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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My Father, a.k.a. Johnny Persimmon Seed

Persimmon tree planted by my father, eleventh hole, Kansas City Country Club, September 28, 2013.

Persimmon tree planted long ago by my father. Eleventh hole, Kansas City Country Club, September 28, 2013.

Many years ago, my father planted two persimmon trees, a male and a female, in the rough on the eleventh hole at the Kansas City Country Club, where he was a member. Persimmon is the wood that the best wooden woods were made from, and he felt that every golf club ought to pay tribute. (Persimmon is as hard as ebony. It’s still used for pool cues and archery bows, among other useful implements.) Our behind-our-house neighbors had a huge persimmon tree, which dropped plum-size fruits into their yard and ours. My friends and I used to collect the squishiest ones and throw them at each other—another important application. My father never extended his persimmon-planting program beyond the eleventh hole at the Kansas City Country Club, but the idea was a good one and someone ought to take it up again—maybe me.

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I was in Kansas City for my fortieth high-school reunion, and I played golf at K.C.C.C. with my classmates Dick, Hinkley, and Pajamas. They’re still in the witness protection program because of stuff we did when we were teenagers, so I can’t show you a photo, but you can read a little bit about them here. I also played a round at Indian Hills Country Club, which, like K.C.C.C. and Swope Memorial, was designed by A. W. Tillinghast. The guys I played with at Indian Hills are much younger than I am, so I can show their faces:

Adam, me, Scott, Ricardo, Indian Hills Country Club, September 26, 2013.

Adam, me, Scott, Ricardo, Indian Hills Country Club, September 26, 2013.

While I was in town, I also made mandatory stops at Winstead’s and Arthur Bryant’s. Bryant’s is the world’s best barbecue place. The health department shut it down for a few days recently, because of a misunderstanding concerning cockroaches, or something. The sandwiches are so big that they give you extra bread, which you can also use as supplemental napkins.

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Bryant’s barbecue sauce, if you aren’t familiar with it, is unlike any you’ve ever tasted. New batches are aged in the restaurant’s front window, and the jug in the photo below may have been there when I was in high school. The dark liquid near the top is of unknown composition.

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I keep a case of Bryant’s sauce in my sauce cellar, in my basement, along with a case from Gates & Sons, which is Bryant’s main competitor. The two sauces are so different that you don’t have to choose one or the other. You can enjoy them both, or you can do what my wife and I often do, which is to mix them together. In any configuration, they are so much better than other so-called barbecue sauces that it’s almost ridiculous.

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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?

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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.

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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.