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.

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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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