My Round of Golf With a Nobel Prize Winner

In the current issue of Golf Digest (February, Tiger on the cover), I have an article about a day I spent with Richard Thaler, a professor at the University of Chicago and the winner of this year’s Nobel Prize in Economics. Thaler and I and Steven D. Levitt—a co-author of the Freakonomics books and also a U. of Chicago professor—played golf at Beverly Country Club, not far from the university, where both of them are members. Eugene F. Fama—Beverly member, Chicago economics professor, Nobel Prize winner—had wanted to join us but was stuck in Austin.

I liked Thaler and Levitt a lot, and I’m sure I’d have liked Fama, too, if he’d been able to back out of his Texas commitment. Thaler and I had all day to talk, so there’s stuff I didn’t have room for in my article. One is Thaler’s idea for giving tennis a rough approximation of golf’s handicapping system. (He used to be a tennis player.) This is a real issue in recreational tennis—which, unlike recreational golf, pretty much can’t be played with enjoyment by people who aren’t roughly equal in ability. Thaler’s idea, which he calls Equilibrium Tennis, is to replace normal tennis scoring (15-30-40-Game) with tie-breaker scoring (1-7), which is easier to adjust.

He explained: “Let’s say that, based on how we’ve played in the past, we decide that you should be giving me two points. So we play a tie-breaker in which I start out ahead by 2-0. If you win two tiebreakers in a row, we move the spot, so now I get three points. Eventually, if we play regularly, we’ll know the right spot, and we can adjust it further by moving the serve. So maybe I get two points and the serve, or I get three points and you get the serve.” And there are other possible tweaks (these are my suggestions, not his): the better player doesn’t get second serves; the worse player gets to hit to the doubles court.

Modifications like these would make tennis at least slightly more golf-like—a good thing, I would say, although avid tennis players (who tend to be prickier than avid golfers, in my experience) might disagree. But there’s only so far tennis can go in becoming a true handicap sport. The former tennis superstar Ivan Lendl belongs to my club’s enemy club, on the other side of town. He plays in their golf club championship, which he has sometimes won. I once asked him what would happen if he played in the tennis club championship as well. He said, “No one would be able to return even one of my serves.” And he has a bad back!

Rangefinders, Ivan Lendl, Lawyer Feet, a Lazy Thirty-Year-Old, a Hole-in-One, and Vegan Burgers for Dinner


My ancient laser rangefinder, a Bushnell PinSeeker 1500 (above, left), finally stopped working. The low-battery warning began flashing and wouldn’t stop, even though I replaced the battery, twice, using fresh spares from my golf bag. As soon as I got home, I ordered a new Bushnell Tour Z6 (above, right), for three hundred dollars. The Z6 is quite a bit smaller than the PinSeeker, and it weighs almost four ounces less—a potential advantage in competition.


The day after the Z6 arrived, I was rummaging in my desk and came across an unopened package of the kind of batteries the PinSeeker used to use. Out of curiosity, I popped one in, and—what do you know?—it worked just fine. I guess that carrying two nine-volt batteries in your golf bag for more than a year isn’t a good idea, as far as the batteries are concerned. So I now have two perfectly functioning laser rangefinders, and I’ll thank you not to mention that to my wife.

I used the Z6 for the first time on Friday, in a match at home. The match was Addison and me against Ray and our Close Personal Friend Ivan Lendl, who belongs to a couple of clubs in our area, including our Enemy Club. I won’t bore you with the details, except to say that I had a short birdie putt on the eighteenth hole to square the match, and missed it. But Addison had a slightly longer birdie putt to do the same thing and made it, so good for us. We’re all square for now, and we will play a rematch at a time and place to be determined.

lendl hybrid

In the photo above, Ivan is using his own rangefinder, which is Bushnell’s “hybrid” model. It has a laser, like mine, but it also has a GPS unit, which is sort of grafted onto the side. I asked him whether he ever used the GPS part, and he said he didn’t because the GPS part (like all GPS yardage devices) is so power-hungry that if you use it you have to recharge it after every round.

bushnell hybrid

About thirty minutes after our match was over, Addison and I played again, in the Friday-afternoon edition of the Sunday Morning Group. During that round, several unusual things happened. First, Other Gene joined us late and played without shoes or socks, giving the rest of us a close look at something you don’t see on a golf course every day: lawyer feet.


Second, Austin, who is thirty years old and was the second youngest person playing that afternoon, took a cart after nine holes:

austin cart

Third, on the third hole—a 185-yard par 3—David W. hit a gorgeous 4-iron shot, which landed on the green, rolled toward the flag, and disappeared. Nobody in our group, including David, could see well enough to be certain what had happened, but we had a feeling. 

Because this was an S.M.G.-sanctioned outing, David will receive $250 from the Slush Fund. (An non-Sunday-morning outing is considered sanctioned if an email inviting everyone to join goes out in advance over the S.M.G. Listserv.) If David had done the same thing on a Sunday morning, he’d have received twice as much.

burger mix
That evening, my wife, Ann Hodgman—who has written several cookbooks, and is currently writing one for strict vegetarians—made vegan burgers for dinner. They contained chick peas, barley, leeks, and other stuff. (That’s the mixture, in the photo above.) They didn’t taste like burgers made from beef, but I liked them. And when I got home from playing golf the next morning I ate two more of them, right out of the fridge.

vegan burgersNow who’s a good husband?

Golfer to Watch: Isabelle Lendl

Ivan, Isabelle, Crash, and Marika Lendl, Bradenton, Florida, May, 2006. Photograph by Martin Shoeller.

Ivan, Isabelle, Crash, and Marika Lendl, Bradenton, Florida, May, 2006. Photograph by Martin Shoeller.

A week and a half ago, Isabelle Lendl, who is a senior at the University of Florida, won the women’s division of the Dixie Amateur, at Heron Bay Golf Club, in Coral Springs, Florida. She was five back after fifty-four holes, but shot 66 in the final round and won by four. Among those she beat was her younger sister Daniela, a sophomore at the University of Alabama, better known as Crash, who shot 67 and tied for sixteenth. It was Isabelle’s fourth win of the season.

Isabelle, Crash, and their sister Marika used to be junior members of my club—it’s where they took their first golf lessons, from our pro at the time, Fran Hoxie—and when Isabelle was eleven she and I played a nine-hole ladder match. (Since then, my club has abandoned ladder matches, but we still have the ladder and at some point I’ll explain how it worked.)

We played our match just before Isabelle’s game took off, at probably the last moment when a not-completely-terrible middle-aged guy could still beat her. She praised my decent shots and graciously conceded short putts, and we spent a very enjoyable hour and a half together. She said that her twin sister Caroline, whose main athletic interest was horses, was attending a birthday party that afternoon, and we agreed that that was a waste of a nice summer day. I said the thing about golf that grownups always say to kids, that it’s a game for a lifetime, and I also said that no matter what Isabelle and her sisters ended up doing with their lives I was certain that golf would always be part of it. I told her about my brother, who was the captain of his golf team in both high school and college and went on to work in advertising and sometimes got to play with clients. “No,” Isabelle said firmly, as we walked up the fifth fairway. “I’m going to play on tour.”

And she clearly will. I’ve played with her a couple of times since then, and she is not only terrifically talented (and nice!) but also mentally well-equipped to play competitive golf. When she was in high school, her father—the former tennis star Ivan Lendl, who now coaches Andy Murray—thought that on a golf course she was sometimes too eager to take unnecessary risks, but she has managed to tame that without becoming any less imaginative or aggressive. At the Dixie Amateur, playing with the young woman who had begun the day with a five-stroke lead, she birdied the first three holes, and, on the second nine, made three birdies in four holes exactly when she needed to.

In November, 2005, I watched Isabelle, who was fourteen, compete in a big junior tournament on the Seaside Course at Sea Island Golf Club, in Georgia. (The year before, at thirteen, she had been the youngest player to qualify for match play in the U.S. Women’s Amateur.) The wind was blowing so hard on Seaside that the clubhouse flag, which was approximately the size of the one that Francis Scott Key saw flying over Fort McHenry in 1814, was sticking straight out. Isabelle wasn’t unhappy, though, and afterward she told me, “I like playing in wind and rain better than in normal conditions. It’s more fun, and nobody else likes it. I think I trust more shots than other people usually do. If I have a shot that I want to hit, it really doesn’t matter if I haven’t practiced it, because I can just picture it and then I can hit it.”

There are five Lendl daughters, and all of them are more competitive than you and I are. Marika—who graduated from Florida last year and is now working in sports management—was a junior-tennis star before she switched to golf. Her tennis teacher was Kenyon Clark, who was then the pro at my club. Clark told me that, during one early lesson, he and Marika were using tubes to pick up practice balls. Without saying anything, he began picking up the balls faster, and Marika immediately went faster, too—an unspoken race, which she won, then exulted about. Clark’s wife, Manny, was sitting by the court with Marika’s mother, Samantha, and as they watched the race Manny said that her husband was the most competitive person in the world. “No,” Samantha said. “Mine is.”

Samantha grew up playing Scrabble with her family, and at some point she taught Ivan. “I beat him once, and that was it,” she told me. Ivan realized, as they played, that his wife’s strategy—trying to make the longest words possible—was not optimal. He bought a Scrabble dictionary and memorized every every two- and three-letter word in it (he has a near photographic memory), and since then he hasn’t been beaten. “He couldn’t stand losing,” Samantha said, “even in English, which is maybe his fifth language. And he’s the same way with the kids. He just hates to lose.”

I wrote about the Lendls in The New Yorker in 2006. You can read that article here.

Marika, Isabelle, Crash, and their coach, 2009.

Marika, Isabelle, Crash, and their coach, 2009.


My Close Personal Friend Ivan Lendl

Ivan Lendl is the coach not only of Andy Murray but also of the men’s team at my golf club’s enemy club, on the other side of town, with which we’re currently playing our annual two-day match. Ordinarily, Lendl would be playing No. 1 on their team, since he won their club championship this year, but his obligations to Murray at the (tennis) U.S. Open came first. Still, he drove up on Friday to give his teammates a pep talk. He’s an impressive tutor, as Murray’s record shows. My club is still ahead, historically—the match has been played every year since 1948—but we’re running slightly behind in the decade since Lendl got involved. (He and I were paired last year, and he whupped me both days.)

Lendl and his wife, Samantha, have five daughters, three of whom—Marika, Isabelle, and Daniela, who has been known as Crash since she was a little girl—are terrific golfers. Marika graduated from the University of Florida last year; Isabelle is a senior at  Florida this year; and Crash plays for the University of Alabama.

Isabelle qualified for match play in the 2004 U.S. Women’s Amateur, when she was thirteen. I first saw her play two or three years before that, when she was already proficient at a shot I’ve never seen an adult amateur pull off: a low, short chip that bounced once or twice on a firm green sloping away from her, then spun to a stop right next to the hole. In Florida once, Isabelle was hitting balls on a driving range while a pro watched her. After she had methodically worked her way through one large basket of balls, she moved to the next station, kicked over the basket sitting next to it, to spill out the balls, and went to work on those. The part of her game that impressed the pro the most, he told me, was the kick: she had clearly done this many times before.

When Crash was eight, she told her father that she wanted to play ice hockey, and he let her stay up late one night to watch a televised women’s game, in the Olympics. Early in the first period, two players were pressed against the boards, trying to control the puck, and Crash asked, “Why didn’t she just smash her into the glass?” Ivan said, “There’s no checking in women’s hockey,” and Crash said, “You’re kidding.”  She watched for a few more minutes, then, disgusted, went up to bed.

One weekend a few years later, Ivan told Crash that he had to go out of town on Sunday and that if she wanted a golf game that day she’d better find someone else to play with. When he got up to go to the airport, he found her in the bathroom with a club directory open on her lap, and a cordless phone in her hand. “It was six o’clock in the morning,” Ivan told me, “and she was already up to the H’s.” One of the people she had called was a woman she had played with in the past. The woman had been to a party with her husband the night before and hadn’t got to bed until three a.m., and was not interested in golf. “What about your husband?” Crash asked. The woman said that he was asleep. Crash said, “Well, wake him up and ask him.”

I wrote about the Lendl girls here, in 2006.

Marika, Isabelle, Crash, and their coach, 2009.

(Golf-match update: My club won, 15½-14½. So we hold the trophy till next year.)