30 Seconds Over Waialae

“It needs to be good for the next player,” the man was telling me, though it took me a moment to understand him through the molasses of his Georgia-inflected speech. We were on the fourth hole of Augusta National—named “Flowering Crabapple”—and the man, who was considerably older than me, was raking out his player’s bunker to the left of the green with the care that, very likely, the White House gardeners devote to the Rose Garden. But we were done with the hole; we were moving on; there wasn’t time to do things the old man’s way. He was thinking of his responsibility to the other golfers; it was better, I thought, that he take care of his own player first.

Jeff Maggert—and Air Vice Marshal Sir Ralph Cochrane, whom I’ll get to a bit later—might disagree. First though, it’s necessary to explain that I’ve been reading Dan Jenkins’ The Money-Whipped, Steer-Job, Three-Jack Give-Up Artist this past week, which mentions the term “lurkers” (guys who haven’t won on tour) and why they are anathema to sportswriters. “Lurkers,” Jenkins explains, “are your basic nobodies,” players who “lurk around the top of the leaderboard where big names are involved and occasionally win a tournament, thereby screwing up everybody’s story.” But why do they screw up everybody’s story? Jeff Maggert, so I think, can answer part of that question.

Ask Jeff Maggert, for instance, about the 2003 Masters. Or better, ask his caddie, Brian Sullivan. To rehearse the story: on the third hole of the final round at that year’s Masters, Maggert hit himself in the chest with his own golf ball after rebounding it off the face of a fairway bunker. (There are, to be fair, rather a lot of them.) Maggert took a two-shot penalty, lost the lead he’d slept on Saturday night to Mike Weir, and never really recovered.

What not many remember though is that Maggert wasn’t completely out of the tournament until the twelfth hole, where he managed to hit his second shot into Rae’s Creek (incurring more penalty shots) because of what his caddie, Brian Sullivan, said was a case of “Somebody” doing “a very poor job of raking that trap”: instead of rolling back to the bottom of the bunker, his tee shot hung up on the bunker’s face, in a furrow created by a rake. Maggert ended up making an eight on the par-three hole—if he’d just bogied that hole and the third, he would have won the tournament by a shot.

The “somebody” whose rake job may have cost Maggert several hundred thousand dollars (and his looper tens of thousands) was Paul Tesori, best known for his “Tiger Who?” hat during the 2000 Presidents’ Cup when Tesori was working for Vijay Singh, then competing with Tiger for the #1 ranking. About that rake job, Tesori said in 2010 that it “was perfect,” and that when he heard about Sullivan’s comments he approached Sullivan and offered to settle it “like men.” Which is to say that what happens in a bunker can very often lead not only to fiscal consequences, but also physical ones.

But no matter how violent those consequences might be, they’re not as weighty as those that pressed on Sir Ralph in 1943 and ’44, when the black-painted night bombers flown by the men of Cochrane’s 5 Group, along with all the other bomb groups, were taking heavy casualties from Nazi night fighter planes because at that point in the war the long-range American fighter, the P-51, had yet to make an appearance in Europe. The only protection the bombers had from enemy fighters was their own gunners.

What Cochrane proposed to do was, instead of loading up the bombers with more guns, was just the opposite: he wanted to take all the heavy guns out of the bombers, along with their turrets and, incidentally, the gunners. What that would do was make the bombers lighter, hence able to fly not only faster, but higher, therefore avoiding the night fighters—and the anti-aircraft fire, or “flak”—altogether. (Also, for perhaps poetic reasons, Cochrane wanted to paint these planes white, instead of black.) But Bomber Command nixed Cochrane’s idea.

The reason Bomber Command didn’t want to follow Cochrane’s suggestion was because (in the words of Freeman Dyson, who conducted the original research and whose article “How To Dispel Your Illusions” from the 22 December issue of the New York Review of Books I’ve freely used here), Bomber Command “saw every bomber crew as a tightly knit team of seven.” Bomber Command also believed that as each “team … became more skillful and more closely bonded, their chances of survival would improve.” Experience, that is, improved survival chances, and the gunners were part of each team’s collective experience. Taking out the gunners, in other words, would destroy unit teamwork, thus making it less likely that each crew would ultimately survive. Such at least was Bomber Command’s theory.

Unfortunately, as Freeman Dyson, who ran the numbers, found out, this theory was entirely false. “Teamwork” or “morale” or “experience” didn’t actually improve any given bomber crew’s ability to survive. After canceling out for weather and geography and so forth, Dyson found that “whether a crew lived or died was purely a matter of chance.” Bomber Command’s belief in the value of experience, or skill, “was an illusion.” The men who crewed the bombers and survived the war did so by sheer luck.

Translating this awful story into the story of the 2003 Masters (perhaps a horrifying reduction to some people), what we could say is that Sullivan’s contention is that Maggert lost simply due to chance, or luck, whereas Tesori’s contention would be that ultimately Mike Weir’s skill overcame all obstacles. As the story of Bomber Command’s fateful decision makes clear (the pathos of which makes Randall Jarrell’s 1945 poem, “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner”—“I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters”—all the more awful) Tesori’s version is one that we are more susceptible to believe in. The idea that the universe is orderly, one supposes, is more important than the lives of bomb crews.

Regrettably for Sullivan, the evidence appears to be that if there was anyone who “deserved” to win the 2003 Masters, it was the man who did win: Mike Weir, who arguably had the steadiest tournament of any player. ’03 was a year of tough weather—the Thursday round was washed out—and high scores were typical even for players who finished well up on the leaderboard. Ernie Els for example, who eventually finished in 6th place, had a first-round 79. Tiger Woods, who came back on Saturday to scare everyone, had to come back from a first-round 76. But where all of the golfers who finished in the top-ten had one low round to balance their high round, Weir (who also had a 75 in his mix) had two low rounds of four-under 68s. And Weir’s first round of 70 was just a bit better than anyone else’s third-lowest scoring round.

So what one could say is that, while Maggert’s lowest scoring round, 66, was better than Weir’s lowest scoring round, overall Weir had the better tournament—though that would mean discounting the two disastrous holes that cost Maggert the tournament: the 7 and 8 that, had they been merely a bogey and a double bogey, would have made up the difference between the two. In other words, our perception of Weir’s tournament as “steadier” is driven by our knowledge of what eventually happened, not necessarily by the actual value of each player’s golf. Or to put it another way, thinking that Weir “deserved” to win still could be a bit like thinking that the bomber crews that survived the war “deserved” to survive.

In golf, it’s usually only a single shot that makes a difference between first and second place, which is to say that a single round, or even a tournament, is something of too small a sample size to declare whether one player is intrinsically better than another. What we could do instead is compare the careers of Maggert and Weir, in which case what we’d find is that Weir has 8 PGA Tour wins to Maggert’s 3—and Maggert’s wins were at the Disney, the St. Jude, and the World Match Play.

The first two of these tournaments are what could be called “second tier” events: the level of competition is not so high as in some other tournaments. (The Disney is played in the fall, when most of the superstars take time off, while the St. Jude also isn’t on most top players’ rotations because it falls near the Memorial, Jack Nicklaus’ tournament.) And match play, as I’ve discussed before, is an inherently uncertain format that virtually every year it’s played generates complaints about “no names.”

Weir though has not only won a major (which, granted, is just what the discussion is about) but also a Tour Championship (he beat David Toms, Ernie Els, and Sergio Garcia in a playoff) and a World Golf Championship tournament, along with back-to-back wins at the Nissan Open (formerly the L.A. Open and now the Northern Trust Open) at Riviera Country Club. It’s arguable that the quality of Weir’s wins is better than Maggert’s—in addition to the greater number of tournaments Weir has won. In that sense, we could argue that Weir has, over the course of his career, demonstrated a higher quality of golf than has Maggert.

These days the PGA Tour has developed Shotlink, which tracks every shot hit by every player, with what club and with what result. As it happens, that technology was introduced in 2003 at the Nissan Open that Weir won, which is to say that it must be available for the Masters tournament that year. But that data is locked up behind a paywall that I, for one, haven’t ponied up for, so while the question is in principle answerable, it’s also true that obtaining that answer requires resources that probably would be better spent elsewhere.

Anyway, even if that data were freely available, it’s not as though it would end the argument necessarily. While both Weir and Maggert have been very solid players, neither is the superstar sort. You aren’t going to find either one on the cover of any non-golf magazine; if there is some difference in quality between the two, it isn’t necessarily that great. Even if Weir’s second shots ended up marginally closer to the hole, perhaps Maggert’s second shots during his round of 66 were much, much better than Weir’s, or Maggert’s putting was demonstrably better than Weir’s throughout the tournament, or some other thing. Regardless, who raked, or didn’t rake, whose bunker doesn’t particularly matter now, nearly a decade after the event, to anyone outside of those involved.

The point however is that, even if we are able to construct a narrative after the fact that awards Mike Weir the prize, that narrative is not any more “real.” Perhaps, in other words, the “real” quality of their golf is about the same, but Weir somehow received more “breaks” than did Maggert. Improbable, perhaps, but then so is throwing heads 17 times in a row—or surviving thirty missions 6 miles over Germany.

Had things gone differently, we would have constructed a story that would convince us that Jeff Maggert deserved the trophy more because of the sheer brilliance of his third-round 66—just as we very nearly did, in reality, have to consider that possibility due to the scary 65 Len Mattiace did actually throw at Weir in the final round, which led to the playoff that Weir won. But playoffs are, perhaps, the ultimate in coin-tossing luck when it comes to golf: Weir, who has been involved in 5 playoffs during his PGA career and lost two of them while winning three, might affirm that himself.

Most times, in other words, merely a coin flip or less separates winners and losers on the PGA Tour, and yet every week someone is required to come up with that week’s storyline. It’s kind of heroic what golf writers are able to do week in and week out: they turn absurd coincidence into high drama, turn the recipients of good fortune into Bronze Age heroes. It’s been noted by many that golf is one of the few sports where no one cheers for the underdog: everyone wants Tiger (or Phil or some other “star”), not some no-namer, to win.

“When I died,” says Jarrell’s ball turret gunner, a man with no name, “they washed me out of the turret with a hose.” A win for a “star” is, in a curious way, an affirmation of human ability in a cold universe; a win for a no-name is just another affirmation of the random chance that surrounds us. That is why the title of one of Dan Jenkins’ books about golf is The Dogged Victims of Inexorable Fate.  Jarrell’s finale is a line pregnant with our own mortality: a reminder that, at the end of our days here on the Big Golf Course, there are no winners and losers. Lurkers are like Jarrell’s gunner—unlike when Tiger or somebody wins, they are signs, essentially, of that pale rider whose vehicle might be the Ghost of St. Trond’s Messerschmitt or, say, a rake.

Incidentally, Johnson Wagner won the Sony Open this past week—the first full-field event of the year—by two shots over four other guys.

What, haven’t you heard of him?

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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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