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Saturday, April 19, 2014

Dumbing Down Golf–Widening the Hole

The Brook Meadow Country Club was one of the best in Connecticut.  The course was designed by Trent Sidwell, a British landscape architect who had turned his attention to golf after creating some of the most well-known public parks in southern England.  The course was long and challenging, and carpeted with wide, plush fairways.  The sand traps were inspired by Japanese formal gardens; the ponds that were as painterly as those depicted by Watteau or Monet; and the greens were perfectly manicured and thanks to careful watering, as tight and smooth as a pool table. It was just like Augusta National.

I lived not far from the Club, but never learned how to play golf.  Brook Meadow’s deep pile fairways were only for making out with Nancy Blithe and Sue Blakely and its greens for playing night pool with Bobby Waltham. Nancy and I would pick a different fairway each night, making our way from the long, narrow first hole; to the short but tricky dog-leg second; the endless par five sixth; the famous eighth with the Tintern Abbey stone bridge.  The final eighteenth was our favorite.  We lay on the last, sloping yards of the fairway, and listened to the parties in the clubhouse above the green.

Brook Meadow had been built in 1911 with investments from the captains of industry who built New Brighton and made it The Hardware Capital of the World.  It was simply but elegantly built in classic New England style, all white frame and brick, gardens and spacious lawns, patios and tennis courts. The dining room was formal and elegant with portraits of early club members done by Sargent and his protégés.  The furniture was Queen Anne, Chippendale, or later; the rugs Persian or Caucasian, and the appointments Tiffany, Chandler, or Brook.

My other link to the club was caddying.  I made good money carrying ‘double eighteen’ – two golfers, two bags, eighteen holes.  The course was beautiful, especially in the Spring.  There were forsythia, azaleas, dogwoods, and verbena on almost every hole.  The foothills of Meriden Mountain were close in on the fairways on the front nine, and the views from the back nine extended past the city to the Farmington River.

For some reason the golfers were terrible.  I had thought that all their Anglo-Saxon breeding, private schooling, Yale, and Martha’s Vineyard summers would have turned them into scratch players; but I was wrong.  A round of golf was many things – old school camaraderie, business, and exercise – but these Brook Meadow duffers never played the game as it had been designed.  The well-heeled sons of New Brighton’s elite couldn’t hit a ball straight if their life depended on it.  The average length of a competitive golf course is about 7000 yards, but because of the hooks, slices, and errant whacks off the clubs of the Brook Meadow duffers, for a caddy it was much, much longer.

Since they never had to carry their own bags, Brook Meadow golfers invested in the highest quality golf bags – 40 lbs. of hand-tooled leather and silver studding. The bags bulged with heavy cowhide pockets, brass trim, and ornamental leather and sheepskin shoulder straps.  Caddying these bags even when the golfers were low-handicappers who hit their balls within feet of each other on the fairway was a stretch, and my shoulders, legs, and arms ached at the end of the day.  Caddying for two duffers, and chasing their balls from rough to trees, from water hazard to sand trap with countless strokes on the way from tee to green was rough going. 

My labor was lightened by the comic spectacle.  It is a treat to watch scratch golfers who have mastered torque, strength, and concentration and combine them into perfectly efficient strokes each and every time; but after a while it is boring.  These par players never miss.  Their swings are balanced, poised, and smooth; their tee shots long and straight, their fairway woods unerring, and their short iron shots accurate and perfectly placed.

My golfers, however, had none of the grace and athletic elegance of the par player.  Their swings were jerky and erratic.  Their slices and hooks took off true and straight but spun in vicious arcs left and right, clattering into groves of trees on either side of the fairway.  They had the yips, uncontrollable jitters before each stroke.  They wiggled and waggled, pulled back and took the measure of the hole, positioned the club carefully behind the ball, shook and wobbled in place until they finally controlled their St. Vitus’s Dance and swung. 

If they didn’t hook and slice, they whiffed and topped; took great, earthy divots but never touched the ball; ran the ball up the fairway without ever managing a clean shot; landed in deep sand traps, marsh grass, and weeds.

Few golfers took this ineptness in stride or found anything funny in it.  They threw their clubs or wound them around saplings.  They pounded them into the turf or took great, angry spraying hacks of sand after their ball refused to budge. They looked like dervishes, epileptics, and palsied clowns.  Their swings were so ungainly that they lost their balance and toppled into the grass.

Golf is a difficult game to play well let alone master.  Everything has to work in harmony for a golf shot to sail off hard, straight, and true.  Few of the Brook Meadow players were even close to this ideal.  I remember Dwight Booth most clearly.  He had a sculpted, Olympian body.  He was strong and could generate tremendous force through his highly-developed shoulders and legs; but since he had never learned how to harness his strength, or to pay attention to coordination and timing, his shots never went straight.

It was quite a sight to watch him hammer a ball off the tee.  With a mighty whack he launched the ball like a rifle shot, and we watched it sail skyward.  After a few seconds the ball started to spin left and turned towards the deep woods in a sweeping, majestic arc. Dwight had hit the ball so hard and high that it took a long time for it to hook and then finally come down in the trees.  His hook was so devastating that although the ball travelled over 300 yards in the air, it circled around and landed no more than 50 yards from the tee. If it hadn’t been for the tall oaks bordering the fairway, it might have come back to the tee itself in a perfect boomerang parabola.

I caddied for golfers who could never hit out of the rough and sliced through the heavy grass like a farmer with a scythe, cutting weeds and saw grass but no ball.  There were golfers who five-putted every green and simply couldn’t figure out distance and slope.  Balls either sailed past the hole at full tilt or came up five feet short.  Putters tipped and tapped around the hole until their partners mercifully saved them with a ‘gimme’.

These duffers never seemed discouraged.  I caddied for them every weekend and they never improved even with expensive lessons from the pro.  Each Sunday they hacked and whacked, hooked and sliced, rattled their balls in the trees, and hit one after another into the water.

As bad as they were, they never lost hope, and were convinced that the next shot would be sweet.  They would get just enough club and backspin, and watch the ball come up within a foot of the hole.  They were so confident that after dumping a brand new Titleist into the drink on the third hole, they insisted on hitting another.  Hitting a dinged up old ball, sliced and smiley after taking a beating on previous rounds would be admitting defeat; so one by one the brand new, gleaming white, spotless Titleists plunked into Door’s Pond.

Unfortunately there has been a noticeable drop all over the country in under-30 golf club membership, and owners with a huge capital investment are beginning to worry how they will pay the rent.  Some have turned their clubs into social venues – weddings and such – or have jacked up greens fees.  Others have turned their backs on decades of exclusive membership and take all comers.  The example of the Farmington Country Club in Fairfield County is telling.  It once was the club for the wealthiest bankers and brokers on Wall Street, a privileged enclave of Ivy League pedigree and position.  Now it has attracted every Toyota salesman and furrier within 50 miles.  The fairways are chopped up and chewed because of the devastation caused by the hackers and the deliberate neglect of the club manager in his attempt to save money.  “Dumb guineas don’t know shit about golf”, he said in an unguarded moment. “A stroke is something they do to their dick”.

Now there is a better way, and it is a wonder no one has not thought of it before.  Make the hole wider, the fairways shorter, and remove the hazards. Who needs sand traps anyway, the thinking goes.  Most 30-something Type A’s want to get through a round in under two hours, so let’s make it easy for them.  Not exactly miniature golf, but definitely headed in that direction. Bill Pennington writing in the New York Times (4.18.14) says:

Golf holes the size of pizzas. Soccer balls on the back nine. A mulligan on every hole. These are some of the measures — some would say gimmicks — that golf courses across the country have experimented with to stop people from quitting the game. Golf has always reveled in its standards and rich tradition. But increasingly a victim of its own image and hidebound ways, golf has lost five million players in the last decade, according to the National Golf Foundation, with 20 percent of the existing 25 million golfers apt to quit in the next few years.

Another suggestion which would make Bobby Jones turn over in his grave is foot golf:

Another alternative is foot golf, in which players kick a soccer ball from the tee to an oversize hole, counting their kicks. Other changes relax the rules and allow do-over shots, or mulligans, once a hole; teeing up the ball for each shot; and throwing a ball out of a sand bunker once or twice a round.

Finally, there is the inevitable and predictable change to equipment:

The budding rebellion also includes changes to gear and equipment. Polara, a nonconforming golf ball engineered to neither slice nor hook,was introduced in 2011 and is sold in 800 retail locations nationwide and online, according to the company’s founder, Dave Felker.

Thomas Boswell, sportswriter on the Washington Post wrote a great book about golf entitled A Good Walk Spoiled; and in it he talked about the joys of golf – a leisurely summer afternoon in the sunshine, warm breezes, trees and flowers of a perfectly kept and manicured course.  The game itself when played well is grace personified, and Boswell wrote poetically about the perfection of a coordinated swing; but he saved his best verse for the layout of the world’s best courses, like Augusta National, Pebble Beach, and St. Andrews. 

To play well on any of these courses is a gift from the gods; and even to play badly is a privilege.  The only reason the game is ‘a good walk spoiled’ is because it is so maddeningly difficult to master.  If a player is only slightly off kilter on his swing – a foot raised too early, a shoulder dipped imperceptibly, a head picked up before the backswing – hooks and slices are the result.

It is not surprising that golf club owners and professionals want to dumb down golf.  The SAT has been dumbed down because too many ‘disadvantaged’ students are doing poorly and their self-esteem damaged by scores barely above the flip of a coin.  It is more acceptable and easier  for parents and teachers to operate under the very forgiving theory of ‘multiple intelligences’ than accept and deal with intellectual or cognitive deficiencies.

Dumbing golf down, however, will deprive golfers of the unique challenge of mastering a difficult game.  Golf is perhaps the hardest game to learn but the most rewarding when mastered; so there is a lesson here.  But mastery may be beside the point. Most golfers know that they will never conquer this devilish game; but have fun trying.  In fact, one of the happiest moments for a bad golfer is that rare time when his tee shot goes straight, true, and far.  Out of all the slices, hooks, divots, and rattling trees of an afternoon, he will remember the solid thwack of the ball and its majestic arc up and up, then down in the middle of the fairway for a long, long time.

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