2006: A change by design, Mary Armstrong

Mary Armstrong is holding forth, pointing out this green contour and that bunker as architects are wont to do when playing courses they’ve designed. • We’re on the 14th tee at Sanford Country Club, a Maine track where her firm, Milford, N.H.-based Armstrong Golf Architects, added nine holes back in 1997. The shortish par 4 in front of us doglegs sharply right, the putting surface hidden from the tee by a bank of pine and oak. • “From these tees,” she says of the blue markers we’ve played all day, “it’s probably an iron. That left side comes up pretty fast.”

Armstrong, a 6 handicap, puts her peg in the ground and effortlessly flushes a 4-iron. But she’s pulled it a bit and the ball goes through the fairway into the trees.

“Now there’s a poorly designed golf hole,” her playing partner snidely asserts.

“Well,” Armstrong says with a laugh, turning around and pointing to a tee box 40 yards behind us, “it’s a much better hole from the blacks.”

Armstrong, 54, is one of those strong, skilled, female golfers caught between the tees she’s expected to play and those she probably should be playing. The fact that she honed her single-digit game as Marvin Armstrong, only to begin hormone therapy 18 months ago, then undergo gender reassignment surgery in February 2005, further complicates the matter.

At this stage, however, no longer torn between the life she wanted to lead and the life she could no longer lead, Mary Armstrong has accepted the fact that her new path – while infinitely happier – is nothing if not complicated.

Armstrong, a 6 handicap, puts her peg in the ground and effortlessly flushes a 4-iron. But she’s pulled it a bit and the ball goes through the fairway into the trees.

“Now there’s a poorly designed golf hole,” her playing partner snidely asserts.

“Well,” Armstrong says with a laugh, turning around and pointing to a tee box 40 yards behind us, “it’s a much better hole from the blacks.”

Armstrong, 54, is one of those strong, skilled, female golfers caught between the tees she’s expected to play and those she probably should be playing. The fact that she honed her single-digit game as Marvin Armstrong, only to begin hormone therapy 18 months ago, then undergo gender reassignment surgery in February 2005, further complicates the matter.

At this stage, however, no longer torn between the life she wanted to lead and the life she could no longer lead, Mary Armstrong has accepted the fact that her new path – while infinitely happier – is nothing if not complicated.

The golf industry is, of course, one of America’s most conservative bastions, a world of khakis, collars and blue blazers where tradition is valued over diversity, a world where seemingly insignificant deviations from the norm – a funky hat, a soul patch, a pair of pastel trousers – peg one as a maverick or “worse.” If there are any gay men on the PGA Tour or Nationwide Tour, they remain closeted along with the overwhelming majority of homosexuals who work in the golf business as club pros, course superintendents and architects. For women, who already stand out in these predominantly male fields, the standard operating procedure is slightly different. While it’s understood that lesbians are prominent among LPGA ranks, only a few have come out. Public discussion of the issue is basically taboo.

Prompted by the example of Mianne Bagger, the 39-year-old Danish transsexual who debuted last year on the Ladies European Tour, the U.S. Golf Association has ruled that “transgender athletes will be eligible to compete two years after having gender reassignment surgery.” (The USGA also was nudged along by a nearly identical ruling from the U.S. Olympic Committee.)

Robert Knight, director of Concerned Women for America’s Culture and Family Institute, had this to say about golf’s new position: “The USGA has now surrendered to the decadence and political correctness that is sweeping over Europe. One would have thought that the USGA would have had more backbone. The women’s golf tour should be about women, not castrated males.”

This is the world in which Marvin Armstrong worked for 15 years. This is the same world where Mary Armstrong plans to continue that work.

“There’s quite a difference between the gay community and my community, the transgender community,” Armstrong explains over a cup of coffee in Sanford’s modest clubhouse. “With gays and lesbians, they’re dealing with something very private. One’s sexual orientation really isn’t anyone’s business but their own, and it’s quite easily concealed. Being transgendered, wanting to present as another gender, is a very public thing.”

During the months leading to her surgery, Armstrong seriously considered whether Mary Armstrong ever would be accepted in the golf world. Course architects work closely with owners and developers: How would these existing clients react? She says Armstrong Golf Architects has designed or consulted to more than 100 golf courses in New England alone. But would she be able to find new clients, or would she have to scrap her design business and find a new occupation?

Armstrong first confronted these issues in her diary.

Armstrong Golf Architects has designed or consulted to more than 100 golf courses in New England alone. But would she be able to find new clients, or would she have to scrap her design business and find a new occupation?

Armstrong first confronted these issues in her diary.

How will work play into this? I don’t think I can tell for sure, but I think I’ll be calmer – better able to understand my clients and more efficient, but most of all, happy with the results. This is something I can rarely say now.

Early returns have been encouraging. Armstrong has been working since 2000 on a comprehensive bunker renovation project at the municipal Presidents Golf Course in Quincy, Mass., where 12 of the 18 holes are finished. The town put Phase 5 of Marvin Armstrong’s master plan out to bid last year, and Mary Armstrong was rehired.

“We’re very pleased with the work AGA has done here, so there was no reason to change horses in midstream,” says Jim Fitzroy, director of operations at Presidents. “The cost estimates have been accurate and the bunker work has been spectacular, changed the whole atmosphere of the holes.

“We did sit down between the second and third phases to talk about her personal issues. She described exactly what she was going through and planning to do, and we just went forward from that point. We’re a public course, and we pride ourselves in not discriminating against anyone. Still the same architect as far as I’m concerned. That being said, she has obviously resolved a number of personal issues and is clearly more at peace with herself and can focus better on her work.”

Armstrong reports that since her surgery, not a single existing client has terminated a working relationship – and she’s in the running for several new projects. She says the results of her “coming out” reaffirmed, in a direct way, the appreciation her clients have for her past work. More important, she’s comfortable with herself for the first time.

Can I be happy with feeling that some people won’t take me seriously as a woman? I think so. I think it would relieve me of so much pressure . . . I love feeling like I can interact with anyone on the street. I can smile at a man or a woman and get a smile or nod in return or maybe even a few kind words.

The simple things are the best. I love just walking down the street and picking my way around the sidewalk potholes and cracks, as you must when you are wearing heels.

Not once since Wednesday morning, when I considered leaving to go home, have I thought about dying – about killing myself. The plain truth is, when I am Mary, I am happy. When I am Marvin, I am mostly not.

Marvin Armstrong was born Dec. 11, 1951 and raised in Ottumwa, Iowa – hometown of the fictional M*ASH character “Radar” O’Reilly, but a real place in Heartland America. Armstrong’s golf story was the archetype we know well: tagging along with dad at the local muni, hitting a few shots, then jumping on the back of the pull cart when he got tired.

“Eventually I started playing,” Armstrong says. “First set of clubs at 11, and right away I found myself taken with the course itself. I saw it as the ultimate game board, where the natural environment was an integral part of this huge game. It inspired me, I guess.

“At the same time, my mother and grandmother were very much plant people. In the seventh grade I wrote a paper on what I wanted to be when I grew up, and I wrote about landscape architecture. Even before that, I’d do imaginary golf course layouts using oil paints on poster board. I spent hours and hours doing them. It was so stimulating to me to imagine how the topography interacted with the golf. I didn’t know how to read topo lines, not back then, but it was a passion for me very early on.”

Armstrong’s first memories of feeling female emerged as an 8-year-old, but it wasn’t until adolescence that he began cross-dressing.

“By myself,” she recalls. “I felt it was wrong. Not that I felt that it was wrong for me, but socially it was wrong. My father – an ex-Marine and Korean war veteran – caught on eventually; I can’t remember whether he actually caught me or if it was something he figured out, but he confronted me about it. He scared me straight – at least, that’s the way I tend to think about that episode.

“From the time I was about 16 or 17 or somewhere in there, I really repressed it very strongly. Every four or five years something would come up again – I would do things like catch myself in the mirror and wonder what I would look like as a girl. But I buried it.”

Armstrong went to Iowa State University, earned a degree in landscape architecture and played the role his body required. He got married, had two daughters and attempted to fulfill his course design ambitions. But the mid-1970s were tough years to break into the business; the economy was in recession and few courses were being developed.

With a wife and young mouths to feed, Armstrong took a job in the Fort Dodge, Iowa, planning office. There, as luck would have it, he had the opportunity to work on a nine-hole municipal course the town was beginning. But soon he took a better job with the Army Corps of Engineers handling master plans for reservoir projects, recreation areas and boat ramps. If there was a golf course involved, he negotiated the permitting. In time he moved to New Hampshire, took a job with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, divorced, remarried, and played his golf at Green Meadows, a public course in Hudson owned by Phil Friel.

“Phil was the kind of owner who, on the weekends especially, was always out there on the golf course meeting the patrons,” Armstrong remembers. “He always stopped to talk with me.

I had told him what I did, and that I was interested in golf course architecture. At one point he said, ‘I need some landscape work done at my house. Why don’t you come over.’ Long story short, I ended up designing Citrus Hills in Florida. Phil did the on-site stuff, I did the drawings.”

His design fee for 18 holes: a set of irons, Wilson Staffs. “I still have them!” Armstrong says.

Having credentialed himself, Armstrong’s design of the second 18 at Citrus Hills netted his first true fee. “I think it was $700 or $800.”

Encouraging, but not enough to live on.

So Armstrong stayed on at Fish & Wildlife, where, among other things, he drew the master plan for the nation’s first environmental center (Philadelphia’s John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum) while actively moonlighting as a course architect on small jobs around New England. By the late 1980s, Armstrong was ready to make the leap into course design full time.

The 1990s couldn’t have been more different from the mid-1970s. Golf was booming, and Armstrong Golf Architects was soon busy – not Rees Jones or Tom Fazio busy, but busy enough. Armstrong actively networked among the state superintendent associations, which proved a steady source of renovation work. Occasionally an opportunity came to design original holes – at Sanford, Tory Pines Resort in Francestown, N.H. and The Country Club of New Seabury on Cape Cod, where Armstrong essentially created a sporty new 18-hole layout, The Dunes Course, that replaced an older course.

Armstrong says she has been influenced by the design work of veteran New England architects William Mitchell, who designed The Ocean Course at New Seabury, and Geoffrey Cornish.

“I’ve been most influenced and impressed by Donald Ross’ work, the subtleties he’s known for are more of what I try to bring to the table,” says Armstrong. “The time I spent with William Mitchell was important in terms of encouragement.”

Armstrong leveraged his considerable land planning skills (when adding nine holes at the private Elmhurst Country Club in Oskaloosa, Iowa, he handled all the road layout and sited the housing lots that funded the project), and Armstrong was one of the first golf course architects to make use of computer-aided design imagery, registering a trademark for the term, PhotoPlan.

But professional success couldn’t mask a depression that stemmed from decades of gender repression.

“I fantasized about being a woman,” Armstrong says. “Not all the time but occasionally, and what happened was my second wife could tell that I was depressed. She was a therapist herself. She kept insisting, nagging at me, actually, to get help. Finally I did.

“We were using a technique called EMDR, Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, which is mostly used with people who’ve been through a lot of stress, people with post-traumatic stress syndrome. It’s a little like hypnosis; it opens up your subconscious. Well, it came out during EMDR that I had cross-dressed as a teenager.

“After the session I was really, really embarrassed because I had never told anyone about that. No one. Nobody. But my therapist told me this issue might be more important to my depression than I might think, and that I might want to think about exploring my female side.

“That was 2002 and a light went on. I said to him, ‘Are you saying to me that this thing that I’ve been carrying around as an anchor, this thing that’s been dragging me down for all these years, can actually be a positive thing for me?’ He said, ‘Yes it could.’ That was really the beginning.”

Things got worse before they got better. Armstrong told his wife what had happened during therapy and she reacted with anger – at her husband, at having spent nearly 20 years with someone she thought she knew. In many ways, Armstrong says, the marriage ended then and there.

“I told (her) almost immediately,” Armstrong says. “She had a problem with it almost immediately. The kids were told eventually and they all had a difficult time with it. What’s most unfortunate about this is what happens to my family, to the friends I’ve had for years. In their view, I’m very selfish. . . . It’s hard for people like me to understand how people could not love us even more when we become able to love ourselves. But it hasn’t worked out that way.

“It became a situation where I felt there was no way out. No answers. I considered suicide in 2003. When you’re preparing to make this decision, you have to be ready to leave it all behind, which is so tragic for everyone. But there’s also this thing pulling at you, saying, ‘Don’t you want to be happy and comfortable with yourself, at least for the rest of your life?’ Gradually, I came to realize that this was something I had to do.”

Gender reassignment surgery isn’t the sort of thing one undertakes lightly. There are all the emotional, interpersonal factors, of course, but there also are strict presurgical rules known as the Benjamin Standards of Care. They require a patient to secure at least two signatures from a therapist, psychiatrist and/or primary care physician. They require a full hormonal regimen for at least a year in advance. They also prescribe that a patient live openly as a woman for an entire year prior to surgery, and it was this experience that gave Armstrong not only the permission but the conviction to cross over.

When I stop to think about it, it is so improbable that I am sitting here writing this with the notepad in my dress-clad lap with stockinged legs crossed comfortably on the adjacent chair. And yet, imagining myself as a man is so uncomfortable. Today, as I walked all the way from Chinatown to my B&B with blister-riddled feet in high heels, I sensed for the first time that I ever remember the corners of my mouth turning up without any effort, simply with the contentment of just being. It seems clear I must go forward, but equally with care, a well-thought-out plan and with even greater focus on my family and friends and the impact on them.

After a year as Mary, Armstrong finalized matters.

“For me the surgery included breast augmentation, some eyelid work – just to make myself look a little younger,” Armstrong says, “and the genital surgery, which is what they call a penile inversion procedure.”

I played golf today for the first time as Mary. I was paired with another woman – a young woman, probably in her mid-20s. Also, her boss from work, Dominic, and another gentleman whose name I didn’t catch. It seemed like this was going to be difficult. Dominic seemed to have “read” me and didn’t want anything to do with me. Since Melanie was using the red tees and was pretty much a novice, I chose to use the next ones back – the white tees, while the men used the ones behind that. There was a pond in play for the tee shot and I didn’t want to shock them too much with my length, so I hit a 3-iron. I was very nervous, as nervous as the first tee of the last round of the club championship. My drive was perfect – squarely hit and down the middle. By the way, the breasts do get in the way.

“They do, but in a good way,” Armstrong explains during our round at Sanford, a fine layout that played host to the Maine Amateur in 2004 and U.S. Open qualifying last year. “They make my swing rounder during the takeaway, forcing me to turn my shoulders since you can’t really turn just your arms and get much of a swing.”

Armstrong reports that her game is somewhat different today. She has lost 5 yards off her 7-iron but she’s a better putter, more relaxed, less competitive and not nearly as hard on herself when things go awry. She says she has no plans to test the USGA’s new ruling, though one suspects she could make some serious noise in mid-amateur or senior amateur competitions. Armstrong still plays golf at the same New Hampshire club in Amherst, Souhegan Woods (where Marvin won that club championship in 2000). She does so with largely the same group of guys in a Tuesday night twilight league, though the women’s group has made overtures for her to join them and some of her regular male playing partners have begged off.

“You lose some people, and that’s the hardest thing,” Armstrong explains. “But my youngest daughter, who lives in Iowa, is doing very well with this. My eldest daughter’s in Nashua and things are . . . improving, let’s say. My parents still live in Iowa; they still call me by my male name. I’ve asked them not to call me Marvin anymore but they do, and a couple of times I’ve been unable to handle hearing that again and so we end up not talking for a while. My sister – she lives in Iowa, too – didn’t call me after the surgery. We didn’t talk for about a year but recently we’ve gotten to talking a lot more. While I was in Iowa for Thanksgiving, we had a pedicure together.

“I’m still getting used to hearing myself. I do sound a little different, though hormones don’t do anything to your voice. I took one voice therapy consultation and the advice I got was, my natural voice was just at the lower end of the average woman’s, as far as tone goes. To sound more feminine I’ve started speaking more from my head. Most guys speak more from down here, the gut.”

Professionally, Armstrong agrees with Fitzroy: Same architect, same philosophy.

Marvin, for example, felt that fairways shouldn’t end before they reach the green, and so does Mary. “But playing so much with women post-surgery has really driven this home,” she says.

The only issue she claims to have had with an existing or past client has come at Sanford, where the board of directors declined to alter design credit – for the new nine Armstrong designed and the renovations she did on the original holes. “I don’t regard it as a big issue, but people will call and find out whether I designed the course, because I do use that job as a reference. How are they going to handle that?”

Armstrong smiles and folds her nail-polished hands on the table in front of her.

“But they aren’t going to change it, for now,” she says, “so I guess we all just move on.”

Armstrong is particularly thankful for those people she hasn’t lost. She’s appreciative of clients who’ve stayed with her, of course, but she frankly has been amazed at how positive, supportive and relaxed her professional contacts and colleagues have been.

“We started working together on our redesign in 2000, so we’ve spent a good amount of time together,” says Scott Nickerson, the superintendent at New Seabury. “We were riding around at one point, he had long hair at the time, and I said, ‘What are you? A hippie from New Hampshire?’ Well, he said there was something he needed to tell me. He handed me a three-page letter and wanted to explain things. That was the beginning of the conversation. You know, you’ve gotta do what you’ve gotta do. The only thing you can’t do is hit from the ladies’ tees.

“I try not to treat her any differently than I did before. I give her a lot of credit for the way she’s handled it, for persevering. I think everyone’s handled it quite well.”

Indeed, one colleague recently asked Armstrong for a medical referral for breast augmentation for his wife.

Armstrong laughs easily about such things, and one wonders whether Marvin would have. He was all business on the golf course, quite hard on himself when playing the game and when assessing his design work.

Mary, on the other hand, is clearly comfortable playing the cheerful tour guide – explaining how she expanded a pond on Sanford’s seventh hole to create a strategic island fairway, and remarking that a bunker fronting the original eighth green probably should be removed.

“I’m just a lot more personable than I was,” she says while walking to the ninth tee. “Much more self-assured. I enjoy people so much more than I did.”

Of course, it’s easy to be upbeat and life-affirming after snaking in a 12-footer for birdie, as she had at No. 8.

“I am a much better putter now,” she says. “The guys I play with have noticed it, too. I tell them: You want to know the secret?

“Hormones!”

Hal Phillips is a freelance writer from New Gloucester, Maine.

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