Mental Masters

Over at Golf magazine the assembled panelists try to assess this past week’s Masters’ tournament, and there seems to be a pretty wide agreement that as a Masters’ tournament it ranks third, behind Jack Nicklaus’ 1986 win and Tiger Woods’ 1997 coronation, the order depending on the generation of the speaker. This is a lot of nonsense, which the panel half-admits when they concede that it is “social significance” that factors into their thinking. In terms of the sheer quality of the shots, this tournament was probably the best golf tournament that ever was: even Jack’s second nine score of 30 on Sunday in ’86 is overshadowed by a three-hole stretch of Phil Mickelson’s round—on Saturday.

Tiger’s win in ’97 did open up an entirely new vista about how to play golf—the game we see today was pretty much invented by Woods—but as an athletic competition it was kind of boring, what with him winning by 12 and such. Phil Mickelson’s win over the weekend, on the other hand, was exciting throughout. Phil’s weekend, in fact, puts in question some of the ideas that I’ve been fiddling with in this blog: the twin notions that golf is a game of avoiding bogies, not making birdies, and the idea that golf is a “mental game,” unlike more purely physical sports.

I’ve dealt with the first idea at some length elsewhere, but my prior post on the “mental game” business I don’t think really addressed the point squarely. My analogy in making the comment is from the arguments over the existence of “clutch hitting” in baseball, or the “hot hand” in basketball. Rob Neyer on ESPN.com cited a 1977 Baseball Research Journal article against the latter idea, and statisticians have demonstrated again and again that the idea that a shooter can get “hot” is just as much an illusion. Some players are better than others, and given enough opportunity runs of “luck” are likely, not unusual.

It turns out that the tower of academic excellence that is the University of North Texas has already published an article, “An Examination of the ‘Hot Hand’ in Professional Golfers,” that’s examined the topic. Turns out, it seems, that professional golfers “were just as likely to score a birdie or better following a par or worse hole as make a birdie or better following a birdie or better hole.”

Another study by the same author—R.D. Clark—found that while golfers tended to be “streaky,” which is to say that their under-par rounds tended to cluster together (as did their over-par rounds), this had more to do with the difficulty of the golf courses than anything else. “Clutch shots” in golf, in other words, are just as much of a statistical illusion as clutch hitting in baseball.

That isn’t though what most people tend to mean when they talk about golf as a mental game. What people tend to mean is something like what drives teaching pros these days to focus so much on “pre-shot routine,” and the golf press to spend so much time lauding Tiger Woods’ “inner focus.” As it happens, academics have found that having a pre-shot routine—a set pattern, or ritual, that is done before every shot—does tend to improve performance.

What isn’t clear is why—and really, that’s the important part. It might be because it helps improve focus—the contention of the “golf is mental” crowd. Or it might be because it allows “an automatic execution of technique,” as J. Hellstrom of Orebro University (it’s in Sweden, and surely as respected as the University of North Texas) puts it. But saying “golf is unconscious” doesn’t quite have the same ring.

Phil’s shot on 13 in the final day, not to mention his hole-out on 14 the day before, puts both of those ideas in question. Here was Phil, perhaps the streakiest big-time player ever, hitting go-for-broke shots in the clutch. What better demonstration that making birdies matters, and what better affirmation of the idea that “golf is mental” could there be?

Dr. Alan Reifman has already jumped all over this in his blog “The Hot Hand in Sports,” a website for “the Study of Sport Streakiness.” Dr. Reifman points out that since the Masters began in 1934, there’s been innumerable rounds played by some of the world’s best golfers—the presumption being that, given so many rounds, it would be harder to explain why there hadn’t been two back-to-back birdies by the same player than explaining why there had. Phil’s performance wasn’t due to luck, in short, but just because he is tremendously skilled.

The idea that “golf is mental” is, I think, primarily a way for amateurs to excuse their lack of skill: presumably, pro golfers are that skilled because of their possession of some magical “mental power” that enables them to transcend the abilities of mere mortals. Since the amateur doesn’t possess this magic, he’s off the hook. But while that might be comforting in some odd way, the reality is that professional golfers are better not because of magic, but because they’ve hit a lot more golf balls, and hit them better. I don’t think of this as at all disheartening; most of us, I think, wouldn’t trade our lives for the grind of hitting golf balls every day for years on end, which is what every professional golfer has done with his or her life. And it also offers a path to get better: practice. But maybe avoiding that word is why the “golf is mental” idea was invented in the first place.

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Teeing Off the Imbalanced

One of the more irritating things amateurs like to talk about is how golf is a “mental game.” At a time when the myth of the “clutch player” has been slain once and for all, it’s an absurdity, and probably has done more damage to the game than all the diner waitresses in Florida. I discovered this truth on the LPGA Tour on my second day as a “local,” the polite term for cheap, non-tour caddie labor picked up by the young or the old on the LPGA Tour. I was working for an veteran pro who’d once been a Rookie of the Year but had since, as I found later from a hardened tour caddie, come to prefer the nearest casino to the golf course as her competitive arena. Maybe casinos gave her a better sense of the science of probability than most golfers.

It was our first shot of the day on a nothing hole, a hole so short my pro was going to use a 5-wood. We were starting on the 10th hole because it was our turn in the split-tee rotation (split-tees being something I wrote about a few weeks ago for those following along.) The golf course was one of those new courses built around a housing development, so there were houses (and out-of-bounds) both left and right, though with a decent amount of room between them—at least until you neared the green, where there was a choke point of trees. By using a 5-wood we could stay far enough back to be able to easily carry a wedge over the trees guarding the green. When it was her turn my pro took her club back, started forward and struck the ball.

While the ball is in flight, I’ll remind you that I noted a few weeks ago that Frank Chirkinian, the longtime golf producer for CBS, once puzzled over the fact that golf fans always root for the “overdog”—the suggestion being perhaps that golf is something of a sport for the “elite.” Maybe it isn’t any wonder why CEOs and their lawyers might be rooting for Goliath, in other words. That’s possible, of course, but Jonathan Mahler at the New York Times points out that it’s “impossible to predict who[‘s] going to be the big story at any given golf tournament. A leader one day could drop out of contention the next, replaced by someone you never heard of before — and might never hear about again.” My own experience on the LPGA only amplifies Mahler: golf in general, and pro golf in particular, is exponentially more volatile than any other sport, and even the most die-hard fans do not appreciate it.

There’s usually around 150 players in a standard golf tournament, professional or otherwise—a number suspiciously close to what’s called Dunbar’s Number, popularized some years ago by Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point. Robin Dunbar, an anthropologist, argued that based on comparisons with other primate species the human brain could only “socially organize” about that many people at one time: above that number, and a group becomes so focused on maintaining cohesion that it becomes incapable of action. Extending the theory, golf fans root for “overdogs” because they are the only familiar faces a fan can recognize week-to-week, which otherwise is a blur of interchangeable Hunters, Chips, and Scotts.

Imagine, for instance, a basketball tournament with 150 teams. Jerry Seinfeld once remarked that, because free agency makes players switch teams so often now, most fans are essentially “rooting for laundry,” and it’s funny because it’s true: teams establish a continuity, an institutional identity beyond the sum of their parts. Golf by its very nature can never have anything like that sort of immortality; even Jack Nicklaus, whose sons were pretty fair players, could not establish a dynasty anything like the Celtics or the Lakers. Teams are, perhaps, a kind of handy packaging of athletic performance that allows the fan to distill a great deal of randomness into a semblance of order: your team either won or lost today. But golf exhibits just how chaotic, how mercurial, athletic performance actually is.

Even from day-to-day, crazy things happen in golf that don’t happen in other sports. Players get knocked out of contention for every conceivable reason, from turning an ankle walking up a hill to misunderstanding a rule—what happened to Michelle Wie this weekend. Blowouts are unheard of—Tiger Woods’ wins at Augusta in 1997, where he won by 12 shots, and his annus mirabilis in 2000, where he won the U.S. Open by 15, notwithstanding—while they happen all the time in every other sport that isn’t just a race. Chirkinian’s bafflement, in other words, isn’t such a mystery if the question is taken seriously. In golf, the realm of the possible is a lot wider than it is in other sports. What happened next to my LPGA player illustrates something about that volatility.

After impact the ball came off the face good, if bearing right—a block, not a cut. There was still plenty of room though, because since my pro had hit a 5-wood instead of a driver the ball should have come up well short of a spot where the out-of-bounds fence encroached. Unfortunately, there was a lot of ground cover between the fence and the fairway: we didn’t have to be OB to lose the ball. To sum up the next five minutes: we lost the ball.

At professional tournaments, at least at the higher levels, there’s usually marshals to watch each fairway and locate every tee shot, but even that isn’t enough sometimes. For one thing (and here I have to apologize to my mom, who once volunteered to serve as a marshal), all marshals are incompetent, without exception. I don’t mean to be rude—though I admit to being impolite, which is not the same—but while it isn’t something that anybody in golf is going to publicize (how will they get volunteers?), anyone who thinks relying on retirees to watch tiny golf balls flying at close to 200 mph a hundred feet in the air is a solid idea is insane. No decent pro caddie ever relies on them (or should). In this case, I had a good line on where the ball landed, but a.) my player didn’t believe me and b.) neither did the elderly gentleman who had the responsibility to watch the shot.

I didn’t come here to write about bad marshals though, as terrible as they uniformly are (sorry Mom.) As a looper the decision to be made in reviewing this situation is: did I make the right call by staying at the tee? After all, it’s entirely possible for jocks to stroll down the fairway before the players tee off in order to keep an eye on things. It’s possible to say I made a mistake by not doing that, especially in this situation where there was OB both right and, as I neglected to say before, left.

The problem with doing that in this case though was that it was our first hole. Had it been our 10th hole, as it actually is in the course’s routing, I could have easily gotten down the fairway without a problem. (Well, somewhat of a problem because the course is designed for carts, leaving a huge gap between the 9th green and the 10th tee, but that’s a separate matter.) But because it was the first hole, walking out there implied uncertainty. There’s an argument, in fact, that even asking whether I should go out there—which is what I did because I hadn’t liked that hole ever since I had first seen it a few days before—in a sense caused my pro to misfire in the first place. My pro regally refused to allow me to head out, but perhaps just by asking I introduced some indecision in her mind. It’s about here that we get into that realm inhabited by darkness and voodoo—at least as a lot of people think about the game.

Such thinking though is ridiculous, as a moment of reflection will show. If we think of individual golfers as equivalent to teams in other sports, then there are more possibility for random events to affect the overall standings: for instance, on a team, if the second baseman goes down that usually will not affect the team overly much, whereas if the golfer is injured that’s it. The playing field is vastly more varied than even the quirkiest of major league ballparks, and so on. It may be though that our brains edit a great deal of our knowledge of that randomness out—if the notion behind Dunbar’s Number is correct, then our brains automatically ignore most of the players in the field from week to week. Even the best players in the world miss the cut from time to time, at which point they just drop out of our consciousness for a bit.

My pro, in other words, didn’t misfire on her shot for some mystical reason. My player just wasn’t very good, as these things go. Sure, she’d beat me—and likely you—even now. Once, she’d been ranked as high as the mid-twenties worldwide. But her best years were behind her: she’d first come out on tour during the 1980s when the LPGA (like the PGA Tour) was overwhelmingly American. She’d had a number of wins, but only a few, and they were long gone by the time she teed it up with me on her bag, probably swamped by the hordes of younger Swedes, Koreans, and various South Americans who have discovered that a little bit of athleticism will carry you a long way on the American golf tours. And as that veteran looper had told me, at this point she really wasn’t particularly interested in golf any more.

The rules of causality in other words don’t cease to operate on the first tee, despite the tendency for amateurs and golf writers to work together to make the golf course into some kind of Brigadoon. The reason you missed that putt is probably because you haven’t practiced four-footers since sometime during the Clinton Administration. Charles Howell III once landed a ball inside the cup, and ricocheted it out, not because golf has some better relations with the higher powers than other sports—as if golf had better lobbyists with the Buddha—but because there’s a lot more opportunity for strange things to happen than in other sports. I will grant you, though, that Fred Couples’ ball hanging above Rae’s Creek at the 1992 Masters was pretty weird.