During the Great Depression, FDR used the people's money to build golf courses, employing thousands and democratizing the game

During the Great Depression, FDR used the people’s money to build golf courses, employing thousands and democratizing the game

Spectators and golfers relaxed at Bethpage in '35, but during construction 1,800 workers had lived in a tent city on the grounds.

On a cold January morning in 1934, A.W. Tillinghast, cradling his hickory walking stick, stood on a hilltop in Farmingdale, N.Y., and looked out upon the snow-covered woodlands. The terrain presents infinite variety, he was no doubt thinking, mentally composing his report to master builder Robert Moses, president of the Long Island State Park Commission (among his myriad titles). It is one of golf’s most enduring cliches, after all — the prospective golf architect surveying a proffered landscape and declaring it to be “the most singular piece of land that God ever provided for man’s enjoyment.”

There was plenty for Tillinghast to visualize. When completed, Bethpage State Park’s 1,368 acres would encompass picnic areas, hiking and riding trails, tennis courts and a golf complex with a grill room, public and private dining rooms, lounges, showers, lockers, caddies, a pro shop and four superb courses able to support 2,400 rounds a day. But it was the nadir of the Great Depression, so Tillinghast saw more than green sites and fairways in the rolling hills. He saw jobs. “However enthralling the vision of the completed work may be,” he would write in Golf Illustrated, “it is the reality of the tramping of 1,200 feet — 600 men starting that work — which is so tremendously impressive at the moment.”

In time those 600 would grow to a small village, and everything from the course to the clubhouse, to the tables and chairs that furnished it, would be built by men toiling for the Civil Works Administration (CWA) and the Works Progress Administration (WPA), the New Deal agencies created to provide jobs and income to the unemployed. And Bethpage wasn’t the only beneficiary of the government-backed golf boom. By the time the U.S. entered World War II, the New Deal had effectively marshaled the construction or renovation of about 600 municipal courses from Maine to California, opening what had been largely accepted as a patrician pursuit to more Americans of varied backgrounds than ever before.

It was an unprecedented endeavor that allowed golf to play a role in the nation’s economic recovery, in contrast to current Washington policy. It also helped change the nature and perception of the game across the land. Says sports historian George B. Kirsch, author of the new book Golf in America, “For golfers, the cloud of this great economic crisis contained a silver lining.”

It’s one that shimmers to this day. Next week, when the U.S. Open returns to Bethpage’s Black course, tens of millions of global viewers will watch the competition. Tillinghast and Moses will be given their due, and maybe — just maybe — some announcer will throw a verbal bouquet to the men who plowed the ground and the golf-loving president who put them to work.

Extraordinary times yield extraordinary images, and the images of the Depression remain chilling to this day: Breadlines. Shanty towns. Men peddling apples on street corners. There’s this image too: an aristocrat gracefully bearing the weight of the nation’s misery on his shoulders. Franklin Delano Roosevelt understood misery. He was a golfer.

“He loved playing golf more than just about anything else,” says H.W. Brands, author of Roosevelt, Traitor to His Class. FDR even kept an old golf ball on his desk in the Oval Office. “I believe that his inability to play made the game even more important to him, and he liked the idea that the government could make it possible for ordinary people to play.”

No ordinary man himself, Roosevelt gained deep insight into the sufferings of others through his own transformative struggle with polio — the humbling midlife counterpoint to the ease and privilege into which he was born. He was eight when his father had a six-hole course built on the family’s Hyde Park, N.Y., estate, and by his early teens Franklin was shooting in the low 80s. In 1899, as secretary-treasurer of the nine-hole club on Campobello, the island playground for the wealthy off the coast of Maine, he designed and supervised the enlargement of tees and greens. Fresh out of Harvard in 1904, he won the club championship. No golfing president can top that.

Roosevelt continued to play often and well — through his rise in New York politics, his tenure as assistant secretary of the Navy in World War I and his losing campaign as vice president on the 1920 Democratic ticket — until polio stopped him, at 39, in 1921. And while there were those within his inner circle, says Brands, “who felt that polio was a blessing in disguise because he would now spend less time on the golf course and more time on politics,” FDR’s golfing romance held fast. In the fall of 1926 he bought a resort in Warm Springs, Ga., where he found relief for his withered legs. There he designed, adjacent to nine holes recently completed by Donald Ross, a series of roads and bridges on which he could motor along to watch play. The future president, accompanied by his personal secretary and a pitcher of martinis, became a noted kibitzer, hoisting spirited toasts to good shots and bad.

There wasn’t much to toast when FDR took office in March 1933. With unemployment hovering at 25%, he had 16 million Americans — from unskilled hands to former bank presidents — to put back to work, which he began to do immediately through an aggressive program of civil works projects. Roads, bridges and dams were staples, as were schools and airports. But so, too, were parks, playgrounds, swimming pools, tennis courts — and golf courses.

“In addition to putting people back on their feet with jobs,” explains Nick Taylor, author of American-Made: When FDR Put the Nation to Work, “there was a kind of egalitarian impulse that was part of Roosevelt’s vision to make things — like golf — available to people.” There was also a belief that recreation enhanced public well-being, especially for a country down in the dumps. “If nothing else,” says Taylor, “recreation was a distraction from monetary worry.”

Besides, America needed more golf courses. Between the 1929 crash and Roosevelt’s election, the game actually grew; more rounds were played in 1932 than in 1930 — just not at the same exclusive places. The devastated economy forced countless private-club members to resign; to keep playing, they became public golfers. And since land was relatively inexpensive, even in metropolitan areas, municipal golf suddenly looked like a good investment to local governments applying for grants. “Public golf wasn’t new,” says Kirsch, “but hard times accelerated it.”

Just as important to the politicians, building a golf course was labor intensive. Men — lots of men, skilled and unskilled, an average of 200 per site — were needed to read plans, test soil, dig bunkers and ditches, float greens, grade fairways, lay irrigation lines, grow grass, string electric wires, smooth parking lots, build clubhouses and carve access roads.

“As work-relief projects, they were essentially shovel-ready,” says Brands. “You could start the day after tomorrow.”

So they did; here and there at first, as local governments readied applications to Washington, then at a quickened pace once FDR signed the executive order creating the WPA in May 1935. Not every course would be a gem. Some were hardly more sophisticated than nine or 18 stakes in the ground. Some barely grew grass. But some continue to inspire.

At Bethpage — one renovation and three new layouts — crews, initially put to work by the short-lived CWA, toiled year-round, living in a tent city that arose to house up to 1,800 laborers. “It wasn’t unusual to see men working there in business suits and fedoras,” says Taylor. “It might be all they had.”

With virtually no private-course construction anywhere — Alister MacKenzie and Bobby Jones’s Augusta National being the exception — the feds became the architects’ savior. Between 1930 and the Bethpage assignment in late 1933, there had been no design work at all for Tillinghast, the creator of Winged Foot, Baltusrol and San Francisco Golf Club; he had become editor of Golf Illustrated magazine.

Few of these hundreds of projects would bear the imprint of a Tillinghast — or a Ross, a Perry Maxwell or a young Robert Trent Jones — but some did. While Tillie molded Bethpage, Jones cut his design teeth in upstate New York. “Dad always said it was some of the hardest work of his life,” says his son Rees Jones, inheritor of his father’s Open Doctor mantle and author of the redesign that readied the Black for its 2002 U.S. Open debut. Ross, still in Pinehurst’s employ, took WPA commissions to build George Wright outside Boston and Mark Twain in Elmira, N.Y., a job he secured by undercutting Jones’s bid. Ross’s asking price? All of $200 — 10% of his pre-Depression fee.

Maxwell marshaled WPA forces at Prairie Dunes in Hutchinson, Kans., conceived as a public course though now a private club, and Veenker Memorial in Ames, Iowa. After MacKenzie’s death in 1934, Marshall built the Scarlet and Black courses at Ohio State using MacKenzie’s 1931 plans. Under Maxwell’s watch, WPA workers also constructed Tulsa’s Southern Hills, one of the few private clubs to benefit. Unemployment was so bad in the Dust Bowl that the feds allowed the exception.

At 95, Claude Morris, construction foreman at Prairie Dunes, looks back with pride at what his men achieved almost three quarters of a century ago. “We used no modern machinery,” he says. “It was horses and scrapers and wheelbarrows and shovels eight hours a day. It was all hand labor.” Hand labor was a WPA hallmark. “That’s part of why Bethpage is as good as it is,” says Rees Jones. “They used very little machinery and didn’t care how long it took. These projects were about getting as many people to work as possible, not working fast.”

Just 23 at the time, Morris was much younger than the men he oversaw, some in their 70s and 80s. “I let them work at their own pace because it was too much for a lot of them,” he says. “Some weren’t used to this kind of work, but they needed the work. They told me from the WPA office to keep them out there because they had to pay them anyhow.”

In Milwaukee the WPA paid to build Brown Deer Park, where six decades later Tiger Woods would make his pro debut. In Houston the project was Memorial Park, golfing home away from home for budding two-time major champion Jack Burke Jr. (“It was a big, big course,” Burke recalls, and a tough alternative to River Oaks, where his father was head pro.) In New Orleans it was Crescent City, now the East course at Bayou Oaks (which still awaits its promised post-Katrina resurrection through FEMA).

The roster grew as construction hummed behind distinctive red-white-and-blue WPA placards: a nine-holer for African-Americans, who weren’t allowed on the 18-holer at Gleason Park in Gary, Ind.; the clubhouses for Griffith Park in Los Angeles and Balboa Park in San Diego; 32 courses in North Dakota and 16 in Montana. As golf’s most visible ambassador, Bobby Jones supported the WPA. In late April 1936 he met with Hopkins in Washington, D.C., and praised the program as “a great boon to the game by providing facilities that otherwise would be lacking.” Though the overall numbers are murky, in the WPA’s first 18 months more than $12 million — $10.5 million from Washington, the balance from state and local participants — went into building and upgrading 368 courses. Those numbers kept growing until the war put the WPA out of business in 1943.

New courses attracted new players. Says Kirsch, “Part of the appeal for many among the masses was probably golf’s association with the upper class.” But if reverse snobbery lured some to sample the game, the game itself kept them coming back. Around New York City alone, rounds and revenue almost doubled between 1934 and ’39. There was something to be said for a few hours of relatively inexpensive entertainment in the open air away from daily troubles — notwithstanding the occasional letter to the editor about Bethpage’s exorbitant $2 weekend green fee.

Men of all ages and backgrounds were teeing it up for the first time. Women too. “The army of women’s golfers is fast outnumbering the male addicts of the game,” observed Golfdom, a leading industry publication. Not surprisingly, a corps of very good woman golfers — led by future LPGA founders Patty Berg, Babe Didrickson and Betty Jameson — quickly emerged to pry championships from predecessors with roots in private clubs, players such as Glenna Collett Vare, Maureen Orcutt and Virginia Van Wie. Between 1930 and ’36, rounds played by women increased 20% annually. “The Depression forced significant changes in the American family and the role of women,” says golf historian Rand Jerris. “As women entered the workforce there was an erosion of the old values, of what was considered proper for a woman to do.”

At the same time a new crop of hardscrabble champions — caddie-yard alumni such as Byron Nelson, Ben Hogan and Sam Snead — began to change the face of tournament golf. With Bobby Jones off the national stage and Walter Hagen’s game in decline, there were no golfing giants in the early ’30s and not many fans. The tournament circuit was scattershot, and professionals earned more from betting with each other than from prize money. Club jobs kept them afloat, but they weren’t secure, either.

Tough times made tough golfers. Hogan was so broke that his only entertainment was practicing. Nebraska’s Johnny Goodman, the last amateur to win the Open (in 1933), traveled to championships at Pebble Beach and Winged Foot by cattle car. “They weren’t from what you’d call the ‘finger-bowl districts,'” says Atlanta Journal-Constitution columnist Furman Bisher, who began covering golf in the mid-’30s.

As players such as Hogan, Nelson and Snead caught on, attitudes toward the pro game changed. Before the Depression, amateur golf, emblematized by Jones and Francis Ouimet, reigned. “The Depression legitimized the professional game,” says Jerris. “It became more acceptable to make money any way you could, and the distinction between working class and leisure class became far less significant.” It was natural for new, working-class converts to the game to find heroes in working-class players.

These new heroes didn’t disappoint. Before the ’30s, every U.S. Open winner hailed from golf’s old-world bastions of the East Coast, Chicago, Scotland or England. But half of the Open champs from the ’30s — Goodman, Olin Dutra, Nelson and two-time winner Ralph Guldahl — had roots west of the Mississippi. “The days when a few stars such as Bobby Jones, Walter Hagen and Gene Sarazen dominated the field are now over,” declared Grantland Rice in 1937, writing for The National Golf Review. “Golf skill has now spread all over the map.” Recognizing that trend, the USGA awarded all of its 1937 championships to clubs beyond the Eastern Seaboard. The Open went to Michigan, the Amateur to Oregon, the Women’s Amateur to Tennessee and the Amateur Public Links to California.

In hindsight, projects like Bethpage and Prairie Dunes were about more than golf; more, even, than putting people to work. Robert Moses, a great visionary, sent Tillinghast to Long Island to fulfill his vision of a public park that would obliterate distinctions of class, income and education, where New Yorkers could ride, hike, picnic, dine and play golf and tennis. The People’s Club was a vision of hope in hard times, a light pointing the way out of the darkness.

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