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.
Another thing I enjoy about public-course golf is getting paired with strangers on the first tee. To friends who aren’t golfers, I liken it to the pleasure of pickup basketball: You show up by yourself, meet people with whom you share merely a desire to play, and then spend the next few hours banging elbows with them. No one has any idea who you are. You simply become known for your game.
For example, one morning at daybreak not long ago on the famous Black course at Bethpage—the first muni, I’ll note, to host a U.S. Open—I found myself on the first tee with the following: a rangy member of the Queens College golf team who had an impossibly wide arc and hit the ball a mile; a middle-aged Korean dry cleaner with perfectly pressed trousers and a spaghetti-like swing that somehow worked; and a plodding, fortysomething out-of-towner who was visiting his in-laws on Long Island. None of us exchanged phone numbers afterward and I can’t remember any of their names, but that morning we hunted for each other’s stray balls, lined up putts together and chatted here and there before parting ways on the hill above the eighteenth green.
Showing up solo at a resort, of course, is another story. If you arrive as a single or a twosome, you stand a chance of having to play with a vacationing husband and wife for whom a round of golf is just another luxury amenity— in other words, they could take it or leave it. But when you arrive at a muni in the lonely stillness before sunrise, chances are your playing partners will be serious about the game. If they weren’t, they’d have stayed in bed.
That certainly describes the wiry fiftyish publinxer named John who came up to me one day last summer as we walked off the first green at Bethpage Red (a worthy understudy to the Black). Playing off the white tees, I had just parred the hole while he struggled to make bogey from the blues. But he wanted action.
"Tell you what," he said. "I’ll give you that hole and spot you the white tees." That meant I’d start one up and could continue playing from the shorter markers.
"Sure," I replied, liking my chances.
He wasn’t trying to hustle me—we settled on a measly dollar Nassau—but still the game was on. My pulse quickened and I skied my drive, only to watch John bomb one down the middle and stride off, pull cart in tow, a model of determination. He won that hole to even the match and went on to win the next one, too. I managed to shake off my nerves and started swinging smoothly again, but there was no catching this guy. John found the fairway off almost every tee and rifled irons into the greens. He even drained a couple of thirty-footers. When I penciled in the final numbers, I saw that he had shot two over par for those last seventeen holes. Thank God we were only playing for a few bucks.
Don’t get me wrong—I’m Not suggesting every muni is a paradise. Not every round has been enjoyable; in fact, many I try to forget. On the same course where John and I had our match, I once endured a six-hour round with three young doctors who were just learning the game. They managed to dress the part—billowy shorts and shirts, with matching caps—but a couple of these guys could barely get the ball in the air. One of them, after standing interminably over his first tee shot, dribbled it pathetically. Most golfers I know would have walked away, but I’d already shot most of the morning getting to the course and waiting to tee off. I wasn’t about to go home now.
As much as I romanticize the munis, I look forward to one day joining a private club. Since my junior membership at our family’s club ended the autumn after I finished college (sixteen years ago, but who’s counting?), I’ve missed being able to show up, find a game and get around in three hours. The fact that my two brothers belong to clubs only adds to my longing. Sociologists call this "relative deprivation."
But envy aside, I have nothing to complain about. The rounds I get to play as a part of my job take me places my brothers will never see. As for life at the munis, well, it’s still golf, and ultimately that’s what matters the most. Regardless of how long I’ve waited for a tee time, how slow the round is going or what spotty shape the course is in, when I stand over an approach shot to a guarded green with a mid-iron in my hand, I could be playing anywhere. At that instant it’s just me, the ball and the target. The fact that the shot will land in the Bronx and not Ballybunion takes nothing away from my enjoyment of the moment.