A tale of two courses

  • Wagner
    Courtesy of Mark Wagner

    The Herbert Leeds-designed Bass Rocks in Gloucester, Massachusetts, features many rocks and mounds as penalty areas

  • Wagner
    Courtesy of Mark Wagner

    The eighth at Bass Rocks has the Atlantic Ocean as a backdrop

  • Wagner
    Courtesy of Mark Wagner

    The Taft Bunker on the tenth hole at Myopia is named after President William Taft who toppled into the bunker and required draft horses and caddies with ropes to get him out

Mark Wagner
By Mark Wagner

If you recall our lives BCE (Before Covid Era), in 2018 the USGA and The R&A, while preserving the ‘long standing principles of golf’, made rule changes that sought to ‘make golf a game more easily understood and applied by all, more consistent, simple and fair.’ At the same time, industry talk included enlarging holes, foot golf, sharing courses with discs, and forward tees, all to bring millennials and Gen Z – along with their disposable income – into a world with vanishing waiting lists and fewer rounds played.

Fast forward, and Covid has accomplished what the gods of golf only imagined. We saw sold out Ladies Leagues, lessons in demand, public courses reaching maximum memberships and waiting lists returning to the privates, all raising an interesting question: will the golf industry capture the recreationists and absolute beginners arriving at the tees?

Many elements of course design arise from an era in which golf was a picayune sport played by wealthy folks with time on their hands. Playing old courses like Myopia Hunt Club and Bass Rocks makes this clear in a number of ways, one slightly comic: the penalty areas of these two courses are set up for right-handed golfers; in the 1890s, there weren’t clubs being made for left handers, so no need for penalties and hazards for left-handed golfers.

In the 1920s, popular golf had found its early gentlemen heroes in Bobby Jones, Walter Hagen and Ted Ray, and although golf began as an elitist and male-dominated sport there was a growing acceptance of women in golf. In 1917, the Women’s Tournament Committee of the United States Golf Association was formed, which became the Women’s Committee of the USGA in 1934. Women had heroines like Babe Zacharias, and the sport entered the popular consciousness and began to build an audience. Even so, a beginner golfer in today’s circumstances might wonder: is golf a sport, or is golf a social activity, where you go to laugh at your ill fate, cheer your occasional triumphs, then have a drink with friends?

Myopia Hunt Club in Hamilton, Massachusetts, is a course famous for hosting four US Opens. In the 1901 event not a single professional in the field was able to break 80 in any round. Willie Anderson’s 331 for four rounds is a record that has stood for 120 years, as the highest winning score ever in the US Open. Course architect Herbert Leeds would be proud of this fact.

We don’t know much about Leeds, other than he was born into a wealthy Boston family and remained a Myopian until his death in 1930. He was known to listen to braggarts boast of birdies at the well-appointed cigar bar, then place hazards on those holes the very next day. He worked his entire life on making Myopia more challenging for the members such that we might consider Myopia an aristocratic design, anchored by a wealthy class who paid their dues, had leisure time, threads and the latest gutta perchas.

Heike Milhench, a friend of mine and a fine golfer, who scored second gross in a two-ball ladies’ invitational at Myopia this year, said: “We had a caddie and even played with two members one day and still struggled – the greens are so hard and fast, you can’t get the feel of them in two days or understand the bounces you are going to get! The members definitely have a huge home course advantage.”

I have played Myopia three times; once with a golfer whose resume includes a par round at St Andrews but struggled to make 80. While Myopia is visually a great work of landscape art, I was dispirited by the sixth hole, a short par four over a creek to a turtle-backed, hard and fast green. Only gorilla glue would have helped. By the ninth hole, one stretches the forgotten pockets of the bag for fear of running out of balls.

The tenth sports a bunker well known in golf lore, involving President William Taft, a 300 pounder with an enormous appetite for both golf and food. Myopia became his ‘home’ course when he summered on the North Shore. It’s reported that he once toppled into the bunker after scooping a ball out the sand, and he required draft horses and caddies with ropes to get out of the abyss. The club has since renamed it The Taft Bunker and mercifully installed steps.

Leeds’ other ‘masterwork’ might be seen as Bass Rocks, in nearby Gloucester. As opposed to the punishing Myopia, Bass Rocks could be a place to study, where the art of design might be reimagined for the recreationists who have no interest in discussing cants of fairways and contours of greens. At Bass Rocks, Leeds adapted a very early layout, and a walkabout of 18 today reveals the use of rocks and mounds, combining penalties for a miss (by right handers), and the many greens that are tiny targets. But the course holds up well in a modern context in having the finest collections of short holes this writer has played.

Club president Garth Cumberlidge noted the course opens in a very inviting way, then bares its teeth along the ocean holes of the fifth, sixth and seventh where the view of the Atlantic Ocean would be the consolation for having played the hole well or, if not, ensnared by the chocolate drop that fronts the greens. Cumberlidge pointed out the mounds were often used as depositories of unwanted rocks, preceding the era of earthmoving equipment. To a beginner, they would be an absurdity meant to confound a golfer who, to that point, had played the hole well. To a designer, they were an economic way to not have to sled rocks off the acreage. Even so, Bass Rocks’ short length, beautifully sculpted landing areas, its ocean air and meticulous care make the design feel more egalitarian, more for enjoyment and recreation, even for a commoner like me.

Leeds did not leave any pamphlets or essays of his philosophy, but any discussion of ‘Egalitarian Design’ goes through Frank Lloyd Wright. While not a course architect, Wright’s philosophy influences more than just his chosen field and feathers in nicely with this discussion of golf in the age of pandemic players. He believed in organic spaces where everyone would be encouraged to reflect the democratic values of freedom, engagement and participation. In creating what he called an ‘architecture for democracy’, he redefined the concept of space to allow a common man to feel, well, uncommon. In other words, you don’t need to be rich to feel rich. One could enjoy the open air and elegant, artistic landscapes; everyone has the opportunity for recreation in nourishing environments. These elements can be seen to be what the ‘Covid class’ of golfers are seeking. We may easily argue this access to air, wide open spaces, and gentle recreation are ‘long standing principles of the game’ even if these players are not there to debate risk and reward shots or how to play in the sand.

Having played with experts and absolute beginners taking up the game during Covid, I would suggest one egalitarian approach would be to put tees between 30 and 50 metres from the green where a gentle flick might be rewarded. Beginners would be challenged to reach in regulation and begin at the beginning: the short game.

Myopia may remain a province of the rich and mighty, and we might have to wait a few years to join Bass Rocks, but let’s hope rich and poor alike preserve a game of risk and reward for the sporting, and a fair go for social golfers who have discovered the treasures of the outdoors. It may be ironic that golf has brought us to this, but play it as it lay. Designers should make the necessary changes, so that all should be able to enjoy the possibility of ‘a good walk ruined,’ and in thrilling locations.

Mark Wagner has written about golf for Northeast Golf, The Worcester Telegram and Gazette, and The Boston Globe