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Soldiering On

June 27, 2005
June 27, 2005

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June 27, 2005

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Soldiering On

The game and the armed services have a long, intertwined history, especially in Pinehurst, where nearby military courses wait for the players to return

War was evident last week in the North Carolina sandhills. Not at No. 2, the sandy-soiled gem designed by Donald Ross, the transplanted Scot. Things were busy there and at all the other courses associated with the Pinehurst resort. The slumbering courses--the tracks quieted by the war in Iraq--were down the road 25 miles or so at Fort Bragg, where there are two courses, and next door at Pope Air Force Base, where there's one. "War comes, men and women get deployed, those who stay behind are busier than ever," said William (Buck) Kernan, the retired four-star general who once ran Fort Bragg. He was touring the layouts he knows intimately on a hot day last week. There was, maybe, a foursome per hole. Kernan wished more players were out. "The army encourages recreation. In this work you need a little R and R," he said.

This is an article from the June 27, 2005 issue

You might know Kernan (pronounced kir-NAN) from TV. In the early weeks of the war in Iraq, he was Dan Rather's military consultant on CBS, a gig he accepted only because another four-star general, Tommy Franks, asked him to take it. ("We had Dan on the right track for a while there, but then he drifted on us," Kernan said.) The pros, some of them, know Kernan from the Tour and from trips through Pinehurst, where he lives. He's played in the AT&T twice, with Tour player Chris Smith, who has become a close friend. They both love golf, and their politics are about the same. Kernan, 59, is also friends with Olin Browne and Jerry Kelly, both of whom went to Kernan's house last Tuesday night after playing their practice rounds. He follows his guys in person at the Masters and elsewhere on TV. Along the way he has become friendly with Davis Love III, Nick Price and Price's manager, David Abell, who also lives in Pinehurst. Abell says of Kernan, "He's one of six people in the world who knows what's going on." If Kernan calls you, he might be in Israel, Iraq, Afghanistan, Washington or Pebble Beach--his military consulting work and his golf take him all over the world.

Kernan and his wife, Marianne, live in a gated golf community called Pinewild. The gate does not seal off world events. There are signs in the Pinewild clubhouse encouraging golfers to make cash donations in the pro shop to help purchase cellphones for soldiers in Iraq who cannot afford them. Army captain Mark Anders, whose parents live in Pinewild, has returned from Iraq to Fort Hood, Texas. But while he was overseas, he thought a driving range would be an excellent diversion for the troops. So his parents, along with Marianne Kernan and other Pinewilders, began a ball-and-club-collection drive. Working just the greater Pinehurst area, they were able to ship 13 pallets of clubs and balls to Iraq. Now there's a driving range at Al Taji Airfield, near Baghdad, where sliced shots clang off tanks.

Earl Woods did two stints at Fort Bragg during the Vietnam era, the second time to train as a special-operations officer. His youngest son's nickname comes from a South Vietnamese army colonel, Nguyen (Tiger) Phong, a close friend of Earl's in his Green Beret years. (They did things such as save each other's lives.) When he retired from the army in his early 40s, Earl taught himself the game while playing the military courses of Southern California, once shooting 63 on a par-72 Navy course.

There are scores of military courses across the country, all self-sustaining now, operated without public money. Most, over the past 10 years, have opened to the public, including Fort Bragg, although it helps to have a military connection on the weekend. The greens fee goes according to your rank. A private pays $10, walking on a weekday. An officer pays up to $15 although most of them ride and play on the weekends. With no disrespect to Earl's 63, most military courses are simple tracks with little rough, slow greens and shallow traps. When Earl and Tiger went to Fort Bragg for several days after the Masters last year, it wasn't for the golf. They were there because Tiger wanted to retrace the steps of Earl's special-ops training. In addition to giving golf clinics and attending receptions, Tiger went on distance runs, fired all manner of weapons and twice jumped out of planes. "They had him pretty busy," Kernan says. "He was in bed every night by nine."

Well, maybe not every night. Tiger evidently has some special-ops instincts, like his pops. "He sneaked off one night at 11 p.m. to go into town and hear the Beastie Boys," says retired Commander Sergeant Major Mike Taylor, a Fort Bragg liaison to Woods during his stay. "He put on his T-shirt, his baggy pants and his hat, and nobody knew who he was. He got right by us."

Other name pros have come through Fort Bragg. Orville Moody, an Army sergeant and a former winner of the All-Army Championship, played there before and after he turned pro. When he won the 1969 U.S. Open at Champions in Houston, his victory was well noted at the home of one of the Fort Bragg pros, L.B. Floyd. Seventeen years later, L.B. celebrated more when his son, Raymond, won the 1986 U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills.

L.B. Floyd was an Army master sergeant when he served as the pro at the Enlisted Men's Course, the back nine of which is credited as a Donald Ross design by some Ross buffs, although two Army historians have dismissed that claim. (The Army can get to the bottom of anything when it so desires. Ross most likely surveyed the land.) The other course, hillier and more interesting, was the Officers' Course, attached to the Officers' Club. (In the 1940s, when the armed forces were segregated, black soldiers at Fort Bragg could play only at a nine-hole course that no longer exists.)

In the 1990s, as the Army tried to become more egalitarian, the Fort Bragg courses were renamed and the rank distinctions were formally eliminated. The course for enlisted personnel was renamed Stryker Golf Course, and the Officers' Course became Ryder Golf Course, both named for war heroes. Now GI Joes (and Janes) may play Ryder, and officers may play Stryker. But not enough time has passed; class lines persist at both courses.

Kernan, who volunteered for the Army during the Vietnam War, played both courses when he was the Fort Bragg commander. There's a bridge over a creek at Ryder named for him, its wooden sign pockmarked with errant shots. (Kernan doesn't take it personally.) Last week at Stryker there were still golfers saluting him. Like most of us, Kernan much admires Tiger's approach to golf, his devotion to fitness and practice and his refusal to quit, which Kernan sees as military qualities. Part of Tiger's comfort with his former teacher, Butch Harmon, was that Harmon was a Vietnam veteran, scarred and toughened by the experience, just as Earl Woods was.

Raymond Floyd also displayed a martial discipline in his game, learned from his father. Floyd played hundreds of rounds on the Enlisted Men's Course at Fort Bragg as a kid, often with soldiers, went to a military boarding school for two years in high school and served in the Army reserves. He learned the value of playing with a game plan. He once told his sister, the former LPGA player Marlene Floyd, "I visualize the ball taking off like a fighter jet. When I hit it well, I can smell the jet-fuel fumes coming off the ball." Last August, L.B. Floyd, who enlisted in the Army at age 14 with a fake document claiming he was 16, had a military funeral. An officer in dress grays presented Floyd with the ritually folded American flag. He saluted Raymond, and Raymond saluted back.

The link between the military and golf is as old as the game. The word caddie is from a French military word cadet. Bunker is a term of war and a term of golf. So are redan, round, wedge and shot. Bert Yancey, one of the great ball strikers of the 1960s, whose career was diminished by his battle with bipolar disorder, attended West Point. Larry Nelson served in Vietnam then taught himself golf out of the classic instructional book Five Lessons: The Modern Fundamentals of Golf, by Ben Hogan and Herbert Warren Wind, and went on to win 10 PGA Tour events. Arnold Palmer, Sam Snead, Lee Trevino and scores of others, all had stints in the military or the reserves. Bernhard Langer's father was a German soldier who jumped out of a Russian prisoner-of-war train, and Langer himself, after high school, spent 18 months in the German air force. Nick Price served in the Rhodesian air force after high school. When Pine Needles, the Donald Ross course where Annika Sorenstam won the '96 U.S. Women's Open, was undergoing extensive renovations recently, the architect, John Fought, wanted to know precisely what Ross had originally built. Old fuzzy aerial photos, circa 1935, were uncovered. Kernan brought them to a Fort Bragg imaging expert, and within hours the precise depth of the bunkers, the height of mounds, the dimensions of the greens were all known. There's a 1988 movie, based on a book and a real-life experience, titled Bat 21, starring Gene Hackman as Iceal Hambleton, an Air Force colonel shot down in Vietnam who uses golf course design terms to secretly radio his position to Bart Clark, an Air Force captain played by Danny Glover.

Many of the great clubs of England and Scotland have been run by retired military personnel, most notably Muirfield, which was ruled for many years by its imperious secretary, the late P.W.T. (Paddy) Hanmer, who had been a captain in the British navy. In 1991 he famously refused to allow Payne Stewart, who had just won the U.S. Open, to play the course on a day it was not open for guest play. "The members want the voice of authority in their lives, and the military man has that voice," another club secretary, a retired British army lieutenant colonel named J.G. Tedford, once said. "I can say to a senior member, 'Sir, you are no longer an 18 handicap--you are now a 21.' From me he will accept that. If a committeeman told him that, he'd tell him to bugger off." In the U.S., for good or bad, most country clubs are run by general managers with college degrees, experts at taking polls and letting the majority rule.

Fort Bragg doesn't suffer from that problem, but the use of public money brings with it other problems. Abutting the base is an estate called Overhills, a 10,500-acre spread formerly owned by the Rockefellers that had a short Ross course, a fishing pond, tennis courts, horse stables and a shooting range, all the things associated with the country version of the good life. In 1997 the Army bought the estate from the Rockefellers for $29 million. The golf course is completely overgrown, although it could be restored, at a cost in the millions.

There's an ongoing debate about what the Army should do with the land. It's rugged country, and there are enough houses and buildings on it to simulate urban warfare situations. One idea is to use it for military training. Another would take 500 acres of the property and turn it into a luxurious, Army-run, for-profit conference center with its own Ross course. Last week Kernan led a four-wheel-drive tour of the vast tract. He thinks a training site and a fancy conference center could coexist at Overhills. But his fondest wish is to have the restored Overhills course serve as the site for an annual national First Tee championship, an event to which kids from all backgrounds could come and experience competitive golf in a wilderness setting. He knows how much golf can enrich a person's life. He knows, too, that iron was once a word Scots used for sword, and now it's just the thing you take out of your bag when you've run out of fairway woods to hit.

Part of Tiger's comfort with Butch Harmon was that HARMON WAS A VIETNAM VETERAN, scarred and toughened by the experience.
Signs in the Pinewild clubhouse ENCOURAGE GOLFERS TO MAKE DONATIONS to help buy cellphones for soldiers who can't afford them.
The link between the military and golf is as old as the game. THE WORD CADDIE comes from the French military word cadet.
COLOR PHOTOPhotographs by Darren CarrollLAUNCHPAD A tour of Fort Bragg's Ryder course last week showed play was limited to maybe a foursome per hole. COLOR PHOTOSTAR PLAYER Kernan commanded Fort Bragg.TWO COLOR PHOTOSSOLDIER OF FORTUNE Woods (above) and his father, a Vietnam veteran, visited Fort Bragg in '04 but didn't play the Ryder course (top) where Iron Mike stands in tribute to Airborne troops.COLOR PHOTOCHUCK BURTON/AP (WOODS) [See Caption Above] B/W PHOTOFORT BRAGG (TOP)STRATEGIC PLANNING Some enthusiasts believe Ross (left) designed the Ryder's back nine (top), but U.S. Army researchers say that the Scottish architect simply surveyed the land (above). COLOR PHOTO [See Caption Above] B/W PHOTOTUFTS ARCHIVES (ROSS) [See Caption Above] TWO COLOR PHOTOSCOURTESY OF JOHN MCBREARTY (2)SUPPORT TEAM Pinehurst-area residents helped round up 13 pallets of clubs and balls (right), which Major John McBrearty (above) hauls to one of several ranges for the troops in Iraq.COLOR PHOTOJULIANA GITTLER/STARS AND STRIPES (MIDDLE) [See Caption Above]