A Bandon Hope

Mike, a former looper at Medinah, has been working in Colorado for the summer and Scottsdale in the winter the last several years. About a month ago he called to say that he was planning on going to Bandon this summer instead. For those who don’t know, Bandon Dunes is the most golf of all the world’s golf resorts: there aren’t the various sideshows to be found at your Pebble, or Myrtle, Beaches. For that matter, there’s an argument to be made that it’s more golf than St. Andrews, which after all is also a university town and one of the oldest settlements in Scotland, which itself is pretty old. At Bandon there’s just golf. And I’ve just discovered that Bandon is so golf that it contains within itself a a course that’s even more Bandon than Bandon.

It’s a course that so repudiates even the shreds of commercialism that Bandon itself so mercilessly throws in the face of its competitors that this course may be the most golf place on the planet. Naturally, I have advised Mike to look into this, but I have yet to hear a report, as I think Reuben—the caddiemaster at Whisper Rock in Scottsdale—has been holding Mike hostage in order to finish the tournament season at the Rock.

As such, I can only report my own web investigations, which have been as thorough as two separate Google searches can be. Near as I can make it, the course is located directly north of Bandon Dunes proper, but is still owned by the same, or nearly the same, people. It has nicknames among the staff at Bandon proper: Area 51, or the Secret Course. Its proper name, however, is the Sheep Ranch.

It could equally, or perhaps better, be called the Anti-Course. Golf courses are determined by their routings, we could say: you begin on number one and proceed around to number 18, following the course map and figuring out yardages and so on. The Sheep Ranch has none of that: there are 12 or 13 greens, lettered instead of numbered. And this is how you play it, according to one Jeff Wallach:

A local rule holds that whoever wins a hole walks off the green, finds a flat spot, and invents a tee—just like they did in Scotland 500 years ago. He also gets to pick where the next hole is by pointing to a flag and saying, “Let’s go there.” And there might mean a green sitting on a ridge beyond a rock-filled bunker a punch shot away. Or it might mean “THERE”—700 or 800 yards distant at the other end of the property.

“While here,” another writer notes about the place, “I found myself really enjoying golf, and not the process of golf, or a score I might record.” Obviously, it’s impossible to imagine five or six foursomes an hour teeing off on such a ground. But money isn’t the point.

The existence of the Sheep Ranch reminds us that the conventions of 18 holes, or playing them in order, or knowing what the yardages are and so on, are all just that: conventions, with no more force than our own agreement. Apparently, the idea behind the course is to pare golf down to its essentials: hitting a rock with a stick the fewest times, with enough variation in topography to keep it interesting. And perhaps not least, with a view toward beating the man in front of you, rather than some abstraction named “par.” Obviously, matches at the Sheep Ranch would be played not least for the right to name the next target, which seems a valuable enough goal to render other prizes trivial.

Golf, the institution that’s developed around this primal activity, has other ideas of what constitutes proper competition: as for instance the Ryder Cup, coming to Medinah this September. The Ryder Cup has been a kind of embodiment of a remark of George Orwell’s: “At the international level, sport is frankly mimic warfare.” There’s been, for example, the “War by the Shore” at the Ocean Course on Kiawah Island in 1991, a tournament noted for the jingoism displayed by the home crowd. (To be fair, there was an actual war on at the time. Though it was, to be equally fair, the Gulf War—which, as a war, ranked somewhere between Korea and the invasion of Grenada.) Still, it seems that to some sportswriters lately that this particular Ryder Cup will be a war over one particular issue: which system of developing golfers, the American or European, is better.

The recent answer to this question has been clear: this year’s European Ryder Cup side will likely be a team with a higher world ranking than the Americans, which portends a system in which golfers might turn pro directly upon reaching 18 rather than hanging around a college a few years. Rory McIlroy, in other words, rather than Tiger Woods.

Farrell Evans, writing for ESPN.com earlier this year after the Honda Classic, contrasted two golfers at the same age: Rory—who won the Honda—and Harris English, the 22 year-old Georgian who won last year as an amateur on the Nationwide and started the final round of the Honda two shots behind McIlroy. But actually, Evans argues, English started that round a lot further back: English spent the past four years playing college golf at the same time that, in Evans’ words, Rory has been “playing in pro events around the world.” As a result, at an age “when most American players are just starting their pro careers, McIlroy is turning the corner to the next level”—which is to say that English is “really four years behind [McIlroy] in development.” Which, it seems, explains how McIlroy won while English shot a 77 to tie for 18th.

That “explanation” is, to be sure, nonsense when it comes to the final round of the Honda—just for starters, Rory’s own career is a caution about what can happen in final rounds—but that doesn’t mean that Evans’ thesis is invalid when it comes to considering larger samples. The Official World Rankings list five Europeans versus five Americans in the top 10, but the top three spots are held by Euros (McIlroy, Donald, and Westwood). Americans also only hold five spots of the next ten. Of the non-Americans in the top 20, only Luke Donald, whose alma mater is Northwestern, can really be claimed as a product of the American college golf circuit: virtually all of the others have careers like McIlroy, turning pro at a young age and just doing the job instead of, as in the American model, “training” for the job first.

Going out and doing the job, instead of investing a great deal in some form of apprenticeship first, is however contra the American model of producing not just professional golfers, but all athletes. Excepting baseball, all major American sports depend largely on a free farm system provided by the major colleges that delivers trained athletes to the doorstep of the professional leagues without costing those leagues anything, as laid out in Taylor Branch’s piece in The Atlantic in October of last year, “The Shame of College Sports.” Branch, a historian and author of the tour-de-force three-volume history of the civil-rights movement, America in the King Years, makes college athletics to be a plantation where the schools make billions and the field-hand athletes make nothing. In America, Branch explains, the market for athletes isn’t a free one: American athletes essentially donate some years of development to these educational institutions with the return of gaining access to the pros and the security, in the event of failure, of having a college degree to fall back on.

What Evans suggests is that, at least in the case of golf, this may no longer be an even trade: instead of raising a potential pro’s value going to college might just be lowering it to an extent that the value of the degree granted no longer compensates for lost development opportunities. Europe, of course, never constructed such close links between professional athletics and education: nobody’s paying twenty-five euros to see the University of Sheffield’s cricket team.

In Europe, that is, universities are for learning, and pro sports are pro sports: athletes perform, in other words, for a piece of the pie. Which, if one thinks about it, is rather more of what Americans tend to think is an American sort of model than what we often think of as a “European” one. However one comes down on the debate over college athletics (if that’s even a worthy subject of debate), Rory’s success may have an impact on a much-larger class, since it’s arguable that professions that don’t judge their potential recruits on vertical leaping have been greatly influenced by the NCAA model.

Witness, for instance, Jim Frederick’s piece in an issue of The Baffler from 1997, “Internment Camp: The Internment Economy and the Culture Trust.” Many, many industries benefit from the practice of “unpaid interns”: college kids who come in over the summer, say, and, by fetching coffee and the like, are supposed to learn something about how the “real world” works. Like the NCAA’s “student-athletes,” they are working for free. Frederick argues that the existence of unpaid internships is, in effect, a handout to employers—and not only that, but a subversion of the American ideal of equality, since only those able to afford it are able to take such “jobs.” Internships like that are essentially mechanisms whereby to reproduce the upper-middle class. But Rory’s path is a rejection of that model: he may have to pay for his failures, but he gets paid for his successes.

It’s something that quite a few Americans may be unfamiliar with in the age of the internship—or, for that matter, an age when wages have been in a free fall for nearly forty years. Which is to say that, when it comes to this year’s Ryder Cup, it may be that if you want to root for “America,” you’d do well to root for Rory & Co. As the Sheep Ranch might demonstrate, it isn’t where the course is, but how you play it, that counts.