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.

Phil Mickelson’s Open Victory and the Difficulty of Mentally Influencing the Outcome of Recorded Sporting Events

Rick Hunt, a reader, was at the Open both days this weekend. He took this photo on Saturday

Rick Hunt, a reader, was at the Open both days this weekend. He took this photo on Saturday

In 2006, my wife and our two children and I flew from New York to Las Vegas so that we could rent an R.V. and spend ten days visiting the remarkable national parks in southern Utah and northern Arizona, after first taking a guided tour of the greatest man-made object in the universe, the Hoover Dam.

Me, standing in awe before one of the many fascinating dioramas in the visitors' center at the Hoover Dam, June, 2006.

Me, standing in awe before one of the many fascinating dioramas in the visitors’ center at the Hoover Dam, June, 2006.

Our flight coincided almost exactly with the final round of the 2006 U.S. Open, and because I am a good father I grumbled very little about having to spend the afternoon traveling with my loved ones rather than lying on the couch at home and staring at the TV. My saintly attitude was rewarded during the flight: there were video screens in the backs of the seats on our plane, and I got to watch the tournament anyway. In fact, the broadcast lasted almost exactly as long as the flight. The picture broke up as we were touching down at McCarran International Airport, in Vegas, but by then the tournament was all but over. Phil Mickelson had just pushed his tee shot on the final hole into the corporate tents to the left of the eighteenth fairway, but he had the thing sewn up, and, besides, the guy’s a magician. Good show, Phil!

The next morning, in my wife’s and my room at the Bellagio (or wherever), I turned on the TV to watch Open highlights. Weirdly, the guys on Golf Central weren’t talking about Mickelson; they were talking about Geoff Ogilvy, whom I scarcely remembered having noticed during my life, much less during the broadcast the day before. Suddenly, I worried that what I had watched on the plane had been not a live program but a videotape of some historical triumph of Mickelson’s. It took me five minutes of careful Golf Channel viewing to figure out what had happened.

Mickelson winged foot

Naturally, I blamed myself for Mickelson’s last-hole double-bogey, since I was mentally rooting for him toward the end of the tournament, and the in-flight broadcast cut out at the moment when he needed me most. And this week I blame myself for his victory, at Muirfield, because I wanted Tiger Woods to win but was unable to mentally undermine his opponents: instead of watching the golf tournament on TV, I was (selfishly) playing in a golf tournament of my own.

Rick Hunt, at the Open. If I'd been there myself, I might have had better luck influencing the outcome.

Rick Hunt, at the Open. If I’d been there myself, I might have had better luck at influencing the outcome.

Influencing the outcome of televised sporting events is harder than many people believe, because a technique that brings victory today may have the opposite effect tomorrow. Mumbling obscenities, swaying hypnotically, and making hula-like hand motions in front of the screen will usually keep a long putt from going in—especially if the hole remains on camera and the putter is Lee Westwood—but the same method sometimes fails disastrously, perhaps by accidentally nudging an errant ball onto the correct line.

Curiously, the best method for salvaging victory when things are going poorly is to turn off the TV—a tactic whose effectiveness is explained by quantum mechanics: unless they are observed directly, athletic competitions, like muons and mesons, exist in all possible states simultaneously. Turning off the TV during a big tournament restores the universe’s indifference to the final score, thereby giving Tiger (let’s say) a chance to rediscover his swing. This quantum effect may also explain why viewers are able to influence even videotaped sporting events—as long as the viewers don’t know in advance how everything came out.

For that reason, I had planned to remain ignorant of the Open outcome so that I could watch a recording of the final round when I got home and bring in the winner I wanted. Sadly, though, as I was standing in line at the scorer’s table I overheard some guy telling some other guy that Mickelson had won.

I watched the recording anyway, but without much enthusiasm. I had to hit the mute button many times, because the announcers were so annoying, and I found myself wishing that someone would invent an app (or whatever) that would turn Curtis Strange’s accent into something less grating (converting nahn, fahn, and mahn into nine, fine, and mine, for example); would automatically bleep out the phrase “plenty of green to work with”; and would prevent Andy North from referring to Royal Birkdale, where the Senior Open Championship will be played next week, as a “links-style” golf course.   

Hacker (real name), Royal Birkdale, May, 2010.

Hacker (real name), Royal Birkdale, May, 2010.

 

Reader’s Trip Report: Merion (as a Spectator) and a New Game

Moe Dweck (left).

Moe Dweck (left).

Moe Dweck, a reader in Maryland, who (like me) writes a golf blog and (also like me) probably has a real job of some kind, wrote recently to describe his experience at the U.S. Open, which he attended with friends:

A bunch of guys traveled up to Merion on the Friday of the Open for some spectating and a cheese-steak. (By the way, the cheese-steak at Mama’s Pizzeria in Bala Cynwyd is off the charts. Went classic: white cheese, green peppers, and grilled onions. It is the Philly bread that makes these unbelievable.) The course looked the same to me as it did twenty years ago, but with much narrower landing areas. I think the U.S.G.A. overdid that aspect of the set-up more than slightly. But, overall, the presentation of the course was just awesome to witness in person.

(Parenthetically, let me add that I agree with Dweck about the severity of the set-up, and that I don’t share the U.S.G.A.’s crippling anxiety about birdies. Bubba Watson’s recovery from the pine trees on the first playoff hole in the 2012 Masters would be at or near the top of almost any golfer’s list of the coolest meaningful shots in majors in recent years, but nothing like it would be possible in an Open, because if Watson had missed an Open fairway by the same margin he would have been up to his knees in fescue.) Back to Dweck:

The truth is that the course stood up to the challenge, like it did in 1971 and 1981, because of the greens. One of the writers in Golf World pointed out that it is not the undulations of the greens at Merion that make it tough but the tilts. Could not agree more. On the short eighth, it was nearly impossible to get a ball to stay close, even with a sand-iron in the hands of a pro. Nothing more needs to be said about tilt than the lean on No. 5. I hope the U.S.G.A. continues to present the men’s and women’s Opens on classic old courses like these. Taking the driver out of the hands of a pro is not a federal crime, so I am not sure what all the whining is about. 

Back in April, Dweck wrote to describe a game that he and his regular golf buddies had played on their home course during Masters weekend—a game they called Virtual Pro-Schmo. What they did was take the best Masters rounds from the previous day and treat the guys who shot them as virtual partners in their own game. They transposed each Master’s competitor’s hole scores, in relation to par, onto a scorecard from their own course, then put all the cards into a hat and picked. If a schmo’s virtual pro partner had birdied Augusta’s first hole the day before, for example, then the only way the schmo could improve their best ball on the first hole would be to make an eagle; if the virtual pro had made a bogey, then the schmo had work to do. My friends and I meant to try Dweck’s game during the U.S. Open, but we forgot. We’re going to try to remember during the British.

Actually, we might use another format Dweck told me about, which he and his friends used during the Open. “We called it Beat the Pro,” Dweck said. “Thirty-two guys participated. Each one picked a pro-opponent scorecard from a hat. (We used eight guys’ scores, in relation to par, from the Thursday round at Merion.)  We gave our guys 110 percent of their handicap, and they played a quasi-skins format, in which they got three points for every hole on which they beat their pro and one point for every hole they pushed. Winners were the guys who had the most points against the field. I got to knock around Luke Donald. The guys who drew Sergio had to deal with an eagle on No. 2 (which is a par-3 on our course, so they needed a hole-in-one to push) and a quad on No. 15 (a par-5 for us, so a net nine or better scored points there.) Lots of fun.”

My friends and I are going to try this, too, sometime, if we remember. Here’s a picture of Dweck and some of his friends:

Alan Levine, Josh Tremblay, some guy, Rusty Minkoff, and Moe Dweck at some point in the past, during a buddies trip to Laurel Valley Golf Club, Ligonier, Pennsylvania.

Alan Levine, Josh Tremblay, some guy, Rusty Minkoff, and Moe Dweck, during a buddies trip to Laurel Valley Golf Club, Ligonier, Pennsylvania.

Mystery Solved: The Blue Stuff in the Shower Room at Winged Foot

Winged Foot Golf Club, Mamaroneck, New York.

Winged Foot Golf Club, Mamaroneck, New York.

A few days ago, I wrote about the manhole-cover-size shower heads in the men’s locker room at Merion Golf Club, where the U.S. Open was just held. Showering at Merion is about as close as a human being can come to experiencing what a car experiences in a car wash. Winged Foot Golf Club, another Open venue, has similar showers, and two readers wrote to extol certain “blue stuff” available there and at Deepdale Golf Club—an unusually refreshing foot wash, which I myself have tried. “One can shower and use the ‘blue stuff’ and walk another 18 holes,” a reader wrote. He then asked me track it down, and I passed the question to Jerry Tarde, who is the editor of Golf Digest and a Winged Foot member. He said, “I can attest first-hand that the tingling liquid in the shower rooms, called something like ‘foot rub,’ has miraculous effect.” He passed the question to David Zona, who is Winged Foot’s caddie master, and this morning Zona supplied this photo:

ecco blue

That’s the stuff. It’s made by Ecker Bros., an eighty-year-old family-owned business in Mt. Vernon, New York. Ecker supplies health and beauty products to country clubs in the metropolitan area, among a relatively small number of other things. I called the company this morning and spoke to Arnie Ecker, a direct descendant of the original Bros. “Everyone who goes to Winged Foot loves it,” he told me. He also said that, because Ecco Foot Massage is a magical liquid, he couldn’t possibly tell me what’s in it—but he did say that he would be happy to sell it to anyone willing to order it by the case, which contains four one-gallon jugs.

The cost for one case, including next-day U.P.S., is about  $300. Buying enough to fill an average-size backyard swimming pool, therefore, might run you a couple of million, depending on what sort of volume discount you were able negotiate with Arnie—who sounded, to me, like a guy who doesn’t fool around. If you’re interested, you can call him at 800-441-3226 or drop by the company in person, at 145 S. Fifth Avenue, Mt. Vernon, NY 10550. (Email and the Worldwide Web apparently haven’t gotten to Mt. Vernon yet.)

Thinking about Ecco Foot Massage started me thinking some other products that are seldom seen anywhere but in country-club locker rooms. Here’s one of them:

On and off for a couple of years—during the era of darkness before Google—I tried to track down the company that makes it, without success. Well, I didn’t try very hard. But I did ask a couple of pros where the Pinaud-Clubman stuff in their locker rooms came from, and they told me they didn’t know. (This was before I knew about David Zona.)  Maybe those bottles of lilac vegetal aftershave lotion had always been there, and had been used so seldom that they’d never needed to be replaced.

Anyway, I checked again last year, and here’s what I learned: Edouard Pinaud was born in France in 1810. That’s his name—”Ed. Pinaud”—written sideways on the Clubman talc bottle, next to the guy in the top hat. Pinaud founded a perfume company in Paris in 1830, and he died in 1868, when he was just about exactly the age that I am now. The Clubman line must have arisen in there somewhere, although the date on the bottle is 1810, the year of Pinaud’s birth—a mystery we may never solve. In 1900, at the Exposition Universelle, in Paris, the Pinaud company introduced an oily hair preparation called Brilliantine, so maybe golfers should use that, too. Or maybe not, since by then Pinaud himself was long gone. Either way, why not surprise your wife by ordering a full line of Clubman products for your bathroom at home, along with several cases of Ecco Foot Massage, thereby recreating the ambience of some of the world’s greatest locker rooms? The website sells other possibly useful stuff, too, including the Jet Scream Emergency Whistle:

The Muny Life: Orlando, Philadelphia, Brooklyn, and Elsewhere

Winsteads

I’m just back from Kansas City, where I grew up. Among other things, it’s the home of Winstead’s, which makes the best hamburgers in the world. When I was a kid, you could order from your car by shouting into a thing that looked like a speaker at a drive-in movie theater, and then a waitress would bring your stuff on a tray, which she would hook over a partly rolled-down window. There’s no more curb service at Winstead’s, but there’s a drive-through window, open 24/7. You can also eat inside. When you go, here’s what to order (no substitutions, please):

Double cheeseburger with extra P.M.K. (pickles, mustard, ketchup) and grilled onions.
Single cheeseburger, ditto (for topping yourself off—just take my word for it).
Fifty-fifty (half onion rings and half fries; ask for the fries to be “well done”).
Large cherry limeade (or, if you insist, large diet cherry limeade).
Frosty (technically speaking, this could be considered a dessert, but the proper way to eat it is as a side dish).

When I was in high school, my friends and I occasionally ate four meals a day at Winstead’s. You’d be crazy not to go, even if you weren’t planning to travel to Kansas City. Between trips there last week, I visited my mother and played three rounds on two terrific municipal golf courses, which I’ll write about in the September issue of Golf Digest, in my regular monthly column. Here, in the meantime, is a photo of the putting grip of one of the guys I played with, who I’m pretty sure is one of the three or four best putters in the world (his friends call him Drano):

P1070261

My Muny Life column in the May issue of Golf Digest was about Dubsdread Golf Course, in Orlando, Florida. The photo below is of two of the guys I played with there: Fletch, a semi-retired accountant, and Brian, his son-in-law, who is in the building-supply business. Brian lives near the course and gives Fletch hybrid clubs and gentle swing advice, plus the occasional grandchild.

Fletch and Brian.

Fletch and Brian, Dubsdread Golf Course, Orlando.

During another round, I watched a guy on the driving range talk on his phone, which he was holding in his right hand, while hitting one-handed wedges with his left hand and smoking a cigarette. As Dr. Johnson said, in a different context, “It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.”

P1040845

In the June issue, I wrote about Cobbs Creek Golf Club, which is just down the road (and creek) from Merion Golf Club, where the Open was held last week. Here’s the maintenance building at Cobbs Creek, which, like the clubhouse and the course, dates to the early nineteen-hundreds:

Cobbs Creek Golf Club, Philadelphia.

Cobbs Creek Golf Club, Philadelphia.

After one of my rounds, I met Hank Church, a regular, who didn’t play but dropped by the clubhouse to see his friends. “I had ten inches of my large intestine removed sixteen days ago,” he said, and he lifted his shirt to show the scar, which was barely visible. He wasn’t ready to swing a club yet, he said—but almost. And, like many of his friends, he served as a marshal at the U.S. Open, in his case on the eleventh hole, which is the one where Bobby Jones closed out Eugene Homans in the 1930 Amateur, thereby completing his Grand Slam.

hank Church, Cobbs Creek Golf Club.

Hank Church, Cobbs Creek Golf Club, Philadelphia.

For the July issue, I wrote about Dyker Beach Golf Course, in Brooklyn, where my friends and I often go to play during the winter, when our home course is covered with snow. A few months ago, eight of us set out a little before five in the morning so that we could get to Brooklyn in time to play as guests in the regular Sunday-morning game of Shore View Golf Club, a men’s group that plays at Dyker. John Perez, the club’s president, supervised the picking of the teams, using a handicap-based method that he referred to as Captain and His Men. It was kind of dark in the grill room when he did that, so one of the guys used his cell phone as a flashlight when it was his turn to choose:

That's John Perez at the far right. Dyker Beach Golf Course, Brooklyn.

That’s John Perez at the far right. Dyker Beach Golf Course, Brooklyn.

That day, my friend Hacker (real name) and I played with Ronnie Clyne, who works for a headhunter. “I grew up on the Brooklyn waterfront,” Clyne told us. “If you played golf, we beat you up and took your lunch money.” Like most Shore View guys, he’s self-taught and deeply addicted. “I had a hole-in-one once, at a course in the Catskills,” he said. “As I picked the ball out of the hole, a tear rolled down my cheek. It was the closest thing I’ve had to a religious experience.” Here’s Ronnie cleaning goose crap off his golf shoes on one of the tees:

Ronnie Clyne, Dyker Beach Golf Course, Brooklyn.

Ronnie Clyne, Dyker Beach Golf Course, Brooklyn.

And here’s Hacker (looking very serious) with the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge in the background:

P1050604

On the morning we played with the Shore View guys, I picked up Other Gene. and Gary, our superintendent, at Gene’s house. They were waiting in front when I arrived, at 4:45 a.m., and when I opened the trunk of my car Gene’s dogs, which are huge, started barking inside his house. Gene was worried that the dogs would wake up his wife, so he kept saying “Shhhhhh, shhhhhhh, shhhhhh”—very quietly, so as not to make matters worse. I was standing next to him and could barely hear him, so I assume the dogs heard nothing, their famous ears notwithstanding. At any rate, they kept barking and, if anything, got louder. Miraculously, though (we learned later), Gene’s wife slept through the whole thing.

Let’s Have a Look at Those Famous Merion Showers

Men's locker room, Merion Golf Club.

Men’s locker room, Merion Golf Club.

Like any sensible golf fan, I’m at home playing with my friends and, between rounds, watching the Open on TV. I visited Merion back in March, though, and while I was there I took a close look at the club’s famous showers, which have heads the size of manhole covers. Using one is like bathing in a car wash—in a good way.

IMG_0537

The showers require not just oversize supply pipes but also oversize drains. In the nineteen-forties, as the club struggled to overcome the economic impact of both the Great Depression and the Second World War, the house committee replaced them with conventional fixtures, in the hope of reducing the club’s water bill. J. Howard Pew, who was the president of the Sun Oil Company, demanded that the old fixtures be put back, and instructed the committee to add the club’s water expense to his own house account—as it did for years. (Merion didn’t retire its mortgage until 1971.)

The view from below. Don't try this while the water is flowing.

The view from below. Don’t try this while the water is flowing.

Merion-style shower heads have become standard fixtures at go-to-hell golf clubs all over. Pine Valley (which was founded by pretty much the same group of guys who founded Merion) has them. So, surprisingly, do a few clubs in the British Isles, which may be the source of this grooming arrangement:

If this were England, there would also be a nail brush and a nail file hanging from a chain.

If this were England, there would be a nail brush in there, too, plus a nail file hanging from a chain.

When Merion remodeled its women’s locker room, the women decided they wanted Merion-style showers, too. But then one of them realized that if they had them they would no longer be able to avoid getting their hair wet, so they stuck with wall-mounted fixtures. Their loss.

Merion’s men’s locker room has two levels, whose residents compete every year in an upstairs/downstairs tournament. (Winged Foot members do the same.) The current titleholder is indicated by a clock-like dial on the upper level, although I was told, confidentially, that members of the vanquished side will sometimes move the pointer.

IMG_0575On the wall outside the downstairs shower room are several framed scorecards. One of them commemorates a round in 1964 during which a member named Andrew J. Davis, Jr., played the first seven holes in two over par (after hitting a ball out of bounds on the second) and then made ten consecutive 3s. He finished with what must, by that point, have seemed like a disappointing 4, on the club’s 450-yard closing hole, for a score of 65.
IMG_0530

On a winter evening a decade ago, a member named Edward Slevin, Jr., organized a dinner for a small group of his golf buddies in the bar on the second floor of the Merion clubhouse. They were marking time till spring and, not incidentally, trying to spend down their food minimums. In the years since then, their informal gathering has evolved into a monthly off-season party, and it’s now so popular that the only club space large enough to accommodate it is the men’s locker room. I attended the March dinner, two weeks before the East Course was scheduled to reopen for 2013. Slevin sat at the head of a very long table, which was almost a full lob wedge from end to end, and when dessert and various announcements were over much of the group reconvened downstairs, in the bar. Here’s what the table looked like before we all sat down:

IMG_0528

Hey, how about a shower before dessert?

Did Bobby Jones Use an Illegal Putting Stroke?

Bobby Jones Putting

Last week, the U. S. Golf Association and the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews adopted Rule 14-1b, which prohibits so-called “anchored” putting strokes. (The rule will go into effect in 2016.) Nate Burns, a reader in New York City, writes:

In their recent rules decision, the U.S.G.A. and R. & A. claim that “the essence of the traditional method of golf stroke involves the player swinging the club with both the club and the gripping hands being held away from the body,” but I question whether that is actually the case. If you look at video of golfers in the nineteen-twenties and nineteen-thirties, you see that many of them anchored a hand or forearm against their leg to create a hinge (a technique that will become illegal under the new rule). It makes me wonder how the stroke has evolved over time and whether there really is an “essence” of the traditional stroke. (It seems to me like the U.S.G.A. might be making stuff up.)  Is it possible that anchored putting is actually more “traditional” than non-anchored putting? 

To see what Burns means, compare the photo above with the photo below—which is from the U.S.G.A.’s website and depicts a putting technique that will be banned under the new rule. (To see a U.S.G.A. album of prohibited putting strokes, go here.)

USGA photo

As Burns observes, putting techniques like Bobby Jones’s, in which one or both hands were held against a leg during at least part of the stroke, were common in the old days. Here’s Jones demonstrating how to do it:

Burns has found additional evidence in old film clips on the U.S.G.A.’s own website. In an email to me, he called particular attention to the ones showing “Bobby Jones winning the 1930 U.S. Amateur, Tommy Armour winning the 1927 Open, and Lawson Little at the 1940 Open.”

What do you think?

Burns, incidentally, is a student at Columbia Business School. He has a handicap index of 3.4, and plays mainly at Knickerbocker Country Club, in Tenafly, New Jersey. “I played all my golf out at Bethpage State Park until I got a junior membership at K.C.C., about a year ago,” he told me. “I grew up in Northern Virginia playing junior golf with Steve Marino (he was awesome), and I was in the same class at Wake Forest as Bill Haas (although I wasn’t on the golf team and didn’t really know him). I don’t currently use an anchored stroke, but I have tried pretty much every type of putter and grip, in casual rounds and in club and Metropolitan Golf Association competitions. Unfortunately, none has worked particularly well.”

Memorable Golfers: The Strafaci Family

Michael Strafaci, possibly at Doral, where he became the director of golf in 1960.

Frank Strafaci, probably at Doral, where he became the director of golf in 1960.

On Sunday, seven of my friends and I left home at 4:30 a.m. so that we could drive to Brooklyn in time to play Dyker Beach Golf Course with members of Shore View Golf Club. I’ve written about Dyker and Shore View a couple of times recently, and I’ll have more to say about them in an upcoming Golf Digest column.

During our round at Dyker, I learned about the Strafacis, a historically significant Brooklyn golf family, and today I learned more. There were five Strafaci brothers, all talented players. The most accomplished was Frank, who won the U.S. Amateur Public Links Championship (on the thirty-seventh hole) in 1935, when he was nineteen. (He was described by the Brooklyn Eagle as “curly-haired little Frankie Strafaci.”) He finished ninth in the 1937 U.S. Open, ahead of Gene Sarazen, Jimmy Demaret, and Byron Nelson, among others, and that performance earned him an invitation to the 1938 Masters, from which he withdrew after three rounds. He was playing poorly and the tournament had been delayed by rain, and he knew that if he stayed for the fourth round he wouldn’t be able to qualify for the North and South Amateur—which he then won, both that year and the next.

Frank Strafaci and Bobby Dunkleberger, following the former's defeat of the latter on the thirty-sixth hole of the 1939 North and South, Pinehurst, North Carolina.

Frank Strafaci and Bobby Dunkleberger, following the former’s defeat of the latter on the thirty-sixth hole of the final match of the 1939 North and South, Pinehurst, North Carolina.

During the Second World War, Strafaci was a technical sergeant in the Army’s DUKW Command, which handled amphibious transport. He took part in the Battle of the Philippines, in 1944, and on the second day was pinned behind a tree by Japanese snipers. Shortly afterward, he described the experience in a letter to Morton Bogue, the president of the U.S.G.A.:

I couldn’t see them and so I held my fire, and it was at this time that I got to thinking  of the five foot putt I had to make to tie the 8th hole in an exhibition golf match played in Brisbane only a few weeks ago (Captain Bud Ward came down from Dutch New Guinea for five days, and I arranged a match for the benefit of the Australian Red Cross, which we lost 3-2). Our opponents, Alex College and Dick Coogan, played a bit too good for us. I thought of what a tough spot we would have been in if I missed the putt. I can assure you I’ll never try hard for another putt for as long as I live, at least it won’t seem like trying. 

The U.S.G.A. had sent a shipment of golf balls to the Red Cross in Australia, as a morale-booster, and Strafaci thanked Bogue. He also wrote:

[When] I get back to the States I hope to present the USGA with a golf ball that has already traveled over 43,000 miles and been used for 52 rounds of golf. It was used in America, Australia, Dutch New Guinea, I expect soon to use it in the Philippines, China and Japan. I used it for the first time at my club Sound View, and from there it went to Omaha, back to Sound View then to Frisco, Adelaide, Australia, Melbourne, Townsville, Cairns, Sydney, Cairns, Brisbane, Cairns, Brisbane, Dutch New Guinea (I didn’t have a club, I batted it around with a club made out of a branch.)

Dan Hubbard, who works in the communications department of the U.S.G.A. and, as it happens, is a member of my club, told me in an email: “We do not have a record of a golf ball coming in from Frank Strafaci, but we do have a five-peso bill issued by the Japanese government from the Philippines which he sent to Morton Bogue from Leyte in April of 1945.” Strafaci’s inspiration for his long-distance ball stunt may have been a series of cartoons in 1936 by Frank King, in his syndicated strip Gasoline Alley. In that series, Doc sets out to play a golf ball from San Francisco to New York—and in the strip below he’s nearing his goal:

Blog Photos1

In subsequent installments, Doc “breaks 80” between the post office and the East River, and finishes with a transcontinental score of 14,197. (In 1927, according to the book Golf in the Comic Strips, “a plumber and golfer by the name of Joe Grahame set out to achieve the same goal. He disappeared somewhere in the middle of Texas.”)

Strafaci played in a second Masters, in 1950, and he lost to Arnold Palmer on the eighteenth hole in the first match-play round in the 1954 U.S. Amateur. Palmer, who went on to win (and then to turn pro), said his match with Strafaci had been his toughest in the tournament. Strafaci became the director of golf at Doral in 1960, and named the Blue Monster. He died in 1988.

Frank’s father, Joseph Strafaci, owned a small farm that included the site now occupied by the Dyker clubhouse. Frank’s brother Thomas, and Thomas’s son Thomas, Jr., served as Dyker’s head professionals from 1958 until 1983. Frank’s grandnephew Paul is a recent past president of Shore View—the fifth Strafaci to hold that position—and a highly decorated New York City detective. Paul and a brother—another Frank—were members of the golf team at St. John’s University in the nineteen-eighties. And Jill Strafaci, who is the wife of Paul’s cousin Frank (the son of the one who tested Arnold Palmer), was a star golfer at the University of Florida and, later, an executive in the Miami Dolphins organization. Her husband was an executive of the Florida State Golf Association and is now a member of its advisory board.

The fivesome in the photo below—which was taken in Queens in 1936, possibly at Oakland Golf Club, which was redesigned Seth Raynor in 1915 but buried by expressways in 1952 and 1960—consists of the five Strafaci brothers. From left to right they are Thomas, Dominick, Pasquale, Ralph, and Frank.

photo

Tom Watson, Seventh Grader

Wheezer, 1962

Tom Watson and I had the same seventh-grade math teacher. Watson is six years older than I am, but we attended the same school, in Kansas City. It was called Pembroke-Country Day then and is called Pembroke Hill now. It was boys-only in our day; it began to go co-ed when I was a senior.

My father had had the same math teacher, too, many years before. In my father’s day, the math teacher’s nickname was Tarz, short for Tarzan, because he was built like Johnny Weissmuller; by the time Watson and I had him, his nickname was Wheezer. He looked like Lyndon Johnson, with tremendous gravity-stretched jowls and ear lobes. Age must have lengthened his scrotum, too, because he was always careful to lift his testicles out of the way before sitting in a chair or leaning back against the front of his desk. Sometimes, my friends and I, as we took our seats for math, would pretend to lift our testicles out of the way, too.

Wheezer supervised one of my study halls. One day, an eighth-grader hid a running tape recorder inside a locker in the back of the room, and every five or ten minutes the tape would scream, “WHEEEEEEE-ZER!” There would be pandemonium; then, gradually, everyone would settle down; then it would happen again.

When Watson was in high school, in the mid-sixties, he was the captain of the golf team, of course, but he was also an outstanding shooting guard on a very good basketball team, and he was the quarterback (and leading rusher) on the football team, which won a conference championship. He would put his golf clubs away every August, when two-a-day football practices began, and he wouldn’t touch them again until February, when basketball season was over—a mentally and physically healthy approach to sports that athletic prodigies don’t follow anymore.

I never saw Watson play golf, but I did cheer for him at basketball and football games. Then, in 1967, he went off to Stanford without a scholarship, figuring he’d end up in the insurance business.

Watson was the subject of one of my first magazine articles, a profile for Esquire, which ran in 1982. I had to revise the ending over the summer, as it went to press, because he suddenly won the U.S. Open, at Pebble Beach, after making his famous chip-in birdie on the seventeenth. And then, in July, after the issue could no longer be updated, he won the British Open, too.

These photographs are from Pembroke-Country Day’s yearbook for 1967, when Watson was a senior and I was in sixth grade. I’m pretty sure I was in the bleachers at the football game below, because my friends and I didn’t miss many. Watson is at the far left.