[Ed. This feature was published by McKellar magazine in the spring of 2019. True to its motto — “a golf companion” — McKellar exists entirely as an analog/print entity. It maintains no online incarnation. Accordingly, please see below at PDF version of the story, to read here or via download.]
[Ed. The fine folk at Global Golf Post saw fit to publish this column of mine back in June, when the PGA Tour’s partnership/merger with the Saudi Public Investment Fund took everyone by surprise. You can find the full text here.]
Ed. I’ve contributed dozens of stories to GOLF Magazine through the years (I’ve served on the mag’s world top 100 course-rating panel since 1997). But none landed with such a thud as this one, published in the March 1999 edition. I’ve heard nothing since re. the ill-health or subsequent removal of diseased loblolly pines at Augusta National GC. But then, trees are removed, tees are added, and greens thoroughly renovated at ANGC and we are none the wiser — not until the club issues an official statement, or we see it on television the second weekend in April. The place is leak-proof. For the record, The Eisenhower Tree pictured above was a loblolly pine. It was taken down in 2014, because it was hit by lightening. Or so reads the party line.
AUGUSTA, Ga. — Overlooking each fairway like a glowering gallery of green giants, the stately Georgia pines here at Augusta National Golf Club represent arguably the most recognizable feature at a course replete with recognizable features. Because The Masters is the lone major championship played at the same venue year after year, competitors, spectators and television viewers have established an unrivaled connection with and affection for Augusta National. Where else could a slow-moving stream and a few magnolia beds take on such mythic, eye-moistening qualities? Of course, fabled Rae’s Creek comes into play on just three holes whereas the towering pines frame nearly every shot. Their lower limbs pruned up to 100 feet, these majestic loblollies stand silent, like so many Doric columns, quietly lining the verdant corridors of America’s foremost golfing shrine.
Okay, reality check: Nothing lives forever. The patrician powers-that-be at Augusta National may have kept commercialism at relative bay and held the price of a chicken salad sandwich under $3, but they can’t fight Mother Nature. Trees are organic. They die, and a number of Augusta’s trademark loblolly pine are doing just that; some allege before their time.
Loblolly pine (Pinus taeda), which comprise 90 percent of the trees at the National, can be felled by myriad “stress factors,” as arborists like to call them: lightning strikes, disease, root pathogens, even the dreaded southern pine beetle. They can also whither and die following long, healthy lives of some 300 years in their natural, forest environment. Yet some of Augusta’s prized loblolly aren’t so healthy and may not witness their second century of shot-making — or so say certain tree-savvy visitors to Augusta who have noticed a change. Robust loblollies sport needles so darkly green they appear almost black from a distance. However, a disturbing jaundice has afflicted the relatively young pines that stand hard along Augusta’s 18th fairway — a clear sign of ill health, the experts say. Last year, during his first trip back to Augusta in a quarter century, architect Desmond Muirhead was floored by their lack of vitality. Other veteran observers of Augusta, most of whom insist on anonymity, believe there is a problem in paradise.
In his forthcoming book, “The Masters: Golf, Money and Power in Augusta, Georgia” (published by Villard, a division of Random House), author Curt Sampson isn’t nearly so discrete. He alleges that many more loblolly pine, especially those positioned along Augusta’s fairways, are suffering from poor health — a matter not unrelated, he says, to the club’s obsession with Edenic course conditions. Tipped off to the pine problem by his friend Muirhead, Sampson maintains misplaced fertilizer and overzealous irrigation practices have wrought considerable havoc with the loblollies, which are xerophytes — a fancy word for plants accustomed to dryer conditions. Further, for many years Augusta National maintained turfgrass well into wooded areas off the fairways. Today, this practice is an acknowledged horticultural no-no, as experts agree that trees and grass compete for the same nutrients.
Sampson — who claims to have consulted “an arborist who worked with Augusta National” but won’t name him — asserts the ailing loblollies, overfed for too long, have been living too fast and will die young. “If you stand on a promontory like the 10th tee,” Sampson says, “you can see the difference between the interior trees and those along the fairway; it’s like new denim compared to faded blue jeans. The pine lining certain fairways are saggy and yellowish. The difference is striking.”
There are significant factors to ponder when considering anything at Augusta National Golf Club, especially an unauthorized book alleging what amounts to horticultural malpractice. First, only Chairman Jack Stephens can speak for the club, meaning horticulturist Tom Crenshaw and consulting arborist Ken Knox cannot publicly address Sampson’s assertions. Second, while Augusta employees are allowed to share pertinent research information with colleagues, few people in the golf industry care to speak “on the record” regarding the National, so extensive and powerful is the club’s reach. Arborists enthusiastic about discussing golf courses issues tend to become quite concerned with anonymity when the course is Augusta National.
That said, there are some meaningful distinctions to draw when discussing the health and life expectancy of trees on any golf course. First and foremost, experts agree they simply don’t live as long on golf courses as they might in a natural forested environment. Indeed, trees don’t live as long in any man-made setting, as it’s impossible to duplicate the complexity of any tree’s natural ecosystem — the ecosystem most conducive to maximum life expectancy.
“A tree living outside its natural environment — on a golf course, a city street or a suburban lawn — is far more likely to encounter stress factors incited by humans,” explains Dr. Jay Stipes, a plant pathologist at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va. “For example, soil compaction: Feet and tires compact the soil, reducing pore space for oxygen. Too much compaction and roots get oxygen deprivation, and they begin to die.”
“Golf course trees simply do not live as long as forest trees, all things being equal,” said one arborist who is familiar with the situation at Augusta National but requested anonymity. “Only a fool would say no trees are unhealthy at Augusta. It’s not a magical place. God isn’t treating Augusta any differently. But it would be very unfair to say they’re dying prematurely… Of the 20, 30 or 40 things that play a role in tree health, water and fertilization play relatively minor roles. Augusta isn’t different from any other golf course; they have problems. But, if anything, the life span of these trees has been enhanced by the work being done there. That’s for sure.”
[Ed. This piece from 1998 was assigned and purchased by, but to my knowledge never appeared in, Downeast Magazine. At that time, the U.S. was opening 400 new golf facilities every year. When I moved to New Gloucester that same year, only Fairlawn GC and Poland Spring existed nearby. In 2-3 years, Fox Ridge in Auburn (pictured above), Spring Meadow in Gray, and Toddy Brook in North Yarmouth all opened for play. Heady times, as the story below relates. The correction arrived in 2008, when the U.S. golf course stock began to suffer a net loss of some 150 golf facilities each year. That annual trend slowed somewhat during Covid, but not much.]
Developers of water parks don’t venture into the amusement industry because they’re particularly enamored of sharing flume capsules shaped like giant logs with so many screaming adolescents. Nor do hoteliers invest in that business because they “have a thing” for walking down antiseptic hallways looking for ice machines. It’s understood these business decisions are calculated — based on demographics, market niches, the potential for profit and perhaps a paucity of existing competitors. Romantic notions don’t often enter into feasible commercial equations.
Golf is a different animal, an arena where the line between work and play has always been somewhat blurred. While “business” conducted on the golf course remains a genteel hybrid of recreation and vocation, data gatherers at the National Golf Foundation (NGF) — the industry’s research and information organization based in Jupiter, Fla. — are continually amazed at the scads of starry-eyed golf devotees who fund/build their own facilities because it’s always been their dream. “It’s sort of like, ‘What do I want to do when I grow up?’ ” said Barry Frank, a vice president at NGF. “Unfortunately, a great number of shirts have been lost in this process.”
Even so, new golf construction continues to boom nationally and Maine’s dreamers have proved no less fanciful in their ambitions. An astounding number of golf course projects, many spearheaded by first-time golf developers, are now underway here in Vacationland. A dozen new 18-hole layouts have just opened or remain in some phase of construction while another 10 facilities are adding nine. When Point Sebago Golf and Beach Resort opened for play in 1996, it was Maine’s first new 18-hole course since 1988. This sort of inactivity won’t characterize the next eight years.
“As a former banker, I know golf construction in Maine has lagged in past years, especially compared with national growth patterns,” said Arnold Roy, a Turner resident whose development syndicate, Fox Ridge Partners, will soon break ground on an 18-hole course in Harmon’s Corner, on Auburn’s south side. “We know there’s another golf course going in 15 miles down the road in Gray, but in the last 20 years there have been no new golf holes built within 20 miles of our site. And the interest in golfing has never been higher, as far as I can tell.”
Following another national trend, Fox Ridge will be laid out on former farm land — so will the Gray course [Spring Meadows], a project developed by the owners of Cole Farms Restaurant on a fallow parcel directly across the street. Agricultural pursuits have also given way to golf down in Berwick; father and son Tim and Tom Flynn obviously believe their 160-acre parcel will prove more fertile when Outlook Farm Golf Club opens for play there next summer.
“I think what we’re seeing is pent-up demand,” said Brian Silva, the course architect who designed Outlook Farm. “Maine has been underdeveloped, in terms of golf for some time now. And the state certainly has its share of farmland which has seen better, more productive days.”
Ed. LINKS Magazine published this star-studded piece back in 2006, prior to the Masters Tournament claimed by Phil Mickelson. He prevailed over a course measuring 7,445 yards; Augusta National GC plays another 105 yards longer today. Yet the back tees continue to require but a single forced carry. Length would not be the issue: If our mythical 16-handicapper can’t make 5-footers, there’s no way he breaks 120.
Sitting in the sports book at the MGM Grand surrounded by hundreds of television sets and the milling masses of Vegas hopefuls, one has the opportunity to place any number of over/under bets. But here’s one you won’t find on offer in the Land of Neon, or anywhere else for that matter: If a verified 16 handicapper were to play Augusta National Golf Club under tournament conditions — from the newly lengthened tips, playing to Sunday pins, putting everything out — would that average, workaday chop break 120?
“That’s a very interesting question,” answered Greg Norman. “On the surface, it looks promising for a 16 handicap, because he has about 30 shots to play with. But I think those 30 shots would go away in a hurry.”
One hundred and twenty strokes: Over or under?
We put this proposition to a collection of tour pros, golf course architects and high-profile swing gurus. All agreed our mythical 16 (the average USGA handicap is actually 15.2) would post a big number. But how big, and why? Have the recent course changes at Augusta, engineered in response to technology-aided balls and equipment, put 120 — that’s 12 triples bogeys and six doubles — beyond reach of the common man?
One of golf’s great appeals is its ease of transference — that is to say, while we can’t readily imagine ourselves shedding 280-pound tacklers on the floor of the Rose Bowl, we can see ourselves playing Pebble Beach or Pinehurst no. 2. And on a good day, the average handicapper can expect to produce a performance that is at least recognizable beside that of a professional. The response to technology, however, has begun to render this transference less and less tenable, and no major championship venue illustrates the growing disparity between pros and average golfers better than Augusta National, where back-tee yardage has gone from 6,985 yards to 7,445 in just six years.
“I think the golf course is a lot harder than people realize, in large part because of elevation changes and uneven lies,” Norman added. “The only true level lies you get at Augusta are on the tees! You can’t really appreciate these nuances on television, and they make club selection very difficult. And it’s a whole different ballgame now that they’ve added so much length.”
That said, our panel of experts felt the putting surfaces — for years, the layout’s primary defense against scoring — would bedevil our mythical 16 handicapper most of all. Back-to-back 490-yard par-4s, like 10 and 11, might oblige an average player (a smart one, at least) to simply play them like par-5s. But this sort of damage-control isn’t possible on the greens at Augusta, where flat-stick marvel Seve Ballesteros once described his four-putt at no. 6 thusly: “I miss. I miss. I miss. I make.”
“People would be amazed at the number of putts they would take,” said architect Jim Hardy, himself a former Tour player and noted swing teacher. “The average 16 playing to tournament pins, with Sunday green speeds, could easily — and I know this sounds peculiar — take 55 putts at Augusta. If he normally shoots in the low 90s, he’s going to take 20-25 more putts than normal. That’s 117, so your over/under is right on the money.”
But would he break 120? “Just barely,” Hardy decided.
Rich Beem, PGA champion in 2002, has even more faith in the average player: “Every once in a while a 16 is supposed to shoot 88, so he can’t be that bad — and here we’re giving him another 32 shots. If the weather’s fine, our guy’s not completely intimidated by the course, and he can move it out there just a little bit, I’ll take the under.”
There are two kinds of people in this world: those whose tastes in golf courses hew to The St. Andrews Ideal, and those whose preferences gravitate toward The Augusta National Ideal.
Courses built and maintained according to the St. Andrews paragon we identify generically as “links”: natural and treeless, firm and fast, lightly kempt and several shades of brown. The Augusta model has come to represent an opposing pole, and these so-called “parkland” designs do exude a different vibe altogether: lush and soft, multiple shades of green, landscaped and manicured to a fare thee well.
History, culture and geography have traditionally funneled Asian golfers into the parkland camp, a classification that may strike one as trivial, or arbitrary. But Asian predispositions in this regard are robust and stand to shape global golf trends for decades to come — even as contemporary tastemakers exalt the links model (and sneer at the parkland genre) as never before.
For centuries, even this binary choice did not exist. Links courses — named for the sandy terrain that connects beach to more arable land — were the only game in town, and that town was St. Andrews. The Home of Golf will never change, but after several hundred years as a purely Scottish pursuit, golf began to migrate. First the game moved south, to England. During the mid-19th century it moved inland, where the parkland style was devised.
Late in the 19th century, golf and its attendant tastes traveled West, across the Atlantic Ocean to the United States, where the parkland style took firm hold and thrived as never before — fueled by American cultural influence, its economic sway, the opening of Augusta National Golf Club in 1934, and the advent of course irrigation. This shift toward the parkland ideal and away from the British links ideal happened far more quickly and comprehensively than anyone could have imagined. In 1880, for example, it would have seemed laughable to Brits that their game would, in just 50 years, be so dominated by America, Americans and their tastes in course design. But that’s exactly what happened. What’s more, during the ensuing century, the game arrived in Asia where the parkland style also came to predominate.
In the mid-1990s, the stylistic pendulum swung back. The American course zeitgeist underwent a major shift, whereby The St. Andrews Ideal gained extraordinary new steam, while The Augusta National Model declined. Why? Resorts like Bandon, developed on a remote stretch of Oregon coast, proved links golf was popular enough with Americans to be profitable. Projects like Sand Hills — located in even more remote western Nebraska — showed that oceans and shorelines were incidental to the genre’s appeal. Anywhere there was sand, developers learned, compelling links golf could be devised. The more isolated the links course, the more golfers seemed determined to travel there.
Today, where sand does not dominate the existing soil profile, developers import it and “cap” the entire 18-hole footprint, ensuring both efficacious drainage and links-enabling bounce & roll. At venerable Pinehurst No. 2, turf once dominated the landscape wall to wall. In 2011, prior to a U.S. Open held there, architects peeled back all but the fairway turf to reveal a sea of native, sandy scrub. Acolytes of the St. Andrews model swooned.
Golf in the 21st century remains markedly U.S.-centric, but the game’s momentum continues to move West. Today, Asia-Pacific is the region where course development, player development, tournament interest and prize money/corporate support are growing most rapidly. True to golf’s migration patterns, the resurgent St. Andrews Model has been newly deployed all over Asia — along the coast of Vietnam, on islands in the Yangtze River, atop dead-flat properties in Greater Bangkok.
There’s just one problem: Asians don’t much like links golf.
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.
[Ed. This integrated piece appeared as a course feature and Walker Cup sidebar in LINKS Magazine during the summer of 2006. With the U.S. Senior Amateur visiting Butler Point this week, it seemed a fine time to place this story “above the fold”.]
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 outside the dog days of summer.
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. Yet 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 (more like chocolate-covered cherries really) reside on a hole’s periphery, seemingly without purposes. Other times they come off 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.
Let’s first relate the cold hard facts, to contextualize things: Connecticut is a wasteland. I spent four college years there. Pretty much every part of the state exists as a satellite to some larger, more consequential place; it’s the world’s biggest suburb, in other words — and yet there isn’t one cool urban redoubt in all of its 5,567 square miles. For years, you couldn’t buy beer there after 8 p.m. In their relative wisdom, modern Nutmeg lawmakers have since upped that to 10 p.m. (Sunday liquor sale bans were lifted in 2012). But it remains the most culturally vanilla corner of New England.
More to the point, the golf on hand in Connecticut is surprisingly poor. Of the six New England states, I’d rank it 5th in terms of overall quality per capita (sorry, New Hamster). There are some perfectly fine private clubs, but honestly, not as many as one might think considering the long coastline and all the money that has consistently sloshed around that part of the state. The public golf is fairly abject by any standard.
However, for much of this Pandemic Spring, Connecticut and Rhode Island have been the only places that have even allowed golf in New England — and Rhody has effectively banned it for out-of-state folks (insisting on a 14-day quarantine beforehand). It seems the most onerous golf restrictions will be lifted across the region come the month of May (or that’s the word here in Maine), so let me praise Connecticut and the golf there while I have the chance.
My daughter passed her thesis in last Friday at midnight. Her college experience is essentially over. As she has spent the last 6 weeks cooped up in her Philadelphia apartment, we reckoned she’d earned some semi-rural time at home. Because Clara required extraction and, because Connecticut is literally unavoidable when driving from Maine to Philly, I resolved to play golf somewhere on the way down.
[Can I just say that I’m not on board with all this hand wringing about how high school and college seniors are missing out on the pomp and circumstance of graduation? It seems misplaced in light of such large-scale public health and economic concerns. I’m particularly put off by online expressions of this treacly sentiment. We can agree that Facebook was created for and has always been sustained by a bottomless human capacity for meaningless, self-referential bullshit. Which has its place. Witness my own wall. But the idea that middle-aged people posting high school portraits of themselves somehow speaking empathically to the graduation void being experienced by their children (who don’t use or give a fuck about FB) is a level of self-reference that is frankly beyond the pale. Fine. Go ahead and share flattering, young-and-fit pictures of yourselves. Go ahead and detail your 10 most meaningful albums. Just don’t think you need the license of Covid-19 confinement to do so — because social media in general and FB in particular have long existed for exactly this sort of piteous self-indulgence. And don’t think our own confinement makes us any more interested. For the record: I’ve checked with my lawyer; these nominations are not legally binding.]
Right. Where were we. My daughter. Golf in Connecticut.
Actually, because I passed through the Nutmeg state twice, I played on the way back, as well. Each round was delightful.
Monday morning I rolled up to Keney Park Golf Course just north of Hartford in Windsor, right off Interstate-91. The original Devereaux Emmet design there was renovated some 7 years ago, to pretty outstanding effect. I picked up a game with 3 other middle-aged guys. Aside from the lack of handshakes before and afterward, our round was not affected much at all by the physical distance we maintained.
Playing on the golf team at Wesleyan did get me around the state to dozens of different courses, back in the day, but I’d never played Keney before. The terrain was superb and the place drained really well (it had snowed the day before apparently, but the ball still bounced/rolled in most places). Some have taken issue with the historical accuracy/integrity of architect Michael Dusenberry’s work at Keney Park — and the project cost. But this seems to me a pretty churlish response. If there’s a better muni track in Connecticut, I’d like to know where it is. The greens are super fun, their complexes bold and varied, and they rolled beautifully for mid-April.
There are dozens of ways to “rate” a golf course, but here’s one I like (especially for public courses): What’s the worst hole out here? At Keney, it took some real head-scratching. It’s probably the 1st — a perfectly good if short, downhill par-4 that otherwise serves as a welcoming opener. I certainly appreciated it, having been sent straight from the starter shack to the first tee after 4 hours in the car. Every succeeding hole I found strategically engaging.
The very next day, after kipping in Philadelphia, we loaded up the car and headed north. (It’s quite a feeling to drive over the George Washington Bridge and sail through NYC at lunchtime with such ease.) Soon enough we had arrived in Old Saybrook, just down Route 9 from Middletown. Fenwick Golf Course is a cool place — a summer-community track surrounded by tony shingle-style homes arrayed about a small peninsula of low-lying land buffeted by Long Island Sound. Just 9 holes, it was the perfect place to play with my daughter in tow.
Tuesday was cold and windy on the Connecticut coast but we welcomed the walk and there are some truly scenic vistas on offer at Fenwick. When it came into view, the Sound was roiling. As for the golf itself: meh. There was a pretty epic cape-style par-4 (the 430-yard 4th), where one is obliged to drive it over a salt-water inlet (and Sequassen Avenue). The 2nd is a cute par-3 (the card indicated there was a back tee stretching the hole to 200 yards, but we couldn’t find it). In all, a lovely spot but nothing too-too special. The greens were uniformly small, round and tilted back toward play with very little internal contour. It reminded me of Abenackie, another antique summer-colony 9 south of Portland, Maine (though the terrain there in Biddeford Pool is superior).
But this is to quibble. It was the perfect way to break up our 8-hour drive, during a pandemic. Invigorated, we jumped back in the car, stopped at Popeye’s in New London (spicy chicken sandwich: believe the hype), and headed north.
Well, here we are again. Every few years it seems some U.S. golfing professional/personality blithely asserts that the U.S. PGA Tour is without peer. Full stop. This invariably gets under the skin of Europeans who, to be fair, have dominated for 25 years the event created specifically to settle this argument: the Ryder Cup. They and their tour have also claimed roughly half the major championships since the turn of the century.
As golf spats go, it’s run of the mill. There are decidedly more important things to ponder these days. But here’s the problem: The Euros have a point while Paul Azinger, this year’s jingoist rock-thrower designate, doesn’t.
And besides: With the Tour on hiatus and the Masters postponed, you’ve got something better to ponder?
All this came to a head, again, late in final round of the Honda Classic, two Sundays ago, March 1. Azinger, himself a major winner and former Ryder Cup captain, assessed on NBC the mindset of Englishman Tommy Fleetwood, who had the chance to birdie the 72nd hole and force a playoff.
“These guys know you can win all you like on that European Tour, the international game and all that, but you have to win on the PGA Tour,” Zinger intoned from on high, in his booth, adding that Lee Westwood was another Englishman on the leaderboard with lots of worldwide wins (44 to be exact) but just two in the U.S. “They know that and I think Tommy knows that. It puts a bit of pressure on Tommy. But this is where they want to be. They want to come here, they want to prove they can win at this level.”
Lookit: Azinger’s job, or part of it, is to ratchet up the stakes on a Sunday afternoon. It’s also his job to pimp the U.S. PGA Tour (more on that later).
But the Euro response was swift, pointed and, it must be said, pretty spot on. Ian Poulter tweeted: “Paul please do not condescend or disrespect the @EuropeanTour and our players like that. We have slapped your arse in the Ryder Cup for so long.” Westwood himself called the comments “disrespectful”. The winning Ryder Cup captain from 2018, Dane Thomas Bjorn, called them “at best ignorant; at worst, arrogant.” Rory McIlroy, who, like Poulter, now makes his home in Florida, had this to say: “His comments were a little nationalistic,” McIlroy said.
Poulter’s fellow Englishman, Tyrell Hatton, put a bow around all of them one week later by winning the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill.
Azinger, like many members and backers of the PGA Tour through the years, continues to confuse the wealth of a tour with the overall player-quality of a tour. Prize money is greater at U.S. PGA Tour events — this reality is what lures players like McIlroy, Martin Kaymer, Justin Rose, Poulter, Hatton and Fleetwood to play so many events here, to maintain homes here, to even join the U.S. PGA Tour in order to compete for all that money.
But bigger purses and better-heeled corporate sponsors do not make the preponderance of U.S. pros any better than those competing for smaller purses on the European Tour. That was mere theory in the 1990s, but it’s more or less an established fact today — one American golfers and commentators more or less refuse to acknowledge. For whatever reason, the European Union is turning out as many if not more, better competitive golfers today than the United States. The Ryder Cup proves it. The major championships prove it. For his part, young Tommy Fleetwood — with his 5 European Tour wins, his breakout performance at the 2018 Ryder Cup, his top 10 world ranking — fairly well embodies it.