Would You Rather be Deaf or Blind?

I have an article in this week’s New Yorker about hearing and hearing loss. There’s only one teensy mention of golf, in the second paragraph, but hearing is an important subject for all golfers, especially as we get older. Much of what athletes in several sports think of as “feel” is actually aural feedback rather than anything to do with the sense of touch. Arnold Palmer, when he was in his seventies, said he had of trouble playing golf if he wasn’t wearing his hearing aids. (“Without my aids, I lose all feel for what I want to do,” he told Golf Digest.) The reason is that good shots sound different from bad shots, and if you can’t hear that difference from one swing to the next, over the course of a round, you can lose your way.

The same is true in other sports. Liam Maguire, a hockey analyst in Canada, once said, “You can’t handle the puck if you’re not able to hear it hitting the stick. It’s amazing how much hearing plays into these basic capabilities.” A recent article in the New York Times described an 18-year-old deaf tennis player, who is notable because at 143rd in the world he’s the highest-ranked deaf tennis player ever. He has compensated for his deafness by learning to see things that other players hear, including the spin on a serve.

You would think that, for an athlete, not being able to hear would be less of an impediment than not being able to see, but that isn’t always the case. A hearing researcher at Harvard Medical School who is also a serious sailor told me that much of the ability to sail a boat depends on having fully functioning ears—both hearing and a sense of balance. An experience sailor, as long as he didn’t run into anything, might actually have an easier time sailing blind than sailing deaf. The Vision Cup, an international tournament for blind golfers, will be held in British Columbia in July. Is there a Hearing Cup? Maybe someone knows.

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:

18 Good Things About Golf: No. 16

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16. Golf is a literate game. Reading about golf provides plentiful opportunities for genial self-deception. The flaws in your swing recede as you imagine the clashes of titans. As always, your enjoyment is heightened by the certainty that, if you had come to the final nine with a lead that big, you wouldn’t have let victory slip through your fingers, unlike Palmer or Spieth. Then a remark of Hogan’s reminds you of a grip change your pro recommended last year—a grip change that felt peculiar the one time you tried it but that might be your ticket (you now see clearly) to the Senior Tour. Then a description of the sixteenth at Cypress Point transports you to the part of your mind where your children are grown, your spouse is merciful, and you have all the money in the world.

On the page, golf is a game you could almost get the hang of. As you read, your slice becomes a gentle draw, and your best shots swell in your memory until they have pushed aside every lip-out, chili dip, pop-up, and shank. Sometimes when I’ve been reading about golf, a feeling starts to build that’s like a smoker’s yearning for a cigarette. It’s a physical longing, which, as often as not, leads to anxious glances at the clock. Could I get to the driving range and back before the plumber arrives? Will my editor really care if that article is another day late? Isn’t there maybe just enough daylight left for nine holes, if I don’t bother to change my shoes?

Best of all, reading about golf is less susceptible than golf itself to the depredations of age. When the yips have stolen our putting stroke, when we can no longer lift our driver, when even a cart seems like too much effort, we will still have golf’s huge and continually growing library to keep us in the game, even if we have to hire a caddie to read it to us.

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The Ideal Scorecard for a Tensome, Plus a Record Turnout

SMG record

We had thirty guys on Sunday, which was both Father’s Day and the final round of the U.S. Open. Thirty is a record for us, so we took a photo (see above). We chose teams the way we always do, by drawing numbered poker chips from a hat, but we had only twenty-four chips, so we had to fudge things. That evening, at home, Rick made us six more.

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I was on the lookout for guys who hadn’t been able to play because it was Father’s Day—a sore point for mebut according to my informal investigation there was only one: young Dr. Mike, who was said to be absent for reasons related not only to Father’s Day but also to his wife and tennis. Reese and Addison weren’t there, either, but they (along with Addison’s brother, Harris, who works in the golf shop part-time) were in Pittsburgh visiting their father/grandfather, also Reese, who is ninety-two. He can’t play anymore, but he rode in the cart while his son and grandsons played, so no one missed any golf: 

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Addison and Harris’s other grandfather is also a golfer. In fact, he was the No. 1 player on the golf team at Wake Forest at a time when the No. 2 player was Arnold Palmer. His name is  Ray, and he still plays. Here’s what he looked like in his prime:

Ray Harris

Because Sunday was the final day of a major, the Sunday Morning Group used the scorecard from the course where the major was being played, Pinehurst, instead of our own. I won a skin on No. 18 because on the Pinehurst card I get a stroke on that hole, and the stroke turned my miracle eagle (approach shot into the hole) into a miracle net hole-in-one.

Pinehurst card

So good for me. (Pinehurst, like a number of clubs, assigns handicap stroke indexes in a dumb way, and I will write about that at some point.) This coming Sunday, we’ll be back to using our very own, brand-new Sunday Morning Group scorecard. It was designed mainly by Hacker (real name). Here he is, studying a proof:

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Our new card is much smaller than our old card—just 3.25 by 5 inches once it’s folded in half—but it has enough spaces for a tensome, or for a fivesome playing five simultaneous games:

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The cards were created for us by PrintWorks, a small graphic-design and printing shop in the next town. This is Doug, who runs the shop with his mother. He cheerfully put up with dozens of picky last-minute design changes:

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Doug gave us such a good deal on our scorecards that PrintWorks is now the official provider of graphic services to the Sunday Morning Group. Everyone who reads this should be sure to have something printed there this year, to ensure that they’ll still be in business the next time we need scorecards, business cards, letterheads, envelopes, flyers, brochures, posters, postcards, or any of the other stuff they specialize in. (Doug also printed waterproof scorecards for us, for rainy days, and I’ll tell you about those soon.) Our new scorecards have our rules printed right on the back, for easy reference:

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Incidentally, that record score, at the bottom of the card, is nine over par net. No one in SMG history has ever played worse.

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SMG Sunday

What’s In My Bag: Dana McQueen

This is an aerial view of Tony's and my match this afternoon. We're somewhere there near the center of the map.

This is an aerial view of Tony’s and my match today. We’re somewhere near the center of that big green-and-orange thing.

Tony and I happily played anotherA statewide tournament that I was supposed to play in tomorrow has been postponed because the rain that was falling when Tony and I played is expected to continue through the night. I was actually looking forward to slogging around all morning, then loading my soaking-wet golf bag into my travel case, racing a hundred miles to Newark Liberty International Airport without a shower, and taking a night flight to Kansas City to play golf on a Golf Digest assignment and visit my mother. In fact, my only chance to finish the tournament above the middle of the field was probably to go off in a downpour, since I actually like playing when the people I’m competing with don’t.

In 2006, I took back-to-back golf trips to Dubai and Ireland. During the Ireland portion of that two-climate packing adventure, I learned how to dry wet golf stuff with a hotel-room iron and hairdryer (after first blotting up the worst of the water by rolling up everything in bath towels and stomping):

Doing this produced tremendous clouds of steam. Getting the towel half dry took forever.

Doing this produced tremendous clouds of steam. Getting the towel half dry took forever.

Before using the hairdryer, I tried drying my rain pants in my room's heated trouser press, but that didn't work.

Before using the hairdryer, I tried drying my rain pants in my room’s heated trouser press. That didn’t work.

Rain gloves don't really need to be dry, but if you have the equipment why not?

Rain gloves don’t need to be dry, but if you have the equipment why not?

The hotel was in Killarney, and the golf course where I got so wet was Tralee—which is seldom ranked among the very best courses in Ireland but is plenty nice enough and is almost certainly the best course that Arnold Palmer ever designed. (It opened in 1985.) As we approached the middle of the (terrific) second nine, the wind reached the velocity necessary to propel liquid water through the fabric of my previously reliable Sunderland of Scotland rainsuit, and I stopped trying to clean my glasses between shots. It wasn’t just the worst weather I’d ever played golf in; it was the worst weather I’d ever been outside in. Nevertheless, my three companions and I all enjoyed ourselves immensely, and we played far better than you might think—perhaps because over-swinging and over-thinking are impossible when remaining upright requires most of your concentration. (I don’t know what our caddies thought.)

Recently, I heard from a reader who has also been to Tralee: Dana McQueen, who lives in Purcellville, Virginia, and is exactly the same age I am (fifty-eight). Here he is at Tralee last summer:

Dana McQueen and some other guy, Tralee, Ireland, July, 2012.

Dana McQueen and some other guy, Tralee, Ireland, July, 2012.

And here’s McQueen’s golf bag:

The first thing I notice about McQueen's golf clubs is that he keeps them a hell of a lot cleaner than I keep mine.

The first thing I notice about McQueen’s golf clubs is that he keeps them much cleaner than I keep mine.

Here’s what he’s got in there:

Cleveland Classic XL driver, 10.5 deg, stiff graphite
Cleveland FL fairway, 17 deg, stiff graphite
Cleveland Mashie hybrid, 18 deg, stiff graphite
Cleveland 588TT irons, 4 thru PW, stiff steel
Titleist Vokey 50 deg wedge
Titleist Vokey 57 deg wedge
Taylor Made ATV 60 deg wedge
Ping Redwood ZB putter

“Pretty standard stuff, overall,” he told me in an email. “Sometimes the 60-degree wedge comes out of the lineup, especially on courses with thick rough around the greens. I really haven’t gotten comfortable with the ATV bounce concept yet.” McQueen is a retired C.I.A. officer. He now works as a systems engineer for Stratos Solutions, and he also works for Britannia Golf, which puts together custom golf tours, mostly to Scotland and Ireland. He took up golf as a teenager.

“I started playing,” he wrote, “when I realized that my baseball career was going to come to a screeching halt, at about the same time that I got my driver’s license—trouble with the curve was reality, not a future movie title. I had a great mentor, and within three or four months I was shooting in the low eighties. As you might expect, dreams of grandeur invaded my thoughts. These lasted until I discovered that there were other golf courses on the planet, and that most of them were much more difficult than the little muny up in northern Ohio where I began my golf journey. Since that time, golf has been a series of peaks (nearly qualifying for the U.S. Amateur in the late nineteen-eighties) and valleys (being soundly trounced by an eighth grader in the club championship semifinals). Now I look forward to the weekly game with the Saturday morning group and the occasional trip to Scotland or Ireland. My favorite course (so far) is Royal Dornoch. Unfortunately, a sliver of beach on the North Sea is not exactly what my wife has in mind as a retirement spot.”

McQueen plays most of his golf at Stoneleigh Golf & Country Club, in Round Hill, Virginia. The course was designed by Lisa Maki, one of the very few women course architects in the history of the game. Anybody know if she’s still around?

I have received a number of What’s In My Bag contributions. I’ll run them all eventually. In the meantime, send me yours. And here’s a bonus photo, showing how to dry wet golf shoes with the defroster of a rental car:

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New Year’s Day for Golfers

ANGC No 12

The modern golf season never ends, but it does begin. When the first contestant tees off at Augusta National Golf Club on Thursday morning during Masters week, golfers all over the world reset their internal clocks. The first page in a golfer’s calendar is April.

For the world’s best players, the Masters divides one season’s aspirations from another’s. A tour victory means recognition, money, autograph requests, endorsements, exemptions—and an invitation to Augusta. As the first full week of April draws near, winless players juggle their schedules to maximize their chances, and television commentators count down the tournaments remaining. When the Masters begins, every competitor has a theoretical chance of matching Bobby Jones’s unduplicated feat of winning all four major tournaments in one year; when the Masters ends, the Grand Slam field has shrunk to one.

For tournament spectators, the Masters is an annual reunion where the passage of time is measured not in years but in the names of champions. The principal viewing areas have the settled feel of old neighborhoods; the course is as familiar as a friend’s backyard. In countless gatherings beneath the pine trees, acquaintances are renewed and records are brought up to date: deaths, marriages, children, grandchildren, new houses, old jobs. The dogwood blossoms are compared with the dogwood blossoms of previous years. A rebuilt green is examined and approved. Two veterans discuss the careers of Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer—and then Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer walk by. A guest once said, “I rode here in the front seat and will be in the back seat going out so I can stay as long as I can.”

For distant golf fans, the first glimpse of Amen Corner on TV is proof that winter is gone. Northerners who haven’t swung a club since Halloween scrounge an old ball from the garage and roll a few wobbly putts across the family-room carpet during commercials. A swirling gray New England sky stops looking like a vestige of December and begins to seem like a harbinger of spring. The hours crawl from Saturday evening till Sunday afternoon. Meetings and social engagements are ignored or rescheduled; no avid golfer was ever married on Masters weekend. In 1987, two fans from Olympia Fields, Illinois, named their new daughter Tori Augusta National.

For sportswriters, the Masters is the plum assignment of the year. It is the first trip entered in a reporter’s appointment book, and it is written in ink. Journalists take the Masters personally. Herbert Warren Wind, The New Yorker’s incomparable golf correspondent for many years, once stopped another reporter upon arriving in Augusta’s airport and anxiously inquired about the state of the greens: “Are they firm?” Senior golf writers postpone hip replacements and cataract operations until just after the tournament, giving themselves a full fifty weeks to recover.

For non-golfers, the Masters is the one tournament of the year that compels attention. Over breakfast on Sunday morning, a golfer’s non-playing spouse may suddenly offer an informed observation about the chances of Woods, Mickelson, or McIlroy—the result of an hour’s seduction by the sports page or the TV. The beauty of the setting makes one’s love for golf comprehensible to the game’s antagonists. For four days, the national flower is the azalea.

Gary Player once said, “The Masters is the only tournament I ever knew where you choke when you drive through the front gate.”  The trip down Magnolia Lane may be the most dreamed-about entrance in sports. Although the Masters is not ancient as golf goes, no contest runs deeper in the imaginations of participants. Sam Snead once told me, “If you asked golfers what tournament they would rather win over all the others, I think every one of them to a man would say the Masters.”

ANGC clubhouse

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:

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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.

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A Better Way to Play Skins

Gillen (right) and a close personal friend.

A big problem with almost any skins game is that it gives an unfair advantage to players with high handicaps. My friend Tim—who is the mathematician-in-residence of my regular Sunday Morning Group—invented an improved version seven or eight years ago, and my regular golf buddies and I have played it ever since. Tim’s version eliminates all the weaknesses of the regular game. It’s so good, in fact, that we call it Perfect Skins. Here’s how it works:

Each player, on the first tee, throws in some mutually agreed-upon sum—say, ten bucks. That money is divided into two skins pools, one for the front nine and one for the back, and every skin won is worth a proportional share of its pool. (If three skins are won on the front nine, for example, each is worth a third of the front-nine skin pool; if a single player finishes with two of those three skins, he wins two-thirds of the pool.) The object is the same as in any skins game: to win holes outright, with scores unequaled by other players. But there’s a twist: in Perfect Skins, a player who loses a hole outright, with a score that’s worse than everyone else’s, gives up a skin—or acquires a negative one, if he has none to give up. Let’s say the sixth hole is birdied by one player, parred by two players, and bogeyed by the fourth; in that case, the player with the birdie wins a skin while the player with the bogey loses one. We call negative skins “Gillens,” after the last name of the particular player whose long-running success at regular skins Tim was trying to thwart with his invention. Gillen hates Perfect Skins.

Any player with a negative skin balance may buy himself back to zero before teeing off on any hole during the nine-hole match, at the price of one dollar per negative skin, with the money going into the pool for that nine—but he may do so only once during the nine. That leads to the really interesting part of the game: Winning a skin when your balance is negative feels like a waste, because it merely moves you back toward zero rather than earning you a share of the pool. But buying back too early in a match raises the risk that one or two bad holes near the end of the nine could give you a deficit too large to eliminate before the end of the nine.

If you haven’t used your buyback yet, acquiring a negative skin is often less costly than permitting another player to win a positive one and thereby gain a share of the pool. That means that attempting a very risky shot may be to your advantage, if there’s a chance that doing so will prevent another player from winning the hole, or if doing so will ensure an outright loss by a player who now has a positive balance—unless you yourself hold a couple of skins, in which case your best strategy may be to play defensively. A player who ends the nine with a negative skin balance—say, because he lost the final two holes outright—owes the pot two dollars for each negative skin still in his possession at the end of the nine.

Perfect Skins eliminates all the shortcomings of regular skins: it greatly reduces the influence of luck, because erratic players are punished for their disasters in addition to being rewarded for their fluky good fortune; it eliminates the high-handicap advantage, because the players with the most strokes are also the ones who are the most likely to suffer the kinds of disasters that lead to negative skins; it keeps everyone in the game, because not losing a hole can be just as important as winning it, and players who suffer a string of bad holes can redeem themselves by buying back into the game; it adds a new level of pressure, especially on the final tee, because skins aren’t safe until the last putt has fallen.

I’ve played Perfect Skins in threesomes, foursomes, and fivesomes, and it works beautifully, though somewhat differently, in all those combinations. With three players, for example, the skin balance changes on every hole unless all three players tie—meaning that the standings can shift dramatically over just a few holes. With five players, in contrast, outright victories are harder to come by, so that a single skin successfully held to the end of the match could end up being worth the entire pool. In all combinations, the most important issue for any player with a negative balance is deciding when to buy back to zero. You have to think realistically about how well or poorly you’re likely to play the holes that lie ahead, and who still has strokes, where you yourself have strokes, and where you can afford to be aggressive.