I envy Bernard Darwin,
and I’ve envied him since the day we met in 1993, some 30 years after his
death, when Herbert
Warren Wind introduced us. I’d been assigned to write a profile of Fred Couples,
and since I’d never written any golf before, I’d asked some golf-savvy cronies
to point me towards the best writer I could steal from. To a man, they fingered
started reading...and fortuitously bumped into Bernardo via Wind’s long and lovely New Yorker
encomium marking the 1976 centenary of Darwin’s birth. Its opening sentence –
cited by heart – still thrills: "There is little disagreement that the
best golf writer of all time was an Englishman named Bernard Richard Meirion Darwin." The
best says someone’s better? Bring him on.
that pre-dot-com universe, I was more likely to eagle the next hole I played
than score a volume of his essays. As the web wove its wonders, I managed to
stockpile a pretty good stash of his work, and by the time I’d cobbled together
the 2003 anthology "Bernard Darwin on Golf," my envy had stockpiled, too.
his prose – elegant, personal, insightful, and so welcoming; who
wouldn’t? (On its breadth and bravura, Darwin entered the World Golf Hall of Fame last November.)
I envied his game; an original Walker Cupper at 46, he was twice a
semi-finalist in the British Amateur. I envied his work ethic; only once in his half
century as golf correspondent for The Times of London and Country Life magazine did he ever file
late, and history blames the wireless system on the ship transporting him
across a stormy Atlantic.
I envied him Aberdovey.
What golfer doesn’t yearn for a course to call home?
stunningly as Darwin
wrote about golf’s heroes and heroics, he distanced the field in his knack for
capturing golf’s places, and he captured no place better than the links in
that he grew up with and returned to regularly -- in person and on the page.
Through a long and distinguished golfing life, his excursions – always by
rail, even if the rest of his family travelled by car from London or Kent – became rites he shared
with readers: the day-dreaming, the packing, the train ride, the conductor
calling stations along the way. Ian Woosnan, an Aberdovey aficionado, likes to think
his golfing grandfather, a conductor on the Cambrian line, might have chatted
en route. In summer, the trip included wife and children; in winter, he’d go for
a New Year’s week with friends. "It can be warm enough in January to play in
just a T-shirt," Woosie told me, though removing his jacket was about as far as Darwin ever
just a place or destination, Aberdovey became for Bernardo, a fixed landscape against which he
could mark time and measure himself and upon which he bestowed unwavering
affection in embarrassingly delicious public displays. It was, he confessed,
"the course that my soul loves best of all the courses in the world."
chased those words, I wanted to catch that soul. I had no doubt where I’d find
it. What I didn’t suspect was the golfing truth it would reveal.
epiphany arrived on an October morning soon after I arrived on Aberdovey’s
first tee. No one else was on the course yet. The winds were up. Richard
Darlington, author of the club’s centennial book, had warned me in the
clubhouse that this had the makings of an unusual day; those winds were howling
down off the Snowdonia
foothills from the east, not the west, over the dunes beside Cardigan Bay.
has history with Aberdovey’s unusual days; Bernardo chronicled his victory in a
children’s championship in 1929, and later Darlington caddied for him. "Mr. Darwin
swung like a monkey on a stick," he recalled. Given the winds, that had the
sound of a sensible swing tip.
I took my
time on the tee to survey so much of what seemed so familiar through Darwin’s
descriptions – the railroad tracks on the inland edge of the course, the
tumerous Cader bunker that must be traversed on the par-3 third, the marvelous
vista that would more fully reveal itself when I climbed the pulpit tee box on
No. 4, the sandhills I’d play through coming home. I began feeling a mark of my
own measurement: If I could accept that, in the middle of my middle age, there
was still time to improve my handicaps with keyboard, golf clubs, and, most
assuredly, deadlines, what was spreading out before me -- the blush of a first
love that would mature for Darwin into a complete and devoted romance -- was as gone with the
wind for me as half my shots would be in the bluster. My envy was stabbing.
Flings? I’ve had those with courses, sure. Who hasn’t? But Darwin drew something deeper from Aberdovey,
something elusive and personal, and then generously shared it with the rest of
us. As I walked his footsteps, the epiphany hit: what he found on this field
was the gift he wished for golfers everywhere -- "blind and unreasoning
affection" for a golf course. I wasn’t feeling the stab anymore.
and for worse, Aberdovey
enduring partner. Oh, he might go off for a waltz around St. Andrews and St. George’s – he captained both
– and pretty much every other loop from the North Sea to the Channel
isles. Yet, Aberdovey
burrowed into his skin and stayed there, secure. "About this one course in the
world," he conceded gleefully, "I am a hopeless and shameful sentimentalist and
I glory in my shame."
Of course, we’re all capable of turning into shameless
sentimentalists the moment a golfing ground sets its seal on our imaginations.
I surely consider myself blessed to have found my own – finally -- on the
edge of the sea in Rhode Island. I relish us growing older together, and that’s as
much, really, as any golfer deserves. To have been young and new together, too?
Why ask for the moon when I had my par star?
True, Bernardowas present at its creation, and – how
appropriate for Charles Darwin’s grandson – continued to be present as it,
and the golfer in him, evolved. Though Darwin never wrote this, my inner Freud can’t
avoid inferring that Aberdovey’s hold stemmed in part from a psychic survival mechanism
he fittingly developed. His mother, Amy, died a few days after his birth. Yet, I
suspect she lived, for him, through Aberdovey.
As a boy,
he spent spent summers with Amy’s mother and brothers just inland from Aberdovey at Machynlleth. The house was called
Pantlludw – the name’s still on the gate – and Amy’d loved it: "I believe," she wrote
in her diary, "it is as much a paradise as is possible." So did her son --
through golf’s connection, with the course as its anchor. Uncles Arthur and Richard Ruck,
both military men, were golf nuts with no place in the neighborhood to play. So
they created one. And Bernardo helped.
rudimentary holes they laid out en famille in 1886 on the linksland of Aberdovey’s
commons officially became the Aberdovey Golf Club six years later when Uncle Dicky, again with Bernardo assisting,
designed a full 18 – planting real cups this time. (Colt, Braid
and Fowler would later tinker, not all to Darwin’s liking.) The Rucks
bestowed full member status – not junior or son-of – on their
nephew, just 15 then. He never gave it up.
that anointment a significant "step in life," and it left a significant
footprint. It’s visible on the silver in Aberdovey’s trophy case and in the photos and
clips that line the walls of the club’s boardroom, dedicated in honor of his
service – first club captain in 1897, and twice president, his final term
from 1944 until his death in 1961 – and his stature. You don’t have to
follow him to Aberdovey
to find it, though. A bit lies in everything he wrote, because he carried Aberdovey
and its memories and the happiness he found there and what that meant to him
wherever he went.
I still envy much about Bernardo, but Aberdovey? No. Given what it gave him,
and what he gave us golfers in return, there’s nothing to begrudge at all.
that the one snippet of architectural argot that virtually every golfer can
toss about with assurance – "the signature hole" – has nothing to
do with golf course architecture at all. But there it is – like Waldo,
everywhere -- argued about with conviction over beverages in the grill room,
pronounced reverently from the broadcast booth, and embraced with rapture at
every station of the gamut from the lowly goat track to venues hosting major
championships. The notion’s so ubiquitous it seems a golf course can’t be a
real golf course without one.
just what is a signature hole?
the Supreme Court’s take on pornography, the definition’s not specific, but we
all know one when we see one. "They wow you," says Tom Fazio, "even without playing them."
We are drawn to their mountains, their deserts, their oceans, their lakes,
their fountains, their waterfalls, their elevated tees, their azaleas in bloom,
their lighthouses, their windmills, the grass monkeys planted in their bunkers,
even the Statue of Liberty – or rollercoaster – in the distance on
the aiming line from the tee.
are the holes that lure us, the holes that excite us, the holes on which we
pull out our cameras to record our presence on them, the holes we know are
something special, the hole’s we’ve decided are the best. And some are. Yet,
there’s an odd golfing disconnect at the core of any conversation about them
for stunning as these holes we single out may befor their aesthetic and photogenic qualities, sometimes the
beauty’s only skin deep. Sometimes, as a strategic test of golf, there’s no
ask the architects. When they end up with a hole so anointed, it’s not because
they themselves set out to create one.
a design concept," dismisses Tom Doak, "it’s irrelevant."
the signature hole at Pine Valley?" asks Steve Smyers. He’ll
gladly prosecute the case for each.
No. 2? "You can’t find one. Its greatness rests in its entirety," and, he
adds, the specific challenges of each hole, not the drama of the course’s
can you find just one on Shinnecock, the National Golf Links, or Augusta,
Keiser, proprietor of Bandon Dunes. "It’s like saying I have four children and this one’s
my signature child," he sighs. "The idea is sort of sad."
self-defeating, like identifying the signature chapter of "Moby Dick," the
signature track on "Abbey Road," the signature scene of "Casablanca," or the
signature phrase of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.
implication," suggests Gil Hanse, "is that the rest isn’t
every architect worth his backhoe wants each of the 18 to be a keeper.
Jones, "People are always asking, ‘What’s the signature hole?’ Not the most
meaningful; the signature.
It’s entrenched. It’s part of the golfing lingo."
its source residing in his own genetic line. "My father had nice handwriting,"
he says. "He really liked his signature." So much so that he turned it first
into a tool and then into a concept.
father, of course, was Robert Trent Jones, the best-known designer of the mid-20th
century. A savvy self-promoter, Jonespereengineered a seismic shift in the perception of his
profession. While predecessors like A.W. Tillinghast, George Thomas,
and Alister Mackenzie aspired toward art on enormous canvases, Jones --
who aspired no less nobly – tacked another layer to the job description:
trading on his most recognized assets – his name and reputation – Jones, in
the ‘60s, began punctuating his advertisements with the phrase "Give Your
Course a Signature," signing off with his autograph underneath. A Jones
"signature course" had negotiable cachet. It also had a unified story conveyed
in 18 connecting chapters – some certainly better and more memorable than
others – that came together to reflect the heroic style of its creator.
Like the signature below a painting, the phrase implied pride of authorship,
endorsing the work as a whole.
the game developed through the ‘80s, courses – particularly daily-fee and
resort tracks – sought new ways to attract customers. The handwriting, so
to speak, was on the wall, and, from it, an altogether different script was
forged. "My guess," says Jack Nicklaus, "is that the term was created by some marketing or
public-relations firm in an effort to find a creative way to promote their golf
course, because I seriously doubt that it was a term coined by a golf course
designer." Like Jones, Nicklaus has adopted the use of "signature" to describe the
courses, like the recently opened Dismal River in the Nebraska sandhills, that get his best attention from start to
finish. But he would never label any individual hole a "signature." "You want
every one," he says, "to be as strong and as enjoyable as the next."
from an owner or developer’s perspective, the label makes exquisite sense.
"You’ve got only one shot to inspire people to come visit," says Steve Adelson, partner in the Discovery Land Company,
developer of up-scale golf communities like The Estancia Club in Scottsdale. "A
collection of holes is too complicated for people." But the right one is just
enough. "You can photograph it. You can put it in your ad. You can put it in
your brochure. You can put it on your website." (And hope that publications
like this one slap it in their pages.)
you build it, they will come.
identifying and advertising the one that instantly revs saliva glands into
overproduction, the hope is that the pull of its presence will tempt golfers to
come try the rest. Forget the e pluribus unumof Jones’s "signature
course" concept. How much simpler to avance the unum
– like a sound bite, a movie trailer, or a few sample bars from iTunes
– to shill for the whole.
a marketing tool, it has stuck. In fact, believes Adelson,
"It’s become one of the most overused terms in golf." As an expression of
architecture or design theory? "The superficial nature of the discussion gives
me a special pain in the chest," sighs Brian Silva, "but it’s better, certainly, than
no discussion at all."
a signature holes can come in any shape and size, they’re "absolutely site
driven," says Jim
Bellingham, senior vice president of development services at Troon Golf,
which creates and manages upscale facilities like the Westin La Cantera
in San Antonio and Troon North and Talking Stick in Scottsdale. "It really
gives the course a story to promote."
that promotion, par 3s tend to predominate. The daunting 17th at Sawgrass.
The rowdy 16th at the TPC of Scottsdale, home of the FBR Open.
The majestic 16th at Cypress Point. The dropshot
7th at Pebble Beach. Different as they are, all one-shotters
share a feature that makes the story-telling easier. "They unfold completely
from the tee," says Rees Jones. "They strike you the minute you see them."
do man-made structures. At Dismal River, Nicklaus opted to incorporate an existing prairie windmill into the
strategy of the his par 5 4th hole by nestling the green beside it.
"No one’s saying it’s the best hole or the strongest hole," he says, "but I
imagine it is the one that will be photographed quite a bit because of that one
element." Ta-dah! The signature. Sometimes, you can’t
avoid it. Click!
than Tom Weiskopf and Jay Moorish could avoid the Six Flags/Fiesta
Texas’s rollercoaster just beyond what would turn into the green of the
temptingly short par 4 7th hole at La Cantera’s
Resort Course. Click!
Donald Trump, on the other hand, manufactured his own set of
ponds and waterfalls around the 13th green at Trump National north of New York City.
Click! So pleased was he with his rock-walled Niagaras,
he made sure the hole was designated with signature status in the course
the signature hole idea gets dicey is in the discussion of classic courses
built before the idea was ever born. Honestly, how could Pebble Beachnot have a spectacularly snazzy series
of holes given its site, but, of course, they’re not just pretty faces. As for memorability – consider the 12th, 13th,
and 16th at Augusta; the beached par 3 3rd at Kittansett; the Road
Hole at St.
Andrews; Hell’s Half Acre at Pine Valley; the Redan
and the Cape at the National Golf Links; the par 3 6th with the bunker
mid-green at Riviera.
"Certainly," observes Doak, "there are iconic" – note
the avoidance of "signature" – "holes populating golf courses."
elevates them so? The combination of how they look and how they play. "Design," says Silva, "is
always a balancing act." It’s the architect’s job to coax the most from the
land, and when the keenest strategy and the most humbling beauty intersect
– as they do, to universal agreement, on the 16th at Cypress Point,
the 8th at Pebble, the 16th over the quarry at Merion, the heroic 4th at Bethpage –
the result is unforgettable. Signature holes? Of course. Who can argue? But
that they can be ascribed the same sobriquet as the cover art on the brochure
put together to help sell real estate at the latest golfing community seems to
cheapen the concept entirely. As Adelson concedes, "a
signature hole may not be the best playing hole. It just has to be the most
every architect wants his holes – each of them – to inspire. "A hole should be
beautiful to look at," stresses Hanse, "but not at
the expense of how it plays." Indeed, architects present a unified front in
insisting they would never sacrifice playability just to provide a client with
they do get asked.
they do accede.
the results aren’t always pretty.
architect who’d rather keep the specifics buried in a bunker admits, despite
objection, to forcing the routing of one hole at a particularly prestigious
club toward an especially scenic landing area. The hole he came up with was
beautiful, but, the domino effect of his accommodation was back-to-back blind
shots on the next hole, which he had to squeeze in to fit. The membership
roared, and both holes were soon redesigned. By another architect.
much as architects pooh-pooh the concept of signature holes, they do, however,
get a kick out of the debates. "I’m often surprised at the holes they ask me
about," says Doak-- but at least they’re asking. At 92,
Cornish, the dean of the profession, thinks that’s a good thing –
that golfers are
"We’re hungry for
golfers to appreciate our art form," he says. "Signature holes stimulate
interest. That might get them thinking what else these holes might have besides
beauty. That’s a step toward getting them into golf architecture."
aim, in this space, precisely. Which, of itself, makes this neither a good
column nor a bad one necessarily, but perhaps a signature one all the same.
Jeff Silverman edited the award-winning book "Bernard Darwin on Golf."He writes regularly on the game for
such publications as Sports Illustrated and Travel & Leisure Golf.He lives in Chadds
me step forward – quite literally -- and admit this from the get-go: I
like to play from the ladies’ tees.
I offer this confession
freely and proudly. I’m neither traitor to my sex nor denier of my gender, just
another golfer looking for an edge, and to what lengths – for isn’t
length always the issue? – won’t we golfers go to discover one?I found mine by learning to give an
inch and enter the foreign country I’d always considered no man’s land.
Believe me, it wasn’t easy.
At first, my tactical advance felt like shameful retreat, not gaining ground.
But reducing the length of the golf course has so changed my enjoyment of the
game that I come before you with the passionate conviction of a true believer
anxious to pass on nothing, well, short of revelation.
So, please, join me. It
gets lonely for a guy up there.
OK, before I get too far
ahead of myself, let me step back and state the obvious: For male golfers other
than the most skilled, the markers we pick to play from tend to have less to do
with the reality of our games than with the ideal games we imagine we possess.
Sure, the tips are beyond most of us, but we opt to play from them anyway.
Co-conspirators in so many acts of flagrant golficide,
they massage our egos nonetheless, abetting the fragility of our golfing hopes,
even as they reveal how misguided our measurement of our golfing selves may be.
In our minds, then, moving up becomes a sad concession to core-rattling
masculine truths: advancing age, decreasing skill, diminishing power. And who
wants to be conceding that?
Jane Blalock, 27 times a
winner on the LPGA Tour, once told me how, at Pro-Ams,
she’d marvel when her male partners instinctively trekked to distant outposts
while she teed off more sensibly from the middle whites. "If we switched, I’d
still be 20 yards beyond most of them," she shrugged. "It’s a shame men make a
difficult game more difficult for themselves."
But what if we reframe that
observation? What if it’s not about hard or easy? What if it’s about shaking
things up every now and then to make the golf course a little different and the
good walks we take on them more interesting?
That said, I’d better admit this, too: My
revelation didn’t come pain free. Indeed, pain – gnawing, nagging, and
crippling – forced my great leap forward in the first place. When my hips
began dissolving to talc 10 years ago, my game disintegrated so quickly I was
ready to consign my clubs to eternal storage.
A sports psychologist I met at a dinner party
reversed my dive. His prescription, in retrospect, seems simple. Until I could
seriously play again, I’d have to change my expectations. Check your ego at the
bag drop, he counseled, play a shorter golf course, forget about score and just
enjoy the experience.
"But what about my handicap?" I countered.
"Either you accept the one you hadn’t bargained
He didn’t need to finish. Protected by a medical
excuse, I figured I could accept this apostasy to my Y chromosome. I’d still be
playing golf – albeit an abridged edition – right? So what if my
friends teased me; they wouldn’t begrudge me, and anyone else I might tee it up
with would, doubtless, applaud my grit to soldier on. At least that’s what I
tried to convince myself as I entered into this interregnum in my golfing life,
consigned – until a pair of titanium mulligans arrived
two years later -- to surveying the landscape from (pick one) the ladies, the
women’s, the forwards, the reds. Red. How appropriate. To match the color of my
face the morning I first left my golfing buds behind me.
Funny, but they
didn’t care what tees I played from. Why, then, should I? It took me a
few rounds, but I lost my self-consciousness. Then something amazing happened:
My game actually improved. My chopped-down swing didn’t land me in the wild
levels of hell I knew all too intimately; it just put the ball in play. Shorter
distances in meant greens were approachable without howitzers. And I practiced
my chipping and putting. A lot.
But there was something
else: a new viewpoint, as if I’d stepped through the looking glass. Scanning
the horizon from the forward tees, I seemed to be gazing at an entirely other
And I was.
Everything had shifted.
Bunkers, ponds, and hillocks, certainly, but nothing as dramatic as the
perspective from within. I no longer felt defeated before I’d even started. For
the time being, that would be enough.
But that was then. Thanks to the miracles of
replacement surgery, I’ve returned to my rightful place with the guys astern,
but I haven’t turned my back to the fronts and the alternative they offer to
the grind. I still don’t like to feel defeated. So, three, maybe four times a
season, I happily seek haven ahead. What began as an act of desperation
originally designed to keep me in the game has actually evolved into a nifty
drill designed to sharpen it.
It turns out, some pretty good instructors see the
occasional round from the reds as just that. "It’s a different challenge," says
master teacher Jim Flick, "and any time you can bring in a different challenge
you’re giving yourself a chance to improve." Flick believes that playing from
unfamiliar yardages hones distance judgment, while approaching from shorter
yardages asks golfers to think more precisely about the shot they want to play
and the quality of the result. Then there’s the course itself. "It will feel
and look different," he says. "That can only help awareness of course
management." All of which we can take with us when we drop back to longer
Pia Nilsson, Annika
Sorenstam’s longtime coach, now teaching at Legacy Golf Resort in Phoenix, agrees
with each of Flick’s points, and adds one: The forward tees provide a reality
check. "Do you score better or not from them? If you don’t, what does that tell
Interestingly, most average golfers don’t, since
most of us put far more emphasis on our full swings than in the stroke-saving
potential of our short games. Brad Faxon – no
average golfer -- remembers his college coach sending the team off from the
forward tees precisely to test their short games and, if the experiment went
well, foster a sense of going low. "It’s good for your mindset to make a few
birdies," he says. Conversely, he cautions, "it would backfire if we didn’t."
Which is why I never keep score when I play up. I
don’t need numbers to tell me how I’m hitting the ball, and for me, this isn’t
about scoring; it’s about insight and awareness. I want to feel what it’s like
to play shots that aren’t normally in my arsenal from spots on the layout I’m
not used to visiting to help me understand my game a little better and
appreciate the golf course a little more.
Hence, I never take my show on the road. When I
truncate my home track I have to turn off my autopilot and consider every hole
from a new angle. (A course I didn’t know as well would just be another 18, not
a familiar 18 reconsidered.) With an average reduction of more than 80 yards
from the middle tees I generally play from, each hole presents new options and
opportunities beyond the reach of my usual game. Hazards normally safely in the
distance suddenly taunt me to tempt them. Like Tiger – and this may be
the only circumstance in which we’re not legally stopped from appearing in the
same thought – I sometimes find it prudent to lay low and leave my driver
in the bag. I know I can still get home in two.
And even without my driver, I’m still beyond
customary landing areas. Of course, I have played shots from these
positions before – third shots after flubbing one of the first
two; so, my attitude is different. Instead of feeling hang-dog for my
ineptness, I’m positively focused on how best to attack. With a wedge or short
iron. Like – dare I whisper it? – Tiger. It can, as Faxon says, do wonders for the mindset, though there’s a
flip side, too; when I reach the green and discover I’m a far-flung 30 feet
from the pin – a result that would elate with my 3-hybrid from 190
– the disappointment is my reminder – thank you, Pia, you’re absolutely on target – of what I need to
It’s such a kick now and then to be reminded that
golf isn’t just a game of power that I’m surprised more men don’t try this.
Actually, I’m not. Nor does it surprise my friend Eric Stake, who sometimes
accompanies me on my abbreviated journeys. A superb golfer, he’s a psychiatrist
by trade, so he understands both the intricacies of the psyche and the dark night
of the golfer’s soul. "When we leave a putt short," he asks, "what do we say?
‘Hit it, Alice.’ It’s a way of berating ourselves for being unmanly. Project
that to asking a man to give up, even for a day, what he thinks is his rightful
place to play from the forward tees. Before he’s swung a club, he’s Alice in
his mind already."
I’ll gladly support
anything – renaming tees, recoloring tees,
adding additional tees -- that alleviates that stigma for others. Call me
Alice, if you want to, but I’m one golfing Alice who looks forward to his
visits to wonderland.
Silverman edited the award-winning
book "Bernard Darwin on Golf."He
writes regularly on the game for such publications as Sports Illustrated and
Travel & Leisure Golf. He lives in Chadds Ford, Pa,