New York City Game
It’s a jungle, not a fairway. A jagged, stone forest of hard grey and black. Everything’s paved, built up, built on, built out or on its way to being one of the above. There’s the odd vacant lot, but they’re not vacant for long, and the straggling patches of glass- and wire-strewn weeds are never replaced with putting greens. It’s not like there’s enough space to golf on any of them. And yet there are so many golfers here, moving and working among the 8.3 million people that inhabit the 302 square miles that is New York City.
Despite living in the greatest city in the world (as far as we’re concerned) New York City golfers have less green space in which to hit than any small-town resident; like shoebox-sized apartments, it’s just one of the sacrifices people make to live here. The irony is that New York City has more claim to the game than any other U.S. city—you might even say American golf started here. True: the game had existed in the States for 20 years by the time New York City got its first course. But when it did, it wasn’t just New York’s first course; it was everybody’s first course: Van Cortlandt, the first public course in the United States, opened in 1895. In the years surrounding its debut, New York City was the center of the golf universe, the birthplace of the USGA, the PGA of America, numerous regional clubs, tournaments and pros. Today, Van Cortlandt is still going strong, and still everybody’s golf course. Like the city itself, any changes have been superficial; the spirit of the place is still intact. Whether or not you think NYC is the center of the universe likely depends on if you’re a resident or not, but whatever your opinion it’s worth reevaluating the city as a golfers’ destination. There may not be a lot of green space, but New York golfers have adapted with modern driving ranges and practice facilities, top-of-the-line training opportunities and a host of city options that keep the game very much alive year-round. Just don’t dawdle too much when you’re playing—otherwise one of the kindly gentlemen in the foursome behind you might have to ask you politely to please increase your pace of play.
Or he’ll just smack a golf ball at your head.
“You don’t need to know how to play golf; you don’t even need to play it to get a lot of fun out of the ancient and honorable game. Just go up to Van Cortlandt Park, where the public links are open almost the year round.” So reported a 1910 New York Times piece entitled “Humors of Golf as Played at Van Cortlandt Park,” which turned a rather unkind eye on the golfers at what was then one of three public courses in the city (Forest Park in Queens and the Bronx’s Pelham Bay were the other two).
Golf had been all the rage for years by the time the Times piece was published, and it had some sort of presence as early as 1796, evidenced in an ad that year in the Royal Gazette of New York City for golf clubs and balls. But it really exploded in the late 19th century with the emergence of proper clubs like the Quogue Field Club, located in the Hamptons on Long Island, and the Saint Andrew’s Golf Club in Yonkers, just north of the city, both of which are still in operation. In the city proper, visitors even enjoyed mini-golf on tony hotel rooftops, like that of the Hotel Victoria in Manhattan. In 1894 the game got serious when representatives from the major clubs in the northeast converged on New York City and formed what would eventually become the USGA. Also in 1894 America’s first golf magazine, The Golfer, was published. The following year, hoping to get golf within New York City limits, a group of local businessmen who called themselves The Mosholu Golf Club attempted to get the city to co-fund construction of a private club at Van Cortlandt Park, which had been named for the city’s first native-born mayor. The plan backfired somewhat in that the city did help build the course, but refused to close it to the public. Thus, the first public course in the United States opened July 6, 1895. The charming 9-hole (five years later it was an 18) had cost $624.80 to build—but there was no charge to play. This, along with having no set rules, quickly led to mobs and unruly behavior. Local papers bemoaned “the poor playing conditions, the unmanageable crowds, and a general lack of golf etiquette” (and they haven’t stopped since).
Whatever the criticisms, Van Cortlandt—and, as they opened, New York’s other municipal courses—helped to popularize golf among the “everyman,” quickly building the game in the city and in the region as a whole. On the administrative side, on the heels of the USGA’s founding, in January of 1916 a group of pro golfers and leading amateurs met at the Hotel Martinique on Broadway and West 32nd Street for a lunch organized by department store magnate Rodman Wanamaker. With a mind to improving golf equipment sales, Wanamaker proposed the foundation of the professional organization that eventually became The PGA of America. By October the group was hosting its first PGA Championship, and the following year it was entrusted with selection of the site for the 1917 U.S. Open. On the private side, club development was well underway, and here, too, NYC was having an influence. The prestigious New York Athletic Club had formed its Nyackers golf group in 1913, and in 1921 it celebrated the opening of Winged Foot Golf Club in Mamoroneck, NY. While there was no formal affiliation, the club took its name from the NYAC (which has a winged foot logo).
Within a few years the country had its first golf museum (founded by the USGA in 1936), though it didn’t have a dedicated space. Its first donation—Bobby Jones’ “Calamity Jane” putter—was exhibited with other memorabilia in various bits of free space around the USGA offices. In 1950 the group purchased a brownstone at 40 E 38th Street that became the first Golf House and dedicated two floors to the museum, formally creating what the New Yorker called “the Louvre of the golfing world.” (Today, Golf House and the museum are located in Far Hills, New Jersey.)
While the administrative and business sides of the game were being organized, city golf’s social identity was going through an evolution of its own—and it wasn’t pretty.
A Tough Crowd
“The woman golfer is not popular on the links. Occasionally a fairly good player commands admiration, but for the most part they are barely tolerated.” The pre-feminist 1910 Times piece about golfers in Van Cortlandt spared no one. In addition to lamenting women golfers, it derided fathers who brought their kids on course (“Take that kid away; this ain’t no daynursery”), ridiculed the overweight (“One woman who could not have weighed less than 210 pounds toiled up the steepest hill on the links one particularly hot day… Another woman, plainly many pounds less in avoirdupois but still chunky enough to need reducing, passed her going in the other direction”) and even took a swipe at the game itself: “Not all fat people go in for the game. There is the dyspeptic, the man who cannot sleep, the man with the sluggish liver, the moribund individual who needs a new outlook on life, the old man who wants to get young again.”
Mean-spirited it was, but it’s also confirmation that the New York game has always been tough. There’s no denying it: golfers here are just different.
“I think so,” says Dr. Ira Warheit, a Brooklyn resident who grew up on Staten Island. “You’re dealing with a different mentality, not a country club mentality.
You’re dealing with guys who could easily get angered and get into disagreements if someone’s playing slow.”
A 1955 Sports Illustrated article by Jane Perry confirms that it has always been thus. Writing about Dyker Beach Golf Course in Brooklyn, in a piece entitled “Brooklyn’s Mad Golf Course,” Perry perfectly described Dyker—and, by extension New York golf as a whole: “Once a foursome starts on its way, it is at the mercy of eight people, the foursome immediately in front and the foursome behind. The four in front will hold up the game by searching for balls, by mysteriously acquiring friends and becoming a sixsome; they will accuse the four behind of cutting in and trying to play past them. Sometimes they will charge at offenders with raised clubs—especially the females, who are, in this respect, the more deadly of the species Golfer Dykeriens.
“The four behind will snap and snarl at the heels of the foursome ahead. If a player so much as stops to tie a shoelace, they will drive a warning ball whistling past his head. They are masters of the impatient stance, the sneering look, the ‘Hurry up, willya!’ cries of outrage.”
And there were other problems.
“I used to sleep in the parking lot to get a tee time,” Warheit remembers of Dyker. “In New York, especially on the weekends, that’s what you had to do. But Dyker became a nice course to play—you can reserve a tee time now.”
The course saw as many as 100,000 rounds a year, and employed a “first come, first served” system that often created conflict—not that crowds don’t still line up at six in the morning at some area courses.
Another annoying, if slightly humorous, fact of New York City golf is ball theft, which has been going on so long that it might well be considered a tradition.
In 1910 the Times blamed it on “Italian boys [who] lie in wait at convenient places and picking up balls skurry [sic.] away before the player appears in sight.
Those who are not familiar with their methods spend much useless time looking for balls they will never see again, unless they happen to buy them from an innocent-faced caddie at some later period.” Perry’s SI piece confirmed the practice was still happening 45 years later: “Golf ball snatching, a problem at all busy courses, has achieved the status of a science at Dyker. Among the most skilled snatchers are the small boys who operated on several fairways adjacent to the city streets. When directly accused, the boy might be standing on the ball or has just slipped it to an accomplice, but he is all snub-nosed, freckled and dirty-faced innocence. ‘I ain’t got ya ball, mister. Wanna soich me?’”
And finally, another New York Times piece, this one from 1995, warned that “neighborhood children sometimes dart onto the 16th fairway to steal balls”—a reality that’s still reported today in online reviews.
The 1995 article went on to point out that ball theft was hardly the biggest hazard: “Two years ago, a morning threesome arrived at the 14th green to find a
dead man dangling from a maple tree. A year or two earlier, a golfer had his cart stolen; he retrieved it a half-mile away and finished the round. Corpses are occasionally found on the opposite side of the lake in front of the clubhouse.”
All of that, plus online anecdotes telling of fights, more stolen balls and behavior that wouldn’t be tolerated almost anywhere else—“[My boyfriend’s] friend was chased by security… I remember being in the rental shop and hearing about him through their walkie talkies about some crazy guy who isn’t stopping in his cart. haha” (from a yelp.com review this year, which gave Van Cortlandt three stars out of five)—all suggest that golfing in the city requires a perspective shift.
But for all of the madness, the flip side of the eccentric nature of golf here makes for a lot of great stories—Neil Simon and Woody Allen kind of stories.
“Remember Billy Britton?,” asks Warheit who, like the former PGA TOUR pro, grew up near Silver Lake Golf Course on Staten Island. “Billy Britton used to sneak in the same hole in the fence that I did so we could play golf for free. I played with him occasionally. He became very popular at Silver Lake.”
Britton won the 1989 Centel Classic in Tallahassee, Florida, and had 23 top-10 finishes in 15 years on tour, becoming something of a local hero. He’s now the pro at Trump National Golf Links Colts Neck, New Jersey.
Wareheit, in addition to sneaking on at Silver Lake, played Dyker and other local courses. Like many New Yorkers, he wasn’t exactly born into the game via country club parents, and his relationship with it today has a decidedly urban flavor.
“I started playing golf when I was about 16. I went to Brooklyn Tech [high school] and they had a teacher there who was a rabid golfer, so that was the first time I got any instruction in golf. Within four times I played I broke 100; my lowest handicap was an 8. I didn’t get to a level where I wanted to play in tournaments, but I just love the game, and I love playing alone—like George Bush. George Bush would play an hour, hour 15. Alone and fast in the late afternoon, just cruise on the course. My only competition is me.”
Today, Warheit says he hits balls once or twice a week at Chelsea Piers, the iconic driving range on the Hudson River near 23rd St. (see sidebar). He still plays the city courses, but he also enjoys traveling to Arizona to golf. If nothing else, he’ll head to a course in Sussex County, a relatively short trip out of town.
“For Chelsea Piers, I’ll take the bus, the train, then I walk. It’s easy. When I went to Dyker I usually would take a cab; I don’t like carrying a heavier bag on a train or something like that. When I go to Sussex County, it’s bus, train, bus, and cab.”
This accessibility is part of what makes golf in NYC so special. You can reach Van Cortlandt on the 1 train. The city’s online instructions on getting to Mosholu Golf Course, another Bronx track, tell you to take a Bronx-bound 4 train, then exit on the left-hand side and walk upstairs. “From there you will see construction and a streetlight—walk towards the streetlight in the direction of a park/woods/cemetery.”
Other courses can be reached using a variety of other trains and buses, and it’s not uncommon to see people hauling their clubs up and down subway steps—not that subway riders are the only ones on course.
Movers & Shakers
In 2009, the New York Times examined Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s relationship with golf, calling it “a foe with no term limits” for the enthusiastic but talent-challenged mayor. From the article: “He took up the game around 2000, but ‘you probably wouldn’t want to call that golf, what he played,’ said Daniel M. Donovan Jr., the Staten Island district attorney, who has played with Mr. Bloomberg for years.
“‘He was confused by it,’ said Morris Offit, a longtime friend and golf buddy of Mr. Bloomberg’s. ‘He felt that if he tried hard, gave it the appropriate attention and got good instruction, that he would improve rapidly.’ He did not.”
Bloomberg reportedly kept clubs in his SUV so he could sneak out and play after appearing at a parade or speech. He was often seen hitting balls at the Randalls Island driving range in Manhattan, and he liked to go to nearby Westchester for a round now and then. With all of the practice his game has reportedly improved, and Bloomberg told Reuters that he’s looking forward to golfing more when he leaves office this December. The game of another city fixture, Donald Trump, has been in good shape for a long time. The developer and notoriously good golfer credits the game as an important part of doing business in the city, and even told us that it might have been responsible for one of his bigger projects.
“It’s happened with me many times, whether it’s in New York City or elsewhere,” Trump said. “A lot of times I’ll be on a course with people I don’t normally do business with, and I’ll end up doing business with them due to golf… You can’t replicate rounds of golf, not with a meeting or with dinner or lunch. There’s no better way to get to know someone better than through golf.”
Specifically, he said it’s led to some big deals.
“Maybe even Trump Tower. The people that owned the land, I got to know them through golf. And through that, through golf, I got to buy maybe the best piece of land in the United States, and that’s 57th and 5th, right there by Tiffany’s.”
Adding another chapter to the city’s golf story, Trump recently took over the Ferry Point project, which began some 25 years ago as a city plan to build a new golf course in the Bronx—the city’s 13th—but stalled due to mismanagement and who-knows-what-else.
“I took it over a year and a half ago and we’re getting ready to open,” Trump said. “Trump Links at Ferry Point is, frankly, going to blow everything away.”
The 18-hole Nicklaus-designed track is sure to be a winner, though just how polite its patrons will be remains to be seen. It’s still a New York course, after all.
New York City’s municipal courses collectively see more than 600,000 rounds per year. In 1895, the Times wailed about bad language on course, highlighting one player in particular: “It is a rare privilege to hear his expletives, and he seems never to be at a loss for new ones.” In 1955, SI observed that a Brooklyn course was “where the undershirt is a classic costume for hot summer days… and where the insult is the common and formal method of communication.” Nothing’s changed, not really.
Today, you’re still likely to find all manner of characters on course: mayors playing alongside waiters, brokers hitting next to mechanics, mobs and hustlers and even potential pros. And that, really, is the essence of the sport here. Unlike anywhere else, golf in New York City isn’t just a game—it’s everybody’s game. Feel free to bring your clubs, just remember: If you feel like stopping to admire the views of the city while you’re on course, don’t.