[Ed. This piece appeared in Golf Journal back in 2001. Published by the USGA (without advertisement), this was a fine magazine — one of many print outlets to fall by the wayside in the 21st Century but this one really stung, as I did a lot of work through the years for the editor there, Brett Avery, who shared a love of quirky, often historical pieces. For years I had kept my GJ story clips in hard copy form, but they all perished in my 2016 barn fire. Time to start archiving them here.]
One is taken aback by the photograph. It’s encased in glass and big as life, the first thing one encounters upon entering the Visitor Centre at Roosevelt Campobello International Park. There’s FDR, young and turn-of-the-century attired, posing at the finish of what appears to have been an elegant swing.
FDR played golf? I had seen that written somewhere, but this photo speaks to a level of proficiency that surprised me. Fluid. Relaxed. Confident. Beside the photograph, inside the exhibit case, is further testimony to his skill: a medal, earned by winning the August 1899 members’ tournament at Campobello Golf Club.
There’s a book in the case, too, detailing the results of these competitions staged between 1897 and 1920. But it’s the photograph that intrigues as it contrasts so markedly with those more familiar images of FDR: the new president, waving from his convertible Stutz; the four-time candidate addressing boisterous crowds from the stump; the solemn slayer of fascism, posing with Churchill and Stalin at Yalta — all of them burned into the public consciousness but all depicting a much older Roosevelt, aged beyond his years by lengthy struggles with polio, global economic depression and world war.
To see FDR so youthful and athletic, swinging a golf club no less, when the mind’s eye is so accustomed to seeing him differently — invariably seated, or perhaps standing stiffly while leaning hard on the arm of his young naval officer son — is startling.
A visit to Campobello, this small Canadian island off the coast of Maine, is replete with enlightening discoveries. It was settled in 1770 by Welsh sea captain William Owen, who remained loyal to King George following the American Revolution. Indeed, island tax records show that Benedict Arnold maintained a residence here, at Snug Cove, in 1786.
The Roosevelts, from the Hyde Park section of New York’s Hudson Valley region, summered here in the province of New Brunswick for nearly 50 years, beginning in 1883, when FDR was just a year old. He learned to sail here on the frigid waters of Passamaquoddy Bay. It was on what he called his “beloved island” that he secretly proposed to his future wife, Eleanor. While visiting Campobello during the summer of 1910, he resolved to run for the New York State Senate, thus launching one of America’s most remarkable political careers. Franklin Delano Roosevelt Jr. was born on Campobello in 1914, and it was here, in 1921, that his father and namesake contracted the disease that would cripple him.
The nine-hole layout at Campobello Golf Club is long gone. A thick forest now occupies the site and further envelops the 34-room Roosevelt “Cottage” and the Hubbard Cottage next door. At the turn of the century, when FDR and his fellow colonists whiled away their summers here, this portion of the island was treeless. In 1881, the Boston-based Campobello Land Co. had cleared these properties in hopes that wealthy families would be enticed by unimpeded ocean views. They were indeed, and many of the noblest clans in the U.S. soon built rambling estates on the land above Friar’s Bay.
The Campobello Land Co. also built a pair of summer hotels on this high ground, the Tyn-y-Coed (Welsh for “house in the woods”) in 1882, and the Tyn-y-Mays (“house in the fields”) a year later. Both were gone by 1910, but it was beside these grand, American shingle-style hostelries that Campobello Golf Club was laid out. No photographs of the course survive, though in the photo of FDR swinging his club, a corner of the Tyn-e-Coed is visible in the background.
“The course was there beside the hotels, opposite Hubbard Cottage, across the road,” recalls Mrs. Howard Hodgson, 74, a resident of nearby St. Andrew’s, N.B., and a Hubbard by birth. “I spent all my summers [on Campobello] in the cottage, from 1925 to 1941. My grandfather was treasurer of the golf club and James Roosevelt, the president’s father, was the one who started it.
“Nobody played any golf on the island when I was growing up, so I don’t remember the course, per se; it was just a cow pasture when I was there. Once the [First World] war ended, the colony just sort of fizzled. But I remember going blueberry picking with my father in that field. We used to find these funny old golf balls there.”
The Visitor Centre at Roosevelt Park is modest in size but its displays thoroughly recount the Roosevelt’s aristocratic-but-vigorous existence on Campobello via museum-style text, complemented by oversized black-and-white photography. There’s a tiny theater, wherein a short film, entitled “Beloved Island,” further documents the picnics, hikes, sailing and golf FDR enjoyed. About halfway through the film, the screen fills with the photograph from the lobby: FDR, no more than 20 years of age, following-through (“posing” if you will) with his driver.
“FDR,” the narrator explains, “served on the Governing Committee at Campobello Golf Club and laid out the course …”
What? FDR laid out the course? This notion is perhaps more startling than the photograph. Could it be that FDR, Architect of the New Deal, was also an amateur golf course architect? For buffs of history and golf, this is an extraordinary prospect, one that warranted further investigation.
There are drawbacks to living in the Information Age. For starters, it’s remarkably quick and easy to realize one is hugely uninformed. A Lexis-Nexis search of “Roosevelt/Campobello/Golf” reveals several references to FDR’s having laid out Campobello Golf Club.
“It’s sort of common knowledge,” says Ron Whitten, noted course design historian and co-author with Geoffrey Cornish of “The Architects of Golf”, the definitive resource when tracking down things like course design credit. Sure enough, Whitten credits FDR for Campobello GC in the book’s back section, “A Master List of Golf Courses Cross-Referenced to Designers”.
“My source, as I recall, was James MacGregor Burns, who did some massive biographies of FDR,” Whitten reports. “That’s where I pulled it from, ‘The Lion and the Fox’, but that’s off the top of my head. I remember reading that in college and noting it right then and there.”
During golf’s early-American period, courses designed by amateurs were the rule rather than the exception. When British experts weren’t available, men of privilege, like FDR, often laid out rudimentary courses at their ‘country’ clubs. Whitten acknowledges that he and Cornish (with more than 20,000 courses to account for) didn’t agonize over ascribing design credit to FDR. “The Burns reference would have been enough for me,” Whitten says. “I’ve seen it written in several different places since then. I think it’s generally accepted that FDR designed that course.”
Yet Burns’ book, published in 1956, gives only cursory treatment to Campobello and says nothing of FDR having laid out Campobello GC.
From whence did this generally accepted notion of “FDR as course architect” actually come? The search for clues turns up a raft of isolated and perhaps arcane tidbits which, taken together, paint a fascinating golfing portrait of FDR. Indeed, how the public acquires such a thing as “conventional wisdom” is almost always more interesting than the wisdom itself.
A figure of such stature has several biographers, of course, and historian Geoffrey Ward details many of FDR’s golfing exploits in his absorbing 1985 biography of the president’s early life, “Before the Trumpet.” In it, Ward writes that young Franklin probably learned the game from Arthur Dumper, his private tutor at Hyde Park. Ward also reveals that he played the game as a teen at The Groton School.
Later still, during the summer of 1899, “At Campobello,” Ward writes, “[FDR] supervised the Golf Club course, often won tournaments competing against older players, and was thought so mature, energetic and responsible at eighteen the following summer that he was asked to be both secretary and treasurer [of the club].”
Ward is no golfer; indeed, he admits to a Twain-like condescension toward the game. “FDR may have been involved with laying out the Campobello course, but it’s been 15 years since I wrote that book,” he offers from his New York City office. “He was probably not as good a golfer as he would have said he was, but I know that he was a very enthusiastic golfer for a long time after he was ill; his eternal optimism obliged him to talk about playing the game again, even after he was ill.” [Though not to Eleanor, apparently. In Shep Campbell and Peter Laudau’s 1998 book, “Presidential Lies”, Eleanor is quoted as saying, “Golf was the game that Franklin enjoyed above all others… After he was stricken with polio, the one word that he never said again was golf.”]
In any case, Ward’s choice of words, “supervised the Golf Club course”, is vague. FDR was certainly involved with administration of the course, but designing it? That may have been something of a stretch for a teenager, however precocious.
Franklin would expand his golfing horizons considerably in the years to come. In his equally riveting follow-up biography, “A First-Class Temperament,” Ward notes Franklin had the good sense to fit in a round at St. Andrews while honeymooning with Eleanor in Scotland. He played the Old Course on Sept. 5, 1905, coincidentally the same day the Portsmouth Treaty was signed, thus ending the Russo-Japanese War — a bit of Nobel Prize-winning détente orchestrated by cousin Theodore.
Ward also details Franklin’s later involvement with the course at Warm Springs, Ga., where he would spend the better part of two years, starting in September 1926. “He was determined,” Ward writes, “not only to recuperate more fully, but to turn Warm Springs into a resort that would ‘rival Pinehurst,’ FDR told the press.”
FDR apparently envisioned a spa for those whom the waters aided, in addition to a cottage colony centered around a golf club and community center. Though FDR would frequent Warm Springs for the rest of his life, the colony never materialized — but the course did: an 18-hole layout christened Warm Springs GC, but renamed Roosevelt GC following the president’s death in 1945.
FDR didn’t design the course; Donald Ross is credited with the nine holes that survive. However, Ward writes that FDR “helped design and supervise the laying out of the course with a network of roads and specially reinforced bridges so that those polios, like himself, who could not play but liked to watch, as well as those who could play but could not walk long distances, could drive from hole to hole… After the course was completed, he liked to drive with Missy [Lehand, his personal secretary] or the pretty young wife of a Warm Springs physician at his side, shouting bawdy advice to the players and carrying with him a silver pitcher of martinis with which to toast good shots — and bad.”
Did FDR lay out the original course at Campobello Golf Club? While designing golf holes was a decidedly less formal practice in the 1890s, there is only circumspect evidence to support the conventional wisdom that he did. Ward’s wording in “Before the Trumpet” is imprecise, as it seems to meld or perhaps confuse course administration with design. Further, it seems unlikely that, while working on the Warm Springs course, FDR would not have recalled or noted in some way his course design experiences on Campobello.
“As far as FDR laying out the old golf course here, I don’t know,” says Anne Newman, Campobello park administrator and mistress to reams of documentation on the colony and its history. “I must say, that has always been my assumption, but I can’t say that I have any proof.”
Five weeks after offering this assessment, Newman unearthed the comments of William D. Hassett, one of several acquaintances and confidants quoted in the 1958 compendium, “Off the Record with FDR”.
Hassett’s comments were recorded March 6, 1943: “The president recalled that when he was 18, he was spending the summer at Campobello. A golf course was laid out on the initiative of the cottage colony which aroused some jealousy on the part of guests in a small hotel there. As secretary-treasurer, FDR was called upon to explain the plans governing use of the course to a meeting of the summer colony…”
Hassett’s comments would imply that, by 1900, the course was established enough that hotel-guest access had become an issue; that FDR was a force within the club, as he was chosen to speak on its behalf; and that the course was laid out by “the cottage colony” — indeed, the tournament book notes matches from 1897. If FDR had a hand in laying out the course, Hassett apparently knew nothing of it. If today’s conventional wisdom regarding design of Campobello GC existed back in 1943, Hassett didn’t subscribe to it.
Perhaps Hassett remained mum because the root of this issue wasn’t reconciled until four years later, when FDR’s son Elliott edited and had published a compilation of his father’s correspondences, “FDR: His Personal Letters: Early Years.”
According to the volume, in March 1900, as a sixth-former at Groton, FDR was invited to serve as secretary and treasurer of the Campobello Golf Club. The post, according to Elliott, “involved everything from seeing that the greens were in shape to dunning members for dues and contributions.” The appointment was proffered by Gorham Hubbard, Mrs. Hodgson’s grandfather.
In a letter datelined “Groton School, June 17, 1900, Sunday,” FDR wrote to his parents: “[If] you do not come till Monday I can get on very well at Campo alone for a day or two, & I shall be working from a.m. to p.m. anyway on the golf-course, as I have decided to enlarge several greens & teeing grounds, & have made various improvements which can’t be done until I get there…”
It seems clear that while FDR didn’t lay out the course at Campobello in the modern sense, he did perform renovations there.
“The Architects of Golf” — the preeminent source of conventional wisdom when it comes to who designed what — is filled with early-American layouts whose original “architect” is unknown. In these cases, design credit is commonly bestowed upon the individual who, sometime later, was brought in to upgrade or modernize the course.
To cite just one example, Donald Ross is credited with design of Maryland’s Chevy Chase Country Club (where, according to Ward, FDR played many times during his stint as Woodrow Wilson’s undersecretary of the Navy). Ross didn’t lay out the original holes at Chevy Chase, but he did renovate and modernize the course, in 1915.
FDR’s letter would appear to detail a similar dynamic. So it would seem fitting that Franklin Delano Roosevelt be considered the architect of record at Campobello Golf Club.
There’s another, smaller photo in the glass case, beside FDR swinging the driver. It features four young caddies who looped at Campobello GC; second from the right is a lad identified as Selwyn Lank.
“That’s my brother,” declares Betty Lank, a 96-year-old island native who remembers playing as a child with Roosevelt’s oldest daughter, Anna. Lank sits straighter in her chair at the memory of her oldest brother and her connection to Campobello’s most famous family.
“I had polio myself, a few years before FDR contracted it. There are two kinds: bulbar and paralytic. I had the bulbar. If you get over it, you have no paralysis. Fortunately, I got over it, though I was mighty sick…
“I remember the golf course, but it’s a vague memory, very vague. It was Mr. Roosevelt’s course, for he and his guests. The island people knew nothing about golf at that time. Nothing.”
His course? Did FDR lay it out?
“I think so. The island people knew nothing about it, as I’ve said. It was just a field. Very flat. But they made it so it was a decent course… The two hotels were right there next to the golf course. Beautiful old buildings, just beautiful — especially the Tyn-e-Coed. I remember playing on the veranda there.”