The NYC Recap Part 4: Lower East Side and Baltusrol

“The future’s dead. Retro’s the new thing…everyone’s looking back, not forward”

– The Mighty Boosh

What happens when we run out of past? Is this retromania a death knell for any originality in our own era?”

– Simon Reynolds, Retromania

“My biggest gripe with Doak and Coore and Crenshaw and Hanse (among a few others) is that their work is far too similar to eachothers’. There’s a far greater variety and sense of individualism in the catalogs of, say, Donald Ross and Stanley Thompson and Dr. Mackenzie than between those of these three modern firms – with Streamsong being perhaps the prime example of this.”


My journey from Bethpage to Baltusrol the next morning would be, at least, a three step one. First, I had to get to my friend’s apartment on the Lower East Side. Second, we would, in all likelihood, patronize an establishment (or two, or eight) nearby. And third, I’d exit Manhattan Island and enter the great thumping belly of America, as Kerouac put it, through the Holland Tunnel in direction of Springfield, New Jersey, where the blue-blood club is located and has been since 1909. (Fun fact: Baltusrol is the only club to have hosted a major on three of its golf courses)

Yet, it turned into a much more complicated journey than that. 

Driving through Manhattan is, at the best of times, a slightly daunting prospect for me, nevermind right during the heart of rush-hour, which is when I departed Bethpage towards that world-familiar sky-scraping barrier of buildings that marked the end-point of the first step of my journey. My friend, let’s just call him A., whom I hadn’t seen him since the beginning of the pandemic, had only recently moved to Manhattan for work. And, despite having visited the island a few times, I had never really spent a night out on the city.

Now in my later-20s, the anticipation of spending a few hundred bucks on an Uber and cover and sloppily made mix-drinks and over-priced craft cocktails—along with, of course, the inevitable dry-mouth and headache and upset stomach and sense of regret that come with them the following morning—doesn’t crank my gears the way it once did. However, as I crawled westward along the Long-Island express, in direction of the centre of the world, that concrete jungle where dreams made of, where they dream of dealing on the dirty-boulevard, where everybody’s searching for a sound they haven’t heard before, where they act like romans but they dress like turks—to quote just a few of the song lyrics that helped shape my imagination of what I presumed New York was like, or at least how it once was—, I truly felt the way I did when I was a seventeen-year-old boy with a newly acquired fake I.D. waiting by the front window of my mom’s living room for the boys to come pick me up in a beater Honda of some-kind to go downtown.

The fact that I am a massive, and I mean a massive, fan of The Strokes (along with Interpol and L.C.D. Soundsystem, as well as a few of the other early-aughts N.Y.C. revival bands that rode on the skinny-jeaned, jean-jacketed, converse-footed, beer-soaked-hair wave instigated by Casablancas and co.) even further intensified my sense of anticipation and excitement. I was going to the neighbourhood where they had cut their teeth, see the same sights they had, drink in the same bars they had, eat at the same places they had, stumble home along the same streets they had. 

Well, not really. In truth, though, it hardly mattered that I knew fully well that the Lower East Side they had mythologized and which I had so often fantasized about in my teenage years—a hard-pressed, scuzzy, dank, graffiti-tagged, sightly dangerous but completely enchanting neighbourhood populated by street-cart merchants, keen-eyed shop-keepers, poor students, aspiring models, musicians dreaming of fame, sidewalk philosophers, body-sellers, and down-and-outers—had been, like most of today’s New York City, crushed under neoliberalism’s blinging, pigeon-free, glass enclosed, upwards trending, privateering, and placeless vision for the modern city. Disney World in the North-East. Still, I was ready to test out its energies, to see if there were still some ghosts of how things once were to conjure from the bottom of a bottle.

Lower East Side of yester-year (photo credit: Untapped New York)

I enjoy, when possible, matching my soundtrack to the place I am visiting—sometimes it’s a literal match, as in this case, but other times it’s more of a spiritual pairing, based on the feeling I get from the environment. I’m a complicated guy, what can I say. So the selections filling the cabin of my car, as I inched over the Williamsburg Bridge, doing my best to keep my eyes on the rear-bumper a few feet ahead and not on the moody dusk enveloped city around me, were mainly from Room on Fire and Is This It?, their first two albums and my favourites of theirs, as is common I guess. Although I do enjoy their last four albums, to varying extents, there’s something vaguely indistinct, and insipid, and even, if you allow me to step into a Mark Fisher mode of musical criticism, corporate to them that muffled, or in the case of a few songs entirely erased, what had made their early material so uniquely seductive when it first burst through the sluggy and depressive mush that had come to rule the airwaves in the late 1990s, in the wake of Be Here Now’s thud and Ok Computer’s boot up. The Strokes’ combination of sleaze and seductiveness and rawness and nonchalance in their sound which harkened back to the bygone NYC of Scorsese’s Mean Streets and Taxi Driver, The New York Dolls, The Ramones and, of course, The Velvet Underground, when it was still a city you could somewhat live in if you weren’t a trust fund-baby or didn’t pocket upwards of 200k a year.

You get the point. Surely, even if you are hardly or perfectly unfamiliar with the band, you’ll recognize “Last Nite”, which was a rather big alternative rock hit when it came out and remains popular and features a jangly riff stolen from Tom Petty’s “American Girl” and Julian Casablancas’ signature detached and scornful and even cynical manner of delivery. 

Like most New Yorkers, my friend does not own a car, which meant that I had to find a parking spot for the night, somewhere around his building. As a general rule of thumb, I refuse to pay for parking, even if it means that I must walk an extra fifteen or twenty minutes to my destination; however, being unfamiliar with the parking rules of the city and, just as importantly, the areas where I could safely park my mom’s BMW (I always borrow my mom’s car for trips—you can’t show up to Baltusrol or Sleepy Hollow in a Kia) without it disappearing forever, I bit the bullet, renounced one of the core tenants of all I stand for, and begrudgingly payed the twenty bucks. Even by NYC standards, the neighbourhood was alive that night—I only realized later that it was Fashion Week. 

The light pollution tinted the night-sky a faint creamsicle-orange, illuminating the clouds that were being called for the whole next day. Waiting to cross Delancy Street, somewhere near the Tennement Museum, I eyed a girl, perhaps an inspiring model (whatever that means anymore in this era of Instagram) in knee high pink PVC-material boots and a baby blue plastic trench coat risk life and death in order to get the perfect, supposedly candid, abbey-road style shot of herself sauntering across a row of idling cars with the electicityscape of the Lower East Side forming the backdrop. I knew, however, that if this wanna-be Emily Ratajkowski lingered merely a moment too long in front those ready-to-pounce New Yorkers, or temporary New Yorkers, sitting at the edges of their seats waiting for the light to flash green, they would, in all likelihood, be quite ready and willing and able to put a premature end to her career just so that they could save a second on their journey to wherever. 

I was expecting my buddy’s place to be a ramshackle, run-down, redbrick apartment building, with a rusty fire escape crossing its way up the graffiti-marked exterior wall. In truth, I sort of wanted it to be like this, a real Lower East Side tenement. Instead, it was the exact kind of sleek, square, swank sort of building I figured had over-run the entire neighborhood and city. Cocaine-riche, is how I’d best describe it. Although comfortable and glossy, the main lobby, locked and guarded by a security person, was essentially identical to the one that greets you at my best friend’s place in Ottawa, or at my other friend’s place in Toronto. Black marble tiles. White vinyl furniture. Glass coffee tables on which were set some fashion and art books that had never been read. Wide black-and-white skyline panoramas of the city. 

(photo credit: The New York Times)

A., who lives with two roommates he met at NYU, had warned me that they were having some friends over, which, in my mind, was an incentive rather than a deterrent, despite the 730 am tee time I had the following morning.

I had considered changing in the car, so that I wouldn’t roll up looking like some dork in my Peter Millar striped polo (whose sleeves reach down to my elbows, the way a golf polo is meant to be worn), my thick yet stretchy and form fitting Banana Republic khakis around which my Old Town Club needlepoint was wrapped, and my gray sperry casual runners. But, ultimately, after evaluating the contortions I’d have to go through to change in my car, I figured I’d show up looking like a middle aged Country Clubber from Palm Beach—the risk of tweaking my back or neck or shoulder the day before playing Balty simply wasn’t worth it.

I knocked on the solid black wood door, allowing the chorus of voices and mellow drum and base music escaping around it to wash over me. I anticipated making a George Costanza-esque twirling entrance, having all eyes instantly drawn towards me, me this mysterious out of towner playing one of the City’s foremost private clubs the next day, but my arrival triggered no noticeable reaction on the part of anyone besides A. Too cool New Yorkers—“work hard and say it’s easy”. 

In fact, the only mention I made of Baltusrol, sometime later as we made our way down Ludlow Street, elicited stares of zilch from the two girls at whom I directed it. As did my middling (if that) career prospects and bone structure and Thomas Tuchel-esque physique. 

I figured, eyeing my well-groomed male competition, that I wasn’t going to play the role of the alpha-cool in the room; yet I judged I could fit somewhere in the middle of the cool spectrum. My ability to quote, at a moment’s notice, Baudrillard or Foucault or Derrida or Delillo or DFW or The Strokes or Godard or Seinfeld or Annie Hall or Stepbrothers would play well with this crowd of yuppies (a few of which were likely to have also been liberally educated) and would thus cement my status as at least a middling cool guy in their eyes. I told myself this as I changed into a grey button which I’d roll up to the elbows upon exiting the well air-conditioned room back into the still city-humid evening, black jeans, and white runners; I then applied a layer of cologne apparently engineered in France for boys who like girls who like boys.

Somehow, the following morning, I woke up without the help of my alarm, its oh so familiar ring, ring, ring that sends shivers up my spine merely writing about it. As I do whenever I fall drunkenly asleep, fully clothed, somewhere that isn’t my bed (alone, unfortunately, that morning, like most of the time), I immediately checked the pockets of my jeans to see if my wallet and keys were still on my person, which they were, thank god. My phone! Shit, shit, shit. I rolled to my side, a rush of the previous evening’s sin soaring up my stomach to my mouth and face and head, which immediately forced me to go into full survival mode. Deep breaths, close my eyes, deep breaths. It’s okay. It’s okay. Based on the sharp sun invading the room, burning my eye balls, microwaving the pool of acid in my gut, I couldn’t accurately judge what time it was. But I could recall having set an alarm for 6 am, under some table littered with bottles and ice-filled glasses and plates with wasting food on them in whichever one of the handful of dark, loud, clanking bars we had gone to until lord knows what wee hour of the morning. It hadn’t rang yet, so I judged I was good to linger a moment. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw my phone resting on the table, amidst cracked cans, empty chip bags, cooled pizza, and dirty plates. You’re too old to be doing this shit, bud. 

Once I became somewhat of a functioning human being again, a few minutes later, I reached over and checked my phone, but nothing happened. Black screen. The damn thing is dead. Now I was in full panic mode. Due to issues with the chain-of-supply, which meant that my mobile service provider had been unable to provide me with a new iPhone the last time I needed one, I was forced to switch to another brand, an especial issue when it comes to trying to find a charger in a world full of iPhone zombies. Ignoring what was rumbling in my mid-section and my spinning head, I lept to my feet and marched to the door. All I knew was that I wasn’t in A.’s apartment; other than that I was clueless as to my geographical whereabouts, as well as the time. The clock on the stove showed a line of zeros.

Emerging from the lobby, which was essentially identical to A.’s, I found myself on a stock New York City avenue. I searched for the sun through the seemingly inward-leaning row of buildings that lined whichever street I was dying on the side of; when I found it, I began toward that general direction, knowing that the Lower East Side is at the south-eastern end of the island. The first street signs I came upon revealed nothing—a numbered avenue and a named one. At this point, I figured I wasn’t going to end up playing Baltusrol, having succumbed to the enchantment of alcohol, old friendship, and a few pretty women rather than world-class golf. Honestly, despite how I was feeling at that moment, I had had a great night. 

Resigned to my faith, no longer wanting to move my heavy booze-tainted legs, I jumped into a yellow cab lingering near the intersection ahead. 

“Where ya heading,” the driver growled, in that lovely New York manner. If life worked like fiction, the driver would’ve been my playing partner from the previous day at Bethpage, and I would have forgiven him for having sand-bagged me out of xxx bucks. But alas, it wasn’t him; rather it was some unshaven, leathery-skinned, seen-too-much shit veteran of the dirty boulevards and mean streets. Another measly private serving in this ever reliable army of the avenues.

“I don’t know…uhm…Lower East Side, wherever.”

“Big neighbourhood,” he responded. 

“What time is it?”

“Just after 6.”

And just like that my spirit was reborn; I might make my tee time after-all. What had been a great night might, in fact, turn into an incredible one. 

I can’t tell you I felt very good standing on the first tee, hoping to not to snap-hook my opening shot onto the road that closely borders the entire left side of the short par 5, 1st, on the Lower course. Still, somehow, someway, I had made it, with time to spare, too. Rather than hit balls and roll putts, though, I sat on the outdoor patio overlooking the side-by-side finishing holes and nursed a glass of water, while the caddy master sorted out the early arrivals, all of whom were members, it seemed, apart from me. 

The all-world 3rd at Baltusrol

I have to admit, despite being fully aware of Baltusrol’s nearly unmatched championship pedigree and the aesthetically pleasing pictures and drone shots I had poured over of the recent renovation done by Gil Hanse’s team, my expectations were somewhat tempered. Watching it on TV, as far back as 2005, when Steve Elkington (then as now one of my favourites, mainly thanks to the Jim Rome show) lost in heartbreaking fashion to Hefty on a Monday finish, it had never really tickled my fancy; it seemed the archetypical Northeastern Parkland Test, which is fine and dandy and all, don’t get me wrong, but playing through trees and amidst housing simply can’t be compared to playing by the ocean, or in the dunes, or out on the tip of Long-Island. And I assume I am far from the only person who cannot recall a single moment from the 2016 PGA, won, perhaps fittingly, by Jimmy Walker, just about the blandest possible player in PGA tour history. 

The famous 18th, a difficult carry that every great golfer, from Jones to Woods, has had to navigate

What I found, now thinking back on it a few months afterwards, was a truly fine golf course, one worthy of all the praise it’s received since re-opening, but one (among many), I can’t help but somewhat feel, that is symptomatic, or symbolic, or affected by the wide-spread mode, or ethos, of discombobulating nostalgia that is currently omnipresent in every aspect of society and popular culture, from politics, to music, to film, to fashion, to architecture, to gentrification. What Simon Reynolds described, in his brilliant 2011 book Retromania which through the lens of 21st century music and Ipod culture attempts to get to the root causes of this widespread sense of anachronism and inertia, as a “pop age gone loco for retro and crazy for commemoration”. Reynolds wonders if “we are heading towards a sort of cultural-ecological catastrophe, where the archival resources of rock history have been exhausted? What happens when we run out of past? Is this retromania a death knell for any originality in our own era?”

Speaking to The Guardian regarding his inspiration for the book, he reveals that “there were specific things I noticed from the mid-2000s: the popularity of the “don’t look back” template, where bands play their iconic album all the way through in sequence, or the multiple simultaneous revivals (80s synth pop, late 70s post-punk, late 60s folk-rock, etc). But it also came from everyday use of the internet: downloading out-of-print albums from file-sharing blogs or trawling through YouTube, and entering a state of temporality where the past and the present are intermingled and indistinguishable, in an eerie way.” 

Back jacket cover of Retromania (photo credit: metinfunga)

“Youtube’s ever proliferating labyrinth of collective recollection,” Reynolds writes in Retromania, “is a prime example of this crisis of over-documentation triggered by digital technology. When cultural data is dematerialized, our capacity to store, sort, and access it is vastly increased and enhanced. The compression of text, images and audio means that issues of space and cost no longer deter us from keeping anything and everything that seems remotely interesting or amusing.” As a result, we’ve become overwhelmed with cultural relics from the past, costless and ready to access, whereas they used to be confined mainly to archives or to dusty volumes on our bookshelves or to paintings on our walls.

Mark Fisher (1968-2017), the rare modern thinker whom I would label an unreserved genius (photo credit: Wikipedia)

Mark Fisher, a British critic of music and culture whose writings are far more theory based and Zizekian and Deleuzian than Reynold’s, cites, what he terms as, “the slow cancellation of the future”, brought about by neoliberalism and short termism and post-fordism: “While 20th century culture”, Fisher claims, “was seized by a recombinatorial delirium, which made it feel as if newness was infinitely available, the 21st century is oppressed by a crushing sense of finitude and exhaustion”.

You may be wondering what books about pop-music and culture have to do with golf architecture, but I do believe, as Keith Cutten explored in his brilliant study, that golf is far less insular, far more affected and influenced by popular culture and societal trends—urban development especially—than we probably presume—and has so far been fleshed out by its thinkers.

Citing the writing of Fredric Jameson, arguably the foremost critic of “postmodernism” in the arts, Fisher argues that popular culture has, in response, retreated into a postmodern era of pastiche and anachronism—to the soothing narcotic of the past, of nostalgia: “Jameson’s nostalgia mode is better understood in terms of a formal attachment to the techniques and formulas of the past, a consequence of a retreat from the modernist challenge of innovating cultural forms adequate to contemporary experience”.

 

Fisher singled out The Arctic Monkeys, a massively popular and critically acclaimed British alternative rock band, as being especially representative of this strange mode in which we are currently caught: “what makes The Arctic Monkeys typical of post-modern retro is the way in which they perform anachronism. While they are sufficiently “historical”—sounding to pass on first listen as belonging to the period which they ape (the early 1980s in the case Fisher is referring to)—there is something not quite right about them. Discrepancies in texture—the result of modern studio and recording techniques—mean that they belong neither to the present nor to the past but to some implied “timeless era”, an eternal 1960s or an eternal 1980s”. Reynolds echoes and adds to this thought when he writes that “Retro-styled groups had generally been a niche market, for people unhealthily obsessed with a bygone era. But now these kinds of heavily indebted bands—The Jesus and Mary Chain, The Stone Roses, Elastica, Oasis, The White Stripes—could become “central”: epoch-defining figures even when the substance of their sound referred back to a much earlier epoch”. 

First let me say that the Arctic Monkeys are among my favorite handful of bands, as are The Strokes, another band Fisher could have singled out just as easily—same with Oasis, Blur, The Stone Roses, The White Stripes. I love this kind of music and consume it in unhealthy amounts. And not even Reynold’s and Fisher’s dismissing of them could tarnish my love. Second, I understand that many may not agree, or get the same impression I do, but criticism of golf architecture, like that of all forms of art, is, after-all, a personal reaction—emotion recollected in tranquility, a spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings.

Similarly, it’s not that I do not think that the work of Hanse and Co., and Doak, and Andy Green, and Coore and Crenshaw is not first-rate in what it attempts to do and not likely an improvement on what was there prior; it’s just that I’m always struck, inflicted by this sense of there being something not quite right to it, something about these projects that are little too clean cut, or graceful, or neat, or expected, in the same manner that modern recording techniques have cleansed the faint fuzz and hum and rough edge that is audible in the recordings of the Buzzcocks, or The Velvet Underground, or The Clash.

Compare a picture taken recently of one of these full scale restorations and compare it to a black and white original of the same hole or course. In these new renovations, the general aesthetics of the golden age are there, certainly, but filtered through a twenty-first century lens and, just as importantly I think, its expectations: perfect grasses and bunker faces, neat rough, pruned trees, 500 yard par 4s built to handle modern technology, etc. (see authorial interjection #1, here). As a result, the discrepancies in texture elicit in me a strange, discombobulating sense of time being “jumbled up”, as Fisher coined it, as if I’m supposed to be in two or three eras simultaneously: a timeless one, where the way bygone amalgamates uneasily into the now.

The great hazard on the 17th

Something akin, perhaps, to The Strokes’ “Two Dollar Bill” set, which was filmed in 2001 in a warehouse in Los Angeles but possesses the atmosphere and look of something broadcast in the late 1970s. Or, like those vintage band T-shirts that are now sold everywhere, at HMV, or Sunrise Records: they look incredible and the real item from afar, but their corporate, pristine nature becomes evident upon closer inspection. The bloke wearing it looks cool, but you know that he probably can’t name a song from the band he’s wearing; you know his shirt smells good; you know that those rips were cut by some machine in a sweatshop of the third world.

The Strokes’ Two Dollar Bill Set (photo credit: Mubi)

Frankly, my gut feeling is that within 30 or 40 years, many of these clubs will begin planning or will have already re-visioned their courses—what that will look like, I am not sure. If anything, a few will probably do it merely to differentiate themselves from their neighbors – in fact, there’s already a sense of homogeneity, of placelessness creeping into golf architecture. (see authorial interjection #2, here)

Essentially, the market for renovative and restorative work has fractured into a Hanse-school and an Andy Green one—and nearly every course that was touched by the Joneses has now been reworked into one of these two models. Moreover, in any business where there’s mass profit and money just lying around, people tend to go restless and want to spend it on something—a very American instinct.

Returning to my hunch for the future, by then, they’ll be a whole new crew of young architects and even golf writers looking to cut their teeth, and at whom will they direct their criticism? Right now, Doak and his minimalist friends rule airwaves, are on MTV, and are selling out world tours in all the NFL and MLB stadiums. After all, every new generation of kids needs something to rebel against, just as Doak did, just as Pete Dye did, just as Trent Jones did, just as Travis did, and so on. I doubt that this coming generation of architects—perhaps those not quite yet in the business or just entering it—will be content with spending their careers simply doing routine maintenance work on the pièces de résistance of the game—unlike the Mona Lisa, or Sgt. Pepper, they can and have been worked, a number of times in fact. And why won’t they be able to have their gos at them? 

I suspect much of the current hesitancy about “modernizing” architecture is because its last practitioners were slightly astray in their values and implementations; however, merely because it failed once, does that mean we shouldn’t try out the future again? If, as I suspect, minimalism was the first great “punk” movement in golf architecture, then what will be its post punk equivalent? King-Collins? Or, was Pete Dye a one man punk wave, and the minimalists golf’s post-punk-revivalists?

You all made fun for Robert Trent Jones Jr for saying that we’re getting swept up in the era of nostalgia. But look around you. I think he’s onto something.

(authorial interjection #1: Let’s be real, the notion of twenty-thousand dollars a year to play from un-raked bunkers, or in patchy and barren rough, or on greens running at eight is hard for most people to fathom—the majority of the membership at these blue-blood clubs is older and thus still conditioned by the dominant expectations of yesteryear. We must’n forget that we, we, the wokesters, are still, by and large, operating in a bit of an echo chamber—speaking to the three members I played with at the club, their reaction to the work was far more tempered than I had expected). 

(authorial interjection #2: My biggest gripe with Doak and Coore and Crenshaw and Hanse (among a few others) is that their work is far too similar to eachothers’. There’s a far greater variety and sense of individualism in the catalogs of, say, Donald Ross and Stanley Thompson and Dr. Mackenzie than between those of these three modern firms—with Streamsong being perhaps the prime example of this.)

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