Plebeians Playing on Mount Olympus

Our Day at the Robert Trent Jones Club

April 2, 2006

We plebeians descended on the Robert Trent Jones Golf Club like a Mongolian horde. One of the perks of volunteering at the President’s Cup last fall was playing a round of golf at the stomping ground of the elite, so we charged the gates, ready for our day in the sun like the caddies taking over the pool at Bushwood.

We common-folk went down Baltusrol Drive to the main gate at the entrance to the Lake Manassas community, then through another gate at the course, and parked outside the mammoth, brick, colonial-looking clubhouse. My battered Buick with the cracked windshield and the pancake smell of burned coolant parked proudly at RTJ, where I am sure it is usually Hummers and Beamers, restored Porsches, and limos. This is such a lofty place that the Cup volunteers actually had to pay $200 to volunteer.

plebes1They had carts all lined up for our 11:00 shotgun. No caddies for us. I was in the same group as Steve and Scott, two friends from my home course, and I was paired with George, a retired government man from Chevy Chase, Maryland.

Before the round we wandered the dark carpeted halls of the clubhouse. One hallway was filled with photos from the four President’s Cup tournaments played here, the best golfers in the world in suits with identical team ties. A bunch of guys we have never met, but we refer to by first names.

Another hallway had a display case that showed the names of the members at RTJ. Most were unfamiliar to me, probably titans of industry and sultans of the stock market, but there were some familiar names too. Maybe Bill Clinton and Dan Quayle have a regular match. I wonder if Sandra Day O’Conner and Joe Thiesman get together and share stories about John Riggins (who allegedly fell drunk at O’Conner’s feet at a Redskins Super Bowl celebration).

Arnold Palmer, Fred Couples, and Nick Price. Michael Jordan probably does not come around as much in the post-Wizards era, but I am sure he keeps rolls of hundreds in his bag ready for some serious on-course action. Then there are Bush 41 and Gerald Ford.

Steve, Scott, and I also checked out the pro shop, which surprised me by accepting cash. Not that I was buying anything. Slacks for $110 and golf shirts ranging from $75 to $100. I could not even bring myself to look at the equipment. Memberships go for $140,000 (and annual dues of $12,500). I could sell my house and my soul and still come up short.

They did have a closeout table in the pro shop with commoner-friendly prices, and if you spent $40, they threw in a leftover President’s Cup tee shirt. But I settled for a scorecard.

Eventually they sent us out to play on that cool, windy March day, George the retiree driving me to our starting hole. I thought about getting my cart cover and propane heater out of the trunk, but maybe they were not appropriate at this kind of place. We started at the sixth hole, which played as the fourth hole in the Cup. I saw Tiger chip in there during the final round.

plebes2The greens had been recently punched, and the rest of the upkeep showed that it was not time for international events, or even for the season-opening member events, but it was still better than the conditions most of us are accustomed to most of the time.

There is nothing earth-shattering about the layout designed, of course, by Robert Trent Jones, the father of modern golf architecture; but it is solid, and the amenities are great: beautiful scenery (even the cart paths wind through stately stands of trees and azalea bushes just waiting for a few warmer days), amazing stonework like the steps out at the par-3 ninth where George Herbert Walker sat and enjoyed a sandwich as the tour players came through; and during the inward nine, the holes hug or stray only a short distance from Lake Manassas. The concessions shack and restroom (with the waterfall and fish pond in front) has more architectural style than most clubhouses.

The three-pars are great holes. On three of them you hit over, or directly at, part of the lake. The eleventh hole (#9 at the Cup) plays from a hill, over a cove, to a point of land jutting into the lake. I saw Goosen drain a 35-footer there on Sunday. On our chilly Wednesday, Scott almost aced this beautiful hole (right after he dropped a 90-footer for birdie on the tenth) and made his deuce while George, the government man, hit it in the front bunker then bladed his second into the lake.

So we played our round, and in the end, golf is golf, whether it is on a municipal or Mount Olympus. It was a treat to tread the ground where great golfers and masters of our universe walked before, but what made the day at RTJ was sharing a round with my friends.

Afterward, we walked through the pro-shop once more, just to delay the leaving, and looked at President’s Cup paraphernalia and aerial photos of the course. But soon we headed back through the gates to Route 29.

We crossed the road and stopped at the Bonefish Grill, a clean and classy but distinctly middle-class restaurant where we had appetizers and cocktails to go with our new memories. When the guy across the bar asked where we played, it was fun to off-handedly toss out “RTJ”. But the next day it was back to work, back to real life, and that is not so bad.

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