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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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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.”

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“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.

SI Memories, Developmental & Professional, Come Thick & Fast

The late-2017 sale of Sports Illustrated, TIME Magazine and other titles to Meredith Publishing, a deal made possible by an infusion of $650 million from Koch Industries’ private-equity arm, has elicited both howls of indignation (from those who fear the further right-wing weaponization of information) and an ongoing hail of gauzy nostalgia — from those who grew up loving SI and fear the sale will only further its fall from a decades-long perch atop the sports media food chain.

Here I will indulge in the latter, because I’d been meaning to post the above story in some way, shape or form ever since my friend Jammin’ ran across it last September. SI was not merely a staple of my young reading life (along with The Boston Globe’s superb sports section) — it was where I started my freelance-writing career. Indeed, this was my very first freelance piece, full stop. It warms the cockles of my heart to see it lovingly preserved online in flipbook fashion deep in something called the SI Vault… Alas, that version has been disappeared. Copy and paste this URL and you can find it more conventional online form: https://www.si.com/vault/1997/10/27/233677/small-wonder-the-dunes-club-our-pick-as-the-best-nine-hole-course-in-the-country-is-twice-the-challenge-of-most-18-hole-layouts#]

By 1997, when this piece was published (Oct. 27 issue), I had spent some 10 years as a working journalist, first for a collection of weekly and daily newspapers in Massachusetts, then as editor of Golf Course News, a national business journal published here in Maine (indeed, taking that job brought me to Maine). Nineteen ninety-seven was also year I left GCN to start Mandarin Media, Inc., with the secondary intention freelancing more in earnest. The ensuing years would see my work appear in pretty much every major North American golf and travel magazine (several of which still exist!). That effort started here, with this Sports Illustrated feature.

I had pitched the magazine a piece ranking the best 9-hole golf courses in America, but, as often happens in the freelance milieu, the story ended up being something quite different: a feature on Mike Keiser and his 9-hole masterpiece, The Dunes Club, with a sidebar detailing the country’s other top 9s. The story itself frankly could have been better. I ended up submitting a finished draft, only to have the editor suggest a major rewrite. This I did, and then the bastard ended up running something that quite closely resembled the original version. Some old stories you read with great pride — this, alas, is not one of those. It feels cautious and dry.

[The sidebar produced a funny moment: When we agreed on this feature and brief ranking alongside, I launched into some lengthy disquisition on how we’d research and tabulate a proper Top 9 Nines list. The editor interrupted me at some point and simply said, “This is SI. We’ll just tell people what we think the Top 9 is.” Such was the power (some would say hubris) of the magazine in those days.]

Despite my failure to reprint this on the 20th anniversary of its publication, the experience was not without its serendipities. For a Boston-bred lad, it was fabulous to be included in any issue with Larry Bird on the cover. What’s more, while I wouldn’t say I discovered Mike Keiser, one would be hard pressed to find earlier coverage of the man, who eventually revolutionized the golf resort business. When I first met him in the spring of 1997, the private, 9-hole Dunes Club was Keiser’s only connection to golf development. Today, having created five award-winning, top-ranked courses in Oregon at Bandon Dunes, he’s had a major hand in developing additional, no-less-heralded, multi-course projects in Nova Scotia (Cabot Links, Cabot Cliffs) and Wisconsin (the new Sand Valley), with another now planned for Scotland. All are links courses fashioned from sandy sites hundreds of miles from the beaten path. Keiser didn’t just build awesome tracks; he proved that American golfers would pay top dollar — and travel to the middle of freakin’ nowhere — to play this type of golf.

I remember sitting in the modest clubhouse at The Dunes Club with Keiser in the summer of 1997, eating hot dogs and conducting our interview when, at some point, he mentioned that he’d just purchased 2,000 acres of coastal property in Oregon, 2 hours west of Eugene and 4-5 south of Portland, where he planned to develop not just one course but a whole complex of them. I thought to myself at the time, “I like this guy but he’s clearly delusional.”

It would not be the last time I mistook vision for delusion.

Our Gallic friends don’t give a fig about the ’18 Ryder Cup… On s’en fout?!

At Morfontaine GC in 2015. That’s the elegant, Mansard-roofed clubhouse in the distance, across the 18th green.

This piece appeared in Cache magazine as part of a 2015 series that examined the best public and private courses to play in prominent metropolitan areas worldwide. This first bit spotlights Paris. It’s coupled with a follow-on bit re. Melbourne that appeared 3 months later. 

The French do not follow, a fact that applies most stringently to their cousins across the Channel. This begins to explain the marked lack of great golf courses (and great players) in a country so big, so populous, so temperate and so blessed with golf-worthy coastline. All that said, France is so hosting the Ryder Cup in 2018, whether we golfers (and the French themselves) like it or not. And while the French may never take to the game en masse, they have provided surprisingly well for golfers visiting the capital any time before or after September’s event.

Let’s first fixate on the Ryder Cup theme (even if the French may not). The host venue, Le Golf National, is nominally private but anyone willing to shell out 120 Euros can get a game there, and what a game. There are 45 holes here but L’ Albatros (that’s “The Albatross” for you non-Francophones) is the preferred 18, a track befitting golf’s biggest team event (it’s also hosted every French Open but two since opening in the early 1990s). Architects Hubert Chesneau and Robert Von Hagge fashioned a flamboyant, 7300-yard beast from what had been a pretty humdrum piece of terrain. For anyone but the old world design purist, there’s plenty to enjoy here: wide landing areas, artificial mounding that renders each hole a golfing pod unto itself, forced carries, and peninsular greens (bounded by wooden retaining walls) jutting out into water hazards. It’s a feast for the modern golfing eye.

The other factors recommending Le Golf National, the next time business takes you to Paris, are convenience and variety. The property is located in suburban Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines, just west of Versaille. What’s more, the secondary 18, L’Aigle (The Eagle), is more of the same good fun, if not quite so stern a test. There’s even a sprightly, 9-hole short course, L’Oiselet (The Birdie), for those with a little extra time, or not quite enough.

Golf de Morfontaine is everything Le Golf National is not. Set aside an entire day for this place, where nothing is rushed and time would appear to have stood still since architect Tom Simpson fashioned this design in the late 1920s, the heart of course architecture’s “Golden Age”. Indeed, it was Simpson (designer of Cruden Bay in Scotland and The Berkshire outside London) who coined this now-hackneyed phrase. In any case, Simpson’s patron at Morfontaine, the 12th duc de Gramont, chose his ground well. This is arguably the best course in continental Europe. It’s also among the most private, meaning it’s THE place to leverage all your best Parisian connections in order to wangle a visit.

What you’ll find, if those connections prove distinguished enough, is a deft cross between the best of London’s heathland tracks (think Sunningdale, where Simpson once renovated the New Course), and Northern California (think Olympic, with its ubiquity of trees and paucity of fairway bunkers). Indeed, the fairway corridors at Morfontaine, while firm and fast (thanks to perfectly sandy soil conditions), are a bit too crowded by massive Scotch pines to truly embody the “heathland” milieu. However, its stupendous putting surfaces, strategic greenside bunkering and elegant routing thoroughly overcome this stylistic impurity.

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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  on whose ass the loss of Dugmar GC was but a pimple, 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 — but not erased, for memories cannot be erased.

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, hard by Curtis Hill — 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 east.

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, in short, a set up: a crafty land deal with golf at its core; a trifle built to amuse its backers, for a time, before enriching them at the public’s expense. “Those guys knew what they were doing; they made out,” recalls 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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Thai Golf: The Buddy Trip Writ Large and Bawdy
Black Mountain Golf Club in Hua Hin.

Thai Golf: The Buddy Trip Writ Large and Bawdy

The stunning clubhouse serving Siam CC’s Plantation Course.

Strolling down the main drag in Pattaya, Thailand, the local clocks ticking toward 11 p.m., I am reminded of the golf destinations we North Americans regard as desirable.

Front and center is the golf component, of course. Normally this is the primary factor in determining quality or desirability. But there’s no denying that packs of (primarily) male golfers generally prize golfing locales for their nightlife, too. Any gaggle of 8-12 golfing buddies will include a few lads determined to rip it up each night, their desires perhaps offset by a few compatriots who’d just as soon play poker in the condo. And so there is equilibrium. Still, it seems the destination must offer some degree of lascivious attraction — if only to get the hard-partying faction on the plane. Think Myrtle Beach and its strip of nightclubs and bars. Think Vegas and its many diversions.

Black Mountain Golf Club in Hua Hin.

I consider the different buddy trips I’ve experienced, in these very locales, and I laugh to myself as another sultry Thai evening obliges me to wipe the beads from my perspiring brow. The Walking Street in Pattaya, ground zero for the city’s famously over-the-top nightlife, frankly makes an evening in Vegas feel like a night in Amish Country.

Blocked to vehicular traffic (save a series of small open-air trucks that continuously circle the downtown area, picking up patrons and dropping them off, for a dollar), Pattaya’s Walking Street stretches several kilometers along the beachfront on the Gulf of Siam. Either side of this thoroughfare is fairly well riddled with some of the craziest nightclub scenes you can possibly imagine. If you’ve never been to Thailand, you will have to imagine it — because you’ve surely never seen anything like it.

This is the primary take-away from my 10 days golfing across Thailand: There is such a breadth of experiences to be had that, after a point, all comparisons tend to pale.

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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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Coats, Ties and Foursomes: Collegiate Golf in the UK

Coats, Ties and Foursomes: Collegiate Golf in the UK

For all the trans-Atlantic DNA we share with our British golfing brethren, it’s easy and, I daresay, somewhat natural to assume that college golf here in the U.S. is pretty much the same as it is over there. Not so.

Top players from the U.K. (and mainland Europe) routinely travel stateside to hone their games at American colleges and universities. Indeed, many of these men, women and their games will be on display later this month (May 19-31) at Rich Harvest GC, site of the 2017 NCAA Championships. But why do they make this trip in such appreciable numbers?

Because collegiate golf in the U.K. — like all college sports there — is decidedly low-key, even compared to the low-stakes Division III golf I played at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn., during the early 1980s.

Yet, for my money, one can place collegiate golf alongside beer and period cinema as something the Brits still do better, with more nuance and panache, than we do. Yes, our universities turn out more tour professionals, but for the majority of college golfers, in both countries, that’s not the aim. It’s about competition and its sensible integration with the game’s social niceties — and no one does that better than the British upper crust, whose ethos dominated my university golfing experience abroad. Coats and ties, foursomes in the morning, singles in the afternoon, and no less than two proper English piss-ups sandwiched between them. You can have your vans, your matching shirts and golf bags. To Yanks, collegiate golf in the U.K. may look and feel more like a club sport, but having played both sides of this fence, I’ll go with the Pommies.

At mighty Wesleyan, a perennial golfing doormat, the exercise we underwent during the ‘80s remains recognizable: Throw on a pair of khakis and a golf shirt; pile into a van and meet a different college team, or two, at the course venue; play 18 holes of medal (maybe match play, on that very rare occasion); shake hands, tally up the scores, pile back into the van and drive home to campus. Big-time Division I golf schools don’t play many dual or tri-matches like these any more, I understand. More often they play various invitational tournaments whereby dozens of schools show up in one place, seven guys from each team play medal, and the best 5 scores count. We did this, too, though only once or twice a season.

Collegiate golf in England during the mid-1980s, when I played for the University of London, was nothing like this. Nothing. For starters, and perhaps most important, we rarely played other schools. Instead, university teams were hosted by golf clubs themselves, which trotted out their best players for a day of intergenerational match play and assorted reverie. Here’s a typical match-day regimen:

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