A Man of The Munys Celebrates The Soul Of American Golf

August 2009

Editor's Note: Click here to see the 2011-2012 ranking of America's Greatest Public Golf Courses.

Nouns are seldom improved by the modifier "public." Few of us, given a private alternative, prefer public restrooms or public transportation or public displays of affection.

But the public golf course is different. Like public television, public golf embraces everything from the exclusionary ("Masterpiece Theatre" and Pebble Beach) to the execrable (pledge week and your local muny).

Consider the very word muny. It comes from municipal, from the Latin munus: "service performed for the community" or "public spectacle, gladiatorial entertainment." And that's precisely what a quintessential public course provides: public service and gladiatorial entertainment.

Gladiatorial entertainment? J.P. Hubbell, while betting a friend in a stroke-play match, drove four consecutive balls off the same house while trying to cut a dogleg at Edinburgh USA in Brooklyn Park, Minn., each ball resonating like a gunshot. When Hubbell struck the house with a fifth ball, the homeowner emerged, waving a white towel.

Public service? Years ago, children helped my brother search for his lost ball at Jackson Park Golf Course in Chicago -- and even offered to sell it back to him on the next tee. That entrepreneurial spirit, on the site of the 1893 World's Fair -- which introduced Cracker Jacks to the United States -- exemplifies America, to say nothing of American public golf.

And so, as jobs disappear and country clubs close and golf comes under serial assault from Congress, it is time to celebrate the democratic, accessible, affordable public golf course. I pledge allegiance to the flagstick ... and tree branch, bunker rake and anything else that has ever substituted for a pin at your favorite place to play.

What could be more e pluribus unum? Like arranged weddings or transcontinental flights, public golf affords a single the chance to spend a very long time in the company of a stranger. And I do mean stranger. Golf Digest Editor-in-Chief Jerry Tarde often played at a Philadelphia muny with an elderly gentleman who put Elmer's Glue on his grips and then shook coffee grounds over them to increase the tackiness. (In every sense of that word.) When Tarde passed him in the parking lot after one round, the guy was on his knees, spray-painting his own Cadillac.

Bill Sullivan grew up playing at Norwich Golf Club, a muny in a blue-collar section of Connecticut. "The course championship was once won by a guy in a 'Lick It, Slam It, Suck It' tank top," recalls Sullivan, with admiration. "He shot two under."

That's something you seldom see at Augusta, the green jacket slipped over a sleeveless T-shirt from a local bar. And more's the pity. Some people dream of playing Augusta National. Give me Augusta Golf Course, the public track nearby. I was there the weekend Tiger Woods won his first Masters, in 1997, and watched the golf-shop attendant answer the phone all day with the greeting: "I think you want Augusta National." He was right: Television viewers were calling in for souvenir scorecards.

But here's what you don't get on Magnolia Lane: Drive up to any public course, and you'll see the world's largest open-air locker room. Golfers -- some in jeans and T-shirts -- are sitting on their back bumpers, putting on their shoes, tailgates flopped open like tongues of panting dogs, salivating in anticipation.

Which is exactly what I was doing when I parachuted into the center of the country to seek the soul of American public golf.


Scarcity drives up demand, and the short golf season in Minnesota makes residents of that state mad for the sport. It's the same reason ancient Scandinavians worshiped the sun: because they saw so little of it.

Every April, the state's pricier public courses advertise pay-the-temperature rates, the green fee being the thermometer reading at check-in. "I know guys who consult The Farmer's Almanac," says Mike McCollow, my friend and fellow Minnesota native. "They tee off when it's 33, hoping it will warm up to 50 by the turn."

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