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19th Hole

A hacker plays the big ones: Pt. 1

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“A Hacker Plays The Big Ones” is a short story authored by Steven R. Roberts. The short story, written two months following the trip, tells the tale of Roberts and his friend, Bob Blackman’s, golf odyssey around Scotland in the 1970s where the two played four of most historic courses in the game: St. Andrews, Carnoustie, Muirfield and Gleneagles.

We have broken the short story into a four-parter and will publish Part 2. of the story in the coming days.

A Hacker Plays The Big Ones: Pt. 1

“RABBITS!” the starter said, reading from a rolled-up list of tee times taken from the pocket of his baggy raincoat.

“Rabbits,” he repeated, becoming more annoyed.

“Excuse me,” I said, not wanting to get too close to the man for fear of getting whacked with the old putter he used as a walking stick.  “Did you say Roberts?”

“That’s it, lad, Rabbits,” the starter said, with his weathered face and his eyes peering up through bushy gray eyebrows. “Now, I’ve said it three times. You’re on the tee. Come along smartly now.”

Bob and I picked up our clubs and walked briskly to the middle of the first tee at St. Andrews, Scotland. The first tee and the adjoining practice putting green were surrounded with would-be golfers, mostly men staring and waiting, and now they were waiting for us.

The usual spitting rain had brought out the sweaters – jumpers, they called them – and rain gear, as we waited for a chance to play where the legends of the game had walked since the first “Open Championship” in 1754.

The bulldog-faced starter stood close, wiping the water from his watch as I teed my ball up and took a quick practice swing. It was quite a moment, made all the more nerve-racking by my stay overnight as a guest in the Perth city jail. I wondered what else could happen when something else did. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed I had inadvertently placed my ball on a pink tee. Had that tee actually come from my pocket? This inadvertent act of disrespect would not fit with my vision of this reverent moment.

I backed away from the ball and took a white tee out of my pocket. I tried to steady my hand as I re-teed the ball and it fell off. Not wanting to look back at the impatient dark ring of observers, I re-teed and took a quick swing before it fell again. The ball sort of scooted down the left side of the fairway in some kind of a “C-“ way but at least I survived the first tee. Bob went through the process more smoothly. We grabbed our bags off the ground and trudged down the first fairway, away from the scrutiny of the lord of the tees.

And so began the story of two of the world’s golf nuts who secretly harbored the universal dream that through some stroke of magic they would be able to play the historic Scottish courses responsible for creating the legends of golf lore. We hoped to play like the pros, if only for a day, or maybe a hole.

The dream embraced the thin hope that our normally faulty-but-workable swings would smash drives to record distances, have our iron shots pierce through the wind to stop near the hole and, best of all, have 10-foot birdie putts disappear like chipmunks late for dinner.

Come join us if just for the smiles along the way.

Bob Blackman and I had been temporarily transferred to England in 1978. He was with a drug company in Australia. I was working on a world design car for Ford Motor Company and Bob’s wife, Jan, was my secretary during my tour of duty in England.

Bob and I had met at a Ford event. Discovering our mutual interest in golf, we became friends. We vowed to get to Scotland to play the legendary courses before the end of our assignments in England.

A year later we were on a four-day trip with tee times at St. Andrews, Carnoustie, Gleneagles and Muirfield, four of the most historic courses in the history of the game. We weren’t going to be playing for a championship, but we did establish a bet of five pounds each day on the medal, or total score, results. We also agreed to the bet of a new ball for the match play winner each day. The British have a quirky tradition of betting a new ball on the outcome of golf matches. Finally, birdies were worth .20 p (about a dime at the time), and a hole in one was worth a bottle of champagne. Conservative bettors, but each prize would be hard-fought in our version of the Walker Cup.

We were both living in Brentwood, England, less than an hour east of London. On our first day, we drove eight hours to Peebles, Scotland, just south of Edinburgh. Our hotel, the Tontine, was built in 1808, the kind of information that made me check the location of the fire escapes. Luckily, in those days they didn’t construct buildings much over three or four stories high, and we were on the second floor. I also noted that there was a healthy stand of bushes directly under our window.

Our tee time at Carnoustie the next morning was for 11:04, and the course was a couple of hour’s drive above Edinburgh. It had been a long day, and Bob went to bed early to prepare for the next day. I was a bit nervous about the next day and lay awake for two hours listening to Bob’s happy snore.

Breakfast didn’t start until 8:00 AM in the dining room overlooking the Tweed River. The room cost about $35, including breakfast. The room seemed comfortable until I ran my forehead into the door jamb and realized the building was sized for the time when George III was King and Thomas Jefferson was President of a new, struggling country across the Atlantic.

We got a late start, but the bangers, muffin and eggs were a fitting send-off for two aspiring but yet-undiscovered golfing stars.

The trip took two hours, and we turned up Links Avenue for a look at our first championship challenge. At the end of the street was the quaint old golf shop (small gazebo) where we paid a modest fee of 3.75 pounds (about $8).

With the usual overcast skies and all bets in effect, the twosome of Blackman and Roberts prepare to tee off at Carnoustie. We were alone on the first tee, with the starter observing our warm up swings from his booth. A disinterested older couple and two stray dogs served as a reluctant gallery. Crack, crack, and we are off.

It is possible to get lost on Scottish courses. The grasses on links courses grow to whatever height God allows, waving like hay in the breeze. We soon realize we couldn’t even see the greens, in many cases, for our second shots, let alone hit them. The old caddies had to guide us.

Another feature readily noticeable is the skillful and frightening use of traps. There are little annoying traps everywhere; some are small enough to hide a VW Beetle. Some traps are located in the middle of the fairways. I got in one on the first hole and decided to blast out backwards. Bob decided to take a picture just as I fall flat in the sand. I threatened to expose his film if he persists with the photo thing.

After our initial excitement at being on Carnoustie, Bob and I settled down to survive. We both turned the front nine in 41, not too promising if we are going to beat Tom Watson’s winning score in 1975, but there were no broken bones or clubs, so we went on.

Without saying a word, it was understood that all putts would be holed out. It seems the least we can do for a course that hosted five British Opens – Tommy Armour in 1931, Henry Cotton in 1937, Ben Hogan in 1953, Gary Player in 1968 and as previously noted, Tom Watson in 1975.

I birdied 11 and went one up. This joy lasted until 14 where Bob made a putt he had no license to make. I stumbled heading toward the gazebo clubhouse, and at the end of the first day, the score was Bob 80 and Steve 81. I’ve lost a new ball to Bob and one in the burn on the 17th hole.

I don’t want to talk about it. I need a beer and a bit of a rest for tomorrow.

Coming soon: A Hacker Plays The Big Ones Pt. 2

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19th Hole

The DailyWRX (9/22/2020): Tiger, JT lifting the left heel?

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Rory’s distance is even more fascinating looking at this picture….

I love this! Bummed he’s leaving the USGA but stoked to play “hell day” at a Mike Davis track. 

At least 5…15….no more than 1,000.

I’ve been lifting my left heel all day. It’s off the ground as we speak. Typing speed went way up. Who knew?

Hi, Binny!

DM @johnny_wunder

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19th Hole

Rory McIlroy reveals his love for….Domino’s Pizza!?

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The Payne’s Valley Cup on Tuesday provided plenty of entertaining moments, but one thing golf fans perhaps weren’t bargaining on hearing was a Rory McIlroy deep dive into his current favorite pizza joint.

While his partner Rose was preparing to putt, McIlroy revealed that he was on a ‘big Domino’s kick’ at the moment, and it elicited a pretty hilarious reaction from Justin Thomas.

The Ulsterman justified his choice by claiming that when you don’t know the good local spots, then Domino’s Pizza is ‘solid’. When asked by JT what toppings he goes for, McIlroy responded that his go-to order is the ‘Deluxe’, which according to google consists of ‘green peppers, black olives, and meats like pepperoni, ham, and Italian sausage.’

So there you have it, Rory McIlroy is a self-confessed lover of Domino’s Pizza!

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19th Hole

A hacker plays the big ones: Pt. 4

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“A Hacker Plays The Big Ones” is a short story authored by Steven R. Roberts. The short story, written two months following the trip, tells the tale of Roberts and his friend, Bob Blackman’s, golf odyssey around Scotland in the 1970s where the two played four of most historic courses in the game: St. Andrews, Carnoustie, Muirfield and Gleneagles.

We have broken the short story into a four-parter and here is the final part.

Read Part 1 here.

Read Part 2 here.

Read Part 3 here.

The final day of competition was at Muirfield Golf Club near Scotland’s southern border. It’s officially known as the “Company of Honorable Gentlemen from Edinburg”, and it was the only private club we attempted to play. We arrived to find only one car in the parking lot.

“Could you direct us to the Pro Shop?” I asked the club secretary.

“Muirfield da noot hoov a pru ship,” (or a pro for that matter), he said. “Ya kin buy bells un tees if ya moost.” There you have the Scottish disdain for things commercial. There were no souvenir shirts, hats, gloves or bag tags for sale at Muirfield. One imagines any money prize awarded at the Open Championship to be held in 1980 will be slipped under the winner’s door in a plain white envelope.

Standing in front of the clubhouse, you can see across the rugged links course to the sea. Some 40 miles north across the Firth of Forth lies yesterday’s winner, St. Andrews, and another 40 miles north across the Tay River is the rugged Carnoustie.
Just a word about the course. Bob and I decided it would be tough on a calm day, but the gales blow off the sea without relief. Muirfield members say if there was a day without wind, they wouldn’t know what to lean against.

The rough is knee-high everywhere you look except for the thin strips of the fairways. Some players think there may be whole families living in the tall grass. Nicklaus used his driver only four times per round in winning in 1966. But as tough as the course was tee to green, the greens were tougher. On the third hole, my caddie, another of the weathered veteran survivors of the sea breezes, spent some time telling me exactly how my uphill 30-footer broke. I steadied myself over the ball and took a stroke which traveled to the crest of the break and stopped. As I took a step forward, the ball turned, slowly rolling back down the hill coming to rest at my feet. My caddie turned to look out at the sea. He didn’t bother to read my putts again for the rest of the round.
Moving on, the 17th hole, a 530-yard par 5, was going to provide an appropriate climactic stage for the finishing moments of the scheduled 1980 Open. Bob’s caddie advised that in some wind conditions the par five is reachable in two. On my second shot, I swung a three wood with both feet off the ground and was able to reach the front of the green. Bob got lucky and put his second shot within 100 feet from the pin. He two-putted for a birdie. I won’t bore you with the details, but I managed to sink a two-footer for my six.

Finishing off the round with two pars, we took some comfort in the fact that Gary Player took a double bogie six on the final hole to win the Open Championship in 1958.

We packed up our wet gear and said goodbye to four days of soaking in the adventure of Scottish golf. On the drive home that afternoon and evening, Bob and I played the “if only” game, a favorite of all golfers. This technique allowed us to imagine away five or six shots a round. Looking back over the four rounds, each course had the devil buried inside its character. Carnoustie was a weathered Scottish seaman’s face; Gleneagles was a soft, classy lassie with curves in the right places; St. Andrews was the ceremonial lord of the manor with understated British strength and style; and Muirfield was a wicked woman with her fringed skirt flapping in the breeze – aggravating because you suspect she’s easy for some but not for you.

We also distributed the prizes on the drive home. Bob beat me two rounds, and we tied for two, so he won ten pounds and six golf balls. He had six birdies during the week compared to my four, so Bandit Bob won another 40 pence. Luckily, he didn’t have any eagles or holes in one.

I was driving when we passed the Nottingham Forest exit about halfway home. I slowed down to let a sheriff’s car pass me in hot pursuit. I supposed he was looking for Robin Hood. The sheriff would be well advised, I thought, to check out the sandy-haired hood sitting in the dark, chuckling quietly in the passenger seat of my car.

I was also smiling. If Bob doesn’t play again for a week, he is going to have a real surprise. Before we loaded up at Muirfield, I found a city of termites under the woodwork in the hotel. I’d spent half the night collecting the squiggly little termite biters, and I was able to poke the putter shaft through the bag and slide it down the shaft, finally securing the bag to the shaft midway with tape. In a week Bob will find only a clubhead, grip and a pile of sawdust after the little beasties have a go at that tasty shaft.

But alas, Bob and I have had a week of living out a dream. We have walked the same fairways and greens that have been walked for centuries of golfers, from the founding fathers of the game to the stars of recent years. No other sport provides its fans such an opportunity to so closely assimilate the physical challenges of its major championships. The average amateur baseball player is not permitted to walk to the pitcher’s mound in Yankee Stadium and pitch three innings, and the weekend football nut cannot play running back at Heinz Field stadium facing the Pittsburgh Steelers. But we stood on the same spot on the 17th fairway at St. Andrews and faced the same wind off the Forth of Firth that has humbled the greats of the game for centuries. All the more is the hacker’s thrill if he somehow carries his ball over the trap and keeps it from bouncing over the green onto the road.

So, that’s my story from a week in the middle of October 1979. Having read this only slightly-exaggerated report on our trip, you are exempt from listening to my telling of the story in the event we run into each other at a cocktail party somewhere down the road. But if after a few drinks the conversation turns again to lifelong dreams, my answer will be the same. There are many more courses out there to be concurred. But, do me a favor. Bob is still raw over the mysterious pulverizing of his wooden shaft. If he’s around, just don’t say anything about another trip.

Author’s note: This story was originally written two months after the trip. I sent a copy to my former teammate at college and attached is a reproduction of his response. He finished second to Tom Watson at Muirfield in 1980. I should have been on the bag and helped him read those tricky greens

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