GORDON WHITE: Bethpage Black Course's Rich History Due to WPA Effort
Some multi-millionaire golfers who are exceedingly pampered and never in need will compete alongside a few men of moderate means in the 109th United States Open Championship, Thursday to Sunday, over a public golf course built 73 years ago by about 300 desperately poor victims of the Great Depression.
Those men who lost everything in the early 1930's, including their jobs, were a small part of the 8.5 million people given employment by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) between 1935 and 1943. They dug, heaved, lifted and hacked away to mold fairways, greens and hazards into the magnificent Black Course at Bethpage State Park on Long Island, New York.
Tiger Woods, the richest of all these wealthy golfers, won the 2002 U.S. Open title on that Black Course. This week he will defend the Open championship he won on another public course, 3,000 miles away at Torrey Pines in San Diego, California, last year.
I seriously doubt that many of the 156 golfers in the Open field and many of the thousands of spectators who will follow them over this great Black Course know or care about the WPA, even though most of those golfers and spectators regularly use facilities constructed by the WPA nearly three quarters of a century ago. Many of them probably went to WPA-built schools.
WPA projects included hundreds of public golf courses, over 5,000 libraries, 1,600 public schools, thousands of swimming pools, 3,000 tennis courts, over 100 airports, many museums and thousands of post office buildings across the nation plus thousands of other federal, state and municipal buildings.
Maybe some of the WPA legacy has gotten through to Americans who were born long after the Great Depression. They may have heard about the WPA because it is being compared these days to President Barack Obama's "Stimulus Package" that is intended to put currently unemployed folks to work on infra structure projects such as roads, railroads, airports etc.
Well, the WPA was just that a stimulus package created by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal in an effort to generate jobs for men and women when there was 25 per cent unemployment in the United States as he took office in March of 1933. There were other New Deal programs such as the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) that put men to work in land restoration jobs, park development, dam construction and river works.
The WPA also built thousands of miles of roads, sewer and water lines plus bridges for trains and cars.
Golf course development in the USA was a big business during the first quarter of the 20th century. It virtually came to a halt like so many other enterprises following the crash of 1929 that precipitated the Great Depression. Also, most golf course development was for private clubs in those early days of the game in this country.
Golf course architects, including the most famous ones of that golden age of golf design, could not find customers. Work was scarce.
Along came the WPA in 1935 and golf course design picked up rapidly for such architects as Donald Ross, Perry Maxwell, A. W. Tillinghast, and even Allister Mackenzie, the Englishman who designed many a course in the USA. Robert Trent Jones, who graduated from Cornell in 1930, found much of his early design work through the WPA.
Most WPA golf courses were municipal, county or state courses while some were built on state college and university campuses. A very few were private or semi-private.
Albert Warren Tillinghast, the man who created Winged Foot East and West courses, and Quaker Ridge in Westchester County, NY; Ridgewood's three nines plus Baltusrol Upper and Lower courses in New Jersey and the San Francisco Golf Club among his finest designs, was called upon at the twilight of his career to design four golf courses in the huge Bethpage Park. This is a New York State park in Farmingdale, Long Island.
He designed and directed the construction of the Black, Red and Blue Courses at Bethpage and oversaw the complete remodeling of the Lenox Hills Course that was already on that property. This became the Green Course. All of the work on these four courses was performed by a WPA labor force of over 1,000 men who completed the Red, Blue and Green courses in 1935 and the Black course in 1936.
The Bethpage Yellow Course, designed by Alfred Tull, was built in 1958 long after the WPA was dissolved. Tillinghast died in 1942.
The Bethpage golf complex is similar to the Pinehurst Resort in that five excellent golf courses extend out over the landscape in all directions from the main clubhouse that is the hub of the golf venue. Also, Pinehurst has its No. 2 Course which, like the Black Course, is an Open course.
The Bethpage Black Course greens fees are $50 for residents of New York State and $100 for non residents while the fees for the other four courses are $36 and $41. On the other hand, Pinehurst has exorbitantly high greens fees for the public.
My wife and I paid less than $15 a round when we played the Bethpage courses back in the 1950's.
I have played a number of other outstanding WPA golf courses across the country. But there are, in my estimation, four golf courses built by the WPA that stand alone as the very best of that genre. These are the Bethpage Black Course, Prairie Dunes course in Hutchinson, Kansas, designed by Perry Maxwell and his son, Press; Southern Hills in Tulsa, Oklahoma, another Maxwell design, and the Ohio State Scarlet course, designed by Allister Mackenzie and Perry Maxwell.
Prairie Dunes and Southern Hills have been used extensively for major tournaments including numerous national championship events run by the United States Golf Association and the PGA of America.
The best WPA built golf course of Donald Ross design is the public George Wright Golf Course in Boston. Another Ross--WPA public course is the Monroe, North Carolina, golf course.
Richard Mandell, an excellent, young golf architect living in the Sandhills, was recently engaged in reworking parts of the Monroe Golf Course. He said the bunkers built by the WPA were not nearly as large as the ones originally drawn up by Donald Ross so he worked over those sand boxes a bit.
Mandell, who considers Tillinghast to be the leading golf architect in history, said, "The Bethpage Black Course is my number one favorite course of all time."
Critics of the WPA include many know-nothing folks of the present day who do not realize what this New Deal organization accomplished.
I grew up in that Great Depression. Although I was a youngster, I knew well enough that folks were hard pressed to find work. I went to school with other boys and girls whose parents were out of work. And then my Dad lost his job in 1938 when his company folded. Some of my classmates ate meals in school provided by the WPA and maybe that was the only solid meal they had that day.
My wife's father, a World War I Veteran, worked in the WPA during the 1930's.
I wonder how many folks know that the presidential retreat at Camp David in Maryland was built by the WPA. FDR referred to it as Shangri-La.
How many baseball fans know that the stadium at Cooperstown, NY, was built by the WPA in 1939 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the invention of our national game by Abner Doubleday?
But most importantly, men and women by the millions were given WPA and CCC jobs that meant food on the table for their families.
The WPA, whose name was changed in 1939 to the Works Projects Administration, built a grammar school I attended in 1938 and 1939 in Ringwood, NJ. The WPA built two big wings to the Brooklyn high school that I attended, 1940-1944. Included in one of those new wings were an Olympic size swimming pool and the new gymnasium where I played my high school basketball.
I lived two blocks from the main Brooklyn Library built by the WPA at Grand Army Plaza. I spent many long hours in that excellent library. I made my first flight in an airplane when I was in the Navy in 1944, flying from Boston to New York and landing at LaGuardia Airport, which was built by the WPA.
During the late 1950's and 1960's, my two sons attended grammar school and high school in WPA public schools built before WW II in Teaneck, NJ.
All across the nation, youngsters like me and then their children and grand children, went to WPA schools and read in WPA libraries and watched football and baseball games in local stadiums built by the WPA. My high school football team played in Red Hook Stadium in Brooklyn, a WPA arena.
After World War II I picked up the game of golf and Bethpage was where I played more golf than any other place in the early 1950's.
I played all of the New York City municipal golf courses, including La Tourette on Staten Island and Split Rock in the Bronx. These two courses, designed by John Van Kleek, were built in 1935 and 1936 by WPA workers.
I recall many of the works of art in the form of murals in public buildings commissioned by the WPA. Famous artists such as Edward Hopper and Jackson Pollock found work through the WPA.
Writers, including Saul Bellow, were given jobs writing brochures and pamphlets for Federal Projects under the auspices of the WPA.
I have heard critics rant against FDR and the WPA and all of the New Deal for years and years.
I lived it and remember FDR and his attempts to turn things around. He may not have actually ended the Great Depression. The Second World War put an end to our worst economic woes of those times. But FDR put people to work.
Congress gave the WPA program $4.8 billion to start with in 1935. By the time we got into WW II when war production pulled us out of the economic doldrums and the WPA was terminated in 1943, the WPA had cost a total of just over $12 billion. That is a mere pittance by today's budget requirements.
Some say one reason the New Deal projects did not do the job completely was that Congress did not spend enough.
However, what those hard working people built, wrote and painted for less than $100 a month remains with us to this day and will be here long after we are not around.
For me, the enjoyment and rewards of those schools, libraries, murals, golf courses and parks built by the WPA and CCC is enough to make me think fondly upon those New Dealers who came up with the plan. At least they tried and in so doing kept millions from starving while giving us all many things worthwhile in education, arts and recreation.
This week golf fans across the world can share that legacy while watching Tiger Woods and others struggle over a WPA golf course that is one of the finest courses on the planet.
Gordon White served 43 years as a sports reporter for The New York Times. His e-mail is email@example.com.
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