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Westchester Country Club would seem to be an ideal breeding ground for tour pros. It has two 18-hole courses, a nine-hole par-3 layout, a sprawling practice tee, two huge practice greens and a short-game practice area. There are droves of kids in the junior program, and virtually all of them have well-heeled parents who furnish them with the latest equipment, lessons with the club's seven instructors and funds to compete around the country. A PGA Tour event has been held on the grounds every year since 1967.
But only one person in the club's 78-year history has had status on the LPGA or PGA tours (Margaret Platt). Then there's Meaghan Francella, who as a kid worked in Westchester's pro shop in exchange for practice privileges, is on the LPGA tour, and two weeks ago she won the MasterCard Classic in a playoff.
Was it a fluke that a former club employee, and not a member, became the first Westchester product to play on tour and win? Not likely. I've long believed that public courses, not country clubs, are the best breeding grounds for great golfers. The club atmosphere is too cushy. It doesn't inspire children to toil intensely enough or to develop the kill-or-be-killed mentality needed to win tour events.
There are a ton of pro golfers who were country club kids, including greats Bobby Jones and Jack Nicklaus. On the other hand, none of the 13 men who've been first in the World Ranking since its inception in 1986 grew up as club members. The top three in the current ranking-- Tiger Woods, Jim Furyk and Phil Mickelson--are all from middle-class families that didn't belong to private clubs.
"Most kids I've worked with from country clubs don't come to the tee with the hunger my public-course kids have," says Tom Patri, who taught at Westchester from 1990 to 2001 and has worked with Francella since she was 12. "The public kids seem to want it more, maybe because they realize how hard their parents struggle to make ends meet."
To bolster his point, Patri tells a story from his tenure at Westchester. "I had one young pupil, the son of a member, who went through 13 drivers in one year--13! The kid kept thinking a new club would fix everything, and his parents fueled the fire by paying the bills. Then one summer Meaghan needed a new driver. It took some time, but her parents sacrificed and saved the money to get a new Titleist. She was walking on air when she got it."
Rudy Duran, a Californian who taught Woods from ages three to 10, has a similar view. He particularly recalls an amateur team match, the San Luis Obispo ( Calif.) County Ryder Cup. Between 1993 and '99 the competition pitted teams from the private San Luis Obispo Country Club against Chalk Mountain, a municipal course. Chalk Mountain won five of the seven matches. "The country clubbers were good golfers," says Duran, "but the public-course guys went at it a little harder and scrapped it up."
I have one concern about my theory--a personal one. Although I grew up caddying at Westchester, I'm now a member, and I wonder about my two kids. If they get into golf, will playing at the club hurt their chances of having tour careers? "Ultimately, it comes down to what's inside the individual," says Patri, who grew up playing at public tracks on Long Island. "But all things being equal, I'll take the public-course kid's chances any day."