The Local Knowlege

My Usual Game

Golf and condoms in Atlantic City

This year was the crystal anniversary of the Sunday Morning Group’s annual end-of-season golf-only trip to Atlantic City. The first A.C. trip was organized by Barney in 2000, when, for some reason, everyone looked younger than they do today:

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Four of the guys in that picture went on this year’s trip, too: Hacker (real name), Rick, Tim, and me. (Hacker and I are the only ones who have been on all fifteen.) Two of the guys in the picture are dead: John and Uncle Frank. John’s son, Mike, was on this year's trip, and when he laughs he sounds almost exactly like his father. Our main A.C. competition, the Attardi Cup, was named in memory of Uncle Frank:

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We always open up our trips to friends from outside our club, and even to friends of friends. This has beneficially expanded our acquaintance with overweight middle-aged men from beyond our immediate geographical area, and has led to some interesting match-ups. This year, six of the twenty guys on the trip were from other clubs -- including Richard. He and I lived on the same floor of the same dormitory for two years in college, but didn’t meet until last year, at our thirty-fifth reunion. Now he’s an honorary member of S.M.G.:

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Our guest policy has occasionally led to problems. One year, one of the guys invited an old high-school friend of his, whom he hadn’t seen in a long time. The old friend, who began drinking as soon as he got into Hacker’s car, bought a dozen condoms at a convenience store during a refueling stop. “I don’t know why I buy these things,” he said. “I never use them.” Then he stashed the box under his seat and forgot all about it. A week after we got back, Hacker’s wife discovered the condoms and -- here’s the problem -- didn’t believe, even for a minute, that they belonged to any of us. I guess she knew that, even in A.C., our bad behavior is limited to things like ordering beer with breakfast:

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And playing as a ninesome:

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Speaking of condoms: the first time I bought them I asked for seven, a number that, after virtually endless reflection, had struck me as the sort of nonchalant-sounding quantity that a seasoned purchaser might request. (I was sixteen.) The pharmacist replied that they were sold in either packages of three or boxes of a dozen. I said that, in that case, I would take nine. He said that, in that case, I might as well take a dozen, since the cost was about the same. I said oh, all right, sure, why not, hell, let’s make it a dozen -- but I came very close, at that moment, to going back to just being a kid.


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My Usual Game

The frost is on the Jagermeister

Google Now is an app that automatically displays certain useful information when you launch Google on your phone or other mobile device. Exactly what it displays depends on a number of factors: your current location, data you’ve provided to other Google services, and subjects that you’ve asked the app to follow for you, such as professional golf. It knows where my house is, because I’ve entered my home address on Google Maps, and it knows I’m interested in the results of certain post-season baseball games, because I’ve looked them up, and when I’m traveling it suggests nearby activities. It still has a few bugs, though. For example, it thinks I “work” at my golf club -- presumably because when I leave my house each day that’s the place I’m the most likely to go. Come on, Google! You sound like my wife!

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Last Sunday, we had our first frost delay of the year. Reese, whose turn it was to bring lunch, also brought two bags of apple-cider donuts and a bottle of Jagermeister, the traditional cold-weather intoxicant of the Sunday Morning Group. The bottle made a handy weather gauge, because it was as frosty as the greens. 

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While we waited for the bottle to clear, we putted on the floor of the golf shop, which, unlike the clubhouse, is sort of heated. Addison jammed a red plastic beer cup between two golf bags full of demos, and we aimed for that.

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Our golf shop closes for the year at the end of the month, and if you have golf-shop credit you have to spend it before then. Now is a good time to do that, because everything is on sale. 

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Stanley wears size-thirteen-and-a-half shoes. The biggest ones Corey had in stock were thirteens, but Stanley almost bought them, because he figured he could stretch them. Then he came to his senses. Meanwhile, Gary, our terrific superintendent, was mowing the practice green, which had finally melted -- almost time to tee off:

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Something we always have trouble with on Sunday mornings is getting an accurate head count. Some guys hang out on the practice green, where they're hard to see from the first tee, and some guys disappear into the bathroom in the clubhouse, and some guys hold putting contests in the golf shop, and nobody stands still. On Sunday, though, I had a eureka moment: instead of counting people, count bags:

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It took me almost twenty years to think of that.

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My Usual Game

The single most important truth about golf

When I took up golf, not quite 25 years ago, I was embarrassed to swing a club in public. On the first tee one day, I hit my ball sideways, nearly killing a man on the putting green. I sliced so many balls into the woods that I seldom had trouble finding one of my own when I went into the woods to look for the one I had just put there. I clawed enormous divots from the fairways. I launched putts in improbable directions and wildly miscalculated distances. 

The more I played, though, the more I realized that I wasn't all that much worse than most of the other golfers I saw, and that even the ones who were much better than I was didn’t mind having me around as long as I didn’t hold them up. In fact, they scarcely seemed to notice me at all, so absorbed were they in their own struggles. As my friend Jim explained: "Nobody ever gave a shit about how anybody else played golf."

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My Usual Game

My latest (and therefore favorite) new golf-travel accessory

eBags, one of a select group of companies for which I am an unpaid shill, makes my favorite carry-on bag, my favorite laptop backpack, my favorite packing accessories, and, now, my favorite travel toiletry case -- all with lifetime warranties:

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It's called the eBags Pack-it-Flat Toiletry Kit. There’s tons of room inside, yet it folds almost as flat as a tee shirt, so it's easy to cram into an overstuffed suitcase. And it has a hook, which you can use to hang it next to the sink in a hotel bathroom. That’s especially convenient if the hotel bathroom is so small that you would otherwise be in danger of knocking your toothbrush into the toilet:

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(The spoon next to the deodorant isn't for cough medicine. It's for when I buy a pint of Cherry Garcia at Wawa after a hard day of golf, and don't want to ask for a spoon.)

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My Usual Game

Lester's wheels come off, plus a contest

Actually, it was just one of Lester's wheels. His car had been in the shop the day before, and something hadn't been put back correctly, or something. He made it to the golf course, though, and the wheel didn't come completely off until he was in the parking lot. (He made a deep gouge in the gravel.) If all that had happened at speed on a highway, he probably would have missed his tee time:

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Recently, I spent a week in Colorado on a New Yorker assignment unrelated to golf, and while I was there I took two flights in a very small plane. I saw many golf courses from the air, including the one in the photo below. I assume that those orange things are target greens on a driving range. The first person who identifies the course and explains the orange things will receive a disappointing prize. (I myself don't know the answers.) 

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While you think, you can watch this video I shot from the plane:


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My Usual Game

18 good things about golf: No. 14

[A list that can be cited during golf-related domestic crises.]

14. Golf is a game of good and bad luck. It is played on purpose under circumstances that ensure superior skills alone will not always determine the victor. A ball sliced out of bounds may hit a tree and ricochet back to the middle of the fairway. A perfectly struck drive may land on a sprinkler head and carom out of bounds. In an attractively thought-provoking way, golf is frequently unfair. The player who drains a 60-foot putt to close out a match knows that his victorious stroke was the sum of a thousand offsetting errors and accidents that could easily have added up in a different way. Perhaps as a result, golfers tend to be more gracious in defeat and less pompous in victory than other athletes. (I’ve heard this, anyway.)

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To be continued.


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My Usual Game

Change your own grips and win a new driver!

Two days before my friends and I left for Scotland and Ireland, last spring, I decided to replace the grips on all my golf clubs, both as a gesture of respect to the great courses we’d be visiting and as a way of avoiding work. A few weeks before, I’d bought thirteen Lamkin Crossline Full Cord grips and a bunch of gripping supplies, all from Golfsmith. 

lamkincrossline.jpgChanging your own grips is pretty easy, and if you get stuck there are lots of helpful instructional videos on YouTube, including the one at the bottom of this post. I changed my grips in my basement. You’ll notice that before I began I cleared a clean work space:

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I did my driver last. I placed it in my bench vise, to hold it steady, and used a rubber vise clamp (also sold by Golfsmith) to protect the shaft. I tightened the vise, and then, to make sure the club was extra secure, I gave the vise one more turn—and when I did that the shaft cracked longitudinally.

One of the great things about modern drivers is that if you crack a shaft you can easily replace it all by yourself. But when I went to the golf shop at my club to buy a new one I discovered that this year’s Callaway driver shafts (which is what the shop had in stock) don’t fit last year’s Callaway drivers (which is what I owned): the little locking attachment thingy is different.

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That made me furious but also glad, because it meant that, because we were leaving the country the next day, I had no alternative but to buy a new driver.

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When we got to Scotland, though, I decided that I didn’t like my new driver (I hadn’t had time to try it before we left). That night, I emailed my pro at home and asked him to order me a new shaft for my old driver, so that I could switch as soon as we got back. But then, the next day, I decided that I did like my new driver. In fact, I loved it! By then, though, the new shaft was already on a UPS truck somewhere. 

So now I feel like the luckiest, smartest guy in the world, because I have one and a half brand-new drivers, and I paid for them partly with money I saved by changing my own grips.


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My Usual Game

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 pro, divided us into two teams. 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.)

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We played six four-ball matches, and each was worth a point. We also had our normal Sunday-morning skins and the Money Hole -- something the PGA of America ought to consider for 2016. Tom Watson should listen up, too, because in our matches the American team won, 4-2. That’s the only time in history, I’m pretty sure, that an SMG special event has failed to predict the outcome of whatever real thing it was pretending to be. (In the past, we've successfully called two national elections and a Super Bowl.)

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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 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.

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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.

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My Usual Game

Naked putting with Jennifer Lawrence! (I mean, a poet laureate for golf)

Billy Collins was the Poet Laureate of the United States from 2001-’03. He has taught at Lehman College, in the Bronx since 1968, and he is a senior distinguished fellow of the Winter Park Institute, at Rollins College, in Winter Park, Florida. He’s also a golfer. This summer, he wrote to ask for advice about playing golf at Askernish, a restored Old Tom Morris course on the island of South Uist, off the northwestern coast of Scotland. I put him in touch with Ralph Thompson, the club’s chairman, and Collins visited with his fiancee, whose name is Suzannah.

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From Collins’s report:

Just back from the Western Isles to report a near transcendent golf experience at Askernish. When Ralph initially wrote back to me, he mentioned the upcoming Askernish Open, and after reading that sentence my heart sank with the assumption that I couldn't play. But, as you might guess, his next sentence said he was entering me in the tournament.

Suzannah and I took the Oban car ferry (five-plus hours, two of gin rummy) and we drove to our hotel in the dark: the Orasay Inn, on the north end of the island. Next day was spent in churches and cemeteries doing some very unprofessional genealogical work ("Hey, here's another MacIsaac!") but not before a stop at the clubhouse, where Ralph said we could tee off straightaway, if we liked. But we had MacIsaacs to find. Next day, in the Open, I was paired with David Currie, a Toronto guy and an Askernish life member, who holds the golf club cack-handed -- i.e., right one on top. Try that at the range. 

All I can say about the course is that it is pure links, and therefore the purest golf experience I have ever had, never mind my 103, partially the fault of rented, steel-shafted clubs. Glorious weather. And between the eighth and sixteenth greens stood a truck, tailgate down, whose bed was filled with drinks (whisky) and little bite-size salmon things with tiny wedges of lemon on them. I wolfed down about six.

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Here’s one of my favorite of Collins’s poems. It’s the second best poem ever written about golf:

Night Golf

I remember the night I discovered,
lying in bed in the dark,
that a few imagined holes of golf
worked much better than a thousand sheep,

that the local links,
not the cloudy pasture with its easy fence,
was the greener path to sleep.

How soothing to stroll the shadowy fairways,
to skirt the moon-blanched bunkers
and hear the night owl in the woods.

Who cared about the score
when the club swung with the ease of air
and I glided from shot to shot
over the mown and rolling ground,
alone and drowsy with my weightless bag?

Eighteen small cups punched into the
bristling grass,
eighteen flags limp on their sticks
in the silent, windless dark,

but in the bedroom with its luminous clock
and propped-open windows,
I got only as far as the seventh hole
before I drifted easily away --

the difficult seventh, "The Tester" they called it,
where, just as on the earlier holes,
I tapped in, dreamily, for birdie.

The best poem ever written about golf was written by me. Well, I did have a co-author -- Emily Dickinson -- and on a percentage basis she wrote more of it than I did. But I did contribute the crucial word:

Golf is the thing with feathers --
That perches on the soul --
And sings the tune without the words --
And never stops -- at all --

I’ve heard it in the chillest land --
And on the strangest Sea --
Yet, never, in Extremity,
It asked a crumb -- of Me.

Collins gave a terrific TED talk about poetry in 2012. You can watch it right here:


And you can read a poem he wrote about Askernish on the front page of the club's website

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My Usual Game

Better golf, in Fizzies form

I played football in junior high school and for a little while in high school, in the late 1960s and very early 1970s. We had two-a-day practices each August, before school began. This was in Kansas City, where summertime temperatures occasionally reached a hundred degrees, and the humidity was so high that the air felt like a swimmable liquid, and the droning of cicadas gave the heat an aural dimension. 

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My school’s locker room had a salt-tablet dispenser. We were encouraged to help ourselves before practice but weren’t supposed to drink much water, which was said to cause cramps.
 
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Taped to the wall near the salt dispenser was a large photograph, labeled “Johnny Condition,” of someone throwing up into a toilet -- probably a water guzzler. There was a drinking fountain behind home plate on the baseball diamond; we were allowed to visit it once or twice each morning and afternoon, but were encouraged not to swallow. Then, midway through a practice one day in 1970, our coaches gave us each a paper cup containing an orange liquid, which they had produced by stirring powder into a big plastic tub. The powder had been invented by scientists at the University of Florida, and the liquid was called Gatorade. It was the dawning of the Age of Hydration. 

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Nowadays, of course, there are people who won't attend a thirty-minute office meeting without a big bottle of something to sip on. But overdoing it is undoubtedly healthier than underdoing it. And I’ve observed, over the course of many summers, that not drinking enough water on a hot day has a major impact, late in a round, on my ability to swing a golf club. Drinking water also gives me something soothingly self-distracting to do while my opponent dithers over a shot in a tense match.

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The problem with Gatorade and other sports drinks is that they’re loaded with sugars or artificial sweeteners, and if you drink them like water they’re also expensive. Recently, I’ve discovered an excellent workaround: “Active Hydration” tablets made by a company called Nuun. 
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They contain the good stuff in sports drinks, including electrolytes (whatever those are) and various other things, and they don’t contain sugar. They come in plastic tubes, which you can safely keep in your golf bag, and when you drop one of the tablets into your water bottle it fizzes. Do you hear me? It fizzes.

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