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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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 djmedinah@yahoo.com. Thanks for reading!

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