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June 14, 2009
During the Great Depression, FDR used the people's money to build golf courses, employing thousands and democratizing the game
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June 14, 2009

Going Public

During the Great Depression, FDR used the people's money to build golf courses, employing thousands and democratizing the game

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"In addition to putting people back on their feet with jobs," explains Nick Taylor, author of American-Made: When FDR Put the Nation to Work, "there was a kind of egalitarian impulse that was part of Roosevelt's vision to make things—like golf—available to people." There was also a belief that recreation enhanced public well-being, especially for a country down in the dumps. "If nothing else," says Taylor, "recreation was a distraction from monetary worry."

Besides, America needed more golf courses. Between the 1929 crash and Roosevelt's election, the game actually grew; more rounds were played in 1932 than in 1930—just not at the same exclusive places. The devastated economy forced countless private-club members to resign; to keep playing, they became public golfers. And since land was relatively inexpensive, even in metropolitan areas, municipal golf suddenly looked like a good investment to local governments applying for grants. "Public golf wasn't new," says Kirsch, "but hard times accelerated it."

Just as important to the politicians, building a golf course was labor intensive. Men—lots of men, skilled and unskilled, an average of 200 per site—were needed to read plans, test soil, dig bunkers and ditches, float greens, grade fairways, lay irrigation lines, grow grass, string electric wires, smooth parking lots, build clubhouses and carve access roads.

"As work-relief projects, they were essentially shovel-ready," says Brands. "You could start the day after tomorrow."

SO THEY DID; here and there at first, as local governments readied applications to Washington, then at a quickened pace once FDR signed the executive order creating the WPA in May 1935. Not every course would be a gem. Some were hardly more sophisticated than nine or 18 stakes in the ground. Some barely grew grass. But some continue to inspire.

At Bethpage—one renovation and three new layouts—crews, initially put to work by the short-lived CWA, toiled year-round, living in a tent city that arose to house up to 1,800 laborers. "It wasn't unusual to see men working there in business suits and fedoras," says Taylor. "It might be all they had."

With virtually no private-course construction anywhere—Alister MacKenzie and Bobby Jones's Augusta National being the exception—the feds became the architects' savior. Between 1930 and the Bethpage assignment in late 1933, there had been no design work at all for Tillinghast, the creator of Winged Foot, Baltusrol and San Francisco Golf Club; he had become editor of Golf Illustrated magazine.

Few of these hundreds of projects would bear the imprint of a Tillinghast—or a Ross, a Perry Maxwell or a young Robert Trent Jones—but some did. While Tillie molded Bethpage, Jones cut his design teeth in upstate New York. "Dad always said it was some of the hardest work of his life," says his son Rees Jones, inheritor of his father's Open Doctor mantle and author of the redesign that readied the Black for its 2002 U.S. Open debut. Ross, still in Pinehurst's employ, took WPA commissions to build George Wright outside Boston and Mark Twain in Elmira, N.Y., a job he secured by undercutting Jones's bid. Ross's asking price? All of $200—10% of his pre-Depression fee.

Maxwell marshaled WPA forces at Prairie Dunes in Hutchinson, Kans., conceived as a public course though now a private club, and Veenker Memorial in Ames, Iowa. After MacKenzie's death in 1934, Marshall built the Scarlet and Black courses at Ohio State using MacKenzie's 1931 plans. Under Maxwell's watch, WPA workers also constructed Tulsa's Southern Hills, one of the few private clubs to benefit. Unemployment was so bad in the Dust Bowl that the feds allowed the exception.

At 95, Claude Morris, construction foreman at Prairie Dunes, looks back with pride at what his men achieved almost three quarters of a century ago. "We used no modern machinery," he says. "It was horses and scrapers and wheelbarrows and shovels eight hours a day. It was all hand labor." Hand labor was a WPA hallmark. "That's part of why Bethpage is as good as it is," says Rees Jones. "They used very little machinery and didn't care how long it took. These projects were about getting as many people to work as possible, not working fast."

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