Monday, 21 October 2013

The Golfing Etiquette Cheat Sheet

"Yeah," he says, sensing your mistrust, and feigning a mild indignation. "One off the tee, two in the woods, three out, four on, two putts: Six."

You say nothing. Your expression is as steel but your mind reels with doubt and aggrievement. By now you're certain the ball he has played wasn't the one that sliced into the conifers.

"Yeah," he adds, "I had a hell of a lie in the woods. Lucky to find my ball and even then could scarcely take a practice swing. Took three, in fact."

His elaboration gives the lie to his accounting. What was suspicion is now certainty. But what can you say or do?

Over time, the experienced golfer will have developed, through practice at the mirror, a range of expressions capable of conveying varying mixtures of doubt and disapproval, from mildish skepticism to the unspoken outrage felt on coming home to find that the family has been put to the sword by Mongol hordes.

Without having been forced to say so in plain words, you want the cheater in your midst to head for the next tee thinking, "He knows. He knows!" I think you'll find that his ensuing play will more than compensate for any advantage gained through earlier defalcations.

Appropriately enough, in Scotland, the land which gave us the immortal pastime, there is a verdict that is handed down in trials where the evidence falls just short.It is called "Not Proven." What it means is: "Not Guilty-But Don't Do It Again." What you want to have in your psychological kit bag is the physiognomic equivalent of that verdict.

Your other options

Beyond this, you have but three options. The first, totally unacceptable, is to start cheating yourself. The second is never to play with the other person again. But what if it's your boss-or your spouse? #

The third choice is to take a caddie.

Modern popular culture offers two famous scenes in which caddies, in a golf context, play the role reserved for the avenging Furies in Greek tragedy. One is the film of Ian Fleming's Goldfinger in which James Bond (Sean Connery) employs a wily caddie who substitutes balls on Auric Goldfinger (the late Gert Frobe) and foils the cheater at his own game to win the match. The second is an 18th-green confrontation between two millionaires that occurs in "High Stakes," a story by the incomparable P.G. Wodehouse. The stakes have indeed been high: a much-coveted English butler.

Here's how it goes:

"You don't suppose," said Gladstone Bott, "that I would play you an important match unless I had detectives watching you, do you? This gentleman is from the Quick Results Agency. What have you to report?" he said, turning to the caddie.

The caddie removed his bushy eye-brows, and with a quick gesture swept off his mustache. "At the 16th hole the man Fisher moved his ball into what-from his actions and furtive manner-I deduced to be a more favorable position. On the 17th, the man Fisher picked up his ball and threw it with a movement of the wrist onto the green. I took the precaution of snapshotting [him] in the act with my miniature wrist-watch camera, the detective's best friend."

It would be an irony if one of the game's most rapidly disappearing noble features, the caddie, should be rescued from oblivion by one of the game's most rapidly proliferating ignoble features, the cheat. The effect would be largely deterrent in nature. Is not prevention nine-tenths of cure? And better the caddie than I, because if I let my suspicions take over my time in Paradise, if I pay more attention to my opponent's situation than to mine, then it is Paradise no longer.

The sad conclusion is that every artificial step we take to protect golf against cheating is a pimple of suspicion that only disfigures this glorious pastime. We lose more than we gain. The only true, decent, long-range solution is to exclude from the game, at whatever level, those who are not prepared to put their full faith and credit behind its principles. Over time, as Tom Watson suggests, we will know who they are. If we do, we should not play with them. Or, for that matter, vote for them.

Monday, 14 October 2013

Stop the madness!

Stop the madness!
A friend of mine owns a local golf shop, a quiet place where he installs shafts, tweaks lies and lofts and sells classic books. It also is a spot where people gather to talk about the sport, whether it is the PGA Tour, Annika’s workout regimen or their own miserable games. I visit the shop once in a while, and its down-home air and breezy gossip remind me of Drucker’s General Store in “Green Acres.” Only in this case, the wood stove is replaced by a shaft calibrator. And no one is wearing bib overalls.

For years, I found the shop to be a wonderful refuge, and it was easy to get lost in the pleasant conversations. But I barely can walk through the door anymore. It’s not that the owner and I have had a falling out, or that my interest in the sport has waned. Rather, I am put off by the emergence of the golf psycho and the way he now dominates so many of the discussions.

The golf psycho, for the uninitiated, is the person who has become so caught up in technological minutia that he, or she, can think or talk of nothing else. Forget about appreciating the brilliant design of a Seth Raynor Redan or the views across a stretch of golden fescue as a cock pheasant bursts from the tall grass. The golf psycho is much more interested in the “spining” of his graphite shaft and whether the toe of his 2-iron has been properly ground.

I am no dinosaur, and my bag holds the latest and greatest in woods, irons and balls. I also know why friends who have scratch handicaps or better get caught up in the subject; they are good enough to truly understand and benefit from subtle changes in their gear and are constantly looking for an edge. But it’s just not for me, even as my USGA index hovers around 5, and certainly not for those in double digits who could no doubt benefit from having less information spinning around in their heads on the golf course. And I refuse to cross the line by contemplating the optimum length of my driver when I instead could be abusing a player about the sorry state of his game or falling over in laughter at the fellow who splits his khakis when he bends down to mark his ball.

I also have a difficult time hearing others go completely off on the subject, and it makes me sad when I think of how demented they have become. Like the fellow who changed shafts on his driver three times last winter based on how he hit balls at a heated range. Or the guy who walked into the shop to say how the balls he hit with his recently reshafted 3-wood were bouncing “funny” when they landed in the fairway. “Has anyone else complained about that?” he asked with a straight face. Then there was the 10 handicapper looking for the exact same Titleist 3-wood Tiger Woods uses. Estimated price tag: $850. Estimated number of players on this earth who actually can hit a decent shot with that stick: 12.

The stories flow steadily out of the shop, and the best ones often are recounted to me. Such as the guy who was getting set to smack balls into a net there a few months ago so my friend could help determine what shafts would work best for him.

“What kind of shot do you want me to hit?” the customer asked.
“Just hit it,” the store owner said.
“You have to tell me what kind of shot you want,” he replied. “A butter-cut fade? A honk and hook?”
Fortunately for my friend, the work- day was about over, and his partner already was tapping the keg they sometimes set up in the back. A lager, it seems, was most definitely in order.

Sadly, such madness exists all over the country. Consider, for example, the player who flew to Arizona for a personal club fitting that cost more than $2,000 and returned home thinking he was ready to tee it up with the pros. Three weeks later, he put a different set of custom-made irons in his bag.

I appreciate the passion of these folks, but I do believe they need to ease up. And it wouldn’t hurt if they used some of the money they spend on new equipment for a little psychoanalysis.

Monday, 7 October 2013

Just give me a number: our obsession with handicaps

There is only one question in the English language that is impossible for golfers to answer with a single word, and that is: What’s your handicap?

It doesn’t matter if it is being asked at stylish Cypress Point or at some beat-to-hell muni on the Jersey Shore. It doesn’t make a difference if the person being queried has the bluest blood in Boston or a lineage that includes three consecutive generations of felons. If he plays this wonderful game, he is incapable of providing a simple number and leaving it at that.

“Well, I’m an 8 now, but I was a 6 at the start of the summer,” a reply might begin. “But I hurt my wrist taking out the garbage a few weeks ago and can’t really turn the ball over. Actually, I should be a 10.”
Or you have the self-proclaimed comedian who wants to show everyone how funny he is. “My handicap?” he asks. “It’s bad breath and a very short . . . attention span.”

Multiply either of those comments by four, and you have the weekend morning scene at most first tees in the country, with some poor slob with a scorecard and pencil desperately trying to discern the pertinent stroke information as he listens to more obfuscation than a Bill Clinton press conference.

“What is my handicap?,” the former First Golfer might ask. “It depends what your definition of ‘is’ is.”
And you’d think any riddles about handicaps would quickly be solved once play actually starts. But people rarely seem to have the handicap they say they do. There are the 15s who drill their drives 290 yards down the middle and the 5s who dribble tee shots between their legs. I know of entire clubs dominated by sandbaggers whose handicaps are so criminally high they should be in witness protection programs. I once played against a member of one such club, and thought we had a pretty good game going until he had a 60-yard pitch to the hole on No. 15. But then he asked his caddie not only to mark my ball, which was only a few feet from the cup, but also to take out the stick. Then the man, who said he was a 14, damn near holed his shot. He went on to win the remaining three holes, leaving me $10 poorer and more than a little chagrined. But he was just one of the guys at his place, because golf to them was mostly about winning.

Conversely, there are clubs where vanity is king and the handicap numbers are much lower than they should be. Too bad if someone loses $20 on a Saturday bet; they still have that 6 in the computer, which in their mind is akin to pulling up in a fully loaded Lexus. We have a few of those at my place, and it’s always a hoot watching them on the first hole. They conduct deep discussions about their respective indexes, all of which are as out of sync with reality as their perceptions of their own games, and then they play from the back tees. Problem is, there is rarely a time when more than one of those hackers actually lands a ball in the fairway, and that’s with everybody taking at least one mulligan.

It must be mentioned, however, that even the most honest golfers can suddenly get hot or cold, and there is nothing the rest of us can do when that happens but cringe. Such as the time a colleague, a legitimate 16 handicapper, played Carnoustie in a foursome that included a Scottish acquaintance and shot 110. Flash forward to Royal Birkdale a year later. The Scotsman had invited the American, still a 16, to join several U.K. journalists in a Stableford event. This time, the 16 carded a 78, won all the money and nearly got lynched. “They all wanted to kill me,” he says with a wry smile. “But they were really after the guy who invited me.”

While having too high a handicap can be hazardous to your health, having one too low can be just as dicey, as my friend Stratford learned one day last summer when he came home to announce he had dropped to a 1. He beamed proudly as he delivered the news, but his wife quickly set him in his place.

“You ought to be embarrassed to carry a handicap that is lower than the number of children you have,” she said sharply. Then she handed him a kid.

Monday, 30 September 2013

Exclusion and racism in golf

There’s the tale of Zeke Hartsfield, a superb competitive golfer who used to caddie for Bobby Jones at the East Lake Golf Club in Atlanta and wondered why he wasn’t allowed to play Candler Park, another course in the Georgia capital. So he decided to tee it up there one morning in 1939. And when he arrived at the third hole, he was greeted by a posse of policemen who slapped a pair of handcuffs on Hartsfield and hauled him off to jail. Because he was black.

And also the story of Charlie Sifford, who carded a 68 to lead the first round of the 1960 Greater Greensboro Open and then listened to a man threaten his life over the telephone that night. As Sifford played that following morning, he heard the same man taunting him, following him around the course with a group of hecklers who constantly yelled in his backswing. And you can’t imagine anyone enduring something that bad.

But then you read about the Phoenix Open in 1952, which was one of the first times blacks were allowed to compete in a PGA Tour event. Sifford teed off in the first foursome, with boxer Joe Louis, who was a top amateur golfer as well, and two other African-Americans. And when he went to pull the flag out of the first hole, he saw that the cup was filled with human excrement. Because he, and six other golfers competing in that event, were black.

You have a hard time with stories like these, but at the same time you find you cannot stop reading about them. They make you angry and embarrassed. Sometimes they even make you smile. There was the time, for example, that Bill Spiller, a top African-American golfer who was the first to legally challenge the Tour’s despicable and long-standing Caucasian-only rule, crashed a country club dance after the Bakersfield Open. Dressed in coat and tie, he walked right to the head table in the clubhouse, where blacks were not allowed, and asked the wife of the club president to dance. She obliged, and the two of them took a whirl around the floor.

There are tales of triumph that make you glow. Like the one of Pete Brown when he became the first black to win a PGA Tour event (the 1964 Waco Turner Open). Or of Sifford winning the 1969 Los Angeles Open and setting off a long celebration in his adopted hometown that culminated in a parade through Watts. Or of Lee Elder becoming the first black to play in the Masters in 1975. Or of Calvin Peete capturing 11 PGA Tour titles in the 1980s.

But more than anything else, the stories make you sad. Sad for a guy like Spiller, who was never able to make a consistent living at the thing he loved most and did best – and that was hit a golf ball – because he, too, was black.

“The man was a great player and college-educated,” says John H. Kennedy, a longtime Boston Globe reporter who now teaches writing at LaSalle University in Philadelphia. “But he had to work as a railroad porter because he wasn’t able to compete on the PGA Tour. Or even work as a PGA pro because they wouldn’t let him become a member. He fought the PGA most of his life. And even on his death bed a dozen years ago, he still talked about his hatred for the organization. He hated what it did to him, and to others.”

Kennedy knows a lot about Spiller and Sifford and Elder and Peete because he has just written a history of African-American golfers. Titled “A Course of Their Own” (Stark Books), it gives a very readable, detailed and often harrowing account of blacks and their involvement in the game. Or should I say lack of involvement, because most of the golf establishment seemed determined to keep them out of the sport for as long as possible.

“I don’t think most people understand how long African-Americans have been playing golf,” Kennedy says. “They had their own tour for a while, sort of a Negro Leagues of golf, and there were some great players. I also don’t think many people really understand how hard it has been for them. They were shot at for playing white-only courses. They were arrested. Their lives were threatened. And all because they wanted to play a game.”

“A Course of Their Own” is a compelling read, a tough read, an enlightening read. And, perhaps most of all, it is an important read for anyone who knows and loves the game of golf.

Monday, 23 September 2013

All’s fair in love and (golf ball) war

Golf, it seems, used to be such a gentlemanly game, especially when talking about the way it was played in the marketplace.

Intense? Certainly. Competitive? Without a doubt. But even the strongest opponents managed to go at it with a some semblance of decorum and respect.

Things have become very different, however, especially as the battle for market share in the $725 million wholesale U.S. ball market has heated up.

And many of those fighting it out appear to have dropped all pretense of good behavior in favor of launching very public barbs at their business rivals.

Accusations of patent infringement fly. Research tests are openly demeaned. Marketing campaigns are ridiculed, and product quality is questioned.

This is golf? Why, there is more fraternity in a cockfight, more order in the streets of Tirana and less jawing on a Brooklyn basketball court.

Consider some of the sniping that went on during the PGA Merchandise Show in Orlando, Fla., in February. Taylor Made, for example, chose to counteract quickly the introduction of Callaway’s new golf balls by televising a robot test that not only touted the superiority of its own product line but also chided Spalding for its recent decision to sell premium Strata balls through mass merchants by pulling the one used in the test out of a Wal-Mart bag.

Duck hunters call that a twofer, as in two birds with one shot.

At a cocktail party that same night, a major golf company executive systematically derided the golf balls made by a couple of his competitors to a group of journalists, even going so far as to suggest some days later that one of those companies might be engaged in highly unethical – and fraudulent – activities.

Military types call that a cluster bomb.

In fact, it never seemed to take much prodding during the show to get workers from one company to start yapping about their competition. And their words often sounded a lot like those negative campaign advertisements politicians say they will never resort to, yet always do.

Even Ely Callaway got into the act one day, interrupting the Merchandise Show news conference for his new golf balls to diss his chief rival from Titleist, Wally Uihlein, asking, “Anybody seen Wally?” before a crowd of nearly 1,000 journalists and guests.

“I don’t really understand what is going on,” said one equipment company executive. “There is so much trash being talked, so many attacks of the facts. People used to think that the best way to go was to judge your company and products on their – and your – own merits. But that no longer seems to be the case.”

What’s behind this increasingly mouthy behavior? Sociologists might point to a general breakdown in etiquette and decency, but the primary cause seems to be good old-fashioned competition and the fact that more and more people are fighting desperately for a piece of the golf ball pie. As a result, the stakes for them all are huge.

So it is not hard to understand why some of those in the trenches lose their heads on occasion and start barking rather loudly.

But that doesn’t mean they sound – or look – particularly good when that happens.

Monday, 16 September 2013

Country clubs for a day? No way

Perhaps the toughest thing a golfer has to endure each year is the seasonal closing of his club and course. As bad as winter weather gets up north and as depressing as short, cold days often are, nothing is quite so frustrating as your regular retreat being closed. To be sure, you still can get in your rounds during those months. But the games almost always are played at faraway resorts, and no matter how good the layouts, the experience is never really the same.

That’s partly because of a lack of familiarity with the courses and a lack of camaraderie around places that aren’t quite home. There are, however, other factors:

Take footwear. One of the pleasures of belonging to a club is having someone take meticulous care of your golf shoes. At my place, cleats are replaced promptly; new laces put in when needed; and leather shined, polished and conditioned after each round. Consequently, even the lousiest duffer can look like Beau Brummel when he struts to the first tee, his saddles shining in the early morning sun.
But forget about that at most resorts, where golf shoes are the subject of more neglect than a middle child. What that means for the club player is that his FootJoys and Nikes become as ratty as the work boots worn by a highway paver. That’s why the first thing I do at the start of each season is haul in the different shoes I have been wearing all winter to our trusty locker room attendant, and with a crisp twenty in hand, ask if he would please bring them all back to life.

Another issue, of course, are my street shoes, none of which would ever get buffed and polished (at least from May to October) if not for that same fellow. No one at the resorts I visit seems to know how to work a can of Kiwi black and a good brush.

Cleaning is a problem that can extend to irons and woods as well, and there are few, if any of those “pay to play for a day” retreats that do quite as good a job as your own club. I also like the luxury of my bag waiting for me when I get to the pro shop and not having to haul it in and out of the trunk of my car, or to and from my room, every time I want to play.

It also seems that at many resorts, you spend whatever time you are not on the course handing out dollars to whomever is handling your bag, as well as to starters, beverage cart drivers and assorted “valets” and “concierges.” After a while, you look and feel like Rodney Dangerfield in “Caddyshack,” peeling ones from a big roll of bills to anyone and everyone who walks by. Back home, it’s $5 to the shoe guy every week and whatever I think the caddie deserves.

Actually, there always is something disconcerting about the money a club member has to pay for an individual round of resort golf, and everything else that goes with it. A first-rate course, for example, costs $500 for a day, a price that includes the green fee, a caddie, a snack at the halfway house, a couple of tips and maybe some lunch and a drink afterward. That may be only slightly more than the per-round cost of a golfer paying $7,000 per year in dues for a club at which he plays, say, 25 times per year. But having to cough it up for each 18 you play just seems more expensive. And even if it is comparable financially, it rarely is emotionally, because it is not your place.

Then there is the concern of whom you play with. Unless you are foolish enough to sign up for an out-of-the-hat scramble, club golf ensures that you go out with people you generally like and enjoy. But visit a resort with anything other than your own foursome, and you are at the mercy of the draw and golf’s version of a blind date. Harvey Penick’s credo to the contrary, just because someone plays golf does not make him, or her, your friend.

Monday, 9 September 2013

Paranoid in Carlsbad

Covert operatives apparently moved to Carlsbad, Calif., when the Cold War ended. The golf equipment capital of the world seems like a second-career haven for intelligence types who don’t have the Soviet Union to kick around anymore. Physicists who once built missiles are designing irons, while agents who tried to keep the world safe from Communism are trying to keep club and ball makers safe from each other.

Those “Intell” alums can be a pretty cautious bunch, especially when it comes to matters of security. And the culture they have helped create in Carlsbad – similar to that of other industries with security concerns – has a way of making even the steadiest soul feel a little paranoid.

Consider, for example, the Callaway Golf Co. receptionist who cheerfully insisted I sign a “Non-Disclosure and Facility Admission Agreement” after I walked into one of the company’s buildings during an October visit. I resisted, largely because it seemed the document would prohibit a person from ever writing or saying anything about what he saw there. And I didn’t see how a journalist could consent to something that would prevent him from doing his job. Besides, I work for a well-respected golf publication and have never tried to overthrow a Third World country or sneak trade secrets out of a company lab.

But the receptionist refused to give in. I had no choice but to sign (if I wanted to make my meeting on time), although I assumed that whatever I would write about Callaway from then on would violate the agreement. The only question left to ponder now: Where will I serve out my time?

The second person I met was the “manager of investigations,” a former Army Intelligence officer who said he used to “catch spies.” Nice guy, but I still felt a little nervous sitting next to someone who once collared KGB agents for a living and probably knew dozens of ways to make them talk.
Then at the end of my afternoon, I got to enter the new, super-secret building from which Callaway will market and manufacture its line of golf balls. And as I was being escorted to the office of president Chuck Yash, I couldn’t help imagining what would happen if I suddenly bolted to some forbidden sector down the hall. Would I be “neutralized” by Dr. No-type drones clad in brightly-colored jumpsuits? Would I die in a hail of machine-gun fire like Steve McQueen in The Great Escape? Was all this security stuff making me a little nuts?

The answer to the last question was probably yes. I tried to flush those ideas from my mind, but as soon as I walked out of the building, I saw a helicopter hovering overhead. And I instantly started to wonder: Who is up there, and what do they want?
See what just a few hours in Carlsbad did to me?