A Better Way to Measure the Power of Hurricanes

The photograph above is of the clubhouse at Indian Hills Country Club, in Kansas City, in about 1950. The course was designed by A. W. Tillinghast in 1927, and the photograph was taken by my father’s father, who was a member. I came across a big box of his slides recently, and for several days I’ve been obsessed with scanning them. Here’s my grandfather himself, at about the same time, during a trip to California with my grandmother:

As the father of a friend once said of Sydney Greenstreet in Casablanca (the greatest golf movie ever made), “Those pants are a little tight under the arms.” Here’s a picture my grandfather took of my grandmother (feeding something to a chipmunk) during a car trip to Colorado in 1945:My grandparents traveled to Florida almost every winter, until my grandfather couldn’t drive anymore (my grandmother never learned). The picture below, which my grandfather took in the early fifties, goes a long way toward explaining why people who live in Florida have trouble with seawater even when the wind isn’t blowing a hundred and fifty miles an hour:

That brings me to Mike Riley, who is an occasional correspondent and a member of the Big Dogs, a regular men’s group at the World’s Second-Best Golf Club, in northwestern Florida. The Big Dogs are usually more weather-averse than the Sunday Morning Group is—fifty degrees and sunny is too wintry for most of them—but, to their credit, they’ve developed some useful weather-related clothing technology:

Even more to their credit, they didn’t evacuate their golf club this past weekend. On Sunday morning, Riley wrote to me, “It’s official. Big Dogs are going to play under hurricane warning. Not unprecedented, but first time since Opal.” (Opal was a Category Four hurricane that hammered the Gulf Coast in 1995.) Riley’s post-round report:

Our foursome finished in 2:29 no time for pictures. Gonna be hard to figure bets, clubhouse lost power while we were on the front nine. Gusts to 60. Pictures really wouldn’t have done much justice. Two pins snapped in the wind and oak tree fell as we were playing number 8. 18 players in the game today with 18 carts. We played during Hermine in 2016 but were on the west side of that storm which is the side to be on. It was only a cat 1 but it did a number on Tallahassee. 

The Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale is kind of hard to understand, at least for me, and it isn’t a good fit with golf; Sandy, in 2012, was also just Category One, yet it wiped out several courses in my part of the world. Maybe we should measure hurricanes the way golfers have always measured wind, in terms of extra clubs required for normal shots. At Portstewart once, I hit Baby Driver on a hundred-and-thirty-yard downhill par 3 and was the only member of my foursome to reach the green, and on a couple of occasions in Scotland and Ireland I’ve played in what I would guess were seven- or eight-club winds. What’s the most a reasonably adventurous golfer could comfortably handle—a ten-club wind, gusting to twelve? Unless someone has a better idea, I’m going to call that the maximum.

Is This the Best Overseas Golf Itinerary?

I have an article in the summer issue of Links called “England’s Golf Coast.” It’s about a remarkable thirty-mile stretch of linksland that runs along the Lancashire coast between Liverpool and St. Annes, in northwestern England. The Golf Coast includes three of the ten courses on the active Open Championship Rota—Royal Liverpool, Royal Birkdale (where this year’s Open will be held), and Royal Lytham and St. Annes—but you could skip all three and still have an unforgettable trip. I’ve visited the area several times, most recently in 2013, and my friends have been talking about going back ever since our first trip there as a group, three years before that. The courses are so closely spaced that you can park yourself and your luggage in one place—no need for a coach and driver. In 2010, nine of us stayed mostly in three three-bedroom apartments in this building, in Southport:

The cost worked out to less than fifty dollars per man per night. The longest drive we had to golf was about an hour, and many of the courses we played were just a few minutes away. Here’s Barney in the living room of one of our apartments:

Below are photos of courses and people I mention in my Links article, taken during various trips over the years. First, St. Annes Old Links, which is next door to Royal Lytham and includes ground that was once part of its routing. Here are two members I played with. We wore rainsuits not because we expected rain but because the wind was blowing hard enough to shred ordinary golf clothing:

This is me in 2010 at West Lancashire Golf Club, known locally as West Lancs. It opened in 1873 and was the first Golf Coast course built north of the River Mersey. As is true of many courses in the area, you can travel to it by train from central Liverpool:A great guide to golf courses on the Lancashire coast is Links Along the Line, by Harry Foster, a retired teacher and a social historian. He rode along when I played Hesketh Golf Club, where he was a member for many years. (He died in 2014.)Hesketh isn’t my favorite course, but a couple of its oldest holes, on the second nine, are among my favorite holes. This view is back toward the clubhouse (the red-roofed white building near the center):

Hesketh has both a fascinating history (ask about the Hitler Tree) and a cool address:

In 2013, Foster and his wife joined me for dinner in the dining room at Formby Golf Club, one of my favorite courses anywhere. I actually spent several nights in the Formby clubhouse, in this room:

The Formby course encircles a separate golf club, Formby Ladies. Don’t skip it, as I did until 2013, to my permanent regret. Among the women I played with was Anne Bromley, on the right in the photo below. Her father was once the head professional at Royal County Down:

Formby Ladies isn’t long, but if you aren’t careful it will eat you up. The club has an excellent history, which you can study over lunch in the clubhouse (known to members as the Monkey House):At a nature preserve down the road from Formby, I met a retired Merseyside policeman and his wife, who own a coffee concession. He invited me to join him and his son, an aspiring professional, for a round at Southport & Ainsdale, which hosted the Ryder Cup in 1933 and 1937 and the British Amateur in 2005.The first hole at S&A is a par 3, and it’s a corker:Right next door to S&A, on the other side of the railroad tracks, is Hillside:

And right next door to Hillside is Royal Birkdale, whose clubhouse was designed to look a little like an ocean liner:

Birkdale is one of my favorite Open courses. I played it with a young member who had a lot less trouble with it than I did. In fact, he shot pretty close to even par:

In both 2010 and 2013, I spent one night in the Dormy House at Royal Lytham and St. Annes—part of a stay-and-play package that’s one of the greatest bargains in links golf. The view from my bedroom was across the practice green (and through mist) toward the clubhouse and the eighteenth hole:Here’s what the wind at Lytham—which wasn’t blowing when I took the photo below—has done to the trees. Many years ago, I wrote an article for Golf Digest whose opening line was “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows at Royal Lytham & St. Annes.” The copy editor, who had apparently never heard of Bob Dylan, changed “weatherman” to “weather report.” I was mortified, but it turned out that none of the magazine’s readers had heard of Bob Dylan either. Anyway, leave your umbrella at home:You should play Royal Liverpool, of course, but don’t overlook Wallasey, just a few miles away:Wallasey was the home club of Dr. Frank Stableford, who in 1932 invented the round-rescuing scoring system that’s named for him. Here are the eighteenth green and the clubhouse:And, of course, if you somehow get tired of playing golf you can take any of a number of interesting side trips:

Perfect Weather for Golf

There was rain in the forecast for Memorial Day. That was good news, because the nine-hole morning mixer was canceled and we didn’t have to wait until after lunch to tee off. Nobody was in the golf shop, but that was O.K., too, because if we’d really needed to get in we could have used the hidden key.
There were five of us, and the conditions were ideal: 50 degrees and nobody else on the course. Rain is the best golf weather there is, as long as you dress for it. Or maybe you prefer to spend your holidays cleaning up your basement.

We played 10-ball. Two fighter jets and a big military transport flew over, really low, on their way to a (probably canceled) parade somewhere else. The greens had been mowed. The rough was brutal. I played even worse than I did on Sunday. Rick won all the money (two dollars from each of us.)

The round took a little over three hours. My car got a free wash. Then home for lunch and a nap.

A First for the Sunday Morning Group

A nearby muny reopened on the last day of February, making this past winter the shortest one ever, but then almost immediately we got a couple of feet of snow and everything shut down again. Now, finally, my home course is open for good. I missed the official first day, last Friday, because I was traveling, but I was there on Sunday for the first 2017 meeting of the Sunday Morning Group. The best thing about being home again was that we could play in less than three and a half hours, instead of the five and a half hours our last off-season round took.

Our course was in great shape, and a number of improvements had either been implemented or were under way. Our seventh hole, at 120-140 yards, has always been a surprisingly challenging par 3—in a four-man scramble once, my team’s best tee shot was short of the front bunker, which is well short of the green—but the back of the tee box is being pushed ten or fifteen yards, onto what used to be a cart path:

More important, S.M.G.’s dining-and-beer-drinking terrace is being enlarged, and will soon cover part of the executive parking lot. When the stonework is finished, we’ll have a second sitting area, a built-in grill, and a butt-high stone wall that guys who’ve had too much to drink can fall off the back of:

Opening Day lunch was provided by Keith and his father, Jim. Because Keith is a new member, he didn’t know that we have a rule against salad:

But a few guys tried it anyway, maybe figuring that if they did they wouldn’t have to eat anything green for the rest of the week. And the salad turned out to be good! Keith and Jim also brought hors and chocolate-chip cookies. So Hacker (real name) told them they have to bring Opening Day lunch from now on.

Shouldn’t We Just Get Rid of Golf?

I traveled to Colorado, Arizona, California, and Utah without my golf clubs recently, promoting my new book, Where the Water Goes. Among other things, I gave a talk in the Mark Taper Auditorium at the Los Angeles Central Library.

There was a Q & A period at the end, and one member of the audience asked, in effect, whether a good way to cope with drought in the West might not be to get rid of golf. I gave my usual defense (“Blah, blah, blah, blah”). Later that evening, though, I thought of a different answer: Why not cut down all the palm trees in Los Angeles? None of them grow there naturally, and they consume a lot of water. Most people assume that palm trees (and citrus trees) are indigenous to L.A., but they’re not, and they’d die without irrigation. Here’s a photo of a palm-tree planting project in the city in the nineteen-twenties:

Better get rid of the gardens, too:

Nothing you see in the photo above is a native species. The climate of Los Angeles is semi-arid, and without irrigation the city would look like the set of “Rawhide.” There are places in the United States where watering fairways is clearly irrational, but if we’re sane about costs and trade-offs most regions can manage a variety of irrigated outdoor recreational facilities, including parks, athletic fields, and golf courses. More about that in my book.

When You Make the Turn, Pause a Moment to Order a Copy of My New Book

It’s called Where the Water Goes, and there’s even some golf in it. Two reviews, and then I’ll leave you alone:

From The Wall Street Journal:

From the first lines, Mr. Owen owns our attention. We have a lot to learn, but this is not a textbook. What Mr. Owen offers is a detail-rich travelogue, an amalgam of memoir and journalism and history, moving across a watershed that sustains 36 million people from Wyoming to Mexico. This wonderfully written book covers issues that will, or should, give you a headache. But it is a good headache, one that makes you a more informed person. Mr. Owen writes about water, but in these polarized times the lessons he shares spill into other arenas. The world of water rights and wrongs along the Colorado River offers hope for other problems. We all want our fair share of water, but maybe, just maybe, we can get it without draining our neighbor’s pipes.

From NPR.org:

Owen is effortlessly engaging, informally parceling out information about acre-foot allotments alongside sketches of notable, often dreadful figures in the river’s history. And though his sympathies are clear, he doesn’t shy away from the reality that these problems resist simple solutions; every data point raises new questions, and governments, activists, and old guard are only beginning to work together to answer them. Where the Water Goes doesn’t pretend to solve the problems Owen acknowledges are overwhelming and, in some ways, impossible. It’s a restless travelogue of long-term human impact on the natural world, and how politics and economics have as much to do with redirecting rivers as any canal. But with its historical eddies, policy asides, and trips to the Hoover Dam, at heart Where the Water Goes is about water as a function of time, and a reminder that we’re running out of both.

If you do read the book, you can follow along on the book’s page on my non-golf website, where I’ve posted a couple of hundred photographs from my trips along the river.

The Joys of Golf, No Matter the Weather or the President

A few years ago, a Google app on my phone offered to navigate me to “work.” I didn’t know what to make of that, because my office is in my house, so I clicked the tab and discovered that Google had deduced, based on how I spend my time during a typical week, that I must work at 10 Golf Course Road—the address of my golf club. Google must also think I get laid off every winter, because between early December and early April I hardly ever go to the club. I live up in the hills in western Connecticut, a hundred miles north of New York, and our course almost always shuts down within a week or two of Thanksgiving.

You can read the rest on the website  of The New Yorker, right here.

Are Today’s Young People Sufficiently Knowledgeable About Quicksand?

Last week, the weather around here turned severely golf-antagonistic. In the photo above, which I took this morning, you can see my principal snow-depth gauge: the table on the patio in my backyard. Poking up just beyond the table is a dome of snow on my back-up snow-depth gauge, my Weber grill. And to the right you see my latest piece of meteorological equipment, my step ladder. During the summer, I used the step ladder to make sure that wrens hadn’t (again) evicted the nesting bluebirds from the bluebird house hanging from the eaves of my screened porch, and when winter came I forgot to put it away. In addition to aiding anyone who wants to break into the second floor of my house, it now provides supplemental snow-depth readings. What instruments we have agree: we won’t be playing golf again for at least a few weeks.

I’ve passed the resulting down time in a variety of ways, including by being interviewed by a reporter from a television station in Japan. President Trump and Prime Minister Abe were about to play golf together in Florida, and, because I myself have played golf with Trump in Florida, the reporter had a few questions about what Abe might expect from the encounter.

Most of those questions had to do with Trump’s skill as a golfer and, specifically, with how far he hits his driver. I didn’t let the reporter pin me down, and I’m pretty sure I didn’t give away any classified information. One thing I noticed is that, for a native Japanese speaker, the name “Mar-a-Lago” is more than slightly problematic. I asked the reporter what people in Japan generally think about the Trump presidency, and he said, “[long, long pause] . . .interesting.” I suggested that maybe Abe could do the world a favor by keeping Trump distracted and occupied for a while—say, four years.

I’ve also passed the time by studying the misfortunes of other golfers, among them one who is suing a local golf course over quicksand. I spent much of my childhood thinking about quicksand, probably because of Tarzan movies and television episodes, but I get the impression that many people nowadays don’t necessarily know how to get out of it, or even what it is. This guy says he stepped into some on a course that my friends and I often play, and that he sank to his chest and had to be pulled out by other golfers. As a result, he says, he suffers or has suffered: left knee pain; a left-knee MCL sprain; difficulty walking; difficulty standing; difficulty ascending and descending stairs; a change in gait; left-knee effusion; left-knee swelling; fear for his life; and general suffering, both physical and mental.

Hmmmm. I have all those things, too. They weren’t caused by quicksand, though, because unlike the guy who filed the lawsuit, apparently, I know that being pulled forcefully out of quicksand is the surest way to be injured by it. Just stay calm, and move slowly, and sort of swim to the edge (on your back if necessary), and slowly climb out. Contrary to popular belief, quicksand doesn’t draw you toward the center of the earth. You float in it, as you do in water—which is what it mostly is.

I’ve played many rounds on the golf course in question and never noticed any quicksand—although there are a number of clearly labeled wetland areas that golfers are required to stay out of. The complaint says the quicksand was in the rough, under some leaves, but doesn’t identify the hole. I learned about the lawsuit on one of my favorite websites, which belongs to Rob Harris, an avid golfer who also happens to be an avid lawyer. Regarding the quicksand case, he writes that, assuming the plaintiff’s allegations are supported by the facts, the most likely outcome will be a settlement, because “being swallowed by a golf course, while not an unprecedented event. . . will not play well in front of a jury.”

Critical Weather Tool for Winter Golfers

Each winter, my friends and I patronize several public golf courses within a hundred-mile radius of where we live. The courses are ones that stay open through the winter as long as they aren’t covered with snow, but sometimes it’s hard to know for sure whether they’re open or not, because we have to leave home before anyone is likely to be in the golf shop to answer the phone. That means we sometimes arrive at a course only to discover that we won’t be playing there that day after all:

Tunxis Plantation Golf Course, December 21, 2014

Actually, on the day shown in the photo above, we found a course that really was open, after making a bunch of calls from the parking lot. Recently, I discovered a trick that would have saved us a lot of driving that day. The Wundermap feature of the website Weather Underground includes links to webcams associated with many of the public and private weather stations in its vast network. If there’s a functioning webcam near a course you’re hoping to play, you see check the actual conditions, in real time, before you leave home, like this:

Oops—no golf today.

Winter Golf on a Course That Doesn’t Close

In my part of the country at this time of the year, avid golfers become migratory. Some fly hundreds of miles south and don’t return until spring, but most of us circle the ground closer to home, like Canada geese searching for open water. We study the sky and the Web and the Weather Channel, and when we hear rumors of snow-free fairways we hit the phones. Quite often, the Sunday Morning Group lands at D. Fairchild Wheeler Golf Course, a muny about an hour from where we live. “The Wheel,” as regulars call it, stays open all year. Area golfers whose home courses are closed often winter there.

Twelve of us made the trip on Sunday. We had meant to go the Sunday before, but just enough snow fell to shut down all the golf courses within a hundred miles of our town. The Wheel has two eighteens, the Black and the Red. We played the Black, which most of us prefer, although when we started there was so much fog that it was hard to be sure which course we were playing. The fog lifted, then returned, then lifted again, then returned again—and I discovered that my laser rangefinder doesn’t work when a golf hole looks like this:

The fog burned away for good while we were playing the second nine. At the base of the 150-yard marker pole in the middle of one fairway, I found an owl pellet, containing the indigestible parts of whatever the owl had eaten recently (in this case, mostly mice). The owl must have been perched on the marker pole when he coughed it up:

In the grillroom after our round, we ran into some old friends: The Boys, a transplanted winter men’s group from other local courses, including H. Smith Richardson, also a muny, a couple of miles away. The Boys use two custom scorecards when they move to the Wheel: one for when the ground is frozen and one for when it’s not. (They change the stroke indexes of a few holes when the fairways are like concrete, to compensate for extra roll.) Here’s the back of their frozen card:

Their organizer is Mark Haba, who runs a machinery company in Bristol. He collects the money and makes up the day’s teams, using a system that involves printed charts, a zippered binder, and six numbered poker chips. “We count two balls,” he told me, “one gross and one net.” They also play what they call “Chicago” skins—which, as near as I could tell, are just skins. They had thirty-two players on Sunday; their complete roster, including alternates, lists a couple of dozen more:

The main difference between The Boys and the Sunday Morning Group is gastronomic: they eat pizza; we eat bacon cheeseburgers:

Also, unlike us, they don’t give extra handicap strokes for wearing shorts (as Fritz, Barney, and I did on Sunday).

Other than that, we’re basically interchangeable—as cold-weather golfers tend to be.