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Naming Courses

Some guys do nothing but complain. Me, for example, in the present instant. Gripe I must, despite the National Golf Foundation (NGF) tabulation that an average of three hundred new courses opened annually in the United States between 1998 and 2002—524 in 2000 alone. Throw in the half dozen or so that reopen each year following major renovation and the total roster of golf courses in the country approaches a whopping 16,000. True, the rate of construction has slowed somewhat recently, but this has been accompanied by greater price competition among owners. Thus, though running a golf course is no easier, it doesn't take Alan Greenspan to figure out that the numbers—more courses, accelerated pace of play—favor golfers.

So what's my problem?

Something that Orwell may have anticipated or, if he did not, should have: We seem to be running out of golf-course names. Perhaps this was inevitable, given analogous phenomena in other industries. Automobile models, for example, used to be named for wild or mythological animals (Impala, Mustang, Thunderbird) or for graceful-sounding abstractions (Fairmont, Corvette, Regal). Now, just as often, they are identified by a string of letters, numbers or a combination of the two (S500, RX7, Z3).

Golf hasn't gone that far—yet. For now, endless repetition suffices. For example, could we possibly need another layout whose name includes Eagle, of which, as of this writing, there are 124?Actually, according to my NGF operative, Jim Kass, the number is 163 if you count Eagle's, Gleneagles and other derivatives. Even more fecund are Pine (181, plus 132 for the plural, Pines, totaling 313) and Lake (478 and 228, respectively, for a colossal 706 aggregate). I stopped him before he made it to the Woodlands, the Creeks, the Rivers or the Hills.

Europeans don't seem to have this problem. Take Ireland; more specifically, its northwest quadrant. Here, it's impossible to separate the allure of the course names from the courses themselves: Rosapenna, Ballyliffin, Connemara, Enniscrone, Portnoo. Often, the Irish resolve the duality between lyricism and literalism simply by referring to the same layout with two interchangeable names. Thus, County Sligo is also known as Rosses Point, Donegal as Murvagh, Carne as Belmullet, and so forth.

These are not, like the aforementioned cars, random collections of letters and vowels; they're historic and geographical names that add—how should I put this?—texture to the experience of playing them. Even if you don't know what they mean. Pyle & Kenfig, in Wales, was a great experience, but nothing compared with the exercise our foursome undertook in fabricating sources of the name after the round.

Would that American name giving were so original. Regrettably, the trend stateside appears, like so much else in golf and society generally, to be yet another manifestation of the marketing imperative, of branding—the name recognition without the poetry. NGF's Kass appeared tacitly to confirm that judgment when he observed, "The more standardissue names—birds of prey, topographical features, that sort of thing— still constitute the vast majority. For that reason, the ones that are weird do stand out, and we're seeing more and more of them."

The results are sometimes subtle, sometimes goofy. For instance, the Renaissance Golf Club, a private golfing enclave nearing completion in Haverhill, Massachusetts, manages by its name to connote the gentility of a bygone era without alluding directly to the elitism, and sometimes worse, that was part and parcel of the period.

Similarly, the Architects Golf Club, a public property in Phillipsburg, New Jersey, may sound superficially as though it caters to that profession long associated with refined tastes. Only in a way, though: The "Architects" in this case refers to designers of classic courses—Ross, Tillinghast, Flynn, Jones the Elder and others— and work they produced between 1885 and 1955. In other words, it is a so-called tribute course, but not to the current members. Still, it sounds better than the Tree Surgeons Golf Club or the Orthodontists Golf Club.

Nowhere is this impulse for instantaneous grandeur more prevalent than in the explosion of "Nationals," which currently number 109. Presumably drawing on the cachet of Augusta National—the name of which makes sense insofar as it draws much of its strictly private membership from the richest and most powerful guys from all over—the new Nationals are mostly upscale daily fee courses that Martha Burk could play if she came up with the scratch. And in an interesting twist to the whole branding phenomenon, the courses appropriating the "National" designation actually do seem to be a cut above your standard public facility. Still, aren't there other ways—other words—with which courses could express superiority?

Asked to identify the most vexing feature of new-name mania, I would single out a kind of overwrought literalism. To wit: A relatively new executive layout in Nashville, Tennessee, commemorates the dedication to junior golf in Tennessee of Vince Gill, the country singer and avid golfer. Presumably struggling to balance Gill's noble philanthropy with his just-folks demeanor, the course's founders named it VinnyLinks at Shelby Park, suggestive, unfortunately, more of Joe Pesci than of its intended namesake.

Speaking of unfortunate, there's the story of Marty Sanchez, a New Mexico golf phenom who passed away at a tragically young age. His legacy: the Marty Sanchez Links de Santa Fe. Don't get me wrong, I'm all for honoring the memory of our fallen comrades, and I'm sure that the locals just say, "Meet me at Marty's for a 10 a.m. tee time," or something along those lines. But if Marty's swing were as ungainly as the name of the course . . . well, there wouldn't be a course named for him, that's for sure.

Another mistake course namers make is to equate lengthiness with catchiness. This year marked the debut of Mattaponi Springs Golf Club at Penola Station, a course near Richmond, Virginia. Again, regulars will say (I hope), "Let's play the Springs on Wednesday." The fact that "penola" is a Native American word for "cotton" will be all but forgotten.

By extension, while names like Shinnecock have achieved iconic status, an Indian name alone is no guarantee of recognition. It remains to be seen, for example, whether the names of two excellent new layouts at the Oneida Indian Nation's Turning Stone Resort and Casino in Verona, New York, will ultimately capture the quality of the golf experience. One is Kaluhyat (pronounced ga-LU-yut), meaning "the other side of the sky"; the other, Atunyote (pronounced uh- DUNE-yote), translates as—what else?—"eagle." Hey, I applaud the poetry of the names. But do you think you can remember them?

I recently played a course in East Haddam, Connecticut, called Fox Hopyard. It turned out to be a lot more fun speculating with a local librarian on how the name was derived—the course is adjacent to a state park named Devil's Hopyard, but of course that's only a partial explanation—than actually nailing down the answer. Fox Hopyard's pro, Ron Beck, formerly served at its sister course, Crumpin- Fox, in Bernardston, Massachusetts, and was unsurprised by my reaction. For years he gave members the honest, simple explanation for the name Crumpin-Fox: It's a contraction of the owners' last names. Finally he gave up, acknowledging that the members' fabrications beat reality any day.

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