My Latest Golf Dream

Most of my recent golf dreams have been like the one I had last night:

I was at a fancy golf club with Hacker (real name) and two other friends from home. Teeing off ahead of us was Jack Nicklaus and three his-age old guys. The teeing area was at the top of what looked like a miniature ski jump. At first I thought the guys with Nicklaus were friends of his, but then I realized that they were part of some outing—like, maybe they had won their round in a contest, or had bought it in an auction. They were taking forever, and they were kind of hard to see, and after a long time Nicklaus waved to my friends and me and told us to go ahead. We ran to get our clubs, which for some reason we had left somewhere else, then climbed up the ski-jump thing—the top of which was now indoors and looked like an olden-days railroad office, with lots of desks and chairs and boxes and dark wood paneling. I was going to tee off first, but I had a hard time finding room to swing, because I now saw that I was going to have to hit my drive through a fairly small window and there were chairs and desks in the way. This went on for a long, long time. I tried to tee up my ball on a chair cushion and wondered why the only holes in the cushion were the ones that I was making now, with my tee: had no one teed off from this chair before? Then I realized that I was aiming toward the wrong window, and had to start over, in a new place. Then I realized that I really ought to be aiming at a third window, and after more struggling with my stance I realized, furthermore, that this third window could be opened in a different way—a way that made the opening somewhat larger. Everything kept taking forever, and I never seemed to have enough room to swing, and I worried about hitting a bad shot in front of Nicklaus, and I wondered if Nicklaus was now regretting having told my friends and me to go ahead. I also wondered why no other golfers had come up behind us. Then Nicklaus said something supportive, and I woke up.

Playing Golf on a Day When Most Golfers Think It’s Too Cold to Play Golf

I took the photo above last Thursday at Keney Park, a muny on the east side of Hartford, Connecticut, a little over an hour from where I live. Barney, Paul, and I couldn’t scrounge up a fourth, mainly because the temperature when we left home was in the thirties. But the sign above says it all. Even if you live to be 100, you don’t get so much time on this side of the wall that you can afford to squander golf days.

Eight or ten years ago, the Sunday Morning Group played quite a few winter rounds at Keney, mainly because it was one of the few courses we knew about that stayed open. It was in terrible shape, but you could tell that at some point it had been terrific. Then it closed, and underwent a big renovation. This was the first time any of us had been back.

When we first played Keney, I assumed that it had begun as a private club. But it’s always been a muny. Devereux Emmet designed the first nine in 1927, and Robert Ross, a city engineer, added a second nine in 1930. The clubhouse was built in 1934, using bricks from an old orphanage and a demolished post office. The workers were employed by the Civil Works Administration, a federal relief agency during the early years of the Great Depression. The city of Hartford closed the course in 2013, spent $11 million restoring and renovating it, and reopened it in 2016. It’s awesome, and worth playing in any weather. And the green fee, for Barney and me, walking, was $19. (Paul isn’t sixty-two yet, so he had to pay full price: $30.)

 

Here’s Why Golfers Should Not Pay Attention to Weather Forecasts

The Friday forecast was for thunderstorms all day long: on wunderground.com, the little icon for every hour of the day was a dark cloud with a lightning bolt streaking out of it. But Barney, Mike B., Tim D., and I decided keep our morning tee time at the Links at Union Vale, about an hour west of where we live. And we were right to ignore the forecast. During our round, there wasn’t even a distant hint of thunder, and we had a total of maybe ten minutes of light rain. Mike B., above, was the only one of us to carry an umbrella, and he used it only briefly. We all took off our rain jackets after a few holes, and wished we’d worn shorts. And, because other golfers have more faith in meteorologists than we do, we had the place virtually to ourselves.

The course was built in the late nineties by New York City golfers. A group of Irish players from Van Cortlandt, Pelham Bay/Split Rock, and other munis in the metropolitan area got fed up with the summer crowds and decided to build a place of their own within weekend commuting distance. Roughly eighty of them bought shares, at ten thousand dollars apiece, then found two hundred acres of cattle-grazing farmland and hired Stephen Kay and Doug Smith to design a course for them. The investors knew of Kay because he had done some work on the bunkers at Van Cortlandt and because he had designed an Irish-style course, the Links of North Dakota, that they liked very much. He built the course for about two and a half million dollars—a pittance even then.

Many of Union Vale’s members belong to one or another of the many Irish golf associations in and around New York City. They allow themselves preferential tee times and charge themselves reduced fees, but their club is open to everyone. The course itself looks and plays more than a little like an Irish links course, and every tee box is sponsored by a different metropolitan-are Irish golf club, and the clubhouse is well stocked with Guinness. We paid the winter rate—thirty-five bucks for eighteen holes, walking—and we’re going back next Friday, forecast be damned.

Lazy Post About CBS Announcers and Eighth Grade Math

Sparco Lightweight Compass

We learned today, during the Travelers Championship broadcast, that Bryson DeChambeau uses a compass (see above) when he studies the green-slope diagrams in his yardage book. The CBS announcers, more than once, called it a protractor (see below). Calling all math teachers!

Image result for protractor

On Wearing Hats Indoors

When I was a lad, I was told that polite men don’t wear hats inside buildings, and I must have internalized that concept because I almost always reflexively take off my golf cap when I pass through a door. Or so I believe. But it would be hard for me or anyone else to argue that indoor hat removal—unlike, say, rescuing kittens or not stealing other people’s rangefinders—has obvious, inherent social value. It’s just a custom that some people in some cultures have decided they care about, probably because someone at some point told them they ought to care about it (but not why). And in some other cultures covered heads have an entirely different significance, which supersedes the broodings of golf-club house committees.

One golf-related difficulty with indoor-hat prohibitions is that they can make it hard to spot the stranger you just played with, when you try to find him in the bar after your round. (“Were you bald on the golf course, too?”) Another problem is that wearing a hat for several hours on a hot day can do terrible things to the hair of people who do have hair, even if they try to repair it in the locker room before going to lunch. Still another is that posting signs about hats, as a couple of clubs I’ve visited in recent years now do, seems less civilized than forgetting to take them off—like putting up signs that say “Chew with your mouth closed” or “Shake hands when you meet someone new.” It may be true that “gentlemen” generally remove their hats when they go inside, but if you visit gentlemen’s houses you won’t find signs reminding them to do it.

A friend of mine once took three guests to his golf club, and after their round they reconvened in the grill room for a beer. The guests were still wearing their golf caps, in violation of the club’s “no-covers-under-cover” policy, which they didn’t know about, and, before their host could warn them, the club president “walked over, stuck his head between mine and theirs, and loudly asked me to ask them to remove their hats.” In doing so, he ruined what until that moment had been a terrific day for four people, and to what end? No matter what you think about the wearing hats indoors, pointlessly creating humiliating spectacles is worse. As the etiquette authority Amy Vanderbilt wrote in 1952, “Some of the rudest and most objectionable people I have ever know have been technically the most ‘correct.’”

Masters Countdown: Why So Few Commercials?

Augusta National’s proposed 1966 broadcast contract with CBS required both that the tournament be shown in color and that commercials be limited to two minutes per half hour. CBS executives were appalled by the advertising provisions, which they viewed as naïve. But Clifford Roberts, the club’s chairman, believed that commercials were not only less intrusive but more effective if they were used sparingly. (Roberts also felt that sixty-second commercials, the standard at the time, were too long—a view that advertisers and television networks later came to believe themselves.)

Roberts wasn’t opposed to advertising. Indeed, the club and not CBS had been the source of all the broadcast’s sponsors during the decade the tournament had been on the air. Augusta National’s earliest television contracts had called for CBS to pay the club a fee of $10,000 if it carried the broadcast on a “sustaining” basis—that is, without a commercial sponsor—and $40,000 if an acceptable advertiser could be found. CBS had failed to find a sponsor for either 1956 or 1957—a fact that may seem astonishing to a modern viewer but was not necessarily unusual at the time—so the first two broadcasts were commercial-free.

In 1958, the club stepped in and provided a sponsor of its own: American Express, which remained with the broadcast until 1962. Travelers became a sponsor in 1959. Cluett, Peabody & Co., the manufacturer of Arrow shirts, replaced American Express in 1962, and was in turn replaced by Cadillac in 1969. (Not coincidentally, American Express, Travelers, Cluett-Peabody, and General Motors—as well as Young & Rubicam, the advertising agency that represented the early sponsors—were all run by club members.) Roberts had first suggested Cadillac as a sponsor in 1958, but CBS had rejected the idea. “Television is a mass medium,” a network executive responded dismissively, “and Cadillacs are not merchandised to the masses—even though it appears that way in some parts of the country.”

Roberts felt that the best commercials were ones that fit in with the tournament as seamlessly as possible. He especially like ones that had golf themes, if not Masters themes, and he encouraged advertisers to take advantage of the club as a shooting location. The Arrow commercials were shot on the course itself shortly before the tournament began. One—a laughably sexist tableau featuring two attractive young models wearing Arrow’s “Mr. Golf” and “Miss Golf” shirts, which cost five dollars and were made of a cotton-and-Dacron blend called Decton—was filmed on the practice putting green; another featured two couples enjoying a friendly match at Amen Corner. In 1964, one Arrow commercial showed a Decton-clad young man enjoying a beverage behind the clubhouse and then hitting a ball with a Masters logo on it.

Despite CBS’s objections, the club refused to back down on the commercial issue. Roberts knew that the Miss America Pageant had won a similar concession, and he made it clear that he was prepared to change networks in order to get what he wanted, as the pageant had. CBS had to give in. The restriction became a part of the signed agreement, and a similar one has been a part of every one of the club’s television contracts since that time. The minimal number of commercials during a Masters broadcast is even more striking today than it was then. In the early sixties, the standard allocation for advertisements in a two-and-a-half hour program was eighteen minutes. Today, programs sometimes cram nearly that much advertising into a single hour.

Although the terms of the proposed contract were tough, Roberts’s aim was not to harm or humiliate CBS but rather to guarantee that the Masters would receive the sort of television treatment he felt it deserved. Most of the key provisions actually worked to the ultimate benefit of the network. With fewer commercials to work into the broadcast, the program’s directors had a broader canvas on which to work and were in far less danger of cutting away from important action—a major peril in the days before instant replays. Even the insistence on color probably helped CBS, by forcing the network to take a necessary step somewhat earlier than it would have done on its own.

Masters Countdown: How Augusta National Persuaded CBS to Broadcast the Tournament in Color

The first live nationwide broadcast of a golf tournament took place in 1954, when NBC provided limited coverage of the U. S. Open, at Baltusrol, beginning at the seventeenth green. NBC owned the broadcast rights to the Masters as well, and Clifford Roberts, who was Augusta National’s co-founder and chairman, wanted his tournament to be carried on television, too.

NBC, however, was not interested. The network’s (understandable) feeling may have been that one major money-losing golf program was enough. Still, Roberts persisted, and early in 1956, under pressure from the club, Tom S. Gallery, who was the director of sports at NBC, wrote to Roberts to say that NBC was declining to exercise the renewal option in its current contract. That meant, Gallery wrote, that Augusta National was “free to make such arrangements as it sees fit with respect to the radio and television rights to the 1956 Tournament.”  The club hastily made a new agreement, with CBS, and the first Masters television broadcast took place less than a month later. Golf fans in most of the country were able to watch live as Jack Burke beat Ken Venturi by a single stroke.

CBS has carried the tournament ever since, although Augusta National renegotiates the every year. The closest Roberts ever came to moving the tournament to a different network occurred in the early sixties, and it involved the issue of broadcasting in color. Augusta National wanted the Masters to be shown in color, and CBS did not want to make the change. The club had begun pushing for color in the early sixties without success, and in a letter in 1964 Roberts called color the club’s “most difficult problem” with the network. Jones suggested, the same year, that the club might be able to circumvent CBS by showing the tournament on closed-circuit television in movie theaters, as was sometimes done with boxing matches. Roberts looked into the idea, but eventually rejected it. “I cannot visualize golf fans buying a five dollar ticket in order to spend an afternoon in a theater to watch the Masters Tournament or any other tournament,” he wrote to Jones. “They do it in connection with a world championship fight, about which there is always great excitement, but I question if golf fans will ever get excited to that extent about a golf tournament.”

In resisting color, CBS argued (among other things) that the number of cameras it used on the course would have to be cut back, and that the number of holes shown on the broadcast would therefore have to be reduced. As the club discovered, that claim was disingenuous. While it was true that CBS could handle only a limited number of color cameras with the two remote broadcast units that it used at that time, the problem could be solved by adding a third unit, a change that would have a cost but would be relatively easy. The club also felt that CBS had overstated the probable expense of switching to color.

That CBS put up a fight over color was in many ways surprising, because CBS, in 1939, had developed the world’s first color-television system. That system was based on a camera in which a wheel containing red, blue, and green filters was spun at high speed before the lens. In 1950, the Federal Communications Commission, after lengthy hearings, chose CBS’s system as the national color-television standard. In doing so, it rejected a competing system that had been developed by RCA, which owned NBC. The RCA system—which used three separate tubes—had the advantage of producing images that looked good on black-and-white sets, while CBS’s system did not. But the FCC believed that the RCA system was unreliable, and CBS carried the day.

The victory was short-lived. CBS made a few attempts to broadcast in color, but its system didn’t catch on. Then RCA found ways to improve and simplify its own system. Late in 1953, the FCC reversed itself and approved the new RCA standard, and real color broadcasting began. NBC moved aggressively, investing in new equipment and marketing itself as the color network. (Hence the origin of the network’s peacock logo). It had an extra incentive to do so, since the rise of color programming increased demand for color TV sets manufactured by the network’s corporate parent, RCA. Still, the transition was slow. The number of color sets in use in the United States did not reach a million until 1962.

CBS, which had been stung by its early foray into color, held back. The network’s hesitancy did not immediately appear short-sighted, because for a time color seemed as though it might not catch on at all. By the early sixties, however, the club believed that CBS was lagging. The program’s sponsors encouraged Roberts to push for color, and one of them warned him that the broadcast would come to be viewed as “second rate” if the change were not made soon. In January of 1964, William Kerr, who was the chairman of Augusta National’s television committee, wrote to William MacPhail, who was the director of sports at CBS, “I am deeply concerned that if we continue to stand still on this score it will be detrimental to the best interests of the Tournament, the sponsors, and CBS.” Since 1960, the club had commissioned a movie of each tournament, mainly because Roberts wanted to create a permanent visual record of the Masters. (CBS had been offered the opportunity to produce the films for the club but had turned it down.) In 1964, he asked the director of the films to send copies to CBS, to show the network “what this place looks like in color during the Tournament.”

At around the same time, CBS was coming under similar pressure from another major event on its schedule, the Miss America Pageant. The pageant’s owners wanted a color broadcast, and they asked CBS, which had carried the program for years, to submit a proposal. CBS’s cost estimate was so high that pageant officials decided the network was trying to make the pageant’s sponsors bear most of the cost of upgrading the entire CBS system. Largely as a result, they moved the program to NBC—a great blow to CBS, since the pageant broadcast had become the top-rated special program in history, with ratings nearly as high as those of the two episodes of the Ed Sullivan Show on which the Beatles appeared in 1964.

Unhappiness over the color issue led Augusta National to demand a renegotiation of its contract with CBS. The club’s side of the bargaining was handled by a young New York attorney named J. Richard Ryan, who had represented the Miss America Pageant in its own fight with the network. Not surprisingly, the contract that resulted from those negotiations required CBS to show the tournament in color. Even more important, ultimately, was a provision that limited CBS to just two minutes of commercials per half hour and prohibited “chain breaks,” which were brief commercials sold by local stations. More about all that in another post.

Master’s Countdown: The Crow’s Nest

Augusta National’s clubhouse exists today only because when the club began, in 1931, Clifford Roberts and Bobby Jones didn’t have enough money to tear it down and replace it with something nice. The building is smaller than it looks; much of its apparent bulk comes from its porches, which are nine and a half feet deep and run all the way around. In 1931, it contained fourteen rooms, but most of them were cramped and dark, and there was no kitchen, no electricity, and no plumbing. The ground floor had been described by its builder, in 1857, as a basement, and the entire building had been unoccupied since 1918. Roberts and Jones hired a local architect to draw plans for a huge, fancy replacement—and they would have built it if at that point they hadn’t owed money to just about everyone for just about everything, including toilet paper.

The club’s financial situation improved as the nation’s did, and toward the end of the Great Depression a group of members donated fifty thousand dollars toward a major renovation of the building. This was a great stroke of luck. Roberts wrote later that, if the project had not been undertaken before the war, “there is no telling when it might ever have been accomplished.” He also estimated that if the renovation had been postponed it would have cost at least four times as much.

The final step in the project was the conversion of the building’s attic into minimal sleeping quarters for a handful of members. This dormitory, which came to be called the Crow’s Nest, was the first overnight lodgings on the grounds. Before it was completed, members and guests from elsewhere usually stayed in one of the hotels downtown. The dormitory was finished at around the time the club reopened following the war.

The Crow’s Nest is still sometimes used by members and guests, although the steepness of the staircase limits its popularity among those with unreliable knees.  During the Masters, it’s offered to any of the tournament’s amateur competitors who wish to stay there, and at night they are inevitably drawn downstairs to thumb through the books in the library, study the photographs on the walls, stand for a while in the champions’ locker room, and worry about teeing off the next morning in front of the multitude gathered around the first tee. Players who slept in the Crow’s Nest as amateurs and went on to win the tournament as professionals include Ben Crenshaw, Jack Nicklaus, Mark O’Meara, Craig Stadler, Tiger Woods, and Phil Mickelson.

I’ve stayed in the Crow’s Nest, too. When I was working on my book The Making of the Masters, in the late nineteen-nineties, I slept in quite a few places at the club, among them Roberts’s old “suite,” a couple of the cabins, and the rooms known then as the Bachelor Quarters. The Crow’s Nest was my favorite by far. Bed, bathroom, card table, TV, comfortable chair, bar at the bottom of the stairs—what more do you need?

Renovation of the Crow’s Nest was followed by a far more ambitious project to add beds. The quality and availability of local hotel rooms had become unpredictable, and Roberts believed that the club needed to become more self-sufficient. In 1945, Edward J. Barber, a member who owned a steamship line in New York, surprised Roberts by offering to lend the club a hundred thousand dollars on favorable terms and to leave the club enough money in his will to cancel the debt. (Upon his death, in 1953, he actually bequeathed twice as much.) Barber explained that his years as a golfer were running out, and he wanted the club’s facilities to improve while he was still around to enjoy them.

The Perfect Winter Adjunct to Golf

I have a short article in the current New Yorker about curling, a sport that most people think about only during the winter Olympics, if then. Curling is actually distantly related to golf, as you’ll see. But even if it weren’t it would still be the perfect winter game for golfers whose golf courses have been unplayable since virtually Thanksgiving, as all the ones near me have been.

I didn’t mention this in my article, but a common rookie mistake in curling is failing to anticipate that, because of the crouching position that curlers assume as they begin a throw, the middle-aged-male wardrobe malfunction known as plumber’s butt could also be called curler’s butt. Also, novices tend to fall down. But it’s a great game, and I wish my golf club would build a couple of “sheets”, ideally where the tennis courts are now. There’s a curling club next to a nine-hole golf course in a town about an hour north of here. That’s not as far away as the club I wrote about, although it’s still pretty far. Or maybe not.

Anyway, the photo below is of Aysha and Angela, the two young women I mention in the article. We took a lesson together, and when we finished they were at least thinking about signing up.