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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International Drain-the-Beer-Keg Day

IMG_1444Every fall, around the time the golf shop closes for the season, the Sunday Morning Group prepares for winter by spending a day finishing all the beer that’s left in the kegerator, so that the kegerator can “self-clean” over the winter. This year, finishing the beer was made extra challenging by the fact that all the beer in the kegerator had actually been finished the day before. The solution (devised by Chic and Mike A.) was to buy a new keg, and finish that:

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First, though, there were Bloody Marys and Jagermeister on the first tee:

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And, of course, we played our regular Sunday round, during which Tim D. secured his position as the year’s leading money winner:

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Then Justin helped Fritz and Tim C. run a hundred-foot-long cable from the golf shop to the clubhouse, so that we could watch football if anyone could figure out how to make the TV work. (No one could):

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Then, because there was still some beer left in the keg, we played a five-hole cross-country tournament, ten dollars a man:

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The format was two-man scramble — but if you or your partner lost a ball you had to switch to alternate shot, and if you lost that ball, too, you had to switch to the beer cart:

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We played from the first tee to the sixth green, then the fifth tee to the seventh green, then the eighth tee to the third green, and so on. Surprisingly many members of my club think our course closes when the golf shop does, if not on Labor Day, so hardly anybody got in our way. Plus, Corey, our pro, was playing with us. Here we are waiting on the second tee while two non-participants finish the first hole, which is about to be “in play”:

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Sad to say, the new keg ran out before the afternoon was over. Our local liquor store had closed already, so Dr. Mike had to drive to the next town to buy more. But everything worked out in the end.

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An Element of Golf Strategy That Even Pros Get Wrong

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When golfers play as partners, either in four-ball matches (as in the recent Solheim Cup and upcoming Presidents Cup) or in scrambles, they commonly follow a strategy in which the first partner to play hits a “safe” shot—maybe a layup on a long par 5, or a tee shot to the center of the green on a par 3—and then, if the safe shot has been successful, the next partner hits an aggressive shot, right at the flag.

This sounds sensible—guarantee the par, then go for the birdie—but mathematically it makes no sense. A better strategy is for the stronger player to play the aggressive shot first. Then, if it’s successful, the second player can hit an aggressive shot, too, thereby increasing the chance of ending up with a spectacular result. And even if the first shot doesn’t work perfectly the result may be good enough to serve as the equivalent of a safe shot—as with a favorite play of mine, the Accidental Lay-up, in which I swing so hard in my effort to reach the green in two that I top my ball and end up pretty much exactly where I would have if I’d sensibly wedged it just short of the water.

Why Isn’t the Men’s Member-Guest on TV?

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I wish the Golf Channel would drop the Champions Tour and broadcast my club’s member-guest tournament instead. Wouldn’t you watch? Among other reasons, there’s way more drama and beer, and the spectators are appreciative:

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The putting is less tedious, especially after dark:

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Protracer was practically made for it:

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The player endorsements are more persuasive, because you know the players really do use they products they promote:

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There are always plenty of refreshments:

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We get pizza during the putting contest:

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Faster foursomes are allowed to play through:

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There are moments of high drama—like when the pro has to explain to a member who didn’t read her email that the course is closed all weekend, except for participants:

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And you see shots the pros won’t even try:

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How to Make a Golfer Choke

UNIVERSITY PLACE, WA - JUNE 21:  Dustin Johnson of the United States watches his missed birdie putt on the 18th green during the final round of the 115th U.S. Open Championship at Chambers Bay on June 21, 2015 in University Place, Washington.  (Photo by David Cannon/Getty Images)

(Photo by David Cannon/Getty Images)

When Dustin Johnson screwed up on the final green at Chambers Bay, avid golfers all over the world wept for him. After all, how many of us, at some point, haven’t three-putted from twelve feet to lose the U.S. Open? My friends and I were especially sympathetic, because we have just about perfected choking. In several of our regular games, we play an add-on feature on the eighteenth hole called All Balls Count—and that does it.

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Our eighteenth (which is also our ninth, played from slightly different tees) is theoretically a pushover: a very short par 4, just 250 yards or so, slightly uphill:

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But it can be diabolical, because there are trees on both sides, and the green is a redan, and there are lob-devouring bunkers both in front and behind, and out-of-bounds is in play from the tee and the fairway and even the bunkers, and when the hole is cut in the front left corner getting close from almost anywhere can be virtually impossible.

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Note the expression of agony on Howard’s face:

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Shots like that become even harder when guys are sitting on the picnic benches above the green, watching:

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And they become harder still when Hacker (real name) announces on the first tee that, even though we’re playing just one best ball that day, on the eighteenth hole all four scores in every foursome will have to be counted. That can be enough to make even a very good player slice his tee shot into the pine trees on the right, then pound his second shot straight down into the pine straw, then have no choice but to take an unplayable lie (still in the pine straw), then skull his fourth shot into the bunker over the green, and so on.

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Meanwhile, all three of his teammates—who are feeling even more pressure not to screw up, since they now know that their team score on the hole is virtually guaranteed to be at least four or five over par—are finding their own ways to implode.

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Try it.

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A Miraculous Shank, a New Playoff Format, and a Burger Breakthrough

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Getting a head count of the Sunday Morning Group is tough, because nobody stands still. Recently, it occurred to me that counting bags might be less confusing than counting heads. On Sunday, we tried it. And it worked! Twenty bags, twenty numbered poker chips in Chic’s hat, five teams of four, two best balls per hole.

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The other guys in my foursome were Ben, Hacker (real name), and Tim. On the thirteenth hole, a par 5, Tim shanked his third shot, from 120 yards away. His ball squirted over the wall and into the woods, out of bounds:

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We assumed that it was lost forever, but after what seemed like an impossibly long time it ricocheted not just back into play but onto the green, and ended up maybe five feet from the hole:

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Tim missed the putt, a side-hill slider, and he figured the miss had cost him a skin, but it turned out that net eagle wouldn’t have been enough, because Mike A., after hitting a lousy second shot, holed his third from 180 yards away, for a net albatross. And those weren’t the only birds we had to deal with:

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My teammates and I played so poorly on the first nine that we gave up all hope, and, probably because we had stopped caring, we began to play really well. (Despair is the poor man’s confidence.)  We ended up in a tie for first place, at -18. The playoff was lob wedges off a ketchup-bottle lid, from the little patio near the grill to the putting green, closest to the hole. As always, the stymie rule was in effect. Here’s Ben, holding his finish:

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And here’s Tim, hitting what turned out to be the winning shot (worth $25 to each of us). His ball ended up just inside the ball of Corey, our terrific pro:

Lunch was provided by Reese, who didn’t play because he’s coming down with what we diagnosed over beers as Lyme disease. He served burger dogs, which he learned about at the Olympic Club a month and a half ago, when Addison (who is Reese’s son) and Todd played in the 2015 U.S. Amateur Four-Ball Championship. Burger dogs are an Olympic specialty. They are burgers that are shaped like dogs:
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Making the patties takes work, Reese said, but fitting them onto the grill is easy:

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You have to cut slices of cheese to fit:

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You need just one kind of bun, plus mustard, ketchup, pickles, and onions:

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We may insist on them from now on.

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How to Hit a Lob Shot From the Back of a Pickup Truck

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Recently, the Sunday Morning Group held a shootout in which the prizes were some stuff sent to us by Famous Smoke Shop, our tobacco sponsor and smoking connection, which sells cigars online, by mail order, and in person (at the company’s headquarters and retail super store, in Easton, Pennsylvania). The format was lob wedge over the patio to the practice green, closest to the pin, from the bed of Fritz’s pickup truck. The prizes were a cutter, a butane lighter, a humidor, and a handful of cigars. The cutter, the lighter, and the humidor had the awesome logo of one of Famous Smoke Shop’s subsidiary websites, CigarMonster, which sells cigar-related gear. The cigars were Infernos.

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Fritz backed his truck up to the fence and dropped the tailgate. The truck’s bed has a plastic liner—good for spin. Climbing into the truck while holding a wedge, a ball, and a beer took some doing. Here’s Hacker (real name) using the bumper as a step:

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And here’s Nick P., taking a shot:

Nick’s ball didn’t stay on the green, so he didn’t win anything, but he did earn points for bringing lunch, including an SMG semi-first: barbecued chicken.

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Mike A. and Peter A. came in first and second in the cigar shootout, and took the cutter and the lighter, respectively. Chic came in third and took the Cigar Monster humidor:

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Chic is our golf chairman. One Sunday, he came close to shooting his pants: waist size on the front, inseam on the back.

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After the shootout, we held a quick meeting to decide whether to play a second eighteen or go home and do chores (i.e., take a nap).

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Revolutionary New Playoff Format—Now With Bacon

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Two teams tied during the Sunday Morning Group’s inaugural outing of 2015, a couple of weeks ago. The playoff format (devised by the Committee) was “foot wedge from the patio to the practice green, closest to the hole.” A foot-wedge shot, to seem realistic, has to be furtive: you can’t look at the ball:

One of the difficulties with the foot wedge is that, if you’re good at it, people assume you’ve used it before, so the best approach is to appear only semi-competent. Meanwhile, lunch was provided by Peter A., who introduced a menu item that will be considered a staple from now on:smgbaconYou don’t have to cook it, but you can, by dropping it on the grill for a minute or so before moving it to your burger and covering it with cheese.

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Can Ski Gloves Cure the Yips? How to Dress for Sub-freezing Golf

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On New Year’s Day, fifteen of us played the Red Course at the Wheel. The temperature was 20 when I woke up and 25 when we teed off, and it never got to more than a degree or two above freezing. Our cars were virtually the only ones in the parking lot when we started, so the guy at the desk (who took the photo below) said we could play as five threesomes, three fivesomes, two seven-and-a-halfsomes, whatever. We played as three fivesomes.
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The festive cardboard glasses that everyone’s wearing in the photo above were a seasonally appropriate gift from Chic, who is the chairman of our golf club:

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The ground was so hard that getting tees into it was a problem. Shouldn’t there be a power tool for this?

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We always award two extra handicap strokes to anyone who wears shorts after December 1. Only Fritz did on New Year’s—a seemingly reckless decision, but a profitable one, because his team won:

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Fritz said later that only has face had been cold. If I’d worn shorts, I’d have gotten a handicap stroke on the Money Hole, so dressing rationally cost me ten bucks. I don’t regret that, though, because I was comfortable for the entire round. After many years of playing golf in bad weather, I’ve figured out what I need to wear to stay warm. As always, I dressed in layers, so that I could take stuff off if I got hot and put it back on if I got cold again—although on New Year’s I didn’t take anything off until we were finished.

I wore three long-sleeve shirts, the first of which was very thin and two of which were turtlenecks. All three were made of synthetic stuff. Here’s the one I wore on top, by Under Armour:

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On top of that, I wore my brand-new Sun Mountain Tour Series Rain Jacket, which I love. There was no rain in the forecast, but rainsuits are good for wind, too, and we had plenty of that: 20 miles per hour all day:

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My Sun Mountain rain jacket reminds me of my Galvin Green rain jacket, which I also love, but the Sun Mountain jacket sells for less than half as much. One of its best features is that it’s extra long, so that it can’t ride up, We’ve had a fair amount of rain so far this winter, in addition to the other stuff, and I’ve happily worn the jacket many times. I like everything about it:

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On top of the rain jacket, I wore a Uniqlo Ultra Light down vest. Wearing a down vest over three shirts and a jacket made me look like a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle, but the vest really is ultra light, and because it doesn’t have sleeves it doesn’t get in the way of a golf swing. I keep it in a Ziploc bag in my golf bag all winter, for emergencies. It squishes down to such a tiny package that last year I forgot to take it out when the weather got warm again:

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I own long johns in three different “weights.” On New Year’s Day, I wore the mediums. They aren’t really long johns; they’re actually running pants, or something, for men who don’t mind being seen in public in tights. They work like long johns, though:

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On top of those, I wore rain pants. One of the keys to successful rain-pants-wearing, I think, is to wear them as pants—over bare legs if it’s warm, over long johns if it’s not. Another key: suspenders. Wearing suspenders with rain pants keeps the pants from sliding down when you stuff a gloved hand into your pocket to retrieve a tee or a ball marker. In fact, rain pants should have built-in straps. My suspenders have plastic grippers, which I think are gentler on expensive waterproof fabric than metal grippers are. They also supposedly won’t set off airport security equipment, should you choose to adopt a totally suspenders-based lifestyle:

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On my neck and part of my head, I wore a Gore-Tex Buff, which may be my single favorite cold-weather accessory. A Buff is a tube of fabric. You can wear it in a million different ways, and if you get really cold you can pull it up (or down) over your face. The guy who invented it got the idea after wearing a pair of underpants on his head to keep his ears from freezing while he rode his motorcycle:

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On top of my head I wore a regular golf cap, and on top of that I wore a bright orange knit cap from Cabela’s, which sells stuff to hunters:

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On my feet, I wore two pairs of wool socks, one of which was pretty thick. The kind I like best are made by SmartWool. The great thing about wool, whether it’s smart or not, is that it keeps you warm even if it gets wet:

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I had room for both pairs of socks because I was also wearing my super-comfortable True Linkswear Chukka golf shoes — a style the company seems to have dropped, I’m sorry to say. (True Gent Chukkas, which the company does sell, are not the same.) I now own eight or ten pairs of True golf shoes. I love them all, and the Chukkas are among my favorites, except when I’m wearing shorts:

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On my hands I wore two pairs of golf gloves: a pair of FootJoy Rain Grips, which are thin, and, on top of those, my favorite winter golf gloves ever, HJ Winter Xtremes.

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You might think that wearing two pairs of gloves would reduce your so-called “touch,” especially on the greens, but if it does anything it probably has the opposite effect. Debbie Crews, who is the sports-psychology consultant for the women’s golf team at Arizona State University and the chair of the World Scientific Conference of Golf, sometimes tells golfers with the yips to try putting (in her lab) with ski gloves on. They usually putt so much better that it’s amazing,” she told me, “because they can’t manipulate.” I wrote about Crews and her research last year, in an article about the yips for The New Yorker. You can read it here.

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Afterwards, lunch, of course.

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Late-season Golf Breakthrough: Leaf Stymies

The golf world abandoned stymies in 1963, but the Sunday Morning Group keeps them alive, sort of, by using them in playoffs, which we conduct on our practice green. On New Year’s Day in 2013, we invented a new version, ball-marker stymies, in which the old stymie rule applies on every green, but to ball markers instead of balls:

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On Wednesday, we invented yet another new version: leaf stymies. Gary, our terrific superintendent (shown stymied by my ball marker in the photo above, which was taken at Dyker Beach, in Brooklyn), keeps our course remarkably free of leaves, but when the wind blows hard he and his crew can’t possibly keep up, especially on greens with overhanging oak trees. Removing leaves from everyone’s line takes forever, and then the wind just blows them back, so we decided: screw it. From now on, the leaves stay where they are:

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Remarkably, having even a lot of leaves in the way does very little to a putt. Here’s Rick trying for birdie on the fourth green:

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