First Rounds at Green Mansions
The first golf course I remember is Green Mansions in Chestertown, New York, where we played on our annual family pilgrimage to the Adirondacks, the lakes surrounded by mountains and sky that is a place, a park, a state of being that my father and mother loved beyond telling.
On his dresser at home in the suburbs of New Jersey, my father kept a picture of blue, green mounds of pine rising out of Schroon Lake, the view looking south from Paradox Lake, and he would say, when things got tough, he imagined himself there. He wasn’t loquacious, Jack. He would have said, ‘summertime, oh summertime’ with an ironic lilt, and ‘my happy place’ wouldn’t quite capture the depth of his feeling for that view of the lakes and the mountains. . . Or of golf.
The 9-hole Green Mansions course was a sun burnt track, about 6 crow miles from The Sagamore, one of the finest in the state. With 8 kids in tow, a round at The Sagamore would have cost a month’s salary. And we were needy kids, athletic. When you’re 8 or 10 or 12 years old, Green Mansions might as well have been a tract laid out by Tillinghast, cut as it was into the hills off Tripps’ pond, in the same year Bobby Jones completed the original Grand Slam, 3 years before he designed Augusta. In the 1960s, we still played with my grandfather’s wooden sticks, and lived – and I mean lived — for a shot at the 8th hole.
The 8th at Green Mansions is an elevated tee hitting over and down onto a plateau green. To a 10 and 12 and 14 year old, standing on that tee and letting the sphere fly, it might as well have been a 57 year old on the 7th at Pebble Beach. Like Christmas and Easter in one go. My oldest sister Caroline, the oldest of the 8 of us, claims she got a hole in one there. This is a contested family story, and we have asked for a photograph of the plaque that would announce it, but she insists that she hit a pop up that landed short of the pin and hit the stick and went in. Who am I to judge? Memory is a tricky thing.
Jack Nicklaus & The Interlocking Grip
1967, 68, 70, 71. . .These were war years, like a lot of our ensuing years, and my father’s younger brother was in the military, in Korea, not far from Vietnam. My father had been in Korea, Lieutenant JG on a Destroyer Escort. And during those summers there were phone calls from roadside booths about weighty matters. My uncle would be okay, though his marriage? I remember my father rubbing his forehead, unable to find words that a 12 or 14 or 16 year old would understand about a soldier, his brother, a marriage lost to distance and war and geo-politics.
If we didn’t talk about the big things, I loved being in those hills for the golf. And I had never thought to change the interlocking grip that my father taught me. He said that another Jack used the same one, and I shouldn’t doubt that it was the way you held a club. 50 years ago now. Nicklaus was lighting up the television, and his rivalries with Lee Trevino and Gary Player kept our interest for the 50 weeks in which we waited to return to Green Mansions, to return to the feel of a father’s arms wrapped around us, the 5 minutes of attention he could spare before turning to my 4 brothers and 3 sisters. Father George Reilly, our parish priest and my father’s good friend, and a good golfer in his own right, often accompanied us.
Unlike a lot of his peers, Jack stayed with the church and gave up a lot of worldly things. His friends took jobs with Shell and went to Libya. His friends worked at Coke Bottling and made lots of dough. Hoffman Larouche and Bendix. My father stayed true to a faith, even in his career, such that when my father gave us golf instruction, I also recall Father George chiming in. “You’re chopping wood,” he would say at me. Don’t give up the hole. Father George didn’t nearly have the patience of my father, who in his way tried to teach 4 and 6 and 8 of us hub-bubbing kids how to play golf.
I got okay at it one year. Still a bachelor when my grandmother Marie died, after she left me a mortgage payment, I joined Fresh Pond, a Donald Ross design (1932) in Cambridge, where I was in school at the time. For the warmer part of a year, (I didn’t have a car) I took a bus up to Fresh Pond to play in the mornings with the old timers. I played a lot of rounds in the honor of Marie McCarthy Coyle and found a putting stroke that enabled me to hang in there, even with the old timers. There are no gimmes with those old timers, and I learned to go at the hole.
When I moved out of Cambridge to start a family, I moved into a barn in Dudley, Massachusetts, about 3 miles from a country 9 designed by Deveroux Emmett, also one of 8 children and the man who designed Congressional and numerous other stately tracts. Local Patricians, the Slater family brought in Emmett – one could argue at the height of his powers — to design a 9 hole on Dudley Hill, a town to the west of Webster by a mile or so. It’s not Congressional, but there are a few holes that resound of a great designer. And it’s here where, on warm enough evenings, I remember sometimes my father’s struggles with the game.
50 Years Later…The Vardon Grip
It’s been 50 years since those first rounds at Green Mansions, and 2 years since my father’s passing, but this year I decided to change my grip. I am abandoning my dream of playing like the Jacks (my father and Nicklaus) and still searching to come within an eyelash of a par round, I have abandoned the interlocking grip and started to use the Vardon Grip, abandoning the one my father taught me in the late 1960s.
I’m no longer strangling the club, and I’m able to get a good deal more speed as I come through the ball. Where for years I thought of the 5 iron as my 150 yard club, I’m now hitting a 7 iron from that far. (Laugh, please.) And the Vardon grip is making me focus on how I hold the grip, before I step to the ball, before I plant my feet, before I waggle. In all, I am losing my father’s grip, his interlocking, upper-body swing; I am letting my wrists turn.
And it may not get me to par, but I wanted to tell you all this: my life – and my golf game – it’s is something other than my father’s now, and I think he’d be pleased.
I don’t think the human race has a clear sense of what to think about death, or how to honor our dead. Or we’ve come up with some elaborate disguises for our misunderstanding. Maybe the best thing is to just honor the dead but live toward our own sense of self. My father and I had a strong bond, such that I feel okay about giving up the grip he taught me.
As Oscar Wilde said, “you might as well be yourself, everyone else is taken.” I won’t have to feel bad explaining to him that I’m moving on. I gave it a good enough shot while he was alive, but he’s gone now, and I have to face my own late age alone. Hopefully I’ll do so happily, after some evening round, coming a bit closer to par.
Mark Wagner is an educator and poet and musician who golfs when the weather gets nice. He teaches at Worcester State University. He has written about golf course design and early golf history in America