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.

Playing Golf With Donald Trump

I’ve been slow about adding new posts to this blog, mainly because I’m no longer “in association with Golf Digest.” I’m not going to stop, but, after a little rest, I’m going to aim for something more like once a week. In the meantime, I’ve written an article for The New Yorker’s website about a day I spent with Donald Trump back in 2012.

Fred Astaire, Trick-shot Artist

circa 1938: Fred Astaire (1899 - 1987), the American singer and dancer on the golf course. (Photo by John Miehle/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

(Photo by John Miehle/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Fred Astaire’s proudest achievement in life, he told an interviewer in 1982, was “a 4-wood I hit on the 13th hole at Bel-Air Country Club in June of 1945.” (It landed on the green and rolled into the cup.) His handicap was 10, approximately. He was a worse player than Humphrey Bogart, but a better one than Glenn Ford, who portrayed Ben Hogan in “Follow the Sun,” very possibly the worst movie ever made.

Fred Astaire at the Masters in 1946 or 1947. Anyone recognize the competitor on the right? His badge identifies him as Player 29. (Photo by Augusta National/Getty Images)

Astaire wanted to incorporate golf into a dance routine. “Fooling around at Bel-Air one day,” he recalled, “I did a few impromptu rhythm steps just before hitting one off the tee, and was surprised to find that I could really connect that way.” He demonstrated for the director of the movie he was working on—Carefree, co-starring Ginger Rogers, released in 1938—and they incorporated it into the film.

There’s a widely told story that Astaire did the sequence in one take, and that his shots all landed within a few feet of each other—all untrue. RKO set up a driving range on its lot in Encino three weeks before principal photography began, and Astaire practiced the moves for two weeks. “I had about 300 golf balls and five men shagging them, a piano and Hal Borne to play for me,” he recalled. The final sequence involved many takes over two days, and what you see in the movie was pieced together from the best bits. In the clip below, the golf stuff starts about a minute in. Notice that Astaire wears two golf gloves (with buttons!) throughout.

Bobby Jones And Fred Astaire At The Augusta National Golf Club (Photo by Augusta National/Getty Images)

Same Masters. This golfer I can identify. (Photo by Augusta National/Getty Images)

Who Needs Bunker Rakes?

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Golf, much more than other sports, is a game of good and bad luck. A great drive rolls into a divot: bogey. A lousy drive bounces off a boundary stake: birdie. Such unpredictability isn’t a defect. The tension between happy accidents and undeserved disasters helps to turn mere hackers into obsessives and philosophers. To make tennis comparably thought-provoking, you’d have to shift the lines during rallies and randomly lift and lower the net.

Yet golfers complain. Instead of savoring the game’s sublime inconsistency, we yearn for courses as predictable as tennis courts. We grumble when greens aren’t flawless, when fairways aren’t uniformly carpet-like, when sand is either too fluffy or not fluffy enough. A friend of mine once skulled an explosion shot, then slammed his wedge against his bag and cursed the greenkeeper’s crew for having failed to undo the effects of the previous day’s hard rain. Tour pros are even more finicky. If the sand in one trap isn’t indistinguishable from the sand in every other, they gripe.

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Complaints about “unfair” bunkers are especially contrary to the spirit of golf: aren’t hazards supposed to be hazardous? On TV, the standard greenside-bunker shot is about as thrilling to watch as a two-foot putt. You know the guy is going to spin it close, and he knows he’s going to spin it close—otherwise, he wouldn’t have yelled “Get in the bunker!” when his ball was in the air. Sand’s function in a tour event is often just to make the surrounding grass seem troublesome.

There’s a simple remedy: follow the example of Pine Valley, the legendary New Jersey golf club, which for decades has been listed at or near the top of nearly every ranking of the best courses in the world. Pine Valley has many, many bunkers—some small, some large, some soft, some hard some coffin-shaped, some bottomless, some seemingly miles across—but no rakes. The club’s maintenance regularly smooths everything out, but, if your ball ends up in a footprint (or behind a rock or under a cactus), that’s your tough luck, and you deal with it. As you should.

Rake-free bunkers would make televised golf a lot more interesting to watch. They would even be good for choppers like you and me. Pristine, consistent bunkers are expensive to build and maintain. Why not let a course’s sandy areas take care of themselves, and spend the savings on something more obviously beneficial, like cutting back overgrown trees? Most golfers, who can’t hit sand shots anyway, wouldn’t notice a difference. (That guy I mentioned earlier skulls balls from well-conditioned bunkers, too.) Everyone else either would learn an arsenal of useful new shots or would get better at doing what bunkers are supposed to make golfers want to do: stay out of them in the first place.

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:

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 Evolution of the World’s Best Clubhouse

My golf club has the world’s best clubhouse.

Photo by Mike Bowman

Photo by Mike Bowman

It has many cool features, including a porch for waiting out lightning delays:

And plaques on the ceiling listing all our club champions back to 1915 (when the club was already 26 years old):

And shelves filled with old trophies:

And an entryway ceiling that looks like this:

And, best of all, no restaurant (although it does have a small kitchen). Because there’s no restaurant, my friends and I take turns handling our own shopping and cooking:

Golf in my town began in the 1880s, and one of the people who introduced it was the guy who owned the house in the photo below. The house isn’t as big as it looks, because it’s only one room deep—an innovation that allows breezes to blow all the way through, making it cooler in the summer. Just to the left of the house you can see the roof of what the owner called his “golf house.”

Gunn Memorial Library & Museum

He and his friends would hit balls from a flat area next to it, and they laid out nine short holes in the sheep pastures on the far side of the hill—my town’s first course. To get to three of the holes, you had to cross a river on a pontoon bridge:

Gunn Memorial Library & Museum

The golf house (which still exists) can probably be considered my club’s first clubhouse—even though it was really just a shed and the club wasn’t formally organized until 1889:

In about 1903, the club bought land on the other side of town and, on 40 acres, laid out the nine-hole course we play today. This was the first clubhouse:

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About a decade after that, they merged with a local social club, and later the merged club swapped a tennis court and some other property it owned to a local boarding school for a building that the school had used as the Eta Phi fraternity house. A team of oxen moved the building from the school to the golf course, where it was added to the original clubhouse. Here’s what it looked like in 1916, when it was still a fraternity house:

Gunn Memorial Library & Museum

Here’s the tennis court that was part of the deal:

Gunn Memorial Library & Museum

The house beyond the tennis court in the photo above was built in about 1790 and served as the social club’s clubhouse from 1903 until the 1940s, when it became a dormitory at the boarding school. In 1969, the school decided to tear it down, to make room for a new dormitory, but at the last minute they sold it for a dollar to a local guy, who moved it a quarter of a mile away (though not with oxen):

Since 1985, that house has been my house. Meanwhile, the golf clubhouse was enlarged several times. In 1925, the club’s caddies posed for a photograph on the front steps, which had been added not long before (below). The grownup at the far right is the pro, and the little kid in the dark shirt in the middle of the first row is his son. The son eventually succeeded the father, and when I joined, in 1991, the club’s pro was the son of the son:

By the 1950s, the clubhouse looked like this:

A few years ago, during a renovation, carpenters stripped the shingles from one end, and for a while you could see the outline of the original clubhouse, on the right in the photo below (and on the far left in the photo above):

On the inside, the original part is now part of the women’s locker room (which doesn’t have any lockers):

Recently, we did some remodeling. Everything still looks pretty much the same as it always has—just nicer. Here’s the main room, which now has card tables and a working TV:

The TV the guys are watching in the photo above replaced a smaller TV, which is still on the wall behind it. If we ever get an even bigger TV, we’ll put it in front of both of those:

We also added a small bar, where we keep our kegerator. Chic, our chairman, told the carpenter that he’d like to have some shelves above the kegerator for pitchers. The carpenter thought he meant “pictures,” so he made the shelves just deep enough to hold 8-by-10 picture frames. You can’t put beer pitchers on them, but they’re the right size for our extensive collection of beer glasses, which were given to us by the GolfBeer Brewing Company, an esteemed sponsor of the Sunday Morning Group:

Chic says that we aren’t supposed to refer to the bar as a bar, and are instead supposed to call it the “beverage area”—I assume for some legal reason. To remind everybody, I made this sign:

Our clubhouse has changed a lot over the past hundred years. It’s bigger and more comfortable, and there’s an ice maker in the kitchen and a kegerator in the beverage area, and the guy from Charter finally got the cable to work. But in all the important ways the building isn’t all that different from what it was when the oxen dropped it off.

Photo by Mike Bowman

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.

The Other Major Tournament at Royal Troon

The southernmost end of the championship course at Royal Troon directly abuts a trailer park, called the Prestwick Holiday Park—which also separates Troon from Prestwick Golf Club.

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In fact, the trailer park is so close to the course that when you tee off on the tenth hole you practically hang your rear end over the fence. (In both the U.K. and Ireland, a surprising amount of what looks to an American like prime seaside real estate is occupied by mobile homes and RVs.)

Prestwick Holiday Park

A Troon member once told me that another Troon member, while traveling, overheard some other diners in a restaurant discussing a recent tournament at Troon and eagerly went over to introduce himself. It turned out that the tournament they were discussing was an event conducted surreptitiously by golf-playing residents of the trailer park, on the Troon holes nearest their caravans—including the Postage Stamp, which I played in 2009 (in neither the Open Championship nor the Prestwick Holiday Park Invitational):

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