My Round of Golf With a Nobel Prize Winner

In the current issue of Golf Digest (February, Tiger on the cover), I have an article about a day I spent with Richard Thaler, a professor at the University of Chicago and the winner of this year’s Nobel Prize in Economics. Thaler and I and Steven D. Levitt—a co-author of the Freakonomics books and also a U. of Chicago professor—played golf at Beverly Country Club, not far from the university, where both of them are members. Eugene F. Fama—Beverly member, Chicago economics professor, Nobel Prize winner—had wanted to join us but was stuck in Austin.

I liked Thaler and Levitt a lot, and I’m sure I’d have liked Fama, too, if he’d been able to back out of his Texas commitment. Thaler and I had all day to talk, so there’s stuff I didn’t have room for in my article. One is Thaler’s idea for giving tennis a rough approximation of golf’s handicapping system. (He used to be a tennis player.) This is a real issue in recreational tennis—which, unlike recreational golf, pretty much can’t be played with enjoyment by people who aren’t roughly equal in ability. Thaler’s idea, which he calls Equilibrium Tennis, is to replace normal tennis scoring (15-30-40-Game) with tie-breaker scoring (1-7), which is easier to adjust.

He explained: “Let’s say that, based on how we’ve played in the past, we decide that you should be giving me two points. So we play a tie-breaker in which I start out ahead by 2-0. If you win two tiebreakers in a row, we move the spot, so now I get three points. Eventually, if we play regularly, we’ll know the right spot, and we can adjust it further by moving the serve. So maybe I get two points and the serve, or I get three points and you get the serve.” And there are other possible tweaks (these are my suggestions, not his): the better player doesn’t get second serves; the worse player gets to hit to the doubles court.

Modifications like these would make tennis at least slightly more golf-like—a good thing, I would say, although avid tennis players (who tend to be prickier than avid golfers, in my experience) might disagree. But there’s only so far tennis can go in becoming a true handicap sport. The former tennis superstar Ivan Lendl belongs to my club’s enemy club, on the other side of town. He plays in their golf club championship, which he has sometimes won. I once asked him what would happen if he played in the tennis club championship as well. He said, “No one would be able to return even one of my serves.” And he has a bad back!

The Indescribably Ineffable Awesomeness of Match Play

It’s not just for the Ryder Cup.

Every year since 1948, my club has played a home-and-home match against our Enemy Club, on the other side of town. Across those seven decades, the results are roughly even, although in recent years my club has dominated. During the first round this year, my partner was Rick, who played basketball for the University of Maryland shortly after the Civil War but can still shoot his age:

I’ve played a lot of matches with Rick, both as a teammate and as an opponent, and one of the many lessons I’ve learned from him is that, although in stroke play a lousy shot is often a prelude to disaster, in match play it can sometimes give you an advantage that a good shot can’t.

During the first round, Rick hit an uncharacteristically lousy drive on our ninth hole, a par 4 that measures only about 260 yards, uphill. Rick is long enough to drive the green, but he started his shot too far to the right, and his ball hit some trees and kicked way back, to a bad lie on a downslope in the rough only 50 yards ahead of the tee—between the bald spot and the clump of brush in the lower right hand corner of the photo below:

His opponent then hit the kind of drive that’s easy to hit when the guy you’re playing is out of the hole: a high draw that ended up just short of the putting surface, in a little collar of rough to the left of the bunker in front of the green, maybe 30 feet from the cup. Some guys in Rick’s situation would have conceded the hole right then, just to get out of there. But Rick knew that his opponent was already mentally penciling in a win, and that if he could somehow hit a good recovery shot he could take emotional control of the hole. He also knew that he had nothing to lose. If your opponent birdies a hole in match play, a quadruple bogey by you doesn’t hurt you any worse than a par. But if you can turn a hopeless situation into a half . . .

Rick cut a fairway wood around the crap directly in front of him, and his ball ended up on the slope to the left of the green, pin-high. The hole that day was cut close to that side of the green, and the putting surface runs away, but he managed to chip it close.

His opponent now had a pitch for eagle, but suddenly his shot didn’t seem so easy. His ball came out of the rough hot, and ended up 25 feet beyond the hole, leaving a curling downhill putt for birdie — which he left well short. Rick then made his putt, and that meant that his opponent was no longer putting to win the hole, but only to tie it. He missed, and from that moment forward Rick was playing a bowl of oatmeal.


The Most Dangerous Score in Match Play

I was watching the final match in the U.S. Mid-Amateur Championship on TV on Thursday. Scott Harvey was leading Stewart Hagestad by four holes with six holes to play. My wife and I had to leave to go out to dinner, so I turned on the DVR. “That guy’s in big trouble,” I told her as we left the house. She asked how far behind he was. “No,” I said. “His problem is that he’s too far ahead.”

Four up is the most dangerous score in match play. When you lead an opponent by one hole, you think only of extending your lead to two, but when you lead by four your focus turns insidiously toward the trophy room. You hadn’t expected the match to be this easy, yet here you are, so far ahead that your cat could finish it for you. Uh-oh—what if you lose?

Scott Harvey and Stewart Hagestad. (Photo by USGA)

Scott Harvey and Stewart Hagestad. (Photo by USGA)

Four up is the narrowest margin that seems too big to squander, and the widest one that seems small enough to throw away. It teeters unnervingly between the certainty of triumph and the possibility of humiliation. Meanwhile, you have to deal with an opponent who no longer has anything to lose.

I once watched my teammate Norm compete in an inter-club match in which his opponent played beautifully for fourteen holes and was 4 up with four holes to play. On the fifteenth tee, both men knew the match was basically over, because Norm would have to win all four remaining holes just to tie. But Norm birdied No. 15, and you could almost hear the gears of panic beginning to grind in his opponent’s brain: If I can lose one hole, why not two? (He then lost No. 16.) And if I can lose two, why not three? (He lost No. 17.) And if I can lose three . . .

Norm won the last hole, halving the match, and he did it without having to putt. In fact, he did it without having to hit an approach shot, because his opponent—who in his mind had returned to the clubhouse two holes earlier to explain to his teammates how he had wasted a lead that couldn’t be wasted—pulled his drive into a grove of trees, failed twice to punch his ball back into play, and conceded the hole right there, too ashamed to go on. As I watched him staggering up the hill, I wondered if he would ever play again.

Whenever I find myself down in a match, I try to channel Norm, whose calm perseverance made an inspiring case for never giving up. In a match many years ago, though, I ended up on the wrong side of that dangerous score, and the player I channeled, unfortunately, was Norm’s opponent. Playing against a better golfer, I somehow made all the putts that mattered for 11 holes and found myself four up with seven to play. Until the moment my putt dropped on No. 11, I had never truly believed I could win. Now, though, my strategy changed from innocently lethal offense to suicidally anxious defense. I counted the remaining holes on my fingers, like a blackjack player in Vegas deciding how much he can afford to lose.

You can guess most of the rest. I lost the match on the first extra hole, to a bogey. The worst of it was hearing the other guy, afterward, boasting about the deficit he had overcome. “Four up with seven to go!” he crowed to one of his teammates as I put my clubs back in my car, wondering if I would ever play again. (I beat him last year, though. This year, too.)

On Thursday, I turned on the DVR when my wife and I got back from dinner, but I had already guessed the result. Harvey lost the 32nd hole, and then the 33rd, and then the 35th, and then the 36th—all to birdies. Then Hagestad birdied the first extra hole, and they were done.

Photo by USGA.

Photo by USGA.

The Muny Life: Country Club of Woodbridge


In my part of the country at this time of the year, avid golfers become migratory. Some fly hundreds of miles south and don’t return until spring, but most of us circle the ground closer to home, like Canada geese searching for open water. We study the sky and the Web and the Weather Channel, and when we hear rumors of snow-free fairways we hit the phones. Over the past decade or so, my friends and I have assembled an extensive portfolio of all-season golf courses, in three states. This past Sunday, we added a new one: Country Club of Woodbridge, about forty-five minutes southeast of our home course (which closed for the winter on the Monday after Thanksgiving).

woodbridge green

Woodbridge used to be a private club; the town bought it in the aftermath of the mortgage crisis, and Billy Casper Golf manages it. The course was designed in 1938 by Orrin E. Smith, who worked with Donald Ross on a couple of projects and designed or redesigned 20 courses in our state, including the course of our No. 2 Enemy Club, which we like a lot. The selectmen of the town of Woodbridge are thinking about turning part of the course into condominiums for oldish people, or something, but I hope they don’t, because we want to go back—maybe on New Year’s Day, when (the starter told us) they usually have a good crowd.


There was a frost delay, but that was OK because it gave us a chance to get caught up. Several of our guys were easy to spot in the crowd outside the golf shop, because after December 1 the Sunday Morning Group gives two extra handicap strokes to anyone who wears shorts. You would think that wearing shorts in sub-freezing weather would be unpleasant, but in fact your legs adapt fairly quickly, by becoming permanently numb:


The frost delay didn’t last all that long, and when it was over the starter shotgunned everyone. We had twelve guys, and all three of our groups started on the first hole. By then, the sun had made the day seem sort of hot. We played two best balls, All Balls Count on the money hole (No. 12), and skins.


On the third tee, we met a member of the town’s golf committee. He wasn’t playing, but had driven out to say hello. He told us that Woodbridge is unusual in that the property was once owned by Roger Sherman, the only person to sign all four of the principal founding documents of the United States: the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Association, the Articles of Confederation, and the Constitution. Here’s a picture of Sherman dressed in an eighteenth-century golf outfit:


The layout is Woodbridge is a little tricky, but it’s easy to navigate if you remember (as the starter told us) that when you leave a green your next tee is almost never the one you come to first. Near one tee, we saw a golf-ball vending machine installed by an entrepreneurial neighbor:


Afterward, we drank beer and went over our scorecards in the golf shop. My team came in last, but I won two skins and split the money hole with Chic and Todd. That puts me closer to the top than to the bottom of the standings for the Jagermeister Kup, our all-winter competition.


We had a great day—as I had known we would because the night before I had a dream about golf. In the dream, I discovered that Nancy Reagan is much younger and more interested in me than people have generally thought. She also loves golf, although she told me that when her husband was in the White House she kept her interest to herself. She drives a Cadillac convertible—Seville-type, not Escalade—and in the parking lot of the golf club where I ran into her I saw that there were two golf bags in the backseat, hers and Hedy Lamarr’s. Both sets of clubs were in “mint vintage” condition, and the woods had simple muted-pastel headcovers. Nancy said she wanted to give me Hedy Lamarr’s clubs, and maybe her own as well, along with some sort of golf journal she had kept for years. The journal was written in dream writing, so I couldn’t quite make out what was in it, but I was pleased because I knew that I would eventually get at least a couple of Golf Digest columns out of it. Nancy is totally not the calculating, vindictive ice queen that people have always made her out to be. I don’t think our relationship was “going anywhere,” but I’ll never know because right about then I woke up to take a whiz. When I described all this to a friend later, he said that Hedy Lamarr’s days of appearing in people’s dreams were probably just about over. He’s definitely right about that; in fact, I think that even my dream was probably a bit of a stretch.


The Sunday Morning Group Conquers All


Yale University has an undistinguished student body and a miserable football team, but it does have a tremendous golf course , which the U.S.G.A.—mysteriously but somehow characteristically—lists under “T,” for “The Course at Yale.” I’ve played two rounds there this year: one with Richard (a college classmate, who for two years lived within two doors of my own dormitory room but whom I didn’t meet until our thirty-fifth reunion), and one with Shep (an honorary member of the Sunday Morning Group) and his dad, Dick. Before I teed off with Shep and Dick, I visited the men’s locker room and discovered that the shelf above the sinks—mysteriously but somehow characteristically —held just a single toiletry item, a hair preparation I’d never heard of:


My two rounds at Yale, I’m pretty sure, “softened up” the course for Ray and Addison, who played there not long afterward, in our state golf association’s annual four-ball tournament, and won it by two shots, at seven under par. (They had no bogeys, and were one shot from tying the all-time tournament record.) They didn’t win a car, contrary to the clear suggestion in the photo below, but they did get their names engraved on a big trophy:


A few days later, our club beat our Enemy Club in our annual two-day home-and-home grudge match, which has been held every year since 1948. Each club’s team has ten players—in our case, all from S.M.G. Todd and I were partners the first day, and Ray and I were partners the second day, and when it was over the two teams posed together for a photo:


The very next day, Todd and Addison played in our state’s qualifier for the U.S.G.A.’s new national four-ball championship—and were the medalists, at five under par. (One stroke behind them were Ben D., an honorary member of the Sunday Morning Group, and his brother, Daniel—and just a week before that Ben had won another state event, the Tournament of Champions.) Because of their victory, Todd and Addison will be going to the Olympic Club, in San Francisco, in the spring, raising the possibility of a cross-country S.M.G. road trip.

One explanation for S.M.G.’s remarkable success in these things is that our locker room —despite being small, and equipped with just a single toilet, urinal, and shower—offers a rich selection of useful toiletries, plus a clock:


Another is that hardly anybody went to Yale.


A Visit to our Enemy Club, and Jimmy’s Brilliant Idea

Addison, Rick, Other Gene. Enemy Club, August 9, 2014.

Addison, Rick, Other Gene. Enemy Club, August 9, 2014.

Our course was closed for the women’s eighteen-hole member-guest, so Addison, Rick, Other Gene, and I played a round at our enemy club, on the far side of town. We have a semi-reciprocal arrangement with them, and some of their holes have nice views of our state’s second largest natural lake, but I don’t love their course. For Addison, Rick, and me, the visit was partly a scouting mission for our upcoming annual two-day home-and-home match against ten of their guys, but we were happy to return to our own club the next day. Among many other reasons: we don’t necessarily have a rule against groups larger than foursomes.


We also have highly a developed spirit of camaraderie. For example, here’s Addison helping Hacker (real name) search for his second shot in the weeds to the right of the first green (where Addison sometimes hits his first shot):


One day last summer, Peter A. brought Wayne, an acquaintance of his, as a guest. Wayne was on the golf team at a big university many years ago, but hadn’t played much since. He was so rusty that day that he actually missed his ball on his first attempt at a tee shot, but Barney said you could tell he was a player from the quality of his whiff. Afterward, at lunch—hot dogs and hamburgers provided by one of the guys, and cooked on the grill in the executive parking lot, outside the men’s-room window—Wayne asked if it was really true that our clubhouse doesn’t have a restaurant. When we said that it was, he said, “This is the club for me,” and joined. We don’t have a bar, either, unless you count the fridge in the men’s locker room and our two kegerators:

beerpanoramaLast Sunday, for unknown reasons, one of the kegerators began serving a sort of accidental microbrew, which, if we had decided to market it, we might have called Old Warm & Flat. The guys decided to deal with it by drinking to the bottom of that keg as quickly as possible, and loading another:


During lunch that day, Jimmy—who is in his early twenties and, as a consequence, usually has trouble getting up early enough on Sunday to play golf with us in the morning—had a truly brilliant idea. I realized as I was writing this that I can’t tell you, yet, exactly what his idea is, except to say that it involves these trees:


Rangefinders, Ivan Lendl, Lawyer Feet, a Lazy Thirty-Year-Old, a Hole-in-One, and Vegan Burgers for Dinner


My ancient laser rangefinder, a Bushnell PinSeeker 1500 (above, left), finally stopped working. The low-battery warning began flashing and wouldn’t stop, even though I replaced the battery, twice, using fresh spares from my golf bag. As soon as I got home, I ordered a new Bushnell Tour Z6 (above, right), for three hundred dollars. The Z6 is quite a bit smaller than the PinSeeker, and it weighs almost four ounces less—a potential advantage in competition.


The day after the Z6 arrived, I was rummaging in my desk and came across an unopened package of the kind of batteries the PinSeeker used to use. Out of curiosity, I popped one in, and—what do you know?—it worked just fine. I guess that carrying two nine-volt batteries in your golf bag for more than a year isn’t a good idea, as far as the batteries are concerned. So I now have two perfectly functioning laser rangefinders, and I’ll thank you not to mention that to my wife.

I used the Z6 for the first time on Friday, in a match at home. The match was Addison and me against Ray and our Close Personal Friend Ivan Lendl, who belongs to a couple of clubs in our area, including our Enemy Club. I won’t bore you with the details, except to say that I had a short birdie putt on the eighteenth hole to square the match, and missed it. But Addison had a slightly longer birdie putt to do the same thing and made it, so good for us. We’re all square for now, and we will play a rematch at a time and place to be determined.

lendl hybrid

In the photo above, Ivan is using his own rangefinder, which is Bushnell’s “hybrid” model. It has a laser, like mine, but it also has a GPS unit, which is sort of grafted onto the side. I asked him whether he ever used the GPS part, and he said he didn’t because the GPS part (like all GPS yardage devices) is so power-hungry that if you use it you have to recharge it after every round.

bushnell hybrid

About thirty minutes after our match was over, Addison and I played again, in the Friday-afternoon edition of the Sunday Morning Group. During that round, several unusual things happened. First, Other Gene joined us late and played without shoes or socks, giving the rest of us a close look at something you don’t see on a golf course every day: lawyer feet.


Second, Austin, who is thirty years old and was the second youngest person playing that afternoon, took a cart after nine holes:

austin cart

Third, on the third hole—a 185-yard par 3—David W. hit a gorgeous 4-iron shot, which landed on the green, rolled toward the flag, and disappeared. Nobody in our group, including David, could see well enough to be certain what had happened, but we had a feeling. 

Because this was an S.M.G.-sanctioned outing, David will receive $250 from the Slush Fund. (An non-Sunday-morning outing is considered sanctioned if an email inviting everyone to join goes out in advance over the S.M.G. Listserv.) If David had done the same thing on a Sunday morning, he’d have received twice as much.

burger mix
That evening, my wife, Ann Hodgman—who has written several cookbooks, and is currently writing one for strict vegetarians—made vegan burgers for dinner. They contained chick peas, barley, leeks, and other stuff. (That’s the mixture, in the photo above.) They didn’t taste like burgers made from beef, but I liked them. And when I got home from playing golf the next morning I ate two more of them, right out of the fridge.

vegan burgersNow who’s a good husband?

What Does It Mean If You Dream About the Rules of Golf?

One of the Sunday Morning Group's many playoff formats: wrong-handed throw over the fence from the first tee to the practice green. Corey (throwing), Rick, Nick, Stan. Notice that Stan is practicing--a possible rules violation. October, 2012.

One of the Sunday Morning Group’s many playoff formats: wrong-handed overhand throw over the fence from the first tee to the practice green. Corey (throwing), Rick, Nick, Stan. Notice that Stan is practicing–a possible rules violation. October, 2012.

When my friend Roz’s daughter, Nina, was quite young, she asked Roz where babies come from. Roz explained (within reason), and Nina, astonished, said, “I feel like I’m dweaming!”

Recently, I myself had an interesting dweam, although it was about golf: I was either playing in or attending a tournament of some kind—or maybe I was a caddie. One of the competitors made a succession of poor chips and putts, and his ball ended up in a clump of tall grass next to a tee marker. Another player—or maybe it was the first player’s caddie—attempted to extricate the ball by swatting at it with a driver. The attempt failed, and a rules official said that the player was now required to make “a throw”—that is, to pick up his ball and throw it into a better lie, or onto the green, at a penalty of a stroke.

watercolor 1892

I said that I had read the rule book from cover to cover several times (a lie), yet didn’t remember anything about “throwing.” My friend Rick (see photo at the top of this post) and Jim Nantz (the television announcer), who were both there, for some reason, assured me that the official was correct. Nantz did acknowledge that the rule book referred to throws by a different name, which I’ve now forgotten, but that it was all explained in a book called The Begnin’ Throw, although he said I’d be unlikely to find a copy because it was “the rarest of all golf books.” (Even in the dweam, I didn’t know what “Begnin'” means.) I thought, Wow—this will make a great Golf Digest article! But then, after a few other things happened, I woke up.

Doug, examining the result of his own lousy throe, while Nick practices.

Doug, examining the result of his own lousy throw, while Nick practices.

When I woke up, I was in the house of a member of our Enemy Club who died several years ago, in his early forties, and I was crushed when I realized that all that stuff about throwing hadn’t been real and that, therefore, I wouldn’t be able to write an article about it. Meanwhile, I was involved in an important match, and at some point I accidentally interfered with my opponent’s putt by leaving a pair of nail scissors on a green. Then I woke up againthis time in my own actual bed—and realized that the throwing part had been a super-rare dweam-within-a-dweam, a first for me. (Most of my golf dweams are just about me playing an ordinary round on my home course. I once told my friend Jim, “You’d think that I could at least dream about playing someplace exotic, like St. Andrews or Pebble Beach,” and Jim said, “Yeah. After all, it’s free.”)

Anyway, upon reflection, I’ve decided that throwing might have a place in golf, and not just in S.M.G. playoffs. Some guys I know occasionally allow “a throw a side” as a handicap alternative: instead of receiving strokes, you are allowed to throw your ball out of trouble once per nine holes, at no penalty. In one memorable instance, a player won a match by using his throw to sink a six-foot putt. He reached over his head, fell forward, and slam-dunked his ball into the hole. Similarly, a throw might have been a better choice here:

Ladies in the rough-001

How Autumn Leaves are Deposited on New England Golf Courses

If you don’t live around here, you may not be familiar with the process shown in the video above. The leaves are imported from China, or someplace, and the wind does most of the work. The colors are nice. P1090888 I shot the video on Monday at our Enemy Club No. 2, where I played with Hacker (real name) and Paul. We have a big team match coming up there in early November, and Hacker and I were studying the greens. Paul joined us because he had nothing better to do. We played 10-Ball with a Snake add-on.

Hacker, seventh green, Enemy Club No. 2.

Hacker, seventh hole, Enemy Club No. 2.

The course is my second favorite nine-holer in our part of the state—after our home course, naturally. It was built on the former estate of some rich guy, and it has lots of old apple trees, which are left to look after themselves. P1090894 Whenever I play there in the fall, I cram apples into my golf bag. They taste a million times better than any of the apples in a grocery store. In fact, I hate apples, except for these.

I had a little trouble zipping this back up.

I had a little trouble zipping this back up.

There were very few other people on the course—a surprise, given how nice the day was. We saw a guy on the practice green who said he was trying to become a less crappy putter.

I think the thing on his left arm may be a practice gadget, too.

I think the thing on his left arm may be a practice gadget, too.

And we saw a kid who, apparently, had invented a game that’s even more complicated than the stuff that Hacker and Tim come up with. P1090930

International Leaf Rule Now in Effect

P1090578All the big tournaments are over now. The club championship has been decided. The kids who worked in the golf shop all summer are back at school. Our Enemy Club has been defeated. The deer eating acorns between the fifth and sixth holes have grown so used to us that they scarcely look up when we play through. The International Leaf Rule is in effect. 

I know people who live in places where golf can be played in shorts year-round. To them, the cycle of the seasons is a kind of poverty. But I think they are the ones who are deprived. For them, golf has no beginning and no end. They don’t get to savor a year’s two most consequential rounds: its first and its last. One season blends into the next, and they never reach a point from which they are forced to assess their golf game’s progress or decline.

P1090609Hacker (real name) and I had the course to ourselves for our first nine holes on Tuesday afternoon. Barney, who didn’t have to pick up his daughter until four-fifteen, joined us at the turn. We waved to an older member who used to play by himself but now is always accompanied by his son. He uses something called Martini Tees, and when he misplaced one the other day he had his son call the golf shop to report it missing. His son acts as his caddie and navigator, guiding him from hole to hole. Golf is almost over, but not yet.