Anything Happens

Like those other Scottish inventions the “dismal science” of economics and evolutionary biology—it was Karl Marx who recognized Darwin’s achievement as economics’ offspring—golf’s interest lies in its recognition of two crucial facts about reality. These are, respectively, the true length of time and what’s been ascribed to an Irishman but ought properly to be Scot: Murphy’s Law, or the notion that whatever can go wrong will, if given enough time. But Murphy’s Law is just the recognition that, given enough time, anything can happen, good or bad, and taken to its end that leads to the notion that, given enough time, anything will happen. Thus 2011, the year that Obama got Osama—who thought that would happen?—is also the golf season where Anything Happens.

It began with a Wisconsin golfer winning in Hawaii (Mark Wilson, Sony Open), and then Bill Murray (yes, that one, the non-celebrity celebrity) won at Pebble Beach, and then the same Wisconsin golfer won again, this time in Phoenix. People from Wisconsin do not win professional golf tournaments, much less two tournaments. And, well, Bill Murray.

Also, Tiger Woods isn’t even one of the world’s ten best golfers now.

Anyway, in the midst of all this insanity I happened to come across the novelist David Foster Wallace’s “String Theory,” on Esquire’s website, which is about pro tennis and just how much better those players—even the most marginal of them—are than you could ever hope to be. “And it’s not just a matter of talent or practice,” Wallace claims. Instead, there’s “something else.” It seems like the old F. Scott Fitzgerald argument: “the rich are different than you and me.” To which Hemingway famously replied, “Yes, they have more money.”

The Wallace-Fitzgerald theory, as I’ll call it, is the sort of belief or argument that I personally dislike, for a number of reasons: the first being that my grandfather used to say that the reason Arnold Palmer was Arnold Palmer was because Arnold Palmer hit more golf balls than anybody else, which I think is the sort of de-mystifying thing that, at the end of the day, is the philosophical basis for American democracy. (The line goes from William of Ockham to Thomas Jefferson, with some intermediate stops, in case you are wondering. But cf. the Gettysburg Address.) The problem is, though, that not only is Wallace talking about a sport I know little of, but also David Foster Wallace is—or was—like Fitzgerald in that he was the sort of literary genius that makes anything he says worthy of respect, no matter how stupid it is.

David Foster Wallace was a genius, after all. The MacArthur Foundation, for instance, which is in the business of identifying geniuses for the purposes of giving them large amounts of money to use to further their projects or—since the MacArthur Foundation doesn’t attach any, ahem, strings—to blow on a single turn of the roulette wheel at Monte Carlo, said so by giving Wallace one of their grants. He published a number of critically-acclaimed books, the magnum opus of which, Infinite Jest, clocks in at over 1,000 pages and will probably out-live us all. David Foster Wallace, then, was “a transcendent practitioner of an art—something few of us get to be,” as he says about the professional tennis players he examines in “String Theory.”

What this “something else” is that allows top pros to become “transcendent practitioners” of their art is, however, not something that’s clear from Wallace’s account, at least to my perhaps-low understanding. In actual fact, most of the article seems rather to confirm the idea it is just a matter of talent and practice: “Note the way ‘up close and personal’ profiles of professional athletes strain so hard to find evidence of a rounded human life—outside interests and activities, values beyond the sport,” Wallace writes.

This is because “the realities of top-level athletics today require an early and total commitment to one area of excellence,” a “subsumption of almost all other features of human life to one chosen talent and pursuit.” Which is to say that the business of raising world-class athletes seems to be no more complex—which is to say, very complex—than finding, by one means or another, the very best genetic material (the subject of Wallace’s article, Michael Joyce, had hand-eye coordination in the top 1% of athletes everywhere, and Joyce wasn’t even close to being a superstar) and developing it through insane daily practices.

So maybe I’m missing something about Wallace’s point, which maybe is likely. I’ve never been one to allow for any difference between people: once I (in effect) told pro golfer Justin Leonard—who, you may or may not know, once won a British Open—off for daring to assist my player with a read on a putt during an LA Open pro-am at Riviera. To his credit, Leonard was nothing less than gentlemanly about the whole thing, but nonetheless I believe that, at least in this small area, there’s very little difference to be found between professionals and amateurs; and actually, I’ve rather found—and sure, maybe there’s some inherent bias here—that I’m a better green reader than some professionals.

Such as, for instance, Ernie Els, who I bring up because I once watched him hit a hybrid off the first tee at Riviera—a tee overlooking a cliff to the rest of the golf course, perhaps the most spectacular first tee in golf—over 300 yards, a sight I will likely be turning over in my brain until I die. Now, Ernie Els has precisely the sort of golf swing that other golf pros drool over, the kind of swing that, supposedly, can’t be taught. If anybody in golf could qualify for the sort of “magical” quality that Wallace ascribes to top-level tennis pros, then Ernie Els would certainly qualify, a “magical” quality that, one supposes would be immune to analysis.

And yet. At least in golf, where admittedly the players are not running around at top speed, and also the ball remains stationary, there’s actually a way to divine what it is that separates pros from amateurs statistically. One such stat was published last year in’s “Moneygolf” series (a little thin, but still): “The average two-putt distance for a pro is 30 feet. For a high-handicapper, it’s 12 feet.” This I think tells you a great deal about the difference between the highest levels of the sport; whereas thirty feet, for most of us, is like some kind of zip line across an Amazonian rainforest, to the best players in the world its like crossing the street.

Except for Els. It’s hard to see how Els might be a bad putter because he ranked 15th in putting from 2003 to 2008. However, it seems that research from an MIT team—I won’t go into how, exactly, but the PGA Tour has been tracking every golf shot hit in the tournaments through a system called ShotLink—found that Els actually was giving up about two-and-a-half shots to the field per tournament to the rest of the field: according to “Moneygolf,” the MIT team found that Els’ putting “gave back six-tenths of a stroke to the field each 18 holes.” Els’ apparent putting excellence was not a result of his putting ability, but rather a mirage created by his ability to hit the ball close to the hole from great distances.

Looking at Ernie Els, who is a giant of a human being, and then watching him swing a golf club (it really is amazing how smooth he is), might in other words lead to the kind of starfucking that both Fitzgerald and, I am sorry to report, David Foster Wallace seem to have had weaknesses for. But, in the early rays of a dawn tee time, even the gods are mortals after all, and, as both Adam Smith and Charles Darwin recognized, no one escapes from Murphy.

It may or may not be to the purpose that David Foster Wallace hanged himself in his garage in Pomona, California because he had the kind of depression that writers often get, the kind often used—by impressionable college girls, or people who might as well be—as a hallmark of literary genius. Perhaps it was because, once he had finally achieved it, he found that it granted him no special access to reality—no greater, that is, that was any greater than anyone might have gotten had they devoted the effort that David Foster Wallace devoted to it.

That is, it may be, the truth that Woods is discovering now—that he is, admittedly, Tiger Woods, but that it is also, admittedly, true that anyone might have been Tiger Woods, had they devoted the time that Tiger Woods did devote to becoming Tiger Woods. Tiger Woods ought to get the recognition that, after all, he did do that work—but he shouldn’t get any more than that. That is always the danger of success, of course: the danger that Fitzgerald fell prey to and that Hemingway caught him on, the danger of thinking that Success is Foreordained. Osama bin Laden thought he had not only perpetrated one of the world’s great crimes, but gotten away with it; Ernie Els thought he was a good putter; Tiger Woods thought that he would rule golf indefinitely. But the Scots who, without realizing what they’d done, invented golf, knew differently. They knew that every year is the year where Anything Can Happen.