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)

An Easy-to-wrap Gift for All True Golfers

The great English humorist P. G. Wodehouse—the creator of Jeeves, Wooster, and Psmith, among numerous other unforgettable characters—wrote two dozen stories about golf, most of them featuring the Oldest Member, who no longer plays but haunts the clubhouse at Marvis Bay Golf and Country Club and, once he has begun reminiscing and philosophizing, can’t be stopped. Wodehouse published 19 of the stories in two golf-only volumes, The Clicking of Cuthbert and The Heart of a Goof.

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The Overlook Press, which for 45 years has specialized in books that other publishers have paid insufficient attention to, has re-published both volumes in an attractive boxed set. Wodehouse should be considered mandatory reading for all serious golfers, and the boxed set makes an especially appealing gift because it is perfectly rectangular and therefore easy to wrap.

A sample, from “The Heel of Achilles”:

Golf is in its essence a simple game. You laugh in a sharp, bitter, barking manner when I say this, but nevertheless it is true. Where the average man goes wrong is in making the game difficult for himself. Observe the non-player, the man who walks round with you for the sake of the fresh air. He will hole out with a single care-free flick of his umbrella the twenty-foot putt over which you would ponder and hesitate for a full minute before sending it right off the line. . . . A man who could retain through his golfing career the almost scornful confidence of the non-player would be unbeatable. Fortunately such an attitude of mind is beyond the scope of human nature.

Overlook offers other Wodehouse sets, too. It has also republished, in paperback, the entire oeuvre of Charles Portis, whose (golf-free) 1979 masterpiece, The Dog of the South, is the funniest American novel since Huckleberry Finn. Better buy two of everything, in case no one thinks of giving them to you.

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Who Needs Bunker Rakes?

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Golf, much more than other sports, is a game of good and bad luck. A great drive rolls into a divot: bogey. A lousy drive bounces off a boundary stake: birdie. Such unpredictability isn’t a defect. The tension between happy accidents and undeserved disasters helps to turn mere hackers into obsessives and philosophers. To make tennis comparably thought-provoking, you’d have to shift the lines during rallies and randomly lift and lower the net.

Yet golfers complain. Instead of savoring the game’s sublime inconsistency, we yearn for courses as predictable as tennis courts. We grumble when greens aren’t flawless, when fairways aren’t uniformly carpet-like, when sand is either too fluffy or not fluffy enough. A friend of mine once skulled an explosion shot, then slammed his wedge against his bag and cursed the greenkeeper’s crew for having failed to undo the effects of the previous day’s hard rain. Tour pros are even more finicky. If the sand in one trap isn’t indistinguishable from the sand in every other, they gripe.

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Complaints about “unfair” bunkers are especially contrary to the spirit of golf: aren’t hazards supposed to be hazardous? On TV, the standard greenside-bunker shot is about as thrilling to watch as a two-foot putt. You know the guy is going to spin it close, and he knows he’s going to spin it close—otherwise, he wouldn’t have yelled “Get in the bunker!” when his ball was in the air. Sand’s function in a tour event is often just to make the surrounding grass seem troublesome.

There’s a simple remedy: follow the example of Pine Valley, the legendary New Jersey golf club, which for decades has been listed at or near the top of nearly every ranking of the best courses in the world. Pine Valley has many, many bunkers—some small, some large, some soft, some hard some coffin-shaped, some bottomless, some seemingly miles across—but no rakes. The club’s maintenance regularly smooths everything out, but, if your ball ends up in a footprint (or behind a rock or under a cactus), that’s your tough luck, and you deal with it. As you should.

Rake-free bunkers would make televised golf a lot more interesting to watch. They would even be good for choppers like you and me. Pristine, consistent bunkers are expensive to build and maintain. Why not let a course’s sandy areas take care of themselves, and spend the savings on something more obviously beneficial, like cutting back overgrown trees? Most golfers, who can’t hit sand shots anyway, wouldn’t notice a difference. (That guy I mentioned earlier skulls balls from well-conditioned bunkers, too.) Everyone else either would learn an arsenal of useful new shots or would get better at doing what bunkers are supposed to make golfers want to do: stay out of them in the first place.

An Election Day Golf Game

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My regular golf buddies and I don’t need much encouragement to leave work early. On Election Day in 2008, six of us decided that filling in circles on machine-readable ballots was all the hard labor that we could manage on an unseasonably balmy November afternoon, and that no one could blame us for spending the rest of the day on the golf course. Tim—who is the inventor of several of our core concepts, including negative skins, “shooting your pants,” and the mathematical formula by which we predict the winning team score in our regular Sunday morning games (13 minus the lowest handicap in the field, times -1)—said that he would come up with an appropriate competition by the time we teed off.

Tim (left) and Gary (our terrific superintendent).

Tim (left) and Gary (our terrific superintendent).

What he came up with was the Presidential Special. He assigned each hole an electoral-college value equal to the sum of its number and its handicap stroke index. Our fifth hole, for example, is our tenth handicap hole, so it was worth 15 electoral votes (5 + 10 = 15). We called it North Carolina. The most valuable hole was No. 16, California, which is our seventeenth handicap hole (16 + 17 = 33); the least valuable was No. 4, Delaware, which was worth just 5. The entire course added up to 342 electoral votes, 172 needed to win.

Before we began, we divided into two three-man teams by throwing balls, then assigned the candidates by flipping a tee. (No one else was on the course, so we played as a sixsome.) I drew McCain, who promptly lost the first hole, Pennsylvania, worth 13 electoral votes. McCain won the second, but picked up only 7—Arizona. Then Obama went on a run, crushing drives and sinking putts from everywhere, and McCain didn’t take another hole until the tenth, Texas. The election was technically still up for grabs, since the back nine was worth 60 percent of the total, but Obama didn’t let up, and he clinched the match on the twelfth, Ohio, a par-three worth 27. It was over before the polls even opened in Hawaii. We switched to skins for the remaining six holes, since Tim couldn’t figure out how to play for cabinet appointments.

Undeniable Signs That the Local Golf Season is Drawing to a Close

International Leaf Rule now in effect:

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Acorns everywhere:

Ominously large collection of half-empty condiment containers on the Sunday Morning Group’s shelf in the clubhouse refrigerator:

Furniture from the SMG’s official Patio and Burial Ground moved to the clubhouse porch:

Different hats:

Daylight savings time:

Hungry wildlife emerging from the woods:

No more bunker rakes:

Frost delays:

Back-Roads Scotland: Tain Golf Club

Tain is an Old Tom Morris layout on southern side of Dornoch Firth. It’s less than five miles in a straight line from Royal Dornoch, and less than ten miles by car. I played it in 1992, on my first golf trip to Scotland. Jerry Quinlan, of Celtic Golf, who planned my trip, had arranged for me to play with the club’s general manager and one of the members. I got lost in the town and didn’t arrive at the club until exactly eight, when we were supposed to tee off. Here’s where I got lost:

The manager, whose name was Norman, and the member, whose name was Ian, were already on the tee when I pulled up. Ian looked peeved and impatient. I jumped from my car, pulled on my shoes, breathlessly hit a drive without a practice swing or a waggle, and took off after them.

Norman and Ian, it turned out, where playing in a club competition. Even so, they played at a pace that would have staggered the average American golfer. I have friends at home who think I play ridiculously fast, but I had to concentrate to keep up. I watched them closely, to make sure I put down my bag on the side of the green that was nearest the next tee, and I always had to be aware of whose turn it was to do what. No plumb-bobbing!

If there was any doubt about the playing order, one of them would quickly establish it. “First David, then myself, then Ian,” Norman said on one hole as he pulled the pin. Each golfer was expected to line up his putt or select his next club while the others were putting or hitting. Even so, we played more slowly than the two players behind us, who occasionally had to wait.

Tain is surrounded by farms and separated from Dornoch Firth by fields full of sheep; at one point, I had to retrieve my ball from a pigpen, which was out of bounds. Still, my round was one of the happiest of my trip. After I had jogged along with Norman and Ian for a couple of holes, they apparently forgave me for being late, and from then on we chatted between shots. Norman told me where to aim on every tee—the bunker on the left, the last tree on the right—and I manged to hit my ball on the proper line surprisingly often. Later, it occurred to me that my unaccustomed accuracy was probably the result of my aiming at something. Before that day, I don’t think I had ever aimed a drive at anything smaller than the entire fairway—in effect, aiming at nothing.

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After our round, Norman and Ian bought me a beer in the clubhouse bar. The two players who had been behind us were also there. Ian good-naturedly complained to them that they had talked too loudly during their match, and that their voices had bothered him. “If you had been playing at the proper pace,” one of them said, “you would have been too far ahead to hear me.”

An Indispensable Accessory for the Locker Room in the Trunk of Your Car

The so-called locker room at my golf club doesn’t really have lockers, so I keep all my golf stuff in the trunk and back seat of my car (and also in the front seat). I try to be organized, with separate canvas bags for rain gear, extra clothes, winter gear, extra shoes, and so forth:

I store extra balls and several hundred lucky ball markers in a yellow plastic tackle box. (I keep more lucky ball makers in my office, and I have so many that even if I lose one or two per round from now on I won’t possibly live long enough to get to the end of them.) That white thing hanging above the tackle box in the photo below is a glove. I used its Velcro closure to stick it to the carpet-like lining of the trunk:

I keep sun screen and bug spray in a crappy shoe bag that was a freebie at some tournament I played in:

That green-and-white fabric you see in the background of the two photos above is an old table cloth, which my wife and I used on our screened porch until my wife said it had become too gross even for that. It’s heavy and, doubled over, it makes a great trunk liner. I can shake it out, and when it starts to smell bad I can throw it into the wash. The dark spot on the left in the photo below was made by my water bottle, which has a leaky top:

My best recent addition to my trunk is a small whisk broom — a kind the Fuller Brush man used to sell door-to-door. (For those of you who are younger than I am, the Fuller Brush man was a sort of 1960s brush-and-broom version of Amazon Prime.) I bought it because one day this past summer I saw that Gene had one in his trunk. I use it to remove leaves, dirt, and grass clippings from my golf bag and the wheels of my push cart before I put them back in my car:

It even works on really nasty stuff, like this:

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:

My Latest Favorite Golf Accessory

In May, eleven buddies and I spent a week playing golf in Ireland, and one of the guys on the trip, Mike B., brought a travel accessory I’d never heard of: a pair of cigar-shaped electric boot dryers, which he takes on ski trips. When I’m traveling, I usually dry wet golf shoes by balancing them upside down on the shade of a bedside lamp in my hotel room (a method made both less hazardous and less effective by the death of the incandescent bulb) or by wedging them between the dashboard and windshield in my rental car and blasting them with the defroster. At home, I’ve always leaned wet golf shoes against a wall in front of a small portable fan.

We had such great weather in Ireland that Mike never had to use his boot dryers, but they got me to thinking. Recently, I bought a larger, at home-version: a shoe-and-boot dryer made by a company called Peet. It stands just under two feet tall and consists of two cylindrical plastic chimneys mounted on a sturdy plastic base. You place wet shoes upside down on the chimneys, and by morning they’re dry and toasty, inside and out. The device is silent, and it’s so gentle that it won’t harm fancy leather, but it thoroughly dries even shoes you’ve worn while playing all day in the rain.

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When I bought my Peet dryer, I expected to use it only on golf shoes I’d worn in crummy weather, but since then I’ve realized that it’s great for shoes and boots of all kinds, and that even on nice days ordinary perspiration can make the inside of your shoes damp to the touch. Dry shoes last longer, and they don’t get stinky. My wife now uses my Peet dryer on her hockey skates, too. In fact, before long we may have to trade up to the two-pair model.