Well Above Par

Nobody talks about their private Shangri-La anymore. It was once the name people gave to some secluded, fantastic utopia where everything was perfect and everyone lived in a blessed state. The word sprang into the language after the release of a 1933 best-seller called Lost Horizon by James Hilton, which was immediately followed by a hit movie. Arriving as it did in a period of depression and crisis, the story about a Tibetan-like land struck a major chord. People hungered to find their own private Shangri-La.

That term struck me recently as I set out on a golf course, the recently rejuvenated Griffith E. Harris Golf Course known as “the Griff,” a wonderland of woods and fairway tucked in the far northwest corner of Greenwich. It is a municipal course, open to residents. Looking out over the twisting dips and dales of these supernal gardens, I could not help but think of how astounding it was that in 1964 a local government set all this lovely land aside for the purpose of a leisurely game. But that’s the way America used to be. From the Depression on into the ’60s, America built golf courses for the public.


A Community Home

In its earlier form, the course was no paradise. It was something of a homely stepchild, surrounded by some of the nation’s richest golf courses. Tamarack Country Club lies directly north, Fairview, Round Hill and Doral Arrowwood to the south. If you cast out a ten-mile line from the Griff, you’d get eighteen more courses.

“For a long time this was a cow pasture, it was in terrible condition,” notes Nino Sechi, 84, who has witnessed the entirety of its evolution. For its first twenty-five years, golfers paid their green fees and the money went to the town. In the last decade, however, a Revolving Fund was set up that allowed course administrators to actually plow the income back into the course. New drainage and irrigation systems were added, trees were trimmed, shrubs were planted. The grass is now in great shape. The bunkers are loaded with fine, smooth sand. Indeed, the Griff must rank near the top of the best public courses in the galaxy. Certainly it is the equal of Fairfield County’s reigning other public kingpins, Danbury’s Richter Park, Westport’s Longshore and Stamford’s Sterling Farms.

If its reputation is limited in the state, it might be because out-of-towners cannot get on the course unless they hook up with a Greenwich resident.

But lest the reader think that the Griff is a sanctum sanctorum, the private province of a privileged band of checked-pantsed impresarios and fund-raiders, just pause by the driving range that shoots off to the side of the first hole. There you can see a sampling of folks who will show up for golf when it is available at reasonable rates ($23 for townspeople on weekdays). The banker with dented clubs left over from the Carter Administration stands next to the steamfitter wielding his $400 TaylorMade driver.

A young blonde girl in culottes and a white T-shirt, who can be seen many hours of the day, is tirelessly strafing shots into the range. She strikes the ball with a beautiful authority. It is Juliana Staab, twice the women’s champion here, a freshman at Fairfield University who now wants to transfer to a warmer climate in order to better advance her golf career.

It is a well-known truism among golf instructors that people who start golf young instinctively learn to swing the club the correct way, and that good swing will likely stay with them the rest of their life—unlike the poor bozo who takes up the game in middle years and has to strain and heave in hopes of finding a good swing path. Juliana is just one of hundreds of Greenwich kids who, having been introduced to the game on these friendly fields, will go through life with a nice gift tucked into their hip pockets—a reliable golf swing.

“This is like my home,” she says, taking a seat on the bench. “I feel so comfortable. I grew up here. I’m here every day, from 10 a.m. till eight at night. Joe Felder, the pro, he’s almost like my dad. Sean Garrity, who teaches here, he’s like my mentor and has been giving me advice on college and life.”

She gazed around with a melting, sentimental smile. From along the range came the clanking sounds of balls being struck by huge, hollow-headed drivers. It was late afternoon, and over at the practice putting area, a group of lanky young fellows joshed around and gave each other the business.

“You see the way people come here, it’s almost like a private club. You’re supposed to wear golf clothes, but if you wear gym shorts, like I do sometimes, nobody looks at you funny. Over at Winged Foot once, I saw a man get yelled at just for wearing jeans in the parking lot.”

If you want to find the most challenging opponents at the Griff, you will find them among these slender, young players. Among the boys, David Pastore, who just graduated from Greenwich High and is headed to the University of Virginia, is ranked the state’s No. 2 junior by Golfweek, and among the top thirty in the nation. Should some gambler want to rustle up a friendly Nassau bet with Pastore, he will probably reconsider when he hears Pastore’s handicap is “plus 3.8.” Translated, this means his average round is going to be considerably better than par.

Juliana is not averse to the occasional bet. She’s a 3-handicap—from the men’s tees. “One time, my girlfriend and I were put with a couple of men, and we played a little badly on the first hole. Then made a bet with the guys in our group. That was funny!” She laughed genially. “But I’d never do that now. I’m much too mature.”

She waved goodbye and went back to the practice stall. In a moment, the clanking sounds of the range were joined by the rifle-shot strikes of Juliana Staab’s irons.

The Course Report

The course was designed by Robert Trent Jones, who usually worked on prestigious layouts in his salad years of the 1950s and ’60s. Greenwich got his services in a kind of package deal. The town of Elmhurst, New York, was relocating Fairview Country Club, so Jones was able to work on the two courses at the same time.

The land was donated by the Bruce family and the course was originally called the Bruce Memorial. In 1999 it was renamed for Griffith E. Harris, the First Selectman from 1952 to 1958, a man who’d long fought for the idea of public golf in Greenwich.

The front nine has a pleasing openness, but much of the final nine sends the golfer through a circuitous route up and downhill. The golfer who elects to walk will get some serious cardio here, and it was gratifying to see so many players elect to do just that.

The greens are not lightning quick as they would be at, say, Stanwich. The sand traps are not the vast, yawning chasms they are at, say, Winged Foot. Indeed, certain of Jones’ private clubs had sand traps to rival the worst scenes in Lawrence of Arabia, but these are more picturesque than torturous.

“Before we redid the drainage, it used to be a swamp,” notes assistant operations manager Rick Massi. “We would have, no joke, three temporary greens at any time because the greens would go dead from disease or lack of water. We had those whirlybird sprinklers that had to be placed by hand.” The new $2 million irrigation system is, he says, already paid for by the golf fees.

All in all, the Griff is a far more diverting course than the average ham ’n’ egg muni.

“With the different kinds of shots you can get in every round at the Griff, it’s a different round every time you play there,” says Matt Czarnecki, twenty-four years old, a two-time men’s champ. “I think it’s one of the best.”

Upon finishing the course, Jones decreed that after twenty years or so, when the trees had time to fill in, the course would provide a splendid isolation. On the back nine, the golfer would only be able to see the hole he was playing. Jones’s forecast proved to be right—you do feel utterly alone with yourself and your partners out there. The beauty of the natural forest has been augmented by some serious horticulture work, with different shades of bushes and shrubs cascading down the hillsides. The course has not been fancied up with a million flowers, as some of the hoity-toity country clubs have done. But the color schemes are still deep and rich.

Much of the credit must go to course operations manager Dave D’Andrea, who came here in 2001. A fourth-generation Greenwich resident, his father was a horticulturist, and he learned that green trade as well as the fine points of running an upscale golf course.

“What’s amazing,” D’Andrea says, pausing outside the new pro shop, “is you’ve got a municipal course in one of the wealthiest zip codes in the world. And we have 163 acres here. There’s some price tag on this tract of land.”

He looked up at the new shop, which is clearly the apple of his eye these days. The old shop was pretty shabby—“nothing but a glorified garage” he moaned. The new shop is not the sort of golf supermarket that’s found at certain Florida courses, but it’s new, smells fresh, has a variety of gear at competitive prices, and a small couch and a flatscreen.

As D’Andrea stood there on the sidewalk, a steady stream of golfers strolled by and called his name. He’d faithfully respond, “Hey, how are ya, pal? Good to see you.”

“We have 4,000 members,” he said, smiling wryly. “And of them, 3,900 are excellent. We do 45,000 rounds a year here.”

A tall, broad-shouldered man walked up and looked at D’Andrea, who, uncharacteristically, happened to be wearing a dress shirt and slacks. The man had a pugnacious voice.

“You look like the freakin’ maître d’ at a five-star restaurant,” the man said. “You look too good for this.”

“Hey, Bobby,” said D’Andrea. “Good to see you.”

The Crowd

Should a newcomer to Greenwich nurse the prejudice that the town just lacks diversity, just send them to the Griff as a solo golfer and tell them to get into a group. Waiting there will be a real United Nations assembly of folks: Norwegians, Dutch, Italian, Argentinean, Spanish, Indian. Many are part of the transient community of business people who come to Greenwich, possessed of the means to get into a country club but not the time commitment.

The intention of the course’s proprietors is to give what one called “a private course mentality in a public setting.” While the course itself is nearly the equal of a decent club in matters of grooming, the locker room next to the restaurant can’t approach the tiled-bathroom amenities of the fancy-dan clubs. But, of course, players here don’t get hosed down annually for new assessments to pay for some outrageous additions.

Every golf course has its cliques and claques and little groups. For instance, in the first hour in the morning, starting at 6:30, the first groups teeing off are known to be emphatically fast golfers who gallop down the fairway like berserk polo players. “Anybody else will take maybe forty or forty-five seconds to set up and hit a shot,” says one guy who has observed the dawn patrol, “but these guys take five seconds to hit their shots. They’re done in three hours, tops.”

On Thursday, a regular crowd called “the Calcutta” assembles and a few wagers are, ahem, not unheard of. Then there are the high-school teams, the ladies’ groups, the Retired Men’s groups, the Chicahominy Reunion guys… . Mondays the course is officially closed, but is generally turned over to any number of nonprofits, like Nathaniel Witherell and the Greenwich Old Timers Athletic Association, running charity events.

For many people, the public face of the Griff is the bright, ebullient, toothy, smiling mug of “Joe the Pro,” being Joe Felder, the course professional. All the younger players talk about him as they would a wise—OK, wisenheimer—uncle.

His teaching method, it is known, does not involve any high-tech items like video cameras. The Felder method is to get you to feel what a good golf swing is about. David Pastore, for instance, had a lingering problem of hanging his head down at address. “So he tells me to imagine I have lipstick on my chin,” Pastore remembered, “and that if my chin touches my shirt, it’s ruined.”

I found Felder stalking the new pro shop. He was rejoicing in the size of his new office. He stood in the storage pantry and exclaimed: “My old office was this big!” Joe has a voice that can be heard across two fairways, with a perpetual enthusiasm to match.

“When I first started here, I had some eight-year-olds in the clinic. Now it’s twenty years later and they’re big business people here in town. I had two of ’em here the other day and it’s just the coolest thing. They’re going, ‘Mr. Joe! Mr. Joe! I want you to meet a client, here’s my boss.’”

Felder wandered into his office and dropped himself into a seat. “I call it reverse osmosis now: We teach the kids and then the family starts to play. The father might not have played for six or eight years. Now the mother and father say, ‘Hey, I used to play golf.’ So now, teaching golf and working on junior clinics—I’ve got one of the largest junior clinics in the area —everyone’s playing.

“I once had to give a speech and I said, ‘There’s no one luckier than me. I teach golf, then I play golf, then at night I have a few beers and talk about golf. I’m not married and I don’t have children, so these are all like my little kids.’

“See that sign?” Felder pointed to a sign that said, The Fun Starts Here. He put on a grin that mixed merriment and defiance. “You gotta have fun!” he says intently. “If you don’t have fun, fuhgeddaboudit. When I talk to high schools, I say, if you can’t have fun, get out. The sport will beat you to hell. Beat. You. Up. Like you can’t believe.”

He brightened. “But a kid comes here, and he leaves with his shirt tucked in and he’s ready to obey the rules. Hey, where are the rules in today’s life? There’s not a lot of rules out there. And that’s what golf is all about.” He fished the tiny paperback of the U.S. Golf Association’s rules out of his desk drawer. “Here you go—155 pages. A little book, but it’s all there.”

We walked outside into the lazy, late-afternoon light. Over on the practice area, skinny teenagers placed dollar bets on long putts. On the other side of the pro shop, the patio scene at the back of the Fairways restaurant was beginning to buzz. You might burn up the calories playing golf, but there’s nothing like the temptation of the post-round beer to help normalize matters.

Joe’s grin stretches across his face. “I’ve been here twenty years and loved every minute of it.”

Just outside the shop was the first tee. Three men and a woman, all wearing shorts, were doing last-minute stretches as they prepared to tee off. On each of them was that introspective look of concentration you often see on golfers ready at the start, as if they were thinking, Maybe this is the round where it all comes together. The putts will roll true today. I’m not gonna use a driver on the 13th and I’m gonna stay out of those woods. It’ll be the best round yet. There will enchantment, enthrallment, perhaps even heroics.

And why not? It’s Shangri-La.



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