Notes from an Irish golf trip

I returned recently from an eight day, eight and a half course golf trip to Ireland.  Cathie and I have three wonderful sons and this was a chance to explore and play golf with the two who are golfers.  Here are some random observations from that trip.

Links golf as land use: We only played links courses, not so much as a matter of intent, but rather as a result of geography and reputation.  We wanted to play the big name courses in the North, and the rankings of other courses in the vicinity drove us toward the coast.  Links golf is a fortuitous use of land that has no clear alternative function.  I suppose it could still be used as grazing land, but we didn’t get the impression that the island was suffering from a lack of space on which to let sheep roam.

Links land is that transition between land that can be farmed and the expanse of sand that leads to the ocean–hence the name; it is a link between those two zones.  It is a rumpled landscape, sand and dune grass laid like a carpet over the jumble of rocks and debris left behind by the glaciers.  The transformation of this type of land into a place for recreation is–in my completely biased opinion– an ingenious improvisation.  Unfortunately, golf as an export  from its birthplace suffers–somewhat justly–from the accusation that it appropriates land that has other uses or is forcibly implanted into lava flows and desert expanses that should have been left alone to be nothing more than what they are.  But that’s not the case here on the links land of Ireland and the U.K.

As a footnote to this, I do have a question for my Irish readers.  How is it that no matter how special the location or how splendid the view and setting, there is almost always what we in the States would call a mobile home park plunked right down next to a course?  In one respect this has an admirable equalitarian feel to it.  Although there is public ownership of beaches in California, the habitable real estate immediately nearby is generally owned exclusively by the rich.  These compounds of small manufactured homes abutting some of the most renowned golf courses in the world are a welcome alternative to that exclusivity, but it still feels odd to an American.

Links golf as a form of the sport: I find it really really hard.  Nothing can unsettle my tempo like a stiff breeze in the face.  Combine that with the anticipation that I have no idea where the bounces and ricochets are going to take the latest sacrificial victim from a dwindling supply of balls, and my already fragile golf synapses get fried.  But having said that, it’s still a great ride.  And I want to get better at it.

Reputations are deserved: Our itinerary ranged from the grand Royals (Portrush and County Down) to the more obscure (Narin & Portnoo and Cruit Island). When I walked off Royal Portrush I felt I had just played the greatest golf course I’d ever played, and my list of courses, while not all that extensive, includes Lahinch, Ballybunion and Pebble.  Then we played County Down and I felt I might have to recalibrate, although how I would rank the two is unavoidably colored by the next point.

Performance affects perception: Quite simply–all things being equal–it is hard not to prefer a course one has played well over another where one didn’t fare as well.  That’s simply human nature. And the vocabulary of course critique provides an arsenal of explanations that give either the positive or negative review a veneer of objectivity.  Did you play that tricky par-4 poorly? Well, then it’s gimmicky.  Oh, you birdied it? Well then, it’s an awesome little hole that gives you a lot of options.

Perhaps the distinction that applies here is the difference between liking and respecting.  I liked Portrush and I respect Royal County Down.

The pleasures of being off the beaten track: As great as it was to play the Royals and have them live up to the advance billing–something that we all know does not always happen in life–it was equally fantastic to play other respected but not as renowned courses and feel at times that my son and I had them to ourselves.  In particular I love the memory of our last day of golf. We had an 11:00 tee time at Portsalon but the weather looked threatening in the afternoon so we left Letterkenny early, hoping that we could get out and in before it hit.  There was something pretty cool about driving into the parking lot at Portsalon around 9am and finding only three cars there. The guy in the proshop waved us out and there we were, hitting tee shots overlooking one of the most beautiful beaches in Europe, headed out to a course where we would see just a handful of groups.

More to follow. This will do for now.

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Golfenfreude

The LPGA returned to the Bay Area last week and my club, Lake Merced, had the honor of hosting the event, the LPGA Mediheal Championship.

It was pretty great.

There is something undeniably special about seeing the best female golfers in the world not just up close and in person, but also playing your course, dealing with its idiosyncrasies and challenges, just as we members do every week, except with better results.

But not always.

My first day at the tournament I had some time to kill before reporting for duty as a walking scorer.  I walked down to what the members know as the 14th green, which was playing as the 5th since the tournament organizers had reversed the nines, a decision that paid dramatic dividends on Sunday when Lydia Ko barely missed holing out from 230 yards for double eagle in her playoff against Minjee Lee, a situation that would not have been possible on the longer uphill 18th hole.

When I got there I saw Inbee Park and Brooke Henderson walking down the fairway, approaching their balls, both of which lay in the rough just to the right of the green.

I also instantly recognized the shot that awaited them.  Those of us who have played the course for years have been there countless times, perhaps not lying two as these two stars were,  but maybe in three, four or five or whatever.  With a front pin the challenge is to get the club through the juicy rough and then flop the ball on to a small landing area that slopes away from you.  It’s an easy shot to screw up, or if you prefer, a hard shot to pull off.

I was about to get confirmation of that.  Inbee approached her ball first, made a few short, brisk practice swings, and then proceeded to propel the ball a mere six feet or so.  Still in the thick stuff. Now lying three.

Been there, done that.

Now Brooke approached her ball, and intent no doubt on not replicating Inbee’s effort,  swung with more force, managing to get her ball only to the edge of the green, leaving a challenging putt for birdie.

Yeah, I’ve done that too.  You know you have to go after the ball to get it out but you are also very aware that too much force will propel it well past the hole and even onto the slope leading down to the bunker on the opposite side.

Now I’m assuming that we’re all familiar with the German word schadenfreude, which translates as malicious joy.  It defines that less than admirable but all too common flicker of pleasure that we feel when we witness the misfortunes of somebody we thought had it coming to them.

Now to be clear, that is not what I felt at that moment. I bear no animus to Inbee or Brooke.  I respect their games and wasn’t looking to see them humbled.  Instead I felt something closer to vindication or reassurance.  Standing there, watching their frustration, I could tell myself something along the lines of “See that? Two of the best in the world and they did no better than what you do in the same situation.”

Over the course of walking the course for three days I saw several other instances like this.  On Saturday I was scoring for the leaders and saw Annie Park make a hash out of our second hole.  Here was her recipe for disaster: tee shot into the fairway bunker; a second shot that was a bit too close to the hosel and got pushed by the wind and flared way out to the right, coming to rest next to the large cypress tree alongside the third tee; a classic “decel” on the intimidating pitch shot that she was left with for her third shot that resulted in the hall plopping down into the green side bunker; a reasonable bunker shot for her fourth, except that she was short-sided so the bogey putt was pretty much impossible and it all concluded with a somber little tap-in for a double.

Again, this was not pleasant to watch, but instructive nonetheless.  If Inbee’s and Brooke’s little mishaps illustrated the difficulty of a particular situation and shot, Annie’s travails on the second showed how a hole can go from bad to worse with one swing of the club.  In both instances I felt a kinship with these golfers.

I’m pretty sure that there isn’t a German word for this emotion. If there were, it would be–if the Google translation app can be trusted–something along the lines of gemeinsame Golferfahrung, which is the answer you get if you enter “shared golf experience.”  Just doesn’t have the same ring as schadenfreude.

And it definitely would not be the made-up word I used as the title for this post. That translates as golf joy.  And that is not what I’ve been talking about.

 

Two games, one ball

(And before we start, yes, the title of this post is an intentional reference to a notorious video of several years ago.)

The other day a guy I follow on Twitter, Joe Wiesenthal–@TheStalwart–did a small but remarkable thing on that social media platform.  He posed the following question: “What’s a raging controversy in a community or field that you’re obsessed with, but which very few people know about?”  This was that rare instance in which somebody was using Twitter to reach out beyond the intramural blood sport that passes for dialogue on that platform, and asking, “Hey, what else is going on out there?”

I was on BART when I saw his tweet, and when I tapped the icon to reply I saw that one of the first responses was the one I was going to offer: the controversy over introducing a  reduced flight golf ball to the professional tour.  And Joe had been quick to respond that he had no idea this was A Thing.

But, as those of us who follow the game know, it is the subject of debate.  I think it would be good–or at least interesting–to use a reduced flight ball on occasion and have some Tour events take place at some of the classic courses that are considered to be outmoded in this new era of prodigious distance.  I wouldn’t dial the ball back for all events, just a handful.  This would make professional golf resemble its cousin, professional tennis.  The Grand Slam events take place on different surfaces, and the true measure of the greatest is their ability to adjust to a ball that behaves differently depending on the event they’re playing.  That’s what makes Roger Federer’s career so remarkable.

But one of the curious aspects of this debate, or at least the debate that I can observe on my Twitter feed, is the pushback from amateurs who don’t want the ball they play with to be dialed back.  But who said that had to be part of the deal?  Dustin Johnson has yardage he could reasonably be expected to give up, I and a lot of others don’t.

One of golf’s appealing features is that those of us who have to pay to play can emulate–to a limited degree–the game of those who are paid to play.  We can drain the long putt, knock it close on a pitch shot, execute the perfect bunker shot.  Just not that often.  And then there’s a long list of other stuff–the 340 yard drive, the 190 yard 8 iron–that isn’t going to happen absent a gale force wind at our backs.  Whenever we get a chance to get up close to the pros and see them play in person, it is a certainty that somebody in your group of spectators will shake their head and say, “They’re playing a different game.”

So, if they’re playing a different game,  make them–on occasion–play a different ball.  Two games, one ball?  Maybe that doesn’t work all the time. But leave my ball alone.  Because, I’m very fussy about that sort of thing.  I only play with the least scuffed up one I’ve found out on the course in the past couple weeks.

POTUS and Golf

 

Alan Shipnuck has written an excellent article in Golf Digest examining Donald Trump’s relationship and involvement with golf.  Go read it for a very thorough and well-researched discussion of the topic.  But as excellent as Alan’s work is, I think there’s still room to add another perspective.  Let’s consider for a moment how the nature of the game not only fits Trump’s personality, but also reinforces some of his less admirable traits.  There’s what we know about him, and there’s what we know about the game and that’s all it takes to get started.

Golf is the most self-referential of all sports.  In golf, it really is all about you.  There is no opponent who is trying to propel some object past you or knock you to the ground. You are not part of a team in which you have a defined and limited role.  Teamwork, such as it exists in golf, consists of helping your partner read a putt, but then only when asked.  There’s never a decision to be made between taking the shot or passing to a teammate.  You always take the shot.  It’s just you and your ball.  Yes, there are external factors like the course or the elements, but everyone else is dealing with the same conditions.  Your score is the reflection of how you, solely on your own, dealt with them.

So what game could possibly be better suited for a raging narcissist like our 45th President?  It’s a perfect match.

Golf is the most social of sports.  Let’s face it, there’s a lot of downtime in our game: waiting to hit your tee shot, driving or walking off in search of your tee shot, evaluating what club to use on your fifth shot, reconvening on the green for what we refer to as putting when what we’re really doing should be called An Appeal Process for Being Granted a Gimmee.  As a result we have lots of time to talk.

Now, say what you will about our President, he does strike me as an especially social guy in the sort of superficial way that golfers can be.   You know what I’m talking about: the kind of guy who’s introduced to you on the first tee, immediately forgets your name within five seconds of hearing it, and then proceeds to talk about himself for the next four hours. So once again, golf enables him to be in his element.  He can josh and needle, sprinkle his commentary with names of the rich and famous he claims to know, boast about himself, talk about the courses he’s played and restaurants where he’s eaten. You know, be That Guy, the one that everyone thinks is a blowhard.  I’ve read that at times Trump can be an amusing, or even charming blowhard, but he is one nonetheless, and the game has granted him a perfect stage upon which to strut.  Try talking about yourself  for four hours while cycling or playing tennis.  You got to play golf to give yourself that amount of air time.

Golf places a premium on self-confidence.  Now success in any sport requires self-confidence.  But I think it could be argued that golf, perhaps more than any other sport, goes overboard in encouraging and rewarding a positive attitude about one’s self.  Anyone who has read about the mental side of the game has been reminded over and over about “trusting your swing” and approaching each shot with resolve and commitment.  We are told that we need to forget whatever has happened before and stay in the present moment, that quiet patch of time in which we proceed, with the utmost calm and confidence, to execute the next shot.

Now those of us who live in what a spokesperson for the Bush administration once called the “reality based world” can find it challenging to psyche ourselves up in this manner.  Instead, we accumulate, over the course of a round, a pretty accurate mental catalogue of just how well we’re swinging the club that day.   After skulling three pitch shots we are not brimming with confidence as we stand over the fourth. To approach it in any other manner would seem more than slightly self-delusional.

Ah, but imagine that you are not that way.  Instead, think about believing that in any situation or any setting that you are simply the best, the greatest, the mostest of the most.  What screw up? I don’t know what you’re talking about. It was the greatest whatever whenever.

Sound like anybody you’ve heard of?  Again, no wonder he loves golf!  It not only encourages him to forget any faults or errors, but rewards that very attitude.

Golf is a game of prestige.  Having said that, there is nothing intrinsically elitist about the game.  It grew out of a diversion for shepherds who needed something to do while tending their flocks.  But then the English and Scottish aristocracies got hold of it, and thus began the long detour into increasing levels of exclusivity.  Over the centuries the game has acquired the various trappings of prestige: the exclusive private club, the iconic courses, the whole array of expensive greens fees, equipment and other accoutrements.

But there is a critical distinction about this prestige: it is something that can–in most instances–be bought.  It is all for sale. It is acquired through transaction, not accomplishment. Write the check and it can be yours.  And thus, once again, we find ourselves smack dab in The Donald’s element.  You can buy your way in, and if you’re him, set up a business built on charging other people the entrance fee.  It’s all supposed to be very classy, but in the end, it’s all merchandise.

Golf is a game of honor that is easily debased.   Golf is quite eager to proclaim itself a game of honor.  Look at these players who called penalties on themselves!  Look at all these rules that are fastidiously self-enforced by millions of players every weekend.  And yet these noble examples stand out in a sea–or should I say swamp–of corruption.

We golfers are all familiar with the litany of ways that the score on any given hole can be adjusted, misrepresented or corrupted.  Then there is the matter of posting a score at the end of a round so that the governing authority for your region can assign you an index, which in effect is your ID badge as a golfer.

Golf is a game of numbers that can be fudged.  You know, like, tax returns.  There is no other sport that offers so many opportunities to commit fraud.  Basically you can present yourself as something you’re not: a 14-handicap, when 10 would be more accurate, or for those whose self-regard depends on appearance and labels, a 4-handicap when something higher would be a more accurate reflection of actual performance.

Golf is an hospitable environment for Trump because you can create all this maneuvering room between what you say you are and what you really are.  You can brand yourself as something you aren’t and then you see how long you can get away with it.

 

I could go on, but I think we’ve covered the major points.  You may have noticed that I didn’t discuss how golf–when played from a cart–can be particularly undemanding as a physical activity and therefore ideal for somebody like Trump who apparently believes that humans are–like batteries–born with a fixed amount of energy that will only be prematurely depleted if one exercises vigorously.  That was too easy.

I read an article recently that, in passing, referred to Trump as the face of golf.  In its own way, I found that one of more alarming implications of the current regime.  He is not the face of the game I love.  But at the same time it is worth considering, at least for those of us who play the game but disagree with his policies, that there is an almost symbiotic relationship between aspects of golf and the Trump personality.  Look at how much he plays.  He needs the game. It feeds him.

 

 

 

 

When bad things happen to great golfers

The turn of events on the back nine this past Sunday at the Masters may have been shocking but in a way it was an appropriate ending for a tournament whose first memorable moment was Ernie Els’ horrific six-putt from two feet on the first hole.  Ernie’s nightmare on the first was a classic example of the sort of thing you hear about and can’t believe, so you have to see it for yourself, and then once you’ve seen it you wish you hadn’t because there is something terrifying about seeing a member of Golf’s Hall of Fame caught in some vicious circle of hell where he cannot for the life of him get the ball to drop into the hole.  It’s also worth remembering that the Big Easy’s fly swatting exhibition was something very few golfers have ever seen.  Yeah, of course we’ve seen the full array of lousy shots and misses and all the rest, but any of us, even a particular playing partner of mine, would have given him the fourth or the fifth putt.  Only a sadist would have made him keep on putting.

Which brings me to the other bookend for the weekend, Jordan at the 12th.  If Ernie at the first hole was the unimaginable, Jordan at the 12th was the unexpected enactment of the familiar.  All of a sudden one of the best in the world looked like any of the crappy golfers most of us spend our weekends with. And to be clear, it isn’t the first shot I’m talking about.  It was that chicken-winged turf excavation that he executed after taking his drop.  That was the money shot, or to be more accurate, the Not-Going-to-Get-Another-Jacket shot.

Now a common response among golfers to mishaps such as this is to cite them as evidence of how hard the game is.  I don’t exactly agree.  The shock value comes from something different.  The standard appraisal of the golf games of players on the PGA tour is that they are playing a different game than the rest of us: the monumental distance off the tee, the precision of the approach shots. the deft touch out of the bunker and around the green.  But when Jordan Speith chunks his third shot into Rae’s Creek he turns things upside down.  He’s no longer playing a different game, now he’s playing our game and it’s very unsettling for us to see that.

 

 

The Open 2.0

Just one week away from the tournament known simply as The Open.  But before we go any farther, let me make one point.  Does anybody remember the topic of our last post?  That’s right, it was about The Other Guy and how he usually doesn’t show up.  And now that seems sadly prophetic in the wake of Rory’s ankle injury…Meanwhile, over at Wimbledon, it’s Djokovic v. Federer in the finals.  Just sayin’.

This year’s Open feels a bit like a redo in the wake of last month’s US Open, which looked like and appeared to play like a British tournament during a particularly dry year.  For those of us in California it was a bit like a glimpse into a dystopian version of golf’s future: a game banished to the site of a former toxic landfill and played on browned out fairways and sun blasted greens; freight trains rumbled by, trees were scarce and the fairways were marked by dried out fescue and hulking industrial ruins…

One of the things I like the most about The Open is the scheduling.  And my wife totally agrees.  There’s nothing she likes better than coming downstairs in the morning and having a golf tournament on the telly at six in the morning…Another favorite feature? The four hole playoff.  Sudden death is too abrupt and too contingent on one errant swing, and that whole day thing on a Monday that the USGA thinks is the right way to settle matters? Screw that….In fact, as far as that goes, the 18-hole playoff strikes me as a bit of an elitist leftover for an organization that is supposedly all about growing the game. It smacks of an attitude that says, “Why of course the gentlemen will return on Monday to determine the championship, and besides the club would ordinarily be closed that day so this won’t inconvenience the members any further.”

But among the things I am not looking forward to are the cliches and trite phrases that American sportscasters and writers feel compelled to put in their bags and then employ when covering an event like The Open: “across the pond” (yuck), “birthplace of the game,” “the coveted (it’s always coveted) claret jug.”  And this year, Jordan Speith’s remarkable play in the majors provides a chance off to dust off “historic quest”, “third leg” and the rest.

The Other Guy, Epilogue

Just reaching back here folks and picking up on this thread….

In the end, one of the interesting things about the role of The Other Guy in golf is that he doesn’t always show up.  Consider for a moment the breathless commentary that follows a victory by one of the emerging stars of the game.  Get set, we are told, for the new rivalry. It’s gonna be Rory vs. Jordan, or Ricky vs. Rory or whatever hypothetical confrontation seems the most compelling at the time.

And then it doesn’t happen.

Sure the New Rivals show up for the majors and compete for the same antique glob of silver.  But, as befits a game in which participants have a tendency to act immaturely and do a fair amount of whining, the competition proceeds like a play date for toddlers: it’s essentially parallel play in which competitors play with their own stuff and don’t do any sharing.  You rarely get the head-to-head competition that we are told to expect.

Consider for a moment the shocking, and in some sense troubling, end to the U.S. Open last month.  The suspense as DJ lined up his eagle putt hinged on whether he would make it and win his first major, or alternatively, miss it and set up the Most Annoying Playoff in Golf, an 18 hole match on a work day.  But as we all witnessed, DJ fell through a virtual trap door, landing in one of the most tortured Circles of Golf Hell, the flubbed short putt.

There was going to be this great head-to-head match.  Polite well-bred young lad from Texas against the guy who had to take a leave from the Tour last year.  Family entourage vs. sexpot wife.  Brains vs. brawn.

But then Dustin didn’t show up.

This all underscores the cruel and razor thin margin between success and failure in golf.  Right now Wimbledon is in full swing, heading towards a final that will most likely feature two of the topmost seeds.  Tennis is like that. It delivers, over the years, a steady diet of Connors v. Borg, Federer v. Nadal.  And this is no surprise if you think of the number of times a competitor hits the ball over the course of a tennis tournament. It’s well into the thousands, and so the Law of Large Numbers exerts its influence and the best players rise to the top.

But not so with our game. The winner of one of our tournaments hits the ball a total number of times that is well under 300 strokes.  This leaves far too much room for the random event, for the undetected bump in the green, or the unlucky roll of an otherwise well-struck shot.  Hence the reverence when golf writers consider a duel such as Nicklaus v. Watson at Turnberry in 1977. It just doesn’t happen that often.  And why is that? That’s right.

The Other Guy didn’t show up.