Bad Lies

Danny: Why don’t you improve your lie a little sir?
Judge Smails: Yes, yes, winter rules …
Caddyshack 1980.



John Huggan, the golf columnist for The Scotsman, published a column the other day about cheating in golf—the nature of cheating has been somewhat prominent this year: Dustin Johnson aside, there was Kenny Perry’s Case of the Mysteriously-Reappearing Ball and, on the LPGA, the enigma of What the Korean Women Said. But before delving into the Korean example, I will say that I am myself often asked about cheating in golf, and mostly I work for amateurs playing fun rounds so I’d be lying if I said I didn’t see it. At the same time though, it’s also true that most golfers recognize a difference between golf with their buddies—“playing for fun”—and tournament play—“playing for keeps.” Which brings up F. Scott Fitzgerald and The Great Gatsby—and not because that novel is currently the subject of a project to (mis-)translate it into Korean and then back into (bad) English.

The connection between Fitzgerald’s novel and golf is through the character of Jordan Baker, friend of the heroine Daisy Buchanan and paramour of the narrator, Nick Carraway. Baker is a top amateur golfer—this in the days when golf was largely an amateur affair of the wealthy—and the passage is this:

At her first big golf tournament there was a row that nearly reached the newspapers—a suggestion that she had moved her ball from a bad lie in the semi-final round. The thing approached the proportions of a scandal—then died away. A caddy retracted his statement …

This remains, so I’d think, the most significant appearance of a caddie in all of literature, so far as I know, but what’s particularly interesting is just how this incident should so closely mirror an event of this past year’s LPGA season, which involved a couple of golfers with South Korean connections.

The facts, as related by an LPGA golfer named Larry Smich—whose role I will discuss—are something like this: Shi Hyun Ahn and Ilmi Chung were playing the 18th hole (also their final hole) during the Canadian Women’s Open this year. Both women drove the fairway. Ilmi hit hers on the green; Ahn missed, then chipped close and tapped in for par. At this point Ahn noticed the ball was not hers—as did, according to Smich, another caddie in the group—and began to converse with Ilmi in Korean. The group finished the hole and went to the scorers tent and signed their cards. Smich then alleges that Ahn approached her caddie to say, “You did not see anything.” However, sometime later one or both of the two golfers approached the rules committee to tell them what happened, and later still both golfers were disqualified under the rule for signing a wrong scorecard.

Now, this is a juicy story on several levels, not least because of golf’s reputation as a “gentleman’s game”—i.e., whereas in baseball or other sports a player has no duty to correct a referee or umpire’s call, in golf the player has a positive duty to uphold the rules. That duty isn’t because, or not just because, of golf’s snobbishness relative to other games—it’s mostly due to the necessity when conducting a tournament over several hundred acres where a referee can’t possibly be everywhere at once. It’s up to the players themselves, in other words, to “protect the field,” since cheating on even the smallest scale would destroy the sport, because opportunities for cheating are so pervasive and the risk of getting caught is, for the most part, ridiculously low.

The more explosive angle to Smich’s story, however, is that it confirms his allegations that Korean players do not have the same ethos against cheating as other golfers. “All this time, I’ve been detailing cheating by the Koreans,” Smich says. A lot of other commentators have, or all but have, called Smich a racist for his allegations: Stephanie Wie, who writes a blog called Wei Under Par and also has written for national magazines and (and who, incidentally, played golf for Yale) says for instance she has “read his blog on occasion and have found some comments offensive and bigoted.” After searching his blog for those comments, I have to say I’ve come up empty—offensive, maybe, but not bigoted, I don’t think. Clearly Smich has an issue with Korean players. But I don’t think that issue is what Wei says it is.

The issue, as Smich sees it, has to do with how Korean players have treated their caddies. The Korean track record, Smich says elsewhere in his blog, is one of “abrupt firings and false promises.” But according to him this is unrelated; the Koreans, Smich maintains, have a habit of cheating. To this point, he does detail a couple of instances of Korean cheating, some examples of which are absolutely beyond the pale, deliberate cheating and not mistaken interpretations of the rules—like the “helpful” father who dropped a matching golf ball when his daughter couldn’t find hers, an act only discovered when the daughter’s original ball was found. But after reading his posts I wonder whether the issue of the Korean golfers (if they should be thought of as a collective at all) perhaps isn’t a cultural issue but rather a class issue. What might be disguising itself as racism might actually be a labor dispute.

And that is what makes The Great Gatsby interesting, says a recent book by a Fitzgerald scholar and professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, Walter Benn Michaels, who has previously held chairs at Johns Hopkins and the University of California at Berkeley. “The rich are different from you and me,” Fitzgerald once said to Ernest Hemingway in a celebrated remark. “Yes,” Hemingway even more famously replied; “they have more money.” It was, as much as anything else, Hemingway later wrote, just what “wrecked” Fitzgerald: the thought that the rich were “a special glamorous race.” Fitzgerald’s mix-up between race and money is just what interests Michaels.

The story of The Great Gatsby is about a man who somehow—probably illegally or, if you like, by cheating—gets rich enough to pursue the object of his dreams, a woman named Daisy Buchanan. But the novel isn’t a success story: Gatsby, in the end, fails. As Michaels says, “Gatsby is not really about someone who makes a lot of money; it is instead about someone who tries and fails to change who he is.” No matter how much he makes, in other words, Jimmy Gatz can’t really become Jay Gatsby:

If, in the end, Daisy Buchanan is very different from Jimmy Gatz, it’s not because she’s rich and he isn’t (by the end, he is) but because Fitzgerald treats them as if they really do belong to different races, as if poor boys who made a lot of money were only “passing” as rich.

“Passing,” in short, in the same way that light-skinned black people “passed” as white—Gatsby thereby gives “us a vision of our society divided into races rather than into economic classes.” And what Michaels wants to argue is that this is an operation that’s pretty widespread, and also very convenient.

In the book where he mentions all this, The Trouble With Diversity: How We Learned to Love Identity and Ignore Inequality, Michaels argues that the strategy of Gatsby is in fact the one we live under now: we disguise class differences as cultural ones. In a world where wages have basically remained the same since about 1973, and inequality is growing more and more rapidly, and social mobility is now greater in what used to be called “Old Europe” than it is in the land of opportunity—and if you doubt me, read those radical publications The Economist, The Wall Street Journal, and The New York Times—“the intellectual left,” Michaels says, “has responded to the increase in economic inequality by insisting on the importance of cultural identity.” If you want to get a hearing in America about any of this, in other words, you have to put in terms of a “culture of poverty” or the like. You can’t say, like Hemingway, that the rich have more money.

That’s what’s so interesting about the response to Smich—though what he’s talking about is clearly an economic problem, one way of dismissing his claims is to call him a “racist.” And one reason why it’s easy to do so is that his own thinking about the matter is so much inflected by race, or culture, or whatever term you wish to describe it. After all, the motives of the Korean players, if they are in fact cheating, must ultimately be economic—surely they aren’t cheating in order to avenge their grandparents’ honor or something. Just the same way, it may be—I don’t know this—that Smich is inclined to pay especial attention to Koreans because of their employment practices. Either way, however, the key to the matter is an economic one, not a cultural one—yet that difference is precisely the one that can’t be spoken about.

And maybe that furnishes a key to thinking about larger issues than golf: in America today, maybe that’s a way to understand the appeal of groups like the Tea Partiers and the like. Clearly these people are angry and scared—and at one time that anger and fright might have gotten channeled into the policies of an economic radicalism, like that of the New Deal. But today, Michaels wants to say, those channels are blocked by an intellectual class (and a Democratic Party) that would rather talk about “diversity” than pay-raises, about “culture” than about poverty, and about “difference” than equality. In practice, after all, “diversity hiring” and the like really does mean something like allowing rich African-Americans and other rich Americans to be more like other rich Americans, while essentially leaving the lot of—well, basically the other 90% of the nation—unchanged.

What Michaels wants to say, in short, is that you’d think that, like golfers, the American left would recognize some difference between playing with your friends and playing competitively—between playing for fun and playing for keeps. What constitutes “debate” in America today is just amateur golf—playing around with which rich guy (0r gal) gets what. “Winter rules,” you might say. Huey Long, the Senator from Louisiana, once proposed a law that would have made it illegal for anyone to make over one million dollars a year, or inherit more than five. Maybe we need some people who want to play with the ball down, bad lies or no. Walter Benn Michaels thinks so.


Please let me know what you think! Also, if you are having trouble with posting a comment, please feel free to email me personally at Thanks for reading!

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