Geeked on Golf

LIVES IN BALANCE

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Three men’s connection to the Onwentsia Club, and their shared path to excellence in golf and life

Deep in the hearts of many men and women is the desire to do great things, and perhaps even leave a legacy. The obvious path to achievement is characterized by singleness of purpose and the willingness to trudge along until arriving at the destination. Less intuitive is the approach of allowing the well-rounded and enthusiastic life to produce excellence organically. Renaissance men have made their mark on the game of golf in America. Macdonald, Tillinghast, Jones, Hagen, Nelson and others, each in their own way, lived life to the fullest, making room for much more than just golf, or a particular aspect of it. Their varied interests in no way detracted from their performance and accomplishments.

The past two years have seen a healthy discussion arise among golf course superintendents about the interrelation between career success and life balance. The path of singular focus and dedication can lead to greatness, but it can also end in burnout. These professionals, who care deeply about their work, are wrestling with conceiving of a practical answer to a nagging question: How can we deliver results of which we can be proud, and still have healthy and vibrant lives off the course?

Among those involved in rediscovering the path of varied interests is family man, photographer and Superintendent at the Onwentsia Club, Scott Vincent. Serendipitously, he finds himself at the original family club, whose golf course was influenced by two of the game’s early bon vivants, Charles Blair Macdonald and his son-in-law Henry James Whigham.

As we seek to unpack and contextualize this weighty topic, Scott (@srvpix) has graciously shared his story and his gorgeous photography, which is presented here in three sets:

  • SET 1: Onwentsia from the Players’ Perspective
  • SET 2: The Course through Greenkeeper’s Eyes
  • SET 3: Magic Moments Away from the Job

The images are inspiring for golf geeks and lovers of beauty alike (click on any gallery image below to expand).

American Beginnings

New York, with its Apple Tree Gang and Long Island Clubs, is generally considered to be the birthplace of golf in America. However, the game’s roots run equally deep in Chicago. C.B. Macdonald left the Windy City to live with his grandfather and study at the University of St. Andrews in the early 1870s. The magic of the town, The Old Course and the Morris family cast a spell on the young man, who chased his ball around the links during every available moment. Macdonald returned to the States and suffered through a period he referred to as the “dark ages” during which he had difficulty convincing anyone to join him in his newfound pastime.

The run-up to the Columbian Exposition in 1893 created an opportunity for golf to take hold in Chicago. Seeking to create a playing field for visiting Brits, Macdonald found a site on the North Shore. He recounted the story in his book, Scotland’s Gift—Golf: “Then my friend, Hobart Chatfield-Taylor, knowing that I was a golf enthusiast, asked me if I wouldn’t lay out a few holes on the estate of his father-in-law, Senator John B. Farwell, at Lake Forest, which I did in May or June, 1892. There were seven holes, not one of which was over 250 yards long and at least four not more than 50 to 75 yards long, running under the trees of the lawn and between flower beds. Of course, this was not real golf, any more than the course of the “Apple Tree Gang” at Yonkers. However, it gave Lake Forest an idea of what golf might be, and this eventually bore fruit in the formation of the Onwentsia Club.”

Macdonald was concurrently laying out his own rudimentary course in Belmont and forming the Chicago Golf Club from among his curious friends and business colleagues. Both clubs continued to evolve in stride. “In 1894 they started the Lake Forest Golf Club with nine holes on the McCormick farm,” he wrote. “There they played until 1896, when they bought the farm of Henry Ives Cobb where they first had nine holes and then eighteen which H.J. Whigham laid out for them in 1898. The club then took its charter, and it was called Onwentsia Club. In July 1899, the United States Golf Association amateur championship was held on this course.”

While Macdonald maintained his connections to his fellow golfers in Lake Forest, his attention shifted to growing the Chicago Golf Club, first in Belmont and ultimately in Wheaton. This new club would also play a prominent role in the formation of the governing body that would come to be known as the USGA. As a contemporary club, Onwentsia could have similarly asserted itself among the game’s early leadership, going all in on the tradition-based growth of golf in America. The club’s members took a different path, choosing to focus inward on developing strong bonds among the members as they indulged their shared passion for sport.

Charlie & Henry

C.B. Macdonald’s influence on golf was as great as any man’s in history. He was a capable competitive amateur on the national stage, a prolific writer and champion of the game’s Sottish heritage, and a course design genius. The fact remains though that had he so chosen, he could have accomplished even more. He began turning down invitations to compete as soon as he felt his skills were slipping. And even more notably, after developing his “ideal concepts” approach to design and creating early masterpieces of golf course architecture in America—National Golf Links of America, Piping Rock, Sleepy Hollow, The Lido Club, St. Louis Country Club and Mid Ocean—he stepped back and handed the practice to his protege Seth Raynor. Macdonald preferred to spend time with family, and on the links playing friendly matches with friends. He just wanted to be Charlie.

When she married H.J. Whigham, C.B.’s daughter Frances could not have made a more suitable addition to clan Macdonald. The Whighams hailed from Tarbolton, Scotland and H.J.’s father David was a classmate and frequent golf partner of C.B. Macdonald at St. Andrews. Henry James learned the game from renowned Scottish professional Willie Campbell and was already an accomplished player when he was invited to travel to the United States to demonstrate his skills at the Columbian Exposition.

This first taste of American life prompted Whigham to relocate in 1895, and he took a job at Lake Forest College, teaching English and Economics, while playing golf at Onwentsia whenever his busy schedule as a writer and lecturer allowed. He won the U.S. Amateur Championship in 1896 at Shinnecock Hills and successfully defended his title in 1897 at Chicago Golf Club, establishing himself as the premier amateur player of the day. There was more to life than golf for Whigham though. He was a man of letters and had an intense curiosity about the world.

Whigham would not try for a three-peat, preferring to become a war correspondent covering the Spanish-American War in Cuba, the Boer War in South Africa and the Boxer Rebellion in China. Global adventures finally concluded, he found himself on Long Island in 1907, assisting C.B. Macdonald in his quest to create the ideal golf links in Southampton. Unlike Macdonald’s other collaborator Seth Raynor, Whigham would not develop a career as an architect. He continued to write, but high profile pursuits in golf were not for him. Being Henry was apparently good enough.

Twice a Year

Performance in most professions is judged based on victories. In others, like NFL linemen and golf course superintendents, success seems to be linked to the absence of defeats. Players are mostly to blame for this dynamic. As we do with our own games, we tend to focus on what went wrong rather than what went right. The day’s round could have been better, if only…and we turn that critical eye to the course. It’s in good shape, except the speed of the greens, or that dandelion in a bunker face, or that wet spot in the fairway, or the depth of sand in the bunkers…on and on, ad nauseam. Unfortunately, superintendents too often get infected by this obsession with shortcomings. “We have short memories about how far we’ve already come,” Scott Vincent confessed.

Vincent has been in the business of greenkeeping for 25 years, with one side foray during which he scratched an entrepreneurial itch in a technology start-up. Perhaps the look at a different industry gave him the perspective to better stay in touch with the aspects of his job that bring him joy—coaching a team, directing an organization from the office and the field, and as he puts it, “managing a living product under the ever-changing conditions of the seasons, weather, member expectations and my own goals.”

With a resume that includes new course construction and grow-in, as well as time spent at Myopia Hunt Club, New Haven C.C. and Skokie C.C., he is accomplished in his own right. Eleven years into his tenure at Onwentsia, Vincent has found the right fit. “I am challenged every day,” he explained. “If I provide a product that members and guests like, within the budget, they let me do my job.” The membership trusts their man because he consistently strikes an elegant balance—everything is done, and nothing is overdone. He collaborates with architect Bruce Hepner to push the course presentation forward, but they are not trying to transform Onwentsia into something it is not. In that authenticity lies its greatness, and the deep affinity held by the members for their course.

In his work, camaraderie with fellow superintendents helps keep Vincent grounded and inspired. “I love participating in this highly connected subculture of supers, pros and other golf geeks,” he said. Life outside of work is equally energizing, with his beautiful family, his faith and his passion for photography. “My dad was a 35 mm junkie,” he reminisced. “He developed his own film at home and bought me my first camera.” Capturing special moments comes naturally to Vincent, but the quality of his images is equally resultant from effort. The current frontier involves stringing moments together into a cohesive narrative. Like greenkeeping and fatherhood, there is alway something to learn and practice in photography.

“We’re only happy twice a year,” said Vincent, conveying an old superintendents’ witticism, “for the member-guest, and when we shut off the irrigation for the season.” There is truth in that humor, but in his experience, Scott Vincent knows that it doesn’t have to be that way. His professionalism precludes calling anyone out, but any self-aware golfer knows that we can do better at adopting an attitude of gratitude and saying “thank you” more often to the dedicated men and women who tend our playing fields. Among their ranks, supers are being increasingly open about their struggles and supporting each other, especially as it relates to unplugging from the job. An awareness is growing of the diminishing returns gained by effort and resources expended beyond the point of reasonableness.

Could Macdonald have built more great courses? Could Whigham have captured more championships? Could Scott Vincent, with all his talent, get an even bigger Superintendent job? It is entirely reasonable to answer all three of these questions in the affirmative. It does not necessarily follow, however, that any of these men’s lives would have been better, or that their achievements are somehow lessened by their decisions to give time to friends, family or creative hobbies. Onwentsia was born in part from one of American golf’s first families, and a family club uninterested in chasing acclaim it remains. The perfect spot for a family man like Scott Vincent, whose quality of work is attained through life balance, rather than in spite of it.

Copyright 2020 – Jason Way, GeekedOnGolf

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