“How’s your grip?” Ben Crenshaw asks on the other end of the phone, and I start to fumble for words.
This is not why I’m calling the World Golf Hall of Fame member – I want to talk about the National Golf Links of America, site of this weekend’s Walker Cup matches – but I tell him I just shot 41 for nine.
I’m mortified – how does 41 sound to Ben Crenshaw? – but he was only following up on a grip lesson he gave me after we shared a round at Streamsong in January. He wants to know if I’ve been working on it. With Ben, it’s all about the fundamentals.
The same can be said for the golf course Crenshaw calls “one of my favorite places in the world,” a golf course whose fundamentals are so sound it just might be perfect.
It is the National, a course Crenshaw visits every year, a course that has informed him both as a player and a golf course architect.
“It is a nod to the past, it is a nod to yesterday,” he explains. “I love that clubhouse. It is an ancient, brooding place. The land is brilliant and beautiful. You really feel like you are playing at a cousin to the golf courses of the British Isles. It has such great feeling and character.”
Twenty amateurs will walk these grounds in competition Saturday and Sunday, but NBC’s television cameras will be poised on the course as much as the players.
The first Walker Cup was contested at the National in 1922, 14 years after the club was founded under the leadership of Charles Blair Macdonald, who worked with the engineer Seth Raynor to shape the future of American golf.
“Charlie Macdonald was determined to elevate the face of golf architecture in this country, and he did it in spectacular fashion,” Crenshaw says.
He calls him Charlie. I didn’t see that coming.
“I don’t think I’ve ever played a Charlie Macdonald or Seth Raynor golf course where I didn’t remember the features – the immense bunkers, the rolling greens, the distance and quality of the holes,” Crenshaw says. “There are so many wonderful puzzles in playing the National. Long holes, short holes, fun holes, heroic carries, magnificent greens. I heard it said that there used to be 365 bunkers – one for every day of the year.”
I asked Crenshaw to compare it to its long-time neighbor, Shinnecock Hills, which will host the United States Open in 2018.
“Shinnecock is a sterner test, and it’s ironic that they are right next door,” he says. “Fun is the operative word at the National.”
Over the years it has become rote to describe the National as an ode to the great Scottish links, but Crenshaw believes that notion is a simplification.
“Yes, a majority of the holes are replicas of famous holes overseas, but they have a touch of character that makes them play a little different,” he says. “You play the Alps hole, the 17th, at Prestwick and then you play the third hole at the National, you can see the features, but they are entirely different,” Crenshaw says. “Macdonald put his own stamp of character on them. I, for one, think the Redan hole, No. 4 at the National, is a better hole than the original at North Berwick.”
Crenshaw says he is excited for the teams from the United States and Great Britain and Ireland – “young and impressionable” – to play a golf course that represents the blossoming of American golf.
He predicts that the players from overseas will feel comfortable at the National, just as their forebears did in 1922, despite an 8-4 defeat.
The great golf writer Bernard Darwin covered the event for the Times of London and took a spot on the team when one member fell ill. (He defeated William C. Fownes, the 1910 U.S. Amateur champion, 3 and 1).
Nearly 30 years into his own golf design career with Bill Coore, Crenshaw says he can’t help but reference the National in various ways.
“We think about that course a lot and we talk about its principles,” he says. “Holes that are fun to play, holes that everyone can enjoy, that are spacious, really bold, and that have elasticity.”
How many golfers speak like this, I quietly ask myself, typing furiously as Crenshaw continues. He seems willing to talk about this great romance forever, but I know I should let him go.
“I don’t think there is a prettier site in golf,” he says.
I bid him farewell and reach for my 6-iron.