The Missing Links

With 20 million golfers in America and not enough courses to go around, many players make do with scruffy public links
June 12, 1988

The most important man in golf has a ball retriever in his bag, a score counter on his belt and a loop in his backswing. He buys three balls for a dollar and shows up at the course in jeans. Reeboks and a golf shirt that's so old it has no emblem. He's the foot soldier of the game, the guy who's up at four in the morning to pay $12 to wait three hours to play a six-hour round to lose $6 in bets.

No company wants him to wear its name on his visor, and nobody shines his cleats. Yet he's the guy who keeps the sport alive. He's the guy who lines up three deep to hit a bucket of almost-round balls off AstroTurf mats, which stain his irons an unnatural green. That's him in the back of the clubhouse, lying about his round and playing gin rummy on a white Formica table that hasn't seen a busboy's rag since Easter.

Lately he's been forgotten. Lately people have thought of golf as some kind of 18-karat Aaron Spelling production, people driving up in expense-account Cadillacs wearing La Mode du Golf shirts and tipping doormen 10-spots. Every new course is more glamorous and exotic than the last. And "greens fees" mean you have to buy a Jack Nicklaus lot overlooking the 18th green.

But golf can't change neighborhoods on us. Truth is, underneath all that, the heart of the game is still the shot-and-a-beer hacker, the golf guerrilla, the guy playing courses that move about as fast as a Moscow meat line, and smiling about it. Fuzzy Zoeller may shoot 66 at Augusta and then gripe about the greens, but the essence of golf is still the 14 handicapper who doesn't mind if the tees are rough, the fairways look like the aftermath of a tractor-pull and the greens aren't. He loves the game for the game. It's Saturday. He's playing golf. He's gonna gripe?

At Beth page State Park on Long Island, golfers arrive at 2:30 in the morning in hopes of getting on the first tee by 6:30. Golfers who arrive at 7:30 are lucky to be planting a tee in the ground by noon. At Forest Preserve National in Oak Forest, Ill., players begin lining up at 3 p.m. the day before for a 6 a.m. tee time. They sleep in their cars. In Los Angeles, if you haven't called by 6:30 a.m. on a Monday for a tee time the next Saturday, you're usually shut out for that day on all 13 public courses. The switchboard opens at 6 a.m.

It's not uncommon for a round of golf to take almost seven hours. If you get around at all, that is. At Pelham Golf Course in the Bronx a few years ago, youths hiding in nearby woods robbed a man on a green of $65 and his credit cards. It is not known whether he then made the putt. When American Golf, a course management company, took over at Pelham, employees were surprised at what they found—dead bodies. Because of that, Kimble Knowlden of American Golf told The New York Times, "I try not to be the first one out on the course in the morning."

But warm bodies, too, keep flooding the Bronx's public links. Same as they do in Chicago and L.A. The country is four quarts low on reasonably priced golf courses for John Q. Public to play. The National Golf Foundation estimates that the number of golfers has grown 24%, to 20.2 million, over the last two years. To keep up with that pace, the foundation says, a course a day would have to be built between now and the turn of the century. Last year only 110 opened, and more than a third of those were private.

Still, for all of that—the ordeal of getting a tee time, the 20-minute waits between shots and the ungroomed greens—the public course golfer, one of the most abused sportsmen in America, pursues the game loyally and lovingly, as if he had invented it. And nobody's more loyal than the regulars at Ponkapoag Golf Club in Canton, Mass., known, for better or worse, as Ponky.

Overheard at a Ponky lunch table:

Ralphie: "You know what my problem is?"

Pete: "No, what?"

Ralphie: "With you fishes, I need a bigger wallet."

Pete: "Slob."

Herbie: "What'd everybody make on that last hole?"

Ralphie: "Four."

Brooklyn: "Five."

Pete: "Other."

Herbie: "Whaddya mean, 'other'?"

Pete: "Other. Like on TV, when they put up what all the pros have been making on the hole, right?"

Herbie: "So?"

Pete: "So it says something like, '181 birdies, 300-something pars, 98 bogeys, 42 double bogeys and seven others.' Well, I had an 'other,' O.K.?"

Juice: "I'll guarantee you, tomorrow I'm not shootin' any 'others.' Tomorrow. I'm throwin' a 72 at you slobs."

Tommy: "Right. And I'm Seve."

Juice: "Bet me?"

Tommy: "Sawbuck?"

Juice: "You got it."

Tommy: "So, how do you guarantee it?"

Juice: "After I hit it 72 times, I'm pickin' it up."

For the third time in history, the U.S. Open, which begins June 16, will be held this year at The Country Club in Brook-line. Mass. For the 88th time in history, the U.S. Open will not be held at Ponky. Still, the two courses are only 20 minutes apart in Greater Boston, and it's easy to get them confused.

At The Country Club, for instance, you drive up to the clubhouse, where the boy meets you and takes your bag. At Ponky, you give a boy your bag only at gunpoint. At The Country Club, you change shoes in the locker room. At Ponky, most people don't change shoes. At The Country Club, the men's room is stocked with colognes, hair dryers and jars full of combs rinsing in blue disinfectant. At Ponky, you comb your hair looking into the metal on the front of the paper towel dispenser. At The Country Club, the greens are truer than any love. At Ponky, the greens look like barber-school haircuts. At The Country Club, lunch in the Men's Grille might begin with the vichyssoise, followed by an avocado stuffed with salmon salad. At Ponky, you can get a fried-egg sandwich for a buck and a quarter.

At The Country Club, the most esteemed tournament is The Country Club Gold Medal. At Ponky, it's the TV Open. (Each member of the winning foursome gets a TV—color, no less.) At The Country Club, the names are Wigglesworth, Peabody and Coolidge. At Ponky, they're Papoulias, Sullivan and Tomasini. At The Country Club, the members peruse The Wall Street Journal. At Ponky, they read the Racing Form. At The Country Club, most of the families came over on the Mayflower. At Ponky, most of the guys came over on the bus.

Ponkapoag endures 120,000 rounds a year over its two courses, and a whole lot of these are played by the regulars. Among them are Bluto, a construction worker with a high resemblance to Olive Oyl's suitor; Ziggy, who looks like the doorman in The Wizard of Oz; Little Eddie, a slightly pudgy accountant; Jimmy, a postal worker; Cementhead, a cement-truck driver; Socks, a contractor; Pappy, a high-tech engineer; and the Can Man, a retired cop who collects plastic garbage bags full of aluminum cans during rounds and hauls them saddlebag-style over his golf cart.

Then there is Bob DePopolo. If The Country Club has Francis Ouimet, winner of the 1913 U.S. Open, then Ponky has DePopolo, 57, inventor of the Triple Tripod Leg-Log putting stroke. To do the Triple Tripod, you get a five-foot putter that reaches up to your sternum (DePopolo insists he invented this extra-long putter, now popular on the Senior tour), stand with legs crossed, use a cross-handed grip and whack away.

DePopolo was a master of all things technical about golf, but he was most obsessive about the wind. In fact, the only ball he would play was a Titleist 8. He said the symmetry of the 8 caused less wind friction than other numbers. "For years," says Paul Bersani, a Ponky regular, "you could not buy a Titleist 8 in the pro shop. DePopolo had 'em all."

DePopolo gave up golf to tend to an ailing mother, but he had long since become a legend. One year he played the Catholic Youth Organization tournament, still held annually at Ponky. After winning his semifinal match on a Friday, he was eating a cheeseburger when a priest admonished him. "Son, what do you think you're doing?"

"Having a cheeseburger, Father," said DePopolo.

"Don't you know it's Friday?"

"So what?" said DePopolo. "It's a free country, ain't it?"

DePopolo, thus rooted out as a Protestant, was immediately disqualified.

Ziggy, a short, sturdy man in his mid-50's, gets constant abuse at Ponky for: 1) his toupee, and 2) the fact that in 25 years, he has never gotten the clubhead past his waist on the backsvving.

Socks: "O.K., Ziggy, this is the one, Baby. Get those hands way up high this time. Way up!"

Bluto: "Wait, Ziggy, wait! There's a divot on your head." (Despite making a perfect practice swing, Ziggy still strikes the ball with his usual foreshortened style.) "Beautiful, Ziggy. You did it that time."

Socks: "Ziggy, you could make a swing in a phone booth."

Pauli: "Without opening the door."

Rudy: "Remember that time Ziggy made that great shot out of the woods?"

Pauli: "Remember! I was there"

Rudy: "Absolutely great shot. He was all bashed in there, in with the trees. Had no shot. Only he makes a great shot and he comes running out to watch it. Only his toupee is still hanging on one of the branches."

Pauli: "The Parks Department came. They thought it was a wombat."

Ziggy: "Rot, you slobs."

Golf isn't the sport of choice at Ponky. The sport of choice is betting. Golf is just a convenient vehicle for it. At Ponky, they bet on whether the pro on TV will sink his next putt. They bet on how long it will take Russ, the cook, to make a two-minute egg. They bet with their partners, and they bet against their partners. They bet with guys playing two groups ahead and with guys three counties over. They bet while they're waiting on the tees. They bet on whether they can chip into the garbage can or off the ball washer. On a rainy day at Ponky, Pappy the Edgeman (so named because he always wants the betting edge) will take bets on a hole that consists of hitting a ball off the locker room floor, over a bank of lockers, out a door, onto the practice green and into a designated cup. Par is 3.

They'll bet you can't make a 4 on the next hole. They'll bet you can't turn the front nine in 42. Little Eddie will bet you that he can stack two golf balls, one on top of the other, ricochet the bottom one off a wall and catch the top one in his back pocket. (Don't take the bet.) Pappy, the snake, has bet people he can beat them putting with his wedge. (Don't take that one, either.)

Then there was the time Pappy bet Socks 10 bucks that Socks couldn't make a 4 on the next hole. Socks made a 3. "Pay up, Edgeman," said Socks.

"What for?"

"You know what for. I made a 4."

"No you didn't. You made a 3." Took a while for Socks to get over that one.

They bet for 27 holes on weekends, and they bet on their regular nine-hole game after work. They bet "sandies" (up and down out of the sand), "greenies" (closest to the pin on par-3s), "barkies" (hit a tree and still make par) and "Arnies" (make a par without ever being on the fairway). Afterward, they'll bet on hearts, gin, whist and poker until it gets dark, and then go outside, turn the car headlights on the putting green and have putting contests until somebody has won all the money or the Diehards start to wear out. In the winter, when the course is closed, they'll get a pound of bologna, some roast beef, a loaf of bread and some tonic and play cards in the clubhouse, although they're not supposed to have a key. Loser has to vacuum.

Golf is so much fun at Ponky that guys who are members at country clubs come over for a most un-clubby kind of golf game. Rudy Tomasini has been a member of Plymouth Country Club for years, yet every afternoon Rudy shows up to play a 5 o'clock round with the boys, and every day the boys give him the business.

Bluto: "Hey, Ziggy, what's Mr. Country Club doing here, anyway? Why does he want to play Ponky when he could be at the country club?"

Ziggy: "I'll tell you what he's doing. He's slumming, that's what he's doing. He's favoring us with his presence."

Bluto: "Must've run out of hors d'oeuvres over there or something."

Most of the gambling is $5 stuff, but some of it isn't Herbie lost $18,000 one day at Ponky. Another gambler—we'll call him Nicky—plays golf, the puppies, the ponies, the games, the lottery, anything. "You can always tell whether Nicky's had a good week," says Bluto. "If he's ahead, he's playing golf. If he's down, he's mowing greens." Today, Nicky is mowing greens.

Bluto: "Whaddya think Nicky made last year?"

Jimmy: "I don't know. Hundred grand?"

Bluto: "Yeah. And he lost 110."

Sometimes the betting gets complicated. One day Georgie Conroy, a regular, was playing in a sevensome and had bets going with everybody. After madly scribbling down all his bets, he headed for the first fairway, where everyone found his ball. Everyone except Georgie, that is. They were just about to give up looking when somebody pointed back to the tee and yelled, "Georgie! There it is!" He had forgotten to tee off.

The boys have just found out that qualifying for this year's state amateur championship will take place at Ponkapoag.

Little Eddie: "Can you imagine a guy from The Country Club coming here to qualify?"

Bluto: "Man, wouldn't you love to get a three handicap from The Country Club out there for a little $50 Nassau?"

Jimmy: "I get a game with somebody from The Country Club, I start refinishing my basement."

Andy: "I'd just like to see the guy at the first tee. He's probably not used to guys yelling at him on his backswing."

Jimmy: "Yeah, I played at Brae Burn [Country Club] one time, and I couldn't concentrate on the tee. Too quiet."

Socks: "Wouldn't you love to see a guy from The Country Club try to get out of our rough? He'd come back into the pro shop with his attorney."

Cementhead: "I dunno. They got some pretty mean rough out there for the Open, you know."

Little Eddie: "How do you know, slob?"

Cementhead: "Didn't I tell you? I played The Country Club the other day. Played it even par."

Socks: "Get out! You never."

Cementhead: "I did. I was working on a job on some property that's next to it. And, you know, I always carry that four-iron and some shag balls in the truck with me, right?"

Socks: "So?"

Cementhead: "So I realize I'm standing right next to No. 2. It's a par-3, like 185 yards away. I look around and I see that nobody's watching me, so I hop the fence. I tee it up and I just couldn't believe it. Their tees are better than our greens, Eddie! So I hit it and I hit it pretty good, but it catches up on the left fringe. Still nobody's looking, so I figure, what the hell, I'll go putt out. Their greens, you can't believe. I felt bad just walking on 'em. So I make par putting with the four-iron, and I guess I could've kept going because nobody was out there, but I decided not to. So that means I'm par for The Country Club, right? Take that, you muni hacks."

Bluto: "Geez. Where do you play next week? Winged Foot?"

Sometimes the boys at Ponky hustle visitors, and sometimes the boys get hustled. One day Jimmy Sullivan, a 12-time club champ, and Pappy the Edgeman lined up a game with two guys from Franklin Park in the Roxbury section of Boston. One of the guys from Franklin Park walked with a limp and hit all his shots cross-handed. The Edgeman tried to keep from drooling. They upped the bet to $50 Nassau, with plenty of presses.

As they approached the 9th tee, Pappy was losing his bet, and Jimmy was two under par but still two holes down to his man. Pappy and Jimmy lost big. Jimmy's opponent turned out to be Charlie Owens, now a star on the PGA Senior tour, a lifetime cross-handed player and a man who has walked with a limp for 36 years.

The latest hero of the publinks player is Tour pro Jodie Mudd, who won the 1980 and '81 U.S. Public Links championships. (To enter the Publinks, you can't have had privileges at any private club during that year.) But public courses are more famous for forging the great minority players—guys like Lee Elder, Lee Trevino and current Tour star Jim Thorpe—players who, in their amateur days, could not afford a country club and who probably would not have been afforded membership in one even if they could. But on municipal courses, these guys were good. In 1967, Charlie Sifford, a former Tour player, came to Palmer Park in Detroit, a famous hustlers' track, and lost four days in a row. He then left and won the $100,000 Greater Hartford Open.

Thorpe's legendary days were at East Potomac Park in Washington, D.C., when he was in his early 20's. He was unbeatable at Potomac and, therefore, unbettable. So Thorpe had to take his game on the road. Wherever he went, he would show up late, with his clubs falling out of his dilapidated bag and his tennis shoes untied and wearing a shirt with a hole in it. "But I was ready to play," he says. "I could play anywhere."

Except at a country club. "I just didn't feel comfortable at a club," says Thorpe. "Everybody's shoes all spit and shined, clubs sparkling clean, everybody being so polite. Everybody saying 'Good shot.' I wouldn't say 'Good shot' to a guy if he holed out from 300 yards. I might say 'So what?' But I'd never say 'Good shot.' "

One time Thorpe set up a match with the best player in Flint, Mich. On the first day they played a public course, and Thorpe took him for $16,000. "I figured I'd catch a flight out that night," recalls Thorpe, "but at the end of the day, the guy says to me, 'What time we playing tomorrow?' " So the next day he took Thorpe to the Toledo Country Club. Thorpe's game wasn't the same. "Chandeliers hanging everywhere, real thick carpet," he says. "I just wasn't dressed for the part." Thrown off, Thorpe got him for only $1,000.

Thorpe is convinced that, all things being equal, a public course player can whip a country club player every time. "You take a 15 [handicapper from a public course and a 15 from a country club," says Thorpe, "and that public course 15 is going to walk out with that guy's ass. A public course golfer learns to play all the shots. He has to roll his putts true just to give them a chance to go in. When he gets on nice greens, he can make everything."

On a public course almost any kind of, uh, gamesmanship is fair play. "I'll jangle the keys, rip the Velcro on my glove," says Thorpe. "Anything to distract the guy."

Thorpe tells a story about a match in Tampa between the best local hustler and the famous Atlanta-based hustler George (Potato Pie) Wallace. The two men came to the 18th hole with about $20,000 on the line. Potato Pie had driven safely, but his opponent had hooked his ball into the rough, and even the 20 or so spectators following the twosome were having trouble finding it. "They'll never find it," Potato Pie whispered.

"Why not?" Thorpe said.

"Because I've got it in my pocket."

Just then, the opponent, standing 50 yards ahead of the search party, hollered, "Found it!"

Thorpe looked at Potato Pie and Potato Pie looked at Thorpe. "Well," Potato Pie whispered. "Looks like the man has got me this time."

Ponky etiquette: Jimmy is about to hit his drive on No. 10. The bets are flowing. The usual 10th-hole logjam crowd is hanging around. Just as he takes the club back. Socks, standing 20 feet behind him, interrupts.

Socks: "Hey, Jimmy. Am I safe back here?"

Jimmy: "Not if you keep that up." (Jimmy hits and now it's Wally's turn.)

Little Eddie: "Excuse me, Wally, but I just wanted to remind you—you haven't come over the top with your swing yet today."

Wally: "Thanks, Bum."

Little Eddie: "You're welcome, Wally." (Wally hits without incident and Socks steps up.)

Bluto: "O.K., everybody, pay attention. The pro from Dover is on the tee." (Socks hits it dead left into the woods.)

Little Eddie: "Now you got it, Socks. Those lessons helped." (Socks hits his provisional ball dead right into the woods.)

Cementhead: "Atta way to correct it, Socko."

Bluto: "Hey, Socks, ever thought of taking up boccie?" (Cementhead steps up and splits the fairway.)

Cementhead: "I'm hitting it so straight, all I need is one pass of the mower and I'm in the fairway."

Socks: "Hey, Cementhead, this is Ponkapoag. All you get is one pass of the mower."

Jimmy: "Yeah, unless it's a weekend or holiday. Then you get no pass of the mower." (Lee steps up and hits a perfect drive.)

Freddy: "What is it with this guy? Every time I bet against him, he swings like he's the poorest man in Boston. You need money that bad, you got to swing like Gene Littler, for Chrissakes?" (Now Little Eddie is up. He is partners with Socks today and has made two straight bogeys.)

Socks: "You're getting heavy. Eddie, you know what I mean? I'm not a frigging camel. I can't carry you forever." (Eddie shrugs, and then hits his drive into the trees.)

Socks: "Eddie, what the hell are you doing?"

Eddie: "I'm screwing up, what's it look like I'm doing?"

Socks: "Eddie, do you understand the term 'fairway'?"

Eddie: "Do you understand the term 'slob'?"

Playing Ponkapoag, says Bluto, is a distinct experience. "It's like you died and went to hell," he says.

Almost half the tees have no grass on them. Only a few sand traps have sand: the rest are overgrown with weeds. The 150-yard markers aren't 150 yards from anything in particular. The greens are a quilt of dirt patches, weeds and long grass, all of which can make a straight putt do a 90-degree turn. "I had one putt today actually back up on me," said Bob Stone, who has been playing Ponky for 25 years. And there's no such thing as a putt dying in the cup at Ponky. The crew members are so inexperienced that when they yank a hole out of the green, they don't flatten the ground around it back down, so every hole has a crown. Only regulars know that to make a putt at Ponky, you've got to allow for the hump of the hole.

All of this is not how it was meant to be. The first 18 holes at Ponky were designed by the famous golf architect Donald Ross in 1933. Ponky now has 36 holes, which require at least 12 crew members to maintain them properly. Ponky has only five.

Problem is, Ponkapoag is run by the Metropolitan District Commission, an archaic arm of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts that operates in 46 towns, patrolling beaches, skating rinks, swimming ponds and pools, and two golf courses. Why the towns can't maintain these facilities themselves is anyone's guess. The MDC hires employees for the courses from within the MDC. As a result, most Ponky staffers have about as much expertise in golf-course maintenance as they do in 747 repair.

Ponkapoag's greens fees are cheap as dirt: $7 on weekends, $6 on weekdays, $3 for seniors on weekdays and $3 for anybody after 3 p.m. Given those rates and the course's overall condition, Ponky is crying out to be leased to a private management company like American Golf, which would raise the prices a little and improve the playing conditions a lot. But the MDC won't do it.

"If there are 25 jobs in a year at Ponkapoag," says former pro Ken Campbell, "then 25 different politicans can give the jobs out. They don't want to give that up." So Ponky becomes, as one Ponkian put it, "a summer drop-off spot for every politician's son, brother-in-law, cousin and niece."

Ponky's members are left, more or less, to take care of the course themselves. Many of them spend their off-hours repainting 150-yard markers, digging weeds out of traps and using their own chain saws to cut down overgrown limbs and trees. They went so far as to buy flags for the pins and rakes for the traps. The rakes were stolen.

Even in the face of such ratty conditions, an act of sheer will is still needed to get a tee time. Unless you're a member of the Inner Club, whose members, for $30 a year, get guaranteed starting times, you must put a golf ball in a long green pipe to establish your position in the tee-off order for that day. Dropping a ball in the pipe at 6:30 a.m., when the pipe is first brought out, will get you a tee-off time at about 11. The only way to beat the pipe is to arrive at the course at 5 o'clock in the morning, sign in with the starter and wait for dawn. On some mornings the fog is so thick at sunrise that groups on the fairway must holler back when it is safe to hit.

So why put up with it all: the shabby conditions, the starting-time masochism, the six-hour rounds? Boston has public courses with shorter waits and better greens. Why do it?

Pete Peters, a dyed-in-the-polyester Ponkian, knows why. "If somebody came up to me right now," says Peters, "and told me, 'Pete, you can become a member of The Country Club today, free of charge. But if you do, you can't ever come back to Ponky,' I wouldn't hesitate a second. I'd stay right here. I'd stay here where I can get some action, have a lot of laughs, relax and be with my friends."

In fact, not only do hardly any of the guys leave Ponky once they become entrenched, they even aspire to what Al Robbins did. Al was a Ponky lifer, a man who played there on weekends when he worked and seven days a week when he retired. But for all his playing, he was still an ordinary hack. Then one day Al parred the 1st hole, picked his ball out of the cup, walked over to the 2nd tee, had a massive heart attack and died on the spot.

Nobody at Ponky grieved much for Al. If anything, the guys thought of him as a lucky stiff. Former pro Campbell remembers why.

"He always said if he ever shot even par on Ponky, he'd like to drop dead then and there," says Campbell. "He finally got his wish."

TWO PHOTOSANTHONY NESTEThe regulars at Ponkapoag Golf Club had a bright idea to get in some extra putting. SIX PHOTOSANTHONY NESTEIt you want to play a weekend round at Ponky, it's wise to arrive before dawn and place a ball in the pipe to secure a tee time—and then prepare for the inevitable long wait. THREE PHOTOSANTHONY NESTEOn the public links, unconventional golfing form is the rule rather than the exception.
THREE PHOTOSANTHONY NESTEAt Ponky the traps have little sand, the tees little grass, the greens little that's green. TWO PHOTOSANTHONY NESTEAmong the regulars at Ponky are the Can Man (above), Cementhead (on front of cart), Wally (behind wheel) and Socks. THREE PHOTOSANTHONY NESTEOn public courses like Ponkapoag, it's never too early to get into the swing of things. PHOTOANTHONY NESTEIn the early morning fog at Ponky, players must yell back to the tee when it's safe to hit.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)