Harry Meusel (1924–2008)
Yale Golf Course Superintendent (1951–1992)
No one has served Yale golfers longer than Harry Meusel. Like so many other of his time, he learned the game as a caddie at the New Haven Country Club. He could walk there from his home in Hamden and play in the caddie tournaments on Mondays. Just out of high school, he was drafted and assigned to Fort Dix in New Jersey to serve as a translator for German pows. However, his superior officer was more interested in his knowledge of golf. He sent Meusel to Rutgers University to take courses that he could use in his new assignment of maintaining the Fort Dix golf course. After discharge Meusel went to the University of Massachusetts on the gi Bill to study horticulture, which became a life-long passion.
Upon graduation, Meusel interviewed for three superintendent jobs, at Race Brook Country Club, Woodbridge Country Club, and Yale. His first impression of the Yale course was that its grandeur was “unreal,” and he quickly took the job offered by Bill Perkins, the business manager of the Athletics Department. Perkins had been the Yale construction manager of the course from 1924 to 1926, and superintendent of all the athletic field crews from 1926 to 1945. Meusel replaced Tony Longo, who had been the first fulltime superintendent of the golf course. Perkins challenged Meusel to make “our unique course the most beautiful golf course in the world.” Perkins died suddenly a year later and did not see how Harry spent forty-one years meeting that challenge.
And it was a stiff challenge, in part because the course survived in the 1950s and 1960s on a very limited budget and a skeletal staff consisting of Harry and a six-man crew. They had a single tractor and several gang mowers that were pulled behind it. Despite sixteen-hour days during the season, Meusel later recalled, they still couldn’t keep up with proper fairway and greens cutting. The rough received attention once a month, and watering was often by hand or from hoses run from wells that Harry dug in several places to supplement the original water tower.
Yet, the course landscape offered numerous possibilities to a horticulturalist like Harry. He wrote that the course was built in “second-growth woodland: beech-hemlock on the northern slopes of the rolling, rocky land and oak-hickory on the southern slopes.” What now forms the second, fourth, fifth, sixth, fifteenth, and sixteenth fairways was know locally as “The Big Swamp,” surrounded by gigantic tulip trees. The woodlands teemed with deer, bear, wildcats, foxes, raccoons, and small mammals. Greist Pond, the water-carry for the ninth hole, was popular for ice skating, swimming, and fishing. Both permanent and migrating birds abounded. The pond and swamp were rich in fish and water life. Mink and muskrat flourished along the edge.” Harry saw that his challenge was not only to preserve the natural features, but also consciously to cultivate their great potential. He wrote, “Dogwood and laurel are naturally abundant throughout the wooded areas. By clearing away competitive growth, pruning the desirable trees, and cutting back scraggly laurel, we within a few years unlocked beauty that draws even sight-seeing non-golfers. Azalea and rhododendron have been introduced around the clubhouse, and spotted about the course, providing a splash of color when indigenous growth offers little.” Meusel had learned how to re-sprout mountain laurel while working in his uncle’s florist shop as a teenager, and he began taking cuttings from the mountain laurels behind the ninth green (the only place where they grew naturally) and transplanting them throughout the course. On the cliff in front and below the thirteenth tee, this required lowering one of his workers by rope over the edge. Dogwoods were planted along several fairways and thousands of daffodil bulbs on the edge of woods.
At the end of the first decade, Meusel reported to the Athletics Department business manager “Widdy” Neale:
A thorough updating of the watering system began with the elimination of an antiquated gravity-flow system, which required a man to operate a diesel engine all the time the pump was running. In 1957, an electric pump and pressure tank were installed on the shore of the ninth hole pond. It is now possible to operate more than twice as many sprinklers at one time. In 1960, the third hole pond was made available as a reserve water source by connecting it to the ninth hole pond with an underground piping system. By the withering end of the 1964 season, the third hole pond was drained dry, and the ninth reservoir had receded to the critical level of the foot valves. The drought also left the seventeenth and thirteenth hole ponds cavities of sun-parched mud. We seized the opportunity to have shallow, spring-fed, pond-beds dredged to increase their water storing capacities. By means of underground pipe they were connected to one another, and the seventeenth was joined with the third. Thus the water supply in the ninth hole reservoir can now be augmented from three reserve sources.
Where the fourth fairway was once scarcely playable in the spring months, it is now kept dry by draining the third hole pond in winter, thereby lowering the water table. Because of excessive wet soil conditions, the third green was particularly vulnerable to disease. The green was raised and rebuilt with a perched water table, and it no longer poses special problems of maintenance. By 1960, every tee and green was finally equipped with a snap-valve irrigation system. Ten years ago, each green required 200-300 feet of unsightly hose and many expensive man-hours of backbreaking work to keep the greens alive during the summer months. Many tees were never watered because of their distance from the water source.
Several tees have been enlarged; No. 1 from 4,000 to 9,000 sq. ft, No. 5 from 2,000 to 6,000 sq. ft., No. 6 from 1,000 to 3,000 sq. ft., No. 9 from 2,000 to 10,000 sq. ft, and No. 12 from 1,000 to 5,000 sq. ft. A new women’s tee was constructed on No. 4 to eliminate the tricky carry over the water.
Bulldozing operations connected with dredging of the seventeenth hole pond presented the opportunity to do something about the awkward cliff that compounded the difficulty of the tee shot off number seventeen. The cliff was lowered 9 feet and graded into a maintainable hillside. Dredgings from the pond were used for soil cover on the hill, and for building a new seventeenth tee.
Nuisance traps have been eliminated from the first, tenth and fourteenth holes. These traps were 70-100 yards from the tees and served no other sporting purpose than to increase the handicap of the over-par golfer. Bumps and moguls on the second green were leveled off for more accurate putting. Fairways and tees are now cut three times weekly.
Of the three new storm shelters recently constructed, two have wells for drinking water. The shelter at the first tee doubles as a caddie shelter; the fifth hole shelter also serves the sixteenth tee; and the eighteenth hole shelter is convenient to golfers on the eleventh hole.
In April of 1963, the old wooden barn, crammed to the rafters with every piece of equipment, and every machine and tool, burned to the ground. Now we have an all-steel building, double the capacity of the old barn, and providing us for the first time with such common amenities as running water, indoor toilets, central heating, a locker room with showers, a repair shop, and an office for the superintendent.
The labor that he lavished on the course left him impatient with golfers who did not respect it. His most famous encounter came on the day that Sam Snead had appeared to play the course. Meusel happened to be near the ninth hole green when Snead’s tee shot landed on the front side of the massive cross-swale. The hole that day was placed on the upper rear green, and Snead took out a wedge and pitched his ball from the front green, taking a huge divot. Meusel immediately rebuked him, and Snead, notoriously short-tempered, was so angry that he stalked off the course and never returned to finish the round!
In keeping with his plan to “eliminate all blind holes” Meusel filled the front cross-bunker of the twelfth hole (Alps), and replaced it with two small flat bunkers. This bunker has now been restored to its original configuration. Over the next three decades, Meusel continued to work on the course. Uneven fairways were leveled. Cart paths were built. The installation of an automated irrigation system greatly improved turf conditions. A new tee box was built on number three, and many other tees were expanded. He planted evergreen trees around the new number three tee, on the right side of the fairway on number six, and between the seventh green and eighth tee. Over time, this proved ill-advised. By 2005 these trees had grown to more than forty feet and were depriving the turf of sunlight and water. They have now been removed as part of Scott Ramsay’s renovation program.
One unique memory of Harry Meusel is preserved in the woods to the right side of the dogleg on number fourteen. There is the figure of a woods elf (a Heinzelmenchen in German folklore), which has been carved from a standing tree stump by his daughter, Shelley Carpenter, in 1979 as a fifty-fifth-birthday gift to her father. This was the sixth such sculpture that Shelley had made on the course in the 1970s, and it is the only one that remains today. Another reminder of Harry is by the pond below the thirteenth tee, where he built a small, beautiful Japanese-style garden, which is being restored by Scott Ramsay. Meusel developed an abiding interest in Japanese garden design, studying it in art history seminars at Yale, traveling to Japan to tour famous gardens, and lecturing about them across Connecticut. In 1960 and 1961, he served as president of the Connecticut Association of Golf Course Superintendents, and, in 1989, he was named Superintendent of the Year by that Association.
It is fair to say that Harry Meusel met the Bill Perkins challenge!