GUEST COMMENTARY
Bernard Darwin 
Bernard Darwin
Sunday, August 9, 2009
By Alan Shipnuck

Aberdovey and Bernard Darwin for Golfer’s Journal

By Jeff Silverman

 

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 Wind.

 

So I 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.

 

But in 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.

 

I envied 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.

 

But mostly I envied him Aberdovey. What golfer doesn’t yearn for a course to call home?

 

As 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 western Wales 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 up Darwin 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 went.

 

More than 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."

 

Having 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.

 

My 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. Darlington 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.

 

For better and for worse, Aberdovey became Bernardo’s 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, Bernardo was 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.

 

The nine 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.

 

Darwin deemed 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.

 


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17th at Sawgrass 
Signature Holes
Wednesday, July 15, 2009

By Jeff Silverman

By Jeff Silverman

 

               Interesting 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.

               But just what is a signature hole?

Like 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.

Click.

Get the picture?

These 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 be  for their aesthetic and photogenic qualities, sometimes the beauty’s only skin deep. Sometimes, as a strategic test of golf, there’s no there there.

Just ask the architects. When they end up with a hole so anointed, it’s not because they themselves set out to create one.

               "As a design concept," dismisses Tom Doak, "it’s irrelevant."

               It’s also limiting.

               "What’s the signature hole at Pine Valley?" asks Steve Smyers. He’ll gladly prosecute the case for each.

Or, wonders Fazio, Pinehurst 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 setting.

Nor can you find just one on Shinnecock, the National Golf Links, or Augusta, says Mike 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."

Even 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.

"The implication," suggests Gil Hanse, "is that the rest isn’t meeting it."

And every architect worth his backhoe wants each of the 18 to be a keeper.

Still, acknowledges Rees 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."

With 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.

His father, of course, was Robert Trent Jones, the best-known designer of the mid-20th century. A savvy self-promoter, Jones pere  engineered 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: business-savvy CEO.

Actively 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.

As 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."

Yet, 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.)

If you build it, they will come.

By 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 unum of 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.

As 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."

 

While 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."

In 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."

So 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!            

Anymore 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 yardage book.

Where the signature hole idea gets dicey is in the discussion of classic courses built before the idea was ever born. Honestly, how could Pebble Beach not 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."

What 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 visually inspiring."

Certainly, 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 a postcard.

But they do get asked.

And they do accede.

And the results aren’t always pretty.

One 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.

As 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, Geoffrey Cornish, the dean of the profession, thinks that’s a good thing – that golfers are asking.

"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."

Our 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 Ford, Pa.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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Ladies tees 
Why itís manly to play from the ladies tees
Thursday, July 2, 2009

By Jeff Silverman

 

           Let 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 for..."

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 golf course.

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 precincts.

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 you?"

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 practice.

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.

 

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 Ford, Pa,


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