Club champions

Club champions

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Club champions

The New York Times has done it again.

Only this time it was a column in the sports section – not on the editorial pages – that set me off.

The instigator was Selena Roberts, and the subject of her writing in last Saturday’s edition was the United States Golf Association. She took the organization to task for failing to produce a golf prodigy out of the “grow-the-game” programs it has been funding in non-traditional areas, i.e. inner cities. Along the way, she chided USGA president Walter Driver for belonging to private clubs such as Augusta National and Pine Valley. In addition, she claimed those memberships represent a “contradiction of conscience” that renders Driver socially “complacent.”

I am not here to stand up for Driver or the USGA as to the effectiveness of their outreach efforts, or the inherent difficulty in seeding the game in places – and among people – who have no roots in the sport. Nor am I inclined to speak on anyone’s contradicted consciences.

But I am anxious to defend private clubs from the cheap shots they frequently endure when pundits and politicos who fancy themselves great egalitarians delight in labeling those types of retreats as blue-blazered bastions of discrimination and blame them for the sport’s ills.

Are Driver’s club memberships the reason why golf has not spawned the “urban legend” Roberts is looking for? Clearly, they are not. And the fact is, they are actually doing more than most individuals and institutions to further the game.

Look first at that favorite media punching bag, Augusta National. It is not only a founding partner of the First Tee, an international youth development program for golf, but has given away more than $32 million to charity in the last decade, a lot of which has gone to promote and build the sport, especially among the disadvantaged.

Another of Driver’s clubs is East Lake in Atlanta, which is where Bobby Jones played the game as a young man. Not only have members there revived the once great course, but they have also used it as a tool for urban renewal and social change in an area that was once so prone to violence that golfers used to hit the deck whenever they heard a car back-fire, fearing it was actually a gun shot from one of the nearby crack houses.

Led by another Augusta member, Tom Cousins, the club persuaded local corporations to buy into his plan to turn East Lake around. And while millions of dollars raised went to the restoration of the stately Tudor clubhouse, they also went to the development of caddie programs and after-school golf clinics designed to introduce local boys and girls to the game – and keep them out of trouble at the same time. All told, some $100 million has been poured into that project, which included mixed-income housing and a YMCA, with some of that coming from those supposedly ineffectual USGA grants. Today, East Lake ranks as one of the finest golf retreats in America, as well as the instigator of most of the most successful urban renewal projects in decades.

Horrid places, indeed!

I have visited East Lake on several occasions and seen first-hand the differences a club can make. I have also witnessed it, on a much more modest scale, at my place in Connecticut, where we have raised more than $700,000 for a caddie scholarship trust we started eight years ago – and given away more than $50,000 a year the past several seasons to our loopers, all of whom are local high school and college kids.

But it is not just school money we provide those youngsters. We also give them a summer job and a chance to interact with – and learn from – successful men and women. They also get the opportunity to learn golf at an early age, and develop the passion and props for what will hopefully become a life sport.

But to read the local papers at times, or sit in on the odd town meeting, you would think we clubmembers were nothing more than self-absorbed elitists looking only to keep the common folk down.

I feel bad when I feel that kind of heat. But, frankly, I feel even worse for the people who give it. Because they really don’t understand golf and all the things that private clubs truly do for the game.

And if anyone watching the U.S. Open this past weekend doubts that, then consider the winner, Angel Cabrera. Born poor in Cordoba, Argentina, he learned about the game when he caddied as a young man at a private club there. And the elder who counseled him through the years, and provided financial backing when Cabrera wanted to try his hand at the game professionally, was a member, Eduardo Romero.

Terrible places those clubs. And rotten people there, to be sure.

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