A New Deal For Amsterdam’s Golfers

Dec. 18, 2009

By Rand Jerris, USGA

Far Hills, N.J. - On July 16, 1938, the golfers of Amsterdam, N.Y., celebrated the opening of a new municipal golf course. Gene Sarazen, twice a U.S. Open champion, as well as the winner of three PGA Championships, one British Open and the 1935 Masters, was on hand to inaugurate the course, playing in a match with Frank Hartig, the course’s new professional, against two local pros, Tom Creavy and John Lord. Among the hundreds of spectators that day was recent Cornell University graduate Robert Trent Jones, who had designed the par-71, 6,934-yard course set over 128 acres of rolling farmland just north of the city and was embarking on a lifelong career in golf course architecture.

For the golfers of this upstate New York community, the course was particularly welcomed as a gift from President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his New Deal policies.

Over the course of three years, from 1936-1938, FDR’s Works Progress Administration (WPA) provided more than $99,000 in funding for the project to supplement the $22,000 invested by the municipality. The WPA also supplied more than 200 workers each season to construct the course, including the installation of a state-of-the-art irrigation system, a new clubhouse and a wildlife sanctuary for the 97 species of birds that inhabited the property.

The USGA Museum and Arnold Palmer Center for Golf History recently acquired an important collection of 30 original black-and- 

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The municipal course in Amsterdam, N.Y., was constructed as part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's Works Progress Administration. (USGA Museum)
 white photographs, documenting the construction and opening of the municipal course in Amsterdam. Photographs of golf course construction from the 1930s are rare, and those documenting the work of the New Deal agencies are even more unusual. This remarkable collection includes images taken throughout the construction process, including the installation of the irrigation system, the preparation and seeding of fairways, the erection of rustic wooden bridges to help players move through and across sensitive wildlife areas, and even the construction of the parking lot for the patrons. Several of these photographs are stamped on reverse with WPA administrative information, including the name of the WPA photographer, “Kirk.” Together, they are a remarkable portrait of an important period in American golf course architecture that is poorly documented and largely underappreciated.

 

The collapse of the American stock market in October 1929 precipitated severe economic and social problems that fundamentally altered most every aspect of American daily life. As all segments of the American economy struggled during the early years of the Depression, so too did the sports industry. Major league baseball stadiums accustomed to standing-room-only crowds throughout the 1920s were frequently left with hundreds, if not thousands, of unsold tickets. Without the income usually generated by attendance at college football games, many schools were forced to eliminate sports such as swimming, tennis and golf from their athletic programs. 

Curiously, it took several years for the Depression to impact the golf industry in America as severely as it affected other sports. A study completed by The Associated Press in early 1931 demonstrated that golf was enjoying steady increases not just in participation but also in equipment sales as the Depression gained momentum. While the AP’s analysis did reveal that the worsening economic situation, together with a troublesome drought, had negatively impacted course conditioning and participation rates in some parts of the country, in many localities the loss in membership at private clubs was more than offset by an increase in play at municipally owned facilities. To meet the increased demand for golf, many municipalities actually increased their spending on golf facilities, despite the grim economic forecasts.

By 1933, the Depression had struck hard at the heart of the American economy, leaving an estimated 13-17 million Americans standing in unemployment lines. Skilled and unskilled, well-educated and illiterate workers simply could not find the jobs they needed to support themselves or their families.

Upon taking office for his first term on March 4, 1933, Roosevelt launched a series of initiatives that collectively came to be known as the New Deal. Reluctant to provide economic relief without the requirement of work, the administration promoted publicly funded works projects as essential to reversing the economic distress. The passage of the Federal Emergency Relief Act of 1933, and the subsequent creation of the Federal Emergency Relief Agency (FERA) to administer federal grants to state and local governments, marked the first steps toward economic revival. In the months that followed, Roosevelt’s visions for federally funded work projects were realized more fully with the creation of the Public Works Administration (PWA) on June 16, 1933, and the Civil Works Administration (CWA) on Nov. 8, 1933. The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), also launched in 1933, would become one of the most popular of the New Deal programs, mobilizing the unemployed masses to address environmental and infrastructure concerns that had grown increasingly problematic in preceding decades. However, it was Executive Order 7034 on May 6, 1935, that led to the creation of the largest and most important of the New Deal cultural programs, the WPA.

Under plans developed early in the New Deal era by FERA to guide the development of the various public works agencies, highest  

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Recreational facilities such as golf courses benefited from WPA projects during the Depression. (USGA Museum)
 priority was granted to the construction of recreational facilities and playgrounds. Of all the work projects, it was widely believed that public recreation centers offered the greatest benefit to society as a means of promoting health and happiness. Throughout the 1930s, the collective efforts of the various public works agencies would lead to the construction or renovation of hundreds of community swimming pools, tennis courts, field houses, stadiums, gymnasiums, skating rinks and even the Olympic bobsled run in Lake Placid, N.Y.

From the beginning, the New Deal agencies were also responsible for the construction and improvement of golf courses and golf facilities. Indeed, from 1933, when FERA grants were first issued for golf course projects, until 1942, when the CCC was dissolved, almost all of the growth in golf facilities may be attributed to the public work forces mobilized at Roosevelt’s direction.

While the full extent of the work completed by the WPA, the CCC and other New Deal agencies for the golf community has never been fully documented, reports issued in October 1936 and January 1937 confirm that an impressive amount of work had been completed in just the first three years.

By December 1935, 206 towns in 39 states had been supplied with newly designed or significantly renovated golf courses, new or improved clubhouses, and improved and modernized grounds. A total of 75 new courses had been completed by the WPA alone, 13 of which were 18-hole layouts, with the balance being nine-hole facilities. In addition, 15 courses had been increased from nine to 18 holes. Moreover, construction was underway on 62 additional courses during the spring of 1937, with completion anticipated in the following one to two years. Recognizing that the various projects ranged in scope from simple landscaping projects to the construction of multiple course facilities, it may nonetheless be said that by the end of 1936, Roosevelt’s army of workmen had completed more than $12.3 million of work at some 368 golf courses around the country, including the work in Amsterdam.

By the end of the 1930s, Roosevelt’s New Deal agencies had fundamentally altered the landscape of American golf. While the Depression may have halted the growth and development of elite private clubs, it did not quell the energy and enthusiasm of the American golfing public. Quite the contrary, FDR’s New Deal policies ultimately made golf more available to the greater population. Collectively, the public works projects of the 1930s created the infrastructure of America’s municipal course system. Where public golf had been something of a rarity in the decades before the Depression, towns and cities all across America now boasted new or improved courses available for play at little or no cost.

Although it would take decades for many of the social and racial barriers to dissolve, and one could certainly argue that there is still important work to be done, the democratization of American golf began in earnest with FDR’s New Deal.

Dr. Rand Jerris is the USGA’s Director of Communications and Museum. E-mail him with questions or comments at rjerris@usga.org. Note: The Amsterdam Municipal Golf Course is still in full operation today.

 

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