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.