On the Mendoza Line at Sawgrass

The “Mendoza line” is a term sabermetricians—those curious stats-addled baseball fans who now, through the success of Moneyball and Red Sox GM Theo Epstein, rule baseball—use to refer to a certain minimum amount of skill needed to play major league baseball. Specifically, it’s the minimum batting average that a major leaguer can get away with while not being sent down to the minors. No matter how brilliant a defensive player you are, you still need to hit at least at the Mendoza line to stay in the big leagues. Golf though, with its varied tournament sites, doesn’t have a strict correlative for the Mendoza line: a single skill that determines the difference between the tour player and your average club pro.

Short hitter? Some golf courses favor short, accurate players. Bomber? Some golf courses have wide fairways. It’s always been part of golf’s charm that no matter what kind of golfer you are, there’s probably a place for you to play. No tournament has better exemplified that point than the Players Championship since it moved permanently to TPC Sawgrass in 1982—or better exemplified what’s become a kind of theme of this blog: that most matches are won on the first tee; i.e., that the rules of the game have a lot more to do with the outcome than most people realize.

“If people don’t think course setups don’t make a difference, check my record here at this tournament,” said Scott Hoch in 2002. Hoch is a multiple winner on the PGA Tour and a near-winner of a major—he famously missed a two-footer to win the 1989 Masters—and his record at the Players Championship (or as the Tour now prefers it, the Players) is pretty odd. Between 1988 and 1995, Hoch never finished the tournament, withdrawing twice. In 1997, however, after the tour decided to grow a thicker rough at TPC Sawgrass, Hoch finished second.

“Before, if you hit anywhere other than the water, you would be all right,” Hoch said. “That’s definitely not my game.” Hoch was never a long hitter, and courses that bombers ruled, like St. Andrews (site of this year’s Open Championship, which Hoch infamously called a “the worst piece of mess”), were never friendly to him. Nevertheless, he had a pretty good tour career, even winning the Vardon Trophy in 1986 for the lowest scoring average for the year.

John Strege has a pretty good piece about all of this in this week’s Golf Digest website, where most of the above can be found. He cites Fred Klauk, the longtime superintendent at Sawgrass who retired in 2008, on the point: “‘When we caught a wet year, that’s when a longer player won,’” Klauk said. “‘That’s when Tiger won.’” Numerous power players have won the tournament like Tiger, Davis Love, and Jack Nicklaus, but so have short, but accurate, players like Fred Funk and Justin Leonard. Who’s won has been at least in part a function of the course’s setup in any given year, in a way that’s arguably different than any other sport.

That isn’t to say that there aren’t ways of constructing a field of play to favor certain styles. Baseball is perhaps the best example other than golf: the Chicago White Sox, for instance, have been known for decades to instruct their grounds crew based on the composition of their infield: slow but offensively-potent infielders has dictated a slow infield, while defensively-brilliant but offensively-challenged infielders has dictated a fast infield.

Baseball fields themselves have been the best parallel to the changing courses on the PGA Tour: Bill James, the dean of sabermetricians, has devoted a lot of study to “park effects,” determining for instance that the Chicago Cubs have historically undervalued their pitching (because Wrigley Field favors the offense) and overvalued their offense (for the same reason). But professional golf has one big difference from professional baseball: pro golfers, as independent contractors, can choose where they wish to play. The White Sox can’t refuse to play at Yankee Stadium.

In golf, in other words, it’s what happens behind the scenes that often determines a winner, not necessarily entirely what happens on the field of play. At least, to some larger degree than in other sports. Golf itself has slowly become aware of the effect of course setup, which has never before received as much attention as it has in recent years: Mike Davis of the USGA and Kerry Haigh of the PGA of America—responsible for the setup work at the US Open and PGA Championship—have become almost as well-known in golf circles as the top players themselves.

That, to put it mildly, is not necessarily a good thing. “We’re not trying to embarrass the best players in the world,” Sandy Tatum of the USGA said at the Massacre at Winged Foot in 1974, “We’re trying to identify them.” Tatum’s words recognized the threat course setup poses to golf: it’s important to golf for course setup to be invisible, because if it becomes recognized as important then it’s possible that the game itself becomes somehow tarnished. It’s the same argument as that regarding steroids or other “PEDs”: if course setup is the most important, or even very important, in determining (“identifying”) the best player, then that makes the competition seem artificial or contrived. Some part of the sport’s legitimacy is lost.

Now, why is that? Well, presumably it’s because we want our champions to be born, and not made. If course setup is too big a factor then it begins to seem like the winners are the winners only because the people in charge wanted them to win, and not because they were better than anyone else in the field, just as allowing PEDs to influence sports means that the winners will be those with the connections and wealth to access them have an advantage (along with the willingness to sacrifice their bodies). Making course setup too big a factor is thus a threat to the integrity of the game itself—yet at the same time, courses do need to be setup, which is to say that there will always be arguments about it.

What we’d like, in other words, is for the Buddha himself to come down and tell us who should win, say, the US Open. Unfortunately, the Buddha is usually unavailable, and not just to a certain Florida-based golfer. That isn’t to say that, if there are any, climate deities do not have a say in the outcomes of golf tournaments: according to reports, this year TPC Sawgrass has had weather that’s inhibited the growth of the kind of thick, nasty rough that’s a penalty to long-but-wayward drivers. There isn’t a Mendoza line, in short, in golf as a whole, but there may be one for individual tournaments, and this year’s winner then may very likely be just that sort of player: a guy who can throw it out there without worrying too much about where it goes. Sound like anyone to you?

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