A Note on the U.S. Open

Here’s a possibility for this afternoon’s golf: what if the USGA set-up people feel they must, having set the course easy the past three days, they really can’t reverse gear to make Congressional hard today. The risk of a Rory meltdown—which undoubtedly would reflect badly on the USGA bluecoats—is too great. Hence, with an easy set-up, what if someone now at even par (Stricker, say) went out and shot a 29 on Congressional’s front—before Rory teed off? Suddenly, what seemed like an insurmountable lead might look pretty vulnerable: a two-shot lead with 18 to go doesn’t seem that safe. But to go further down that line really is almost unspeakable … In any case, this afternoon has a chance to be the greatest tournament round in the history of the U.S. Open. Or even better.

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I Don’t Know—I’ve Never Butled

… show us here
The mettle of your pasture …
Henry V III, i

Today, through a series of fortunes mis- and otherwise, I ended up looping at Butler National Golf Club for the first time during what the club called “U.S. Open Day”: in honor of the tournament going on at Congressional this weekend, the course was set up like it was hosting an Open. (It’s never going to get one, due to its men’s only membership policy.) Never having seen the course in person (the Western Open stopped coming here prior to my interest in golf), I was looking forward to the course that Golf Digest called the “Al Capone” to Medinah 3’s “Frank Nitti.” I was prepared for lightning-fast greens, evil fairway slopes, and, above all else, water and more water; Butler’s reputation for difficulty rests, so I understood, on the amount of water in play. I was ready to be shocked and awed. But Butler disappointed on nearly every count.

Before getting to golf course proper, though, I’d like to talk a bit about what the Golf Digest analogy gets wrong—not to be pedantic (that’s merely a bonus)—but in order to talk about just how much my own judgements must differ from those of the golf writers of the world if Golf Digest can throw an analogy like that around. In the first place, if any course is the “Al Capone” of Chicago golf, you’d think it would be Medinah—it’s a course, after all, that Capone could have actually played as it was built in 1926. (No record exists, so far as I know, showing Capone did play Medinah, though he did golf and, given Chicago’s—and Medinah’s—history, it wouldn’t be that surprising if he teed it up there.) Nitti was Capone’s junior partner—despite being older—so you’d think the analogy would go the other way.

And that’s not the only way in which the analogy is a lazy one: though Brian DePalma’s film of The Untouchables depicted Nitti as actually carrying out “hits” himself, Nitti wasn’t a “button man,” believing (as Capone did) that “hits” were jobs to be done by others. Death wasn’t an end in itself, it was just a cost of doing business. Nitti himself was kind of a fearful sort: he committed suicide after World War II to avoid imprisonment because he was a sort of claustrophobe. The real Nitti, in short, wasn’t the kind of villain depicted in the DePalma film: a villain, sure, but not that kind.

All of which is more of a complaint about Golf Digest’s laziness (and East Coast bias) than it is about Butler, so let’s get to the course. The greens were as advertised; very fast and true, and the density of the grass on them was quite amazing. Overall, the maintenance was very, very, good, though there was the occasional (very occasional) brown spots in the fairways and even, in one case, on the greens. It was close, though maybe not better, than the standards set locally by Bob O’Link—and certainly nothing close to Augusta. Still, Butler’s maintenance is a great deal better than Medinah’s, though Medinah has gotten much better since the re-grassing last year.

Yet something bothered me about the course and, after doing some research online, I did find one voice who thought less of Butler than Medinah. That person, as it happens, was a character who’s begun appearing in this blog recently: golf architect Tom Doak. The Chicago Tribune, happily enough, reprinted some of the Chicago entries from Doak’s Confidential Guide several years ago, and I reproduce what he had to say about Butler here: “Unfortunately, the golf course, even though it once provided one of the toughest tests on the PGA Tour, doesn’t possess the same kind of character [as Chicago Golf Club]. Many of the individual holes are less than memorable, and a couple of the ones that are, are so because they’re impossible.” Doak’s comments sound hyperbolic, until you’ve seen Butler.

The fifteenth, for instance, is perhaps one of the most ridiculous holes I’ve ever seen. It’s long for the sake of length, and length only: its routing seems to have been designed in order to take up the space between the fourteenth and sixteenth. It’s straightaway for 300 yards (from the back tees) up a hill, then takes a 90 degree turn back down the hill to the green. It’s a hole that seems entirely determined by a carpenter’s “ell.”

Earlier, the eighth hole had impressed me with the way in which trees can grow—the hole, a 3-par, sits on a creek, and the trees on each side of the creek overhand so much that their appears to be less than ten yards to thread a shot through on the way to the flag. It’s a problem that also affects the long, 4-par, ninth hole, whose fairway is squeezed by overhanging trees in the last 200 yards. Sure, that makes a hole hard, but I don’t think of it as golf because it takes away any choice a player has: in effect, the architect is saying “play it like this, or else.” Holes like these are pretty much the opposite of what Doak thinks of as good architecture.

To be fair, Doak says something similar about Medinah. In the Confidential Guide Doak calls Course 3 “a maximum-security prison,” with a “lack of strategic challenge” and decried the “total lack of finesse play required.” But the Confidential Guide was published in 1996, before the two (!) Rees Jones reworkings. I don’t agree with everything Jones did (the new fifteenth, for instance, isn’t really like any other hole), but he did open up the course to allow for different avenues to the green. Doak’s criticisms, in other words, were fair at the time but he might not have the same points to make when he revisits to work on Course 1. And what’s interesting in light of those remarks is that, even at the time of the Confidential Guide, Medinah received a 7 to Butler’s 6 in Doak’s rating system. Butler’s obviousness even extends to the greens. “Undulating topography is the soul of great golf courses,” Doak once said in an interview, and while Butler is a flat course (especially by comparison with Medinah), you’d think that wouldn’t hold when it came to the greens. But while Butler’s staff certainly can grow grass, the greens’ surfaces—hyped by so many publications solemnly invoking their “subtlety”—were absurdly easy to read. Maybe that’s simply a measure of my own experience: I’ve seen Augusta’s, and read greens in Palm Springs, where “everything breaks towards Indio,” and read Riviera’s, where everything breaks towards the Pacific. But I didn’t miss a read all day, from the first hole to the last, despite my golfer’s distressing tendency to hit everything by the hole by five feet. If the greens are subtle, it’s rather in the way that regular type appears tiny if you’ve been reading “Large Type” books from the library’s senior section.

All of which just sounds like a slag job on my own place of work’s biggest rival, which to some degree or other it is. Yet there is a rather more significant point here, which is that by praising Butler golf publications reward a particular kind of architecture—a kind whose day, it might be, has come and gone. Butler’s labor and capital-intensive kind of course maintenance is a peculiarly American kind of extravagance, the kind Doak likes to go out of his way to criticize. It’s the kind of thinking that leads greens committees to think their greenkeeper is a failure if every blade of grass doesn’t mirror the color of Augusta in spring—a kind of thinking that leads to overwatering and the kind of muddy golf courses that use tremendous amounts of water and, in the end, aren’t that fun to play.

Thinking of Butler as a great golf course is, in short, exactly like thinking a 1975 Cadillac Eldorado convertible is a great car: it is, to be sure, but not because of its qualities as a car. ‘75 Eldos are many things, but they’re also great big behemoths that got terrible gas milage, weren’t particularly safe, and aren’t even all that fun to drive. They’re fun to ride in, sure, but unless you’ve got some particular nostalgia for 70s Detroit iron, you aren’t buying one. As it happens, with its membership apparently down, nobody’s buying into Butler these days either—which, aside from present members of Butler, may be a hopeful sign for the game as a whole.

 

The Vanity of Art: Tom Doak Vs. Medinah

… why hath thy queen
Summon’d me hither, to this short-grass’d green?

The Tempest IV, i

Looping for one of the incoming officers at Medinah about a month ago, I was told that Tom Doak had been selected to be the architect for a renovation of Medinah’s Course 1—Course 3’s older, but far-less heralded, brother. The Ryder Cup, coming next year, will use a lot of Course 1’s terrain for parking lots, staging areas, and corporate tents, which means the course will be torn up—a perfect opportunity to use that repair work to rethink the entire golf course. The redesign idea is thus no surprise. What is a surprise, however, is using Doak: he’s on record as disparaging Medinah, both in his (infamous) Confidential Guide to Golf Courses (which ripped on lots of famous old courses) and later. Doak is a wild card, and by picking him Medinah is taking a roll of the dice—not least because Course 1, as it now stands, is a paradigmatic example of everything Doak hates in golf architecture.

That makes it like its brother course, Course 3, which has always stood, to Doak, as a pinnacle of bad golf architecture. Here is Doak, for instance, in an interview with Golf Digest in October of 2005: “The most overrated courses,” he said, “tend to be ones that hold important tournaments and major championships.” “Invariably, they’re long, tight, and repetitive, with virtually every hole offering similar shot values,” he continues; “Firestone and Medinah are classic examples.” Many Medinah members would, and have, bristled over statements like this, and my informant tells me that there was quite a disagreement among the members about hiring Doak—the vote, it seems, broke down along generational lines: older members were against, and younger ones were in favor.

Presumably, the older ones remembered Doak’s longstanding opinion of Medinah, while the younger ones were captivated by Doak’s resume since publishing The Confidential Guide in his mid-twenties. As of now, four of his designs are in Golf magazine’s “Top 100 Courses in the World” list: Pacific Dunes (at Bandon Dunes in Oregon), Barnbougle Dunes in Tasmania, Ballyneal in Colorado, and Cape Kidnappers in New Zealand. Cape Kidnappers, in particular, is spectacular in photographs, with holes routed along massive cliffs along the ocean. But photographically-spectacular courses are not really, according to the man himself, Doak’s design aim.

Everything about Doak, in fact, seems contrary to the way in which golf design has headed since the 1980s. While golf courses have gotten longer and longer, Doak says—in an interview with Golf magazine published this month (June 2011)—that “modern courses are too long.” And where a lot of courses designed in the last 30 or 40 years have tried to stand out with flashy, or even kitschy, bunkers (Cantigny’s “Dick Tracy” bunker comes to mind) and “water features” (Donald Trump, anyone?), Doak says that his “favorite hazard is short grass.” That, to a lot of golfers, might not make sense: isn’t short grass the fairway?

Well, yes, it is, but the short grass Doak has in mind isn’t the flat sort of fairway you might find at your local muni. What he’s thinking of is the “collection areas” at Pinehurst #2, Donald Ross’s Carolina masterpiece. “Short grass,” Doak says, “is always subtle and sometimes diabolical.” He’s thinking of the “steeply banked fairway that repels a slightly errant drive into an area where the approach shot is more difficult” (a feature, by the by, of Course 3’s hole 12). He’s considering “[w]ide expanses of fairway that lull the player to sleep so he doesn’t pay attention to the best position for his tee shot, and which makes it hard to determine the distance of a fairway bunker he’s tempted to carry” (a feature of Course 3’s hole 10, among others). Like Carl Spackler in Caddieshack, who made explosive “models” of his enemy the gopher’s “friends” (the bunny and squirrel), Doak believes in using the golfer’s ally (the fairway) against him.

This is nearly unthinkable heresy for American golfers, but it isn’t unknown to golf: it is, in fact, how the game began. St. Andrews for instance is well-known to have nearly infinitely-wide fairways and nevertheless it has been confounding golfers for over 500 years—which brings up another point about Doak’s biography. For two months in the summer of 1982, he caddied at St. Andrews, where presumably he learned of the Scottish methods of playing the ball on the ground instead of, as is usual on American tracks, through the air. It isn’t unusual there, from what I understand, of hitting a 6-iron like a putt from 85 yards. An American would, of course, be likely to use his 60-degree wedge from such a distance (and inevitably mishit it), but to the Scots such a choice has never made any sense. A 60-degree shot requires a precise strike on the clubface; a 6-iron merely needs something nearly precise. Or even imprecise.

Yet it’s difficult to picture making use of that philosophy on Course 1. It is the antithesis of Doak’s (or should we say, Scottish) ideas. Doak isn’t much of a believer in bunkers, water, or trees (I haven’t mentioned it, but Doak is on board with the anti-tree movement of the past decade or so.) Course 1 however, built in 1924 (the first of Medinah’s three courses, which explains why it’s Course 1), is built around water, sand, and trees. The 10th hole of the course, for instance, gives an idea of how Course 1 operates.

The 10th on Course 1 is a short par-5 of only 460 yards or so, which is shorter than many of Course 3’s par-4s. The tee shot is governed by a pond that stretches along the entire right side of the fairway, all the way to the green. A big drive, however, can easily get within 200 yards—at which point the approach is blocked by a set of massive willow trees that require the golfer to either go around them or over them to get to the green. Any approach that manages to climb over the willows, though, risks landing in a huge bunker directly in front of the green—so you have to judge not only how high you can hit your club, but also how far it will carry. It’s a classic risk-reward hole, but without water, sand, and trees, it’s a kind of lengthy par-4, not a par-5 you might be still be talking about five years from now.

The 10th is also a problem for Doak in terms of routing: it’s the sort of hole that needs to be played toward the middle of a round, after a player has found his rhythm. Only if you’re confident of your swing would you try to take on the willow trees—which is one reason why it is the 10th hole in the current routing. The problem is that the 9th hole—a marathon 600+-yard par-5—is the perfect finishing hole for the course, which in the current routing ends with a difficult-but-sub-200-yard par-3. It’s unusual for a golf course today to end on a par-3—though Congressional, site of this year’s U.S. Open, does in its non-tournament routing—and the current routing has often been a topic of discussion. But to get the ninth as a finishing hole while preserving the 10th’s status near the middle of the course as a whole is a difficult juggling act; it might require demolishing and rebuilding several other holes.

That isn’t hard to imagine Doak doing because many of the holes on the course are fairly pedestrian, especially during a rather mediocre slog through the middle of the back nine. Still, the course is often ranked within the top 20 in Illinois—Course 3 is usually #1—which means that many holes are of high quality. The 7th through the 9th, for instance, are nearly the equal of several of the best holes on Course 3, and it would be a shame for the course to lose them.

Doak though has demonstrated the kind of imaginative ability that a design problem like this one requires—and more than that, a species of contrariness that he’s going to need if he’s going to bring whatever vision he creates to the turf. If he means to implement his stated design philosophy on Course 1 he’s going to have to re-imagine the course completely, which will be difficult to do on a track that’s nearly 90 years old—not to mention the members nearly that age. What he does may just be a kind of tweaking—fixing a bunker here, cutting a tree there. But I don’t think Medinah is paying him for that.

I think that what Doak—and Medinah—may be aiming at is nothing less than a revolution in American course design. If Course 1 can be re-made in line with Doak’s vision, then virtually nothing is impossible for golf architecture. Nothing of Doak’s plan has been made public as yet—I am not sure at this writing whether it even exists. But the canvas Doak has been presented with is virtually unique: he’s been handed the keys to the family’s ancient Rolls Royce and told to pimp it out, with a budget presumably paid for by the proceeds from the Ryder Cup. Where some of Doak’s architectural contemporaries would be tempted to add, say, 22-inch rims and flatscreen TVs, Doak’s impulse seems rather the other way: he appears to question why anyone’s carriage ever needed an engine rather than a horse.

That sounds like rather a diss, but it isn’t: Doak’s object, it seems to me, isn’t just to churn out another sequence of holes that look like, and play like, every other set of holes anywhere in the world, but rather to get at something fundamental, something about how we play the game. Maybe even why we play this game. My choice of the word “philosophy” to describe Doak’s ideas about golf architecture isn’t meant lightly: it’s a word that’s often bandied about, but in Doak’s case I think it actually means something, because he’s a guy who’s actually thought about very, very fundamental matters. This doesn’t mean that his ideas are right, or the only ones, but it does mean that what he does is carefully thought out, and that’s something that’s rare enough in any profession. It also doesn’t mean that Doak’s redesign of Course 1 is destined for greatness—but it does mean that there he has been given a very, very rare opportunity. It remains to be seen what he does with it, whether it be spectacular success or merely, as Prospero says in The Tempest, “Some vanity of mine own art.”

Tee Time At Samarra

If you haven’t heard it, the story goes that a servant in Baghdad came to his master and said that he’d met Death in the market, and he, the servant, needed to run. He figured Samarra would be far enough.The master, being the generous sort, gave him his fastest horse. Later, the master himself visited the market in Baghdad, where he too saw Death. And Death asked, “How is your servant here in Baghdad today? We have an appointment tomorrow—in Samarra.” Which I suppose is a Muslim way of saying you can run, but you can’t hide.

That’s how I’ve been thinking about Lexi Thompson for the last month: it’s a story I’ve been wanting to discuss. A month ago, 16-year-old wonderkind Lexi Thompson was leading the Avnet LPGA Classic (LPGA tourney names are awful) after 54 holes. Had she won, she would have been the youngest winner of a professional event ever, at any level, male or female. Obviously, she didn’t. And the tale of how she didn’t hangs, as it happens, on her caddie.

But maybe you don’t know Lexi Thompson. Her brother is Nicholas Thompson, who plays on the PGA Tour. She was the youngest player ever to qualify for a U.S. Open—of either sex—at the age of 12. (She missed the cut.) In 2008 she won the U.S. Girls’ Junior. In 2009 she made the cut at the Open, at the age of 14. Last year, after turning pro (at 15), she made $72,000 at the Open, 9 shots behind Paula Creamer. Lexi Thompson, in short, is sick good.

At the Avnet—which is played in Mobile, Alabama, and yes, I had to look it up—she got into contention after hitting a 67 in the third round. Her final round started a bit rough, with two bogies in the first three holes, but she birdied the fifth and then rattled off eight pars. Nobody, it seems, was making much of a move—Maria Hjorth would eventually win—so if Thompson could make a couple of birdies at the close, a win was entirely possible. At the 3-par 14th, however, Thompson made a mistake that suggests Rory McIlroy’s collapse at Augusta in April.

The mistake turned on a disagreement with her father, who wanted a pitching wedge off the tee. Lexi, it seems, disagreed, but went with it anyway—and that’s where things went off the rails. “Just barely finishing her swing with the ball in the air,” according to Stephanie Wei of weiunderpar.com, “Lexi called out, ‘Wrong club,’ to vent her frustration.” And it was the wrong club: it ended up in a hazard. Thompson doubled that hole, then the next. She finished with a 78 and a tie for 19th.

Now, a couple of things about this (leaving aside the question of whether Wei’s account is accurate; it’s been disputed). The first is the notion of a “wrong club”: Sam Snead, on the range, used to hit every club in his bag from 50 to 200 yards. It might be better to say that Thompson hit the wrong shot for that club, were it not cumbersome and, in the end, tiresome because hey, the whole point of having different clubs is to have the same swing produce shots of different distances. Ultimately, it’s Lexi’s call to decide what shot-club combination she wants to hit, not her father’s or anyone else’s. But that brings up the second, and more serious, issue.

That is the issue that Wei addresses, which is that the reason Thompson ultimately went with her caddie (and daddy, the puntastic creepiness of which only highlights the issue) probably has something to do with the fact that she didn’t want to hear about it at dinner if Dad happened to be right. “I don’t know the Thompsons or their relationship well,” Wei says, but it’s pretty easy to imagine what that relation might be. One’s sympathies can only go out—to Mr. Thompson.

Anyone’s who’s looped has had, after all, the experience of a player who, disliking or dreading the shot required, consciously or unconsciously will hit a bad shot, almost as a kind of “Fuck you” to his or her caddie. In reality it’s directed at the little voice of doubt inside the player’s own head, which sometimes pops up when the caddie asks for a shot that the player can pull off, but that’s on some edge, real or imagined, of the player’s ability. In order to escape from the horrible bind, the player will sometimes just deliberately flame-out. Somehow, the player re-asserts control over his situation by saying, in effect, “See? I told you I couldn’t do it.”

Still, Wei is probably right that there’s something wrong about the player-caddie dynamic in Thompson’s case. If things have gotten to the point that the player is deliberately (consciously or not) sabotaging her chances, then obviously it’s time to re-evaluate. In this case, there might be something going on with typical teenage issues, or with the father-daughter dynamic (Wei says it’s “a recipe for disaster because it gets too emotional and teenage girls and their dads are bound to butt heads, especially on the golf course”). But it’s also something that a caddie often sees, even if the player is a middle-aged captain of industry.

Lexi’s father, not only as a father and thus presumably the more “mature” of the two— but also as a looper, should have seen this coming. He should have seen the signs of heightened emotion, the rise in tension in his player. The correct move in that circumstance is to try to back off the cliff, defuse the air and get his player into clear air where they could have made a rational decision that the player could trust. When tour pros and tour loopers talk about the caddie’s role as a “psychologist” that’s exactly what they mean.

Actual psychologists will tell you that situations of extreme stress will trigger what’s called a “fight-or-flight” reflex in human beings, when rational thought shuts down and the body floods with hormones designed to help either attack the threat or run away from it. That’s the real recipe for a bad shot—immersed in that stew of chemicals, the body often just physically cannot execute a good golf swing. Lexi Thompson’s father not only didn’t give his child a third option (between fight or flight), he also seemingly helped put her there in the first place by not stopping to ask why she was so anxious, and whether there was some other way to address it than by demanding a shot that Lexi didn’t (rationally or not) think she could hit. That’s bad caddieing. In response, Lexi Thompson made her appointment in Samarra.