On the eighth day when God created golf, he had two afterthoughts. One was a sand trap to punish sinners. The other was the lucky bounce to redeem them.
Today, the best sin and redemption will be on display when the U.S. Open begins at Shinnecock Hills on eastern Long Island. Golfomaniacs can trace the bloodlines of this course to 1891, when the sport was almost unplayed in America and not played at all on the kind of seaside links that are the windswept heritage of golf's ancestral Scotland.
Shinnecock Hills, which takes its name from an Algonquin tribe native to the south-shore flatlands of Long Island near Montauk Point, has old-country character. Its tight fairways and angular greens were laid out by Young Willie Dunn of Scotland, son of Old Willie Dunn, one of the early Scottish professionals and the first club master, in 1844, at Royal Blackheath.
Young Willie came to Shinnecock Hills by way of Biarritz, France. Some American tycoons, including William K. Vanderbilt, were at the spa when they saw the Scot driving a few balls over a ravine to a putting green. "Gentlemen," said Vanderbilt, "this beats rifle shooting. It is a game I think might go in our country."
It has gone far, too far for me.
Golf architects, as far removed from the artistry of Willie Dunn as Sylvester Stallone is from Alec Guinness, now are building stadium courses for the professional tour. Bulldozers and earth-graders are used to carve sunken fairways that stretch between parallel mounds to the left and right. The idea is to allow better visibility for more spectators, especially spectators paying $15, $20 and $25 to see the action.
Aside from the commercialization, stadium golf also leads to the bizarre. Instead of errant shots slicing into the woods, players can carom their Titleists off the right field wall. Pete Rose's foul balls belong in the upper deck and Jack Nicklaus' sliced tee shots belong in the pine groves.
Classically designed courses such as Shinnnecock Hills complement nature, not contort it. They also are meant to be walked, not driven. On the professional seniors tour, which is for players over 50, a current dispute involves golf carts. Most players, the anti-leg work lobby, want the option of cart usage. Others, led by Arnold Palmer, want the machines banned. Palmer and the traditionalists are right. Golf is a walking, not vehicular, sport. If the seniors can't make it on their own to the 19th hole for a belt of Geritol, next they will want an orthopedist to hold them up while they putt, plus an internist for a B-12 shot.
Meanwhile, at a course in Marble Falls, Tex., a $5 "walking fee" is required. A mandatory golf cart is the club rule -- at $14 a ride. Golf Digest magazine reports some dissent: Two players "who still remember how to walk" left the club in protest.
If the architecture and ambulation of the game are being destroyed, so is the language. Ben Hogan golf clubs are now advertised as "radials," as if they were tires with steel-belted grips. The Dunlop Sports Corporation offers the Maxfli golf ball with "the dodecahedron -- the revolutionary dimple pattern." This is called a "brilliant aerodynamic design." It seems that the Maxfli's "dimples are arranged in pentagons. There are 12 pentagons in all, which combine to form the dodecahedron." Got that, Young Willie?
When all this became overwhelming and I thought of going to the Indianapolis 500 for cultural elevation, I sought out instead an old pro, George Archer. He was playing in the recent Kemper Open at Congressional, a landscape jewel set in the Potomac River Valley in 1924. Archer, 46, is a 6-foot-6 Californian who won the Masters in 1969 and 12 other tournaments since joining the PGA Tour in 1964. He has won something of more value in those years -- the affection of his fellow professionals and the public that appreciates athletes who keep their lives in balance.
Archer is mellow of temperament and a relaxed conversationalist. Though enduring a way of life on the tour he describes as "lonely and depressing out here by yourself," he has kept his heart close to home. Archer spoke tenderly of he and his wife celebrating their 25th anniversary, as though that was worth more than a shelf of trophies, which it is.
Occasionally, each of Archer's two daughters have caddied for him. At Congressional, his caddie was Richard Sullivan, a local youngster. Other pros insist on using tour caddies who help read greens, judge distances and administer general anesthesia when the pain of a bogey is too much. Archer, who appears to play tensionless golf, prefers it the other way: The caddie carries the clubs, the player uses them, and the line shouldn't be crossed.
On a few greens, when Sullivan was busy raking a trap, or involved in other chores, Archer himself lifted the pin. Some pros would berate a caddie for neglecting that duty. Archer, a man of grace, didn't mind. No doubt he recalls the era when pros themselves were the servant class, a simpler day before the damnable golf carts and when the game was for socializing, not agonizing.