Nines on a Scale of 10: GOLF goes splendidly small bore

Norfolk GC in Westwood, Mass.

Sometime this dark pandemic spring, probably late March, I got a call from Ran Morrissett, the North Carolinian who administers the GOLF Magazine course-rating operation. Starved for human contact as we both were, he and I chatted at length on various obscure but often fascinating golf course subjects. Somewhere during that extended natter he informed me that GOLF and its web incarnation, Golf.com, would soon be compiling, publishing and posting a Top 50 ranking of top 9-hole courses in the world — and that a fellow named Mike Dutton would be calling me. The resulting 100 Best Short Courses package — Top 50 Nines, 25 notable par-3s, 25 primo courses under 6,000 yards — was posted at golf.com this week; it will be published (on paper!) in the August/September print edition.

As it happened, Mike Dutton did call me, in April. He was helping Ran compile info on all these 9-holers and wanted to pick my brain. Mike has it in his head that he needs to play every nine in New England, perhaps the world (before he dies presumably). Had I played Castine? What about Megunticook? And what did I really think of Wayne Stiles’ Wilson Lake Country Club in Wilton? To answer all these questions, Mike and I did the only sensible thing: We made plans to play the 9-hole Clinton Golf Club together followed by nine more, 15 miles down the road, at an even more obscure nine, Cedar Ridge GC in Albion.

Once COVID-19 golf restrictions were lifted May 1, Mike and I would play several Maine nines this spring and summer, but not all of them — and we didn’t agree on everything. And that is perhaps the most exhilarating thing about rating/ranking golf courses. Mike is super keen on the nine at Castine GC, on the north shore of Penobscot Bay, for example, where I am less so. You can see from the new ranking that his opinion on Castine carried more weight ultimately. But here’s the take-away: It’s great fun to rate a course and defend that rating, to rank the level of “test” here vs. there, to verbalize competing definitions of “shot value”, to compete as to who can more sagely nod one’s head when discussing “great pieces of terrain.” (I’ve found it useful to stroke one’s chin whiskers, to break up the nodding.)

I’ve been a member of the GOLF panel since 1997. It is not hard science, this business of ranking one course ahead of another. And yet it is also the highest, most intellectually developed form of grille-room banter there is, or so it says here. No one cares about your golf game. Honestly, they don’t. No one. They don’t care about the irons Dustin Johnson is playing, either, or how Phil Mickelson will do on the senior tour, or Fedex Cup points. Compared to all that frippery, the course you and your buddies just played, or soon will play, stands as perhaps the only truly meaningful and lasting touchstone the game of golf has to offer.

In that spirit, here’s my own list of Top 6 Maine Nines. My state of residence was represented in GOLF’s World Top 50, but not to the extent warranted, in my view. Wilson Lake, which didn’t make the grade at all, is almost certainly better than North Haven (#14), and way better than Castine (#46). But geography, conventional wisdom and confirmation bias often conspire to blur such realities.  

Wilson Lake CC, Wilton — Superb nine from underrated Golden Age designer Wayne Stiles and the only real quibble I have with the otherwise stellar ranking published this week. Definitely top 50 material. I visited here years ago but only for a drive-by. I played it this past June and wow, what a great collection of holes. Huge, diverse greens. Not a single middling hole out of nine. The routing is a bit back and forth (1, 3, 4, 5) but this can and should be forgiven over a great piece of terrain.

North Haven GC, North Haven Island — Another cracking, full length nine that is extremely scenic and even a bit raw in spots. Not mis-ranked in the Top 50 but because it’s another Stiles design, its reputation seems to me a bit overcooked, for reasons likely attributable to the Penobscot Bay ferry one must board to get there.

Clinton GC, Clinton — Homemade nine between Bangor and Waterville, and a really good one. One funky hole but 8 strong ones, solid green complexes and immaculately maintained. Suffers in some quarters because it’s new (opened early 2000s) and unabashedly modern in its design aesthetic.

Megunticook GC, Rockport — There is a demonstrable bias toward vintage golf courses within pretty much the entire course-rating community. One tries to resist — because it can hurt some courses and help others unnecessarily. So, I’m surprised Megunticook didn’t make the top 50, for it is very old, really well preserved, splendidly old-world kooky in the extreme, and super fun. The 9th green is so devilishly small, a foursome likely could not play it and maintain a responsible social distance.

Castine GC, Castine — There are some wonderful holes here and Willie Park Jr. (designer of the North Course at Olympia Fields, host to the recent BMW Championship and ’03 U.S. Open) provides a distinct pedigree. In light of Mr. Dutton’s enthusiasm for the place, I have resolved to revisit, perhaps alongside…

Bucksport GC, Bucksport — Stopped to play here with Maine State Golf Association poobah and noted links hound Michael Moore on the way back from MDI a few years ago. We were both stunned by how good it was, as we’d never heard anything about it, good or bad. The polar opposite of Megunticook: modern, full-length (a brawny par 37), compact routing on high but gently rolling ground, huge greens and not overgrown with trees.

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Kittansett Stands Alone, Unclassifiable and Sublime

[Ed. This integrated piece appeared as a course feature and Walker Cup sidebar in LINKS Magazine during the summer of 2006.]

Rolling down Point Road toward The Kittansett Club, past Sippican Harbor and passing before an ever more stately line of summer “cottages” (all in gray shingle), the ancient course comes into view through the driver’s side window — initially a hole or two bounded by Cape-style miniature pine, but then a striking, open expanse punctuated by golden fescues, lines of bracken hedgerows and chocolate-drop mounding. From this vantage, at this introductory stage, it’s perhaps too easy to lump Kittansett in with the dozens of quirky, antique but ultimately docile, wind-dependent tracks that dot the Northeastern coastline.

But Kittansett is seldom what it appears to be, especially at first glance.

Members here bleed the right color and the course itself, perched on Butler Point and surrounded on three sides by Buzzards Bay, is surely transformed by a stiff wind. But the layout is so much more: a steely, uncommon test on the calmest of days. When I visited in late June, a wind-killing fog (thick enough to cancel the first day of the 2006 U.S. Women’s Open down the coast at Newport) had settled over the place. Yet Kittansett’s length (6,814 yards, par 70), its smallish steeply pitched greens, its overall strategic mettle were undiminished. They are, in fact, enough to humble and beguile just about anyone in any sort of weather.

“I’m not sure people realize just how difficult this golf course really is,” says Steve Demmer, the head pro here since 1994 [departed in 2014]. “Not even the members, who are used to the carries, the obstacles and the speed of the greens. When the rough and wind are up [and they usually are], this is a lot of golf course.”

Opened for play in 1923, Kittansett and its various attributes should surprise visitors. It’s a seaside course — peninsular for heaven’s sake; the Aboriginal American name means near (sett) the sea (kittan) — but there isn’t a proper dune in sight. By all geographical rights the course should be links-like, but trees line two thirds of the routing and the soil isn’t sandy at all, meaning it seldom plays hard and fast.

The course feels quite natural but was in fact designed to within an inch of its life by one Frederic Hood, who had consulted with Donald Ross and worked from some drawings provided by William Flynn. But he built the course himself with local crews of similarly inexperienced folk. Kittansett is the only golf course on Hood’s resume; he never designed nor built another.

Indeed, on a largely tree-lined golf course, it’s hard to imagine a seasoned architect would have placed such a proliferation of fairway-impeding obstacles. Thirteen holes at Kittansett feature some sort of deep cross bunker or bank of mounding perpendicular to play. The corridors are naturally ample. But hardy stands of white pine, oak, cedar and tupelo frame the inland holes, creating a extremely stout test when it comes to driving the ball — between the trees, over and around these myriad crossing features, and amid a random collection of chocolate drops.

Here and there these oversized Kisses sit (more like chocolate-covered cherries really), often without apparent purpose, on the periphery, but other times quite strategically. The two that stand sentinel on either side of the somewhat lunar 16th fairway appear to frame the target but are actually 50 yards short of the green, seriously messing with a visiting’s depth perception. “They had to put the rocks somewhere,” Demmer says with a smile and a shrug.

Because of the ever-present winds perhaps, Hood’s design rarely calls for forced carries into the greens themselves. The oft-photographed 3rd, a pitch across an ocean inlet to a green surrounded by beach sand, is the notable exception. More often the cross hazards come earlier in the golf hole. At 16, for example. On the 424-yard 6th, three staggered lines of cross-mounding jut in from the left (the last sits 220 yards from the back tee). A similar trio is reprised at the wonderful, short par-4 10th, where the hazards are reasonably cleared with a long-iron or fairway wood — mind games notwithstanding.

The 11th with its massive cross bunker gaping in from the left is perhaps the most brutish poser on a course replete with them. The eye-catching hazard sits well short of a flamboyant green cleaved by a deep swale — but all this is obscured by the bunker’s 7 foot lip. From the back tee, 241 yards away, the tiny exposed portion of the putting surface appears to sit precariously (and inaccessibly) at the edge of the world, 15 feet above a bunker bounded by ball-sucking bogs. The prudent play is left of center, directly over the bunker’s highest point; this allows the contour to shape the ball onto the green. But it’s a leap of faith even for members familiar with the gambit, and a thrilling leap at that.

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Trump’s subconscious is desperately trying to tell us something

I’m starting to wonder whether Donald Trump, in the early years of this century, might have killed some young woman. Not sexually assaulted her; that’s something he’s apparently been doing, repeatedly, since the early 1980s. I mean killed a woman outright.

I worry about this, as an American, because he’s the president — and because he keeps accusing MSNBC host Joe Scarborough of this exact crime, from this very period in time. Naturally, as has become custom, Trump makes this allegation publicly, without a shred of evidence. But this particular accusation worries me in another way because, as we’re learning, it’s part of a pattern — the outrageous lie that falsely accuses or smears someone else, but actually projects the president’s own anxiety about his having already committed the same crime, or embodying the identical character flaw.

This habit of the president’s, what I have dubbed projection lying, is not to be confused with his reflexive, everyday, run-of-the-mill lying (what he himself calls, in his book Art of the Deal, “truthful hyperbole” — the sort of thing you do when selling condos). This form of fabrication he unleashes almost continually.

Ethically, even psychiatrists aren’t supposed to diagnose the most obvious sociopaths from a distance. But I’m not a psychiatrist (!). And let’s face it: As American citizens in the here and now, we are more or less obliged to scrutinize the president’s lies, to sort them into various categories, subgroups and classifications, then collectively wonder what sort of psychiatric phenomenon leads to all this lying, all these different types of lies. He is our head of state, after all. And other than lies, we don’t get many other types of communication from the man.

In the main, Trump lies largely for the same reasons anyone else does — to deflect blame, to immunize himself from harm (when possible), to shirk responsibility, etc. We’re talking the mother lode of deflection and shirking here.

However, even while taking into account the president’s magisterial portfolio of lies and dissembling styles, I am fascinated and troubled in particular by the president’s projection lying — the assertion of something clearly false that nevertheless and quite astutely reveals something manifestly true about Trump himself. Here’s a banal example: When he prefaces a statement with, Believe me when I tell you, he’s really saying, “I’m preparing to lie to you. In fact, I’m doing it right now.”

We are sadly conditioned to this phenomenon by now, like a proverbial frog being slowly boiled to death. As noted above, the man sold condos when he wasn’t doing the impossible: bankrupting casinos (all this prior to starring in a “reality” series that celebrated his business acumen!). At this advanced stage, it’s as if we expect him to lie to us… And yet Trump has taken this projection lying to a new, dangerous and strangely fascinating place in 2020 — because so many of his lies do reveal what the man’s id, his inner voice, what passes for his soul, is trying desperately to tell us. That’s why the Scarborough lie/smear is so arresting, almost macabre.

The president clearly reckons that if a nemesis like Scarborough were first framed up for murder, Trump could better argue that he was being framed up — or that maybe killing someone isn’t so terrible after all (so long as it was done, perhaps on 5th Avenue, by someone famous enough).

See here a brief catalogue of the variations on this dissembling projection theme. In most every case, it’s pretty obvious what Trump and his subconscious mind are trying to tell us — things we kind of knew to be true already:

  • A lot of people are saying = I’m making this up.
  • She can’t be trusted = You’d be a fool to trust me.
  • How has he not been indicted by now? = I’m quite sure I’ve committed several high crimes or misdemeanors — just in the last 3 days.
  • The president cannot be indicted = I’ve committed several indictable acts in the last 48 hours (but I’m going to keep repeating this because Bob Barr says it’s so).
  • She can’t be trusted with state secrets = I cannot be trusted with state secrets.
  • He’s a security risk = I am a security risk (and so are my children)
  • Nobody knows [insert subject matter here] better than me = I know next to nothing about [insert identical subject matter here]
  • Who knew health care was so complicated? = I just thought about health care policy for the first time this morning.
  • I’ve been treated very badly = I’ve committed a crime and/or shattered a longstanding norm and now I’m dealing with the inevitable consequences.
  • Witch hunt = Constitutionally mandated Congressional oversight
  • Perfect call = Shakedown
  • She’s not my type = Yeah, I raped her.
  • He’s lying = I’m lying.
  • I guarantee you that conversation never took place = That conversation is digitally recorded.
  • I don’t know the guy = We have, in fact, vacationed together.

I could go on. For days! (the Washington Post recently tallied the president’s lies and purposely misleading statements, since January 2017, at more than 20,000). But you get the point.

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Replication, homage and the sincerest form of flattery

The original Church Pew bunkers are located at storied Oakmont CC. This homage can be found at Tour 18 in Flower Mound, Texas.

[Ed. — The replica design phase has faded somewhat. This piece ran in the September 2002 print edition of GOLF Magazine — back when the U.S. was still opening hundreds of new courses every year, replica and otherwise. Since 2008, the U.S. course stock has shrunk by some 150 courses each year…]

Television commentators, magazine pundits and denizens of the 19th hole seldom refer to the ’77 British Open. It’s always the ’77 British Open at Turnberry — rarely the ’88 U.S. Open, but rather the ’88 Open at Brookline. This strong sense of place separates golf from sports like tennis; the late Bud Collins might have waxed pedantic about the ’72 Open at Forest Hills, but he never talked about Ken Rosewall’s quarterfinal win on Court 7. Who cares which court it was? Like football fields and hockey rinks, the parameters of play are all pretty much the same.

Golf is different; it’s all about venue. Its tournament layouts — each unique in character, many situated in exotic locales — actively shape the competitive drama and our memories of it. The advent of television has only enhanced this sense of geography, further ingraining these layouts, these holes, in our collective consciousness.

This fascination with “place” begins to explain one of golf’s emerging trends, the replica course, whereby famous holes from various distinguished layouts are re-created and linked together to form distinct, 18-hole loops. A dozen such compilations are now operating across the U.S., with many more on the drawing board. It seems course developers have recognized what Hollywood and Madison Avenue have known for some time — that our culture has long valued familiarity on a par with originality; how else can we explain Back to the Future III?

What’s surprising is that golf has taken so long to recognize the mystical and commercial appeal of replication design which, when done well, is nothing more than trotting out proven quantities.

Replica course design isn’t, in the strict sense, a particularly new idea. Most course architects will admit there are approximately 30 to 40 golf hole templates; everything built after 1900 is basically a variation on one of these themes. Indeed, C.B. Macdonald and partner/protégé Seth Raynor made their considerable marks on American course architecture by routinely mimicking specific British golf holes — The Redan at North Berwick, the Alps at Prestwick and The Road Hole at St. Andrews, among others. “Some of Macdonald’s copies are better than originals, most notably the Redan at National Golf Links on Long Island,” says Gary Galyean, who administers GOLF’s Top 100 rankings, lists replete with replication fodder.

That said, the post-modern knocking-off process began in earnest with Golden Ocala (Fla.) Golf & Country Club, a replica layout which debuted in 1986. Three years later, The Ross Memorial — an unabashed reproduction of great holes designed by The Original Donald — opened for play in Boyne, Mich. The genre’s most recent example: The Royal Links, an aggregation of 18 holes pilfered/copied with loving care (take your pick) from British Open courses and replicated a few miles from the Strip in Las Vegas. A similar project called The Tribute opens this August in Dallas where another replica course, Tour 18, has been doing 70,000 rounds a year since it opened in 1993.

One might imagine golf’s uber traditionalists, who are legion, taking umbrage at these attempts to knock off hallowed ground. But a funny thing happens on the way to conventional wisdom; when one starts fishing around for naysayers on the subject, few take the bait.

“I don’t have a problem with the practice,” says Barry Palm, president of the Donald Ross Society, an organization dedicated to the preservation of Ross layouts. “Design ideas have always been borrowed and most people will never have the opportunity to play some of these great courses.” Adds Galyean, “The replication of notable golf holes is a time-tested and exonerated practice. A product of admitted plagiarism, The National Golf Links is rightly considered a masterpiece.”

Not everyone has been so quick with the olive branch, however. Citing trademark infringements, the resort firms which manage Pinehurst, Harbour Town and Pebble Beach went so far as to sue Tour 18, which had replicated famous holes from all three. The courts ruled in 1995 for Tour 18, whose legal victory has emboldened replicators all the more. Arnold Palmer Golf Management recently purchased Tour 18 and its sister layout in Houston, both of which replicate familiar PGA Tour holes; Palmer plans to develop branded Tour 18 facilities nationwide. Myrtle Beach will soon have an entry, the World Tour Golf Links. And why not? When the product is good, daily-fee players have flocked to these courses, casting votes of approval with their feet.

Let’s face it, most of America’s 25 million golfers will never trod upon the fairways at Seminole (whose no. 9 is featured at the Ross Memorial), or travel to Royal Cinque Ports (Royal Links). This may explain why, wherever they’ve been devised, replica courses have proved extremely popular — a testament to the idea that playing even a middling knock-off of Augusta National’s 13th (Golden Ocala) or the 17th at TPC Sawgrass (Tour 18) is an experience worth, well, experiencing.

“Our parking lot consumer research into the Tour 18 concept was overwhelming,” says Peter Nanula, CEO of Palmer Golf. “We have built, owned and managed all types of courses, designed by Palmer, Fazio, Nicklaus, Jones and others. But we had never encountered the passion and enthusiasm we heard from golfers playing Tour 18 — I mean, people on cell phones calling their buddies about what club they just hit on a famous hole, or how they just birdied the hole that sunk Greg Norman’s round the week before.”

•••

“There’s nothing really new in golf course design; we’re continually recycling tried and true methods,” says architect Perry Dye, who recreated The Royal Links. “Considering the natural landscape in Vegas, we had to manufacture everything. So one may as well manufacture the best. Hell, you’ve got New York, Monte Carlo and Egypt replicated on the Strip, why not Scottish golf?”

Architect Jay Morrish, who designed golf courses with Jack Nicklaus before launching his own successful architecture firm, has an interesting perspective on the replication phenomenon. His office is located in the Dallas suburb of Flowermound, right next door to Tour 18. “I’ve got no problem with the whole premise behind Tour 18 because how many people will actually get to play a course like Augusta?” Morrish points out. “But it’s a great challenge to pull it off properly. At Tour 18 there’s a hole from Muirfield Village, a [Nicklaus] course I helped design. I went out there, scratched my head and said, ‘This is no. 14 at Muirfield?’ But I really don’t think the developers of these replica courses care what I think; they’re laughing all the way to the bank.”

Even within a single course compilation, some replicas are more convincing than others. The climate, tree cover and terrain of northern Michigan, for example, lend themselves quite well to Ross’ work in the Northeastern U.S. — not so well to the east coast of Florida. If surroundings match the originals, modern earth-moving capabilities and GPS allow replicators the opportunity to flatter with startling sincerity. “If you think about it, most of the topography in Las Vegas is similar to links land,” says Dye. “The toughest thing was building the sod-wall bunkers, and there are 106 of them! We built the first 30 bunkers three times before we got them right. The soil is different; the growth characteristics are different. We tried several techniques before we hit upon the look and safety we thought we could live with.”

Yet we keeping coming back to the central appeal of replication design: Most golfers have never seen the sod wall bunkers at Prestwick; they’ve never seen, much less played, the par-5 8th at Royal Liverpool (the 4th hole at Royal Links). This lack of familiarity 1) makes it difficult for golfers to find fault with the accuracy of various replications; and 2) provides all the more incentive to experience that which might otherwise be too far away or forever hidden inside private enclaves. Furthermore, we live in a culture that thrives on the derivative. Why else would Hollywood invest so consistently in projects like “Lethal Weapon IV”, or a frame-by-frame remake of “Psycho”? When sequels aren’t feasible, out come the prequels. The fashion world is no less practical in this regard; why take a chance on new fashions when consumers are sure to embrace the reintroduction of bell-bottoms and floppy collars?

“You can’t underestimate the power of TV here,” Dye interjects. “You’ve got 40 million people watching 4 to 8 hours of golf every weekend; the great moments are played and replayed and discussed over and over again. It has an effect. When Tom Watson sunk that chip shot on the 17th at Pebble Beach, it had an effect; they can’t keep grass on the back of that green because everyone has to try that shot themselves. That’s the power of TV.”

But it’s clearly more than that, else golfers would play once and never return. That’s not happening, as evidenced by the continued success and popularity of places like The New Course at Grand Cypress, an homage to the Old Course at St. Andrews (as Roger Daltry might croon, “Meet the New Course/It’s the same as the Old Course”).

Here’s the bottom line: Walking off the 18th hole at The Ross Memorial (a credible ode to the 16th at Oakland Hills, by the way), it’s difficult to think back on having played anything approaching a mediocre golf hole. The quality of the 18 individual replicas are undeniable; with the appropriate suspension of belief, they’re quite exhilarating, especially if one has the perspective of having played the original.

The experience is akin to eating Stouffer’s French Bread Pizza: It’s not really pizza, of course. But it’s demonstrably good eating.

At the Donald Ross Memorial in Harbour Springs, Mich., the 13th (at left) replicates the 15th at Seminole. At right, the 18th on the Ross Memoria knocks off the 16th on the South Course at Oakland Hills.

Why Politics So Often Trumps Piety: It’s Baked Right In

“The Good Shepherd” by James Tissot

Confused by stalwart evangelical Christian support for Donald Trump? Don’t be. Organized religious movements, especially those of the Christian variety, are only nominally “religious” or faith-directed. They are, in fact, political movements (always have been; they started that way). We aren’t confused by U.S. Chamber of Commerce support for Trump, for example. These captains of industry don’t like the guy either; it’s not clear they ever respected him as “a businessman” (I mean, who bankrupts casinos? That’s really hard to do). But the Chamber anticipated that Trump, as president, would deliver policy outcomes that would keep American corporate interests rich and powerful. The Chamber’s support for Trump doesn’t confuse us at all.

The president’s evangelical Christian support is identically political and transactional.

To be fair, the president’s evangelical support is even more politically on the nose because, as it happens, the world’s two most prominent monotheistic religions, Christianity and Islam, were both founded as uniquely, overtly political movements — and so they remain. The disconnect and confusion come when something like ‘evangelical Christianity’ is viewed as a movement or phenomenon of faith. As such, its support for someone sporting such a “rich” history of bigotry, sexual predation, white supremacy and transgressive plutocracy would be totally mystifying.

However, when evangelical Christianity is rightly viewed as a political movement, the hypocrisy and our confusion about it fall away. Or they should.

Look at what Trump has promised and, in part, delivered to this political constituency of his: not enlightenment or even a righteous example but rather the appointment of judges who are likely to rule against abortion and gay rights (though the latter backfired on the evangelical right last week); the channeling of taxpayer money to private, largely religious, certainly segregated schools; recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, thereby laying the groundwork for the fulfillment of biblical prophecy; and restoration of an America that is ruled by white Christian men, despite a population that is ever more diverse. Quite apart from Trump and Republican Party policies, evangelical Christians also tend to be strongly supportive of American militarism abroad, race-based immigration policy, and authoritarian policing, three more things that make it darned near impossible to, among other things, love they neighbor as thyself.

We can agree nearly all of these priorities as maintained by Trump’s evangelical base don’t touch on faith much at all; even the fulfillment of prophecy serves only Christians themselves, not the breadth of God’s human family. Many of these political goals demonstrably transgress New Testament teachings. Instead they are far more concerned with the wielding of power, social influence and control, and money — the stock in trade of most political movements.

Many Americans are thrown by this — the inability of nominal Christians to render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s (Romans 13:1). Even religiously observant onlookers get stuck on the hypocrisy of the situation — to a point. Trump’s personal behavior would surely offend lots of evangelicals were he raising their grandchildren or coaching their son’s Little League team, for example. But he’s not doing that. He’s delivering political power and influence, and that trumps all. Apparently. Evangelical Christians are no different from any other political constituency in their search for return on investment — a return they frankly didn’t realize from many Republican presidents up to now.

What has changed with Trump is the extent to which individual members of the religious right wing attempt to cloak these plainly political aims in religious vestments. That is to say, under Trump that practice has fallen away almost entirely — and this should help the rest of us better understand what has always been true: that organized religious movements don’t give a fig about salvation (yours, theirs, anyone’s), not when earthly power, influence, social control and money are at stake.  

Listen to the way Steven E. Strang, founder of the Christian publishing house Charisma Media, reckons this political calculus today:

“I believe that God answered our prayers in a way we didn’t expect, for a person we didn’t even necessarily like,” he told The New York Times last winter. “Christians believe in redemption and forgiveness, so they’re willing to give Donald Trump a chance.” Strang added that those who talk about Trump tarnishing the evangelical brand “are not really believers — they’re not with us, anyway.”

One thing is clear: This fellow Strang is not concerned with souls.

Neither is Penny Young Nance, president of Concerned Women for America, an evangelical organization formed to frame the 2018 midterm elections (to potential donors) as a civilizational struggle. Referring to Trump, she said, “His family can talk to him about issues of character.”

“Certainly we are all embarrassed,” Linda Leonhart, who is active in the women’s ministry at her suburban Dallas church, told  The Times in March 2019, citing the president’s serial lying, pettiness, impulsiveness, profanity and name calling. “But for the most part he represents what we stand for.” Not the Gospels, in other words, but the political gathering and wielding of earthly power, influence, social control and money.

These folks are not concerned with the teachings of scripture, much though former Attorney General Jeff Sessions might have tried to cite it in defense of this xenophobic policy or that one. Former White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders attempted these same diversions. In 2020, it should be clear that Americans Republicans are more concerned with using scripture in the derivation and deployment of political identity and power, reflecting a Christian tradition that is nearly 2,000 years old.

The mere acknowledgement that Trump may be less than ideal morally — but that he delivers things like Brett Kavanaugh and protections for Christian health workers — is itself a tacit acknowledgement, on the part of Christian voters, that political concerns are equally important, if not more important, than matters of personal faith. For them, it’s a simple exercise in compartmentalism, a word that does not appear in the Bible, for the record. I doubt very much these folks would want Trump for a son-in-law (faith). But they love what he’s doing as president (politics).

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Unprecedented? Nope. Modern GOP Still Harking Back to the ’80s — the 1880s

With word that President Donald Trump plans to resume his in-person political rallies on June 19 — that’s Juneteenth, a commemoration of slavery’s end and black America’s biggest secular holiday — in Tulsa, Oklahoma, it seems clear the era of Republican dog whistles is finally over.

Tulsa was, of course, site of the so-called ‘race riots’ that slaughtered of hundreds of African-Americans over a two-day period in 1921. That was the height of Jim Crow America, when pogroms like these were sadly unremarkable. This is the symbolism our Republican administration is clearly reaching for and by now it should not surprise us.

From the moment Ronald Reagan launched his 1980 presidential campaign — in Philadelphia, Mississippi, where three civil rights activists had been murdered and buried in an earthen dam back in 1963 — the GOP has positioned itself as the party of white folk. The symbolism was clear enough from Day 1, and effective enough to lure white southern Democrats (the “Dixiecrats” who fled the Democratic Party during the Civil Rights era) into the once-anathema Republican Party, the Party of Lincoln. The Trump presidency and the scheduling of this July rally neatly complete the circle.

In light of the protests that have gripped American cities in wake of George Floyd’s May 29 killing, we are now free to drop all pretenses. Indeed, it’s time to retire all sorts of presumptions, including the idea that Trump and his white-nationalist “Christian” support is somehow unprecedented. On the contrary: We have been here before.

But first, by all means, let’s also dispense with any and all pearl-clutching from progressives and centrists. Donald Trump understands the nature of his political support and, by now, so should we. To be fair, he’s been remarkably consistent re. the nature of his vision for this country. “Why is it always about race with you people,” his supporters serially countered in pre-Floyd America. Because, as has been confirmed the last 2 weeks (which only confirms what the war on drugs and mass incarceration showed us decades before), it’s always been about race.

Let’s further dispense with our vaguely snarky musing on the Trump movement’s signature rallying cry. When he and his followers pledge to “Make America Great Again”, they really do mean to make it white again — or rather, to restore white citizens to their longstanding, “rightful” place of privilege and power in the face of an ever more diverse citizenry and electorate. It’s time to retire this rhetorical question and simply accept it as demonstrable fact.

We can also stop with the lengthy magazine think pieces and earnest video documentaries that explore the economic nature of Trump’s support. Yes, plutocrats love Trumpism. They may indeed be pulling some of these strings. But there is no economic explanation for the white working-class embrace of Donald Trump. And here’s a good rule to follow at all times but particularly in this one: When we perceive our fellow citizens to be repeatedly voting against their own self-interest, we have almost certainly failed to effectively divine that self-interest.

To wit, Trumpism is not an economic movement. It is a white, nationalist, extra-scriptural Christian movement. In four years’ time, it has produced a great many things we can fairly call “unprecedented”. But MAGA isn’t one of them. With a bit more than 5 months remaining before the 2020 election, it’s critical that “the rest of us” recognize this.

What’s more, as we’ll establish here, it’s important to recognize this is not the first time white Americans have found themselves on the wrong side of a demographic equation, i.e. trying to maintain political power and privilege in a society where voters of color roughly equal if not outnumber them.

We have indeed been here before. It’s called the Post-Reconstruction South, where the identical demographic situation resulted in the identical political response. To a remarkable degree, the policies articulated by Trump during his campaign and those instituted by his administration these past 40 months are the spiritual godchildren of those initiated by post-Reconstruction southern whites in the late 19th century — for the same desperate and obvious demographic reasons.

No one bothered to ask late 19th century southern white men why they effectively demonized, disenfranchised and, where possible, criminalized black citizens, black voters. No contemporaneous journalists from the agitating north went looking for the economic foundations of Jim Crow. It was obvious to all, north and south, what they were doing and why. Institutional racism was essential and obvious to the white fight for political power in the former Confederacy. The political motivations of white southerners post-1877 had nothing to do with economics, government intrusion, faith, the opioid epidemic, flyover country resentment of coastal elites, etc. It also lasted the better part of 100 years.

And so, in this sense, it should not surprises us that it remains front and center in U.S. politics. It’s all about race. It’s always been about race. Not exactly the race of some urban African-American or that of some border Latinx, but rather the so-called white race, “our” race, and its prospects for enduring power in this country. The demography of an immigrant nation has finally caught up to white America, and a lot of them (40 percent by most counts) don’t like it much. It’s time we all accepted this and set about wrestling with it properly.

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Pandemic Scenarios Earn CT Rare Win on the Golf Front

The super-fun green complex at the 6th, one of many at Windsor’s Keney Park GC .

Let’s first relate the cold hard facts, to contextualize things: Connecticut is a wasteland. I spent four college years there. Pretty much every part of the state exists as a satellite to some larger, more consequential place; it’s the world’s biggest suburb, in other words — and yet there isn’t one cool urban redoubt in all of its 5,567 square miles. For years, you couldn’t buy beer there after 8 p.m. In their relative wisdom, modern Nutmeg lawmakers have since upped that to 10 p.m. (Sunday liquor sale bans were lifted in 2012). But it remains the most culturally vanilla corner of New England.

More to the point, the golf on hand in Connecticut is surprisingly poor. Of the six New England states, I’d rank it 5th in terms of overall quality per capita (sorry, New Hamster). There are some perfectly fine private clubs, but honestly, not as many as one might think considering the long coastline and all the money that has consistently sloshed around that part of the state. The public golf is fairly abject by any standard.

However, for much of this Pandemic Spring, Connecticut and Rhode Island have been the only places that have even allowed golf in New England — and Rhody has effectively banned it for out-of-state folks (insisting on a 14-day quarantine beforehand). It seems the most onerous golf restrictions will be lifted across the region come the month of May (or that’s the word here in Maine), so let me praise Connecticut and the golf there while I have the chance.

My daughter passed her thesis in last Friday at midnight. Her college experience is essentially over. As she has spent the last 6 weeks cooped up in her Philadelphia apartment, we reckoned she’d earned some semi-rural time at home. Because Clara required extraction and, because Connecticut is literally unavoidable when driving from Maine to Philly, I resolved to play golf somewhere on the way down.

[Can I just say that I’m not on board with all this hand wringing about how high school and college seniors are missing out on the pomp and circumstance of graduation? It seems misplaced in light of such large-scale public health and economic concerns. I’m particularly put off by online expressions of this treacly sentiment. We can agree that Facebook was created for and has always been sustained by a bottomless human capacity for meaningless, self-referential bullshit. Which has its place. Witness my own wall. But the idea that middle-aged people posting high school portraits of themselves somehow speaking empathically to the graduation void being experienced by their children (who don’t use or give a fuck about FB) is a level of self-reference that is frankly beyond the pale. Fine. Go ahead and share flattering, young-and-fit pictures of yourselves. Go ahead and detail your 10 most meaningful albums. Just don’t think you need the license of Covid-19 confinement to do so — because social media in general and FB in particular have long existed for exactly this sort of piteous self-indulgence. And don’t think our own confinement makes us any more interested. For the record: I’ve checked with my lawyer; these nominations are not legally binding.]

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The par-3 2nd at Fenwick GC in Old Saybrook, CT

Right. Where were we. My daughter. Golf in Connecticut.

Actually, because I passed through the Nutmeg state twice, I played on the way back, as well. Each round was delightful.

Monday morning I rolled up to Keney Park Golf Course just north of Hartford in Windsor, right off Interstate-91. The original Devereaux Emmet design there was renovated some 7 years ago, to pretty outstanding effect. I picked up a game with 3 other middle-aged guys. Aside from the lack of handshakes before and afterward, our round was not affected much at all by the physical distance we maintained.

Playing on the golf team at Wesleyan did get me around the state to dozens of different courses, back in the day, but I’d never played Keney before. The terrain was superb and the place drained really well (it had snowed the day before apparently, but the ball still bounced/rolled in most places). Some have taken issue with the historical accuracy/integrity of architect Michael Dusenberry’s work at Keney Park — and the project cost. But this seems to me a pretty churlish response. If there’s a better muni track in Connecticut, I’d like to know where it is.  The greens are super fun, their complexes bold and varied, and they rolled beautifully for mid-April.

There are dozens of ways to “rate” a golf course, but here’s one I like (especially for public courses): What’s the worst hole out here? At Keney, it took some real head-scratching. It’s probably the 1st — a perfectly good if short, downhill par-4 that otherwise serves as a welcoming opener. I certainly appreciated it, having been sent straight from the starter shack to the first tee after 4 hours in the car. Every succeeding hole I found strategically engaging.

The very next day, after kipping in Philadelphia, we loaded up the car and headed north. (It’s quite a feeling to drive over the George Washington Bridge and sail through NYC at lunchtime with such ease.) Soon enough we had arrived in Old Saybrook, just down Route 9 from Middletown. Fenwick Golf Course is a cool place — a summer-community track surrounded by tony shingle-style homes arrayed about a small peninsula of low-lying land buffeted by Long Island Sound. Just 9 holes, it was the perfect place to play with my daughter in tow.

Tuesday was cold and windy on the Connecticut coast but we welcomed the walk and there are some truly scenic vistas on offer at Fenwick. When it came into view, the Sound was roiling. As for the golf itself: meh. There was a pretty epic cape-style par-4 (the 430-yard 4th), where one is obliged to drive it over a salt-water inlet (and Sequassen Avenue). The 2nd is a cute par-3 (the card indicated there was a back tee stretching the hole to 200 yards, but we couldn’t find it). In all, a lovely spot but nothing too-too special. The greens were uniformly small, round and tilted back toward play with very little internal contour. It reminded me of Abenackie, another antique summer-colony 9 south of Portland, Maine (though the terrain there in Biddeford Pool is superior).

But this is to quibble. It was the perfect way to break up our 8-hour drive, during a pandemic. Invigorated, we jumped back in the car, stopped at Popeye’s in New London (spicy chicken sandwich: believe the hype), and headed north.

Nova-Georgetown ’85: Still Crazy After All These Years

Much of my Covid19 replacement sports-viewing has concentrated on vintage soccer films via YouTube (those Dutch teams of the 70s were really something). But I did indulge earlier this month in a replay of the 1985 NCAA Championship between Villanova and Georgetown, on the CBS Sports Network. I think it’s accurate to say that between 1974 and 2004 (the period of my most fervid college basketball mania), this is the only final I failed to watch live — and only because I was backpacking through Europe at the time, behind the Iron Curtain. When I finally got a hold of an International Herald Tribune in Dubrovnik (the former Yugoslavia), I thought maybe Tito’s media censors were messing with me. In all the years since, I’ve seen highlights but never the entire game tape. Some thoughts:

• By now everyone knows that Villanova won this game (66-64) by shooting an extraordinary 22 of 28 from the floor: 78.6 percent. That’s plenty mindboggling (they went 22 of 27 or 81.5 percent from the line). All the John Thompson teams from this era were renowned for their swarming defense. They were as advertised here, forcing the Wildcats into 17 turnovers! (And 28 field goal attempts in a 40-minute basketball game is not a lot, folks.) Nova just made everything. It was nearly the case that on each possession in this game, Rollie Massimino’s team either scored the ball or threw it away. I’ve never seen an offensive performance quite like it.

• This was the last game of the “No Shot Clock” era; the NCAA went to a 35-second clock the next season. Villanova never went to a four corners against Georgetown but the Wildcats were extremely deliberate on offense (in part because they were throwing it away or having it stolen with such frequency — on account of the defensive pressure). At one point in the second half, CBS flashed a stat on the screen showing “Time of Possession”, the sort of thing you’d see today during a soccer match. I don’t remember this stat from the 1970s or ‘80s, at all. But it was damned relevant here. Villanova basically possessed the ball twice as long as Georgetown did.

• The Cats essentially played this entire game with 5 guys. Massimino started a guard named Dwight Wilbur, who went the first 5 minutes, came out and never returned. (I thought maybe he’d been hurt, but he says otherwise.) Mark Plansky played 1 minute (there were three Plansky brothers from Wakefield, Mass.; I later covered state tournament games involving the younger two). The immortal Chuck Everson played 3 minutes — long enough to get punched in the face by Reggie Williams as the first half ended. This wasn’t some hidden rabbit punch. Everyone saw it, including the TV cameras. No call.

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Azinger primes Ryder Cup grudge pump … Does it matter if he’s wrong?

Tommy Fleetwood mounts Ian Poulter after reclaiming the Ryder Cup for Europe (and its pro tour) in 2018.

Well, here we are again. Every few years it seems some U.S. golfing professional/personality blithely asserts that the U.S. PGA Tour is without peer. Full stop. This invariably gets under the skin of Europeans who, to be fair, have dominated for 25 years the event created specifically to settle this argument: the Ryder Cup. They and their tour have also claimed roughly half the major championships since the turn of the century.

As golf spats go, it’s run of the mill. There are decidedly more important things to ponder these days. But here’s the problem: The Euros have a point while Paul Azinger, this year’s jingoist rock-thrower designate, doesn’t.

And besides: With the Tour on hiatus and the Masters postponed, you’ve got something better to ponder?

All this came to a head, again, late in final round of the Honda Classic, two Sundays ago, March 1. Azinger, himself a major winner and former Ryder Cup captain, assessed on NBC the mindset of Englishman Tommy Fleetwood, who had the chance to birdie the 72nd hole and force a playoff.

“These guys know you can win all you like on that European Tour, the international game and all that, but you have to win on the PGA Tour,” Zinger intoned from on high, in his booth, adding that Lee Westwood was another Englishman on the leaderboard with lots of worldwide wins (44 to be exact) but just two in the U.S. “They know that and I think Tommy knows that. It puts a bit of pressure on Tommy. But this is where they want to be. They want to come here, they want to prove they can win at this level.”

Lookit: Azinger’s job, or part of it, is to ratchet up the stakes on a Sunday afternoon. It’s also his job to pimp the U.S. PGA Tour (more on that later).

But the Euro response was swift, pointed and, it must be said, pretty spot on. Ian Poulter tweeted: “Paul please do not condescend or disrespect the @EuropeanTour and our players like that. We have slapped your arse in the Ryder Cup for so long.” Westwood himself called the comments “disrespectful”. The winning Ryder Cup captain from 2018, Dane Thomas Bjorn, called them “at best ignorant; at worst, arrogant.” Rory McIlroy, who, like Poulter, now makes his home in Florida, had this to say: “His comments were a little nationalistic,” McIlroy said.

Poulter’s fellow Englishman, Tyrell Hatton, put a bow on all of them a week later by winning the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill.

Azinger, like many members and backers of the PGA Tour through the years, continues to confuse the wealth of a tour for the quality of a tour. Prize money is greater at U.S. PGA Tour events — this is what lures players like McIlroy, Martin Kaymer, Justin Rose, Poulter, Hatton and Fleetwood to play so many events here, to maintain homes here, to even join the U.S. PGA Tour in order to compete for all that money.

But bigger purses and better-heeled corporate sponsors do not make the preponderance of U.S. pros any better than those competing for smaller purses on the European Tour. That was mere theory in the 1990s, but it’s more or less an established fact today — one American golfers and commentators more or less refuse to acknowledge. For whatever reason, the European Union is turning out as many if not more, better tournament golfers today than the United States. The Ryder Cup proves it. The major championships prove it. For his part, young Tommy Fleetwood — with his 5 European Tour wins, his breakout performance at the 2018 Ryder Cup, his top 10 world ranking — fairly well embodies it.

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Bernie, Biden & DNC ennui all obscure the point: Get out the vote

Now that Bernie Sanders has been rebuffed and a credible centrist path forward has been laid for Democratic voters, I just want to say: 1) Don’t think for a minute there is anything inevitable about Joe Biden’s nomination; 2) I’m all in for whoever earns that nomination; and 3) I have real reservations about propping up today’s Democratic Party beyond Nov. 3.

Clearly, the only sensible thing for Democrats to do over the next four months is go get the vote out. In such hyper-polarized times, this makes more sense than you may realize. More on that in a moment.

Because a funny thing happened on the way to this new, hastily constructed Biden consensus: In the 3 weeks between the N.H. Primary and Super Tuesday, I along with millions of left-leaning Americans were all obliged to come to terms with the idea of Bernie Sanders leading us into the arena against Trump.

We did this for several reasons. Biden on the stump in 2020 is rather corpse-like (with a verbal dexterity to match); Bernie had dominated him and the other centrists in the field. Following the victory in Nevada, Bernie was clearly the front-runner. Suddenly, in the space of 3 weeks, it had all become very real.

The last Republican I voted for was Bill Weld (when he ran for Massachusetts governor in 1990), a fact that doesn’t make me a liberal firebrand. I never voted for Nader, nor any Green candidates. Obama was probably more cautiously centrist than I’d have liked. But I did vote for Sanders during Tuesday’s Maine primary. Having rationally gone through his platform — over and over again, often beside scandalized centrists in need of reassurance — I did come to terms with the good sense it largely represents. The polls that show him faring as well or better vs. Trump in November didn’t hurt.

It tickles me to hear moderate Dems and conservatives (who have resisted the snake-oil charms of our president) detail their fear of and disdain for the “crazy left-wing” ideas advocated by Sen. Sanders. “Wacky” is another word they use. When pressed for examples, Medicare for All always heads the list — despite the fact that expansion of this existing U.S. program is essentially the operative model for nationalized healthcare systems in every industrialized nation on Earth but ours. Mind you, these are models that all deliver care for less cost per citizen than the private system now deployed here. In other words, not crazy.

[Free public college education usually comes next: “Another socialist fantasy!” Oh yeah? From 1945 to 1980, this country essentially had a public university and community college system that was so affordable as to verge on free. Tuition was so minimal it could be dispatched via summer jobs and winter-spring vacation gigs — that is, until we made the conscious, Reagan-enabled decision to stop socializing the cost of such things. Today, a year at UMass costs $30,000. “Oh, and you’re just gonna forgive all that student debt I suppose?” Yeah, I would. It’s crippling the middle-class striving of 70 million Millennials. And seeing as colleges (for-profit and otherwise) cynically pocketed all those Pell Grant billions, leaving these consumers holding the bag, some manner of redress is warranted. The Green New Deal? Yeah, it’s such a whack-job, pinko fantasy that the European Union — a common market representing 300 million consumers — just this week declared a target of net-zero carbon by 2050 and halving emissions by 2030. The outcry there? It’s not aggressive enough. Bernie’s agenda is typical of centrist and center-left governments across the industrialized world in Europe and Asia. Three weeks of coming to terms with his front-runner status made this plain. Not. Wacky. At. All.]

Yet something else happened when I walked through all this, over and over again, trying to explain how electing Bernie Sanders wouldn’t destroy the Democratic Party and this country: I questioned anew what it was about the Democratic Party in 2020 that was so worth preserving.

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