July Days

Other lands have their vitality in a few, a class, but we have it in the bulk of our people.

—Walt Whitman

And so it is July. The grass, so lush and green in April and May, has begun to brown over in spots, and everyone is, just now, realizing that the early season is over and they are, just now, about as good as they are going to get this season. And it’s dawned on some—not you, I hope—that this is probably about as good at this game as they ever will. For the professionals it has become make-or-break time, the time of year to put some serious money in the bank, or at least enough to keep their tour cards for another year, or at least get into the finals of Q-School, or second stage, or some kind of status on the Nationwide Tour, or something, just something to keep from having to go home again—home to that insurance job the brother-in-law’s been talking about, or that club pro job somebody promised once, “if it didn’t work out.” And so July is, for golf, not a lazy, happy time at all: it is a time of cruelty, and of victims piling up like the cracked shells of turtles beside a Florida highway.

July is also, by design or happenstance, the month of the Open Championship, or as we colonials like to call it, the British Open—which is, often, a championship of misfortune and sorrow, of too-proud Frenchmen, horrible bounces, and the heartbreak of old men allowed a brief glimpse of the glorious past … before that door is closed on them, wickedly and forever. The Masters is, of course, the tournament of hope, like the spring it heralds, and the U.S. Open, usually, is the tournament of the expected: it is a hard tournament, but the winner is nearly always the man who’s played the most consistently, so that it (mostly) feels like justice has been done by the end of it. But the Open is a tournament of darkness and mystery, and there’s hardly a year that goes by without someone wondering what might have been, if only …

At least some of that mystery has, in the past, come from the ignorance of we Americans—both the players themselves and we, the audience at home. An American watching the Open has always the uneasy sense that the spectacle on display is some different game that, coincidentally, has many of the same trappings and the same spelling as the familiar old game but is in fact something entirely other, something strange and uncanny. Why is that man using his putter—the flag stick isn’t even in the picture! Or, why hasn’t Tiger hit his driver in two days? And so on.

This year, however, some have the odd sense that we have already seen this tournament: the shot of the year, for instance, is probably Charl Schwartzel’s 120-foot chip-in on the first hole of the final round of the Masters—with a six-iron. What American player would even have thought of that? (Ask yourself: would you?) It was the kind of shot that Americans only see once a year, at the Open, but there it was at the course most Americans might think of as epitomizing the high-flying aerial American game: Augusta. (They’d be wrong about that, in one sense—because Augusta is actually receptive to a ground-game, but it’s true that the players who’ve dominated the Masters have been high-ball players.) And, to be sure, the U.S. Open was the coronation of a new king of European, and British, golf: Rory McIlroy.

So this year’s Open begins with, perhaps, a new sense of itself: the winner of the tournament is always introduced with the title, “the champion golfer of the year,” and if, in past decades, the words have always been imbued with some sense of irony (who ever thought Bobby Locke, as great as he was, was the match of Nelson or Hogan or Palmer?), there’s a notion on the march, now, that maybe those words are not just another relic of the nineteenth century, a token of past imperial splendor. More than a decade ago, Britain tried to re-invent, “re-brand” as the advertisers say, itself with the “Cool Britannia” label, acclaiming the election of Tony Blair’s New Labour Party as the final entombment of the old, class-bound, traditional England. Maybe it did and maybe it didn’t, but perhaps it’s true that the children of the ‘90s, including Rory McIlroy, really did grow up with a different sense of themselves and their possibilities, and that maybe—it’s impossible to know—that’s made a difference.

Almost certainly it’s made a difference in the game of golf: where once it was the Americans who came to Europe and sneered (Sam Snead, famously, first saw St. Andrews and thought he was looking at a pasture), now it’s the Europeans who seem self-confident, who look at the great American cathedrals of the game—Augusta, Pebble Beach—and view them as just another route to a paycheck. And possibly—in golf, at least—that’s what’s necessary to produce: that sense that all the world has just been born, and that you are the equal of anyone in it.

What’s astonishing, though maybe not as astonishing as some might like, is that traditionally that sort of sensibility has been the special province of Americans, not Europeans. It’s what George Orwell, that canny Englishman, meant when he said that what he admired about Walt Whitman, poet of America, was that Whitman really conveyed how, in what now might be a long-ago America, “Everyone had inside him, like a kind of core, the, knowledge that he could earn a decent living, and earn it without bootlicking.” Whitman himself defined freedom as the ability “to walk free and own no superior,” which is just the sort of sensibility that, it now seems, is more readily to hand on the far side of the Atlantic than on this.

Some time ago, the neoconservative David Brooks asserted that the difference between young African-Americans and young people of African descent in France (who were then rioting) was that African-Americans always had the option to go to college, whereas “in France the barriers to ascent are higher”—but the reality is, as the newspaper that published Brooks (The New York Times) was forced to admit, in fact social mobility “is not higher in the United States than in Britain or France.” The reality today, according to the social scientists that study such things, actually is that a young person with aspirations today is probably better off going to Berlin than to Los Angeles or New York or Chicago. And maybe that’s hard for Americans to hear, given that entire libraries are filled with stacks of books telling us that what makes us who we are is just that sense that anybody can be anything, the entire line of thought that is condensed in the old line that, in America, anybody can be president.

Yet while our present executive does, in some kind of 21st-century manner, exemplify the cliche, it’s also true that Rory McIlroy has probably seen more real political change in his lifetime than many Americans twice his age. It’s well-known, for instance, that to be an incumbent congressman in America is as near as it is possible to get to guaranteed employment outside the law or academia, while Rory witnessed, at the ripe age of 10, one of the most historic constitutional changes ever seen in the world: the “House of Lords Act of 1999,” which abolished the British aristocracy’s hereditary right to representation in Parliament. In other words, Rory saw what Washington and Jefferson and Adams and company put their lives and fortunes at risk to have a chance to see: the end of the nobility as a real political force in Britain. Not since the 1960s has anybody put forward an idea as monumental as that, but Britain in the 1990s not only talked about it—they acted on it. Young Americans, on the other hand, have simply watched as a mostly-moribund clique of liberals has tried to hang on to victories that were won by 1968, as the siege engines of the ravenously greedy have drawn in ever-tighter.

To say that the one has anything to do with the other (politics, golf) is, to be sure, just the sort of thing that isn’t done in America today—though just where the idea came from that there are things that are and aren’t done is a bit of a question—and anyway amounts to nothing when deciding who to bet on for the Open, which as I’ve mentioned is probably the hardest of the major championships to handicap because the rolls and folds of a links course—the only kind the Open is played on—can be so capricious. It’s unlikely that Rory McIlroy can follow up his victory in America with another in his “home” major—he hasn’t, for instance, played against serious competition since winning at Congressional. But if he can, in the seriousness and cruelty of July, he might say to the world that it is Europe—that “ancient bone-yard,” as Orwell called it—that is America now.

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3-Irons and Three-Jacks

Where France?
The Comedy of Errors III, ii

 

The guest wanted the 3-iron. Already, after only six holes of Course 3, we were at loggerheads, after he’d shaken me off twice on club calls. The first time had been on Medinah’s second hole, a brute of a 3-par over water to what’s virtually an island green. Our group was playing the white tees, however—due to the age of some members of the foursome—so, given that it was only 135 to the front of the green and my player was an 8 handicap, I thought a 9-iron would be plenty of club. Because he hit the ball on the top of the clubface (instead of the bottom where the mass of the clubhead is), it wasn’t. Twice.

The second time was on the second shot to the first 5-par, the fifth hole. Having 260 in from the middle of the fairway, uphill, he wanted to hit a 3-iron. This, despite the fact that, as I told him, there was no necessity to hit such a long club since there was no chance of reaching the green and the risk that, because such a long club is difficult to control, the possibility that an erroneous shot might end up in thick trees or even, possibly, out-of-bounds. Nonetheless, he hit the 3-iron which, perhaps predictably, hit the trees on the right and, less predictably, rebounded out into the fairway—to about where a decent 6-iron would have put him. I did not, despite my own inclinations, point this out to him.

Now we were on the approach to the sixth, after a mediocre drive that left him nearly 220 yards to the center of the green (even from the whites Medinah is long). But he was only 195 yards to the front of the green, with a pin in a difficult middle-left location that meant any ball past the hole would leave a tricky putt. The wind was directly behind. Thinking only of the distance to center, he wanted the 3-iron.

I ventured that I was not convinced the 3-iron was not correct. Immediately concluding that I wanted him to hit more club—he had only a 1-iron in the slot between the 3 and the driver—he said he did not like to use his 1-iron. (At which pointed I wondered to myself, not for the first time when confronting an amateur’s bag, why he had it.) I said, quite the contrary, I was thinking about less, rather than more, club, for the reasons I’ve already delineated. This did not appear to compute for him—he appeared ready for a throw-down over hitting more club, but unable to understand why I’d like to hit less.

The approach on the sixth hole on Course 3 is often long, but the hole, uphill on the tee shot, is downhill for the second. Nothing intervenes between the player and the green down the fairway, and in the front of said green the fairway is pitched, which often throws the ball forward onto the green. Particularly downwind, as we were, the shot often requires less club than the inexperienced player might suspect. This was one of those times, I thought.

I bring this story up not only because it happened a few days ago, but also because of a comment I came across quoted in John Huggan’s often-informative and usually-amusing golf column in The Scotsman. Huggan is interviewing Gil Hanse, designer of Castle Stuart—site of this week’s Scottish Open and a course that’s been called the best British course built since the Second World War. Castle Stuart is a links course, unlike the course that’s been the site of the Scottish Open for years, Loch Lomond, which is an American-style course.

The quote that interested me from Huggan’s interview was this one, where Hanse talks about what makes Castle Stuart different from most American-style courses. “It is odd,” said Hanse, “that so many people don’t realize how interesting and difficult short grass can be when used as a hazard.” In support of the point, Hanse recalls the playoff in the 1989 Open Championship (which we know over here as the British Open).

That playoff ultimately rode on the moment when Greg Norman “had missed a green but had nothing but short grass and a bank between him and the hole”:

He stood there and thought about it. Then he switched clubs. Then he thought about it more. Eventually he just chunked the shot. The best player in the world had been perplexed by the subtlety of what was in front of him. His mind was full of doubt.

Apparently, Hanse has applied the lesson to Castle Stuart, which has very wide fairways but yet still, in Hanse’s estimation, will present its own difficulties because, despite their width, the effective fairway—i.e., the best place to approach the green—won’t be any wider than the best players are used to playing. But by being so wide, the fairways will allow those players with the skill to play interesting shots even after missing the “correct” landing zone.

That was the original theory behind Augusta National as designed by Alistair MacKenzie and Bobby Jones: to allow multiple lines of play to the same hole instead of the architect dictating the player’s shot. But American golf—even Augusta is radically different than the course envisioned by its founders—has largely lost the insight: golf courses like, as Tom Doak has observed, Firestone (and Course 3) have told the golfer how to play them rather than allowing the player to choose among various options. But as my anecdote about the sixth hole is meant to illustrate, even Course 3—and especially since the renovation—still makes use of short grass as the best, because most deceptive, obstacle.

What happened to the guest is, of course, anti-climactic. After insisting on hitting the 3-iron, the ball took off, landed in front of the green, and took a huge jump forward. It certainly reached the pin; in fact, as you probably already know, it rolled well past it. Eventually it came to rest in the rough just over the green, perched on a cliff above the hole and leaving an incredibly difficult downhill putt with a severe break that, again predictably, the guest left short (fearing the slope). As you’ve probably also already realized, he missed the downhill eight-footer for par.

What the anecdote also, and perhaps more importantly, illustrates is something of the myopia of American golf—a myopia that was perhaps also displayed recently during PGA Tour player Bubba Watson’s recent Parisian adventure. Watson, according to many, acted out the European fantasy of the Ugly American while playing the French Open at the course that will be the site of the 2018 Ryder Cup competition, Le Golf National. When asked about his tour of Paris prior to the tournament, Watson said that he seen “the big tower, Eiffel Tower, an arch, whatever” and that he been to “it starts with an L, Louvre, something like that.”

Watson’s remarks would be merely a faux-pas, but some see in them a sign of something greater. Chubby Chandler, Rory McIlroy’s agent—he’s also Charl Schwartzel’s agent, which means that he’s on track for the Agent Slam this year—said in response to Watson (and his T-102 in the tournament) that it’s indicative of how Americans “don’t see any reason to play outside America.” And Jack Nicklaus himself sees in Watson a measure of how American golf is losing competitiveness: “Too many Americans know little beyond American golf.” What the golfers Nicklaus is speaking of don’t know, I’d submit (and I’d enter my guest as an exhibit in such a case) is how to play short grass—which American courses, too often, fail to use properly.

Maybe that’d explain why American teams, after decades of dominating the Ryder Cup, have been relatively unsuccessful (4-10) since at least the “War on the Shore” on the Ocean Course at Kiawah Island in 1991. Maybe that record will only change when American golfers are no longer surprised when their caddies tell them that a 220-yard shot only requires a 5-iron. Until then, when I think about the Ryder Cup and American success in it (or lack of it), I’ll think about the look on that guest’s face when I suggested it—and the look on his face while he watched his ball jump past the hole.

Die Another Day

Caesar: Cowards die many times before their deaths;
The valiant never taste of death but once.
Julius Caesar II, ii

After the drama of the U.S. Open came the farce of the big member-guest tournament last weekend, which makes June the biggest month for the mindless recital of ridiculous golf cliches. There are of course so many of them, from “Never Up, Never In,” to “No Pictures on the Scorecard,” which I invented sometime during the summer of 1998 during a loop for a guy at Bob O’Link after he skulled a 5-iron that, improbably, stayed on the green. The best, by which I mean most ridiculous, of them is the Yogi Berra-like phrase, “Golf is 90% mental.” It is a breathtaking phrase, especially when it is followed, as it always seems to be, by a heroically-awful lumberjack-like chop at the ball. It is a phrase, in other words, that seems especially to appeal to people who, in all other respects, appear completely unaware that golf has any intellectual component whatever.

Bobby Jones said that golf tournaments are won and lost in a 6-inch space—the distance between one’s ears—so it’s true that tournament golf, at least, is partially a matter of psychology, especially at the upper reaches of the game where talent tends to level out. The case of Rory McIlroy at the Masters in April is but the latest in a long line of famous disasters, like Dustin Johnson’s implosion at the U.S. Open last year all the way back to Arnold Palmer’s blowup at the Olympic Club, when Arnie gave the tournament to Billy Casper by trying to shoot a tournament record. The history of golf, one might say, is written by train-wrecks.

Golfers who like to cite the psychological aspects of the game, you might think then, might be especially cautious fellows, mindful of dangers lurking around every dogleg. In my experience, however, this is not the case: guys who talk about the “mental game” generally are also the guys who hit three-woods from the rough, couldn’t care less where the wind is, and never saw a five-par they didn’t think they could reach in two. This fact is, at the least, odd, though perhaps demonstrative of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s point about how modernity is defined by the ability to hold two contradictions in one’s head simultaneously.

Rory McIlroy’s win at Congressional would appear to justify such thoughts, given that, unlike Augusta in April, he didn’t fold tent in the final round and went on to win by such a huge margin. But there’s a number of reasons to distinguish McIlroy’s case from that of the average duffer. For one thing, he is probably the best golfer in the world right now, Official World Rankings notwithstanding. Golf at the professional level is, to one degree or another, mental: the differences between one player and another are very small.

The stat heads, for instance, bolstered by numbers drawn from the PGA Tour’s Shotlink data, can demonstrate that the difference between winners and the rest of the field at any given tournament might turn on one or two shots that, by happenstance, go the winner’s way: the difference between finishing first or second in a PGA Tour event is, to a very high degree, a matter of luck. Winning on tour, therefore, is at least partially a matter of having the discipline to accept the game’s bounces; to continue to play with the same focus no matter the result. Very few people are capable of doing that in any profession, not just golf. But that level of play is not something you are going to see at your local muni.

What a great many amateurs appear to draw from what they see on television is a kind of funhouse-mirror version of the professional’s discipline: no matter what happens, they think they should continue to play the same way, conditions or architecture be damned. I illustrate the point by the guest I worked for yesterday, at Medinah, who insisted on hitting his hybrid every time he drove it in the woods (which was often). That guy thought that the type of shot that worked on his usual course would work on a world-class golf course, but the conditions at Medinah aren’t the same as your park district course.

At a park district course, for example, the rough isn’t very thick, which means that the odds that a club can make clean contact with the ball is decent. But in thick rough odds are that grass will intervene—which means that any sidespin imparted to the ball will be lost. And what that means is that it mostly isn’t possible to, say, hit a big slice around a tree to the green at a course like Medinah, which my player discovered (or rather, refused to discover) when his shots from the rough stubbornly went dead straight into the trees on the other side of the fairway. Spending one’s day slowly trudging around a forest is no way to enjoy your round, I’d submit.

In any case, the conclusion I draw from that state of affairs is that the type of person who wants to discuss golf as a “mental game” is doing it, not in order to better understand the game (or, more dangerously, himself), but rather invoking it as a kind of defense against what might as well be called sorcery. What that person is doing is, in effect, guarding himself against witchcraft, which is more or less what he believes happens on a golf course—not something, in other words, within his control. That in itself is a fascinating result: the mental habits of the uncounted ages before the advent of writing or mathematics continues, surviving like a coyote at the edges of civilization even among people with every opportunity to reject such ancient reasoning.

The larger lesson for the amateur, I think, is that yes, golf is a “mental” game—which means that, in playing it, engaging one’s brain once in a while is probably a swell idea. Not all golf shots are the same: what the game is, in fact, isn’t so much a matter of swinging the club perfectly every time (even McIlroy didn’t hit every shot pure at Congressional) but rather a matter of evaluating the shot before you and playing, not necessarily the perfect shot, but rather the best shot. Golf is a “mental” game insofar as it is a game of judgment: the best player in any foursome might not be the one with the best mechanics but rather the one who can consistently find the shot with the highest percentage of a payoff.

None of us are ever going to play the game like a McIlroy, because we haven’t devoted our entire lives to the pursuit of the white pill. (And a good thing, too.) But that doesn’t mean that the golf we play is, in some crucial respect, different than anything else we do with our lives. In every human activity (even, I suspect, witchcraft: I’m sure that there’s witches out there who decry people who just slavishly copy their spells) what’s necessary is a recognition of the particularities of that circumstance, and then the formulation of a plan to attack those circumstances. Any teacher or artist or business owner who did precisely the same thing every day would, sometime or another, crack up. Why would anyone think golf is different?