Molehills and Mountains

This is a bit late, but recently I was reading golf.com’s weekly roundtable discussion, “PGA Tour Confidential,” about the Sony Open in Hawaii two weeks ago, and this caught my eye: Mark Wilson, it seems, won the tournament without looking at the leaderboard during the final round. Sports Illustrated’s Gary Van Sickle remarked, “You don’t need to see the leaderboard until the 71st or 72nd hole. Watching the board is the caddie’s job.” This struck me as something of a novelty, though it recalled a few moments over the past couple of years. Is it better to look, or not? And, more importantly, is the job description of the tour looper being redefined?

Ben Crane—he of the notoriously slow play and cutesy Internet videos—won the Farmer’s Insurance Open at Torrey Pines in 2010, also without looking at the leaderboard on Sunday. When he tapped in his final putt of the day on the 18th hole, his playing partner Ryuji Imada said “‘Congratulations,’” to which Crane replied, “‘Did I win the tournament?’” Imada said, according to Crane, “‘Uh, yeah.’”

Almost three years ago at Royal Birkdale for the 2008 British Open, amateur Chris Wood nearly became the third man in the memorable playoff between Tom Watson and Stewart Cink (which Cink, disappointingly for many, won) despite making “a habit of not looking at the leaderboard,” as the Times of London reported the following year. “‘My caddie wouldn’t let me look at the leaderboard,’” the Times wrote in that story, “‘but I got a couple of sneaky looks in.’”

Late in 2009, the man who was leading the Dubai World Championship at the halfway mark also claimed not to be looking at the leaderboard. “‘It’s a pointless exercise,’ Lee Westwood said,” wrote Lawrence Donegan of the Guardian, “‘I’ve only got enough room in my head for the things that I’m doing, never mind anybody else.’” According to the laws of journalism, anything that happens three times is a trend, so obviously that’s what’s occurring.

Farrell Evans, another Sports Illustrated golf reporter, however strongly disagreed with Van Sickle during the roundtable. “Any guy who says he’s not scoreboard watching,” Evans argues, “will never become a great champion.” Of course Lee Westwood is, as of this writing, the number one player in the world, which would seem to take a certain steam of Evans’ boiler.

Evans had his defenders on the panel, however. “Every single big-time player looks,” argues Michael Bamberger—author of a solid book called To The Linksland. The notion seems to be that the Tiger Woodses and Phil Mickelsons of the world naturally look, which is to say that not looking reveals some sort of 2nd tier status on the part of players who don’t. Westwood does seem to be an argument against this point—unless maybe his recent upgrade means he’s now looking.

What everyone on the panel appears to forget is that the ability for any player to know exactly where he stands at any given time on the golf course is a relatively recent development. As late as the 1960 U.S. Open at Cherry Hills—where Hogan, Palmer, and Nicklaus dueled over the final 18, and the lead changed hands 25 times in the last two hours or whatever it was—there was no leaderboard at golf tournaments. So Evans is wrong: plenty of players have become great champions without looking. They didn’t have any choice.

What Evans, one supposes, means to say is that no great player would have turned looking down, had they a choice about it. This is a more interesting proposition: the idea is that the greats are driven by competition against other people, not the Zen-like competition against the golf course so often advocated by golf psychologist types. This is a favorite trope of golf writers, who like to talk about Tiger’s “killer instinct” and the like. But likely that’s because golf writers are always looking for “human drama,” which golf is always conceived of as lacking.

That’s like saying, however, that mountain climbing is uninteresting because, you know, the mountain is just sitting there, anyway. Most of golf isn’t about beating the other guy, but about finding creative answers to the problems the architecture creates. That’s the way that professionals talk about golf, despite the way it’s portrayed on television. Tiger isn’t talking to Stevie about how he needs to kill Mickelson; what they’re talking about is whether it would be smarter to hit a fade up the left side to take advantage of a dog-leg, or whatever. But that sort of thing doesn’t make it to television.

Or hasn’t yet. The other big news in the last week or so in golf is about Davis Love’s decision to wear a microphone on the golf course during this week’s tournament at Torrey Pines. That’s been something television has been pushing for years now, as a way to add “drama” to what’s an infamously tedious broadcast to non-golfers. I happen to be in favor of such a move, because I think that it does open up viewers to the “man vs. nature” aspect of the sport in a way that non-golfers (and perhaps most golfers) fail to realize.

What it’s also going to do, at least if the golf.com crew is to be believed, is make the whole question of whether to look at the leaderboard a little more interesting for the home audience. Is the player’s caddie going to tell him he has a three-shot lead and he damn well better not try to go for that green? Or not? Is every tournament going to end with all of us saying My god, he doesn’t know? Television—and golf.com—sure hopes so.

I doubt any of this is true. The claim about “not looking at the leaderboard” is a lot of malarky, because if any of these players had really been in doubt about their standing—if that is, they’d tripled-bogeyed some hole or other—they for sure would have looked. The reason Crane or Wilson or Westwood didn’t look at the leaderboard was because none of them had any bad holes that caused them to look. What was Arnold Palmer at Cherry Hills in 1960 going to do—birdie all seven of his first seven holes, instead of the six he did?

Despite the efforts of sportswriters and television, that is, at the end of the day golf really is kind of a boring sport, at least to those who want head-to-head competition all the time. Sometimes that isn’t true—like in playoff situations or match play—but for the most part golf is more like mountain climbing than it is like boxing. Maybe that’s interesting to you, maybe it isn’t. The way we’ll find out, I suppose, is whether caddies, by virtue of their sudden new duties of scoreboard watching, are suddenly getting paid more. But I don’t think it’s going to happen.

 

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Rough Weather

You and you are sure together
As the winter and rough weather.
—As You Like It Act V, iv.


There’s a band in Chicago that plays every first and third Wednesdays of the month—and the occasional fifth Wednesday, which is a source of some small joy to their fans. The city entire has that joy this week, the third Packers week of the football season. The weeks the Chicago Bears play the Green Bay Packers loom large in each team’s schedule: Doug Buffone, the old Bear Hall-of-Famer, says that those games are “mini Super Bowls.” This week, the two teams play for the right to go to the actual Super Bowl. It’s a fitting time, then, to discuss just what Sweden means to professional golf.

The Chicago Bears and the Green Bay Packers are the two oldest teams in the National Football League: they go together just as surely as the winter and rough weather often found in their stadiums. They played their first game on November 27, 1921, which the Chicago team won, 20-0. Since then they have played 180 other games; the Bears winning 92 and the Packers 83, with 6 ties. The Green Bay Packers have won twelve league championships, the Bears nine. On the other hand, the Bears have 26 players in the Hall of Fame, while Green Bay has 21.  Each team has more players in the Hall of Fame than any other team.

It is by far the most storied rivalry in the National Football League: Mike Singletary, the Hall of Fame Bear linebacker from the 1985 Super Bowl team, said recently that during Packer games “There are gonna be more penalties. Guys hit harder. Guys who are hurt are gonna play.” Which is to say, the dead walk on Packers week.

Those dead are presided over by two figures from each club: George Halas of the Bears and Curley Lambeau of the Packers. Both men were originally players, then became coaches and the leaders of their respective organizations. But the paths each took also demonstrate something of just why this football rivalry has impact beyond the sport.

Halas founded a family dynasty: in a world of corporately-owned sports franchises, the Bears are one of the last still run as a family business. It’s an arrangement that went out of fashion for the rest of the world sometime at the end of the 19th century.

The story of Curley Lambeau and the Packers is stranger still. The Packers are the only major-league professional sports organization in the United States run as a non-profit. There are roughly 100,000 shareholders in the Green Bay Football Corporation, owning almost five million shares. These shares do not pay dividends, do not appreciate in value, and bring no chance at season tickets.

No single stockholder can have more than 200,000 shares, so no one can ever assume control of the team. The Packers can never be moved from Green Bay, which is almost irrelevant because almost all of the stockholders are Green Bay natives. It is an arrangement that is a kind of parody of the corporate sports franchise. If socialism had a professional American football team, it would be the Green Bay Packers.

If socialism had a factory for turning out professional golfers, on the other hand, it would be Sweden, a nation of only 9 million that is yet disproportionately represented on both the men’s and ladies’ professional golf tours. Annika Sorenstam is the lead for this story: she dominated the LPGA for nearly a decade before finally calling it quits in order to raise children. But many other Swedish golfers have also made headlines in the past few decades: how, given such a small country—and the winters and rough weather—can that be?

One answer can be found by contrast with American golf, which might be likened to the Chicago Bears model. Like the Bears, the PGA Tour is a kind of toy version of the 19th-century vision of laissez-faire capitalism. Each golfer represents a competing firm struggling in a Darwinistic Sturm und Drang struggle to the death with his opponents.

Getting to that point is its own struggle. Golf in the United States is a hodge-podge, with differing state-level golf associations and youth golf associations. If lucky, the junior player develops enough to attract interest from various colleges and universities, which then compete for the best players, and then, by some further magic, the lucky player might have the good fortune to have found a program that provides the right kind of training to enable them to advance to the professional ranks. At every stage, golf in the United States is highly decentralized.

That’s by contrast to the Swedish model. As described by “Swedish Golf Success: Its History and Future,” a technical study done by American, Australian, and Swedish professors, that success is largely due to the highly-structured environment Sweden has developed for its young players at an early age. The Swedish Golf Federation takes care of its young players: it provides training and access to national and international tournaments early. Hence, younger golfers with potential can quickly be identified, and thus given more resources, all overseen by one central and national authority. Like Green Bay and its Packers, the nation is united.

Granted, what works for Sweden would be hard to duplicate in the United States, where the population of Chicago and its suburbs alone is larger than the entire Scandinavian nation. It’s something to think about in the United States, however; perhaps particularly since golf will become part of the Olympics in 2016. It’s widely assumed that Americans will dominate that event—which, in all likelihood, is what will happen.

Yet that’s what Americans always thought about basketball, until the past decade or two. The last year in golf, where Phil Mickelson was the only American to win a major championship (and Phil faded out the rest of the year), has shown—or should have shown—that American dominance at a sport is what the philosophers call contingent: it is not ordained by God or Nature. Hogan said golf ability is “dug out of the ground”—it’s a matter of effort. The sort of effort required though would have to be like Sweden, or Green Bay: you know, where “You and you are sure together.”

Tin Cup

How is that front office men never conspire?

—Nelson Algren. Chicago: City on the Make.


The LPGA recently announced an event called the “Founders Cup,” to be held in March. Beth Ann Baldry of Golfweek reports this latest cup “will be a charity-driven event in which players receive financial help for travel expenses, but don’t take home a paycheck.” Undoubtedly, the event will be spun as a kind of throwback to the early days of the tour, when—as the LPGA website puts it—players often “had to give up their practice round to mark the course, pound hazard stakes or write out local rules sheets” because the tour couldn’t afford staff.

On any other tour, such a move would be met with outrage. Pro sports labor battles are often dismissed as being arguments of millionaires vs. billionaires, but it’s likely that were somebody to try to get Phil Mickelson or any other PGA Tour star to play for free there’d be a lot of yelling. At some level, the broader American public understands that athletes are canaries in the coal mine—if athletes can get pushed around, how safe are you?

The response to the LPGA’s announcement however, is the dog that didn’t bark. No women’s groups, so far as I know, have said anything about the matter. Maybe this is because other women are, explicitly or not, buying into the “millionaires vs. billionaires” argument. Maybe it’s hard to sympathize with what’s perceived to be an elitist sport.

Maybe it’s because any sort of outcry about this event would be hard to get off the ground in Arizona, a state whose financial situation is even worse than the LPGA’s. According to Harper’s, “the situation in Arizona is arguably the nation’s worst, graver even than in California.” The state has privatized its capitol building, leasing it back from its owners. Arizona’s parks have lost 80% of their budgets, and some school districts are down to four days a week of instruction. Over 300,000 people have been removed from state health coverage.

That isn’t to say that the state legislature hasn’t been busy. One might think these laws would address the state’s finances. The legislature has responded to the state’s condition—by requiring the police to check immigration status (no word if they also required the police to adopt a German accent when asking about “papers”) and passing a bill that would require President Obama to show his birth certificate to state officials if and when he runs for re-election.

Another law “prohibits ‘intentionally or knowingly creating a human-animal hybrid.’” Arizona is a major ranching state, but presumably laws already on the books could deal with that one. But attempts along those lines might explain just how the state got such a legislature in the first place.

In sum, pronounces Harper’s, the Arizona legislature “is composed almost entirely of dimwits, racists, and cranks.” The type of people, in short, who are often aghast by the high salaries of athletes and entertainers, but never seem upset by the salaries of CEOs—despite the fact that according to many sources CEO salaries were around 40 times a worker’s salary in 1960, and now are around 300 times higher. But Hollywood—or pro athletics—is an easier target than Wall Street, one supposes.

Maybe the blame for these economic woes is much closer to hand, however. A recent story in The Atlantic describes how

a private-equity baron who divides his time between New York and Palm Beach pinned blame for the collapse on a favorite golf caddy in Arizona, who had bought three condos as investment properties at the height of the bubble.

“Blame the caddie” is, to be sure, a time-honored strategy; what’s astonishing is that it now can be adopted for situations of greater significance than why you mis-clubbed on the 18th hole to lose a four-ball.

 

The Kong of Golf

“There are generally,” Nick Paumgarten at The New Yorker wrote recently, “two approaches to thinking about games: narratology and ludology.” Paumgarten is writing a profile of Shigero Miyamoto, the “King of Videogames”—he is the man behind Donkey Kong, Super Mario Brothers, the Legend of Zelda series, and another bunch of zillion-selling videogames that have literally changed the terms not merely of videogames, but childhood itself. By “narratology” and “ludology,” Paumgarten means two things: the second is how a game plays, or its mechanics; the first, however, is the story a game tells. But the division between the two is far older than videogames.

One way to think of the distinction is to think of Arnold Palmer, the King of Golf. One reason for his title is because (according to myth) he always went for every shot. He was, in sum, a master of ludology—he could hit the most difficult shots. Palmer only thought of hitting the best possible shot on every occasion. Of course, Palmer didn’t really, because golf is not just about hitting golf shots, but that’s how people remembered him.

People today tend to forget about a golf course’s narratological aspects, I think, for several reasons, one perhaps being Palmer’s example. But Palmer, despite a swing that most people think of as at best unorthodox, is also perhaps behind what might be a significant reason for narratology’s decline: the rise of golf pro at the expense of the caddie.

It’s a subject I’ve discussed before, but essentially the point is this: golf pros teach a particular way of swinging the club. They take no account of the particular situation a golfer might be in—every swing, on the practice range, takes place in an idealized space, with no reference to what happened before—or what might happen afterwards. Or, in short, the way Palmer played.

Learning golf from a golf pro is in Paumgarten’s terms, an exercise in ludology. What a caddie does, however, is quite different. The caddie’s job is to select the best shot for the golfer at that moment. It is not to find a shot the golfer might be able to hit with another hundred or thousand repetitions, it is to find the one that will work now—with reference to the shots the golfer has already hit during that round, and with reference to the ones the golfer will likely have to hit to reach the green. To put it in philosophic terms, the golf pro is a Platonist, dealing with ideal conditions, while the caddie is an Aristotelian, dealing with gritty reality.

Golfers, used to learning to play on driving ranges with instruction either from a golf pro or—perhaps more likely—a friend or relative influenced by the teachings of golf pros, become accustomed to the ideal space created by the range. They take each shot as a singularity, expecting to play the shot as if they would at the range where if they fail they can always just tee up another ball. They forget about the shots they’ve hit previously and forget their next shot should not be their best shot—the one they might be able to hit under ideal conditions at the range—but the one they are likely to hit. But the driving range is not the golf course, and ludology alone is not golf.

Golf, like videogames, has that other element described by Paumgarten—narratology. There is a story to each course, and each round played on every course has its own story. This is perhaps less surprising than it might appear—Milman Perry and Albert Lord discovered in the 1930s that epic poetry, like The Iliad or The Odyssey, was originally an oral form composed around discrete episodes, each of which had to be completed before moving to the next. Every poet or bard who recited or sang an epic might recite it slightly differently each time—using alternate line readings, perhaps—but each recitation took place within an organized frame. Just so, videogames proceed according to differing “levels,” within which the player might take any number of different actions, but that proceed until the end of the game.

Golf is played in that sort of space: each hole is like a “level” in a videogame, or an episode in an epic poem. The narratological aspect of a course is recognized by the fact that holes on particularly well-known courses, like videogame levels or episodes in an epic, have distinct names. The Odyssey for instance has episodes like “Scylla and Charybdis,” Level One of Donkey Kong is called “Barrels,” St. Andrews has the Road Hole and the 12th at Augusta National is “Golden Bell.” These names aren’t merely a useful shorthand to remember the hole, or simply picturesqueness. They are also reminders of what golf is—and at times, a clue as to how to play.

Those names are also reminders to golf architects that the job is not just to construct interesting holes, but also to string them together well. No golf course, for instance, ought to begin with the toughest hole—like a videogame, courses should begin with easier holes and gradually (or not so gradually) become more difficult. But that’s a relatively easy assignment. What’s more interesting—and perhaps a mark of a superior architect—is to construct a hole that depends for its interest upon an earlier hole, that builds upon the past.

The interest of the 8th at Riviera Country Club for instance depends on the fact that from the 7th tee the golfer has to hit a shot into a very narrow landing area. On the 8th tee the golfer has to choose between two different landing zones: a broad one on the right fairway and a tight one on the left fairway. Naturally, if the tee shot on the 7th was troublesome the right fairway on the 8th will look more inviting—but that sets up a more difficult approach to the green. It’s precisely for this reason that a good caddie can be helpful: a skilled player who for some reason had trouble on the 7th might elect to take the right side without a caddie in his ear.

That’s one reason why golf architects and caddies are natural allies—and both are enemies of that other reason narratology is often lost by golfers: the golf cart. To understand golf’s narratology needs a slow examination of each hole, which is to say that an appreciation of narratology requires walking.

Zipping from shot to shot means missing the connection of each shot to the next, and each hole to the ones following. Without those connections the golfer loses the plot, like the reader who reads The Odyssey for the battles, or the videogamer who uses the cheat codes. Riding a golf cart, in that sense, isn’t playing golf at all.

Most guides to golf courses, the kind the upscale courses put on their yardage books, are written by golf pros and as such are written from a ludological perspective. The pro tells you where to hit your tee shot and then how to hit the approach. I’ve never seen any guides written from a narratological standpoint, though I think these would probably be more useful.

Such guides would be written by way of at least two or three different viewpoints: one for the skilled player, which would probably be closest to the guides written by pros, and at least one other for the less-skilled player. I have rather an ambition to write such a guide at least for the golf courses I’m familiar with most. If Arnold Palmer is the King of Golf, perhaps there’s room for Kong.