The Biggest Loser

My father often would bring the New York Times home after picking up bagels, donuts, and—if I was lucky—baseball cards on Sunday mornings. Despite hemorrhaging money, Sunday’s Times still intimidates today, but it was an entirely different beast in the 1980s, and I regarded it with a wary fascination. As if to demonstrate the paper’s depth, it seemed that every time I gathered the courage to pick it up, I’d find an article documenting the exploits of a New York City handball legend named Joe Durso. I never came across Durso’s name in any of the other New York papers, and I read them (or at least their sports sections) cover to cover every day for a good decade. But Durso, unless it really was all just some sort of cosmic coincidence, was a fixture in the ‘Old Gray Lady’. All the news that’s fit to print indeed.

The articles—well, at least my memory of them—were all remarkably similar, with Durso inevitably being described as a physical Adonis, whose skill was matched only by his verbal acuity. The image that came to my mind was that of a poor man’s Muhammad Ali (I’m talking pre-suspension Ali, of course, the Cleveland Williams/Ernie Terrell Ali) strutting around a handball court destroying his opponents while ridiculing them. History tells us that greatness may excuse or explain a lot, but Durso, quite frankly to this pre-adolescent, gave off the impression of being a self-absorbed jerk.

A few years ago—or perhaps months; keeping track of time isn’t as simple as it once was—I again picked up the New York Times on a Sunday, this time in a friend’s Forest Hills high rise, and was surprised to see another article documenting Durso’s exploits, written in the same style and ostensibly delivering the same message as its antecedents. Durso, deep into his 50s, is still playing, and playing quite well. While no longer number one, his tongue certainly hasn’t slipped any, and he spent the requisite time imitating Mike Tyson’s manner of denigrating his challengers’ primitive skills.

But this time around, Durso didn’t come across as a jerk to me. On the contrary, by the end of the article I felt sadness and even pity for him.

For one thing, Durso couldn’t help but slip into the past tense when describing his dominance:

‘I was the best, I was an artist, I was a higher grade human being, on a different plane than everyone else, etc, etc, etc…’

Well, he’s perhaps more than just a loudmouth, I thought, and appears at least subconsciously capable of self-reflection. But getting old stinks for everyone—get in line Durso—and it wasn’t even clear he was aware of what he was inferring here.

Durso wasn’t done talking though, and here is the money quote (that is to say, my recollection of the money quote, which may or may not have been buried somewhere in the New York Times in the past 6 to 24 months):

‘Can you believe this nonsense? Does anyone here appear to be paying attention? I should have been playing in Madison Square Garden on Friday nights, with 20,000 people screaming at my every move… instead of in a neglected playground in Brooklyn at 4:00 on a Tuesday in the company of a bum and a couple of high school dropouts….’

Durso not only never had a Frazier, he never had a Cosell. In fact, aside from the Times’s somewhat odd fascination with him, he never even had a ring. He didn’t exist. And he knew it.

In effect, he was saying, “can you imagine a crueler life than mine?”

No, no. Not many anyway. But I can think of one.

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The Wrong Way on Slow Play

Slow play was the issue de jour this past year, with the golf world united in its determination to tackle the problem. The Golf Channel anointed June “pace of play month”, the USGA spent who knows how much on its silly ode to Rodney Dangerfield, the PGA of America began touting four-hole rounds, and just about every golf-related journalist, teacher, blogger, equipment manufacturer, and fan chimed in with serious invective against the practice.

What’s surprising, however, is the sense that a) this is a new issue for the game and b) slow play’s source is somewhat mysterious with the solution complex and elusive.

First off, the view that this is a 21st century problem attributed to steroidal technology (necessitating more difficult golf courses), and the penchant for 20+  handicappers to mimic the obsessive-compulsive behavior of the current crop of tour pro is misguided. This isn’t to minimize the impact of the Ben Crane crowd on the rest of us, or the disaster that has been 80s/90s architecture, but slow play certainly predates island greens and the practice of marking two footers. Bethpage State Park has been known as the “home of the six hour round” for as long as I can remember, and these courses were built in the 1930s and barely measure past 6,000 yards (forget the Black; it takes, and has always taken, just as long to complete a round on any of the others.)

Is it then the byzantine nature of the rule book and its affinity for doling out cruel and unusual punishment? Not really; while stroke and distance for out of bounds might be ridiculous, and even the best players in the world apparently haven’t a clue where to drop after hitting into a hazard, you’d be hard pressed to find many amateurs trudging back to the tee after losing a ball five yards off the fairway, let alone many that even know what the rules call for in such a situation.

The source of the problem is much more basic and relatively simple. Former USGA honcho David Fay, not surprisingly, was the one voice who addressed it head on in the past year. Simply stated, the vast majority of amateur golfers, even the decent ones, stink, and it has forever been so. Churchill more than half a century ago probably expressed it best. Unfortunately, Fay’s solution (to hire kids to run around in the woods spotting errant shots) isn’t particularly practical, and in any event doesn’t go far enough.

But golf could survive golfers not being any good, assuming they’re playing under the right format. The real problem is that everyone these days is obsessed with “posting a score.” Yes, stroke play is the root of all evil here.

Double-digit handicappers should not be counting every stroke. Period.

Compounding things is this ridiculous ethos that has taken hold – I guess we should blame the mythologists from the Bobby Jones era – that one is somewhat less of a human being if he/she doesn’t treat golf as some sort of Calvinist undertaking. Thinking of hiring someone? ‘Take ‘em out to the course to take their measure’ is a current line of thinking. As if wasting 10 minutes of everyone’s time while digging out of a buried lie in a pot bunker is some kind of virtue. What utter rubbish.

Have you ever heard anything as absurd as the following, particularly coming from a college football coach, who’s profession, by definition, requires a complete disregard of the rules? (I’ll let you guess the identity of the coaches below):

“He shot a 108. I had to count all the balls he hit into the pond on No. 10. He said, ‘Steve, I had an 11, didn’t I?’ I said, ‘Coach, I’m afraid it was a 13.’ We went back, recounted, and it was 13.”

My god, playing behind these two could have been a scene out of Huis Clos.

I have a friend, a serious golfer, one good enough to pass the playing ability test and to come close to qualifying for the Mid-Am. He plays regular games against another low handicapper, wherein they team up with a couple of less skilled players. It has never, and I’m not exaggerating here, crossed their minds that they should be playing anything other than stroke play. They count each score, add them together, with lower aggregate winning. (As if they’re playing in the world cup or something.)

Can you imagine what these matches are like? Five minute ball searches every other hole…  discussions like this on the third, “better mark that 2 footer Joe; I’ll give you a read from the other side. Might be decisive.”

Somebody, somehow, needs to reintroduce match play to the amateur golfer, and fast (and I’m talking about the public golfer here; I really couldn’t care less how long it takes John Boehner to get around Burning Tree.)

Just think; if match play was the norm, Lou Holtz’s (well, just guess the other one) 13? After the second in the water, he’d have conceded and they’d have been on to the next hole. Joe’s two footer? Well, it would have been for a net seven, and with his partner already in for a par, he’d have picked up five minutes prior.

Now, I know the Scots would take it a step further and advocate alternate shot (one ball per pair). But that’s probably a step too far, with the typical public golfer paying close to $100 for a round on weekends these days. If we can just get the amateur to avoid thinking that they’re out there to compare their overall score to Phil Mickelson’s, we’d be a long way to fixing the pace of play problem.

Come to think of it, I might consider taking a prospective hire out on the golf course after all. If he or she were to kneel down to mark a tap-in in order to avoid stepping in the line of my six foot putt for double, I’d probably have picked up a pretty good clue that deadlines, and priorities, might be a problem…

Course Review: “Renditions,” Davidsonville, MD

If you go to Renditions expecting to experience firsthand the beauty of Amen Corner or the grandeur of the Road Hole you will, of course, be greatly disappointed. However, if you’re looking for a well-kept course that will present a number of interesting holes and shots… you certainly could do worse.

The Good:

The greens may have been in the best condition of all the courses I’ve played this year. The tees and the fairways were extremely playable as well. The superintendent – unlike many of his competitors judging from my experience in August and September – was somehow able to get through the worst of the summer without losing much turf.

The memorabilia in the clubhouse and on the course is worth a mention as well. Fans of golf history (assuming such creatures exists outside of, I don’t know, Gullane or something) will find it fun to look at some of the photos and read of their favorite player’s exploits.

Finally, the price was certainly reasonable for the quality of the course, particularly given its current condition.

The Not-so Good:

‘Not so good’ is too nice a descriptor for the pace of play at Renditions. A 5 + hour round for a twosome teeing off on a Tuesday morning is unacceptable, to put it mildly. We did not encounter a single marshal during our epic, which leads me to believe our experience was not atypical. Sluggish play certainly abounded on the adjoining fairways, but at the same time there appeared to be nowhere for many foursomes to go. Was a single group a few holes ahead holding everyone up? Bunched up tee-times leading to congestion? Mulligans galore in an effort to hit the “island green” or to clear “Rae’s creek”? Unclear, but management here has a big problem that they appear – on the day of my visit at least – uninterested in fixing.

The Conceit:

Again, I certainly didn’t expect to come away with a subtle appreciation of the challenges the pros face at championship courses. It’s not feasible to expect, say, Georgia pines along three holes, or hard and fast conditions on the British Open replicas. And, for all that the course isn’t, you do walk away from the round having played an island green (17 at Sawgrass), a reachable dog-leg left par 5 with a creek along the side that bisects the fairway in front of the green (13 at Augusta), and a number of blind holes where you have no idea where the fairway is or what traps may await (the three British holes). You can even attempt to hit out of something resembling the “church pews” bunker if you’re (un)lucky enough to find it (Oakmont 3/4).  

 Still, I will say that many of the holes are unmemorable (the “renditions” of Medinah, Inverness, Southern Hills, Oak Hill, and the Country Club, to name a few, looked to me like they could have been pulled from any moderately priced municipal course) and there’s no way I would have ever successfully placed the replica of the one hole I’ve actually walked (#16, Shinnecock).

It must also be said: the average golf fan will find many of the hole choices to be odd. There’s actually no Road Hole, or Swilcan Burn… no Carnoustie finish or ‘Postage Stamp’. No #18 at Pebble (is it that hard to replicate the Pacific Ocean?) Nothing from Pinehurst…

Of course, I don’t pretend to know how difficult it is to come up with a layout for this type of course. I’m sure space, the vagaries of the land, legal wrangling, and the whims of the owner conspired to dictate the particular holes chosen, and their order… 

 

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I recommend venturing out to Renditions if you have friends or family coming into town and you’re looking for something more interesting than a typical higher-end public course. One can certainly have a very enjoyable time playing the course with the right group. That said, I probably would not play it with my regular foursome and have no intention of running out there again as a single.

 Of Renditions however, one thing is clear: if you do decide on this course, just be sure to set aside about six hours of your day. 

Course Review: “The Gauntlet,” Fredericksburg, VA

The Gauntlet, Fredericksburg, VA

 A few years back, Lee Trevino, in an interview with Golf Magazine, was asked if he was worried about the current state of golf course design. “Of course,” he responded, while adding something akin to ‘I’m not sure what these guys are doing. Go build 18 greens, 18 tees, throw a few bunkers out there, and let people play golf.’

It is particularly hard to imagine what PB Dye was thinking when plowing through the wetlands of Curtis Memorial Park in Fredericksburg. He certainly wasn’t considering the 10-20 handicappers who would make up 99 percent of The Gauntlet’s paying customers. Numerous blind tee shots, blind approaches, multi-tiered greens, pinched in fairways… throw in poor drainage, a paucity of yardage markers, and a misguided decision to install bent grass greens (just about every collar was burnt out) and by the 4th hole you’ll be wondering why you didn’t volunteer to ferry your 5 year old daughter to the neighborhood birthday party at American Girl in Tysons for tea and cupcakes.

Now, one shouldn’t throw around poor reviews gratuitously, so let me highlight a few positives, along with some details that might explain some of my negativity:

a)    The price is right; $60 for a Saturday morning round can’t be beat.

b)   I didn’t see a house on the course.

c)    The superintendent appears to be trying; for late August, the fairways weren’t in terrible shape, and the greens (once you got around the burnt out collars) rolled relatively true.

d)   The management is trying as well; they’ve instituted a moderately priced Monday twilight golf league and are offering a tremendous deal on Tuesday afternoons.

e)    At this point, I’m pretty sure I’d decline to play Augusta National if confronted with “cart path only” rather than continue to engage in such silliness. Certainly traipsing back and forth across fairways with multiple clubs contributed to my mood.

f)     Perhaps PB spent up all his creativity on the front 9, because the back side was, in fact, much more playable, and thus, more enjoyable. Or, it would have been, had I not been spent myself by the 11th hole.

g)    The clubhouse staff was friendly and helpful, although it would have been nice had the roving marshall pushed along the one group preventing us from completing a sub 4 hour round rather than engage in back slapping and other frivolities.

 Maybe architects fear they won’t be remembered for creating a humdrum course along the lines of Trevino’s recommendation. Maybe they suspect the lack of buzz will ensure they never win another contract. But one thing is certain; pedestrian designs would serve the average golfer infinitely more than the monstrosities in vogue in the mid 1990s…