A hunt for bears, birdies and ties that bind in an otherwise fractured country
Excerpted from A Course Called America by Tom Coyne
Light / Dark
It didn’t take long to find my bear. A stuffed grizzly was flashing his claws beside baggage claim, and my hotel—the Bear Lodge—had two more in glass showcases. When friends heard I was playing all fifty states, a regular question was, “Alaska?” And I assured them it was top of the list for two reasons: my first potential bear sighting, and my first golf beneath the midnight sun.
Fairbanks was as far north as I could find golf in America, and north was key for catching a full 24 hours of sunlight. It meant I might have to settle for posed bears in a lobby, as grizzlies were more abundant down south, around Anchorage. But it was an easy compromise; I was here on the summer solstice to see a sun that didn’t set, and while I’d indulged fantasies of battling the Berenstains with a five-iron, if I’d actually met one of them out there, I’d have been running too fast for a selfie.
At 1 a.m., I checked in to the Bear Lodge under dusky skies and slept hard. In the morning, I headed out for a look around before golf at America’s most northerly course, the elaborately named Fairbanks Golf Course. I expected the town to be a burg of swinging-door saloons set into rocky crags, muddy streets full of shaggy prospectors who paid for their whiskey with nuggets of gold. I found Starbucks and dollar stores and two-lane highways, beside apartment complexes and parking lots full of unpolished trucks. I zoomed past one spot that grabbed my eye, and spun my car back around. It was a squat, whitish shack that may have been abandoned, but a hand-painted sign said BARBER, and I couldn’t show up at home tomorrow looking like this.
I pushed open a torn screen door, stepped over empty bottles of antifreeze, and, as my eyes adjusted to the darkness within, I made out a man standing over a chair who seemed to be trapped in some sort of jungle. Dusty vines and fake plants choked the room, and when he looked over at me, the guy with clippers called with a Southern twang, “Come on in, stranger. Be right with you—grab a seat.”
He was cleaning up the grey sideburns of a guy in a polo shirt, and was himself a tall Black gentleman with white hair and a bent frame. He wore a loose yellow button-down, and his fingers looked shakier than I preferred in my barbers, but how many chances was I going to have to get my hair cut in Alaska? Plus, there was plenty to look at while I waited.
His barber shop seemed to function as some sort of outpost general store where pioneers could acquire anything their homesteads required. (There was a food market and hardware store across the street, so I wondered if any of this stuff ever sold.) From the pipes hung umbrellas and wide-collared shirts and fur coats draped in plastic, above a tabletop Pac-Man machine that I would have played if I had any change. There were piles of old VHS movies and racks of CDs, sunglasses hanging from a wire, and a semi-legible sign advertising fresh eggs and ice cream. In a glass case stood old dolls next to a neck massager, and by my feet was a water-cooler jug full of pennies. On the chair next to me sat an old ammo box of unspecified contents, but at only $12.95, it seemed a good deal. The barber sent his current client off with a handshake—old pals, from what I could guess—then waved me up into his forest.
I took my seat in his cracked leather chair, and the phone rang. “One second,” he said, pulling a phone out from behind one of the plants.
For ten minutes, I listened to him barter with a voice on the other end of the line. I was going to be late for golf now, but I was pot committed to this haircut, and was too curious about what might be looking back at me in the mirror soon. I picked up on his conversation: he was arguing with someone who wanted to buy some property. This property, it turned out, and another one of my barber preferences—that they not be going out of business—was compromised.
He hung up the phone, complaining how that son of a bitch wanted to rob him blind, and our conversation came easy—far more talk than clipping. Joe had been cutting hair up here for fifty years, and at eighty years old was looking to retire. He’d come from South Carolina, and told me how his daughter was visiting next week from California. He hadn’t seen her in thirty-seven years. “My daughters, they’re still mad at me for not marrying their mother,” he said. “What can you do? I was young. Wasn’t the marrying type.”
The mailman pushed open the door, and Joe kicked up a conversation with him as well. “Say, where’s that good-looking lady who was delivering the mail last week? What’s her name?”
“Beatrice?” the mail carrier said.
“Yeah, Beatrice. You tell her I was asking for her, alright?”
The man laughed and said he would, and Joe flipped on his clippers.
“I hit on all those ladies,” he told me. “They love it.”
Our conversation turned to why I was there, and when he heard golf, he got pretty passionate about Tiger Woods.
“Now you tell me: why did Tiger go and get married? Tell me, why?”
I said I didn’t know.
“Come on, Tiger,” he continued. “You know who you are. You love women. You want to play the field, then you go and do that.”
While twenty minutes before I’d taken Joe for some half-mad haberdasher, he was something of a Fairbanks tycoon. He owned 400 acres of property down the road that he was turning into a subdivision, and he asked me how many acres he needed for a nine-hole golf course.
“Fifty, maybe? Seventy-five?”
“That’s all? Damn. I got plenty more than that, my friend. Plenty more.”
He cut my hair using only clippers—“Hands don’t do so well with the scissors anymore”—then flipped on some sort of vacuum-tube apparatus to suck the clippings off my head.
“You want a shave?” he asked, and I paused. I had always wanted a straight-razor shave in a barber’s chair, but I was late, and that tremble in his hands… I wondered how many types of hepatitis were out there, and if you could catch them all in one sitting.
“Absolutely,” I said as curiosity won over caution. A box on his shelf spit warm cream onto his hand that he spread across my cheeks; I left without a nick, and with a pretty fair haircut—everything the same as when I came in, just a half inch shorter.
As I pushed open the door on my way out, Joe called to me, “Hey, if you wanna go halves on that golf course, you let me know!” I told him I certainly would. Now that would be my great American golf course, I thought, me out there cutting the fairways, and Joe inside selling eggs and VHS copies of Weekend at Bernie’s. I filed it under future book ideas and headed for a tee time I’d already missed.
The gravel parking lot at the Fairbanks nine-holer was more crowded than I had hoped, and I found three chagrined guys hanging around a tailgate—my playing partners, I guessed. I’d met them all through emails asking if I was coming to Alaska; Scott had traveled from Anchorage with Kyle, and Gerry had flown up from Seattle, which made me feel a little worse about being late, but we had all day and all night to get our golf in. Literally.
The head pro squeezed us into a full tee sheet and asked his assistant pro to come shepherd us around Fairbanks. It was a thoughtful gesture, though the instructions Chuck the assistant apparently heard were, “Go show them how awesome you are.”
He swaggered up to the first tee and introduced himself without smiling. “I’m supposed to play with you guys,” he said, then teed his ball up, giving himself the honors. Kyle was filming our round for his YouTube webisodes, so he asked Chuck if he minded being filmed.
“Nah. Doesn’t bother me. I’m used to it.”
I swallowed a laugh——before he banged one out into the fairway, holding his follow-through with muscles taut. I don’t think we asked, but he told us he played on the Adams Tour for a while. I looked at the smiles on my partners’ faces: every one of us wanted to ask him what the Adams Tour was. We refrained; we were getting big-timed by the assistant pro at the nine-hole Fairbanks Golf Course, and that was too awesome a thing to interrupt.
As a course guide, Chuck really let his boss down; his lone advice on a twisty course where we could have used some was, “Stay left on every hole.” Okay. On number five, a hard-turning dogleg, I stayed left. Well left.
“Not left enough,” he said. “That one’s gone.” Then he stepped up and aimed fifty yards left of where I had been pointing. He popped it over a pine none of us were looking at and said, “That’s on the green.”
He putted out for birdie while the rest of us kicked around poisonous Alaskan foliage in search of our balls. Chuck gave us no help that afternoon, but he did give us something to talk about at dinner. Downtown Fairbanks was hopping: the streets had been closed off for pedestrians, and locals were weaving their way from bar to bar. We’d wandered into a Thursday night festival, and Kyle explained that energy levels in Alaska were off the charts during the summer as folks emerged from hibernation. Kyle worked in finance for the oil companies, and Scott sold pipes to them. Everything up here was oil dependent, they explained; every Alaskan received an annual oil-dividend check, and the state’s budget was tied to the price of crude. As I listened, I saw me and Joe’s course coming to life. Greens fees be damned, we’d always have that oil money…
We had time for dessert before our 11 p.m. tee time, though we needed to budget an hour for procuring clearances to get on base. Chena Bend GC is on Fort Wainwright, home to the Army’s Arctic Warriors (and the perch from which they could see Russia, so I’d heard). Kyle said it was the best course in Alaska; as a military course, its budget wasn’t linked to customers, and it was guaranteed to be in good shape. I recalled how my dad said you could always tell whether the commanding officer was a golfer by the condition of the base’s course. We were a bit early for peak conditions—they started in July and lasted all of two months—but it had been a mild spring, so Kyle expected the greens to have thawed by now.
It was June 20. Sorry, Joe, I thought. I’d never survive up here as a golfer.
We waited in line at Fort Wainwright’s welcome center behind a queue of girlfriends dressed in bits of pink and black, ready to start the weekend early. Officers ran our driver’s licenses through some sort of database, then gave us passes to present to guards with big guns, who waved us through and into a village of low, quiet buildings with an empty golf clubhouse at its far end.
One woman remained to check us in for our tee time, then locked the door behind us as we yawned and headed for the first tee. My body wasn’t quite sure what I was doing, but unblemished fairways framed by Alaskan pines were like smelling salts, and we hustled forth to join mosquitoes who didn’t give a damn that the sky said they shouldn’t be out.
Joining us at Chena Bend was another Scott, from the nearby town of North Pole, which was south of here, which he admitted was confusing. Scott was a builder and two-handicap who loved to play this late; this was his busy season, but when you could tee off at midnight, you could get your golf in without losing hours on a job site. Between golf shots and reapplications of black-market Alaskan DEET (I think Scott mixed it in his bathtub), we kept checking the time. Finally, on the sixth hole, we paused to take a selfie of us golfing with phones that read midnight. At around 1 a.m., the sun dipped and slid along the treetops, then lifted itself into an orange sky as we finished the back nine.
I remember playing well—the card says 73—but the details were lost in a drowsy fog. There were dark trees and a river and glossy greens, and we got soaked by the early morning sprinklers. It all felt like a kids’ sleepover party: we went into it on a sugar high, laughter and loud voices and bold plans for the night, and walked out of it with sagging shoulders and sleepy eyes, wishing our moms were here to drive us home to our own beds.
The ride across base and back through town had an eerie, apocalyptic vibe. The sun was glowing, but the curtains were drawn tight, the stores all closed. I stopped at the Bear Lodge to rinse off the repellant—a fire hose would have helped—then headed to the airport, where Kyle was passed out on a bench. I boarded a 4 a.m. flight to Seattle, then connected for Philadelphia, and walked in my door at 10 p.m. Eastern Time, not quite sure how I’d gotten from the Bear Lodge to here, and still smelling like bug spray.
The girls had waited up to hug their dad, and I gave them their stuffed goats from Silvies before Allyson reminded me where the bed was. I wanted to sleep, but my head and body were on opposite coasts, and I had just finally nodded off when my alarm buzzed. Allyson shook me out of bed and wished me luck. It was club championship weekend, and I was on the tee in thirty minutes.
The Twin Cities offered three US Open venues for inspection. Minikahda and Interlachen felt like the quiet classics, while Hazeltine was a revved-up steamroller ready to host another major tomorrow. Minikahda was a charming golden-age track on the banks of Lake Calhoun where Chick Evans won the 1916 US Open as an amateur. Its name came from the native Dakota words for “by the water,” and so it was. Interlachen’s Willie Watson–Donald Ross design was angry with false fronts protecting lofted greens, and its 18th green was downright devious: perched high above a tilted fairway beside the Tudor clubhouse, you had about three yards to make your approach stick on a tilted slip ‘n’ slide. Interlachen was the site of Bobby Jones’s 1930 US Open win en route to his Grand Slam, and a plaque on its ninth commemorated the clank heard ’round the world. Distracted by spectators running across the fairway, Jones dumped his second shot on the par five, skipping it into a pond where lily pads carried it across the water and tossed it onto dry land.
Eric and I arrived at Interlachen on the Sunday after Member-Guest. The caddies were whipped from back-to-back double-loop days, and with pockets already full of cash, we were lucky to find two who were willing to go around again. They warned us that this was their day off, and that they might still be under the influence of last night’s ounces. No matter; I’d carried some of my best loops pie-eyed, and I just needed someone to help me over the false fronts. My guy Keith was ex–Special Forces, and we laughed a lot that afternoon until a former caddie buddy of mine, Mike, who’d relocated from Philly to Minneapolis, joined us to walk the back nine.
Keith busted my friend’s chops at one point, to which Mike replied, “Shut the fuck up.” Now, in Philadelphia parlance, “Shut the fuck up” translates to “Oh, go on, you silly fool.” But in Minnesota, it translated to “Shut the fuck up.” Keith stood up out of our cart (our caddies opted to become chauffeurs at the turn) and said, “What did you say to me?” Gone was the jovial looper, and in his place was a Green Beret. I pulled him back into the cart and drove off, explaining that Mike meant nothing by it, that it was a Philadelphia thing. He was quiet for a moment, then laughed. “I get it. I served with guys from Philly. Ball-busters. I like that.” The moment passed, and Keith tried to coach me through 18, but I couldn’t help sending one long and capping a solid scorecard with a 6.
Interlachen was clearly a hang-around family club, with a bustling campus of kids bounding down the steps in bathing suits. Hazeltine National felt more like a dormant coliseum waiting for a bout. The property was sprawling—plenty of room for tents and merchandise pavilions—and the clubhouse was modern and handsome, if much quieter than the hallways of Interlachen. It was a national golf club (like Augusta, when you saw National in the name, that meant the club catered to a membership from beyond its own ZIP code), so it lacked the intimacy of Interlachen and Minikahda, but it had been built for hosting big events, and that it had. The Robert Trent Jones layout hosted a controversial US Open in 1970 after half the field didn’t break 80 on day one. Tony Jacklin eventually won it, and after the course was softened a bit, the Open came back in 1991, when Payne Stewart pulled off a playoff win. Nancy Lopez won a Women’s Open there as well, but the only tournament anyone was talking about when I arrived was the 2016 Ryder Cup. If Medinah downplayed its losing Ryder Cup, the opposite was going on at Hazeltine, where it seemed the champagne was still flowing.
Hazeltine was the only US Open venue on my itinerary where I didn’t have to worry if I had another poster to gift in my trunk. Chandler, the head pro, was an old friend from his days in Philadelphia as an assistant at Merion, and he had hand-drawn the poster for me that winter, painstakingly sketching each club logo and lettering the names and scores of every winner. He already had a copy in his office, though it was hard to see in a room of twenty-foot ceilings where all four walls were covered with a wallpapered photograph of the first tee at the Ryder Cup. The course went ahead and crushed me, but I hardly noticed the hurt. I was too busy listening to Chandler tell me stories of American victory, where captain Davis Love gave Hazeltine’s head pro rare access to the team.
Love was Chandler’s golfing idol; he’d gotten into the golf business because of him, and carried himself with the same quiet class as his hero. When Davis was announced as the 2016 captain, Chandler hoped he’d have a chance to bring something to the table for Davis’s team, so he spent the long Minnesota winter rewatching every recent Ryder Cup and taking careful notes. When Davis came out for a scouting round the year before the Cup, Chandler joined him, and when they reached the long par-five third hole, Davis mentioned that there was no way they’d be using the back tee in the matches. Chandler saw his chance.
“Why wouldn’t you play it back?” he said.
Davis explained that they needed to make more birdies. They hadn’t made enough birdies at Gleneagles in 2014 and lost. Chandler took his shot and disagreed.
“We lost at Gleneagles because we got crushed on the par fives,” he said. “We were +4 on the par fives in alternate shot. The Europeans were -8.”
Davis stopped. He was listening.
“McGinley put the blocks at five hundred yards. He knew they had the better long-iron players. Our team has eight of the best twelve wedge players in the world. So making the par fives into three-shot holes is going to be to our advantage.”
That was precisely what they did. From that suggestion on, it was very much an “our” effort for Chandler and Davis. Chandler asked Davis why he thought America lost at Medinah, and the captain said they couldn’t close five tight matches that went to the eighteenth hole. Chandler offered his take: in those five matches, any one of which could have given America the Cup if they had taken a single point, no American player won the seventeenth or eighteenth hole. Even two halved matches would have taken the day. But the Sunday pins were pushed to the edges, and the more aggressive Americans kept taking the bait.
“If you’re leading on Sunday,” Chandler said, “just put the pins in the middle. Take bogey out of it.” They did, and Justin Rose notably lamented on Sunday after losing the Cup at Hazeltine, “I thought the setup was incredibly weak. I thought it was very much a pro-am feel in terms of the pin placements. They were all in the middle of the green. I didn’t quite understand that, to be honest with you.”
It was music to Chandler’s ears. The PGA’s own analytics team would back up the math Chandler had done in his basement, but he had earned himself a spot in the team room that week, where he had a role in deciding who would be let inside it.
The team room had formerly been a hangout for players and wives and coaches and celebrities. Chandler was playing with Tom Lehman a few months before the Cup was set to start, and he asked him why Michael Jordan was allowed in the room. Lehman said it was meant to be a social place where the guys could relax and blow off steam; they wanted it to feel comfortable, so players were free to invite whomever they chose. Chandler said that sounded fine if America had been winning the Ryder Cup, but they hadn’t. Lehman heeded his advice and took the idea to Davis, and that year at Hazeltine, the team room was players only. MJ would have to hang in a hospitality tent.
An awkward legacy of Chandler’s insight surfaced in 2019, when Chandler was in Florida playing at Grove XXIII, a high-end private club owned by his Air-ness. Jordan happened to catch Chandler’s group on the back nine and joined up, then sat with them in the bar afterward. Conversation turned to the Ryder Cup at Hazeltine, and Chandler’s friend told Jordan that the guy who got him barred from the team room was sitting next to him. Jordan raised an eyebrow, and Chandler grinned.
“Michael, let me ask you: would you have wanted wives and celebrities in the locker room at halftime during Game 7?”
“Fuck no,” Jordan said without hesitation. He nodded and said he understood. “You did the right thing,” Jordan said. And Chandler quietly sighed relief.
I stayed in a room in Chandler’s basement while visiting Minneapolis—walls covered in more Cup memorabilia, with Ryder Cup pillows on which to rest my head and a picture on the door, drawn in crayon, of a red-headed golfer. Chandler’s daughter had made me a welcome sign, and I felt very welcome indeed.
The next morning, we rolled out for Spring Hill. Interlachen and Hazeltine grabbed the Minnesota spotlight, but Spring Hill was likely the most coveted Twin Cities tee time. A mutual friend of Eric and mine arranged for us to play with a member who’d won a gold medal—and not just any gold medal, but the most meaningful in American Olympic history.
Rob McClanahan was a Minnesota hockey legend who had played for the Rangers, Whalers, and Sabers, but was best known as a member of the 1980 Miracle on Ice team. I operated by a presumption that hockey players were good golfers; I’d seen it proven back home, and it was indeed the case with McClanahan, who played off a three-handicap and still had the build of a guy you wouldn’t want following you for a puck in the corner. He’d scored five goals in the ’80 Olympics, including the gold-medal winner against Finland. But, most impressively, Rob was a normal guy happy to share stories about coach Herb Brooks and the 1980 team.
He gave us each Titleist 80 golf balls with USA printed on the side, and, in the grillroom afterward, pulled the gold medal from Lake Placid out of his locker and let us each put it on and snap selfies. The Tom Fazio course outside was a chef’s kiss of brave shots spread across terrain that moved like a potato chip, but we had our eyes and ears pointed at Rob, who was happy to indulge my request for another Brooks anecdote. He shared with us the coach’s speech before the gold-medal game, after the US team had just beaten the Russians in perhaps the most emotional game in hockey history. A letdown seemed inevitable, and their coach knew it.
“Herbie walked into the locker room before the game, and he’s pacing back and forth. Now Herbie used to speak for five, ten minutes. He always had a speech ready; he knew how to motivate his players. So he paces back and forth, not saying anything, then he looks at us and says, ‘If you lose this game, you’ll take it to your fucking grave.’ He turns around and walks to the door, then stops and looks back at us and says, ‘Your fucking grave.’ Then he walked out. That was it,” Rob said. “There was absolutely no way we were gonna lose that game.”
I felt the goose pimples as I looked down at my ball in the fairway, an acre of waist-high grass between me and the green, and I thought to myself, . Then I did. And I believe that I will.
Our introduction to Rob came via a local golf-head named Guy who distilled his own vodka and was a celebrity on the golf message boards. Guy invited us out to his curiously named club—White Bear Yacht Club—the next morning, where I walked around the docks before being told the course was across the street. They didn’t have polar bears in Minnesota, though there were a few cement ones on the White Bear course, placed as driving markers for its blind tee shots. It was a course to embrace or to balk at, the quirkiest Donald Ross I’d encountered, where you aimed at bears and played from tee boxes perched on the edge of a busy road—listen for the cars to pass, then swing, quick. For me, it struck the ideal blend of eccentricity, quality, and adventure; its hills were heart-stoppers, and its layout had all the twists of a great novel. It actually ended up in a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, under the name Sherry Island Golf Club, after Fitzgerald and wife Zelda spent a summer living in a room at White Bear. Or, most of a summer—their drunken antics eventually got them booted from the property. Too bad for Fitzgerald, I thought, because I flat-out adored White Bear. Per usual, the company influenced that impression.
It was hard to guess Guy’s age. He had a kid in college, but dressed like one himself. He was golf-cool, with a flat-brimmed hat that belied his years. We talked about the metrics one might use in identifying the great American golf course, as I wondered if I might be walking on it, but I felt a public course would best embody our democratic republic. As I covered more of our country, my list of characteristics for a representative American course was expanding: it should feel bold and idealistic with an individualistic bent, showcasing some shades of the experimental and innovative. It needed to be welcoming—America had been so to me thus far—yet it should be imperfect as well, though not without an abundance of hope.
The American course I was looking for would have a little revolutionary spirit with an ounce of wholesomeness, an upstart that should operate by an ambitious but simple credo. It was a lot to ask for in one course. Plus, it should inspire and aspire while fostering both agreement and discord, and tolerating both. And it should have a damn good hot dog at the turn. White Bear fit some of the bill, but not all of it. As for what made a course great, if not quintessentially American, Guy had some ideas to share.
“To me, a great golf course is one where you get to 18 and want to walk back to 1,” he said. “This course is like that. Because of the lack of flat lies, every round is different. You might play 36 holes, and play the first 18 and love the course, and the next 18 just have your brains scrambled. But what really makes golf great is you and me. It’s the friendships, it’s the people you play with. I really don’t care where we play. It could be a goat track, but if I’m with the three best dudes, I’m going to have a great time.”
I thanked Guy for ranking me as a best dude; it was as high a status as I’d achieved in golf. And it reminded me that my great American golf course was going to have more to do with the Americans with whom I played it, versus its red, white, and blue bona fides.
I had walked with teachers and drummers and actors and firemen and bankers, with students and grandfathers and moms and soldiers. I left Philadelphia with a simmering skepticism about my countrymen; we didn’t agree, we didn’t listen, and, worse, we didn’t seem to care. We had retreated into our own righteousness, living in universes of disparate ideas, and I of course felt there was no hope unless everyone moved over here into mine. But when I tuned out the ranting hordes, I found that while we might be failing as Americans the plural—we weren’t , but, rather, —American the singular was still best-dude stuff. He or she was generous and hopeful, in search of fair work and happiness, and inclined to agree more than disagree when we found those rare minutes to speak face to face. Such dialogues were going extinct in a screen-to-screen world, but not on the golf course, where I was daily reminded that our pastimes were now more essential than ever. There were still places where nobody was a snowflake or a moron; they were usually playing grounds of universal accord, where we all had something in common: a pursuit of victory or teamwork, or, in our case, par.
A Course Called America is available at most major book retailers or tomcoyne.com.