Stop Filling Out Your Bracket, Right Now, and Plan a Golf Trip to Ireland

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Eleven golf buddies and I are going to Ireland in early May. I thought we were being shrewd when we bought our plane tickets, several months ago, because air fares were lower than they had been for years. But they’ve fallen further since then:

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By comparison, I paid $550 for the same flight on my first golf trip to Ireland. That was in 1992—twenty-four years ago. What’s more, the dollar is super-strong against the euro right now. In fact, traveling to Ireland to play golf is arguably cheaper than staying home, especially if you take the money from your wife’s 401k. And, if you need someone to handle the planning, you can get in touch with my old friend Jerry Quinlan, at Celtic Golf. Mention my name, and Jerry will give you the same discount he gave my friends and me. That is to say, he’ll charge you his normal rate. But you won’t have to lift a finger.

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Golfer Takes Photo of Hole-in-one

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Don S., a member of my brother’s golf club and, therefore, an honorary-member-once-removed of the Sunday Morning Group, sent me several photographs of a hole-in-one made recently by my brother, John. I asked John about it, and he said, “It was my second lifetime hole-in-one and my second on that hole. The first time—about 15 years ago—I hit an 8-iron. This time, it was a 5-iron.” Here it is from a different angle:

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I guess that mere photography doesn’t do it justice, but the pictures brought to mind a memorable shot of my own: a gorgeous 7-iron, drawing slightly, that hit the flagstick on the fly on the third hole at my own club roughly 20 years ago. From the tee, my friends and I could see that the ball had wedged itself between the stick and the front of the cup. I didn’t hoot or jump up and down. I walked to the green at my normal pace, wearing an expression of placid nonchalance which said, “This is how I play golf.”

When we reached the green, we realized that my ball wasn’t actually in the hole but was merely perched on its front edge. There was a deep ball-shaped dent in the turf just above the back of the cup, and the dent, the flagstick and the ball were aligned perfectly — a physical impossibility, you would think. Had the ball dematerialized briefly after bouncing off the rim, then passed, undeflected, through the stick? I had to write 2 on the scorecard, but I’ve always thought of it as a 1. The next day, I played again and used my thumb to press my dent, which was still visible, more deeply into the rim. “My ball did that,” I said to the people I was playing with. “It should have been a hole-in-one.”

Golf, a famously unfair game, never seems more unfair than when it narrowly withholds the only laurel that non-golfers are impressed by. Unlucky bounces off trees or sprinkler heads don’t bother me; I accept them as the rub of the green. But that almost-ace still rankles. A couple of years later, I made an official hole-in-one—in a tournament, no less—and got my name added to a plaque in the golf shop. But when I see the plaque I can’t help thinking, “I ought to be on there twice.”

Almost as bad as just missing a hole-in-one is making one and not receiving credit for it. On a trip to Ireland in 2001, five friends and I played a round at the Portmarnock Pitch and Putt Club, a micro-scale links course not far from the full-size Portmarnock Golf Club.

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In Irish pitch and putt, the maximum hole length is seventy meters—about seventy-seven yards. One of my friends, looking over the compact layout from behind the first tee, asked the club’s captain how often players made holes-in-one, and he said, “Not as often as you’d think.” Ten minutes later, though, we heard a shout on the far side of the course: an ace. Ten minutes after that, I made one myself, on a fifty-meter hole. “I guess I owe everybody a beer,” I said expansively. One of my friends gave me a look. “It wasn’t even sixty yards,” he said.

In Florida once, I almost had my second, third, or fourth hole-in-one, depending on how you count them. I hit what may be the best-looking 6-iron I’ve ever hit, into a strong wind off the ocean, and my ball landed softly and rolled toward the hole at the speed of a confident putt. It stopped six inches away. “Unlucky,” one of my friends said. “That was almost a great shot.”

If the ball had gone in, we’d have celebrated; if it had ended up two feet farther from the hole, outside of almost-a-hole-in-one range, my friends would have toasted my brilliant shot-making, since even hitting the green in that wind was an accomplishment. As it was, though, none of us could think of anything except the thing that hadn’t happened.

Of course, I can’t actually claim responsibility for any of my shots, good or bad, lucky or unlucky. Like most golfers, I don’t so much aim at the flag as try to bracket the green with my margin of error. Even my single uncontested ace deserves as asterisk: “Player had no idea what he was doing.” Still, there’s something about a hole-in-one. Did I mention that my name is on the plaque?

Late Update: At a mixed event at my club the last weekend in September, I won a hat for hitting my tee shot on the seventh hole to an inch—another near miss:

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Was This the Model for the Bunkers at Royal County Down?

The bunkers at Royal County Down, in Northern Ireland, are famous for their ball-devouring overhangs, which are savagely rimmed with marram grass and may serve as portals to another dimension. I once wrote that their densely tangled upper margins resembled the eyebrows of old men. I thought I was kidding, but maybe not.
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The upper image is of one of those bunkers; the lower is of the eyebrows of William Hugh Griffiths, a.k.a. the Lord Griffiths, a past captain of the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, who died on Sunday at the age of 91.

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Jerry Tarde, the editor-in-chief of Golf Digest, describes Griffiths as “my favorite R & A captain.” David Fay, a former executive director of the U.S.G.A., agrees, and writes, “I will never forget his speech at the U.K. Golf Writers dinner, where he summarized his judicial philosophy: ‘Always rule against the shits.'” (Griffiths was also a judge.)

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Is This the World’s Greatest Golf Course?

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On Memorial Day weekend, I played Friday afternoon (lost five dollars), Saturday morning (came in third in a two-man scramble, playing with Tim), Saturday afternoon (advanced to the final in the member-member, also playing with Tim), Sunday morning (won six dollars), Monday morning (won low gross in the nine-hole Memorial Day mixed shamble, playing with Madeline—my golf wife—and an actually married couple), and Monday afternoon (lost five dollars). Then I played again on Friday (lost five dollars) and Saturday morning (won the member-member, one-up, playing with Tim.) That was a pretty good eight-day run, so I wasn’t totally bummed when we had thunder, lightning, and heavy rain just before 7:00 the following morning.

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I sent an email to the Sunday Morning Group saying I’d bring a couple of decks of playing cards, and Hacker (real name) suggested that we eat our cheeseburgers and hot dogs (supplied by Barney) for breakfast, instead of lunch. But the lightning had stopped by 7:30, so we played golf instead of setback. One very good thing about rain is that it scares away slackers: twenty regulars showed up, and we had the course to ourselves.

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Getting soaked was better than inhaling pine pollen—something we’ve done a lot of this spring:

P1150687Because I was up early on both Saturday and Sunday, before I left for the club I watched some of the Irish Open — by which, of course, I mean the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open Hosted by the Rory Foundation. The D.D.F.I.O.H.R.F. was held this year on a course that many golfers would pick as the best in the world: Royal County Down, in Newcastle, Northern Ireland.
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Among its many memorable features are its bunkers, which are maintained by vengeful demons:

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During a round at Royal County Down in 2013, my playing partner and I waded into a jungle of whins and briers near the eleventh tee to look for a century-old relic that a caddie had told me about two years before: the remains of a small stone building, which the maintenance crew had uncovered during an aggressive gorse-removal project. We found it, at some risk to our clothing, although it was so overgrown that we couldn’t see much more than one corner.

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Later that day, Harry McCaw—a past captain of both Royal County Down and the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews—told me that he thought the structure might once have served as the literal “club house”: the place where early players stored their clubs.

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I had driven to Newcastle from Dublin, a hundred miles to the south, and during part of the trip I followed Mourne Coastal Route, a scenic highway. Irish roads are narrow under any circumstances; they become narrower if your eyes are repeatedly drawn to the hills and out to sea—a danger that day, because the sky was so clear that I could see the Isle of Man, halfway to the English mainland.

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My parents once visited Ireland with another couple, and on an especially harrowing stretch of road my mother, who was sitting in the back seat with the other wife, yelled at my father to stop steering so close to the edge. He innocently raised both hands, to remind her that, in Ireland and the U.K., the driver sits on the right, not the left. During my own trip, I knocked the cowling off the passenger-side mirror of my rental car. I told the clerk at Avis when I returned the car, but she said it happened all the time, and not to worry about it.

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Will the Open Championship ever be held at Royal County Down? Fingers crossed.

Reader’s Trip Report: Ballybunion in Winter

Dan Tani, an American reader, joined Ballybunion as an overseas member in 1998, when the cost was next to nothing.
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Two years later, he married a woman from Cork, and so now he’s obliged to visit twice a year. (He proposed to his wife at the stroke of the millennium, after playing Ballybunion in the afternoon and rehearsing his lines on the drive home.) Ever since, he’s made a point of playing at least one round on the Old Course very late in the year. In 2013, he played on New Year’s Eve Eve—December 30 —with three Irish guys whose fourth had exceeded the legal limit on showing up late. Last month, he played again. Excerpts from his report:

This year the weather was beautifully clear and calm, but a bit chillier than last year: the car reported a temperature of -2C when I pulled into the car park. In my attempt to maximize my golf, I had left Cork in pitch dark, at 7:00 a.m., and I pulled into Ballybunion at 9:30—perfect timing, I thought. There were very few cars in the lot, and just a few people milling around.

The empty parking lot turned out to be a bad sign: frost delay. Tani continues:

As we waited for the greens to thaw, I sat in the clubhouse and had coffee with several members, including the club co-captain. More than half the guys in the bar were named Costello, although they were not all related. We all became amateur meteorologists: looking out the windows, studying weather maps on our cell phones, estimating sun angles, analyzing temperature gradients.

The delay lasted two hours. When the superintendent gave the all-clear, the co-captain put Tani in the first group, with two older guys. Tani had forgotten his golf shoes, so he had to improvise:

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Back to Tani:

The only real concession the club makes to winter is to take the fairways out of play. Last year, you had to lift any ball in a fairway (rare in my case) and drop in light rough. That let the fairways to rest over the winter, but I guess it ate up the light rough, so this year we had to use mats. A positive aspect that I did not initially appreciate is that, when mats are used, winter rounds are considered “official” for tournament purposes, and so count toward handicap.

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Ballybunion’s Old Course has two alternate greens that are used in the winter, on holes 7 and 8.  They’re just as challenging and beautiful as the regular greens, and if you didn’t know any better you would have no idea they were replacements. Here’s one of my playing companions teeing off on No. 8:

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This winter, there was also a temporary green on the 18th. It made the hole disappointingly shorter and easier—although in my case I plugged my approach shot in the face of the huge “Sahara” bunker and had to play backward, into the same bunker, just to have a shot out.

One of the things that make Irish winter golf extra dramatic is the long shadows. Ballybunion is roughly 60 degrees north latitude, and when the sun at its southernmost position the highest it ever gets is about 7 degrees above the horizon.

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That makes for extra-long shadows even at noon.

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Failte Ireland, the Irish tourism authority, has created what it calls the Wild Atlantic Way, a 2,500-kilometer motor route along along some of the most beautiful coastline in the world. It passes through most of the country’s most famous western and southern coastal sites: the Burren, the Cliffs of Moher, Connemara, the Ring of Kerry, and many others. It also connects some great golf courses: Ballyliffin, Carne, Rosapenna, Donegal, Sligo, Lahinch, Doonbeg, Tralee, Waterville, Old Head—and of course Ballybunion. I’m sure it will bring many more tourists to this out-of-the-way part of Ireland, for good and bad.

bally15 As a matter of fact, my friends and I may be traveling part of that route a year from this coming spring—for good only, of course.

Let’s Check in With That Guy Who Has Played Every Golf Course in Ireland

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Kevin Markham lives south of Dublin and knows Irish golf better than anyone. He has played every eighteen-hole course in the country and written two excellent books about them: Hooked, a course-by-course guide, with ratings; and Driving the Green, the story of the seven-thousand-mile trip during which he played them all while somehow remaining married:

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I’ve had the good fortune to join him for rounds on four of the very best: Portstewart and Royal Portrush, in 2012, Royal County Down, in 2013, and the Island, in 2014. Here he is (on the left) at R.C.D., with Kevan Whitson, the head pro:

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And here he is at Portstewart:

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Recently, Markham wrote to say that the County Sligo Golf Club—which I’ve played, though not with him—has been undergoing significant changes. His report:
County Sligo Golf Club bears the hallmark of the great Harry Colt. His design work in the 1920s helped establish a global reputation for this links course, which is commonly known as Rosses Point. But times change, and in recent years the club’s profile, ranking, and revenues have declined. The response is a three-phase course upgrade under the guidance of the architect Pat Ruddy, a Sligo native. Phase One, which is underway, includes additional tee boxes, new bunkering, and extended greens, as well as one new green. It is a brave move to alter such a classic links course, but, Ruddy has said the improvements will “move County Sligo back to the very pinnacle of world golf.” One goal is to attract a major event. The ultimate prize would be the Irish Open in 2019, the same year that Royal Portrush is expected to host the Open Championship.

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Ruddy is sometimes accused of creating courses that are too difficult. I once published a list of the five toughest Irish courses, and three of them were his (the European Club, Sandy Hills at Rosapenna, and Druids Heath at Druids Glen). That said, I adore the European Club, and I rate Sandy Hills highly. My issue with Druids Heath is that you rarely see the landing area from the tee, which I find unrewarding when you hit a good drive.
You can see more of Markham’s photos of the Rosses Point renovations, with informative captions, here.
I myself played Rosses Point in 2011. A club competition was scheduled for the day I wanted to visit—the toughest time to play a visitor round in Ireland (or Scotland or England or anywhere else) is Saturday morning, when tee times are usually reserved for members —but David O’Donovan, the director of golf, told me that he and I could play ahead of the pack if I didn’t mind teeing off at 7:26. To make certain I’d be there on time, I stayed at the Yeats Country Hotel, which, according to the website on which I made my room reservation, is 0.0 miles from the clubhouse. I could see the course from my window, and in the morning I arrived at the golf shop a few minutes before O’Donovan.
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Rosses Point had just held a major amateur championship, the West of Ireland (whose past winners include Padraig Harrington and Rory McIlroy), so the course was in great shape. O’Donovan, who grew up in town in a family of excellent players, insisted that we take a golf cart—an Irish first for me. When you’re in a cart, it’s hard to get a feel for any golf hole, but we did make excellent time.
Rosses Point begins with two good holes up a hill, followed by two very good holes back. Then you tee off over a cliff—on a par 5 called the Jump—and work your way around a stretch of linksland that appears flat from above but turns out to be filled with seductive complications. Here’s the view from the tee on the Jump (although the camera flattens the cliff):
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We finished in two and a half hours, and then, since the kitchen hadn’t opened yet, we played the club’s third nine, which adjoins the lower portion of the championship course. We caught up to and joined an older member, who gave up golf for twenty years to please his second wife but had now begun playing again (and was in the process of giving up the wife). “My game is coming back,” he said—a man at peace.
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The Other Golf Course at Royal County Down

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A little over a year ago, I traveled to Northern Ireland on assignment for Golf Digest. My account of that trip, called The Adventure of a Lifetime, was mostly about Royal County Down, in Newcastle—the golf course that, if I really and truly had to pick just one, would probably get my vote as the world’s greatest. (That’s the view from the ninth tee in the photo above.) As terrific as R.C.D. is, though, it’s not the only golf course in County Down, or even in Newcastle. There’s a second course on the same property, called Annesley Links, and, although visiting Americans seldom play it, it has plenty of charms. It’s only 4,500 yards from the men’s medal tees, but if you can play it without losing more balls than you did on the championship course you’ll have something to brag about.annesleygc

I played the Annesley with Shaun Killough and Andy Murphy, whom I met on the first tee. Killough is a retired bank manager, and Murphy is a retired electrician. Murphy was a good friend of Killough’s predecessor at the bank, and, when Killough got the job, Murphy, in effect, came with it. They’ve been golf buddies ever since. That’s Murphy on the left in the photo below, and Killough on the right.

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Killough is a member and a past president of Mourne Golf Club, whose clubhouse stands between the Slieve Donard Hotel (whose spire you see in the distance in the first photo in this post) and the first tee of the championship course.

mourneclubhouseMourne was established in the nineteen-forties for residents of Newcastle, whom Royal County Down members generally consider to be less clubbable than residents of Belfast. It has three hundred and fifty members, who can play the Annesley course whenever they like and the championship course on any day but Saturday—and all for a little over eight hundred pounds a year. “It’s the best golf deal in the world,” Killough told me.

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Killough, Murphy, and I spent most of our round debating our wager. Murphy got so far ahead that on the tenth tee Killough ruled that the first nine holes had been practice only, and that the real match would begin now. But then he and I both lost our tee shots on the tenth, so that hole became a practice hole, too. Murphy got far ahead again. Then I made a birdie on a hole where Killough and Murphy both made net birdies, and I said, “That squares the match, I believe.” Killough agreed, so he and I kept our losses to a minimum.

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Mourne, like Royal County Down, is men only. They had advertised a Ladies’ Night not long before, but only nine people signed up so they canceled it.

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Killough told me that during his presidency he established a mixed foursomes tournament, which was called the Sorry Trophy because foursomes partners are always apologizing to each other. I saw the trophy, in a case in the clubhouse, where we stopped for a beer after our round. The tournament lasted just a couple of years, he said, but someone, somewhere, should revive the name.

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There’s also a Royal County Down Ladies Golf Club, which has a small clubhouse of its own, near the first tee of the Annesley course.

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Women are welcome on the championship course, but even from the forward tees some of the carries and elevations can be daunting for shorter hitters, and members of the ladies’ club, Killough said, play the Annesley course almost exclusively. He also told me, with incredulity, that the women’s clubhouse is alcohol-free.

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Forty or fifty years ago, there was talk at Mourne of acquiring land north of Newcastle, in Dundrum, and building a golf course that would belong exclusively to Mourne Golf Club. In the end, though, only three members subscribed. After all, who in his right mind would give up the best golf deal in the world?

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Change Your Own Grips and Win a New Driver!

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Two days before my friends and I left for Scotland and Ireland, last spring, I decided to replace the grips on all my golf clubs, both as a gesture of respect to the great courses we’d be visiting and as a way of avoiding work. A few weeks before, I’d bought thirteen Lamkin Crossline Full Cord grips and a bunch of gripping supplies, all from Golfsmith.

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Changing your own grips is pretty easy, and if you get stuck there are lots of helpful instructional videos on YouTube, including the one at the bottom of this post. I changed my grips in my basement. You’ll notice that before I began I cleared a clean work space:

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I did my driver last. I placed it in my bench vise, to hold it steady, and used a rubber vise clamp (also sold by Golfsmith) to protect the shaft. I tightened the vise, and then, to make sure the club was extra secure, I gave the vise one more turn—and when I did that the shaft cracked longitudinally.
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One of the great things about modern drivers is that if you crack a shaft you can easily replace it all by yourself. But when I went to the golf shop at my club to buy a new one I discovered that this year’s Callaway driver shafts (which is what the shop had in stock) don’t fit last year’s Callaway drivers (which is what I owned): the little locking attachment thingy is different.
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That made me furious but also glad, because it meant that, because we were leaving the country the next day, I had no alternative but to buy a new driver.

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When we got to Scotland, though, I decided that I didn’t like my new driver (I hadn’t had time to try it before we left). That night, I emailed my pro at home and asked him to order me a new shaft for my old driver, so that I could switch as soon as we got back. But then, the next day, I decided that I did like my new driver. In fact, I loved it! By then, though, the new shaft was already on a UPS truck somewhere.

So now I feel like the luckiest, smartest guy in the world, because I have one and a half brand-new drivers, and I paid for them partly with money I saved by changing my own grips.

Five Rules of Golf That My Friends and I Got Wrong on Our Recent Buddies Trip

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According to a veteran sportswriter I know, there are three lethally boring topics in golf: junior golf, the rules of golf, and I forget the third. But I think the rules are interesting, in part because they constitute a legal system that attempts to provide a specific remedy for every conceivable situation, leaving essentially no role for “discretion.” And, although I usually believe I know the rules better than the average casual player (which isn’t saying much), I often encounter surprises.

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On our recent golf trip to Scotland and Ireland, my friends and I got many rules wrong, undoubtedly, but five of our errors, in particular, stand out—and four of them were made by players with single-digit handicaps. First, one of mine:

1. At a golf school I attended in the early 1990s, one of the instructors hit several gorgeous bunker shots after turning his sand wedge backward, but then told us, “Unfortunately, hitting the ball with the back of the club is illegal.” I cited him on the trip as my authority (in a situation I’ve forgotten)—and I was wrong. If hitting the ball with the back of the club was illegal 20 years ago, it’s not illegal now. Decision 14-1/1 says:

A player may play a stroke with any part of the clubhead, provided the ball is fairly struck at (Rule 14-1) and the club conforms with Rule 4-1.

2. There were twelve guys on our trip, divided into two teams of six. Each of our morning rounds was a four-ball match in which a pair from one team played a pair from the other team.

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On one green, my partner’s ball was farthest from the hole, but I putted first—and made the putt, annoying one of our opponents, who was farther from the hole than I was. He felt that I had illegally pressured him by playing out of turn. But he was wrong. Because my partner was farthest from the hole, either he or I could putt first. Rule 30-3b says:

Balls belonging to the same side may be played in the order the side considers best.

(Because this was match play, if I really had played out of turn an opponent could have required me to replay my shot at the right time. In stroke play, the farthest player is also supposed to play first, but there’s no penalty if someone screws up. For a good explanation of the differences between match play and stroke play, go here.)

3. On another hole, a player accidentally struck his ball with a practice swing, and said there was no penalty because he hadn’t made a stroke. He was right about the stroke but wrong about the penalty. Decision 18-2a/20 says:

Q. A player makes a practice swing and accidentally moves his ball in play with his club. Has he made a stroke?

A. No. He had no intention of moving the ball – see Definition of “Stroke.”  However, he incurs a penalty stroke under Rule 18-2a for moving his ball in play, and the ball must be replaced.

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4. On a par 5, one player hit a long second shot into thick rough and couldn’t find it. So he dropped another ball approximately where he figured the first one must have ended up, and played from there. I assumed he was just playing along for fun, but he believed that he was still in the hole, and he explained that he had added a stroke for losing his ball. But he was wrong. His only legal recourse would have been to return as near as possible to the spot where he’d hit his second shot, and play another ball from there, at a penalty of “stroke and distance”—or two shots. And if he lost that ball, too, he’d have to do it again, same deal.

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5. Everybody on the trip knew that there was a penalty for hitting a wrong ball, but no one was sure exactly what it was, especially in four-ball match play. Now we know. Rule 30-3c says:

If a player incurs the loss of hole penalty under Rule 15-3a for making a stroke at a wrong ballhe is disqualified for that hole, but his partner incurs no penalty even if the wrong ball belongs to him. If the wrong ball belongs to another player, its owner must place a ball on the spot from which the wrong ball was first played.

wrong ballI could go on.

Two Useful Sleep-Related Accessories for Golf Trips

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My wife can fall asleep in a room in which all the lights are turned on and sunlight is streaming onto her face, while I can be awakened from a deep sleep by the message light on my cell phone. My friend Tony is similarly afflicted. His wife, in sympathy, bought an LED headlamp, so that she could read in bed without bothering him, but every time she turns to gaze lovingly at his sleeping form she zaps him in the eyes and wakes him up.
Hotel rooms can be a huge problem, even when I’m traveling without my wife. During a golf trip to San Antonio last year, I had to use a Kleenex box and two wash cloths to disable the electric eye on the light switch in the bathroom, which blasted me with daylight-level illumination when I got up in the night to take a whiz:
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Because it’s hard to knock out all the potentially annoying light sources in a hotel room, I now travel with a sleep mask. I’ve tried several, and the one I like the best is made by Dream Essentials. It comes with a pair of ear plugs and what the company’s website describes as “a complimentary drawstring carry pouch,” and it makes me look like the Human Fly:
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It’s especially useful during summertime golf trips to Britain and Ireland, because at that time of year at that latitude the sun never quite goes all the way down. I like it so much that I now use it at home, too.
A sleep mask to avoid, unless you have a hat size of about 5 or enjoy feeling that your eyes are being squeezed flat by an elastic band, is this one, from Samsonite, even though it also comes with ear plugs:
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During my recent buddies trip to Scotland and Ireland, I spoke so convincingly about the benefits of wearing a sleep mask that J.P. went out immediately and bought one at a drugstore up the street from our hotel in Campbeltown, near Machrihanish. He now swears by it, too.
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