Inauguration Day Special: My Night at Mar-a-Lago

I spent one night at Mar-a-Lago back in 2012, after playing golf that afternoon with the man about to be sworn in as the President of the United States. At dinner that night, Trump served himself roughly a lobster and a half’s worth of shelled lobster claws and split lobster tails from the seafood buffet, then went back and for big plate of sweet-and-sour shrimp on rice. While we were having dessert, two giggly little girls from New Jersey, whose parents were part of a group from Trump’s golf club in Bedminster—“one of the richest places in the country”—came over to our table and asked Trump to dance. He said that he would dance with them in Bedminster. Then he asked them if they wanted to be supermodels when they grew up. (They said yes). Then he asked them to kiss him. (And they did.)

You can read a little more my Mar-a-Lago visit on the New Yorker’s website today. My New Yorker colleague Mark Singer, who has written a lot about Trump, including this book, emailed me recently: “Trump, standing on the lawn at Mar-a-Lago and hitting balls into the Intracoastal Waterway with a 3-iron, told me that Claude Harmon called him ‘the best weekend player’ he’d ever seen. Such an innocent time. . . . I suspect it won’t be during my lifetime when historians come up with a fully coherent explanation of how/why it came to this. I have no faith in my ability to predict what lies ahead; everything I thought I knew was mistaken.”

Playing Golf With Donald Trump

I’ve been slow about adding new posts to this blog, mainly because I’m no longer “in association with Golf Digest.” I’m not going to stop, but, after a little rest, I’m going to aim for something more like once a week. In the meantime, I’ve written an article for The New Yorker’s website about a day I spent with Donald Trump back in 2012.

Now I Know Why Microsoft Abandoned the Band

I used my Microsoft Band 2 for maybe four and a half months before the wristband fell apart (clumsily repaired by me with Scotch Tape in the photo above). This is not a minor problem, because the wristband is not replaceable and the tear exposed important-looking metal innards. Nor is it an uncommon problem, as I learned from Google. What a piece of crap! I apologize for saying nice things about the Band in this post, back in July. Microsoft has announced that there won’t be a Band 3, and it’s unloading its Band 2 inventory at a discount. Don’t be tempted.

Until my Band fell apart, I actually liked it and wore it all the time, even though it wasn’t waterproof and all I really used it for was to count my steps and tell the time. Also, it barely got through a whole day on a single battery charge. I could probably cover all my personal fitness-tracking needs with a wristwatch and a pedometer, but when my Band self-destructed I replaced it with an approximate counterpart from another manufacturer: a Fitbit Charge 2 Heart Rate +. The Fitbit does pretty much everything the Band did—in most cases, better—and because it isn’t tricked out with a lot of pointlessly fancy graphics its battery lasts much longer. And the wristband is replaceable.

Recently, I read that some people who wear fitness bands are more likely to gain weight than people who don’t, apparently because they view their supposed “calorie burn” as a license to overeat. I myself have always ignored the calorie-counting feature, since nobody really knows how to count calories and the relationship between food consumption and weight gain is immensely complicated. I just like knowing roughly how far I’ve walked when I play golf and walk the dog—and, occasionally, taking a peek at how long I slept the night before (which the Fitbit tracks automatically).

Winter Golf on an Empty Course, Plus the Best Winter Golf Gloves

Joe was out doing errands last Sunday. He drove past a public course in the town next to the one we live in, saw that there were only a few cars in the parking lot, and guessed correctly that they must belong to people he knew.

The cars belonged to Tim, Doug, Mike A., and me (plus the kid behind the desk in the golf shop). We’d already finished eighteen, but Joe borrowed a hat from me and clubs from everyone, and joined us for a few bonus holes. The course was the only one still open in our immediate area, yet nobody at all had played it the day before, and nobody but us had shown up that morning. The kid charged us half-price.

The temperature was below freezing, but there was hardly any wind, and after we’d played a couple of holes we were so hot we took stuff off. The great thing about winter golf is that your drives run forever, and if the greens are frozen you can practice the kinds of run-up shots that come in handy in Scotland and Ireland.

Mike A. had some Tommy Armour Silver Scot golf balls, which he had dug up somewhere. One cracked when he hit it—because it was frozen, we assumed:

But then a second one cracked, too:

The cracks may explain why not even Tommy Armour III plays Tommy Armour balls. (The only reviewer on Amazon complained about cracking, too, and gave them one star—maybe overly generous.) We had the course completely to ourselves until a single guy showed up and somehow got ahead of us. We waited for him on every hole!

Tim and I both wore my favorite winter gloves, Winter Xtreme, by HJ Glove. They’re thick but flexible, and they have nice grippy silicone webbing on the palms and fingers.

If the day had been ten degrees colder, I’d have worn a pair of rain gloves underneath them. But for 29 degrees they were plenty.

How to Buy a Driver for Someone You Love

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In an early episode of The Simpsons, Homer gives Marge a bowling ball for her birthday. She seems disappointed, so he says, “Well, if you don’t want it, I know someone who does.” (He’s already had his own name engraved on it.)

In the same spirit, you might consider giving your wife a Mizuno JPX 900 driver. I’ve been playing with one for the past six weeks, and, although I haven’t had my name engraved on it yet, I’m sure that after Christmas it will still be in my golf bag—and not only because my wife doesn’t play golf. It even sounds great when you smack it.

As with many newish drivers, you (or a club-fitter) can make a number of potentially helpful adjustments on a JPX 900: loft, lie, launch angle, hook, fade, etc. A company representative suggested that I settle on the loft first, then fool around with the other variables. I cranked it all the way up, to 11.5 degrees, and since then I’ve been trying the two 8-gram “Fast Track” weights in different positions—currently, right in the middle. To move the weights, you loosen them with the included torque wrench, then slide them into new positions and tighten them until the wrench clicks in a way that makes you think you’ve broken the club.

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And you do have to turn the wrench until it clicks. A couple of weeks ago, Rick began hitting uncharacteristically lousy shots with his own driver, which is several years old. Eventually, he realized that the shaft had come slightly loose. He borrowed a wrench from the golf shop when we made the turn (this was just a friendly round), and resumed booming it down the middle.

Mizuno sells the JPX 900 with a Fujikura Speeder EVO II graphite, in either regular or stiff flex. My clubs have always had stiff shafts (except when I’ve accidentally bought one that didn’t), but I’m getting on in years and decided that it was time to try something more age-appropriate. So my new driver has a regular shaft that has been “tipped” slightly—that is, a little bit of the skinny end was removed before the shaft was installed. That made it stiffer than a regular shaft, but less stiff than a stiff one—a baby step toward the grave.

Addison, conversely, has golf clubs with stiff shafts that have been tipped, making them a little bit stiffer than stiff. But he’s 25.

Fred Astaire, Trick-shot Artist

circa 1938: Fred Astaire (1899 - 1987), the American singer and dancer on the golf course. (Photo by John Miehle/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

(Photo by John Miehle/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Fred Astaire’s proudest achievement in life, he told an interviewer in 1982, was “a 4-wood I hit on the 13th hole at Bel-Air Country Club in June of 1945.” (It landed on the green and rolled into the cup.) His handicap was 10, approximately. He was a worse player than Humphrey Bogart, but a better one than Glenn Ford, who portrayed Ben Hogan in “Follow the Sun,” very possibly the worst movie ever made.

Fred Astaire at the Masters in 1946 or 1947. Anyone recognize the competitor on the right? His badge identifies him as Player 29. (Photo by Augusta National/Getty Images)

Astaire wanted to incorporate golf into a dance routine. “Fooling around at Bel-Air one day,” he recalled, “I did a few impromptu rhythm steps just before hitting one off the tee, and was surprised to find that I could really connect that way.” He demonstrated for the director of the movie he was working on—Carefree, co-starring Ginger Rogers, released in 1938—and they incorporated it into the film.

There’s a widely told story that Astaire did the sequence in one take, and that his shots all landed within a few feet of each other—all untrue. RKO set up a driving range on its lot in Encino three weeks before principal photography began, and Astaire practiced the moves for two weeks. “I had about 300 golf balls and five men shagging them, a piano and Hal Borne to play for me,” he recalled. The final sequence involved many takes over two days, and what you see in the movie was pieced together from the best bits. In the clip below, the golf stuff starts about a minute in. Notice that Astaire wears two golf gloves (with buttons!) throughout.

Bobby Jones And Fred Astaire At The Augusta National Golf Club (Photo by Augusta National/Getty Images)

Same Masters. This golfer I can identify. (Photo by Augusta National/Getty Images)

An Easy-to-wrap Gift for All True Golfers

The great English humorist P. G. Wodehouse—the creator of Jeeves, Wooster, and Psmith, among numerous other unforgettable characters—wrote two dozen stories about golf, most of them featuring the Oldest Member, who no longer plays but haunts the clubhouse at Marvis Bay Golf and Country Club and, once he has begun reminiscing and philosophizing, can’t be stopped. Wodehouse published 19 of the stories in two golf-only volumes, The Clicking of Cuthbert and The Heart of a Goof.

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The Overlook Press, which for 45 years has specialized in books that other publishers have paid insufficient attention to, has re-published both volumes in an attractive boxed set. Wodehouse should be considered mandatory reading for all serious golfers, and the boxed set makes an especially appealing gift because it is perfectly rectangular and therefore easy to wrap.

A sample, from “The Heel of Achilles”:

Golf is in its essence a simple game. You laugh in a sharp, bitter, barking manner when I say this, but nevertheless it is true. Where the average man goes wrong is in making the game difficult for himself. Observe the non-player, the man who walks round with you for the sake of the fresh air. He will hole out with a single care-free flick of his umbrella the twenty-foot putt over which you would ponder and hesitate for a full minute before sending it right off the line. . . . A man who could retain through his golfing career the almost scornful confidence of the non-player would be unbeatable. Fortunately such an attitude of mind is beyond the scope of human nature.

Overlook offers other Wodehouse sets, too. It has also republished, in paperback, the entire oeuvre of Charles Portis, whose (golf-free) 1979 masterpiece, The Dog of the South, is the funniest American novel since Huckleberry Finn. Better buy two of everything, in case no one thinks of giving them to you.

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Who Needs Bunker Rakes?

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Golf, much more than other sports, is a game of good and bad luck. A great drive rolls into a divot: bogey. A lousy drive bounces off a boundary stake: birdie. Such unpredictability isn’t a defect. The tension between happy accidents and undeserved disasters helps to turn mere hackers into obsessives and philosophers. To make tennis comparably thought-provoking, you’d have to shift the lines during rallies and randomly lift and lower the net.

Yet golfers complain. Instead of savoring the game’s sublime inconsistency, we yearn for courses as predictable as tennis courts. We grumble when greens aren’t flawless, when fairways aren’t uniformly carpet-like, when sand is either too fluffy or not fluffy enough. A friend of mine once skulled an explosion shot, then slammed his wedge against his bag and cursed the greenkeeper’s crew for having failed to undo the effects of the previous day’s hard rain. Tour pros are even more finicky. If the sand in one trap isn’t indistinguishable from the sand in every other, they gripe.

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Complaints about “unfair” bunkers are especially contrary to the spirit of golf: aren’t hazards supposed to be hazardous? On TV, the standard greenside-bunker shot is about as thrilling to watch as a two-foot putt. You know the guy is going to spin it close, and he knows he’s going to spin it close—otherwise, he wouldn’t have yelled “Get in the bunker!” when his ball was in the air. Sand’s function in a tour event is often just to make the surrounding grass seem troublesome.

There’s a simple remedy: follow the example of Pine Valley, the legendary New Jersey golf club, which for decades has been listed at or near the top of nearly every ranking of the best courses in the world. Pine Valley has many, many bunkers—some small, some large, some soft, some hard some coffin-shaped, some bottomless, some seemingly miles across—but no rakes. The club’s maintenance regularly smooths everything out, but, if your ball ends up in a footprint (or behind a rock or under a cactus), that’s your tough luck, and you deal with it. As you should.

Rake-free bunkers would make televised golf a lot more interesting to watch. They would even be good for choppers like you and me. Pristine, consistent bunkers are expensive to build and maintain. Why not let a course’s sandy areas take care of themselves, and spend the savings on something more obviously beneficial, like cutting back overgrown trees? Most golfers, who can’t hit sand shots anyway, wouldn’t notice a difference. (That guy I mentioned earlier skulls balls from well-conditioned bunkers, too.) Everyone else either would learn an arsenal of useful new shots or would get better at doing what bunkers are supposed to make golfers want to do: stay out of them in the first place.

An Election Day Golf Game

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My regular golf buddies and I don’t need much encouragement to leave work early. On Election Day in 2008, six of us decided that filling in circles on machine-readable ballots was all the hard labor that we could manage on an unseasonably balmy November afternoon, and that no one could blame us for spending the rest of the day on the golf course. Tim—who is the inventor of several of our core concepts, including negative skins, “shooting your pants,” and the mathematical formula by which we predict the winning team score in our regular Sunday morning games (13 minus the lowest handicap in the field, times -1)—said that he would come up with an appropriate competition by the time we teed off.

Tim (left) and Gary (our terrific superintendent).

Tim (left) and Gary (our terrific superintendent).

What he came up with was the Presidential Special. He assigned each hole an electoral-college value equal to the sum of its number and its handicap stroke index. Our fifth hole, for example, is our tenth handicap hole, so it was worth 15 electoral votes (5 + 10 = 15). We called it North Carolina. The most valuable hole was No. 16, California, which is our seventeenth handicap hole (16 + 17 = 33); the least valuable was No. 4, Delaware, which was worth just 5. The entire course added up to 342 electoral votes, 172 needed to win.

Before we began, we divided into two three-man teams by throwing balls, then assigned the candidates by flipping a tee. (No one else was on the course, so we played as a sixsome.) I drew McCain, who promptly lost the first hole, Pennsylvania, worth 13 electoral votes. McCain won the second, but picked up only 7—Arizona. Then Obama went on a run, crushing drives and sinking putts from everywhere, and McCain didn’t take another hole until the tenth, Texas. The election was technically still up for grabs, since the back nine was worth 60 percent of the total, but Obama didn’t let up, and he clinched the match on the twelfth, Ohio, a par-three worth 27. It was over before the polls even opened in Hawaii. We switched to skins for the remaining six holes, since Tim couldn’t figure out how to play for cabinet appointments.