Achieving a Dream

Tony Pioppi loves everything about golf, and it shows. To the Nines is a tribute to the game and to the people who designed, built, maintain and enjoy nine-hole golf courses. It felt daunting at first as I my knowledge is limited, and I haven’t encountered as many mystery words since I studied ancient Greek in college. But that minor problem ended as I became mesmerized by the fascinating history and great personalities who move through these pages.

He unearths the true story of when Highland Links on Cape Cod was built and takes the reader on a tour of the course in present form. This circuit adds a valuable chapter to the history of a course that is likely to change again as the land retreats against the encroaching sea. At Whitinsville Tony gives some of the history of New England’s famous textile industry from the perspective of a company town that produced the machinery. Sewanee, in Tennessee, serves up Civil War history and a greater excitement nearly 100 years later when a fighter plane crashes on the first fairway. Details such as these and the meticulous descriptions of the play of each course leave one with the feeling that Tony has played all of these courses – even the ones whose remnants are barely visible.

As for people, the stories of the rich and the famous are here. We have golfers who were artists, politicians, Wall Streeters (and a couple of literal bears). But it is the architects and builders and the folks who maintain these little bits of paradise that add color and dimension.

Besides fascinating pieces of human history, Tony provides information about the geological formations that make each of these gems unique – the sand dunes, the glacial moraine, the wind, the water combine to make each place special even before the designers put their stamps on the fairways and hazards. With these details, serious golfers will find a critique of what’s good and what’s not at each course.

Tony’s humor and drive come through most forcefully in “In Search of Ocean Links,” his account of uncovering remnants of a now defunct course in Newport, Rhode Island, whose nine holes are now spread over private property and state park land. It is easy to picture him tromping through the underbrush, appearing seemingly out of nowhere, looking like a wild man and scaring the bejeebers out of families having a quiet Sunday picnic in the park. The same chapter provides one of those “coincidences” that I love and blog about. A new owner had acquired part of the land where the course had long been hidden from view. He knew nothing of the history but as he contemplated a name for his house, he picked Ocean Links.

There is one bit of cheating here. Prairie Dunes, in the minuscule town of Hutchinson, Kansas, draws Tony’s praise for being the best nine-hole course layout west of the Mississippi when it opened in 1937. It can’t make that claim any more because it’s now 18 holes, though he still praises the “subtle brilliance” of the design and the boldness of the greens. Not so impressive are the additions and changes.

To the Nines is a book for golfers and non-golfers alike. And if nothing else, it’s worth the price of admission for the photograph of Katharine Hepburn, fully clothed including head scarf, reposing in a bathtub amidst the rubble of her family’s house in Old Saybrook, Connecticut’s Borough of Fenwick after the 1938 hurricane.

A copy of this review is going up at Amazon.com.

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