Brooklyn, NY – Some golf courses, such as Augusta National, the Old Course, and Pebble Beach, come with iconic addresses and reputations. But I can't think of a course with a more evocative address than Marine Park here in Brooklyn. It's on fabled Flatbush Ave. It was here that, on Monday, I played the inaugural Brooklyn Open. I was reminded that the heart of the game lies not in the famous private or high-end public courses that host majors. It resides at courses that are open to all, and that are the true homes of golf.
Marine Park is one of 12 municipal courses that belong to New York City Parks & Recreation. The Bronx has three courses, Brooklyn two, Queens four, and Staten Island three. Manhattan has a driving range and miniature golf layout. One sometimes sees golfers walking down streets with their clubs on their shoulders, headed for the subway and a golf outing.
But why a Brooklyn Open? The father and son team of Mike and Adam Giordano hold a lease on Marine Park, a course that Robert Trent Jones Sr. designed and that opened in 1964. Jones wanted to create some movement on the flat landscape, but was thwarted. Robert Moses, the controversial "master builder" of New York City in the middle of the last century, used fill meant to introduce undulations for another project.
New Jersey-based course architect Stephen Kay has been brought in to add movement to the course and to improve drainage. Huge mounds of dirt meant to create the movement were apparent, especially on the back nine. New forward tees are under construction, which should help pace of play. Conditions have gradually improved. The Giordanos really care about Marine Park, which plays about 50,000 rounds a year. (Not as many this year, though, because of Hurricane Sandy a year ago).
Marine Park's reputation has been as a sound course, but one where play is too slow–five hours and upwards–and where the conditions have not been good. The Giordanos, having embarked on a project to improve the course and pace of play, want to get the world out. Hence, the Brooklyn Open, where the pros played for a first prize of $2,000 and where amateurs teed it up in three handicap divisions.
I'm enjoying an autumn in New York, and was invited to play via my friend and colleague Jeff Neuman. (He edited my book A Season in Dornoch and we were co-writers on A Disorderly Compendium of Golf.) Jeff has a spirited, regular Saturday game with some 30 other golfers at Harbor Links in North Hempstead, NY. Jeff asked Nick Nicholas, a former golf writer who is now in public relations and marketing, if I might play with them in the Brooklyn Open. Nick is working with the Giordanos and course operator Rich McDonough as they make Marine Park even more attractive to golfers.
Nick invited me along, and I was pleased to learn that Mark Cannizzaro, the fine golf and NFL writer for the New York Post, would be in our group. Mark had a serious health scare a few years ago but is doing very well. It was good to be in his company on a golf course, having spent time chatting with him in pressrooms at many tournaments.
The atmosphere at the Brooklyn Open was lively right from the start. Nobody–and I mean nobody–minded that warming up meant hitting balls off mats out to a range with a high mesh fence at the end. The day was warm and sunny, and tournament officials were helping with everything from where to find practice balls to directing players to their starts on the first or 10th tees. I grabbed some balls and warmed up. This was going to be my first round in three weeks. I couldn't help but notice that a lesson bay at one end of the range included Trackman. It's not often one sees this state of the art swing and data analysis technology at private courses, let alone municipal courses.
I heard a voice. "Don't wear out the mats, brother, don't wear out the mats," a golfer said as I whacked balls. "You only got so many swings in you." Ah, golf repartee.
The day was warm and sunny. Marine Park is on an exposed site where winds off Jamaica Bay usually provide quite the challenge. But, unusually, there was no wind. On the fifth tee, the Empire State Building in Manhattan provided a clear target. Nick advised me to keep below the hole if I could, because the greens were sharply sloped back to front, side to side, and, well, every which way. The greens were in superb shape. I couldn't handle them and took about 43 putts; I stopped counting after a few three-putts. Later I four-putted, including a three-putt from two feet. Full disclosure: I shot 90 (42-48). I no longer play what I continue to think of as my usual game.
Pete Meurer, a 56-year-old retired firefighter from Staten Island, shot 71 and won in a five-hole playoff over Gabriel Lee of Bayside, N.Y. Meurer turned pro in 2005. The Brooklyn Open was his first win as a pro. Neil Fredericksen, a 54-year-old firefighter, also from Staten Island, shot 75 to take first place among amateurs.
Everybody gathered for a first-rate lunch–I love the jerk chicken–and then it was time for the prize ceremony. An announcement was made of a $2,000 donation that would send a few kids to summer camp next year. The Giordanos spoke about a summer golf camp that they planned at Marine Park for kids who might not otherwise have an opportunity to get into golf.
Marty Markowitz, the much loved, outgoing borough president of Brooklyn, was at the ceremony. Jovial and joking as always, he looked at the assembled golfers and said, smiling, "All you Brooklyn guys, shame on you. How can you do this to me today, losing to a Staten Island guy?"
I noticed something of which I'd become aware on the driving range, but was even more aware of now that everybody was gathered in one place. I'd bet that at least half of these enthusiastic golfers were people of colour, as diverse a group of golfers as one could wish for. You don't see that on the PGA Tour, obviously. Too obviously.
"If only the PGA Tour looked like this," I said to my friend Jeff as we took our clubs to his car. "It would look more like America."
The Brooklyn Open looked like America. The inaugural Brooklyn Open was a success. I hope I can return for the second.
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Lorne Rubenstein has written a golf column for The Globe and Mail since 1980. He has played golf since the early 1960s and was the Royal Canadian Golf Association's first curator of its museum and library at the Glen Abbey Golf Club in Oakville, Ontario and the first editor of Score, Canada's Golf Magazine, where he continues to write a column and features. He has won four first-place awards from the Golf Writers Association of America, one National Magazine Award in Canada, and he won the award for the best feature in 2009 from the Golf Journalists Association of Canada. Lorne has written 12 books, including Mike Weir: The Road to the Masters (2003); A Disorderly Compendium of Golf, with Jeff Neuman (2006); This Round's on Me (2009); and the latest Moe & Me: Encounters with Moe Norman, Golf's Mysterious Genius (2012). He is a member of the Ontario Golf Hall of Fame and the Canadian Golf Hall of Fame. Lorne can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can now follow him on Twitter @lornerubenstein