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La Petite Balle Blanche

The history of America's passion for the game of golf begins on the Basque coast of southwestern France--not on an English moor or a Scottish dune but on the fourteenth tee at Le Phare, the course in Biarritz where, on a summer's day in 1889, Willie Dunn introduced William K. Vanderbilt to the mysteries of the driving iron and the true purposes of grass and sand. The two gentlemen met under circumstances that needed twenty years to prepare--twenty years, the deployment of several handsome fortunes and a lost war.

Biarritz in the late nineteenth century was Europe's most fashionable seaside resort, the comforts of its climate made famous in the 1850s by the Emperor Louis Napoleon, who built a palace on the beach for the pleasure of his Spanish wife and arrived every August with an imperial court dressed in costumes that looked as if they had been borrowed from a comic opera. The courtiers chattered about the flowers and the fish, and the emperor staged fireworks displays for personages as grand as Otto von Bismarck and King Leopold of Belgium. Louis Napoleon's empire perished in a single week in September 1870, a regrettable but unavoidable casualty of the Franco-Prussian War, and in Biarritz the palace became a hotel. By 1885 the town was attracting a new generation of important names, among them the Shah of Persia, miscellaneous Hapsburgs and Edward, Prince of Wales. The British gentry were the most numerous of the itinerant swells, and they brought with them their ancestral faith in golf.

But where to play, where to go about what Charles I and the Great Montrose both had once described as "our game of clubs and balls"?The only course to be found in all of Europe at the time was at Pau, an inconvenient sixty miles inland from Biarritz, on ground once occupied by British officers on extended leave as prisoners captured during the Napoleonic wars. The question lingered for a few years in the orange-scented air, and then someone sent to Scotland for "young Willie Dunn," a dapper, elflike figure who favored winged collars and a waxed mustache. Like every other male member of his family, Dunn served the game as club maker, course architect and teacher of the proper attitude and swing. His patrons acquired an impressive promontory overlooking the Bay of Biscay, and together with his brother, Tom, Dunn arranged eighteen holes around the lighthouse that provides the town, then as now, with its most distinctive landmark.

The brothers Dunn completed their work in the spring of 1889, soon enough to accommodate the schedule of William K. Vanderbilt, who was traveling in France that year to look at horses and confer with wine merchants. Vanderbilt was the preeminent American sportsman of the Gilded Age, the owner of a famous racing stable, the commodore of the America's Cup yacht Defender, remarkable for the aplomb with which he handled a shotgun and a billiard cue. But golf was a novelty, a sport of which he had heard British voices speak but one he had never seen, and while stopping at Biarritz with two of his American friends (Messrs. Edward S. Mead and Duncan Cryder, both of Southampton, New York), he asked Dunn for an exhibition. Dunn walked the three men to the tee at the fourteenth hole (a short par three known as the Chasm and measuring 125 yards across a pit of heavy grass), set up his ball (the rocklike gutta-percha) on a mound of pinched sand and hit it to within fifteen feet of the pin. Vanderbilt was sufficiently impressed to ask Dunn to repeat the maneuver. Dunn did so, six or seven times, all the balls describing the same apparently effortless arc, all arriving promptly on the green. Vanderbilt turned to his friends and said, "This beats rifle shooting for distance and accuracy. It is a game I thinkwould go in our country."

The record does not show when Dunn placed the temptation of a club in Vanderbilt's willing hand, but before the sun set that evening on a world otherwise preoccupied with the suicide of Archduke Rudolf and the paintings of John Singer Sargent, the three gentlemen from New York had been taken captive by the royal and ancient game. They revealed their predicament to several of their compatriots who also happened to be braving the surf that summer in Biarritz, and when the Americans sailed for home in early autumn, on steamships bearing their equally recent acquisitions of Limoges china and Parisian silk, they passed the time in deck chairs talking about how and where they would cause golf courses to bloom in what they suddenly perceived as their native desert.

Unaware of a prior experiment with six holes in a cow pasture in Yonkers, Vanderbilt encouraged Dunn to come to Southampton in 1891 to lay out twelve holes at Shinnecock Hills, where Messrs. Mead and Cryder organized the first incorporated golf club in the western hemisphere. They enlisted Dunn as the club's professional and the game's chief apostle in the wilderness of the new world. Faithful to his mission, Dunn hired 150 Shinnecock Indians to clear the land, formed acquaintances with John L. Sullivan and Buffalo Bill Cody, designed the courses at Apawamis and Jekyll Island, Georgia, and taught the rudiments of the backswing to an impatientTeddy Roosevelt, who thought the game too meek, not manly enough, a matter of mere "pussy-footing around." Roosevelt's opinion didn't muster a quorum, and by 1895 (the year in which the newly established United States Golf Association held its first Open tournament) seventy-five golf courses had taken root in American soil--in Saratoga Springs and Tuxedo Park, at Brookline and Myopia and Newport--and no less authoritative a figure than Andrew Carnegie pronounced the game "an indispensable adjunct of high civilization."


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