THE FAIRWAY on the 10th hole of the most audacious golf course in the world is nestled in a dell, a sanctuary lined with hillocks that are dotted with fescue and potentilla and juniper bushes. The caddie, Chris, says hybrid; the mind says Ireland. If golf is rooted in illusion—that man can master nature through a five-mile walk as he whacks a little white ball, that a driver resembling a toaster on a stick can add 10 yards and change your life—there is internal logic to the quixotic idea that a man named Eeric Bergstol could take 7½ million cubic yards of harbor gunk, almost 10 years and $130 million, and create a work of golf and engineering and environmental art out of, well, garbage. Make old sludge into Auld Sod.
The canvas was almost 140 acres of New Jersey landfill—brownfields, one of the most descriptive words in the English language. The paintbrush was a bulldozer. On putrid land once 10 feet above sea level, verdant tee boxes now soar 80 and 90 feet into the air, offering a panorama that, in a resolutely urban way, is as impressive as any Pebble Beach.
The agronomist, a Rutgers professor who oversaw the planting of the grasses and shrubs and even the blueberry bushes that line the walk between the green and the next tee on a few holes, calls this 7,120-yard, par-71 links-style course one of the wonders of the golf world.
There are wonders, yes. Then there are miracles: The course is in Bayonne, N.J.
Many spectacular courses have opened this century in the U.S., golf confections with riddles to solve and vistas to savor, but this course is in the most ordinary of workaday cities. If you know Bayonne, maybe it's as a punch line. Johnny Carson used to joke that his tailor was Raul of Bayonne. Ralph Kramden's International Order of Loyal Raccoons on the old Honeymooners would bowl in Bayonne, identifiable as a shot-and-beer, rented-shoes kind of place. Aliens blew up Bayonne in Steven Spielberg's War of the Worlds. This was the home of Chuck Wepner, the Rocky Balboa inspiration known as the Bayonne Bleeder. If somebody told me they were going to take the Taj Mahal and move it to the corner of 25th Street and Broadway, where the Petridis Hot Dogs restaurant stands, I would have been less surprised than I was when informed that on a steamy August afternoon I should gently cut a three-iron over the mounds on the 10th hole of the fabulous Bayonne Golf Club.
BAYONNE IS my hometown, in that I lived there for the formative years between fifth and 10th grade and the summers afterward. The games on my dead-end street in the mid-1960s revolved not around a Titleist but a Spalding (in our parlance, Spal-DEEN), a 25-cent, salmon-colored ball with plenty of bounce. We played two versions of stickball—hittin'-outta-hand and pitchin' in—but also box ball on the sidewalk, diamond ball in the street, and points, which involved throwing the ball against a stoop. There was a driving range and a forlorn pitch-and-putt course on Route 440 in neighboring Jersey City, but golf in Bayonne was considered an affectation if it was considered at all. I was the only kid I knew who played even a little, having been given a seven-club starter set (odd-numbered irons, two woods, a putter) for my 12th birthday. I would play occasionally on a fine New York City public course, La Tourette, across the Bayonne Bridge in Staten Island, with my uncle Carl, a small, optimistic man who, while dribbling the ball down the 1st fairway, would take a few violent swipes at the ball with his glasses on and a few with his glasses perched on his forehead to see what might work better that day. If I wanted to add something as la-dee-dah as a six-iron or a wedge to my bag, I would pick one out of a barrel at Herman's Sporting Goods for eight bucks. I liked those mismatched clubs, and Bayonne, just fine.
This peninsula ringed by New York and Newark bays and the Kill van Kull was, in 1963, a city where you could buy any brand of sneaker you wanted, as long as they were Keds or PF Flyers, one of which could make you run faster while the other could make you jump higher, or order any sort of pizza, as long as it had a thin crust and was delectably oily. The running-shoe selection has increased, and a national pizza chain now operates on Broadway, once unthinkable in a city that took its pies as seriously as Seattle takes its coffee. But Bayonne, whose population has leaked to about 60,000 from almost 75,000 when I was a kid, still appears sepia-toned even in harsh midday light. There is no Starbucks, but there are 58 houses of worship, roughly equaling the number of Republicans in the city 40 years ago. As former mayor Joseph V. Doria Jr. is fond of saying, "The whole world is changing, but Bayonne is changing less."
"If you go down Broadway and look at the delis and pizzas and hair salons," says Dwight Segall, Bayonne Golf Club's director of golf, "and ask somebody, 'Who's president?' you expect them to say, 'Carter.' "
Segall drives to work every morning over a little overpass on 32nd Street, past boxcars and warehouses and other handmaidens of heavy industry. (During my Bayonne years I crossed over the overpass on 32nd Street perhaps twice. Unless you were going to see a mothballed battleship at the Military Ocean Terminal or had relatives among the mostly eastern European immigrants who lived on Prospect Avenue, there was no reason to go. The area was as exotic as Pago Pago.) He passes through a white gate into an alternate universe, as magical as entering a wardrobe and discovering a benevolent golfing Narnia. He is in a place that Ron D'Argenio, general counsel for the club, calls "a complete fantasy." Back in the real world, on the other side of that white gate, is a city with a median household income, according to 2000 census data, of $41,566, a little more than a fifth of the current $200,000 initiation fee at Bayonne Golf Club.
There really is no town-and-gown—or, in this context, nine-iron-and-clothes-iron—tension between Bayonne and the Bayonne Golf Club. Tension implies conflict, and conflict demands interaction. The city and the club share a zip code, not an orbit. The golf club annually sets aside 200 special half-price rounds for Bayonne residents, but a good walk spoiled (there are no carts at this walking-only course) still costs $200 plus another $100 or so for a caddie. Since Bayonne Golf Club opened on Memorial Day weekend in 2006, no more than a half-dozen locals have taken advantage of the offer.