In 2002, the Black Course at Bethpage State Park stood athwart history, challenging the premise that only posh clubs and exclusive resorts could host a U.S. Open. Wage-earners who pay green fees at Bethpage rooted for the government-owned, WPA-built course to prove itself a worthy test. Had the ’02 Open turned out to be a low-scoring cakewalk, their cause may have been lost. The notion of American golf as populist and egalitarian—with private clubs a marginal anachronism—would have been tough to defend.
But the mighty Black showed its muscle and gave the world’s best all they could handle. The U.S. Golf Association accepted laurels for its successful walk on the “muni” side, but it didn’t rest on them. It rebooked Bethpage for ’09 and scheduled the ’08 Open for Torrey Pines, a California course tucked in a resort setting but championed by blue-collar locals who play it for less than $45 a round.
The USGA then went a step further, waving its wand to create a sort of Bethpage Northwest, in the form of Chambers Bay Golf Course. Owned and operated by Pierce County in the state of Washington, Chambers Bay will proudly host the 2015 U.S. Open. The course was an environmental reclamation project, so its emergence in 2007 as a public golf course serves the public both recreationally and ecologically.
Non-golfers don’t realize how common it is for golfers to view their game as a litmus test for whether American culture is tilting (at any given time) toward humility or toward hubris. If that sounds odd, bear in mind that hubris and humility are two diametrical poles of the actual golf experience. A hacker can pull off a series of booming drives and crisp approach shots that makes him feel god-like. A scratch player can lose his swing and hit shots so bad he wants to slink out of sight. The flashes of greatness come from nowhere, whereas ineptitude tends to seize us just as we decide we have golf mastered.
This inner reality leads to a cognitive dissonance whenever golf becomes a platform for elitism, vanity, ego and excess. Fact: Golf is a humbling game invented in humble Scottish fishing villages. Discordant fact: Donald Trump plays golf, loves golf, builds his own golf courses.
Since the first U.S. Open at Bethpage, the American scene has been a montage of hubris and vanity, with humility and modesty on the run. Our foreign policy was all arrogance and cowboy hostilities. The financial system got hijacked and looted in a government-abetted white-collar crime spree. Golf, as an accouterment of the robber baron lifestyle, came in for disdain. Both Jimmy Cayne and Stan O’Neal, CEO’s of Bear Sterns and Merrill Lynch, respectively, were portrayed as callously truant while their companies spiraled toward bankruptcy. The USGA’s computerized handicap system verified the charges by showing all the days and times Cayne and O’Neal were out golfing.
Nor, during this lost era, did the American golf industry do much to uphold the game’s image. Shortsightedness borne of avarice led to drastic overbuilding of golf courses, which has produced a daily toll of bankruptcies and shutdowns.
In 2002, the argument between golf belonging to Everyman and golf for the elites was a valid one. But the ground has shifted beneath our spikes. Everyman himself, in the form of the United Auto Workers, succumbed to vainglory and included golf in its devil’s bargain. At a cost of $33 million, the UAW built a lakeside retreat in Michigan, featuring a Rees Jones-designed championship golf course—pricetag: $6.4 million. The union’s plush retreat has reportedly run up operating losses of $23 million over five years.
Sometime this week, far from the pomp of the U.S. Open, golf will work its rootsy magic in obscure and unadorned surroundings. A player who stands four-up in a match will smirk as he wins the 10th hole, boast as he wins the 11th, then fall completely apart and cough up the final seven. A struggling mini-tour pro will accidentally crack a dead twig that hangs in the line of his intended backswing, call a penalty on himself and miss the cut by one stroke. A nervous newcomer with mismatched clubs will get a warm invitation to play along with three straight-hitting regulars. And a junior with a quick temper will be told the story of Bobby Jones, a hot-headed quitter in his youth who grew to become golf’s epitome of class and manners.
If it matters to you whether golf in America belongs to the masses or to the privileged few—whether it’s driven by ego or humble at heart—you can seek out little moments like those and draw your own conclusions.
Then maybe it won’t matter where they’re playing the U.S. Open.