How the rest of us play golf!
Jack Nicklaus once said of the incomparable Tiger Woods (echoing a comment made about Nicklaus by Bobby Jones), "He plays a game with which I am not familiar." David Owen, however, plays a game with which we are all very familiar: He plays in a weekly foursome, takes mulligans off the first tee, practices intermittently at best, marks his ball on the green with his lucky coin (until the luck wears out and another trinket is deemed to have better karma), wore a copper wristband because Seve Ballesteros for reasons beyond understanding said to, and struggles for consistency even though his swing is consistent - and mediocre. He bets, he wins, he loses, he agonises, he dreams.
Hit & Hope is as pure a definition of the game of golf as anyone has ever devised. Through the essays in this book, acclaimed columnist and author Owen takes the mundane aspects of the game and our approach to it and stands them on their head, turns them inside out, and lays our follies bare for all the world to see (all the world except ourselves, of course). He does for American golfers what PG Wodehouse did for our English cousins, or Jacques Tati did for humanity at large: He finds humor and nobility in our essential silliness, as expressed in our pursuit of a little white ball over a vast (but not vast enough to contain our slices) greensward.
Funny, candid, and thoughtful, Hit & Hope is an invaluable addition to any duffer's bag and the truest commentary on how, and why, the rest of us play golf.
An excerpt from Hit & Hope: Sweet Sunday Morning
My regular Sunday-morning golf group begins to gather a little before seven-thirty. If there's frost on the course, we stand around drinking coffee until my friend Ray, who is the head of the greens committee, announces that the ice on the grass is "just dew." Anyone who shows up is welcome to play; we seldom have fewer than a dozen, and we sometimes have more than twenty. We choose teams by drawing numbered poker chips from someone's hat, and if the total isn't divisible by four we send some of the players out in threesomes. The threesomes begin two strokes under par -- an adjustment we borrowed from Augusta National, where the members' weekend games are known, definitively, as "the Games." Our pro, whose name is Fran, plays with us when he can find someone to cover for him in the golf shop. Our superintendent, whose name is Bob, plays with us when we can cajole him into dragging his clubs from the back of his garage, where he also keeps a thirty-year-old Corvette and a beer-stocked refrigerator that we are allowed to pilfer in emergencies.
We have our own scorecard, which my friend Jim created with a desktop-publishing program. Jim's scorecard allocates handicap strokes in the order in which we want them to be allocated, and it depicts the course the way we like to play it, with four way-back tees that almost nobody else ever uses. There are no red tees on the card. On the back is a list of nine local rules, which apply only to our competition. One of the rules was inspired by a player we call Uncle Frank: "No competitor shall dress in a black-and-white sun suit purchased by his wife." Three regular members of the group -- Harry, Gene, and George -- are no longer allowed to keep score, because each of them once made a computation error that led to a tedious discussion and a redistribution of winnings. The card also lists our Sunday-morning course record, which is nine over par, net -- a score that is almost inconceivably bad, considering that nine under par is seldom good enough to win. The course record was set on October 22, 2001, by Frank (not Uncle Frank), Rick, and me.
We bet, obviously. My friend Hacker (yes, that's his real last name) collects all the money before we tee off and keeps it in his wallet while we play; semi-miraculously, he has never come up short. The mandatory wager is twelve dollars: five goes into a pool for the winning team, five goes into a pool for skins, and two goes into a pot that is shared by everyone who matches the morning's best net score on the so-called Money Hole, which we pick at random before we tee off by drawing another numbered poker chip from another hat. On the day that Rick, Frank, and I set the course record, we actually would have been ten over par if I hadn't birdied the final hole, which happened to be the Money Hole; my birdie was unmatched by anyone else, so it entitled me to the entire Money Hole pot plus a skin, meaning that I won more money -- forty-two dollars -- than anyone else that day, despite having helped to turn in the worst team score in recorded history.
The game is net best ball, first-tee do-over, no junk, no gimmes, summer rules unless previously agreed. We play off the lowest handicap, but nobody gets more than one stroke a hole and nobody strokes on a par-three. If you wear shorts after November 1, you get one additional handicap stroke, but you have to keep your shorts on for the whole round, and you can't wear rain pants on top of them. Over the course of a season, almost everyone plays with almost everyone else, so yippers, shankers, and creative self-handicappers are not treated as pariahs. Whether or not our pro should have a handicap is an endlessly fascinating topic of debate; at the moment, we call Fran a zero.
When we have finished, we drink beer and cook hamburgers on the patio between the clubhouse and the practice green. (Our clubhouse, which looks like an Adirondack cabin and used to be a prep-school fraternity house, doesn't have a restaurant or a grill room, thank God.) One of the chairs on the patio is reserved for Bob; there is an old blue-and-white enameled metal sign on the back of his seat that says SUPERINTENDENT, and there is a bottle opener screwed onto one of its arms. We take turns supplying lunch, about which there are three rules: no plates, no napkins, and no salad. If there are potato chips, we eat them out of the bag. If nobody remembers to bring lunch, somebody runs into town and buys supplies before the grocery store closes, at one o'clock. The first group to finish fires up the grill. Bob sometimes contributes a pound or two of ground venison, from a deer he shot the winter before in the woods that surround our golf course. Bob's wife, Diane, usually seasons the venison, shapes it into patties, wraps the patties in aluminum foil, and leaves the package for us on the top shelf of the refrigerator in the clubhouse kitchen while we're playing. Hers are the only female hands that have ever touched our lunch.
Often, our games end in ties. Matching cards would be boring, and playing extra holes would force the participants to travel too far from the beer coolers, so we almost always conduct our playoffs on or around the practice green. If someone earns a skin but doesn't stick around for the shouting match at which we distribute the money, we conduct a playoff for his skin money, too. On various occasions, we have required playoff contestants to: putt balls from the top of a beer can while standing on the seat of a chair on the patio; throw balls from the big tree next to the first tee; throw balls onto the roof of the clubhouse so that they roll down the porch roof, down the porch steps, across the patio, and down the short, steep grassy slope above the practice green; chip balls through the split-rail fence that separates the patio from the parking lot; and lob balls from the pinnacle of a four-foot-tall pile of dirt in the middle of the first tee, which was being rebuilt. In all our playoffs, we use the stymie rule, which the rest of the golf world abandoned in 1953: your ball stays where it stops, even if it's blocking someone else's putt. When we have large groups, we sometimes save time by making everyone putt at the same time, toward a single hole. Once, in pouring rain, we conducted a playoff inside the clubhouse, with a long putt that had to run from the (linoleum) floor of the kitchen all the way across the (carpeted) floor of the living room. The target was a beer bottle.
One Sunday a couple of years ago, two foursomes tied for the lead in our morning competition, and the playoff committee decided, for the first time, to venture beyond the clubhouse and the practice green. The playoff, they declared, would be the eighteenth hole, alternate shot, sandwedges only. Our eighteenth is a short par-four under ordinary circumstances, but playing it with just a sand-wedge turns it into a grueling par-five. The tee shot is nerve-wracking, because the carry to the fairway is close to eighty yards. On this particular Sunday, though, the battle came down to the green. A friend, whom I'll call Mr. Yips, had to use his sand wedge (a club he hates) to attempt a two-foot putt (a shot that gives him nightmares) for the win. I can't bear to describe exactly what happened, but I will say that by the time it was over people were laughing so hard they could scarcely stand up, and somebody had to rake the bunker on the far side of the green.
Sometimes, a playoff format seems like so much fun that we open it to the whole group, including caddies. Other players, getting ready to tee off on the first hole, invariably scowl when they see us standing in a long row with our backs to the practice green, holding a beer in one hand and weighing a ball in the other, getting ready to throw the ball over a shoulder at one of the holes, and quietly dreading the moment when, finally, it will be time to go home.