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 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.)
In my part of the country at this time of the year, avid golfers become migratory. Some fly hundreds of miles south and don’t return until spring, but most of us circle the ground closer to home, like Canada geese searching for open water. We study the sky and the Web and the Weather Channel, and when we hear rumors of snow-free fairways we hit the phones. Quite often, the Sunday Morning Group lands at D. Fairchild Wheeler Golf Course, a muny about an hour from where we live. “The Wheel,” as regulars call it, stays open all year. Area golfers whose home courses are closed often winter there.
Twelve of us made the trip on Sunday. We had meant to go the Sunday before, but just enough snow fell to shut down all the golf courses within a hundred miles of our town. The Wheel has two eighteens, the Black and the Red. We played the Black, which most of us prefer, although when we started there was so much fog that it was hard to be sure which course we were playing. The fog lifted, then returned, then lifted again, then returned again—and I discovered that my laser rangefinder doesn’t work when a golf hole looks like this:
The fog burned away for good while we were playing the second nine. At the base of the 150-yard marker pole in the middle of one fairway, I found an owl pellet, containing the indigestible parts of whatever the owl had eaten recently (in this case, mostly mice). The owl must have been perched on the marker pole when he coughed it up:
In the grillroom after our round, we ran into some old friends: The Boys, a transplanted winter men’s group from other local courses, including H. Smith Richardson, also a muny, a couple of miles away. The Boys use two custom scorecards when they move to the Wheel: one for when the ground is frozen and one for when it’s not. (They change the stroke indexes of a few holes when the fairways are like concrete, to compensate for extra roll.) Here’s the back of their frozen card:
Their organizer is Mark Haba, who runs a machinery company in Bristol. He collects the money and makes up the day’s teams, using a system that involves printed charts, a zippered binder, and six numbered poker chips. “We count two balls,” he told me, “one gross and one net.” They also play what they call “Chicago” skins—which, as near as I could tell, are just skins. They had thirty-two players on Sunday; their complete roster, including alternates, lists a couple of dozen more:
The main difference between The Boys and the Sunday Morning Group is gastronomic: they eat pizza; we eat bacon cheeseburgers:
Also, unlike us, they don’t give extra handicap strokes for wearing shorts (as Fritz, Barney, and I did on Sunday).
Other than that, we’re basically interchangeable—as cold-weather golfers tend to be.
Nelson Molina worked for New York City’s Department of Sanitation for 30 years, driving a route that included the East Harlem neighborhood in which he grew up. When he found something that he felt shouldn’t have been thrown away, he put it in a bin on the side of his garbage truck and took it back to the garage, on East 99th Street. Today, items he recovered fill most of the building’s second floor — maybe a quarter of an acre. He retired last year, but he returns to the garage three days a week to tend the collection, which he calls Treasure in the Trash. I wrote about Molina in an article in a recent New Yorker. His collection looks a little like the housewares department at Sears and a little like the closing scene of “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” The stuff Molina rescued includes a fair amount of sports equipment—including tennis rackets:
And baseball and hockey memorabilia:
But it doesn’t include all that much golf stuff:
The reason can’t be that New Yorkers don’t play golf, because they do. There are 13 municipal courses inside the city limits, and many of them are not only terrific but also crowded a lot of the time. Maybe the answer is that New Yorkers play with the same old crap forever—or that when they become fed up with the game they heave their clubs onto the Belt Parkway rather than lugging them home on the subway and setting them out on the curb. Or maybe the city just has fewer frustrated golfers than frustrated writers:
Incidentally, I don’t blame the person who threw away The Square-to-Square Golf Swing, an instruction book written by Dick Aultman, with help from Jim Flick and the staff of Golf Digest, and published in 1970. The square-to-square idea hurt at least as many golfers as it helped. As the legendary British golf instructor John Jacobs told Jaime Diaz in Golf Digest in 2010, “Many theories come and gone. Most of them I’ve disagreed with. Many arise from the originators being focused on fixes that apply to their own games. When the Square-to-Square theory was unveiled in the late ’60s, advocating that the takeaway should be initiated with a counterclockwise curling under of the left hand, I found that both co-authors—my good friends Jim Flick and Dick Aultman—had flattish actions begun by rolling the face open. If I’d been teaching them, I might have advised them to feel as if they were curling under. But that doesn’t mean that fix should have been given to the golfing population at large.”
I was in New York the other day, and I saw this guy on a bike crossing to the other side of FDR Drive at about 90th Street with golf clubs in a backpack. Maybe he was on his way to play at Van Cortlandt Park, in the Bronx. It’s the oldest municipal golf course in the United States, and it has one of the greatest locker rooms in all of golf:
Or maybe he was on his way to the driving range on Randalls Island, in the East River:
Wherever he was headed, he had his clubs, and he had carried them on his bike often enough to have figured out how to keep them out of his way:
Late last year, Eric Levin, the deputy editor of New Jersey Monthly, wrote an article, for Colorado Avid Golfer, about playing in and around Palm Beach without going broke. He found several reasonably-priced courses that he liked a lot, among them two that are owned and operated by Palm Beach County.
Between rounds, he and his wife had a meal at the Leopard Lounge, a legendary Palm Beach restaurant. They got into a conversation with “a slim, silver-haired man with a manicured mustache and a German accent,” who said that in the 1980s he had paid $25,000, at an auction, for a hat that Elvis Presley wore in the Army. “Presley’s Army hat, he reckoned, is worth many times what he paid for it,” Levin wrote. Too valuable to wear while playing golf? I can’t say.
In addition to the courses he wrote about, Levin visited one that he didn’t end up playing, even though he shares my conviction that there is no such thing as a bad golf course.
“I’ll call it Glory Glades. The clubhouse, behind an imposing facade complete with portico and curving driveway, turned out to be an enormous catering facility. The pro shop was a dreary, dimly-lit shoe box. But I did find one thing to love — or, rather, one person. I’ll call him Kenny. I ran into him outside the cart shed. He was a well-built, middle-aged guy in reflector shades, and he was wearing a Glory Glades logo shirt. He described his job as ‘bagger-slash-starter.’ He said, “I love everything about golf, from playing it, to talking about it, to helping people, to just being outdoors.'”
Kenny had only one golf-related beef, Levin told me: French Canadians, who, in his experience, are lousy tippers. Is this a known trait of our separatism-inclined golf brothers to the North? I myself have noticed that German golfers seem somewhat ruder than the international average, whether they’re wearing Elvis Presley’s Army hat or not, and that Korean golfers are slower—but that’s about as far as my ignorant stereotyping of non-Americans goes.
Back to Levin:
“Kenny told me he makes $7 an hour, plus tips, and lives about a mile from the course, with his wife and their two young children. He and his family moved from Broward County, where he worked 80 hours a week managing a grocery store, because the schools in Palm Beach County are better. His need for tips was obvious. He said that, on a good day in the high season (roughly Thanksgiving to Easter), he can make $200, but that very little of that comes from French Canadians. ‘Now here’s the crazy part,’ Kenny told me. ‘When they need something, they can speak English. But when it’s time for a tip or that kind of thing, suddenly they’re speaking French.'”
I assume that President Trump (who owns a golf course nearby) will put an end to all that, maybe with a Game of Thrones-style wall of ice along the Canadian border. Meanwhile, here are two more of Levin’s photographs of Glory Glades (which looks plenty good enough to me):
In shorts, obviously. (The Sunday Morning Group gives two extra strokes if you wear them after December 1.) One great thing about shorts is that they complement any outfit:
Last year, because of Addison, we had to add a rule about sock height. He arrived one Sunday in unusually tall socks, which he pulled up almost to his knees and fastened with rubber bands that he’d found in his mother’s refrigerator, on two bunches of broccoli:
Those socks are virtually pants! The new rule is “crew height or shorter”—demonstrated here by Fritz:
On Sunday, Fritz and I got to wondering whether there might not be a non-sock, non-pant, non-cheating solution to the exposed-skin problem (the wind was straight from the North Pole). After the round, I did some research and found this post, on the Fox Sports website. It was written two years ago by Brendon Ayanbadejo, who played linebacker for several NFL teams:
“What allowed me to wear so little in cold games was a cocktail Brian Urlacher and Muhsin Muhammad revealed to me. There is a cream called Warm Skin that we would mix with Vaseline and Tiger Balm. We would mix all these topicals together and rub them into our arms, legs, back … pretty much over our entire body. Make sure you put your jock on before you do this or you will get extremely uncomfortably hot in some of the wrong places.”
So I ordered some Warm Skin and began working on my own leg recipe, using stuff I found in various closets and medicine cabinets in my house. The best combination, so far, is Warm Skin, Musher’s Secret (which my wife bought to protect our dog’s feet from road salt), and capsaicin creme (which is hot, like Tiger Balm, and is usually sold as a topical analgesic for arthritis). I stirred in some Aquaphor, too—what the hell.
This year is the centennial of Cobbs Creek Golf Club, a muny in western Philadelphia. It was named after its most diabolical hazard, which also runs along the eastern edge of Merion Golf Club, a few miles away. Merion and the Crick—as intimates often call the older of Cobbs Creek’s two courses—share an architect as well: Hugh Wilson, who designed Merion’s East Course in 1912 and created the Crick four years later. The photo above is of the Crick’s clubhouse as it looked when I visited, two years ago. (You can read about that visit here and here and here.) On Monday night, the clubhouse burned down:
I learned about the fire from Hank Church and Paul Cornely, who are members of Cobbs Creek’s principal men’s group, the Cobbs Creek Publinks Golf Club. “What I’ve heard is that it started around 11:00 last night and took more than two hours to control,” Cornely told me. “The cause isn’t known, but it looks like the fire started near the lunchroom/beer tap area.” That’s the area in the back right of the photo below, which shows the Publinks group in happier times:
“It’s a sad day for many,” Church said. “That was my home-away-from-home for 50 years.” When I met Church, in 2013, he’d just had ten inches of his large intestine removed, and although he wasn’t playing again yet he had shown up anyway, to hang around in the clubhouse and show his scar to his friends:
“On Sunday, we had our typical group, fifteen players,” Cornely said, “and then we had a few laughs and beverages.” The players on Sunday included Lou Camilli, who is just four years younger than the golf course. He was in the Marine Corps during World War II, and fought in the Battle of Iwo Jima. Three years ago, his optometrist’s receptionist gave him back a form he’d filled out and told him he’d made a mistake, because the birthdate he’d written down would make him ninety-three. “That’s what I am,” he told her. “And I’ve still got heat in my oven.” He plays more than two hundred rounds a year:
Here’s a video of the fire, shot by Frank Wesnoski:
“The Temp was 11 degrees with a windchill of -5,” Wesnoski writes. “A steady wind was blowing the fire from the front to back. . . . The building was destroyed. Salt crews were requested from both the City and Upper Darby for icing conditions.” And here are some photos of the aftermath, which Bob Zecca and Mike Harms, both Publinks members, took this morning:
Great group, great course, great clubhouse. Too bad.
In my part of the country at this time of the year, avid golfers become migratory. Some fly hundreds of miles south and don’t return until spring, but most of us circle the ground closer to home, like Canada geese searching for open water. We study the sky and the Web and the Weather Channel, and when we hear rumors of snow-free fairways we hit the phones. Over the past decade or so, my friends and I have assembled an extensive portfolio of all-season golf courses, in three states. This past Sunday, we added a new one: Country Club of Woodbridge, about forty-five minutes southeast of our home course (which closed for the winter on the Monday after Thanksgiving).
Woodbridge used to be a private club; the town bought it in the aftermath of the mortgage crisis, and Billy Casper Golf manages it. The course was designed in 1938 by Orrin E. Smith, who worked with Donald Ross on a couple of projects and designed or redesigned 20 courses in our state, including the course of our No. 2 Enemy Club, which we like a lot. The selectmen of the town of Woodbridge are thinking about turning part of the course into condominiums for oldish people, or something, but I hope they don’t, because we want to go back—maybe on New Year’s Day, when (the starter told us) they usually have a good crowd.
There was a frost delay, but that was OK because it gave us a chance to get caught up. Several of our guys were easy to spot in the crowd outside the golf shop, because after December 1 the Sunday Morning Group gives two extra handicap strokes to anyone who wears shorts. You would think that wearing shorts in sub-freezing weather would be unpleasant, but in fact your legs adapt fairly quickly, by becoming permanently numb:
The frost delay didn’t last all that long, and when it was over the starter shotgunned everyone. We had twelve guys, and all three of our groups started on the first hole. By then, the sun had made the day seem sort of hot. We played two best balls, All Balls Count on the money hole (No. 12), and skins.
On the third tee, we met a member of the town’s golf committee. He wasn’t playing, but had driven out to say hello. He told us that Woodbridge is unusual in that the property was once owned by Roger Sherman, the only person to sign all four of the principal founding documents of the United States: the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Association, the Articles of Confederation, and the Constitution. Here’s a picture of Sherman dressed in an eighteenth-century golf outfit:
The layout is Woodbridge is a little tricky, but it’s easy to navigate if you remember (as the starter told us) that when you leave a green your next tee is almost never the one you come to first. Near one tee, we saw a golf-ball vending machine installed by an entrepreneurial neighbor:
Afterward, we drank beer and went over our scorecards in the golf shop. My team came in last, but I won two skins and split the money hole with Chic and Todd. That puts me closer to the top than to the bottom of the standings for the Jagermeister Kup, our all-winter competition.
We had a great day—as I had known we would because the night before I had a dream about golf. In the dream, I discovered that Nancy Reagan is much younger and more interested in me than people have generally thought. She also loves golf, although she told me that when her husband was in the White House she kept her interest to herself. She drives a Cadillac convertible—Seville-type, not Escalade—and in the parking lot of the golf club where I ran into her I saw that there were two golf bags in the backseat, hers and Hedy Lamarr’s. Both sets of clubs were in “mint vintage” condition, and the woods had simple muted-pastel headcovers. Nancy said she wanted to give me Hedy Lamarr’s clubs, and maybe her own as well, along with some sort of golf journal she had kept for years. The journal was written in dream writing, so I couldn’t quite make out what was in it, but I was pleased because I knew that I would eventually get at least a couple of Golf Digest columns out of it. Nancy is totally not the calculating, vindictive ice queen that people have always made her out to be. I don’t think our relationship was “going anywhere,” but I’ll never know because right about then I woke up to take a whiz. When I described all this to a friend later, he said that Hedy Lamarr’s days of appearing in people’s dreams were probably just about over. He’s definitely right about that; in fact, I think that even my dream was probably a bit of a stretch.
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.”
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.
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.On the thirteenth hole, Anderson, New, Zickgraf, and I were joined by Stephen Escobedo, an assistant pro, whom I’d met the day before.
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.
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.
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.”