Norman, Okla. – Wind screams over the golf course and clouds scud across the bleak horizon. The sky is angry this morning. Tonight, tornados will send Oklahoma folks scurrying for cover, but the storms aren’t here yet and a crew rolls along from green to green, setting hole locations for the year’s first USGA national amateur championship, the 2013 U.S. Women’s Amateur Public Links.
Teresa Belmont leans into the wind and tugs a 300-foot metal tape measure across the grass. A baseball cap is pulled firmly down around her ears and her jacket balloons in the wind.
Like giant yellow mushrooms, eight-inch plastic cones dot the green, marking hole locations: two front, two back, two somewhere in the middle, two others scattered to mark where holes will be cut the third week of June. A tedious task, but eight locations are needed; two for practice rounds, two for stroke play, four for match play. The locations will be rated and balanced, right and left, front, center and back. The championship course will test every shot in the bag.
Belmont is the WAPL championship director for the USGA. The final decision is hers, but she likes input.
“Rodney! How’s this one?”
Rodney Young, director of golf at Jimmie Austin OU Golf Club and the championship chairman, eyes a favorite spot on the sprawling 14th green.
“Maybe move it closer to that back left fringe,” Young shouts in the wind. “Tempt them a little! I like that one. The fringe drops off over there.”
Belmont moves a cone and studies the angles. She has set up USGA championship courses for 16 years, but local knowledge is welcomed. She gathers the cones, rolls up her tape measure, scribbles on her clipboard, jumps into a cart. With green superintendent Cody Elwood and championship vice-chairman Johnny Johnson, they go to the 15th hole.
The Jimmie Austin OU course is a gem, one of those little-known treasures that sometimes dot America’s small towns, the product of artistic imagination that sculpts rugged land into a masterpiece for golf. Designed by the great Perry Maxwell, the course opened in 1951 on the site of an old World War II naval air station.
Elwood still finds crumbled foundations and is trying to preserve the old bridges hidden near the rough. The site was used to train American forces during the war. One structure, constructed by the U.S. Navy in what is now a wooded area near the 15th hole, was the Bachelor Officers Quarters. When the University of Oklahoma inherited the building after the war, it became a dormitory to help accommodate an increasing number of students, many of whom returned from battle to attend school on the GI Bill.
On Dec. 3, 1949, fire ravaged the BOQ three hours before dawn. Three men died in the fire and 20 were hospitalized. A memorial will mark the tragic site.
Golf course architect Maxwell created other masterpieces, such as Southern Hills Country Club in Tulsa and Prairie Dunes Country Club in Kansas, which have hosted a combined 17 USGA championships. Jimmie Austin OU (it’s owned by the university), while less celebrated, is just as good. Noted golf architect Bob Cupp renovated the course in 1996, and for the first time the course was equipped with irrigation to replace the old quick-couplers on the greens and tees, where giant hoses were hooked to big sprinklers that watered the course for 45 years.
Cupp was careful to preserve Maxwell’s design. To Cupp’s credit, he solved maintenance problems, renovated and changed the order of holes, but it was more a painstaking restoration of a masterpiece than starting with a blank canvas.
The course was designed by a masterful hand: Narrow fairways curl across brooks and through natural swales to small greens. Subtle elevation changes make you think. Cypress trees, small pines, burr and live oaks, Oklahoma red cedars and majestic cottonwoods dot the course and pinkish-purple splashes of redbud peek from the wooded perimeter. Spring is late in Norman this year. The grass hasn’t come back yet, but the craggy gray tree limbs are veiled with fresh shoots of green.
Belmont, Young, Elwood and Johnson stand aside on the 15th green and wave through a group of golfers waiting on the tee. Two men and two women wearing sweaters, jackets and hats in the wind, fire shots at the green and balls bounce among Belmont’s hole markers. In the miserable weather, the golfers are cheerful, even excited by the game. They exchange greetings, putt out over the tape measure, and head for the 16th.
Another golfer in a windbreaker walks toward the green, playing alone. “Isn’t this a great course?” he shouts through the wind. “I’m a member here.”
“You’re a brave member, to come out in this weather.”
“I got up this morning and checked the forecast,” he says, and grins. “It’s not gonna get bad until this afternoon.”
He putts out quickly, jumps in his cart and waves.
Belmont and the men head into lunch with reporters, volunteers and committee chairmen to fire up enthusiasm for the coming WAPL championship, June 17-22. It doesn’t take much. Jimmie Austin OU was the site of the 2009 U.S. Amateur Public Links. People here know the drill.
Oklahoma claims great Americans such as folksy comedian Will Rogers, Olympic hero Jim Thorpe and major league legend Mickey Mantle. Less known is that Oklahoma nurtured some of the greatest women golfers: Nancy Lopez played on the golf team at Tulsa. Susie Maxwell Berning, a three-time U.S. Women’s Open champion, is a native. Betty Jameson, a U.S. Women’s Open winner, two-time U.S. Women’s Amateur champion and a founder of the LPGA Tour, was born right here in Norman.
Like the lone guy in the windbreaker, they too are part of the great family of golfers, the lucky ones who know that golf’s timeless personal challenge remains something pure and good. Even on a stormy day.
Rhonda Glenn is a manager of communications for the USGA. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.