Romeos and Roses

“Three iron,” I said. My golfer was surprised because he expected an argument for the hybrid, which was already a step away from the club he was willing to settle for—three wood—and two away from the club he wanted to hit, the driver. So much our society is based on adversarial stances—the legal system, capitalism—so it might seem natural for there to be a take-and-give relationship between the caddie and the golfer. We are taught early that confronting your problems is the best method for life, a lesson only reinforced by the language of “recovery” that has so suffused our talk that it is hardly noticeable any more. But while maybe that’s the best method for reaching a verdict or a fair price or a scientific conclusion, it might not be best for golf.

The third hole of the final day of the club championship was no time for taking silly chances, I thought; particularly when the wind was gusting up to forty and the third was directly down it. My player hits a three iron 220 yards, the bunkers on the right side of the third were only 240 yards away—and more significantly, only 150 yards from the center of the green. So when he objected to the three iron by saying a hybrid would leave him with only a wedge in, I replied by saying that, with the wind, so would the iron.

Directly afterwards, he pull-hooked the three iron into the left trees—something he hadn’t done, he said as we walked up the fairway to the ball, in years. He also, oddly, apologized for the shot, and said that the three iron idea was “very, very smart.” But that didn’t change our situation. As it happened, we ended up saving a bogey, but this was a time when we needed to be making up shots on the leader, not throwing them away on ridiculously-missed shots.

My friend and colleague Scott, who wasted his childhood in one of the wealthiest towns on Chicago’s wealthy North Shore, and who the Mexicans refer to as “Whiskey” because of his unfortunate habit of sleeping off his benders in the caddie yard, is well-versed in the language of “recovery.” Scott refers to examples like the above as the “prove you wrong” syndrome, and diagnosed my weekend as a result of it during my postgame debriefing in the car on the ride home that afternoon.

Scott was a little salty due to not getting out that day, which other than the tournament was kind of slow.  That only compounded the general background peevishness that halos around him on account, most recently, of his shyster Ukrainian HVAC landlord, who is always collecting Scott’s loop money to repay the cost of a cargo van that Scott may or may not have wrecked once owned by said landlord. These facts, however, do not discount what he had to say entirely.

According to Scott, the theory of “prove you wrong” is known to every looper, even if only subverbally. It works like this: some golfers, when presented with a plan that does not originate with them, will unconsciously reject it, no matter how sensible it is. That rejection will be made manifest by a notably poor swing on the subsequent shot, no matter how ridiculously easy said shot might be.

It’s a theory that, certainly, Scott did not originate, since the theory has been  dramatized by a scene in the film Tin Cup—perhaps, in fact, THE scene from that movie, the one that maybe most perfectly captures something about the player-caddie relationship and thus, if you happen to think that that dialectic itself captures the essence of the game itself, which like no other sport (or at least, none that I’m aware of) requires a level of verbalization of the various options available to the player simply unavailable to games that are in motion (Michael Jordan couldn’t describe what he wanted to do to Scottie Pippen while it was happening), just is golf. It isn’t the one you’re thinking of, however; not the dramatic finale when the hero, Roy McAvoy (played by Kevin Costner, who is probably why that movie was not the total success the brilliance of its script conjures), finally holes out on the last hole of the last day at the Open—for a twelve.

Rather, it comes earlier in the film, when Roy is merely trying to make it through local qualifying. “Tight par five, out of bounds left,” says Romeo (played by Cheech Marin) about McAvoy’s next hole. Romeo wants his boss to hit a two iron, because a par guarantees Roy qualifies for the next round. But Roy rejects it—he doesn’t (just) want to qualify, he wants “the course record!” He wants the Big Dog: the driver.

But Romeo, anger in his heart, breaks Roy’s driver in two. Roy, trying not to lose his cool, then asks for the three wood. Romeo snaps that one too. Roy then asks for, and gets, the two iron, which he studies for a moment. Then Roy snaps that club in two. “Sometimes I fan that two iron,” Roy says by way of explanation. He proceeds through his bag, noting which miss each club is associated with: “I’ve hooked my four iron,” and “skulled the eight,” and so on. Roy even breaks his putter, “Mr. Three-Putt.”

This is an astonishing scene, because it dramatizes so effectively the conflict at the core of golf: the struggle between humdrum and daring, bump-and-run and flop shot, the soaring carry over water and the canny lay-up at just the right moment. At that center of golf is an argument between Michael and Lucifer, archangel and Devil’s Advocate; a debate that holds court over every course, everywhere; a debate that perhaps is only fully enacted during a pro-level tournament, one where the players can hit virtually any shot, but that is still enacted inside each and every player of the game’s mind, on every shot.

Roy proceeds to enact a kind of fantasy: he shoots a 65 using the only club he has left in his bag, a seven iron—the “only truly safe club” he has. In a movie infected by psychology (the Rene Russo character, Dr. Griswold, plays a therapist), it’s a moment that might be described by a psychologist as a picture of a victorious Id, a moment in which the shackles of the Superego (represented by Romeo) are thrown off in a dionysiac revel. But aside from what it might mean in terms of the human maturation process, it’s also a moment daydreamed by any golfer who has taken a dislike to his caddie.

That is, in addition to whatever else this scene might signify, it most certainly enacts a kind of “fuck you” to Romeo, which is exactly what some players sometimes feel about the guy who’s telling them that that particular flag isn’t reachable by that particular club on this particular day. And that brings us back around to the “prove you wrong theory,” because Scott’s idea is that, since most players are not capable of the kind of heights achieved by the McAvoy character (since he is, after all, a fictional character, for starters), they proceed, when faced by the kind of situation faced by McAvoy when Romeo hands him the two iron, to enact the fantasy in the other direction: like my player for the club championship, they hit bad shots.

It is, after all, a great deal easier to hit bad shots than it is to hit good ones—in the sense that there are far more ways to hit bad ones than good ones; a decent teacher would tell you that hitting good shots is actually easier on the body—which is why the scene from Tin Cup is  fictional. But the question that this raises makes the issue not simply a golfing matter, because the mechanism that produces the instinct to “prove you wrong” can only arise from two sources: one which might refer to, in the sense used by psychologists or philosophers, “mind,” and that related-but-not-identical object referred to by biologists as the brain.

In other words, the question rests on the issue of whether golfers can be contrary for some bio-mechanical reason (that is, because a rise in tension results in elevated levels of a chemical in the brain, for instance), or whether there is a kind of logical necessity about it, in the way that the philosopher Hegel supposedly argued that an affirmation automatically generates a negation—a necessity that is independent of humans’ status as animal beings. That’s the sort of question that’s properly termed “academic,” because not only is it difficult to see how it might matter in a practical sense but also because of its forbidding complexity. Happily, though, at least one recent winner on the PGA Tour provides some insight into the question as it relates to golf.

That winner is Justin Rose, who won this past weekend outside Chicago at Cog Hill in what used to be called the Western Open. After the tournament, reports blogger (and Sports Illustrated Golf Plus writer) Stephanie Wei, Rose said that what made a difference this past week in part was a change in procedure with his caddie, Mark Fulcher. “In the past,” Rose said, the pair’s method was for Fulcher to throw “number after number after number” at Rose, whereas “this week we boiled it down to the number that the shot was actually playing and then committed to the shot from there.”

Before, Rose was “taking responsibility [for figuring what distance the shot was] because I thought that’s what was best for me”—Rose acted, in other words, like his own caddie. But during the tournament once known as the Western Rose said to Fulcher, “Fooch, I want you to caddie for me this week.” Rather than taking an adversarial position relative to his caddie, Rose decided simply to accept what “Fooch” had to say.

That doesn’t really answer the academic question of “mind” versus “brain,” to be sure. But maybe it demonstrates a method of confronting the “prove you wrong” scenario: rather than wondering whether to agree or disagree with Fulcher on every shot, Rose had already committed to agreement. Maybe that way he avoided ever triggering the phenomena, whether it is rooted in the mind or the brain. In sum, it’s arguable that Rose achieved a good result by avoiding confrontation, not by fostering it. But maybe that’s a lesson we aren’t yet ready to confront.