Golf Sets a Good Example for Cheaters in Another Game

Illustration by Javier Jaen

Illustration by Javier Jaen

ave an article in this past week’s New Yorker about a major cheating scandal in bridge, a card game that has a number of thought-provoking similarities to golf. The player who is mainly responsible for exposing the scandal hopes that bridge will respond, in part, by becoming more like golf, the only major sport in which players call penalties on themselves, and not at all like football, in which a running back would be considered almost negligent if he didn’t try to shove the ball a few inches farther forward after being tackled. (Imagine a lineman tapping a referee on the shoulder, and saying, “Excuse me. I was holding on that play.”)

One of people I interviewed was Larry Cohen, a leading player and teacher, and the author of one of my favorite bridge books:

cohen jacket.jpg

Cohen is also an enthusiastic golfer, with a handicap of 11. I didn’t have room to quote what he said to me about ethics, golf, and bridge, but I liked it a lot, and he said I could share it here:

“On the golf course, there are many times you can do the ‘wrong’ or ‘right’ thing. Many years ago, I once took what was probably too liberal a ruling for myself (the ball was borderline out of bounds and I played it). After, I felt terrible. Had I cheated my friends? Myself? What good was it to save a good score on the hole when I was haunted after by what I had done. Never again. I find it so much easier to sleep at night when I play ethically. This has always been routine for me at bridge, and now I have learned to do the same at golf. Life is so much better and satisfying that way. I can’t imagine how horrible it must feel (most people have a conscience, no?) when they win by doing something unethical. But not everyone sees the light. To gain (often financially, if not through the ‘joy of winning’), there is a temptation to ‘bend the rules’ in your favor. I am not a psychologist, so I don’t know how the mind works of those who ‘do wrong’ in golf or bridge. If only they knew how good it felt once you do things the ‘right way.'”

Cohen, incidentally, leads several bridge cruises every year—ocean cruises during which participants spend much of their time at sea learning and playing bridge. How about a bridge-and-golf cruise? Golf by day, on fabulous courses at ports of call all over the world, then bridge till dawn.

And, for those who are interested in bridge already, here’s a video, made by a British web designer, that does a good job of explaining what two of the suspected players were doing:

For my New Yorker article, I also spoke with Bob Hamman, who is now in his 70s and is widely considered to have been one of the best bridge players ever. I didn’t mention this in the article, but he’s also the C.E.O. of SCA Promotions, a Dallas-based company that, among other things, sells hole-in-one insurance and provides risk protection for corporations that have sponsorship agreements. “A golf-club manufacturer might have a golfer under contract,” he told me, “and the contract might include a significant bonus for a victory in a major tournament. For a fee, our company will assume that risk, and now the manufacturer can root for its sponsored golfer without any mixed emotions.”

SCA’s clients in the past have included the United States Postal Service, which sponsored the American cycling team for a number of years. Lance Armstrong had already won the Tour de France twice when the post office approached SCA, and his contract entitled him to escalating bonuses for additional victories. “My son, Chris, who is in the business with me, strongly recommended against taking the Armstrong deal,” Hamman told me, “but why should I listen to anybody?” When Armstrong continued to win, SCA had to cover millions of dollars in incentive payments. Armstrong finally confessed to (some of his) cheating, after being stripped of his Tour de France titles, in 2013, and last year an arbitrator ruled that he had to pay back most of what the post-office deal had cost SCA.

Golf has never suffered a scandal like that—and for good reason.

The Late-Season-Golf Problem, in Diagram Form

Several years ago, I played a few rounds in northern Scotland in December. The sun began setting almost as soon as it had risen, and even at noon it practically sat on the horizon. The late-season golf window here in Connecticut isn’t as narrow, but you have to pay attention. Five of us teed off at 1:00 this afternoon. We played in just over three hours, but by the end I was having trouble following drives. Mornings are tough, too:

Rick, November sun, Sunday morning, seventeenth hole.

Last week, I spent a couple of days in Kansas City without my golf clubs. My mother told me about a local country club, which a few years ago assessed its members for major improvements to the golf course. The assessment was substantial, and quite a few members left the club rather than pay it. Four of my mother’s friends went to the club one day for their regular bridge game, and when lunch was over they discovered that none of them could sign the check. All four, it turned out, had dropped their membership without telling the others.

Stanley on the second tee last Sunday, with his Crocodile Dundee hat (bought on eBay) and late-season club-carrier thing.

Golf and the Second Greatest Game

A golf-obsessed friend took up bridge a few years ago. He thought his wife would be pleased, since bridge is a game that husbands and wives often freely choose to play as partners—unlike, oh, golf. But she was not pleased. No matter how sensitively he described the intellectual satisfaction he took from this quietly complex card game, which is played and adored by little old ladies all over the world, she responded coldly. “I know what bridge is,” she snarled one evening as he headed out the door to his regular Thursday game. “It’s just indoor golf.

Ah. Just so. I myself began playing seven or eight years ago, during a rainy vacation at the seashore, and I now understand why bridge used to be as important at some golf clubs as golf was, back before TV and the Internet made it so easy to be not quite bored enough to break open a deck of cards. President Eisenhower, whose love for golf was so deep that it helped inspire an entire generation to play, was equally crazy about bridge. Maybe crazier.

The relationship between bridge and golf is more than accidental. Both games are founded on the most basic male social unit: the foursome. Both displace a player’s entire mental capacity, leaving no room for thoughts about the office. Both are games for a lifetime—and they’re complementary, because four golfers can effortlessly switch to bridge during frost delays, thunderstorms, and darkness. Both games involve the wily outsmarting of opponents, and both reward years of conscientious study. My friend’s wife was right to be angry: bridge is best ball played on a table.

The connection between golf and bridge could be made even stronger if golfers would borrow a couple of appealing concepts from their indoor counterparts. The first is that of trump—which in bridge is a suit that annihilates all others. (If the trump for a particular hand is hearts, say, then any heart, even the lowly two, will beat any card in any other suit, including an ace.) The place to add trumps to golf is on the green, by declaring that all holed putts over twenty feet (say) are trump. If your partner lies four but sinks his twenty-five-footer, he trumps the other side, and the two of you win the hole, even if one of your opponents makes a tap-in three.

The other importable bridge concept is that of the dummy. In every bridge hand one of the four players (the partner of the player who initiated the winning bid) becomes the dummy, turning his cards over on the table and sitting out the playing of the hand. In golf, the dummy on each hole would be the player in the foursome who had just hit the worst tee shot. Like a bridge dummy, a golf dummy would excuse himself by saying, “Good luck, partner.” Then he would retrieve his ball from the bushes, and head off to the kitchen to fill a tray with snacks.

I’ve been thinking about golf and bridge because I gave up opening day at my home course this week in order to play bridge in an American Contract Bridge League tournament in Memphis with a friend from Mississippi. He’s a very good player and I’m not, but one of bridge’s attractive similarities to golf is that it accommodates participants at all skill levels, even as partners. The Memphis tournament is a national championship—a bridge major—although the games we played in were just for choppers. Still, there were stars in the other rooms, and in our hotel. I rode up in an elevator with Lynn Deas, a national champion who dresses colorfully, uses a motorized scooter, and always has a tiny dog sitting in her lap! I even helped her back her scooter over the raised threshold at the door of the elevator! Twice in the lobby I saw Eric Kokish, who is the inventor of a famous bidding convention, the Kokish Relay, and is also the Canadian-born non-playing coach of the Nick Nickell team, which may be the greatest bridge team of all time! I also saw Nick Nickell, talking with someone I sort of recognized but couldn’t think of the name of!

The stars of the Nickell team are Jeff Meckstroth and Eric Rodwell, middle-aged guys who play as partners and are usually referred to, jointly, as Meckwell. As it happens, Meckstroth—who looks like a truck driver—was a scratch golfer as a kid and thought about trying to play on tour, before he turned pro as a bridge player instead. (He has said that he always knew he didn’t want a real job.) He plays bridge in tournaments all over the world but still manages to get in something like 160 golf rounds a year. One reason that he and Rodwell have been so successful—in addition to the fact that they’re brilliant card players and bidding theorists—is that they are very aggressive: they shoot at pins. And that’s what I’m going to do as soon as I get home.