Nailing It: Mind Over Matter

Young Phil

A younger Phil Mickelson engages the gallery

Phil Mickelson is not new to golf, but Sunday’s performance at Kiawah Island’s Ocean Course revealed a new player that few of us have seen before. He seemingly shed a skin, and reappeared as, no, not a younger person, but ironically, as an older person playing a young person’s game. How did he manage to abandon the old “Lefty”, and become the new sheriff in town?

I am not a golf zealot. I love the game, and occasionally have actually landed a drive on a fairway as opposed to the much more inviting rough edges. I don’t follow golfers, record statistics, recount games or ponder golf equipment. But I do get enjoyment in watching professionals pit their best against the elements: wind, gravity, foliage, water, crowds, blimps, cameras and second doubts.

Walks Alone

He walks alone from pin to tee.

Watching Mickelson at the PGA Championship this past weekend was like staring up at Nik Wallenda hike across a tightrope 40 stories up in Chicago. Actually, the comparison is not a fair one, in that it was always a certainty that the high-rise circus performer would do it okay. Not so much for the 50-year-old golfer who has for 30 years soared, spun, fallen, struggled and recovered while collecting a den full of trophies. He is a gallery favorite in the PGA, but not necessarily a sure winner.

Still, there he was for four straight days the uncontested leader, the number one performer among a field of 157 competitors. At nearly 51 years, he was also the oldest of the pack, surrounded by 20- and 30-somethings, and having his way. How? What became of our young, adventuresome, risk-taking, wavy-haired, reckless, canny, plum lucky player who smiled and winced his way through golf’s grassy treacherous gauntlet, game after game?


Enbrel Phil

A pitchman for Enbrel, relieving the painful grip of arthritis.

Remember, this is a golfer who is, or certainly was, a pitchman for a psoriatic arthritis medication. We used to watch him smiling, nimbly making sandwiches with previously pained hands. A golfer’s grip is everything you know.

Viewers would have to agree that they were watching a reborn player. Mickelson has shed weight. The boyish plumpness that rolled forever beneath his shirt is gone. The curls that used to blossom from beneath his cap have been replaced with a neatly trimmed bang at the back of his head.

Phil Shades

Older, calmer, in his own thoughts.

His face is older, more lined, lacking the baby fat that used to dimple as he smiled. His demeanor has shifted into a stoic look that was unchanged over 72 grueling holes. The camera never captured a smile, a frown, or a coy glance over four days that we saw. Dressed head-to-toe in black for much of the event, he appeared formidable. And he wore impenetrable reflective sun glasses that hid any emotion that might reveal his thoughts. He looked more like an ocean-going sea captain in stormy waters than a hiker surrounded by thousands of adoring fans.

I remarked on this to a golfing friend, who said, “He uses meditation”.


The pause that clears the head.

That explained the trance-like poses he took before every shot. Some say you need to visualize what the ball is going to do, and then you make it happen. That is a load of bunker. In golf, once you have hit the ball, its path is entirely, literally, out of your hands, and will be whipped around by wind, vacuums, heat, cold, grass blades, spectator feet and discarded ice cubes.


The Ocean Course complete with water, wind and crowds.

Never mind that the Ocean Course is a sandy, windswept collection of swamps, twisting ponds and encroaching bunkers that seem to surround every green and fairway like marauding predators.

In Mickelson’s case, he took that pause to settle his nerves. What was his mantra during those moments? The Lord’s Prayer, The 23rd Psalm, Latin declensions, his locker combination? We won’t know, but physiologically, the long pauses released his mind from the last shot, and possibly washed away his thoughts about the one coming up. More likely, he dreamt for a moment about the best shot he had ever made in similar circumstances. The act of mentally drifting away from the current threat makes it easier to handle it. Without thinking about it, Phil was channeling his own natural “force”.

This conquest was a joy to watch, if even the victor seemed oblivious to it. He strode from pin to tee alone, head down, occasionally giving a thumbs up to the gallery.

The Putt

A simple two-putt to win the game.

On the last hole, as he approached the 18th green, he was swarmed by an uncontrollable gallery, knocking him off balance at one point. If golf ever had a mosh pit, this was it. And after he calmly two-putted his win, he held up his club in a salute, hugged his brother Tim who caddied, and walked alone up to the judge’s station to finish the paperwork.

They say that golf is a lonely game for competitors. Indeed, Mickelson was not tackled or hugged by his wife or children as he finished. They remained at home, and he spoke to them by phone only after filing his card.

Now, a day later, can he lower the shields, and rejoin the other world, that one off the course?


Knuckling Down

The Canadian Open finished at Glen Abbey Golf Course in Oakville yesterday, and the scoring amazed me for the strokes under par.  After 72 holes played, the leader board showed the winner, Jhonattan Vegas at 21 under par.  Put another way, for 288 recommended strokes, he only needed 267 to win $1,000,000 dollars.

21 under par is a pretty astounding number in the PGA Tour.  But it reminded me that I have played at Glen Abbey, many, many years ago, and I recall that I finished just the front 9 with a 57, or 21 strokes over par.  I have not been back.

Since then, my golf game has not improved.   Despite lessons, innumerable outings, new clubs, golf magazine subscriptions, disciplined score keeping, fastidious handicap calculations  (28.6), spiffy shirts, and an unbridled optimism, I still come up with a couple extra strokes per hole, delivering a consistent 108, +/- 5 strokes.  36 over par any given day.

The reason this occurs is obvious to me now.   After years of recording and analyzing  scores, yardage, accuracy, putts and penalties, my game is consistent.  First, short drives.  Second, wide drives.   Once in the rough, always in the rough.   If most holes require 2 strokes to hit the green, I will usually take three and maybe four.

Next, sorrowful putts.  Regulation calls for two.   My putts will usually be two, but I can make a three, even a four happen so easily that the gallery of geese standing nearby shake their heads in dismay.

I have reconciled and accepted my numbing under-performance.  And like a professional, I have studied it and dissected every misstep, and have now come up with a new way to measure and find success.

The Knucklehead Count

It’s not the lackluster shots that dampen my game.  Sometimes I get away with some brilliant shots which compensate.  What ruins my game is the knucklehead shot.

A knucklehead shot is a bizarre, inept moment of inattention enhanced by extraordinary clumsiness.  Knucklehead putts that are marred by a scuffed green or a bouncing putter.  Knucklehead approach shots are skulled wedge shots that rocket with malice waist-high  over the green and, nearly hitting a startled partner, end up in a bunker.  A knucklehead bunker shot is hit so fat that the ball barely rolls up three feet to rest under the lip.  A knucklehead fairway shot usually involves a 5-wood grinding the ball deep into the  turf before skittering 12 feet to a stop.

Knuckleheads generally can be validated by quickly taking a second ball, and repeating the stroke with consummate perfection.  In other words, lacking my inattention and clumsiness, the prior shot could have been brilliant.  Unfortunately, but to its credit, the game of golf requires physical and intellectual honesty, so the knucklehead counts, and the beautiful do-over doesn’t.

I break out scores on my card to show putts, fairway, yardage, accuracy and penalty strokes.   But the most important score is the knucklehead count.


Because I have accepted my game.  The only thing that changes is the knucklehead count.  When I finish up, I can look at my score, and have this quiet moment of calculation:  “I shot a 108.  But take away 9 knuckleheads and I could have had a 99.  Wow!

When people asked me how my game was, I used to respond, “Pretty good! I found three balls and only lost two!”  Now I measure success, and surprisingly, happiness, by low knucklehead counts.

It’s a great game, even for the knuckleheads.


Thanks for reading!  Please share with your earnest golfing friends who are still looking for that perfect game.



Marketing, Sports

The Deal: With Six You Get Egg Roll


In spring, a young man’s fancy turns to…testing.

It’s a sure sign that Spring is on the way. The March issue of Golf magazine arrived, and after the most dismal stretch of dull weather in recent memory, the green pastoral images of fairways and beach-like bunkers beckon irresistibly.

But among those pages floats another stimulant. Golf blew in 4 different subscription order cards. These 4 x 5-1/2 reply cards exemplify the art of mail-order merchandising.

One would ask, why do we need any cards? I am already a subscriber!

Golf Tees

 It’s all in the numbers.

True, for the longest time I used to let my subscriptions expire so that I could re-up and get the free gift. In the past our home was filled with calculators, phones, binoculars, hats, world maps and globes… all manner of stuff with somebody else’s logo on them. Not only did we like the goo-gaws, but it was fun to get them in the mail.

But Golf’s four order cards demonstrate the great science of offer testing. And there is practical beauty in that:  when you understand what excites the buyer’s brain, you make more money.


Each of the cards has exactly the same deal. One, two or three years for hefty discounted pricing off of newsstand. With each, the same gift premium is offered: a “Golf Distance Finder”.

I couldn’t use the distance finder. It would be perennially set at “Too Far” with only occasional gauging at “Fat Chance”.

Anyway, the cards are all different.  The result of long, worried debates in Golf’s conference room about how to best wring a dollar out of a new sub, there are four gradations.  Each effort targets a different dark corner of the golfer’s bunkered mind.

Card One: It’s blue, with giant GOLF titling.  In simple fashion it provides the basic deal with a mention of the discounts off newsstand price.

For the unassuming habit-driven: "yep, sure, whatever."

For the unassuming and habit-driven: “yep, sure, whatever.”

A small un-captioned picture of the gift is featured with, “yours free”. This card is the control sample, and wins or loses on brand loyalty.  Ideally suited for the unassuming, doubtless, committed player.

Card Two: It’s grey, with a smaller GOLF title, same deals but highlights “Your Price $16.00”. Understanding that some may not know what the gift is, “FREE Distance Finder” is inserted below the picture.

"The distance between me and the cup, and between me and Jupiter is negligible."

“I may never hit the green, but I can see Jupiter.”

This card is for the cash-strapped grinder who is figuring one year is just long enough to suspend the inevitable realization: golf is just a good walk in the wilds ruined. Or they figure $16 bucks is the right price for a telescope.

Card Three: It’s powder blue and screams to the wealthy and permanently, irrevocably, hopelessly optimistic, driven player: “Tomorrow will be a better day and the BEST DEAL! is a 3-year commitment.”

"This will be my year. Well, maybe, then again, sometime in my lifetime."

“This will be my year. Well, maybe, then again, sometime in my lifetime.”

The distance finder is featured, but it’s the 83% discount that grabs.

Card Four: This is the gutsy guarantee card. “Lower Scores. Lower Price.” is for the duffer who has journeyed through four painful levels of acceptance and will now  admit they couldn’t hit a basketball with a broom in a closet.

"This year I will not tear up my score cards."

“This year I will not tear up my score cards.”

They figure literature, technology and a little learnin’ might be the answer. If that still turns out to be a whiff, then they are ready to go for the money refund.


At the end of the test, which could go on longer than the season, the Golf sales department will look at the results for each card, which got the most orders,  which deal worked best for each card, which got the most email addresses, and which got the most money up front.

This is not a double eagle fantasy for statisticians.  Rather, the results of this inexpensive test will predict which offer is worth rolling out in other media with the promise of the highest return on investment.

While solo direct mail may be proud of a $20 cost to get a new subscriber, the numbers may dictate that direct mail is still stronger than web display ads, email or simple on-page advertising.   Knowing which deal is strongest can shave a few pennies off acquisition cost.

Long ago, we used to puzzle over the best offer: “buy one get one free” vs. “two for the price of one” vs. “50% off”.

It isn’t easy, but you can test.

Thanks for reading!   Direct marketing tests are a way of life, and you never know when a new angle won’t build your margins unexpectedly.  I swing at the ball with the same giddy optimism.

direct mail, Marketing, Sports

Mail Order Magic: The USGA Doubles Down


Marketing: a good grip that doesn’t let go.

The challenge of any direct marketer is to hold the enchantment of the buyer from the moment of first interest until the next order.  Let me tell you how the United States Golfing Association had me firmly in their grip.

Mind you, I have always been attracted to mail order.


First mail order purchase.

As a kid, my first experience with mail order was a Robin Hood hat off the back of a Quaker Oats box. I wrote them a letter with a dull purple crayon. Two box tops, a quarter, and four weeks later, I was decked out in a lincoln green cap complete with turkey feather.

Moments later I dissolved onto a path through the tree line behind our house, earnestly in search of rich people to steal from.

My brother and I followed up with another offer, this time, a potato gun from Nabisco Shredded Wheat. More box tops, more coins, more waiting, and our ordnance arrived: two shiny, plastic, blue and red hand guns.

Phil Cowboy825

The properly outfitted small arms mail order buyer.

Operating instructions were basic. Stick the front of the barrel into a potato, and pull away a small plug about the size of a pencil eraser. Choose a target. Pull the trigger. The little wad of potato would fly across the living room and roll to a stop under the couch.

After a couple of potato bits wound up in the electric space heater, the jig was up.

But the magic remains.   It’s important for cataloguers, mailers and weekend supplement advertisers that their buyer squeezes every bit of enjoyment possible from the order cycle.

The Hat: Mailorder Delivers!

The Hat: Mailorder Delivers!

There is an inexpressible excitement in opening a long awaited package sent by complete strangers, far off and away.   I had sent in my USGA membership renewal, and according to the letter I would receive a hat: an orange 2015 USGA Chambers Bay Open cap.  I already had one, but if it blew away, I’d have back up.

I am certain that the USGA Board of Directors convened a special meeting, extensively reviewing my  application before granting my membership extension for another year. A no brainer for them, this was an important symbolic order of business, for which they would levy a $15.00 fee against my credit card.

From there, I visualized urgent instructions hammered out on the teletype, dispatched to the membership fulfillment department, ordering them to rush a member package to our home, sparing no cost.


The long awaited, hoped for package arrives.

Like a glistening white, dimpled Titleist, teetering on the edge of the cup, I waited by the mailbox.    This week, the USGA kit arrived.

Inside the lumpy plastic package I found my new member card, and a bag tag, branded with my name, and a framable picture of Chambers Bay, site of the 2015 Open.   And more…there inside the package was a new hat–but it was gray.


Surprise! A new hat!

Was there a mistake?

No!   This hat is for the 2016 Open in Oakmont.   I have no idea where that is, but according to the hat, there are squirrels, and acorns.  Perhaps there are groundhogs too.

But the USGA prize committee could not contain themselves by merely presenting me with a new lid.   They also sent along a USGA 40th Anniversary metal ball marker.


Double surprise! A ball marker!

This little disk is used to mark the fictional place of my golf ball as it rests closest to the pin.   I have never had the pleasure of seeing that, but I hope to one day.


But wait, there’s more. It’s magnetized.

Even better, however, the prize committee designated that the ball marker have a special place of its own: it attaches to a magnet on the visor of my new cap.   Wow!   Like many bad hooks off the neighboring tee box, I truly did not see this coming.

Of course, the cap is firmly held in place even on the windiest fairways as the magnet rests over the metal plate in my skull.

Just kidding.

Years ago we were introduced to the concept of lagniappe.  This is the art of giving a little extra.   It wins a customer for life.  Good marketers always work lagniappe, and the USGA has cultivated the technique.


The course beckons; the marker is poised.

With luck, they may someday improve my game.

Thanks for reading!  Please share.  Oakmont is outside of Pittsburgh, PA.

direct mail, Sports

The Irresistible Offer, and Making Money

Golf 2014-11-19 739 short

There is no shortage of advice for this game.

The mailbox is a limitless supply of surprises. Today, it presented a special offer from Golf Magazine, one that I could not refuse.

In direct mail, there are offers, but more important, there are deals, and Golf’s latest was a doozy.
This simple envelope expressed a blunt sentiment: ONE TIME ONLY!

Golf 2014-11-19 740 deal

“April is 5 months off, but we want you NOW.”

Does that sound like something your parents would have said?

How about Golf’s business manager, in response to the giddily optimistic circulation manager who came up with the crazy deal?

Golf 2014-11-19 740 six free

Half a year in the upper midwest is golf-free, so why not?

This was in fact a renewal letter. An advance renewal, 5 months out from April 2015, which is the last issue date.
So here’s the deal: 12 issues for a year, PLUS six more issues, for $10.  Basically 63 cents an issue.


Digging through my recycle bin, I found a September Golf blow-in card offering 12 issues for $16. That’s 75 cents each.

Golf 2014-11-727 yellow deal

Relax, there’s always a better deal coming.

At this juncture, one could decide to defer, just because, who knows, golf may never occur again on the planet due to snow, so what’s the point?

But then the real deal emerges. In addition to the 6 free issues, the renewal also came with a 90-page expert guide: “The Best SHORT GAME Instruction”. Downloadable with paid order. Sweet!


Lining up the three wood for a water hazard.

Let me perambulate for a moment to say that I play the short game very well.

I can shoot a 56, +/- 2 strokes in 9 holes consistently. I don’t need to play 18 holes to break 72. I can do it in 12, no sweat.

But maybe the book could offer some consolatory advice.

The question we should ask, is how can Golf make any money giving away the magazine almost for free?

Golf 2014-11-19 738

The circulation director shuddered with this deal.

As it turns out, Golf needs me as much as I need their Instruction book. You see, they promise to their advertisers to deliver 1,400,000 magazines a month to avid readers like me.

Looking at Golf’s 2013 rate card, one will find that a full-page color ad goes for $207,100. That’s about the price of a house trailer in Fort Myers.

There are lots of angles in buying ad space, but at the end of the day, a 125-page Golf Magazine carries about 40 pages of color ads, generating $8,300,000 in sales.   About $5.92 per reader.

Golf 2014-11-19 739

The essential irresistible offer: FREE advice.

The magazine may cost as much as $2 to print and mail, so that leaves nearly $4 left to create, write and photograph.  Should be enough!

And what about my $10?  Where does that go?   Well, assuming they wrote to 120,000 subscribers with an April 2015 end-date, their mailing cost is about a dollar each, all in.  $120,000.  Odds are, about 15,000 may renew, which is $150,000 to cover the mailing with something left over for the gent who wrote the SHORT GAME guide.

IMG_1141So that excited Circ manager maybe isn’t so crazy after all.

Now we’ll see if the guide can make my game any shorter.



Thanks for following the math on this.   If you have any tips on improving my game, just write!

direct mail, Sports

Mail Order Law Course

Only a couple weeks ago I excitedly popped my member application into the mail to the U.S. Golfing Association.

Tell me you agree: there is nothing like the anticipation attached to mail order, waiting for that parcel to arrive.   In this case, the USGA won me over with membership to their organization, and sweetened the deal with their 2015 Chambers Bay Open hat.

The Hat: Mailorder Delivers!

The Hat: Mailorder Delivers!

But there was more. They also promised an official member card, and a golf bag tag, and… the USGA official book, Rules of Golf.

Today, my package arrived, and I had torn it open by the time I had walked up the driveway.

Up until now, I had viewed the game of golf as an enjoyable diversion: walking the fairway in search of a runaway ball, or flumped on a couch Sunday afternoon, taking vicarious enjoyment and frustration while millionaires bounced shots off spectators onto lush, hand-tweezed greens.


“I did not know that!”

With the Rules of Golf in hand, the sport has new deeper meaning, with profound implications.

It’s much like my driving a car for all my life.   Only now to find that our state Rules of the Road, or Driver’s Handbook has 96 pages of rules, none of which I knew.

The USGA book is twice the size.

As a duly accredited and newly admitted USGA member, I opened the Rules of Golf.   About the size of the iPhone 6, it has 208 pages, written in 6-point type.  It fits in my back pocket, and just like the iPhone 6, it bends easily.

It turns out that there are only 34 rules.  Well, 34 subject areas perhaps.   Then the lawyers have their say.

But in a moment of merciful brevity, the governors have provided “A Quick Guide to the Rules of Golf”.  Kind of like a Cliff Notes.  It’s only 7 pages, which you might browse through as you pay your green fees.

In a like-minded spirit of expedition, I am not going to review all the rules with you here, but I would be remiss in not highlighting a few key canons of the game.

For instance, the attention to nuance as noted on page 9: “Understand The Words”.   You won’t find this type of consideration in the Drivers’ Handbook.

Grammar 101, with the bark left on.

Grammar 101, with the bark left on.

Or the oblique reference to emotion in the section on Unnecessary Damage, page 21.

"Now settle down, or we will stop the cart!"

“Now settle down, or we will stop the cart!”

Not to mention on page 37, the inside lore of match play, which identifies the condition for being a “dormie”.  We gather this is not a sleep mate, necessarily.USGA 534dormie

And the curious, repetitive references to remnants of manufactured ice which apparently is randomly found across the boundless green of the course.   One needs to study the forensics on this phenomenon.USGA 533 ice

And it pops up again…USGA 535ice casual water

Lastly, as we can expect, the USGA staffers make earnest attempts to define a circumstance for clearer understanding, as shown in the “Nearest Point of Relief”, page 30.

Not necessarily "fast acting" relief.

Not necessarily “fast acting” relief.

With that, I am off to the club, with my legal team in tow, and “for the good of the game”!IMG_1152


Thanks for reading!   In the midwest, the days are getting shorter, and the opportunity to enjoy a walk in temperate climate and sunshine is shrinking.  Kudos to USGA and their mission to bring golf to all who would enjoy the sport.  

“For The Good Of The Game” is copyright USGA.



direct mail, Marketing, Media, Sports

How the USGA Got My Attention, Fast.

My walk to the mailbox this morning was rewarded by an irresistible offer from the U.S. Golfing Association. A FREE hat!USGA 2014-09-15 505 hat

How can you say no?

Their generosity gives me hope, too. This may be the re-emergence of the direct mail gift premium.

Once there was a time when any subscription offer came with a free gift. A calculator. A tote bag.   We even received a world globe from Macleans Magazine.


A worldly gift with every subscription.

USGA 2014-09-15 504

The USGA wants me. They actually want me!

This kit begged to be opened. Not because there was a hat, but because the USGA had enclosed a card. For me. An official USGA card for a horrible axe-wielding duffer who scores a rambunctious 108 on a good day.

My handicap is so far off the chart I get a special space to park the golf cart.

USGA 2014-09-15 505 card

I am keeping this close by until my real card arrives, with my hat.

Nevertheless, I am moved by the card. I want it. Opening the kit, I am further thrilled to see that I can join the USGA and get a FREE USGA Open 2015 hat.

USGA 2014-09-15 505 slogan

A great slogan. But they don’t know me well.

At this moment, we have approximately 30 hats on the coat rack, all emblazoned with someone else’s logo. I don’t need another hat. But truly, I want this USGA hat.

USGA 2014-09-15 505

A compact offer, with color, balance, and readable content.

It’s like they recognize me. And how I have toiled to write “single-bogey” on a par 3.

Economics: Does This Kit Pay For Itself?

USGA 2014-09-15 505 benefits

All this stuff comes with the hat. How can you decline?

As thrilled as I am, and I am sure countless thousands of other golfers are thrilled at a Free hat offer, will the USGA lose its shirt with this offer?

No way, and here’s why:

All in, the postage and production for this piece was probably 40-cents. Let’s say they mailed 100,000 pieces. That’s $40,000 out of pocket. Now imagine that 2% of the readers sign up. They each pay $10 to join USGA. That’s 2,000 new members, for $20,000.

But the hat probably cost USGA $10, so the USGA ends up with 2,000 new members, each with a new hat. And a $40,000 bill.

USGA 2014-09-15 507Imagine now that the USGA direct marketing manager goes into the president, and says, “Chief, I just got 2,000 new members. They cost us $20 each!”

He replies, “Awesome– because at least 1,000 of these members will renew next year for $25 each. And 50 of these members will come to the Open and drop about $250 a day sipping coolers in the Club at Chambers Bay between strolls along the course to see the pros.  We pretty much break even.”

Second Thoughts About The Hat

USGA 2014-09-15 505 email

This microscopic email form has just enough room for “@”.

I have mailed my reply, and am quietly excited about my new hat.  And the free golf rules I get, and all the other stuff.  But really, it’s the hat.


The thrill of mail order is waiting for the merchandise.

And then I start to think, what happens when I wear this hat?   First off, it’s yellow– school bus yellow.   So I will be easily identifiable on any golf course, or in any bar, as the duffer who went for the $10 hat.

Some earnest, scratch golfer will ask, “Are you going to the Open in Chambers Bay?”

“No, not really.”

“So why the hat?”

Or some hopeless hacker like myself will see the hat and ask, “Can you help me with my swing?”

“No. I’ll make your helicopter swing look like Blackhawk Down.”

So the hat is on its way, but I am not exactly sure I can wear it.

USGA PhilAnd that just might be “For the good of the game”.






Thanks for reading.   If you are a direct marketer, perhaps you should test out some gift premiums.   And make sure you put me on your list.

childhood, Culture, Sports

For All The Marbles

There was a time when a young boy’s wealth was measured in marbles.   In my hometown, Delhi, Ontario, any 8- to 10-year-old was appointed rank according to how low his pants sagged after a lucky run at the alley pots in our school yard.


Wealthy beginnings.

We called these beautiful pieces of glass “allies”, and we played on a hard-packed stretch of topsoil just east of the bike racks under a young oak tree.  Alley season started in late April, as soon as the ground dried up from winter, and lasted until school adjourned, end of June.

The alley “pots” peppered a 50-foot square of packed dirt, which looked like a miniature minefield pocked with tiny craters, and not one blade of grass in sight.   The dirt patch was as noisy and busy as any Vegas casino, with players hustling any comer when a pot freed up for a game.   Pint-sized spectators crowded the action like gamblers around a craps table.

The pot was a significant diversion from tradition.   Generally people describe “marbles” as a ring drawn in the dirt or pavement, and a bunch of marbles inside the ring.   Two players would flick marbles at the inner circle, claiming any they knocked out of the ring.  Like dodgeball.

Our game was a more like golf.   The pot was dug into the dirt.   Kids would rotate about ten times on their heel, and form a 4-inch- deep pot that measured about 6 inches across.     Do NOT try this at the golf course.   The pot was the target, and also held the stakes–a heap of 10, 20, 40, maybe a 100 marbles.   Each player would keep one marble out for play.    Stepping about ten feet back from the pot, they dropped their marble, and would alternately inch the marbles towards the pot, usually with their foot.


Big stakes for the winner of the pot.

The moment of truth occurred when a player felt they could sink one of the marbles into the pot.   Crouching down on one knee, they pushed the marble with a curled forefinger.   Much like golf putting without the fancy shoes.  Or billiards, with no cue.  Or like curling, without the 40-pound rock.

That decisive shot may have been 5 feet away, or perhaps only 12 inches, depending upon the smoothness of the path, the break, and the depth, width and contents of the pot.  If the marble dropped, the player had another turn with the remaining marble.   He might inch that one along, or, take the long shot.   If it sank, he won the pot.   If he missed, then the next turn went back to the other player, who probably would sink it.

With that, fortunes were won and lost every minute with a chorus of cheers and groans around the alley pots.


A “starry boulder” with three small friends.

And fortunes they were. The Chainway sold “starries”, 30 for a dime.   The starry was a half inch in diameter, and had a twirly colored pigment frozen into the center of the marble.   If you had the money, you might pick up a bag of starry “boulders”.   These were nearly an inch in diameter and went 6 for a quarter.  Pricey, but in the school yard, they traded around 10:1 against the smaller marble so there was room for arbitrage among the quicker thinking players in the yard.

Possessing a fortune in marbles was risky, too.

According to their job description, grade school teachers are hired to confiscate marbles.  In class, the sound of a vagrant marble clattering among the chair legs on a hardwood floor felt like money falling down a grate.

Aggies were the antiques of marbles.

“Aggies” were the antiques of marbles.

Logging the misdemeanor, the teacher would demand the marble be retrieved and placed in a mason jar on the corner of their desk.   You could buy them back, 3 for a penny, proceeds to the Red Cross.

This was a tension-filled time for big winners, whose loaded pockets would bulge like mumps.   Gingerly sitting down with the grace of a hemmorhoidal sufferer, the trick was to keep the pockets vertical to the fall line, and packed tight.

Kids with zippered cargo pants could plop, heavily laden, into their chair with impunity, but if they didn’t wear belts, they ran the risk of mooning the class which was a major felony.

A super boulder aggie, bigger than a quarter.

A super boulder aggie, bigger than a quarter.

Of all my childhood past times, allies made the deepest imprint.   In 5th and 6th grade, I played with stakes from one to twenty marbles, and had won pots as high as 400.

But I have lost 400 too, which twisted the sharp blade of experience, let me tell you.   So much so, that I cannot pass a marble display in a toy store today without picking up a bag or two.   Now, a marble costs about 10-cents each, a 3,000 % inflationary effect.

Do you know some popular brands of liquor use small marbles in the bottle neck to slow the flow?   I cut them out when the bottle’s empty.  So far, I am not buying liquor just to retrieve the marble.  My wife shakes her head, staring at me– a sorry junkie who can’t kick the habit.


A “purie” boulder and marble. Johnny Walker Double Black provided the tiny one.

I am not sure what to do with my stash: two large Crown Royal bags.   While I want to give them to my grand kids, I have this shameful, miserly greed that won’t let them go.  Remember in “Ghost” when Whoopy Goldberg won’t let go of the $4,000,000 check?  It’s like that.    I am afraid they’ll end up at the bottom of a fish tank.   Or worse, inside a flower pot anchoring a bunch of tulips.  It would be okay if they were displayed in a glass table, maybe.


The alley bag of choice.

But what I wouldn’t give to take the whole lot of them to a school yard next week and find a buzzing, hard-packed dirt casino, under the shade of an oak, churning with the yell of young risk takers, digging holes for a new game.




Thanks for sticking with me as I try to control this habit of mine.  I just can’t shake it.  If you “like”, say so, and please share or follow!

Marble Count 038

At the end of a long successful day.