Bang the Putt Smartly

Are his wits safe? Is he not light of brain?
Othello IV, 1

It was a dewy morning, and Mickey the K, a regular of mine, had to make the putt. We were four down with seven to play, which meant that, if he missed, the match would pretty much be over. I’ve seen bigger comebacks, to be sure—there was the time my player was six up with six to play in a semi-finals match for the U.S. Mid-Amateur, yet still lost—but usually there’s no way anybody can come back from that kind of deficit. I intentionally gave him a read that was half what I’d normally give him, then told him “you better not leave this one short,” since he’d had a habit of leaving putts a ball or two in front of the hole in this match. Mickey lined it up, then hit the ball—hard.

I mention this episode because the big stories out of this week’s PGA have two themes: one centering about the role of caddies (including not only the ongoing Steve Williams-Tiger Woods-Adam Scott triangle, but also the role of Rory McIlroy’s caddie, J.P. Fitzgerald—whom I wrote about last week—in Rory’s wrist injury on Thursday), and the other about the relative lack of strategy of Atlanta Athletic Club after Rees Jones’ most recent redesign. (This only a few years after his last rethink of the course.) These controversies are perhaps not unrelated, but I shall approach them in reverse order.

John Huggan, the regular golf writer for The Scotsman, writes in Golf Digest’s blog Local Knowledge about the interesting architectural choices of Rees Jones’ redesign of AAC for the PGA Championship, which apparently involves limiting any choices on the part of the players. Huggan goes through the course hole-by-hole: “On the first hole, players are asked to hit their balls between bunkers on either side of the fairway”; “On the second hole, players are asked to hit their balls between bunkers on either side of the fairway”; “On the first par-5, the fifth, players are asked to hit their balls between bunkers on either side of the fairway.” And so on. The architecture is designed, Huggan says, to test players’ ability “to kick field goals from the tee.”

(I have edited Huggan’s comments for the sake of brevity. The other holes, it seems, are just the same, unless Jones threw a pond in front of the green for variety’s sake.)

The eighteenth hole, in turn, a par-four that requires a well-over 200-yard carry to approach the green, is just weird: there’s been numbers of rounds ending with double and even triple bogies this week, Tiger’s two rounds being just examples. There’s the story of the club pro (the PGA is open to club professionals who qualify; it’s always been one of the charms of the event that your club pro—or a guy who could be your club pro—is playing with the tour players) with a chance to make the cut who blew up on his last hole, not only missing out on the weekend but also a pretty hefty check. He was later found sitting on a curb in the parking lot, it seems, in a rather emotional state. (No physical injuries reported.)

Phil Mickelson made a lengthy attack on the architecture on Friday: he said that AAC is “a great example of how modern architecture is killing participation in golf,” because “the average guy just can’t play it.” In part, Phil says, this is because many greens have obstacles both in front of and behind of them, meaning that the only way to approach most greens is through a high-flying shot—the sort that is routine on the PGA Tour and virtually impossible for anyone else. “Now,” as Phil said, “for us out here [meaning the tour], it doesn’t make a bit of difference, because we are going to fly the ball to the green either way.” But, as he went on to point out, it’s surely this factor that has caused rounds on that course to drop among AAC’s membership: 25 percent, according to Phil.

It’s just this problem that the PGA of America’s “Play It Forward” movement, which the president of that organization mentioned on Saturday’s telecast, is designed to attack. Created by Barney Adams of Adams Golf, it asks amateurs to try golf from tees much further ahead of where many usually play. Adams was motivated by the fact that, were the pros to play a course that required the kinds of shots most amateurs hit on a 6600 yard golf course, that course would need to be 8100 yards long—which is just a ridiculous waste of landscape, water, and time. Adams’ thrust, in short, is just against the mindless pursuit of distance in favor of what golf, in the end, is about: intelligently creating a strategy for each hole, given one’s abilities and conditions.

That brings up the the other discussion going on this week, which has been about caddies: the continuing Steve Williams lightening rod, and also another attack on J.P. Fitzgerald, this time about whether J.P. ought to have “allowed” Rory McIlroy to hit the shot from near a tree root that ended up injuring Rory’s wrist. Afterwards, Rory said “He’s my caddie, he’s not my father,” which makes the point that in the end, all decisions are ultimately the player. But that doesn’t mean that the detractors don’t have a point: given that Rory is only 21, with presumably years of golf in front of him, it made little sense to hit a shot that might have put that career in jeopardy, and it is the caddie’s responsibility to be the voice of reason in such situations.

Yet the criticism of J.P. is quite different from the criticism of Steve Williams, and not merely in the fact that the former has largely come from golf “insiders” while the latter has come more from the “mainstream” press. ESPN’s Bill Simmons, for instance, wrote in the aftermath of Williams’ comments at the end of the tournament at Firestone, that “what stunned [him] most about the Williams/Scott situation last week” was that “caddies earn 10 percent of a golfer’s winnings.” A caddie, Simmons said, “is like a waiter at a nice restaurant, basically,” simultaneously devaluing both the work of waiters at high-end restaurants—do you want a 22-year-old telling you what wine goes best with your risotto?—and caddies in one breath. In other words, critics of J.P. are saying he acts too much like a waiter at Dennys—You want ketchup for your steak? Sure!—while critics of Stevie don’t even seem to get what a caddie does.

What seems to have bothered kibitzers like Simmons is Williams’ apparent claim, during the interview after the Firestone, that he had “145 wins” on tour. The detractors take umbrage, saying essentially that Williams just had the good fortune to be standing there when his man won, despite the fact that Williams has worked for three of the greatest golfers of his time (Raymond Floyd, Greg Norman, and Tiger). That fact alone ought to mean something: clearly, on the “fool me once” principle, the best golfers in the world had reason to find Steve Williams to carry the bag rather than, say, Bill Simmons.

That doesn’t mean, obviously, that Floyd or Norman or anybody wouldn’t have won without Steve Williams, something that Williams himself would surely not dispute. It does suggest that Williams added some value, somehow. Which brings up the question of just what kind of value a caddie can add, anyhow—which, as it happens, returns us to Mickey the K’s putt on the twelfth green of his match. As I mentioned earlier, he hit his putt pretty hard, so hard that it looked like, if it missed the cup, the ball would roll practically off the green. But, because Mickey hit the ball on a tight line, it took just the right amount of break—and hit the back of the cup, and went in. Mickey staved off defeat, at least for the moment.

What I did—and I say this with as sober an understanding of what happened as possible—was to size the conditions of both the player and the golf course: Mickey had been hitting them short, probably because the grass was wet due to the morning dew (remember that? It’s in the first sentence.) Any good looper would have done something similar. Mickey did end up losing the match, however, mostly because his opponent had a lucky chip-in and got some shots from Mickey on what turned out to be pivotal holes. And that’s to say that a good caddie—namely, me—can certainly help, but just as certainly can’t do everything on his own, as any proper caddie will tell you.

To discover that, though, demands just what is the common thread that runs through all of these discussions—which is, as may be no surprise to anyone who reads this blog, the role of intelligence in golf. Of course, to discover that thread requires just the application of that organ which the forces of stupid—Bill Simmons, Rees Jones, et al.—seem not to possess.

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Fitzgerald and McIlroy Are NOT Dead—Yet

Guildenstern: Good my lord, vouchsafe me a word with you.
Hamlet III, 2

There’s a legendary looper I know somewhat who works mostly on the LPGA—but also has worked at Riviera and various other places—named Mike Troublefield. I last ran into him some years ago at Lochinvar, outside of Houston, Texas (where Butch Harmon spent some time before becoming guru to the stars). When I first met Troublefield, while I was working an LPGA tournament at Stonebridge outside of Chicago, he introduced me to the concept of the “yaddie”: a caddie who, no matter the circumstance, just says “yeah” to whatever nonsensical shot his player wants to hit. In Troublefield’s estimation, which is now mine, the worth of a caddie is shown by his willingness to say, at least once in a while, “no” to his player. It’s a point I’ve been thinking about this summer because of the recent focus on elite players’ caddies: not merely Steve Williams, but also through the rather lesser-known controversy over Rory McIlroy’s caddie, J.P. Fitzgerald.

During the Irish Open last month, McIlroy lost three shots during the first day of the tournament to shoot 70, which is a respectable score, but it caused an American ex-pro-turned-commentator named Jay Townsend to go into full-blown meltdown mode: Townsend said, via Twitter, not only that McIlroy’s course management was “shocking,” but also blamed it on Rory’s caddie, Fitzgerald, by saying that “I thought JP allowed some SHOCKING [sic] course management today.” Rory fired back, also via Twitter, by replying “shut up … You’re a commentator and a failed golfer, you’re opinion means nothing!” [sic]. All of which is tremendous fun, but also brings up a sensitive subject: namely, how much was J.P. to blame for McIlroy’s meltdown at Augusta in April? Or to put it Troublefield’s way: is J.P. a yaddie?

To be sure, in light of his victory at Congressional in June, the collapse in Georgia seems merely a prelude—rather like Bobby Jones walking off the course at St. Andrews in the summer of 1921—but at the time it seemed ominous, with many speculating that McIlroy might turn out like Sergio Garcia, another young phenom who never (or hasn’t yet) learned how to close out his rivals. Now such fears appear ridiculous, but the real question isn’t whether McIlroy is a world-class player (which now is answered), but the passage of time allows us to ask a different question about McIlroy’s failure: the question of just how much responsibility (or ability) a caddie has to derail a player from boarding a bogey train.

Unfortunately, there isn’t any video available to me (that I know of) of the first round of the Irish Open this year, so it’s unclear to me just what it was that Townshend was referring to in his tweets. But it is possible to view video of Rory’s 10th hole at Augusta—where McIlroy made the triple-bogey that began the string of bad holes that lost him the tournament—on YouTube, which provides the only neutral evidence of the relation between J.P. and Rory and what J.P.’s possible role in the blow-up might have been. So I watched it.

Before getting to what I saw, though, it’s important to note just what sort of limitations a caddie’s job has. Obviously, J.P. doesn’t hit the shots; he merely carries the bag and (occasionally) might provide a bit of counsel. J.P. didn’t hit the huge hook that ended up so far left of the 10th fairway that it was nearly left of the Butler Cabin—Rory did. Just as clearly, neither of them (but particularly J.P.) could not have seen that coming (though it’s been remarked that the hook is Rory’s “miss,” the shot he tends to hit when he loses focus). In other words, J.P. can’t bear responsibility for Rory’s drive.

To this point, Rory had been playing spectacularly well that week, since after all he was winning the tournament. Some might point to the bogies he made at the first hole and the fifth in the final rounds as foreshadows of what was to come, but J.P. could not have thought of them as anything other than bumps in the road: both holes are spectacularly difficult ones now after the several redesigns at Augusta in recent years. Maybe Rory might not have been playing so well as he had in the first round, but then there weren’t a lot of 65s shot this year so Rory was bound to regress to the mean in following rounds (he shot 69 and 70 respectively in rounds 2 and 3). Rory’s lead was four shots beginning the final round so, as J.P. must have known, it wouldn’t take a spectacular round for the Northern Irishman to win. (All it would have taken, in retrospect, is another 69 to beat Charl Schwartzel, the man who ended up winning.)

Despite the bogies on the front nine, McIlroy had made a birdie on the difficult 7th, so not everything must have looked bleak to J.P.. There were plenty of birdie holes coming up, so the caddie must have been thinking that even after the horrible drive, a bogey or even a miracle par weren’t out of the picture, which could still be saved by birdies or even eagles on the two five-pars at 13 and 15. It wasn’t a reason to panic. McIlroy smartly pitched out to the fairway on 10, leaving a not-too-difficult shot to the green for his third shot. It’s on what happened next that any question of J.P.’s role has to rest.

What McIlroy did was hit virtually the same shot that sent him into the trees off the tee—a big hook that sent him into the trees (again) left of the green. The television coverage cut away from McIlroy to show what was happening elsewhere on the golf course, and anyway J.P. wasn’t miked (as some Nationwide tournaments have done with caddies recently) so it’s hard to say what the two discussed on the way to the ball. Even then, J.P. could not have been panicking—although it’s unusual for a professional golfer to miss the same way twice on the same hole, J.P. must have known that a smart chip to the green, followed by a good putt, would still salvage bogey and Rory’s chances. The mistake J.P. made, if he did make one, could only have come prior to the next shot, Rory’s fourth.

That shot was a chip that hit a branch of a tree, thereby coming up short of the green and rolling back down a slope, virtually to Rory’s feet. If there’s anything that J.P. could have said before that moment it would have been, or should have been, something like “take the tree out of play” and “plenty of green behind the pin.” In other words, what J.P. should have emphasized was that Rory’s primary job for that shot was to get the ball on the green rather than try to cozy the ball next to the pin, which is apparently what Rory actually tried to do. By missing that shot, Rory made double-bogey a virtual certainty rather than a possibility, as it had been at every point before then.

That shot was, as it turns out, the climax of Rory’s tournament: he did go on to three-putt the 11th and four-putt the 12th, but it’s arguable that those misses were simply the result of what had already happened. Rory didn’t miss any more shots like he had on 10 (at least, none so badly); he just seems to have been rattled by the triple-bogey into putting poorly. It’s possible to say, especially about the four-putt, that J.P. should have taken his man aside and slowed him down, forcing him to focus on the putts and thereby preventing those horrible miscues, but it also seems clear that the crucial hole was the 10th.

Of all the shots, in turn, that McIlroy played on that hole (7 of them!), it follows that the most significant was his fourth, which was the one that made the triple possible in the first place. In other words, even aside from the fact that the fourth was the shot for par (as unlikely as that was), it was the shot that created the likelihood for what eventually happened: prior to then, McIlroy might still have made par, while afterwards the triple became not only possible, but even likely. For the purposes of determining what responsibility J.P. bears for McIlroy’s loss in April, then, the most important point would seem to be what happened before Rory hit that shot of all the shots he hit that day.

Unfortunately, the video doesn’t show what happened: whether, in short, player and caddie had any kind of discussion about how to play it. And, actually, it’s difficult to even make out just what happened on that shot at all: McIlroy suddenly appears, after a commercial break, behind some sort of bush or small tree, and hits the ball; immediately after, there’s the sinking sound of a ball striking wood: McIlroy struck the tree. The announcers do claim that McIlroy had to try to fly it over that bush, but the video doesn’t provide enough evidence either way: maybe he did, which seems likely given that the announcers were proximate (if they were), and maybe, given that Nantz at least wasn’t directly at the 10th hole, not.

What’s interesting about that aspect of the shot is that the alternative to the high-flying shot CBS’ announcers believed necessary is exactly the sort of shot one might think a golfer who grew up playing in linksland—as we might think Northern Ireland, home of Royal Portrush among other links courses, to be—would relish: a low-flying, then rolling, shot up the bank of the 10th green, thereby avoiding the tree branch. But, as McIlroy said during this year’s Open Championship, he isn’t really that sort of player: he prefers the high-ball American style of flop shot, down-the-chimney golf. And that’s the sort of shot he attempted on the 10th: a high shot that, had it not hit the branch, would have landed near the pin and, with the right spin, would have stayed there. Knowing his player’s preferences, J.P. might have decided that the odds favored the kind of shot Rory likes to hit, rather than one that he didn’t.

That is to say that the call J.P. made, whether he vocalized it or not, is at the end of the day a judgement call. It so happens that J.P. guessed wrong. But what Troublefield would want to know about what happened on the 10th is whether J.P. questioned his player about it or whether he just went along with whatever the boss said. As I’ve mentioned there isn’t anything at least in the public record about what happened in the moments before that fourth pass, but there are two people who do know: J.P. and Rory.

For the moment, and particularly after the U.S. Open, Rory is happy with J.P.’s performance, which seems to indicate that J.P. did say what needed to be said at that time. But what will ultimately let us know about what happened in the valley of Augusta’s 10th on that Sunday in April is what Rory decides to do about J.P. after the season is over, when he has a moment to calmly reflect on a season where he might have started out halfway to a Grand Slam but let it slip away on a grassy Georgian knoll.

A Tiger’s Cold July

Claudio:  Disloyal?
Much Ado About Nothing III, 2

We were driving in to Medinah this morning at our usual time, six, when Scott, who’s twenty-six, started in on the recent death of the singer Amy Winehouse. “Twenty-seven,” he kept saying, going on to repeat the Internet story (now with its own Wikipedia entry!) about the “27 Club” or the “Curse of 27.” “Spooky, huh?” he wanted to know. I replied that I did not find it “spooky,” at all—that, in fact, I find it rather more interesting that more celebrities don’t die at that age than actually do. I call this the “Celebrity Death Theory,” and while at first it may appear rather far from golf, I think it actually sheds a certain light on Tiger Woods’ recent firing of caddie Steve Williams.

My theory is that celebrities sometimes die at that age because it is part of the life-cycle of the celebrity, considered in the same way that one might look at some interesting species of beetle. Consider: people who become huge, international stars often become that at an early age, sometimes while still in their teens or early twenties. This is because the industries that produce “stars,” the entertainment industries, needs young people: first, because people usually look their best at that age (some people, sure, age into their bodies and so on, but for the most part); and second because the greatest consumers of the entertainment industry’s product are people of that same age.

Still, why should celebrities die at the age of twenty-seven—when, if they achieved their status at some earlier age, they ought to be at their peak of fortune and fame? This, I think, is actually the sort of “puzzle” that resolves itself if you happen to think about it. Twenty-seven is, in reality, a natural age for celebrities to die. Consider: Hendrix and Morrison and Joplin and Cobain (to name four of the people associated with the phenomena) had all had their international breakthroughs at early ages: as noted, the entertainment industry has a constant need for young, fresh faces, so naturally there is a constant stream of newly-famous in their early twenties or even younger.

But after that first flush of success, where are you? In the music industry, at least—and other places—there’s a phenomena known as the “sophomore slump,” which describes what happens when your next album (or book or movie or whatever) isn’t quite the same international smash as your first one. Of course, since we’re talking about the sorts of products that have massively huge success—Nirvana’s Nevermind, for instance—there’s a certain argument that nobody could possibly follow that up with something even more successful: this is what sabermatricians, the stat-heads of baseball, call “regression toward the mean”—it was virtually certain, for example, that Barry Bonds would hit less than 70 home runs the season following his record-setting year, even aside from the possibility that he cut back on his steroids intake to avoid detection.

A lot of things have to happen to turn somebody from just another recent college graduate—what Morrison was in the summer of 1965—into the sort of star that everyone knew two years later, after the release of the Doors’ self-titled first studio album in the winter of 1967. Most of them, of course, are outside of the control of the “artist,” or worker in the entertainment industry: “fame” is what happens when the particular concerns of one person suddenly are also the concerns of great numbers of other people. That’s what the German philosophers meant when they referred to the “Zeitgeist,” which Shelley (himself one of the first beneficiaries of the process) translated as the “spirit of the age.” In German, it all sounds mysterious and exotic, but what they meant was something far more down-to-earth and prosaic, even if that’s difficult to recall now.

Yet what happens after that first wave of international pop stardom is over, after your name stops being what’s listed in the apartment directory and starts being the last thing the announcer says before you take the stage? Well, for a lot of people, it might be time to take stock, and figure out what to do next. That’s apparently what Morrison was doing in Paris in the summer of 1971—escaping to a city where his name was not a household one, in much the same way that Michael Jordan used to escape to Europe during the NBA’s offseason.

Twenty-seven, in other words, is about the age a person might suddenly have some time on their hands, if they became famous at the age of twenty-one or so. At loose ends, so to speak. Back to Black, the album that made Amy Winehouse famous—and won her five Grammy awards, more than any previous English musician—was released in 2007, nearly five years ago. She had not released an album since then; there’d been a few singles, and just prior to her death there was a twelve-city European tour (the latter dates of which were cancelled due to the catch-all diagnosis of “exhaustion”), but there doesn’t seem to have been an album due anytime soon—certainly not something to compete with Back to Black.

These deaths at the age of twenty-seven, in short, are perhaps part of the life-cycle of the species, not something anomalous or strange. There ought to be a certain amount of casualties from celebrity status—which, after all, is a life-threatening condition, as we have reason to know now—and so there are, if one examines the record with a cold eye. Which brings us around to Tiger Woods and Steve Williams, which happened two weeks ago and, I would say, is equally part of the life-cycle of the famous person. Part of that cycle, we might suppose, is the increasingly-narrow circle of people that the celebrity can trust: a circle that, in Tiger’s case, was rather small to begin with and has become increasingly more so in the past several years.

Woods fired his long-time caddie, Steve Williams, at the AT&T National at Aronimink over the weekend of the Fourth of July, apparently because Williams showed up at the tournament with Adam Scott, the Australian golfer Williams first worked for this year at the U.S. Open. Woods was under the impression that the U.S. Open loop at Congressional for Scott was a one-off, and took Williams’ appearance with Scott at Aronimink as a sign of “disloyalty”—never mind that Williams has not only defended Tiger on the golf course (like the time he threw a photographer’s camera in a pond), but also in the press since Tiger’s unfortunate Thanksgiving. Together with how Tiger fired his first looper on tour, Mike “Fluff” Cowan—Cowan had the temerity to appear in commercials—this latest dismissal paints a picture of a man with a particularly narrow interpretation of loyalty.

It’s just to escape such an increasingly tighter circle, of course, that led Jim Morrison, and later Michael Jordan, to Europe, because there they could walk down the street without being mobbed as they might be in the United States. It’s one reason that smaller-scale “celebrities” are drawn to New York or Los Angeles: in cities like that, a mere former governor of Arkansas, say, is lost in the crowd. So what we might say is that “celebrity” status has its own forces at work that are, in effect, much like the forces that draw the salmon back to the same stream year after year, or that move whales from Alaska to Hawaii with the seasons: as the web of international media attention grows tighter, the “celebrity” realizes that success is also a prison with bars of gold instead of steel. Inevitably, as all semblance of a “normal” life is shed, that has an effect on the psyche: innumerable arrest records can attest to the reactions of Winehouse et al. to the price of fame.

Human beings are, after all, social animals: we have to have contact with other human beings in order to stay sane, as studies of the effect of solitary confinement on prison inmates have shown. So what we might think is that there is some algorithm to human behavior whereby increasing celebrity leads to increasing distance from what we like to term the “real world,” a distance that can be measured in altercations and prison sentences, divorces and “rehab treatments.” As that distance increases so too does the number of people with whom one might have a standard kind of human relation, as Woods apparently had with Williams (who had previously worked for another number one player in the world, Greg Norman, and so was presumably inured to celebrity status), and maybe that means that a person will spend an increasing amount of time thinking about those few relationships still left.

It’s reasonably well-known, for example, that the rest of Tiger’s family—his half-brothers and sisters, and their children—have barely had any contact with him in years, despite the fact that one of his nieces, Cheyenne Woods, is following in her uncle’s footsteps in golf: she’s won more than 30 amateur tournaments. But Tiger cut his ties with those relations shortly after his father’s death, as CBS newsmagazine 60 Minutes described it in a story some years ago. Now these same forces have, we might say, acted to show Steve Williams the door. One can only wonder whether Tiger realizes how much his actions are being dictated to him, who’s always prided himself on his own self-mastery.