Tell You Wrong

I embrace my rival, but only to strangle him.
Jean Racine. Britannicus, Act IV, iii.

“Joe Frazier, I’ll tell the world right now, brings out the best in me,” Muhammed Ali said after the “Thrilla in Manila” in 1975, the third and final fight between the two: the one that “went the distance” of 15 rounds in the searing tropical heat of a Third World dictatorship, the one that nearly killed both men and did land them both in the hospital. Phil Mickelson wasn’t as lyrical after giving Tiger Woods an eleven-shot beating at Pebble Beach a few weeks ago: “Although I feel like he brings out the best in me,” Mickelson observed, “it’s only been the past five years.” (Since 2007 Mickelson’s been 8-3-1 when playing against Tiger, bringing the overall record to 13-13-4 in the thirty times they’ve been paired together.) For years, golf writers have lamented the fact that there have been no Tom Watsons or Lee Trevinos around to challenge Tiger as those players did Jack Nicklaus; as it turns out, it seems that rival—Phil—has been there for five years. But are rivals only recognizable in retrospect, and if so what does that mean for the “rivalry” theory?

I take it for granted that anyone reading this will be familiar with the complaint that Tiger has not faced any worthy rivals; as an example, I will cite a story from Yahoo Sports from nearly four years ago. It’s simply entitled “Tiger Misses What Arnie, Jack Had: Rivals.” “Tiger has no true rival,” wrote Dan Wetzel then, “no one familiar face just as cold-blooded, talented and intelligent to push him to perhaps even greater heights.” The complaints implicitly voiced here are longstanding, going back at least to the excitement surrounding the PGA at Medinah in 1999, when Sergio Garcia appeared to many about to challenge Tiger. Such complaints appear much like the usual sportswriter’s fantasies, like the “clutch” player—so far as I know, no player has ever been shown to perform better than his career numbers might indicate in particular situations, in any sport—or that running and defense wins football games. A contrarian might reply, for instance, that Tiger’s run was fueled by a number of breaks: the fact that David Duval essentially fell off the planet after 2001 might be the first item on that list.

Phil’s record with Tiger might suggest that simply because only a few of Phil’s and Tiger’s matchups have come on the final day of a major that one of them ended up winning (which disqualifies, for instance, the electric final day of the 2009 Masters, when Phil shot a 30 on the front nine but didn’t win), they have in fact been “rivals” the whole time—which in turn might suggest that a further combing of the data might discover other “rivals” whose presence had been undiscovered because they had not appeared at widely-televised moments. It’s kind of a silly argument, but as it turns out someone’s taken it seriously and quantified the difference between Tiger and his fellow competitors—and it’s really true: Tiger, in his heyday, didn’t have anyone who remotely approached him.

In 2008, as it happens, a paper published in the Journal of Political Economy by one Jennifer Brown entitled “Quitters Never Win: The (Adverse) Incentive Effects of Competing with Superstars,” found that in general players not named Woods took an additional .8 more shots in every tournament Tiger entered. The effect was even more pronounced in the first round of tournaments, where Woods was effectively conceded another third of a shot by the field, and yet more so among “elite” players: those close to the top of the leaderboard gave away nearly two shots to Tiger. Although these margins seem thin, the difference between first and second on the PGA Tour is usually one shot; what that’s meant, according to Brown, is that meant the rest of the tour players have conceded something on the order of $6 million to Tiger over the course of Tiger’s career.

Still, while that does I think prove the “no rivals” theory it doesn’t actually provide any causation: one possible explanation, for instance, might be found in the way that Tiger himself plays. According to his former coach, Butch Harmon, Tiger has methods to confound his playing partners: in an interview with Steve Elling of CBSSports.com, Harmon said that Tiger for instance will “often putt out first” (which means that galleries will often be moving to the next hole while whoever he’s playing with is putting); that Woods will try to get to the tee box last, so the crowd will give him its biggest cheers; change his pace of play to play “fast” with slow players and vice versa; and hit three-wood instead of driver on some holes, so as to hit his approach first—thereby making his opponent wait to hit his shot. None of these methods are against the rules, of course—but they don’t win friends in the locker room either.

Yet Brown’s paper found no evidence that players playing with Tiger are more affected than those not playing with him. Joel Waldfogel reported in Slate that Brown’s work found that “being in Tiger’s foursome [sic] has no additional negative impact on performance.” In other words, even if Tiger was practicing gamesmanship—and it was successful—it didn’t show up in the statistics. Playing with Tiger or not playing with Tiger, all that seems to matter is that the other players know he’s there.

One way to test for that is to see if the other players have been “attempting longer, riskier shots to try to keep up with Tiger.” A website called Physorg.com notes that Brown’s account does this: if players were trying such a strategy, there would likely be what financial professionals would call “volatility”: there’d be more eagles—and double bogeys—when Tiger played than in other tournaments. In reality though, there “were significantly fewer eagles and double bogeys when Woods played.” Tiger’s presence wasn’t causing the other players to adopt a “high-risk, high-reward” strategy. Instead, it seems that he really just caused them not to throw things into some higher gear that, possibly, might have been available to them.

What’s interesting about this is that what it suggests that Tiger’s dominance was, in fact, the effect of something within his opponents’ craniums, not just a statistical anomaly caused in part by Tiger’s skillfulness but also by chance. But what it also suggests is that the nature of that dominance didn’t lie in something sportswriters ascribed to Tiger’s “aura” or his vaunted “Zen-like” mental discipline: the potential mechanism that Brown theorizes to explain the effect is quite different.

Brown finds the mechanism by analogy to other fields: she “cites the competition among newly hired associates at a law firm as another example of a nonlinear incentive structure,” as another review of her work says. Such a structure might be better known from the practice of the firm in Glengarry Glen Ross—where, as Alec Baldwin’s character Blake said, first place is an Eldorado, second is a set of steak knives, and, anticipating Donald Trump, “third prize is you’re fired.” In a law firm, usually only one associate might be hired from a given group: in law firms as in Ricky Bobby’s NASCAR, “if you’re not first you’re last.”

The mechanism Brown proposes, as described by Jonah Lehrer in an essay on the paper for the Wall Street Journal is therefore that “the superstar effect is especially pronounced when the rewards for the competition are ‘non-linear,’ or there is an extra incentive to finish first.” In such a contest, the rewards for finishing first are so exponentially better that finishes less than first are, by comparison, not as meaningful. “We assume,” as Lehrer puts the point, “that the superstar will win, so why chase after meaningless scraps?” In other words, Brown’s theory is that professional golfers, seeing Woods’ name in the pairing sheets, consciously or not effectively “mail in” their effort. They aren’t expending everything they have because they don’t expect to be rewarded for extra effort.

What that suggests though is that what’s going on in tour players’ heads isn’t a fear of Tiger so much as it is a rational calculation based, ultimately, on some sense of fairness or justice. Isn’t that what we might call a reasonable conclusion in the face of evidence of a “rigged” game? It wouldn’t matter from this point of view (though you might compare my previous work on Taylor Smith) whether the game were “actually” gamed in some fashion or other in Tiger’s favor, merely that players behaved as if it were. Or to put it another way, from an individual tour player’s perspective it wouldn’t matter whether Tiger was who he was from sheer ability or from some shadiness: the player-not-named-Woods’ own abilities would be disturbed in some way in either case.

Now this is extremely interesting because what it suggests is that even the perception of inequality is harmful. Brown suggests that societies that insufficiently spread the wealth, however that is defined, in the long run are inefficient: they fail to get the best out of their people. Unequal societies waste human resources. And worse.

If Brown, for instance, was looking for a society that uses a “nonlinear incentive structure” as its working principle, she might have stopped looking for it on pristine golf courses and started in on the southwest corner of Utah, which is perhaps (and probably not coincidentally) some of the most isolated terrain in the continental United States. In that territory north of the Grand Canyon lie the adjacent towns of Colorado City, Arizona and Hilldale, Utah. What’s noticeable about these two towns is that there are lots of large families headed by “single” women: the product of a polygamous sect, the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS). It’s an issue adequately explored elsewhere—Jon Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven is perhaps an excellent beginning—but what’s not usually mentioned is something that has rather a bearing on Jennifer Brown’s research.

“Often,” observed the historian of marriage Stephanie Coontz, “the subordination of women is in fact also a way of controlling men.” Or as Libby Copeland, writing for Slate, puts it: “Rich old guys with lots of wives win twice: They have more women to bear them babies and do household work, and they also gain an advantage over other men.” Since they control access to marriage, any man who wants to get married has to deal with them—and since the rich old guys are taking a surplus, that makes a lot of boys inessential to the society. In a polygamous community, then, we’d expect to see a lot of homeless teenaged boys: in 2007, Time magazine said the number of boys abandoned by their polygamous families in that state may number in the thousands. The results of a “nonlinear incentive structure,” as Ms. Brown calls it, aren’t especially difficult to discern in this case: I don’t think the problem of a surplus of unsupervised and despairing teenagers needs much detailing. Nor, perhaps, do Tiger’s off-course problems appear as inscrutable.

I don’t mean, to be sure, to minimize the sufferings of women and children in such a community, but it is worth noting that such arrangements necessarily burden the whole community and not just particular groups in it. By laying down in front of Tiger, for instance, PGA Tour players effectively ceded him not only today’s purses but tomorrow’s: a tour that had had one or two other guys who could have gone the distance with Tiger in 2001 or 2002 might have gotten an even greater television contract. But by understanding the mechanism by which the trick is done goes a long way toward understanding how to combat it: removing the “nonlinear incentive structure,” rather than, as has been suggested, somehow convincing everyone on the tour that they’re “tougher,” or whatever, than they thought. Or to put it in terms relevant to a larger field, stop working on “raising self-esteem” or the like and more on regularizing pay-scales.

That isn’t, necessarily, to demand that the PGA Tour stop disproportionately rewarding its winners: golf is a sport, and sports aren’t necessarily the same as other parts of life. It can, and has, been argued that pro golf, in particular, needs a dominant, or a few dominant, players in order to make it interesting to the general public: if a different pro won every week, tournaments might come to seem like lotteries for people with the leisure to raise golfers. The regular appearance of some few names, perhaps, creates the possibility of drama.

Drama like that of the last Ali-Frazier fight. Frazier had trained for the fight like a man possessed, knowing that it would be his last shot at the title. Ali, in the midst of domestic turmoil, less so. Sometime in the seventh round, in the early Philippine afternoon—the fight started in the late morning for international television—Ali began to fade from the heat and a relentless assault from Frazier, who would not stop coming despite the furious combinations Ali laid on him. “Joe,” Ali said during a clinch, “they told me you was all washed up.” “They told you wrong, pretty boy,” Frazier replied. It’s arguable that, whatever the medical histories, neither man left that ring whole. For years, golf has wondered how to get that kind of effort out of its players. What evidence suggests is that if golf wants true rivalries, and the drama that results, it might do better to stop catering to the elite—which, despite the fact that it apparently remains unlearned in parts of Utah or the Philippines (or Wall Street), doesn’t appear a difficult lesson.

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The Razor’s Edge

… for that path is sharp as a razor’s edge, impassable,
and hard to follow, say the wise.
—Katha Upanishad 1.3.14
 

“Never start a ball over a hazard,” said the kid, with a confused look on his face. He was baffled, though he might not have described it this way, because while many might think that the patron saint of golf, if it has one, is Saint Andrew (whose ensign, an “X,” isn’t particularly encouraging for a golfer, and whose feast day, November 30, isn’t a particularly good one for golf, at least in the Northern Hemisphere), it’s actually William of Ockham, whose commemoration date is that ideal day of the 10th of April, and who is best-known for writing “Plurality should not be postulated without necessity,” otherwise known to philosophers as “Occam’s Razor.” Or, to put it in golf terms, the notion that you ought to play a hole in as few shots as possible. What was perplexing the kid was that the hole we were looking at smashed that straight to hell. Sorting it out, in turn—a phraseology not used lightly—necessitates considering Walt Disney, Tiger Woods, the Rules of Golf, long-handled putters and the recent changes regarding Q-School proposed by the PGA Tour, though getting there implies a less-direct route than William might like.

The kid and I were standing on the tee of one of the weirder holes I’ve ever seen: a sweeping dog-leg 5-par around an oxbow bend in the Buffalo Bayou, Houston’s main river. The tee shot is basically blind: you can see the beginning of the fairway but not the rest of the hole; the dogleg is so severe that hitting the ball that way is too short a distance for a driver. The only way to play that hole, in other words, is to flout deliberately one of those rules professional golfers live by, the rule that you should never intentionally put a hazard into play. But in order to play this hole in the fewest amount of strokes it’s necessary to take the risk of the hazard: the conundrum put the aspiring-tour-pro head of the kid into brain-lock.

On most days, I was the kid’s caddie, on what was then the Adams Tour, a mini-tour based in Texas during the late fall into winter, but since getting to Houston he’d had trouble breaking 90 in the stiff Texas wind, and, in need of cash, we’d both turned to looping like attractive would-be pre-med coeds turn to … well, whatever it is that they do. So there we were, at Houston Country Club, the oldest golf club in Houston and one of the oldest in Texas, and though the golf course isn’t as old as the club (which had moved from its old location in the 1950s), still it was designed by Robert Trent Jones, Sr., one of the giants of golf architecture.

Houston Country Club is a posh joint run by old-time oil swells (one of its founders was Howard Hughes’ father, Howard Hughes, Sr.): all of which is to say that HCC is probably one of the most conservative places in the country, if not the planet. It’s disturbing, in other words, to find such a rebel of a hole at the golf course’s heart: in order to score well on that course a birdie is absolutely necessary there, which is to say that it demands precisely that rule-flouting that the club’s members, presumably, would abhor in their own lives. But you play the golf course as you find it, not how you’d wish it to be—and if the members of Houston Country Club are unaware of the ironies of their own course, then that’s one of the burdens of professional knowledge, I suppose. That doesn’t mean, to be sure, that the swells can’t suddenly re-discover the rules when it’s convenient, though—a point that has a direct bearing on the story that Houston Country Club and its caddie program is best-known for having a tangential connection with these days, since it was there that Taylor Smith completed his back nine on this planet.

Taylor Smith finished his days as a caddie at Houston CC in 2007, at the age of 40, apparently of pancreatitis. He’d never married, never had any children so far as anyone knows. He is, at best, a footnote in golf history: the guy who’d almost had to face down Tiger Woods in a playoff but didn’t and, because he didn’t, handed Tiger his second win on tour. The story of how he didn’t is a story about conflicting rules and how to apply them, and perhaps is instructive about golf and other matters.

The scene of the tale was Walt Disney World in October of 1996, the PGA Tour’s Orlando stop and one of the last chances for a player to make enough money to secure his tour card for the following season. Smith didn’t particularly need that chance: he’d already had two top-five finishes and would finish the season with a comfortable $220,000, which in those days was more than enough to make the top 125. Still, Smith was still looking for a win and at Orlando he not only made the cut, but spent Saturday night sleeping near the lead along with another guy whose career would also be cut short: Payne Stewart. Then there was a kid whose last name was Woods.

Back then Eldrick was still a young golfer trying to solidify his presence on the Big Show: though only a bit before the Disney he’d already won at the Las Vegas Invitational (beating Davis Love in a playoff), which meant his status for the next season wasn’t in doubt, he hadn’t yet become the Tiger Woods of whom other golfers were, for a time, afraid. Smith, in the final round, surely didn’t play scared: he calmly rolled in a putt on the last green to tie Woods at 267 for the tournament, 21 shots under par. And that despite the fact that, even aside from Woods, he had every reason to be anxious during that final round.

Earlier that day, while making the turn, Smith’s playing partner Lennie Clements, noticed something about the putter Smith was using: one of the two grips the long putter had was flat on one side. Clements knew this was a problem, and indeed a rules official confirmed that the putter violated Appendix II, 4-1c(v): “A putter may have more than one grip, provided each is circular in cross-section and the axis of each coincides with the axis of the shaft.” Smith played on anyway under an appeal of the decision and finished the round. But his protest—and the fact that, as many acknowledged then and now, there’s little reason to think that the flat grip could have assisted him any more than the fact that he had a broom-handle putter (perfectly allowable under the rules) already anyway—fell on deaf ears. Woods thereby won by default.

Smith won a lot of plaudits after the tournament though, via what many called the “classy” way he handled his DQ. When it was all over, he said that Clements “did the right thing” by calling over a rules official, and according the Orlando Sentinel a year later, Smith’s “noble handling of the disappointment gained him coast-to-coast style points.” But the same story (“As a Rule of Thumb, Give Smith His Due”) also hints at something darker: “tour insiders,” it says, “say he has had difficulty letting it go.” What Smith “dwelled on,” the story says, was “the revelations about the possibility that Woods, too, had been unknowingly playing Disney with a non-conforming putter.”

The tour got a phone call, it seems, on the Monday after the tournament was over that alleged that Tiger’s Scotty Cameron putter—the same one that he’d also used to win at Las Vegas earlier that fall—did not conform to Rule 4-1b of the Rules of Golf, which mandated that the neck of a putter measure five inches or less from the point of contact with the shaft and the putter’s bottom. The tour called Tiger’s camp immediately—but didn’t actually inspect the putter until two days later, by which time it had already been replaced in Tiger’s bag by another, conforming, putter. Which, as it turns out, was something of a moot point anyway, since as Rule 34-1 holds, “a penalty must not be rescinded, modified or imposed after the competition has closed,” a rule that has something of the same effect as Article I, Section 9 (the rule against ex post facto laws) does in the United States Constitution. Because Smith’s non-conforming putter was discovered at the time, in other words, he suffered a penalty that Tiger, whose putter never did get inspected, escaped.

Almost certainly, of course, that Woods wasn’t subject to the same level of scrutiny as Smith was what bothered Smith—though more certainly Smith isn’t around to be asked about it. Why it’s of anything more than an antiquarian’s interest though is in light of the recent proposal of the PGA Tour to eliminate Q-School as a direct route to the tour. Smith originally got on the Big Show through Q-School, the annual tournament whose final stage is 6 days long and is probably the most grueling competition in golf, while Tiger, of course, never had to play Q-School because he got invited to tournaments through sponsor exemptions—and then he won. Yet the routes of both of these men to the tour would be closed if the tour has its way.

Under a proposal first outlined to PGA Tour players at the annual meeting on the Tuesday before the tour stop at Torrey Pines, Q-School as a route to the PGA Tour would be eliminated. Instead, the Fall Finish tournaments (of which the Disney used to be one) would become a three-event shootout between the top 75 Nationwide players and the 75 Big Show players on the bubble, with 50 PGA Tour cards at stake. The Q-School tournament, whose traditional dates in early December would in any case be disrupted by the new format, would become merely a route to the Nationwide Tour.

Or whatever they will call it, since the PGA Tour has also announced that Nationwide Insurance is pulling out as a title sponsor. One of the consequences of that decision might be that Tiger’s route to the PGA Tour might also be closed: a few potential sponsors of the Fall Finish tournaments have said that they aren’t interested unless their tournaments are part of the FedEx Cup chase, which means that the new PGA Tour season will have to start in October right after the Tour Championship. Instead of being events traditionally skipped by the bigger names on tour, who usually take a break after the Tour Championship—and thus allowing younger guys like Woods to catch some sponsor exemptions and get a chance to compete at a high level without directly facing the best of the best immediately—the change threatens to make the PGA Tour a constant, year-around affair.

And, perhaps solving some headaches for the tour’s staff, would immediately have the effect of dividing professional golfers rather handily into two classes: PGA Tour players and all others. Instead of the fluidity represented by the careers of Tiger and Taylor, we’d have very, very solidly defined career paths: players, even great ones, would have to spend a year on the Nationwide Tour (or whatever it is named in the future) without exception, while there also would be no way for a marginal player to catch lightning in a bottle for a week and ride to a fun (and lucrative) year on the PGA Tour. The new system would act … well, very much like a razor, sharply delineating who is deserving of special treatment and who is not with what is evidently a satisfying clarity to the tour.

It will also have the effect of multiplying the classes of golfers into two: those with access to the rich purses of the PGA Tour and those playing on whatever the Nationwide Tour will become, where the purses are roughly one-tenth as much. It might be worth noting, in this connection, that while generally speaking the kid’s rule about where you should never start your tee shot is valid, it’s also true that there is, in golf architecture, a species of golf hole known as a “Cape hole.” The species is named for the 14th at C.B. Macdonald’s National Golf Links of America, on Long Island; what makes it the archetype for the species is that a water hazard runs along one side of a fairway that curves around it, meaning that the further a tee shot is flown over the hazard the greater the potential reward in terms of distance left to the green. At times, in other words, it’s necessary to hit it directly at a hazard. Houston Country Club’s par-five is an example.

There are, also, others.

The Road to Ensenada

The road to Ensenada
Is plenty wide and fast …
— “The Road to Ensenada.”
Lyell Lovett.

 

****Update: Kyle “Voltaire” Stanley wins at Phoenix, vindicates idiot looping blogger! (See below.)


After Palm Springs for the Hope, the PGA Tour caravan hikes up out of the desert valley and over the mountains to the ocean and San Diego, a trip that goes—like our recent weather in Chicago—from summer to winter and back again in a few hours. The scenic route is Route 74 out past Bighorn Golf Club and what used to be Stone Eagle, the “Pines to Palms Highway.” I traveled Route 74 a few years ago to work the pro-ams at Torrey Pines at what was then the Buick and is now the Farmers’. Route 74 is a pretty stunning trip if you like your mountains steep and rocky and your roads narrow, and trying to gauge whether to pass a slowpoke car is a gamble with your life. It wasn’t a bet we took often, if we did at all. But that’s real life: in sports, the decision of whether to go or not go is a bit easier to calculate.

Once again the 18th hole at Torrey Pines is the subject of controversy, and just like last year it centers on the question of whether to go for the green or not on the second shot. This year, the subject of that debate is Kyle Stanley, not Michael Sims, and the situation was slightly different: Stanley was trying to protect a lead he already had, not attempting to chase down someone else. Still, like Sims, Stanley ultimately elected not to go for the green on his second shot, and the commentators have all ripped him and his caddie for the decision.

After another big drive—he averaged about 311 yards all week, and is currently second in that category this year—Stanley was looking at 240 yards over a pond to get to the green: not a shot that most amateurs would even consider. Consulting with his caddie, Brett Waldman (who was playing the Nationwide Tour himself last year), Stanley hit a routine shot down to 77 yards out, from which he hit a great wedge—a shot that was too good, as it turns out, because after flirting with the pin it spun back and into the pond fronting the green. Stanley then hit his next (fifth) shot 45 feet past the hole. He left his first putt three-and-a-half feet short, and finally missed his next to make eight.

Gary Van Sickle of Sports Illustrated was one critic. Van Sickle said in the “PGA Confidential” roundtable over at Golf that Stanley “should have blown his second over the green; the [grand] stands are a free drop.” Van Sickle is referencing a “Local Rule” that is adopted for the PGA Tour, an adaptation of Rule 24-2 of the Rules of Golf, “Immovable Obstruction,” that makes grandstands into “temporary immovable obstructions.” The provisions of the rule call for a free one-clublength drop from the obstruction, which is exactly what Arjun Atwal did to win the Wyndham Championship in 2010.

Facing an unpalatable 5-iron shot to the uphill final green off a downhill lie, Atwal elected to hit his second shot instead with a hybrid club that traveled into the grandstands surrounding the green. Whereupon, according to the rules, Atwal received a free drop near the green from where he made an up-and-down for a par and the win. Apparently, this strategy is now a popular choice among the press, and even some players—none of whom seem to consider that perhaps sending a golf ball at a gallery at somewhere north of 150 miles per hour is in any way questionable.

Steve Elkington, for instance, the sweet-swinging major winner (at Riviera in 1995) tweeted, “the only way to make 8 is LAYUP.” Stephanie Wei, of Golf, the Wall Street Journal, and her own blog, thought “sure [that] 90% or more of players/caddies on tour will tell you it was the wrong play.” Instead, “why not just go for it in two and airmail it into the grandstands?” This argument goes that even had the worst happened, and Stanley hit his ball into the pond, he would have been left with a relatively-easy up-and-down that, even with a three-putt, would still have led to a seven—which would have been enough to win the tournament. What all of these people argue is that Stanley should have Atwal’d—damn the consequences. But let’s leave aside a school of thought that advocates firing missiles at unarmed civilians from an un-returnable distance.

Stanley obviously didn’t Atwal. But while in any sport it’s always easy to criticize after the play has happened, it’s something else to be able to point to reasons that a given player or coach should or should not have done something before it happened—which is one reason why whether a given coach’s decision to go for it on fourth down or not has become such a hot topic among stats guys in the NFL these days. The premise of these investigations is to determine, so far as possible, whether a decision was a good one or not given what could have been known prior to the play. In other words, given what a coach could have known or should have known before the ball was snapped, did he make the right call or not?

Bill Barnwell for example, resident NFL stats guy at ESPN’s Grantland site, has been writing about this issue all season. A typical column is like the one he wrote back in November about Atlanta’s decision to try to convert a fourth-and-inches from their own 29-yard line against New Orleans that week in overtime: it didn’t work, New Orleans promptly went and kicked a field goal, and Michael Smith, the Falcons’ head coach, ended up taking a lot of heat—for a decision that, Barnwell argues, was actually the correct one.

The Saints, Barnwell pointed out in that column, had at that point in the season “the worst run defense in football,” and the Falcons had already converted four other fourth downs in that same game. And handing the ball back to Saints quarterback Drew Brees (remember, they were in overtime) wasn’t a fun option either: the “Falcons held the Saints to a three-and-out just twice during regulation,” and of the 10 times Brees had gotten the ball to that point in the game, he’d led four 50-yard-plus drives. According to advancednflstats.com, in that situation the Falcons had a 47 percent chance of winning by going for it and a 42 percent chance of winning if they punted—and even if they didn’t convert, they still had an 18 percent chance of winning because most often opponents that close to the goal line won’t really take a stab at the endzone and instead settle for a long field goal; and 50-yarders are still chancy in the NFL.

That doesn’t mean, of course, that the two situations are exactly analogous. But it does furnish a means of looking at Stanley and Waldman’s decision-making that isn’t just beating them up for having bad luck. Without having access to all of the Shotlink data on the PGA Tour’s website, it’s still possible to get a sense of the kind of player Stanley is—and that kind is bomber. This is a guy who hits the ball a long way: he ranks second on tour this year in driving distance. That would seem to argue for going for it: if 240 doesn’t mean a lot to him, why not go for the home run, i.e. putting the ball in the grandstands?

Yet despite being a longball guy, Stanley did not make a lot of eagles last year—or the year before. In fact, in the past three years he’s only made four eagles, putting him way outside the tour leaders in that category. That’s probably for two reasons: despite being long, Stanley isn’t very accurate from great distances: last year he ranked 73rd in Greens-In-Regulation from over 200 yards, hitting the green less than half the time. When he does hit the green, the ball tends to be quite a way from the hole: nearly fifty feet from 225 to 250 yards. And finally, like maybe a lot of long guys, Stanley isn’t that great of a putter: according to the new “Strokes Gained” stat, which measures how much a player is gaining or losing to the field on the greens, he ranked a lowly 126th, losing nearly a third of a stroke to the field on the green.

Not that Stanley is that great the closer he gets to the green necessarily: last year he ranked 91st in GIR from less than 75 yards. He didn’t even hit the green more than 90 percent of the time from that distance. (Though he was close at just over 88 percent.) But here’s where it gets interesting because, as Geoff Shackleford at shackleford.com points out, the 18th hole at Torrey isn’t that penalizing: despite the hole having a “hillocky, artificially-tiered overbuilt mess of a green complex,” Stanley still “could have hit it to three-quarters of the surface, put a lot of spin on the ball, and not brought the water into play.” And as far as the “hitting it into the stands” theory goes, check out this link to Graham McDowell’s recent adventure with a grandstand in Abu Dhabi on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GIom4D9zrC4.

McDowell, as it happens, got lucky enough to put the ball close to the hole on that shot, but would you be willing to bet a few hundred thousand dollars that you’d get a similarly lucky bounce? The premise of the “hit it in the grandstands” theory is that you get a free drop, which is true enough, but things can happen when the ball lands. (Like, say, hit a fan at 150 mph plus.) Anyway, aside from the risk to spectators, essentially what the “grandstand” theory says is that the surface of grandstands 240 yards away is much more predictable and receptive than that of a green 75 yards away. Would you be willing to bet your house on that? If so, there’s a road running south out of Palm Springs you might like to try.

Don’t look down.

***UPDATE, 5 Feb 2012:

It isn’t often that Voltaire and golf can get mentioned in the same sentence, but Kyle Stanley’s life’s story in the past two weeks constitutes at least as thorough a demolition of Spinoza and Leibniz as Voltaire’s Candide. “For each thing,” Spinoza argues in the Ethics, “there must be assigned a cause, or reason, both for its existence and for its nonexistence”; later, Leibniz would claim, more baldly, that “nothing happens without a reason”—an idea Voltaire ridiculed in Candide with the ironic slogan “all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds.” Those who argue that Stanley ought to have gone for the green on his second shot on his last hole at Torrey Pines on the final day of the tournament—thereby putting the fans surrounding the green at risk—are all Spinozists: they believe that everything must have a cause, and since Stanley not winning must have a cause they find it in the fact that Stanley did not go for the green. By winning this week in Arizona, Stanley has demonstrated both the reality of “brute facts”—inexplicable objects—and that this reality in no way lessens our own responsibilities either in terms of effort or intellect. Kyle “Voltaire” Stanley: it’s got kind of a ring to it, doesn’t it?