The End of Sand

I have an article in this week’s New Yorker about sand—and there’s some actual golf in it. Here’s an excerpt, about a round I played in Dubai:

One day, I played golf with an Australian who worked for a major real-estate developer. The course, like Dubai itself, had been built on empty desert, and I commented that creating fairways and greens in such a forbidding environment must be difficult. “No,” the Australian said. “Deserts are easy, because you can shape the sand into anything you like.” The difficult parts, paradoxically, are the areas that are supposed to be sand: deserts make lousy sand traps. The wind-blown grains are so rounded that golf balls sink into them, so the sand in the bunkers on Dubai’s many golf courses is imported. Jumeirah Golf Estates—on the outskirts of the city, next to the desert—has two courses, Fire and Earth, both designed by Greg Norman. The sand in the bunkers on the Earth course is white (the most prized color for golf sand) and was bought from a producer in North Carolina. The sand on the Fire course is reddish brown—more like the desert across the road. Norman’s company bought it from Hutcheson, which mined it at its quarry in Ontario, sifted it to make it firmer than volleyball sand, kiln-dried it, dyed it, and loaded it onto a ship.

Bonus golf-related sand trivia (not in the article):The white sand in the bunkers at last year’s U.S. Open, at Oakmont, and Ryder Cup, at Hazeltine, came from a single quarry, in Ohio. It’s a trademarked brand called Tour Grade Signature Blend, from Fairmount Santrol, a Michigan company that also produces sand for molds used in metal-casting.

The photographs above and below are of an Army Corps of Engineers beach-nourishment project on the Jersey Shore—which I also wrote about. The metal boxes in the photo below are for unexploded munitions, which the Army dumped off the coast after the Second World War and the dredges sometimes slurp up.

The Indescribably Ineffable Awesomeness of Match Play

It’s not just for the Ryder Cup.

Every year since 1948, my club has played a home-and-home match against our Enemy Club, on the other side of town. Across those seven decades, the results are roughly even, although in recent years my club has dominated. During the first round this year, my partner was Rick, who played basketball for the University of Maryland shortly after the Civil War but can still shoot his age:

I’ve played a lot of matches with Rick, both as a teammate and as an opponent, and one of the many lessons I’ve learned from him is that, although in stroke play a lousy shot is often a prelude to disaster, in match play it can sometimes give you an advantage that a good shot can’t.

During the first round, Rick hit an uncharacteristically lousy drive on our ninth hole, a par 4 that measures only about 260 yards, uphill. Rick is long enough to drive the green, but he started his shot too far to the right, and his ball hit some trees and kicked way back, to a bad lie on a downslope in the rough only 50 yards ahead of the tee—between the bald spot and the clump of brush in the lower right hand corner of the photo below:

His opponent then hit the kind of drive that’s easy to hit when the guy you’re playing is out of the hole: a high draw that ended up just short of the putting surface, in a little collar of rough to the left of the bunker in front of the green, maybe 30 feet from the cup. Some guys in Rick’s situation would have conceded the hole right then, just to get out of there. But Rick knew that his opponent was already mentally penciling in a win, and that if he could somehow hit a good recovery shot he could take emotional control of the hole. He also knew that he had nothing to lose. If your opponent birdies a hole in match play, a quadruple bogey by you doesn’t hurt you any worse than a par. But if you can turn a hopeless situation into a half . . .

Rick cut a fairway wood around the crap directly in front of him, and his ball ended up on the slope to the left of the green, pin-high. The hole that day was cut close to that side of the green, and the putting surface runs away, but he managed to chip it close.

His opponent now had a pitch for eagle, but suddenly his shot didn’t seem so easy. His ball came out of the rough hot, and ended up 25 feet beyond the hole, leaving a curling downhill putt for birdie — which he left well short. Rick then made his putt, and that meant that his opponent was no longer putting to win the hole, but only to tie it. He missed, and from that moment forward Rick was playing a bowl of oatmeal.


Now, About That Famous Ryder Cup Concession

Tony Jacklin, 2009. (Photo by David Cannon/Getty Images)

Tony Jacklin, 2009. (Photo by David Cannon/Getty Images)

The first official Ryder Cup, between the United States and Great Britain and Ireland, was held in 1927 at the Worcester Country Club, in Worcester, Massachusetts. The United States won, by a lot. Then Britain, then America, then Britain, then America, then America again. The competition was suspended for the duration of the Second World War. It resumed in 1947, and America won five times in a row. Britain won in 1957, and then the Cup returned to the United States and stayed there until 1985, by which time the inclusion of the rest of Europe on the British side, beginning in 1979, had restored both balance and suspense. The only close contest between 1959 and 1985 was in 1969, when the two sides tied for the first time ever.

That tie was secured on the final hole of the final match, when Jack Nicklaus conceded a short par putt to Tony Jacklin, halving the hole, halving the match, and halving the Cup. After picking up Jacklin’s marker, Nicklaus said, “I don’t think you would have missed it, but I wasn’t going to give you the chance, either.” Nicklaus’s gesture has been celebrated ever since as one of the greatest acts of sportsmanship in the history of competition.

On the other hand, the Concession could also be viewed as one of the greatest acts of gamesmanship. It overshadowed the long eagle putt that Jacklin had made on the previous hole to square the match, and Nicklaus didn’t concede Jacklin’s par until after he’d made his own, from double the distance. The Concession made the half look less like a British triumph than like an American act of charity, and that’s pretty much the way it’s been treated ever since. Nicklaus also left forever hanging the possibility that the reigning British Open champion might have gagged over his two-and-a-half footer.

And that’s yet another cool thing about match play.

Great Golf Invention: Improved Tournament Periscope

Steve Davis and his invention at Sherwood Country Club, Thousand Oaks, California, December 2, 2012.

On Sunday, at Tiger’s tournament, I ran into Steve Davis, who is the guy in the photo above. He invented the contraption he’s holding: a periscope that enables him to see over the heads of people standing in front of him. It’s an improvement over other golf periscopes because it doesn’t completely block the view of people standing behind him. Also, it has a shoulder strap and a beer holder:

Davis works for a copier company. He has “wallpapered” his invention with color copies of mementos from other golf tournaments he’s attended, including the 2010 U.S. Open. If you’d like to give him a lot of money to manufacture these things full time, let me know, and if you don’t sound like a nut I’ll put you in touch.

Periscopes used to be common at golf tournaments. The photo below is from the 1965 Ryder Cup, at Royal Birkdale. (Senior Service is a British cigarette brand.)

Many spectators at the 1993 Ryder Cup, which I attended (at the Belfry, in England), had periscopes that looked like the boxes that bottles of Johnny Walker scotch come in. (Johnny Walker sponsored the tournament.) The Belfry is a terrible course for spectators, and the periscopes made things better for the people who had them and worse for the people who didn’t. The only way to improve Davis’s invention, I think, would be to add a second beer holder.


Scary Icons Create Tee Times

Whenever rain is in the forecast, even if it’s only a 20 percent chance of showers, play at my club goes way down. Seeing a thunderstorm icon in their web browser apparently causes many members to make non-golf plans for the day. On Sunday, twenty guys showed up for our regular game—a good turnout—but we had the course to ourselves until noon, I think because the Weather Channel icon that morning had lightning bolts in it. There was enough drizzle at one point to make me put on rain gloves, but there was never any lightning or even real rain, and the sun was shining by the time we finished. Our club’s website has a weather app. Maybe someone could modify it to show lightning bolts all the time.

In honor of the Ryder Cup, we used scorecards from Medinah, which Hacker (real name) had downloaded from the club’s website. (We did the same thing during the PGA Championship with scorecards from the Ocean Course at Kiawah.) The only real effect was to shuffle the holes where the handicap strokes fell, but using the scorecard of a major venue is a respectful way to acknowledge the efforts of the big boys, and, besides, variety is interesting.

We also randomly divided into Ryder Cup teams—ten guys representing the United States and ten representing Europe—and played five four-ball matches, for one point each. I was on the U.S. team, which won, 4½ points to ½. We all assumed that the real U.S. team would win, too, by annihilating the Europeans in the singles matches, in the afternoon. Imagine our surprise. The Sunday Morning Group’s record in using golf to predict important events is now 2-1-0; matches of ours correctly called the outcome of the 2008 presidential election and the 2012 Super Bowl.

We’ll play our Presidential Special game again on Election Day. It was created by Tim, who is the inventor of several core concepts, including negative skins, “shooting your pants,” and the mathematical formula by which we predict the winning team score in our regular Sunday games (13 minus the lowest handicap in the field, times -1). Half the field will represent Obama and half Romney, and each hole will have an Electoral College value equal to the sum of its number and its handicap stroke index.(Our 16th hole has a stroke index of 17, so it’s worth 33 electoral votes—16 plus 17.) An entire golf course adds up to 342 electoral votes—172 needed to win.

Future trivia question: Who made the winning putt in the 2012 Ryder Cup Matches? Answer: It wasn’t Martin Kaymer, whose 1-up victory over Steve Stricker guaranteed only a 14-14 tie (and thus a European “retention” of the trophy). The winning putt was the short par putt that Tiger Woods conceded to Francesco Molinari on the eighteenth hole, because their halved match gave Europe a 14½ -13½ victory. If Tiger had made his putt, 2012 would have been the third tie in Ryder Cup history.

The Best Way to Watch the Ryder Cup

No, that’s not a medical office building. It’s the premium grandstand beside the eighteenth green at the 1993 Ryder Cup, which was held at The Belfry, in England.

The best way to watch almost any golf tournament is on TV. That’s especially true of the Ryder Cup, because at any moment there’s hardly anything going on. I’ve been to just one Ryder Cup in person—in 1993, on the Brabazon course at The Belfry, in England—and it was a spectator’s nightmare. The most coveted seats, initially, were in an enclosed multistory grandstand beside the eighteenth green, and people who had passes for it began arriving long before the first match teed off. They then waited for almost twelve hours with nothing to watch except one another getting drunk, because on the first day only one of the eight matches—the afternoon four-ball between Nick Faldo and Colin Montgomerie, for the Europeans, and Paul Azinger and Fred Couples, for the United States—made it to the eighteenth hole.

The Belfry, like most of the courses where the Europeans hold the Ryder Cup, is a dud. The nicest thing that Ron Whitten could find to say about it, in Golf Digest’s 1993 Ryder Cup preview, was that its blandness would prevent it from intruding on the golf—perhaps the faintest possible praise for a championship layout. It’s also the opposite of a stadium course. There are no hillsides or mounds for spectators to stand on, and in 1993 the trees  were way too small to climb. I saw one man standing on a paint can, which he had somehow smuggled past the guards at the gate, and I saw many people standing on small stools, also smuggled. Because the viewing opportunities were so meager, there were crowds surrounding the few available television sets. There was one in the Lloyd’s pharmacy tent, and one in the exhibition tent, and one in a rowdy refreshment tent near the tenth fairway. Medinah Country Club is far more spectator-friendly, but if you’re watching from home you should still count yourself lucky.

You should also be grateful that the broadcast isn’t being handled by the BBC. In 1993, Tom Kite would be putting for eagle somewhere, but on the screen you would see Colin Montgomerie practicing a putt he had just missed, or Nick Faldo standing by his golf bag, chatting with his caddie. The camera operators couldn’t track balls in the air and had trouble finding them when they were on the ground. The producers would suddenly cut to Barry Lane, picking him up in mid-follow-through, and the sound equipment on the course looked like Second World War surplus. The BBC has improved since then, but not enough. In the TV Cup, the USA wins every time.

Ryder Cup: Win, Lose, Draw, “Retain”

The first tie in Ryder Cup history occurred in 1969. It was secured on the final hole of the final match, when Jack Nicklaus conceded a short putt to Tony Jacklin, halving the hole, halving their match, and halving the Cup. After picking up Jacklin’s marker, Nicklaus said, “I don’t think you would have missed it, but I wasn’t going to give you the chance, either.” Ever since, Nicklaus’s gesture has been celebrated as one of the greatest acts of sportsmanship in the history of competition.

On the other hand, it could be viewed as one of the greatest acts of gamesmanship. By giving Jacklin the putt, Nicklaus made the half look less like an accomplishment by the British (who had won the cup only once since 1933) than like a personal gift from Nicklaus. It also left forever hanging the possibility that the reigning British Open champion might have gagged over his eighteen-incher. That’s one of the cool things about match play.

Because the United States had won the previous Matches, in 1967, it “retained” the trophy in 1969. Television commentators and others often speak of “retention” as though it were a form of victory, but it’s not. The only possible outcomes in any match, or in the overall event, are win, lose, and draw. “Retention” is just a housekeeping issue: who will hold the hardware till next time if the two teams tie? Players don’t go to the Ryder Cup hoping to “retain.” They go hoping to win.