Sportsmen and Savages

Many times I’ve been asked just what it is about caddieing that attracts me, and I usually say the same thing: it’s outside. That reply has the useful property of shutting down a conversation (the universal cure-all for everything in our time is “communication,” but who considers what an ornament silence is?) but isn’t really an answer, and if I don’t need to share detail of my life with passing strangers, still it’s well to answer the questions you yourself have. I do answer the question in my own mind, anyway, and while the short answer is the short answer, that doesn’t mean that it isn’t really a shortened version of a longer one. That longer one begins by reference first to the city of Los Angeles and second to Robin Hood.

In Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster, author Mike Davis discusses (in part) the conflict between the “ideal of hunting as a genteel Anglo-Saxon pastime” and, as one observer at the time put it, “‘market hunters and savages,’” who killed game not for the pleasure of it, but in order to provide for restaurants and hotels seeking exotic menu items. This is a conflict with a long history that goes back to the Middle Ages, when the aristocracy and then royalty sought to establish a monopoly on the killing of game, a conflict echoed in the old ballads of Robin Hood where, underneath the romantic business about Maid Marian—which originally had no connection to Hood—there lies a substratum of wrangling over who had the right to kill deer and other animals.

One of the original, if perhaps not especially significant, draws about the United States, in fact, was precisely the freedom to go into the forest and shoot whatever you wanted, a freedom celebrated in James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales and, or so argued Frederick Jackson Turner in his The Significance of the Frontier in American History, a cornerstone of American society—which is to say, very significant indeed. One of the founders of the present discipline, such as it is, of American Studies, Henry Nash Smith, used this figure of the lower-class hunter as one of the themes for the book that helped make him one of American Studies’ founders: Virgin Land: The American West as Symbol and Myth. One can follow this figure of the hunter from medieval Europe through Cooper’s figure of Leatherstocking, Natty Bumppo all the way, though Smith doesn’t go so far, through to the men who killed quail and rabbits and deer for southern Californian restaurants at the end of the 19th century; in doing so, Davis argues, it’s possible to discern the history of social class in America.

What has that to do, however, with golf? Davis provides the, rather obvious, answer: “the majority of the 1920s Social Register simply abandoned blood sport—its passions and dangers—for the golf course and the yacht club.” Why? Well, primarily because the open land that hunting requires isn’t available anymore. Big game requires vast amounts of territory; ranges, for example, for the mountain lion, Puma concolor, an animal that isn’t even that large for a top-tier predator, are estimated to be anywhere from ten to five hundred square miles, which even at the low end doesn’t leave a lot of room for the suburban sprawl typical of North America’s now-dominant primate species—that is, us. As late as the 1870s, Davis finds one observer reporting, it was possible to shoot wild duck within sight of what is now downtown Los Angeles; hunting just isn’t as convenient for today’s elite.

Yet while hunting, as a form, may be abandoned both as a means of income or as a means of recreation for what is by far the majority of the American population—the ability to skin an animal is a skill almost as rare and certainly as alien to most people, I would hazard, as the ability to load and shoot a Brown Bess musket—that may not mean that the impulses that gave rise to it are dead too. Many of the skills of hunting or golfing are similar enough: the ability to judge distance, to understand the tools at hand, to pay attention to the wind and the shape of the land itself. Bumppo’s care as he takes shots during the course of the novels—he is not known as La Longue Carabine for nothing—are nothing if not suggestive of the “pre-shot routine” of professional golfers.

Pro golf is, in a way, hunting’s successor. Think, for instance, of the archery contest in the Robin Hood mythology, which is itself suggestive of Natty Bumppo’s numerous “impossible shots” throughout the course of the novels—many of which have shooting contests. In chapter 29 of The Last of the Mohicans, Bumppo wins a shooting contest to prove his identity; in The Pioneers he states that the powderhorn he carries throughout the novels was won in a shooting contest; and The Pioneers itself contains another shooting contest scene, which Bumppo wins by shooting a turkey in the eye. (The plot of The Pioneers, as if to draw the connection to Robin Hood even tighter, also turns in part on Bumppo’s arrest as a deer poacher, just as Robin Hood was centuries earlier.) Today, the PGA Tour’s slogan is “These guys are good,” and its appeal rests on “impossible” shots like Tiger’s chip at 16 at Augusta (the ball almost stops on the lip, then drops) or, more recently, Jonathan Byrd’s playoff hole-in-one to win the Las Vegas tournament.

Not everyone of course has the skills necessary to compete at the highest levels of golf. The recent book by everybody’s favorite contemporary pseudo-intellectual, Malcolm Gladwell, perhaps explains why with his recitation of the psychologist Anders Ericsson’s “10,000 Hour Rule”: to be really good at something, Gladwell explains patiently to us, requires at least 10,000 hours of practice. It’s an elementary thought in golf terms: when asked how he found his game, Ben Hogan replied that he dug it out of the dirt; every professional golfer has some story of incredibly long hours of practice, usually during childhood. Not everyone has the ability or interest at that age, or the time later in life, to devote to something with no obvious practical advantage. And there isn’t time, later in life, because there isn’t any way to make a living as a halfway good golfer.

Caddieing though does provide a way around what economists would call an “entry-barrier,” because it is possible to make money at it from the very first day. This is one reason why pro golfers aren’t really a very good example for a democratic society—one that’s supposedly based around the idea that anyone can go into the woods at any time and shoot their own supper. Pro golf isn’t that sort of thing; it requires years of investment (of time, and also gobs of money) before there’s any return, if there ever is. Pro golfers, in the end, aren’t very similar to the Deerslayer at all; they’re a lot more like Theodore Roosevelt’s blue-blooded “sportsmen.”

It is, I would admit, very easy to confuse the two. The skill set involved is, excepting merely the moments at which the golfer actually strikes the ball, is essentially the same. Some would say that the moment when the club strikes the ball makes all the difference in the world, of course, and it’s hard to argue the point—except if you want to say that then you are saying that society ought to be divided up between those who spent their childhoods training for one, very particular, job and those who, for whatever reason, didn’t. It’s hard to see this as a very American sentiment, I think, unless all of us who happen not to be Tiger Woods are simply supposed to accept our lot in life. But that would put me back in a different kind of indoors, wouldn’t it?


The Waste Land and Dustin Johnson

Fire in the Lake: the image of Revolution

Thus the superior man

Set the calendar in order

And makes the seasons clear.

I Ching.

I was raking out the bunker when my player told me to stop. Everyone else did too, as he looked around for a rules official who, fortunately, was quickly available. It was my first real introduction to the Rules of Golf—which are, unlike most other sports, usually capitalized. My first introduction, that is, in their hard-core, strict sense, which is the sense they have been appeared all throughout this last summer. If there is a Player of the Year in this season without Tiger, that is, the Rules of Golf must be the winner by a dominant, Tiger Woods-in-2000 margin.

The year began with the squabbles over grooves after the USGA and the Royal and Ancient decided to limit the kinds of grooves irons could have, with the idea that players could no longer simply ignore the rough beyond the fairways and fecklessly drive it without regard for where the ball ended up. This was heralded as a “backdoor” rollback of the distances the new golf balls were capable of traveling.

It became big news when one player, Scott McCarron, accused a bigger-name player, Phil Mickelson, of being a cheater because Mickelson threatened to use clubs immune to the grooves rollback (for reasons that are themselves a story), the ancient Ping Eye 2 model. But Phil won the Masters tournament later that spring and nearly everyone forgot about the whole incident.

The groove story continued later this summer when a player named Sarah Brown on the Futures Tour, a feeder to the LPGA, got disqualified from an event—during the final round, when she was a few shots off the lead. It turned out that the wedge she was using actually did conform to the rule, but by then she was off the course, with no chance to complete her round. An overzealous rules official got the blame, and Ms. Brown received some sort of settlement as recompense; the figure involved was cloaked in secrecy, but since almost any trial lawyer could have won the suit according to the national magazines it likely was something substantial.

How Sarah Brown got her grooves back only begins to scratch the surface of how rules have affected the year in golf: there was Jim Furyk’s disqualification for missing a pro-am at the Barclays, for instance. That incident involved a rule of the PGA Tour and not a rule of the game itself of course, but it didn’t do much to help dispel the image of the game as kind of stuffy, especially when the result was to banish the third-ranked player from the Tour’s “play-offs,” the Fed-Ex Cup.

That brings us around Dustin Johnson’s “duel with the sand” at Whistling Straits at the PGA. Gary D’Amato, golf beat writer at the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, quoted Straits architect Pete Dye as saying “Ray Charles could have seen it was a bunker,” throwing the blame entirely on Johnson. But dealing with bunkers has been a problem for the rules-makers of golf for a long time.

I was working a stop in the Chicago suburbs for what’s known as the Hooters Tour, one of the better of golf’s minor leagues. My player was an experienced guy who’d been on the PGA Tour for a season during the 1990s, and otherwise had knocked around the shadier neighborhoods of the golf world. He’d been the money-leader on the Hooters Tour the year before—proof of the maxim, “old age and treachery beats youth and skill.”

My player was experienced enough, in fact, to warn me about bunkers before we played our practice round, saying that he’d had some incident at a previous tour stop with a local caddie and stressing that he didn’t want it to happen again. Certainly I took what he said seriously, scoffed at the idea it could happen again, and intimated that something must have been defective with his looper. And then it happened.

My guy had hit into the same bunker as another of our playing partners, though the two balls were widely separated. This second player played first. Before my player could hit, and because I was trying to save some time, I started to rake out the second player’s mess in the sand, thinking I could do that while my player was preparing for his shot. That’s when everything stopped and we summoned the rules official. It turned out that what I did could be construed as “testing the sand,” and it got my player a two-shot penalty.

That didn’t go over well; as it occurred, the ruling probably cost my player a win (he finished third instead). But despite being so important that it quite literally determined the winner of that tournament, the rule was changed the very next year—what I did would no longer be considered a penalty. To my mind, anyway, that makes things more, not less, difficult: how could what I did be so disastrous as to affect materially the outcome of the contest, yet not so weighty as to be impossible to change?

That’s the Dustin Johnson problem in a nutshell: I don’t think that anyone would seriously argue that Johnson’s mistake in the sand made him a lesser golfer than Martin Kaymer, the eventual winner (though I suppose some might, on the theory that knowledge of the rules should be part of the skill set of the eventual champion). Yet it did end up being the difference between making that play-off and missing it. In other words, what’s driving the train here? The sport or the rules? And are the two distinguishable?

One way of framing this question is to ask whether Tiger Woods or Arnold Palmer would have been refused entry to the playoff had they done what Johnson did. Palmer was famously the recipient of a problematic ruling at the 1958 Masters, which he won over Ken Venturi after disagreeing with a rules official. Tiger was a beneficiary of the rules at Phoenix in 1999, when his large gallery obliged him by moving a huge boulder in his line. Both Palmer and Woods were within the rules—Palmer less obviously so—but one wonders what might have happened had Dustin Johnson already been a major winner.

What I think the question demonstrates is just how fragile the game can be—in the absence of a dominant figure, the point of the game becomes lost. The rules are meant to be a guide to the game, in other words, not the game itself, as odd as that idea might be given that the rules also define what the game is. But while the rules tell us what the game is, we also know what the game is by how a truly great player plays it—that is, if a truly great player plays the game one way, the rules themselves must be wrong. My sense about this year in golf is that without a dominant player to tell us what the game is aside from the rules, then the rules become our only source for that definition—and hence, all the difficulty this year about rules.

This is a sentiment that can be dangerous when applied outside of golf, of course. It runs straight from the legal theory of the divine right of kings—or Nixon’s idea that something is legal if the President does it. Charles I’s lawyers argued precisely this point in the “Ship Money Case”—and ended up getting beheaded for it, as the English people decided (emphatically) that maybe this wasn’t such a good theory to run a government on. But while it may be a bad theory for government, maybe it isn’t such a bad way to run golf: le roi est mort, vive le roi.