The A List: Go to School on the A Position’s Top Journalists; A Salute to Graduation and Golf

With all incumbent pomp and circumstance, in June’s “A List” the writers of

The A Position test their faculties with memories of college golf.

The Alister MacKenzie Green and Bunkers at Stanford University's Siebel Varsity Golf Training Complex. Photo by Aiden Bradley.

As a philosophy major, my absorption in the cosmology ought to have produced a unified theory of golf, or at least some decent play. During sophomore year at Cornell—with its gorgeous layout designed by Robert Trent Jones Sr., an alumnus—I was required by New York State physical education regulations to play a minimum of nine holes twice a week. (You read that right.) Due, perhaps, to college “lifestyle changes,” though, I was unable to hit Lake Cayuga from 100 yards out. So profoundly bad was it that one day, where the course crossed the road after the 6th hole, I kept going to the parking lot, not to pick up a club again for several years, perhaps the oddest instance of class-cutting in the annals of higher education. Ultimately, my mentor turned out to be not Aristotle or Spinoza but Don Rickles, who later said, in one of those celebrity paeans to the game: “Only when I came to understand that I stink did I begin to enjoy golf.”     —Tom Harack

There are certain benefits to going to a college with fewer than a thousand students. Such as: 1) Small class sizes; 2) Being able to play on the golf team as a middle handicapper. At Haverford College in Philadelphia’s Main Line suburbs, there was a side benefit to the latter: Our home course was Merion Golf Club’s West Course. That’s not quite as great as it sounds. Instead of being a sister course to the famed East Course, the West is more like a distant cousin. It’s a mile away from the East, the facilities consisted of no more than a starter’s shed, the conditioning was not up to the same standard (at least in the 1970s), and it’s very short. Still, it’s one of only three courses done by East Course designer Hugh Wilson, and it’s a clever layout with lots of variety: there are some long holes, and some that are really short but interesting. It was a true pleasure to play every day in season. The only problem was that every day we had to drive past the East Course to get there, getting a good view of the gem of a layout that we didn’t get to play. So, it was quite a thrill when I finally did get to play it three years after graduation, in 1981. That was the same year the U.S. Open was last played at Merion East. It’s thanks in part to Haverford College that the Open is returning there in 2013: The East Course has little room for the accoutrements of a modern U.S. Open, but Haverford—which is just across the road—agreed to allow part of its grounds to be used for corporate tents.  —David Barrett

As one of the first women to play men’s golf in college after the passage of Title IX in 1972, there was a lot to prove when I went to Wayne State University in Michigan. In 1974, we had no home course, no equipment, and no practice range. Our coach was former Green Bay Packer Joel Mason, and the best he could secure for us was shag practice on the football field beginning at 6 am. On game days, we did get food, sometimes, though Coach was not happy if we ordered pancakes and would bellow, “They are like eating lead!” Membership on the Men’s Team meant playing it down from the blues in March and forget about the Ladies Tees, which is what they were still labeled back then. Frigid temperatures, iced lakes, muddy and frozen ground, and wet golf shoes were the norm: I hadn’t yet learned two pairs of spikes were a must for road trips. Gore-tex? We had bear grease. We also had The Rule of Three: rain, wind, and cold. You could take any two, but if the trio made an appearance you were doomed. I don’t recall the particulars of too many matches but I do know this: Several men I played against are now professionals, Directors of Golf, or top players in Michigan and while I don’t remember the outcome, they certainly do.  Janina Parrott Jacobs

For all the trans-Atlantic DNA we share with our British golfing brethren, it’s easy and, I suppose, somewhat natural to assume that college golf here is pretty much the same as it is over there. Not so. One can place collegiate golf alongside beer and period cinema as something the Brits still do better, with more nuance and panache, than we do. Yeah, our universities turn out more tour professionals, but for the majority of college golfers, in both countries, that’s not the aim. It’s about competition and its sensible integration with the game’s social niceties — and no one does that better than the British upper crust. Coats and ties, foursomes in the morning, singles in the afternoon, and no less than two proper English piss-ups sandwiched in between. You can have your vans, your matching shirts and golf bags. To Yanks, collegiate golf in the U.K. may look more like a club sport, but having played both sides of this fence, I’ll go with the Pommies.  — Hal Phillips

I did not go to Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, so what follows isn’t alumni boosterism but amazement at what big-time schools will do for their athletic programs. Stanford’s golf teams have turned out many impressive players—among them Tiger Woods, Tom Watson, Lawson Little, Hilary Lunke, and four USGA presidents—while the academic part of the university has a pretty good reputation, too. Still, a few years ago the school asked architect Robert Trent Jones Jr., whose office is just up the street, to design a practice facility that replicates conditions its teams face in competition. The Siebel Varsity Golf Training Complex is built on 30 acres and features two 400-yard “fairways.” Practice bunkers are filled with three different kinds of sand. Greens and hitting areas are planted with bentgrass, Bermuda, and fescue. But most impressive are six green complexes, each inspired by a different architect: Alister MacKenzie, Pete Dye, A.W. Tillinghast, Tom Fazio, Robert Trent Jones Sr. and Jones Jr. Such practice facilities also are designed to help attract talent, which will be the real key to Stanford adding to its eight NCAA golf championships, the last in 2007, the year before the Siebel Complex opened.  –James A. Frank

When I was at Vassar College from 1978-1982, students could play the nine-hole campus golf course for fifty cents for as many holes as you could manage in a day. There was never a wait to get on the course, you didn’t need a tee time, and we lived within walking distance. It was the perfect way to satisfy—or develop—a lifelong appetite for golf, as well as for learning. In the spring and fall, my friends and I would go out in the morning before breakfast and play nine holes then head back out after class to squeeze in as many more holes as we could before dinner. The 1930-era layout was short but scenic, and felt continents away from the Thompson Library, where I spent most of the rest of my time (okay, also at Mathew’s Mug, the campus pub named after the brewer who founded the college). I arrived at Vassar in one of the earliest classes to admit men, and so participating on sports teams was a possibility even for an energetic if mediocre athlete such as myself. I played varsity soccer and also competed one time in an official golf match—against the junior varsity from West Point—in a rainstorm. My senior thesis advisor lived in a house along the second hole and claimed to be able to tell how hard I was working on my thesis by how many balls ended up in his backyard.  The photo below is from 1894, when the college first starting teaching golf. It could be where I learned my inimitable swing.  —Jeff Wallach

Making the high school golf team in the 1970s is often merely a question of going out for the team. Not so in Ohio, the hot bed that gave rise to Jack Nicklaus, Tom Weiskopf, and Ed Sneed. Making it to the State High School Championships, played on the Scarlet Course at Ohio State University, is the big time. Unfortunately, one of my great golfing disasters of my amateur career occurred not only on the first day of States but on the first hole. Starting on number 10, a medium-long uphill slight dogleg left par four, I nervously pulled my drive left and tried to fire a four-iron through some apple trees to reach the top of the hill and try to get out with a par. I hit the four-iron flush, hit the tree flush, ricocheted, and hit my thigh flush. All the air flushed out of my lungs in a combination of panic, fear, and wonder at what I had just done and what the consequences might be. Explaining this to my teammates later that day was not fun, but they helped me laugh it off, and that helped me play much better the next day.  —Casey Alexander

When America’s educational system took its modern shape in the middle of the 19th century, more than 50% of Americans were farmers. Children got the summer off from school not for fun but because their parents needed them to plant and harvest. As people migrated to cities, the demand for children’s labor evaporated. Coinciding with this shift away from rural life, golf arrived in America at the end of the 19th century, bringing with it a new kind of work that children could do—caddying. The athletically gifted among the caddies—Byron Nelson, Ben Hogan, Gene Sarazen, and so many others—would find careers in professional golf. But Amateur golf remained, in the words of John Updike “a rich child’s game.” Chick Evans was a celebrated amateur player who appreciated the hard work caddies did, and in 1930 he arranged for two boys who had caddied in Chicago to attend Northwestern University. Eighty years on, the Evans Scholarship Program has helped more than 9,000 former caddies attend college. Evans Scholars rarely play college golf, but most retain a link to the game and to their benefactors. Golf has rarely been a force for progress in America, but the Evans Scholars Foundation links college and golf in a way that makes every golfer proud.  —John Strawn

Anyone capable of breaking 80 made the golf team at Marquette University in the early 1970s. It was only fair. It was not like any of us was going to get any playing time or even ride the bench on coach Al McGuire’s nationally ranked basketball team. But with a brief three-week season in May and a team “manager” (not a coach) to lead us, getting a slot on the team was not that tough. Which is how I found myself shivering on the first tee of a long-forgotten course one frigid spring day for our opening match against Whitewater State. The last of the Wisconsin snows had melted, but there were a few patchy streaks of ice in the rough. The course was raw and brown and wet; the Victory grip on my Macgregor Eye-O-Matic driver felt dry and hard and cold. What I remember best is one of my teammates asking me which one of the cows I was going to aim for in the middle of the fairway.               —Brian McCallen

As I left campus for the last time as a student at the University of San Diego, it wasn’t without noting that I might have made a colossal mistake by graduating in four years. Sure, I don’t know how I would have paid for even a ninth semester at USD, but what price did I put on my freedom? That’s what the college era of my golfing life reminds me of: Pure freedom. And I can think of no finer example of that freedom than the act of sneaking onto the manicured private fairways at the exclusive Rancho Santa Fe Golf Club with a fivesome of friends I’ve kept to this day. We weren’t pretending to be future members and we certainly weren’t wearing designer shirts with their collars popped only slightly less than our attitudes. Nope, we just golfed…in running shoes and cargo shorts, because when you’re in college and robin-hooding expensive golf, you never knew when you’d be running from the marshal.  —Jason Kerkmans

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