Two Ryder Cup Shots You Didn’t See on TV

You didn’t see them because they happened in a different Ryder Cup, the one the Sunday Morning Group held while the American tour stars were getting whupped in Scotland.

Twenty-four guys signed up in advance, and Corey, our terrific pro, divided us into two teams, one red and one blue. The youngest guy in the field didn’t show, apparently because he had met someone interesting in a bar the night before. Corey took his place, after persuading his mother, our club’s immediate past president, to watch the golf shop for him. (The guy who didn’t show made a big mistake, in my opinion. The time to establish golf in a romantic relationship is at the beginning, before the non-playing party has had time to develop a case.)
And after everyone had finished we had our usual lunch of cheeseburgers, hot dogs, and beer, on the patio near the practice green:
Before I get to the two shots that weren’t shown on TV, I’d like to make two general observations about the other Ryder Cup:
1. What is the source of Ryder Cup Europe’s pathological golf-course selections? In the sixties and seventies, the trans-Atlantic side of the contest was held exclusively on Open courses: Royal Lytham & St. Annes, Royal Birkdale, and Muirfield—an over-reliance on England, granted, but otherwise impeccable. Since then, the thinking has apparently been that crummy venues deserve international exposure, too. The worst is the Belfry, also in England, which has hosted the matches four times—more than any other course in history. The Belfry has just two good holes, the ninth and the eighteenth, and most matches don’t reach the eighteenth. This year’s course, at Gleneagles, was in the works when I first played golf in Scotland, in the early 1990s. At that time, the Scots had seemingly decided that the way to attract American golfers to Scotland was to hire Jack Nicklaus to build something that would remind them of Florida, cart paths included. Somebody, please, wake up the people in charge. The PGA Centenary Course, as Nicklaus’s creation is now known, isn’t even the best course at Gleneagles.
2. There’s been lots of angry speculation about the reasons for this year’s American defeat, but no one, so far as I know, has hit on the real explanation: the extraordinarily annoying pre-shot routines of Jim Furyk and Keegan Bradley. In TV broadcasts of regular tour events, producers have become adept at keeping the cameras away from those two until they’re almost ready to make a real stroke. During the Ryder Cup, though, so little actual golf is under way at any moment that they had no choice but to make us watch full sequences—all the tics and twirls and feints and bird peeks and pocket scrunches and everything else. True, we were spared Furyk’s 5-Hour Energy wardrobe, and thank goodness for that. But the other stuff was increasingly infuriating, and by Saturday afternoon (I’m guessing) so many U.S. TV watchers were mentally rooting against Furyk and Bradley that the cosmic tide irretrievably turned. Those two golfers, between them, won two points and lost four; turn those Ls to Ws, and it’s a blowout the other way.
Now, back to the other Ryder Cup. The two shots you haven’t seen were both hit by Doug, who was my partner. In each case, he went on to triple- or even quadruple-bogey the hole. But that was OK because I had him covered.

18 Good Things About Golf: No. 13

Maybe try adding a cigar: Fuzz and Les, August, 2010.

13. Golf is continually challenging. I used to play frequently with a low-handicap player and long-time student of the game named Art. During one round, he was having trouble with his driver, and on the second tee he said to me in exasperation, “I can’t remember how I take the club back.” Every golfer knows that situation. One day, your swing is there; the next day (or hole), it’s not. No matter how good your game may seem at any particular moment, there’s always some part in need of tinkering, and you always know that the parts which now seem sound may suddenly disintegrate. This prospect of arbitrary, undeserved disaster causes strange behavior. Nick Faldo doesn’t trim his fingernails once a tournament has begun. Tom Watson carries an odd number of coins.

Because the golf swing is so ephemeral, it requires special treatment. My own theory is that you should always be changing something about your game, even when you’re playing well. Your swing won’t stay still, so you mustn’t either. Your only chance of keeping up is to stay a step ahead. Maybe strengthen your grip slightly, or open your stance a bit, or think a little harder about the position of your chin—anything to distract the game-destroying gremlins that are always standing on your shoulder, waiting for you to become complacent. Once when I was playing especially well, I decided suddenly to stop wearing a glove. I wasn’t unhappy with gloves; I just needed something different to think about. And, if my game suddenly went south the following week, I wanted something dumb to blame it on.

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.

18 Good Things About Golf: No. 12

12. Golf confers no necessary advantage on extreme youth. The average age of recent major tournament winners is thirty, a time of life by which professional football players are viewed either as has-beens or as medical anomalies. (The average retirement age in the N.F.L. is twenty-eight.) It’s not unusual for pros in their forties to compete successfully with players half their age. When Raymond Floyd turned fifty, in 1992, he seemed capable of dominating both the regular and the senior professional tours. Phil Mickelson didn’t win his first major until he was thirty-three, which is two years older than Roger Federer is now. Tom Watson nearly won a sixth British Open in 2009, when he was fifty-nine. Youth means less in golf than it does in other sports because golf is as much a mental game as a physical one. It rewards experience, poise, and strategic resourcefulness, just as life does, and it isn’t dominated by adolescent thugs.

British Open Countdown: The Masons Arms

The apostrophe is a relatively recent addition.

Alfie Fyles, who caddied for Tom Watson in all five of his Open victories, grew up in Birkdale and frequented a Southport pub and caddie hangout called the Masons Arms. On my first golf trip to the Lancashire coast, a little over fifteen years ago, I decided to make a pilgrimage. I found the pub on a forbidding side street and sailed through the door, anticipating an evening of colorful storytelling. Instantly, I wished I hadn’t come. The patrons looked like—well, they looked like British caddies, but they were indoors, boisterous, in a group, and drunk. The bartender was sitting on a foot-tall stool, so that his head was barely visible above the bar. Oddly, he seemed scarier in that position than he did when he stood up. I made the mistake of sitting at a small table directly below the wall-mounted television set, which most of the patrons were watching. During breaks in the action on the screen, they would permit their chilling gaze to drift downward. I drank my beer as fast as I could and fled back to my hotel, the dowdy Prince of Wales.

Golfer’s Cure for Jet Lag

The cure for jet lag is golf. You take the overnight nonstop to Scotland from Newark, arrive bleary-eyed in Glasgow at 8:00 in the morning, drag your clubs past the bomb-sniffing dogs in customs, stumble into a men’s room designated “loo of the year,” change a tall stack of American dollars into a short stack of British pounds, drive 55 miles through Robert Burns country while trying to remember to admire the sheep-dotted hillsides, reach Turnberry in a daze—and tee it up on the Ailsa course, where Tom Watson and Jack Nicklaus fought their legendary Duel in the Sun, at the British Open in 1977. You haven’t slept since what seems like the day before yesterday, but your tee shot somehow finds the fairway, and a little mental arithmetic reveals that your colleagues back home are arriving, just now, at their desks. Suddenly, you feel happier than you’ve felt since the birth of your first child, or since the time you and your brother nearly won the member-guest. (Not to worry: The cure for excessive cheerfulness is also golf.)

Or so I’ve decided over the years, during a number of golf trips abroad: Hit the ground running, and keep running until dinner. I was gratified recently when a doctor who treats sleep disorders, whom I was interviewing for an article, recommended the same thing. To beat jet lag, he said, don’t take a nap upon arrival (my wife’s approach); keep your eyes open until the locals call it a day, or at least until the sun has gone down. That’s what I did this past week, in Scotland, and it’s what I did again yesterday, when I got back home. And I’ll do it again tomorrow, when six of my friends and I take off for a week of golf in Northern Ireland and northwestern Ireland.

Yesterday, my last day in Scotland, I had to interview someone in downtown Edinburgh, and I took a taxi from my hotel, which was at the airport. A guy up ahead of us did something stupid, but the taxi driver anticipated it—he told me he could read the guy’s mind—and he honked and said “What an idiot!” almost before the guy himself knew what a stupid thing he was about to do.

The taxi driver doesn’t own a car, he told me; when he and his wife need to go somewhere far away, they rent one. Usually, they pick it up at 11:00 a.m. and return it the next day at 11:00 a.m. Sometimes, 10:00. He rents from Arnold Clark, and gets a medium-size car, like a Corsa or a Focus. Once, he got upgraded to a really big car because they were out of medium-size cars, and some of his relatives felt initially that he was putting on airs. Occasionally, when he and his wife go to visit his wife’s mother, who lives near the English border, they will use his taxi, an old-fashioned English black cab, and his wife will ride in the back, “regally.” In fact, when he retires, a few years from now, he may keep his taxi, because he enjoys driving it, and sell just the “plate,” which is their equivalent of a medallion. He and his wife go on holiday every September; last year, they spent two weeks in Greece. That cost £3,000, for the two of them, including air fare. He likes to stay in four-star hotels, but in Greece they stayed in a five-star hotel. He likes to take “all-inclusive” trips—self-catering is too much trouble on vacation—but the Greek trip included only breakfast and dinner. That didn’t bother him too much, because when he’s traveling he eats a lot at breakfast—orange juice, corn flakes, yogurt, porridge, eggs, sausage, bacon, black pudding, haggis, beans, you name it—so much that has to let out his belt when he leaves the dining room. His wife, by contrast, eats nothing but toast and sometimes has trouble making it even till lunch. Keeping the weight off is harder than it used to be, even though he goes to the gym, but what choice do you have? The places he and his wife like to go are: Spain, the Canary Islands, Greece, Majorca. They usually go away in September, after the schools have started up again, because then you can get bargains, but just yesterday he looked into going away in July, too. The best the travel agent could do, though, was £1,000 apiece, all-inclusive, for a week—even in Greece! He thinks it might be possible to do better online, but hasn’t checked yet. At any rate, the travel agent said to come back in July or August and have a look at September then. Next year, for his sixtieth birthday, his wife wants to take him to New York City, where he (unlike her) has never been. He wants to go, but four hours is the limit for him, air-travel-wise. Two hours, two and a half hours? Fine. He doesn’t start to panic if he’s in the air longer, but he doesn’t like it. The best way to fly to New York might be with a stop somewhere on the way—maybe in Iceland—to break up the flight. That might make the ticket cheaper, too, since the flight wouldn’t be direct. He thinks that four days should be enough for New York, and he has been told that the part of New York that he and his wife should visit is midtown Manhattan. He was very glad to hear that I agreed with that recommendation.

Tom Watson, Seventh Grader

Wheezer, 1962

Tom Watson and I had the same seventh-grade math teacher. Watson is six years older than I am, but we attended the same school, in Kansas City. It was called Pembroke-Country Day then and is called Pembroke Hill now. It was boys-only in our day; it began to go co-ed when I was a senior.

My father had had the same math teacher, too, many years before. In my father’s day, the math teacher’s nickname was Tarz, short for Tarzan, because he was built like Johnny Weissmuller; by the time Watson and I had him, his nickname was Wheezer. He looked like Lyndon Johnson, with tremendous gravity-stretched jowls and ear lobes. Age must have lengthened his scrotum, too, because he was always careful to lift his testicles out of the way before sitting in a chair or leaning back against the front of his desk. Sometimes, my friends and I, as we took our seats for math, would pretend to lift our testicles out of the way, too.

Wheezer supervised one of my study halls. One day, an eighth-grader hid a running tape recorder inside a locker in the back of the room, and every five or ten minutes the tape would scream, “WHEEEEEEE-ZER!” There would be pandemonium; then, gradually, everyone would settle down; then it would happen again.

When Watson was in high school, in the mid-sixties, he was the captain of the golf team, of course, but he was also an outstanding shooting guard on a very good basketball team, and he was the quarterback (and leading rusher) on the football team, which won a conference championship. He would put his golf clubs away every August, when two-a-day football practices began, and he wouldn’t touch them again until February, when basketball season was over—a mentally and physically healthy approach to sports that athletic prodigies don’t follow anymore.

I never saw Watson play golf, but I did cheer for him at basketball and football games. Then, in 1967, he went off to Stanford without a scholarship, figuring he’d end up in the insurance business.

Watson was the subject of one of my first magazine articles, a profile for Esquire, which ran in 1982. I had to revise the ending over the summer, as it went to press, because he suddenly won the U.S. Open, at Pebble Beach, after making his famous chip-in birdie on the seventeenth. And then, in July, after the issue could no longer be updated, he won the British Open, too.

These photographs are from Pembroke-Country Day’s yearbook for 1967, when Watson was a senior and I was in sixth grade. I’m pretty sure I was in the bleachers at the football game below, because my friends and I didn’t miss many. Watson is at the far left.