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A Golfer's Memoir | T+L Golf

Martin O’Neill Illustration

Photo: Martin O’Neill

The course designer was no Robert Trent Jones. The fellow we hired was just a Saturday Afternoon Architect, one of those self-promoting quacks who designed sand-green golf courses for small towns. He charged practically nothing, and that’s precisely what his services were worth. He usually mailed the interested town a postcard to announce his coming (and to be sure the mayor or city clerk would be on hand to pay his fee). After a quick, critical glance at the acreage, the "architect" would take off at a brisk pace, placing a stake here, another one there, and so on, until all eighteen stakes were in the ground. He would then double back to where the mayor was waiting, explaining that the red stakes marked the proposed tee locations and the blue stakes the locations of the greens.

"That will be fifty dollars," he would say. "Here’s my card."

It was no trick at all to lay out five or six such masterpieces in a single weekend. Hence the name.

When it opened, our new course had concrete tees, wooden tee boxes and hard-sand greens. It was the contractor’s decision on the tees and greens. He had some experience with concrete (on tennis courts) and oiled sand (on macadam roads).

There were no trees or hazards.

The fairways and rough were pasture grass, and since we had no mowers—just grazing cattle and sheep—the grass was usually pretty high. When a ball in play was lost, we lay down and rolled around in the area until the ball revealed itself with a poke to the shoulder blades. (Our lady players were not above rolling around in the grass in this fashion. A Silver King golf ball cost a dollar, which was a lot of money in those days.) We had no clubhouse and no sanitary facilities except for an old Chic Sale two-holer in an adjacent pasture.

The New Richmond Golf & Country Club officially opened on April 17, 1924. The "tee boxes" were lidded containers holding moist sand, a pinch of which was used to tee up the ball for driving. Chic Sale was a hayseed comedian of the 1920s who wrote a best seller about privies. The livestock, of course, defecated where they were standing, belying Dad’s claim that the course presented no hazards.

Sand greens were common then, particularly in small communities. Sand greens were very cheap to build and even cheaper to maintain. The typical green was circular, about twenty feet in diameter, and crowned slightly for drainage. The hard macadam base was topped with oil-treated sand, which we periodically dragged with a burlap sweep to ensure a smooth, level surface. Each green was also provided with a small hand sweep, which we used to eliminate footprints. The cup was cut in the center of the green and never changed. That meant that the longest putt was approximately ten feet and absolutely straight. You were expected to one-putt every green; all you had to do was square the putter blade to the hole and knock it in.

If putting was easy, iron play was demanding. You could not hit an approach into a hard-sand green and expect it to hold. Any errant shot that landed directly on the green came off as hot and hard as if it had rebounded off a sidewalk. (One such shot, ricocheting off our ninth green with the velocity of a bullet, crashed through the windshield of a parked car and killed a dog.) The only possible approach was the pitch and run. If you could get your ball to trickle onto the green and stop, you were almost a cinch to get up and down.

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