Wednesday, December 29, 2010

A Day's Journey from London to the Links of Prestwick

I originally published this article as part of a thread on the Golf Club Atlas discussion group on March 17, 2010.

I reach my spring break from my off-campus semester in London.  South of France? Greece? Italy?  Never.  Me?  I choose a week to see some great golf courses around the British Isles.  During some research on Denham Golf Club (which still has its own railway station) and railway golf clubs in the UK, I discovered that Prestwick has a rail station nearly at the clubhouse.  We have a Scotland trip planned for May, but, alas, we will not have time to see the West Coast.  However, I figured I could pull off a trip to Prestwick over break.  

Being the golf nut that I am, I decided to do some research on the trip.  It turns out that there is a 5:39 out of Euston Station to Glasgow.  With one change, I will make it to Prestwick at 11:49.  Half an hour later, I have a starting time on the first tee at Prestwick Golf Club!  Spend a few hours at Prestwick, catch the 17:19 back to Glasgow.  The Glasgow-Euston train gets in shortly before midnight.  Crazy? Probably.  But that does not mean I would not try it.

I made the ten-minute walk from my flat to Euston Station.  After a quick breakfast, I caught the 5:39 train from London Euston to Glasgow.  The ride up was fairly uneventful.  For one thing, I learned that there are a hell of a lot of sheep in Britain.  For another, beginning in the Lake District I realized that the mountains here are still covered in snow.  I reached Glasgow Central at 10:30.  Glasgow appears a very rough city from the train.  I would say that it is past its heyday, but from its appearance today I don't think Glasgow ever had a heyday.  After a quick Burger King stop (typical English fare), I boarded the 11:00 train to Ayr.

Glasgow is indeed glum, but the land opens up once you reach the countryside.  The train made a brief stint in the hills of Western Scotland.  The trip then turned magical as the train swung out along the Ayrshire Coast.  Gorgeous views of the sea are coupled with a tremendous look at some excellent links courses.  I caught a glimpse of Irvine, Glasgow, Western Gailes, and Troon.  Finally, we reached Prestwick Airport, a view of the Prestwick links, and, my final destination, Prestwick Town Station.  I alighted at 11:50 and made my way to the clubhouse.

I immediately went to the pro shop to check in.  I played Sandwich the day before, where I was greeted cordially but without great hospitality.  I expected much of the same here.  All Open courses must be the same, right?  To my surprise, I got a warm greeting from David Fleming, the head professional.  As I learned later, David is the eighth professional at Prestwick in its 150-year history.  The club clearly holds its pros, whose ranks include legends like Old Tom Morris and Willie Campbell, to a high standard.  David welcomed me to Prestwick and directed me to the caddiemaster to sign in.  The course was empty save for a few member groups.  I would essentially have free run of the place for my round.  I thanked them both, and after a few putts I trotted over to the first tee to begin my round.

The first hole at Prestwick is an experience unto itself.  It is a short par four of but 345 yards.  Yet a few factors conspire to make it a nerve-wracking opener.  First, the tee doubles as the front lawn of the pro shop.  It is always nerve-wracking to know that people will be watching and judging your every move on your first swing of the day.  Second, the boundary wall is unbelievably close to the fairway.  I had seen the pictures and read the accounts of the hole.  However, I just was not prepared for the view from the tee.  Third, a traveling golfer such as myself has just stepped off the train and is not all warmed-up for such a critical swing.

The sign by the tee directs the player to aim at the white marker on the far dunes.  This marker is in line with the left edge of the fairway.  Being the greedy, strategy-obsessed golfer that I am, I knew that the ideal line was along the boundary wall to the right.  I decided to aim down the right center and away from the advised line of play.  My decision meant that I would get off to the wildest start imaginable.  I did not hit my hybrid with the intended draw.  Rather, I blocked it solidly down the boundary line.  The ball neither sailed out of bounds nor landed in the fairway.  It remained ambivalent until the last possible second, when it landed squarely on top of the wall and caromed long and left back into the fairway.  It was truly an unbelievable start to the round.

            After the nerves of the first tee shot subsided, I was ready to settled down and play a great golf course.  The first hole concludes a partially hidden green filled with waves.  The first is my favorite starting hole to date.  Great golf continues for several holes.  The second is a beautiful downhill par three to a rippling green.  Next is the Cardinal, a slicing short par five around the burn that dominates the first few holes.  I had read much about this hole but never really understood the hype.  I gained full appreciation for the hole after hitting my second shot and scaling the massive Cardinal bunker.  The last 150 yards of the hole is home to some of the greatest golfing terrain in the world.  The fairway is filled with massive humps and bumps that lend unending interest to the hole.  Unfortunately, today's play was to a temporary green, but I still got a good look at the modified punch bowl green that is used in summer.

After the third comes a stretch of three unheralded but superlative golf holes.  The 4th is a brilliant strategic par four along the burn.  The golfer has worlds of room to the left.  The best angle into the lay-of-the-land green is from the right edge of the fairway, as close to the burn as possible.  The next is the Himalayas, a long par three over a two-story-high dune.  The hole itself is not particularly strategic, but hitting a tee shot and racing to the hilltop to see the result is great fun.  The 6th is known as “Elysian Fields”, and it opens up into a different, less rugged piece of property.  “Elysian Fields” is a beautiful mid-range par four.  The golfer must hug the left side to gain the best angle into the shelf green.  Approaches from the right side are partially blind and must contend with a wicked side-slope.  I had heard nothing about this hole before today, but it was one of my three favorites on the front nine along with 1 and 3.

Holes 7 through 11 are the most difficult stretch at Prestwick.  The golfer faces four long par fours at 7 through 10 and a long par three along the dune line at 11.  Amidst these holes, a few features stand out.  I enjoyed the steep green at the 8th.  I loved the look from the 10th tee, with the course's toughest par four rising up the dune with Arran Mountain as a backdrop.  Yet I found this stretch to contain the least distinctive holes at Prestwick.  While the first 6 were fun, these five were simply a long slog.  I began to doubt the merits and fun of Prestwick.  After the thrill of the first few holes, the rest of the course had become a letdown.

            Fortunately, the golf began to pick up at the 12th.  The terrain on this long par five is not as exciting as one might up.  Nevertheless, the strategy is still timeless: keep the ball on the high right side of the fairway, and you are rewarded with a good angle into the green.  The greensite is another solid one, a wrinkled shelf green fronted with one of Prestwick's deepest bunkers.  The course was turning in the right direction, and it made a full reversal at the par four 13th.  I recalled from Ran Morrissett's review of The Addington Golf Club that Addington's 12th hole is simply "man vs. nature."  It has no artificial hazards or contrived features.  I got this same impression at Prestwick's 13th.  A long hole made even longer by today's prevailing wind, the golfer confronts a crumpled fairway that leads to even more crumpled green.  The golfer faces the alternatives of the high right side, which shortens up a long hole, and the low left side, which gives the player an angle from which to hit the green in regulation.  Especially for a suspect writer such as myself, the green complex is impossible to describe in words.  I will say that my 30-yard running seven-iron to two feet to save five was one of my biggest thrills of the day.

The 14th, known playfully as "Goosedubs" returns to the clubhouse.  It rests on unexciting land, but it still managed to get my attention.  The hole has a beautiful right-to-left shape to it.  The green is fronted by a series of four bunkers that throw off depth perception and challenge running approaches.  The 14th green, 15th tee, and 18th green are within 20 yards of each other.  This configuration is one of the main reasons why Prestwick will never again host the Open.  However, the close proximity of these holes does not affect the great golf.  The 15th launches itself into the wildest terrain on the course.  Known as "Narrows," the hole requires precise driving to a disappearing fairway.  The right half of the fairway falls off into god-forsaken bunkers and gorse, while the left half feeds neatly into a strip of short grass between the dunes.  After a successful drive, the player faces a wild approach to an elevated punchbowl green.  This green is extremely difficult to hit downwind.  Any shots landing short will either kick backwards into a hollow or launch themselves long of the green.

Greatness continues at the short par four 16th.  The hole slides perfectly from left-to-right.  The fairway is a maze of hillocks, with a tiny bunker thrown in at the typical bailout spot.  The fairway is shared with the 13th, and the golfer again has tons of room left.  The enticing play is to blast a driver at the green and hope for the best.  Today, I ripped a driver downwind.  I walked up to the green and found my ball resting some 15 feet from the pin in one.  It was the thrill of the day.  Of course, this result will occur one out of ten times.  The crafty player will learn to lay out to the left and use the sideboards on the green to work a pitch shot close to the hole.  Like the 15th, the green runs from front to back and requires a well-thought out approach.  The green is also filled with history, as it was the green for the 578-yard first hole of the original 12-hole Prestwick layout.

From the 16th green it is but two steps to reach the most famous hole at Prestwick.  Known as "Alps," the 17th dives into a swooping, unguarded fairway off the tee.  While the fairway itself is quite narrow, the playing corridor is very wide and gives every player a chance to attempt the most thrilling shot on the course.  The approach plays over the high "Alps" dune to a half-pipe green fronted by the course's most dramatic bunker.  I think of nothing more fun than smashing a long iron over the Alps and scampering to the top to see the conclusion.  The green itself is smaller than I pictured, and its contours are simpler than I imagined.  Yet the green is still loads of fun.  One can stand around the green all day analyzing its backboard and ways to get the ball close to the hole.  My greatest sense of accomplishment on the day was saving a 4 at the Alps.

After putting out on the 17th, the golfer walks back to the 18th tee to finish his round.  The last hole is a 290-yard par four that slides from left-to-right.  The golfer emerges from the dunes onto the lawn of the clubhouse.  While not as exciting as the previous three holes, the 18th is still of great strategic merit.  No matter how far he drives it, the golfer must hug the mounds along the right to yield the best angle into the green.  All approaches should be played along the ground into a green that slopes with subtlety from left to right.  It is a quirky and fitting end to a very fun links.

             I finished my first 18 in less than three hours.  Since my train from Glasgow did not leave until 18:40, I decided that I should play some more golf.  I went into the shop, turned in a head-cover that I found on the course, and bought a sweater for my father.  I asked if I could play another nine holes for a few extra pounds.  The course was empty, and I would have no problems cutting over from the 3rd green to the 13th tee.  I was told it would be no problem, they would be happy to have me play a few more.  Of course, I pumped my tee shot over the wall on number 1.  After reloading and firing a good one down the fairway, I was greeted by one of the club members.  He thanked me for finding his head-cover and introduced himself.  I was wearing a sweater from the venerable Swinley Forest Golf Club in London, and he commented that SF was a great club and course.  He wished me luck on the course, and I was on my way.

         The third nine holes made 27 total for the day.  I played 1-3 and 13-18.  I got a chance to re-experience my favorite holes on the course.  I spent at least 10 minutes around the greens on 15, 16, and 17, trying different types of short game shots and having tons of fun.  After I finished I went back to the clubhouse to have a look around.  David Fleming showed me one of the clubhouse rooms, which was filled with history from past tournaments, players, and the fateful 1925 Open Championship.  One of the staff informed me that the member that I had spoken with earlier wanted me to have a drink on him for finding his head-cover.  I enjoyed my drink (not kummel, unfortunately) while learning more about Prestwick.  Once I was done, it was 4:30 and time to leave.  I left through the front and made my way easily to the train station.  I made it back to Glasgow at 17:30.  After a short layover, I took the 18:40 from GLC to London Euston.  I got in at 11:20.  A short bus ride and walk later, I was back at my flat.  19.5 hours in total.

The train ride back was anticlimactic, but it allowed me to reflect on my experience at Prestwick.  The golf course itself is phenomenal.  I enjoyed more than I did Sandwich, and possibly more than I enjoyed Deal.  It has a few weaker holes in the middle of the course.  Yet the great holes, particularly 1, 3, 6, 13, 15, 16, and 17, are more fun than any golfer could ever dream.  Furthermore, the hospitality at the club was unprecedented for my stay in the UK.  I must compare it with Sandwich, next year’s Open Championship venue, which I played the day before.  The pro, staff, and members at Prestwick did everything they could to make me feel welcome.  I was just a lowly American student up for a day from London.  Yet I was treated like I was a lifetime Prestwick member.  They were thrilled to have me there.  At Sandwich, they would have been just as thrilled to see me leave.

Was the trip worth it? YOU BET.  It was the experience of a lifetime.

Monday, December 27, 2010

The Promise--Bruce Springsteen

Note: this article owes a great deal to Joe Posnanski's piece on Bruce Springsteen, Darkness on the Edge of Town, and the meaning of The Promise.  You can find this article here: Joe Blogs: The Promise

After Bruce Springsteen released his seminal 1975 album, Born to Run, it began a three-year gap in released material for "The Boss."  Although Springsteen toured extensively during this period, he was kept out of the studio for a year because of a legal battle with manager Mike Appel.  However, the main reason for the substantial wait between BTR and 1978's Darkness on the Edge of Town was Springsteen's change in musical direction.  BTR continued the vivid imagery of its predecessor, The Wild, The Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle, while making a fresh commentary on the dreams of youth.  The album is fluid and dreamy throughout, with an exuberance that is thoroughly hopeful and uplifting.  Yet after three years of grappling with lawsuits and newfound stardom, Bruce changed his style completely for Darkness.  The album is gritty, complete with stripped-down arrangements, searing, almost cacophonic, guitar solos, and brooding lyrics.  Darkness is a stark rejection of the American dream articulated in BTR, and it comes as a shock after hearing Springsteen's first three albums.  The listener has, for decades, longed for a bridge between these dramatically different works.  Finally, after thirty years of waiting, Bruce gives everyone a chance to cross that bridge in the sprawling yet cohesive double album, The Promise.

     The Promise is genealogically complex throughout in that it utilizes several different styles of rock and roots music.  Like Led Zeppelin's Physical Graffiti, The Rolling Stones' Exile on Main St., or The White Album, The Promise displays the full range of an artist's musical influences.  In addition to his continued use of jazz and rock themes, Bruce writes in the liner notes that he was continuing his close listen of his collection of 50s and 60s rock and soul records that he made prior to each of his first three albums.  We see this influence shine through in several places.  Take "Racing in the Street ('78)," which quotes the chorus of "Dancing in the Streets," originally recorded by Martha and the Vandellas.  This version of "Racing in the Streets" differs dramatically from the one found on Darkness, featuring a full, jubilant instrumental section complete with a folk-tinged violin solo from stringed-instrument virtuoso David Lindley.  Lindley also contributes fiddle on "Come On (Let's Go Tonight)," and his playing is critical in recapturing the folk roots of Springsteen's first two albums.

     The 50s and 60s theme continues on "Fire."  Bruce originally wrote this tune for Elvis Presley, who died before he could record it, and later sent the hit to the Pointer Sisters.  The version on The Promise is very much in the Elvis tradition, with Bruce singing in a Presley-esque style that is simultaneously humorous and emotional.  Along with several subtle references to the great 50s and 60s recordings, Springsteen makes his final tribute in the song "Talk to Me" near the end of the Disc Two.  The song bears a strong resemblance to "It Won't Be Long," one of the first Lennon/McCartney compositions, found on 1963's With the Beatles.  Between the driving two chord rhythm and the "yeah yeah" call-and-response, "Talk to Me" shows that Bruce drew some serious musical influence from the Fab Four.

   Bruce continues his stroll through the traditions of rock n' roll with musical and lyrical references to Bob Dylan, Phil Spector, Jimi Hendrix, and Lou Reed (see "One Way Street" for the latter two).  As Bruce admits, he also adopts ideas from the recent "punk explosion."  Although The Promise does not have as much slashing punk rock heritage as Darkness, it still contains plenty of grit to pique the interest of the punk enthusiast.  Take "Because the Night," a song that Bruce gave up to punk pioneer Patti Smith for her to cut it as her biggest hit.  Or listen to "Ain't Good Enough for You," which combines simple punk beats with 50s rhythm to create a brand of "punk pop" that still exists on today's garage rock scene.  Never once on The Promise does Bruce play a song that is squarely within one genre of music.  Rather, he weaves several genres, sounds, and eras together to create one unified tapestry of music that is both rich in heritage and uniquely Bruce's.  The Promise serves as a brilliant, focused tribute to the past while maintaining a sound of its own.

   Not only is the album a look into the past, it is also a connection of two musical themes for Springsteen.  The Promise shows Bruce's gradual rejection of the commercial viability that he found with BTR, which contained several instant classics.  The Promise resurrects hit songs like "Because the Night" and "Fire" that Bruce refused to release on Darkness.  Bruce wrote and gave away plenty of songs that don't find their way onto this newest album.  He was almost too good of a hit-maker, and it took him awhile to shed this cloak and merge into tougher songwriting.  The Promise shows this transformation, ripping apart the dreamscape that Bruce create in his first albums.  No longer do we hear romantic stories of middle America.  We move from a "barefoot girl sitting on the hood of a dodge" to Candy, a prostitute who gets calls from men who bring her toys.  In a larger sense, The Promise squashes the dreams of childhood and moves toward the darker, realist American dream that Bruce displays in subsequent albums.

     Yet The Promise is not as bleak as Darkness.  Look at songs like "Racing in the Street" or "Candy's Boy," which are both early versions of eventual Darkness tunes.  "Racing" is recorded in the same style as BTR, with rich, rock n' roll orchestral qualities.  The tune that ends up on the 1978 album is completely stripped of accompaniment and sung in a near-whisper.  The version from The Promise evokes the joy of the original Martha and the Vandellas recording, whereas the Darkness does no such thing.  "Candy's Boy" changes from a gliding mid-tempo pop tune to "Candy's Room" an ominous, Max Weinberg-led rocker.  The Promise is not the dreamy record that Bruce released with BTR.  Maybe the arrangements are tighter, maybe the mixing is different, or maybe Bruce and Miami Steve just told the E Street Band to play with sorrow instead of joy.  But The Promise reaches the gritty depths of Darkness more than BTR ever did.

    The crown jewel of The Promise is the title track, which is the clearest transition between his early music (particularly "Thunder Road") and his later albums like Darkness or Nebraska.  Coming as the second-to-last track on the album, "The Promise" is also the climax of the record, showing what all the music has been leading towards.  Bruce reintroduces characters from his second album, like Johnny (Spanish Johnny from "Incident on 57th Street) and Billy (Wild Billy or Big Balls Billy of "Rosalita").  However, far from the legendary characters of Asbury Park, the two have been resigned to working "in a factory" or "uptown."  Bruce references "Thunder Road" directly during the song, which talks about living in "a town full of losers" and "pulling out of here to win."  Yet, by the time Springsteen writes "The Promise," he comes to the conclusion that he has been "fighting a fight that no man can ever win."  Bruce believes there is a promise in the American dream of all the hopes of youth coming true.  He feels that people eventually realize that this promise is broken as one becomes older.  He sings mournfully about the "Thunder Road" that he spoke about so ecstatically on BTR.  Bruce concludes that the promise of the American dream has been broken, and he throws his jeans in disgust.  The song, and, ultimately, the album, acts as a swan song to the dreams of youth.  Bruce's three albums feel like skydiving, sheer adrenaline and wonder.  The Promise is the pulling of the cord that brings listeners floating back to reality.

     Springsteen's musical influence on The Promise is clear and used brilliantly, and his message is concise throughout.  It completes the story told in Born to Run and Darkness on the Edge of Town.  Yet, like any grand statement about the American dream, it is easy to call his conclusions into question.  Bruce accurately describes the sobering experience of maturing in the modern world.  As a senior in college, my worldview is completely different now than it was four years ago.  I am more cynical than ever about the world surrounding me, and any dream I have about my future comes with some qualification or questioning.  As Springsteen points out, life is not as easy as we fancies it as children.  No matter how intelligent or talented you might be, life will never be easy at any stage.  Therefore, it is easy to understand where Bruce is coming from The Promise.  The promise that we will realize our dreams is often broken, and that fact leads to question why that promise was ever made in the first place.

    But maybe, just maybe, we should be more hopeful than Springsteen lets on.  The promise, while not always sincere, gives us something to strive for and look forward to.  The promise pushes onward and makes us hang on to our heartfelt dreams as long as possible.  Sure, I am heading into final semester of school, and I am more jaded than ever before.  Yet I still hold onto those dreams of the past.  Hell, if I was bitter about broken promises, I would resign any creative ambition I have and go into the standard post-liberal arts degree pursuit of law school or investment banking.  But I am not doing that.  Something tells me that the American dream can keep its promise to me if I continue to work hard at something I love.  As I see it, that's the only shot any of us have at fulfillment in life, and it requires a belief in the idealistic, self-determinist American dream that Springsteen claims is impossible for most.  The Promise might be the most real portrayal of America in rock music, but the listener should understand that the promise of the American dream Bruce leaves for dead is still worth seeking.

Final Grade: Yeah, we all hate grades.  However, I want to use grades less as a tool for judging an album (I already did that in my review) and more as a guide to the listener, who only has so much time and money to invest in music.  I give The Promise an A-  It is certainly worth hearing, but it is also better as part of the series of Bruce's work than it is as a stand-alone album.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Airports and Liberties

published this piece in a recent issue of the Colgate Maroon-News, the main newspaper at my local university. Written shortly after Thanksgiving of 2010 for the "Being Right" column of the newspaper, my article discusses new TSA measures in airports.

Along with the usual subjects of football, family, and turkey, the main topic of discussion this Thanksgiving was the new security measures at airports. In the past few months, the Transportation Security Administration, or TSA, has ramped up security requirements at airports. Specifically, the TSA has greatly increased the number of full-body scanners at airport security checkpoints. Six months ago, there were only 80 scanning machines at 27 U.S. airports. Today, there are 385 scanners covering 68 airports. These scanners, which leave little to the imagination for TSA examiners in terms of anatomy, have brought about considerable concerns regarding the invasion of privacy and the excessive exposure to radiation. The TSA has paired the new scanning machines with more thorough “pat-down” procedures for travelers who refuse the scanners. TSA officials are now allowed to search private areas such as the breasts and groin which were previously off-limits. The TSA has a responsibility to keep airports as safe as possible. However, these new security measures cross the line between security and the invasion of privacy. Full body scanners and abusive pat-downs are an excessive and frankly typical abuse of power by federal government officials.

     Clearly, airport security needs to be strong and effective enough to prevent terrorist attacks. New airport measures came in response to recent threats to national security, particularly the Christmas Day bomber of last year who hid explosive devices in his underwear. The new security policies were vindicated in part by the discovery of a plot in Portland, Oregon to bomb a community Christmas-Tree lighting. The plan, undertaken by Somali-born Muslim Mohamed Osman Mohamud, was set to take place the day after Thanksgiving, before undercover FBI agents thwarted it through a sting operation. While this attack was not planned for an airplane flight, it did show that terrorist threats to the United States are still very present. It has been more than nine years since 9/11, and Americans gradually forget both how terrible that day was and how much hatred was behind those attacks. That hatred has not gone away in a decade. It remains, and the American people need to be conscious of the consequences it can have for the nation. We must not be complacent in our security measures, and we should remain ever vigilant of threats to the United States.

     Yet despite the continuous threat of terrorist violence, the new security measures in airports cross the line of personal freedom. The full-body scanners are very revealing, and they produce images that nobody should be allowed to look at outside of the doctor’s office or the bedroom. The new routines for “pat-down” scans are similarly inappropriate.  The measures that TSA officials now take at security checkpoints amount to legalized abuse. Like most individuals who find themselves in a position with a certain amount of unchecked power, TSA agents are engaging in invasive measures simply because they have the power to do so. The new breaches in civil liberties are not done with the primary aim of security. They are done with the personal aim of flexing individual power. There is no proof that these new measures are effective at stopping terrorist attacks, and they breach personal privacy. The bad that comes with the excessive abuse of power by TSA agents outweighs the good that the measures might be doing to keep airline flights secure.

     Airport security is a necessary inconvenience in the post-9/11 world. However, the new measures by the TSA are both highly invasive and of questionable effectiveness. The TSA needs to implement better training and more consistent restrictions for its officials working in airports today. Travelers being both secure and satisfied can only be good for the safety and security of this nation. Security comes with a price, that’s for sure. However, when the price is unreasonable government invasion into personal property and space, it is not a price worth paying.