The Joys of Golf, No Matter the Weather or the President

A few years ago, a Google app on my phone offered to navigate me to “work.” I didn’t know what to make of that, because my office is in my house, so I clicked the tab and discovered that Google had deduced, based on how I spend my time during a typical week, that I must work at 10 Golf Course Road—the address of my golf club. Google must also think I get laid off every winter, because between early December and early April I hardly ever go to the club. I live up in the hills in western Connecticut, a hundred miles north of New York, and our course almost always shuts down within a week or two of Thanksgiving.

You can read the rest on the website  of The New Yorker, right here.

The Muny Life: Hidden Art Treasures of New York City Golf

Hacker, Pelham Bay, Bronx, New York, March 1, 2013.

Hacker, Pelham Bay Golf Course, Bronx, New York, March 1, 2013.

Hacker (real name), Rick, and I played in Pelham Bay Park, in the Bronx, on Friday. There are two golf courses, both owned by the City of New York—Pelham Bay and Split Rock—and they share a clubhouse, which you can see in the background in the photo above. It was built in 1936, and it has a cobblestoned driveway and front courtyard, and it has neoclassical columns made of white Tuckahoe marble. Here’s what the building looked like when it was under construction (beyond the sign):

Pelham Bay, 1936.

Pelham Bay clubhouse, under construction, 1936.

And here’s what it looked like when it was finished:

Pelham clubhouse, 1936.

Pelham Bay clubhouse, 1930s.

The first time my friends and I played Pelham and Split Rock, in 2004, the clubhouse was a mess. Glass was missing from many windows, and the front door had a hole that was big enough for rats to walk through on their hind legs. The Parks Department had bolted cheap outdoor floodlights to a pair of hemispherical hammered-bronze light fixtures in the Club Room, and it had installed an institutional drinking fountain in front of one of two basalt-and-marble fireplaces. The building was no longer heated, if it ever had been, and on one frosty winter morning we saw piles of construction debris burning in both fireplaces—Irish guys in front of one, Korean guys in front of the other. Here’s what the Club Room looked like in the 1930s:

Club Room, 1930s. The Parks Department later bolted flood lights to the Art Deco light fixture at the top of the picture, and installed a drinking fountain in front of the fireplace.

Club Room, 1930s. The Parks Department later bolted flood lights to the Art Deco light fixture at the top of the picture, and installed a drinking fountain in front of the fireplace.

A year or two after we first played there, American Golf, which operates both courses on a twenty-year lease from the city, spent millions to restore the clubhouse. The architect was Page Ayres Cowley, and she and her colleagues did an extraordinary job. Here’s what the Club Room looked like on Friday:

Club Room, 2013.

Club Room, 2013. The floodlights have been removed from the hammered-bronze light fixtures. Why don’t you quit fooling around, and rent the clubhouse for your daughter’s wedding reception?

When the Pelham clubhouse was built, the artist Allen Saalburg created a Surrealist mural for the wall above each mantle. (Saalburg was a friend of Dorothy Parker, S.J. Perelman, Robert Benchley, and other early New Yorker contributors.)  His murals—one of which is visible in the 1930s Club Room photograph—were still there when my friends and I first played the courses, but today the spaces they occupied are filled by a pair of hokey recent paintings, which depict what are supposed to be period scenes. The murals, Cowley told me, haven’t been destroyed, unlike similar ones that Saalburg painted, at around the same time, for the restaurant Tavern on the Green. But they need significant restoration work before they can go back up. Here is one of Saalburg’s sketches for the murals:

P DSCN5451

There’s not a lot of golf iconography in there, at least as far as I can see, but I hope somebody rich steps up and pays for their restoration. (Hey, Donald Trump!) And here’s how Saalburg visualized the fireplace wall you can see in the photos above:

P artist rendition2

The round windows, and their wavy muntins, are still there—and they have glass in them now. Cowley told me she thinks some of the original bunkers on the course may have been designed to echo the shape of the windows, or vice versa. Here’s one of them, from the 1930s:


Maybe so. Anyway, Hacker, Rick, and I arrived at 10:30, and teed off almost immediately. (My greens fee was $39, walking; theirs, because they’re seniors, was $20.) There were pretty many other golfers, although we weren’t held up too seriously. We played skins and Ball Marker Stymies, and we finished in less than four hours. These guys were teeing off on the first hole as we putted out on the ninth:

IMG_0386The big rusty thing you see in the woods beyond them is part of a commuter rail line, which separates the two courses. And the grass you see through the trees is the eighteenth hole at Split Rock, which was closed—probably because it has more trees and takes longer to dry out than Pelham Bay does. I got home at 4:30 and took the dog for a nice long walk.

Some moron re-contoured several greens at Pelham by driving an R.V. over them.  This one didn't  look too bad.

Some moron re-contoured several greens at Pelham by driving an R.V. over them. This one didn’t look too bad.

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.

City Island

Connecticut is supposed to get snow later today, so on Sunday my friends and I will probably have to go back to New York City to play golf on grass. Among our possible destinations are the two golf courses in the upper left-hand corner of the image above, from Google Earth. That’s Split Rock Golf Course on the left and Pelham Bay Golf Course on the right. (Split Rock, as you can see, has more trees and narrower fairways.) The two courses are divided by a Metro North commuter rail line, and to get from the clubhouse to Split Rock you have to walk under a rusty old train trestle–shown in the photo below, which was taken the first time we played in the Bronx, six or seven years ago.

Gene, D.O., Nick, Split Rock G.C.

When we play in the Bronx, we sometimes have lunch on City Island, which is in the lower right-hand corner of the Google Earth image at the top of this post. To get there from the golf courses, you cross City Island Bridge, the first version of which was built in 1873. City Island looks like the unacknowledged illegitimate child of Nantucket and Hunts Point Avenue. A Connecticut shipbuilder named Orrin Fordham invented oyster farming there, in the eighteen-thirties. Later, the local economy was dominated by boat-building and sail-making.(Five victorious America’s Cup yachts were built on the island.) Today, City Island contains what is almost certainly New York’s densest concentration of yacht clubs (six of them) and seafood restaurants (Johnny’s Reef, Tony’s Pier, Sammy’s Fish Box, and Sammy’s Shrimp Box, among many others), yet the restaurants’ parking lots tend to be enclosed by tall, barbed-wired-topped chain-link fences, like the exercise yards of medium-security prisons, and knowledgeable seafood-loving locals often order lamb chops or steaks.

At the bottom of Fordham Street, on the east side of the island, is a tiny ferry that runs between City Island and Hart Island, a half mile to the east. Hart Island served as a prisoner-of-war camp toward the end of the Civil War and currently contains a vast city-owned cemetery, a potter’s field, which is used for the interment of stillborn infants, unclaimed and indigent people of all ages, and amputated limbs. The deceased—among them the novelist Dawn Powell, who died penniless, in 1965—are buried in long trenches, in stacked pine boxes. The burials are conducted by prisoners from Rikers Island, who travel to and from the ferry landing in blue-and-white buses operated by the Department of Correction. That’s the landing in the photo below. Hacker (real name) and I saw it one Sunday, when we decided to splurge on a post-round, mid-afternoon feast at the Lobster Box.


Signs of Early Spring


Split Rock Golf Course, Bronx, New York, February 27, 2012

The Links at Union Vale was open today, but the manager said there was still snow on the second nine, so Hacker (real name) and I drove to the Bronx and played Split Rock. Hacker paid nineteen dollars and change (senior rate) and I paid thirty-eight. It was 55 degrees and sunny, and the grass was growing. The course-maintenance crew was back at work. They weren’t mowing, but they were blowing sweet-gum seed pods off the cart paths and changing the hole locations. The first time my friends and I played Split Rock this year, back in January, the fairways and greens were frozen hard and we couldn’t get the flags out of some of the cups. But this morning the guy with the hole-cutter didn’t even have to lean hard to get it into the ground. By the time Hacker and I were ready to drive back to Connecticut–after cheeseburgers in the Pelham clubhouse–the course and the parking lot were full.

Sometimes, when we’re traveling with a big group and trying to save time, the first foursome to finish will order lunch for everyone. “Sixteen bacon cheeseburgers, medium, American, fries.” Or, if there’s a vegetarian playing that day, maybe hold the bacon on one of them.


Going South

My golf pals and I have gotten used to balmy winter weather and playing whenever we want to. When my friend Jim woke up this morning and saw snow out the window, he told me, he was actually angry. He said that his reaction reminded him of something that happened on a flight he was on several years ago. The airline was experimenting with in-flight Wi-Fi, a brand-new thing at the time. It worked for a while, then cut out, and when it did a guy sitting behind him said, “Oh, for Christ’s sake.”

A possible solution to the snow problem, for my friends and me, would be to go south on Sunday, to New York. There are a dozen public courses within the city limits, and they stay open all year, as long as there’s no snow. I had to be in the city last night, and as I drove home this morning I saw that the snow line was safely far up the Hutchinson River Parkway. I’ve written about those courses twice, in The New Yorker and in Golf Digest.

There are many photographs of the courses In the archives of New York City’s Parks Department–among them these images taken many years ago inside the clubhouse at Pelham Bay and Split Rock Golf Courses, in the Bronx. (We played both in January.)

Everything looks pretty much the same now, thanks to a multi-million-dollar renovation paid for by American Golf, which has a twenty-year operating lease.