How a new generation is contributing to the revival of public golf in its American birthplace
If Ed Brockner had been alive in 1888, he would have been in the Apple Tree Gang. In the spring of that year, Scotsman John Reid and two of his friends played the first recorded round of golf in a pasture near Reid’s house in Yonkers, NY. The group would take on the ATG moniker when they relocated to a larger playing field that included a tree where they hung their coats. Spend any time with Brockner, and you will feel the depth of his passion for the game and its original pure form. It is not hard to imagine him hanging his coat to complete Reid’s foursome.
Brockner attended Yale University where he played on the golf team and then served as a volunteer assistant after graduation. He knew that he wanted to work in the golf business but didn’t yet have a clear path to take. The Golf Course at Yale is a Seth Raynor design that is of historic and architectural significance, attracting a steady stream of designers and aficionados to play and study it. One of those visitors was Gil Hanse, who gave a talk attended by Brockner. Intrigued by architecture and construction, he landed a spot on Hanse’s crew working on projects including the creation of Boston Golf Club. Through that work, he would find his way to a site not far from where the Apple Tree Gang roamed the fields, and an opportunity to help reinvigorate public golf in the place where it was born.
A Game for the Masses
By 1892, John Reid and his pals had moved on from pasture golf to form the private Saint Andrew’s Golf Club, which would become one of the five founding members of the USGA. In Yonkers and the Bronx, they left behind a rapidly growing contingent of players who were organizing into their own groups and jockeying for the scarce open green space to play their infectious new sport. One such lot was the Mosholu Golf Club (aka the Riverdale Group) led by T. McClure Peters, who lobbied the NYC Parks Commission to use part of Van Cortlandt Park to lay out their own course. The Commission agreed that the land could be used for golf, but mandated that it be open to all, resulting in the creation of the first public golf course in America.
Van Cortlandt Park Golf Course began as a nine-holer and was originally laid out by the players. The first eight holes were each under 200 yards—the ninth measured 700+ yards. Van Cortlandt’s routing epitomized golf before enculturated standards. The popularity of the game and lack of structure at the course produced growing pains that the city turned to Tom Bendelow to solve. Known as the “Johnny Appleseed of American Golf” for his cross-country tour to lay out courses sponsored by the Spalding Sporting Goods Company, Bendelow also managed Van Cortlandt and oversaw its expansion to eighteen holes. The volume of public play continued to increase, ultimately necessitating the building of a second course on adjacent land, aptly named Mosholu Golf Course.
Over the ensuing decades, the city’s Bronx courses had their ups and downs, to say the least. The decision to renovate Mosholu in 2004 was a solid step toward building a brighter future for the game in New York. It seems fitting that a golf renaissance man like Ed Brockner would arrive at that moment in the birthplace of public golf to assist with its rebirth, both reimagining Mosholu and fostering the area’s nascent First Tee chapter.
During his time and travels at Yale and then with Hanse Design, Brockner had seen much of the greatest golf architecture in the country. He had also become convinced of two simple principles that he would apply to Mosholu’s renovation. First, high-quality, interesting design does not have to cost more than the bland, boring alternative. Second, the best way to get beginners excited about the game is to expose them to it on a playing field that is filled with a wide variety of great features and challenges to navigate. Players might not care about the origins or design intent of a redan or biarritz, but they appreciate cool and fun when they see it—especially kids.
Mosholu’s nine holes deliver, at an affordable price, on both of Brockner’s principles. The course is practical to maintain, but packed with interest on rolling land in the midst of a bustling urban setting. A full tee sheet and smiles on players’ faces are proof that refusing to settle for the mundane pays off. Municipalities around the country, take note.
Building More Than Courses
Since those early days, the First Tee of Metropolitan New York has expanded to five facilities, including the successfully renovated Weequahic in New Jersey. As the organization’s Executive Director, Brockner continues to search the metro area for more opportunities to expand the organization’s reach. “I am a builder,” he said, “and I love the development part of the job.” When it comes to golf courses and architecture, he can geek out with the best of them. It is quite evident, however, that involvement with the First Tee kids touches his heart as powerfully as design stimulates his mind.
For fifteen years, the program has been producing success stories. One of those stories belongs to Olivia Sexton, a bright young student who described her experience in a speech she delivered eloquently at an organization event:
“Whenever I tell anyone that I play golf, I get raised eyebrows. I don’t look like the typical golfer – I am from the Bronx, I’m a girl and I’m black. If it weren’t for the First Tee, I would have never discovered my love for a game that is elusive to people of my socio-economic background…The First Tee has also taught me life skills that will stick with me forever. The program has nine core values that are taught to us and I use these in every aspect of my life. They include honesty, integrity, sportsmanship, and confidence which help me as I grow, handle relationships, problem-solving and whatever else comes my way…More recently, the First Tee has been able to help me prepare for the future. As I am entering my junior year of high school, I have to start preparing for college, and they have been able to help a tremendous amount. Through both donations and offers, we have been able to visit some of the Ivy League Schools including Yale and Princeton…Because of the First Tee, I have a very planned out future. After high school, I plan on going to college (maybe play golf), majoring in Biology or Chemistry, then going to medical school, and eventually becoming an orthopedic surgeon. Once I have my career intact, I also plan on giving back to the First Tee by donating to help with more outreach opportunities, so kids with my socio-economic background can be exposed to such a wonderful sport.”
At his office at Mosholu Golf Course in the Bronx, Ed Brockner may be a world away from New Haven or the exclusive fairways of places like Boston Golf Club, but he has clearly found his place. He is building facilities that play an inspirational role in the current community golf revival that is unfolding across this country. But more importantly, he is using the game of golf as a foundation on which to build the lives of young people like Olivia Sexton. Growing the game is great. Changing lives through it—it doesn’t get any better.
Copyright 2019 – Jason Way, GeekedOnGolf