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.

Late-season Golf Breakthrough: Leaf Stymies

The golf world abandoned stymies in 1963, but the Sunday Morning Group keeps them alive, sort of, by using them in playoffs, which we conduct on our practice green. On New Year’s Day in 2013, we invented a new version, ball-marker stymies, in which the old stymie rule applies on every green, but to ball markers instead of balls:


On Wednesday, we invented yet another new version: leaf stymies. Gary, our terrific superintendent (shown stymied by my ball marker in the photo above, which was taken at Dyker Beach, in Brooklyn), keeps our course remarkably free of leaves, but when the wind blows hard he and his crew can’t possibly keep up, especially on greens with overhanging oak trees. Removing leaves from everyone’s line takes forever, and then the wind just blows them back, so we decided: screw it. From now on, the leaves stay where they are:


Remarkably, having even a lot of leaves in the way does very little to a putt. Here’s Rick trying for birdie on the fourth green:


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:

Blog Photos1

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.


An Anthropologist in Brooklyn: Dyker Beach Golf Course

Clubhouse, Dyker Beach Golf Course, 1930s.

Clubhouse, Dyker Beach Golf Course, 1930s. At the right edge of the image is the old starter’s booth, near the first tee.

Dyker Beach Golf Course, where my friends and I played on New Year’s Day, was designed in the late 1890s by Thomas Bendelow and reworked in 1935 by John Van Kleek. Van Kleek was a prominent golf architect who fell on hard times after the Crash and was hired by Robert Moses to oversee a major citywide golf project, which was eventually funded by the Works Progress Administration. (Van Kleek is responsible for the three best courses inside the city limits: La Tourette, in Staten Island; Split Rock, in the Bronx; and Dyker. He also redesigned Split Rock’s sister course, Pelham Bay, in 1934.) The photo above shows Dyker’s clubhouse under construction, in the 1930s; the photo below shows it completed, not long afterward.

Clubhouse, Dyker Beach Golf Course, 1930s.

Clubhouse, Dyker Beach Golf Course, 1930s.

The green you see in the photo above is the second. The photo below shows what the same green and the clubhouse look like from a somewhat similar angle today. The tee on the right is the third:

Dyker Beach Clubhouse

Clubhouse, second green, and third tee, Dyker Beach Golf Course, 2013. The red-brick wing on the far right-hand side of the clubhouse, visible through the trees, was added a few years ago, during a major renovation. The slates on the main roof are mostly original.

On a crisp but snow-less Sunday morning in February, 2005, Hacker (real name) and I drove to Brooklyn for a bonus round at Dyker. We stopped in Westchester to buy gas and doughnuts, and as I was filling my tank I noticed a guy at another pump who was wearing golf shoes: a brother. Traffic was light, and we arrived long before our tee time. We drank coffee in Dyker’s clubhouse, most of which hadn’t been renovated since the 1930s, and ran into Terry Byrne, who was the president of the Shore View Golf Club, a group of a hundred and forty men who play most of their golf at Dyker. The club is six years older than the clubhouse. Its members include carpenters, cops, lawyers, firefighters, accountants, masons, city employees—a typical mix for a New York City golf course. (Byrne, whose parents were born in Ireland, was—and may still be—a plumbing supervisor for the New York City Housing Authority.) Shore View used to have a dark, dank, semi-secret meeting-and-card room in a back corner of the clubhouse, but it disappeared during the renovation.

Another view of the Dyker clubhouse in the 1930s. Page Ayres Cowley, the architect who designed the renovation and expansion of the building, described it to me, accurately, as "a French-inspired gentleman's house."

Another view of the Dyker clubhouse in the 1930s. Page Ayres Cowley, the architect who designed the renovation and expansion of the building, described it to me, accurately, as “a French-inspired gentleman’s house.”

Just before nine o’clock, the starter put Hacker and me with a Manhattan structural engineer who had moved to this country from Italy twenty years before and took up golf in 2004, and a grumbling Brooklyn guy. There are linguistically distinct ancient tribes in the Kalahari Desert region whose members are known as the click-speaking people of southern Africa, and there are linguistically distinct ancient tribes in the Brooklyn region whose members could be known as the fuck-speaking people of New York—and this guy was one of those. “Where the fuck is my ball? I don’t mind losing a ball if I hit it in the fuckin’ woods, but that drive was right up the fuckin’ middle of the fuckin’ fairway. What the fuck!” We got along great, however. And two days later, Hacker and I played two more rounds in the city, at Van Cortlandt Golf Course, in the Bronx, and Clearview Park Golf Course, in Queens.

The Dyker clubhouse in the 1930s again. today, there's a little dog park not far from the spot where the photographer was standing.

The Dyker clubhouse in the 1930s. Today, there’s a little dog park not far from the spot where the photographer was standing.

New Year’s Day Golf in New York City

Dyker Beach Golf Course, Brooklyn, New York, January 1, 2013. That's the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge in the background. There are good municipal golf courses on the other end of it, too (in Staten Island).

Dyker Beach Golf Course, Brooklyn, New York, January 1, 2013. That’s the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge in the background. There are good municipal golf courses on the other end of it, too (in Staten Island).

For the past six years, my friends and I have played golf on either New Year’s Day or New Year’s Eve—usually in New York City, which seldom gets much snow. On January 1, 2008, we played at Dyker Beach Golf Course, in Brooklyn. In 2009, we had to drive a couple of hours south of the city, to Galloway, New Jersey, to find a course where we could play on grass. One year, we played in the Bronx, on one of the two courses in Pelham Bay Park. In 2012, for the first time, we were able to play on our home course, which didn’t close for the season until the following day.

Bay Course, Seaview Inn, Galloway, New Jersey, January 1, 2009.

Hacker (real name), Bay Course, Seaview Hotel & Golf Club, Galloway, New Jersey, January 1, 2009.

This year, our home course had closed on Christmas Eve Eve and Pelham Bay still had snow, so we returned to Dyker Beach. Other Gene drove us, in his wife’s car, which has millions of cool features that he doesn’t know how to use. The three guys who sat in the back seat didn’t bother to remove the dog seat cover, which was quilted and was actually sort of comfortable. We saw snow on the way down:

Interstate 84, near the Connecticut-New York border.

Rt. 7, in Connecticut, on our way to I-84.

We made great time because everyone else in the tri-state area either was still passed out or was trying to treat their hangover. And there was no snow at Dyker, except for this patch, on one of the greens:


The guy in the golf shop let us play as a fivesome—or, at any rate, he didn’t guess that we were planning to play as a fivesome and therefore didn’t specifically tell us not to. We saw some leftover damage from Hurricane Sandy, but it didn’t affect play:


Overall, the course was in terrific shape. Some of the grass was bright green and obviously still growing, and the greens were fast and unfrozen.

Dyker's ninth fairway rounds quite close  to Seventh Avenue in Bay Ridge--a good reason not to park on that block.

Dyker’s ninth fairway runs parallel, and quite close, to Seventh Avenue in Bay Ridge–a good reason not to park on that block. In fact, you probably shouldn’t walk on that sidewalk, or drive on that street.

Even though there were five of us, we kept pace with the single playing one hole ahead of us and stayed ahead of the single playing one hole behind us (in a cart). We finished in just under three hours.

Eighth Green. That's Poly Prep Country Day School in the background.

Seventh Green. That’s Poly Prep Country Day School in the background.

Gene P., the night before, had warned us in an email that the forecast was for temperatures in the low teens, and he suggested that we consider rescheduling. But he must have been looking at the forecast for Alaska, because the temperature in Brooklyn never got below about 40.

Sixteenth green. We might be interested in buying one of those houses across the street, and using it as a winter clubhouse.

Sixteenth green. We might be interested in buying one of those houses, across the street, and using it as our winter clubhouse.

We played Double Skins, with an added feature that I suddenly thought of on the third hole: Ball Marker Stymies—in which the old Stymie Rule is applied to ball markers rather than balls. That means that if somebody’s ball marker is in your line on a green you have to putt over it or around it. (And you can’t mark your ball with a hockey puck. Each marker—we decided—must be poker-chip-size or smaller.)


Stymied, on a breaking putt.

After golf, we had lunch at Pipin’s Pub, in Bay Ridge, the home of the famous Pipin Burger (bacon cheeseburger with American cheese). The fries at Pipin’s Pub need work, but we have nothing bad to say about the Pipin Burger. Our waiter took this photograph, despite making it clear that he believed he had better things to do:

Pipin's Pub, January 1, 2013.

Pipin’s Pub, January 1, 2013.

On New Year’s Day 2008, we had lunch at Pipin’s Pub, too—and at the same table. Here’s proof:

Pipin's Pub, January 1, 2008.

Pipin’s Pub, January 1, 2008.

Happy New Year, and so forth.

Fritz, Dyker Beach, January 1, 2008.

Fritz, Dyker Beach, January 1, 2008.

My Close Personal Friend (a Different) Tom Watson

Nick and Hacker (real name), Dyker Beach Golf Course, Brooklyn New York, 2006. That’s the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge in the background.

As soon as our home course closes for the season, my friends and I pack up our clubs, say goodbye to our wives and children, and head south for a while, to a place where golf can be played on real grass even in the middle of the winter. Which is to say, we go to the Bronx.

Many people don’t realize that there is a golf course inside the New York City limits, but there are more than a dozen, and almost all of them are public courses that are open year-round. Our favorites are probably Pelham Bay and Split Rock, in the Bronx, and Dyker Beach, in Brooklyn, but there are others and, because there’s no such thing as a bad golf course, we sometimes play them, too. (You can read more about winter golf in New York here and here.)

The drive south takes us down I-684 and the Hutchinson River Parkway and past still more golf courses, most of which don’t stay open all winter. One of those is Saxon Woods, which is one of six public courses owned by Westchester County, New York. Saxon Woods is so close to Winged Foot and Quaker Ridge that some people figure A. W. Tillinghast must have designed at least part of it, too. The evidence for that isn’t strong, to say the least, but as we drive by I look at it longingly (which is how I look at all golf courses).

Not long ago, I received an email from Tom Watson, a Saxon Woods regular, who wanted me to know about a game he had invented. Here he is:

Tom Watson (real name) playing in a charity outing at Westchester Country Club, Rye, New York, 2012.

Tom wrote:

“I simply keep my best score for each hole for the entire season, and add them up for a season’s best net total. So it allows a 19-handicapper to post a ‘score’ that’s closer to the pros than to guys who put their shoes on in the parking lot. And it gives you some real rooting interest as the season wanes. I was sitting on 68 last week when I stepped up to one of the only two holes I haven’t parred all year. A good drive, a yanked three-wood, a big flop shot over a bunker, and an easy three-footer later, I was writing down par and dropping my Season’s Best to 67. It’s a number I’m not usually acquainted with—and it made the round. I didn’t quite go all Ian Poulter on the green, but there was a discreet fist pump involved. It’s the only golf game I know of where your score always goes down over time!”

Tom’s invention is actually a re-invention. A cumulative score like the one he compiled is called a ringer score, and there are lots of clubs and leagues and groups that run season-long ringer competitions. (One of them is Wethersfield Country Club, in Connecticut, where Rick and I played in a state senior four-ball tournament this year.) Ringer scores are also fun to use as a side bet on golf trips, over multiple courses. Ray, Tony, and I did that during ten rounds on three courses at Bandon Dunes, not quite six years ago. I’m pretty sure I won, although I don’t recall collecting any money.

Sunday Golf in Brooklyn

Marine Park Golf Course; Brooklyn, NY; March 4, 2012; 46 degrees.

There are a dozen public courses in New York City, and they stay open all winter, as long as the ground is snow-free—as it usually is, thanks to the urban heat island effect and the proximity of the Atlantic Ocean. On Sunday, as Rory McIlroy was moving to the top of the world ranking, six members of my regular Sunday Morning Group and I drove to Brooklyn for a round at Marine Park. (Several of our favorite city courses have enticingly warm-sounding names: Marine Park, Pelham Bay, Dyker Beach.)

Marine Park is situated a few miles from J.F.K. International and a few hundred yards from Floyd Bennett Field, which was the city’s first official airport. (When Howard Hughes set a record by flying around the world in ninety-one hours, in 1938, his trip began and ended at Floyd Bennett. The old runway area is now a somewhat dystopian-looking public park and a New York Police Department helicopter base.) The golf course covers a little over two hundred acres inside the elbow formed by Flatbush Avenue and the Belt Parkway. It was designed by Robert Trent Jones and was completed in 1963—just in time for the World’s Fair, which was held virtually next door, in Queens, the following year. The holes have a genuinely linksy feel: few trees, subtly undulating topography, exasperating wind off Jamaica Bay (another warm-sounding name). There’s more broken glass in the bunkers than you’d find at Troon or Carnoustie, and the views from some of the fairways include more barges and giant dump trucks. But the greens on Sunday were fast and terrific, even though nobody had mowed them in months.

Hacker (real name), Marine Park.

In 2007, New York City accused the company that was operating Marine Park of having ties to organized crime, and revoked its lease. The new lessee is investing millions in the course, and has renovated the club house and added a driving range. We saw huge piles of topsoil alongside a number of  the fairways—raw material for improvements to come. The guy manning the cash register in the golf shop, who was also the starter, told us that the days when old car parts and toilet seats would sometimes pop up through the turf are gone.

When we’d finished our round (after playing the last few holes as a sevensome, since there were slowpokes ahead of us and no one behind), we caravaned to Pipin’s Pub, in Bay Ridge. We’ eaten lunch there before—on New Year’s Day 2008, after playing a cold, wet round at Dyker Beach—and ever since then we’d been meaning to go back, partly because almost the entire first page of the menu is devoted to various kinds of cheeseburger. The day’s winners threw all their winnings into the lunch pot, as we almost always do during the off-season, and we ended up leaving a huge tip because with seven people the arithmetic was just impossible.

Pipin's Pub. Photo taken by nice waitress with Irish accent.

Global Warming Invitational

January 1, 2009. Hacker (real name) and David Owen, Bay Course, Absecon, New Jersey.

For six or seven years, my friends and I have managed to play golf on either New Year’s Day or New Year’s Eve. We’ve played at Dyker Beach Golf Course, in Brooklyn; Pelham Bay Golf Course, in the Bronx; and on the three AboutGolf simulators at Maggie McFly’s, in Brookfield, Connecticut. On New Year’s Day 2009, Hacker (real name), Other Gene, and I had to drive to Atlantic City, New Jersey, four hours to the south, to find grass. We stayed at the Seaview Resort & Spa, in Absecon, and had the Bay Course (which was designed by Donald Ross in 1914) to ourselves for two days. (Photo above.)

This year, for the first time in recorded history, we were able to play at home. My Sunday Morning Group gives one extra stroke to anyone who plays in shorts after November 1, and two extra strokes after December 1. Three of us got extra strokes on New Year’s Day.  (Photo below.)

David Owen, fourth from the right; Hacker (real name), seventh from the right, holding beer.