Golf Behind Prison Bars

The first article I ever wrote for Golf Magazine, published in the fall of 2003, was about my visit to Prison View Golf Course, built by inmates at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, once the most infamous lock-up in America. The warden at Angola then was the unctuous Burl Cain, who used the same tone of voice whether musing on shooting prisoners or shooting armadillos. He later resigned facing allegations of corruption.

State Road 66 in West Feliciana Parish ends at Louisiana’s most famous gated community and newest golf course. For those who built this scrappy track 59 miles north of Baton Rouge, it really is the end of the road: Prison View Golf Course is part of the notorious Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, America’s largest maximum-security prison and for many years its bloodiest.

Prison View opened to the Angola staff in July, and when a no-frills clubhouse is added this winter, the public will be welcome, too. “I think a lot of people would love to go to a maximum-security prison and play golf,” says warden Burl Cain, who would not be out of place in Cool Hand Luke. A sign in his office reads, If the warden ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.

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Golf at Prison View in Louisiana.

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A Royal & Ancient Pest

Maurice Flitcroft, the greatest gatecrasher in the history of golf, died 13 years ago yesterday. I interviewed him many moons ago. This story ran in the July 2001 issue of the long-lost Maximum Golf magazine. 

The British Open has spawned a century and a half of legends, from Old Tom Morris to Young Tom Watson to… Maurice G. Flitcroft?

While he never come within shouting distance of the Claret Jug, Flitcroft occupies a special place in Open history. Indeed, the 71-year-old retiree from Barrow-in-Furness, England, may be the greatest hacker in the history of any major. He’s certainly the most determined.

The 1976 Open saw the emergence of two remarkable players: One was Severiano Ballesteros, then a 19-year-old phenom who held off Johnny Miller at Royal Birkdale for the better part of four days before finishing in a tie for second to the flaxen-haired American. The other was Flitcroft, then a 46-year-old crane operator.

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The legendary Maurice Flitcroft, who died March 24, 2007.

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Waiting Out The Unknowns, Hoping For Better Days

Schedules are sacrosanct in golf. Each season rotates around the immovable cornerstones of the calendar — springtime in Augusta, summer amid wintry weather on a British links — and each week is identified not by its dates but by its PGA Tour stop. Valspar last, Match Play this, Valero next. There are schedules within schedules, the roll call of tee times that lines up the action and the broadcast listings that bring it all home.

The abandonment of the Players Championship began (at least) 11 desolate weeks without Tour play, severed our tethers to the schedule, and left both fans and players adrift.

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Ballybunion & Bill: A Love Story, Kind Of.

Almost 20 years ago, I went to Ballybunion, County Kerry, to write about the ‘Clinton Cult’ that had sprouted in the village, where the world’s only statue to America’s forty-second president had been erected. This story was published in the now-defunct T&L Golf in 2001.

William Jefferson Clinton recognized a good omen when the afternoon sun finally broke through the slate gray skies as his motorcade neared Ballybunion Golf Club.

It was September 5, 1998. Back home, the impeachment drama was reaching a crescendo: The president was just three weeks removed from admitting his affair on television to a rapt and revolted nation; only two days earlier he had been denounced as “immoral” on the floor of the Senate by Joseph Lieberman. Yet the sexual shenanigans holding his fellow Americans in thrall were proving to be of little consequence in rural Ireland.

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Bill Clinton gets a pointer from the legendary Christy O’Connor Sr. during his first round at Ballybunion Golf Club in 1998.

Sweeping along the freshly resurfaced laneways of County Kerry, the president saw hedgerows lined with colorful billboards declaring ‘Ballybunion Welcomes Bill Clinton’. In the town itself, the Stars and Stripes seemed to hang from every window, with twelve in particular conspicuously fluttering atop a rundown nightclub. “That was such a special day for me,” Clinton would later remember. “Every little Irish village I went through on my way to Ballybunion had people in the streets, and all their stores had been repainted. It was just so beautiful and so unbelievable.” 

Even the name proving so inescapable at home was discreetly excised from the celebrations, as Monica’s Hair Salon became, for one day, the President’s Shop, hawking coffee mugs and T-shirts. “Beautiful,” sighed Maria Finucane, the local who has organized the Ballybunion International Bachelor Festival for twenty years. “The village will never look so good again.”

To an embattled American president fighting for his political life, the little Irish village was indeed a blessedly benign sight. Of course, he was oblivious to the forces that even at that moment were hard at work to use the presidential visit for their own purposes. In particular, he had yet to meet the wily Irish huckster who, though Clinton didn’t know it, was attempting to turn the First Golfer into Ballybunion’s own Local Hero.

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Rory McIlroy Emerges As The Conscience Of Golf

Most of the 121 men in the field at the Arnold Palmer Invitational are judged by a straightforward metric: a scorecard that documents the ebb and flow of their work day. Global brands — whether a corporation or an individual athlete — are measured against more complex and fluid standards, like the company they keep, the actions they take, the conscience they evidence.

These are not benchmarks against which golf has traditionally fared well. Until Thursday.

In the first round at Bay Hill, Rory McIlroy opened with a round of 66 that amply demonstrated his celebrated skill as a player. What followed established him as a leader.

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Premier Golf League: Big On Promises, Short on Substance

As cris de coeur go, Premier Golf League’s opening salvo sounded less passionate than petulant. The proposed rival circuit to the PGA Tour sent its first tweet on Friday, one that included an audacious appeal to individualism given that it is partly financed by a regime that dismembers free thinkers.

“Nobody owns golf,” the message read. “Golf is owned by everyone who enjoys it, watches it, and thinks about it – in other words, you. #PGL”

As an implicit call to arms against the reign of King Jay of Ponte Vedra, it fell flat. But that idea of ownership – not of the game, but of the players –explains why the League’s CEO, Andrew Gardiner, has finally moved into the open to speak publicly. He was on a salvage operation after Rory McIlroy holed the entire concept below the waterline earlier in the week.

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Are We Facing Phil’s Final Act?

It’s the capricious nature of sport that for all of Phil Mickelson’s high achievements his career is still largely defined by the one championship that got away a half-dozen times.

The U.S. Open was the first major tournament Mickelson ever contested, finishing low amateur at Medinah 30 years ago. He has made 28 starts in all and the results read like an EKG, spiking with each of those six runner-up finishes, five of which would meet anyone’s threshold for heartbreak. So the possibility that his Open career might flatline with last year’s mundane T-52 at Pebble Beach seems a cruel jest.

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