My Round of Golf With a Nobel Prize Winner

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

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

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

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

Inauguration Day Special: My Night at Mar-a-Lago

I spent one night at Mar-a-Lago back in 2012, after playing golf that afternoon with the man about to be sworn in as the President of the United States. At dinner that night, Trump served himself roughly a lobster and a half’s worth of shelled lobster claws and split lobster tails from the seafood buffet, then went back and for big plate of sweet-and-sour shrimp on rice. While we were having dessert, two giggly little girls from New Jersey, whose parents were part of a group from Trump’s golf club in Bedminster—“one of the richest places in the country”—came over to our table and asked Trump to dance. He said that he would dance with them in Bedminster. Then he asked them if they wanted to be supermodels when they grew up. (They said yes). Then he asked them to kiss him. (And they did.)

You can read a little more my Mar-a-Lago visit on the New Yorker’s website today. My New Yorker colleague Mark Singer, who has written a lot about Trump, including this book, emailed me recently: “Trump, standing on the lawn at Mar-a-Lago and hitting balls into the Intracoastal Waterway with a 3-iron, told me that Claude Harmon called him ‘the best weekend player’ he’d ever seen. Such an innocent time. . . . I suspect it won’t be during my lifetime when historians come up with a fully coherent explanation of how/why it came to this. I have no faith in my ability to predict what lies ahead; everything I thought I knew was mistaken.”

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.

Let’s Check In With President Trump


I missed the first episode of Donald Trump’s awesome new reality-TV show, on Thursday night, because I was playing bridge with my old-lady friends. I thought I was recording it but when I played it back the next morning I discovered that what I’d actually recorded was a cheap knock-off show starring Rick Perry and Carly Fiorina. Oh, well. I’ve got a pretty good idea what it was like, because Trump and I talked on the phone in June. He was just No. 2 in the polls then, and when I asked him if there was any presidential-type announcement he wanted to make he said, “Yeah, I’ll give it to you.”


Then we went back to talking about golf. I had called him because three friends and I had just played Trump Golf Links at Ferry Point, in the Bronx—a brand-new golf course, which is owned by New York City but managed by Trump on a 20-year-lease. I was pissed because golf carts are allowed but pushcarts aren’t. That’s the only bad thing I have to say about the course, though. (You can read more about all that in my column in the September issue of Golf Digest.)


I assume that one of the first acts of the Donald Trump/Rosie O’Donnell administration will be to nationalize the U.S.G.A. and the P.G.A. of America, and schedule all future American major championships on courses that Trump owns or operates. Maybe the U.S. Open will be held at Trump’s club in West Palm Beach, which is just across the Intracoastal Waterway from Palm Beach, which Trump described to me once as “the richest place anywhere on the planet, in terms of, you know, wealth.” Whether or not that happens, Ferry Point is worth a field trip. And if you have a late flight out of LaGuardia, perhaps while fleeing the country following Trump’s election, you can stop on your way to the airport.


I played with Tony, Hacker (real name), and Gary, our terrific superintendent, and the four of us walked and carried, after dumping a lot of extra stuff in our cars. The photo above is of the guys who were playing just ahead of us. Four guys playing with two caddies are even slower than four guys riding in two golf carts, so I had plenty of time to take pictures. The course is a worthy tribute to Scottish and Irish links golf, and although it’s expensive it’s not overpriced for what it is. Here’s Tony in the native Bronx fescue:


And here are Gary and Hacker:


The views alone are worth the green fees. Here’s the Brooklyn-Manhattan skyline:


And the cemetery where Charles Lindbergh dropped off ransom money for his kidnapped kid, to no avail:


And the Bronx-Whitestone Bridge, which looks like it connects Queens to the eighteenth fairway:


We’re going back, just as soon as we’ve slipped enough hundred-dollar bills out of our wives’ purses.P1150951

Did Donald Trump Copy His Hairstyle From Nature?


We played Spyglass and Pebble last Sunday, at Maggie McFly’s. Here’s Mike B., holding the stick for me on the second green at Pebble:


The weather had been so bad that playing anywhere but on the simulators wasn’t a possibility. Then the weather got worse. The snowstorm that the Weather Channel had such a cow about earlier this week turned out to be a dud in our part of New England, but we still got six or seven inches Then on Friday morning we got a few more. As a consequence, I’ve spent a lot of time staring at a bird feeder my wife gave me for one of the windows in my office —which our dog has also been interested in. Anyway, I think I’ve figured out where my close personal friend Donald Trump got his hairstyle: nuthatches.




I mentioned in a recent post that Jägermeister’s official sponsorship of the Sunday Morning Group had had a measurable impact on sales because Other Gene’s wife had ordered some in a restaurant and a non-golf-playing bridge partner of mine in Mississippi was thinking about buying a bottle. I’d now like to update those results: my non-golf-playing bridge partner in Mississippi not only did buy a bottle; he also served it to three people he has been teaching to play bridge:


“Each of the guys said he hadn’t drunk any since college,” my friend reported. “The one with the baseball cap said his first and only experience with it had been at a Cornell fraternity party he went to his freshman year. He drank so much that night that he ended up throwing up from a balcony at the front of the fraternity house, and a crowd gathered below to cheer him on. The other guy said his story was similar, but he didn’t tell it.” They’re grown-ups now, though, and I think I can safely put all four of them in the plus column, along with Other Gene’s wife.

Let’s check that bird feeder again:


The U.S.G.A. and R&A Should Adopt This Playoff Format (Among Other Things)


Hacker (real name) came up fifteen dollars short on Sunday—something that hardly ever happens. He doesn’t count the money when he collects it before the Sunday Morning Group tees off, and he doesn’t keep track of who has paid and who hasn’t, yet the total is almost always exactly right. I know that I wasn’t the one who forgot to pay, because I’ve been on Martha’s Vineyard with my family. I’ve played golf just once, at Farm Neck Golf Club, the course I shared last summer with my close personal friend the President of the United States: 


There’s a new sign near the first green:


They used to ask people to play in four hours and fifteen minutes; four hours is better, although three and a half would be better still. I went as a single, and was grouped with a retired guy and two of his grandsons, who were in high school. They hadn’t played much golf before, but both of them were baseball players, and every so often they really clobbered the ball.


I had missed the previous Sunday at home, too, because I was playing in a two-day amateur tournament at Richter Park Golf Course, a terrific muny about forty minutes from where I live. Three S.M.G. guys—Rick, Tony, and I—played in the senior division, and we did pretty well:


After 25 holes, I was tied, for about five seconds, with the guy who eventually won, but then I had some problems, including a quadruple bogey (from the middle of the fairway) on the eleventh hole. Still, the tournament was fun. And the guys who didn’t play at Richter had fun, too, because on Sunday S.M.G. had its first playoff of the year, after three teams tied at 16 under par. I’m kind of sorry I wasn’t there, because our playoff formats are the best in golf. On Sunday, the guys came up with a new one, in which the tied players had to sit in a chair on the patio and throw a ball onto the practice green by bouncing it off a picnic-table bench, closest to the hole:


Hacker (who took the photo above, and the one at the top of this post) sent me a report:
Barney chose the bench to bounce the ball off of, and we made the guys sit on the far side of the round table, about nine feet from the bench. The stymie rule was in effect, as always, and we decided that any ball would count, even if it was off the green. We were worried at first that no one would be able to hit the bench, but that turned out not to be an issue, because Stan was the only one who missed it.
I’ll be back home soon—too late for that playoff, but just in time for the Men’s Member-Guest.

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


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


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

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

lendl hybrid

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

bushnell hybrid

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


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

austin cart

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

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

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

vegan burgersNow who’s a good husband?

Donald Trump Goes to Ireland


In 2006, I traveled to Ireland with three other Golf Digest editors, and among the courses we played was Doonbeg, about an hour and a half down the coast from Lahinch. (A useful rule of thumb, when estimating travel times on older Irish roads, is to think of the kilometers as miles, and multiply by two.) In the magazine I wrote that, after playing the course twice, I wanted to take back nearly every unkind thought I’d ever had about Greg Norman, who designed it. Several of the holes, I said, were permanently memorable, including the teensy but murderous fourteenth, a par 3, which has a green scarcely large enough to contain a foursome (shown above).

doonbeg lodge

The only part of Doonbeg I didn’t care for was the club itself, which, in contrast to the course, seemed distinctly overdetermined. Doonbeg was created, in 2002, by Kiawah Development Partners, of Kiawah Island, South Carolina, and there was a powerful American-style screw-you quality to many of the amenities, both inside the huge gray-stone clubhouse (where golf balls in 2006 were selling for a hundred dollars a dozen) and on the grounds beyond the course, where the walls bordering the endless private drive had been draped with sod that appeared to have been cut on Savile Row. Well, reality finally caught up with the owners, and the property went into receivership in January. Last month, the whole thing sold, for about twenty million dollars, to my close personal friend Donald Trump, who subsequently sent a letter to Doonbeg’s (mostly non-Irish) members and apartment owners. Here’s the first part of his letter:

Trump letter

A downside with Trump is that he names or renames everything after himself. But the rest of us can continue to call the course Doonbeg, and I think the members and the Irish and golfers in general ought to be pleased, because, as Trump demonstrated at Doral last week, when he buys a struggling golf property he doesn’t fool around. No matter what you think about him, he has been extremely successful—and shrewd!—at cleaning up golf messes made by other people. So good for him.

Some of the en-suite luxuries in my room at Mar-a-Lago, where I spent one night in 2012.

Some of the en-suite luxuries in my room at Mar-a-Lago, where I spent one night in 2012.