The age of the private, suburban golf course within 20 miles or so of any large city is drawing to a close. Along with the big manor house and the squirearchy, the private club must move out to where there are more acres and fewer people. Unfortunately, golf gaffers, their backs to city towers, sit amid the ghosts of departed club champions and, to the pleasant background music of shaker and ice cube, stare out on a thousand picture windows overlooking the 18th hole, unmindful of bulldozer and doom. They defy car manufacturers, road builders and promoters, and prefer instead to listen to some aging Horatius, holding the bridge as in the brave days of old.
I venture the assertion that before another 20 years go by there will be not more than 20 genuine private golf clubs in the New York area within 20 miles of the hub of the city. New York, of course, being the nation's largest city, is an extreme example. But what is true of it is, in proportion, true of every other expanding city in the U.S.
Thirty years ago there were 26 private or semipublic golf clubs within the comparatively narrow confines of New York City. Today there are four—none, of course, on Manhattan Island, none in The Bronx, none in Brooklyn. There are just two on Staten Island. Only two are left in Queens, which now has a burgeoning population of nearly 2 million, mostly in one-family houses, occupying little rectangular wedges of what before were truck farms, unkempt vacant fields, meadows, mud, peat and shore.
When I speak of a semipublic golf course I mean one which used to be a genuine membership club but is opened up to the public on a limited pay-as-you-play basis while the owners are getting ready for public works, subdivision or sale to institutions. One such club in the borough of Queens has recently been extinguished, and Oakland is going fast (see next page). We condemned them for bridge approaches and expressways and as sites for houses moved out of the path of these new arteries.
Similar attrition has taken place in the New York suburbs. In 1932, for example, there were 64 private courses in Westchester and 53 in Nassau. Today there are 45 in Westchester and 26 in Nassau, a loss of 46 private courses in just two suburban counties. To be sure, a few of the former suburban private courses have become public; that is, they are now municipally or state owned.
From the point of view of relative recreational values in terms of numbers of participants, golf is an expensive game. It takes much precious space to afford benefits to relatively few people. Therefore, urban and suburban golf, as population grows and pressure for parks increases, becomes something of an extravagance. I mention this not to challenge the virtues of golf or to irritate or discourage golfers, but to indicate that there are disturbing factors which conspire to force golf farther into open country.
Despite the fact that it requires space and leisure, I believe that golf is bound somehow under public and private auspices to survive population densities and the fast tempo of modern life. The game is plebeian in its origin, and perhaps after a long aristocratic interlude it is destined in large measure to be returned to the people. In any event, it is not likely to become obsolete because of adventitious obstacles.
Many things can happen that will deprive a city of a much-needed course. I recall taking the late Mayor Fiorello La Guardia to have a look at the abandoned Idlewild Golf Club. One of those committees the Honorable Fiorello spawned when the inspiration seized him, the Committee for Idlewild, later International Airport (of which, for my sins, I was chairman), was beginning to pump hydraulic fill from Jamaica Bay. As the field grew, the old golf course was quickly swallowed. In the end we had pumped 70 million cubic yards. The cost was 14 million municipal smackers before we even planted beach grass. On this inspection I quoted to the mayor from Through the Looking-Glass:
The Walrus and the Carpenter
Were walking close at hand:
They wept like anything to see
Such quantities of sand....
The mayor replied, "That's lousy verse." The point is that this was the burial of a private golf course.