Last week, a television crew from a Japanese news program interviewed me about Donald Trump, who was about to play golf with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. The frame above depicts the moment, in 2012, when I momentarily mistook Trump for a bag-drop attendant and nearly slipped him five bucks. Here’s the whole segment:
I was watching the final match in the U.S. Mid-Amateur Championship on TV on Thursday. Scott Harvey was leading Stewart Hagestad by four holes with six holes to play. My wife and I had to leave to go out to dinner, so I turned on the DVR. “That guy’s in big trouble,” I told her as we left the house. She asked how far behind he was. “No,” I said. “His problem is that he’s too far ahead.”
Four up is the most dangerous score in match play. When you lead an opponent by one hole, you think only of extending your lead to two, but when you lead by four your focus turns insidiously toward the trophy room. You hadn’t expected the match to be this easy, yet here you are, so far ahead that your cat could finish it for you. Uh-oh—what if you lose?
Four up is the narrowest margin that seems too big to squander, and the widest one that seems small enough to throw away. It teeters unnervingly between the certainty of triumph and the possibility of humiliation. Meanwhile, you have to deal with an opponent who no longer has anything to lose.
I once watched my teammate Norm compete in an inter-club match in which his opponent played beautifully for fourteen holes and was 4 up with four holes to play. On the fifteenth tee, both men knew the match was basically over, because Norm would have to win all four remaining holes just to tie. But Norm birdied No. 15, and you could almost hear the gears of panic beginning to grind in his opponent’s brain: If I can lose one hole, why not two? (He then lost No. 16.) And if I can lose two, why not three? (He lost No. 17.) And if I can lose three . . .
Norm won the last hole, halving the match, and he did it without having to putt. In fact, he did it without having to hit an approach shot, because his opponent—who in his mind had returned to the clubhouse two holes earlier to explain to his teammates how he had wasted a lead that couldn’t be wasted—pulled his drive into a grove of trees, failed twice to punch his ball back into play, and conceded the hole right there, too ashamed to go on. As I watched him staggering up the hill, I wondered if he would ever play again.
Whenever I find myself down in a match, I try to channel Norm, whose calm perseverance made an inspiring case for never giving up. In a match many years ago, though, I ended up on the wrong side of that dangerous score, and the player I channeled, unfortunately, was Norm’s opponent. Playing against a better golfer, I somehow made all the putts that mattered for 11 holes and found myself four up with seven to play. Until the moment my putt dropped on No. 11, I had never truly believed I could win. Now, though, my strategy changed from innocently lethal offense to suicidally anxious defense. I counted the remaining holes on my fingers, like a blackjack player in Vegas deciding how much he can afford to lose.
You can guess most of the rest. I lost the match on the first extra hole, to a bogey. The worst of it was hearing the other guy, afterward, boasting about the deficit he had overcome. “Four up with seven to go!” he crowed to one of his teammates as I put my clubs back in my car, wondering if I would ever play again. (I beat him last year, though. This year, too.)
On Thursday, I turned on the DVR when my wife and I got back from dinner, but I had already guessed the result. Harvey lost the 32nd hole, and then the 33rd, and then the 35th, and then the 36th—all to birdies. Then Hagestad birdied the first extra hole, and they were done.
Not all that long ago, Masters competitors, playing in twosomes, were expected to finish 18 holes in about three hours, even during the tournament’s final round. After the 1956 Masters, a competitor wrote to Clifford Roberts, the club’s co-founder and chairman, to complain that, after playing the first nine in an hour and a half, he had been told by an official to hurry up. You can read more at this blog’s official home, on the Golf Digest website. And if you “subscribe” to myusualgame.com, by filling in your email address in the blank on the right side of this page, you’ll be notified every time I post something new. And, if you’re willing to wait a month or so, you can find complete versions of all my old posts on this site, too, by paging down until you reach them.
I wish the Golf Channel would drop the Champions Tour and broadcast my club’s member-guest tournament instead. Wouldn’t you watch? Among other reasons, there’s way more drama and beer, and the spectators are appreciative:
The putting is less tedious, especially after dark:
Protracer was practically made for it:
The player endorsements are more persuasive, because you know the players really do use they products they promote:
There are always plenty of refreshments:
We get pizza during the putting contest:
Faster foursomes are allowed to play through:
There are moments of high drama—like when the pro has to explain to a member who didn’t read her email that the course is closed all weekend, except for participants:
And you see shots the pros won’t even try:
ESPN’s scorecard graphic for the Open Championship is labeled “front nine” and “back nine,” but the Old Course doesn’t have a front and back. You play nine holes “out,” making a little loop at the bend of the shepherd’s crook, then nine holes “in.” “Outward nine” and “inward nine”—he preferred local terms—would be more accurate. But not for every course, even on the Open Rota. People often say that out-and-in is a defining characteristic of links golf, but it isn’t. Troon (for example) does play nine out and nine in, more or less, but the holes at Carnoustie (for example) wander around:
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.
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.
Getting soaked was better than inhaling pine pollen—something we’ve done a lot of this spring:
Because 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.
Among its many memorable features are its bunkers, which are maintained by vengeful demons:
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.
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.
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.
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.
Will the Open Championship ever be held at Royal County Down? Fingers crossed.
The Masters first appeared on TV in 1956, on CBS. (NBC, which covered the tournament on radio, had turned it down.) CBS initially wanted to show little more than the eighteenth hole, but the club said it would forego $5,000, half its fee, if more of the course could be included. CBS added a second transmission station, but the coverage was still minimal: two and a half hours over three days, showing just parts of the last four holes.
Augusta National argued for more. The club’s television committee, in its report on the second broadcast, in 1957, wrote, “A most picturesque part of our golf course lies about the twelfth hole and thirteenth green. An attempt should be made through employment of portable cameras to bring this area into live broadcast. If this is impractical, a few films of the area could be shown.”
CBS disagreed that there was any need to show more of the course, even on film, and it stuck to that position. Seven years later, Clifford Roberts, the club’s chairman and co-founder—after reading in Golf World that CBS was planning to cover six holes at a lesser tournament, the 1964 Carling World Open, at Oakland Hills—wrote to Jack Dolph, who was then the network’s director of sports, to ask why the Masters could not be given the same treatment. Dolph replied: “It’s true that we are covering six holes of the Carling’s rather than four as we do at the Masters. This was a commitment made in acquiring the rights to the Tournament; one on which Carling’s insisted. We have grave doubts that this extra hole coverage will add to the overall impact of the tournament, and we are, in fact, giving the extra two holes the very minimum of coverage.”
Roberts did not give up, and in 1966 CBS finally agreed to extend its coverage beyond the fifteenth hole, by adding a camera near the fourteenth green. Coverage of the thirteenth green began two years later, in 1968, after Roberts suggested moving a camera from the far less interesting fourteenth tee. The twelfth hole wasn’t shown live until five years after that, in 1973—sixteen years after the club’s original suggestion.
The twelfth hole might not have received its own camera even in 1973 if Roberts had not effectively tricked CBS into putting one there. The year before, ABC Sports had asked the club for permission to film the twelfth hole during the 1972 Masters, for a prime-time sports special that it planned to broadcast on the Monday following the tournament. “As you know,” an ABC executive wrote to Roberts, “this hole has never been shown on the live presentations of the Masters, and our segment, which would probably be only five or ten minutes in length, would not only show how some of the top finishers play this hole but would also capture the many moods and some of the unique happenings that transpire at this locale.”
Roberts—who knew that ABC for years had yearned to win the Masters contract away from CBS—agreed. CBS noticed. The following year, for the first time, it placed a camera of its own on the twelfth hole.
My wife’s college roommate’s son got married recently. Before the wedding, he and his fiancée were interviewed at length for an episode of a reality show called Something Borrowed, Something New, on the television network TLC, which is to women what the Golf Channel is to men. Three years ago, during the summer before my daughter’s wedding, I inadvertently watched parts of quite a few TLC programs, because during that period the TV in our kitchen was permanently tuned to that channel. For example, I saw parts of several episodes of My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding, a British reality show about the weddings of gypsies and Irish travelers. From it, I learned that, in planning our daughter’s wedding, my wife and I had made many mistakes, including allowing our daughter to marry a non-gypsy and failing to rent any stretch Hummers or horse-drawn carriages:
Something Borrowed, Something New is about wedding dresses. The episode featuring my wife’s old roommate’s son and his fiancée aired shortly before Christmas, and my wife suggested that our own son, whose name is John, and I watch it with her. John and I consented, out of loyalty to her and her old roommate, whom both of us know, but we worried that sitting through an entire TLC show might permanently harm us in some way. Luckily, we were able to protect ourselves, by viewing the episode through long cardboard tubes from two used-up rolls of Christmas wrapping paper:
Watching through the tubes enabled us to make it all the way to the end while suffering few if any ill effects, and it occurred to me later that the same technique might be useful in other fraught television-viewing situations, such as nerve-wracking parts of important golf tournaments. If a golfer you were rooting for in one of the majors faced a critical putt on the final day, for example, you could use a tube to focus solely on the hole, potentially even helping the ball to drop. Or, during one of those web.com commercials featuring Jim Furyk and his wife, you could use a tube to focus on a blank part of the screen (after first hitting the mute button).
In other golf news, Jed, a member of the Sunday Morning Group, became a father on December 20. Here he is with his brand-new daughter, whose name is Louisa. As you can see, she already has a healthy interest in golf:
My granddaughter, whose name is Alice, is thirteen months older than Louisa. I don’t have a recent picture of her playing golf, but I do have one of her doing a pretty good imitation of most of the guys I play most of my rounds with:
My golf course closed for the season on the Monday before Thanksgiving. The day before that, thirteen guys showed up for the final 2014 home-course meeting of the Sunday Morning Group. I wasn’t there, because I was on my way home from a non-golf reporting assignment in Arizona, Utah, Nevada, and California—poor life-management on my part. The following Sunday, though, Hacker (real name), Mike B., Gary, Ray, three of Ray’s friends from other clubs, and I played at Fairchild Wheeler Golf Course, a 36-hole facility owned by the city of Bridgeport, Connecticut:
The Wheel (as it’s known to friends) is the main winter golf hangout for a lot of guys in our region, because it’s so close to the coast that it doesn’t get much snow. It’s where S.M.G. played last year on New Year’s Day:
The Wheel is also the home of an extremely successful chapter of The First Tee, which served more than 600 kids last summer:
One of the volunteer coaches is Richard Hunt, an honorary S.M.G. member. That’s him at the far left in the photo below, which was taken at Twisted Dune during S.M.G.’s fifteenth annual golf trip to Atlantic City, in October:
Each summer for the past ten years, Richard has spent his Saturday afternoons at the Wheel introducing youngsters to golf. This year, his First Tee chapter named a trophy after him: the Coach Rick Award, which goes to the scoring champions in the Ace/Birdie division. (He’s also pretty good at teaching grownups; he’s a marketing consultant in Manhattan, and he oversees the Venture Creation Program at the Yale Entrepreneurial Institute, where he is a mentor-in-residence.)
A couple of weeks ago, Richard attended the U.S.G.A.’s Pace of Play Symposium, at which two dozen speakers spent two days talking about how to make golf go faster. “I thought the event was quite valuable,” Richard (who took the photo below) told me. “This is exactly the kind of thing they need to do ‘for the good of the game.'”
Turns out, there are way more problems than your buddy plumb-bobbing his third putt. A major culprit is tee-time spacing, which is way too short at most public courses, and even in professional events. The L.P.G.A. did a test this year, and was able to reduce playing times an average of fourteen minutes per round just by moving tee times slightly farther apart, from ten minutes to eleven, and asking players to keep up with the group in front of them. Easy stuff. In addition, course setup, design, and facility management policies are all either part of the problem or part of the solution.
When I was in Arizona, I had dinner with my old friend Shelby Futch, the world’s greatest golf teacher, whose company owns several courses in the Scottsdale area. At one of them, Shelby reduced playing times by offering forty dollars in grill-room credit to each day’s first group if they finished in less than four hours, and by asking the groups behind them to keep up. Easy stuff.
I asked Richard whether the kids he teaches play quickly—and, sad to say, he said they don’t:
Trust me—we don’t teach them to play slow. Yet on late summer Saturday afternoons, during our team matches, my young charges struggle to beat darkness every week. I myself blame CBS, NBC, and the Golf Channel. Maybe Fox will only show golfers in action next year, instead of repose.
You didn’t see them because they happened in a different Ryder Cup, the one the Sunday Morning Group held while the American tour stars were getting whupped in Scotland.
1. What is the source of Ryder Cup Europe’s pathological golf-course selections? In the sixties and seventies, the trans-Atlantic side of the contest was held exclusively on Open courses: Royal Lytham & St. Annes, Royal Birkdale, and Muirfield—an over-reliance on England, granted, but otherwise impeccable. Since then, the thinking has apparently been that crummy venues deserve international exposure, too. The worst is the Belfry, also in England, which has hosted the matches four times—more than any other course in history. The Belfry has just two good holes, the ninth and the eighteenth, and most matches don’t reach the eighteenth. This year’s course, at Gleneagles, was in the works when I first played golf in Scotland, in the early 1990s. At that time, the Scots had seemingly decided that the way to attract American golfers to Scotland was to hire Jack Nicklaus to build something that would remind them of Florida, cart paths included. Somebody, please, wake up the people in charge. The PGA Centenary Course, as Nicklaus’s creation is now known, isn’t even the best course at Gleneagles.