Is This the Best Overseas Golf Itinerary?

I have an article in the summer issue of Links called “England’s Golf Coast.” It’s about a remarkable thirty-mile stretch of linksland that runs along the Lancashire coast between Liverpool and St. Annes, in northwestern England. The Golf Coast includes three of the ten courses on the active Open Championship Rota—Royal Liverpool, Royal Birkdale (where this year’s Open will be held), and Royal Lytham and St. Annes—but you could skip all three and still have an unforgettable trip. I’ve visited the area several times, most recently in 2013, and my friends have been talking about going back ever since our first trip there as a group, three years before that. The courses are so closely spaced that you can park yourself and your luggage in one place—no need for a coach and driver. In 2010, nine of us stayed mostly in three three-bedroom apartments in this building, in Southport:

The cost worked out to less than fifty dollars per man per night. The longest drive we had to golf was about an hour, and many of the courses we played were just a few minutes away. Here’s Barney in the living room of one of our apartments:

Below are photos of courses and people I mention in my Links article, taken during various trips over the years. First, St. Annes Old Links, which is next door to Royal Lytham and includes ground that was once part of its routing. Here are two members I played with. We wore rainsuits not because we expected rain but because the wind was blowing hard enough to shred ordinary golf clothing:

This is me in 2010 at West Lancashire Golf Club, known locally as West Lancs. It opened in 1873 and was the first Golf Coast course built north of the River Mersey. As is true of many courses in the area, you can travel to it by train from central Liverpool:A great guide to golf courses on the Lancashire coast is Links Along the Line, by Harry Foster, a retired teacher and a social historian. He rode along when I played Hesketh Golf Club, where he was a member for many years. (He died in 2014.)Hesketh isn’t my favorite course, but a couple of its oldest holes, on the second nine, are among my favorite holes. This view is back toward the clubhouse (the red-roofed white building near the center):

Hesketh has both a fascinating history (ask about the Hitler Tree) and a cool address:

In 2013, Foster and his wife joined me for dinner in the dining room at Formby Golf Club, one of my favorite courses anywhere. I actually spent several nights in the Formby clubhouse, in this room:

The Formby course encircles a separate golf club, Formby Ladies. Don’t skip it, as I did until 2013, to my permanent regret. Among the women I played with was Anne Bromley, on the right in the photo below. Her father was once the head professional at Royal County Down:

Formby Ladies isn’t long, but if you aren’t careful it will eat you up. The club has an excellent history, which you can study over lunch in the clubhouse (known to members as the Monkey House):At a nature preserve down the road from Formby, I met a retired Merseyside policeman and his wife, who own a coffee concession. He invited me to join him and his son, an aspiring professional, for a round at Southport & Ainsdale, which hosted the Ryder Cup in 1933 and 1937 and the British Amateur in 2005.The first hole at S&A is a par 3, and it’s a corker:Right next door to S&A, on the other side of the railroad tracks, is Hillside:

And right next door to Hillside is Royal Birkdale, whose clubhouse was designed to look a little like an ocean liner:

Birkdale is one of my favorite Open courses. I played it with a young member who had a lot less trouble with it than I did. In fact, he shot pretty close to even par:

In both 2010 and 2013, I spent one night in the Dormy House at Royal Lytham and St. Annes—part of a stay-and-play package that’s one of the greatest bargains in links golf. The view from my bedroom was across the practice green (and through mist) toward the clubhouse and the eighteenth hole:Here’s what the wind at Lytham—which wasn’t blowing when I took the photo below—has done to the trees. Many years ago, I wrote an article for Golf Digest whose opening line was “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows at Royal Lytham & St. Annes.” The copy editor, who had apparently never heard of Bob Dylan, changed “weatherman” to “weather report.” I was mortified, but it turned out that none of the magazine’s readers had heard of Bob Dylan either. Anyway, leave your umbrella at home:You should play Royal Liverpool, of course, but don’t overlook Wallasey, just a few miles away:Wallasey was the home club of Dr. Frank Stableford, who in 1932 invented the round-rescuing scoring system that’s named for him. Here are the eighteenth green and the clubhouse:And, of course, if you somehow get tired of playing golf you can take any of a number of interesting side trips:

My Amazing Eagle at Cabot Cliffs This Morning

Look closely at the edge of the cliff on the right side of the photo below, which was taken by Gene’s caddie on the sixteenth tee at Cabot Cliffs this morning:
Here’s a closer look:

And closer still:
Bald eagles are practically as common as robins in Inverness, Nova Scotia—one of many reasons, though by no means the only reason, to take a golf trip to Cabot Links and Cabot Cliffs, as a detachment from the Sunday Morning Group did this past week. More about that later.

Back-Roads Scotland: Tain Golf Club

Tain is an Old Tom Morris layout on southern side of Dornoch Firth. It’s less than five miles in a straight line from Royal Dornoch, and less than ten miles by car. I played it in 1992, on my first golf trip to Scotland. Jerry Quinlan, of Celtic Golf, who planned my trip, had arranged for me to play with the club’s general manager and one of the members. I got lost in the town and didn’t arrive at the club until exactly eight, when we were supposed to tee off. Here’s where I got lost:

The manager, whose name was Norman, and the member, whose name was Ian, were already on the tee when I pulled up. Ian looked peeved and impatient. I jumped from my car, pulled on my shoes, breathlessly hit a drive without a practice swing or a waggle, and took off after them.

Norman and Ian, it turned out, where playing in a club competition. Even so, they played at a pace that would have staggered the average American golfer. I have friends at home who think I play ridiculously fast, but I had to concentrate to keep up. I watched them closely, to make sure I put down my bag on the side of the green that was nearest the next tee, and I always had to be aware of whose turn it was to do what. No plumb-bobbing!

If there was any doubt about the playing order, one of them would quickly establish it. “First David, then myself, then Ian,” Norman said on one hole as he pulled the pin. Each golfer was expected to line up his putt or select his next club while the others were putting or hitting. Even so, we played more slowly than the two players behind us, who occasionally had to wait.

Tain is surrounded by farms and separated from Dornoch Firth by fields full of sheep; at one point, I had to retrieve my ball from a pigpen, which was out of bounds. Still, my round was one of the happiest of my trip. After I had jogged along with Norman and Ian for a couple of holes, they apparently forgave me for being late, and from then on we chatted between shots. Norman told me where to aim on every tee—the bunker on the left, the last tree on the right—and I manged to hit my ball on the proper line surprisingly often. Later, it occurred to me that my unaccustomed accuracy was probably the result of my aiming at something. Before that day, I don’t think I had ever aimed a drive at anything smaller than the entire fairway—in effect, aiming at nothing.

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After our round, Norman and Ian bought me a beer in the clubhouse bar. The two players who had been behind us were also there. Ian good-naturedly complained to them that they had talked too loudly during their match, and that their voices had bothered him. “If you had been playing at the proper pace,” one of them said, “you would have been too far ahead to hear me.”

Atlantic City Country Club: Great Golf Course, Great Locker Room, Great Bar

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Every autumn, the Sunday Morning Group takes an end-of-season golf trip to Atlantic City, which, in addition to being a cesspool of sin, depravity, and despair, is a terrific low-cost, high-quality golf destination. During this year’s trip—our seventeenth—we added a new course to our rotation: Atlantic City Country Club. It’s now one of our all-time favorites, along with Twisted Dune, the Bay Course at Seaview, Renault Winery, and Scotland Run—courses that would stand out anywhere. Here are a few reasons to visit ACCC, which has been open to the public since 2007:

  • The club was founded in 1897, so next year will be its 120th anniversary.
  • In the olden days, a bell was rung to warn golfers that the last trolley back to Atlantic City was about to depart. Timing was an issue because high tide sometimes covered the tracks, making the schedule irregular. Also, everyone was drunk.

  • The term “birdie,” in its golf application, was coined there in 1903, when Abner Smith, a member from Philadelphia, hit his approach stiff on the what was then the twelfth hole. He exclaimed that he had hit “a bird of a shot,” and the term caught on, partly thorough his own encouragement. (That hole, with a different green, is now the second. The original second green has been preserved, for historical reasons, as a remote practice area.)
  • The men’s locker room is one of the greatest male sanctuaries on earth:

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  • The U.S. Amateur was held there in 1901.
  • The U. S. Women’s Open has been held there three times. In 1948, it was won by Babe Zaharias, who celebrated afterward by playing the piano in the club’s Taproom.
  • Arnold Palmer played there often in the 1950s, when he was in the Coast Guard and stationed nearby, and he has an honorary locker (which was shrouded in black, to mark his death, during our visit):

  • Al Capone, Bob Hope, Willie Mays, and Joe Namath also played there and also have honorary lockers.
  • Oh, yeah, and the course—which was designed partly by Willie Park, Jr., among others, and was reworked in 1999 by Tom Doak—is swell, too:

My Latest Favorite Golf Accessory

In May, eleven buddies and I spent a week playing golf in Ireland, and one of the guys on the trip, Mike B., brought a travel accessory I’d never heard of: a pair of cigar-shaped electric boot dryers, which he takes on ski trips. When I’m traveling, I usually dry wet golf shoes by balancing them upside down on the shade of a bedside lamp in my hotel room (a method made both less hazardous and less effective by the death of the incandescent bulb) or by wedging them between the dashboard and windshield in my rental car and blasting them with the defroster. At home, I’ve always leaned wet golf shoes against a wall in front of a small portable fan.

We had such great weather in Ireland that Mike never had to use his boot dryers, but they got me to thinking. Recently, I bought a larger, at home-version: a shoe-and-boot dryer made by a company called Peet. It stands just under two feet tall and consists of two cylindrical plastic chimneys mounted on a sturdy plastic base. You place wet shoes upside down on the chimneys, and by morning they’re dry and toasty, inside and out. The device is silent, and it’s so gentle that it won’t harm fancy leather, but it thoroughly dries even shoes you’ve worn while playing all day in the rain.

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When I bought my Peet dryer, I expected to use it only on golf shoes I’d worn in crummy weather, but since then I’ve realized that it’s great for shoes and boots of all kinds, and that even on nice days ordinary perspiration can make the inside of your shoes damp to the touch. Dry shoes last longer, and they don’t get stinky. My wife now uses my Peet dryer on her hockey skates, too. In fact, before long we may have to trade up to the two-pair model.

Your Golf Course is Too Long For You

Every October since 2000, the Sunday Morning Group has taken an end-of-season weekend golf trip to Atlantic City.
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For the past four years, we’ve allowed every player on the trip to play from any set of tees. Some guys worried at first that our matches and team competitions would be unfair unless everyone was “playing the same course.” But we have discovered that, as long as you calculate the handicaps correctly, the competition actually works better if golfers are able to make rational decisions about the trade-off between course yardage and handicap strokes. And that’s true even when the skill spread is huge. (Handicaps this year ranged from 0 to more than 30.)

Our experience aligns perfectly with the findings of the USGA and the PGA of America, which in 2011 introduced Tee It Forward, an initiative that “encourages players to play from a set of tees best suited to their driving distance.” According to the USGA:

I firmly believe all of that. But there are reasons you haven’t heard much about Tee It Forward since 2011, and the main one is probably the USGA’s semi-incomprehensible two-step system for calculating course handicaps when players compete from different tees. Virtually no one understands how the USGA’s system works, including, in my experience, most PGA of America head professionals. My friends and I are able to do what we do mainly because Tim, who is SMG’s mathematician-in-residence, created an Excel spreadsheet that does all the figgerin’ in the background and eliminates a potentially huge rounding error inherent in the USGA’s method. Every player on the trip, before we leave home, receives a handicap for every set of tees on every course we’re going to play, and is then free to choose:

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Another impediment to Teeing It Forward is that most golf courses stigmatize their forward tees by suggesting that they’re intended only for certain players — as at Twisted Dune, in Egg Harbor Township (a course we nevertheless all love):

It’s far, far better to rate all sets of tees for both men and women, and to give the tees gender-and-age-neutral names—as at Wintonbury Hills, in Bloomfield, Connecticut:

One discovery we’ve made during the past four years is that virtually all players, including many with single-digit handicaps, play better and have more fun if they move up — even way up. At Twisted Dune, Addison, who hits his driver 300 yards and has USGA Handicap Index of 0.4, played the black tees, from which the course measures 7,300 yards. But Brendan (8.3), Tim (12.3), and I (7.1) all played the “Senior Tees”—the yellows —from which the course is 1,500 yards shorter. When we started, Addison was so far behind us that we could barely see him. In the photo below, the red V is just above his head:

Addison loves playing from the tips, and he has more than enough game to do it. The rest of us, though, were very, very happy to move as far forward as we could.

Playing Golf, and Counting Steps, With a Microsoft Band

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This past spring, eleven friends and I took a week-long golf trip to Ireland. Shortly before we left, Microsoft sent us four Band 2 activity trackers to field-test. Addison, Matt, Peter, and I wore them for the entire trip, then took them home. I’ve worn mine every day since we got back, and the other guys have worn theirs, too. One thing I like about the Band is that it’s sleek and futuristic-looking—a major difference from the Apple Watch, which to me looks like it was designed for preschoolers: My First Wristwatch.

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During our Ireland trip, we mainly used our Bands to measure how far we walked. We played 36 holes every day but two, and I was especially interested to know whether longer, wilder hitters (Matt) walked farther than shorter, straighter hitters (me). And they did, by a noticeable amount—although the difference was blurred by the occasional willingness of the shorter, straighter hitters to detour into the dunes to help the longer, wilder hitters look for their ball. Overall, the four of us averaged about 15 miles a day, and roughly 100 miles for the week—a good workout. The longest day was the last (34,250 steps and 17.7 miles during 36 holes at Enniscrone) and the shortest was the fourth (21,336 steps and 11 miles during 18 holes at Connemara plus an afternoon hike along the shore of Lough Inagh).

Lough Inagh. (Photo by Mike Bowman)

Lough Inagh. (Photo by Mike Bowman)

Setting up our Bands was pretty easy. You download a smartphone app called Microsoft Health, and pair the Band to the phone. For some of the Band’s functions—email, messaging, current-weather updates, Cortana—the phone needs to be within Bluetooth distance; for tracking walks, hikes, runs, bike rides, workouts, heartbeats, sleep quality, and so forth it doesn’t.

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The Band is not waterproof, although it’s something more than water-resistant. I’ve accidentally worn mine in the shower (many times), in the swimming pool (once, for fifteen minutes), in the hot tub (not as often as in the shower, but almost), and in the rain (several times) — and I haven’t destroyed it yet. I’ve gotten better at remembering to take it off, but I do worry that someday I’ll go too far and it will self-destruct, the way my wife’s iPhone did when she dropped it in the toilet. I assume that if there were an economical way to make fancy electronic gadgets fully waterproof they’d all be fully waterproof. If I were in the fitness-tracker business, I’d have a team of geniuses working exclusively on water.

That's Matt on the right. His Band is the thing on his wrist, not his head.

That’s Matt on the right. His Band is the thing on his wrist, not his head.

Microsoft and TaylorMade worked together to create a golf app, which turns a Band into a GPS rangefinder, shot-counter, and golf-related-statistics-compiler. “Stay focused on your game and forget about score tracking,” the website says. “Microsoft Band tracks your shots and measures your performance as you play. Sensors can distinguish between a practice swing and an actual shot.”

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That’s all true, sort of. I wore my Band during a round at home, before our trip, and was impressed at how good it was at recognizing real golf shots. But it wasn’t perfect. It doesn’t understand about conceded putts, water hazards, out of bounds, provisional balls, or tap-ins, and if you knock away an opponent’s ball it thinks you’ve made a stroke at your own. That means that you can’t actually “forget about score tracking,” because you have to keep count independently, on a scorecard or in your head, and double-check the Band after every hole. Correcting miscounts is easy, but if you have to do all that anyway why bother with the app? The GPS part worked fine, although it was a little slow. Any GPS device pulls hard on a battery—it’s engaged in a two-way conversation with orbiting satellites—so to use it on a 36-hole day you almost certainly need to recharge between rounds. It does recharge quickly—much more quickly than a phone—and if you aren’t using an app that depends on GPS the battery will easily last two days.

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GPS is totally worth using with the app that tracks bike rides, since it gives you lots of information, including top speed, average speed, elevation gain and loss, best split, average split, and heart rate. It also superimposes your route on a map, and shows you exactly where you cruised and where you struggled. There are similar features for runners. I’m not one of those, thank goodness, but if I were I could upload Band data to various popular run-tracking utilities, too. The hiking app also maps your route, although if the GPS is in power-saving mode it makes some funny mistakes when it makes educated guesses about your next moves. I used the hiking app on the golf course one day, and it told me later that I had walked into the center of the pond on the fourth hole, then changed my mind and walked back out. But the big picture was correct.

Strandhill Golf Club, 29,730 steps, 15.3 miles.)

Strandhill Golf Club, 29,730 steps, 15.3 miles.)

The Band has some quirks. Like some other fitness trackers I’ve tried, it counts bumps and potholes on the Hutchinson River Parkway as steps (and lots of them); you can keep that from happening by taking it off, or turning it off, when you’re driving on rough roads. If I click on the “run” tile before walking my dog, it credits me with having burned more calories than it does if I leave the Band in standard step-and-heartbeat-tracking mode, even though my route and pace are exactly the same. And the difference is bigger still if I click on the “exercise” tile before taking the same walk, or before playing a round of golf. I assume that when I do those things the Band isn’t suddenly detecting some new and previously unsuspected source of energy expenditure, but is simply applying a different formula to the same small number of detectable variables. It’s a handy feature, though. I like being able to double the health benefit of taking a walk simply by clicking an icon. Look! I just earned an entire pint of Cherry Garcia!

This is the thing we're all trying to delay as long as possible (alongside the first fairway at Ballybunion, 32,282 steps, 15.6 miles)

This is the thing we’re all trying to delay as long as possible (alongside the first fairway at Ballybunion, 32,282 steps, 15.6 miles)

In lots of ways, I’m a non-ideal user of a sophisticated gadget like a Microsoft Band. I don’t want my wrist to tell me I’ve just received an email, a text message, or a smartphone notification, or to connect me to Facebook and Twitter—all chores that the Band is able to perform but that I don’t allow even my phone to handle. I don’t want to track my sleep every night (although I did do it twice, and was interested in the results, especially my “resting heart rate”). I don’t want to monitor my weight, and not only because I recently decided that from now on I’m going to weigh myself only twice a year, if that. I don’t care how many calories my activities supposedly burn, except as a rough approximation of how busy I was being, because I don’t think anyone really knows what the numbers mean. But all the potential annoyances are easy to turn off, or not to turn on on the first place, or to ignore. And there are many people who truly do love stuff like that.

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I do like counting my steps and knowing how many miles I walk when I play golf or walk my dog, and I like the cycling app, and I like to be able to check the local temperature and forecast by glancing at my wrist. I also like the small but surprisingly effective nudge the Band gives me throughout the day. You can even have it remind you to get off your butt if you’ve been motionless for too long. Quantifying even ordinary activities can inspire you to be more active, especially if you like to compete against people who are easy to beat, such as yourself. If I notice that I’m a couple of thousand steps short of some big round number, I’ll grab the leash. And that’s good for the dog as well as for me.

Troon is a Time-travel Wormhole to Machrihanish

Machrihanish is a legendary links course on the Kintyre Peninsula, in western Scotland. Part of the routing was created by Old Tom Morris in 1879, when what was then called the Kintyre Golf Club acquired additional acreage and expanded from 12 holes to 18. Machrihanish has one of the awesomest opening tee shots in golf. Here’s the first tee:

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The rest of the course is terrific, too. The only difficulty with Machrihanish is that it’s tricky to get to. The drive from Glasgow Airport can take more than three hours, with little or no hope of golf along the way. But there’s a shortcut, if you do what 11 friends and I did in 2014: charter a boat from an outfit called Kintyre Express. The trip from Troon Harbor (which is just up the road from Royal Troon) to Campbeltown Harbor (which is just down the road from Machrihanish) takes 75 minutes. That means that the round trip saves you more than enough time to squeeze in one entire bonus round at either Machrihanish or Machrihanish Dunes. Here we are getting ready to set out from Troon:

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And here’s some of what we saw along the way:

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And here’s what Tony looked like when the skipper gunned his engine:

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And here’s what we saw as we approached Campbeltown:

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And here’s where we stayed, just up a long ramp from the dock:

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Three days later, we took the same boat to Northern Ireland—which is even closer to Campbeltown than Troon is. All our golf bags and suitcases went into the hold:

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Kintyre Express has lots of other routes, too. The Troon-to-Campbeltown trip starts at £500 for up to 12 passengers. Thanks to Brexit, that currently works out to only about $55 a head. Kintyre also operates regular ferry service to a number of destinations in the same region. Ask for Mairi!

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My Friends and I Went to Yale (for One Day)

bulldogNot long ago, two honorary members of the Sunday Morning Group invited the rest of us to play a round on Yale University’s golf course, whose official name is the Course at Yale. (The U.S.G.A. lists Yale on its GHIN handicap website under “T,” for “the”—an approach to alphabetization that may not be entirely unrelated to the rules mess at this year’s U.S. Open.) Seventeen of us accepted the invitation, and the sign below greeted us when we arrived (I stole it on our way out, so that we could hang it in our locker room at home):

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Yale was a collegiate golf powerhouse in the late 1800s and early 1900s — as I learned from Golf at Yale: The Players, the Teams, the Course, by John A. Godley and William W. Kelly. In 1923, the widow of a wealthy alumnus bought a 720-acre estate near the campus and gave it to the university, and Yale hired Charles Blair Macdonald and Seth Raynor to design a golf course that would put Princeton’s to shame. The property was rocky and densely wooded, and the construction ended up costing more than $400,000, making Yale’s the world’s most expensive golf course, by far, up until that time. (Augusta National, completed five years later, cost a quarter as much.) The fairways and greens were poorly maintained the first time I played it, in the early 1990s, but everything is gorgeous now. Yale is one of my favorite courses anywhere, not least because it has more interesting blind shots than modern courses ever do. Here’s my brother, John, fiddling with the hole-location indicator on the third, whose green is invisible from the fairway:

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We had good weather for most of our round, but shortly after we made the turn it started to rain.

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Then it started to rain more:

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There was no lightning, though, and when the locals had all run for cover we had the place to ourselves. Here’s what the fifteenth green looked like when we got to it:

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And here’s Barney lining up a putt on the sixteenth:

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After our round, we were treated to lunch by Mark, our host, who used to be a member of our club but switched to Yale after his wife got a job nearby:

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I drove home with the seat heater on high, to dry out my pants. I had to run the defroster, too, because of the steam. Fun day.

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