Fifteen Months into NFL boycott, Life Continues Remarkably Unchanged…

So, I hear the Patriots are no longer unbeaten. I gather the NFL has deigned to grant Colin Kapaernick an audience — and Antonio Brown is officially old news? I know the basic outlines of this stuff despite the fact that, for the second season running, I’m abstaining from football. I’m not reading anything on the subject, not watching NFL games, nor college games (which barely register in my Yankee world), or even Patriots games on TV. I’ve found it instructive that a conscientious objector like myself need not actively follow the nation’s most popular sport in order to know with whom Josh Gordon has latched on, who’s been accused of sexual assault, and which guys you should probably activate in your fantasy league this week. That’s one of the big take-aways here: The NFL is so dominant in our culture that one is effectively buffeted by news of all this stuff, non-stop, via the dribs and drabs of interpersonal conversations, serial web impressions and daily newspaper headlines (the one made of real paper), whether one wants to be or not. Love it or hate it, such is the NFL’s omnipresence in 2019. Americans routinely absorb its competitive results and attendant news/outrages almost by osmosis.

It’s difficult for me to profess, definitively, that I ever came to dislike the NFL or football in general. Indeed, that’s part of the problem: I quite like it — as exhibited by my 40-plus years of fandom and three decades as a sports writer, including multiple essays published in this space (see here and here) and elsewhere. But the arguments for opting out of the NFL just kept stacking up, like the arguments against smoking — or those advocating more cardiovascular exercise. Or flossing. The smoking example is best: NFL fandom was something that undeniably amused me but was pretty obviously bad for me.

I was riding in a Lyft down in Philadelphia a couple months back when the middle-aged driver and I mused for a time about the Sox-Phillies series then taking place at Citizens Park. We quickly moved on to Celtics-Sixers before taking up the inevitable: the Eagles’ Super Bowl win over the Patriots in February 2018. A great game, despite the result, I admitted. But when he asked what I thought about Antonio Brown’s brief dalliance in New England, or how long I thought Tom Brady might keep playing, I explained that I’d checked out of football starting the year before. He appeared sorta dumbfounded by this and asked me why. It wasn’t a long ride-share we’d ordered; my wife and daughter were in the backseat. I provided him only a cursory explanation. For you, dear reader, a complete set of well wrought justifications appears below.

Taken together, they make it ever more clear — to me, for me — that football generally and the NFL in particular were bad for me, like trans-fats. Or cocaine during the 1980s. Or fascism any ol’ time. But the NFL (and college football, it must be said) are frankly worse because trans-fats, for example, don’t seep unbidden into one’s body or consciousness via the culture at large, beguiling conscientious objectors and devotees alike with the same prurient, mass-produced id-candy.

Please believe me when I tell you this essay is not an exercise in virtue signaling. Like someone who stops drinking for the month of January, or perhaps indefinitely, I found it edifying to write this stuff down — to better process and perhaps defend (to myself) the quality of the decision-making involved. So, in no particular order of importance, let it be known that I’ve sworn off the NFL because:

1) It can kill you apparently. Not everyone who plays NFL football (or college football, or high school football) develops CTE-induced aphasia and dies, of course. But enough of them have, and enough exhibit these debilitating cognitive effects in the long term to make a compelling adverse case. Roman gladiators may have been the all-pro middle linebackers of their time, but eventually they were borne from the arena in pieces. Free will allows anyone the license to play that game, but I’m free to opt out that sort of spectacle… How parents can allow their children to play the game, knowing what we now know, I truly do not understand. Create for yourself a Google alert for “High School Football Spinal Cord and Head Injuries” and witness the sickening news trickle in each Friday night, often via the live-Tweets of sportswriters who witness yet another ambulance on the field, under the klieg lights of small town America. It’s no shock to learn participation is falling across the country. I predict that, in 20 years, no public high school in the nation will have 11-man, tackle football teams, because no public school system will have the money to cover the liability insurance. Kids will continue to play football, or course, but only via private clubs. Like Rollerball.

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Kershaw’s more Clemens than Koufax

So, sports are cruel, whether the participants are professionalized adults or mere school children. But sports are real, which is what makes them so damned compelling — in a way that lays bare the mockery of a sham that “reality” TV truly is. The latest case in point: Clayton Kershaw, now a certifiably tragic figure in baseball’s sprawling Hall of Misery & Woe.

I fell asleep in a Vermont hotel room two Wednesday nights ago thinking Kershaw and his Dodgers had beaten back the pesky Washington Nationals in their best-of-five National League Division Series. Kershaw, having already lost Game 2, at home, was summoned to preserve a 3-1 lead in the 7th inning of Game 5. This he did, securing the third out.

That’s when I nodded off.

For some reason, I later learned, Kershaw was summoned by Dodger manager Dave Roberts to pitch the 8th, wherein the erstwhile starter gave up home runs on consecutive pitches to Anthony Rendon and Juan Soto. Tie game. Kershaw was lifted and L.A. lost in the 10th on Howie Kendrick’s grand slam… Where was Kenley Jansen through all this? Isn’t he L.A.’s closer?

I want to be clear: I honestly have nothing against Kershaw — or the Dodgers. When I first started following baseball in the early 1970s, I loved those Dodger teams of Ron Cey, Bill Russell, Davey Lopes, Steve Garvey, Yeager & Ferguson behind the plate, Dusty Baker and Reggie Smith in left and right). I rooted hard for them later in the ‘70s when they faced the Evil Empire Yankees in consecutive World Series.

And yet I have been mystified by the conventional wisdom surrounding Kershaw these past few years. Folks seem determined to cast this guy as one of the great pitchers of all time — despite the fact that he’s done so very little in the post-season, which, we can agree, is the true measure of pitching greatness. I’ve even heard Sandy Koufax comparisons! (Just google “Kerhaw Koufax” to see the extent of this folly.) Yes, they’re both Dodgers; their surnames both begin with K; they’re both lefties. But that’s where the similarities end.

Again, I don’t dislike Kershaw, nor do I wish to run the guy down in light of what has been another gut-wrenching failure. But his October went like other Octobers, which is why these Kershaw-boosting narratives make no sense. They are in fact the careless musings of baseball know-nothings and hype-vendors.

I don’t Tweet much (follow @MandarinHal, if you want proof) but after watching Kershaw struggled in the first inning of Game 2, I posted the following:

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A Day in The Respite Life

6 p.m. on a Friday in May
The 12-year-old we’d been fostering for the previous 8 weeks, whom I’ll call Bri, informs us there is a concert at school where the “staff band” performs ­— and the kids apparently join in. Having been through the middle/high school thing twice with our own children, both of whom are off to or out of college, my wife and I are pretty well done with this sort of thing. It’s a Friday night after a long workweek. I’m making pizza… But we live in semi-rural Maine and our charge, the charming and talented if somewhat moody Ms. Bri, is generally starved for entertainment here, with us. So we scarf down a couple fresh-hot slices, drop her there at the education-plex two towns over, and head to a movie. Rocketman, listed at 7, doesn’t start till 8 apparently. So we opt for Booksmart instead. Not half bad.

9:30 p.m.
Home again, post-concert, we watch the finale of Killing Eve, which is probably, ahem, not appropriate for all three of us. Were the state to know we’d shown it to this 12-year-old, the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) might just take her back. It’s a bit gory but remains high quality television, we reason — unlike her current obsessions, Riverdale and Vampire Diaries.

10:16 p.m.
Sharon notices that DHHS has in fact just called us. Somehow, in discussing the abrupt ending to Killing Eve, we’d missed it. Turns out our friends with the state have not checked in to take issue with Bri’s TV viewing habits. They’ve got a 6 month old and her 8-year-old brother both in need of a place to stay this weekend. Sharon and I look at each other. This is the “respite” exercise, the temporary care of foster kids and would-be foster kids on short notice for short periods. This is what we signed up and trained for. We call back and leave a message.

[To catch you up: Sometime last summer the Portland Press-Herald published an investigative series on the lives of children in the Maine foster care system. Household conversations ensued, mostly centered around how we as a society (and Maine’s worthless governor at the time) seem ever more and even deliberately indifferent to the plight of these and other kids, the least fortunate among us really. The 2016 election had also radicalized each of us in our own ways, effectively focusing our empty-nest minds on what we could do to make a difference, directly. An encounter at the mailbox — with our neighbor, who leads an agency that provides services to special needs kids in the foster system — led to an informal back-porch coffee, then a more formal information session in Biddeford. A series of training classes followed, then fingerprinting and ultimately a license from the State of Maine to serve as “resource” parents (recently rebranded from the more familiar “foster”). Sharon and I do respite care, the ad hoc, short-term care of kids between homes, kids just received into state custody, or kids whose long-term resource parents just need a week off. What you’re reading here is an account of one of the half-dozen experiences we’ve had so far in 2019. More families are needed, for the record; kids are still being housed in motel rooms. Do reach out if you’re foster curious.]

10:24 p.m.
The state calls right back. On speaker, Haley (I’ve changed all these names) sounds to my middle-aged ears impossibly young, flustered, disorganized and why not? These two kids have apparently just been taken into the state’s custody from a Portland homeless shelter; it’s 10:30 on a Friday night and they need a place to stay, a place that isn’t a motel — through Tuesday. We explain we can take them through Monday morning, when we both go to work. Haley seems relieved and grateful at this news. They need our address. Halfway through Sharon’s providing it, I interrupt and ask for the phone — Haley’s uncertainty, her inability to answer some basic questions (What sort of provisions do the kids have with them? How many diapers are they bringing, how much formula, what happens on Monday?) did not sit exactly right with me. “Sorry, Haley, but I have to say, this all sounds a bit dodgy. Can you provide us the name and number for your manager, or the state case worker on 24/7 call?” Not unrelatedly, our 12-year-old has a bio-mother whose parental rights have been terminated but remains determined to stay in touch with her daughter and ultimately reunite, which is impossible until she turns 18 — but here we are. Social media and phone use are total minefields… For a brief moment on the phone with DHHS, I thought this might be a ruse to find out where we lived, for future surveillance/stalking. Upon hearing my doubts, however, Haley snaps back into sober bureaucrat mode, indicating that it was she who was in charge so late on a Friday night; she reels off a bunch of other stuff that ID’s her as a legit DHHS employee. We provide our address.

11:05 p.m.
It’s half an hour’s drive to our place from the DHHS mothership, in Portland, and in those 30 minutes we ready as we can: pulling the antique bassinette from Sharon’s closet, making up a bed for the 8-year-old, pulling out clothes that might fit him. Throughout, Bri, who generally alternates between sullen and charming — because she’s 12, and because she doesn’t know where she’ll end up when the school year ends, when the summer ends — is fully energized and engaged. She proves a huge help, doling out advice about the sort of clothes they may or may not come with, cleaning her room and offering the second bed in there (if the boy doesn’t want to crash alone). We agree she’s the one who has the most recent baby experience, vis a vis her younger siblings, who, she explains (for the first time), were still very young when her homeless mom bounced from place to place, when the state finally took possession of them after 3 second chances, when all three kids moved from foster home to foster home. More than either of us, Bri knows what this sort of exercise entails.

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Hello, World. Welcome back to The Middle Kingdom

There’s a reason China has long referred to itself as The Middle Kingdom, and Daryl Morey, the NBA and frankly much of Western Civilization is beginning to understand why.

As you’ve no doubt heard by now, Morey is the general manager of the NBA’s Houston Rockets and, until last week, he was known primarily as one of the league’s most savvy operators, an early, successful adopter of advanced hoop metrics and a keen, innovative judge of talent in a league turning inside-out (read: the NBA’s new, stat-backed reliance on 3-point shooting). He’s also politically aware, apparently, something he exhibited last Friday when he tweeted his support of Hong Kong protesters in their running battle with China’s central government. “Fight for freedom. Stand with Hong Kong,” he wrote.

Well, with that seemingly innocuous digital bromide (the political equivalent of “Boston Strong”), Morey has pissed off that central government, in Beijing. In the process, he may have inadvertently clued much of America into the fact that the unilateral, post-Cold War Era is over.

Morey has since taken the Tweet down but he, the Rockets and the NBA have reaped the 21st century whirlwind.

In response, the Chinese Central Government has announced that Rockets games will no longer be broadcast by Chinese state TV or partner Tencent, which recently agreed to a $1.5-billion deal with the NBA to stream games in China. Last year, some 600 million Chinese watched an NBA game in this fashion. The Rockets themselves just happen to have been the most popular team in the country — mainly because Yao Ming, China’s most successful NBA product, played his entire career in Houston. Today Yao is head of the Chinese Basketball Association. On Monday he severed the CBA’s relationship with his former team.

What we see here is an illustration of why China is known to itself (and to every other historical culture in Asia) as the Middle Kingdom. China so named itself circa 1,000 BCE, when the reigning Chou people, unaware of advanced civilizations in the West, believed their empire occupied the middle of the Earth, surrounded by unsophisticated barbarians.

For the ensuing 3,000 years China has indeed been the center of the universe in Asia, such has it dominated economic and cultural affairs in this region — in a way that has no European, African, Middle Eastern, South or North American analogue really. In Asia, over this long arc of history, China’s military whims were routinely indulged. Its culture effortlessly spilled over into countless neighboring nations. Its outsized market (always a function of its outsized population) routinely bent foreign states to China’s economic will.

North Americas and Europeans have a difficult time grasping this concept — the enormity of China’s power — because recent history doesn’t bear this primacy out. Starting in the mid 1800s (when the English first acquired Hong Kong and its holdings in the Pearl River Delta) and ending with Mao’s victory over nationalist forces in 1949, China was something of a geopolitical and economic pushover.

Here’s the way I’ve always thought of it: China had a bad century. The Chinese call it a “Century of Humiliation”… But one or two bad centuries in 30 isn’t such a terrible batting average. In any case, that blip is over. Its recent “rise” is merely a reinstatement of a longstanding status quo.

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More proletarian landmarks rent asunder by Portland’s upward mobility?

Silly’s main “dining room”, home of the Key Lime Pie Shake and the Slop Bucket

Two pillars of Portland’s bar & restaurant vanguard exited the city’s vibrant but transitional culinary scene last week. First came the announcement that Silly’s, long a boho totem on Washington Street, would close its doors on Sept. 1. Two days later, Brian Boru — the peninsula’s “It” bar for much of the 1990s — announced its doors would close.

In a Facebook post equal parts trenchant and heartfelt, Silly’s owner Colleen Kelley explained that the city, in general, and the Washington Street corridor, in particular, were rapidly becoming too chic for her tastes. She also has an aging father who requires her 24/7 attention, something the restaurant had commanded for the past 31 years.

“My sister Shelley and I have sold the buildings — not Silly’s, just the buildings,” Kelley wrote on the restaurant’s Facebook page. “As much as Erin and Will, the managers, and the rest of the staff are taking care of me and the business, it is constantly challenging to do business with the city of Portland, which also wears me out. Another huge factor in my decision: I am smart enough to know my business model won’t work in a city destined to be Seattle, which isn’t meant to be a slam; it is just my opinion of where Portland is going. I don’t want anything but wonderful things for Portland, Maine. I have enjoyed many years here. However, I am a fat woman who serves fat, over-portioned food and I won’t charge 24 dollars for 4 oz. of dip and some pita bread.”

Not 24 hours before this news broke, a Portland friend had raved to me about a new southwestern restaurant that had just opened on Washington Street, long a gritty thoroughfare that, of late, has gentrified — commercially — thanks to a raft of restaurants, breweries and distilleries. To call these “upscale” is to ignore the inherent casual vibe that pervades all things Portland (I can’t think of a single restaurant in the city where jackets are required or shorts frowned upon). But this much is beyond dispute: Portlandia in 2019 is increasingly posh; the owner of Silly’s has recognized this and wants no part of it.

One key to understanding both closings has nothing to do with Portland’s national rep as a city for haute bourgeois foodies. Note the first sentence Kelley wrote: She mentioned buildings twice. The real estate market in Portland is blowing up; the opportunity for businesses of all kinds to cash out is only a phone call away.

This dynamic was even more evident with the Boru closing. It was announced Thursday, August 22 that its last day would be Monday Aug. 26. This bar sits more or less all by itself in the middle of an open, undeveloped lot — half the size of a full city block. It’s adjacent to the Old Port, walkable from Congress Street and the tony West End; it’s right across the street from the civic center.

Someone clearly made the owner an offer (based on potential/developed real estate value) he couldn’t refuse… Decision-making is rarely so simple as that, of course. See a sensible rundown of the factors contributing to the phenomenon here… It’s not capitalism run amok — just more evidence (as if we needed any) that its churn never rests.

Still, I’m conflicted by all this because while I’ve always loved Silly’s, one of Portland’s great draws — to me, as a 50something residing half an hour north, in New Gloucester — is the fact that when Sharon and I want to dine out, there is ALWAYS some hot new Portland restaurant we’ve been meaning to try. Folks tend to blame hipsters for the Seattlezation of Portland, but we and our middle-aged comrades are part of the problem.

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Kiltie-Aversion & Conformity — from the Man Whom Clothes Never Made

My 40something dad, his kilties well and truly shorn, in the early 1980s

[Ed. I try to write about my father each August, the month wherein he left this mortal coil, all too soon, back in 2011. For additional essays in this memorial series, visit www.halphillips.net and search “dad” or  “Harold Gardner Phillips”.]

My father abided by few fashion trends and set even fewer, though here I’ll claim on his behalf one initiative to which he proved an early and canny adopter: He hated kilties. His aversion to those oddly fringed, seemingly vestigial, lace-obscuring flaps that for decades adorned all manner of golf shoes would prove well ahead of his time.

I was reminded of this rare fashion-forward response when my 20-something nephew visited at Christmas. Nathan graduated from college a few years back with a degree in fire-suppression engineering; the job he obtained in this field quickly bored him (what’s more, living in suburban D.C. was rapidly depleting his life force). So today he’s out West fighting forest fires with a crew of badass, axe-wielding Latinos. In any case, he arrived in Maine for the holidays wearing a pair of high-laced, black-leather firefighting boots that, to my surprise, featured small kilties down by their steel-tipped toes. If Dr. Martens made golf shoes, this is what they’d look like.

My nephew’s firefighting boots, complete with kilties

What’s with the kilties? I inquired.

“Is that what they’re called?” Nathan replied, before explaining that when one is tramping about the forest floor, these fringed swatches of leather prevent sticks, leaves, pine needles, mud and other bits of underbrush from lodging between one’s tongue and bootlaces.

In the mid-1970s, when I was first introduced to kilties (and to golf, for that matter), this description of their historical utility was never advanced, not to me anyway. I knew my dad didn’t care for them. Beyond that, they were more or less understood to be yet another whimsical affectation specific to golfing attire, along with Sansabelt slacks (from the French apparently: sans belt, get it?), bucket hats and peds.

As it happened, my dad and his cohort of 40-somethings spent much of the ‘70s dispatching with all manner of societal expectations. This helps explain why he looked so dimly upon kilties — and why, from my earliest recollection, he would immediately remove them from new golf shoes.

The evolution of golf shoe fashion is not a popular avenue of exploration, though it must said: Any research into the subject inevitably leads one down a rabbit hole of pleasingly arcane information. For example, it’s possible (quite logical to assume even) that kilties predate golf spikes in that evolution. Spikes emerged only in the mid-19th century when Scots started hammering nails through their boot soles in order to gain better purchase on dewy fescues.

Mid-19th century links were hardly the manicured landscapes we know today. At best they were meadows, managed lightly (and largely) by herds of sheep. The centuries prior featured even more rugged/primitive golfing environments. In short, during these early, less formalized days, anything that kept the prominent undergrowth from mucking up your shoes and bootlaces made a world of sense for both golfers and their caddies. So kilties did in fact, at one time (for quite a long time actually), serve a purpose.

Where does the name come from? That’s less clear.

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Decoding Distaff Indifference Toward Women’s Professional Sport

Ever wondered why women’s team sports are watched and otherwise supported so meagerly by women themselves? The underlying premise here may strike one as obtuse, even churlish this week, what with thousands of women in the stands watching the World Cup in stadia all over France. But none of last week’s Round of 16 matches sold out and World Cup crowds can mislead. You’ll recall they were enormous during the 1999 Women’s World Cup, here in the U.S. That event was seen as a tipping point for the women’s game in North America, and yet three separate women’s professional leagues have been attempted in the two decades since. The first two folded and the third — the National Women’s Professional Soccer League — continues to teeter on the brink of financial collapse and cultural irrelevance.

Soccer remains a funny duck in America. More than those in other footballing nations, soccer fans here are beguiled by and pay outsized attention to their national teams — as opposed to the privately administered clubs that compete in domestic leagues.

And surely there are entrenched gender biases that have worked against the success of the serial iterations of women’s pro soccer in this country, or the WNBA, or women’s professional hockey wherein the Canadian professional league just folded. U.S. hockey international Kendall Coyne Schofield told the New York Times in April that, “People are drooling for women’s hockey. But the product we deliver isn’t being shown.”

Are they drooling for it really? And what does she mean when she says, “people”. I don’t have a breakdown on how many folks consume women’s hockey at the Olympics, for example, and how that audience breaks down by gender. But it might surprise you to learn that nearly 70 percent of the WNBA’s viewership is male. That surprised me.

The WNBA has been around since the late 1990s; it has never turned a profit, despite being financially backed and marketed by one of the most savvy sports organizations in world sport, the NBA — an organization that has every incentive to create a larger audience for both of its on-court products. The core of that new, larger audience would be women, of course. But women have responded with the same relative indifference they exhibit toward women’s professional soccer and hockey.

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Adventures in Organics

[Ed. This story appeared in the January 2018 issue of Golf Course Management magazine. In April 2019 it won the Gardner Award from TOCA, the Turf & Ornamental Communicators Association. I’ve won a bunch of these over the years but the Gardners are new — a sort of Best in Show among all the annual winners apparently, so I figured it was worth sharing here. There’s a link herein to another profile I wrote about the same time for GCM, on Dr. Frank Rossi. That one came out pretty well, too, especially if a) you’re a fan of kunekune pigs; or b) you want to know why Bethpage Black has agronomic relevance outside this week’s PGA Championship.]

When Kevin Banks was a turfgrass management student at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, it wasn’t uncommon for decorated or otherwise experienced golf course superintendents to drop in for guest lectures. When Jeff Carlson, CGCS, came by in 2005, Banks says he remembers thinking, “Wow, this guy is crazy!”

Frankly, that’s how most students in the midst of a traditional turf management education might have appraised Carlson’s work at the Vineyard Golf Club. When permits were being sought for building this golf course on environmentally sensitive Martha’s Vineyard in Edgartown, Mass., in 1998, developers were obliged to promise the local conservation commission that the prospective golf course would be managed in an entirely organic manner.

The Vineyard Golf Club opened for play in 2002, and Banks graduated in 2008. He would then apprentice at several traditional clubs before this story came full circle — Banks took over for Carlson as head golf course superintendent at the Vineyard Golf Club on April 1, 2015.

“I guess I’m the crazy one now,” the nine-year GCSAA member says.

Two-plus years into his tenure, Banks has more than warmed to the nonconforming aspects of his job, one of the few in golf course management that takes the organic approach from mere trend or direction to guiding principle.

“It’s definitely been a challenge, but I’ve also definitely become addicted to it,” Banks admits.

Just 31, Banks today finds himself at the crux of another nascent industry trend, a phenomenon where head superintendents hire and groom their replacements, having accepted another position at the same club. Carlson stepped aside in the spring of 2015, but he remains at the Vineyard Golf Club as property manager, where he oversees capital projects — a just-concluded Gil Hanse redesign, for example.

The idea of having the previous superintendent at the club — perhaps hovering, perhaps exerting undue or unwanted influence — may strike some as awkward. Not Banks, and here, the organic dictates governing turf management at the club intertwine with these issues of succession.

“Before I took this job, I knew who Jeff Carlson was. Almost everybody in New England and New York did too, and I’m sure that reputation extends even farther than that,” Banks says. “He has been the organic ambassador for my entire turfgrass career. Having him help manage the golf course with me my first season here was a really sensible transition. I knew it would be very different for me, at first, but Jeff knew exactly where to expect an outbreak. He knew where we would first see weed pressure, and all this input came with his very relaxed and calm presence.

“I will always thank him for being patient and mentoring me into a truly organic manager — something I take great pride in today,” Banks adds.

Can Banks imagine having taken on the organic learning curve without Carlson there, on-site?

“Not really,” he answers. “Jeff was very patient. My first year, the disease we encountered in certain areas maybe should not have happened. I believed moisture levels were adequate and acceptable enough to fight disease pressure. They weren’t. But Jeff sat back and let me learn from my mistakes, and watched me grow.

“From the beginning, I was talking to anyone and everyone to get my head around the issues. And I still do that.”

Banks says he frequently talks with colleagues, companies and researchers about the specific issues he faces. Frank Rossi, Ph.D., of Cornell University and recipient of GCSAA’s 2018 President’s Award for Environmental Stewardship, is “a great resource,” he adds.

“But the way I look at it, Jeff is my best researcher. As often as I do interact with all these organic contacts and their ideas, I still take most of them with a grain of salt. They can recommend what they think is right, but you must compare that to what I’m finding here on the ground and what I think is right — and to what Jeff thinks, because he’s done it.”

Martha's Vineyard golf course
The first new golf course to be built on Martha’s Vineyard in 30 years when it opened in 2002, the Vineyard Golf Club was designed, built and is maintained in an all-organic manner to satisfy the community’s strict environmental standards. Photo by Larry Lambrecht
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Welcome to the Teahouse: Korean Road Warriors Curate, Stylize the Game at Home

[Ed. This story appeared in Golf Australia magazine in 2015, as a preview to October’s President’s Cup. I’m in the midst of a couple Korean projects right now; may be headed back there in September… Figured it was worth reprising here.]

By Hal Phillips
SEOUL, South Korea — Let’s get straight to the irony: Koreans are hands-down the most ardent and prolific golf travelers in the world. For a variety of reasons, however, their collective reputation in these golf destinations, particularly those in Asia (their most frequent ports of call), is less than sterling. For the first time, this October — on the occasion of the 11th Presidents Cup Matches — the golf world returns the favor, en masse, as thousands of internationals will descend on the Peninsula to observe four days of competition and make their own golf holidays.

What will they find? One of the game’s singular golf cultures, highly stylized (sometimes to the point of curation) and complemented by a collection of first-rate parkland courses, immaculately kept. The Presidents Cup is a showcase event for the Korean golf community, the biggest international golf event ever staged here, and while public courses remain somewhat rare (and definitely dear), many private clubs are throwing open their doors to welcome the international golfing public — and make a few won (855 to the Australian dollar) in the bargain.

But Aussies who do venture north this spring — especially those who may have cooled their heels behind a glacial Korean foursome in Pattaya, or perhaps witnessed a Gold Coast waitress endure another East Asian browbeating — will be pleased to find a kinder, gentler, quicker brand of Korean golfer on home soil. One might well ask about the phones, to which Korea golfers seem permanently affixed. Well, don’t expect miracles. This remains the most wired, technologically obsessed population on earth, and that extends to their golfing habits, home and away, for better and worse.

To be fair, there are sanguine byproducts of this high-tech mentality. In June, while striding down the 2nd fairway at Whistling Rock Country Club — a private club northeast of the capital and home to one of the nation’s top 5 tracks — the visiting golfer is immediately struck by two things: First, my playing partners and everyone else on the course that day are dressed to the absolute nines. Second, as my caddie walks beside me, our golf cart drives itself down the path — thanks to an electric-eye mechanism embedded in the concrete and caddie-operated by remote control. It goes without saying these drone carts also come complete with sockets, for phone charging.  

“I love Korea, totally wired and everyone looks sharp, man or woman, 25 or 65,” says David Dale, a partner with California-based course architects at Golfplan, who have designed 22 courses in Korea. “Golfers arrive at the course in sport coats and slacks, carrying small grooming bags with golf shoes and change of clothes. They go to their lockers with their 4-digit security codes and change into these highly fashionable pants, shirts and caps (with ball markers on the brims). Most of the time, they’re putting on sleeves to keep the sun off them, even the men.”

Dale and Golfplan have designed courses in 75 different countries, “But I’ve never been to any other country that had a stronger sense of fashion,” he says. “They have these awesome golf slacks that are fleece-lined with waterproofing and pin stripes. I’ve got a pair. They’re thermal. I use them for construction visits in cold climates — but they’re stylish enough to wear with a sport coat!”

The clubhouse at Whistling Rock is typical of the genre here: palatial, modernist and staffed to the gills. Upstairs, a long, narrow Zen garden splits the hallway leading to a massive but still-elegant dining space, where picture windows look out onto the golf course. Downstairs, some 40 members of a course-rating panel (representing GOLF Magazine Korea) populate a sumptuous meeting space of burled wood and overstuffed chairs. Back upstairs, I pass a golf shop that is, well… remarkably modest: mostly golf balls and a few shirts.

According to Whistling Rock Vice President David Fisher, this is typical of Korean clubs, which stock very little logoed merchandise because the lion’s share of golf apparel is purchased not from clubs but direct from top designers. The golf apparel industry in Korea has been estimated at USD$3.5 billion — this for a country of just 1.5 million golfing souls.

“In Korea, the fashion changes. We have four distinct seasons and the manufacturers come up with new designs for each season,” explained Michael, a Korean-American living in Korea and working for a golf industry company (he asked that his real name not be used). “People tend to keep up with the season and they don’t have loyalties to the club they belong to. Elsewhere it’s common that members will wear shirts with the club logo, but in Korea that’s not the case. People tend to lean toward designers shirts, which can be very expensive, 200-300 dollars. Even if they don’t have a good game in terms of golf skill, they try to look good. In Korea, if you don’t dress up, you’re pretty much looked down upon.”

For men, shorts on the golf course are considered particularly frumpy. “Most of the membership golf courses,” Michael says, “do not permit shorts — and golfers must wear hats outside the clubhouse. Without hats, you cannot go out on the course.”

Um, why is that?

“I don’t know.”

The shorts thing is good to know, though daytime temperatures for October typically range from 7-18 degrees (and these days hats make good skin-care sense most anywhere, anytime). Still, Dale suggests that exacting standards and high fashion are just what we should expect from a population with “the highest level of elective cosmetic surgery in the world and the no. 1 destination for these procedures in Asia. I’m even thinking about getting something done, around my eyes… I’m serious.”

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Sable Oaks is No More; Amid Cheers, I Will Defend Her…

Golf course closures are typically met with howls of indignation and despair, as locals countenance their stark, new, diminished reality. But it’s fair to wonder exactly how the public golfing population here in Southern Maine processed the news, received in late January, that Sable Oaks Golf Club would not reopen this spring (the land will instead be marketed to housing developers).

Because while I loved Sable Oaks, mine has always been the minority view.

Most of the Maine golfers I know never cared much for Sable Oaks. Too penal, they said. Driver was too often taken out of their hands (on account of wetlands too often cutting across fairways in constricting fashion). For walkers, hilly Sable Oaks was a death march.

These sentiments, accompanied by knowing nods and perhaps champagne toasts, are surely being bandied about even now. But I must protest. It’s bad manners to speak ill of the dead, after all. And so I’m here today not merely to praise Sable Oaks but to defend her — for perhaps the last time.

All the things people hated most about Sable Oaks recommended the course, to me, when I moved to Portland in 1992. I was 28 years old and a pretty good player back then — breaking 80 at Sable (something I managed only three times in 30 years) really meant something. I didn’t even carry a driver for much of the ‘90s, relying instead on a 1-iron (and a weirdly shaped, seldom deployed, persimmon Ping 2-wood). Walking 18 holes at Sable with a bag on my back was certainly a workout and a half; the hike from 17 green to 18 tee in particular was a heart-stopper — but I was young! A round there meant I didn’t need to go to the gym.

And what a taxing-but-comely walk it was. Designed by architect Brian Silva (who laid out the once-private, now semi-private Falmouth Country Club at exactly the same time), Sable Oaks made for golf in an undeniably gorgeous, secluded setting across lush, dramatic terrain, with gargantuan specimen trees framing the greens and colorful wetlands everywhere one turned.

Okay, those wetlands required forced carries on four of the first five holes — but they were even more colorful in the fall!

Yes, Sable Oaks was located directly in the Portland Jetport flight path — but you never heard the highway (!).

I arrived in Portland that March of 1992 to take a new job: editor-in-chief at Golf Course News, a national business journal published by Yarmouth-based United Publications. When I stumbled upon Sable Oaks that spring, I was honestly blown away. The greens were inventive and fun — always in superb shape, too (something Sable could boast to its dying day). Indeed, the place seemed pretty brand new. The overall conditioning, the contour/detail around those greens, the bunkering throughout seemed way too nice for a public course — especially one that charged just $20.

Sable seemed fancy and new because it had been conceived and built as a private golf/residential community just a few years before I showed up in Portland. A late-80s recession obliged it to open and operate as a public course. Ownership would change several times through the years. Housing and other commercial elements never got built. An oversupply of competing courses meant Sable would never do more than survive. National trends didn’t help matters: The U.S. course stock has suffered an annual net loss of some 150 properties each year since 2008. Ironically, Greater Portland’s red-hot housing market today — and Sable’s prime location on a wooded hillock right across I-95 from the Maine Mall — made the closure decision (from current owners, Delray, Fla.-based Ocean Properties Hotels Resorts & Affiliates) something of a no-brainer.

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But none of this accounts for Sable Oaks’ poor reputation among Greater Portland golfers. Did it get a bad rap? Or was it simply too hard to enjoy? Are Southern Maine golfers a bunch of pussies? Is course difficulty something they want to observe on television but avoid for ourselves?

The answers here are complicated. I can tell you this much, having spent 30 years in the golf business (rating courses and writing about course-design issues): Difficult tracks are, more often than not, successfully marketed on account of their resistance to scoring, not in spite of it. Portland-area golfers were eager throughout the 1990s, for example, to drive two-plus hours for the pleasure of losing 10 golf balls and shooting 117 at Sugarloaf (where river crossings were celebrated). The Woodlands in Falmouth (another track that debuted about the same time as Sable and Falmouth CC) is a much harder golf course than Sable Oaks, in my view, and yet it has succeeded in attracting private club members in this market.

What’s more, Sable Oaks was not a long course; it played only 6,300 yards from the tips. Indeed, the choosing of one’s tees at Sable was key to maximizing the fun and strategy Silva created there. Too often, in my view, Sable-haters didn’t manage this aspect particularly well for themselves.

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