By JOHN REITMAN
WEST POINT, N.Y. — With breathtaking hilltop vistas and elevation changes of some 200 feet, the West Point Golf Course is a lot like most other Robert Trent Jones layouts — extremely beautiful with a level of difficulty that borders on the absurd. As the sounds of artillery shells batter the nearby hillsides and the repeat of automatic weapons fire echo through the back nine, players here quickly are reminded that the golf course at the United States Military Academy is unlike any other college golf facility. For that matter, it’s not like any of the other 45 Army golf courses around the world either.
Located in New York’s granite uplands 30 miles up the Hudson River from New York City, West Point Golf Course is home to the USMA golf team. Operated by the post’s Department of Morale, Welfare and Recreation, it also serves as a place of respite for The Point’s cadets, the officers who teach them, active military personnel stationed there, alumni, family members and even the general public.
Maintaining a piece of property that serves as a diversion for those who serve their country is a role that course personnel take very seriously.
“They’re giving their lives for a greater cause, to better themselves and better their country,” said Steven Whipple superintendent at West Point Golf Course since 2003. “The recreational outlet we provide gives them that chance to relax a bit from the everyday pressures they have.”
A recreational outlet first, the course also is part of a complex USMA business model that requires it to be self sufficient while also helping to support other MWR departments that do not generate revenue.
“If we don’t make money, we’re not here,” said general manager Megan Shapiro. “The money we make is reinvested in the golf course, but we also support other MWR facilities. Our soldiers cannot take care of their duties if their children are not taken care of. When they know their kids are in a safe environment and taken care of properly, if their family is taken care of, then they can focus on their mission.”
There is a sense of camaraderie that permeates the post that is non-existent at many other traditional colleges and universities.
That sense of togetherness is a byproduct of the sacrifice shared by cadets, alumni, staff and active personnel who willingly put themselves into harm’s way. During times of war, days that otherwise would be a cause for celebration, often bring mixed emotions, says Mike Jaye, a 1981 USMA graduate, former instructor at The Point and the father of a current cadet.
“No one likes to brag about playing golf when your colleagues are deployed overseas,” said Jaye, who retired from the Army in 2009 as a lieutenant colonel and now teaches mathematics at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif. “It’s not frowned upon to play, but everyone has it in the back of their mind that there is a stigma to playing golf when others are suffering. Everyone likes to play, but there is a paradox.”
Few from the class of 1988 playing the course on this day appear to be concerned with wayward tee shots or missed putts. There is a higher calling today, for participants as well as those who stand guard over the course they are playing.
“They’re challenged and pushed every day,” Whipple said.
“This golf course is a place for them to share memories and to have that ability to come together and enjoy that atmosphere. That is a unique and special thing for us to be able to provide that for them.”
Shapiro is a civilian employee of the post on her third “tour” at the USMA course. A native of Highland Falls, the tiny town outside the gates of The Point, she worked her way through college as a member of the West Point Golf Course grounds crew, and was named the facility’s assistant manager upon graduation from the State University of New York at New Paltz in 1997. She was named general manager in 2010 after serving 10 years at the Army golf course at Fort Hood, Texas.
There, she remembers the eerie feeling of how desolate Fort Hood appeared in the months following 9/11 when the installation’s omnipresent tank fleet almost disappeared overnight as the units and those who man them were dispatched to Iraq.
While most of the USMA population is comprised of cadets in training, The Point is an active garrison that deploys personnel overseas.
“There is no true unit here that goes out. Do soldiers deploy from here? Yes. They are replacing soldiers who have died, or are seriously injured,” Shapiro said.
The original USMA course was built in the late 19th century where the parade plain is today, and one of the original putting greens still exists there overlooking the Hudson River. The Jones design opened in 1948, and much of the heavy lifting during construction was supplied by German prisoners during WWII. Despite the cheap labor, construction was halted after 10 holes after it ran over budget because of the difficulties associated with working in the rocky terrain. It was finished at a later date, but course documents have gone missing, so the details on who completed and when remain somewhat of a mystery.
Although the primary function of the course is first and foremost a recreational outlet for military personnel, it is hardly a layout for the faint of heart. Rocky, hilly terrain coupled with greens with severe slope and undulations combine for a layout that plays far longer than the 6,000 yards reflected on the scorecard.
“You have to have every shot in the bag to play here,” said Jaye, who served as president of the golf council while stationed at USMA.
“You’re guaranteed never to have a flat lie.”
Any civilians playing the course quickly are reminded that the property is part of an active military installation. Cadets learn to operate field artillery in the nearby hills, and the sound of a 105mm howitzer that is capable of sending a 30-pound shell on a 2-mile journey is one that is not soon forgotten. Nor is the repeating sound of M-16 fire from a rifle range off the back nine.
Further reminders of The Point’s history are on every tee, where granite tee markers provide a history of 18 different armed conflicts, dating from the American Revolution to the current campaigns in Afghanistan and the Middle East.
As a local, Shapiro feels great ties to the West Point course.
“I have a new appreciation for what these golf courses mean since I’ve come back (to West Point), especially since these people have signed up to serve during a time of war,” she said. “No matter where I go in the Army, this course will always be my home.”
John Reitman is director of news, editorial and education for TurfNet.com, a news and information service for golf course superintendents based in Orlando, Fla. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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