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FDR: President, Statesman, Patrician… Golf Course Architect?

[Ed. This piece appeared in Golf Journal back in 2002. 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.

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

2017 – Erin Hills Golf Course, Erin, Wis.

2016 – Oakmont Country Club, Oakmont, Pa.

2015 – Chambers Bay, University Place, Wash.

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

2013 – Merion Golf Club, Ardmore, Pa.

2012 – Olympic Club, San Francisco

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

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

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

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

2007 – Oakmont (Pa.) Country Club

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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