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.