Your Golf Course is Too Long For You

Every October since 2000, the Sunday Morning Group has taken an end-of-season weekend golf trip to Atlantic City.

For the past four years, we’ve allowed every player on the trip to play from any set of tees. Some guys worried at first that our matches and team competitions would be unfair unless everyone was “playing the same course.” But we have discovered that, as long as you calculate the handicaps correctly, the competition actually works better if golfers are able to make rational decisions about the trade-off between course yardage and handicap strokes. And that’s true even when the skill spread is huge. (Handicaps this year ranged from 0 to more than 30.)

Our experience aligns perfectly with the findings of the USGA and the PGA of America, which in 2011 introduced Tee It Forward, an initiative that “encourages players to play from a set of tees best suited to their driving distance.” According to the USGA:

I firmly believe all of that. But there are reasons you haven’t heard much about Tee It Forward since 2011, and the main one is probably the USGA’s semi-incomprehensible two-step system for calculating course handicaps when players compete from different tees. Virtually no one understands how the USGA’s system works, including, in my experience, most PGA of America head professionals. My friends and I are able to do what we do mainly because Tim, who is SMG’s mathematician-in-residence, created an Excel spreadsheet that does all the figgerin’ in the background and eliminates a potentially huge rounding error inherent in the USGA’s method. Every player on the trip, before we leave home, receives a handicap for every set of tees on every course we’re going to play, and is then free to choose:


Another impediment to Teeing It Forward is that most golf courses stigmatize their forward tees by suggesting that they’re intended only for certain players — as at Twisted Dune, in Egg Harbor Township (a course we nevertheless all love):

It’s far, far better to rate all sets of tees for both men and women, and to give the tees gender-and-age-neutral names—as at Wintonbury Hills, in Bloomfield, Connecticut:

One discovery we’ve made during the past four years is that virtually all players, including many with single-digit handicaps, play better and have more fun if they move up — even way up. At Twisted Dune, Addison, who hits his driver 300 yards and has USGA Handicap Index of 0.4, played the black tees, from which the course measures 7,300 yards. But Brendan (8.3), Tim (12.3), and I (7.1) all played the “Senior Tees”—the yellows —from which the course is 1,500 yards shorter. When we started, Addison was so far behind us that we could barely see him. In the photo below, the red V is just above his head:

Addison loves playing from the tips, and he has more than enough game to do it. The rest of us, though, were very, very happy to move as far forward as we could.

You Have to Play for Something


“What’ll we play for?” I asked.

“Oh, let’s not play for anything,” he said. “Let’s just play for fun.”

So we played for fun, but it wasn’t fun.

Some people have the idea that placing a modest wager on a round of golf is a desecration of some abstract ideal of recreation, or something. But golf without risk is also golf without reward. In my experience, the guys who insist on playing “just for fun” also tend to slap at six-footers as though the point of the game were merely to get on to the next hole. They never experience the exhilaration of sinking a ten-foot curler with a 25-cent greenie on the line.


Hustlers aside, the purpose of playing for money isn’t economic; it’s psychological. The parties to a two-dollar nassau aren’t trying to get rich. They’ve merely agreed to suspend disbelief, for the next few hours, in the significance of what they’re doing. Competing for money is one of the few opportunities a grownup has to play the way children do—to increase the pleasure of a make-believe activity by taking it sort of seriously.


The size of a golf wager doesn’t matter, as long as it isn’t so high that it makes any of the participants worry about the sum instead of the game. In Scotland once, I played a local stranger for a golf ball, and we both played as hard as if we were playing for the Ryder Cup. (And I still have his golf ball.) If we’d played “just for fun,” we’d have had a fine day anyway, but the round would have been less memorable.

P1150520When the same players play together for long enough, their gains and losses tend to be self-canceling, because luck, over time, regresses to the mean. Every fall, the guys I play with on Sunday mornings take a weekend golf trip to Atlantic City. Before we start, we each give Hacker (real name) $100. He keeps track of all our competitions and distributes the winnings at the end.


One year, he lost his master sheet and stayed up all night recreating it from our scorecards. I told him he should have just handed every player an envelope containing $100 and said, “Here’s what you won.” By that point, the actual money was irrelevant: we’d already had our fun.


A Perfect Autumn Buddies Trip


Every October, the Sunday Morning Group celebrates the approach of the winter golf season by taking a long-weekend golf-only buddies trip to Atlantic City, a little over four hours south of where we live.


This year was Trip No. 16. We had 20 golfers, two of whom must have been in the men’s room when the bag-drop guy took this photo:


As always on these trips, we did more waiting than we usually have to do at home. But the waiting was actually part of the fun—including waiting for the sun to come up at Seaview:


Waiting for J.P. to arrive at Twisted Dune:


Waiting for the frost to burn off at Renault Vineyards:




Waiting for Hacker (real name) and me to finish entering the day’s hole scores in the awesome do-everything spreadsheet that Tim created for the trip:

more numbers

Waiting for the slowpokes in the group ahead of us to get the hell out of the way on the Bay Course at Seaview:


Waiting for the guys in our own last group to finish at Twisted Dune:


Waiting for our pizzas to be delivered to the lobby of the Sonesta in Somers Point:


Waiting for Tony to realize he was never going to catch the 50-dollar bill that Gary, our terrific superintendent, kept dropping between his open fingers:

Waiting for Reese, on the way home, to attempt a rare cross-lane lit-cigarette hand-off, to Paul, at speed on the Garden State Parkway:


Waiting to find out which of our favorite meals our wives had spent all weekend preparing to celebrate our return:


And, in effect, waiting for the thing that no one likes to think about, much less talk about. We all look a lot older than we did during our first A.C. trip, 16 years ago:


Two Important New Golf-Course Classifications

During the Sunday Morning Group’s recent golf-only trip to Atlantic City, we played one course that made me extra sympathetic to women golfers, because there were so many houses right next to the fairways. It wasn’t as bad as this course in Las Vegas:


Still, on most of the holes there was virtually no covering vegetation. I suppose that, when houses are that close to golf holes, you can always ring a doorbell and ask to use the powder room—or maybe just let yourself in, in case the people who live there are busy. Anyway, the other two places we played were a lot more accommodating, and it occurred to me that courses that look out for beer drinkers and middle-aged men deserve official recognition. So at our next editorial meeting I’m going to suggest that we begin awarding these:


I’m also going to suggest that we do something about golf courses that don’t offer pushcarts or pullcarts for rent—sadly true of all three courses we played. I hadn’t been able to bring my pushcart because Reese’s car barely had room for me. I’ve never played a golf course in Scotland, Ireland, or England that didn’t have “trolleys” available. Isn’t the whole thing about the United States that we have more of everything than anyone else? Get with the program, golf courses, or I might have to give you one of these:


Golf and Condoms in Atlantic City


This year was the crystal anniversary of the Sunday Morning Group’s annual end-of-season golf-only trip to Atlantic City. The first A.C. trip was organized by Barney in 2000, when, for some reason, everyone looked younger than they do today:

AC SMG 2000

Four of the guys in that picture went on this year’s trip, too: Hacker (real name), Rick, Tim, and me. (Hacker and I are the only ones who have been on all fifteen.) Two of the guys in the picture are dead: John and Uncle Frank. John’s son, Mike, was on this year’s trip, and when he laughs he sounds almost exactly like his father. Our main A.C. competition, the Attardi Cup, was named in memory of Uncle Frank:


We always open our A.C. trips to friends from outside our club, and even to friends of friends. This has beneficially expanded our acquaintance with overweight middle-aged men from beyond our immediate geographical area, and has led to some interesting matchups. This year, six of the twenty guys on the trip were from other clubs— including Richard. He and I lived on the same floor of the same dormitory for two years in college, but didn’t meet until last year, at our thirty-fifth reunion. Now he’s an honorary member of S.M.G.:


Our guest policy has occasionally led to problems. One year, one of the guys invited an old high-school friend of his, whom he hadn’t seen in a long time. The old friend, who began drinking as soon as he got into Hacker’s car, bought a dozen condoms at a convenience store during a refueling stop. “I don’t know why I buy these things,” he said. “I never use them.” Then he stashed the box under his seat and forgot all about it. A week after we got back, Hacker’s wife discovered the condoms and—here’s the problem—didn’t believe, even for a minute, that they belonged to any of us. I guess she knew that, even in A.C., our bad behavior is limited to things like ordering beer with breakfast:


And playing as a ninesome:


Speaking of condoms: the first time I bought them I asked for seven, a number that, after virtually endless reflection, had struck me as the sort of nonchalant-sounding quantity that a seasoned purchaser might request. (I was sixteen.) The pharmacist replied that they were sold in either packages of three or boxes of a dozen. I said that, in that case, I would take nine. He said that, in that case, I might as well take a dozen, since the cost was about the same. I said oh, all right, sure, why not, hell, let’s make it a dozen—but I came very close, at that moment, to going back to just being a kid.


Member-Guest News (Part Four): The Return of Peter P.

Peter P. and Other Gene, 2013 Member-Guest. Photo by Vi Owens.

Peter P. and Other Gene, shootout, 2013 Men’s Member-Guest. Photo by Vi Owens.

A little over a year ago, Peter P. was in a terrible car accident. He was in intensive care at a big university hospital for weeks and weeks, and for a while his doctors worried that he wouldn’t walk again. He obviously couldn’t come along on our regular fall golf outing to Atlantic City, less than two months after the accident, so Reese and I made a life-size stand-in, called Flat Pete, using the color plotter in Reese’s office and a sheet of foamboard. One interesting thing we learned on the trip is that, if you want to make a favorable impression on female bartenders, it doesn’t hurt to be a half-inch thick:


Peter has made a slow but steady recovery since then. We’ve told him many times that we would make any conceivable accommodation to get him into our weekend game again, but he has said that he won’t come back to the Sunday Morning Group until he can play 18 holes without a cart. Many of us have seen him working toward that goal, on the course and on the range, using a 4-iron or his putter as a cane.


Peter did sign up for this year’s member-guest—maybe partly because hardly anyone walks during almost any part of it, on account of the beer-transport issue. At virtually the last minute, though, his guest backed out, for reasons too complicated to go into. Luckily, our pro and the golf committee were able to recruit Bob W., who was our superintendent for 40 years and still lives in a house behind the golf shop. Seeing Bob on the golf course was almost as mind-boggling as seeing Peter. Bob was the best golfer in the club for a very long time, but it’s been years since he played more than a few holes in one day, and it’s probably true that Peter is one of a very small number of people in the world who could have pulled him out of retirement. Here’s Bob with one of his crooked little cigars and the type of button-down shirt he always wears when he plays—or does anything else, for that matter:


Bob has always had a complicated relationship with the game. I wrote about him in Golf Digest in 2003, in an essay called “The Greenkeeper’s Tale.” One of the complications is his back, and another is his feelings about doctors. Once, he suffered an attack of kidney stones, a recurrent ailment of his. Diane, his wife, was out of town, and Bob stubbornly writhed on the floor of his living room all alone for several hours. When he could no longer tolerate the agony, he crawled to the telephone and called Ferris, who is a former chairman of our golf club. Ferris is the only member of the medical profession who has ever won Bob’s trust. When Bob’s back is really killing him, he will sometimes drive over to Ferris’s office and ask him to take a look. Ferris is a veterinarian. Among the records in the files at his animal hospital is a chart on which the name of the patient is listed as “Bob” and the name of the patient’s owner is listed as “Diane.” (On the night of the kidney-stone attack, Ferris took Bob to the emergency room of a hospital for people.) In the photo below, Bob and I are watching the putting contest from the patio above the practice green:


It would be hard to say which was more remarkable: the fact that Peter managed 45 holes in two days, or that Bob did. In a way, they were ideal partners, since each gave the other an incentive to stick it out. They didn’t win their flight, but they did beat Ed and Nulty, who ended up winning the whole thing; that made them the real champions, according to some methods of calculating these things. And Bob played in the unofficial one-club cross-country tournament that followed the final shootout, and even joined the diehards who went to a bar in town after all the Polish vodka was gone — two developments not witnessed previously. Reese joined everyone, too, after remembering, at 8:00, that his wife, Vi, had made a dinner reservation for 6:30.


Peter’s walking isn’t perfect yet, but his hook doesn’t hook as much as it used to (a good thing), and he’s getting better at getting around without a cane:

Hacker (Real Name) Invents Great New Golf Game While Asleep


Recently, I wrote that I’d had an extremely rare dream-within-a-dream, about the rules of golf. Reading about my dream made my friend Hacker (shown above) recall that he, too, had recently dreamt about golf, and that in his dream he had invented a new kind of scramble. (In a scramble, all the players on each team drive on each hole, then choose the best drive and play their second shots from there, then choose the best second shot and play their third shots from there, and so on, until the ball is holed out.) In Hacker’s dream version, each four-man team had to count two balls on each hole. As he explained the rules to me: “All four drive. Pick two balls. Assign two players to play each ball until holed out. Score both balls. No handicap.”

Tim (left) and Paul, Sunday scramble, Atlantic City, October 20, 2013.

Tim (left) and Paul, Sunday-afternoon scramble, Atlantic City, October 20, 2013.

In Hacker’s dream, the purpose of this game was “to screw Tim” (another of our friends, who invented our game Perfect Skins “to screw Gilllen”). But it’s a great idea, no matter whom it screws, and we’re going to try it next fall, during the Crystal Anniversary of our annual golf trip to Atlantic City, if not before. Hacker’s dream format is especially attractive because it prevents a team from depending too heavily on any one player.

I love scrambles, and I’ve put some thought into what my ideal scramble team would look like, in any format. The first thing I want is a guy who can drive the ball really long and really straight. On my dream team, that will be me—but not the me who usually hangs out at my club. The me I want is the me who hits all my provisional drives, after I’ve pumped my first drive out of bounds. The provisional me never fails to find the middle of the fairway, and he is scary, scary long.

Next, I want someone who pures his approach shots, so that we can be sure of getting at least one ball close on every hole. That player will be me, too, but not the same me who’s so awesome with a driver. The me I want for approach shots is the me who, during my regular rounds, hits all my lay-ups. The lay-up me hits nothing but smooth, high draws, and he’s a club and a half longer than the me who hits my tee shots on par 3s.

Pitching, chipping, and bunker play usually don’t count for much in a scramble, because with multiple tries at every approach shot you seldom get into serious trouble, and when you do get into trouble you have multiple chances to get out. Still, it’s important to have at least one guy on the team who’s really good at sticking it tight from fifty yards and in. On my dream team, that will be me—but not the provisional me, the lay-up me, or the regular me. For the short stuff, we’re going to need the me who handles my up-and-downs when I’m playing by myself. That me has the softest hands you ever saw. He can knock it dead from any lie—with backspin!—as long as nobody’s watching.

The truly crucial skill in a scramble is putting. The secret weapon on my dream team will be a guy who is probably the best putter I’ve ever played with: me. In a weekend tournament at my club several years ago, every participant had a floating mulligan, which could be used on any shot. I forgot about mine until I got to the sixteenth green, where I faced a tricky ten-footer. I told myself that that I didn’t have to make the putt, because I’d have a second chance if I missed—and the ball went in. And I never even got to use my do-over, because just knowing I had it enabled me to one-putt the next two greens, too, from about as far away. “Leave your putters in your bags, boys,” the mulligan me will say. With a guy like that on the team, how can we do anything but win?

Ben and Shep, final hole, Sunday-afternoon scramble, Atlantic City, October 20, 2013.

Ben and Shep, final-hole gallery, Sunday-afternoon scramble, Atlantic City, October 20, 2013.

Flat Pete Goes on a Golf Trip


Peter P., a regular member of the Sunday Morning Group, was in a car accident back in August. He’s finally out of the hospital, but he isn’t walking again yet, much less playing golf, so we had to improvise in order to take him on our annual autumn trip to Atlantic City. We made a two-dimensional version of him, called Flat Pete, because we figured that in that form he would be easier to pack and lug around. The photo below shows him from the side. Notice how his eyes seem to follow you around the room:

IMG_2845Flat Pete was made possible by Reese, who not only printed him on the fancy color plotter in his office but also put himself at tremendous personal risk by inhaling clouds of spray adhesive during assembly. Flat Pete is so eerily realistic that my dog went crazy when I brought him up to my office after cutting him out in the basement. He rode down in my car, with Hacker (real name) and Gene. Here he is with Hacker, in Hacker’s driveway, when we were loading up to go:


And here he is in the parking lot of the first golf course we played in A.C. That’s me on the left and Gene on the right. All three of us are wearing hats that Hacker had had custom-made for the trip, at a place called Fat City:


Flat Pete made a better impression on bartenders than the rest of us usually do, even though he brought his own beer. He was also the only guy on the trip who didn’t snore.


And he won fifteen bucks playing golf—which is better than Mike A. did. Here he is in a golf cart with Other Gene:


Anyway, it was nice to have him along, and we’re all hoping that next year, or the year after that, he’ll be able to make it in person:

Les, Peter P., Tim, Basilicos Ristorante, Sea Isle City, NJ, October, 2013.

Les, Peter P., Tim, Basilicos Ristorante, Sea Isle City, NJ, October, 2013.

Shep’s Cool Spinning-Golf-Ball Trick

During my Sunday Morning Group’s recent golf trip to Atlantic City, Shep—who used to play on a professional tour in South America and now is a stockbroker—demonstrated several cool golf-ball tricks, including the one shown in the video below. He got the ball spinning by bouncing it back and forth with his wedge, then held it, still spinning, on the clubface.

The trick, it turns out, is even harder than it looks, although Josh was able to make a ball spin (in the air) alternately clockwise and counterclockwise. Well, forget it. A little later, we saw two guys shooting a pistol at a target. They stopped while we teed off—which was nice, although it made no difference, since you could hear the gunshots all over the course.

Golf-Hating Masochist Builds House on Golf Course

Most people who live on golf courses play golf, or like golf. This for-sale sign faces the course, not the street. The "lake front" it mentions is a swimming-pool-size water hazard. In other words, it's a dream house.

Most people who live on golf courses play golf, or, at the very least, like golf. This for-sale sign faces the course, not the street, because the real-estate agent knows that golfers are the people most likely to be interested in buying a house with a view of a fairway. The “lake front” mentioned down at the bottom of the sign refers to a water hazard the size of a swimming pool. In other words, this is a golfer’s dream house.

The Sunday Morning Group has just returned from its annual end-of-season golf trip to Atlantic City. We had a terrific time (and I’ll have more to say about the trip over the next couple of weeks). Two of the three courses we played had houses or condos along some of the fairways. People who live next to golf holes do so at least partly because they love golf—or so you would think. The guy whose property is shown in the photos below apparently does it to keep himself in a constant state of agitated fury.


The brush fence shown in the photo above runs along the guy’s rear property line, and, lest anyone think those branches fell from the trees in neat piles and straight lines, he added no-trespassing signs, fence posts reinforced with rebar, nylon rope, out-of-bounds stakes, and a red line painted on part of the cart path where the asphalt apparently encroaches a few inches into his yard:

The red line painted on the edge of the cart path in the lower left-hand corner of the photo, just below the nylon rope, runs along the edge of the property. Did the owner hire a surveyor to  determine the exact location of the line?

The red line painted on the edge of the cart path in the lower left-hand corner of the photo, just under the nylon rope, runs along the edge of the property. Did the owner hire a surveyor to determine an exact location for the line?

The creation of this barrier was not the work of a single afternoon.


The owner also installed a bench and a fire pit near the brush fence, perhaps so that he can keep golfers under personal surveillance and incinerate balls that land inside the barrier.


Last spring, I played a couple of rounds at Formby Golf Club, in England. A rich guy whose house backs up to the seventeenth tee had installed close-circuit video cameras on tall poles at the edge of his property, to keep an eye on the golfers. Wouldn’t it be easier to live somewhere else? Or maybe some people just enjoy feeling pissed-off all the time. The signs below are more in line with my own thinking.