Out of the Woods É Onto the Fairways
Golf. GOLF. G-O-L-F. The whole game has always been wrapped in a mystical aura, more like a major religion than a simple game; indeed, save prayer, what other non-paying gig can get a man out of bed so early on a Saturday or Sunday morning?I didn't get it. I was raised playing Little League and Biddy Basketball. I learned to watch football after crawling out of bed around noon on Sunday. "Golf," according to the pamphlet I cribbed from a top-rate public course, "is a game where you are provided with 14 clubs with which to send a small ball into a cup at different distances, over all kinds of obstacles in the fewest number of strokes." Say what? All I knew was: Hit. Run. Catch. I never gave this silly game any thought; to me it was a "sport" played by sissies in pastel-colored polo shirts and the occasional pair of knickers.But check this out: my friends from college who accompanied me on my weekly lumbering noontime pilgrimage to the shrine of Madden & Summerall are now bolting from their urban caves to get in 18 holes on early weekend mornings. This also: the whole Magical Kingdom of Golf -- kept alive from the days when it was the exclusive province of Scottish royalty until its no-less-autocratic present-day country-club incarnation as an occasion for boys-only extra-boardroom bonding -- is now in the midst of the most savage and formidable attack ever staged on its castle walls.Just what treasure lies behind the velvet ropes? What awful secrets power the well-placed swing of a 5-iron? And what are the rich white guys hiding under the meticulous greens of a Winged Foot Country Club? For a neophyte, I could possibly be asking for all kinds of worrisome trouble. But I can tell you this: The same people -- women, blacks, other minorities -- who have spent the better part of the 20th century knocking down doors that the Establishment had barricaded -- the door to the ballot box, to a real education, to the corner office in the corporate skyscraper -- have their sights set on the country clubs and the aristocratic culture of golf.It Takes a Tiger to Raise a VillageWhy not start at the top? Kids pick up a basketball to be like Michael Jordan, don't they? So I start with Tiger. Tiger Woods accounts for much of golf's sudden appeal to the other 99 percent of us. He's a personality for a sport that was peopled mainly by carbon-copy Aryan-looking clones. Quick, can you pick Hale Irwin out of a lineup? Steve Elkington? Brad Faxon? Exactly. Tiger Woods pumps his fists. He does that raise-the-roof thing that was until recently the private property of NFL wide receivers and NBA shooting guards. He makes golf something that, for our generation, it has never, ever been -- exciting.Wood's arrival at the Westchester Country Club last month for the PGA Buick Classic was something like a combination of the Allies' arrival in France with a Bulls championship parade through Chicago. He had recently conducted a free clinic for area youth. He had proved to the world that he was human, having finished 19th at the recently-concluded U.S. Open; apparently, this endeared him to his public even further. As a light rain began to fall, Tiger Woods strode into his press conference straight-faced, then affecting a smile, as he sat to face the cameras. He was dressed in his requisite Nike swooshes -- one on his hat, one on his collar. He answered questions as graciously as he could: What happened at the Open? "I'm glad I don't have to play that course again." How are you dealing with the pressure of being the focus of attention every week? "It's taken its toll, but I'll be honest -- if this is what I have to deal with to play well, it's fine." There were at least three times as many press types who showed for Tiger's press show than did for defending Buick champ Ernie Els.But with all the distractions, Tiger does notice the hype. Or perhaps he was trained to answer the question this way. Have you noticed the affect you've had on the people who follow golf? "It's totally different. We're seeing more diverse crowds, not just in skin pigmentation, but culturally. There are people from different socio-economic status; it used to be just upper-middle class." Haunting Westchester for the practice rounds were a few ethnic outliers, yes; the occasional well-dressed African-American, and a few curious Asians were among the crowd that came to watch Tiger Woods practice. But for the most part, the onlookers' conversations were like this one: We were thinking about going to the Palm tonight. Nine-year-old son: "Dad, what's the Palm?" It's a fancy steakhouse. Teach your children well.Tiger Woods is the great rainbow hope (Cablinasian, as he likes to note) for the game of golf. But by the same token, he is safe. He's a Will Smith for the country-club set, a non-threatening black man who the golf establishment can accept with open arms, a poster boy who gives everyone, across racial lines, a serious case of the warm fuzzies. The entire roster of prominent PGA pros, Tiger Woods included, is a uniformly clean-cut bunch. White kids can feel as safe idolizing him as they do Shaquille O'Neal or Ken Griffey Jr. -- both Woods' partners in the All-Star Cafe.It would be impossible -- and unfair -- to explain Tiger Woods without mentioning that his stardom has made it possible for all sorts of people who would have dismissed the game to think about taking up golf. But his appeal is by no means restricted to his Black-Asian constituent base. He's the game's first real superstar; three cops trailed him around Westchester as he practiced and played. The buzzing, teeming migration that followed Woods from hole to hole did include a few people like the teenage black girl in braces whose eyes widened as he reared back for his drive from the tee, jaw dropping as the ball whistled overhead, whispering, "That's power!" But the great majority were more like the baseball-capped fraternity boys, traveling in packs of three or four, shouting, "Tiger, you da MAN!" Wafting over Tiger's army was the smell of cigar smoke, pervasive enough for any trendy boutique. Money hovered all around. In the second round of the tourney, grown men were climbing up walls and lying on the grass to peer through bleacher seats to see him putt. The lack of composure he creates was unnerving.Coming off the 18th green, Tiger was immediately mobbed by people dying to get close to THE MAN, his Rye police detail shouting, "Back up, kids, he's not gonna sign any autographs!" As the sea parted, Tiger headed post haste for the pro shop, already emptied of patrons ready for his arrival. With Tiger Woods' cash to throw around, well, he gets the store to himself.Tiger has plenty of groupies -- a golfer with groupies! The PGA Tour attracts the decorous golf enthusiasts; Tiger attracts the rabble that attends to superstardom. This goes a long way toward explaining how the door to the inner sanctum is starting to crack open; but it does not begin to account for the moribund culture found inside. Golf is certainly a much older institution than democracy, but it has been a good deal more resistant to anything resembling social change.Let's Make a DealPerhaps it's because you can, on a comfortable day, play a game of golf without breaking a sweat. Golf is a game of repose, not of exertion. The lush natural carpets and meticulously maintained scenery of a club course approximate the luxury of a marble-floored mansion. This is how it all started. The first known game of golf, in 1504, matched the Earl of Bothwell against King James IV of Scotland. And it was, shall we say, uphill from there. The game still belongs to aristocracy; our corporate captains use the links to cement business ties and generally talk their talk. Golf may be the best example of a sport in which a good percentage of those who play for leisure carry much heavier salaries than most of those who play professionally.Which is to say that "leisure" golf is a completely different animal than "professional" golf. The PGA is the face put on by the golf culture, legitimizing it as a sport, while the majority of golf enthusiasts are indulging their wicked slices (and other vices) at the club to exercise their privilege as moneyed men.But the artifice around that world has been decaying since 1920, since women were given the vote and finally, officially, were allowed to think. Now women are out there working, making piles of money in their own right. Women have begun chipping away at the glass ceilings of the corporate world, justly expecting to be treated as equals in the boardroom. The days of dismissing the fair sex as second class are long gone, aren't they? But, like I said, these things take some time to filter up."There are lots of women in business who must play golf, which is why this issue has become important for a lot of people," explains Christina Watkins, who is, in no particular order, a builder, a Greenwich resident, a woman and a member of Wee Burn Country Club. She's also the chief agitator behind legislation passed by the Connecticut State Legislature in May to open up country club facilities to women. "It's very embarrassing to go to a club with a guest when you're a female executive and be told you can't play with the rest of the population because you're a woman."A country-club membership is more than just the opportunity to play on a nice course. Yes, there are beautiful public courses; Sterling Farms in Stamford is among the most picturesque. Public courses also mean waiting on line at 3 in the morning on a weekend for an early tee time -- tres inconvenient. Something like 70 percent of America's golf courses are public courses. But in Fairfield County, there are 38 private golf clubs while the county's public courses number 14. The numbers in Westchester County break into roughly the same proportion: 35 private clubs to the county's 17 public courses.Memberships are often part and parcel of corporate life; a fringe benefit that comes with the corner office, purchased by a company for its executives to grease their corporate machinations. It's there for client entertainment; think of the infestation of skyboxes built into every new major-league stadium and arena erected in the past several years."The whole culture of the game has changed," explains Marcia Chambers, an editor at Golf Digest magazine. "The sense of elitism, of escape onto the fairways, the idea that you can take four hours and go out with a group of four people and spend time on the fairways -- there is no other sport that permits that. It's very good in developing contacts and friendships and so forth. It's social. You're playing a game, obviously, you're also with people you like, and it's a time to relax and enjoy the outdoors."In this light, golf is not really a sport, it's more a unique sporting/schmoozing hybrid, something to occupy people as they walk the grass and find friendship at the top of the food chain. "The reason that people do it," Ms. Chambers continued, "is that they can be in the country, play golf, be in beautiful surroundings, and on occasion, when they're not concentrating on their game, talk. Usually they're concentrating on their gameÉ but the thing is, afterwards you have lunch and you talk, and then you make phone calls later on, and that's how business gets done."Golf memberships, as twisted as the logic may be, are a way for executives to do their jobs more effectively. Women are routinely, and without second thought, denied this outlet -- for business-related entertainment or personal enjoyment.Women can join country clubs. But, for the most part, they are accepted as appendages to their share-holding spouses. Women are routinely barred from the more prized tee times on weekend mornings. The accepted logic: They can play during the week, when they're at home with nothing to do; the working men should have the weekend to play at their leisure. Generally, the 16-year-old sons of country club members are afforded more access than a woman who pays for her membership.And the other accouterments of club membership are often closed to females as well; the men-only grill is, well, par for the course. Let's flash back to the Buick Classic for a moment. In her book, The Un-playable Lie, virtually an almanac of the indignities suffered by women golfers, Marcia Chambers recalls the 1992 tournament; instead of meeting with throngs of screaming Tiger Woods fans, the Classic was met that year by picketing, sign-carrying members of the National Organiz-ation for Women."Buick was stunned. Stunned. Women, they knew, bought cars -- their cars," Chambers writes. "Buick wrote to the tournament's other sponsors, telling them that they would withdraw as chief commercial backer unless the club opened the men's grill to women." With glee, she notes that the grill was opened to women, drawing cries of protest from the membership. But break it down to a level they can understand: the economics of the situation demanded that the club give women entrance, even though a majority of the membership felt, in principle, that they were entitled to an all-male grill.But in most clubs, there has been no incentive to give that entitlement away. Christina Watkins joined Wee Burn with her husband in 1982, looking for a place to socialize and play golf. She is since divorced. She had written stacks of letters petitioning the Wee Burn board of directors for fairness about tee times, and finally last year decided that she would have to go around them. She contacted a lawyer, and she contacted members of the Connecticut State Legislature.The result was legislation which states: "If a private club allows the use of its facilities or services by one or more adults per membership, the use shall be equally available to all adults entitled to use the facilities or services under the membership. All classes of membership shall be available without regard to race, religious creed, color, national origin, ancestry, sex, marital status or sexual orientation."Hartford's tinkering with the regulations of private clubs is a worthwhile cause. But will the law have teeth? "I think it's a very solid first step," Chambers commented. "I'm glad that the Connecticut Legisla-ture recognized the need to address this issue and did it swiftly. But, I'm concerned about its enforcement." As written, the law gives an aggrieved country club member recourse to counter in Superior Court. To pursue justice, however, a woman must lay out legal fees (if she is successful, they will be reimbursed), suffer the possible wrath of fellow club members, and have the patience to wait it all out in court. Even so, many Connecticut clubs have begun to take action to comply with the law.Chambers warned that the regulation of private clubs is uncharted territory. When you join, "You accept their membership rules. When you go in, you say you will abide by the rules and you agree to that as part of your membership." That's the defense. "You must rememberÉ that there's been very little history with regard to imposing outside legislation on private clubs. They're protected by the First Amendment, and we in America care about the First Amendment. We care about the rights of associationÉ those are sacred values, to some degree."This bill, and many like it that are popping up nationwide as result of litigation or otherwise, cover discrimination of a country club toward its members. What it does not address is the ability of a black man or a single woman carrying sufficient cash in his or her bank account to gain membership to any of these clubs. So it's nice to know now that once you're a member, you won't be discriminated against. But how do you get in the door? "It's very difficult to do with country clubs," Watkins ruminated, "because it's not something where you walk in off the street and you say, 'I wanna be a member.' You're sponsored by a couple of people. Letters are written. So how that is going to be enforced is a mystery to me. It would certainly encourage clubs to, at least on the face of it, have a variety of people being members and not just from one specific background."Perhaps the castle needs to be torn down and rebuilt in an acceptable, egalitarian, encompassing fashion. To compel private clubs to accept minorities, to allow women the privileges extended to male members, contradicts everything there is about the country-club culture and the need for the Rich White Male to assemble. With the higher profile that professional golf is beginning to achieve, with the womens' LPGA getting more prominent television coverage, with Tiger giving all sorts of people the itch to pick up the game, legions of youngsters are growing up yearning to walk the fairways."I think the thing with Tiger Woods will be fascinating," Chambers expounded, "because there are all these clinics that are being given now in his nameÉ and kids from the urban areas walking around with golf clubs, and that's great. It's a terrific sport for young kids, and the question is, where are they going to play?"The majority of courses under construction in America today are public courses; public-access resort courses can rival many of the better private clubs. But when these kids grow up, and some are eventually issued their keys to the executive washrooms, they will demand the luxury and privilege that they will have earned on the corporate ladder, and they won't put up with the shit that their mothers and fathers did. "I think it will bubble up," Chambers predicted. "There might become a move afoot to form an all-black club."Into the Belly; Up With AssholesCaddies are the servant class of the Kingdom of Golf. But their closeness to the game inspires a devotion to their task that is sometimes extraordinary. I signed up to caddy at Tamarack Country Club in Greenwich; the caddy with whom I shared duties that morning, Mickey, had been carrying golf bags for 60 years, with a short time off to fight in World War II (yes, really). Mickey has a knowledge of the rolls and curves of the Tamarack course's topography that I'm sure far surpassed any advance scouting he might have done of the beach at Normandy. The fringe benefits are key -- caddies get the run of the course on Mondays. Free country club golf; plenty of people pay more than my annual salary for it.But my objective was this: get inside. Caddies thrive on the closeness to the empire, looking for entre to the world of privilege and decadence. They operate entirely at the whim of those they serve; their compensation consists of the tip passed on by their player. It's an easy way to ensure hustling, ass-kissing optimum performance. For me, it was the best legitimate way to scope out and perhaps pinpoint the allure of an early -- insanely early -- Saturday morning on the course.I showed up at the club at 6:30 Saturday morning and was issued my green smock, complete with "caddy name-tag. I was immediately introduced to my twosome -- tee time 6:45, here are the clubs, let's go. My bag belonged to a short guy, a guest to the club -- we'll call him "Pete" -- with dark, thinning hair, glasses, ready to play in polo shirt and khaki shorts. "Steve," the other player, the member of the pair, wore pants that morning, polo shirt -- with collar turned up '80s-style (these things do come back around, I guess) -- and carefully slicked-back hair.Pete was a goddamned chore to follow around. Mickey had caddied for this guy before; all the moves were instinctive to him from six decades of knowing how and where to stand. But Pete quickly found reasons to berate me. "Stop rattling those damn clubs around! Stand still!" "Do you understand English? Stand over there!" "That's the third time you did that! You do it again, I'm going to yell at you!" I wasn't a caddy; I was a journalist undercover. It was my job to pick up little bits and pieces of information about the way these people think, what is really here on the early-morning dew-soaked greens of the country club. But quickly I became worried about doing a good job at this thankless task. My need to please took over (my worst instinct) and I ran after Pete with my bag, praying I would not lose the ball against the bright morning sky. I suppose that this was my bent for self-preservation; if it looked like I wasn't trying, my cover could be blown.But this is what I quickly figured out: The country club is the last place moneyed white men can come to work out the aggression they inevitably collect in the daily traffic of their lives. This is why no one can come in. The women should stay at home -- they're easy targets, besides, they are part of the reason men are there, right? They want to act the way they want, curse right out loud, tell dirty jokes, degrade and humiliate their underlings without fear of a lawsuit or other recourse. They can beat on this little white ball with a big stick, and not worry about it rising to fight back.I posed this theory to Christina Watkins, and she laughed, and guessed correctly that I was not a golfer. "I think that it's more finesse," she said. "The game is really in the short game."But the short game is somewhat ignored, at least by the twosome I tended to. After traversing 400-some-odd yards, smacking the ball finally up onto the green, they would often just be satisfied with getting the ball pretty close to the hole. "I'll give you the tap-in here," one would say, and the balls would be picked up, maybe after a few practice putts, and the game would be moved to the next hole. One friend told me that this is often done to speed the pace of the game, that the group behind will want to keep moving, and can't be bothered with some idiot who needs five putts to hole out. But what of the sense of closure? To me, the satisfaction would seem to be derived from the little pop of the ball in cup. It's as if that first expedition to the North Pole might have said, "Well, that's it over there, but I think we'll just stop now and turn back. We came close enough!"No, Pete's aggression was not directed exclusively at me. He was a mighty driver; the bluster with which he approached the ball on the tee seemed purposefully haphazard. More than once, he topped a grounder that maybe bounced 20 yards away from its starting point. When that happened, he seemed quite justified in cursing at the top of his lungs, with only the trees lining the course to complain. Or he was yelling "Fuck!" at the top of his lungs as he failed to blast out of a sand trap, or screaming at the ball: "Go left! Go left, you cocksucker!" (As if a little white ball with dimples, as mystical as it is alleged to be, could actually perform fellatio.) While the two players did engage in pleasantries striding up the fairways toward their balls (we caddies were expected not to eavesdrop there), most of Pete's time on the course was spent searching for a ball out of bounds, me running after him, ducking under a thicketed tree branch, to quickly proffer the bag for selection of a club.At the midway point, after the front nine, Steve offered the party drinks. I snatched a bottle of PowerAde. Pete, what would you like to drink? "A Courvoisier?" The desire for a snifter of brandy at 8 in the morning, striding up and down these tremendous lawns, with the hot sun just beginning to dominate the sky, just baffled the hell out of me. But where are these eccentric vices to be indulged but here? In any case, the alcohol would have to wait for the end of the round; the drink shack at the 10th hole contained exclusively refreshment of the soft-drink variety.Coming closer to the 18th green, the cash started flying, until our combatants were betting double-or-nothing on the last hole for a few hundred bucks. My guy Pete went way right off the tee, dooming him, despite a pretty neat putt, to be well in the red -- not in score but in debt. As he stalked off the green, leaving me with the task of wiping down his clubs, his partner Steve crowed, "That's why I invite you to play here; it's easy winning money off you!" I deposited the clubs up by the front door of the clubhouse, presumably leaving Pete to finally down that snifter of Couvoisier. Having forfeited a nice wad of cash to his opponent, and apparently frustrated with my own performance, he left me only $25 for my four hours' work.The club is really the last domain for assholes like Pete, where it's even legal to act like assholes. This, perhaps, is why they cling to their precious clubs, but this is also why the grass ceiling will eventually fall away. It's a silly reason to claim all that beautiful grass for their very own.One need look no further than the best-publicized utterance by a professional golfer this year for another example. The hackles of reasonable people everywhere were raised when tour pro Fuzzy Zoeller, speaking to TV cameras with drink in hand after the Masters in Augusta, Ga., called Tiger Woods "that little boy," imploring him not to serve fried chicken and collard greens at the next year's traditional Champion's Dinner. In response to the shock of all us non-racists out here, he claimed later that his comments were misconstrued, that he meant no harm with his remarks. But the off-the-cuff statement gave yet another peek behind the curtain; men are men back there, and they sling shit like that all day. Even Saint Tiger, profiled by GQ, let fly a few off-color jokes about lesbians over the course of a few days of interviews. It's essential to the institution as it still precariously stands today. Eventually, I think, all those assholes will have to take their deviant behavior and go into hiding somewhere.Drive Me HomeNevertheless, there's still something about the game. It can't completely be the artifice of the country club. Why do people get so freaking obsessed with this game? I pondered this over a six-dollar bucket of balls at the Sterling Farms driving range. And I realized: because it's so damn hard.I'm on the driving range, and I can't figure out why on earth I can't get the little ball to go straight. It keeps veering way off to the right when I power into it, purposefully, it seems, mocking my best attempts to work it straight out. The complex and maddening combination of muscle twitches and precise positioning of my feet, shoulders, hands, pinkie fingers, all conspire to send that ball right across all the other lanes into the safety netting on the right of the range.Hoo! But the satisfaction of putting all of my force behind one swing, smashing it and watching it fly 150 yards away from of me is addicting. I did hit some bouncers, but some flew well past the 200-yard marker out in the middle of the driving expanse. When things are crazy, when things grate on the nerves, hitting defenseless balls is a safer recreation, and more satisfying than breaking things.But as an obsession, it's maddening, and way too expensive to pick up. It's somewhat more healthy than heroin, but costs more. There's no more hope in finding the perfect golf swing (Tiger Woods be damned) than there is in embarking on a search for the most perfectly round orange in the world, or something else inappropriately whimsical. But every man stepping to the tee fancies that it's inside them somewhere, and when it happens, someone will be there to see it. And he can beat on his chest and act like the king of the world -- until the next hole. The tragedy is that it might never be replicated.Women are looking for the sweet swing, too. Black men, Asian women, even weird journalists, are all beginning to look inside themselves for the sweet swing. But we're all on the other side of the moat. Most of us are denied the privilege of playing on green expanses better-maintained than most national parks. Perhaps the eventual economics of the situation will demand that the doors are flung wide open. But until absolute decadence is available to one and all, I'll probably still pop up at the driving range every once in a while to work on straightening that damned drive.