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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.

[I had some trouble linking this page in the embedded sense. Copy and paste this, should you have the same trouble: 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 dual intention freelancing 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 more closely 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. 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.

Like carrying ‘a Rolls Royce with buckskin seats,’ only lighter…

Late January in the golf realm is traditionally dominated by the PGA Merchandise Show in Orlando. Even if one doesn’t attend (as I did not), industry types and golfers alike are invariably bombarded this time of year by attendent product news, hailing the latest and greatest from all corners of golfdom. I received this morning a press release re. the vaunted Mackenzie Walker. I no longer “carry”, as they say; the ol’ L4/L5 and S1/S2 discs won’t allow it. But I did report on this specific subject once upon a time, for the dearly departed Golf Connoisseur. Glad to see the company (if not the magazine) is still in business.

Considering all our outward reverie for tradition and history, today’s golfers would appear to have very few practical retro options. Yes, we can walk, take a caddie, wear a Hogan cap or perhaps re-attach to our shoes those god-awful kilties. But we don’t see modern players making any truly meaningful throwback gestures, such as forsaking his Pro V1 for a Haskell — or even an Acushnet Club Special. We don’t see them trading micro-fiber for tweed. Yes, Old Tom Morris reportedly made one helluva niblick but the market for one, today, is limited to collectors and hickory-wielding re-enactors.

This is precisely the beauty of the Mackenzie Walker, the all-leather carry bag that was first introduced in the 1980s, fell into obscurity amid a hail of ownership failures but has re-emerged under the aegis of Oregon-based professional Todd Rohrer. It’s a niche market, to be sure, but the sumptuous, hand-sewn Mackenzie bag (which, when slung across your shoulder, feels like a comfortably worn club chair, only not nearly so cumbersome) is beginning to gain traction at some of America’s finest clubs — perhaps as a statement of principal in an ever more titanium-reinforced world.

“Technology makes the game a little more enjoyable, but so does this,” Rohrer says, while gently stroking two new shipments of buttery leather, one in black, the other champagne. “The first bag I make out of this stuff is going to look like a Rolls Royce with buckskin seats.”

The first Mackenzie bag Rohrer ever saw was black. He was managing The Reserve Vineyards & Golf Club in Portland, Oregon; it was the late 1990s, during the Fred Meyer Challenge, “and Peter Jacobsen came walking across the practice green with the coolest black leather Sunday bag I’d ever seen. I was like, ‘Whoa…’ These bags evoke strong emotions. They just make people feel good.”

Jacobsen was an early backer of the Mackenzie phenomenon; indeed, he and his brother, Dave, named the product. Not for Alister, the architect, but for Rick MacKenzie, their caddie during a 1985 trip to Scotland (and now the caddie master at St. Andrews). That was one spelling corruption and several ownership groups ago. Rohrer is the new keeper of the flame (www.mackenziegolfbags.com) and he’s determined to “refine” the bag without messing with it.

“For example, the round ring here at the top of the bag. It used to be a piece of steel we got from Mexico, but through my sewing machine mechanic I found an experienced welder who just happens to sculpt in metal. Now the ring is hand-formed stainless steel and the weld on it is just about a work of art — and you’ll never even see it because we sew it into your bag!”

Ditto for the lighter, 50-gram composite fiber batten (replacing a 675-gram metal frame) that provides the Mackenzie Walker just enough structure, while maintaining its requisite Sunday-bag slouch.

Otherwise the Mackenzie bag remains gloriously low-tech, unchanged and unadorned. No double-helixed nylon straps. No insulated water-bottle receptacle. No special compartments for, well, anything really. They’ll hand-sew you some lovely barrel-style head covers but, outwardly, there will never be more to a Mackenzie Walker than a single strap, a couple pockets and impossibly soft leather.

Okay, a bag stand would be nice. Some day. Maybe.

“We’ve had that conversation,” Rohrer admits, a bit warily. “But if we ever do one, it will be the most damnably elegant bag stand you’ve ever seen.”

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 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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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.

•••

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 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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B-listed by the USGA, Riviera Ponders What Might Have Been

B-listed by the USGA, Riviera Ponders What Might Have Been

 

[This piece was first posted in 2011. It seemed a good time to revisit, with the U.S. Open visiting yet another public course this June… hp]

I suppose we should count our blessings that a magnificent course like Riviera — a 1926 George Thomas design firmly ensconced in all the Top 100 lists that matter — still deigns to host PGA Tour events. As recently as 2001, when Riviera hosted the USGA Senior Open, club ownership was hell bent on securing a U.S. Open. There were multiple regrassings of the greens, which had not fared well during the club’s last major championship engagement, the 1995 PGA Championship, where our lasting image is a ground-level view of Steve Elkington’s winning putt bouncing frantically into our living rooms while traversing a hefty portion of Riviera’s pockmarked 18th green before disappearing into the cup. The 2001 Senior Open was to be Riviera’s chance at redemption, a very public audition for club ownership, tournament organizers and the course itself.

Looking back, the greens held up well enough but attendance was poor and it turns out not to have mattered a lick. The intervening years have witnessed a sea change in the USGA’s attitude toward the siting of its marquee event, and Riviera isn’t much discussed at all when future U.S. Open sites are the subject.

Why? Well, the 2002 Open at Bethpage really changed the way the USGA views itself and the national championship. The PR value of holding the tournament on a truly public course proved an undeniable boon to the USGA’s image and coffers. Crowds were huge, TV ratings soared, merchandize sales went nuts, and the USGA found a truly effective way to fight the impression that golf is game played exclusively by rich guys in bad pants. Private clubs weren’t barred going forward, by any means, but look at the list of Open sites played since 2002 and scheduled through 2017:

2017 – Erin Hills Golf Course, Erin, Wis.

2016 – Oakmont Country Club, Oakmont, Pa.

2015 – Chambers Bay, University Place, Wash.

2014 – Pinehurst No. 2, Pinehurst, N.C.

2013 – Merion Golf Club, Ardmore, Pa.

2012 – Olympic Club, San Francisco

2011 – Congressional Country Club, Blue Course, Bethesda, Md.

2010 – Pebble Beach Golf Links, Pebble Beach, Calif.

2009 – Bethpage State Park, Black Course, Farmingdale, N.Y.

2008 – Torrey Pines Golf Course, South Course, La Jolla, Calif.

2007 – Oakmont (Pa.) Country Club

2006 – Winged Foot Golf Club, Mamoroneck, N.Y.

2005 – Pinehurst Resort and Country Club, No. 2 Course, Village of Pinehurst, N.C.

2004 – Shinnecock Hills Golf Club, Southampton, N.Y.

2003 – Olympia Fields (Ill.) Country Club, North Course

2002 – Bethpage State Park, Black Course, Farmingdale, N.Y.

That’s 16 events, fully half staged at courses the public can play. Bear in mind that the USGA, starting in 1895, didn’t hold the Open at public course other than Pebble Beach until it visited another very expensive resort venue, Pinehurst No. 2, in 1999. The chances of a legitimately great but still private club cracking the rota of courses for Open consideration have literally been halved, and a place like Riviera doesn’t have a prayer.

Of course, there are other considerations when choosing Open venues. The USGA likes geographic diversity; it seeks to move the event around (again, to fight the image that the game is run by northeastern elites). It attempted for many years to find a Midwestern venue that would suffice. Medinah and Olympia Fields were found wanting — enter the public Erin Hills, in Wisconsin, scheduled to debut as host in 2017. The same issue applied to west coast venues (which also afford the USGA and NBC the opportunity to televise, very lucratively, weekend rounds in prime time). Pebble Beach is a natural (and technically public) but it’s interested in hosting only once a decade. This was the opening Riviera was hoping to fill, but instead that tryout went to Torrey Pines in San Diego, in 2008. Then it went to Chambers Bay, yet another muni, in Tacoma, Wash.

There are other aspects to the USGA’s formula. Opens require a vast amount of space these days. Note the presence of multi-course public facilities on this list, allowing onsite parking and space for long rows of hospitality tents and merchandise tents worthy of Barnum & Bailey. At Riviera, squeezed onto a superb but tight piece of ground, densely flanked by fancy homes, the window of opportunity appears to have closed for good.

Feeding the Faithful: Golfing the East Coast of Scotland, by Rail
The estimable Balgownie Course at Royal Aberdeen GC

Feeding the Faithful: Golfing the East Coast of Scotland, by Rail

WHEN GOLF was first conceived, participants arrived at the course on foot or horseback, or, if the company was honourable enough, by carriage. For this reason, it remained for centuries a parochial, largely Scottish pursuit. In the 18th and 19th centuries, however, all of British culture was transformed by an industrial capacity that, among other things, launched a transportation revolution.

Trains would change golf forever.

In particular, completion of the Forth Rail Bridge, in 1890, widely exposed the bounty of Scottish links courses for the first time — to the rest of Britain and ultimately the world, which still marvels.

The advent of train travel did something else: It spurred the development of “new” Scottish links built specifically to accommodate the rail-enabled.

Golf may not have been formulated with trains in mind, but the idea and practice of “golf by rail” shaped and grew the game during the late 19th century, its first true boom period, an age we now drape with garlands like “ancient”, “timeless” and “classic”. The railway made the game what it was, what it remains in the minds of many. Without this transformation, the romantic golfing vintage we so idealize (the one we still travel to Scotland to find) might never have materialized.

Indeed, the very idea of golf travel was born in this time. By 1890, the railways had cozied up to several superb links in the Scottish lowlands. It only made sense: Rail connected population centers, which lay mainly along the coast, close to sea level where terrain was flattest and bed construction easiest. Just a short walk from these new “centre city” train stations lay the common lands, the links, where, for example, in East Lothian, clubs like North Berwick, Muirfield and Gullane already resided. Today they remain as practical to play by train as they did in the 19th century — which is to say, perfectly practical for golfers with a sense of history and adventure.

The Forth Rail Bridge, the world’s first steel span, made this travel scenario a practical reality in Fife, revealing the birthplace of golf to the game’s myriad new zealots.

“As the train neared St. Andrews and I noted the gradually increasing numbers of the faithful,” wrote A.W. Tillinghast on his first trip to “that Mecca for golfers”, in 1895, “I marveled that the popularity of the ancient game had continued, unabated throughout the centuries.”

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