The Local Knowlege

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.)

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.)

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.

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.

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.

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. 

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.
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. 

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.

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. 
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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My Usual Game

I don't get blisters anymore, but if I did. . . .

Golf shoes by True Linkswear, a company for which I am an unpaid shill, are so comfortable that I now wear one or another of my many pairs not just when I play golf but also almost any time I can't get away with being barefoot. My favorite model at the moment is the "lyt dry" (I don't pick the names). Here's what they looked like on my feet at the men's member-guest, back in August:

I'm also quite fond of a similar model, called "vegas." (Again, I wasn't asked.) Here's what those look like:

My very first True golf shoes were a little like clown feet, or flippers, but they were so ridiculously comfortable that I didn't mind. Recent models have been more shoe-like, in both appearance and construction; some of the latest ones even have heels. That's a good thing if you want to wear golf shoes when you go out to dinner with your wife, as I do, but it's mildly worrisome if the thing you loved most about your first pairs was that they felt like bedroom slippers. I'm just going to trust True's designers not to go overboard with the conventional-shoe stuff, and to keep working on whatever technology they use to make the waterproof models waterproof -- a technology that, in my opinion, they haven't perfected.

I haven't had a single blister since switching to Trues -- not even on the two days when my friends and I played more than a hundred holes between sunrise and sunset. If I ever do get a blister, or feel a blister coming on, however, I know exactly what I'll do: cover it immediately with a Band-Aid Advanced Healing blister pad:

The pads are actually manufactured by a Danish company, and are called Compeed everywhere but in the United States. (The company also makes pads for corns and cold sores.) Each one contains a "hydrocolloidal" gel, which both acts as a cushion and draws moisture from the affected area, helping it to heal. Ideally, you leave the pad on until it falls off -- and it stays stuck, even in the shower, and doesn't slide around the way an ordinary bandage does. I carry several in my golf bag, and issue them to whimpering friends.

My wife uses them with her new hockey skates, which she's still breaking in. She also uses another Band-Aid blister product, called a Friction Block Stick, as a blister preventative:

It's basically Crisco in a plastic applicator, as near as I can tell. (The main ingredient is hydrogenated vegetable oil.) But my wife says it works.

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My Usual Game

Two golf dreams, featuring St. Andrews and Stevie Wonder

I've often wished that I'd taken up golf twenty years earlier, not only so that I could have wastedkatieredgown.JPG my physical prime on golf courses instead of in classrooms, libraries, and bars, but also so that I could have attended the University of St. Andrews instead of the college I did. I'd have bought a student golf ticket, which would have enabled me to play virtually free rounds on the Old Course and all the other Links Trust courses until I flunked out -- and I still could have ended up in my current profession, since writing about golf requires no education at all. Instead, I'm forced to live vicariously through Slade, whose granddaughter Katie (in the sharp red gown in the photo at right) just matriculated at St. Andrews. As far as I'm concerned, she's living the dream. And I know that the rest of the Sunday Morning Group shares my conviction that no one ought to pass her college career without frequent visits from her grandfather and his friends, who will be happy to camp out on the floor in her truly awesome-looking dormitory, which is barely a thousand yards from the first tee:

Closer to home, my friend Ellis recently had a golf-related dream, which had nothing to do with the Old Course but is of special interest because Ellis doesn't play golf. Here's his account:

My wife or girlfriend is Naomi, who is a real person I dated in the 1970s. She's present when I'm approached to take part in some kind of TV event during which I'm to pretend to be Stevie Wonder. No singing, no makeup or disguise, just regular white old me, saying I'm Stevie Wonder. I say OK. We go to this big motel room, where there are a lot of TV tech people and others, plus broadcast equipment. I am given two golf clubs (a putter and an iron), and there is talk of a saxophone. Everyone behaves like this is an ordinary event, and nobody says, Hey, wait, you're not Stevie Wonder.

There aren't even any formal questions, or even a host. I kind of stand around, with the golf clubs, chatting with people. And that's it. I realize that the event is over, and the crew starts packing up. One tech guy complains to me about his device and I nod as if I know what he's talking about. I have a general sense that nobody really knows what they're doing. Finally, Naomi and I leave, traverse some distance to "go home," and end up at a wall covered with fabric. At the base of the wall is some sort of concealed hatch. She goes through it, I push down on it with whatever object I've been carrying, and prepare to go through it myself. And then I wake up.

And I hadn't known Stevie Wonder was a golfer. The things we learn from dreams.

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My Usual Game

The Sunday Morning Group conquers all

Yale University has an undistinguished student body and a miserable football team, but it does have a tremendous golf course , which the U.S.G.A. -- mysteriously but somehow characteristically -- lists under "T," for "The Course at Yale." I've played two rounds there this year: one with Richard (a college classmate, who for two years lived within two doors of my own dormitory room but whom I didn't meet until our thirty-fifth reunion), and one with Shep (an honorary member of the Sunday Morning Group) and his dad, Dick. Before I teed off with Shep and Dick, I visited the men's locker room and discovered that the shelf above the sinks -- mysteriously but somehow characteristically -- held just a single toiletry item, a hair preparation I'd never heard of:

My two rounds at Yale, I'm pretty sure, "softened up" the course for Ray and Addison, who played there not long afterward, in our state golf association's annual four-ball tournament, and won it by two shots, at seven under par. (They had no bogeys, and were one shot from tying the all-time tournament record.) They didn't win a car, contrary to the clear suggestion in the photo below, but they did get their names engraved on a big trophy:

ray addison.jpg
A few days later, our club beat our Enemy Club in our annual two-day home-and-home grudge match, which has been held every year since 1948. Each club's team has ten players -- in our case, all from S.M.G. Todd and I were partners the first day, and Ray and I were partners the second day, and when it was over the two teams posed together for a photo:

The very next day, Todd and Addison played in our state's qualifier for the U.S.G.A.'s new national four-ball championship -- and were the medalists, at five under par. (One stroke behind them were Ben D., an honorary member of the Sunday Morning Group, and his brother, Daniel -- and just a week before that Ben had won another state event, the Tournament of Champions.) Because of their victory, Todd and Addison will be going to the Olympic Club, in San Francisco, in the spring, raising the possibility of a cross-country S.M.G. road trip.

One explanation for S.M.G.'s remarkable success in these things is that our locker room -- despite being small, and equipped with just a single toilet, urinal, and shower -- offers a rich selection of useful toiletries, plus a clock:

Another is that hardly anybody went to Yale.


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My Usual Game

Head-to-head match play against mosquitoes and ticks

Last month, at the men’s member-guest, Michael U. showed me a gadget he had attached to his bag: 


He told me that it contained a battery-powered fan, which enveloped him and his golf cart with a cloud of mosquito repellent. I was extremely interested, because I don't like being bitten by mosquitoes, and I've been trying extra hard to protect myself against ticks, ever since coming down with Lyme disease for the fifth or sixth time, back in June. The device is called a Clip-On. The manufacturer -- Off! -- sent me some to try, along with a couple of other goodies.

I had high hopes for the Clip-On, but it's actually not well-suited to golf. "If you move," the instructions say, "allow a few minutes for the unit to rebuild its personal protection." Any golfer who isn't moving more often than every few minutes shouldn't be playing golf. I attached one to the back of my hat, thinking it might keep bugs from circling my head, even while I was walking, but the fan, at that range, was annoyingly loud. And that's probably just as well, because, according to some virtually invisible fine print on an easy-to-miss part of the packaging, you're not supposed to inhale the stuff, a chemical called metofluthrin:

package.JPGGood luck getting mouth-to-mouth resuscitation from the Sunday Morning Group. And then there's the cost. A single unit, which is supposed to last "up to" twelve hours, sells for ten bucks on Amazon. Each package includes an envelope labeled "refills" -- but it contains just one, and it's really a "fill," not a refill, since it's the only one in the box. Off! does sell actual refills, at roughly $4.25 apiece, but metofluthrin is pricey stuff, since that works out to more than $2,600 an ounce.


I also tried Off! Explore, a miniature aerosol can of insect repellent in a "crush-resistant" aluminum case. The case has a built-in carabiner, which you can attach to your golf bag:


It's very handy. Here's Addison loading up his hat -- and that's Hacker (real name) in the background:


And Explore works great, like all of Off!'s DEET-based insect repellents. But it costs a fortune. A single unit, with case, sells on Amazon for twenty bucks and contains just 1.2 ounces of bug juice. You can buy refills, but they're expensive, too. So I shopped around and invested instead in some DEET-based repellent sold by Coleman. It doesn't have a carabiner, but each can has a locking top, so you can keep it in your golf bag without worrying that it's going to leak. It's stronger than Off!, and Amazon sells six-ounce cans, in two-packs, for just a bit more than a dollar an ounce:



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My Usual Game

Golf at sea: Man overboard?

For a New Yorker assignment unrelated to golf, I recently went to sea. I didn't see anyone actually hitting golf balls -- using the ocean as a driving range is no longer permitted on cruise ships -- but I did serve as the gallery for two young people playing miniature golf:

They weren't in perfect agreement about the rules, and when the girl left to do something else the boy switched to Whac-A-Mole:

Nearby, I watched an activity that was actually more golf-like, because it involved a middle-aged man attempting something he was physically incapable of doing:


At first, I worried that the guy had been propelled over the side of the ship, but I saw him later, having a stiff drink.

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My Usual Game

Tree trouble: Winter is coming, and Howard meets his match

There’s a maple near the bend of the dogleg on the first hole, and each year it provides one of the first clear signs that the golf season is winding down:

The tree may actually mark one of the famous portals to hell, because there’s another tree behind it, and if your tee shot clears the first tree the second one will sometimes knock it into a lateral hazard -- like a pair of volleyball players doing a bump-set-and-spike. The second tree was planted, many years ago, in loving memory of a dead guy, whom few current members knew but many current members curse, on account of his tree. The lesson is that you shouldn't let your survivors plant anything in your memory 200 yards from the regular men’s tee on the right side of any fairway.

On the eighth hole, Howard’s second shot (or possibly his third) ended up next to the base of a tree near the green. It was sitting down in a little depression, with roots on either side, but he made a manful effort to knock it back into play:

Two holes later, I hit my second shot too far, and it ended up about four inches from a stone boundary wall that runs along the edge of a grassy swale just over the green. My only possible shot was to bash the ball into the wall with my wedge, and hope it ricocheted back into play. I did, and the ball ended up gimme distance from the hole: par. I don’t have a video of that shot, because I couldn’t swing my wedge and operate my camera at the same time. I am one man!


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My Usual Game

How to create your own inexpensive on-course sound system

At my club’s member-guest two years ago, Fritz and Klinger showed my brother, John, and me that a golf-cart cup holder acts like an amplifier when you place an iPod or iPhone in it and crank the volume -- as Klinger is demonstrating in the photo below with “Send Her My Love,” by Journey. 

They played Journey in their cart during our match with them this year, too, and when the tournament was over John mentioned the cup-holder trick to his older daughter, who is starting college this fall, because he thought she would be impressed. She wasn’t. “She said it’s common knowledge that cups, cup holders, ceramic mugs, etc., have that effect,” John wrote me later. She also told him that, if you don’t have a cup, you can turn the interior of your head into an amplifier by sticking your ear buds into your nose . . .

. . . and opening your mouth.

It works, to some extent. And if someone in the next fairway yells at you to turn down the music all you have to do is close your mouth.

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