- Brassies, Mashies, and Bootleg Scotch: Growing Up on America’s First Heroic Golf Course
Brassies, Mashies, and Bootleg Scotch is a welcome addition to the subgenre of golf memoirs. It is especially valuable because its author, Bill Kilpatrick, is not a famous champion, course architect, or entertainer. Rather, he is a journalist and recreational golfer whose father was greenkeeper at several prominent country clubs between the First and Second World Wars. In this brief, highly entertaining and engaging book, Kilpatrick combines a loving portrait of his dad, William (“Bill”) Kilpatrick, with a nostalgic recollection of his boyhood and caddying days at the ultra exclusive National Golf Links of America. The book concludes with the author’s lament about the passing of “the good old days” of early American golf, his critique of the state of the game today, and his explanation of the causes of golf’s supposed decline from its earlier golden age.
The elder Bill Kilpatrick was one of dozens of Scottish golf professionals and greenkeepers who migrated to the United States during the 1890s and early 1900s to teach the fundamentals of the game to Americans and to lay out the nation’s first golf grounds. The author correctly observes that in those days golf in Scotland was a democratic pastime with extensive participation by common folk, but he repeats the misconception that during golf’s formative years in the United States the sport was “played only by the affluent” (p. 5). In fact, from the mid 1890s to World War I municipal governments in New York, [End Page 351] Boston, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and several other cities built municipal golf grounds that were patronized by thousands of middle- and working-class players of both sexes and all ages.
The younger Kilpatrick chronicles and celebrates the contribution that his father (whom he calls the “Old Man”) made to the growth of golf from the early 1900s to the 1950s. William Kilpatrick was born in western Scotland but grew up in St. Andrews, where he learned to play golf on the historic Old Course. He came to the United States in 1908 to help build the course at the Siwanoy Country Club in Mount Vernon, New York. After World War I he supervised the construction of courses at the Century Golf Club in White Plains, New York; the Sunnydale Country Club in Scarsdale, New York; and the Maidstone Country Club in East Hampton, Long Island. Next came the high point of his career, when he was hired as greenkeeper at the National Golf Links of America, adjacent to Southampton on eastern Long Island. He remained there until 1943, when the club’s management fired him due to austerity measures necessitated by World War II. The author suspects (but presents no conclusive evidence) that his father’s willingness to share his detailed knowledge with the club’s professional, Alick Gerard, cost him his job. He reasons that Girard learned enough from Kilpatrick to qualify for the positions of head professional and greenkeeper, thus making Kilpatrick expendable. After the war the elder Kilpatrick worked at a few other clubs, but by then the technology of golf course maintenance had passed him by. When he died of a heart attack at age seventy-four in 1963 he was road inspector for Branford, Connecticut. Kilpatrick effectively conveys a sense of his father’s humble nature and his passion for his craft. (His dad preferred to call himself a “greenkeeper” because he considered the title “golf course superintendent” to be pretentious.) His goal was simply to create a golf course which would “blend seamlessly into the land and surroundings upon which it was built, to look as if it had been in place since time immemorial” (p. 63).
The most compelling passages of Brassies, Mashies, and Bootleg Scotch are Kilpatrick’s recollections of his youth and adolescence as a rather lonely child who revered his demanding but devoted dad. Each winter he struggled mightily to satisfy his perfectionist parent as...