This article is an updated version of a story that originally appeared on GOLF.com in 2012.
Unlike Groucho Marx, I would like to belong to a lot of clubs that would not have me as a member. It’s a complex I contracted as a kid growing up in Brookline, Mass., where I lived just down the road and a few traffic lights from the gated entrance of The Country Club.
In a leafy town like Brookline, there’s no wrong side of the tracks. But there is a wrong side of the fence. The fence is tall and chain link, and it runs for what seems to a young golfer like forever, a barrier between The Country Club and the muni where I learned to play.
Today that town-owned track is called Robert T. Lynch Municipal Golf Course, but when I was growing up, it was Putterham Meadows, and it cost me and my friends two bucks to play.
We got what we paid for: a grunt from the cashier (yes, there was a cashier); greens as woolly as a mammoth; and a three-group backup on the first tee.
Still, when you’re a kid, you know only what you know, and, if you’re lucky, you’re happy with it. I never felt deprived, and it never seemed to me that golf could get much better, except in those rare moments when, from my bicycle or the back seat of my mother’s car, I’d catch a fleeting glimpse of The Country Club.
It spread in all its glory along Clyde Street, shrouded by trees and hedges that the club had planted to keep prying eyes out. Craning my neck like a Fenway bleacher creature with an obstructed view, I could see just slivers of it, but even in those snippets I could tell that the golf was different, better — the fairways and bunkers more closely tended, the greens more compelling than the flat Frisbees I putted.
Of course, I longed to play it. But not only did I not know any members, I also did not know anyone who knew anyone who did. The Country Club was a place unto itself, an island of next-level prestige in a privileged town, with a reputation for stiff-lipped snobbery. Among my cohort, the consensus was that unless you pulled the levers of high finance or could trace your pedigree to the pilgrim’s landing at Plymouth Rock, you had no chance of ever getting on.
All of which made us want to play it more.
If we’d known our history, we might have taken solace from the tale of Francis Ouimet, the blue-collar Brookline kid who grew up in a house across the road, caddied at The Country Club and went on to beat the blue bloods at their own game, besting two mighty Brits — Harry Vardon and Ted Ray — in a playoff at the 1913 US Open, on the very course where he’d been a looper.
But my friends and I had never heard of Ouimet. Our hero back then was Lenny Curtin, a wise-cracking upperclassman at our high school and the only player on the golf team who could reliably break 80. The son of a cop, Lenny had a sawed-off swing he’d picked up from hockey and an edgy Goodwill Hunting way about him. He wasn’t just the best golfer we knew. He was also the boldest.
Every spring, as the snows thawed and the season started, Lenny would light out to Putterham, wire cutters stashed in his bag. And there, along the left side of the dogleg par-5 6th hole, he would cut a hole in the chain-link fence, an illicit portal onto The Country Club. Learning of the breach, the club would rush to seal it, at which point Lenny would open it again.
The hole in the fence became known as Curtin’s Corner, and my friends and I marveled at the courage of its namesake, who, almost without fail, upon reaching the 6th hole at Putterham, would slip through the gap he’d created to complete his round on posher grounds. Whether he got caught, Lenny never said. And I never asked him. Instead, I quietly admired his exploits, wishing I could muster up the gumption to emulate him.
It was not until the end of high school that I did. I’m not sure what finally compelled me. Maybe it was the sense that adulthood was approaching, along with all the responsibilities it entailed, so I might as well indulge in some juvenile adventure. But even as I type that, it sounds like cheap armchair psychology, and I’m not sure I buy it.
All I know is that one afternoon, just before graduation, I plunked down $2 at the cashier and played five-and-a-half holes of muni golf before dropping my bag midway through the 6th, grabbing a wedge and a few balls, and ducking through the opening in the fence.
A well-worn footpath cut through the woods, trampled down by Lenny and those who worked to foil him. I ran along it, feathery ferns brushing against my legs. What seemed like a few hundred yards later (I’d have to go back and laser it), the woods gave way and I stood, heart pounding, on the short grass of a beautiful par-5, with a rollicking fairway, ornamented by a large rock outcrop, that rose in the near distance to the saddle of an elevated green.
It was a stunning sight, and a sobering one: proof that the golf here really was different, beyond not just my bloodlines but also, it seemed, my abilities. The adrenaline rush I felt was the first-tee jitters, amplified to a degree I couldn’t handle. Rattled, I dropped a ball and whacked a shot, fleeing without bothering to watch it land.
Life went on. High school ended. I moved away. The next time I set foot on The Country Club was in 1999 as a ticket-holding patron at the Ryder Cup (that I’d missed the 1988 US Open was probably just as well, as it spared me the pain of seeing Putterham used as a parking lot). I remember it all — the riotous crowds, the superb, red-faced play of a mercilessly heckled Colin Montgomerie, the riveting American comeback. But what stands out most was the pleasure I took in The Country Club itself, seeing it up close and at my leisure. I drank it in.
Still, eyeing a great course without playing it is like sniffing a fine wine without sipping it. If anything, it intensifies the craving. Mine hardened, unsatisfied.
More years passed. I settled in California, got married, had two kids. In a mid-career fluke, I fell into golf-writing, a gig that took me places that I’d never expected but which also never led me to The Country Club. The course remained for me the elusive stuff of romance, the adolescent crush that wouldn’t give me the time of day.
And then, one autumn afternoon, it happened. On a trip back east to visit friends and family, I got a call to play The Country Club.
Eyeing a great course without playing it is like sniffing a fine wine without sipping it.
Driving up the entrance, past the guard house with the cardboard sentinel propped inside it (when I was a kid, the cut-out figure had fooled me and my friends and kept us far away) was a surreal thrill, and my host was everything I’d once assumed that members of The Country Club were not: friendly and down-to-earth, a regular guy. As for the course, it was all that I could have reasonably asked for: fair and artful, with plenty to delight my inner architecture nerd. I’ve played some that are better, and many that are worse. But no course could have ever lived up to The Country Club of my fantasies. It’s human nature. We idealize what’s beyond our reach.
We played briskly, and before I knew it, we stood on the tee box of the 11th hole, par-5 with rock outcrop in the fairway. A return to the scene of my childhood crime. After a decent drive and lay up, I found the green in regulation and two-putted, a routine that came with a flashback. Glancing over my shoulder, off into the trees, I spied what looked like a trampled footpath: the heirs to Lenny Curtain, up to the same mischief.
It was nice, this time, not to suffer the same nerves.
But if I was not a trespasser, on a brief, frightened foray onto the grounds, I was still an interloper. In a flash, the day was over. We putted out at 18, grabbed post-round drinks. I shook hands with my host, hopped into my car and exited the way I entered, my chariot transformed back into a pumpkin.
That was about a decade ago. I haven’t returned to The Country Club since. But I have reconnected with Lenny. Among the things I’ve learned: He did not get off scot-free with his youthful misdemeanors from him. On one of his rounds of trespass at The Country Club, security caught him. But rather than call his parents dele or the cops, the club offered a compromise: Lenny would work on the grounds crew. If it was meant as punishment, that’s not how it panned out. Lenny loved the job. It became his vocation. Today, he is the longstanding superintendent at George Wright Golf Course, just outside Boston, one of the best-regarded munis in the United States. He is roundly respected. He goes by “Len.”
Last summer, after years of intermittent phone calls and e-correspondence, I met up with Len in person, just before daybreak, in the pro shop at George Wright. Our conversation was a walk down memory lane, and the round I played soon after it was golf as I had learned it, on a tree-lined muni, bag strapped to my back, the sunrise glinting off the dew.
Afterward, I went to visit friends in Brookline, on a route that took me past The Country Club. Easing down Clyde Street, I could see the course as I once did —through gaps in the trees, but without the same sense of adolescent longing. Sweet place, for sure. And I’d love to have endless access to it. But I’d also like to hit the ball like Francis Ouimet. In life, and golf, learning to live with what you can’t have is a big part of growing up.