Black Swans and Red Numbers

Camilo Villegas’ low opening round at the Phoenix Open on Thursday was so low that it has allowed him to hold on to the lead despite a 69 on Friday—not that two under is a bad score, but if Villegas wants to win the tournament 69 will probably have to be his worst round of the week. Robert Allenby, the Australian golfer who I have discussed here before (“‘Caddie Killer’ or Killed by Grooves?”), had what might be regarded as the good fortune to shoot his 69 on Thursday, and is moving up the leaderboard today. Allenby isn’t the only one, but I have discussed him before and he is from Australia, home of cyngus atratus, the black swan.

As it happens, black swans are not merely ornithological curiousities, but also furnish the title of a recent book called The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable by a man with the improbable name of Nassim Nicholas Taleb, whose thinking has greatly influenced how I have thought about scoring in golf. (Like the segue?) Anyway, Villegas’ performance thus far in this tournament brings up an addendum to my post about match-play, “Match the Emperor,” where I argued that in a stroke-play tournament a double-bogey was much more hurtful to a golfer than an eagle was helpful, despite the fact that both were an equal distance (plus or minus two) from par. Learning why will also teach you why anybody who compares golf to life is an idiot—especially if they are handling your money.

In match-play, I said, a double-bogey is not as harmful as it is during stroke-play. The addendum I want to discuss now is that while there is an asymmetry during a single round, my suspicion is that asymmetry also lessens the more rounds there are. What that means is that a double-bogey during the six-round Q-School finals—the tournament that can get an aspiring tour player his “card,” exemption, for the following year’s tour—should be less harmful than a double-bogey during a regular (4-round) tour stop, which in turn should be less harmful than it might be on the LPGA or Champions (nee Senior) tour, where they often play only three-round tournaments. Before, I tried to say that the amateur tends to regard the double-bogey and the eagle as equivalent, because they look that way on the scorecard, but that the professional knows that this is not true. Now, I want to show how that asymmetry can vary depending on the circumstances—but that there is always some asymmetry, that the double-bogey is always more harmful than the eagle is helpful.

To illustrate the point, I’m going to draw on the work of Taleb, who hasn’t written anything about golf but has written a great deal about the finance industry, which has certain similarities to golf—perhaps not accidentally, since it’s arguable that both are Scottish. Taleb begins by noting that the discovery of black swans in Australia was a great surprise for Europeans—before that, a “black swan” was a mythical animal, like a unicorn. (Presumably, white swans had something of the same effect on the Aborigines, though probably the huge boats and guns were even more surprising.) Thinking about it later, the British philosopher John Stuart Mill, following on David Hume (a Scot!), wrote that “No amount of observations of white swans can allow the inference that all swans are white, but the observation of a single black swan is sufficient to refute that conclusion.” If all the swans so far have been white, that is, a single black swan in effect outweighs all of them.

What Taleb wants to argue is that are thus valuable exactly insofar as they are rare—if there are about equal numbers of white swans and black swans, then a single new one won’t really change things very much. Here’s where the financial angle comes in, though I’m not going to get very far into the details: the inference Taleb draws is that, precisely because “black swans” (or rare events) are so rare they can never be properly valued by a given market. If they could be, then they wouldn’t be rare. QED. That fact, he says, has certain consequences for correct strategy in the financial markets.

Because human beings are wired the way they are, Taleb says—the arguments here are involved and not really germane—we prefer to have small but continuing successes. Hard work, we say, pays off; it’s better to be ant than the grasshopper, and so on. But as Taleb points out, there is no difference between gaining one bean a day for fifty days and getting no beans for 49 days and then harvesting fifty on the fiftieth day—or, say, planting fifty beans on one day in order to get 100 beans fifty days later. All of these methods have the same result: you are plus fifty beans at the end. As human beings, though, we prefer the first strategy to the others: there’s a steady reward every day, and at some deep level—Taleb thinks it’s biological, but it doesn’t make a difference—that’s comforting.

To put it another way, we would prefer to continue counting white swans. Black swans are disturbing. As rare events, they can be analogized to the method of getting no beans and then getting a whole bunch all at once. There you are, counting white swans, when all of a sudden a black one shows up. That is not a comfortable situation for most human beings: the Australian birds were so disturbing they made two giants of European philosophy think about them at length. Who the hell cares? They’re birds. So what?

The “so what” is that, again, “black swans”—rare events—are always undervalued. So what Taleb says most investors would be better off doing is the strategy that he follows. The mechanics aren’t important, but suffice it to say that Taleb actually loses a bit of money every day. What Taleb says is that because he is waiting for a rare event, when it happens it will be so undervalued by the market that his returns will overwhelm his losses. That sounds more than a little insane, of course. Conversely, people who pursue the opposite strategy, making a bit of money every day, will appear like hardworking, solid leader-types.

Until they blow up.

There they are, in other words, industriously counting their white swans, which continuously and regularly show up every day without any trouble. And then, one day, a black swan shows up on some distant continent somewhere. Or maybe the Russian government decides to default on their bonds all of a sudden—which, foreshadowing the events of the last year, caused the hedge-fund Long Term Capital Management to collapse and nearly take the global financial system, or at least the American branch of same, with it. Or some jackasses fly into a building. Or shoot the nation’s leader. Or, on the other side, a member of some oppressed group becomes the nation’s leader. Or that sports team famous for never winning finally does. And so on.

Betting on the unexpected, in other words, is a lock—something unexpected is going to happen. It’s guaranteed, if by nothing else than by the human proclivity for white swans. There is, of course, one problem with this idea, which the experienced will have spotted a mile a way. It’s the same problem faced by poker players: sure, such a strategy will always work—with an unlimited bankroll. What Taleb wants to say is that there are ways to structure your bets to get around that problem, because there are many more bets available in Chicago, New York, or London or Tokyo than are available at a casino. And more importantly, while the odds of blowing up (going bankrupt) can be calculated fairly precisely in poker or any human game, just so are they incapable of being so calculated in real life. There are infinitely more possible outcomes in reality than there are in a game.

Any golfer who tried to follow Taleb’s advice, after all, would very quickly exit the game. You can’t, in other words, bogey every hole—and then shoot 99 under par on the last hole to win by two. The outcome has been artificially constrained: that is exactly what makes golf a game. There isn’t any way to shoot a quadruple albatross, say. In that sense, following what we could call the “white swan” strategy in golf—or, “avoid all double-bogies”— is very wise. But what Taleb wants us to see is that following that sort of strategy in real life (or at least, the capitalist version of it contained in the financial markets) wouldn’t just be imprudent, but suicidal: it’s the only strategy guaranteed to fail.

Many commentators have noted the golf scores of Bernie Madoff, the Ponzi schemer, demonstrate the point. National Public Radio (thanks, federal government!) asked Drew Baden, head of the physics department at the University of Maryland, to look at Madoff’s scores as reported to the USGA per his handicap, and Baden found “Madoff’s scores make a nice bell curve.” Baden says that Madoff’s scoring was even more consistent than Tiger Woods’—a man who, aside from anything else, has missed the cut at something like less than ten tournaments in his career. It’s arguable, in fact, that Tiger Woods is the most consistent golfer in the history of the world—the rare outlier, or black swan, of all those playing a white swan strategy, we might say—(!)—but according to his scores, Madoff was even more consistent. That’s astonishing because even a scratch golfer is expected to throw in a score of 85 once in a while. Madoff was not a scratch golfer—he was a 10—but only 3 rounds in 20 were more than two shots different from his usual score of 84. It’s absurd: almost certainly Madoff was cheating.

That’s interesting not intrinsically to be sure but because Madoff in his business life routinely reported the same steady rate of return every year to his investors, usually around ten per cent to fifteen per cent I understand. But as a number of financial people have observed, such consistent returns are no more so, and almost assuredly less so, than on a golf course. Investment funds never perform that way: they will have some years where they go up twenty-five percent and years where they might drop ten. Madoff’s “errors” thus also each mirror the other. The financial crimes are the same as the golf “crimes”—smart people, in either case, should have known better. Madoff’s investors—attracted by the steady rate of return—should have known such results were highly improbable, just because they seemed so probable. Taleb calls this the “Ludic fallacy”: thinking that reality can behave like controlled situations, like games. Or, to put it another way, Madoff’s investors mistook golf for life.

Getting back to reality, or at least that representation of it called the PGA Tour, Robert Allenby shot another 69 today. He made six birdies and four bogies. Two of the bogies came on par-fives though; making a six on a par-five is almost as bad as making a double-bogey, because it means giving up almost two shots to the field (mathematically it is probably something like 1.6 or something). Allenby ended up about where he was yesterday, but he got Linda Ronstadted by those now above him on the leaderboard, most of whom had four to six under rounds today. In that sense, a low round can be, in effect, a kind of unexpected black swan in a game that for the most part militates against wild swings of fortune. While you can’t have a super low hole that can right a bad round suddenly, you can have a super low round that can move you from 48th to sixth, as Hunter Mahan did today. This afternoon, to demonstrate the other side of the point, Camillo Villegas shot even par to drop from first to fifth.

Brandt Snedeker is your leader with a 66 after the third round, five under par. On the 14th, Snedeker saved a bogey with a thirty-two-foot putt, thus avoiding a double-bogey. It was the first bogey Snedeker made in 27 holes. He’s leading therefore because he has been the best at following the “white swan” strategy that golf demands. What would be great to know is if these players were consciously following these strategies: are the guys who are laying up on the par-fives making more birdies, or are the players all going for it and it just happens to have worked out for some and not for others? At the highest levels of the game, does strategic thinking make a difference, or not? My suspicion—since I think it does at the levels I have seen, which includes only one step removed from the tour—is that it does. It certainly does where most of us play, which is why the best advice to a golfer is always, “It’s just a game.” Golf isn’t as ridiculous.

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The Last American

Hey Eddie, pull the pin.”

Walter Hagen

to Edward, the Prince of Wales, 1933. (Apocryphal.)

On 29 January 1917 Hagen married Margaret Johnson of Rochester. The couple had one child before the marriage was dissolved in the spring of 1921, in part because of Hagen’s frenetic travel schedule and his fondness for other women

—American National Biography Online. “The life of a nation is told by the lives of its people…”


I have a history with Ian Poulter, winner this week at the Match Play. Now, don’t overreact, this isn’t a “bimbo eruption”—though in a way it’s close. Nobody’s ever accused Poulter of serial infidelities, but he does have a track record of boorish behavior. Back in September, he skipped the Seve Trophy, a tournament often considered a warm-up to the Ryder Cup. Team captain Colin Montgomerie—who, sure, himself isn’t known as a big puddle of teddy-bearishness—wasn’t happy about it. Monty especially wasn’t happy because Poulter didn’t play his way onto the last Ryder Cup team: he was a captain’s pick, meaning that Monty felt Poulter owed him something. On the day of, Poulter didn’t help himself with Montgomerie by Twittering about his hangover. Poulter is more Walter Hagen then Ben Hogan when it comes to preparation, it seems.

Of course, Hagen was known for having a sense of humor. Poulter is better known not only for his fashion sense but for being a target for jokes—often the 0ne following on the other. When he wore pants depicting the trophy of the British Open, the Claret Jug, DURING the Open in 2005 and 2006, Seve Ballesteros—yep, same one—made the obvious crack about how that was the closest Poulter would get to said jug. The funniest thing Poulter has ever said was in an interview in 2009: “I know I haven’t played to my full potential and when that happens, it will be just me and Tiger.” At that time, the guy still hadn’t won a tournament in the U.S. He’s also a fan of the Arsenal Football Club. Imagine a combination of the Yankees, the Red Sox, and the Dallas Cowboys, with a greater propensity for drunken brawling, and you’ll get the idea of Arsenal’s fanbase.

What I know personally about Poulter comes from the pro-am at Cog Hill for the Western Open some years ago. It’s an unusual pro-am for the tour because all of the caddies are, for the most part, present or ex-Evans Scholars, college scholarship winners, which is to say there is a pretty wide range of caddies. I was assigned an amateur that morning and Poulter was our pro. He didn’t talk much throughout the first nine holes, not that I had much chance to anyway: my player and I were, shall we say, seeing a lot more of the course than Poulter was. On the second nine another looper in the group had to drop out; an older fellow, he couldn’t take the September heat up and down Cog’s elevations. I picked up his bag too.

A few holes later, my golfer had finally gotten onto a green only one over regulation, so we had a putt for a par. Unfortunately however, it was a Canadian bobsled run of a putt: slick with a strong chance for serious injury. Hit it too hard, the ball might depart the green without asking questions. The amateur naturally asked for a read.

Now, I had been reading this guy’s putts all day. Luckily, he and I had the same philosophy when it comes to putts, and that is that hitting the ball higher and softer will usually put the ball around the hole, even if you don’t make it. This is a pretty good strategy for an amateur, and Dave Pelz, the short-game statistician, has found that even professional golfers tend to play too little break. By playing the line of the putt a bit higher than you might even think, you’ll find fewer putts breaking across the hole as they approach it, and even the ones that don’t go in will end up around it. That strategy was made for a situation like this, where hitting the ball even a fraction too hard could leave a come-back putt that was longer than the one with which we started. The line I wanted started a good 18 inches or more outside the cup, allowing gravity more than the strike of the putter to pull the ball toward the goal. My guy hit it and … it didn’t quite get there, although he had a tap-in for his bogey.

At that moment Poulter, who hadn’t had much to say to anyone to that point, decided to get involved. He asked the guy why he’d played it so far from the hole, had something to say about local caddies—meaning me—then said that the putt was much straighter, making the time to criticize indirectly the speed my player had hit the ball. Finally, he decided to strike the putt himself, in order to demonstrate his point. He did. The ball flew across the green like it was on fire, ending up some twenty or twenty-five feet from the hole, perhaps twice again as far as at the start. It was not a proud moment for English golf, and maybe especially strange insofar as CBS spent a great deal of time during the last round talking about how much study Poulter devotes to the greens at a tournament venue.

Shortly after that, a thunderstorm mercifully blew up, ending the day. Poulter had not left a good impression among anybody in the group, though that seems to be a common consensus around the world. Googling “Ian Poulter” calls up a lot of what might at best be termed “uncouth” moments. And that, much later, led me to a realization about Ian Poulter. He isn’t, you see, really English at all. Ian Poulter, despite the Union Jack trousers he wore during the opening round of the Open Championship in 2004, is an American.

Or at least, a kind of cartoon of an American, an American as an outsider might imagine Americans to be. The American coin whose “heads” side is Revolutionary War hero John Paul Jones’ slogan, “Don’t Tread on Me,” and whose “tails” side is every sort of Ugly American stereotype. To some Europeans, that sort of America is still heartening—though not necessarily on America’s own terms. “America” doesn’t mean anything in itself; rather, its power comes as a symbol of opposition to the stodgy Establishment of the person’s own country. The “captain” (Americans would call him the club president) of Royal Troon, site of that year’s Open, said “we wouldn’t wish to encourage that type of attire.” When he was starting as a professional golfer, working at a public course because he couldn’t get a job at a private one, his boss required him to pay the greens fee to compete in the monthly tournament, something that seems to rankle Poulter still.

Poulter came of age during the “Cool Britannia” years of the late Nineties, when Tony Blair was elected Prime Minister promising to sweep away the last vestiges of the ancient British class system. Blair’s Labour Party presided over a booming economy and revoked the hereditary rights of the House of Lords and gave Scotland Home Rule once more by essentially revoking the 1707 Act of Union. In 2004, the same year Poulter appeared in his celebrated costume, the Labour Party banned hunting with dogs, especially fox hunting—perhaps the last great symbol of droit de seigneur in the United Kingdom. There isn’t of course any direct connection between these events and Poulter—at least, the golfer hasn’t said anything—but to my mind it suggests that Poulter views himself as part of a new generation of Englishman, hip and bombastic. In other words, as I’ve said, as an American.

Or at least as what used to be thought of as American. In that sense, Poulter’s comment about Tiger Woods might be more telling than the Englishman knew. Tiger has, after all, always been defined not so much for rebelling against the powers-that-be as for just how much he wants to join them: Dan Jenkins, the legendary golf writer who has followed the tour since the 1940s, recently wrote that Tiger’s goal has been to be the “All-American Daddy-Pop Father of the Year Who Also Wins Golf Tournaments.” Despite the red shirts on Sunday and Tigermania and the rest of it, Tiger has always been distinguished by his enthusiastic acceptance of a kind of 1950s social norm—in public, anyway. It’s exactly for that reason that his list of sponsors has been the envy of all other pros, consisting as it has of blue-chip, blue-jacketed companies like Accenture, American Express, and TAG-Heuer: companies that virtually define the corporate ideal of order. African-American leaders have, quietly, criticized Tiger, like Michael Jordan before him, for refusing to follow the examples of Muhammad Ali or Arthur Ashe, two athletes (among many others) known not just for their wins but for their social consciousness.

That isn’t to say that Poulter is a socially-conscious athlete, to be sure. I haven’t found any sign of Poulter supporting any sort of social cause anywhere; if he does, he’s keeping pretty quiet about it. Yet his sense of style does exemplify another model for how to be a world-class athlete. Poulter really is in the mold of Walter Hagen, another master of match play who not only dressed flamboyantly but in 1920, during the Open Championship at Deal, hired a flashy car to serve as his locker room because the club house did not admit professional golfers. In that sense, Poulter’s comment of years ago is today, the 22nd of February 2010, really true. In golf, at this moment, it really is just Ian Poulter and Tiger Woods.

Pinky and the Brain

“He’s the kind of player who feeds off his ego”

—Ian Baker-Finch on Ian Poulter.

Just a quick note about the finale of the Match Play today: it is, for the casual fan, exactly the sort of nightmare that keeps television executives awake at night. Nobody playing today (Sunday) is an American, and though it’s arguable that nobody would be watching anyway—the Olympics, after all—that can’t be comfortable for CBS, especially since the whole tournament was upstaged Friday by the Absent God. Anyway, I will be rooting for Paul Casey today—despite the fact that he just missed a virtual kick-in he needed to make on 7 (25th hole)!—mostly because … well, it isn’t because Poulter is dressed resplendently all in pink. I could make up some explanation here, but I’ll just say I don’t like Poulter due to an encounter I had with him some years ago at Cog Hill. I will give details in some later post, though a clue can be found in Baker-Finch’s comment I have reproduced above. (Poulter likes himself. A lot.)

Casey though seems to be worth rooting for despite what he said some years ago about Americans (“Americans are stupid”). Ok, he’s not the brightest bulb perhaps—uh, Paul, smart people tend not to say things like that for publication—but seems likable enough, not that it matters, but most importantly he employs Luke Donald’s brother as a caddie. That might be perceived as a negative, which actually it is because it’s one job less for an American looper, but did I mention I don’t like Poulter?

As I’m writing, Poulter is putting the hammer down on Casey, having just knocked it close in two on the par-five eighth while Casey missed the green. I’ll live-blog this part: Poulter misses the putt … just barely. Now Casey must make a birdie to halve: he made it! Casey remains at 4-Down. It isn’t looking good for Casey.

One other thing: Villegas has Garcia 4-Down in the consolation match, after hitting a spectacular shot out of the desert for birdie. It’s arguable that, given Poulter’s virtually incomprehensible accent, Casey is the only one of the four players on the course today that speaks a recognizable form of English to most Americans, which I offer as another reason to root against Poulter should there be any xenophobes in the audience here.

Poulter just putted off the green! Sure, he got his next shot close, but he’s still looking at least three to get down while Casey can two-putt to win the hole (the ninth on the second eighteen today.) Let’s see if he does: yep. There’s a bit of drama in that neither player conceded the short putts each had left to finish the hole. The lead is three with nine to go. I’m going to post this so you can see it if you’re reading while watching the tournament (you likely aren’t.) If you aren’t, hope the future is good.

***Poulter wins, 4 & 2.

Match the Emperor

In my neighborhood in Chicago there’s a church built in 1903 by the noted architect Louis Sullivan. What many people are surprised to learn is that the client was the Tsar of All the Russias, Nicholas II, later on the receiving end of some nastiness. But I bring up Sullivan’s church on Day 3 of the Accenture Match Play, one of the World Golf Championships, not to show how “globalization” is older than we sometimes think. Rather, I bring it up because Sullivan, father of architectural modernism, invented the phrase “form follows function”—a phrase that many of us like because it seems to validate our sense that aesthetics are secondary, trifling. What matters, as the phrase goes, is the “steak and not the sizzle. That may be so for many things but not, as it happens, in this week’s headline tournament, because in match-play function follows form(at).

The reasons why are I think instructive: if last week I tried to illustrate how golf is best understood in the light of punk-rock band the Clash’s song, “Should I Stay Or Should I Go,” by describing a practical example, this week I’d like to discuss the more theoretical reasons behind the Clash’s profound insight. Match play is the exception that proves—in the old sense of tests—Sullivan’s rule. If nothing else, reading this essay might enlighten you as to the reasons why old golfers will tell you most bets are won long before the first ball is struck.

To understand why match-play is different first requires an understanding of that from which it differs: stroke-play, the format of 90% or more of all professional golf tournaments. In stroke-play, everyone goes out and plays—usually four rounds on the PGA Tour—and whoever has the fewest shots at the end wins. It’s straightforward. What isn’t as often realized, or at least not explicitly realized, is the effect that this has on the style—what Sullivan might call the form—of play: stroke-play rewards conservative decisions.

Tiger Woods’ driverless walk around Hoylake in 2006 wasn’t very punk, and neither was David Toms “lay-up heard ’round the world” at the PGA Championship in 2001, when Toms refused to risk rinsing his ball in the pond in front of the 18th green on the last day but still made a par to win. But these decisions, though unheroic, make sense in the stroke-play format because of something professionals understand and most amateurs don’t: stroke play creates an asymmetry.

Asymmetry in golf is hard for the amateur to understand: what it means, in a stroke-play tournament, is that a double-bogey is much more harmful than an eagle is helpful. This doesn’t make sense to most people—if you play two holes and make an eagle on one and a double-bogey on the other, then you have shot par for those two holes. Effectively then the one cancels out the other, because both are two strokes better or worse than par. In this view, golf scores look sort of like a bell curve: if par is the mid-point, then every score on one side of par is balanced by another score on the other side. So at least it would seem.

In a stroke-play tournament though the two scores are not actually equivalent. Why? Well, because in a stroke-play tournament all the scores matter: the winner is determined by the number of shots taken over the length of the whole tournament. Since the number of holes is limited (unless there is a play-off), that means there is a limited number of chances to make a good score on each hole. And what that means is that scoring a double-bogey not only adds two shots to the total score, but also uses up an opportunity to make a good score. Economists refer to this concept as opportunity cost. By making a double-bogey, not only are you that much further behind the rest of the field, but also you will need two other birdie holes to get back to par—instead of using those two holes to go under par. And now you are that much closer to the end of the tournament.

It might be objected at this point that, well, isn’t that what makes an eagle so valuable, because it instantly offsets the double-bogey? In a sense of course that’s true, but in another sense it isn’t. To see why, let’s look at an analogy: in this case, let’s suppose a professional golfer is like a corporation. Being under par is like being profitable, while being over par is like being indebted.

An eagle then can be likened to an unexpected windfall, while a double-bogey can be thought of as a loan. When a corporation makes a profit, it faces choices: for instance, to invest in more research in order to increase its chances of outperforming its competitors in the future, or to pay back its investors. Paying back investors sacrifices the future for the past; if a corporation gets too indebted it doesn’t matter what sorts of profits come in because they are all devoted to paying off the past debt. It’s a story that might sound familiar these days …

The killer is that a golfer has to post some score for every hole: there are no negative scores. It’s possible to score almost any number of scores worse than par on a given hole, but there isn’t any way to shoot a score better than one. Golf scores are not distributed like a bell curve: they’re more like the Nike swoosh, with a long tail.

With that in mind, it’s far more probable, even for a highly skilled golfer, that a score on a given hole will be worse than par than it will be better than par (there’s echoes here of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, for anyone interested.) A double-bogey creates a debt that must be repaid in order to catch the rest of the field, while an eagle can be spent to advance ahead of the field. But as the proverb “one step forward, two steps back” suggests, debts create a bigger hole than profits create a bigger hill.

In a stroke-play tournament, therefore the correct strategy is usually to avoid the double-bogey rather than attempt the eagle. If a golfer makes an eagle it doesn’t benefit as much as a worse score will cost over the length of a tournament. In fact, it’s likely that even if the number of eagles and double-bogeys a golfer makes equal each other that likely means you aren’t looking at the winner of a stroke-play tournament.  As professionals say, “the big number is what hurts.” The friction of a double-bogey creates more “drag” than the propulsion of an eagle thrusts a golfer forward.

Tiger and Toms pursued the strategies they did, in sum, not because they didn’t think they could pull off those shots—they are two of the most skilled players in the world, after all—but rather because of how they thought about it. This is something very significant that isn’t understood by the average player. The difference between the professional and the amateur isn’t how they perform, but how they think.

That thought process, however, is muted in match-play because match-play is not cumulative in the same way that stroke-play is. Each hole is in effect its own separate tournament: what matters is who won or lost a given hole, not total score at the end of the round. Match-play thusly flips the calculation of value: scores under par on a given hole are suddenly much more valuable than they are in stroke-play, while conversely scores over par are much less costly. A score under par is valuable because it guarantees either progress (a win on that hole) or at worst is neutral (a tie), while any score over par is essentially the same (a likely loss).

The distribution of scores therefore becomes much more like a standard bell curve: all the scores at the far end of the scale are effectively the same, so there isn’t a long tail to the curve anymore. What that means is that the method of selecting (I mean this word in a Darwinian sense) a winner changes: whereas a player who made both a lot of birdies and a lot of bogies wouldn’t last long on in stroke-play tournaments (cf. the career of John Daly), such a player could survive, and even thrive, in a match-play environment.

Against Louis Sullivan then, in golf the form dictates the substance: what sort of golf we get is determined by the rules, the form, we select before the competition starts. Match-play would seem to make for more exciting golf: Bobby Jones’ “lilly-pad shot” at Interlachen in 1930, Gene Sarazen’s “shot heard ‘round the world” at the 15th at Augusta in 1935, and Gary Player’s “over-the-tree shot” at Hazeltine in 1970 were examples of heroic decisions to go rather than stay, and all of them are remembered more fondly than Tiger Woods’ performance at Hoylake or David Toms’ lay-up. Those shots, except for preceding the Sex Pistols by some years, were pretty punk. Why not then institute a format that rewards the high-risk shot more than it penalizes it?

Yet we don’t happen to live in that environment. Usually, things are said to be this way because match-play is “too random,” too volatile: because the effects of each hole are not cumulative, the inherent quality of a player like Ernie Els (a notorious folder in the Match Play) isn’t allowed to demonstrate itself, which leads to finals like the Kevin Sutherland vs. Scott McCarron opus in 2002. As Frank Chirkinian, the long-time producer of golf coverage at CBS who basically invented golf on television, once said,  “golf fans don’t want the underdog to win.” But what might be said is that this perception might be a species of question-begging: what it may be is simply that most if not all professional tournaments are conducted according to stroke-play, not match-play. The usual champions we see, then, have been selected to be stroke-play champions. If there were more of a balance between the two formats our perceptions of what makes a good golfer might change as well.

After all, back when the PGA Championship was conducted according to match-play, Walter Hagen had no problem winning it six times, and Jack Fleck did beat Ben Hogan in the 1955 U.S. Open—conducted according to stroke-play. It isn’t as though no-names don’t win stroke-play tournaments (Todd Hamilton, anyone?), nor is it the case that match-play gives too much of a handicap to lesser players (Tiger Woods has won the Match Play three times). The perception is that stroke-play is fairer because it supposedly produces the better player as the winner  more consistently. But that perception might just be a case of valuing the sizzle—the golfer-as-celebrity, you might say—over the steak, which is exciting golf.

On that note, I watched the Match Play yesterday and I have to say that I’ve seen few tournament rounds that were more thrilling. In the space of an hour, I saw two different players hit shots that hit the flagstick. I saw players dig themselves out of what looked like impossible situations with amazing shots from the rough or from bunkers to turn the tables on opponents sitting comfortably on the fairway. A couple of shots found the hole or lipped out from off the green. And yet, I have almost no memory of who hit any of those shots (though the Els-Goosen match was pretty dramatic.) In that way, maybe match-play is a more democratic kind of golf, because it makes what we watch more about the actual game, rather than who’s playing it.

Being more about who than what is, after all, what got Louis Sullivan’s church-building employer in trouble all those years ago. It’s an odd historical pun that the name of the magazine for the movement that eventually brought Nicholas II down was, loosely translated, The Match—i.e., the flame set to burn Nicholas and his empire down. All of which is fairly remote from golf, to be sure. What sort of trouble could golf get into by putting everything on the shoulders of one man?

The World Match Play: Everybody’s a Toyota

Should anybody be reading this, I wanted to let you know that I’m going to be posting a bit about the tournament in Tucson this week—expanding a bit on my last post concerning the classic golfing dilemma about when to hit the gas and when to stomp on the brake (probably best Toyota doesn’t have much of a sponsorship presence in golf, don’t you think?). Match play raises the stakes on that decision—there’s no tomorrow in match play. So expect something later today. The early line is still Geoff Ogilvy, already a subject of one of these posts, although le fromage-tete Stricker cannot be counted out. Big upset pick for the first round? Tim Clark over Vijay Singh, although many would say that’s a no-brainer given Clark’s strong play recently versus Singh’s slow slide from the top. Should be a fun day.

The Double-Down Miracle Shooter

Should I stay or should I go now?
Should I stay or should I go now?
If I go there will be trouble,
And if I stay it will be double.
So you gotta let me know,
Should I cool it or should I blow?
—“Should I Stay or Should I Go?”
The Clash.
Combat Rock.

People sometimes ask me about just what it is a caddie, or what we call a looper, does, which isn’t as easy a question as you might think. There’s the basics, of course—getting yardages and so on. But, unless somebody just really has no idea at all, that usually isn’t what my questioner wants to know. I don’t have that much experience with big-time pro golf, but I do have some: I’ve worked two Nationwide Tour events, one LPGA event, a United States Mid-Amateur (which is like the U.S. Open for everybody who didn’t turn pro after college), a United States Senior Amateur (etc.), and many mini-tour events. What people want to know is what actually happens “inside the ropes” as they say, when it’s just you and your player.

They have watched the hushed discussions on television as, say, Tiger and Stevie, or Phil and Bones, confer—what people want to know is, what are they talking about? The short answer is that it’s likely about who’s favored in that night’s game-of-the-century or … well, Tiger’s in enough trouble as it is. But that isn’t really what they want to know either. What they (you) want to know is, what are they talking about when it gets down to the only question that matters to a pro, which has perhaps been most poetically put by Joe Strummer and Mick Jones of The Clash: should I stay or should I go?

Or, as my pro once asked me in a Nationwide Tour event, “Should I go for the miracle shot?” And yes folks, pro golfers do ask that question. Or at least that guy did—he wasn’t a star, even on the minor-league tour, so maybe it speaks for itself that he was asking me at all. Still, it does happen, and for what it’s worth (usually not much), that’s what you are getting paid to do, something that still amazes me: it’s like standing next to Michael Jordan, waiting for him to ask you if you think he should go to the hole or just shoot the three. What does MJ want you to say—“nah, Mikey, just do a cross-over, beat the guard, take off at the foul line and shoot it over your shoulder, like always.” In no other sport, at least that I know about—I’m told that in auto-racing the driver keeps in pretty close contact with his crew-chief, but I’m not sure it’s the same—does anything like this happen, that an athlete in the middle of competition—not during a time-out—ask somebody else’s advice.

When that happens, and it has happened to me, I’m always tempted to give some smart-aleck reply, or just say “Sure, why not?” Or, “Hey man, if I knew wouldn’t I be hitting that ball?” That isn’t of course what you say though. Your guy actually wants to know—if he knew the answer to that question he would have already asked for the club he wanted. It’s real—MJ really does want to know what you think of Utah’s defense—and he wants to know right now. And this isn’t your buddy asking you during some let’s-skip-out-of-work Friday afternoon, or your brother asking you if you want to play “greenies.” Bobby Jones himself said that tournament golf is different from regular golf, and pro golf is another species entirely. Pro golf is: damn that hotel room cost more than the website said, and how am I gonna pay for it if we miss the cut, and it’s how many hours to Chicago is it from—where am I again? And he wants to know what?

Let me describe what our situation was when my pro asked me that question, and then I’ll go through how I thought about it. We—and yeah, I say we, because in effect it’s my money too—were on what I remember as the 13th hole on a Saturday. It was the first par-5 on the back nine at kind of a tricked-up famous-player helicopter-course—the famous player flies in on his helicopter, maybe hits a shot or two, picks up the check and scoots for the horizon before anybody realizes that the track would be better with a mechanical rabbit—in the kind of state that takes in more federal money than they pay in taxes but likes to complain about “Wash’ton” all the same, not that it mattered.

Our lie was on the thin side, but not terrible. The ball sat in front of the green about twenty yards from the pin. That doesn’t sound too bad, I realize, but the pin was right up against a bunker that we needed to traverse. So the question was, should we try to stick the ball close to the pin, risking leaving it short in the bunker but possibly gaining a birdie or even (with a lot of luck) an eagle? Or should we play safe, away from the pin but with a manageable—though still difficult—lengthy two-putt for par?

On that particular day here’s how I thought about it: first, it was a Saturday. On the pro tours, Saturday is “Moving Day” (thanks, John Feinstein!): it means you’ve made the cut, which means you are going to play tomorrow too. And that means you have a chance to fix whatever happens today. Risk is at a discount on Saturday. Second: it was early on the back nine. That means you’ve had some time to “get into” the round; your player knows how he’s hitting it that day, which isn’t always sure the first couple of holes.

After twelve holes we had made some birdies, so we were climbing the leaderboard. And there were still five holes after this one, meaning that, again, whatever happens on this hole we had a chance to fix. And third: it was a par-five, meaning that we could still save par after a bad shot. Bunkers don’t really scare pros; in fact, since the surface of a bunker is usually a lot more dependable than grass, most would rather hit out of them than anywhere else on the course. Even if we missed the shot and ended up in the bunker, we probably wouldn’t do any worse than a bogey—too bad but the upside, another birdie to add to our string, made it worth it.

At least that’s how I saw things. What I said was: “Yeah, let’s do it.” Now, this says a couple of things to the player. The first is, I’m paying attention. My pro hadn’t really asked me anything important before this moment the entire week. But when he asked me the question he didn’t have to clarify what he meant, because I already knew. That is not a trivial bit of information, because it tells the pro something significant: “I am not alone.” A lot of golf is played alone, of course: outside of marathon running, which at the highest level takes way less time than a round of golf, there are very sports that are as solitary as pro golf. (Maybe long-distance solo sailboating.) So to be able to tell him that he isn’t alone during an important decision is, to my mind anyway, pretty important. But that wasn’t all I said in those three words.

I also effectively said that not only do I think it’s a good idea, but I trusted him to be able to pull it off. That imparts confidence, no small thing when the difference between first and last place on any given day is maybe 10 seconds out of five-plus hours of golf. Secondly, by saying “let’s” I was effectively letting him off the hook if the shot went south: I agreed to the shot, so my neck was on the line same as his. If it didn’t work out it wasn’t all his fault. Again, no small thing. Psychological studies have been done that show sharing responsibility lessens the burden. (Have they really? Damned if I know for sure. But that’s the way I’d bet.) So, four words, at least four different meanings—actually more meanings than that, but there isn’t that much time. You want to ask me why I’m getting paid again?

As it happens, in this case it did go south. Not only did he put it in the bunker, but then he left the next shot in the bunker too because he was trying to hit another miracle shot. Now, that is a cardinal sin for pro golfers, and it is a pretty good rule for amateurs too: never double-down on miracles. (Actually, that’s a pretty good rule for anything.) The next shot was, naturally, long, and it took three more shots to get down from there for a smooth double-bogey, giving back two of the birdies we’d worked hard to get earlier. We did make some birdies afterwards, but we’d squandered a day where we might have made up six shots on the field. That would have really moved us up the board on a day the course was a nunnery. (Think about it.)

My golfer and I ended up finishing thirty-fourth or something for the tournament, which was that guy’s best finish of the year to that point. On the Nationwide Tour, that worked out to about thirty-five hundred dollars, of which my share came out to about three hundred on top of my per-diem. Not a lot of money, but I did get a compliment on how I’d done my job. Throughout the week I had gotten the correct yardages and done competently all the other things loopers do—I even found his ball in some weeds on the day before, which as it worked out meant that we made the cut. What I got the most satisfaction from that week was that I thought clearly under pressure. On that one shot things didn’t work out, but the important thing, or so I feel, was that I was able to analyze our situation quickly and confidently.

I don’t mean to sound overly complimentary about myself—loopers don’t hit the shots, and this certainly wasn’t the U.S. Open or anywhere close—but I did want to try to reproduce something like what happens during those moments on television when Phil or Ogilvy or whoever is looking at that flag with the tournament on the line and wondering how to get there. Miracles don’t happen by accident: they start by asking, as Strummer et al. put it, should I cool it or should I blow? And then trying to answer it.

Contemplating Riviera

Contemplating Hell, as I once heard it,

My brother Shelley found it to be a place

Much like the city of London. I,

Who do not live in London, but in Los Angeles,

Find, contemplating Hell, that is

Must be even more like Los Angeles.

— “Contemplating Hell.” Bertolt Brecht.

“It’s a great place to live,” wrote Mark Twain about Los Angeles, “but I wouldn’t want to visit there.” But that’s what the the PGA Tour is doing this week at Riviera for the LA Open. I worked at Riviera some years ago for a season, and it is really one of the toughest—and best—golf courses on tour, if not worldwide. The reason for that is not due to any of the reasons generally cited when talking about a golf course: it isn’t particularly long, at least by tour standards; there aren’t any water hazards; and there’s really only one blind shot—though it’s maybe one of the most famous blind shots in golf. Simultaneously Riviera does a lot of damage to scoring averages and yet is consistently praised by the professionals year-in and year-out. The list of champions at Riviera is basically a list of Hall-of-Famers, from Ben Hogan and Sam Snead to Phil Mickelson and DL3. Yet for Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods, the track off Sunset has been the Boulevard of Broken Dreams—neither has won here throughout their careers. Riviera, in short, is much like the city that it is set within: it’s different.

Start with the setting: the first tee is right outside the clubhouse on a small patch of grass elevated 75 or 80 feet above the fairway. The suggestion is both majestic and comforting; on a smogless day the Pacific is visible miles away, with the entire course spread below like a map—but rather than intimidating, the implication is aristocratic. All of this splendor exists for you; the tee box displays a fantastic view that nonetheless is maximally convenient. It’s about five steps from the locker room to the tee; there’s no struggle to achieve the vantage. That peculiar amalgam of spectacular natural scenery bent to serve aristocratic privilege of course just is Los Angeles. From there the first hole is short and fairly easy: just as the city of its setting can appear to new arrivals like an Eden, with its lovely weather and the vast quantities of surface politesse spilled about in every public encounter, so the first hole, though it is a five-par, makes Riviera seem like the day will be a cakewalking, lull-inducing stroll to par or better.

But that’s just what Riviera, or rather the original architect George Thomas, wants the golfer to think. The whiplash induced by the second hole rivals only the speed at which someone in Los Angeles will turn from introducing themselves to inquiring about your car, your house, and your yearly income. The second is a brutally hard hole, demanding a long tee shot over a dogleg, then requiring an uphill second shot to a narrow green surrounded on one side by a jungle and on the other a deep-and-steep bunker. And then the green itself is weird, with odd breaks. On the scorecard, the first hole is ranked seventeenth-most difficult, but the second hole is the most difficult. Second is first, as the loopers at Riviera say.

Every hole from then onwards has its oddities: both of the three-pars on the front side are some of the most unusual in golf. The fourth is well-known as one of Ben Hogan’s favorite holes; there isn’t a purer example, I think, of a Redan-style green anywhere other than the 15th hole at North Berwick, the original, or the fourth hole at the National Golf Links of America, where C.B. Macdonald first copied Berwick’s original. The sixth might be the craziest hole found outside of miniature golf: there’s a bunker in the middle of the green. Missing on the wrong side means either putting around the bunker or chipping over it, as Phil Mickelson once did some years ago. The eighth hole has two different fairways, meaning the player needs to choose a path before teeing off, and the tenth might be one of the most fun short holes in the world; it’s only 315 yards, but the green is tiny. The eighteenth is one of the most storied finishing hole in golf: in 1974, Dave Stockton hit a three-wood from 247 yards—it’s a four-par—and sank the putt to steal the tournament from Sam Snead, who by the way was 61 at the time. The tee shot is blind, straight up the hill out of the canyon you descended into after hitting your first shot back on the first tee.

That isn’t even to talk about the fact that the entire course—because it is set within a canyon whose lower reaches open to the ocean—slopes subtly towards the Pacific, meaning that putts can break the opposite of what they might look, nor the peculiar kikuyu grass that can grab a club in the rough. Nor the barranca grass infesting various swales that take the place of water hazards. What all of this means is that the golf course, with all of its quirks, rewards veteran players and not rookies, and the list of champions at Riviera, as mentioned, reflects that fact. Like Twain says about Los Angeles, Riviera smiles on those who’ve been there awhile—which is to say, as Bertolt Brecht might have had he thought more about Ben Hogan and less about the House Un-American Activities Committee, the winner in Los Angeles is usually the devil you know.