Unlike Groucho Marx, I would like to belong to a lot of clubs that would not have me as a member. It’s a complex I contracted as a kid growing up in Brookline, Mass., where I lived just down the road and a few traffic lights from the gated entrance of The Country Club.
In a leafy town like Brookline, there’s no wrong side of the tracks. But there is a wrong side of the fence. The fence is tall and chain-link, and it runs for what seems to a young golfer like forever, a clear dividing line that marks the border between The Country Club and the muni where I learned to play.
Today that town-run track is called Robert T. Lynch Municipal Golf Course, and greens fees start at $30. But when I was growing up, it was Putterham Meadows, and it cost two bucks for me and my friends to play. We got what we paid for: a grunt from the cashier (yes, there was a cashier), greens as woolly as a mammoth and a four-group backup on the first tee.
In short: nothing special. And yet, when you’re a kid, you know just what you know, and, if you’re lucky, you’re happy with it. I didn’t feel deprived, and it rarely seemed to me that golf could get much better, except in those brief moments when, from my bike, or from the backseat of my mother’s car, I’d catch a fleeting glimpse of The Country Club.
It spread in all its greenery, near the edge of town, between my house and the Putterham parking lot. You knew that it was there, but all that you could see were slivers of plush fairway here and there, glimmering in the tiny gaps between the trees and hedges that the club had planted to keep prying eyes out. Craning my neck, like a Fenway bleacher creature with an obstructed view, I took in what I could, and even in those snippets, I could tell that golf in that private world was different: the fairways better groomed, the bunkers deeper, the greens more contoured than the flat Frisbees I putted.
Of course, I longed to play it. But not only did I not know any members, I didn’t know anyone who knew anyone who was. The oldest country club in the United States, it was also a place unto itself, with a rich pedigree and a reputation for stiff-lipped snobbery. The prevailing feeling was, among me and my friends, that if you couldn’t trace your bloodlines directly to the Mayflower, you had no chance of ever getting on. Which only made us want to play it more.
If we’d known our history, we might have looked for hope in the up-from-nothing story of Francis Ouimet, the blue-collar Brookline kid who grew up in a three-decker across the street from The Country Club, learned to play with borrowed clubs while working as a caddie, and went on to beat the blue bloods at their own game, most notably with a win over Harry Vardon and Ted Ray at the 1913 U.S. Open ---on the very course where we weren’t allowed to play. An inspiring tale.
But my friends and I had never heard of Ouimet. Our hero back then was Lenny Curtin, a wisecracking upper classman at our high school, and the only member of the school’s golf team who could break 80 reliably. With a sawed off swing he’d picked up from ice hockey, and the hardened edge of a Good Will Hunting townie, Lenny wasn’t just the best golfer we knew. He was also the boldest.
Every spring, just as the ground was beginning to thaw, Lenny would head out to Putterham with a wire cutter in his golf bag. And there, on the far side of the dogleg-left sixth hole, he’d cut an opening in the chain-link fence that separated our course from The Country Club. Learning of the breach, club management would rush to seal it. But every time they did, Lenny would hurry out and open it again.
In our small circle, the hole in the fence became known as Curtin’s Corner, and my friends and I marveled at the courage of its namesake, who, arriving at the dogleg sixth, would, without fail, slip, bag and all, through the gap that he’d created, vanishing for hours to complete his round on posher grounds. If he ever got caught, Lenny never said so. And so his legend grew greater still.
Over the years, I passed Curtin’s Corner more times than I can count, but I never had the gumption to follow Lenny’s lead, until the final month of my high school career. I’m not sure what compelled me, except perhaps the sense that adulthood was approaching, along with the burdens and uncertainty it brought, so what would it hurt to take a little risk? But that’s armchair psychology with 30 years’ hindsight, and even as I write it, it sounds like hogwash. All I know for sure is that when my friends and I got to the bend in the fairway, I surprised them---and myself--- by grabbing a wedge and a ball, and ducking through the hole in the chain-link fence.
A loosely defined footpath, trampled down by Lenny and those who worked to foil him, ran through the woods. I followed it, skirting prickly bushes and poison ivy, feathery ferns brushing against my legs. A football field-length or so later, the woods opened, and I stood, heart pounding, on the perfect fairway of a beautiful par 5. A rock outcrop loomed in the middle of it, creating a dramatic two-tiered landing area. Farther up, a creek cut its way across the fairway, and beyond it: the saddle of an elevated green.
Seeing the course up close confirmed my suspicions: The Country Club was different than the golf I knew---bigger, better, beyond, it seemed to me, not just my breeding but my abilities. There was no one on the hole, and no one approaching. But the adrenaline rush I felt was the panic of someone who’d been nabbed red-handed. Dropping my ball on the manicured carpet, I whacked it with my wedge then ran back through the woods without waiting for the shot to land.
More than a decade passed. I moved to California, started a new life. I didn’t set foot on The Country Club again until 1999, when I strolled through the gates as a ticket-holding patron at the Ryder Cup. Wandering the grounds during the event, I watched what have become indelible moments: Payne Stewart’s final match; the superb, defiant play of a heckled, red-faced Colin Montgomerie; Justin Leonard’s clinching putt, which triggered a notorious stampede of Americans onto a pint-sized, two-tiered green.
It was great to be there, and to see the layout in all its splendor. But walking a fine course without playing it is like sniffing a fine dinner without taking a bite. Cool as it was to watch the Cup, the visit left me empty in the way that really mattered: it failed to satisfy my childhood craving.
Back in California, life went on. I got married, had two kids. In a mid-career fluke, I started writing about golf, and, along the way, I wound up playing some famous courses. Many were great. Some were decidedly less than great. I saw how exclusivity could influence not only a club’s reputation but also its standing in the course rankings. It’s human nature: we glamorize what lies beyond our reach. Still, my feelings toward The Country Club remained unchanged. It was my forbidden fruit, my Holy Grail, the adolescent crush who refused give me the time of day. In my mind, it grew into something beyond imagination, as wildly romanticized as Jim Nantz’s pre-recorded paeans to Augusta.
And then, last week, it happened. On a trip back east, through a friend of a friend, an invite came to play The Country Club. Driving up the entrance, past the guard house with the wooden mannequin propped inside it (when I was a kid, its silhouette looked real enough to keep me far away), was the out-of-body moment that I’d hoped for: there, in the near distance, the grand yellow clubhouse, and beyond it, the balcony above the brick locker room building where, in 1999, the triumphant Ryder Cuppers had stood above a sea of adoring fans, waving stars and stripes, and slugging back champagne.
The weather was perfect, and my host was everything I’d assumed that members of The Country Club were not: friendly, down-to-earth, a regular guy. Nor was the course quite what I’d expected. In retrospect, how could it have been? It was terrific, sure, a fair, demanding, tree-lined test, with enough artistry in its design to woo my inner architecture geek. I’ve played many that are worse, and a healthy number that are better. But no course in the world lies in the dreamy stratosphere where I’d let myself imagine The Country Club to be.
The round, for its part, was everything that I could have rightly asked for: fun, relaxing, briskly played. Before I knew it, we were standing on the tee box of the 11th, a beautiful par 5 with a rock outcrop splitting the fairway---the same hole that had terrified me 30 years before.
I drove it in the rough, laid up over the creek and hit lob wedge to 10 feet: a tap-in par that came with a flashback. Walking off the green, I glanced back toward the woods and picked out what was clearly a trampled footpath: the heirs of Lenny Curtin, up to the same old mischief.
For an instant, I allowed myself to bask in the golden glow of privilege, no longer a trespasser on a fleeting, frightened foray onto the grounds. But if I wasn’t a scofflaw, I was still an interloper. A few hours later, after a bogey on 18 and a beer in the clubhouse, I shook hands with my host, hopped in my car and left the way I’d came, my chariot transformed back into pumpkin.
Out on Clyde Street, driving the same route I’d ridden years before, I could see The Country Club as I’d once seen it---through gaps in the trees---but without the same adolescent longing. The course looked the same as ever, but I wasn’t a kid. Sure, I’d like to have endless access to it. But I’d also like to hit the ball like Francis Ouimet. In life, as in golf, learning to accept what you don’t have is a big part of growing up.