Breezes in the Bluestem Bagpipes in the Air


OYSTER BAY, N.Y. ' With time to spare before heading to the airport, I stopped in this pleasant Long Island town to have a look at Sagamore Hill, the Theodore Roosevelt family seat and now a national park, and to get a bite of lunch. On the way back to the train station, where I had left my car, I heard bagpipe music coming from around the corner of the dilapidated depot.
I dropped my keys back in my pocket and went around to look. (I happen to like bagpipe music, a difficult trait my family plans to do something about as soon as they remember which drawer contains the unsigned commitment papers.) I found a scene worthy of Northern Exposure: A curly-haired man of about 40 in a UPS uniform (summer version), standing by his delivery truck, facing the Oyster Bay yard of the Long Island Railroad, filling the air with the skirl of Scotlands national instrument.
We spoke for a moment about how the world makes bagpipers practice in rail yards (although I distinctly heard applause from mothers and children in a park on the other side of the tracks). I gave him my card; he promised to send me the name of a bagpipe teacher in Florida. (Dont worry; likely Mrs. Barr will intercept the letter.) He packed up and ended his lunch break.
The whimsical episode capped off a U.S. Open pre-tournament of pleasingly out-of-place notions. At Shinnecock Hills, Titleist putter guru Scotty Cameron looked around, fixed his wind-blown hair and observed that it felt like a British Open. Indeed, even on the practice greens, the elevated clubhouse was unable to break the flag-whipping breeze off Peconic Bay, backed as it was by the winds off Long Island Sound. It was steady, it was cool, and it smelled of salt and oysters.
The anticipatory stages of this tournament were a much better sensory experience than the last two U.S. Opens. Besides the oceanic aroma, there was the heady, summery smell of cut hay as you walked through the bluestem and other high grasses. Yes, they are cut down around the greens this year, but they are still here, and in great swaths by the narrow fairways they are still the enemies of wayward shots. One thinks of Jim Furyks wrist and shudders.
From the northeast corner of the clubhouse, behind the ninth green, the view down the slope toward the 18th hole extends through salty haze to the windmill at National Golf Links and the Sound beyond. Players heading for the locker room muttered about crusty greens and good shots that roll off, and if this wind holds up, and nothing could stop it for more than a day, and what a great golf course, but, dang, this is going to be hard. Less trees than in 1995, more open ' but harder, to be sure.
Theres a lot of looking at the sky, at American flags still at half-staff for President Reagan, at their direction and rippling stiffness. As the sailors clips holding the flags ding against the metal poles, players and fans alike think about black numbers and low-ball hitters. The morning blueness on the horizon never amounts to anything, and everyones shoes get dusty. No one can honestly narrow down the list of potential winners to less than ten.
The U.S. Golf Association, typically inscrutable on issues of this kind, is rumored to be delighted. It loves this golf course, and it loves demanding, every-club-in-the-bag, creativity-required golf. So do many fans, not all of them purists.
Some new purists could be born, or converted, this weekend. Standing on the tee at 14, with a downhill drive beginning 443 yards of one of the most stirring par-4 odysseys in the game, it is hard not to want every golf day to be like this one: A three-club gale, a bunker on the far side of the fairway at the bottom, and a ridge of bluestem asserting itself from the right.
As golf spread across the United States from this point, geography and local preference necessarily gave courses regional character. Maidstone is no more The Medalist than Long Island is Florida, and windblown linksland cannot be duplicated where palm trees grow. The fact that golf in the Shinnecock style exists in the British Isles and a few precious spots in coastal North America make it all the more special. Its almost enough to make up for the fact that so few of us get to regularly play this kind of windy, luck-strewn, fast, dry golf. Almost.
In going back to this kind of golf whenever it can ' and the plan is to do so more often ' the USGA is indoctrinating a new generation of fans into that world of experiences just unusual enough to be enticing ' be they bagpipes by the train yard or a 4-iron lofted into the salty breeze.
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