Face-to-Face

An element of the bourgeoisie in post-DiMaggio New York, the types that drank bourbon while basking in the refracted glory of Frank Gifford and, I don’t know, Woody Allen, in places like Toots Shor’s and Elaine’s, liked to tell a little joke. In between patting themselves on the back for their very own wit and wisdom—the masters of the universe may be in finance now, but in the early 1960s, writers, even those calling themselves journalists, knew where the sun rose and set—they’d inevitably bring up, “the topic”. It’d start with some variation on the theme of the three most vile people of the 20th century. Or since the dawn of the country. Or perhaps since Christ.

The assembled wise men — if there were women present, they certainly weren’t there to be heard — would quickly agree on the first two, before, well, agreeing that the third was the worst of all. Hitler? Yes. Stalin? Of course. And… well, how could we have forgotten Walter O’Malley??

O'Malley
well, he got a Time cover too…

 

Funny? Perhaps if you were an Italian or a Jew who grew up east of Manhattan in the mid-1930s. For the rest of us, self-indulgent is probably a better adjective.

My grandfather, from Flatbush, was a Dodgers fan of course. Maybe he’d chuckle at the joke, but I doubt that many members of his generation, the Jackie Gleason generation, the Depression generation, were shedding many tears when the team left for LA. No, the bellyaching came instead from those 20+ years younger, the Pete Hamills, the Larry Kings, and the, well, Woody Allens of the world. Somehow my father, who was of that time, rooted for the Yankees, despite growing up on Long Island, and I imagine O’Malley’s betrayal was met more with glee, an additional bludgeon to use against the enemy, one which certainly made up for, and more, the shock of Sandy Amoros and 1955

Amoros
it didn’t get late early in left field on this day…

 

Nevertheless, 30 or so years later, as a boy, mad about the game, in the summer, during family parties by the pool, we’d sit and talk about baseball… I’d ask questions. And, while I can’t say I recall ever specifically discussing the ‘57 exodus, the overall theme of our conversations was unmistakeable. They would end the same way. “We are sorry. The game is different. We can’t explain it. But it’s never coming back. You’re stuck…”

Stuck, that is, with night games, three (if only!)-hour marathons, the designated hitter, perennial “playoffs” for the pennant, 4 divisions, day-night double headers, and a 162 game season that starts and finishes in the snow. (As an aside, it’s clear that if Bob Costas and Bush 43 have one redeeming quality between them, it’s that they both opposed, virtually alone, the wild card. It’s almost enough to make up for the rest.)

And the beginning of the end, actually, the end of the end — it was that abrupt — came when an owner deigned to put his own interests ahead of the community, the elite and the proletariat alike. For generations, cities defined themselves as big league or bush. A baseball team is a public trust, is it not? No, O’Malley proved otherwise, crossed the rubicon, and we’ve yet to look back. You can bet that any idea in sports (in life?), no matter how bad, will be put into practice, if it improves the bottom line…

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I got the magazine Boys Life delivered to the house for a short period of time as a kid. Perhaps from my grandmother; she was good about giving me interesting subscriptions as gifts. The Classics in comic form. National Geographic. Some sort of index card encyclopedia. Things of that nature.

In any event, I must have been in the third or fourth grade when an edition of Boys Life showed up with a few articles on the coming Olympiad. I recall some words about cycling, possibly the velodrome. Some comments from an athlete on how long he’d been training to get there. That was enough for me. The colors, the flags, the medals, the exotic countries and sports. I was going to be an Olympian.

Well that wasn’t in the cards, but I was certainly hooked as a fan. A well-read one at that; I learned about the greats, boxers and the track stars mostly, but also the four-timers, like Al Oerter, from the town next door.

And Barcelona was the pinnacle. It may have been standard for his“Excellency” to declare each version of the games the greatest ever (well, at least until Atlanta) but Samaranch had every reason to say it in 1992. If you were born before 1980 and don’t recall Fermin Cacho winning the 1,500 m, then I don’t think you can call yourself a sports fan.

Already though, trouble was brewing.

When the peacocks wrested the games from the alphabet crowd, Bob Costas, hailing only a few miles down the road from Oerter, became the face of the Olympics. But that was a rouse; Costas quickly evolved into nothing but a shill. Whether you find his style grating or not is a matter of taste; even Costas’s critics must concede that the man had the chops to take over from Jim McKay and the rest of the giants at ABC. But if we’ve learned anything this century, it is that the old saw about television — everyone would do anything to get on it — is indeed true. Still, one could have hoped that Costas would have used his intelligence to take a stand against the circumcision of the games. His talent made the capitulation all the worse. At best, he became a latter day Wodehouse, writing radiograms from Berlin during the Nazi era. At worst, an enabler of the highest order.

Now of course, of course, this is not fair. Dick Ebersol, the man almost exclusively responsible for the mess the presentation of the games in this country has become, is no Stalin. And Costas is no Goebbels.

But Ebersol is more than just an executive who chased the buck. It would have been hard even for the Soviets to manipulate time and space in such a brazen way. No, Ebersol took his cues, and this is not an exaggeration, from Orwell. ‘We are at war with Eastasia, and it’s always been thus’, indeed. The truth is what I decide to tell you.

Ebersol, like Big Brother in the end, won. He pulled off the coup. Generations now believe the Olympics are made up solely of Americans swimming, sprinting, and diving, and the ratings for the games are monstrous. BMX biking is in and wrestling is out. No matter that no-one’s watching the denouement of these events at 11 pm or whenever the hell NBC decides to show them. They’re watching Costas play the country for fools at 8 pm, that’s for sure.

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I don’t know if any of the Toots Shor crowd ever came across Walter O’Malley. But the other day, driving around the Oaks Bluff section of Martha’s Vineyard, I saw Dick Ebersol. I did a quick loop in the car to confirm the sighting.

What to do? Jump out and thank him for destroying your personal Super Bowl? Ask why on Earth he thought it was a good idea to show Usain Bolt run 9.69 eight hours after the rest of the world celebrated? Drug and drag him back to a certain backyard on the number streets in Bethpage, the site where I found out about Linford Christie’s triumph in Barcelona (via a 1-900 scores number, of all things) hours before Americans were given the privilege of watching for a hastily conducted kangaroo court?bolt

Well, no. You let him go. He was a bit pitiable anyway, looking older than expected, slightly stooped, a bit disheveled. Money and power are no superpowers; he’d already suffered the greatest of tragedies, losing a teenage son. Besides, he’d been pushed aside himself, shuffling around an idyllic playground 5,000 miles away from the epicenter in Rio.

But still, it would have been nice to tell him what he’d wrought. After all, I’m a male between 18 and 49, lucky enough to make 6 figures. And I haven’t watched NBC, Johnny Miller exempted, in 20 years.

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DJ Rules

I’m just going to assume that you’ve read Bamberger and Diaz by now and get right to the point, because if I wait any longer London might go and tell, I don’t know, Canada to find its own Head of State already, sending the Internet into yet another tizzy and pushing an arcane rules debate in a little played or watched sport further into oblivion.

devicenzo

Now as good as these journalists are — and they’re certainly the only two left wasting their talents on this golf thing that understand nuance — they both leave out a critical point regarding the latest US Open at the once venerable, but now diminished, Oakmont Country Club. Or, are at least unable to come out and say what they want to directly, perhaps because of the personal and professional obligations that go along with working for esteemed, but similarly decimated, media conglomerates.

Before we get to that, let’s just accept that there’s really only one controversy here, and that’s over the timing of the penalty. Even the millennial crowd, which proved constitutionally unable to resist the urge to wail loudly and publicly about the injustice of it all, were more taken aback by the uncertainty of the matter than the possibility of Dustin Johnson losing a stroke. Actually, that sentence is a bit unfair to the hipster set, because the lauded (for not being Greg Norman) 50-somethings fronting Fox’s telecast too became increasingly cranky over the lingering indecision. For that matter, even Big Jack zeroed in on this point.

And at first blush, this reaction seems reasonable. This was no Kent Island Invitational; they were contesting the US freaking Open here. A tournament that has antagonized the greatest of players, regardless of their records. Ben (how did I not win more?) Arnold (how did I only win one??) and Sam (how did I not win any???) all brooded on the event to the end. In what other sport are referees, or their equivalents, paralyzed? Make a call. Penalize the leader for the ball’s rotation and move on. A stupid rule, perhaps, but no worse than a dozen others in the book. What’s all this nonsense about waiting to look at the video at the end of the round?

Well, there was a time when honor meant more than score.

Players have been ostracized, for life, for questionable rules incidents. Gary Player has won 9 majors (he’d be the first to tell you) but, among those in the know, he’s remembered more as a guy you had to watch like hawk lest he fluff up a ball in the rough. Vijay Singh is a legitimate Hall of Famer but will never shake the fact that he once put a 3 instead of a 4 (or whatever it was) on his card at an obscure Asian Tour event in the 1980s. Bob Toski is bitter to this day because of accusations that he better positioned his ball while re-marking it on the green. To some, Ernie Els’s first US Open will always have an asterisk. And Tiger lost the game’s elite not over infidelity but after he big-shotted his way to an entitled drop en route to his second Players Championship.

Now, as Bamberger says more directly than Diaz, the USGA, by issuing the penalty, would have been calling Johnson out. Golf is a game of honor, yes, but we don’t trust yours. You moved the ball. Or most likely did. We can’t let you get away with it. And, frankly, it’s disconcerting that you’re not coming to this conclusion on your own.

At the same time, the USGA knew very well the implications of overruling DJ and calling the penalty. It would have meant adding him to the list above. It would have meant writing the second line of his obituary. You scoff? It doesn’t take much to sully a guy’s honor in the absurd world of professional golf. God only knows whether Toski moved his ball forward or if Gary Player improved his lie a few times over the course of 10,000 rounds. It doesn’t matter. In golf, the accusation itself is the scarlet letter. You don’t overcome it. Guilt is secondary. Actually, it’s irrelevant.

Perhaps alone in knowing the gravity of the situation—DJ and the whingers fleeing western Pennsylvania in their private jets with their iPhones at the ready, certainly didn’t—the USGA was not going to contradict the dullard’s explanation and impose the penalty on the spot. No, they were going to give the honorable Mr. Johnson every opportunity to make the right call on his own. After the round, away from the heat of the moment. Ironically, the USGA was trying to protect him. How quaint of the blue coats to judge a competitor’s reputation to be more important, say, than playing a few holes of one round not knowing if you’re leading by two strokes or one.

In effect the USGA, by delaying the penalty, decided to put Johnson’s integrity over the integrity of the championship.

Well, that is, if you’re in the camp that finds it inconceivable to even consider playing a round of golf not knowing the exact score of the other 144 guys in the field at every moment. In fact, I think such a stipulation might be in the rules. Or at least the Hadith. Thou shalt knoweth the leader’s position in relation to par at ALL TIMES (emphasis added by Sam Snead.)

Is 14 > 18?

Some baseball player currently in Toronto — he hits 50 or so home runs a year and I couldn’t come up with his name if you gave me 100 guesses — recently complained that Major League Baseball neglects its current crop of stars in favor of lionizing its past. What kind of idiotic for profit organization, he was in effect saying, tells its customers the product they’re paying to see cannot possibly compare to its gilded age?

Well, golf — the Masters Tournament in particular — for one. Perhaps it’s a function of my age, but I no longer need to see the tournament commence with Arnold Palmer struggling to stand or Gary Player flexing in triumph after a drive a 15 handicapper might shrug at.

More disturbing though is the thought that media coverage in the lead up to every major golf tournament for at least the next seven years will center around… el Tigre. “Is he playing?” “Can he win?”

And, increasingly, “my god, how is he going to get through the rest of his life knowing that he threw away the chance to catch Jack Nicklaus?”

Implicit in all of this is the obvious understanding that 18 is greater than 14, ending any need for debate. Jack is the greatest, Babe Ruth and Cy Young rolled into one, his record being, the record. Worse, Tiger appears destined to be painted as the golf world’s Mickey Mantle, one whose appetites and insecurities kept him from surmounting Rushmore.

This is lazy thinking, touted even by those in and near the game that should know better — and that’s after putting aside the absurdity of trying to rank players from different eras, playing different opponents, with different equipment, on different courses, in what are, really, different games.

Yes, some events count more than others — “majors” certainly exist. This has always been thus, and is true for any game played. But the makeup of those tournaments has changed significantly over the years, and even among the now agreed upon “4” there is a distinct hierarchy.

For one thing, if you’re over the age of 50 there really only is one major. Sam Snead beat Ben Hogan repeatedly head-to-head, including at the Masters, has many more wins, and was a relevant player for a much greater period of time. Yet, he is never mentioned as an equal of Hogan’s, at best just a rival, and barely comes up in discussions of the greatest player. Why? Easy. He never won the US Open. And he took it to his grave.

Jack let his guard down once and after being asked for the thousandth time about Tiger muttered (to the astonishment, I’m sure, of the 25-year-old blogger set) that he went through much of his career not even knowing how many “majors” he’d won. Of course, he always knew his US Open record, and, for that matter, how many US Amateurs he’d won.

Bamberger’s book “Men in Green” recounts a recent conversation with Arnold, who laments that he lost his edge after winning the legendary 1960 US Open at Cherry Hills, failing to win a thing of note thereafter. Um, Arnold, you went on to win 43 times, not to mention twice apiece at the Masters and British Open…

They may as well be Andy Williams Invitationals to the King. Even at 87, I’m sure he gets sick whenever the USGA returns to Oakmont, and must still lie awake at times brooding about the final nine on Olympic. Augusta? I doubt he’d even remember his double on 18 there that gave the 1961 edition to Player if he wasn’t asked about it every year by a media more interested in myth than history.

Now, you might think the Union Jack or Boer War crowd would have their hackles up at this point, but even that is questionable. Yes, the British Open is storied and even Hogan and Snead, openly contemptuous of the tournament, felt compelled to sail over there on their own dime as a nod to its history. And yes, Bobby Jones, and Hogan later, were feted with ticker tape in lower Manhattan after winning it, an honor inconceivable for a golfer today.

But the tournament was not a particularly competitive affair for much of the last century; the world wars made sure of that. Tom Watson’s British Open record, now revered, was dismissed as an interesting footnote until he proved capable on higher ground, and the authoritative Peter Alliss has marveled at the marketing genius behind the recent rebranding of the event, calling it more or less irrelevant until Arnold swooped over to St. Andrews in 1960. Still, the British remained plagued by a weakened field at least until Seve and his friends re-jiggered the golfing universe in the 1980s.

I’m too fatigued to take on the PGA today, but let’s just accept it lost its considerable relevance soon after bowing to television and dropping its match play format. It’s also instructive that I can’t remember the last time I watched more than a few holes of the event. Probably that year Payne Stewart embarrassed himself on national TV outside Chicago.

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Now the Masters is… much more complicated. Of course it is as prestigious as any tournament in the world today, and it has been for some time. Certainly for anyone under, say 40, this article has a discordant feel to it. The pressure on the players to win at Augusta is undoubtedly as high as anywhere. Jordan Spieth’s second shot at 12 on Sunday proved that for those who can’t remember 1996, let alone 1986.

The question is, should it be?

Well, my answer to that should be obvious by now, but the details will have to wait until next time.

And tonight on CBS…

A hundred thousand words, it seems, have sung the praises of the man in the weeks since he’s passed, but the obits and tributes have avoided a cold truth: Bud Collins was hard to listen to. I mean, really hard. Like, turn off the TV hard.

Bud did not announce a tennis match; he screeched, reveled, and pruned throughout, showing off in a way that, frankly, raised questions about his knowledge and even, at least a little bit, his sanity.

“Net cord!” he’d exclaim, without fail, a half dozen or so times a match, leaving the viewer to wonder, as the two Spaniards in question hauled away on the red clay for another 30 shots, what he was getting at. I recall thinking that even I, at the age of 12, could handle a decently hit ball redirected slightly off the tape, so why was Bud grinning wickedly every time one occurred?

Why? Because Bud called matches for an exclusive audience of, well, one. Himself.

His interviews were intolerable as well, designed to prove to the player — the viewer remained immaterial to Bud in these settings — that he was preeminent. He’d start with some tortured phrase in the native language of his interviewee, before launching into an historical anecdote of questionable relevance.“Lil’ Mo!” and “Big Bill!” were frequent drop-ins.

He’d invariably shift to strategy, raising further doubts about his competence. “Why not throw a few more moon balls in there?” he once asked Michael Chang, after failing in the final of the French.

Perhaps the only thing I approved of was his jihad against calling major championships ‘Slams’.

Yet I loved him. Bud, for all his faults, was tennis, and he was so during my formative years. Bud on TV meant we had somehow gotten through Winter, Spring was here, and all of the joys of Summer awaited (the Golf and Tennis majors, the Triple Crown, at least one big fight, the Tour de France, perhaps the Olympics or, at least, the Track and Field World Championships.) From the Masters in April until the US Tennis Association crowned a champion in early September, there was an event underway or on the horizon to get excited about, and Bud was more often than not at the forefront.

Pat Summerall was everywhere as well. The anti-Bud, the voice of reason, the sports world’s Walter Cronkite, Pat narrated for CBS throughout the summer, and if Bud proved that a writer could succeed on TV (and this might be his most damning legacy, as you’ll understand if you’ve seen any number of Mike Lupica-types bloviating the day away on ESPN) Pat paved the way for every athlete in the booth unable to resist the urge to explain holding each of the 12 times it’s called in a game. Pat was rightly eulogized as a giant in broadcasting, but no giant has ever had less of an impact on his craft. If Bud gave rise to a generation of sycophants eager to be heard and recognized, Pat spawned no-one. His style, quite simply, was of another time.

And with its passing has gone my interest.

Yes, the announcers matter. The networks matter; even the theme music is critical. And not because of any difference in quality, my god no. The belly-aching that took place on the Internet over Fox taking on the US Open was as misguided as it was pretentious.

No, they matter, because one’s youth matters. Graham Greene, or someone of that ilk, had it right: a writer is forged by his or her youth. So too, the sports fan. The sports world will never be greater than it was at the age of 12, and one can never get beyond it. No matter how delusional, anyone with an IQ over 70 soon recognizes sport as circus, and after that the only thing compelling one to watch is nostalgia. Or inertia.

So today I mourn Bud Collins, by all accounts a good man and, perhaps, a very good writer, stuck with the misfortune of being miscast as a television personality by his era. Who knows; perhaps Murakami is on to something and some day I’ll again hear Bud call a match, or interview some Slav, preferably with the old HBO Wimbledon theme music in the background. Until then I’ll continue my extended break from tennis on TV. Shouldn’t be too hard.

Ps. And yes, some soul felt the need to post this on youtube. 27 seconds in…

Super Bowl Parties (amended)

Well, this one’s even more self-indulgent and obtuse than most — not to mention about a month and a half late to attract clicks on such a topic — but here we go:

Jan 1999: Denver over Atlanta: Yes, the Super Bowl was still held in January at the tail end of the 20th century, and the first party is a low-key affair dominated by aliens (on F1 and H1-b visas). The venue was the nicest of my apartments in DC, on Kalorama Road, between 18th and Columbia.

Jan 2000: St. Louis over Tennessee: I recall the dramatic end to this game, but little else. I am assuming this too was a Euro-driven party, probably up on Adams Mill road, across the street from the soon to be discovered love den of Gary Condit. This may have been the infamous Billy: “I’m sorry I can’t throw $2 into the pot because of the tax implications” party, proving that even one American guest, at times, can be too many.

Jan 2001: Baltimore over New York: The ennui was thick this day, as the crowd grew restless with a game that can only be described as listless. Jung-gon showing up unannounced with four pizzas at halftime was certainly memorable, as was Asmund’s silent protest with the Washington Post. Also on Adams Mill.

Feb 2002: New England over St. Louis: 9/11 and the resulting lost week of play moves the Super Bowl to February, an abomination that the NFL has thrust on us ever since. It was a rowdy, even contentious evening, with Bono’s preening and Bush-bashing prevalent in what was probably the last party where the Euros held a majority. Highlights include Sonia’s lemon of a boyfriend and the French spy who showed up with Joachim. The lowlights were Asmund leaving in a huff at halftime (see Bush, above) and Na-Yeon considering divorce as Thad danced hysterically in the street. The venue was yet another apartment in Adams Morgan, just southeast of the Calvert bridge.

Feb 2003: Tampa Bay over Oakland: If our Super Bowl party was going to die, it was following this year’s event, which was only memorable for the sparse crowd and dried fish-related snack that Jung-gon brought. The first party outside Adams Morgan, in the apartment complex across from the National Zoo in Woodley Park.

Feb 2004: New England over Carolina: Having just moved back to Adams Morgan the previous day, I was in no position to host a party. Even more critically, the starters had completed their migration back to Europe and to the far east at this point, so it would have been just Thad and me anyway. Too bad, because the wardrobe malfunction at halftime would have been fun to dissect. Dark.

Feb 2005: New England over Philadelphia: The start of the halcyon period of the Super Bowl parties, with three in a row beginning on this date at my apartment on 18th Street in the heart of Adams Morgan. Knitting was prominent this year, but it certainly did not dampen the festive mood, and with the JV beginning to take form, proof of life post SAIS existed after all.

Feb 2006: Pittsburgh over Seattle: Another great night, as we somehow pulled the party off just as I returned from London the afternoon before. The JV was now a crew, and it was in fine form, although fissures bubbled under the surface.

Feb 2007: Indianapolis over Chicago: Similar to the previous year, but notable for Buster taking on the brunt of the mini hot dogs with Thad in self-imposed exile out in Hawaii. Our iPod challenge, I believe, emerged this year, and elements of the old SAIS-crowd came down from New York for one last goodbye.

Feb 2008: New York over New England: The party moves to Arlington and with it we say goodbye to the last vestiges of the original event (ie. Vace pizza, apple strudel, the 13 inch TV, rabbit ears, and the aforementioned mini hot dogs.) Attendance is low, not least because of Grace’s entry into the world two days prior. Probably the only party where the game was actually at the forefront. But the tension on the field was, in fact, matched by political strife among the partygoers, with the Democratic primary process tearing the crew apart. The evening’s highlight, aside from Eli’s heroics, certainly was Thad’s comment regarding Hillary’s innards.

Feb 2009: Pittsburgh over Arizona: Mila and I come down from New York for this year’s party, held in the glorious Petworth neighborhood of Washington. The vibe of the party is about to  change for good; this probably marks the last full-game event, as children begin taking a more prominent place in the lives of the crew. In addition, I believe we say goodbye to the Gonzales clan on this day, as they embark on their return to Texas. Still, I recall a very exciting game, some mucking around with 3D glasses, and a two-stage parlay with Grace’s birthday being held on Gales street earlier in the day.

Feb 2010: New Orleans over Indianapolis: Snowmaggedon makes a planned revival off Columbia Pike in Arlington a non-event. Dark.

Feb 2011: Green Bay over Pittsburgh: The party moves to Crystal City, and it’s a raucous affair, with the kids dominating the playroom and amping up the volume. Lots of prop betting, including a very intense inspection of the Christina Aguilera national anthem. Still, the crew somehow misses the only thing anyone’s talking about the next day — the fact that she flubbed a line. The start of the post halftime show exodus.

Feb 2012: New York over New England: Similar to the year before, with the kids and halftime show dominant. I do recall a small, but intense, crowd sticking around for the second half and reveling in Eli’s second triumph.

Feb 2013: Baltimore over San Francisco: The party moves to Bethesda, and it remains a one half affair. The 30 minute power outage at the Superdome in New Orleans certainly doesn’t help matters.

Feb 2014: Seattle over Denver: Back in Crystal City with, perhaps, the most noteworthy moment being Bruno Mars’s coming out.

Feb 2015: New England over Seattle: A replay in Bethesda, albeit without a power outage. I did make it home in time to witness (and scare Emilia by screeching in horror) Seattle giving the game away in the final seconds, a reminder that, despite all its faults, a professional football game, as a spectator sport, can elicit drama that is difficult for the other sports to match.

To Torrey or not to Torrey?

As with most critics of anything, my planned review of Torrey Pines was written in my head before even stepping out of the car in the parking lot, or at least within 30 seconds of taking in the relatively flat, uninteresting, and treeless terrain behind the clubhouse. The cost, the look, the lack of any sort of crowd… the place was going to get eviscerated.

And of course, it was going to be compared unfavorably to its NY State equivalent, its older cousin on the east coast, the first true public course to host a US Open, maybe the most successful Works Project Administration project ever — the Bethpage State Park’s Black Course, built in the 1930s in Farmingdale on Long Island.

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Long ago, in a time when golf’s glossy magazines actually published articles with more than 75 words that didn’t involve sex, scantily-clad women, or drugs, Jim Murray (or Frank Hannigan, or Dave Kindred, or someone of that ilk) took a shot or two at Seve Ballesteros for favorably comparing Augusta National to his home course in Pedrena, Spain. Murhandred adroitly making the point that no-one’s immune from romanticizing their youth, and, paraphrasing a certain Czech author in exile, even Seve the great is (was) unable to give a shit about the future.

And so it is with me and that complex in Farmingdale, where, without knowing it, at the age of 12 or so I experienced what it was like to be a German walking though the Black Forest in the late 18th century. The state park wasn’t so much a series of golf courses as an extremely dense thicket of woods, in which you often wouldn’t see other players – well, excluding the 4 to 8 hackers you’d approach killing time on every tee after putting out on the preceding green – let alone adjacent holes. There were spots as well — I’m thinking the walk from the tee to the fairway on 11 of the Black, such as it existed in the late 1980s — where you couldn’t help but think of Lear on the heath, railing away while wondering what the hell had gone wrong. Samuel Clemens might have died 20 or so years before it came into existence, but it’s hard to imagine that he was thinking of anything but Bethpage when he called the game a good walk spoiled. (Or didn’t.)

Regardless, he certainly wasn’t thinking of Torrey Pines, which upon first glance looks like, well, a golf course, albeit one with the benefit of the Pacific ocean as a backdrop. But if it’s a walk along the Pacific you’re looking for, you – and your pocket book – would do much better five minutes down the road either way.

Nevertheless, I was stuck in Southern California for a bit longer, I had a day free, and exploring La Jolla’s other tourist attraction — office parks, apparently — didn’t appear particularly enticing. So I held my nose, woke up early, and drove to the course with a couple of books, hoping they and the putting green would be able to keep my attention for the inevitable 3 to 4 hour wait that lay ahead.

Now, initiating a round at Bethpage requires a bit of… courage. Yes, that is the right word, as you sift through an enormous parking lot, navigate a serpentine line, and confront cashiers who greet you with, if you’re lucky, indifference, but more often something approaching disdain. In the old days a helpful state employee might bark out a few numbers and colors (usually, something like, “at least 3 (hours) on everything but the Black; 20 mins there — a point, I’m assuming, that strikes you as discordant if you’ve read the mythology written about the 2002 US Open, and one I’m sure I’ll address again) and you’d shell out your $12-17 and go play tennis or basketball for a few hours. Or, you’d watch the one buffoon in your foursome run out and hit bunker shots on the 18th of the Green in between groups putting out, before heading to confront, the starters, another exercise in futility.

Not so at Torrey. First of all, the staff — the front desk and those manning the two starter shacks  (why two? I don’t know, but at least both guys were more interested in assisting than getting my notarized signature on an official document — as is custom at Bethpage, presumably for liability purposes) — were not only helpful but could even be described as… welcoming:

“yes, we can get you right out… if views are what you’re looking for, no need to shell out the $350 for the South… we did, i’m afraid, just aerate the North, so set your expectations accordingly… try putting on the larger of the two practice greens before heading out; it’ll better approximate what you’ll find out there… holes? yes, of course we cut holes in our practice greens; what kind of idiot course doesn’t do that?

So, here’s the deal. On a Sunday morning, with 75 degree weather, I walked out onto a course, which hosts the PGA tour every year, along the Pacific Ocean for $100 or so. The front 9 of the North indeed does have some very pretty vistas, and you’ll hit approaches towards the ocean, tee off a few times with it as a backdrop, and hit over chasms with bluffs off to the distance on your left. The back 9 is entirely nondescript — it probably makes the White Course at Eisenhower Park look interesting  — but you’ll still be playing golf in shirtsleeves and shorts in October. And you’ll be doing so much faster than you would out on any of the five courses at Bethpage, long the home of the 6 hour round.

Now, you won’t find yourself contemplating Goethe or Hegel, while traversing Torrey Pines, it’s true. But unlike at Bethpage, you might actually enjoy your round. The courses — and this includes the South from the appropriate tees — are… easy. Or easy enough. You’re not going to be hitting 4 woods uphill all day into par 4s and you won’t lose your ball 10 yards off the fairway. In 25 to 30 years of playing at Bethpage, I’ve had maybe a handful of enjoyable rounds, and those had nothing to do with hitting the ball or making a score; on the contrary, even while playing relatively poorly at Torrey I was in the game with something to play for.

And about that walk in the woods on Long Island… the sturm und drang, the romanticism that confronted a pre-teen trudging up its hills alone on a random summer evening? It’s gone. And has been for sometime. NY State took the money and killed it, preferring instead to run a cash register. The golf industry has for some time now labeled the tree — that gluttonous beast sucking up precious water and oxygen — an enemy that must be eliminated, lest you want a course stricken bumpy greens and sparse tees. How are you going to charge 17 handicappers $150 if their four-footers are going to bump off line all day? (Well Torrey does, although maybe somewhat unsuccessfully judging from my ability to walk right out on a beautiful day.) And you’re certainly not going to host a professional event of any kind with dirt patches littering your tee boxes. This isn’t your father’s British Open.

So, while I don’t recommend making it a destination— you’re bound to be disappointed if you make Torrey the central stop on a buddies trip — by all means spend some time there if you happen to be traveling through Southern California. What do you have to lose? You can’t go home again anyway,

Bandon Bound?

I doubt just about everything I read these days, but course reviews and rankings, in particular, should be at the top of everyone’s skepticism meter. Well, perhaps behind equipment reviews.

Regardless, it was with some trepidation that I shelled out the four figures necessary for a trip to Bandon Dunes despite the near universal glowing accounts of the place. As it is, most of the course reviewers/travel gurus in the industry come across as shills, at best, and even the good ones almost certainly are handcuffed to some extent by their corporate masters. Compounding the matter, growing up in Bethpage has made me a natural skeptic when judging other courses. I have a friend of sound mind who would genuinely choose the Yellow’s back nine to play his final holes on the planet. I might even have agreed, at least before the deforestation, courtesy of the USGA, took away much of the State Park’s charm, but we’ll leave that for another post.

But now, after four days at the resort, I can definitively report that the Bandon compound meets expectations, at least from the scenic perspective. The courses are stunning – I cannot imagine a more perfect setting – and you must trust that the many pictures online do little to reveal their grandeur.

Here then, in no particular order, are things you should know as you plan your trip:

Know who you are: Golf Digest, in a rare observation of merit, accompanying a typical unreadable article last month, outlined three types of golfers: those that play for the competition; those that play as a solitary pursuit, a test of their abilities; and those that view a round of golf as an opportunity to spend time with friends outside.

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and this guy is an overmatched golfer…

The courses at Bandon are made for those looking for bonhomie, and work for those of the competitive bent. I can’t think of a more painful experience though than Bandon if you see golf as a challenge to get better, unless, that is, your handicap hovers in the (very) low single digits.

Leave the umbrella at home: If it’s raining, there also are likely to be 20 plus mph winds, so the umbrella will do you no good.

Along with the ProV1s: You’re not stopping anything on these greens, so you might as well play a cheaper ball, that’ll perform just as well.

But bring the spikes: Spikeless shoes are all the rage, and maybe they even are more comfortable, but it’s likely to rain at least a bit during your time in Bandon, and the fescue gets awfully slippery. Spinning out on tee boxes is not much fun.

Ignore the weather apps: We may as well have been checking the weather in Peoria, given how dissimilar the forecasts were to the actual conditions.

caddy working hard to show the line, but his player is flawed...
caddy working hard to show the line, but his player is flawed…

Leave the caddies in the shack: Get in shape before you go and get a trolley. They weren’t all that tough to pull around these courses, and all I did was walk the stairs at work every day for a few months to prepare. Better yet, take a few irons out of your bag and carry yourself.

This isn’t to disparage the caddies; I’m sure the vast majority of the (300 plus) on the property are professional and capable. But for me, they slowed things down – carrying two bags, reading every putt, tending every pin; they viewed it as unprofessional not to do these things, even if not asked – and didn’t provide all that much help other than showing lines off the tee (that I was unable to hit anyway.)

Much more importantly, a fifth or sixth person in your group changes the dynamic, regardless of how great they are as a caddy or a person. So unless you’re in that “challenge thyself” group above, I’d recommend saving some money and going out with your friends as a true foursome. Particularly if you belong to the “miss ‘em quick” school.

Don’t sleep on Old Mac. I liked it the best of the bunch; the sight of the entire course laid out before you, in the grey of morning, was mystical. If Shivas Irons ever visited Bandon, this is the course he’d play.

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On top of Old Mac, seconds from meeting the creator (Keiser himself!)
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I think we were a bit on the cold side at this point on Pacific…

Don’t overrate Pacific. Sure, its got the ocean views, but so does Bandon, and it’s unclear to me why the architectural highbrows genuflect toward it over the others. In fact, it is virtually unplayable in the heavy winds, unless you like hitting drivers on 150 yard par 3s with no bailout areas (or, at least, no bailout areas that require anything less than a perfect chip to save bogey.)

this may have been a match 22 years ago...
this may have been a match on Bandon 22 years ago…

Bandon is just as breathtaking, with a more interesting (and beautiful) opening, and with seaside holes (4/5, 15/16) as stunning as anything on Pacific.

minutes from making triple from the fairway... put me in the time to redo the 14th green camp!
minutes from making triple from the fairway on Trails #14… put me in the camp arguing it’s time to redo the green!

Trails is a walk through the woods unlike any I’ve experienced, but it’d still be number 4 on my list – perhaps if only because it’s less unique than what the typical parkland golfer is used to than the others.

The Preserve has beautiful vistas, and certainly was a fun experience. I was very happy we were able to fit it in. But, go in knowing that it is significantly overpriced ($75 for an hour of golf?) and frankly resembles less a par 3 course than mini golf on steroids (see comment on greens, below.)

Practice hitting long irons off tight lies: You’re going to be hitting a bunch of them if there’s wind (which there will be.)

Up the bounce on your wedges: The sand is extremely soft, and it took me a full day to get accustomed. Not until I started borrowing my friend’s wedge with 12 degrees bounce (I usually play 8) was I able to blast out.

The ground game’s not a panacea: At least not on and around these greens. I felt like I was playing the bump and run pretty well all week, but hit it a little long or short and you’re rolling off into a bunker or swell, or winding up 50 feet away. Sure it’s easier to make solid contact bunting an 8 iron, but unless you gauge it exactly right you’re going to wind up in just as bad a spot as if you missed a wedge.

Seriously, what were Doak and Coore thinking with some of these green complexes? Who enjoys struggling to avoid 4-putts at least two or three times a round? If making a few double bogeys puts you in a bad mood, you’re going to hate yourself pretty quickly out there.

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Which leaves us all with an important lesson, one that the golfer in this country needs constant reminding, courtesy of the poison the PGA tour puts out week in and week out. And that is this: stroke play is for suckers.

Keep the scorecard in your pocket, play a match, and focus on enjoying the walk and the time with people you care about. Do that, and you’ll be mentally planning your next trip to Oregon before you even finish your first round.

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