The Golfers of GothamAugust 25, 2017

A Green Oasis In The Bronx

urban golfer putting
Photo by Alan P. Pittman__The charms of urban golf.__

It has been more than 40 years since I last played Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx. I've heard and read about the renovations to the place, and there's a part of me that wants to go back and see what it has become.

But there's another part of me that just wants to hang on to the memories—even if they're undoubtedly a bit faded. I vividly remember finding it difficult to believe we were in the Bronx because the course was so pretty. I also remember loving the greens because you could hit any putt as hard as you wanted and never go more than a foot or two past the hole. The greens on the Van C—as we called it—couldn't have been faster than eight.

I played the Van C once a week in the spring for two years, playing for the golf team at the long-extinct McBurney School—best known for being mentioned early in The Catcher in the Rye. I played on the high school team in eighth grade because of a lack of players. I thought getting a varsity letter in eighth grade was pretty cool.

McBurney was at 63rd Street between Broadway and Central Park West. Six players and our coach, Tom Monaco, would walk out the front door at 2:30, usually on Tuesdays, carrying our golf bags and walk to the subway station at Lincoln Center, two blocks away.

Crossing Broadway one afternoon, I almost got sideswiped by a cab. Being a New Yorker, I turned to yell at the cabbie. Seeing the golf clubs over my shoulder he yelled at me: "Where do you think you are, kid—Pebble f---ing Beach?"

Once we reached the subway, we'd take the 1 train to the end of the line—242nd Street. If memory serves, the train stopped 22 times along the way.

Needless to say, the cabbie wasn't the only one who noticed our leather carry bags. Often people would ask where we were going to play. When we told them, they frequently expressed surprise that there was a city golf course reachable by subway. Once, a very polite gentleman asked me in a distinct Scottish brogue if we were from Scotland. When I said no in a very distinct New York accent, he smiled and asked if I'd ever played St. Andrews. I hadn't. "You must!" he insisted. "You haven't played golf until you've played the Old Course."

‘Crossing Broadway, I almost got sideswiped by a cab. being a New Yorker, I turned to yell at the cabbie. Seeing my golf clubs, the cabbie yelled at me: “Where do you think you are, kid, Pebble f---ing Beach?”

The first time I played the Old Course, I thought about the Scotsman on the subway. Somewhere, I thought, he was happy.

Upon arriving at 242nd Street, we'd come down the steps—the subway was elevated at the end of the line—and make the 15-minute walk to the clubhouse. There, we'd meet the other team and usually tee it up by about 3:30.

The matches were nine holes, match play. I remember winning my first match as an eighth-grader, 5 and 4, and thinking this was easy. My next match was also 5 and 4—except I lost. Not so easy.

Because we all had to get home and do homework, the lost-ball rule was two minutes, not five. Guess we were ahead of our time on that one. I honestly don't think it ever rained those two springs, and I always looked forward to leaving the noise and traffic of Manhattan to ride the subway to a place that felt pastoral. I thought it was miraculous.

The best thing about playing golf in the Bronx was that I almost felt like I was stealing, the way snowbirds feel when playing golf in Florida in the winter. For me, golf was supposed to be played in the summer, when school was out and my family was on vacation. Not when I had homework to do. Not when the way home was on the subway, not my bicycle.

My other memory—maybe the most vivid one of all—is our post-match stop at a hole-in-the wall burger joint at the bottom of the subway steps. McDonald's hadn't yet come to New York in those days (seriously), and a grilled burger with thin-cut greasy French fries was as amazing to us as the aesthetics of Van C. I always had seconds—on the burger and the fries.

Now that I think of it, maybe I should go back. I wonder if the burger place is still there.

John Feinstein is the author of A Good Walk Spoiled. His book about the 2016 Ryder Cup, The First Major, will appear in October.

Photo by Alan P. Pittman

Ramon Pantoja of Flushing, N.Y., works the night shift.