Golfing as the sun inches over the horizon instantly conjures up poetic images. Golfers who make the rounds as the sun rises are known as dew-sweepers, since they’re the only ones each day to see and feel the pleasure of early-morning droplets of water trickling upward from the turf after a well-struck shot.
But at many courses, the mornings aren’t all that pleasant. At dawn, the light on any hole facing east blinds you, making it impossible to determine exactly where your tee shot ends up. Unless you can instinctually feel a slice or a hook, or a shot hit fat or thin, you simply hit and hope, shielding your eyes and squinting into the light immediately after striking the ball. Light itself — in essence, nature herself — becomes the enemy.
As Sir Walter Simpson noted in 1887: “For the golfer, Nature loses her significance. Larks, the cast of worms, the buzzing of bees, and even children are hateful…rain comes to be regarded solely in its relation to the putting greens; the daisy is detested, botanical specimens are but ‘hazards,’ twigs ‘break clubs.’” Fortunately for those who frequent the Yale Golf Course, Sir Walter’s words, not nature, lose their significance. The Yale course is unique, in that it balances a golfer’s natural aversion to nature’s irregularities with the beauty of replanted mountain laurel, rhododendron, and even a three-foot carving of a gnome out of the base of a tree trunk off of No. 14. Thanks to Harry Meusel, Nature should never lose her significance on the Yale course.
Over fifty years ago, Bill Perkins, business manager for the Athletic Department, issued a directive to course superintendent Meusel to ensure the amicable coexistence of nature and golfing — at least on Yale grounds. “‘We have the most unique golf course in the world — I want you to make it the most beautiful,’” Harry recalls him saying. “I’ll always remember that.”
Harry is now 82 years old, but a lithe 82. A wispy forelock of formerly flaxen hair dangles over his ruddy face. The strands might well have been whitened by long days spent on the golf course in late August, rather than the passing years — he has been here since 1952. He still works out with a daily 45-minute regimen at Payne Whitney Gym. After the workout, “I get dressed first, then I come home,” Harry jokes, his eyes twinkling.
He slowly sips a cup of instant coffee. More than qualified to work as a course superintendent, Harry studied ornamental horticulture at Rutgers University during World War II before completing his studies on the GI Bill at the University of Massachusetts and heading back south to New Haven. “Forestry was my first love,” he admits. “Environmental work was always going to be my life.” After spending most of his youth in Hamden, Connecticut, caddying at the New Haven Country Club, he was eventually drawn back once more to the New Haven area, where he interviewed for positions at Racebrook Country Club, Woodbridge Country Club, and Yale. “Those others are just golf courses,” he explained, “whereas Yale is the golf course.”
One of his first interactions with Perkins proved Harry’s intricate knowledge of plant science, not to mention his stubbornness when it came to maintaining the course. The two clashed over chemical ratios in the course’s fertilizer. “Nitrogen is a growth element — that makes the grass grow. Phosphorus is for flowers, and potash gives you the vegetation,” Harry explains slowly. “If you want to grow a root plant or fruit plant, you want a lot of phosphorus and potash and not a lot of nitrogen. You add too much of that, you get a huge plant with no fruit.” Harry sarcastically refers to Perkins’s 10/6/4 nitrogen/phosphorus/potash ratio as “Yale’s special mix,” and argued instead for a 4/1/2 ratio. “Do it however the hell you want,” Perkins eventually told Harry. So he did.
Perkins was dead with a heart attack within a year. Harry would work as course superintendent for the next forty-one.
Harry did things his way. Top-dressing the greens and damaged parts of the fairways, traditionally an essential part of upkeep, was notably absent at Yale. This system of filling in holes with sand, soil and peat is intended to support individual blades damaged from the pounding of feet, clubs, bags, and balls. But Harry would have none of it. “The more of that stuff there is, the more algae develops, the more spraying, the more chemicals; it builds up,” he said. “I’m an environmentalist — always have been.”
Because of his background (both parents immigrated to New Haven from Germany during the 1920s), Harry also insisted on keeping German-bent grass seed on the Yale course,. even though the ten different strains eventually created ten or so different shades on Yale’s greens. But Harry didn’t care. He always had his original task in mind: make the course beautiful.
He planted Japanese cherry trees on No. 13 and rhododendron on 16. Working in his uncle’s flower shop as a teenager, he learned to re-sprout mountain laurel, so he dug it up from the ninth hole (the only place where it had grown originally) and planted it all around the course. He went as far as dangling a worker over the steep rock face via a rope on No. 13 to replant it there. “Oh, you had to buy him a drink every so often, but he was okay with it,” Harry says with a laugh. So impressed were they with Harry’s horticultural skills, the Yale Powers That Be featured the course’s mountain laurel and daffodils at Commencement one year.
As much as Harry improved the course aesthetically , he rarely played. “No matter how good the course is, you find something wrong with it,” he said. “You feel like quitting and mowing the grass or something.”
The simple task of cutting grass was actually a tall order during Harry’s tenure. In the mid-1950s. the 300-acre course was maintained by a skeleton crew of seven, equipped with a single tractor and a few pull-behind mowers. With a laughably sparse staff, the course quickly turned into a jungle. Yale even opened the course to the public to increase revenue.
“Make the course beautiful.” It was tough sometimes. With three labor strikes during his time there, Harry and his staff would often put in 16-hour days. Since the lower the grass is cut, the more expensive the process becomes, greens were left at an unheard of 3/4 inches. “If we got the fairways cut twice a week, that was a big deal,” he said. “It was trying. You cut the rough maybe once a month, and you just had to block it out of your mind that that’s the way it was.” Despite a dearth of resources — some years his crew actually resorted to watering greens by hand — Harry pressed on. He planted dogwood trees along the fairways, dug wells and bulldozed to increase water flow. There was no fairway irrigation to speak of before a hefty donation from the Beinecke family in the 1960s; until then, the course was watered mainly from a tower behind the seventh green, and from the ponds on the course itself.
Make it the most beautiful. Golf courses are funny things, isolated vestiges of nature, yet in a pitched battle with mankind each day. “Here at the golf course all is ‘natural,’” said Harry in a speech at Penn State in 1970, “but it is Nature made comfortable and rewarding to man.” The Yale course, more than others, offers a temporary reprieve from the increasing urbanization encompassed by its surroundings. Hidden inside what now could be described as a natural forest, there are no freeways or car horns to contend with, no fear of slicing a shot into someone’s front porch. “You plant for the future,” Harry says. “You don’t plant for yourself.”
Young people, he continued in his speech, “are expressing this crying need for the deeper values of the soul — for beauty, for freedom (or at least relief) from manmade pressures, for the soothing quiet in which their spirits might grow…we cannot live completely free of nature. We are part of it. We need to be near the soil, to turn it over, to feel the warmth of the sun, and the air that is refreshing…to walk, to breathe deeply, to expand from within, to reach out to infinity…someone must need open space — and know that he needs it personally — to be willing to protect its existence.”
There is a trade-off, however, and a delicate balance on a golf course, between aesthetic beauty and long-term sustainability. William W. Kelly, professor of anthropology currently working on a research project titled “The History of Yale Golf,” maintains that while Harry’s aspirations were noble, the road to overgrown trees and burnt-out fairways is paved with good intentions. “During Harry’s time, the dogwoods were seen as an improvement,” he said. “But they ended up destroying the course’s root system. Retrospectively, Harry does get criticized for putting aesthetics in front of playing integrity.”
Harry, though, as always, stuck to his guns. “Aesthetics and sustainability always go together in the long term,” he insisted. “When you plant a tree, you visualize what it’s going to be like when it’s mature.” Harry, though, couldn’t possibly have imagined what the thirteenth would eventually become after his time on the course was over.
Harry intended the thirteenth hole to be his legacy. Not only did he improvise with the rope and the worker to plant the mountain laurel there, but he also constructed a Japanese garden next to its pond. “How’s that garden on 13?” he asks. “They maintaining it well?” But he already knows the answer, having made a rare visit to the course several years ago. It’s now difficult to tell where that garden ends and the swamp begins. An uprooted tree lies still on the surface of the hole’s pond, a wild, megaphone-sized mushroom sticking out from its bark. An ashy, dusty metal urn — the only distinctly Japanese element left there — rests on a flat rock near a wilting eucalyptus. Laying eyes on that garden, he didn’t say a word, remaining calm, stoic even. “No? Well, it’s been awhile, I guess.”
Harry has a similar garden at his house, which encompasses his front lawn. A Japanese Cyprus has been pruned to resemble clouds. Flowers do not figure prominently; the contrast in shapes and forms — between the bush pruned to resemble an attacking snake and the calmer, more serene Japanese maple trees next to the Exbury azalea — are more important to its beauty. “The Japanese try to bring back to their house something they’ve seen or experienced,” he explains. “The garden’s based on that.” Nearly every Japanese garden also features some sort of facsimile of a crane, which represents happiness, and a turtle, signifying longevity. Harry’s stone crane is still there, but his turtle was stolen long ago.
The tenure of current superintendent Scott Ramsay, which started in 2001, began rather inauspiciously, as he entered on the same day another labor crisis in Connecticut was starting. With the long history of labor-management issues at the golf course, it could have signaled the final blow to a place that had been deteriorating since the mid-1950s, suffering from a period of benign neglect that culminated in a flood of letters from professional golfers who, like two-time Masters champion Ben Crenshaw, had felt “the course design was not being protected and maintained with due respect.” But it was the best thing that could have happened to Ramsay.
“I physically had to go out and mow the greens, which are four times the size of normal greens. I understood after that the kind of work it was going to take,” he explained. “I had more empathy for the staff after that — eight people can’t get the job done. Not on this property.” Perhaps people like Ramsay can now truly understand where Harry was coming from. Only Harry never had the luxury of an eight-person staff.
The course is being opened up now so that more sunlight can reach the grass, the greens are being expanded, bunkers reformulated, acres of trees cut down. The course right now is gaunt, green grass giving way to brown patches of dirt in the fairway, rough in its attempt to finally consolidate Harry’s smorgasbord of grass types into one. “They’re trying to make the course into a links course, which bothers me,” says Harry. “It is not a links course at all. They really changed the character of the course by cutting down those trees…” He trails off. “It’s just not a links course.” Indeed, by definition, links refer to a type of sandy soil created by the merging of river and sea terrain. It is an American tradition to label any course that lacks trees, as does St. Andrews or any course within ten miles of an ocean, a “links.” The Yale Golf Course, or, more accurately, the Golf Course at Yale, is not one. “’The Golf Course at Yale,’ Harry says. “That makes me laugh. You do miss it. You really do. But I don’t really connect with golf now, as such. I really don’t.”
At dawn on the Yale course, everything is associated with waiting. You wait for a tee time. You wait for the starter, still getting his morning coffee, to come out to the first tee and wave you on. You wait for the sun to briefly disappear behind a cloud so you can hit your shot without being blinded.
But twilight golf, like one’s twilight years, always seems hurried. There’s never enough time at the end. Three practice swings become two become one becomes a running start to each shot. Shadows cover all but the topmost parts of the tree line, which seems to be shrinking by the day now. Shots appear in the waning sunlight — now cherished, rather than scorned — for a brief moment at their apex, then disappear into the darkness as they land. The front nine, played carefree, with leisure, seems a distant memory. You play as many holes as you can before the purples and indigos beyond the forest turn to darker shades of violet, then black. If you’re lucky enough to actually finish and luckier still to finish on the ninth, you notice the original mountain laurel in back of the green before making a right-hand turn to the clubhouse. It’s still there, though Harry has left long ago.