Hitting like a girl and other thoughts

After a long absence, Why We Golf is back at you with some random observations in the wake of the past eleven days during which my hometown, San Francisco, was the center of the golf world.

First off, as for hitting it like a girl, God how I wish I could!  I was an on-course marshal for some of the leaders’ threesomes for the weekend rounds of the Swinging Skirts, hosted for the second consecutive year at my club, Lake Merced Golf Club.  I walked with Lydia Ko’s group on Saturday and on Sunday I followed Ryu, Kim and Sandra Gal. Yeah, I understand that Rory and the other Big Boys really bomb it but in certain respects it is more impressive to see these women, some of them quite small in stature, hit it as far as they do.  This isn’t golf as a demonstration of strength as much as an expression of what can be accomplished if all the movement in a golf swing is coordinated exactly.  It’s a bit of choreography in which movement, tempo and balance are in harmony.  It’s really impressive….But, having said that, I’m not so sure that I want to putt like a girl.  Except for Lydia, I didn’t see anybody really make any….Back over at Harding this past weekend, the Westside of SF put on a bit of a climate display: positively glorious on Thursday, but then by Saturday as windswept and cold as Patagonia.  In a way it made sense that the two winners on Sunday afternoon, McIlroy and Willett, were from the British Isles.  They likely felt right at home…And I think I speak for all San Franciscan golfers when I say that it was real fun to see our brand of golf on display for the world during these past two weekends.  Like anything in life, we get accustomed to the familiar, but one of the weird things about television is that it becomes a form of validation: if it’s on TV, then almost by definition something becomes special, and seeing our courses on center stage helped put them in a perspective where we could, if not rediscover, then re-appreciate them.  Theirs is a special look: the tilt and cant of their fairways, the towering cypress trees that look like underwater plants with their long trunks and sculpted canopies, the ripe juiciness of their rough.  And then there are the things that even the best players in the world can’t see, specifically the little breaks and tilts on the putting surface, the invisible tugs and pulls that commentators call subtle and that we players find so frustrating and at times infuriating…And speaking of television, I don’t think I need to see that Cadillac ad with Wozniak and the Asian fashion designer ever again.  Like not once more. That’s it.

And on a final note, after listening to him over the weekend, Johnny Miller has finally inspired me. It’s true.We all know that golfer fantasy question, “Who would be in your dream foursome?”  It’s the one where the conventional answer is your dad (if you played with him), Jack or Walter Hagen or Lee Trevino.  You know the drill.  Well, what about your nightmare foursome?  Who would be in that group? I know Johnny’s in mine.  Can you imagine playing with him?  I can hear him now: “It’s a simple putt, really.” “Why did he do that now?” “That is not where you want to be.”  And on and on.  To be honest, I’m not quite sure about the rest of the group.  Lucas Glover is in the running, just because he looks like such a miserable son-of-a-bitch, but I’m having a hard time coming up with a fourth.  Any suggestions?


Golf and Soccer (or football, if you insist)

Yes, I’m back! It’s been a while, I know. But let’s get to it.
Like many of you I have been thoroughly entertained, vexed and exhilarated by the World Cup. And since most things in my life are only one or two mental degrees of separation from golf, I wanted to share some observations about the similarities–yes, you read that right–between the two sports.
Of course the two sports are extremely different in certain obvious respects. It’s difficult–but not impossible–to get farther apart on the aerobic scale (think archery). One is the quintessential team sport, and only the presence of a caddie prevents professional golf from being as solitary a competition as a singles match in tennis. But no matter, what do they have in common?

The B-word
Both sports are often described as “boring” by the non-fan or uninitiated. Of course the opinion that soccer is boring is a minority view globally, and it is most widely held here in the States, home of baseball, a game that most of the planet finds especially tedious. Now I don’t mind when people describe something as boring if they preface the assessment with an “I” statement, as in “I think that..” or close with the clause “…to me.” But all too often I hear people say that “X is boring” and I don’t have the sense that they are being economical with their words and that the conditioning preface or ending, while not voiced, is nevertheless implied. No. Quite the contrary. They are expressing their subjective opinion as if it were an objective assessment.
And as a side note, I think golfers should be especially careful about this kind of pronouncement. We may find it interesting when Steve Williams and Adam Scott debate whether the shot calls for a 7-iron or an 8, and we do appreciate the phenomenal athletic accomplishment involved in hitting a ball 175 yards and having it come to rest on a 12 square foot landing area that has the receptivity of a runway. We like it, but we are definitely outnumbered. A golfer who deems soccer boring is like a guy who ventures out of his glass house with a bag of rocks and starts flinging them around the neighborhood.

Are we having fun yet?
The inspiration for this post came to me after a brief and very indirect encounter I had this past Friday. (It was also, sadly, prophetic of my own emotions some 48 hours later.) As I left work that afternoon I checked the score of the Ecuador-Honduras match one last time. 1-0 Honduras. I got on BART and when I got off at 24th Street and Mission I ducked into a little pastry shop a couple doors down from the station. It’s one of those Mexican shops that sell those really cruddy cookies that taste like they were made out of sawdust. They’re so bad our sons–even as little kids– wouldn’t eat them. There was a small, non-high def TV perched on the top of the shelves at the rear of the shop and I took a quick peek at the score: 1-1, Ecuador had equalized. As I turned to leave I saw an older guy–probably my age-wearing a well-worn Honduran National team jersey. Our eyes met for just a moment. I raised my eyebrows as a way of acknowledging the change in the game’s circumstances, and also as a way of masquerading that, although it was not with a great deal of passion, I was rooting for Ecuador. But what struck me at that moment was the look in this guy’s eyes. It was mixture of anxiety and dread, leavened only slightly by the faintest bit of hope that maybe, just maybe, things might work out. His team had scored their first World Cup goal in years, but now that advantage was erased. His country, one of the poorest in the Western Hemisphere, was on the world stage, but only for a moment, and as the momentum of the game shifted, he seemed to anticipate that this appearance would be just another opportunity for disappointment and defeat.
And so it is out on the course. We approach difficult shots with a fatalistic attitude. We pepper the air with expletives and groans. We see bad things happen to our golf balls, and although we express our disappointment with a full range of complaint and invective, deep down inside we’re not surprised. We knew it would happen. And yet we return again and again to the course, hoping, just like that Honduran guy in the pastry shop, that maybe this will be the time things are different.
Commentators describe both games, golf and soccer, as cruel. You don’t hear that about American football. Brutal yes, but cruel no. The same goes for all the other sports. They can disappoint, they can frustrate, but they don’t have the reputation for cruelty. These two do.  As the Men in Blazers pointed out to us in the painful aftermath of the Portugal match, “Football is meant to hurt,” and every weekend millions of golfers console themselves and their playing partners by observing that “it’s a tough game.”

The realm of the random
Bad hops and weird bounces play a role in other sports, but not to the degree they do with these two. The ball caroms off a shin and straight onto the boot of an onrushing player and–voila–GOOOOOOOOOOOOOOAAAAAAALLLLL. The well-struck putt, perfectly calibrated in terms of speed and line, hits the smallest of imperfections or lumps as it decelerates near the hole and–just like that–somebody else gets the trophy. In both sports we celebrate and exult in the rare and improbable.  Goals are, as all too many an American has been known to complain, rare events in the course of a match, and there is no higher spot in the pantheon of golf than the one reserved for that rarity, the inexplicably perfect shot, the hole in one.  In both games, we put up with a lot of back and forth as the price for the chance to experience the breakthrough, the moment when it does all work out.

So, as I get ready to hit the button that says “Publish,” we are just hours away from knowing if the USA advances or goes home.  Will this be a day to celebrate, or a day to look back at Sunday’s 95th minute with renewed anguish?  Who knows? I’m ready to be happy, I’m resigned to being disappointed.  I’m a fan.  I’m a golfer.

Golfing greetings

Well, well, it has been a while, hasn’t it? Full-time employment will do that. When I last posted the follow-up was going to address the topic of “What is the Purpose of Bad Golf?” We’ll get back to that eventually, but right now, let’s get seasonal.
And by that I’m talking about viewing the symbols, songs and stories of the holiday season from a golfing perspective. In other words, what is the Golf Version of the Holidays? Everybody’s making lists this time of year, so here’s mine:

Hanukkah: In the Golf version, an intrepid band of golfers save their course from being plowed under for a condo development. In celebration, they gather at the first tee to play their course once again, even though they know that there’s only enough daylight left to play one hole. But then a great miracle takes place and it stays light long enough for them to play eight more holes. They get to play the Front Nine!

The 12 Days of Christmas: In this version you get a club a day. What? You want to know what happened to the other two? Listen, you know you can’t hit a 3-iron to save your life and in your hands a lob wedge might as well be a shovel. Your true love is doing you a favor.

The wreath: May the hole look this big every time you have a “must make” putt.

Christmas trees: This is what happens to every and any tree that has ever knocked down a shot of yours. They are cut down, and dragged into houses where hot lights and ornaments are wrapped around their limbs. People look at them in their garish captivity and then they’re cast out on to the street where they’re collected and ground into mulch. Let that be a warning to them! Maybe they’ll think twice about messing with our golf balls.

The three wise men: The foursome you wish you played in.

“Jingle Bells”: Rattle clubs, rattle clubs, rattle all the way, you can hear me walking from about a mile away!

A Christmas Carol: If Dickens had been a golfer, old Scrooge would have been the same jerk, only Tiny Tim is the caddy that he mistreats. In this version he has the same cycle of dreams, but in his dream of Golf in his Future he sees how feeble his swing is, how much age has eroded his game and he awakes chastened and realizes that he has to appreciate the game that he plays, instead of whining and bitching about it.

That’s it for now. I hope everybody has a great holiday season!

The cycle of golf

Even those of us who spaced out during biology class are familiar with the cycle of life: birth, the bloom of youth, maturity, decay, death, compost, birth and back on the wheel again. A cycle is also part of the marketing pitch for religion. In the version popular in these here parts, there’s rebirth in a really long sequel that stars YOU. In other versions, there is a series of sequels in which your role is played by an ensemble cast.
But there is also the cycle of golf. I’m not referring to the trend in one’s game that follows the meta-trend of one’s life. Rather I’m talking about the wheel inside the wheel, the cycle of good play giving way to bad play and then worse play, only to be followed by a resurrection and return to good play. This is the cycle that can take place over the course of a season, a month, even down to the micro-level of one round or even a single hole.
Why is this? Why does the game have to be this way? It’s not like I’m that erratic in the rest of my life. Good Lord, if I were, I’d be freaking Charlie Sheen: one day on the red carpet, the next day in jail. So what’s up with that?
Well, first off let’s consider, as a thought experiment, the possibility that the game was not this way, and that in fact it was precisely the opposite: you worked at it and just got better. You might level off at various points along the way, but over time your mastery just grew. It would be like learning a language in which you mastered increasingly difficult conjugations and declensions and improved your listening comprehension. You wouldn’t wake up one day and suddenly be unable to ask where the restrooms are without a lot of weird hand gestures.
But I think we all know what this would be like. Boring. In his book, History of the World in 9 1/2 Chapters, Julian Barnes has a great story about a guy who winds up in one of the possible locales in that vast area known as the afterlife. He starts playing golf, and since he has a lot of time for it, he gets really good. Like Kim Jong-Il good. Starts scoring 18 for a round. So he does what anybody would do at that point. He quits.
Now obviously this scenario is a bit absurd. But it does illustrate a point. I have met a lot of smug, arrogant people in my life–yes, it’s been a great journey–but I have yet to run into anybody who leaned back in his chair, took a sip of single malt and declared that he had “quit golf because it was just getting too easy.”

But having granted the game this point, there is still the matter of whether golf kind of overdoes it. There’s keeping it interesting and there’s overkill. Which leads to the following question which will be the topic of the next post: What is the Purpose of Bad Golf?

My Open Wish List

Here’s my wish list for this year’s U.S. Open:

1. No playoff. I’d feel differently if the USGA allowed for the sort of resolution for a tie that EVERY OTHER tournament uses, i.e. do it right away and do it so that your final day galleries and huge TV audience can watch it.  On Mondays there’s this thing called work and an 18-hole playoff doesn’t always fit in with that.

2. Decent weather.  (This is actually a bargaining chip, a throw-away request. There is absolutely no chance of this.)

3. A good leaderboard on Sunday.  Sorry folks, but I don’t want any journeymen, or 3-day wonders up there.  Heavyweights only.

4. Excellence, not survival.  Despite my frustration with the weather forecast–and as I write, we are sitting through the first of what promises to be several rain delays–I am actually happy that Merion is softer and will play easier.  I’m not a fan of the brutal, one-man-left-standing U.S. Open format.  It tends to produce winners who are phlegmatic and completely devoid of charisma, e.g. Lee Janzen.  (Sorry, Lee, but admit it man: you’re steady, but dull.)

4 (a) As a subset of the previous request I am not a fan of the grotesque blow-up that can happen with the tight layout, thick rough and slick greens that characterize the typical US Open venue.  I don’t enjoy, and in fact I find disturbing, the spectacle of seeing one of the best players in the world four putting, or scything up chunks of heavy grass.  This game is difficult enough.  I don’t need to see the gods struggling with it.

5. No runaway.  This is not a  team sport where I have absolutely no problem with the SF Giants sweeping the World Series or one of those Super Bowl blowouts during the 49er’s glory days.  There is no golfer I like so much that I want to see him destroy the field.  Sure, there are guys I’d like to see win, but by one stroke and on the 72nd hole.



New listing?

Some members want to put one of these at the entrance

Since this story has appeared in the local papers I no longer feel bound by any sense of confidentiality. And since this is my blog I can say whatever I want on the topic. So here goes.

In a nutshell, here’s the story:  A local developer submitted a letter to my club, Lake Merced Golf Club, offering to purchase an option to buy the whole parcel for a massive real estate development.  The indicated sales price would have meant pre-tax proceeds to each proprietary member of something in the neighborhood of a million dollars.  Soon after, a few members approached the developer asking her to withdraw the offer and she did so.  Well, by that point the genie was out of the bottle.  With the offer now retracted, a significant percentage of the membership had seen their chance to cash out get snatched away from them, and they were not happy about this.  So now, although there is no offer on the table,  the club is engaged in the lengthy and not inexpensive process of determining what the property is worth and what the process of selling the place would entail.

(Note: for those of you unfamiliar with the golf geography of the Bay Area, LMGC sits just west of the merger of Route 1/19th Avenue and I-280 in Daly City.  When you’re driving north on 280 towards San Francisco it’s behind that line of cypress trees to your left.  Truth be told, it has some of the worst weather in the area.  But it is only a short walk to a BART station and, traffic permitting, just minutes from  downtown SF.  Location, location, location.)

But back to the story.  To paraphrase John Paul Jones, we have only just begun to fight.

When I first learned about the idea of selling the club,  my reaction was immediate and visceral.  I didn’t like it.  I love the course and I didn’t want to lose the experience of playing there.  Sure, the money would be nice but it wasn’t enough to get me to cross the line.  At the same time I felt that this was a very private decision for each member.  Each one of us would be factoring in our own individual circumstances, and how could somebody on one side of the vote question the criteria of someone on the other?  Viewed from a distance the question posed was a fascinating one: we all have expressed an opinion as to how much we’d be willing to pay for certain golf experiences–“Those green fees are a ripoff” or “That driver isn’t worth it”– but how often have we had to put a price on NOT being able to play somewhere?

But as the debate builds and festers, I find myself less disposed to remaining dispassionate.  I’m not happy about this turn of events.  I wish this had never come up.  But if we are going to debate it, let’s be accurate in how we define our terms.  So first off,  let’s stop referring to proprietary interests in the club as investments.  It’s a membership, not an investment.  Have you been able to use it as collateral for a loan?  Does it pay  dividends?  Have you traded it on the secondary market?  No, of course not. The answer is “no” to all three questions.  It’s not an investment.

The only way you can execute the arbitrage of converting that membership into its underlying economic value is to destroy the entity that sold it to you in the first place.  Which is why I would also prefer a more accurate description of the proposal before the club.  While it may be true that the transaction in question is a sale, I think it would be better, if instead of saying that you were in favor of selling the club, that people were required to say they were in favor of destroying it.  It’s the end result, right?  The sale is only the precedent to the real outcome.  Nobody is willing to pay you that kind of money and keep the course there.  So let’s be honest about what we’re talking about.  If you want to destroy the club, you have to say so.

One of the arguments used to justify the sale is to ask, “Well, what about the older members?”  Well, what about them? Folks, this is hardly the first time in the history of golf, or in the history of this club for that matter, that people have become too old to play.  Can you imagine what the world of golf would look like if it were standard operating procedure for clubs to self-destruct whenever a significant percentage of members got too old?  How many great courses would no longer exist if the prevailing attitude had been, “Hey, screw it. I’m done. Bulldoze the sucker and mail me a check”?  Over the history of the game millions of members of private clubs have missed their last putt, picked up their ball, and walked off into the sunset, leaving behind the course that had welcomed them so many years earlier.

Lake Merced was founded in 1922 and has survived the Great Depression, World War II and all the social upheavals of the ensuing decades.  Once surrounded by farmland, it is circled now by freeways, shopping malls and housing. Those of us who are members now were invited in and accepted as fellow members of the community by men and women who in turn were brought in by the members who preceded them.  For decades members have moved on to whatever awaits us on the other side of this life, but each one of those generations left the course for others to enjoy as they had.  By what right do any of us  feel entitled to break this chain?

One response to that question could be that a sale is simply the members’ prerogative as owners of the club.  But what does is it mean to be an owner of something like a golf club?  Maybe I’m just dense, but I always assumed that the implied contract was as follows: In exchange for a membership fee and my payment of monthly dues and whatever assessments were deemed necessary, I purchased a right to unlimited golf and the option of engaging in the social life of the club.  At some point down the road I would relinquish that membership, but in the interim I had a responsibility to care for the club.   The club was bequeathed to me and my contemporaries, and we in turn would pass it on to others.  What I bought, and therefore what I own, is a combination of privilege and responsibility, two things that are often linked in this world.  Although that right certainly exists on paper, I never assumed that I had purchased the right to destroy something I love.

And what I love is not just the remarkable golf course, but what the club represents.  Lake Merced was founded by Jews who were barred from other clubs at the time, and in turn and in time, the club has opened its doors to people from every part of this world.  As such it exists as a rebuke to bias and prejudice.  I don’t want to see a community based on inclusion go under, while clubs based on exclusion survive.  We have a remarkably diverse membership, but we have something in common other than just a love of golf.  Be we Irish, Jewish, Italian, Chinese, Japanese or Korean, our families’ arrival and ultimate success in this country was accomplished despite facing prejudice and mistrust.  Is this how we honor those who came before us, by destroying our own community?

Finally, some proponents for the destruction of the club have justified their position by arguing that the club has changed or is dying.  Well, what hasn’t changed in the past few decades?  Golf clubs will never  again be the center of members’ social lives that they were in previous decades.  We’re all too busy or too mobile for that.  But that hardly makes a case for euthanizing the club.  Great institutions survive by sticking to their core principles while adapting to changes in their environment.  There is no evidence that Lake Merced can’t continue to innovate and attract new members.  The same regional economic revival that induces a real estate developer to offer a huge price for our land is also creating a staggering amount of wealth all around us.   And you know what they say: where’s there money, there’s bound to be golf.  You want to sell something? Sell memberships in a great course right on the outskirts of arguably the best city in the United States.


All hail Augusta!

It’s time for the Masters, the major tournament that embodies so much of what’s right and what’s wrong about golf. Let’s start with the good stuff, shall we?

The Masters, along with opening day in baseball, is an event of hope, proof that indeed the days are getting longer, and a sign that the warm days of May and June are really not all that far away.  The PGA season has been underway for months, but it has been a sojourn through vacation destinations:  Hawaii, the desert and Florida.  The arrival of the tour in Augusta signals to golfers in the northern latitudes that soon enough playing a round of golf will not require the purchase of a plane ticket or four layers of clothing.

As a venue, Augusta allows, in fact encourages, a bolder, more dramatic form of the game.  The US Open, on the other hand, with its brutal layouts and rough is more a war of attrition, where the winner is the last man standing.  It rewards steadiness, not boldness, and as a result a list of US Open champions includes more than a few of the charisma challenged professionals of their day.  The Open, played on golf’s Ur-courses, is a stage for creativity: the 125 yard bump and run, the intentional ricochet off the stonewall on the Road Hole at St. Andrews.

I’m not suggesting that there haven’t been brilliant shots at the other Majors–that would be ridiculous– but the Masters, without coincidence, is where many of the game’s most memorable shots have taken place: Phil’s six-iron on #13 in 2010, Bubba’s “Bend it like Beckham” wedge in last year’s playoff.  The errant shot doesn’t land in the soggy shag carpet of a US Open or the gorse and brambles lining the fairways in Scotland.  Instead it sits on a bed of pine needles in a grove of trees whose low-lying limbs were trimmed away long ago, saying to the player, “Go ahead, go for it.”

The shots may also be more memorable for another reason.  To some degree all golfers in the US have two home courses: the one they play regularly and Augusta.  One is our real home course and the other is our fantasy home course.  Think about it.  If you’re a golf fan, you know that course, or at least the back nine, by heart.  Thus the Masters captures the essence of our own less attractive version of the game: a series of unpredictable events on a very familiar stage.

Perhaps more than any other course, the camera angles at the Masters, particularly on the par-5’s on the back nine, convey the image of the golfer as heroic figure. You see the player from the rear, framed against a backdrop of Georgia pine and flower, the well guarded green far in the distance.  These are often the decisions and shots that determine the outcome of the tournament, and all you see is the player and the course. On holes like 12, 13 and 15 there is no gallery clustered around the green. All you see is golfer, club and ball.  There is a purity to it that is somewhat unique in the game as a telecast event.  We are a long ways from the 16th at the Phoenix Open.

But enough of this. Let’s get snarky.  What about the bad stuff?

Well, since we were just talking about television, let’s segue to the CBS coverage. Whoa, let’s lather on the treacle shall we?  It’s enough to cause Type B mental diabetes, a condition brought on by over consumption of hyper-sentimentality.  And the music as they go to commercial breaks?  Really? I’m not advocating for hip-hop or heavy metal,but  could we have something different, please?  It’s like lounge music for a nursing home.

Which brings us to the telecast tagline, a “tradition unlike any other.” Well folks, the sad truth is that the traditions at Augusta are unfortunately not that unique, just more entrenched.  And of course I’m talking about Augusta as a bastion of privileged white maleness, an image that impedes the growth of the game as much as pace of play.  While those of us involved in the sport can point to as many indicators of diversity in today’s game as we can find, the image of the game from the outside remains locked in this stereotype of country club life.  We can have moments such as 2001 when the traditional victor’s ceremony featured Vijay Singh helping another man of color, Tiger Woods, put on his second green jacket, but the reality of Augusta in 2013 is that it is an organization that just last year had to be dragged into the 1980’s when it finally relented and let two women in as members.

But wait, there’s more!  Augusta isn’t content with merely being retrograde when it comes to membership policy.  You have to be especially reverent when you’re there or even when talking about the place.  (This latter advisory  is an obvious reference to Gary McCord’s simply brilliant observation in 1994 that the closely mowed 17th green had been “bikini-waxed.”  For this impropriety the Masters asked that he be banned from the CBS broadcast team.  He has never returned.)  If you’re there as a spectator, be careful not to run or lie on the grass, and never, never wear your golf cap backwards, because all of these are violations of the sharia law that governs conduct on the sacred grounds of Augusta.

In fact I’ll tell you exactly how uptight Augusta is.  I just read that Bobby Jones felt that it was inappropriate to refer to Augusta as having “front” and “back” nines because–wait for it– this might lead people to go one step further and talk about the course’s back side.

But, here’s the catch.  Will I be watching? Of course.  Am I happy that it’s Masters Week? You bet.  Will I root for the kind of finish we had in 2011? Oh yeah.  All of this is true despite my misgivings about the place.  I just have to take the good with the bad.