Archive for the ‘Sports’ Category

All Hail the Clambake

February 10, 2019


Bing Crosby would be turning over in his grave, looking for long winter underwear. At the charity golf tournament he founded in the late 1930’s as a getaway for his celebrity buddies, his “booze-soaked Clambake” pro-am at Pebble Beach, he was used to sunny skies and warmth, the only cold being the ice in the ubiquitous cocktails. This morning the tournament was suspended and delayed due to hail. Hail.


The staging area for Bing’s Clambake was golf’s west coast mecca triumvirate featuring storied Pebble Beach Golf Links, Spyglass Hill Club, and Monterey Peninsula Country Club, all within a mile of each other and featuring spectacular views of the Pacific. The neighborhood, as you might imagine, was populated by big Hollywood names and the wealthy, happy not only to rub elbows with Crosby and his coterie, but also to host after-golf parties, sometimes lasting all night, hungover players staggering off to morning tee times having stayed up all night getting hickeys from Hollywood’s most beautiful actresses.


For most of the local California universe it wasn’t about golf so much as a 24/7 party that happened to also generate charity funds. But in 1956 the Clambake served as a backdrop for one of the all-time great matches in golf history, related in riveting detail in Mark Frost’s wonderful book, “The Match: The Day the Game of Golf Changed Forever“. Frost has written a variety of important books on golf’s history, including “The Grand Slam: Bobby Jones, America and the Story of Golf“, and “The Greatest Game Ever Played: Harry Vardon, Francis Ouimet, and the Birth of Modern Golf“. This last book told the story of the impossible 1913 US Open golf tournament, when a 20-year old amateur, who grew up across the street from the golf course where the tournament was played, shocked the world when he defeated the two biggest professional golf champions of the era, Harry Vardon and Ted Ray. (Vardon is still the only player in history to win The Open Championship — aka the British Open — an astonishing six times.)

In 1913, Francis Ouimet’s caddie was the irrepressible, 10-year-old Eddie Lowery. By the 1950’s Lowery had become a millionaire car dealer, and he and his rich buddies were fond of big-money betting. Lowery and his friend George Coleman made a bet on a seminal golf match, pitting the two most famous pro golfers of the time, Byron Nelson and Ben Hogan (Nelson long retired and Hogan entering the twilight of his career), against two outstanding young amateurs, Harvie Ward and Ken Venturi. This private match was played in the background shadows while the “official” clambake pro-am was going on. Ward was an “inveterate playboy who performed hungover on two hours’ sleep” winning the US, British and Canadian amateur titles, and starring on Walker Cup teams; he had a brief pro career, enjoying more success as a club pro, becoming the teacher of future golf great Payne Stewart. Ken Venturi won the California State Amateur Championship twice, and nearly became the first amateur to win the Masters Tournament a few months later, leading after the first, second and third rounds, losing — coming in second — only after a dreadful final round. Venturi enjoyed a successful pro career (including a US Open win), then changed jobs and became a famous golf color commentator for some 35 years.


Frost’s story of the match between the two old pros — Hogan and Nelson — and the two young amateurs — Ward and Venturi — is one to savor. Lots of golf history, sure, and detailed match coverage, but which “is less interesting than the people involved and the historical backdrop. The match happened near the sport’s great cusp, as it transitioned from something for amateurs to a professional career, from a pastime for wastrel aristocrats and entertainers … to a mainstream suburban obsession.” You should read this book whether you’re a golf fan or not. You’ll thank me. You’ll want to send me some clams.




Mixed Up Doubles

October 22, 2011

(With apologies to and warmest regards for P.G. Wodehouse.)

It was a cool September morning as Mr Burns sat in his favorite chair, from which he could see a sweeping portion of the golf course. He saw the “Steam Train”, a well-known regular foursome, working its way up the ninth hole. Mr Burns shook his head in disgust and turned his gaze elsewhere, noting that Ms Lowery and Mr MacDonald were walking down the sixth fairway. This made him smile, not only at the thought that he had played Cupid for the romantic twosome, but also at the fact that both were excellent golfers.

Ian MacDonald had practiced bachelorhood for some forty years, and was now for the first time contemplating marriage. Alana Lowery was divorced, and until recently had given up all hope of remarrying. Instead of bonding with a man she had instead chosen to lower her handicap to single digits. Mr Burns’ crinkly face beamed at the sight of the couple, holding hands as they pulled their carts together.

It hadn’t been so long ago that Mr Burns, known to all as The Old Fart (TOF), would not have welcomed women players at the club. He and others like him believed women brought undesirable influences onto a golf course, slowed down play, and altered the masculine flavor of the golfing experience.

A round of golf, they said, used to be a therapeutic affair, providing not only fresh air and exercise but also sorely needed distance from women. Men are strange animals, in that most of their young lives are spent in pursuit of women, while a lion’s share of their later years is occupied by attempts at avoidance. Perhaps anthropologists and psychologists will in some century yet to come provide plausible explanations. But now women are often seen on golf courses, and not only is the civility they bring welcomed, but many of the younger women players can beat the men. Interesting how things change.

Such lofty themes occupied The Old Fart’s mind as he sat in his chair, a sight as predictable and soothing as Abraham Lincoln in his Memorial. But the morning calm was shattered as Bob Stilton, an 18 handicapper with a horrible slice, appeared out of nowhere and shouted at TOF from point blank range.

“Come quick, Mr Burns, hurry! There’s a big fight in the clubhouse!”

“What? A fight? Who’s fighting?”

“Mr Roberts and Miss Jameson! Only you can stop it!”

There was some truth to that, since not only had TOF on occasion changed their diapers, but had also showed them how to hold a cut down five iron. Many of the younger members at Burnt Tree Country Club boasted similar intimacy with TOF, who had been an integral part of the club longer than anyone could remember.

Reluctantly he rose from his beloved Adirondack chair, put his lemonade on the side table, and followed Mr Stilton to the combat zone. As he approached the clubhouse he remembered fondly the way James Roberts, since the age of ten, could hit a niblick bump and run dead to the pin, and Emily Jameson, who by her twelfth birthday could hit a drive as far as most fifteen-year-old boys.

They had become engaged in August, and he looked forward to the happy day when the young golfers would be united in fairway matrimony. Universally liked and respected, their happy marriage and likely domination of future mixed doubles tournaments would have been TOF’s crowning matchmaker achievement. At this point a three-pack of Titleist ProVI’s (90 compression) whizzed by TOF’s crown at high speed and broke a mirror behind him. Emily’s throwing arm was strong rather than accurate, as James Roberts was some twelve feet to the left.

“Now see what you’ve done!” cried Mr Roberts, “I’ve told you a thousand times about controlling your temper!”

“A thousand times!?” Coinciding with the ‘t’ in “times” a lady’s golf shoe ($149 Footjoy, size 6 ½) left her hand at 250 feet per second, this time crashing into the signed photo of Bobby Jones teeing off at Burnt Tree.

“You exaggerated as much when you claimed that four-foot putts were automatic for you! I want to win the mixed doubles!”

Risking great injury – he bruised like a peach – TOF stepped in between the warring parties.

“See here you two! What’s all this then?”

“It’s all his fault!” blurted Miss Jameson. “He keeps telling me how he admires the way Alana Lowery’s derrière sways when she waggles.”

“But she,” indicating Miss Jameson, “can’t stop carrying on about Mr MacDonald’s hands, and the way they hold a club like a Stradivarius.”

Now deep lines showed in TOF’s chin and brow as these words fell upon his very hairy ears. Jealousy had sprouted just before nuptials were to take place. This was inopportune timing indeed.

Moments later peace once again reigned over the clubhouse, since Emily and James had stormed out of opposite exits, leaving an eerie calm.

“That was close,” said Alex, the club manager. “I thought for a moment they’d start heaving fireplace pokers at one another.”

This was little consolation for TOF, since his latest matchmaking triumph was crashing to earth instead of soaring to new heights. Soon things would get worse.

A few weeks later came the annual mixed doubles scramble, and when the teams were announced there was general astonishment. Members could not believe their eyes when they read the schedule and saw that the foursome teeing off at 8:24 am consisted of two teams, Ian MacDonald and Emily Jameson, and James Roberts teamed with Alana Lowery. After the “Explosion”, as the imbroglio in the clubhouse was now called, some amorous reversals had taken place, much like the recoupling machinations from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”.

Emily Jameson, in an attempt to make James Roberts seethe with envy, had applied her considerable flirting and driving skills in winning Ian MacDonald’s attention. (Alana wasn’t nearly as long off the tee.) Likewise James Roberts, who was unequalled with the lob wedge, had stolen the affections of Alana Lowery, whose strength was her deft putting. In anticipation of a close and perhaps emotional round, dozens of members had canceled important business meetings in the city in order to attend. On this day the busy cogs of industry would risk coming to a halt.

At precisely 8:15 am on the day of the tournament, TOF stood erect at the 1st tee, a wizened rulebook in one pocket, and a flask in the other. As was his custom he would officiate, walking the round with the foursome featuring the two teams most likely to win. Several dark clouds in the distance echoed the feeling of dread; this was supposed to be a golf tournament, not World War III.

Another fight had taken place earlier that morning. The Steam Train had wanted to tee off early that morning, but the pro had refused, preferring to allow tournament players an agreeable pace. The constituents of the Train, wealthy retirees all, combined to form a doomsday machine so ponderous, so methodically slow and plodding that most local golfers opted to play chess or several rubbers of bridge while waiting for the group to get far enough ahead. The Steam Train never let anyone play through. The pro, Jimmy Belizzi, proved no match for the pure bullying power wielded by the Steam Train.

There was Wayne the Waggler, who stood over his ball for a full five minutes before actually hitting it, completing a never varying performance that included precisely 75 waggles. Peter the Piston raised his club vertically from the ball, and then brought it straight down in a vain hope that somehow the ball would fly forward. When he actually did hit the ball it only moved ten yards at the most, with the club itself deeply embedded in the ground. The course superintendent was currently resting, enjoying a heavily medicated vacation from repairing Peter’s efforts.

The third member of the Steam Train was Fenton the Firebox, a very short and very thick man with red hair and a volcanic temper. Possessing an extremely fast back swing and even more vicious downswing, he produced such violent force it was a pity he rarely hit the ball out of his own diminutive shadow. On such shots, well, on all shots really, he exploded in anger and showered the environs with expletives. Few knew he had been a Catholic priest in his working days. Bringing up the rear, literally, was Carl the Caboose. Carl carried a set of buttocks so huge his trousers were custom made, and it was said an entire annual crop of Georgia cotton was required for his wardrobe. His butt knocked over small cars. On the rare occasion that his drive exceeded 80 yards his cohorts would applaud and shout, “Way to slap cheeks, Carl!”

You should keep the Steam Train in mind, since I think they are probably going to figure in sometime later in the story.

So where was I? Oh yes, Ian and Emily were conferring animatedly on one side of the tee, and had turned their backs on James and Alana, who were performing various exotic stretching exercises and exuding a calm serenity. TOF stepped forward to make an announcement.

“Ladies and gentlemen, the annual Burnt Tree mixed doubles tournament is about to begin. I’d like to remind members that USGA rules are to be strictly observed, and your golf etiquette and silence during players’ shots are much appreciated.“

A coin was tossed and the MacDonald/Jameson team was to tee off first. Emily hit a 230-yard drive down the middle, and flashed a smirk at Alana, who would need a drive and a seven iron (the “spade mashie niblick”) to match it. Ian hit his past Emily’s, but in the rough. No matter, since Ian’s iron play was the envy of every golfer for miles around.

Alana stepped to the tee, and after a few moments pause for restlessness in the gallery, hit a very nice drive about 185 down the left side of the fairway, in perfect position for the approach. She smiled sweetly at James as he stood on the tee. James Roberts could hit booming tee shots, but never knew where they were going. He hit a high shot that went well past Alana but into a deep fairway bunker.

The crowd applauded politely, the tournament was underway, and TOF ducked behind a tree to take a long pull from his flask. The dark clouds took on a more menacing look and seemed to frown directly at Burnt Tree CC.

For those golfing neophytes unfamiliar with the scramble format, I’ll sketch out a few guiding principles. All members of the team – whether two, three or four – tee off. The best drive is selected and then all players of the team hit from that spot. Then the best shot is chosen and all hit from there until the ball is holed. Very simple really, except for the one requirement that each team player must supply a minimum number of drives, usually between three and six, depending on the size of the team.

This means that the golfer who hits it long and straight every time can’t use his (or her) drive on every hole. This places a premium on strategic timing, since the team has to decide when to take whose drive. A great deal of pressure can affect a golfer’s confidence if the team desperately needs a good drive, whether from a great or mediocre player.  The noblest game is humbling.

Ian’s six-iron approach stopped ten feet from the pin, causing a wild eruption of applause from the knowledgeable entourage. James’ five-iron finished on the fringe about forty feet from the flag. Both teams parred, after Ian’s birdie putt lipped out, and James chipped to three feet and Alana sank the par putt. There was electricity in the air. Some of it came from the crowd, while the rest came from those dark clouds I mentioned earlier.

The next few holes were virtual repeats of the first holes, with the longer drivers hitting — what else? — longer drives, the approach specialists hitting crisp, accurate irons, and the short game wizards hitting surgical chips and putts. After nine holes the match was all square.

On number ten Roberts hit his first drive to find the fairway, a mammoth 295-yard tee shot that soared past a pair of eagles engaged in the long distance scrutiny of lunch. The Roberts/Lowery supporters howled with approval, while the MacDonald/Jameson contingent stood in hushed awe.

“I knew I could do it!” crowed James, while Alana beamed her appreciation. There is nothing like the look a woman gives a man when he has done something she admires.

On the other hand, the look that greeted Ian, who had just hit a perfectly respectable 240-yard drive into the fairway, was downright emasculating. It was as if a beach bully had kicked sand in Ian’s face, and he could only whimper. Clearly, Emily had higher hopes.

“You’re not using your legs enough,” she snapped at Ian.

The Old Fart, quietly recording the scores, firmly believed he was watching the dam’s first cracks forming. While all four players were alike in that they were attractive and fit, with TV commercial-grade hair and teeth, in character they were quite different. As stated earlier, TOF had a unique perspective in that he had seen them grow up.

Since their childhood James and Emily had been athletic, big boned and strong. They excelled at all sports, especially the ones where speed and brute force were required. They were also gregarious and jocular. Ian and Alana, on the other hand, were both smaller and fine boned, and more inclined to read than the other couple. These, thought TOF, were the key reasons that the pairs had formed the way they had.

The reversal, as evidenced by the new doubles teams, spelled trouble. Oil and water, Frenchmen and Germans, peanut butter and carp; some combinations do not mix. The dark clouds drew closer.

Over the next few holes Team Roberts/Lowery took a modest lead, but congratulatory tones were replaced by caustic scorn and short tempers. Alana, clearly feeling the tension, missed a short putt, and James barked at her in rebuke. Emily, becoming impatient and frustrated with Ian’s lack of length off the tee, began calling him “Little Man”.

On #17 James’ drive, prodigious once again, flew into the wrong zip code, opening the door. Ian, steady and unfazed, hit a three wood 220 yards to a perfect spot in the fairway, then a gorgeous seven iron to six feet. Emily’s putt went four feet past, and only those on the green, including TOF, heard Ian mutter, “Alana would have sunk it.” His own putt did a classic “toilet bowl”, rolling 360 degrees around the cup before falling. The match was again all even.

As they reached the 18th tee the first flash of lightning and concomitant rumble of thunder was the two-part ka-chunk of a pump action shotgun: it meant trouble.

Trouble also took the form of the Steam Train, who had just left the 18th tee. TOF surveyed the scene with a cool eye but an uneasy stomach. One golfer was some thirty yards from the tee in the deep rough on the left. Another was fishing his ball out of the pond on the right, some forty yards from the tee. A third was in the woods and the fourth had miraculously hit the fairway, a sixty-yard top that he would brag about later in the bar.  (We golfers call the bar the 19th hole.)

The Train never let anyone play through, that much was sure. The tournament players might as well resign themselves to wait. Suddenly Burns envisioned a match lighting a fuse.

“I thought you were supposed to be a great putter…” James nearly shouted at Alana, almost in tears.

“How can I concentrate with you yelling at me?!” she retorted. “Ian never treated me that way!”

“This time,” Emily said, jabbing a finger into Ian’s smallish chest, “I want to see you hit a drive further than my mother!”

Very uncharacteristically, Ian slammed down his driver (a Blammo 5000 with strontium inserts) and drew himself up to his full height, which put him chin-to-chin with the jousting Jameson.

“So you’d rather be in the next county than the fairway?” he sputtered.

“Well, I’d like to be a little closer to the green like I’m used to when James is on my team.”

“If memory serves he is not on your team; I am.”

“And maybe that’s the problem. I like having James as my partner. He’s not afraid to swing hard like a man!”

“And I miss having Ian on my side,” piped up the quiet Alana. “He never criticizes me or makes fun of me.”

“Oh, Alana, darling, I miss you so!” said Ian, who stepped over and folded her in his arms.

Emily looked down at the ground, and then walked over to James. Slowly they placed their hands on each other’s shoulders, their more gladiatorial way of embracing.

At this point rain began to fall, which the Steam Train took no notice of. They continued to hack and plod, hack and plod. Emily and James, sensible types, walked off the course, heading for the bar. Ian and Alana, more attuned to the songs of romance, hugged and kissed, oblivious to the rain. TOF concluded rightly that the tournament ended in a draw, and finished off his flask with one good long drink.

Two weeks later a double wedding was held on the 18th tee, in the closest approximation of a happy ending this story can offer. Mr Burns gave away both the brides, and gave a very moving speech extolling the virtues of couples that play golf. I don’t remember all the details, but it did include some well-chosen words on the importance of the slow, short back swing, the steady head and the full follow through.



Texting Old Tom

August 16, 2011

Today I decided to wrestle with my phone. Perhaps you have experienced similar deep emotions and bruising ego setbacks with this maddening appliance, as I have. It’s a pain in the butt, it constantly finds new ways to vex me, and no doubt it spends its time in the darkness giggling and smirking as it does everything in its power to run up my bill.

Running up excessive bills is why smart phones were invented, with little concession, the right word surely, to providing the customer with value commensurate with the cost.

A lady I met at a party recently tried to reverse my opinion by demonstrating how she could enjoy reading rare books on her phone. She had downloaded them to her iPain courtesy of the nice people at the Gutenberg Project. (This is an organization which has been busy digitizing old books, making them available in electronic format.) This made an impression, since my lovely wife and I have spent far more than is reasonable on books, yet we cannot seem to quell our thirst. The lady at the party explained that a huge variety of books was available — for free — and in seconds could be relayed from the library in the sky down into one’s phone. Then, one could at one’s leisure read the book and generate those lovely chemical pleasure reactions in the brain. Me want some of that.

So after spending far too much time today grappling with unwieldy and cumbersome HR software to apply for  jobs — I think we should be paid for our Herculean efforts, doing HR’s job for them — it seemed a fair deal to reward myself with a wee treat and get me some books. So I hunted and cursed and fell into the Internet mud, but finally after battling my way out, the Kindle book-reading software was installed on my phone, and I was soon reading a complimentary novel, “Treasure Island.” It worked! But now I wanted more.

There were already books on my laptop, made possible by “Kindle for PC,” and if I knew where the books lived on my laptop and on my phone, theoretically I could copy them from one device to the other. Then I could have sweet revenge on my evil black phone, and read a book on my laptop when it suited me, or if desired on the Devil Droid.

To get started I went looking for a new Kindle book from Amazon, and did a search on “golf.” (If you are looking for a regular, non-Kindle book, there are over 22,000 golf titles available through Amazon.) This search turned up some 1200 titles, high on the list of which was one by the golf scholar Valerie Gray. Her impressive work was entitled, “Getting Naked for Tiger Woods: or, I Was A Wanton Golf Tramp.” Yours — the book, that is — for $2.99. (Here I would like to assure my wife that I did not purchase this historical work, and no, I will not be tricked into saying anything like if the movie will be better.) Seeing that my search parameters were ill-chosen, I narrowed the field by selecting “golf history.” This yielded more desirable fruit, rather than the low-hanging variety provided by Ms Gray.

If you have looked around my blog, you found a story (“Golf Literati Dinner”) relating one of the most amazing events of my life, a banquet in St Andrews, overlooking the Old Course, for golf historians and writers, golf collectors, and one of the most famous golfers in history. (I sat next to him.) One of the singular characters of that evening was David Malcolm, a former University of St Andrews biology professor and at the time a redoutable golf historian. I will never forget him, and I am sad to say that this larger-than-life fellow passed away recently. He and his colleague Peter Crabtree had labored for years on a majestic biography of one of golf’s most important figures, Old Tom Morris. This work was published in 2008 in extremely small quantities, a hefty and exquisite tome that I simply could not afford, my ancestors having squandered the family fortune on whisky.

The Kindle Store search under “golf history” gave up 76 titles, and much to my amazement there was David’s book, “Tom Morris of St Andrews: The Colossus of Golf 1821-1908.” A Kindle version was available (for under $9) and I could be reading it in just a few moments. Wow. Soon I was transported, reading the early chapters, learning about the origins of golf, the seminal “Rabbit Wars” and life in early 19th century Scotland, completely absorbed. Then I came across a passage that had me drifting back to my own childhood, when my dad, like countless other dads, took an old golf club, sawed off a chunk, and handed it to their young sons as their first golf clubs. It’s how we got started playing the ancient and wonderful game. The quote, from Old Tom, includes some impenetrable Scottish terms and phrases, so let me help you.

There are a few meanings for the Scottish phrase “chuckie stanne” but the important one here is for ‘throwing stones,’ or small stones that were the right size for tossing or chucking. The earliest golf “balls” were small rocks, followed in the next experimental phase by wooden balls, which were then replaced with such improvements as leather stuffed with feathers, and then balls made from solid rubber. “Bairn” is Scottish for baby. Webbed feet are recognizable by anyone raised in moist places like Seattle.

“I began to play when I was six or seven, maybe younger. A’ St Andrews bairns are born wi’ web feet an’ wi’ a gowf club in their hands. I wad be driving the chuckie stanne wi’ a bit stick about as sune’s I could walk.”

Reading that made me want to get out on the golf course as soon as possible, where my thoughts will be with Old Tom. And you can bet your golf spikes I will not have my phone with me.

The Masters

April 7, 2011

This is the week of the Masters, one of the greatest golf tournaments of the season, and I, for one, am excited. It was founded by Bobby Jones, the American golfing legend on the right, and was first held in 1934. My younger readers may wish to stop and reflect that this was before cell phones and the Internet; in that era golfers didn’t keep score using an app on their smartphones, rather they used a paper scorecard and an odd tubular device called a pencil.

There are many competitive events for amateur and professional golfers played during the year, and the Masters is considered one of the most important ones, which are referred to as the “major” tournaments. These days we think of the four majors as the US and British Opens, the PGA and the Masters, of which the Masters is the youngest. (The oldest is the British Open, which was first played in 1860.) There is more prestige for a golfer to have won a major tournament than one of the lesser events. Part of this is because of the historical significance, since as we’ve seen some of these golf tournaments go back 150 years, and the major tournaments are typically played on the best and most difficult golf courses. Part is because of the degree of the internal pressure involved, from those damn little voices inside a golfer’s head. And part is because of the presence of the best players in the game breathing down your neck, the external pressure of great competition.

Then there is the issue of money, millions of dollars. While some tour events offer more prize money than some of the majors, the prestige from having won a major translates into more sponsorship money and more bragging rights in the locker room. (Ladies, no blushing, please!)

As of this writing Jack Nicklaus, born in 1940, is the king, the all-time leader in major tournament wins. Nicklaus won 18 majors spanning 25 years: 6 Masters, 4 US Opens, 3 British Opens, and 5 PGA’s. Many golf historians think his record of 18 majors is unbreakable. The greatest golfers in history, such as Walter Hagen, Sam Snead, Ben Hogan, Arnold Palmer and Gary Player, have each won “only” 11 or less, so in comparison, having won 18 majors is staggering. Many top golfers play for years before winning one, and obviously many more have never won a major tournament, or even any tournament at all. We call these golfers “teenagers.”

No one has ever won all four of the professional major golf tournaments in one calendar year. This holy grail has been named the “Grand Slam.”

The professional golfer with perhaps the greatest chance of catching Nicklaus is Tiger Woods, who so far has won 14 majors: 4 Masters, 3 US Opens, 3 British Opens and 4 PGA’s. He won his last major, the US Open, in 2008. Woods seemed on a collision course with destiny, if we apply our friend mathematics in a simplistic way. If it took Woods roughly 12 years to win 14 majors, then it should take about 3.5 more years — meaning in around 2011 or 2012 — to win the 4 additional majors he needs to catch Nicklaus. We might conclude this if we  make all sorts of naïve assumptions.

Instead, Tiger Woods found himself on a different collision course in 2009, when his Cadillac Escalade — one of the dumber vehicles ever invented — ran into a tree and other impediments while evading his wife, on whom he had been cheating.  He has now gone some 20 tournaments without winning, his career stalled like the monster SUV he crashed. He had won an astonishing 71 tournaments — including majors — over a 14-year span. So averaging about 5 wins a year, one would expect that in the last year and a half, he should have won 7 or 8 events, of which at least one would have been a major. However, he has played in about 20 tournaments since his imbroglio (Italian for major screw-up), and he has not only not won a single tournament, but in only one of the events he entered did he finish any higher than 20th. He’s way behind schedule.

But enough about Woods, let’s talk about Bobby Jones. We mentioned earlier that nowadays the Grand Slam consists of the four most important professional golf tournaments of a given year. Back in 1930, Jones stunned the world by winning the earlier version of the Grand Slam. Back then, as now, some events were tougher challenges and more prestigious than others, and those four special tournaments were: the US Amateur and the British Amateur, and the US Open and British Open. An “open” tournament is one which anyone can enter, both amateurs and professionals; one must simply qualify. As you may well imagine, these are the most prodigiously difficult tournaments to win because all the best players show up. Notice that back then, that august group of four tournaments included two amateur events, which means that professional golfers would not have been able to play. This casts an interesting light on Jones’s career, since he retained amateur status through all those years, and yet he beat, in “open” tournaments, the best professionals of the day!

He would have won a great deal of money had he been designated a professional, but he chose to remain an amateur. As an amateur, the rules were very strict in that he was not allowed to collect prize money. On the one hand the professionals he beat suffered from a loss of face — losing to an amateur would do that — but on the other hand they welcomed the first place money, even when they came in second.

Another interesting sidebar is that in 1930, both amateur events were what is called match play, in which the gladiatorial contest is man against man, and the winner is determined by who wins the most holes. The other kind of event, which we see most often today, is called stroke play, in which each golfer plays (usually) four rounds of golf, and the lowest score wins. Some consider match play to be a real pressure cooker, and a more rigorous test than stroke play.

Bobby Jones won his first major tournament, the US Open, in 1923, and ended his competitive golf career in 1930 with a total of 13 majors: 4 US Opens, 5 US Amateurs, 3 British Opens and one British Amateur. It is very impressive that over that span of years, he entered 21 major tournaments and won 13 of them, for an incredible 62% winning percentage. No one else has come close.

As you can see, any discussion of the history of major tournaments and grand slams is like comparing apples and oranges, since in some cases amateur events and match play are involved, and in other cases professional events and stroke play.

Jones retired from competitive golf after his amazing year of 1930, but continued to play somewhat more relaxed rounds with his father and old friends. He never lost his considerable passion for the game, and sought other outlets, other ways to contribute to the game that had given him so much. That opportunity arose in his grand slam year of 1930, when he discovered a decrepit, overgrown horticultural experiment gone awry, dating back to the Civil War, in Augusta, Georgia.

Fruitlands Nurseries had been a successful provider of exotic fruit trees and flowers for many years, but had suffered a downturn and neglect. Like many great people who see things others can’t, Bobby Jones saw the 365 acre property, and imagined a great golf course. With a little financial help and a similar helping of golf course design savvy from one of the greatest golf course architects, Jones’s dream turned into reality, and the old nursery became Augusta National Golf Club. This course, Augusta National, is where the Masters has been hosted since 1934.

One of the reasons for the tournament’s uniqueness is that it is always held at the same course. It is considered one of the most beautiful golf courses in the world. (You should watch the tournament on the biggest high-definition TV screen you can find.) Other major golf tournaments like the US Open and the British Open are held on different golf courses each year. (It might be more correct to say that the British Open — or simply the “Open Championship” in the UK — is held on a course selected from a finite rota or set of links style golf courses every year. Links style courses are those that lie along the sea shore, so that the weather plays a key role.) It is this continuity and rich history of the Masters that renders it so special, a hallowed ground for golfers.

My wife and I have a tenuous but precious link to Bobby Jones. In 1958 he went to St Andrews, Scotland, where he had both won and lost life-changing tournaments at the Old Course, the most famous golf course in golf history. By that time he had been suffering from syringomyelia, a serious disease that dissipated his spine, and turned a vigorous athlete into a hobbling and delicate old man way before his time. He was to be the non-playing golf captain of an American team of amateur golfers competing in an international event.

Before he left for Scotland he had received a letter from the town’s clerk, who asked if Jones wouldn’t mind accepting an award while he was there. Jones inferred that this award was to be like so many other keys to the cities he had graciously received from towns big and small over his illustrious career. It turned out that the honorary title, Freedom of the City and Royal Burgh of St Andrews, was far more rare and special, and had been bestowed upon only one other American — to Benjamin Franklin, in 1759. Keep in mind that St Andrews is roughly one thousand years old…

The award ceremonies, featuring an emotional speech by Jones — which forces me to use at least six kleenex every time I read it — were held at Younger Hall.  The large and grand building, part of the University of St Andrews campus on North St, is where I met my wife.

It was the fall of 2006, the morning of the orientation for foreign post-graduate students. I was in a quiet, private mood, and so instead of joining the boisterous crowd in front of the entrance, I was across the street. What happened next was one of the weirdest things to ever happen to me.

In the crowd I noticed a girl with really nice blonde hair. Friends who have known me for a while would have said, right off the bat, that this was strange, because I love red hair. (One day I’ll tell you more.) She was in the crowd with her back to me; all I saw was her hair.

Then, a little voice said, “Go talk to her.”  I swear, it’s the truth.

I thought, “OK, I’m in Scotland now, nothing stopping me from recreating myself, and there’s nothing wrong with talking to her.” As I started to walk across the street, the massive doors to Younger Hall opened, and the crowd began to pour in. I thought, “Huh, I’ve lost her.” A few moments later and I was in the large room, looking at a multitude of metal folding chairs, many with butts on them. After a quick scan — and I can remember it like it was this afternoon — I saw her maybe 25 feet away from me. There was one empty chair next to her. So I sat down. I took a couple breaths and introduced myself. A moment later the principal of the University (the UK version of the president) came out onto the stage, and welcomed us.

Then he said, “Look around. One out of three of you will meet your future spouse here.” At that point I took another quick look at her, and thought, “Nah, she’s too young, and she’s out of my league.” Later, she told me that she glanced at me and thought, “Not him. He’s too old!”

The next fall, I proposed to her at Edinburgh Castle, in Scotland’s capital city, and we married a year later in Hingham, Massachusetts. She promised to love and obey, and to caddie for me when I play at Augusta National.

Amy Winehouse Plays the Old Course

May 9, 2008

Dateline Thursday, May 8, 2008

Amy Winehouse was released from police custody in London after yet another drug arrest. It was the second time in a week she had been arrested on drug charges, and then, inexplicably to this observer, released again nearly immediately after being incarcerated. Upon her release, on the advice of her drug councilor, she headed north to Scotland, where she played a therapeutic round of golf at the Old Course in St Andrews.

On the tee of the first hole, after Winehouse and her caddie Pete Doherty learned that the hole’s name was the “Burn” hole, they sat down and proceeded to light up a pipe filled with hashish. This would hardly have raised an eyebrow in London, but as this was St Andrews it provoked a response similar to that of Henry Bateman’s painting, “The Man Who Missed the Ball on the First Tee at St Andrews”. (See my “page” on the right.) I mean, people were shocked. The Secretary of the R&A escorted the couple into the clubhouse, where they were detained for three minutes.

The Secretary apologized for the delay, awarded Winehouse a par for the first hole, and hastened her to begin her round on number two.

At number 2, the “Dyke” hole, Pete whipped out a needle and added an impromptu tattoo of two women kissing to Amy’s upper thigh. A marshal penalized her a stroke for delaying play, but then rescinded it.

Number 3, the “Cartgate” hole, features a dangerous bunker down the left side called the Principal‘s Nose. Winehouse, hearing this, dropped everything and ran for the bunker. She jumped in, and immediately began snorting cocaine from an ingenious dispenser that looked like a golf ball.

Number 4 is the “Ginger Beer” hole, named for the refreshments sold from a cart owned by “Auld Daw” (David) Anderson back in the 1890’s. (Anderson had been a greenskeeper, ball-maker and caddie at St Andrews.) Amy pulled out a cellphone, and moments later a helicopter landed. A burly attendant emerged, carrying two cases of beer, which were rapidly consumed by the dangerous duo. A marshal penalized them two strokes: one for delaying play and one for not sharing the beer with the marshal.

On number 5, the “Hole O’Cross”, she hooked her drive into the Elysian Fields along the left of the fairway, where she encountered a group of autograph-seekers walking along the beach that runs next to the course. She head-butted the first three, causing the rest to flee screaming. The marshal did not assess a penalty in this case, because head-butting is encouraged in Scotland, and to sign autographs would have slowed down play.

As you probably know, the 6th is called “Heathery”. There is a cluster of bunkers down the left named the Coffins. Winehouse and Doherty were greatly amused to lie down, after shooting up some heroin, and pretend they were dead and in pine boxes. Smart money suggests this will happen sooner rather than later.

When Winehouse and Doherty discovered that the 7th is called “High” hole, Doherty produced a Thai stick the size of a golf club, and soon thereafter the two golfers were puffing away on it.

Lost and disoriented, they skipped the 8th hole, “Short”, and stumbled on to number nine, “End”. Doherty saw the historical note on the golfer’s guide telling how the Kruger bunkers, far to the left, date from the Boer War. Winehouse, whose ears were ringing at this time, thought that Doherty called her a whore, and so slashed his head with her sand wedge. Pete, feeling no pain by this time, saw the trail of blood roll down and stain his shirt, which he admired for its realistically blood-red color. The marshal was going to penalize them further, but then considered what’s the point?

Number 10 is a good hole, named for Bobby Jones by St Andrews admirers after he passed away in 1971. Winehouse noted the quote from Jones printed on the scorecard, about competitive golf being played mainly on a 5 ½ inch course, which is the space between your ears. She found this to be so hilarious that she and Doherty each popped 5 ½ Ecstasy tablets, and rolled around in the gorse.

The 11th hole, “High” confused the pair, because they thought they had already played the High hole. (Here I should mention for Old Course neophytes that the Old Course is unusual in that there are seven “double” greens. These extra-large greens serve double duty in that one part of the green is used for an outward bound hole, and then another part of that green is used for an inward bound hole. For example, the outward 5th hole, “Hole O’Cross (out)” shares the same green with number 13 coming in, cleverly named “Hole O’Cross (in)”. Likewise with holes 6 and 12, and 7 and 11, sharing greens and to some degree names.)

Let’s get back to our detailed and dispassionate narrative. Winehouse and Doherty were confused by the arcane course layout and nomenclature, so on the “High (in)” hole, they noticed that they hadn’t smoked any crack cocaine yet, whereupon Pete produced the hardware and applied the pyrotechnics. The marshal was spotted later sobbing uncontrollably in a large thistle bush.

By the time they recovered their bearings they were on number 13, “Hole O’Cross” in that homecoming direction we talked about. Winehouse hit into a nasty little bunker down the left called the Cat’s Trap. Doherty pulled out a cat he had recently trapped, which had been tied up with duct tape. With dramatic flair he picked up Winehouse’s ball from the bunker, replaced it with the snarling cat, and exhorted her to hit the cat instead of the ball. Doherty is reported to have said, “They don’t go very far, but I love the sound they make when you hit them real good.”

A marshal swooped down before her back swing attained that full athletic coiling, and plucked the cat away in time, recognizing that the cat was indeed his own. He penalized Winehouse nine strokes, the same number of lives that cats purportedly have.

The 14th hole is called “Long”. Menacing the left side of the fairway are four bunkers known as the Beardies. Winehouse took the opportunity to impugn Doherty’s pathetic excuse for a beard, directing much scorn on the few scraggly hairs that are seen more often on old ladies whose eyesight has failed. This caused a bit of an imbroglio, made worse by the fact that Doherty had just created and consumed a new cocktail made from two cups each of vodka and Scotch whisky, and was feeling maudlin.

Number 15 is a beautiful hole, the “Cartgate (in)”. Learning that the pair of mounds in the fairway used as an aiming point were called Miss Grainger’s Bosoms – I’m not making this up – Winehouse again whipped out her cellphone, and soon a huge black SUV appeared. Out popped an artsy-looking, androgynous specimen, who on the barked orders of Winehouse, began to apply green body paint to Amy’s now-bared breasts. When finished, and when Winehouse lay down on the ground, the resemblance between the actual golf course and Winehouse’s upper torso was astounding. When notified by radio, the Secretary called the R&A lawyers to see if this was some sort of copyright infraction, but was instead told it was merely bad taste.

On the 16th, the “Corner of the Dyke” hole, another bit of theatre unfolded. Guarding the green directly in front is the Wig bunker. Coincidentally, Amy had hit her ball in there, and by this point she was so frazzled due to the lack of intoxicating stimulants, that her own wig began to shift and droop most distressingly. The black bouffant monstrosity atop her head took on a life of its own, one perhaps more meaningful than its former owner. Strange that with the wig down completely covering her eyes, Winehouse hit the best shot of the day, a phenomenal sand wedge that flew towards the flag, landed gently, and then rolled into the cup. She didn’t see it however, because she and Doherty were still in the bunker, drinking from a large box of wine.

The 17th hole, the infamous “Road Hole” runs along a low stone wall fronting the Old Course Hotel. There were so many fans wanting an autograph, or to hear a few words of enlightenment or a song from Amy, that the Black Watch was called in to restore order. To assist with morale Winehouse threw empty beer bottles at the crowd, which quieted them down quickly.

The last hole, named for Old Tom Morris, is where the famous, ancient bridge over the Swilcan Burn is located. (I have a photo of my dad standing on that bridge, and I treasure it.) Winehouse and Doherty, having downed a half bottle of Valium, decided it would be easier to crawl under the bridge than walk over it, and emerged dripping wet if none the worse for wear. Winehouse’s considerable eye make-up was at this point running down and covering both sides of her face in black, the whole impression that of three piano keys. There’s a deep swale in front of the green, the much dreaded “Valley of Sin”, and here this reporter will refrain from detailing what took place between these shining examples of celebrity.

I will tell you that the next morning, Amy Winehouse’s unconscious body was found hanging from the obelisk that stands very near to the 18th green, the Martyr’s Monument. If that particular juxtaposition has any meaning for you, please let me know.

Golf and Restaurants, Part I

May 2, 2008

I have been thinking recently of the important relationship between golf and restaurants. Those of you who do not play golf — you civilians — may not see the connection, but it is a long and significant one. On a wonderful day at the course with your friends, who would not think of getting a hot dog and a beer at the turn? (For you civilians, that’s the break between the front and back nines.) This is an ancient tradition that dates back to about 1132, when Farkus the Flatulent was beating Bagdir the Bellicose in a no-handicap match, and Bagdir pounded the daylights out of Farkus’s favorite yak with his 6-iron, and then ate it before teeing off on the next hole. As everybody knows, the first hot dogs were made of ground yak.

It is a popularly held myth that John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich (1718-1792) invented the sandwich, but golf historians agree that it was actually invented by a hungry Scottish golfer, when he tucked a small sheep between two pieces of bread. This is also how the expression “to pull the wool over his eyes” came about: his opponent chose the moment when his vision was blocked by his large sandwich to cheat.

There is considerable debate over the nature of the evolution of golf balls. Many feel the earliest balls were simply small, round stones, which were hit with crooked sticks by shepherds. In later years wooden balls were used, then featheries (leather pouches stuffed with feathers), then gutta percha (a kind of rubber), and then the Haskell ball, the first to be constructed of multiple layers consisting of a small rubber core surrounded by wound elastic thread covered by a tough outer layer. Recent documents suggest that one of the early balls, and Peter Lewis of the British Golf Museum disputes this, was in reality a very small haggis. Heavily smudged records show that customers of Cornelius Corstorphine, “the worst butcher in Fife,” often used small units of haggis for their games, since Corstorphine’s haggis was considered unfit for consumption.

When the first golfing clubs were established, such as the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers in 1744, or the Crail Golfing Society in 1786, they did not have what we would recognize today as a clubhouse. Instead, after their rounds of golf were over, the gentlemen would repair to a nearby inn or roadhouse, and enjoy a banquet. The Edinburgh “Gentlemen golfers” usually convened at a local tavern called Luckie Clephan’s, while the men from Crail dined at the Golf Inn, to this day a cozy spot with a nice fireplace.

On tomorrow’s post I will describe in more detail what one of these après golf dinners was like, and some of the unusual customs. You’ll be astounded at the quantity and variety of courses, and quantity and quantity and quantity of strong and satisfying beverages. Let’s just say that little pain was felt.

See you tomorrow.

Baseball in Scotland

April 27, 2008

I saw your eyebrows. They lifted in surprise when you saw today’s subject line. But there’s quite a bit of interest in American baseball here in Scotland. Well, from me mostly.

Each morning starts with a perusal of the box scores, recaps and standings on ESPN’s major league baseball “scoreboard”. From there one can jump to player stats, team stats, season stats, and pretty much anything you could want, short of having the phone number of Bill James. I focus on a handful of teams: the Seattle Mariners, because I lived there for half my life and still think they can go all the way; the Boston Red Sox, my newly adopted team, winners of two World Series in four years; the Baltimore Orioles, mostly from an ancient loyalty to my approximate birthplace, and proximity to Maryland’s Eastern Shore during those golden years at Washington College in Chestertown, and because Brother Dave goes to lots of games; the Washington Nationals, because they are the Senators reincarnate, although my interest rapidly declined after lots of losing; and lastly, the New York Yankees (?). I look at how the Damn Yankees do only because I love to see them lose. (There is something salubrious, for me at least, about splenetic Yankees owner George Steinbrenner getting furious when his team is beaten; his chip-off-the-old-block son Hank looks to follow in the micro-management mold, and is sure to earn as little respect as his dad among baseball people.) The best days are when the Bosox beat them, due to the age-old rivalry. Funny, here in Scotland you see a fair number of Yankee baseball hats on the heads of Scots. Michelle has some pretty choice words to describe the Yankees, and came close a couple times to telling off big burly Scots wearing those caps with the distinctive “NY” logo. Michelle and I believe they don’t have any idea what bums the Yankees are; they just wear the hats because they know it has something to do with the States.

Which reminds me, if you have never read Michaels Lewis’s book “Moneyball“, let me tell you it’s a fascinating refresher course in baseball managing strategy, and throws new light on baseball statistics. It came out in 2003 but is still valuable, and sits nicely on the shelf next to his other works on sports, economics and winning vs losing. For those new to baseball it is an excellent primer, and I recommended it to my students majoring in business as a guide to the world of winning with limited resources.

But what prompted my post today was the surprising performance of the Orioles. They’re sitting on top of the AL East! Holy cow! New manager Dave Trembley must be doing something right. Last year, and the year before that, they finished the season TWENTY-SEVEN games out of first place. Hometown fans must be enjoying the reversal of fortunes, since for the last home-stand series of games, attendance averaged just over 80% of capacity. Baltimore’s Camden Yards is one of my favorite ballparks, with great views, a friendly crowd — the opposite of the hostile beasts found at Yankee Stadium — and lots of excellent food like Maryland crab cakes. There’s lots of new talent, since I look at the box scores and don’t recognize more than one or two of the Baltimore players, which is weird since I used to know the names up and down the line-up. And while I hope to tag along this year with Dave to see the O’s again at Camden Yards, I also can’t wait for my first glimpse of Boston’s Fenway Park when I move to “The Hub” this summer. Cool.

Lastly, a team I have my eye on is the Arizona Diamondbacks. One interesting baseball stat that leads me to this is the difference between the runs scored and runs allowed. The Orioles sit at the top of the NL West division holding a three-run difference, while the D-backs sit on top of theirs, with a whopping fifty-four-run difference. Arizona had until recently led the majors in this category by a ton, until the Cubs largely caught up with a recent three-game series against Pittsburgh, in which they outscored the Pirates by TWENTY runs, and who now hold a forty-two-run difference. Baltimore will have to do a lot of things right to keep their lead in the AL East, if they can only maintain such a narrow margin of victory.