How To Make Money By Staring Blankly Into Space

It was the second ball, I suppose, that did me in. Well-struck, the last I saw of it from my position next to my golfer—a guest of the member—was after it disappeared in the trees up the right side of hole 10 on Course #3. This was after I’d already lost the guest’s second shot, also in the trees on the right side, also after I’d seen it about as well it could be seen, at least from that position. The other caddie in our group, Knuckles, who as it happened was standing with his golfers some fifty yards away, saw the ball about as well as I did, and we spent quite a bit of time looking for both balls, though they were essentially unfindable in the leaves of an autumn afternoon in October at Medinah. The member—whose name is, incidentally, plastered all over the city’s roads—was unhappy. But the light of October isn’t that of July.

That isn’t meant as a metaphor; not entirely anyway. As the sun descends in the sky during its slow roll towards the winter solstice, the angle at which light strikes a flying golf ball changes, which (for reasons any beginning physicist could probably explain better) affects the ability to track it through the sky. That doesn’t mean it’s impossible, sure; there’s tricks to following a ball in flight that become second nature after a while.

What I’ve found after so many years of following golf balls on very different trajectories, curves, and directions is that there are a couple of rules of thumb to the job—a job that begins even before the players get to the tee. It’s necessary to be in a good position, for instance: far enough from the tee to be closer to the point of landing than the point of ball-club contact, first of all, but not so far from the tee that the ball can’t be discovered immediately after impact. Usually somewhere more than 200 yards is good.

It’s also useful to be in a position where the sun is directly behind you, as if taking a photograph. That way, more sunlight can be reflected off the ball; it is a very small object flying somewhere around 150 miles an hour. It’s hard to spot. For that same reason, it’s better to be somewhere above the player hitting the shot, because that way there’s a better possibility for more photons to strike your retina: the source of those photons, the sun, is always above the ball, so if you are too then you’ve got a better shot at intercepting some of the photons. (At Chicago Highlands, where I’ve worked occasionally since they opened, I always tried—and taught their new caddies to try—to climb the artificial dunes in the landscape in order to be above the tee box.)

Positioning, however, will only get you so far—even the best position is worthless if you can’t pick up the ball in motion. This is something of a skill, I’ve found. It’s always kind of surprising to me, when I’m playing myself on some public course I’ve managed to squeeze out on as a single on some late afternoon, how rarely my playing partners can see the golf ball flying off the tee. It took me a long time to discover just why: it’s not because they’re blind, it’s because they are, quite literally, looking at the thing wrong.

Again, that isn’t a metaphor. The way to look at the thing right is, like much of golf, highly counterintuitive: people believe that, because they are looking for a small object (the ball) against a very large background (the sky), the thing to do is to focus very tightly and try, like a searchplane hunting for survivors, to scan methodically across the whole sky. Unfortunately, because the sky is so big, this is impossible considering both how much area there is to look at and how fast the ball is traveling. The way to look for a golf ball isn’t, for that reason, to try to look for the ball. The way to do it is to let the ball look for you.

That sounds ridiculous, surely, but it has a physiological basis. Human beings have two ways to track objects in motion, which the psychologists call smooth pursuit tracking and saccadic tracking. Smooth pursuit is the method the brain uses when the object being tracked is relatively predictable; that is, if “you know which way a target will move, or know the target trajectory,” and “especially if you know exactly when the motion will start,” as the relevant article in Wikipedia reports. Smooth pursuit is, as the name implies, steady and orderly. This system is highly developed in human beings (perhaps unsurprising since humans are hunting animals), and allows people to track even objects that are momentarily invisible—due, say, to a passing cloud or patch of trees—and develops as early as six months of age. Based on my experience, this is the system that most people use to track golf balls in flight, which maybe makes sense since most people actually can predict precisely when a ball is put in motion—they’re watching their buddy hit a shot.

Things are different, though, when you’re out forecaddieing. You aren’t able to predict just when contact is made, or at least not readily. What your brain uses in that situation is what the psychologists call saccadic movement, which sounds complicated until you know that it’s what is enabling you to read this very page. When reading, the psychologists have found, your eyes don’t relentlessly read each letter and word in order; they skip around, somewhat randomly, from the beginning of a sentence (or paragraph) to its end, from the top of a page to its end. Your ability to understand a sentence can be thrown off by constructing a sentence in an odd way. (Different ways of constructing sentences may obstruct your understanding. Comprehension inhibition results by sentence construction strangeness. Etc.)

It’s possible to discover saccadic movement by looking in a mirror: look directly at your eyes, then shift your gaze. What you’ll find is that you can never actually see your eyes in motion: all you’ll see is the same steady look you started with, only with your eyes resting on a different space. What that indicates is that your mind suppresses the blurry images that occur when the eye is in motion. That’s why, when reading, you have the impression that you are just following the words in order … when in reality you aren’t. The mind—as distinct from the eye—only allows you to see stable images. That’s one reason why it’s so hard to see a golf ball in flight. A golf ball is blurry, and your brain doesn’t want you to see blurry stuff. That’s one reason why there are lines painted on the road: they provide a stable image for your mind to process even as you zip along.

Your brain’s allergy to blurriness, though, is just what saccadic tracking is designed to take advantage of: the salient point about a golf ball in flight that differentiates it from virtually everything else in the sky is that it’s moving. Or to put it another way, a golf ball in flight is blurry. That’s how saccadic movement can help: by bouncing around randomly, eventually your eye can detect that part of the sky that, in effect, your brain finds unpleasant, at which point you can engage your smooth pursuit system.

To find a golf ball in flight, in other words, it’s best—in effect—not to look for it. Or, as I said above, to let the ball look for you. That’s also why it’s better to be some distance from the ball at impact: standing near it at impact means relying on your smooth pursuit system right from the start, which is fine if the ball is well-struck (and thus predictable) but not so much if it isn’t, which of course is also just when it’s most important to see the ball in flight. Which in turn is perhaps why is often easier to see tee shots hit with a driver from a forecaddie position than it is to see approach shots hit with a shorter club (which presumably don’t fly as far, which would seem to imply they’d be easier to see) when you’re standing next to the player.

Most members, I’d hasten to say, understand something of how this works, even if just in an unconscious way—I doubt very many could explain in the depth I’ve taken here—and thus are usually a lot more forgiving if you lose an approach shot that darts offline than if you lose a tee shot. (That’s also why members usually allow you the time to get into a good position away from the ball when hitting a shot from off the fairway, even if they aren’t able to explain just why.) This particular member, however, wasn’t.

Why not? Or to put it another way, why was he in effect demanding that I somehow elude the laws of motion and (more significantly) the means whereby human beings perceive that motion? A lot of people, I suspect, would chalk it up to something endemic to golf itself—and a lot of them would trace it to the sort of thing that Charlie Sifford, for example, the first African-American to hold a PGA Tour card, was referring to recently (all right, more than a month ago) in an interview with the Los Angeles Times’ Bill Plaschke.

“[Bleep] Augusta,” Sifford said.

“When I was good enough to play there,” Sifford went on to explain, “the Masters never invited me, so why would they invite me now?” (They’d invite him, if they did invite him, because Charlie Sifford is the one man responsible for opening the PGA Tour to everyone, because he won the “Negro National Open”—essentially, the U.S. Open for black golfers—for five years running beginning in 1952, because he won twice on the PGA Tour when he finally was allowed to play, and because he won the Senior PGA Championship, long after his prime.) But, it seems, Augusta is not the type of place that could admit it was ever wrong.

A lot of people, I think, would chalk up Augusta’s refusal of Charlie Sifford to simple racism. As Sifford himself reminded people in his interview with Plaschke, Augusta is the place whose former chairman, Clifford Roberts, once supposedly said that so long as he was in charge, the caddies would be black and the golfers white. (As somebody who was once a white caddie at Augusta—yes, there are some there now—I tend to dwell on this.) And, in thinking so, such people are able to reassure themselves we don’t live in such backward times anymore, and thank goodness, and all that.

And, you know, we don’t, which I was reminded of last week when I happened to be skimming the Chicago Reader to look for some restaurant or other. There, on the first page of their website, was an article written by the Reader’s Michael Miner entitled “The Fragile Legacy of Literary Journalism,” the first paragraph of which asks that some scholar, once “all better subjects have been exhausted,” write “a dissertation charting ‘The Evolution of Literary Fashion in the 20th Century Chicago Newsroom.’” The “key document of this saga,” Miner suggests, has already been unearthed: “a memo posted on the newsroom bulletin board [of the now-defunct Chicago Daily News] in the early 50s by crusty city editor Clem Lane.” It’s a name that might not mean much to you—unless you are a great deal older than you are telling your spouse and children, rascal—but apparently once did, at least in Chicago.

And maybe elsewhere too. He was apparently the archetypal city editor, of the sort already noted in the Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur play The Front Page of 1928 (which later became the classic film, His Girl Friday). He was the sort of person after whom the old school, when it was first built, was named. He was also my father’s great-uncle.

The salient point here however isn’t going down that rabbit hole into Chicago history, and the rest, but rather the memo that Miner describes. Here is that memo, in shortened form: “Short words … short sentences … short leads … short paragraphs.” It amounts to a style that could be called “Chicago City Desk.” It’s the style that, very likely, is the one that got taught to you by some long-ago teacher of English, if you had one in whatever village you happen to have escaped from on some long-forgotten evening.

It’s also the style that most writers, whether in newspapers or anywhere else, have long since sought to get away from, whether it be—in the specific case of newspapers and journalism—the “New Journalism” as practiced by Tom Wolfe, Hunter S. Thompson, Truman Capote, Joan Didion, and the rest, or more generally American writing in toto. You could argue, for instance, that there’s a strong linkage between the style Clem directs his reporters to adopt and the style of Ernest Hemingway, that iceberg within American literature all newly-launched vessels have attempted, successfully or not, to direct themselves around since. There’s a reason David Foster Wallace (who wrote Infinite Jest, and if you haven’t read it well, you just aren’t cool), for example, writes in such a long-winded (and heavily-footnoted) manner: in part, at least, it’s a kind of Fuck you to all of those people who directed him to write in a short and easily-comprehensible way.

What Clem liked, in short—yes, yes—was things to be clear, well-defined, sharply-distinguishable. And, you could say, American literature—or more so, American writing in general, and hell, since American writing has, since World War II, been something of a standard for the world itself, maybe the world’s writing—ever since has been in revolt against that. And I don’t mean to spell things out too much for you, if you’ve already gotten the conceit thus far, but what could be said is that all of those writers in revolt against the “tyranny” of Chicago City Desk style are people who encourage you to view the world through saccadic movement rather than engaging your smooth pursuit system. They want to persuade you that the truth is off somewhere on the margins, out in the corner of your eye, that point that you see but you don’t see.

Maybe none of that matters except to Literate Americans. I don’t know. But here’s a recent sentence from Paul Krugman, the Nobel Prize-winning economist (and yes, the economics prize is not quite the same as winning one for Physics or Medicine or Literature) who moonlights as a columnist for the New York Times: “Whenever growing income disparities threaten to come into focus, a reliable set of defenders tries to bring back the blur.” Krugman trots out the usual suspects: seemingly-authoritative reports that, really, there isn’t an “income gap,” or other newspaper columnists (meaning, mostly, David Brooks) who say that it isn’t, really, an “income gap” so much as it is an “education gap,” and so on. But the data, Krugman says—and an increasing chorus of experts backs him up—doesn’t lie: the wealth of the richest of the richest Americans, like that member at Medinah, just keeps shooting up. And up. In a steadily-ascending curve.

Like a smoothly-struck tee shot.


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