Three Air-Travel Stories Tangentially Related to Golf

New Yorker Owen

I had an article in last week’s New Yorker about fancy airplane seats.  Here’s something about air travel I’ll bet you didn’t know: the rule of thumb for in-flight entertainment systems is “$1,000 an inch”—meaning that the small screen in the back of each economy seat can cost an airline $10,000, plus a few thousand for its handheld controller.

Jetblue directv

On June 18, 2006, I flew to Las Vegas on JetBlue with my wife and our two kids, and the flight was great because I got to watch almost the entire final round of the U.S. Open, at Winged Foot, on the screen in the back of the seat in front of me. The broadcast broke up as we were landing. Phil Mickelson had just hit a terrible drive into trouble on the left on the final hole, but he had a one-stroke lead and was about to win his third major in a row—good for him! I thought nothing more about it until the next morning, when I turned on ESPN. They were talking about Geoff Ogilvy and his victory at the U.S. Open, and at first I thought that the tournament I’d watched on the plane must have been a recording of the Open from some other year. Eventually, though, I learned what had happened.

Mickelson winged foot

Two weeks ago, I traveled to Calgary to give a talk (not about golf), and as a result I didn’t get to watch any of the first three rounds of the Masters, even on the plane. I went out to dinner with some of the people who had sponsored the conference I spoke at, and the husband of one of them, a lawyer, told a story about an airplane trip he took in the late 1960s, when he was about twenty.

Here’s the story: This lawyer fellow (whom I’ll refer to as Fellow) goes with a friend of his to the Toronto airport, where Friend (ditto) is catching a cheap charter flight to London. There’s construction going on at the airport, and the gate area is a mess, and everyone is sort of milling around. Fellow stands with the other non-passengers, waiting to wave farewell, but at some point Friend says, “Come on—let’s see how far you can get.” Fellow says, “No, no, I’ll get in trouble.” They go back and forth like that, but Friend eventually talks him into it, and, when the passengers are taken onto the tarmac to board a shuttle to take them to the plane, Fellow goes with them.

On the shuttle, Fellow says, “I don’t have anything!” and Friend says, “Here, take this,” and gives him his ticket envelope (while keeping the ticket). When Fellow gets to the plane, he sort of waves the envelope at the stewardess in the doorway and says “22C,” and boards the plane. He has no ticket and no passport and no luggage, and he’s wearing shorts. He sits down in 22C, and Friend slips into one of the restrooms and closes but does not lock the door.

The stewardesses count the passengers. The plane takes off. There are one or two empty seats on the plane, and Friend comes out of the bathroom and sits down. The plane lands at Gatwick, and all the passengers get off. There is enough confusion at the airport that Fellow is able to slip through customs, perhaps aided by the fact that he is maybe the only person in England who is wearing shorts. He calls his mother, back in Canada, and asks her to mail him his passport and some money. She sends him $100. He figures he’ll get a job of some kind, but mostly he just hangs out in pubs with Friend.

After about a month, Fellow gets some part-time work helping a guy who handles travel for University of Toronto students studying in England. One day, the guy hands him the unused return portion of a round-trip ticket that belonged to some student, and says, “Here. You owe me.” (This was in the era when half a round-trip ticket was often cheaper than a one-way ticket, and airlines didn’t penalize you for using it.)

The ticket has someone else’s name on it, but Fellow successfully uses it, along with his actual passport, to fly back to Toronto. When he lands, has just 50 cents—enough to take a bus only partway to the city, so he figures he’ll go as far as he can and then walk. While he’s waiting for the bus, he looks down and sees two bus tickets lying on the ground. He goes to the place he worked before he went to England, to get his last paycheck, which he had never collected. While he’s doing that, the boss comes out asks him what he’s doing, and re-hires him, and he goes to work the next day.

How I Won the Masters, and So Forth

My club's equivalent of the Eisenhower Tree, on our seventeenth hole. We cut it down last year.

My club’s equivalent of the Eisenhower Tree, on our seventeenth hole. We cut it down last year.

On Sundays during the majors, my friends and I pay homage to the big boys by using scorecards from the course where the major is being played. Usually, Hacker (real name) finds the card online and prints copies, but he couldn’t find an Augusta card with handicap ratings on it. Luckily, I had some old Augusta cards from the nineteen-nineties, when I was working on my book about the club and the Masters, so I scanned one and printed enough for the Sunday Morning Group.

Nineteen-nineties scorecard from Augusta National, used by the S Sunday Morning Group on Masters Sunday, April 13, 2014.

Nineteen-nineties scorecard from Augusta National, used by the Sunday Morning Group on Masters Sunday, April 13, 2014. Check out those last-century tournament yardages.

In 1996, I told Jackson Stephens, who was Augusta’s chairman at the time, that I thought the club ought to print a silhouette chart of the members’ jets on the back of the scorecard, so that a golfer on the course could identify whichever Gulfstream or Falcon or Challenger was passing overhead, on its way to Bush Field, and which friend, therefore, might be available for a second round, in the afternoon.

planes silhouette

Stephens didn’t take my suggestion, for unknown reasons, and continued to list the names of the holes instead:

ANGC 2

Even so, the Augusta scorecard has some interesting features. One (you will notice) is that all the yardages are given in multiples of five. That’s because Clifford Roberts, the club’s co-founder and first chairman, thought it was ridiculous to claim more precision, given the daily variation in hole and tee locations. Another interesting feature is that the handicap ratings are based on yardage, not on what TV commentators refer to as “difficulty.” I agree strongly—and if you want to have an argument about that I’m ready. One more thing to notice is how much shorter the course was from the Masters tees throughout the nineties. The eighteenth, for example, was 405 yards; today, it’s 465.

Chic (our chairman) and Slade (victorious) at lunch.

Chic (our chairman) and Slade (co-victorious) at lunch.

Anyway, Masters Sunday was the first 2014 home-course meeting of the Sunday Morning Group. Because we never give strokes on par 3s, no one got a stroke on the fourth hole, which is a par 5 on our course but a par 3 at Augusta and therefore a par 3 for us on Masters Sunday. That caused mental problems for some of the guys, who couldn’t help thinking of a 5 on that hole as a round-destroying double-bogey. My group (Mike A., Rick, Slade, and me) had no trouble with that, for some reason—maybe because we weren’t paying attention. Anyway, we won, by a stroke, at 12 under par, no problem. Hacker brought lunch. The kegerator was full. The water was back on in the clubhouse. The course was in great shape, after our worst winter in a decade. And the sun came out while we were sitting on the patio afterward.

From left to right: Fritz, kegerator, Corey (our pro), and the new padlock, installed by order of the Board of Governors.

From left to right: Fritz, beer fridge, kegerator, improvised pitcher, Corey (our pro), and the new padlock, installed by order of the Board of Governors.

A Ghost Course in Central Florida, and a Golf Trip to the Twilight Zone

The former Winter Springs Golf Course, Winter Springs, Florida.

Part of the former Winter Springs Golf Club, Winter Springs, Florida. The cart barn, clubhouse, and parking lot are near the bottom of the image, just right of center.

A common experience for Florida golfers in recent years: trying to make a tee time at a golf course they’ve heard good things about, and discovering that the phone has been disconnected and the Web domain is for sale. An example is Winter Springs Golf Club, which went belly-up in 2006. I was in the Orlando area last weekend, on a Golf Digest assignment, and decided to have a look. Here’s the clubhouse, as it appears from the main parking lot:

IMG_0810Apparently, someone bought the course with the idea of building houses on it, and only then discovered that a deed restriction made that impossible. (Due diligence!) Now it sits.

IMG_0817The old club had a lighted driving range. Here’s what it looks like now:

IMG_0837While I was snooping around, a policeman noticed my car and drove in to see what I was doing. He called in my driver’s license number, to make sure I wasn’t wanted for something. Then we chatted about golf for a while, and he asked me whether another ten or fifteen minutes of trespassing would be enough. I thanked him, and he suggested that I stay out of the clubhouse.

Here's the back of the clubhouse. Those particle-board sheets cover the windows of what used to be the grill room and the golf shop.

Here’s the back of the clubhouse. Those particle-board sheets cover the windows of what used to be the restaurant and the golf shop.

It doesn’t take long for a golf hole to turn into something that isn’t recognizable as a golf hole. Here’s the first tee, the first fairway, and what’s left of the first-hole cart path:IMG_0822 That hole was a straightaway par 5. According to the sign, there were four tee positions:IMG_0827

Florida probably still has too many golf courses. Even so, it’s sad to see the ruins of a place where you know at least a few of the regulars felt more at home than they did at home.

IMG_0843Meanwhile, here in Connecticut, the golf courses might as well be in receivership. This is what my back yard looked like on Thursday afternoon, when the storm was still only getting started:

IMG_0882

And here’s how things looked on Friday morning. (The doghouse on the right, which is on top of a wall, belonged to one of the three cats that lived in our yard for many years.)

IMG_0901

My wife and I have been throwing birdseed into the snow, and attracting mainly juncos and cardinals. When the seed runs low, the birds send an emissary to the back door to complain. When I got up this morning, there were junco footprints on the doormat:

IMG_0891

I tossed out a double load, and a few minutes later the birds were back:

IMG_0906

Birds really do this, incidentally. During the summer, when our hummingbird feeder runs out, a hummingbird will fly up to the window closest to the computer in my wife’s office, on the second floor, and hover there until she notices.

Same back yard, with hummingbird, in better times.

Same back yard, with hummingbird, in better times.

The wife of one of my golf buddies told me that when the feeder runs out at her house a hummingbird will fly, in sequence, to windows in the rooms where she can usually be found during the day: kitchen, bedroom, laundry room. After I’d fed the birds, I re-shoveled the path to the back door:

IMG_0912

Last week, my friends and I had no choice but to return to the simulators at Maggie McFly’s—which, I’m sorry to report, are showing their age. Our round lasted at least a half-hour longer than it should have, because the sensors had trouble picking up the balls. Still, it was golf. And, because Ferris had never played on a simulator before, we picked Pebble Beach. Here’s Rick, lining up a putt on the twelfth:

20140207_165317-001Spookily, the golf tournament on TV, which we watched between shots, was also at Pebble Beach, and there were quite a few occasions when the hole we were playing was exactly the same hole they were showing on TV—in this case, the thirteenth:

20140207_165321-001It was pretty darned eerie.

Gaining Spousal Approval for Golf Trips, Plus the Night My Wife Ate Dogfood on the Tonight Show

That's my wife in the net. Some son-of-a-bitch is about to fire a puck at her.

That’s my wife in the net (wearing the Grateful Dead jersey). Some son-of-a-bitch is about to fire a puck at her!

The wife of one of my regular golf buddies not only encourages him to take golf trips but actually makes his plane reservations and packs his bags. Quite obviously, she’s having an extramarital affair and wants him out of the way—so his golf trips are win-win at their house. For the rest of us, though, the issue of spouse-free golf travel is usually more contentious.

My pals and I at Hillside Golf Club, Southport, England, May, 2010.

My pals and I at Hillside Golf Club, Southport, England, May, 2010. Hacker (real name) is third from the left.

My kids are grown now, so I can no longer be accused of doing them permanent emotional harm by abandoning them for a week in order to play golf in another country with my friends. But my golf trips nevertheless retain some of their old power to engender domestic resentment. The best approach, I’ve discovered, is direct negotiation, which is both more productive and less emotionally taxing than the simmering psycho-battles that husbands and wives usually engage in. If my buddies and I are hoping to take a spouse-free trip to Myrtle Beach, for example, I might say to my wife, “Honey, this trip is extremely important to me—what’ll you take for it?” (Before trying this yourself, have an attorney vet the wording.)

Same guys, more or less--this time at the Old Course in St. Andrews, Scotland. May, 2008.

Same guys, more or less–this time at the Old Course in St. Andrews, Scotland. May, 2008.

The best thing that ever happened to me, golf-trip-wise, occurred when my wife, at the age of almost-forty, took up ice hockey. She now goes on buddies trips of her own—to goalie school in Vermont, to an international tournament in Montreal—and she and I have achieved a sort of unspoken sports-travel parity. A few years ago, she visited her brother, who was living in Russia. She took her skates, and one afternoon she joined a pickup game on a frozen pond in central Moscow.

Moscow, March, 2006.

Moscow, March, 2006.

That, in my opinion, turned a family visit into a hockey trip, and therefore entitled me to spend a compensatory week in Ireland with my pals. (Before trying this yourself, have an attorney, etc.)

black widows

Speaking of my wife, Jay Leno’s retirement from the Tonight Show this past week reminded me that the first guest on the Tonight Show on June 1, 1989—when Leno was subbing for Johnny Carson, three years before Carson retired—was my wife. She was on by herself for two entire segments, and for the first of those segments she got to sit in The Chair and chat with Leno. Here’s the first segment:

And here’s the second:

Unfinished Business: Neckties on TV Golf Commentators

Nothing about this man's attire has anything to do with golf.

Nothing about this man’s attire has anything to do with golf.

A few months ago, I wrote a blog post in which I pointed out the ridiculousness of dressing TV golf commentators in jackets and ties. Yet they’re still wearing them. How many times do I have to complain about this before someone does something about it?

20130808_084237-001

 

A Golfer’s Bucket List: No. 4 (T.P.C. Edition)

TPC at Sawgrass, February 9, 2009.

TPC at Sawgrass, February 9, 2009.

Play the Stadium Course at the TPC at Sawgrass. Hacking your way around a memorable course that you can watch the pros play on TV is both exciting and instructive, and the Stadium Course is the most engaging regular tour venue that mere civilians can play for a somewhat reasonable price. Bay Hill, Cog Hill, Doral, Harbour Town, and Torrey Pines are also possibilities. So is Pebble Beach, although eighteen holes there, including the obligatory add-ons, may cost more than the annual dues at your home club, and your round will seem to last for several days, and the greens will disappoint you, and the people in the group in front of yours will turn out to have taken up golf the day before yesterday. The Stadium Course is fun to play, and when you later watch The Players Championship—the fifth major!—on TV you will recognize more than just the last two holes. Playing a tour course will help you appreciate how the pros make their living, and the next time Tiger or Rory or Rickie dumps one in the water on seventeen you can tell your buddies, “Hey, I’ve done that.”

Seventeenth green, TPC at Sawgrass.

Seventeenth green, TPC at Sawgrass.

How to Watch the Masters on TV

This diagram is from the program of the first Masters, in 1934. It shows what were then the first and second holes, and are now the tenth and eleventh. Both holes have changed dramatically since then, but the elevations give you the basic idea.

This diagram is from the program of the first Masters, in 1934. It shows what were then the first and second holes, and are now the tenth and eleventh. Both holes have changed dramatically since then, but the elevations in the drawings give you the basic idea.

Every golfer should make every effort to get to Augusta National during Masters Week at least once. Television doesn’t do justice to the topography of the course. The drop in elevation from the tenth tee to the eleventh green is more than a hundred and fifty feet—fifteen stories. Once you’ve studied the place in person your brain can supply the missing third dimension when you watch on a flat screen at home.

That’s what I’m doing this year. I love being on the grounds during the tournament, but I don’t feel deprived when I watch from home. The Masters is the last unscrewed-up major event in sports, and the CBS broadcast is sublime. And if you stay home you can play golf with the gang while you wait for the show to begin.

The only challenge is to find something productive to do with your hands while you watch. On Friday afternoon, as Tiger was climbing the leader board, I polished all my golf shoes. Then I polished them again—an afternoon well spent.

IMG_0965

Tomorrow afternoon (after paintball with some friends from high school and college) I’m going to clean the grooves of my clubs.

[Just as I was posting this, Tiger made that extraordinary third shot on the fifteenth hole—the one that hit the flagstick and spun back into the water. That shot was unlucky but it was not, as David Feherty claimed, “unfair.” Nor was Tiger “cheated” by it (Feherty again). The flagstick was stationery, and it was in place when he lined up his shot. Golfers capable of hitting inch-wide targets from eighty yards away may need to aim a few inches to the right or left, but they’re not entitled to feel ripped off. And, Feherty notwithstanding, I would bet that Tiger doesn’t.]

Beef Box: Golf Idiots, and Neckties on TV Commentators

In 2001, I played 136 holes in one day at Doral with Jim McLean, who runs a golf school there. We started on the Blue Monster and averaged forty-five minutes per eighteen, and to save time we often teed off simultaneously, as in the photo above.

In 2001, I played 136 holes in one day at Doral with Jim McLean, who runs a golf school there. We started on the Blue Monster, where Tiger won over the weekend, and we averaged forty-five minutes per eighteen. To  save time, we often teed off simultaneously, as in the photo above.

David Lee, a reader in Appleton, Wisconsin, sent the following email to the PGA Tour over the weekend:

After hearing it again in today’s TV broadcast, I have a suggestion. I’m referring to a fan shouting out immediately after a Tiger hit: “IN THE HOLE!” It has become so obnoxious to hear these comments, seemingly elicited so that the fan can tell friends at home afterwards that it was his voice doing the shout-out—I’m guessing that that’s the reason because the comment occurs within a nanosecond of the clubhead contacting the ball, oftentimes on a very long shot and without regard to the quality of the shot. Current technology must make it easy for the TV networks to block out such shout-outs—I’m not talking about spontaneous outbursts of support—I think that you and I know which outbursts we’re discussing here. The PGA Tour should do some PR communicating to tournament spectator attendees that such comments are frowned upon and that they will not make it to the air-waves anyway—and take action to eliminate these outbursts from the telecasts. I think that the vast majority of your golfing fans would support this move, as well as would the Tour players.

I don’t know whether what he suggests is technologically possible, but if it is I’d be in favor of it. Or how about using something like a surgical staple gun to implant a device under the scalp of each spectator which would administer a painful but nonlethal electric shock each time the spectator shouted something stupid? And let’s do same to guys who sit behind home plate at baseball games and clap as each ball is pitched, in the hope of bothering the batter.

Nobody else at a golf tournament dresses like this. Why do they?

Nobody else at a golf tournament dresses like this. Why do they?

And, as long as I’m complaining, how about not allowing TV golf commentators to wear neckties? Golf courses should be tie-free zones for everyone but Tim Finchem and the manager of the grill room.

I don't mind seeing ties on ten-year-old caddies in 1925, as in this photo, which was taken at my golf club. The pro when I joined, in 1991, was the son of tiny kid who is fourth from the left in the front row.

I don’t mind seeing ties on ten-year-old caddies in 1925, as in this photo, which was taken at my golf club, but everyone else should knock it off. The pro when I joined, in 1991, was the son of tiny kid who is fourth from the left in the front row–who was the son of the (tie-less) man at the right, the pro in 1925.

Masters Countdown: The 1967 Television Strike

U.S. Walker Cup team, 1957. Charles Coe, the captain, is squatting in the center. Billy Joe Patton, in glasses, is standing behind him.

U.S. Walker Cup team, 1957. Charles Coe, the captain, is squatting in the center. Billy Joe Patton is fifth from the left.

The American Federation of Television and Radio Artists declared its first national strike on March 29, 1967. That meant that CBS’s usual golf commentators, who were members of that union, could not participate in that year’s Masters broadcast, the following week. Clifford Roberts, Augusta National’s chairman, conducted auditions among the club’s membership, and settled on two distinguished amateur players, Charles Coe and Billy Joe Patton, to fill two of the vacant spots. Coe had won the U.S. Amateur twice and had been the runner-up to Jack Nicklaus in 1959, and in the 1961 Masters he had finished tied for second with Palmer. Patton had led the Masters after two rounds in 1954, then ended up in third place behind Snead and Hogan. Both men had played the course for years—Coe with a handicap that varied between plus-6 and plus-7.

Coe and Patton did creditable jobs as commentators, and their minimalist dialogue confirmed Roberts’s belief that less is more in golf broadcasting. CBS was pleased as well, and William MacPhail, who was the network’s director of sports, passed along a sampling of the large volume of complimentary mail the network had received. One viewer wrote, “[T]he quiet, sincere comments of your members, which were entirely adequate, were a refreshing change from the glib, and sometimes overly talkative, ‘pros’ we usually hear.” Another wrote, “What an absolute pleasure it was to watch a player, under severe pressure, walk up to a putt in silence—the silence any gallery always accords a player, but which the announcers feel impelled to fill with chatter. In this case, one truly felt present, with a real sense of actual participation.” The broadcast turned out so well, in fact, that CBS executives credited it with breaking the strike, which ended the day after the tournament.

Not much silence nowadays. Worth trying?

Let’s Get Rid of All the Bunker Rakes!

Eighteenth hole, Pine Valley: many bunkers, no rakes.

Eighteenth hole, Pine Valley: many bunkers, no rakes.

Many golfers, rather than savoring the game’s sublime inconsistency, yearn for courses as predictable as tennis courts. They grumble when greens aren’t flawless, when fairways aren’t uniformly carpet-like, when sand is either too fluffy or not fluffy enough.

Complaints about “unfair” bunkers are especially contrary to the spirit of the game: 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, some filled with vegetation—but no rakes. If your ball ends up in a footprint (or behind a rock or under a cactus), that’s your tough luck. Deal with it.

Rake-free bunkers would make televised golf more interesting. 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 can’t hit sand shots, anyway. Everyone else either would learn an arsenal of 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.

My home course became Pine Valley-like in late November, when our superintendent put bunker rakes away till spring.

My home course becomes quite Pine Valley-like in late November, when our superintendent puts all the bunker rakes away till spring.