Gravity’s Rainbow

Somewhere there’s music,
How faint the tune.
Somewhere there’s heaven,
How high the Moon.
—“How High The Moon”
    (b/w “Walkin’ and Whistlin’ Blues”)
    Les Paul & Mary Ford.
    Capitol Records, 1951.

Spring, in another stunning March upset, has beaten the Masters to Chicago this year. But in most years the Masters opens the golf season, and I watch with a golf-nut friend who’s crazy-jealous I’ve walked the hallowed greens. Usually I retell the story of once standing on the 8th green with a veteran caddie, who asked me how I thought a putt would break. I said I thought it would move a foot right-to-left; actually, it broke four feet the other way. This kills my friend and (often) any other golfers around, because green-reading is one of those peculiar-to-golf skills; a soccer field (or pitch) is for instance always level, or should bePele didn’t have to ask his coach where to hit the ball. But golf’s surfaces are never level, so one of the questions golfers often ask me is about putting, or more specifically about reading greens. It’s difficult to answer the question politely, because most of what golfers think about putting and green-reading is flat-out wrong.

The best thing I’ve ever heard on the subject is oddly from Phil Mickelson, who’s probably better known for missing short putts than making long ones. “The true apex of the putt’s roll,” Phil said not long ago, “occurs at the moment you strike it; it always rolls downhill from there.” It’s an owlish quote, which mimics the subject: most amateurs have at least an intuitive sense that there’s something deeply strange about reading greens; some seem to have a kind of superstitious fear about it. There is something deeply uncanny about making a long putt on a bumpy green: sometimes it can appear that the ball is moving on its own, governed by supernatural forces. (Compare any number of Tiger’s putts over the years.)

Putting is also magical because it can have such an effect on scoring: pro golf is largely a matter of who’s putting good that week, and there isn’t a golfer alive who hasn’t had a ball find the hole from some ridiculous distance. Putts have the spark of the divine in them. I’ve done enough green-reading to know I’m pretty good at it, even on greens I haven’t seen before, and there’s little satisfaction better for a looper than your player saying “Man, I never would have hit it there!” after making some improbable snake. Some people therefore regard me as some kind of magician; others regard green-reading as akin to dowsing or psychic surgeryjust hit it at the hole is their attitude. These people are wrong, but often they’re less wrong than the medicine-man people.

Most people fall between the two, and often ask about just how I read greens. The question presupposes some method or checklist, but mostly I don’t follow any standardized procedure exactly. I just look at where the ball is and where the cup is, and then I can “see” the line a putt has to take. This is difficult for certain kinds of minds to understandthey tend to be of the “hit it at the hole” schoolbut what I think is that my mind has just compressed a lot of experience into various subroutines my conscious mind doesn’t pay much attention to any more.

Some of these “subroutines” are the idiot stuff the golf magazines always go on about: finding the highest point on the green (very important), finding a drainage point or a nearby creek or pond (slightly less important), or where the sun sets (not very important). And of course knowing what sort of grass the green isnorthern bent grass rolls truer than southern Bermuda, for instance. Or finding out if there’s some terrain feature that subtly influences things: in Palm Springs, all putts want to go to Indio at the east end of the valley, while at Riviera all putts try to find the Pacific at the low end of the canyon. For the most part though these tricks are only minimally helpful.

On the Nationwide Tour I once had a pro who wanted to know what “o’clock” a putt needed to fall. What he meant by that was he envisioned the hole like the face of a clock, with twelve o’clock representing the precise opposite side of the hole from his ball. A putt that broke a lot right-to-left might cause the ball to fall in the hole at the three o’clock position; one that didn’t break as much might fall at the five o’clock position. If he knew the clock position he could trace the line back to his ball and find where he needed to start the putt. This is actually pretty close to how I work, though I tend to see the whole path and not just the point of entry.

A word about what I mean by “see”: it’s a phenomena I don’t understand precisely, but the nearest analogy I can draw is the way a wet green will show the path a putt has followed on it. The ball picks up water as it travels, so it will leave a track through a wet green clearly showing how it went. Similarly, I tend to “see”I mean this literallythe path a ball must follow in its entirety, start to finish. Communicating that vision can be difficult, so I tend to use discolorations in the green to show my players, or on longer ones pick out a tree or other landmark beyond the green as a target, but I use those targets as communication tools, not to find the line itself. On my best reads I see the whole thing, all at once.

Now, that’s the sort of thing that makes green reading sound like voodoo, and there is something to that because for a long time I found only certain players, generally very skilled ones, could understand what I meant. For the most part I avoid trying to describe what green-reading really is to people who don’t get it because mostly it’s a waste of timethey don’t have the experiences that can translate what you mean to them. However, some time ago I discovered a golf instructor who “gets” what it is that I do, and so now I tend to refer to him whenever I get into a discussion with someone who really wants to know and isn’t just passing time. His name is Dave Pelz, the short-game wizard now used by Phil Mickelson.

What drew me to Pelz is that he says that almost everyoneamateurs and pros alikeunderreads greens. Pelz is a former NASA scientistyes, rocket scientistand he has statistics to back his claims up. In my experience, he’s rightwitness the Ian Poulter experience I described in an earlier post, for instance. Nobody ever plays for enough break, or curve, on their putts. I am continually having conversations like this one:

Golfer: It can’t be that high! You can’t be serious!

Me: Yep.

But what Pelz does, as I’ve never been quite able to do, is explain just why that is. His point is expressed, though cryptically, in the quote from his student Mr. Mickelson I quoted above.

Pelz is attacking a common misconception about putting, one that even PGA Tour players have. Pelz puts the misconception this way in a recent Golf magazine article, citing an instructional video that advised students to “visualize the high point of the putt’s roll on its way to the hole, then aim at that high point.” Sounds pretty good right? Actually, as Pelz demonstratesand I would concur after several decades of looking at putts good and badthis is about as stupid as it’s possible to get without just stopping at the nearest bridge and jumping off.

It isn’t an entirely unapt metaphor, because what Pelz is arguingthis is maybe where the rocket science comes inis that the above instruction completely discounts the role of gravity. Here’s where we can return to Phil’s words, specifically the part about the “true apex.” What Phil is trying to say here is that if you did as the instructional video mentioned above said, your putt will inevitably fall off before reaching that pointunless you hit it so hard that the ball never breaks at all, one reason why the “point and shoot” crowd is slightly less mentally challenged. In order to hit the “high point,” in other words, you actually have to aim above it. Forces are at work to slow a putt right after impact, which is why so many good-looking putts climb right up to the hole and then break right across it, ending up on the low or “amateur” side.

The point is that, in putting, there are in effect three different targets. There’s the hole, sure. But there’s also the point at which you aim your putter and then the point where you actually expect your putt to go. Your aim point in short is higher than your actual targetwhere you really expect the putt to gowhich in turn is above the hole. So very often when I’m telling a guy where to hit his putt he’ll ask if it’s a “cup outside” or something and I will explain that in fact he must aim at a point that might be several feet outside. Hence sometimes-comical, sometimes-rude conversations like the one I reproduced above.

It may have occurred to some of you that the idea of aiming at a metaphorical-Mars-in-order-to-hit-the-Moon may not be accidentally the work of someone from NASA. Nor that the idea may be applicable in other arenas in life. JFK’s call for a literal moonshot resulted in a lot of things that maybe wouldn’t have gotten done had we aimed just at them, and not all of them are new dry-freeze techniques or handheld calculators. Unfortunately the people who tend to adopt slogans like “Aim High” (a slogan of the Air Force) are exactly the sort of people who misunderstand why it makes sense to read putts that waybecause they aren’t really paying attention to how putts work. Next time you are playing with someone, here’s an easy intelligence test: ask him about what he thinks about “goals.” (It’s super-easy to lead that conversation.) Next, just observe what happens on the green. When he misses on the low sidethey all dojust ask if he was aiming high enough. Nine times out of ten, nobody makes the connection.

Aiming high is valuable, sure, but it is not an end to itself. I was originally reminded of all of this putting business last week when seeing Irish singer Imelda May at Martyrs’, the Chicago venue that witnessed her first visit to the United States last September. Her audience has grown in the meantimeshe performed the tribute to Les Paul at this year’s Grammy Awards by singing his best-known song (with Jeff Beck, btw) and she’s getting better known by the day it seems. Searching out the lyrics for the song to use for this week’s entry, I discovered that the song was originally written for the 1940 Broadway revue Two for the Show, which was set in London. As it happens, that has rather something to do with Dave Pelz’ original profession at NASA, an agency constructed from the remains of the Nazi V-2 program. The question at the heart of the song—“How High The Moon?”—is not really about setting high goals or the usual sort of Corporate America pablum. “How High The Moon?” was a serious moment in an otherwise-comic musical: at the end of the song, everyone looks up at the sky and cowers, terrified.


Because a clear night, during the Blitz, meant a “bombers’ moon”—a high road to Picccadilly for the Luftwaffe.


Golf Architecture as Narrative Art

You think you can leave the past behind,
You must be out of your mind.
If you think you can simply press rewind,
You must be out of your mind, son
You must be out of your mind.
—Magnetic Fields “You Must Be Out Of Your Mind.” Realism.

I sometimes get asked just what the biggest difference is between the amateur and the professional games are, and about as often I want to say, “Amateurs always start on the first tee.” This is a smart-alecky remark, but it isn’t just smart-alecky. For over a century the United States Open sent every player off from the first tee the first two days of the tournament, a tradition that ended in 2002 at Bethpage in New York. Now, only the Masters and the Open Championship in the U.K. still start everyone on the first tee every day. Mostly nobody notices, in part because televised golf encourages a kind of schizoid viewing habit: we skip from hole to hole, shot to shot, seemingly at random, without order.

“Here’s Ernie at 11,” the announcer will say, never mind that the last thing we saw was the leaders hitting their approach shots into 7, and right before that we saw Player X finishing up at 18. All of this approaches the golf course like a deck of cards to be dealt at random: which is precisely the opposite of how the amateur player always sees a golf course, one hole at a time.

Pro golf, both on television and the way the players themselves experience it, is different. A golf course, like a book, is designed to be played in a certain order, which makes golf architecture different from other kinds of architecture or other kinds of art like painting or sculpture, as much as the brochures and the television announcers like to make mention of this week’s “breathtaking beauty.” Golf architecture though has just as much in common with temporal arts like music or narrative: what’s important isn’t just what’s happening now but what’s happened before.

Did the architect create the illusion that those bunkers weren’t a problem on the last hole, causing you to play safe on this one—or vice versa? Maybe two greens with similar-looking slopes will play differently because the grain runs differently on each. There’s a lot of games architects can play that take advantage of what we’ve learned—or thought we learned—on previous holes.

Mostly though the obvious tricks are easily discovered, or only work once. Courses like that are like murder mysteries spoiled after somebody tells you just how Mr. Green bought it from a rutabega poisoned by the maid, who turns out to be employed by and who the hell cares. What makes a course worth playing is one that continues to bewilder, even after you know the secret of it. Nobody gives a damn if you know “Rosebud” was the sled—Citizen Kane is still good. Good architecture, I would submit, tells a story.

Maybe the best example of what I mean is Riviera Country Club in Los Angeles, where the tour plays the L.A. Open every year. Widely acclaimed as an architect’s dream course, Riviera is also remarkably fun to play while still being one of the toughest tracks the professionals play every year. The first tee begins a few steps, quite literally, from the clubhouse, on a patch of grass high above the rest of the course. The tee shot drops out of the sky just as you do from the heights—Icarus (or Lucifer) plummeting, as Milton says, “toward the coast of Earth beneath,/Down from th’ Ecliptic, sped with hop’d success.” The first is the easiest hole on the course, a par five with the tee not only elevated, but a wide landing zone to receive the shot. The green is wide, and in general it’s a lullaby of a hole.

The second, however, turns the tables quickly. It’s a long dog-legged par four with out-of-bounds (the driving range) left and trees right: the tee shot is either to a narrow piece of fairway or the riskier shot over the neck of the dogleg on the right over the trees. Either way, the approach is to a very narrow green with deep bunkers left and a hillside with very tall rough on the right. The professionals regard a four here as dearly as a five is cheap on the first hole. Usually the second is the toughest hole on the course every year.

Whereas the first hole rewards the bomber, the second favors the straight-shooter. In other words, what worked on the first hole is exactly what’s penalized on the next, and vice versa. Riviera continues on like this all the way around the course, giving and taking away options throughout and always mixing it up: what worked on the last hole won’t necessarily work on the next; in fact, following the same strategy or style of play is exactly what leads to big numbers.

What’s really astonishing about Riviera is that it doesn’t matter whether you know what’s coming: just because you know the first hole is easy, and why, and the second is hard, and why, doesn’t change things. There isn’t any short-cut—such as is often found on the videogame Golden Tee for instance—that, once discovered, ends the problem the next hole presents. That ability to confound is something rare in a golf course. Most courses reward a particular style—Jack Nicklaus’ courses are notorious for rewarding high fades, the shot Nicklaus liked to hit in his prime.

The great courses, though, not only mix up styles, but also tell a story. As Rob says in High Fidelity, “You gotta kick it off with a killer to grab attention. Then you gotta take it up a notch. But you don’t want to blow your wad. So then you gotta cool it off a notch. There are a lot of rules.” Rob’s point owes something perhaps to Stanley Fish, the Miltonist, who argued in Surprised By Sin that the way Paradise Lost works is to ensnare the reader constantly, setting up one expectation after another, dashing each in turn.

At Riviera, for instance, the first two holes raise hopes and then dash them—or conceivably raise them to a higher pitch, should you somehow make a miraculous birdie on the second. The rest of the course continues to toy with a player’s mind. Two years ago Geoff Ogilvy, the Australian pro I’ve written about before, talked with Geoff Shackelford of Golf Digest about the short 10th hole and how important that hole’s place in the routing is:

“The eighth and ninth holes are very hard, but you know that the 10th and 11th [a reachable par 5] offer a couple of birdie or even eagle chances. So [the 10th hole] sits in the round at the perfect time,” says Ogilvy. “It’s definitely a much better hole than it [would be] if you teed off there to start your round when the dynamics just aren’t nearly the same.”

Sequence matters in other words even if, as at Riviera, players are guaranteed to have to start at least one round on the 10th hole because the first two days use split tees.

Medinah, where I usually work, often takes a lot of crap from the big-name golf writers on just that point: Bradley Klein, for instance, who’s not only the architecture critic for Golfweek but was also PGA Tour caddie and a professor of political science, doesn’t think much of the course. In 1999, he said it was “stunningly mediocre.” Klein doesn’t convince me. Maybe it’s because I am—maybe more so than anyone on the planet—familiar with the course, but it might also be that Klein either isn’t aware of the role of narrative in architecture, or isn’t familiar enough with Medinah to understand its narrative.

There’s a stretch of holes, for instance, that I think illustrate what I’ll call the High Fidelity or Paradise Lost principle pretty well: the ninth through the eleventh. The first and the last hole of this stretch are both dogleg-left four pars, sandwiching a long five par that goes directly into the prevailing wind. The ninth and the eleventh are both similar-looking holes to the unwary: both require you to choose either to try to carry the dogleg with a driver off the tee or lay-up with some other club. But the tee shot on nine is into the prevailing wind and uphill, while the eleventh is with the prevailing wind and downhill. What worked on the first one won’t work on the other. In addition, the tenth is so long, and into the wind, that the player usually thinks more club is necessary on the eleventh tee—but that’s usually exactly the wrong choice.

Medinah just underwent a renovation last year—again—so I will see how the changes went and report back on them here. What I wanted to do here first though was to describe a bit about how I’m going to understand that change, which is to evaluate the golf course through the story it tells. Playing the course as the architect meant it to be played is one advantage the amateur has over the professional. The PGA Tour isn’t far removed from the shotgun starts that are a feature of your typical pro-am event, where it doesn’t matter what hole you start on. But enjoying the structure, the internal logic, of course design is not only one of the game’s pleasures, but also I think a means of improving your own golf: understanding what the architect wants is a big step towards lowering your score. “But to convince the proud what signs avail?” Milton says in Paradise Lost, “Or wonders move the obdurate to relent?” Reading the signs in order, I think, is the amateur’s one advantage over the professional—it is a pleasure not unlike the bite of a noted apple.

Masters and Servants

It’s a lot

It’s a lot

It’s a lot like life.

— “Master and Servant”

Some Great Reward

Depeche Mode (1984)

There’s a school of literary scholars who think that telling stories is a way human beings have adopted to enable us to think about ethical decisions—as good a justification as the tabloid press needs to tell wild tales of celebrities. The Tiger Woods story, I think, for the most part doesn’t even rise to that level, but this week Steve Williams, Tiger Woods’ caddie, has spoken publicly to what reports are calling New Zealand’s answer to 60 Minutes, and the results aren’t pretty but they are pretty odd. The money quotes are these: “it would be very difficult for the caddie not to know but I’m a hundred per cent telling you I knew nothing,” on the one hand, and “If I’d have known something was going on, the whistle would have been blown” on the other. A (very minor) controversy has blown up about Williams’ words that, it may or may not be, allow us to think about ethical decisions that have very little to do with marriage vows but just might, as some thinkers say they ought, reverberate beyond golf., the droller, hipper Internet version of ESPN, provokes the debate by jumping all over Williams’ second phrase—and not just for its passive-voice construction. “If I’m Tiger Woods,” writes Barry Petchesky, “I fire Steve Williams right now.” Williams has, according to Petchesky, broken “the trust that a golfer-caddy [sic]relationship needs to have.” But, what trust? And has Steve Williams broken it? The odd part is that it’s arguable that Williams has not broken that trust with Woods precisely because he’s lying to the press.

Williams does have a longstanding trust relationship with Woods: he has a well-known reputation as kind of a bulldog for Woods. Once, Williams threw a fan’s camera into a lake when it disturbed Tiger. That goes further than a lot of caddies would go to “protect” their player, but then it is known that Woods and Williams are (or were) a lot closer than many other caddies and players.

Early in Tiger’s career, Williams often stayed with his boss on the road. Tiger has had a known reputation with women ever since a GQ magazine piece came out in April 1997, and Willliams has known Tiger longer than Tiger’s wife, Elin, has known Tiger. Where that leads us is the significant question, “what did Stevie know and when did he know it?” It isn’t likely that Williams didn’t know anything about Woods’ private life before he was married—Tiger didn’t have much reason to hide it from Williams then—nor that he didn’t after the marriage.

Williams’ claim not to know seems implausible then, something he himself admits by saying “it would be very difficult.” It might be plausible coming from some other caddie about some other golfer, but in the context of the Williams-Woods relation the percentages, I think, drop approximately to zero.

Yet Petcheskey doesn’t say that Williams needs to be fired because he is lying, but rather— though he doesn’t actually state the argument, but if his words mean anything it’s this—because Williams is implicitly saying that he has loyalties he places above his loyalty to Tiger. Therefore, Williams needs to be fired because he is not wholly and completely Tiger’s creature, as the Victorians said about their servants. It’s at that point, I believe, that this entire issue ceases to be a topic for the tabloids and becomes something more universal.

That’s because what the question turns on is what your notion of what Williams’ relation to Tiger ought to be. The model that Petcheskey evokes is, it seems, even older than the Victorians: today it is mostly remembered by pre-war British comedies like P.G. Wodehouse, but the master-servant relation has been part of Western literature from ancient times. From Sancho Panza to Plautus’ comic servants, the type is well-known: indeed, the relation forms part of the basis of Hegel’s entire philosophy. But while in that sense it is familiar to us, the master-servant bond conceptualizes the relation between the paid and the paying entirely differently than we do today.

Today we would call that relationship one between the employed and the employer. The difference can perhaps be illustrated by reference to the story of the British ambassador to one of the Italian states during the eighteenth century, who candidly said something to effect that lying in the service of a king was no vice. He was, unfortunately for him and also possibly for Williams’ prospects, promptly fired by that king. After all, what good is an openly untrustworthy ambassador? The justification is precisely built on the idea that master and servant are not equal: as Orwell remarks about Wodehouse, “Bertie Wooster’s helpless dependence on Jeeves is funny partly because the servant ought not to be superior to the master.” That hierarchy means also that the deeds of the servant are the responsibility of the master, so any misdeeds on the part of the servant are excusable (for the servant) because they must be laid at the feet of the superior.

It so happens that this model for the most part is the conception of how golfers and caddies should relate. The Rules of Golf, for instance, treat players and caddies as, for the purposes of the rules, indistinguishable. If a caddie makes a mistake, his golfer pays the price in the form of penalty strokes. That happened to me once during a Hooters tour (yes, there is such a thing) event when I raked a bunker for another player when my player had not yet hit out of the same bunker. (It’s a rule that’s since been changed, I believe.) The United States government, through the IRS, also says caddies are not strictly employees: they are “independent contractors.” Petchesky can appear right then to invoke this master-servant relation with regards to Williams.

It isn’t so clear that such an idea should govern how Woods and Williams should relate to each other off the golf course. For most of us after all, and Williams’ reference to whistle-blowing makes the point, employees and employers are thought of as free equals who arrive at an agreement, called a contract, that specifies the rights and obligations of each to the other—an agreement that leaves untouched everything else. Contracts only cover that which they describe. What that means is that the employee still has a higher obligation: to the state and its laws, above all. A contract cannot be made that contravenes the laws of the state, because that would conflict with that higher obligation.

On the Internet it’s usually said that whoever brings up the Nazis first loses the argument, but it’s pretty obvious where I’m going with this: one way to put it is to say that Petchesky is blaming Williams for not having the sort of blind loyalty that, say, got people into trouble at Nuremburg. That’s one reason why what Williams said is a lot smarter than Petchesky gives him credit for: it’s possible that what Williams has done here is acknowledge the new ideal of the relation between paid and paying, while simultaneously demonstrate his loyalty to the old ideal. It’s a neat trick.

What do I mean by that? Well, there are several well-known stories about caddies acting similarly to roadies for rock and roll bands, if you see what I’m saying. A lot of people therefore, rightly or wrongly, naturally assumed when the first stories came out about Tiger that Williams had something to do with the business. A lot of the same people have been calling for Williams’ head on the grounds that if Tiger wants to demonstrate he’s changed he needs to get rid of the people who either actively helped him or looked the other way. Williams is in the top two or three on that list (depending on what you think about Woods’ agent.)

Petchesky wants to impale Williams on that Morton’s fork: if he’s telling the truth then he’s insufficiently loyal, while if Williams is lying then, well, he’s one of the sycophants that needs to be fired. But Williams’ answer (and what’s more impressive is that he’s done it before Petchesky wrote) has effectively turned that inside out: Woods must know if Williams knew or didn’t know. If Woods knew that Stevie did know, then by saying all that about “blowing the whistle” and so on Williams reassures Woods by effectively saying I’d never rat you out. The further he protests his innocence, in fact, the more Williams can reassure Woods of his loyalty. See how far I’ll go? he could be construed as saying. The bigger the lie, the better (demonstrated) the loyalty, you might say—with the added benefit that Williams attacks the charge that Woods surrounds himself with yes-men by asserting his independence.

At once, in short, Williams invokes the modern employer-employee relation while actually—if he really is lying—paying homage to precisely the master-servant relation Petchesky wants to hoist him by. I think that’s a pretty adroit trick. Still, all of this lies in the realm of the tabloids for the most part, even if you are concerned with how caddies and players should conduct themselves, as I am. But the conflict of these two different ideas of service, employee or servant, has applicability beyond the sport of golf.

This week a federal judge in Chicago ruled that Donald Rumsfeld can be sued by two American citizens, Donald Vance and Nathan Ertel, who were captured by the American military, held without trial for weeks and, allegedly, tortured mentally and physically. According to the two men, they were taken into custody by the military because they were reporting to the FBI about illegal payments the security company they worked for was making to Iraqis—in other words, they were targets because they were whistleblowers. Rumsfeld’s lawyers have tried to get the suit dismissed on the grounds that Rumsfeld wasn’t personally involved, but the federal judge on the case has now ruled that the suit can go forward because, he says, Vance and Ertel have provided enough evidence to plausibly think that Rumsfeld authorized the torture techniques allegedly used on Vance and Ertel.

One defense that Rumsfeld might like to deploy, but probably can’t, is that he was “merely following orders,” or in short that he was acting as a kind of servant to the United States government. But Rumsfeld’s immediate superior was the president of the United States, and according to several presidents the proper analogy for a president is not the employee-employee model, but the master-servant relation. Nixon justified himself on the basis that he was a servant to the nation, and the second George Bush’s notion of the “unitary executive” is similar.

The question of course is whether such a concept is still valid: many might argue that Nuremburg trials after World War II, for instance, definitely refuted the idea that anything can be sanctioned if it is in service to the state. If everyone is equal, in other words, then everyone has a responsibility for their actions that cannot be laid at another’s door, no matter what the cause.

In one version of Depeche Mode’s 1984 single “Master and Servant,” if anyone remembers that record format now, the flip side asked “Are People People?” It was a re-edited version of an earlier release that seemed to answer the question definitively: “People Are People.” Thinking about Steve Williams’ dilemma, I submit, inevitably involves deciding what people are: servants or employees? That question, and its answer, involves matters far greater in importance than Tiger Woods’ trevails—which is to say that maybe the tabloids aren’t so ridiculous after all.

Old Age and Treachery

My grandfather used to say that “old age and treachery beats youth and skill,” a saying with great applicability to golf generally and one that professional golfers seem to be taking increasingly to heart. Another week on the PGA Tour has brought another lay-up on one of the last holes by one of the contenders. The man playing the “old age and treachery” part, however, is 20 year-old Rickie Fowler, the only man to compete with Ian Poulter for the title of low clotheshorse (Fowler wore an orange-and-white outfit in the final round. No word if he’s sponsored by the Dreamsicle people yet or not.). One stroke back at the time, Fowler laid up on the par-five 15th hole from 230 out, with a 210 carry distance over the water in front of the green. Helen Ross at defends Fowler’s decision by observing that of 246 players who went for the green this week, only 76 players made it, which is about a thirty percent success-rate. So maybe Fowler made the right call.

The 15th at TPC Scottsdale is a scary hole: the green sits on an island surrounded by water. And Ross’ numbers sound pretty authoritative—until you remember that some number of those players also missed the cut this week, and some further number were nowhere near the lead on Sunday. Some percentage of those players, in other words, weren’t playing anywhere near as good as Fowler clearly was. Fowler himself didn’t make any reference to Ross’ stat-based argument.

When Fowler described what he was thinking afterwards, he talked about his own sense of his position. “I was a little farther out than I would have liked to have been to go for it,” Fowler said. “Obviously if I was a couple [strokes] back … I would have gone for it. But … I was at the time … just one back, [and] putting a wedge in my hand from 80 yards, a lot of times I do make birdie there.” Perhaps even more crucially, Fowler had started the day in third place, so he was playing behind Hunter Mahan (the eventual winner), who two groups ahead on the course. Odds were, in other words, that Mahan could only get one more birdie out of the holes he had left, whereas Fowler had three more chances to make should he miss at 15.

What sticks in the craw, however, is that both of Fowler’s playing partners, Villegas and Calcavecchia, did go for it, even though they clearly weren’t playing as well as Fowler—which of course is one reason why they went for it, since they knew they weren’t playing for the win at that point. Fowler was, and he didn’t see any reason to try to decide the tournament on one shot. I’d like to think that is what his caddie told him: with the second-place finish, Fowler has nearly locked up his card for next year, and he’s bound to break through sooner or later, though the window to try and be the youngest winner on Tour since Tiger is closing.

Nevertheless, Fowler’s decision is disturbing because 210 is just not a long distance for a tour player—some of the longer guys will hit 6-iron from that distance. Fowler is probably not that long, but he is 21st in driving distance so he isn’t short either. A five-iron, a club not usually thought of as trouble, likely would have done the job if Fowler didn’t want to hit a hybrid, a club usually thought of as even easier to hit. And as I said, Fowler was playing good—which brings us back to Helen Ross’ big pile of stats.

The problem with Ross’ figures is something that statisticians call survivorship bias. Let’s say, for instance, that you are presented with somebody who’s tossed a coin head side up some improbable number of times in a row. Now, maybe that person is really skilled at tossing coins, or maybe has some quality we can call “luck”—or maybe that person is just the winner of a coin-tossing tournament with thousands of participants. With enough participants, somebody throwing ten heads in a row stops being improbable and starts becoming likely. Knowing that, we aren’t likely to think quite the same of the “lucky” coin-flipper, because there isn’t any difference between this person and anyone else in the tournament. This person just happens to be the one that won.

Ross’ stat about the 15th plays a similar sort of game, because it appears to presume that there is no difference in skill between any of the golfers: as if each of them, upon reaching the 15th, had precisely the same (thirty percent) chance, just as in the coin-tossing example everyone has precisely the same (fifty percent) chance of throwing a head each time. But golf is not coin-tossing. Fowler was demonstrably not “lucky” at that point in the tournament. He had been playing well—survived—for four days. He wasn’t an “average” player: he was one with a shot at winning.

Fowler’s chances of hitting that shot, therefore, were not thirty percent like Ross’ numbers make it appear. I don’t know what they actually were, but they could not have been thirty percent because Fowler had already demonstrated himself to be better than nearly everyone else in the field. For all we know, in fact, those chances might have been zero, as maybe Rickie can’t hit the ball 205 yards but is absurdly accurate from 199 and in. That is supremely unlikely, but it is a possibility Ross’ figure obscures.

Ross’ stat is in other words strictly window-dressing, because in no way would it ever factor into any professional’s decision-making. If Fowler’s caddie had said something like that, he might have been fired on the spot, and rightly so. Fowler decided to lay-up for a different reason. “I told myself I didn’t really want to go for it unless I had about a 5-iron in” is what Fowler said afterwards, which as I’ve said is close to what he did have. And though the green at the 15th is on an island, it isn’t an island green—there’s a lot of rough and bunkers around it—which is to say that the likelihood of Fowler missing so badly as to wet the ball wasn’t as great as it might seem.

What concerns me about all of this is simply the mercenary quality to it in such a young man: as I mentioned, Fowler is only 20. Plenty of people have talked about Fowler’s potential; Stephanie Wie of Wei Under has called him a “Wonder Boy,” and he now has three top-10s this year. He’s going to make money in golf, and he’s going to win sometime. Why then play like some wizened veteran? Maybe we can ask Helen Ross to fudge up … uh, give us stats on how boring golf makes Johnny turn the channel.