[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.”
[Ed. This story appeared in March/April 2019 issue Golf Journal magazine.]
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 are made of stronger stuff.
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 drink hooch in a country gone dry). More than a few of these establishments “went under” during the ensuing 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. “Those guys 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.
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…
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:
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 newly mobile Britain and ultimately the world, which still marvels.
The advent of train travel did something else marvelous: 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 today in the minds of many. Without this transformation, the romantic golfing image of golf 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.”
My father and namesake, Harold G. Phillips Jr., passed away Saturday, Aug. 27, after a 15-month battle with lymphoma, and so I’ve been thinking and writing a lot about him this past week. Most of this bittersweet rumination has nothing to do with golf, but some of it surely does. He’s the guy who introduced me to the game, taught me the game, claimed to do most of his “fathering” on the golf course, and took great satisfaction in the fact that I once played the game well and have ended up making my living, to a certain extent, writing about it.
Golf differs from most sporting and recreational pursuits for its heavy reliance on venue. Unlike those playing grounds accommodating tennis, baseball, soccer, football or whatnot, golf courses are all unique and, like a fragrance stuck in the deep recesses of the mind, they summon things that other stimuli cannot. I can’t possibly remember each round I played with my dad, but if I think about where we played, the memories — some fully formed, some mere bits and pieces — come flooding back. Indeed, I can begin to appreciate and readily recall, in quite extraordinary detail, the long coincidental relationship he and I had on courses stretching from the sands and forests of New England and the Northeast, to islands in the Caribbean, to the Mull of Kintyre and Ring of Kerry. Here are a few that come to mind:
• Powderhorn GC, Lexington, Mass.: This joint is where I started out in the game, at my father’s side. I was 8 or 9, and we had just moved to nearby Wellesley from northern New Jersey. Powderhorn was a par-3 course, but that unfairly belittles it. There were 18 holes and while some were no more than 100 yards, others measured well over 200 and none were flat, rinky-dink or boring. I remember my dad and his game seemed sort of god-like back then, in that I played a lot of these holes like par-4s and -5s and there wasn’t a single hole he couldn’t “reach”. Powder Horn stood us in good stead for at least two years, and I remember playing there with my grandmother, a steadfast player in her own right (for some seven decades). I recall that I once pitched a mighty fit here after butchering the uphill 11th hole. There were tears. I recall her being sort of perturbed at my behavior but my dad, as per usual, never was… We picked up games with all sorts of people at Powderhorn — another lesson learned early: that one always invites people to join him, even when one might rather not. Made my first-ever birdie on the 17th hole there, a 130-yarder over water. We were playing with a fellow named Mr. Jolly; when that ball dove into the cup, he was nearly as excited as we were. Powderhorn is gone now, converted to a condo development in the early 1980s, which is a shame because I’ve often wanted to go back — and play it like a god.
• Stow Acres CC, Stow, Mass.: We were public golf vagabonds, my dad and I, never belonging to a private club, at least in these early days. We played all over Eastern Massachusetts at places like Juniper Hill, Sandy Burr, South Natick CC and Saddle Hill. South Natick was just nine and survives today as a mere driving range surrounded by housing; Saddle Hill has since gone private and goes by the name of Hopkinton CC. But when we wanted to play somewhere truly fine, we ventured 45 minutes north to Stow Acres, home to a pair of really fun Geoffrey Cornish/Bill Robinson designs. They didn’t take tee times and I recall hanging around that clubhouse, sometimes for an hour or more, before finally going off. From the time I started playing until the time he turned 55, some 20 years, my dad played off anything from 7 to 10. A good player and very steady; did nothing super well but nothing at all poorly. One day at Stow North, when I was 14 or so, he went out in 33. I self-destructed at some point on the back nine, went into a funk, but managed to pull myself out of The Dark Place about the 17th hole, at which point I consulted the scorecard. “Hey dad: Par 18 and you shoot 72!”
“I know!” he shot back, clearly wishing I had continued to pout and leave him alone with his demons. He made that par and I’m pretty sure it was his best round ever, though I know he shot 73 in competition a couple times during high school matches at Fort Monmouth CC (I’ve seen the newspaper clippings). He had a great story about the one year he played collegiately, at Lehigh University. He scrabbled his way onto the varsity as the 8th and last man for a match at Penn State, apparently, and managed to put together a 79. The guy dropped 71 on him. “The 8th guy! And it could have been 69!” he would later explain, still amazed that there were seven Nittany Lions better than that. Thereafter my dad resolved to concentrate on his studies.
• Pleasant Valley CC, Sutton, Mass.: My dad and his business partner, Harvey Howell, owned a polystyrene manufacturing operation south of Worcester, Mass., and they commuted an hour each way from Wellesley and neighboring Dover, every day, my whole growing up. There wasn’t much great golf to be played out that way, not back then. But there was Pleasant Valley, which for years hosted one of only two PGA Tour stops in New England (the other was The Greater Hartford Open, now The Travelers; PV hosted its final Tour event in 1998). So, while it was no design masterpiece, Pleasant Valley was sort of a big deal club among Massholes, and because my dad was a local business guy of some standing, he could arrange games for us there. He arranged a lesson for me there, too, the only formal one I ever had as a kid; the teacher was Rick Karbowski, quite a good player out on satellite tours back in the early ‘80s… I played a match there once in college, vs. Assumption College. I was playing no. 1 for Wesleyan that day and drew a guy named Frank Vana, who would go on to win a bunch of Mass. Amateurs. We were dead even on the 12th or 13th hole when I spied my dad walking along the fairway; he had snuck away from the office, which was just a few miles down the road. I remember being pleased he was there, though I promptly doubled the next hole and bogeyed two more. My dad had played enough golf with me to know what sort of volcanic response was coming. He got out of there pretty fast.
I had all sorts of blow-ups like this as a kid, as a young adult… okay, as a full-on grown-up, too. My dad’s temperament, on and off the golf course, is really nothing like mine. A very mellow dude, he was. The worst he would ever say after botching some shot was, “Oh, Hal…” He was surely embarrassed sometimes by my behavior but he never really called me on it, beyond a quiet-but-stern, “That’s enough now.” When I heard that, it was time to pull myself together.
• Pine Valley GC, Clementon, N.J.: When one serves on any sort of course-rating panel, the inevitable question is whether one has played Pine Valley. Thanks to my dad, I’ve played it twice, both during my college days. He had business contacts at Dupont, and whoever it was (Hugh something?) invited us down during the fall of my freshman and sophomore years. They have a bet there, at PVCC, as you readers may know, that guests can’t shoot within 10 shots of their handicaps. I never came close to cashing in. My dad won that bet twice. In his day, he could shoot 84-85 pretty much anywhere. This was pre-cell phone, of course, and it would’ve been quite bourgeois to bring a camera, so no pictures exist to mark
our visits. But I do have the paper placemat (a nice map of the layout) from our luncheon, which I framed and have hanging in my office. One of the years we played Pine Valley, it must have been the first, we followed up the round there with another just a few miles west, in the Philly suburbs, at Merion. This was only a year or so after David Graham’s win there at the 1981 U.S. Open. My dad closed me out on the 16th hole, the famous Quarry hole, where I four-putted, snapped my putter in two and left it in the little waste-basket below the ball-washer on 17 tee. I parred in, putting out with my 2-iron. We were not invited back… However, the Merion legacy proved long-lasting: My dad picked up a commemorative U.S. Open hat there, and he would wear it for years on golf courses and soccer sidelines far and wide. The entire time I knew him, my dad had a head of hair not unlike Albert Einstein’s. And so he always wore a hat on the golf course or anywhere the wind might make for unreasonable coiffure-maintenance. He rarely wore baseball caps, always some sort of bucket hat with the brim turned down on all sides. Before he procured the Merion model, he had a green one that he wore for years. I dabbled with it for a time. Wish I knew where that thing was… In later years he went to the wide-brimmed straw model which my mother, half in jest, claimed made him look like a fruit vendor.
• Old Orchard CC, Red Bank, N.J.: This was the course my dad grew up on, where he learned the game at the knee of the pro there, George Sullivan. My grandparents would play with my dad, along with me, and they’d often marvel that he still had “that same, smooth George Sullivan swing.” It was indeed smooth, quite effortless. He never, ever overswung (unlike some of us). Of course, my dad also learned the game from his own father, my grandfather, Harold Phillips Sr., in his prime a high single-digit player in his own right,
a lefty who had a penchant for aces. Poppy would post 5 or 6 over the course of his days, at least two while he lived at Shadow Lake Village, a N.J. retirement community that boasted a par-3 course. I remember going to visit there as a lad, by which time Pop had become a bit dotty. He was bragging to me on a hole-in-one he’d just made and I looked over at Gram with circumspection — “No, it’s true,” she exclaimed. “He had another one!”… In any case, one time during the late 1980s, my dad and I went back over to Old Orchard; it had been decades and he really got a kick out of going round there again. He had caddied there, too. Apparently there were several gangland figures whose bags he toted in the 1940s and 50s. Good stories were related that day. Plus I shot 76 and totally torched the Old Man on his own turf… I would love to have gotten him back down to the Jersey Shore in later years to play Hollywood GC in Deal, which is supposed to be a great old Dick Wilson design, recently restored, and where Pop had been a member in the 1930s. Thereafter we’d have scooted west across the Pennsylvania border, on Route 22, to play Saucon Valley, Lehigh’s home club, where my dad hadn’t played since college. But we never did find the time. File that one under “Regrets”.
• Nehoiden GC, Wellesley, Mass.: This is the 9-hole, private club across the street from which my family lived for 20-odd years. It’s owned by Wellesley College and while it’s nothing stupendous from a design standpoint, it was notorious in the 1970s and ‘80s for having a 10- or 15-year waiting list. Why? Membership was open to college faculty and staff, to folks who worked for the Town of Wellesley, and it was cheap compared to the swanky clubs all around us (Wellesley CC, Woodland GC, Weston GC, Dedham Golf & Polo, Brae Burn CC). So, my dad didn’t gain membership at Nehoiden, and didn’t really play the course at all, for the first several years we lived literally across the street from the 8th green. However, I played the course all the time: My friends and I would sneak onto Nehoiden constantly, in addition to playing in the sprinklers there on hot summer nights, looking for golf balls, sledding, playing hockey on the 7th fairway, and generally treating the place like our own personal playground which, from sundown to sun-up half the year, and 24/7 the rest of the year, it was. Oddly, when my dad did become a member, in 1980 or so, he
started playing a golf course that he hardly knew but his sons knew intimately.
My dad was sort of shy socially and by that I mean he didn’t seek out social situations. Once in them, however, he was famously genial, almost courtly (a quality his NOLA-bred father exhibited in spades). So it’s no surprise that he became an active and, I think, extremely well liked figure in club activities across the street. He served on committees and enjoyed regular games with different sets of guys; he was a sought-after partner in the various scotch foursome events — because he was courtly, because he would never make a woman or any lesser player feel badly about being lesser, and because he played off 7. Though I had a big head start on him, the universe of our shared experiences at Nehoiden would prove vast. We were together there the first time I broke 80; the time he pegged that car crossing the 9th fairway; the time I aced the 4th hole (my only hole-in-one; the poor man never did post one); the many times one of us would hit what appeared to be a perfect, blind approach on 6 only to see the ball bound back into view after hitting the unforgiving pavement on Route 16; and the time he came closest to winning the club championship — finishing second, with me on the bag for the final round… He let his membership lapse over this past winter, as he didn’t think he’d be well enough to play. My brother and I called the powers-that-be in June, seeing if we could arrange what had become our regular Father’s Day game. They bent over backwards to make that happen, even hooked him up with a riding cart (which are banned at Nehoiden), something for which we’re all eternally grateful. It was the last time he set foot on the property.
• Western Gailes, Ayrshire, Scotland: For all his travels, my dad was 60 or so before he ever played any golf in the U.K. My brother Matthew and I sorted that, in 1998, when we arranged a mini-tour of Scotland’s west country: Gleneagles, Turnberry and Machrihanish. However, our very first game took place at Western Gailes, and it stands out for me because 1) it really was an eye-opener for the man, walking and playing amidst the dunes as opposed to watching them on TV during the British Open; and 2) my dad, for all his wonderful traits, was one of the slowest men on earth. I’m not talking a slow golfer,
which, to be fair, he surely was. Physically, he did everything slowly and deliberately. This just naturally spilled over into his golf game: always the last one to his ball; never altering his pre-swing routine or undertaking it before it was his turn to play (partly because he was so frequently the last one to his ball); always coming over to look for your ball, but often disappearing into the woods/rough and having to be coaxed out. Surrounded by Scots, his game proved positively glacial. We had prepped him on this, telling him that we had to keep the pace good, that there would be precious few yardage markers, and, of course, no riding carts. I remember walking up the first fairway at Western Gailes and there was my dad, behind me, standing over the ball, looking around: “What do you think I’ve got from here?” Dad, there are no markers; eye it and hit it. Of course, he continued to ask this same question over and over during the trip, never registering the new reality. During some later round, when I was just finished admonishing him to move his ass — and to stop asking me where the 150 was — I turned to my brother and said, “You know what? I sound just like mom.”
• Lahinch GC, County Clare, Ireland: In retrospect, the timing on this trip couldn’t have been much better. In 2008 my dad was 71 and, so far as we knew, in pretty good nick. But even in fair health he’d arrived at the stage of life where walking four rounds in 4 days was too much. And little did we know that in less than three years, he’d be gone. So, this trip to Ireland really was a godsend and we made the most of it (see video capsule from that trip below). The round at Lahinch was our first, the one we played fresh off the plane, in brilliant sunshine and 70-degree weather, with rented clubs (my brother’s had been misplaced by the airline), around one of the peerless links on God’s green earth. It’s not fair to single out Lahinch at the expense of our rounds at Doonbeg, Ballybunion and Tralee; they were lovely all three and we even wangled a cart for dad at the latter. Indeed, the day before he had been able to walk only 14 holes of Round III, at Ballybunion. We met him that day back at the clubhouse where he was chatting up a group of fellow Americans in the bar, pint in hand, grinning ear to ear. “This Guinness is really pretty good,” he said. My God, Dad: How old are you? You’re just figuring this out? Not much of a drinker, my dad.
I remember asking him once — when I was quite grown-up, working in the golf business, and ever more curious about courses, design and travel — exactly where he had played his golf when we’d all lived in northern New Jersey. This would have been the early 1970s, before we moved to Greater Boston, when he was still in his golfing prime (30-35 years old) but when I, his eldest son, was too young to have played with him.
“Oh, I didn’t play much of anywhere really.”
What do you mean?
“Well, I had a wife and kids and a job. I didn’t play much at all until you were old enough to play with me.”