NEWPORT, R.I. - From the moment you pull into the parking lot of Newport Country Club, you feel the tug of history. The clubhouse lords over the grounds in the near distance, every bit as grand in scale and design as one of the old mansions along Bellevue Avenue that have tourists lined out the door in this seaport town.
Make that a Vanderbilt mansion, for Newport Country Club's clubhouse has few peers in even the "regular" historic palaces.
Below the clubhouse of 19th century grandeur, you see a green up on a ridge, with bunkers on the side. These are no trendy pot bunkers, no army of sand, just spare and strategic obstacles. An ocean breeze rolls through an overcast gray sky, adding to the sense of timelessness.
This is a golf version of the field of dreams. That much is apparent from first look.
One that's closed to you, me and about 35,099,773 of the reported 36.1 million golfers in the U.S.
That much becomes apparent soon after the initial wow wears off. All it takes is a look around the parking lot. Of course, calling it a parking lot is a stretch. It's a grass field down near the road, filled with Jaguars and Mercedes 600 Series.
Nothing too ostentatious here, no red sports cars or yellow Hummers in sight. These are the vehicles of the assuredly rich, the kind of longtime family wealth that prefers to low-key the portfolios.
Yet the truth is in the air as clearly as the sea scent. It even smells like old money.
These are the few, the proud, the society barons who get to hit shots on this golf museum.
Tom Fletcher, Newport C.C.'s first assistant golf professional, puts the club's membership in the 225-to-250 range. Memberships have stayed in some families from the club's 1893 beginning. Yes, these are the living Vanderbilts and Rockefellers of the world.
"It's a pretty select group of people that have ever played this course," Fletcher said. "You have to be recommended by a member to be considered to join, and you pretty much have to be a guest of a member to play."
Newport Country Club is one of the most interesting, historic golf courses in North America. The first U.S. Open was held here in 1895 and it's one of the five founding members of the United States Golf Association. And you can count the golfers who've had the chance to play it in the low thousands. It's no stretch to declare that one of Myrtle Beach's busier tracks welcomed far more duffers in the last year than Newport C.C. has in its entire 112.
This is a good symbol for golf?
It's a question worth asking with Newport Country Club being promoted all around town. The club is mentioned prominently on every sign for the 2006 U.S. Women's Open, and in Newport now, signs for the Women's Open are as ubiquitous as sailboats. Is the fact that the USGA chose one of the more elitist, closed clubs for its Open championship a good thing for golf or just a good thing for Newport Country Club?
Paul Hag approaches the 2006 U.S. Women's Open counter, curious as can be. Hag never expected to see the U.S. Open in Newport and once the building with the striking blue awning in the center of downtown offering U.S. Open info, tickets and T-shirts caught his attention, he had to go in.
"Newport Country Club, huh?" Hag asks the women behind the counter.
"Can you play there?"
The woman smiles wide. "No, but anyone can volunteer." A form is shown to Hag.
This is how it often goes in the world of golf. Courses are trumpeted, layered in mystique on TV telecasts and golf magazine rankings, and then the average guy's told, "Oh yeah, you'll never play here." It's a strange way to build a sport, no matter how long-standing the tradition.
Don't have the six- or seven-figure membership fee and the proper secret handshake references? Too bad, so sad. But play this public course instead!
"I'd love to play Newport Country Club," Ron Cournoyer of nearby Bristol, R.I., said somewhat wistfully, standing outside the 2006 U.S. Women's Open storefront. Cournoyer also holds a volunteer form.
This isn't a call to end the use of private clubs in major championships. Even Martha Burk's Masters protests struck me as silly considering the bigger issues on which the National Organization for Women could have focused that energy.
This is about the USGA and the PGA of America, organizations that profess to be all about building golf on a grass-roots level, continuing to hold their major title events at elite private club after elite private club. Augusta National is a completely different matter. Hootie Johnson and the good ol' boys never professed to be anything but what they are.
Hootie's not the one running hokey TV ads that show a kid making a hole in one in the twilight, thinking he's the only one who saw it, only for a groundskeeper to show up and acknowledge the magic moment. It's time for USGA Executive Director David Fay to back up that this game's for everyone message with the full force of his power.
If the USGA truly wants to promote inclusionary golf, it should be searching far and wide for any course open for public play that could hold its own as a major championship venue, sacrificing tradition for a new symbolism. Bethpage Black and Torrey Pines are important steps, but where's the consistent mantra?
Packing up his golf bag in the parking lot of Newport National Golf Club - an Arthur Hills design open for public play - Joe Sousa is sure he'd just played "the best course in Rhode Island."
"You can't tell me they couldn't have a Women's U.S. Open here," Sousa said.
It's an argument you don't expect to hear in Newport, R.I. This is one of the ritziest vacation spots in the United States, a seaside ode to the joys of the high life. Only if you look deeper, you'll notice the families fishing for that evening's meal right alongside the pier with all the huge yachts at anchor.
The contrast between public and country club golf isn't so severe, of course, but it's growing if it's reaching places like Newport. Many people in the area are just excited to have the best women golfers in the world coming to town next June.
"They say it could bring a million people into town over that week," Joan Simmons said. "More than the entire population of Rhode Island."
Those are heady numbers, the stuff to make bed and breakfast owners care less which club is hosting the tournament as long as it brings Michelle Wie. Over at Newport County Club, Fletcher is going into the course's water views and how dramatic the setup will play on TV.
Facing the course itself, it's easy to make the argument that it is just like Yankee Stadium. Even if people just see the wonder, it's a plus for golf.
Of course, then the difference comes through as another member rolls up in a Mercedes. Having a net worth greater than the GNP of some third-world countries and a family name to match doesn't guarantee you can roam the center field at Yankee Stadium anytime you wish. Even Billy Crystal is locked out sometimes.
At Newport Country Club, history's only open for the elite. No doubt, that remains embedded in golf.
But is that really the part of the game we want to celebrate in 2006?
August 22, 2005