in extraordinary condition. On one hole, an assistant superintendent was watering a new bunker, to de-fluff the sand. Do they do that at your club?


Swope’s fairways are zoysia, just like the fairways at the Kansas City Country Club, another Tillinghast project, and the whole property is beautiful and beautifully maintained—as you can see from the photos below.







Ed Heimann Has a Better Short Game Than You Do

Ed Heimann, Hyde Park Golf and Country Club, Cincinnati, Ohio, May 9, 2013.

Ed Heimann, Hyde Park Golf & Country Club, Cincinnati, Ohio, May 9, 2013.

A couple of weeks ago, I had the tremendous good fortune to play a round of golf (and give an evening talk and slide show) at Hyde Park Golf & Country Club, in Cincinnati. The club’s original course, which had nine holes, was laid out by Tom Bendelow in 1909, and the current course, which has eighteen holes, all of them terrific, was designed by Donald Ross a little over a decade later.

Among the members I played with was Ed Heimann, who has won Hyde Park’s club championship twenty-one times, in six different decades. His first win was in 1964, when he was twenty-six; his most recent was in 2010, when he was seventy-two. And he’s been the runner-up half a dozen times, during years when (I guess) he was struggling with his game.

Ed Heimann has won the Hyde Park club championship so often that his victories won't all fit on one plaque.

Ed Heimann has won the Hyde Park club championship so often that his victories spill over onto a second plaque.

His most recent victories. Still room for more.

His most recent victories. Still room for more.

Heimann isn’t very long off the tee anymore, but from inside a hundred yards he routinely gets the ball closer to the hole than many good players do from the fringe—a skill that’s especially devastating in match play, since guys who out-drive him by a hundred yards don’t expect to have to putt first. My advice to other golfers is to emulate everything Heimann does, including plumb-bobbing and wearing a green glove. And if you ever find yourself in a match with him you might as well just give him ten-footers.

Ed Heimann and Ian Wilt.

Ed Heimann and Ian Wilt. “That’s good, Ed.”

Heimann has a more interesting job than you do, too: he is the chairman of Hamilton Tailoring Company, in Avondale, which was founded the same year Hyde Park was. Hamilton has made clothing for customers as different as Perry Como and John Daly, and since 1967 it has been the exclusive manufacturer of the three-button, single-breasted sports coats worn by Augusta National members and Masters winners. (The exact shade of green: Pantone 342.) Heimann established his Augusta relationship by employing the same kind of creativity and determination that he has used to pick apart opponents in club matches for the past half-century. So watch it.

The Other Island Green at the TPC at Sawgrass

The seventeenth hole at the TPC at Sawgrass is deservedly famous, but the thirteenth, which is also a par-3, can be almost as intimidating, since from the farthest tournament tee it’s more than 180 yards long, and, to a right-handed player who draws the ball, its green might as well be an island.

TPC 13

I had a demoralizing encounter with the thirteenth twenty years ago, during a tournament on the Partners Tour, a short-lived (and almost certainly money-losing) program that the PGA Tour briefly offered to ordinary golfers. For $1,275, I got one practice round (on the Stadium Course), three tournament rounds (one on the Stadium Course, one on the adjacent Valley Course, and one at Jacksonville Country Club), unlimited extra golf on the Stadium and Valley courses, four nights at the Marriott at Sawgrass, three breakfasts, three lunches, two dinners, and a money clip made of goldium. I also got a locker with my name on it. It was next to the locker of Deane Beman, who at the time was the commissioner of the PGA Tour. I didn’t see Beman, but I did get a pretty good look at his shoe trees and a pair of his socks.

During the first round of the tournament, I was briskly confident as I stepped up to the thirteenth tee. We were playing from the blue tees, from which the hole measures about 150 yards. (The same tees were used during the second round of the Players Championship this year.) The day before, during my practice round, I had chipped in from the fringe for a birdie, and I had birdied the following hole as well, and (because golf is an easy game) I had parred the hole after that. Now, waggling my 8-iron and visualizing a soaring draw, I glanced one last time at the flag, and half-shanked my ball into the trees on the right.

No 13

“I’d better hit a provisional,” I said, without feeling particularly concerned. I teed up another ball, and, with a swing grooved through long and patient repetition, half-shanked it into the same stand of trees.

“I see the second ball,” someone shouted. Five minutes of crawling through dense undergrowth failed to turn up the first. I crouched in a bush to survey my prospects. To put my second ball on the green, I calculated, I would need to hit a crisp thirty-yard smother-hooked 4-iron through a window-size gap in the branches, applying enough backspin to keep the ball from skidding into low earth orbit. I declared the ball unplayable and returned to the tee. Taking a deep breath, I swung again. My third ball found the water on the left.

Sawgrass 13th

An eerie hush fell over my playing partners. I felt my consciousness rise slowly out of my body and gaze down, with ineffable pity, at my golf hat. I dropped a fourth ball, at the front of the teeing area, and with my pitching wedge yanked it safely onto the far left corner of the green, perhaps fifty feet from the pin. Three putts later, I had my ten.

From that point forward, my memories of my round are indistinct. I had been playing pretty well before my disaster, but I ended up with a 102, including double- or triple-bogeys on all the remaining holes except the celebrated seventeenth, on which I had a seven. (First ball into the water over the green; second ball into deep rough next to a piling at the rear of the green after bouncing hard and high off a piling at the front; chunky chip; three putts.) As I watched an official inscribe my score on the big board near the clubhouse, I wondered whether I ought not to give up golf altogether, for the good of the game.

Because I had played so poorly in the first round, I was demoted to the old-guy flight for the second round, which we played at the TPC’s Valley Course. The Valley Course, which is right next to the Stadium Course, is very different—it was designed by Pete Dye and Bobby Weed—but it’s still a good, challenging course. (The N.A.I.A. championship had been played there two days earlier.) I was grouped with an old guy from Texas named John, an old guy from South Carolina named Glen, and a regular guy from Florida named Gerry. Like me, Gerry had had a terrible round the day before. (He was a seven-handicap, but had shot 95.) I started out quadruple-bogey, double-bogey, double-bogey—a string of trouble that began when I decided to hit a big tee shot in front of Holly, a nice woman from the Tour office who was sitting at a table by the first tee. This triple disaster was doubly annoying, because the evening before I had parred all three holes in a quick nine-hole practice round with a fellow competitor and a photographer from Golf Digest.

Fourteenth hole, Valley Course.

Fourteenth hole, Valley Course.

One thing that makes me nervous on a golf course is wondering when disaster is going to strike. Once disaster has actually struck, I feel a sense of relief: now I know. Finding myself eight over par after three holes, I gave up hope, settled down, and began to make pars. I eased up on my swing, and my shots became longer and straighter. I no longer cared so much about my putts, and they began to drop. I even made a couple of birdies. Part of the credit belongs to my playing partners. John (whose golf shirt had a picture of an oil derrick on it) and Glen made flattering noises every time Gerry or I hit a ball more than 150 yards. Under their benevolent, calming gaze on one hole, I unwound a mighty two-wood—my fraidy-cat driver at that time—and hit what turned out to be the longest drive of the day. My prize was an attaché case with a PGA Tour emblem on it. I was thrilled to receive it—the long-drive winner in a previous tournament had been the mother of the Tour player Robert Gamez—although I later threw it away.

What’s In My Bag, Part Three: Let’s Have a Look Inside Those Pockets

Will, Brent, D.O., Ben, Liberty National Golf Course, Jersey City, New Jersey, May 5, 2013.

Famous building, Will, Brent, D.O., Ben, famous statue. Fourteenth tee, Liberty National Golf Course, Jersey City, New Jersey, May 5, 2013.

On Sunday, I had the tremendous good fortune to be invited to join a twelve-man outing at Liberty National Golf Course, in Jersey City, New Jersey, directly across the Hudson River from lower Manhattan. I employed a labor-saving technique I’ve often used during visits to other rich-guy golf clubs: I wore my sorriest-looking pair of shoes, knowing that the locker-room guy would fully resuscitate them while we were playing. During a multi-day trip Pine Valley ten or fifteen years ago, I took three sorry-looking pairs of shoes and left them outside my door sequentially. I went home feeling like a new man.

Cool clubhouse.

Cool clubhouse–and that statue again.

Liberty National was designed by Tom Kite and Bob Cupp, and it was built, in 2006, on a desolate industrial site. (I’ve seen a variety of cost estimates, all of which have nine digits.) The Barclays—which used to be known as the Westchester Classic, and then as the Buick Classic—was held there in 2009, and it will be held there again in August. Tour players grumbled about the course the first time. Since then, Kite and Cupp have made many changes, and either the changes have been effective or I don’t know what I’m talking about, because I liked the course a lot. And the clubhouse is the only starkly modernistical one I’ve ever been in that I fully approve of.

The bar, post-round.

The bar, post-round.

Partway through our round, I apologized to my caddie for having forgotten to remove a couple of nonessential items from my golf bag. (I’ve gotten a little lazy about on-course housekeeping in recent years, because at home I now almost always use a pushcart.) The bag can’t have been too bad, though, because I still occasionally carry it myself. Here is some of what was in it:

Ball markers

The photo above shows my selection of lucky ball markers for that day. Clockwise from lower left: a souvenir marker from Royal County Down, a necessity because of the sublimity, transcendence, immanence, etc., of that course; a souvenir marker from a casino in Connecticut, useful because it has four colored pointy things, any one of which can be aimed at the hole; a Norwegian coin with an actual hole in the middle of it; a Moroccan coin featuring King Hassan II, who loved golf, wore golf gloves on both hands, and was accompanied during golf rounds by a servant whose only job was to use a pair of silver tongs to hold the king’s cigarette while swung; a one-something coin from Dubai, which I often use when I absolutely have to one-putt; a big old Mexican coin with some guy on it; a Colombian coin featuring what appear to me to be balls, holes, and “aiming chutes.”

When I wrote about (a slightly different selection of) lucky ball markers, last year, I said that when I used a coin with a guy’s head on it I aimed the top the head at the hole. Michael Clark, a reader, wrote to say that, on the final day of a three-day-tournament at his club, he had discovered a better way. “The eyes of the coin had to be looking at the hole,” he wrote. “When the eyes lined up to the hole the putts were dropping! Also, it had to be the same coin. So, if the coin has eyes, line them up!” Since then, I have field-tested Clark’s method, and adopted it.

Morefar green repair tool

The photo above is of what is probably the luckiest green-repair tool I’ve ever owned. I got it at a super-secretive golf club called Morefar Back O’ Beyond, which straddles the border between Danbury, Connecticut, and Brewster, New York.

The course on the left is Morefar. The course on the right is Richter Park, which is owned by the city of Danbury, Connecticut, and is one of the best munys in the country.

The course on the left is Morefar. The course on the right is Richter Park, which is owned by the city of Danbury, Connecticut, and is one of the best munys in the country.


Morefar used to be owned by the disgraced insurance company A.I.G. I played there a dozen years ago as the guest of one of the club’s handful of local members. Only a tiny number of golfers are allowed out each day, and the only other group on the course on the day we were there was that of the Sultan of Brunei, who teed off before we did. He and his retinue were almost comically slow, but, it turns out, you don’t play through the Sultan of Brunei. On an airplane recently, I saw a guy (in first class) who had a Morefar attaché case in his lap. I gave him the secret sign of brotherhood (by showing him my green-repair tool) as I walked past him on my way to the back of the plane, but he cut me dead.


The item above is roll-on sunscreen, which I use as “lip balm.” The tube is at least half again as big as a ChapStick tube, and the stuff is waterproof. It’s especially handy in cold weather and in wind. I don’t carry ordinary sunscreen in my golf bag because I don’t believe in applying sunscreen in situ. I once told someone that if I ever ran for President my platform would have just three planks. I don’t recall what the first two were, but the third was that everyone would have to put on their sunscreen at home, before they went to the golf course, the swimming pool, or wherever. Sunscreen is much easier to apply when you aren’t wearing clothes, and it works better if it’s had some time to soak in. When I see young parents at the beach trying to squirt sunscreen onto squirming, uncooperative children, I think: “An hour ago, your children were naked and not covered with sand; why didn’t you think of doing this then? When I’m the President, we’ll have no more of this nonsense.” Several readers have sent me descriptions of what’s in their own bag. As promised, I will soon create a new section and post several of them permanently. If you’d like to add your own bag to the pile, send an email to Include a golf-related description of yourself and at least one or two photos of your golf stuff.

(Read Part One and Part Two.)

What's In My Bag?

What’s In My Bag?

Memorable Golfers: The Strafaci Family

Michael Strafaci, possibly at Doral, where he became the director of golf in 1960.

Frank Strafaci, probably at Doral, where he became the director of golf in 1960.

On Sunday, seven of my friends and I left home at 4:30 a.m. so that we could drive to Brooklyn in time to play Dyker Beach Golf Course with members of Shore View Golf Club. I’ve written about Dyker and Shore View a couple of times recently, and I’ll have more to say about them in an upcoming Golf Digest column.

During our round at Dyker, I learned about the Strafacis, a historically significant Brooklyn golf family, and today I learned more. There were five Strafaci brothers, all talented players. The most accomplished was Frank, who won the U.S. Amateur Public Links Championship (on the thirty-seventh hole) in 1935, when he was nineteen. (He was described by the Brooklyn Eagle as “curly-haired little Frankie Strafaci.”) He finished ninth in the 1937 U.S. Open, ahead of Gene Sarazen, Jimmy Demaret, and Byron Nelson, among others, and that performance earned him an invitation to the 1938 Masters, from which he withdrew after three rounds. He was playing poorly and the tournament had been delayed by rain, and he knew that if he stayed for the fourth round he wouldn’t be able to qualify for the North and South Amateur—which he then won, both that year and the next.

Frank Strafaci and Bobby Dunkleberger, following the former's defeat of the latter on the thirty-sixth hole of the 1939 North and South, Pinehurst, North Carolina.

Frank Strafaci and Bobby Dunkleberger, following the former’s defeat of the latter on the thirty-sixth hole of the final match of the 1939 North and South, Pinehurst, North Carolina.

During the Second World War, Strafaci was a technical sergeant in the Army’s DUKW Command, which handled amphibious transport. He took part in the Battle of the Philippines, in 1944, and on the second day was pinned behind a tree by Japanese snipers. Shortly afterward, he described the experience in a letter to Morton Bogue, the president of the U.S.G.A.:

I couldn’t see them and so I held my fire, and it was at this time that I got to thinking  of the five foot putt I had to make to tie the 8th hole in an exhibition golf match played in Brisbane only a few weeks ago (Captain Bud Ward came down from Dutch New Guinea for five days, and I arranged a match for the benefit of the Australian Red Cross, which we lost 3-2). Our opponents, Alex College and Dick Coogan, played a bit too good for us. I thought of what a tough spot we would have been in if I missed the putt. I can assure you I’ll never try hard for another putt for as long as I live, at least it won’t seem like trying. 

The U.S.G.A. had sent a shipment of golf balls to the Red Cross in Australia, as a morale-booster, and Strafaci thanked Bogue. He also wrote:

[When] I get back to the States I hope to present the USGA with a golf ball that has already traveled over 43,000 miles and been used for 52 rounds of golf. It was used in America, Australia, Dutch New Guinea, I expect soon to use it in the Philippines, China and Japan. I used it for the first time at my club Sound View, and from there it went to Omaha, back to Sound View then to Frisco, Adelaide, Australia, Melbourne, Townsville, Cairns, Sydney, Cairns, Brisbane, Cairns, Brisbane, Dutch New Guinea (I didn’t have a club, I batted it around with a club made out of a branch.)

Dan Hubbard, who works in the communications department of the U.S.G.A. and, as it happens, is a member of my club, told me in an email: “We do not have a record of a golf ball coming in from Frank Strafaci, but we do have a five-peso bill issued by the Japanese government from the Philippines which he sent to Morton Bogue from Leyte in April of 1945.” Strafaci’s inspiration for his long-distance ball stunt may have been a series of cartoons in 1936 by Frank King, in his syndicated strip Gasoline Alley. In that series, Doc sets out to play a golf ball from San Francisco to New York—and in the strip below he’s nearing his goal:

Blog Photos1

In subsequent installments, Doc “breaks 80” between the post office and the East River, and finishes with a transcontinental score of 14,197. (In 1927, according to the book Golf in the Comic Strips, “a plumber and golfer by the name of Joe Grahame set out to achieve the same goal. He disappeared somewhere in the middle of Texas.”)

Strafaci played in a second Masters, in 1950, and he lost to Arnold Palmer on the eighteenth hole in the first match-play round in the 1954 U.S. Amateur. Palmer, who went on to win (and then to turn pro), said his match with Strafaci had been his toughest in the tournament. Strafaci became the director of golf at Doral in 1960, and named the Blue Monster. He died in 1988.

Frank’s father, Joseph Strafaci, owned a small farm that included the site now occupied by the Dyker clubhouse. Frank’s brother Thomas, and Thomas’s son Thomas, Jr., served as Dyker’s head professionals from 1958 until 1983. Frank’s grandnephew Paul is a recent past president of Shore View—the fifth Strafaci to hold that position—and a highly decorated New York City detective. Paul and a brother—another Frank—were members of the golf team at St. John’s University in the nineteen-eighties. And Jill Strafaci, who is the wife of Paul’s cousin Frank (the son of the one who tested Arnold Palmer), was a star golfer at the University of Florida and, later, an executive in the Miami Dolphins organization. Her husband was an executive of the Florida State Golf Association and is now a member of its advisory board.

The fivesome in the photo below—which was taken in Queens in 1936, possibly at Oakland Golf Club, which was redesigned Seth Raynor in 1915 but buried by expressways in 1952 and 1960—consists of the five Strafaci brothers. From left to right they are Thomas, Dominick, Pasquale, Ralph, and Frank.


Back-Roads Scotland: Askernish

Askernish, South Uist, Scotland, May, 2007.

Askernish, South Uist, Scotland, May, 2007.

In 1889, a twenty-one-year-old Englishman named Frederick Rea was offered a job running a small school on South Uist, an island in the Outer Hebrides, more than fifty miles off the west coast of Scotland. He didn’t recall having applied for the position, and when he accepted it his relatives thought he’d lost his mind. South Uist was windswept, treeless, and only intermittently accessible, and it was seldom visited by anyone from the mainland except a few wealthy sportsmen, who came to hunt and fish.

May, 2007.

South Uist, May, 2007.

Rea’s students were the children of crofters, or small tenant farmers, the island’s principal residents. The crofters subsisted mainly by growing potatoes and grain, raising starved-looking cattle and sheep, and gathering seaweed, which they used as fertilizer or sold. Most spoke only Gaelic. The children went barefoot year-round and often walked miles to school, even in snow, and on winter mornings each was expected to bring a chunk of peat for the schoolhouse hearth. The Scottish historian John Lorne Campbell wrote that South Uist in those days was so primitive that “the appearance of a pedal bicycle was sufficient to send the island’s horses and cattle careering in panic.” Yet Rea was captivated. He didn’t return to the mainland permanently until 1913, by which time his students had included two of his own children.

Rea's schoolhouse stood near this old house, South Uist, Scotland, December, 2008.

Rea’s schoolhouse stood near (and resembled) this old house. Garrynamonie, South Uist, December, 2008.

When Rea arrived, South Uist and several neighboring islands were owned by Lady Emily Eliza Steele Gordon Cathcart, a wealthy Scotswoman, who had inherited them from her first husband, who had inherited them from his father. She is said to have visited South Uist only once, but she made business investments, including the construction of hotels and commercial fishing piers. In 1891, probably hoping to make South Uist more attractive to wealthy tourists, she commissioned a golf course near a tiny farming settlement known as Askernish.

The view from my room at the Lochboisdale Hotel, which was commissioned by Lady Cathcart and opened in 1882.

The evening view from one of the guestrooms at the Lochboisdale Hotel, which was commissioned by Lady Cathcart and opened in 1882. Lochboisdale, South Uist, December, 2008.

Rea, the schoolmaster, played the golf course with a friend when it was new, and he described the experience in his memoir, A School in South Uist, which was published in 1927 and is still highly readable. Lady Cathcart’s factor, or estate agent, Rea wrote, “told me that a professional golfer from St. Andrews had been to the island and had specially laid out an eighteen-hole course along the machair near his house, expressing the opinion that this part was a natural golf-link course.” Machair is the Gaelic word for “linksland”; it’s the root of Machrihanish, and it’s pronounced mocker, more or less, but with the two central consonants represented by what sounds like a clearing of the throat.

The machair of Askernish, May, 2007.

The machair of Askernish, May, 2007.

The factor invited Rea and a friend to play the new golf course one Saturday, and they met at his house. “Here we found quite a small party assembled,” Rea wrote; “beside his wife and children were a young lady cousin from Inverness, two or three clergymen and two junior clerks. Introductions over, we selected balls and clubs.” Rea didn’t say so, but the St. Andrews professional who had created the course was the most famous golfer of his day, Tom Morris, Sr., better known as Old Tom Morris.

The house of Lady Cathcart's estate agent, mention by Frederick Rea in "A School in South Uist." Old tom Morris's golf course began not far from its door.

The house of Lady Cathcart’s factor, mentioned by Frederick Rea in “A School in South Uist.” Old Tom Morris’s golf course began not far from its door. Rea’s friend dismissed golf, initially, as “a silly, stupid game,” but both men quickly became hooked.  Askernish, May, 2007.

Lady Cathcart died in 1932. Her will included a provision for the perpetuation of the golf course. In 1936, a small airstrip was built near its northern end to accommodate wealthy tourists. (The passenger service was commercial but unscheduled; when a pickup was desired, the proprietor of a local hotel would send a homing pigeon to North Uist—the island still lacked telephones and, for that matter, electricity—and Scottish and Northern Airways would dispatch a plane.) Then the war came. The number of golfers dwindled. The course was reduced to twelve holes, then to nine, and the connection to Old Tom Morris devolved to legend. By 2000, what was left of the course was maintained by a small group of local diehards, who mowed the putting greens with a rusting gang mower, which they pulled behind a tractor.

Askernish Golf Course, South Uist, Scotland, May, 2007.

Askernish , May, 2007.

I first visited South Uist on assignment for Golf Digest during the spring of 2007, and I visited it again in December of the following year, on assignment for The New Yorker. My New Yorker article about Askernish, called “The Ghost Course,” was published in 2009. Below are some more photographs I took during those two trips.

Askernish, May, 2007.

South Uist doesn’t have an airport. On my first trip, I flew from Inverness to Benbecula, one island to the north. It’s connected to South Uist by a causeway, as is the island of Eriskay, at the southern end. The only other passengers on my flight were two bank couriers, who were accompanying a load of cash, for ATMs. All the other seats were filled with “Bennetts Seat Converters” containing the day’s newspapers:

South Uist doesn't have an airport. On my first trip, I flew from Inverness to Benbecula, one island to the north, and drove south, across a causeway. The only other passengers were two bank couriers, who were accompanying a load of cash for ATMs. All the other seats were filled with "Bennetts Seat Converters," containing the day's newspapers.

On my second visit, I took the car ferry from Oban. That trip took almost seven hours. We passed islands called Mull, Coll, Muck, Eig, Rum, Sanday, Sundray, Vatersay, Hellisay, Gighay, and Stack, among others. We also passed this lighthouse, on a tiny island called Eilean Musdile. It’s just off the shore of a larger island, called Lismore, which has a population of a hundred and forty-six. The lighthouse was built in 1833:


Most of the roads on South Uist are a single lane, and you share them with sheep. There are frequent bump-outs for yielding to oncoming traffic. Resident drivers become adept at gauging each other’s speed, and often slip past each other without seeming to slow down:


During my first visit to South Uist, I stayed at the Borrodale Hotel, about a mile and a half down the road from Askernish. The hotel’s laundry facility was just outside the door:


My guide to Askernish was Ralph Thompson, who was born on the mainland in 1955 and spent summers on South Uist, where his grandparents lived. One reason he liked those visits, he told me, was that he was allowed to go for weeks without bathing, because his grandparents’ house, like almost all the houses on the island at that time, had no running water.


His wife, Flora, was born on Barra, two islands to the south. Barra was even more isolated and primitive than South Uist, although today it has a small airport. Takeoffs and landings on Barra are scheduled to coincide with low tide, because the runway is a beach. Here’s one of the planes, which I photographed as it passed over Asknerish:


At the time of my first visit, Ralph Thompson was working with two links-course experts—Gordon Irvine, who is a turf consultant and a former greenkeeper, and Martin Ebert, who is a golf architect—in an effort to restore Old Tom Morris’s course at Askernish. In the photo below, Irvine is on the left and Ebert is on the right, and the flag in the background marks what they had decided was probably one of the original green locations:


I played all of the holes I could on that trip, and, with some of Ralph’s friends, helped test a few of the rediscovered ones:


We often had to play around cows and sheep, which grazed on the same stretch of linksland:


Even when there were no animals, the shot-making was challenging. This is a friend of Thompson’s:


When I returned to Askernish in 2008, the golf course had begun to look and play much more like a real golf course. The green in the photo below was puttable, and it had a single-strand barbed-wire fence surrounding it, to keep cattle and sheep from trampling it:


There isn’t much daylight in northern Scotland in December, but we had time for eighteen holes, and the weather was milder than the weather at home:


Since then, the golf course has come a very long way—as you’ll see if you visit the Askernish website. Someday, I’ll go back.

My most recent round at Askernish, December, 2008.

My most recent round at Askernish, December, 2008.

An Anthropologist in Brooklyn: Dyker Beach Golf Course

Clubhouse, Dyker Beach Golf Course, 1930s.

Clubhouse, Dyker Beach Golf Course, 1930s. At the right edge of the image is the old starter’s booth, near the first tee.

Dyker Beach Golf Course, where my friends and I played on New Year’s Day, was designed in the late 1890s by Thomas Bendelow and reworked in 1935 by John Van Kleek. Van Kleek was a prominent golf architect who fell on hard times after the Crash and was hired by Robert Moses to oversee a major citywide golf project, which was eventually funded by the Works Progress Administration. (Van Kleek is responsible for the three best courses inside the city limits: La Tourette, in Staten Island; Split Rock, in the Bronx; and Dyker. He also redesigned Split Rock’s sister course, Pelham Bay, in 1934.) The photo above shows Dyker’s clubhouse under construction, in the 1930s; the photo below shows it completed, not long afterward.

Clubhouse, Dyker Beach Golf Course, 1930s.

Clubhouse, Dyker Beach Golf Course, 1930s.

The green you see in the photo above is the second. The photo below shows what the same green and the clubhouse look like from a somewhat similar angle today. The tee on the right is the third:

Dyker Beach Clubhouse

Clubhouse, second green, and third tee, Dyker Beach Golf Course, 2013. The red-brick wing on the far right-hand side of the clubhouse, visible through the trees, was added a few years ago, during a major renovation. The slates on the main roof are mostly original.

On a crisp but snow-less Sunday morning in February, 2005, Hacker (real name) and I drove to Brooklyn for a bonus round at Dyker. We stopped in Westchester to buy gas and doughnuts, and as I was filling my tank I noticed a guy at another pump who was wearing golf shoes: a brother. Traffic was light, and we arrived long before our tee time. We drank coffee in Dyker’s clubhouse, most of which hadn’t been renovated since the 1930s, and ran into Terry Byrne, who was the president of the Shore View Golf Club, a group of a hundred and forty men who play most of their golf at Dyker. The club is six years older than the clubhouse. Its members include carpenters, cops, lawyers, firefighters, accountants, masons, city employees—a typical mix for a New York City golf course. (Byrne, whose parents were born in Ireland, was—and may still be—a plumbing supervisor for the New York City Housing Authority.) Shore View used to have a dark, dank, semi-secret meeting-and-card room in a back corner of the clubhouse, but it disappeared during the renovation.

Another view of the Dyker clubhouse in the 1930s. Page Ayres Cowley, the architect who designed the renovation and expansion of the building, described it to me, accurately, as "a French-inspired gentleman's house."

Another view of the Dyker clubhouse in the 1930s. Page Ayres Cowley, the architect who designed the renovation and expansion of the building, described it to me, accurately, as “a French-inspired gentleman’s house.”

Just before nine o’clock, the starter put Hacker and me with a Manhattan structural engineer who had moved to this country from Italy twenty years before and took up golf in 2004, and a grumbling Brooklyn guy. There are linguistically distinct ancient tribes in the Kalahari Desert region whose members are known as the click-speaking people of southern Africa, and there are linguistically distinct ancient tribes in the Brooklyn region whose members could be known as the fuck-speaking people of New York—and this guy was one of those. “Where the fuck is my ball? I don’t mind losing a ball if I hit it in the fuckin’ woods, but that drive was right up the fuckin’ middle of the fuckin’ fairway. What the fuck!” We got along great, however. And two days later, Hacker and I played two more rounds in the city, at Van Cortlandt Golf Course, in the Bronx, and Clearview Park Golf Course, in Queens.

The Dyker clubhouse in the 1930s again. today, there's a little dog park not far from the spot where the photographer was standing.

The Dyker clubhouse in the 1930s. Today, there’s a little dog park not far from the spot where the photographer was standing.

My Close Personal Friend (a Different) Tom Watson

Nick and Hacker (real name), Dyker Beach Golf Course, Brooklyn New York, 2006. That’s the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge in the background.

As soon as our home course closes for the season, my friends and I pack up our clubs, say goodbye to our wives and children, and head south for a while, to a place where golf can be played on real grass even in the middle of the winter. Which is to say, we go to the Bronx.

Many people don’t realize that there is a golf course inside the New York City limits, but there are more than a dozen, and almost all of them are public courses that are open year-round. Our favorites are probably Pelham Bay and Split Rock, in the Bronx, and Dyker Beach, in Brooklyn, but there are others and, because there’s no such thing as a bad golf course, we sometimes play them, too. (You can read more about winter golf in New York here and here.)

The drive south takes us down I-684 and the Hutchinson River Parkway and past still more golf courses, most of which don’t stay open all winter. One of those is Saxon Woods, which is one of six public courses owned by Westchester County, New York. Saxon Woods is so close to Winged Foot and Quaker Ridge that some people figure A. W. Tillinghast must have designed at least part of it, too. The evidence for that isn’t strong, to say the least, but as we drive by I look at it longingly (which is how I look at all golf courses).

Not long ago, I received an email from Tom Watson, a Saxon Woods regular, who wanted me to know about a game he had invented. Here he is:

Tom Watson (real name) playing in a charity outing at Westchester Country Club, Rye, New York, 2012.

Tom wrote:

“I simply keep my best score for each hole for the entire season, and add them up for a season’s best net total. So it allows a 19-handicapper to post a ‘score’ that’s closer to the pros than to guys who put their shoes on in the parking lot. And it gives you some real rooting interest as the season wanes. I was sitting on 68 last week when I stepped up to one of the only two holes I haven’t parred all year. A good drive, a yanked three-wood, a big flop shot over a bunker, and an easy three-footer later, I was writing down par and dropping my Season’s Best to 67. It’s a number I’m not usually acquainted with—and it made the round. I didn’t quite go all Ian Poulter on the green, but there was a discreet fist pump involved. It’s the only golf game I know of where your score always goes down over time!”

Tom’s invention is actually a re-invention. A cumulative score like the one he compiled is called a ringer score, and there are lots of clubs and leagues and groups that run season-long ringer competitions. (One of them is Wethersfield Country Club, in Connecticut, where Rick and I played in a state senior four-ball tournament this year.) Ringer scores are also fun to use as a side bet on golf trips, over multiple courses. Ray, Tony, and I did that during ten rounds on three courses at Bandon Dunes, not quite six years ago. I’m pretty sure I won, although I don’t recall collecting any money.