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That Night a Mouth Roared and a Light Went Out

 

Like many others that fateful night 37 years ago, Dec. 8, 1980, I learned of John Lennon’s death from Howard Cosell. Yeah, that Howard Cosell. It was Monday night, the Patriots were in Miami, and, in 1980, Howard was still presiding — in his inimitably pedantic, overly dramatic fashion — over Monday Night Football, what in the pre-cable era was the week’s premier sports broadcasting event. Howard was respectful of the news, as respectful as his bombastic persona would allow: He treated it as he would a punt returner who has broken clear of the pack with only the kicker to beat. See that bizarre media moment, preserved for all time, here. ESPN would later weigh in with a meta-media doc, here.

My dad and I always watched MNF and we were stunned, naturally. It was legitimately stunning news delivered by a most unlikely source, in a peculiar context. The Pats’ left-footed, English place kicker — John Smith (from Leafield, Oxfordshire) — was lining up a field goal attempt when Cosell abruptly altered the narrative. The only thing that would’ve made it more bizarre? If Smith had hailed from Blackburn, Lancashire.

We called my mother into the room. She was the founding and still chief Beatles lover in our family, and John was clearly her favorite. She was 41 in 1980, essentially the same age as John Lennon. She had latched onto them from the start; indeed, my dad had teased her for digging a band whose enthusiasts were, at that stage, mainly 13- and 14-year-old girls. But my mom possesses a keen musical sensibility and her early support for their chops were more than justified in the years to come… She teared up listening to Cosell bloviate then left the room.

Not sure why, but the holiday period tends to include a lot of Beatles content on PBS. Just last week I saw that Ron Howard’s “Eight Days a Week” was featured, along with something called “Sgt. Pepper’s Musical Revolution”, as part of a fundraiser. All these years later, the Beatles are considered subject matter for the whole family, apparently. If you should get the chance, make time this month to watch the superb documentary “LENNONYC”, about his post-Beatles years in New York City (I saw it on PBS, but today you can catch it online, here). It was an eventful decade that followed hard on the band’s break-up, in 1970. For Lennon it featured a gaggle of outsized characters and spanned a remarkable procession of music-making, protesting, drug-taking, deportation-resisting, legal wrangling, breaking up, getting back together, child-rearing and, ultimately, growing up. That was the message one took away at film’s close: Here was a guy who had finally shed the latent adolescence of rock stardom and become a man, in his own right, only to be killed by a psychopath at the exact moment that maturity was to be revealed — his gorgeous new album, “Double Fantasy”, was released on Nov. 17, 1980). I don’t know that it gets much sadder than that.

Candy Nostalgia, Updated Every Oct. 31
Is it possible for candy bars to make comebacks?

Candy Nostalgia, Updated Every Oct. 31

Is it possible for candy bars to make comebacks?

 

One of the great privileges of child-rearing is what I call the Transportation Effect, whereby adults, in playing or otherwise communing with their kids in an appropriately committed fashion, are transported back to a time in their own lives when, say, erecting the most efficient Hot Wheels match-race scheme was about the most engrossing thing imaginable.

Halloween, of course, with its attendant masquerading and confectionary trappings, transports like few other phenomena. A couple years back my fully transported mother actually demonstrated apple-bobbing to my children, full dunk and all — something she never did for my benefit during the umpteen Halloweens of my own childhood. But the point is taken: Hayrides, costumes, haunted houses, pumpkin carving… They’re all transcendentally nostalgic acts.

But they’re all secondary to the candy.

As I re-entered the Halloween scene in earnest, thanks to the growth of my young children (Silas and Clara, now 21 and 19), I was awed by the spring of candy knowledge that welled up inside me, from places deep in my subconscious. Several years back, when walking with my children Halloween night (and scamming as much candy as was reasonable for an adult), one couldn’t help but notice the surprising re-emergence of, for example, the Clark bar, that peanutty, soft-but-crunchy Butterfinger forebear. After plucking one from a neighbor’s bowl, I stood there on the street and stared wistfully at the little red package and nearly shed a tear — not because it was so very fun sized (an execrable euphemism; more on that later), but because I remembered a time when Clarks were “right there”, a legitimate option in the full-sized, 10-cent category at J&A’s in downtown Wellesley, Mass., circa 1974.

“What’s this Clark thing?” Silas asked me, without a scintilla of guile… Poor lad. He had no idea.

It’s this sort of benignly ignorant prompt that sends me winging back in time. Indeed, my kids’ questions serve as able catalysts. We were in Cloutier’s, a local convenience story, the other day when Silas, the more adventurous eater of the two, pointed to the Charleston Chews and expressed curiosity.

What’s this? Never had a Charleston Chew? Well, that won’t do.

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With All-Cover Encores, The Feelies Advance State of the Art

Click photo to hear The Feelies pay homage to Jimi Hendrix during their encore at The Sinclair in Cambridge, Mass., Oct. 14, 2017.

Nerd rockers The Feelies played The Sinclair in Cambridge over the weekend, and for all the band’s laudable work churning out two solid sets, it was the encore that left the greater impression. This is perhaps by design, from a band that does encores like no one else and whose 21st century incarnation just happens to have played out like one long, extended encore.

Formed in 1976, this Hoboken 5-piece achieved a modest commercial success and sizeable cult following (comprising not insignificant numbers of Velvet Underground devotees) during the 1980s on the strength of four superb studio albums. Eventually it would break up (1992), re-form (2008), go out on limited tour (trademark diffidence in tow) and eventually release two new discs, including this year’s In Between.

And yet I come before you not to reflexively extoll the virtues of The Feelies sound — which I love, but about which reasonable people can disagree — but rather to applaud the remarkable structure of their shows. We’re all familiar with the two-sets-plus-appended-encore format of most club dates. Here The Feelies do not break any molds. When it comes to the content of those encores, however, they deviate from the norm to stirring effect.

I’ve long maintained that any band (even one whose original music I can’t get enough of) should be obligated, by law, to play at least one cover during a live show. Covering someone else’s material exhibits range; it provides insight into a band’s outside influences, tastes and admirations. It is at once self-effacing and evidence of a certain kind of bravado.

In this respect, The Feelies consistently hit it out of the park and they do it with an emotional intensity they don’t always apply to their originals. After playing not a single cover during the first two sets at The Sinclair, they re-emerged to produce their specialty: the rare all-cover encore, a half dozen tunes that, taken together, provide a veritable window on the band’s soul:

• Astral Plane, The Modern Lovers

Paint It Black, Rolling Stones

I Can’t Stand It, Velvet Underground

Got to Get You Into My Life, The Beatles

Real Cool Time, The Stooges

Damaged by Love, Tom Petty

See No Evil, Television

Are You Experienced?, Jimi Hendrix

I watched this show with a couple certifiable Feelies Freaks who admitted afterward the two formal sets had come off as a bit labored. The band played a bunch of new material from In Between (i.e. songs still to be polished in the live setting) and while they nailed plenty of oldies from Time For a Witness, Crazy Rhythms and The Good Earth, there wasn’t exactly a surfeit of energy up there. Of course, with The Feelies, stage histrionics are not what they’re selling. In any case, once the encore kicked off, they summoned reservoirs of new life. Even Glenn Mercer, the famously cadaverous and impassive lead singer/guitarist, perked up; mid-Stooges, after two sets of studied catatonia, he could be seen bouncing about the stage and rubbing his guitar against the mic stand.

I don’t know of any other bands that deliver all-cover encores (aside from those who do nothing but covers). In some small way, The Feelies are innovating here — which is ironic, for in most every other respect, they have stubbornly refused to evolve. When Yo La Tengo debuted with Ride the Tiger in 1985, these two Jersey-derived bands could easily have been mistaken for one another — a pair of similarly skilled, post-punk, Velvet-obsessed, art-house darlings. Yo La Tengo actually has a thing for covers, too. But while YLT moved on (issuing a dozen increasingly expansive, sonically adventurous albums), The Feelies have never abandoned their own specific brand of jangly, guitar-driven avant-pop, proving just how much there is to mine from such a seemingly constrictive niche.

And you know what? Their encore habits further demonstrate their desire to cling just as tightly to their earliest influences. Today, of course, there are websites devoted entirely to the fan-chronicling of set lists, even those performed by obscure bands from the 1980s. The Sinclair show has not yet been logged for all time, but here we gather from www.setlist.fm a further sampling of encore tunes from The Feelies’ Detroit show at The El, in July:

Dancing Barefoot, Patti Smith

White Light, White Heat, Velvet Underground

I’m a Believer, Neil Diamond (The Monkees didn’t write this, silly)

Everyone’s Got Something but Me and My Monkey, The Beatles (or this one)

• Child of the Moon, Rolling Stones

Take It As It Comes, The Doors

Seven Days, Bob Dylan

I’ve seen The Feelies three times now, all post 2008, and I just love the way these guys deploy their encore/cover strategy to paint for the audience (and re-experience for themselves) a rich picture of their collective musical tastes circa 1978, when the band was just getting going, young and impressionable. This gambit functions additionally as an ingenious audience-engagement strategy, for everyone at The Sinclair was at least as old as I am (53), and who in their 50s doesn’t want to hear one of their favorite bands cover Television, or Patti Smith? And I find this sorta touching: The Feelies rarely leave out the Beatles and Stones — because, honestly, how could anyone, even the most overly curated latent punk aesthete, come of age in the early 1970s and completely resist their many, many charms? After all, when The Feelies were coming up, 1969 just wasn’t that long ago.

What sort of new music are The Feelies into these days? The Lord only knows. If the contents of their encores are any guide, the answer is “not much”. They knew Tom Petty has recently passed away —  evidence of a basic musical awareness. Otherwise, the course of modern rock these last 25 years would appear to have made little to no impression on their song choices. They’re a band whose predilections and influences, like their own sound (even today), remain frozen in amber. And it’s hard not to love them for it.

Dugmar GC: The Curious Story of a Golf Course Submerged

Dugmar GC: The Curious Story of a Golf Course Submerged

Dugmar Golf Club, from above, circa 1931.

The Swift River started rising in the rural Massachusetts town of Greenwich on Aug. 14, 1939, and soon enough the fairways at Dugmar Golf Club had become unseasonably soggy. After a time the layout’s bunkers and teeing grounds were completely submerged, and had the pins not been removed years before, their flags would have been some of the last things visible before this 9-hole track and the rest of Greenwich were lost for good.

It’s been 68 years since Greenwich and three neighboring bergs were systematically condemned and flooded, all in the name of Metropolitan Boston’s chronic thirst. This massive, Depression-Era public works project created the Quabbin Reservoir, then the largest man-made, fresh-water reserve on earth.

The Lost Towns, as they’re known today, were literally erased by the Quabbin’s introduction; every tree, every man-made structure in the Swift River Valley was burned or bulldozed to make way for it. The river itself having been dammed, the water rose behind it for seven long years, until 1946, when it first lapped over the reservoir’s massive spillways.

By then Dugmar GC had been largely forgotten. Except that you can’t erase memories.

Other layouts have been lost to history, of course. Some have simply been abandoned; others were sold off to make way for post-war suburbia. But so far as we know, Dugmar GC — opened for play in 1928 — was the only golf course to meet its end in a purposeful deluge, sacrificed (along with four 200-year-old communities) to supply tens of millions of faucets in larger communities some 60 miles away.

Hundreds of golf clubs were built, as Dugmar had been, during the heroic age of Jones and Ruth as the moneyed classes sought to bring the same sort of bravado to their own lives (not to mention a place to imbibe in a country gone dry). More than a few of these establishments went under during The Depression, but none quite like (nor quite so literally as) Dugmar Golf Club, for unlike their unwitting, high-living contemporaries, Dugmar’s developers KNEW the club’s fate before the course was ever built — before the bentgrass was imported from southern Germany, before the elegant stone patio was laid beside the farmhouse-turned-clubhouse, before the first crate of Canadian Club was hidden from view.

It was a set up. A land deal with golf at its core. A trifle built to amuse its backers, for a time, then enrich them at the public’s expense. “Those guys knew what they were doing; they made out,” realls a chuckling, 85-year-old Stanley Mega, who caddied at Dugmar GC and still lives close by Quabbin’s shores, in Bondsville. “They knew the reservoir was going in and they made a killing.”

In essence, Dugmar GC was conceived and ultimately proved to be the world’s first and only disposable golf course.

•••

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How Gene Michael and the Post-Miracle Mets Built a Red Sox Fan

I’ve got work to do, but here I am getting misty writing about Gene Michael — a New York Yankee no less! But his passing last week jolted me back to a time when my baseball allegiances were new and muddled thanks to the insistent, dulcet tones of  Lindsay Nelson, Ralph Kiner and Bob Murphy.

I was born in Stoughton, Massachusetts in 1964. Soon enough my father’s corporate work life moved our family to New Jersey, then to California, and then, in 1969, back to the northern Jersey suburb of Upper Montclair. It was here, in the mammoth penumbra cast by the New York City sporting scene, that I first took a shine to baseball. Yeah, I played it in the streets of Waterbury Road, and I collected baseball cards, but this is when I first started watching games en masse, in the early 1970s, via WPIX Channel 11 (Yankees) and WOR Channel 9, where Mets broadcasters Nelson, Kiner and Murphy plied their trade.

My family would move to suburban Boston in 1973, and there my dad would chuck his corporate odyssey for some stability, in a town my parents were loath to leave. That move meant I could, from that point forward, seamlessly pass myself off as a legitimately rabid Sox fan with impeccable historic and geographic credentials.

But that would be a lie.

The first teams I truly learned and observed closely were the Yankees and Mets of the early 1970s, and that’s why I was moved by thoughts of Gene Michael, the Yanks’ light-hitting glove man at shortstop. (He and Baltimore’s Mark Belanger were pretty good comps.) Not every game was televised back then but many were and I watched the man called Stick play dozens and dozens of them beside second baseman Horace Clarke, behind pitchers Doc Medich, Fritz Peterson and Steve Kline, taking cut-offs from Bobby Murcer and Roy White… New York was a terrible team at this time. It confused my 7-year-old brain that the Yankees had, apparently, been so dominant once — but had come to suck so bad.

Convenient to my eventual Sox fandom, I much preferred Bud Harrelson’s Mets to Michael’s Yankees. I don’t remember the Miracle Mets of 1969. But I did enjoy those NYM teams of the early 1970s, and any mention of Gene Michael, or Dave Schneck, or Thurman Munson or Tommy Agee summons the memory of just how hard and quickly a 7-year-old boy can fall for the game.

I watched those shitty Yankee teams because they were the only thing on.

But I developed a real attachment to those Mets.

Let me say right here that no Google has been deployed in the writing of this blog item. As such, here’s the whole Met team from 1973, the guys who nipped St. Louis and a great Pirates team (World Series champs in ‘71) to win the old Eastern Division (with just 82 wins!) before handling the 99-win Big Red Machine to capture the NL pennant: Jerry Grote and Duffy Dyer at catcher; the inimitable and original Met Ed Kranepool at first; Felix Milan and Ken Boswell platooning at second; feisty Bud Harrelson at short; Wayne Garrett at third; John Milner, Don Hanh and my favorite Met of all, Cleon Jones, patrolling the Shea Stadium outfield.

In the field, this was a pretty darned different team from the shock World Series champions of ’69. Only Harrelson, Kranepool and maybe Grote held over from Miracle Mets. But the pitching was a constant and it was Seaver, Matlack and Koosman who made the Mets of this entire era so very formidable. Just to shore things up, a young Tug McGraw closed. And who did the Mets pick up late in 1973 to give them a bit o’ pop? Only a 40-year-old Willie Mays and Le Grande Orange, Rusty Staub.

Still, come October, those Mets were not expected to trouble the Oakland A’s, a dynasty at its peak. But what a series I watched from my new home in Boston in the fall of 1973, surrounded by people who could’ve cared less. The Mets went down valiantly, in 7 games, after having led the series 3-2. Lefthander Kenny Holtzman didn’t just win the finale; he got the big hit off opposing starter Jon Matlack to turn the tide. Bert Campaneris hit a home run to seal it. I was mighty disappointed.

The ’73 Series would prove the end of contention for this generation of Mets; the club would fall into disarray before regrouping in time to put a stake through my heart in October 1986. Gene Michael would retire in 1975 (right before the Yankees got good again), manage the Cubs, and eventually serve in the thankless role of Yankees GM under George Steinbrenner. Stick would hold his nose long enough to build the great Yankee teams of the late 1990s.

And now he is gone, another withered petal on my fading flower of youth…

Flashback: Removing the Splinter

This August 2002 essay appeared in the Portland Press-Herald, to which I contributed op-ed columns from 2000-2003. It should have made me famous, frankly: The next season, my theory having been realized, Boston took the Yankees to 7 games before falling in the American League Championship Series; in 2004, they came back from a 3-0 deficit to slay those same Yankees and defeat their other cosmic nemesis, the St. Louis Cardinals, to win the 2004 World Series… While it’s plenty clear the Sox were not destined to win a World Series while The Kid still walked the earth, it’s not clear that Sox fortunes depended entirely on him being properly laid to rest, as is posited here. Indeed, it’s not clear that Ted Williams has ever been afforded the opportunity to rest in peace. That said, his son, John Henry, whose fault that limbo is, certainly got his. He died in March 2004, from leukemia.

By Hal Phillips

I never saw Ted Williams play; late thirtysomethings (like me) never had the chance. All we got were gilt-edged glimpses: the triumphant but out-of-context film clip, the seemingly staged black-and-white photo, the hyper-reverent musings of our elders.

Yet the shadow Teddy cast over New England was so large that it hardly mattered. Heroic figures like The Kid transcend generation gaps.

Indeed, for as long as I can remember, I’ve coveted a Red Sox away jersey — not the ‘70s-era pajama tops of my youth, but the genuine flannel article from well before my time. From Ted’s time. When my darling wife delivered on this wish last Christmas, the number choice was a no-brainer: 9.

He touched all of us, regardless of age.

Yet perhaps my lack of first-hand exposure allows me to examine his recent passing with a more clear, spiritually acute eye. As his children fight over the fate of his remains, and the corporal Kid remains in limbo, I think it’s important that we ask ourselves this question: Are the Sox better off now that Ted Williams is gone?

You may find my premise obsequious in its optimism, or perversely macabre, perhaps a tad heretical. But hear me out.

The numbers don’t lie. The seminal digits which should be flashing across the beleaguered eyes of Red Sox Nation this summer are “1918-2002”. Those are the years The Kid bestrode the Earth, of course. However, these same dates also measure with excruciating accuracy the span of Boston’s World Series drought… Coincidence? If so, it’s a real doozie — even by the wacky standards of numerology.

Is it possible that Harry Frazee’s selling of The Babe has been a mere front, a convenient explanation of Boston’s sad championship void thereafter? Shouldn’t we at least consider possible corollaries — namely, that until Ted Williams and his outsized, symbolically fraught persona joined the hereafter, his beloved Sox were cosmically doomed to underachieve?

In this, The Age of Irony, it’s worth exploring. If on some agnostic level we accept as valid The Curse of the Bambino — wherein The Sox cosmically endure pain on account of Babe Ruth’s salary dump — we should also ponder the possibility that those same Sox will prosper now that the Splinter has been removed from our collective foot (or soon will be, if his offspring will get with the program).

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Professor Nat Greene: Come on Down!

The inimitable Bob Barker, flanked by “Price is Right” eye candy Janice Pennington (left) and Anitra Ford.

As yours probably does, my alma mater hits me all too frequently with some manner of e-newsletter cum fund-raising communiqué. One can hardly escape the memories stirred/jarred by all this WesContact, which is surely the way they want it. In any case, a recent MailChimp morsel revealed, among other things, that three Wesleyan faculty had received The Binswanger Prize for Excellence in Teaching. While this particular tidbit proved interesting enough to peruse, I’m only now addressing the nostalgia it prompted — immersed as I am, third party, in the college experience of both my kids.

The first thing to say is that my cohort and I attended Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn., alongside an actual Binswanger — Benjamin Pennypacker Binswanger to be exact. Never knew him but my housemates and I made note of his titanically pretentious name the first week of school freshman year and never forgot it — never tired of mocking it, either. Always wondered if he was related to Princeton’s Jay Binswanger, winner of the first Heisman Trophy…

Wesleyan Professor Nat Greene

More to the point, Nat Greene was one of these recent Binswanger honorees. I took a couple classes with him at Wes, but the first was a survey of European history 1815-1945, and I remember it best because it was the only one I ever took with my housemate Dennis Carboni, an art history major whose course load never again overlapped with mine (classical history/modern American lit).

Greene didn’t necessarily tilt the material toward “social” history, an approach then sweeping uber-liberal bastions like Wesleyan. His hewed more to the traditional “Great Men, Great Events” approach. I remember the syllabus included a book of his own scholarship, “From Versailles to Vichy: The Third French Republic, 1919–1940”, which a) struck me at the time as being pretty awesome, that this guy was teaching from his own work; and b) still resides in a bookcase somewhere here in my house, for reasons completely bewildering to my wife. An entertaining lecturer and no-nonsense grader of essays (all testing was conducted via manic, long-hand scribbling in those little blue booklets), Greene was a fine professor — the sort I hope Silas and Clara will experience at some point in their academic careers.

But here’s what I remember most from my class with Nat Greene: It ran from 10 to 10:50 on Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings in the old PAC building (a few steps from the manhole where we plunged down into Wesleyan’s famous tunnel system, the subject of another remembrance perhaps). If Dennis and I didn’t dawdle after class, we could race home to my off-campus apartment and catch The Price Is Right at 11 a.m.

Yes, The Price Is Right. It became a sort of ironic obsession for me but something more than that for Dennis, as many things did. It gave me great pleasure to watch him obsessively game this once-seminal game show.

I’m not sure that college kids go in for this sort of thing today, awash as they are in video content and on-demand entertainment delivery choices. However, during the early 1980s, TV was a sort of novel diversion for college kids. We had grown up with it, of course, but had virtually no access to it at school. And so, great delight was taken in the ironic devotion to retrograde programming like soap operas in dorm lounges and late-night reruns of shows like the Rockford Files and Star Trek — things we would never bother watching when home with our families. My sophomore year, my housemate and I came by a tiny black-and-white TV that I’m pretty sure we carried with us the next three years, to three different houses, deploying along the way a staggering array of make-shift aerials including one that involved a pumpkin wrapped in tin foil.

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Take your political temp with an awesome new game!

 

Neo-Hegelian idealist philosopher, educator and fascist Giovanni Gentile. It was he, not Mussolini, who explained, “Fascism should more appropriately be called corporatism because it is a merger of state and corporate power.”

Hey, Kids! Time to play a fun and revealing new game we’re calling, “You Might Be a Fascist!” Follow along and respond. If you’re not careful, you may learn something about yourself before we’re done (!).

Here we go. Complete this statement with candor: When Hillary Clinton conceded the election on Nov. 9, 2016, did you think her speech and the tone of that speech…

  1. Displayed respect for our country’s centuries-old traditions re. the peaceful, orderly succession of power?
  2. Stood in contrast to the concession speech her opponent would not commit to making had the tables been turned (“I will totally accept the results of this great and historic presidential election — if I win.”)?
  3. Didn’t impress me one way or another?
  4. Revealed her to be weak?

If you answered 4, you MIGHT be a fascist!

Here’s another one: When then president-elect Trump claimed on Twitter that, contrary to all demonstrable evidence, he actually won the popular vote because millions of people voted illegally for his opponent, your gut reaction was:

  1. Authoritarians typically exaggerate their popular support to increase the perception of their legitimacy, for the deeper objective is to weaken democratic institutions that invariably limit their power.
  2. Actively eroding confidence in voting and elections (to say nothing of representative bodies and establishment media) gives would-be authoritarians a freer hand to wield power.
  3. Hell yeah! And that bitch was clearly behind all that voter fraud — and the child sex ring, plus all those murders. Lock her up before she kills again.

That’s right, if you answered 3, you’re almost certainly a fascist. (You’re getting really good at this! To think that only 15 months ago, you fancied yourself a mere Libertarian!)

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Welsh golf exceeds the hype, in unexpected ways
The 11th at Royal St. David's (photo courtesy of Brandon Tucker/WorldGolf.com)

Welsh golf exceeds the hype, in unexpected ways

Royal St. David’s Golf Club and its singular Welsh backdrop, Harlech Castle

 

The British Open is nearly underway, and naturally there are myriad reasons to visit the U.K. with your golf clubs and, well, none of them have much to do with the British Open or any of the courses that host the Open Championship. Look at Wales, which is right next door to Birkdale (to all of England, to be honest) and the Open has never been held there. Yet the golf up and down the northwestern Welsh coast is outstanding. What’s more, when you venture into this section of the British Isles, you enter a region so remote, so removed from modern resort and tournament conventions, that a golf journey there feels almost, well… Arthurian.

Indeed, a hefty chunk of the King Arthur legend is Welsh, drawn from early poetic sources such as Y Gododdin that are, like the Welsh language itself, pre-Christian. The Druids, the priestly class of the class, considered the Welsh island of Anglesey sacred, and this ancient, mystical feeling still pervades the country’s dark hollows, its untamed coastline, even its trees (The Celts thought them sacred, you know).

Here’s an example of how this world and the modern golfing world can interact:

About 15 years ago my girlfriend, Sharon, who would later become my wife, and I went to visit friends in Market Drayton, Shropshire, just over the Welsh border, in England, and not far from Birmingham. In fact, I was there on assignment, writing a travel piece re. where to play in the Midlands while attending the 1995 Ryder Cup (and we can see what sort of promotional effect that story had; when was the last time you heard of anyone visiting Edgbaston, Beau Desert or Hawkstone Park?).

Anyway, we decided to head west a couple hours, over the Welsh border to seaside Harlech, home to Royal St. David’s Golf Club. I had written a letter to the club secretary requesting the courtesy of the club (remember letters?), and he had kindly obliged. Still, we arrived in coat and tie, ready for an audience and perhaps a drink in the bar before teeing off.

Now, Sharon was a pretty rank novice at this stage. She had her own clubs and arrived at the club looking pretty darned smart in a turtleneck and one of my vintage sport jackets with the sleeves rolled up (remember the ‘90s?). Still, the club secretary was dubious. I don’t know whether he suspected her inexperience (none of us had handicap cards), or he was merely a mild sexist when it came to sheilas playing the course. Whatever the case, he followed us to the first tee to witness our inaugural drives. I’m not sure who was made more nervous by this, Sharon or myself, but she drilled one right down the middle about 230 yards and off we went. Come to think of it, that may have been the day I decided she was the one…

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The 1931 U.S. Open: Golf’s very own Bataan Death March

George von Elm (left) and Billy Burke, combatants in the longest U.S. Open every contested..

The next time you play a round of golf in some modicum of heat and humidity, the next time you trudge up the 18th fairway and feel a bit of lactic acid building up in your thighs, spare a thought for Billy Burke and George Von Elm. These were the unflinching principals in the most extraordinary physical and competitive test golf has ever seen: the 1931 U.S. Open, held some 86 Julys ago at The Inverness Club in Toledo, Ohio.  As the central characters in what Grantland Rice called “the most sensational open ever played in the 500-year history of golf,” Burke and Von Elm required 144 holes of medal play to produce a winner: Burke, by a single stroke.

Take a moment to think about the parameters here: 72 holes contested over the first three days, followed by 36 playoff holes on Monday and 36 more on Tuesday. Waged in the midst of a stifling, July heat wave — in an era devoid of fitness trailers, cushioned in-soles, and air-conditioned clubhouses — this match was golf’s precursor to the Bataan Death March. It was and remains, needless to say, the longest playoff in U.S Open history. Supreme Court cases have taken less time to adjudicate.

Or so it appeared during the morning round on Tuesday, July 6, 1931, as Burke and Von Elm — with 126 holes behind them and 18 still to negotiate — staggered off the 18th green toward the clubhouse for lunch. Even the most callow observer could see the quality of play eroding, quite understandably, under the enormous dual burdens of fatigue and Open-playoff pressure.

Yet Burke rallied to play his finest golf of the tournament over the final 18 holes. Von Elm, too, rose to the occasion and finished a single shot in arrears.

“I looked for a rather ghastly finish to a grand struggle,” wrote O.B. Keeler in The American Golfer. “Instead it was, and ever shall remain in my mind, the most remarkable exhibition of recovered stamina and poise and of sheer staying power and determination I have ever witnessed.”

Legend says that Von Elm, a lithe figure with little to lose, shed nine pounds during the championship, while the stocky Burke managed to gain two. “A circumstance,” Keeler mused, “which, if accurate, gives rise to wonder as to his diet.”

Read on to sort through, with me, the fascinating details of this extraordinary championship, staged 80-plus years ago this summer by two fascinating figures whose stories have been obscured by time, during a period when American golf was wildly popular but still adjusting to the loss of its first truly dominant figure.

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The 1931 Open was the first since 1920 without one Bobby Jones in the field.

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