I just got back from Helsinki, where the golf season is even shorter than it is in New England. While I was away, The New Yorker‘s website ran a piece of mine about Marion Hollins, which you can read here. And you can watch silent footage of Hollins swinging a golf club at Pebble Beach in 1926 here, in a clip sent to me by Chris Buie.
16. Golf is a literate game. Reading about golf provides plentiful opportunities for genial self-deception. The flaws in your swing recede as you imagine the clashes of titans. As always, your enjoyment is heightened by the certainty that, if you had come to the final nine with a lead that big, you wouldn’t have let victory slip through your fingers, unlike Palmer or Spieth. Then a remark of Hogan’s reminds you of a grip change your pro recommended last year—a grip change that felt peculiar the one time you tried it but that might be your ticket (you now see clearly) to the Senior Tour. Then a description of the sixteenth at Cypress Point transports you to the part of your mind where your children are grown, your spouse is merciful, and you have all the money in the world.
On the page, golf is a game you could almost get the hang of. As you read, your slice becomes a gentle draw, and your best shots swell in your memory until they have pushed aside every lip-out, chili dip, pop-up, and shank. Sometimes when I’ve been reading about golf, a feeling starts to build that’s like a smoker’s yearning for a cigarette. It’s a physical longing, which, as often as not, leads to anxious glances at the clock. Could I get to the driving range and back before the plumber arrives? Will my editor really care if that article is another day late? Isn’t there maybe just enough daylight left for nine holes, if I don’t bother to change my shoes?
Best of all, reading about golf is less susceptible than golf itself to the depredations of age. When the yips have stolen our putting stroke, when we can no longer lift our driver, when even a cart seems like too much effort, we will still have golf’s huge and continually growing library to keep us in the game, even if we have to hire a caddie to read it to us.
Gary Levering, a lawyer and real-estate developer in Houston, died last year. He played on the golf team at Northwestern from 1957 to 1961 (photo above, courtesy of Northwestern Athletics), and once he’d established himself in his career he reimbursed the university for his scholarship. He believed that golf was a more difficult sport than tennis. To prove it, he signed up for lessons at the Houston Racquet Club and won the club championship two years later: Q.E.D. He earned a perfect score on the test the U.S.G.A. uses to certify rules officials, and was known to friends as Dr. Golf. I learned about Levering from Keith Kimmick, a reader and a commercial-insurance executive. He heard Levering give a talk about bipolar disorder, from which he suffered, at River Oaks Country Club, and when the talk was over Kimmick asked what he could do to help.
Kimmick has served on the advisory board of the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance of Greater Houston ever since. “Fortunately, I don’t suffer from this illness,” he told me recently, “but I admired Gary for stepping out to tell the world about himself. The D.B.S.A. provides free assistance for those that suffer from bipolar and depression through trained facilitators. I spend most of my time working a booth at various health functions throughout the city, spreading the word.”
Levering and Kimmick became golf buddies, too. Levering owned a house in Pebble Beach and was a member of Cypress Point Club, which always hovers near the top of Golf Digest’s 100 Greatest. During guest rounds there, Kimmick got to know Mike Reese, a longtime Cypress caddie. Reese died of a brain aneurysm in 2007, at the age of 49, and Kimmick wrote a tribute, of which this was part:
Casey Reamer, Cypress Point Club’s head pro, remembers Mike as a true perfectionist on the golf course. One day when Mike was caddying for him, Casey had accidentally left his Bushnell (electronic measuring device) in his golf bag. They are not permitted at Cypress Point Club, but Mike insisted that Casey test his yardages. On the 7th hole, Mike said he was 178 yards from the pin and the Bushnell indicated 179 yards. On the 8th hole, Mike said he was 134 yards and the Bushnell flashed 134 yards to the mark. On the 9th hole, Mike said he was 117 yards and the Bushnell indicated 116 yards. Casey responded to Mike that he was very impressed that he was right on target with the Bushnell once, and within a yard the other two times. Mike very professionally flipped the Bushnell over where the sticker read within one yard up to 1500 yards, and said, “I believe the Bushnell was off one yard on those other two holes.”
To live on a golf course is not a universal aspiration. At a club where I sometimes play, a dozen houses back up to various fairways. Over the years, the owners of those houses have taken pains to obliterate their views of the course. They’ve built fences, planted bushes and trees, and hung No Trespassing signs. One scary old guy patrols the boundary of his yard the way East German soldiers once patrolled the Berlin Wall. Follow a bad drive into his garden and he unchains his dog.
It’s not that the course is ugly or the golfers rude. It’s just that to some people a fairway is no more attractive than a freeway. Golf, to them, is a public nuisance. (You can’t sunbathe in your underpants when local slicers treat your patio as a cart path.) Some people live next to golf courses because they figure they can’t afford to live someplace nice.
I belong to the opposing camp, the folks who view an adjacent par 4 not as an invasion of privacy but as a big, free, weedless lawn. At least, I would if I lived next to one. The perfect neighborhood, in my view, would be the one in the photo above, next to the fourth fairway at Royal Portrush, in Northern Ireland. Or how about something ocean-oriented at Cypress Point, in California? I’ve even picked out a building site: that wind-swept knob to the right of the sixteenth green:
I wouldn’t care if a stray shot shattered my front window every once in a while. Heck, I wouldn’t care if you and your foursome cut through my kitchen on your way to the seventeenth tee. Help yourselves to beer! I’d just like to be able to step out my back door and tee it up whenever I wanted to.
Next: Would you be willing to spend a few hundred dollars for a building lot at Augusta National? You (or your parents or grandparents) could have, but didn’t.
Obsessive students of golf architecture should file away the latest revision of a comprehensive chronology of the life of Alister MacKenzie, the designer of Augusta National, Cypress Point, Royal Melbourne, and a number of other courses worth scheming to play. The chronology is the work of Neil Crafter and the AM Research Team, in Adelaide, Australia, and it contains contributions from many people (including, in a very small way, me). Crafter, in a cover note, writes, “Sean Tully in San Francisco and Bob Beck in Santa Cruz have been most diligent in researching Mackenzie’s time in the USA, and Bob has unearthed records from Cypress Point that show when Mackenzie stayed overnight in the clubhouse and even what he ate for his meals! It is staggering that 80 or more years on we can get down to this level of detail about the life of Alister Mackenzie.” Even if you feel you already know everything you need to know about MacKenzie’s diet, the chronology contains many interesting facts.
Incidentally, the images above and below also appear in my book The Making of the Masters, which is now selling on Amazon for practically nothing. Below is MacKenzie’s original watercolor sketch of the routing of Augusta National. In it, the holes are numbered as they are today. MacKenzie later switched the nines; the club, after the first Masters, switched them back, because the current first nine thawed first on frosty mornings. Note the 90-yard 19th hole, near the clubhouse, squeezed between the 9th and 18th greens. MacKenzie explained the idea in a letter to Clifford Roberts, the club’s founding chairman: “Bobby Jones and some of the other directors thought it might be interesting to have a real 19th hole so that the loser could have the opportunity of getting his money back by playing double or quits. This 19th Hole will be an attractive plateau green, narrow at one end where the flag will usually be placed but wide at the other end so as to give a safety route to the player who has not the courage or the skill to pitch to the narrow end of the green.” The club, in those days, didn’t have the money to build it, and Jones and Roberts, in any event, worried that it would block the view of anyone in the clubhouse who was trying to watch whatever was happening on the 18th. Cool idea, though.