At the National Links Trust, a better side of golf


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East Potomac Golf Links was still shrouded in darkness Monday when Will Smith squinted down the first fairway to the green, some 345 yards off. It was 5:10 a.m. He put his tee in the turf. The hole — and the day — stretched out before him.

“Flag’s going in,” he said, and with neither a cup of coffee nor a warmup session he took a pass at the first ball of the longest day in golf. That it went right of the fairway had to be trusted because who could see the ball?

This is a sport that is in the midst of mayhem at its highest levels, with no way of determining when and how the professional game will sort itself out. The U.S. Open begins Thursday at the Country Club in Brookline, Mass., and discussion there has raged all week about the renegade, Saudi-backed LIV Golf series and the viability of the old-guard PGA Tour. In discussing his departure for the rival circuit, 2010 U.S. Open champ Graeme McDowell said, “I’ve always viewed golf as a force of good around the world.”

But the good the game can do is far greater at the local level. That’s why, on Monday morning, I met Smith and Mike McCartin under the cover of darkness at East Potomac, the century-old municipal course that stretches between the Potomac River and the Washington Channel. Their intent: play more than 100 holes over Washington’s three public courses — East Potomac, Langston and Rock Creek. My job: caddie for the morning — if I could make it.

LIV Golf is already vexing the PGA Tour and its sleepless players

Smith and McCartin are the co-founders of the National Links Trust, a nonprofit that two years ago took over management of the District’s three “munis,” which are on National Park Service land. They are local guys who have worked with the best architects in the world on some of the most renowned golf courses around the globe. Smith, who turns 47 next week, grew up in the District and didn’t get hooked on golf until his days at Yale. McCartin, 41, grew up in Arlington and learned the game when his father, Gerry, dragged him and his three siblings to East Potomac’s driving range, where they watched him beat balls before they picked up clubs and joined in the beating.

“For a dad,” Gerry said Monday, “it was a dream.”

McCartin’s dream now is to take the skills he developed working for renowned architect Tom Doak — on such prominent projects as Old Macdonald on the coast of Oregon and the Renaissance Club on the coast of Scotland — and apply them to the District’s public courses.

Smith and McCartin share a passion for the game and the land on which it’s played. Their second annual “100-Hole Hike” on Monday was just another step in raising both funds and publicity for their project.

Before he fired that first shot, Smith looked at his phone to quantify his current backing.

“$209.50 a hole,” he said. “$599 per birdie. $17,754 for a hole-in-one.”

For the last generation or more, good golf has been so expensive that the sport has extended an exclusionary history. The National Links Trust hopes to reverse that course. By overhauling and restoring the District’s public courses, Smith and McCartin believe they can increase accessibility at the grass-roots level of the game — across incomes and races — by providing interesting layouts that remain as affordable as they are today. Their heft in the sport is obvious: Not only is Doak donating his time to help redo East Potomac, but Gil Hanse — a renowned architect whose projects include the Country Club and other U.S. Open venues — is working with the National Links Trust on Rock Creek. Beau Welling, who has worked on Tiger Woods’s design team, is joining the Langston restoration.

This will take time, but it will be worth it. As we trudged through the day, I asked McCartin to compare the project to a marathon. What mile are they on?

“Mile three or four?” he said after thinking about it. “But I think it’s a really significant point because we’ve established all the things that will make it successful.”

When golfers ignore who signs the checks, they miss what’s being bought

What’s being discussed at the U.S. Open — and will be debated as the pro golf season works through the summer — is the game at its highest level. But if golf can be a force for good, it’s more likely to happen at the community level — and at places such as Langston and East Potomac.

Consider the numbers since the National Links Trust took over management of the District’s courses: 230,408 rounds, with 25,095,674 range balls hit by 237,583 customers. Golf isn’t special because of how — or where — the game is played by the best in the world. It’s special because anyone can pursue it over the entirety of their life. That process shouldn’t always start at some swanky country club. It should start at places like Langston, where Metro trains rumble past the 10th tee.

So in support of all this, I caddied. I started on McCartin’s bag more than a half-hour before sunrise, joining Smith’s brother Ben on Will’s bag. By 7 a.m., we were already on the 17th hole of East Potomac’s Blue Course — and the mercury was rising. After 27 holes, Ben Smith had to go to work — and he could still be there on time easily. He was replaced by Gerry McCartin, who took over as his son’s caddie while I started work for Will Smith.

Playing 36 holes in a day is a lot for any golfer. By the time Smith and McCartin had finished 36, it was 9:15 a.m.

This was some combination of pure joy and absolute slog. The morning included two loops around the regulation-length Blue, two more around the executive-length White, two more around the par-3 Red and shots at East Potomac’s three practice holes, not to mention some improvisational holes in between. The morning may or may not have included a stint or two when I gave up the bag and took cover in a support cart. It definitely included some shot-making — particularly from McCartin, who made nine birdies at East Potomac alone. Just before 1 p.m., the pair wolfed down half-smokes before they shot over to Langston. I went home for a shower.

By the time I met the boys at Rock Creek Park Golf Course — just off 16th Street NW — it was close to 5:30 p.m., and the toll of the day had started to settle in. As they played Langston, the temperature had risen above 90 degrees, and the humidity approached 60 percent. McCartin had swapped out his baseball cap for a wide-brimmed wicker number that tied under his chin. Mud was caked on both of their calves. They had played 98 holes. They wanted the 14 more that Rock Creek offered.

“This is definitely a cane-walking stretch,” Smith said as he used his putter as a prop while we walked up one of the steep inclines that characterizes Rock Creek.

Even in their fatigue, McCartin and Smith couldn’t help but chatter about Rock Creek’s future. They are visionaries in spirit and training, so it’s nothing for them to see fairways where overgrowth exists now. To listen to them is thrilling for any golf nerd, this one included.

On the 100th hole of the day, McCartin closed out the match, and the two shook hands. On the 103rd, McCartin approached the green, stopped short and muttered, “There goes a blister.” On the 111th, Smith — perhaps emboldened by the Mason jar of vodka his wife had mercifully delivered a few holes earlier — rolled in the final birdie of the day. And at 7:07 p.m. — 13 hours 57 minutes after Smith put that first peg in the ground — they holed the last putt on the 112th and headed for the pizza party that awaited.

“You still like golf after this?” one of McCartin’s friends asked him.

Yes, he does. Professional golf is ruptured by controversy about where riches are coming from and what’s fair for the elite. But the real future of the game — for regular people with regular incomes who need a recreational outlet — is in the hands of people such as Will Smith and Mike McCartin and the National Links Trust. Thank goodness for that.


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