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Inside The Country Club

Neither grandiose or grand, the quaint clubhouse has changed about as much as a wardrobe from Brooks Brothers

By David Arnold

In 1882, J. Murray Forbes of the China trade empire assembled 10 friends to create a family sporting club modeled after The Country Club in Shanghai, a refuge he had enjoyed on his travels.

The men rented 100 acres along Clyde Street in Brookline that included a race track and an old hotel. When it came to naming the club, both nomenclature and originality were spared; J. Murray resorted to Shanghai tradition and called it The Country Club. He didn't even tack a Jr. or II on the end.

"The general idea is to have a comfortable clubouse for the use of members with their families, a simple restaurant, bedrooms, bowling alley, lawn tennis, a racing track, etc.," the prospectus stated. There was no mention of golf.

Indeed, it would be 10 years before the game arrived at the club (which by then had purchased the land it had been renting). Golf was an experiment, and, initially, it got mixed reviews. Turn-of-the-century critics accused golfers of wasting an immoral amount of time on Sundays swatting little balls (occasionally at equestrians); they were neglecting church and depleting the Sunday offerings.

So it's anyone's guess what Forbes and company might say to this week's impending descent sept. 21-26 of an estimated 30,000 spectators a day on The Country Club to watch the 33rd Ryder Matches, golfing's most prestigious team event.

The "golf court" that cost the club $50 to establish in 1892 - another $1,000 was spent shortly thereafter for a flock of sheep, to trim the putting greens - is expected to generate $150 million from regional business during the Ryder event. The club is expected to pocket $5.5 million, the city of Brookline another $3 million.

Not only was The Country Club not born a golf club, it is not one today, members are quick to point out. The 236-acre facility, which resembles a manicured college athletic complex built around an oval drive, is still a family sports club. Members compete annually for more curling trophies (58) than golf trophies (33). Yet 15 national golf championships, including three US Opens, have been played on an expanse of green historically known to members as The Old Lady of Clyde Street. The dame clearly holds a spell over the sport. Yes, it has something to do with her ancestry; the club is one of the five charter members of the Professional Golfers' Association of America. But the Old Lady also has a wily custom of welcoming golfers with a white glove and a perfect smile, then throttling them on the links.

But the dame has also held a spell over the upper crust of Greater Boston for more than a century. Reputation aside, pretense does not really factor into tribal life at 191 Clyde Street, because there is very little these folks pretend to be. They've pretty much got it all.

What the MFA is to art and the BSO is to music, The Country Club (TCC among friends) is to clubs. It is Harvard, the Boston Athenaeum, the Ritz-Carlton roof garden, the America's Cup, a glass flower from the Peabody collection, all rolled into one.

Understatement is ingrained in TCC culture like the growth rings of polished walnut. It's pronounced The Country Club, not The Country Club. And the club emblem is a squirrel - not some regal beast of heraldry rearing on hind legs. "We're probably the only club in the world that worships a rodent," notes member and club historian Louis J. Newell Jr.

Even less pretentious are the names bequeathed to facilities around the club - the Upstairs Living Room, the Downstairs Living Room, the New Tennis Court Building, and the Old Tennis Court Building, to name a few.

The club was created 117 years ago with the signatures of Messrs. Forbes, Dalton, Russell, Bacon, Thayer, Hooper, Paine, Stevenson, Morse, Peabody, and Hemenway. All but three of the names are well represented in the membership roster today. The makeup of the club - Eurocentric - has not escaped the notice of other ethnic groups whose members might have a bone to pick with WASPs for historical transgressions. This includes just about everyone else.

"[The club] is, and will remain, a private club with its fair share of WASPs," John Hall, a club spokesman for the Ryder Cup, told Brookline officials without apology during a 1997 public hearing about parking for the event. Predicting that accusations of bigotry and anti-Semitism would surface from club antagonists, three Jewish members stood up during the hearing to explain that they were doing just fine over at 191 Clyde Street.

Today, a perusal of the roster indicates that more than six dozen of the 1,400 active members are women, several of them managing committees or holding board positions. Membership by ethnicity is not tracked, although it wasn't until a decade ago that the club took in its first black member. The only prerequisite when proposing someone for membership is written as follows: "The proposers should believe the candidate and the candidate's family would unquestionably contribute to the congeniality of the Club."

Several years ago, the "Gentlemen Only" sign that had stood in the doorway of the club bar went into storage, saved by a forward-looking person aware of the value of fossils. The Old Lady of Clyde Street does move ahead, but her pace - some might call it a creep - on occasion has earned her public chiding as a stick-in-the-mud.

Oddly, other country clubs in the Boston area have garnered little or no press alleging snootiness, yet cost more, have fewer minority members, and, with longer waiting lists, might be considered more exclusive. To improve its town-gown relationship, the club agreed last November to donate a minimum of $100,000 for the startup of a fund to benefit children's programs and activities in Brookline. Yet it seems The Country Club elicits little but disdain from outsiders. Why?

"Because she has the etiquette and delicate composure of an elderly gentlewoman yet the incredibly beautiful body of a young goddess," says one member, a (middle-aged) woman who requested anonymity. "Fact is, someone like that can make a lot of people jealous."

And she plays hard to get. You need two sponsors and eight other people, all members, who will write nice things about you just to be put up for membership. Some people can't get that kind of feedback during the holiday-card season.

With golfers, she's in charge, and they do their best to survive her taunts. The 27 holes at The Country Club were created before the bulldozer. So playing the championship course is an exercise in maneuvering around outcrops of Roxbury puddingstone and hills that couldn't be lopped off a century ago by four-legged horsepower. So few people played the sport back then that the greens are small, the tees much smaller.

"The Country Club was never meant to be a golfer's hell," says Frederick W. Waterman IV, a member and a club historian who has used the same set of clubs for 32 years, yet swears he's not cheap. "The club was never even meant to be a nightmare. It was meant to be a walk through the countryside with a little challenge added."

And this, in a circuitous way, brings us back to the dynamic of golfing self-abuse at a nongolf club. What is it about the Old Lady's spell that brings the world's top American and European golf teams so willingly into battle at The Country Club?

Waterman, Elmer Osgood Cappers, and Louis Newell Jr., club historians all, suggest the answer largely lies in the exploits of a 20-year-old sporting-goods salesman on a rainy autumn Saturday in 1913.

Francis Ouimet (pronounced "We-met") had been a caddie at The Country Club at the turn of the century, an era when few could claim the future of golf was assured on the club grounds. The main problem was that the sport conflicted with equestrian sports; indeed, two of the holes actually crossed the Clyde Park racetrack in front of the clubhouse. Perhaps in retaliation, riders would gallop their horses across the putting greens at night, leaving hoof-sized divots. The confrontation exploded - by Country Club standards - in 1903 when a golfer requested a rider to move so he could play through. "Damn," the rider responded - not once but several times.

So he was expelled from the club. After profuse apologies, his sentence was lessened to a six-month suspension.

Golfers scored their greatest coup in the horse-course skirmishes in 1913, when the United States Golfers' Association, still in its infancy, decided to hold the US Open at The Country Club.

The match was held in September to suit the itineraries of two British superstars, Harry Vardon and Ted Ray. On the first day of the scheduled four-day event, scarcely 100 spectators attended the matches to observe a former caddie from The Country Club - Ouimet - score the best qualification round. The next day, a Wednesday, the gallery had swelled to nearly 1,000, then 2,000 on Thursday. Ouimet, a former Brookline High School student, was hanging in with the best of them, according to Globe accounts of the matches. But surely the kid would buckle under the pressure.

"It is within the bounds of possibility, of course, that [Vardon and Ray] can be headed off by someone American," a clairvoyant Globe reporter noted after play on Thursday, when spectators numbered more than 4,000 strong and included William Howard Taft, the former US president. "But it is highly unlikely."

That Friday, Ouimet pushed the Brits into a three-way playoff round. His 10-year-old caddie, Eddie Laurie (he had been playing hooky all week to work the match), burst into tears upon learning that adults were begging Ouimet to let them be his caddie for the playoff. Ouimet stuck with Eddie.

On Saturday, the young caddie spent the day reminding Ouimet to keep his head down after addressing the ball as a crowd of 10,000 spectators looked on. Ouimet won the match - much to the dismay of the monarchy.

"A tale of national disaster!" the Duke of Westminster whined to his countrymen. "Wake up!"

On the evening of the victory, a collection was taken up for Eddie Laurie, who would return to school $54.10 richer. Uncomfortable with all the attention, Francis Ouimet slipped away that Saturday night to the Colonial Theater to see The Merry Martyr. It had been a pretty good day, what with introducing the sport of golf to the American public and generating headlines around the world. During the next half-dozen years or so, golf course construction increased tenfold in the United States.

"With this story-book win, Ouimet, a mere 20 years old at the time, changed American golf forever," says Ben Crenshaw, captain of the US Ryder Cup team and a two-time Masters champion. The Country Club has changed, well, less.

At first glance, the clapboard clubhouse resembles an elaborate bed and breakfast retreat. "Eclectic country" is how member and architect James F. Hunnewell Jr. describes the building - a farmhouse once owned by Daniel Webster, which has since been subjected to more than a half-dozen additions. Elements of Beaux Arts, Palladian, Classical, and traditional American styles make up a primrose-yellow structure neither grandiose nor grand. Rather, it is quaint. It has changed about as much as a Brooks Brothers wardrobe; a repositioned button is tantamount to revolution.

Time hangs on the walls. There are pictures throughout the complex of the long-departed Clyde Park racetrack, former golf heroes, and former presidents seemingly spliced from the same gene. Sometimes time drops out of the walls - literally. For example, when the clubhouse was renovated a few years back, a wooden No. 3 "spoon" driver fell from a cavity between wall studs.

Incidentally, none of the clubhouse's true decor will be seen by anyone attending the Ryder Cup event. That's because every stick of furnishing - from sofas to paintings to carpets - will have been removed from the building, replaced by industrial-strength function-room decor. The Country Club's eclectic interior design secrets, such as they are, will remain safe from the masses.

Time also hangs from the trees. Several decades ago, caddies carved their initials on a limb of a beech tree near the clubhouse. The carvings are now 30 feet above the ground.

In a third-floor storage room, the club has some 40 tarnished silver trophies - prizes that either were never claimed or came back when the winners died. It owns Francis Ouimet's American Arrow sled. It owns a 1941 Women's Amateur championship pin found when a carpet was torn up. It owns a rusty fork engraved with "TCC" and an accompanying handwritten note still attached, addressed to the club manager some 20 years ago: "Found buried in the ground somewhere here. What is your suggestion for keepsake?" To those who belong, The Country Club is more than an oasis. It is a second attic.

It may be the only club that requires a doctor's note before you can rent a golf cart, the idea being that if you're healthy enough to play the game, you're healthy enough to walk.

"Wear out, don't rust out," is an unwritten TCC maxim. Proposing valet parking probably could get you expelled. And rules are rules.

For example, before the 1963 US Open, Julius Boros (the eventual winner) stopped by the club to play a practice round and learned that he was no different from anyone else. The greens fee, please. Boros refused to pay. A club official apologized profusely - but stood firm. Boros left in a huff. This is a club that charges as much as $25,000 to join and another $5,600 in annual dues, yet it will track who brings a guest for lunch, to tack on the $1 surcharge. Its penny-wise members are known to tolerate the afternoon heat on the links just to avoid paying for a caddie - who must accompany all weekend players starting before 1:30.

Indeed, frugal roots run deep here. Consider the plight of club officers in 1901 as they tried to lobby the membership for an increase in annual dues, from $60 to $100.

"The Country Club is cheaper than other clubs and gives many more services. At Myopia [located in Hamilton] it costs $100 for six months just to breathe on the course," the finance committee chairman wrote. It took 11 more years of lobbying before the membership budged.

And then there's the frugality of one Edward Stimpson to consider.

A club member, Stimpson invented an ingeniously simple device in 1935 that turned grass mowing into an elementary science. His "Stimpmeter," resembling a long shoehorn, released a golf ball from a predetermined height down a little ramp so that its speed could be measured from green to green. The invention allowed greens keepers for the first time to cut the grass so that all greens would "stimp" alike. It took the USGA 41 years to accept the device. Stimpson, who died in 1985, refused to patent his invention.

"This is a labor of love and not for profit," he said, according to club historian Waterman.

David Chag, the general manager, spent 13 years at the Houston Country Club before accepting the job here in 1987.

"The Texans were much more socially conscious," says Chag (pronounced "Shag"). "Here, it doesn't seem to matter who you are or who you know." He oversees a staff of 200 employees, from the golf pro to the kitchen staff to tennis instructors. Concerned that etiquette is generally oozing its way into the gutter, Chag insists that employees call members Mr., Mrs., Dr., or Ms. - whatever appellation they prefer.

And so it is "Mr. Church" on a morning not long ago as a waiter addresses the club president in the dining room. Who, the waiter needs to know, should be billed for a guest's cup of coffee?

Before Gerald Church can speak up, Waterman - the guy who hasn't bought new golf clubs for 32 years - offers to foot the bill. There is a brief debate, Waterman prevails, and the guest is relieved not to have run up the tab with a slice of toast.

It is a windy, intensely sunny morning, the clubhouse surrounded by a moving green sea of shadows from elms that, like so many ghosts, seem to anchor the club in another time. Indeed, the building resembles an ocean liner going nowhere in a hurry. It is an appropriate time to ask Church for the names of a few notable guests who might have strolled the decks of The Old Lady of Clyde Street during the past century.

Church gives the question a second, maybe two, of thought.

"Who knows?" he says. "Who cares?"

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