Who Needs Bunker Rakes?

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Golf, much more than other sports, is a game of good and bad luck. A great drive rolls into a divot: bogey. A lousy drive bounces off a boundary stake: birdie. Such unpredictability isn’t a defect. The tension between happy accidents and undeserved disasters helps to turn mere hackers into obsessives and philosophers. To make tennis comparably thought-provoking, you’d have to shift the lines during rallies and randomly lift and lower the net.

Yet golfers complain. Instead of savoring the game’s sublime inconsistency, we yearn for courses as predictable as tennis courts. We grumble when greens aren’t flawless, when fairways aren’t uniformly carpet-like, when sand is either too fluffy or not fluffy enough. A friend of mine once skulled an explosion shot, then slammed his wedge against his bag and cursed the greenkeeper’s crew for having failed to undo the effects of the previous day’s hard rain. Tour pros are even more finicky. If the sand in one trap isn’t indistinguishable from the sand in every other, they gripe.

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Complaints about “unfair” bunkers are especially contrary to the spirit of golf: aren’t hazards supposed to be hazardous? On TV, the standard greenside-bunker shot is about as thrilling to watch as a two-foot putt. You know the guy is going to spin it close, and he knows he’s going to spin it close—otherwise, he wouldn’t have yelled “Get in the bunker!” when his ball was in the air. Sand’s function in a tour event is often just to make the surrounding grass seem troublesome.

There’s a simple remedy: follow the example of Pine Valley, the legendary New Jersey golf club, which for decades has been listed at or near the top of nearly every ranking of the best courses in the world. Pine Valley has many, many bunkers—some small, some large, some soft, some hard some coffin-shaped, some bottomless, some seemingly miles across—but no rakes. The club’s maintenance regularly smooths everything out, but, if your ball ends up in a footprint (or behind a rock or under a cactus), that’s your tough luck, and you deal with it. As you should.

Rake-free bunkers would make televised golf a lot more interesting to watch. They would even be good for choppers like you and me. Pristine, consistent bunkers are expensive to build and maintain. Why not let a course’s sandy areas take care of themselves, and spend the savings on something more obviously beneficial, like cutting back overgrown trees? Most golfers, who can’t hit sand shots anyway, wouldn’t notice a difference. (That guy I mentioned earlier skulls balls from well-conditioned bunkers, too.) Everyone else either would learn an arsenal of useful new shots or would get better at doing what bunkers are supposed to make golfers want to do: stay out of them in the first place.

What Happened to Harry’s Leak?

One Sunday a decade ago, we had four dollars left in the pot after paying everyone off. Hacker (real name) always handles our extra cash, but he was at home nursing his wife, who had just had cataract surgery, so we were on our own. We did remember one of his rules, though: “Money never flows backward.” In other words, no refunds. So we held a playoff.

It was actually a throw-off: two balls from where you were sitting, overhand or underhand, toward the No. 1 hole on the practice green, first in wins the four bucks. My first try didn’t even reach the putting surface, and my second rolled about six feet to the left. Nobody else did much better, except for Harry, who lipped the hole twice. After a brief discussion, we declared him the winner.

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This was partly a symbolic gesture, because Harry had just retired and his wife had called in an old promise: as soon as he left his job, he’d told her years before, they’d move to Pennsylvania, where she had family. We’d never really had to deal with somebody moving away before—at least, not somebody like Harry, who was practically a part of our course. With Harry gone, who was going to say “Where’s my leak?” when a drive unaccountably bent to the left, and who was going to say “Let me adjust my glasses” when somebody made the kind of remark that was known to tick Harry off? Less selfishly, what was life going to be like for Harry? Pennsylvania has golf courses, but how many of them have a rule printed right on their scorecard saying that Harry isn’t allowed to keep score?

Harry (far right) in the Devil's Asshole, in front of the tenth green at Pine Valley, at some point in the late 1980s or early 1990s, with Rick, John A. (their host), and Hacker.

Harry (far right) in the Devil’s Asshole, in front of the tenth green at Pine Valley, at some point in the late 1980s or early 1990s, with Rick, John A. (their host), and Hacker.

Not long ago, down in Pennsylvania, Harry did something else we weren’t happy about: he died. He had been in poor health for a while, and then things got worse. This was a serious blow, because Harry was one of the founding members of the Sunday Morning Group, which turned 20 this year. To celebrate Harry’s life, we mixed up a big batch of his favorite cocktail: brandy and green crème de menthe:

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It looked and tasted like cough medicine, but we did our best with it—although I kind of think that, if drinking everything in the Thermos would have brought Harry back to life, we would have decided to let him go. I poured what was left in the dirt behind the Dumpster because I was afraid it might kill the grass.

Tim D., making a manful effort with one of Harry's memorial Emerald Stingers.

Tim D., making a manful effort with one of Harry’s memorial Emerald Stingers.

Now we have to figure out what to do with Harry himself, since his widow is going to send us his ashes. He always said he wanted to be thrown into the pond on the fourth hole, because so many of his golf balls are at the bottom of it, but the ashes would probably just float over the spillway and disappear downstream. Several of the guys, including me, have said they’d like to buried under one of the pavers on the patio by the putting green, so maybe we’ll invoke the standard Sunday Morning Group power of attorney and put him there instead:

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Or maybe we’ll stir him in with the divot mix on one of our par 3s. That would be appropriate because Harry himself built our divot-mix boxes, 12 or 15 years ago. Everyone could take a scoop and fix a couple of divots.

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The Day I T-Boned the Mercedes of the President of Pine Valley

Ernie Ransome, No. 18 tee, Pine Valley Golf Club.

Ernie Ransome, eighteenth hole, Pine Valley Golf Club.

Ernie Ransome, shown above, was the president of Pine Valley Golf Club from 1977 until 1988, and Pine Valley, as you surely know, is one of the two or three best golf courses in the world. Ransome died this year, and Jerry Tarde, the editor-in-chief of Golf Digest, wrote an essay in which he described Ransome, affectionately, as the club’s “all-powerful dictator.” He recalled that Ransome “presided over annual meetings that took no more than six minutes as, for example, the club treasurer would report, ‘I have not seen the financials, but I’m told income exceeds expenditures.’ At which point, Ransome would interrupt, ‘All in favor of the budget submitted by the treasurer, say, ‘Aye.’ All opposed, say, ‘I resign.'” Clifford Roberts, the legendarily gruff co-founder of Augusta National, would have approved. When Roberts, at a meeting of the club’s governors, asked Charles Yates, the board’s secretary, whether he had the minutes, Yates asked, “Do you mean last year’s, this year’s, or next year’s?”.

Clifford Roberts, the archetype of the golf-club benevolent dictator.

Clifford Roberts, the original golf-club benevolent dictator.

I’ve been lucky, over the years, to play quite a few rounds at Pine Valley. One day in 2001, while I was visiting as the guest of a man who, at the time, was also a member of my nine-hole home club, I set out in my car for the club’s driving range, to hit a few balls before our group teed off. At the little intersection nearest the clubhouse, I nosed out a few feet past the stop sign and, when I did, crashed into a Mercedes, which was coming down the hill from the right. Luckily, I recognized the driver as Ransome, and apologized profusely, even though I wasn’t certain the crash had been my fault. A maintenance cart with a trailer attached to it was parked across the intersection, and Ransome, in order to avoid it, had been driving on the wrong side of the road. He had also been driving quite fast. At any rate, he said that he was late for a doctor’s appointment, and asked me to let Lenny Ward, the club’s caddie master, know what had happened. I did, and when I met with Ransome that afternoon I told him to simply send me the repair bill. And that’s what he did.

Ransome Letter

The bodywork had been done at a dealership in Delaware owned by Buddy Marucci, a Pine Valley member and Tiger Woods’s opponent in the extraordinary final match of the 1995 U.S. Amateur.

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I happily paid the bill, and I didn’t make an insurance claim, because I didn’t want an adjuster to take a position that might upset Ransome and, as a consequence, make life unpleasant for the member who had been my host. I decided to think of the $2,889.20 as a retroactive surcharge for all the rounds I had played at Pine Valley over the years, and when I divided it by that number it didn’t seem onerous.

Owen letter

Here’s another Ransome story from Jerry Tarde’s tribute:

One day as Ransome was approaching his ball on 11, a golfer hit a particularly bad drive off 16 and, reacting viscerally, winged his club into the sandy waste in front of the tee. Ransome, with hands on hips, did what might be described as a slow burn in the fairway, which caught the eye of the angry golfer still standing on the tee. “We. . .don’t. . .throw. . .clubs. . .at Pine Valley,” Ransome finally boomed.

“I’m the member in this group,” yelled back the angry golfer. “Who the [expletive] are you?!”

To which, Ransome immediately replied: “Not anymore you aren’t.” Then, to the caddies: “Boys, take the bags in.”

You see, that’s what I wanted to avoid.

Ransome played lacrosse at Princeton. That's him in the center in 1946.

Ransome played lacrosse at Princeton. That’s him, in the center, in 1946.

What’s In My Bag, Part Three: Let’s Have a Look Inside Those Pockets

Will, Brent, D.O., Ben, Liberty National Golf Course, Jersey City, New Jersey, May 5, 2013.

Famous building, Will, Brent, D.O., Ben, famous statue. Fourteenth tee, Liberty National Golf Course, Jersey City, New Jersey, May 5, 2013.

On Sunday, I had the tremendous good fortune to be invited to join a twelve-man outing at Liberty National Golf Course, in Jersey City, New Jersey, directly across the Hudson River from lower Manhattan. I employed a labor-saving technique I’ve often used during visits to other rich-guy golf clubs: I wore my sorriest-looking pair of shoes, knowing that the locker-room guy would fully resuscitate them while we were playing. During a multi-day trip Pine Valley ten or fifteen years ago, I took three sorry-looking pairs of shoes and left them outside my door sequentially. I went home feeling like a new man.

Cool clubhouse.

Cool clubhouse–and that statue again.

Liberty National was designed by Tom Kite and Bob Cupp, and it was built, in 2006, on a desolate industrial site. (I’ve seen a variety of cost estimates, all of which have nine digits.) The Barclays—which used to be known as the Westchester Classic, and then as the Buick Classic—was held there in 2009, and it will be held there again in August. Tour players grumbled about the course the first time. Since then, Kite and Cupp have made many changes, and either the changes have been effective or I don’t know what I’m talking about, because I liked the course a lot. And the clubhouse is the only starkly modernistical one I’ve ever been in that I fully approve of.

The bar, post-round.

The bar, post-round.

Partway through our round, I apologized to my caddie for having forgotten to remove a couple of nonessential items from my golf bag. (I’ve gotten a little lazy about on-course housekeeping in recent years, because at home I now almost always use a pushcart.) The bag can’t have been too bad, though, because I still occasionally carry it myself. Here is some of what was in it:

Ball markers

The photo above shows my selection of lucky ball markers for that day. Clockwise from lower left: a souvenir marker from Royal County Down, a necessity because of the sublimity, transcendence, immanence, etc., of that course; a souvenir marker from a casino in Connecticut, useful because it has four colored pointy things, any one of which can be aimed at the hole; a Norwegian coin with an actual hole in the middle of it; a Moroccan coin featuring King Hassan II, who loved golf, wore golf gloves on both hands, and was accompanied during golf rounds by a servant whose only job was to use a pair of silver tongs to hold the king’s cigarette while swung; a one-something coin from Dubai, which I often use when I absolutely have to one-putt; a big old Mexican coin with some guy on it; a Colombian coin featuring what appear to me to be balls, holes, and “aiming chutes.”

When I wrote about (a slightly different selection of) lucky ball markers, last year, I said that when I used a coin with a guy’s head on it I aimed the top the head at the hole. Michael Clark, a reader, wrote to say that, on the final day of a three-day-tournament at his club, he had discovered a better way. “The eyes of the coin had to be looking at the hole,” he wrote. “When the eyes lined up to the hole the putts were dropping! Also, it had to be the same coin. So, if the coin has eyes, line them up!” Since then, I have field-tested Clark’s method, and adopted it.

Morefar green repair tool

The photo above is of what is probably the luckiest green-repair tool I’ve ever owned. I got it at a super-secretive golf club called Morefar Back O’ Beyond, which straddles the border between Danbury, Connecticut, and Brewster, New York.

The course on the left is Morefar. The course on the right is Richter Park, which is owned by the city of Danbury, Connecticut, and is one of the best munys in the country.

The course on the left is Morefar. The course on the right is Richter Park, which is owned by the city of Danbury, Connecticut, and is one of the best munys in the country.

Morefar

Morefar used to be owned by the disgraced insurance company A.I.G. I played there a dozen years ago as the guest of one of the club’s handful of local members. Only a tiny number of golfers are allowed out each day, and the only other group on the course on the day we were there was that of the Sultan of Brunei, who teed off before we did. He and his retinue were almost comically slow, but, it turns out, you don’t play through the Sultan of Brunei. On an airplane recently, I saw a guy (in first class) who had a Morefar attaché case in his lap. I gave him the secret sign of brotherhood (by showing him my green-repair tool) as I walked past him on my way to the back of the plane, but he cut me dead.

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The item above is roll-on sunscreen, which I use as “lip balm.” The tube is at least half again as big as a ChapStick tube, and the stuff is waterproof. It’s especially handy in cold weather and in wind. I don’t carry ordinary sunscreen in my golf bag because I don’t believe in applying sunscreen in situ. I once told someone that if I ever ran for President my platform would have just three planks. I don’t recall what the first two were, but the third was that everyone would have to put on their sunscreen at home, before they went to the golf course, the swimming pool, or wherever. Sunscreen is much easier to apply when you aren’t wearing clothes, and it works better if it’s had some time to soak in. When I see young parents at the beach trying to squirt sunscreen onto squirming, uncooperative children, I think: “An hour ago, your children were naked and not covered with sand; why didn’t you think of doing this then? When I’m the President, we’ll have no more of this nonsense.”

Several readers have sent me descriptions of what’s in their own bag. As promised, I will soon create a new section and post several of them permanently. If you’d like to add your own bag to the pile, send an email to myusualgame@gmail.com. Include a golf-related description of yourself and at least one or two photos of your golf stuff.

(Read Part One and Part Two.)

What's In My Bag?

What’s In My Bag?

Let’s Get Rid of All the Bunker Rakes!

Eighteenth hole, Pine Valley: many bunkers, no rakes.

Eighteenth hole, Pine Valley: many bunkers, no rakes.

Many golfers, rather than savoring the game’s sublime inconsistency, yearn for courses as predictable as tennis courts. They grumble when greens aren’t flawless, when fairways aren’t uniformly carpet-like, when sand is either too fluffy or not fluffy enough.

Complaints about “unfair” bunkers are especially contrary to the spirit of the game: aren’t hazards supposed to be hazardous? On TV, the standard greenside-bunker shot is about as thrilling to watch as a two-foot putt. You know the guy is going to spin it close, and he knows he’s going to spin it close—otherwise, he wouldn’t have yelled “Get in the bunker!” when his ball was in the air. Sand’s function in a tour event is often just to make the surrounding grass seem troublesome.

There’s a simple remedy: follow the example of Pine Valley, the legendary New Jersey golf club, which for decades has been listed at or near the top of nearly every ranking of the best courses in the world. Pine Valley has many, many bunkers—some small, some large, some soft, some hard, some coffin-shaped, some bottomless, some seemingly miles across, some filled with vegetation—but no rakes. If your ball ends up in a footprint (or behind a rock or under a cactus), that’s your tough luck. Deal with it.

Rake-free bunkers would make televised golf more interesting. They would even be good for choppers like you and me. Pristine, consistent bunkers are expensive to build and maintain. Why not let a course’s sandy areas take care of themselves, and spend the savings on something more obviously beneficial, like cutting back overgrown trees? Most golfers can’t hit sand shots, anyway. Everyone else either would learn an arsenal of new shots or would get better at doing what bunkers are supposed to make golfers want to do: stay out of them in the first place.

My home course became Pine Valley-like in late November, when our superintendent put bunker rakes away till spring.

My home course becomes quite Pine Valley-like in late November, when our superintendent puts all the bunker rakes away till spring.