Golf World

Navigating Golf World

According to the R&A’s Golf Around the World 2017 there are a 33,161 golf courses in the world.  The R&A, or, Royal and Ancient, derives its name from the Royal and Ancient Golf Club at St Andrews, but as the R&A makes clear on its web site, it is “separate and distinct from”  the Royal and Ancient Golf Club at St Andrews. They don’t explain just how the R&A is separate and distinct; golf is full of arcane mysteries. In any event, the R&A governs the game everywhere except in the United States and Mexico, so if anyone knows exactly how many golf holes there are in the world (567,111) the R&A would.

On this side of the Atlantic

Golfers in the US and our southern boarder buddies follow the rules of, and get our handicaps through, the United States Golf Association. Known as the USGA , their offices are in Far Hills, New Jersey.

Where You Actually Go…

You don’t get your handicap directly from the USGA. You get it through your state golf association, which is affiliated with the USGA. But really the first place you go to get your own, personally golf handicap is the shop at a golf course that has a PGA professional on staff. PGA stands for Professional Golf Association, which is the organization that regulates golf professionals. Their offices are in Palm Beach Gardens in Florida. The PGA is not to be confuses with the PGA Tour which is what a lot of people sit around and watch on TV.  None of this really matters, but it may come up in conversation.

How Handicaps Work (ish)

To actually get a handicap you go to a golf course, pay $40 and give the guy behind the counter completed score cards from 5 rounds of golf that you’ve played. Your scores go into a black box and out pops a number – your very own handicap, hand crafted by the skilled artisans who dwell within the black box. (Okay, you want to know what’s inside the black box, don’t you? So….those guys – the R&A, USGA, the PGA and your state and local golf associations get together and they rate each hole on each golf course and give it a degree of difficulty. I kid you not. So the elves take your scores and match them up to how hard (or easy) each hole that you played and there you have it –  a numerical indication of how well (a low number) or poorly (a high number) you play. Every time you play you put your score into the black box, and your handicap goes down (or), as you play better (or worse).

The very best golfers have handicap of 0, or, as it’s call, scratch. Which lends itself to the clever quip I used when I was beginning to play “I’m a scratch golfer, because every time I play it’s like starting from scratch.” Ha ha.

Having a golf handicap goes a long way towards fulfilling the “plays well with others” rubric.

Why one bothers about all this is that with a golf handicap you can play against (or with) other players who are better (or worse) than you are in a more equal (fun) way. Fortunately, there are people (I’ve even met some!) who actually understand not only how the black box works but can explain how if your ball goes down a gopher hole it’s a two-shot penalty in match play, but a one-shot penalty in stoke play, yet if the hole was dug by a dog, well – that’s another matter entirely. The rule book is 225 pages long, and it’s single spaced. With no pictures.

Which Way the Grass Grows

I once played golf with a 12-year-old who talked about the direction that the grass on the greens grew in. The direction that grass grows in is no small matter in Golf World.


More Beginnings

As For Me

Golf was always around. My maternal grandfather adored the game. An engineer who, when I knew him, was coming to the end of his long career with General Electric at the Knolls Atomic Power lab in Schenectady, New York. Granddad played at the Edison Club. We belonged to the Mohawk Club, so that was Dad’s course. And Great Uncle Newt belonged to a club over in Albany. The men usually played 18 holes on Saturdays. Somewhere there is a photo as a four-year-old wielding an big, red plastic toy driver on my grandparent’s lawn. Walking the course with Dad and Granddad when I was six, I was fascinated by the red ball and green washers, and the rain shelter among the pine trees on the back nine.

Mom didn’t take up golf in a big way until she and Dad moved to a small town on Connecticut’s gold coast. This was the summer before I left for college in Boston. The country club they joined had a nine-hole course that I saw from the train window when I cam home on holidays. Dad bought Mom a set of Sounder clubs and Mom played in the women’s league. When Dad bought Mom her next set of clubs (Pings) in the late ’80s, I asked for the Sounders and started to play. Part of the game’s appeal was wearing shoes with metal spikes and the sound I made walking across the parking lot.

Another appealing aspect of the game was hitting something repeatedly with a club.


Sophomore. From the Greek. Sophos = wise. Moros = stupid

Sophomore year of college, I met Carla. At first, I didn’t know what to make of her blond good looks, and cheerful disposition (I was in a dark and moody suffering artist phase at the time), but by mid-term had discovered she was a potent combination of badass funny and wicked smart. And she had a car. And liked to go places. Like ski houses in Vermont. And vacation houses on Cape Cod. And golf courses on Sea Island. And the Harvard football teams’ dorm after curfew. That was my wise/stupid year.

Around the time Mom was giving me her set of Sounder clubs, Carla was buying her house next to the cranberry bog on Cape Cod. In her backyard she hung a hammock between two trees. She also set up a net to hit golf balls into. One weekend I drove to Carla’s with my clubs, and she taught me what to do. Let the club do the work. Tempo. Keep your head still.  I hit balls into her net with my 7 iron, and then we went to play at Cranberry Valley. No one care how you play as long as keep moving, she told me. She showed me how to tend the pin and put the cart in reverse.

My wise/stupid year was forty years ago. Carla and I usually play at Cranberry Valley or Fresh Pond. About ten years ago we played Highland Links. Built in 1892 on bluffs overlooking the ocean, with deep, natural roughs of heather, and open fairways Highland Links is as close as you can get to a traditional Scottish style links course on this side of the Atlantic. Last week we played at a new course, Shaker Hills.  May we all find lifelong friends in our wise/stupid years.


In the Beginning


How to explain it? Ahab had his whale and I have my golf. Attempting to put into words the why of this game, to probe into the energy that fuels this frivolous quest is a lesser cousin to the mystery of why we pursue the divine. Why go to Canterbury or Mecca? Why bathe in the Ganges or burn incense before an alter? Why do we seek grace? This line of questioning has occupied philosophers, scholars, artists and priests since forever. It has also occupied housekeepers, cooks, farmers, miners, smiths and shepherds. And the shepherds bring us to golf.


The exact date and time when the game was first played – that moment when the first sphere-like object was hit by a club-like stick into a hole in the ground – is lost to us. But one can imagine the sphere-like object was a roundish rock, and the stick a shepherd’s staff. If one’s occupation was watching sheep (or goats or cows for that matter) one might pass the time hitting rocks into holes. And it’s easy to imagine saying to one of the other shepherds “You know that big elm tree over by Sully’s? Well, I hit a rock from there to the rabbit hole on the other side of the stream with 5 strokes of my staff.” And a couple of days later, your colleague comes around and says, “I got my rock from the elm into the rabbit hole in 4.” And with that,  we’re off and running.

Everything that comes after – the titanium clubheads, graphite shafts, stay-dry gripes, hand milled irons, lob wedges, Skycaddie range finders, three piece low compression balls with a patented dimple pattern, bunker rakes, little pencils, colorful scorecards, wooden tees, magnetic ball markers that clip to your visor, electric golf carts tricked out like real automobiles, monogrammed headcovers with pom poms, Kangol caps, plus-fours knickers, Proquip Tour Flex 350 rain pants, Ecco BIOM G2 yak leather shoes with SLIM-Lok spikes, mini-golf windmills, driving ranges, practice greens, Dave Leadbetter instructional videos, destination courses with 5 star accommodations and around the clock room service, claret jugs, green jackets, clubhouse grill rooms and birdie bottles – is mere embellishment.

The Gospel of Luke…

…tells us the shepherds were living in the fields, watching over their flock one night when they looked up and say an angel of the Lord. The Evangelist doesn’t mention what the shepherds looked up from when the angel appeared and announced his glad tidings. Perhaps they looked up from hitting roundish rocks with their staffs into rabbit holes.