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Just 23 at the time, Morris was much younger than the men he oversaw, some in their 70s and 80s. "I let them work at their own pace because it was too much for a lot of them," he says. "Some weren't used to this kind of work, but they needed the work. They told me from the WPA office to keep them out there because they had to pay them anyhow."
In Milwaukee the WPA paid to build Brown Deer Park, where six decades later Tiger Woods would make his pro debut. In Houston the project was Memorial Park, golfing home away from home for budding two-time major champion Jack Burke Jr. ("It was a big, big course," Burke recalls, and a tough alternative to River Oaks, where his father was head pro.) In New Orleans it was Crescent City, now the East course at Bayou Oaks (which still awaits its promised post-Katrina resurrection through FEMA).
The roster grew as construction hummed behind distinctive red-white-and-blue WPA placards: a nine-holer for African-Americans, who weren't allowed on the 18-holer at Gleason Park in Gary, Ind.; the clubhouses for Griffith Park in Los Angeles and Balboa Park in San Diego; 32 courses in North Dakota and 16 in Montana. As golf's most visible ambassador, Bobby Jones supported the WPA. In late April 1936 he met with Hopkins in Washington, D.C., and praised the program as "a great boon to the game by providing facilities that otherwise would be lacking." Though the overall numbers are murky, in the WPA's first 18 months more than $12 million—$10.5 million from Washington, the balance from state and local participants—went into building and upgrading 368 courses. Those numbers kept growing until the war put the WPA out of business in 1943.
NEW COURSES attracted new players. Says Kirsch, "Part of the appeal for many among the masses was probably golf's association with the upper class." But if reverse snobbery lured some to sample the game, the game itself kept them coming back. Around New York City alone, rounds and revenue almost doubled between 1934 and '39. There was something to be said for a few hours of relatively inexpensive entertainment in the open air away from daily troubles—notwithstanding the occasional letter to the editor about Bethpage's exorbitant $2 weekend green fee.
Men of all ages and backgrounds were teeing it up for the first time. Women too. "The army of women's golfers is fast outnumbering the male addicts of the game," observed Golfdom, a leading industry publication. Not surprisingly, a corps of very good woman golfers—led by future LPGA founders Patty Berg, Babe Didrickson and Betty Jameson—quickly emerged to pry championships from predecessors with roots in private clubs, players such as Glenna Collett Vare, Maureen Orcutt and Virginia Van Wie. Between 1930 and '36, rounds played by women increased 20% annually. "The Depression forced significant changes in the American family and the role of women," says golf historian Rand Jerris. "As women entered the workforce there was an erosion of the old values, of what was considered proper for a woman to do."
At the same time a new crop of hardscrabble champions—caddie-yard alumni such as Byron Nelson, Ben Hogan and Sam Snead—began to change the face of tournament golf. With Bobby Jones off the national stage and Walter Hagen's game in decline, there were no golfing giants in the early '30s and not many fans. The tournament circuit was scattershot, and professionals earned more from betting with each other than from prize money. Club jobs kept them afloat, but they weren't secure, either.
Tough times made tough golfers. Hogan was so broke that his only entertainment was practicing. Nebraska's Johnny Goodman, the last amateur to win the Open (in 1933), traveled to championships at Pebble Beach and Winged Foot by cattle car. "They weren't from what you'd call the 'finger-bowl districts,'" says Atlanta Journal-Constitution columnist Furman Bisher, who began covering golf in the mid-'30s.
As players such as Hogan, Nelson and Snead caught on, attitudes toward the pro game changed. Before the Depression, amateur golf, emblematized by Jones and Francis Ouimet, reigned. "The Depression legitimized the professional game," says Jerris. "It became more acceptable to make money any way you could, and the distinction between working class and leisure class became far less significant." It was natural for new, working-class converts to the game to find heroes in working-class players.
These new heroes didn't disappoint. Before the '30s, every U.S. Open winner hailed from golf's old-world bastions of the East Coast, Chicago, Scotland or England. But half of the Open champs from the '30s—Goodman, Olin Dutra, Nelson and two-time winner Ralph Guldahl—had roots west of the Mississippi. "The days when a few stars such as Bobby Jones, Walter Hagen and Gene Sarazen dominated the field are now over," declared Grantland Rice in 1937, writing for The National Golf Review. "Golf skill has now spread all over the map." Recognizing that trend, the USGA awarded all of its 1937 championships to clubs beyond the Eastern Seaboard. The Open went to Michigan, the Amateur to Oregon, the Women's Amateur to Tennessee and the Amateur Public Links to California.
In hindsight, projects like Bethpage and Prairie Dunes were about more than golf; more, even, than putting people to work. Robert Moses, a great visionary, sent Tillinghast to Long Island to fulfill his vision of a public park that would obliterate distinctions of class, income and education, where New Yorkers could ride, hike, picnic, dine and play golf and tennis. The People's Club was a vision of hope in hard times, a light pointing the way out of the darkness.