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ON A COLD January morning in 1934, A.W. Tillinghast, cradling his hickory walking stick, stood on a hilltop in Farmingdale, N.Y., and looked out upon the snow-covered woodlands. The terrain presents infinite variety, he was no doubt thinking, mentally composing his report to master builder Robert Moses, president of the Long Island State Park Commission (among his myriad titles). It is one of golf's most enduring clichés, after all—the prospective golf architect surveying a proffered landscape and declaring it to be "the most singular piece of land that God ever provided for man's enjoyment."
There was plenty for Tillinghast to visualize. When completed, Bethpage State Park's 1,368 acres would encompass picnic areas, hiking and riding trails, tennis courts and a golf complex with a grill room, public and private dining rooms, lounges, showers, lockers, caddies, a pro shop and four superb courses able to support 2,400 rounds a day. But it was the nadir of the Great Depression, so Tillinghast saw more than green sites and fairways in the rolling hills. He saw jobs. "However enthralling the vision of the completed work may be," he would write in Golf Illustrated, "it is the reality of the tramping of 1,200 feet—600 men starting that work—which is so tremendously impressive at the moment."
In time those 600 would grow to a small village, and everything from the course to the clubhouse, to the tables and chairs that furnished it, would be built by men toiling for the Civil Works Administration (CWA) and the Works Progress Administration (WPA), the New Deal agencies created to provide jobs and income to the unemployed. And Bethpage wasn't the only beneficiary of the government-backed golf boom. By the time the U.S. entered World War II, the New Deal had effectively marshaled the construction or renovation of about 600 municipal courses from Maine to California, opening what had been largely accepted as a patrician pursuit to more Americans of varied backgrounds than ever before.
It was an unprecedented endeavor that allowed golf to play a role in the nation's economic recovery, in contrast to current Washington policy (below). It also helped change the nature and perception of the game across the land. Says sports historian George B. Kirsch, author of the new book Golf in America, "For golfers, the cloud of this great economic crisis contained a silver lining."
It's one that shimmers to this day. Next week, when the U.S. Open returns to Bethpage's Black course, tens of millions of global viewers will watch the competition. Tillinghast and Moses will be given their due, and maybe—just maybe—some announcer will throw a verbal bouquet to the men who plowed the ground and the golf-loving president who put them to work.
EXTRAORDINARY TIMES yield extraordinary images, and the images of the Depression remain chilling to this day: Breadlines. Shanty towns. Men peddling apples on street corners. There's this image too: an aristocrat gracefully bearing the weight of the nation's misery on his shoulders. Franklin Delano Roosevelt understood misery. He was a golfer.
"He loved playing golf more than just about anything else," says H.W. Brands, author of Roosevelt, Traitor to His Class. FDR even kept an old golf ball on his desk in the Oval Office. "I believe that his inability to play made the game even more important to him, and he liked the idea that the government could make it possible for ordinary people to play."
No ordinary man himself, Roosevelt gained deep insight into the sufferings of others through his own transformative struggle with polio—the humbling midlife counterpoint to the ease and privilege into which he was born. He was eight when his father had a six-hole course built on the family's Hyde Park, N.Y., estate, and by his early teens Franklin was shooting in the low 80s. In 1899, as secretary-treasurer of the nine-hole club on Campobello, the island playground for the wealthy off the coast of Maine, he designed and supervised the enlargement of tees and greens. Fresh out of Harvard in 1904, he won the club championship. No golfing president can top that.
Roosevelt continued to play often and well—through his rise in New York politics, his tenure as assistant secretary of the Navy in World War I and his losing campaign as vice president on the 1920 Democratic ticket—until polio stopped him, at 39, in 1921. And while there were those within his inner circle, says Brands, "who felt that polio was a blessing in disguise because he would now spend less time on the golf course and more time on politics," FDR's golfing romance held fast. In the fall of 1926 he bought a resort in Warm Springs, Ga., where he found relief for his withered legs. There he designed, adjacent to nine holes recently completed by Donald Ross, a series of roads and bridges on which he could motor along to watch play. The future president, accompanied by his personal secretary and a pitcher of martinis, became a noted kibitzer, hoisting spirited toasts to good shots and bad.
There wasn't much to toast when FDR took office in March 1933. With unemployment hovering at 25%, he had 16 million Americans—from unskilled hands to former bank presidents—to put back to work, which he began to do immediately through an aggressive program of civil works projects. Roads, bridges and dams were staples, as were schools and airports. But so, too, were parks, playgrounds, swimming pools, tennis courts—and golf courses.