The Last Unscrewed-up Major Event in Sports

Let’s take a moment to remind ourselves how lucky we are to have the Masters, the last unscrewed-up major event in sports. I spent much of Sunday afternoon switching between my TV-watching glasses and my household-appliance-degunking glasses. The dishwasher had developed a bad smell, which my wife had asked me to eliminate, but the big kitchen TV is all the way on the other side of the room, so I had to keep running back and forth. Masters commercial breaks are so short that I barely had time to take a whiz, much less to figure out how to disassemble the main spray arm, and I ended up needing almost five hours to do a chore that ought to have taken ten or fifteen minutes—although I was glad to have an outlet for my nervous energy. What a tournament! And the next one is just fifty-one weeks away.

Now for some idle speculation. If Tiger Woods, despite his extraordinary troubles on Saturday and his putting problems on Sunday, had played the tournament’s final three holes in four under par, he would have been in the playoff with Angel Cabrera and Adam Scott. Plausible? Well, I can’t speak for Woods, but it’s happened before. The weekend before the 1998 Masters, Warren Stephens (whose father, Jack, was Augusta National’s chairman at the time) and Hootie Johnson (who succeeded Jack a month later) played a tense five-dollar nassau against Lance Barrow (the producer of CBS’s tournament broadcast) and me. I was on the grounds doing research for my book The Making of the Masters, and the most important element of that research (in my opinion) was becoming intimate with the golf course.

ANGC DLO 2-3-2

The match went back and forth, and things looked dark for Barrow and me. But then I birdied the sixteenth (eight-iron, six-foot putt). And then I birdied the seventeenth (driver, lob wedge, fifteen-foot putt). And then I eagled the eighteenth (three-wood, pitching wedge). That’s four under par on the last three holes—2-3-2—and I have the scorecard (above) and the plaque (below) to prove it. If Tiger had managed the same on Sunday—well, who knows? I didn’t see my final shot go in the hole, but Ernie Els and Lee Janzen, who had been playing a practice round just in front of us, did. Then they joined us for a beer.


That round was fun, obviously, but on a regular basis I actually have more fun playing golf with my friends at home. This Sunday, we did what we always do during the majors: we used the scorecard from the tournament course (available online) instead of our own. The only effect that has is to make the handicap strokes fall in unexpected places, but it’s our way of participating vicariously. We had four foursomes, and we counted two best balls from each group. My team came in last, by fifteen shots. Hacker (real name) brought lunch:


Two teams tied, at sixteen under, so we had a playoff, just like at the real Masters. We didn’t use sudden death, though; we used a backwards throw to the practice green from a chair balanced on top of one of the tables on the patio, closest to the pin. Here’s Stan, at the top of his follow-through:


And here’s Fritz, on the practice green, pacing off the winning throw (which turned out to be Reese’s):


Then home for a one-hour nap. Then sublimity.

Bobby Jones’s Father Makes a Masters Rules Decision

The Colonel.

The Colonel.

In the early years of the Masters, the club sometimes had trouble finding knowledgeable volunteers to serve as rules officials. “On one occasion,” Clifford Roberts, the club’s co-founder, wrote in 1970 in a letter to Lincoln Werden of the New York Times, “the shortage was such that we appealed to Bob Jones for suggestions as to whom we might enlist. Bob said that we might in a pinch request his dad.” Jones’s father, who was known as the Colonel, was accordingly posted to the twelfth hole on the final day of the tournament. There had been a great deal of rain during the night, and the course was very wet. One player hit a poor shot that landed in a soggy area near the creek. The player spotted the Colonel, called him over, and asked whether he was entitled to relief from casual water. The Colonel asked him where he stood in relation to par. “Eighteen over,” the player said. The Colonel demanded, “Then what in the goddamn hell difference does it make? Tee the thing up on a peg for all I give a hoot!” [The word “hoot” may not be historically accurate.]

In the early years, a small pot bunker was originally positioned in the center of the eleventh fairway at roughly the distance of a reasonable drive. The bunker, which could not be seen from the tee, was Bobby Jones’s idea. He had wanted the course to have a hazard that could be avoided only with good luck or local knowledge—the sort of seemingly arbitrary booby trap that is plentiful on the Old Course. The Colonel drove into the hidden hazard during his first round on the course, in 1932. When he found his ball in the sand, he shouted, “What goddamned fool put a goddamned bunker right in the goddamned center of the goddamned fairway?” or words to that effect. His son, who was playing with him (along with Roberts), had to answer, “I did.” The bunker was eventually filled in.

The Colonel was one of the club’s most colorful personages. Roberts, in his book about the club, wrote, “When I first knew the Colonel, he could play to a handicap of about eight. When he played worse than that it was the fault of the ball, the way some green had been mowed, a divot hole, an unraked bunker, or some bad luck demon. On such days he was prone to express his feelings with swearwords; not just the usual kind of swearing, but original, lengthy, and complex imprecations that were classics. Numbers of people who were regular companions felt disappointed when the Colonel played well, as they always looked forward to a prolonged blast of cussing that they had never previously heard.” On a trip to Philadelphia for the 1934 U. S. Open, Roberts and Bobby Jones lost track of the Colonel in the hotel where they were staying. After a lengthy search, they found him in the ballroom. Roberts wrote, “The Colonel, baton in hand, was directing the orchestra, and at the same time singing the words for the music that he was conducting.” The Colonel died in 1956.

Golf and Sinkholes

golfer in sinkhole

A week ago, Mark Mihal disappeared into the fairway of the fourteenth hole at Annbriar Golf Course, in Waterloo, Illinois, a suburb of St. Louis. “I felt the ground start to collapse and it happened so fast that I couldn’t do anything,” he said later (as reported by his wife). “I reached for the ground as I was going down and it gave way, too. It seemed like I was falling for a long time. The real scary part was I didn’t know when I would hit bottom and what I would land on.” You can read a longer account on Mihal’s fantasy-golf website.

As it happens, I have a long article about sinkholes in the current New Yorker. (You won’t be able to read it online unless you’re a subscriber, I’m afraid.) The sign in the photo below, from a state park in Florida—which has even more sinkholes than Illinois does—explains what they are:

sinkhole signMost of the lakes in Florida were formed by the same processes that form sinkholes, and if you do a quick flyover of the state on Google Earth you will see lots of bodies of water that look similar to the one in the photo below, which is in another state park. It’s called Big Dismal Sink, and an old swinging rope overhangs it. If you decide to jump in, you won’t need to worry about hitting bottom, since it’s more than eighty feet deep.

big dismalWhen I was working on my New Yorker article, I spent a couple of days with these guys, whose specialty is diving in sinkholes and subterranean caves:

turner sink

I also visited Lake Jackson, just north of Tallahassee. It’s a four-thousand-acre natural body of water that occasionally disappears down a sinkhole, like a bathtub emptying down a drain. When it goes, it takes everything with it—fish, turtles, alligators, range balls, everything. You can read more about that in my article, and you can actually watch it happening here:


The Muny Life: Augusta Municipal (a.k.a. the Patch)

IMG_0025For my monthly column in the April issue of Golf Digest (on sale now), I played Augusta’s municipal golf course, which is known locally as the Patch—short for Cabbage Patch. There was frost when I got there, and the parking lot was virtually empty, so after nosing around a little bit I went to Krispy Kreme.


When I returned, I played with Josh and Steve, both journeymen pipefitters, who had driven over from Aiken, South Carolina. They’ve been working as welders on the Savannah River Salt Waste Processing Facility, a job that’s likely to last another two or three years. (“Salt waste” is a semi-euphemism for nuclear waste.) There was a golf-ball-shaped dent on the bottom of Steve’s driver. “That’s from the first time I played,” he said. “It was a sight.” Here they are (Steve is on the left):


The Patch is scrappy, but it’s a good golf course, and it has some awesome bunkers, like this one, next to the first fairway:


Later that day, I met the guy in the photo below, who was playing with his dog. He’s forty-five years old and has been a regular at the Patch since he was twelve. I asked him how the course had changed over the years. “Not at all,” he said. “It changes, but within a very narrow band. It has been twenty percent better, and it has been twenty percent worse, but it’s basically the same.” Once, during a single week, he played all the nearby golf courses with the word “Augusta” in their name: Augusta Country Club, North Augusta Country Club, Augusta Municipal, and Augusta National. He said that he and his dog had just played twenty-seven holes in three hours—a perfect day.


I also saw a couple of young dads, playing with sons:

IMG_0037And the next day, I played with the guys I wrote about in my column, two of whom are in the photo below:

IMG_0076In the same issue, Ron Whitten and I have articles about two days we spent in Orlando helping the people at EA Sports recreate the Augusta National course as it was in 1934, the year of the first Masters, for their new video game “Tiger Woods PGA Tour 14: The Masters Historic Edition.” The result, Whitten writes in the magazine, is “the closest thing to a time machine that golfers will ever experience.” The level of detail is extraordinary. Here’s Whitten during one of our sessions at EA, pointing out an incorrectly positioned tree:



Masters Countdown: Those Amazing Flowers

ANGC Circle 2

The photograph above shows the circle at the end of Magnolia Drive, in front of the Augusta National clubhouse. Everything is immaculate, including the green paint on the curbs—which is touched up frequently as the tournament approaches. The photograph below, which was taken in 1947, shows the same circle as it appeared during a period when the club was still strapped for money and couldn’t afford to pay the same attention to detail (or to pansies).

ANGC Circle 1

At the base of the flagpole in the photograph at the top of this post are plaques commemorating the co-founders of the club and the tournament: Clifford Roberts and Bobby Jones. The plaques are the only memorials to the men on the property. In 1941, two new Augusta National members—James Middleton Cox, a newspaper publisher, who years earlier had served three terms as the governor of Ohio, and his son, James, Jr.—proposed erecting a large statue of Jones near the clubhouse, not far from what would later become the site of the Eisenhower Cabin. Jones and Roberts were deeply unenthusiastic about the monument, and both were relieved when the Coxes, at Roberts’s suggestion, shifted their attention to the possibility of building a hall of fame on club property. I’ll have more to say about the hall of fame in a few days.

A December Golf Story

Jim in December, 2007, fifteen years after the rounds described below. Split Rock Golf Course, Pelham Bay Park, Bronx, New York.

Jim in December, 2007, fifteen years after the rounds described below. The green in the photo is the eighteenth at Split Rock Golf Course, Pelham Bay Park, Bronx, New York.

On the first day of December twenty years ago, my friend Jim and I played our final round of the season. The temperature was in the low fifties, but heavy clouds were moving in from the north. The rain was supposed to begin that afternoon, and it was supposed to turn to sleet the following day, and the temperature was supposed to drop below freezing and stay there. It was the last real golf day we would have on our home course for months.

We had the place to ourselves, and we both played well. I hit almost every fairway, and Jim sank two chips. After eighteen holes we were even. The temperature was dropping, but the rain hadn’t come yet, so we decided to go around again. I was one down after eight, but I birdied the last hole and pulled back to level. The wind was picking up. We decided to stop there.

I felt sad that the golf year was over, but not terribly sad. My swing felt solid, and I figured it would keep till spring. We stood on the first tee for quite a while, just looking at the course. “A good finish to a good season,” Jim said, and I agreed. I was reluctant to leave, so I dug a few old balls out of my bag, and we hit them into the woods. We cleaned our stuff out of the bag room. I found an old hat of mine in the lost-and-found box. Then Jim and I shook hands, and we went home.

The rain came down so hard that night it woke me. A couple of hours later, my son, who was three, woke me again. He had had a bad dream. As I got him a drink of water and put him back to bed, I noticed that the rain had stopped. There was still no rain at six, when the kids and I got up for good. We had breakfast, and I read them some books. As I did, I kept glancing at the window. The sky was dark gray, and the clouds were churning. The temperature was in the low forties, but there was no rain and no frost. At nine, I called Jim.

Ten minutes later, we were back on the first tee. “The first round of the new season,” Jim said. And we teed off.

Jim took this picture of me a a month or two later, after our course really had closed. I'll have something to say about snow golf at some point. All I'll say now is that I own a pair of snow shoes that I've never used for anything but golf.

Jim took this picture of me a month or two after the rounds described above. I’ll write something about snow golf at some point. All I’ll say now is that I own a pair of snowshoes that I’ve never used for anything but golf.

18 Good Things About Golf: No. 14

Charles Crombie, The Rules of Golf Illustrated, 1905.

Charles Crombie, The Rules of Golf Illustrated, London, 1905.

[A list that can be cited during golf-related domestic crises.]

14. Golf is a game of good and bad luck. It is played on purpose under circumstances which ensure that superior skill alone will not always determine the victor. A perfectly struck drive may land on a sprinkler head and carom out of bounds: double-bogey. A ball sliced out of bounds may hit a tree and ricochet back to the middle of the fairway: birdie. In an attractively thought-provoking way, golf is frequently unfair. The player who drains a sixty-foot putt to close out a match knows that his victorious stroke was the sum of a thousand offsetting errors and accidents, which could have added up in a different way. The tension between lucky breaks and undeserved disasters helps turn hackers into obsessives and philosophers. To make tennis comparably sublime, you’d have to shift the lines during rallies and randomly lift and lower the net. Perhaps as a consequence, golfers tend to be more gracious in defeat and less pompous in victory than other athletes. (I’ve heard this, anyway.)

To be continued.

Paul, Matt, Ray, August, 2010.

Paul, Ray, Matt, August, 2010.


A Golfer’s Bucket List: No. 2

Tony, Hacker (real name), Harry, Stanley, Ray. Bay Course, Seaview Resort, Atlantic City, New Jersey, October, 2007.

2. Go on a golf-only trip with people who love golf as much as you do.  The ideal itinerary consists of the British Open rota plus a dozen or so courses in Ireland and Northern Ireland, but the destination is actually secondary. The high point of my golf year is usually the Sunday Morning Group’s annual weekend excursion to Atlantic City—a trip that our wives let us take because we have been able to prove mathematically that sending us and our golf clubs away for a couple of days each fall is cheaper and more restful than keeping us at home. Absecon Bay ain’t the Firth of Forth, but golf is golf, and playing a full schedule with like-minded companions is bliss. Lying on a beach or lounging on the deck of a cruise ship won’t prevent you from brooding about your job, your debts, your disappointments, or the condition of the world. Playing thirty-six a day with favorite playing partners, in contrast, leaves room for nothing but your slice and deciding where to eat dinner.

To be continued.

Other Gene, Ray, David O., Tony, Old Course, St. Andrews, Scotland, May, 2008.

Metaphysical Question: Which is the Divot?

John Updike, who, in addition to everything else, was an avid golfer and a terrific golf writer, once described the greatest shot of his life:

It was years ago, on a little dog-leg left, downhill. Apple trees were in blossom. Or the maples were turning; I forget which. My drive was badly smothered, and after some painful wounded bounces found rest in the deep rough at the crook of the dog- leg. My second shot, a 9-iron too tensely gripped, moved a great deal of grass. The third shot, a smoother swing with the knees nicely flexed, moved the ball perhaps 12 feet out onto the fairway. The lie was downhill. The distance to the green was perhaps 230 yards at this point. I chose (of course) a 3-wood. The lie was not only downhill but sidehill. I tried to remember some tip about sidehill lies; it was either (1) play the ball farther forward from the center of the stance, with the stance more open, or (2) play the ball farther back, off a closed stance, or (3) some combination. I compromised by swinging with locked elbows and looking up quickly, to see how it turned out. A divot the size of an undershirt was taken some 18 inches behind the ball. The ball moved a few puzzled inches. Now here comes my great shot. Utterly demented by frustration, I swung as if the club were an axe with which I was reducing an orange crate to kindling wood. Emitting a sucking, oval sound, the astounded ball, smitten, soared far up the fairway, curling toward the fat part of the green with just the daintiest trace of a fade, hit once on the fringe, kicked smartly toward the flagstick, and stopped rolling two feet from the cup. I sank the putt for what my partner justly termed a “remarkable six.”

Anyway, I don’t care about Updike’s shot. What I’m interested in is his undershirt-size divot: what should we call the undershirt-size hole it left behind? Most golfers would call it a divot, too. They “take a divot” when they hit a shot, but they say their ball is “in a divot” if it ends up in the unfilled hole left by someone else’s shot. We don’t treat bathtubs (for example) the same way, since we don’t say “plug” for both the stopper and the drain.

There are many words in English that also mean their opposite: the verb “to dust” can mean either to remove dust from something (such as a piano) or to apply dust to something (such as a sugar cookie); “cleave” means either to split apart or to stick together; “ravel” and “unravel” are synonyms. But is there any word, other than “divot,” that means both itself and the absence of itself?

The Oxford English Dictionary, in its definition of “divot,” mentions only the clump, not the gouge where the clump used to be (and it says nothing about golf—see below). Do we need another term? If so, how about “divot hole”? While you think about that, I can tell you that a reader, in an email, has suggested calling the little scrap of turf that your ball sometimes dislodges when it lands on a green a “wig.”