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War was evident last week in the North Carolina sandhills. Not at No. 2, the sandy-soiled gem designed by Donald Ross, the transplanted Scot. Things were busy there and at all the other courses associated with the Pinehurst resort. The slumbering courses--the tracks quieted by the war in Iraq--were down the road 25 miles or so at Fort Bragg, where there are two courses, and next door at Pope Air Force Base, where there's one. "War comes, men and women get deployed, those who stay behind are busier than ever," said William (Buck) Kernan, the retired four-star general who once ran Fort Bragg. He was touring the layouts he knows intimately on a hot day last week. There was, maybe, a foursome per hole. Kernan wished more players were out. "The army encourages recreation. In this work you need a little R and R," he said.
You might know Kernan (pronounced kir-NAN) from TV. In the early weeks of the war in Iraq, he was Dan Rather's military consultant on CBS, a gig he accepted only because another four-star general, Tommy Franks, asked him to take it. ("We had Dan on the right track for a while there, but then he drifted on us," Kernan said.) The pros, some of them, know Kernan from the Tour and from trips through Pinehurst, where he lives. He's played in the AT&T twice, with Tour player Chris Smith, who has become a close friend. They both love golf, and their politics are about the same. Kernan, 59, is also friends with Olin Browne and Jerry Kelly, both of whom went to Kernan's house last Tuesday night after playing their practice rounds. He follows his guys in person at the Masters and elsewhere on TV. Along the way he has become friendly with Davis Love III, Nick Price and Price's manager, David Abell, who also lives in Pinehurst. Abell says of Kernan, "He's one of six people in the world who knows what's going on." If Kernan calls you, he might be in Israel, Iraq, Afghanistan, Washington or Pebble Beach--his military consulting work and his golf take him all over the world.
Kernan and his wife, Marianne, live in a gated golf community called Pinewild. The gate does not seal off world events. There are signs in the Pinewild clubhouse encouraging golfers to make cash donations in the pro shop to help purchase cellphones for soldiers in Iraq who cannot afford them. Army captain Mark Anders, whose parents live in Pinewild, has returned from Iraq to Fort Hood, Texas. But while he was overseas, he thought a driving range would be an excellent diversion for the troops. So his parents, along with Marianne Kernan and other Pinewilders, began a ball-and-club-collection drive. Working just the greater Pinehurst area, they were able to ship 13 pallets of clubs and balls to Iraq. Now there's a driving range at Al Taji Airfield, near Baghdad, where sliced shots clang off tanks.
Earl Woods did two stints at Fort Bragg during the Vietnam era, the second time to train as a special-operations officer. His youngest son's nickname comes from a South Vietnamese army colonel, Nguyen (Tiger) Phong, a close friend of Earl's in his Green Beret years. (They did things such as save each other's lives.) When he retired from the army in his early 40s, Earl taught himself the game while playing the military courses of Southern California, once shooting 63 on a par-72 Navy course.
There are scores of military courses across the country, all self-sustaining now, operated without public money. Most, over the past 10 years, have opened to the public, including Fort Bragg, although it helps to have a military connection on the weekend. The greens fee goes according to your rank. A private pays $10, walking on a weekday. An officer pays up to $15 although most of them ride and play on the weekends. With no disrespect to Earl's 63, most military courses are simple tracks with little rough, slow greens and shallow traps. When Earl and Tiger went to Fort Bragg for several days after the Masters last year, it wasn't for the golf. They were there because Tiger wanted to retrace the steps of Earl's special-ops training. In addition to giving golf clinics and attending receptions, Tiger went on distance runs, fired all manner of weapons and twice jumped out of planes. "They had him pretty busy," Kernan says. "He was in bed every night by nine."
Well, maybe not every night. Tiger evidently has some special-ops instincts, like his pops. "He sneaked off one night at 11 p.m. to go into town and hear the Beastie Boys," says retired Commander Sergeant Major Mike Taylor, a Fort Bragg liaison to Woods during his stay. "He put on his T-shirt, his baggy pants and his hat, and nobody knew who he was. He got right by us."
Other name pros have come through Fort Bragg. Orville Moody, an Army sergeant and a former winner of the All-Army Championship, played there before and after he turned pro. When he won the 1969 U.S. Open at Champions in Houston, his victory was well noted at the home of one of the Fort Bragg pros, L.B. Floyd. Seventeen years later, L.B. celebrated more when his son, Raymond, won the 1986 U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills.
L.B. Floyd was an Army master sergeant when he served as the pro at the Enlisted Men's Course, the back nine of which is credited as a Donald Ross design by some Ross buffs, although two Army historians have dismissed that claim. (The Army can get to the bottom of anything when it so desires. Ross most likely surveyed the land.) The other course, hillier and more interesting, was the Officers' Course, attached to the Officers' Club. (In the 1940s, when the armed forces were segregated, black soldiers at Fort Bragg could play only at a nine-hole course that no longer exists.)
In the 1990s, as the Army tried to become more egalitarian, the Fort Bragg courses were renamed and the rank distinctions were formally eliminated. The course for enlisted personnel was renamed Stryker Golf Course, and the Officers' Course became Ryder Golf Course, both named for war heroes. Now GI Joes (and Janes) may play Ryder, and officers may play Stryker. But not enough time has passed; class lines persist at both courses.
Kernan, who volunteered for the Army during the Vietnam War, played both courses when he was the Fort Bragg commander. There's a bridge over a creek at Ryder named for him, its wooden sign pockmarked with errant shots. (Kernan doesn't take it personally.) Last week at Stryker there were still golfers saluting him. Like most of us, Kernan much admires Tiger's approach to golf, his devotion to fitness and practice and his refusal to quit, which Kernan sees as military qualities. Part of Tiger's comfort with his former teacher, Butch Harmon, was that Harmon was a Vietnam veteran, scarred and toughened by the experience, just as Earl Woods was.