THE FAIRWAY on the 10th hole of the most audacious golf course in the world is nestled in a dell, a sanctuary lined with hillocks that are dotted with fescue and potentilla and juniper bushes. The caddie, Chris, says hybrid; the mind says Ireland. If golf is rooted in illusion—that man can master nature through a five-mile walk as he whacks a little white ball, that a driver resembling a toaster on a stick can add 10 yards and change your life—there is internal logic to the quixotic idea that a man named Eeric Bergstol could take 7½ million cubic yards of harbor gunk, almost 10 years and $130 million, and create a work of golf and engineering and environmental art out of, well, garbage. Make old sludge into Auld Sod.
This is an article from the Nov. 12, 2007 issue
The canvas was almost 140 acres of New Jersey landfill—brownfields, one of the most descriptive words in the English language. The paintbrush was a bulldozer. On putrid land once 10 feet above sea level, verdant tee boxes now soar 80 and 90 feet into the air, offering a panorama that, in a resolutely urban way, is as impressive as any Pebble Beach.
The agronomist, a Rutgers professor who oversaw the planting of the grasses and shrubs and even the blueberry bushes that line the walk between the green and the next tee on a few holes, calls this 7,120-yard, par-71 links-style course one of the wonders of the golf world.
There are wonders, yes. Then there are miracles: The course is in Bayonne, N.J.
Many spectacular courses have opened this century in the U.S., golf confections with riddles to solve and vistas to savor, but this course is in the most ordinary of workaday cities. If you know Bayonne, maybe it's as a punch line. Johnny Carson used to joke that his tailor was Raul of Bayonne. Ralph Kramden's International Order of Loyal Raccoons on the old Honeymooners would bowl in Bayonne, identifiable as a shot-and-beer, rented-shoes kind of place. Aliens blew up Bayonne in Steven Spielberg's War of the Worlds. This was the home of Chuck Wepner, the Rocky Balboa inspiration known as the Bayonne Bleeder. If somebody told me they were going to take the Taj Mahal and move it to the corner of 25th Street and Broadway, where the Petridis Hot Dogs restaurant stands, I would have been less surprised than I was when informed that on a steamy August afternoon I should gently cut a three-iron over the mounds on the 10th hole of the fabulous Bayonne Golf Club.
BAYONNE IS my hometown, in that I lived there for the formative years between fifth and 10th grade and the summers afterward. The games on my dead-end street in the mid-1960s revolved not around a Titleist but a Spalding (in our parlance, Spal-DEEN), a 25-cent, salmon-colored ball with plenty of bounce. We played two versions of stickball—hittin'-outta-hand and pitchin' in—but also box ball on the sidewalk, diamond ball in the street, and points, which involved throwing the ball against a stoop. There was a driving range and a forlorn pitch-and-putt course on Route 440 in neighboring Jersey City, but golf in Bayonne was considered an affectation if it was considered at all. I was the only kid I knew who played even a little, having been given a seven-club starter set (odd-numbered irons, two woods, a putter) for my 12th birthday. I would play occasionally on a fine New York City public course, La Tourette, across the Bayonne Bridge in Staten Island, with my uncle Carl, a small, optimistic man who, while dribbling the ball down the 1st fairway, would take a few violent swipes at the ball with his glasses on and a few with his glasses perched on his forehead to see what might work better that day. If I wanted to add something as la-dee-dah as a six-iron or a wedge to my bag, I would pick one out of a barrel at Herman's Sporting Goods for eight bucks. I liked those mismatched clubs, and Bayonne, just fine.
This peninsula ringed by New York and Newark bays and the Kill van Kull was, in 1963, a city where you could buy any brand of sneaker you wanted, as long as they were Keds or PF Flyers, one of which could make you run faster while the other could make you jump higher, or order any sort of pizza, as long as it had a thin crust and was delectably oily. The running-shoe selection has increased, and a national pizza chain now operates on Broadway, once unthinkable in a city that took its pies as seriously as Seattle takes its coffee. But Bayonne, whose population has leaked to about 60,000 from almost 75,000 when I was a kid, still appears sepia-toned even in harsh midday light. There is no Starbucks, but there are 58 houses of worship, roughly equaling the number of Republicans in the city 40 years ago. As former mayor Joseph V. Doria Jr. is fond of saying, "The whole world is changing, but Bayonne is changing less."
"If you go down Broadway and look at the delis and pizzas and hair salons," says Dwight Segall, Bayonne Golf Club's director of golf, "and ask somebody, 'Who's president?' you expect them to say, 'Carter.' "
Segall drives to work every morning over a little overpass on 32nd Street, past boxcars and warehouses and other handmaidens of heavy industry. (During my Bayonne years I crossed over the overpass on 32nd Street perhaps twice. Unless you were going to see a mothballed battleship at the Military Ocean Terminal or had relatives among the mostly eastern European immigrants who lived on Prospect Avenue, there was no reason to go. The area was as exotic as Pago Pago.) He passes through a white gate into an alternate universe, as magical as entering a wardrobe and discovering a benevolent golfing Narnia. He is in a place that Ron D'Argenio, general counsel for the club, calls "a complete fantasy." Back in the real world, on the other side of that white gate, is a city with a median household income, according to 2000 census data, of $41,566, a little more than a fifth of the current $200,000 initiation fee at Bayonne Golf Club.
There really is no town-and-gown—or, in this context, nine-iron-and-clothes-iron—tension between Bayonne and the Bayonne Golf Club. Tension implies conflict, and conflict demands interaction. The city and the club share a zip code, not an orbit. The golf club annually sets aside 200 special half-price rounds for Bayonne residents, but a good walk spoiled (there are no carts at this walking-only course) still costs $200 plus another $100 or so for a caddie. Since Bayonne Golf Club opened on Memorial Day weekend in 2006, no more than a half-dozen locals have taken advantage of the offer.
"It's like another world," says Mike Solski, 33, who works at Pompei Pizza (est. 1961) and has little time for golf. "Not that it brings in a lot of revenue for other people in the town."
Sometimes the steam from the pizza can get in a workingman's eyes. Maybe the economic impact doesn't create a giant ripple in the Bayonne economy—10.1% of residents were below the poverty level in 1999, higher than the state's 8.5% average— but there are at least 25 city residents working at the golf club, a number that figures to double when the $20 million clubhouse opens next year. The club also employs the services of a number of local companies. Bayonne Golf Club pays more than $1 million in property taxes, and it has built a public-access walkway to the edge of New York Bay, an area that once belonged to stray dogs at the dump.
But the hidden benefit to the city provided by this hidden gem of a golf course came to the environment. The old landfills did not have a closure plan to keep contaminants out of the bay. The cost to the city for closure of the landfills, to bring them up to environmental code, was going to run into the millions. Bergstol put it on his tab. O.K., the place still isn't Kiawah Island, but the wetlands mitigation around the course has been a resounding success. In an early environmental study there were 189 fish in the area. A recent study pegged the number at more than 10,000.
"When I came to town, people didn't know me, everybody was suspicious," says Bergstol, a 6' 5" former forward at King's College in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., who has designed five courses, developed 11 and still owns nine. "What they really wanted to see was a $20 greens fee, public- access course. That was impossible to do here. It wasn't feasible at $20 a round, probably even $500 a round, not in Hudson County with the level of mitigation required to bring this property back.... This now has become a cleaned-up site, and it allowed people to identify the property with the community when we named the golf club Bayonne."
There is an element of Irish-Scottish tradition to the club—courses like Carnoustie are named for their towns—but there is also some reverse snobbery at work. You, well-heeled person, are not playing New York Harbor Golf Club or New York Bay Golf Club but Bay-freaking-onne. Like the breeze off the water on the 16th, we are unapologetically in your face. "I told the planning board and city council that one day people will be talking about Bayonne in a different way," says Bergstol, "that people will know it nationally and internationally because of the club. There won't be a negative perception."
This private club might indeed become the public face of the city, but the visage will remain veiled for members of the old Bayonne Golf Club. This is not a course but an actual club that operates out of a building on 16th Street where it maintains two indoor hitting nets and a puttting green. A local tugboat captain started it around 1960, according to Walter Kiczek, a 70-year-old 16 handicapper (up from an 11) who offers free lessons for Bayonne residents at the club through the city's recreation department. The membership has dwindled from nearly 100 to less than 40. The members play eight tournaments a year at public courses, of which there are none in impossibly dense Hudson County. (The only other course of any kind in the county, Lliberty National, built on reclaimed bayside land in Jersey City, also opened in 2006. Its entrance fee is $400,000.) Says Kiczek, "We're trying to keep [Bayonne Golf Club] together."
But the Bayonne golf scene received an added fillip on July 21. The city opened a nine-hole miniature course, constructed at a cost of $125,000. There is no bent grass, no superb mounding, no thoughtful bunkering, no names for the holes and no caddies. The fairways are brick-lined, water hazards are dyed royal blue, and between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. the cost to go around twice is $3. In the first two weeks the mini-putt was averaging 160 rounds a day. The signature hole is number 3. The golfer has the option of puttting over a bridge or into the water, where, if the ball floats onto the right groove on the steel grate, he has a splendid chance for a hole in one. Local knowledge.
THE SIGNATURE hole at Bayonne Golf Club is the 16th, Heaven's Gate, a par-4 that stretches 486 yards from the tips. The tee box is elevated. fairway bends gently to the right and down to the bay with the magnificence of New York City looming four miles away. Behind the undulating green the 54-foot Bayonne Golf Club boat approaches the dock, ferrying members from Battery Park in lower Manhattan. (There is also a club-owned helicopter.) Of the 200 members who are considered local—people who reside within 150 miles; only a couple live in Bayonne—there is a healthy Wall Street/Masters of the Universe representation. (There is also a sporting touch: Members include Greg Anthony, Boomer Esiason, Dan Marino and NBC golf anchor Dan Hicks.) For perhaps three quarters of the 250 members, among them four women, Bayonne is a second or even a third club.
The 16th is as visually arresting as it is challenging. ("Good courses look much tougher than they really are," insists Bergstol, a two handicapper.) But Heaven's Gate is eminently playable. All it takes is a shortish drive, a botched wedge layup that goes 50 yards instead of the prescribed 90, a career three-wood to 25 feet and two putts. Bogey. No problem.
For someone who grew up in Bayonne, who appreciated its rough-hewn charms but was blind to the city's possibilities, the best spot on the course is the tee of the 12th, a 442-yard par-4 named Seven Sisters, Six Brothers because of the bunkers that stand sentry along the fairway. Maybe the hole should have been called Seven Bridges because a 360-degree view from the tee includes the Goethals, the Verrazano Narrows, the Bayonne, the Brooklyn, the Manhattan, the Williamsburg and the New Jersey Turnpike extension. Beyond the 40-by-70-foot U.S. flag that waves from the 150-foot-tall flagpole near the clubhouse is a glimpse of the Statue of Lliberty and the Empire State Building. There are also sublime views of the spires of Bayonne's churches and, yes, the city's oil tanks. The course might whisper Ireland, but the tableau is unabashedly American—— leisure and work, starched collar and blue collar, sylvan calm and a city with its head down and eight hours to put in.
I have been stunned by the New South Wales Golf Club in an Australian state park outside Sydney, where waves crash and a hawk guards the entrance to a wobbly footbridge that leads to a back tee. I adore Arrowhead Golf Club outside Denver, a picture-postcard course that threads its way through red-rock formations. But three minutes from a Petridis hot dog or a Pompei slice, well...a golfing home is where the heart is.