The Joys of Golf, No Matter the Weather or the President

A few years ago, a Google app on my phone offered to navigate me to “work.” I didn’t know what to make of that, because my office is in my house, so I clicked the tab and discovered that Google had deduced, based on how I spend my time during a typical week, that I must work at 10 Golf Course Road—the address of my golf club. Google must also think I get laid off every winter, because between early December and early April I hardly ever go to the club. I live up in the hills in western Connecticut, a hundred miles north of New York, and our course almost always shuts down within a week or two of Thanksgiving.

You can read the rest on the website  of The New Yorker, right here.

Critical Weather Tool for Winter Golfers

Each winter, my friends and I patronize several public golf courses within a hundred-mile radius of where we live. The courses are ones that stay open through the winter as long as they aren’t covered with snow, but sometimes it’s hard to know for sure whether they’re open or not, because we have to leave home before anyone is likely to be in the golf shop to answer the phone. That means we sometimes arrive at a course only to discover that we won’t be playing there that day after all:

Tunxis Plantation Golf Course, December 21, 2014

Actually, on the day shown in the photo above, we found a course that really was open, after making a bunch of calls from the parking lot. Recently, I discovered a trick that would have saved us a lot of driving that day. The Wundermap feature of the website Weather Underground includes links to webcams associated with many of the public and private weather stations in its vast network. If there’s a functioning webcam near a course you’re hoping to play, you see check the actual conditions, in real time, before you leave home, like this:

Oops—no golf today.

An Election Day Golf Game

p1010618

My regular golf buddies and I don’t need much encouragement to leave work early. On Election Day in 2008, six of us decided that filling in circles on machine-readable ballots was all the hard labor that we could manage on an unseasonably balmy November afternoon, and that no one could blame us for spending the rest of the day on the golf course. Tim—who is the inventor of several of our core concepts, including negative skins, “shooting your pants,” and the mathematical formula by which we predict the winning team score in our regular Sunday morning games (13 minus the lowest handicap in the field, times -1)—said that he would come up with an appropriate competition by the time we teed off.

Tim (left) and Gary (our terrific superintendent).

Tim (left) and Gary (our terrific superintendent).

What he came up with was the Presidential Special. He assigned each hole an electoral-college value equal to the sum of its number and its handicap stroke index. Our fifth hole, for example, is our tenth handicap hole, so it was worth 15 electoral votes (5 + 10 = 15). We called it North Carolina. The most valuable hole was No. 16, California, which is our seventeenth handicap hole (16 + 17 = 33); the least valuable was No. 4, Delaware, which was worth just 5. The entire course added up to 342 electoral votes, 172 needed to win.

Before we began, we divided into two three-man teams by throwing balls, then assigned the candidates by flipping a tee. (No one else was on the course, so we played as a sixsome.) I drew McCain, who promptly lost the first hole, Pennsylvania, worth 13 electoral votes. McCain won the second, but picked up only 7—Arizona. Then Obama went on a run, crushing drives and sinking putts from everywhere, and McCain didn’t take another hole until the tenth, Texas. The election was technically still up for grabs, since the back nine was worth 60 percent of the total, but Obama didn’t let up, and he clinched the match on the twelfth, Ohio, a par-three worth 27. It was over before the polls even opened in Hawaii. We switched to skins for the remaining six holes, since Tim couldn’t figure out how to play for cabinet appointments.

Undeniable Signs That the Local Golf Season is Drawing to a Close

International Leaf Rule now in effect:

p1170131

Acorns everywhere:

Ominously large collection of half-empty condiment containers on the Sunday Morning Group’s shelf in the clubhouse refrigerator:

Furniture from the SMG’s official Patio and Burial Ground moved to the clubhouse porch:

Different hats:

Daylight savings time:

Hungry wildlife emerging from the woods:

No more bunker rakes:

Frost delays:

Atlantic City Country Club: Great Golf Course, Great Locker Room, Great Bar

p1200073

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:

p1200049

  • 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.
p1200107

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:

card-example

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.

Harry’s Last Round of Golf

p1190862

Our old friend Harry, who was one of the founding members of the Sunday Morning Group, died not long ago, and his widow told us she was going to send us half of his ashes to spread around the golf course, as Harry had wanted. The container we received was so heavy—three pounds—that I thought maybe she had sent us all of him, but Hacker (real name) said he’d Googled “cremation” and that all of Harry would have been more like six. We had 17 guys on Sunday, plus Harry. Schoonie had the only cart, so we put Harry on his team:

Joe brought lunch: pulled pork, spicy sausages, and lobster macaroni and cheese — all made by him, none of it touched by his wife—and because the Ryder Cup broadcast was about to begin we ate in the clubhouse, in front of the TV, instead of on our patio. I announced that I had stirred half a cup of Harry into the pulled pork, but no one believed me:

After lunch, Hacker borrowed an ash-distribution utensil from the clubhouse kitchen:

We put some of Harry under one of the bluestone pavers on the patio:

And some on the first fairway:

And some in the cup on the seventh hole, where Harry once had a hole-in-one:

And some in the divot mix in one of the divot-mix boxes that Harry himself built and gave to the club:

So long, Harry!

p1130342

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:

oldclubhouse700

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

What Happened to Harry’s Leak?

One Sunday a decade ago, we had four dollars left in the pot after paying everyone off. Hacker (real name) always handles our extra cash, but he was at home nursing his wife, who had just had cataract surgery, so we were on our own. We did remember one of his rules, though: “Money never flows backward.” In other words, no refunds. So we held a playoff.

It was actually a throw-off: two balls from where you were sitting, overhand or underhand, toward the No. 1 hole on the practice green, first in wins the four bucks. My first try didn’t even reach the putting surface, and my second rolled about six feet to the left. Nobody else did much better, except for Harry, who lipped the hole twice. After a brief discussion, we declared him the winner.

p1130342

This was partly a symbolic gesture, because Harry had just retired and his wife had called in an old promise: as soon as he left his job, he’d told her years before, they’d move to Pennsylvania, where she had family. We’d never really had to deal with somebody moving away before—at least, not somebody like Harry, who was practically a part of our course. With Harry gone, who was going to say “Where’s my leak?” when a drive unaccountably bent to the left, and who was going to say “Let me adjust my glasses” when somebody made the kind of remark that was known to tick Harry off? Less selfishly, what was life going to be like for Harry? Pennsylvania has golf courses, but how many of them have a rule printed right on their scorecard saying that Harry isn’t allowed to keep score?

Harry (far right) in the Devil's Asshole, in front of the tenth green at Pine Valley, at some point in the late 1980s or early 1990s, with Rick, John A. (their host), and Hacker.

Harry (far right) in the Devil’s Asshole, in front of the tenth green at Pine Valley, at some point in the late 1980s or early 1990s, with Rick, John A. (their host), and Hacker.

Not long ago, down in Pennsylvania, Harry did something else we weren’t happy about: he died. He had been in poor health for a while, and then things got worse. This was a serious blow, because Harry was one of the founding members of the Sunday Morning Group, which turned 20 this year. To celebrate Harry’s life, we mixed up a big batch of his favorite cocktail: brandy and green crème de menthe:

p1180941

It looked and tasted like cough medicine, but we did our best with it—although I kind of think that, if drinking everything in the Thermos would have brought Harry back to life, we would have decided to let him go. I poured what was left in the dirt behind the Dumpster because I was afraid it might kill the grass.

Tim D., making a manful effort with one of Harry's memorial Emerald Stingers.

Tim D., making a manful effort with one of Harry’s memorial Emerald Stingers.

Now we have to figure out what to do with Harry himself, since his widow is going to send us his ashes. He always said he wanted to be thrown into the pond on the fourth hole, because so many of his golf balls are at the bottom of it, but the ashes would probably just float over the spillway and disappear downstream. Several of the guys, including me, have said they’d like to buried under one of the pavers on the patio by the putting green, so maybe we’ll invoke the standard Sunday Morning Group power of attorney and put him there instead:

p1140363

Or maybe we’ll stir him in with the divot mix on one of our par 3s. That would be appropriate because Harry himself built our divot-mix boxes, 12 or 15 years ago. Everyone could take a scoop and fix a couple of divots.

p1190017

How to Pick the Perfect Cigar

Famous Smoke Shop, official supplier of premium tobacco products to the Sunday Morning Group, has created a web-based utility that enables you to pick the ideal cigar to go with whatever you’re drinking too much of. You select a spirit, then a price range, than an activity (“entertaining clients,” “trying to forget your failures”), and it tells you what to put in your mouth. Not long ago, Famous Smoke sent us a nice big box of samples, and we held our second annual Cigar Day. Here’s Mike A. making a selection before teeing off:

p1190271

And here’s Tim C., using a cigar as a pushcart navigational aid:

p1190336

We tested four kinds: Oliva, Arturo Fuente, Macanudo, and CAO. Gene liked his CAO so much that he smoked it right through lunch:

p1190421

It was Chic’s turn to bring the food—and he did his own shopping and patty-formation:

p1190409We supplemented the burgers, dogs, and chips with some fruit salad we found in the clubhouse fridge—a leftover from the women’s member-guest, which had closed the course for several critical hours the day before. The fruit was quite tasty, even it’s supposed to be sort of good for you:

p1190356

The day was so hot that we ate in the parking lot, next to the men’s room, because it’s shadier than the patio. No one was in a hurry to go home.

p1190392