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.

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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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