As the travel editor of this magazine, I’m blessed with the opportunity to play some of the most spectacular and exclusive courses in the world. I’ve stood on the towering seventeenth tee of Kapalua’s Plantation course and unleashed a drive that stayed aloft so long it seemed to escape gravity. I’ve blasted a three-wood over Hell’s Half Acre, the wasteland of scrub and sand at Pine Valley, the number-one course on the planet. I’ve picked iron shots off the brick-hard fairways of the British Isles, from Scotland to Ireland to England and even the Isle of Man. And I’ve ricocheted my way down fairways framed by boulders and saguaros at Whisper Rock, a private club in Scottsdale, Arizona, where the locker-room nameplates read like the leaderboard at a top PGA Tour event.
But just as a restaurant critic wearies of dining exclusively on haute cuisine, I often find myself looking forward to returning to the humbler courses I play on weekends back home in New York.
Friends and fellow scribes think I’m crazy for playing as much public golf in the metropolitan area as I do—once a week during the season if at all possible. All those stories about having to sleep in your car to snag a tee time or driving ninety minutes each way from Manhattan (where I live) just to play eighteen holes of golf at a pace swifter than midtown traffic?If you haven’t experienced them, trust me, they’re true.
So how can a guy who regularly enjoys lining up a birdie putt at a fabulous course with a caddie leaning over his shoulder willingly endure the frustrations of a municipal dog track?I ask myself that question all the time.
Maybe it has something to do with my earliest muni experiences, playing the New York City courses as a teenager with my dad. We’d pick up his buddy Gordon and drive from Manhattan up the Major Deegan Expressway to Mosholu Golf Course in the Bronx. Other than his devotion to the game, Gordon had little in common with the members of the country club my family belonged to out on Long Island. A retiree on limited income, he wore threadbare clothes and didn’t own a car; he took the subway to Mosholu when he couldn’t catch a ride.
The course—bedraggled at the time but since remade into a thriving First Tee facility—was Gordon’s second home. He spent every day there, advancing the ball down Mosholu’s narrow fairways and sipping coffee from a thermos in the dusty clubhouse, where he kept his sticks in a locker along with a beat-up windbreaker and a collection of broken tees for the par threes. Whenever my dad and I joined him, Gordon would introduce us to all the other Mosholu regulars and point out which ones loved "action," i.e., money games.
Part of the fun that I now have playing public courses is adapting my game to less-than-perfect conditions. I like having to stroke the ball firmly on shaggy greens. Bunkers pose another challenge: Unless you play on Tour, the quality of the sand differs from course to course, and as anyone who has played his share of munis knows, lots of bunkers lack only one thing: sand. It’s a lesson I relearned during a couple of recent rounds at Casperkill Golf Club in Poughkeepsie, New York, which despite its former life as a private club is now a fine if flawed public course. I skulled several shots out of the hard-packed sand until I finally got wise and started using a wedge with less loft, which wouldn’t bounce off the sand into the belly of the ball and send it screaming over the green. Adjustments made, my sand shots started landing reasonably close to the hole.