The strange landscapes of America’s golf courses

Written by Staff Writer

From Oct 28, 1903, to Nov 3, 1924, Charlie Chaplin took time out from filming “The Great Dictator” to play golf.

The project was a private one — his agent and dearest friend, Tom Lippert, was organizing it — but in an age of travel still dominated by luxury by rail — skiing, sunbathing, golfing, all of these things were common, and of course, drawing tourists from far and wide — big crowds would often find Chaplin appearing for photo ops just yards from his hotel suite.

Lippert said he regarded golf as the “proper escape” from Chaplin’s “personal agony,” and the escape was, indeed, valuable. Its perch on the cliffs overlooking the Atlantic Ocean was a far cry from the humdrum normities of London.

For William Seabrook in his 1964 book “The South Shore Country Club Movement,” this fame and fame sustained the hotel and made the resort possible. “Chaplin brought the clubs and made this place a club.”

Bizarre and amazing realities

But that this place exists today is perhaps a good deal less remarkable, and certainly not the best-known of these extraordinary endeavours. That honor goes to the golf club on the Delaware River at Waterville.

As with Chaplin’s resort, golfing at the Waterville has been made possible by a businessman, a powerful man, one who might be described as an eccentric. Born in Scotland in 1876, John Murray Collie moved to the US in 1913, when his father, father-in-law and son were sent to Louisiana. He settled in Massachusetts, and by the mid-1920s, had found a sizable financial success — already enough to, as Time magazine said in 1924, send him to Tresco, where he would build a “wholly extraordinary” golf course.

“Tresco is one of the most eccentric golf courses in the world,” the New York Times complained a year later.

He built it from scratch. If we want to look at it from today’s vantage point, we might consider it comparable to a high-tech condo building on New York’s Hudson River site, or a parking garage in New York City. Certainly, as with the links of Glenmorangie Castle outside Glasgow, Tresco’s designs were more challenging than most.

Henry E. Ammond/CasaVerde/Corbis via Getty Images

But Tresco itself had the distinction of having originally been, said journalist Sam Lipsyte, “the first golf course of its kind in this country.” The design is now an examplar. The corporate commitment to golf there continued until the 1960s, when private ownership began to take over.

Are these places proof of human nature at work? With integrity though, exactly what happens? Are they examples of an enigmatic, enigmatic kind of human behavior? Or are they truly oddities of old, 20th-century architecture, and architecture long gone?

Depends on what it means to be “little.”

How can we comprehend these works of uncannily preserved architecture? Otherworldly, perhaps. Maybe because these images are evocative, and photographs are beyond reason.

But why? In the case of Collie, it may have been partly because he was an eccentric or, at least, a collector. Both this, and his conversion to Scientology, seemed to prevent him from reaching out to the wider world.

At the same time, he must surely have felt a sense of the strange that came with a sort of fortress mentality, which he acquired as a result of having grown up behind the vicious walls of a Scottish village.

He might have seen the countryside around him as an alien, alien planet, and wished to survive somehow. This was part of what inspired his golf project.

How to describe the feeling of golf, which is a parlous fullness, a subtle, rising, diving angling of the grip on the tee shot, such that the outside bite of each ball remains in view even as the latest thunk for water on the other side? It is not literal, and it is something else.

It seems to be an effort at a perfect strike of the white ball, designed to encourage the golfer and have them re-enter the ground. One thinks of Duke Ellington, who began as a long-ball hitter, and learned to master the fine mashing.

In this respect, as in so many, golf is a bit strange, and for all of its frills and false beauty, is full of right answers, which is perhaps what makes it all the more strangely compelling.

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