Winter Golf on a Course That Doesn’t Close

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. Quite often, the Sunday Morning Group lands at D. Fairchild Wheeler Golf Course, a muny about an hour from where we live. “The Wheel,” as regulars call it, stays open all year. Area golfers whose home courses are closed often winter there.

Twelve of us made the trip on Sunday. We had meant to go the Sunday before, but just enough snow fell to shut down all the golf courses within a hundred miles of our town. The Wheel has two eighteens, the Black and the Red. We played the Black, which most of us prefer, although when we started there was so much fog that it was hard to be sure which course we were playing. The fog lifted, then returned, then lifted again, then returned again—and I discovered that my laser rangefinder doesn’t work when a golf hole looks like this:

The fog burned away for good while we were playing the second nine. At the base of the 150-yard marker pole in the middle of one fairway, I found an owl pellet, containing the indigestible parts of whatever the owl had eaten recently (in this case, mostly mice). The owl must have been perched on the marker pole when he coughed it up:

In the grillroom after our round, we ran into some old friends: The Boys, a transplanted winter men’s group from other local courses, including H. Smith Richardson, also a muny, a couple of miles away. The Boys use two custom scorecards when they move to the Wheel: one for when the ground is frozen and one for when it’s not. (They change the stroke indexes of a few holes when the fairways are like concrete, to compensate for extra roll.) Here’s the back of their frozen card:

Their organizer is Mark Haba, who runs a machinery company in Bristol. He collects the money and makes up the day’s teams, using a system that involves printed charts, a zippered binder, and six numbered poker chips. “We count two balls,” he told me, “one gross and one net.” They also play what they call “Chicago” skins—which, as near as I could tell, are just skins. They had thirty-two players on Sunday; their complete roster, including alternates, lists a couple of dozen more:

The main difference between The Boys and the Sunday Morning Group is gastronomic: they eat pizza; we eat bacon cheeseburgers:

Also, unlike us, they don’t give extra handicap strokes for wearing shorts (as Fritz, Barney, and I did on Sunday).

Other than that, we’re basically interchangeable—as cold-weather golfers tend to be.

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.

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.

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:
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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.

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Backyard Golf: Broken Windows and Divot Equilibrium

AMSTERDAM, NETHERLANDS - AUGUST 25: A can on the course has its window smashed by a golf ball during the third round of The KLM Open at Kennemer Golf & Country Club on August 25, 2007 in Zandvoort, Netherlands. (Photo by Stuart Franklin/Getty Images)

(Photo by Stuart Franklin/Getty Images)

A number of years ago, I paid two men a thousand dollars to repair broken windows in my house. The men worked silently for a while. Then one of them said, “If you don’t mind my asking, how did all this glass get broken?”

“Oh, you know—loose stones, disoriented birds, that sort of thing,” I said. The men gave me a long look before going back to work.

In truth, I had broken the windows myself. I play golf in my yard, and the house sometimes impinges on the flight of my ball. In one year, I had managed to break at least one pane in almost every window. Now winter was approaching, and I wanted to seal the place up tight before the first hard frost.

The good thing about hitting windows with golf shots is that you seldom lose the ball: just follow the plume of broken glass across the top of the dining-room table. The bad thing is that each shattered pane means one more check mark on the debit side of the mental ledger in which your wife computes the costs and benefits of remaining married to you. (Let’s not even go into the time I broke the windshield of her car.) I often find myself wishing I had something on her—say, knowledge that she’s a sixties radical on the lam from the F.B.I.

When I started playing golf in my yard, I was careful to replace my divots. But I like hitting balls in my yard, and replacing divots is boring, and after a while I stopped. Hamburger-sized chunks of turf sometimes smack the side of the house and stick there — or slide down slowly, like a handful of Jell-O on a cafeteria wall. “Why is grass growing on the front door?” my daughter asked once, when she was little. Anyway, I’m not convinced that divots are bad for a yard: they shift the dirt around, the way earthworms do. And if you never replace them you eventually reach a point where every new one is almost certain to land in the hole left by an old one: divot equilibrium. Little by little, you move the right side of your yard to the left; then, little by little, you move it back.

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Every Course Should Copy These Awesome Features

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On Saturday, Addison, Todd, Hacker (real name), and I took a field trip to Wintonbury Hills, a muny that’s roughly an hour and fifteen minutes from where we live. The course, which opened in 2005, was designed by Pete Dye and Tim Liddy. There are four sets of tees, at 6,700, 6,300, 5,700, and 5,000 yards. As is seldom the case at golf courses of any kind, though, the scorecard at Wintonbury lists ratings and slopes for both men and women from all four sets:

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Furthermore, neither the scorecard nor any of the course signage mentions “women’s tees,” or “senior tees,” or “regular men’s tees,” or “championship tees,” or anything else. There are just four different sets, at four different yardages, and the scorecard contains enough information to enable players of both sexes, at all levels, to calculate handicaps for matches of all kinds, in all conceivable combinations.

Every course should do this.

Addison and Todd played from the black tees, I played from the greens, and Hacker played from the whites, and we were able to adjust our handicaps accordingly. (The USGA actually makes doing this much, much harder than it needs to be—but that’s a semi-complicated issue, which I’ll explore in a couple of future posts.) We played three matches, switching partners every six holes, and everything came out virtually even. (Todd and I each lost a dollar.) And if Michelle Wie and my mother had joined us we would have been able to work them into the game, too.

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Another awesome Wintonbury feature—and one that should be copied by public courses everywhere—is generous fairways accompanied by challenging green complexes. This is a feature that Wintonbury shares with Muirfield Village and Augusta National, to name two member-friendly golf courses that great players don’t dismiss as too easy. Wide fairways keep play moving. None of the four of us lost a ball.

Addison, Hacker, Todd.

Addison, Hacker, Todd.

Another awesome thing about Wintonbury: the Bag of Beer, available in the grillroom (which is called the Tap Inn):

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That’s what the guy in the photo below was picking up. Weirdly, though, he had ordered just two beers—both Budweisers. What was he planning to drink when he got to the third hole?

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The only thing I didn’t like about Wintonbury: they charge you extra if you walk. (They don’t think of it as a walking penalty—in their view, they give away carts, since carts are included in the greens fees—but a walking penalty is what it is, since you don’t pay less if you don’t take a cart.) As far as I could see, though, we were the only walkers, so they probably don’t get a lot of complaints.

Still, it’s a terrific course. We’re definitely going back.

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Golf Sets a Good Example for Cheaters in Another Game

Illustration by Javier Jaen

Illustration by Javier Jaen

ave an article in this past week’s New Yorker about a major cheating scandal in bridge, a card game that has a number of thought-provoking similarities to golf. The player who is mainly responsible for exposing the scandal hopes that bridge will respond, in part, by becoming more like golf, the only major sport in which players call penalties on themselves, and not at all like football, in which a running back would be considered almost negligent if he didn’t try to shove the ball a few inches farther forward after being tackled. (Imagine a lineman tapping a referee on the shoulder, and saying, “Excuse me. I was holding on that play.”)

One of people I interviewed was Larry Cohen, a leading player and teacher, and the author of one of my favorite bridge books:

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Cohen is also an enthusiastic golfer, with a handicap of 11. I didn’t have room to quote what he said to me about ethics, golf, and bridge, but I liked it a lot, and he said I could share it here:

“On the golf course, there are many times you can do the ‘wrong’ or ‘right’ thing. Many years ago, I once took what was probably too liberal a ruling for myself (the ball was borderline out of bounds and I played it). After, I felt terrible. Had I cheated my friends? Myself? What good was it to save a good score on the hole when I was haunted after by what I had done. Never again. I find it so much easier to sleep at night when I play ethically. This has always been routine for me at bridge, and now I have learned to do the same at golf. Life is so much better and satisfying that way. I can’t imagine how horrible it must feel (most people have a conscience, no?) when they win by doing something unethical. But not everyone sees the light. To gain (often financially, if not through the ‘joy of winning’), there is a temptation to ‘bend the rules’ in your favor. I am not a psychologist, so I don’t know how the mind works of those who ‘do wrong’ in golf or bridge. If only they knew how good it felt once you do things the ‘right way.'”

Cohen, incidentally, leads several bridge cruises every year—ocean cruises during which participants spend much of their time at sea learning and playing bridge. How about a bridge-and-golf cruise? Golf by day, on fabulous courses at ports of call all over the world, then bridge till dawn.

And, for those who are interested in bridge already, here’s a video, made by a British web designer, that does a good job of explaining what two of the suspected players were doing:

For my New Yorker article, I also spoke with Bob Hamman, who is now in his 70s and is widely considered to have been one of the best bridge players ever. I didn’t mention this in the article, but he’s also the C.E.O. of SCA Promotions, a Dallas-based company that, among other things, sells hole-in-one insurance and provides risk protection for corporations that have sponsorship agreements. “A golf-club manufacturer might have a golfer under contract,” he told me, “and the contract might include a significant bonus for a victory in a major tournament. For a fee, our company will assume that risk, and now the manufacturer can root for its sponsored golfer without any mixed emotions.”

SCA’s clients in the past have included the United States Postal Service, which sponsored the American cycling team for a number of years. Lance Armstrong had already won the Tour de France twice when the post office approached SCA, and his contract entitled him to escalating bonuses for additional victories. “My son, Chris, who is in the business with me, strongly recommended against taking the Armstrong deal,” Hamman told me, “but why should I listen to anybody?” When Armstrong continued to win, SCA had to cover millions of dollars in incentive payments. Armstrong finally confessed to (some of his) cheating, after being stripped of his Tour de France titles, in 2013, and last year an arbitrator ruled that he had to pay back most of what the post-office deal had cost SCA.

Golf has never suffered a scandal like that—and for good reason.

Woman Uncovers Corporate Golf’s Darkest Secret

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Nobody else could play on Saturday, so I decided to do chores and pay bills. But then I noticed that the temperature was almost 60, so I took the dog for a quick walk and went to Candlewood Valley as a single. The starter sent me out with Barbara, who had followed a similar logical path to the golf course. We were joined by Kevin and Steve:

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Steve was trying to master a new 65-degree wedge, which he had ordered from an infomercial. It’s the ideal club if you want your ball to end up either almost exactly where it started or in that pond over there, on the other side of the green. Kevin started playing golf just this year. Pretty quickly, Barbara and I learned that when he was hitting the best place to stand was either a little bit behind him or to the left. Nevertheless, he did hit a few good shots, including this tricky one, on the seventh hole:

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Barbara is the technology person at a private school for special-needs kids. She began her career, in the late nineteen-seventies, at IBM, and she took up golf when she realized that most of her male coworkers played. More recently, a friend from work invited her to fill in for his regular partner in his weekly golf league, which was all men. Some of the regulars grumbled, but the pro told her to ignore them, and after she had subbed a few times they invited her to join the group. Because of her experience in the business world, she understands one of golf’s darkest secrets: most of the men who play in corporate outings suck, and a women who can hit her driver even a hundred yards can end up being her foursome’s most valuable player, since she gets to play from the forward tees.

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Barbara recently switched from women’s shafts to senior men’s shafts, and when she did, she said, she picked up twenty-five yards with her driver. Her mother, who is 90, also plays golf. She took it up in her fifties, and when she was in her mid-eighties she won the women’s nine-hole championship at the club she belongs to, in Florida. “I would put her chipping and putting against anybody’s,” Barbara said. Barbara has four grandchildren, and she is trying to get them interested in playing, too—so far without much success.

I went back to Candlewood the next day, with the Sunday Morning Group.

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We played an old game of ours, called Fathers & Sons: the four oldest guys versus the four youngest. It was the second round of our winter-long competition, the Jagermeister Kup.

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The course was crowded and slow, and we were pretty sure we were going to going to have to finish in the dark, with glowing balls, since at this time of year the sun is basically gone by 4:15—and when we made the turn, at 2:45, we saw that there were three groups on the tenth hole, which is only about three hundred yards long. But then the starter suggested that we replay the front, which was now empty except for a single two holes ahead. Plus about a million geese:

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We ended up playing a four-hour round the hard way: two hours and forty-five minutes for the first nine, an hour and fifteen minutes for the second. Everybody played better, because there was less time to think between shots. And on the last hole we caught up to the single. Out of the way, pal!

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The Sons beat the Fathers by a stroke, after making a miraculous charge on the second nine. Damn. But we had fun, and in the parking lot, as we were leaving, I spotted a solution to my car-clutter problem:

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We’re going back on Friday, unless winter suddenly arrives.

The Muny Life: Country Club of Woodbridge

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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).

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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.

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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:

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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.

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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:

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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:

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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.

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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.

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You Have to Play for Something

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“What’ll we play for?” I asked.

“Oh, let’s not play for anything,” he said. “Let’s just play for fun.”

So we played for fun, but it wasn’t fun.

Some people have the idea that placing a modest wager on a round of golf is a desecration of some abstract ideal of recreation, or something. But golf without risk is also golf without reward. In my experience, the guys who insist on playing “just for fun” also tend to slap at six-footers as though the point of the game were merely to get on to the next hole. They never experience the exhilaration of sinking a ten-foot curler with a 25-cent greenie on the line.

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Hustlers aside, the purpose of playing for money isn’t economic; it’s psychological. The parties to a two-dollar nassau aren’t trying to get rich. They’ve merely agreed to suspend disbelief, for the next few hours, in the significance of what they’re doing. Competing for money is one of the few opportunities a grownup has to play the way children do—to increase the pleasure of a make-believe activity by taking it sort of seriously.

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The size of a golf wager doesn’t matter, as long as it isn’t so high that it makes any of the participants worry about the sum instead of the game. In Scotland once, I played a local stranger for a golf ball, and we both played as hard as if we were playing for the Ryder Cup. (And I still have his golf ball.) If we’d played “just for fun,” we’d have had a fine day anyway, but the round would have been less memorable.

P1150520When the same players play together for long enough, their gains and losses tend to be self-canceling, because luck, over time, regresses to the mean. Every fall, the guys I play with on Sunday mornings take a weekend golf trip to Atlantic City. Before we start, we each give Hacker (real name) $100. He keeps track of all our competitions and distributes the winnings at the end.

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One year, he lost his master sheet and stayed up all night recreating it from our scorecards. I told him he should have just handed every player an envelope containing $100 and said, “Here’s what you won.” By that point, the actual money was irrelevant: we’d already had our fun.

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