Golf Course WebsitesGolfRevText Golfer

'Brassies, Mashies, & Bootleg Scotch' by Bill Kilpatrick

By: Bob Spiwak


"Brassies, Mashies, & Bootleg Scotch" is subtitled "Growing Up On America's First Heroic Golf Course," and the latter certainly sums up this marvelous little book. In only 162 pages author Bill Kilpatrick gives us a well-written look at golf in the post-World I era.

It's a book about a boy and his dad who was, for years, the greenkeeper at the National Golf Links of America on Long Island, N.Y., and ought to be required reading for every collegiate program in golf-course maintenance. It portrays golf before "Pittsburg Persimmon" metal woods, computer-controlled irrigation systems, motorized equipment and the chemical-doctoring of greens and fairways.

In the first of a handful of illustrations is a photo of the first gasoline-powered fairway mower at a club in New York. It looks like the skeleton of a small locomotive. Prior to this, fairways and roughs were cut short mowed with horse-drawn sickle-bar mowers and greens were shaved by push-mowers that at times required two men to navigate.

The author's father was born in St. Andrews, Scotland, and emigrated to the States as a young man, served in the American Expeditionary Forces in Europe in "The War To End All Wars," and took a job on a golf course construction crew. Such a hard and dedicated worker - and a perfectionist - he was singled out by architect A.W. Tillighast when both were building Sunningdale Golf Course on Long Island. He was greenkeeper there and then moved on to that position at National Golf Links of America, which was built in the first decade of the 20th Century and designed by Charles Blair Macdonald. Famed golf writer Herbert Warren Wind termed it the "First Heroic Course," a name that still applies.

Author Kilpatrick grew up involved in a variety of jobs on that fabled course. He reminisces in a poignant chapter about the euthanasia of a favorite mower-pulling horse named Charlie; describes the annual sanding and painting of every one of the course's 123 croquet ball-sized tee markers; never meeting his father's expectations; spilling paint cans, brushes slipping from his hands; and other misdeeds. It's pretty funny. He hauled back-breaking hoses - some fire-hose size, to monster sprinklers on the fairways. These and the smaller greens sprinklers had to be moved often, sometimes several times a day in particularly hot weather.

There's a segment about watching a course employee who, in his spare time, built golf clubs. Kilpatrick provides a detailed step-by-step of turning a block of persimmon wood into a finished implement of function and beauty, using no electric sanders, grinders or epoxy. Fitting the tapered wooden shafts into the hosels, all hand-built, astounded me.

Not long ago, National Golf Links of America ranked high in a golf magazine's tally of the snootiest clubs in America. I mention this because another part of the book deals with Kilpatrick's stints as a caddie. He did this job during the Depression when, despite the members being celebrities, captains - if not generals - of industry, usually tipped the caddies 25 cents for 18 holes. Some of the cheapskates offered a dime or a stick of chewing gum. The really cheap ones didn't tip at all.

One of the caddies' requirements was to find errant balls. No matter the rough or jungle where the ball disappeared, it had to be found. High-grade balls, after all, cost a half-buck each.

I love this book. It's a page-turner. I also identify with Bill Kilpatrick because he is a contemporary of mine, albeit a decade older. Likewise a passing comment that he lived in moccasins or tennis shoes as I did and still do, even when playing golf. He portrays the Depression from the eyes and mind of an observer: no sentimentality, just the facts.

I have only one negative word about the book. Whether it's my reading style or a fault in either the writing or editing, the flow of the narrative gets interrupted by what I consider an excessive use of parentheticals. For this reason, on a scale of one to 10, I'd give it a 9.97.

"Brassies, Mashies, & Bootleg Scotch," by Bill Kilpatrick, 2011, 162 pages, $16.95, University of Nebraska Press, ISBN 978-0-8032-4.

Bob Spiwak took up golf in 1953 as a respite from the rigors of selling bibles door-to-door in North Dakota. Though suffering a four-year lapse, he's back to being a fanatical golfer. Now a contributing editor for Cybergolf, Spiwak has written articles for almost every golf magazine in the Western world. Bob's most treasured golf antiquity is a nod he got from Gerald Ford at the 1990 Golf Summit. Spiwak lives in Mazama, Wash., with his wife and several pets next to his fabled ultra-private Whispering Rattlesnakes Golf & Flubbers Club.