BOSTON – In the shadow of mighty, venerable Fenway Park, on a sparkling summer night, with the right kind of ears you could almost hear the flattish, deadpanning voice of the late iconic Red Sox public address announcer Carl Beane as he called out the starting lineups…
“Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, and welcome to Fenway Park. Starting at writer tonight for the Golf News Network…on golf, rock-n-roll, and popular culture…number 11…Jay…Flemma. Flemma on golf and rock…”
That’s how excited I was for the Boston assignment.
And so it was just before midnight on Friday night that, with a triumphant grin, I eased into the parking space reserved for me in the bowels of my wingman’s apartment building.
He lives directly across the street from Fenway. Score!
“Your pitch has been accepted. You’re going to Boston,” my editor had declared. “Take a photographer of your choosing as a wingman, and play two of the best public courses in town...wherever you like. In between, go see the Foo Fighters gig at Fenway Park and report back.”
Boston golf in high summer, what a joy! First, George Wright Golf Course: a well-preserved Donald Ross public design in the heart of the city itself that has beguiled and befuddled almost a century of players. Then Granite Links, a modern 27-hole complex etched into a hilltop overlooking the downtown skyline. As a bonus, mix in the hottest band on the planet, Foo Fighters, rocking Our Beloved Fenway, America’s most iconic ballpark, the holiest of baseball holies. What a perfect way to bridge my coverage of the U.S. Open and the PGA Championship.
And all this with a wingman of my choosing, and that’s a critical point. Sometimes you’re at the mercy of whatever photographer the magazine sends out, and I’ve seen the gamut of personalities run from Ralph Steadman-ish wild and crazy to Jar Jar Binks-ish nerve-rattlingly annoying. But my literal and metaphoric wingman -- a soccer teammate called Toast -- lives one short block from Fenway, and he takes great pictures. He laughed out loud when I offered him the assignment. How could you not?
Insert Carl Beane voice again: “On Olympus Camedia and Samsung Galaxy 4 cell phone cameras…number 18…Toast…Mosely. Mosely...on camera…”
And so we headed out in to the Boston night. To the Bleacher Bar, adjacent to…in fact, attached to…the ballpark itself, the wall of which opens up into a view of center field of Fenway. “A Monster Bar. An inside the park home run,” and both are true in this case, a clever turn of the phrase. (By the way, you can see out the bar’s windows, but the players can’t see in.) It was a terrific view of the Park, but we’d be seeing Fenway a lot closer and a lot louder in a few short hours.
GEORGE WRIGHT GOLF COURSE – THE WRIGHT STUFF
8:48 a.m. Toast is shaking me awake.
“Oh, is it time to get up already?” I ask innocently.
“No, it’s long past,” he says, pointing at the clock. We have 10 minutes to make the tee time. The course is 20 minutes away.
“Didn’t you set the alarm?!” I ask incredulously.
“I thought you did,” he replied.
“It’s your apartment…” I noted, running frantically for the shower. Thanks, Wingman! It really wasn’t that rough of a night, we couldn’t have been so zonked as to miss tee time, could we?!
Wait…don’t answer that.
Seriously, though, as I recall, the only thing that went wrong during the course of the evening was my phone somehow turned on in my pocket and did two lame things: 1) permanently change the clock to military time and 2) butt dial an overly-clingy ex-girlfriend, (who’s been stalking me ever since…awkward!).
Thank goodness for a rain delay. George Wright is just 20 minutes south of downtown, but mercifully the roads were empty this early on a Saturday. Good thing. Knowing we had to make up time, I floored it and did my best Mario Andretti impersonation. Poor Toast was grabbing the “Oh s#%t!” handle of the car in terror.
With a few minutes' grace (because the course needed a few extra minutes to drain completely from two straight nights of drenching rain), we actually got to the first tee immediately as our names were called. I had enough time to shovel an entire wedge of toast in my mouth and run to the tee box spitting crumbs in my wake.
You can argue Yankees-Red Sox, Giants/Jets-Patriots and Bruins-Rangers all you like, but when comparing New York and Boston for public golf, it’s no contest. In fact, it’s a rout; Boston wins 7 & 6. There’s a lot of NYC public golf, but none of it is any good. The Parks Department’s gross mismanagement sees to that. Given Jack Nicklaus’s name, a grillion dollars and 15 years, they couldn’t build Ferry Point. (Trump had to do it...) And the decades-long decrepit conditioning of courses like Marine Park and Forest Park was a scandalous state of affairs, only just now being remedied through the efforts of hometown favorite golf architect Stephen Kay.
Until Kay’s work is finished, however, you have three good options if you’re an NYC public golfer, and they are all an hour or more away: Bethpage, Tallgrass or the Knoll Club. Then you have the city of Boston. Knowing full well that they have a Donald Ross-designed, Golden Age golf course right in the heart of the city -- (the Hyde Park neighborhood, for those of you scoring at home) -- they have decided to protect and preserve.
“George Wright is Boston’s proper rejoinder to Bethpage, just without the major championship pedigree,” explained golf design expert Bruce Moulton. “It’s where all the ardent golfers play on weekends. But since it’s in the heart of the city of Boston, it’s much easier for everybody to sneak in nine after work as well – a huge advantage over Bethpage, which is way out in Nassau County.”
Built in the teeth of the Great Depression, the Ross design was started in 1932 and finished in 1938 with funds from FDR’s Works Progress Administration.
“George Wright remains as one of the country’s great engineering feats,” writes Cognizantgolf.com, and they’re right. It had to be quite a scene: “60,000 pounds of dynamite were used to excavate the ledge, 72,000 cubic yards of dirt was spread to infill swamps, and 57,000 linear feet of drainage pipe was laid to drain the property. Up to 1,000 men were involved with the project from start to finish.”
Many of the Ross staples of the repertoire are at George Wright, and the course feels eminently natural, playing into the toughest aspects of the property. It has outstanding vertical movement in the earth, roller-coaster terrain rumbling up and cascading down the myriad hills and hillocks. The horizontal sweep of the fairways also offers excellent diagonal hazards so players have to both plan and execute their shots properly.
“You can’t overpower George Wright. Distance control is as important as accuracy, and like at most Ross courses, the greens are smaller than they appear because they have false fronts, false sides and steep roll-offs,” explains Moulton.
“Take No. 6, a textbook example of how Ross tricks your eye and uses deception as a defense” adds PGA Head Professional Scott Allen. “The fairway slides around the bunkers in almost an S-shape, while the bunker that appears greenside is actually much further away. He’s also one of the greatest at letting the natural landforms be a defense to scoring. You can see your target just fine – the shot is framed well – but the landforms will make the ball bounce all over the place if you aren’t precise with your placement.”
Typical of Ross, greens are somewhat crowned (although nowhere near as pronounced as at Seminole, but you get the idea), and yes, the terrain features huge long landforms that cunningly require both distance control and accuracy.
“The 10th green looks benign, but if you are on the right side you swear you’re putting uphill, but of course everyone knocks it way past on that first putt because its completely the opposite,” laughs a rightfully proud Allen. “Like any public Ross they stimp around nine, but when they speed up to 11 for events, it’s a completely different golf course. You have to put the on ball the exact part of the green where the pin is. When they are rolling at 11, you could hit every green, and you’ll have a hard time breaking 80!”
Many of the best holes are on the front. The par-4 second may be short, but much like three holes at Oak Hill, there is a severely uphill approach to a green benched into a hill just below charming neighborhood homes (well, charming until you hit your approach into someone’s yard for a stroke-and-distance penalty…). Your author’s personal favorite is the short, but severely uphill par-5 third with its saddle fairway slithering along ridge and then rising to a pedestal green guarded by a cavernous bunker carved into the right side of the hill. When the pin is tucked flush right behind that bunker, it’s the best hole location on the course and the one that has the biggest pucker factor, whether you’re attacking with a wedge or 4-iron. And the long par-4 fifth sweeps thrillingly downhill before turning sharply to the right and empties out into natural bowl.
The back is equally strong, however. As Allen noted, 10 has a wickedly difficult green, 12 features a blind tee shot and several tiers of fairway as you play from plateau to plateau, dramatically dropping downhill, and the par-3 17th may be the most recognizable hole on the course, with its green rolling off on all sides, bunkers almost completely encircling it and shrubbery framing it serenely.
“17 is the closest the course gets to playing like Seminole,” notes Moulton.
The course screams Golden Age with its heaving terrain and gritty atmosphere – spikes clattering on the cement floor and echoing through the tiled clubhouse much like they would have almost 100 years ago. Though there is a master plan from 2006 by Gil Hanse, local favorite Mark Mungeum has been consulting of late. For city golfers, it’s a steal at $1,100 for the season, plus $75 for the locker. But more importantly, it’s the central helix of Boston golf’s DNA strand.
“It’s public, it’s Ross, and it’s ours,” said local golfer Mark Maldanado.
“It’s like Olive Garden, when you’re here, you’re family!” he cackled, making the entire grill room laugh hysterically along with him.
16:45 p.m. Again careening madly through traffic, we race against the clock to get back to Fenway in time to watch Mighty Mighty Bosstones open for Foo Fighters. As you can see, my clock is still stuck on military time, and while I was on the golf course my stalker ex-girlfriend called four times, leaving three breathlessly inane messages about how she and Squeakers the Cat miss me, and one angry message about “leading her on by calling her and hanging up,” but that’s not the problem right now…the problem right now is to get us home in one piece in five minutes.
Toast is once again hanging on to the “Oh s#@t!” handle, but he turns into a Scream Queen every time I start the engine. What else is new?
One of these days, just for the sheer puckishness of it, I’ll give him a reason to grab it for real. Just west of Boston, I know this highway construction site jam-packed with pylons and dividers and concrete barriers and an unfinished bridge spanning some river. For a prank, I’ll “accidentally” take a wrong turn into it, and then make tire-squealing Grand Prix racing turns around the various obstacles, wheels spitting gravel everywhere, before bringing us to a screeching halt at the edge of the unfinished bridge. When we come to our jarring stop inches before plunging into the river, I’ll turn to Toast – his eyes bulging like an acid freak, white knuckles gripping the dashboard in terror – and I'll say, “This is a shortcut.”
NEWS, NOTES, AND QUOTES
George Wright is named for an old-time baseball player from he 19th century. Thank you, Boston, for not selling the naming rights to John Hancock or W.B. Mason or something else lame. It’s a welcome throwback to the age where we named sports complexes for good guys, like Jack Murphy Stadium. He was a sports writer.
UP NEXT: GRANITE LINKS, AFTER THAT: FOO FIGHTERS AT FENWAY