Masters Countdown: Who Was Clifford Roberts? (Part Two)

Charles, Clifford, Alpheus, Dorothy, Key, John, and Rebecca Roberts in 1907.

[continued]

In the fall of 1904, when Clifford Roberts was ten, his mother, Rebecca, took the children to live with relatives of hers in California. She was acting on the advice of a doctor in Kansas, who had said that a trip and “a complete change” might improve her still mysterious condition. Not long before, she had written in her diary, “I am going down hill as rapidly as possible and there seems to be nothing to stop it.” They made the journey by train and stayed for seven months, while Charles Roberts tended business interests elsewhere. (He wrote occasionally, sent fifteen dollars for Christmas, and sold most of the family’s furniture—including the dining-room linoleum—while they were gone.) For part of that period, Clifford lived not with his mother, brothers, sister, aunt, and cousins, but with his mother’s parents, whose house was in Lakeside, a train ride away. He made brief visits to his mother by himself every week or two, attended a different school from the other children, and seemed to enjoy, or at any rate not object to, his independence. Before returning to Kansas the following spring, the boys traded their schoolbooks for a checkers set, with which they occupied themselves on the long ride home.

John and Clifford both worked outside their house from early ages. They did odd jobs, raised and sold chickens and dogs, made deliveries for their father, served as clerks in the family’s various stores, milked cows, raised pigs, caddied at local golf courses, and sold onions. They helped with the harvest when their father was farming. They worked to pay for their own schoolbooks and clothes. They sold calling cards and the Saturday Evening Post, played baseball for a share of the gate receipts, and, as they got older, accompanied their father on business expeditions. They inherited his entrepreneurial drive. One day, the brothers caught another boy selling trout from a line they had set in a stream. Instead of starting a fight—something they usually did when opportunities arose—they sold him the line and invested the proceeds in a new one. Shortly after the family moved from Kansas to Oklahoma, in 1906, Rebecca noted that Clifford, now twelve, was “using his Spanish selling goods to Mexicans working on R. R.” By then, Clifford was spending long periods working at real jobs for adult wages. He and his older brother both quit school before the end of ninth grade.

1906 Letter from Charles told us he had traded for store and was busy invoicing. . . .Clifford has 10 names for calling cards & magazine—will get 3 premiums. . . .Clifford not able to go to school in afternoon—so sorry for they had a geography test. . . .I made the best bread ever. . . . I was in bed all day—very dizzy & sick—but not so bad as when Charles was at home. . . . Could not get a man to clean carpets—so Clifford undertook the task—a hard one—but he stuck to it until they were clean & nice. . . . Clifford shot his first duck. Proud. . . . . Boys met traveling circus wagons & worked for tickets. Took twins—thought it fine. Right next to our block. . . ..Gave children worm medicine. . . . John & Clifford went to see a boy fire off a “Japanese mine” firecracker. It shot into John’s face—burning off eyebrows & lashes. . . . . Disappointed by new minister’s use of slang in pulpit. . . . We have hopes of John being cured—he is so young—but it is very uncertain.

Clifford grew up fast. He got into fistfights, stole rides on freight trains, chewed gum at school, smoked, entertained poorly-behaved friends at home while his mother was away, prompted one of his teachers to strike him, and shot pool—“such troubles as all boys make,” according to Rebecca, who smiled at the shenanigans of all her children and was a gentle disciplinarian. In 1909, she wrote, without apparent alarm, “All schools having a war with rubber shooters & paper wads. Clifford sent home. Charles went back with him—may have special tutor.” When the boys got into trouble, she seldom sided with their accusers—noting, for example, that Clifford’s teacher had returned only thirty of sixty marbles she had confiscated.

Despite occasional forays into juvenile delinquency, Clifford was the member of the Roberts family who on Sunday mornings was the most likely to be found in church. “Clifford went alone to Sunday School,” is a typical diary entry—this one from when he was seven. He won Sunday-school prizes, went to Christian Endearment picnics, often followed Sunday school with a regular service at a different church, and escorted younger siblings to Sunday school on days when no one else was going. Shortly after the family moved to Oklahoma, he took his little sister, Dorothy, to a Baptist church—a novelty for both of them—then later went with his father and older brother to watch a group of recent converts being baptized in a lake. “Clifford went to Catholic Mass with Carl Lully,” Rebecca wrote in 1908, when Clifford was fourteen and the family was living in Emporia, Kansas. “First time he had seen their service & quite impressed.” His steady church attendance won him special privileges, including an invitation to a fancy social at the home of his Sunday school teacher. “A four course luncheon served,” his mother wrote. “Everything of finest—finger bowl passed by maid. Brick ice cream, deviled eggs, angel food, candy, nuts, etc., etc.”

In their free time, Clifford and various siblings went with their father to see a baseball game “between fat & lean men,” saw a tent production of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, saw pictures of Teddy Roosevelt’s inauguration at a movie theater in California, and took part in an Epworth League temperance program. Clifford didn’t mind performing before a crowd. At a patent-medicine show in 1903, he “helped with a spiritualistic exhibition.” In 1907, the family went two evenings in a row to see a show put on by a “hypnotist & mind reader” named Dr. Glick. Clifford, alone among his family members, volunteered to be a subject and, according to the diary, “did funny things—picking strawberries from floor—peddling them—motioning a man across a tight wire, etc.” On the third evening, Clifford went back alone and volunteered again.

Clifford appears to have had no trouble making friends. The diary mentions many playmates and overnight guests—including more than a few whom his mother considered “bad boys” or “roughs.” Clifford enjoyed and was good at marbles, football, basketball, and baseball, and he and his older brother were always arranging games of one kind or another. Clifford’s popularity may have been eased by the fact that he was strong and good-looking—although he was considered less handsome than John. His sharply arched eyebrows, which would contribute to a perennial look of alarm in his sixties and seventies, made him seem playful and mischievous when he was young. He parted his hair in the middle and had a strong taste for nice clothes. When he earned extra money, he often spent it on a tie, a shirt, or a suit. (“John & Clifford went shopping for Spats, sweater, cap & cruet tray,” Rebecca wrote in 1909.) In eighth grade, he attended a school May Day celebration wearing a “silk hat & Knickerbockers,” and in more than one family photograph he has the only pocket handkerchief. He began to meet girls. “Clifford went to dance—to look on—but he danced.”

Maintaining friendships was hard, however. The children changed schools and neighborhoods constantly, and they seldom finished a year with the same companions they had begun it with. Many of the family’s many moves were not only sudden—“Charles wrote for us to pack up & we commenced”—but also complete: Charles sometimes sold or auctioned much of their furniture rather than take it with them. All the moves were stressful, some more than others. (“Three moves is worse than a fire,” was a nineteenth-century American proverb.) Two days after Charles sold the family’s Emporia house—a showplace that he and Rebecca had scarcely finished fixing up—the new owners, along with their children and a maid, moved in with the Robertses. The two families shared a roof for more than two weeks, then Rebecca and the children went to stay with one of her sisters for another three weeks before setting out by train, at one o’clock in the morning, for yet another new life—this time, in a five-room house on a ten-acre “orange ranch” in Palacios, Texas, a small, dusty town on the Gulf of Mexico between Galveston and Corpus Christi. “Alpheus said, ‘Mama, you look as though you did not know anything,’ and that is just how I feel.”

1909 Had to take one small dose of sleeping medicine—the last. . . .  Am so sorry Dorothy & Key are to be disappointed again in not having a birthday party—but have neither money nor strength. . . . Received $50 interest on $1,000 note in Kansas.  Boys could not have begun high school else. . . .  John & Clifford sold $8.35 of fine figs—quite cheering. . . .  Charles is worn to a sick shadow, nervous dyspepsia wreck. Is uneasy all day & night. Has sued F. M. Elliott for $4,220.00 & we are living as skimped as possible in a land of strangers. . . .  Clifford saved life of a woman (in childbirth) by calling Dr. when her children did not know how. . . .  My hair is nearly all coming out—am so very sorry—for it was my one beauty.

[to be continued]

Masters Countdown: Who Was Clifford Roberts? (Part One)

Charles, Clifford, Alpheus, Dorothy, Key, John, and Rebecca Roberts in 1907, when Clifford was thirteen.

Clifford Roberts was the co-founder, with Bobby Jones, of Augusta National Golf Club, and he was the chairman of both the club and the Masters from their beginning, in the early 1930s, until his death, in 1977. It’s often said that Jones conceived of the club and Roberts financed it, but that’s not the case. Roberts, unlike Jones, grew up poor, and during the club’s early years he was close to broke. But Roberts idolized Jones, and he was determined to help him fulfill his dream of building a golf course in the South that could host a U. S. Open. That the club and the Masters survived the Great Depression and the Second World War is a tribute mainly to Roberts’s determination to keep them going. Time, as Roberts measured it, began the day he met Bobby Jones. But the years leading up to that encounter are in many ways as interesting as the years that followed it. They are the years that shaped the man who shaped Augusta National and the Masters.

Herbert Warren Wind wrote in Sports Illustrated and The New Yorker that Clifford Roberts was born in Chicago. (He wasn’t.) Ross Goodner wrote in Golf World that his real name was Charles D. Clifford Roberts. (Not true, although Goodner was close.) Frank Christian—a photographer and the co-author, with Cal Brown, of Augusta National & The Masters—wrote that Roberts as a child spent time in an orphanage. (He never did.) Charles Price, in A Golf Story, wrote that Roberts graduated from high school. (He didn’t finish ninth grade.) Curt Sampson, in The Masters, wrote that Roberts made $50,000 in 1923 and used the money to buy a one-sixth partnership in an investment firm called the Reynolds Company. (Roberts made $2,441.63 in 1923; Reynolds & Co.—the correct name—didn’t exist until 1931; Roberts went to work there in the mid-thirties; he became the firm’s ninth general partner on May 1, 1941.)

All these errors, and many others, are understandable. Roberts was stingy with biographical detail, and he almost never talked about his early years, even among friends. Jack Stephens, who was the club’s chairman between 1991 and 1998 and was close to Roberts during the last fifteen years of his life, told me, “I just figured Cliff had never been a child.”

Charles DeClifford Roberts, Jr., was born on March 6, 1894, on his mother’s parents’ farm near Morning Sun, a tiny town in southeastern Iowa (current population: 836). He was known as Clifford from the beginning. For his first Christmas, he received “a toy chicken and a half interest in blocks and a monkey riding a goat mounted on wheels,” his mother recorded in her diary. (The other co-owner of the blocks was his brother John, who was sixteen months older.) He was a good eater. For Christmas dinner he had pudding, popovers, grapes, cranberries, baked oysters, and squirrel.

Clifford was the second of five children. His mother, Rebecca Key Roberts, was twenty-five years old and pleasantly attractive. She had a cameo the size of a hen’s egg which she wore at her throat. She was proud of her long brown hair, her clothes, and her skills as a baker. She owned a revolver, and she once fired it at a stray dog—“only scared it”—though she later traded the gun to an acquaintance. She had false teeth. She enjoyed the antics and enthusiasms of her children, and when Clifford, at the age of nine, became captivated by marbles, she sewed extra pockets in his pants so that he could carry more of them around. She was fond of ice cream. Her first diary petered out in 1898, but she started another in 1900—after giving birth to twins, named Robert Key and Dorothy—and kept it faithfully until 1911. “A Katydid jumped on Alpheus’s dress,” she wrote in 1905, when Alpheus, her fourth son and youngest child, was two. “He was so scared & called it a ‘gog.’” The diary makes fascinating reading, especially if you know that in 1913, when Clifford was nineteen and Alpheus was nine, she committed suicide.

1902  Read nearly all day—very blue and discouraged. . . . I left John & Clifford to keep house while I went up town in evening. There had been a fight and shooting on the street. . . . Boys distributed some Rip Van Winkle show bills and so each got a free pass. . . . Tramp here for dinner. . . . Boy here selling needles to keep from begging. . . . Still it rains. Things floating in our cellar. . . . Boys have carpenter fever—new nails and nail apron and making twins a play house. . . . Boys cared for twins, cooked and swept and washed dishes—all in their boyish way. . . . Gone all day & sold only 1 bushel of apples. Brought new milk strainer, shoe polish, steel pens & school sponges. Clifford churned.

Rebecca was a sharp observer and had a sense of humor, and although her entries are telegraphic—“Twins fat and well. Hope they may not be kidnapped as Cudahys was”—they vividly describe what seems to have been a happy life for her children and a troubled life for her. The family had many joyful moments (“Husband & I read late & Clifford & Key ‘had a spell’—they could not quit laughing & playing pranks until the lights were all out. Such merry times at our house”).

But the underlying themes are of dislocation and despair. “I am very miserable—life almost a burden,” she wrote in 1908, in a typical entry. Her husband was often absent, and he moved the family constantly. Rebecca had numerous ailments, among them severe headaches, back pain, “curvature of the spine,” a miscarriage followed by months of hemorrhaging, pleurisy, “nervous chills,” and a persistent melancholy that a modern reader does not hesitate to diagnose as depression. Winter was the hardest, and she often felt overwhelmed by her children. “I am hardly able to be out of bed,” she wrote in 1904, “but must keep going to care for my numerous family.” She took patent medicines—many of which would have contained narcotics along with a great deal of alcohol. (The most popular children’s cough medicine of the period, Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup, was based on morphine. One night, Rebecca used one of her own medicines to quiet baby Alpheus, who was colicky and had been crying.)

She pursued electrical baths, osteopathy treatments, homeopathy treatments, hot water cures, and other fad therapies administered by a variety of practitioners. On many mornings, she was unable to get out of bed. At such times, she often left the housework and the care of the younger children to Clifford and John, beginning when Clifford was six and John was seven. The boys shouldered the burden cheerfully and with ingenuity. One day when Clifford was ten and his mother and John were late in returning by train from a visit to a doctor in another town, Clifford dressed Dorothy, who was three, in a new red dress, “made her new garters when he could not find her suspenders,” and took her with him to a party to which he had been invited. Rebecca was proud of her children for rising to the occasion, but she was unromantic about child-rearing, and she hired housekeeping help when she could afford it. “Ida Kellogg came to work,” she wrote in 1907, “— measles still showing, has whooping cough & only 10 years old—but willing.”

Ill health was taken for granted. Clifford’s father had gastrointestinal trouble, a rupture, and “heart failure palpitation.” John, with whom Clifford shared a bed, stammered and suffered seizures that various doctors diagnosed as St. Vitus’s dance, “worm spasms”—for which he was treated with “vermifuge tonic”—and (correctly) grand mal epilepsy. Clifford had trouble with his eyes, suffered from “malaria & biliousness,” and endured devastating bouts with poison ivy. Days when everyone was well were rare enough to be noted in the diary. Clifford knew children who died of pneumonia, scarlet fever, small pox, “brain fever,” tonsillitis, typhoid, and tuberculosis. “Boys sent Chinese lilies,” Rebecca noted in 1902, when a seven-year-old classmate of Clifford’s was buried.

Charles DeClifford Roberts, Sr., was a restless small-time entrepreneur who tried his hand and failed at a broad variety of undertakings. “My father always was interested in seeing what was on the other side of the next hill,” Clifford said with understatement many years later. Charles was apt on a whim to trade the family store for a farm in another state—then, after harvesting a single crop of wheat and oats, to trade the farm for a business somewhere else, and then to sell that business and invest the proceeds in another. He bought and sold everything from candles and thread to farm equipment and fur coats. He speculated in real estate and arranged the sale of other people’s property. He once owned two fish-and-oyster houses in Texas. He bought bankrupt businesses and liquidated their stock. He sued hucksters who had cheated him. In 1906, in Oklahoma, he received a large rail shipment consisting of flour and shoes.

The hectic pace of Charles’s wheeling and dealing suggests compulsion as much as enterprise. Few of his deals greatly improved the family’s standard of living, which rose and fell within a narrow band at the lower limits of the respectable. Almost invariably, his first step after acquiring a new store or piece of property was to attempt to trade it for something else. Rebecca—who was never consulted—lamented most of these transactions. As soon as she had decorated a house to her satisfaction, it seemed, he put it up for sale. Charles’s quixotic dealings didn’t bring him happiness, either. He suffered from insomnia and sometimes paced the floor, terrified that his world was coming apart. He died in San Benito, Texas, in 1921, after being struck by a train, and his death may have been a suicide. At the time, he was suffering the effects of a stroke, his second marriage was under considerable stress, and he was supporting himself and what remained of his family with the help of regular checks from Clifford, who was struggling to make his own way in New York.

Charles and Rebecca’s marriage was not desolate. They were often happy together when he was at home. He was loving with the children, gave expensive presents when business was good, wrote poetry in the evenings, and took Rebecca’s illnesses seriously. But he worked long hours and traveled for weeks at a stretch. When the twins were young he had to be reintroduced to them upon returning. (On one occasion, they recognized him only after he had sung a song they knew; on another, they wouldn’t let him hold them until after they had watched him eat breakfast.) He wrote home irregularly. He moved the family so often and on such short notice that a reader must study the diary carefully to detect when the locale has changed. The constant shifting took a heavy toll. At one point, Rebecca wrote, “I can hardly bear to think of the tremendous task of moving—hardly able to live—even quietly.”  Other entries have a sardonic edge: “Charles’s Texas fever is all gone & he is now confident that New Mexico will just suit us.” In later years, Clifford often described his background simply as “Midwestern.” In a letter to Eisenhower, in 1967, he wrote that he envied Ike’s ability to remember “boyhood escapades,” as evidenced by a recent article in the Saturday Evening Post. Much of his own childhood seemed to him a blur, or a blank.

[to be continued]

Fred Astaire, Trick-shot Artist

circa 1938: Fred Astaire (1899 - 1987), the American singer and dancer on the golf course. (Photo by John Miehle/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

(Photo by John Miehle/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Fred Astaire’s proudest achievement in life, he told an interviewer in 1982, was “a 4-wood I hit on the 13th hole at Bel-Air Country Club in June of 1945.” (It landed on the green and rolled into the cup.) His handicap was 10, approximately. He was a worse player than Humphrey Bogart, but a better one than Glenn Ford, who portrayed Ben Hogan in “Follow the Sun,” very possibly the worst movie ever made.

Fred Astaire at the Masters in 1946 or 1947. Anyone recognize the competitor on the right? His badge identifies him as Player 29. (Photo by Augusta National/Getty Images)

Astaire wanted to incorporate golf into a dance routine. “Fooling around at Bel-Air one day,” he recalled, “I did a few impromptu rhythm steps just before hitting one off the tee, and was surprised to find that I could really connect that way.” He demonstrated for the director of the movie he was working on—Carefree, co-starring Ginger Rogers, released in 1938—and they incorporated it into the film.

There’s a widely told story that Astaire did the sequence in one take, and that his shots all landed within a few feet of each other—all untrue. RKO set up a driving range on its lot in Encino three weeks before principal photography began, and Astaire practiced the moves for two weeks. “I had about 300 golf balls and five men shagging them, a piano and Hal Borne to play for me,” he recalled. The final sequence involved many takes over two days, and what you see in the movie was pieced together from the best bits. In the clip below, the golf stuff starts about a minute in. Notice that Astaire wears two golf gloves (with buttons!) throughout.

Bobby Jones And Fred Astaire At The Augusta National Golf Club (Photo by Augusta National/Getty Images)

Same Masters. This golfer I can identify. (Photo by Augusta National/Getty Images)

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

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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:

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  • 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:

Do the Rules of Golf Violate the Rules of Golf?

Not long ago, I played in an inter-club tournament on a nine-hole course in the northern part of my state. The club has two features I like a lot (in addition to the course): a curling club next door, and my favorite kind of driving range:

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On one hole during the tournament, I lipped out a par putt, leaving a tap-in for bogey. I tapped it, but it didn’t go in. The head of my putter looks like this:

I had struck the ball with what I guess would be considered the putter’s “toe,” and the wingy thing made it squirt off at a weird angle, and I ended up with a double bogey. I told my pro later that, at least, I knew I’d never make THAT mistake again, but he said that, based on his own experience, I was probably safe for only about five years.

Later, I got to wondering: was my stupid muffed tap-in even legal? And that made me think of Bill Collins, a reader in Scotland, who has written to me several times to complain about what he believes to be a serious inconsistency in the Rules of Golf. Bill is eighty years old. He lives in Edinburgh with his wife, Mary, and he plays two or three times a week, all year long, at Silverknowes Golf Club, which has swell views of the Firth of Forth and beyond:

“I served an apprenticeship in a shipyard in Leith on the River Forth and have been in engineering most of my working life,” he told me in an email. “For the last 15 years of my career, I was offered a position in quality control, because of my engineering background, and was quite happy to put down my tools. I picked up a lot of information on specifications and their importance in maintaining procedures. That is why I can’t get Rule 4 and Rule 14 out of my head. They are not compatible.” Here’s another look at Silverknowes:

Collins’s concerns first arose during the 1996 Open, at Royal Lytham & St. Annes (won by Tom Lehman). “During the tournament, it was indicated by a well-known golfer and what I took to be a representative of the R&A that one could strike a ball with the face, back, heel or toe of a putter. I phoned the R&A and the BBC reps at the Lytham course, and I managed to reach the R&A desk. My message was accepted by a lady, but I received no reply from the BBC, and no reply from the R&A.”

His question was prompted by what was then part of Rule 4.1, governing the form and make of clubs (the text now appears in Appendix II)—”The clubhead shall have only one striking face, except that a putter may have two such faces if their characteristics are the same, and they are opposite each other”—and what seemed to him to be a conflict between those requirements and Rule 14.1: “The ball must be fairly struck at with the head of the club and must not be pushed, scraped or spooned.” Collins continued, “Over the past 20 years, I have allowed the above to take over large amounts of my time trying to convince people. From reading magazines and listening to comments, I know there are lots of golfers who agree with me. What convinces me even more is the lack of response to my enquiries. I have been informed by the R&A, but not convinced, that one may strike a ball with the face, back, heel or toe of a putter.”

If a putter may have only two striking faces, why are you allowed to strike a ball with a third? Furthermore, Collins wrote, “Take a moment on the green, if you have a Ping-type putter—and, if not, borrow one—and scoop up the ball. Just before you flick it up into your hand, look at the ball nestling in the back of the putter. What do you see? You see a ball resting between two striking faces. Nice way to pitch. Is it legal? Rule 14.1 says yes; Rule 4.1/Appendix II says no.”

On the other hand, pondering the Rules of Golf can send your brain into a tailspin. I once saw someone — Chi-Chi Rodriguez?—successfully extract an embedded ball from the wall of a bunker by fiercely striking the sand just below the ball with the toe of his putter, as though he were swinging an ax. In effect, he used the putter head as wedge, compressing the sand and causing the ball to squirt onto the green. Cool shot! But should it be legal? For that matter, is the ball “fairly struck at” in ANY bunker shot, since when you play the shot what you are actually striking at is sand?

Three non-conforming putters, from the Rules of Golf.

I haven’t done full justice to Collins’s argument, but I’m afraid that if I do I’ll spend the next 20 years brooding about it, too. If you want to pursue this with Collins himself, get in touch with me the way he did, through the link below, and if you don’t seem too much like a nut I’ll forward your email to him. Curling season is almost here, and that means we’ll soon have lots of time for idle cogitation. Now, about the out-of-bounds rule. . . .

The Most Dangerous Score in Match Play

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?

Scott Harvey and Stewart Hagestad. (Photo by USGA)

Scott Harvey and Stewart Hagestad. (Photo by USGA)

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.

Photo by USGA.

Photo by USGA.

World’s Greatest Putting Contest

My golf club’s annual men’s member-guest is the world’s second greatest golf tournament, after the Masters, and our member-guest putting contest, which begins on Friday at noon and concludes on Saturday evening, is the world’s greatest putting contest. It takes place on the practice green:
IMG_3240Our superintendent, one of our former superintendents, and our pro create the course, which has four holes. For ten bucks, you and your partner go around twice. Scoring is best-ball, and the four pairs with the lowest eight-hole scores qualify for the final. If your ball rolls off the putting surface—as it’s likely to do, since the holes are cut close to the edges, and the green is triple-cut and rolled—you are assessed a penalty stroke. In the photo below, Tony, at the far left, is wearing an Ian Poulter wig visor, to replace the hair he’s lost to chemotherapy, and Hacker (real name) is getting ready to incur a one-stroke penalty:

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Qualifying continues into the evening:

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Once the sun has gone down completely, C.J. and Jaws supplement the club’s Tiki torches with a couple of super-powerful shop lights they own:

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This year’s course was especially diabolical because the fourth hole included a double water hazard: two bowls of blue-dyed water embedded in the green so that the tops of the bowls were flush with the putting surface. To have any chance of making the putt, you had to slide your ball between the hazards, as Reese is attempting to do here:

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The two balls you see on the right-hand side of the photo above are actually the tee markers for the water-hazard ball drop. Many players had to use the drop, including my brother and me. Late in the evening, one of the guests lifted one of the bowls out of the ground and drank a little of the water, to see what would happen. Somewhat surprisingly, nothing happened—at least, not immediately.

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My brother’s and my best round was one under par. That got our names onto the scoreboard for a little while, but we ended up missing a playoff for the final by a stroke. So we ate pizza (supplied by Peter P.) and watched the main event from the gallery. Not everyone in the gallery gave the action his undivided attention:

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The format for the final was four holes of best-ball followed by four holes of aggregate. Mike G. and Matt, who are brothers, finished the final in a tie with Addison and Kevin, who are old high-school teammates. Mike and Matt won on the first hole of sudden death. Here are Mike and Matt:

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Night golf and poker followed, then a few hours of sleep, then—boo hoo—the final day of this year’s men’s member-guest.

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Breakthroughs in Golf-shirt Design and Beer Transportation

ck P., the Sunday Morning Group’s Jordan Spieth of beer-chugging, works for Custom Ts ‘n More, a company that, among other things, embroiders cool stuff on golf shirts. Here’s Nick last weekend, at my club’s annual men’s member-guest tournament, wearing one of his custom golf shirts:

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Recently, Nick’s company acquired a machine that prints on fabric, in full color, and Nick used it to make shirts for him and Carl, his regular guest. The image he chose was a photograph that someone took at last year’s member-guest. It shows Klinger and Fritz (during a low moment for Fritz) at the big poker game on Saturday night. Nick was worried that the ink would run on the fabric, which is synthetic, but he primed it somehow, or something, and everything came out great. All SMG shirts from now on will take advantage of this remarkable technology:

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Nick and Carl were the defending champions, so during the big steak dinner on Friday night Corey, our pro, made them sit by themselves, at the Champions Table. I don’t know who the third place setting was supposed to be for:

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And here are the steaks:

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A second major innovation introduced at this year’s member-guest was the Arctic Zone insulated beer backpack. Fritz bought one at CVS for less than the cost of two sleeves of Pro V1s, and he was able to fit a full case into it. It freed his hands for other functions, such as swinging a golf club, caddying for Nick and Carl during the closing shoot-out, and holding additional beer:

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Fritz and Klinger are long-time member-guest golf-shirt innovators. Their wardrobe last weekend included this shirt, from Loudmouth Golf—now unfortunately out of stock in every size except small:

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Linksland is Not Called Linksland Because It “Links the Town to the Sea”

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Despite what television announcers sometimes say (ahem), linksland is not called linksland because it “links the town to the sea.” Nor is “links” as a synonym for “golf course.” Links” is a geological term. Linksland is a specific type of sandy, wind-sculpted coastal terrain—the word comes from the Old English hlinc, “rising ground”—and in its authentic form it exists in only a few places on earth, the most famous of which are in Great Britain and Ireland.

Linksland arose at the end of the most recent ice age, when the retreat of the northern glacial sheet, accompanied by changes in sea level, exposed sand deposits and what had once been coastal shelves. Wind pushed the sand into dunes and rippling plains; ocean storms added more sand; and coarse grasses covered everything.

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Early Britons used linksland mainly for livestock grazing, since the ground closest to the sea was usually too starved and too exposed for growing crops, although even that use wasn’t always allowed. As someone in Aberdeen wrote in 1487, “No catall sale haf pastour of gyrss apone the lynkis.” When significant numbers of Scotsmen became interested in smacking small balls with curved wooden sticks, the links was where they went (or were sent), perhaps because there they were in no one’s way.

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The Other Major Tournament at Royal Troon

The southernmost end of the championship course at Royal Troon directly abuts a trailer park, called the Prestwick Holiday Park—which also separates Troon from Prestwick Golf Club.

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In fact, the trailer park is so close to the course that when you tee off on the tenth hole you practically hang your rear end over the fence. (In both the U.K. and Ireland, a surprising amount of what looks to an American like prime seaside real estate is occupied by mobile homes and RVs.)

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A Troon member once told me that another Troon member, while traveling, overheard some other diners in a restaurant discussing a recent tournament at Troon and eagerly went over to introduce himself. It turned out that the tournament they were discussing was an event conducted surreptitiously by golf-playing residents of the trailer park, on the Troon holes nearest their caravans—including the Postage Stamp, which I played in 2009 (in neither the Open Championship nor the Prestwick Holiday Park Invitational):

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