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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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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