Dolorous Strokes

I looked to you as it fell
And now you’re in my way.
“Call Me Maybe.”
Carly Rae Jepsen.


“Move!” Paulie was yelling at me the whole time, but after that story about J.R. he’d told earlier I figured he was screwing with me. In the story Paul had told early in the round, about J.R., both of them were out on a loop and forecaddieing one hole when a mishit drive came hurtling toward them. J.R. was either taking a piss, or in some other way distracted, and didn’t see the incoming missile. And when Paul tried to warn him, J.R. ignored the advice—Paul has such a reputation as a clown that most people have learned to ignore what he says. The same scenario played out again during this round—Paul warned me repeatedly, but I ignored him, in part precisely because of the story he’d already told.

As it turns out, it wasn’t so bad for me (the lady couldn’t hit it that hard), though it seems it was for J.R., who ended up with an ugly bruise. When caddieing, as with other things, we ignore others at our peril. Women don’t often play Course 3, with good reason—the carries over water alone are awful—but this was the lady’s most important client, from out of state, and he’d already turned down an invite to another club just to play this year’s Ryder Cup host site. She meant business, and if it meant occasionally whacking a caddie—specifically, the caddie she’d asked the head pro to set up for her—along the way, well, she was prepared to make sacrifices.

What I didn’t realize until later was just how far those sacrifices were going to go. Already, the group had missed the Ryder Cup itself by a few days, which arrived at Medinah last week in order to be photographed in front of the clubhouse for television purposes. I was interested to learn that the cup’s entourage is quite small by big-time trophy standards: only one guy, assigned just for this trip, stood watch over it while a photographer and his assistant took shots of it in front of the clubhouse. This differentiates it from, say, the Stanley Cup, which has its own full-time minder as well as its own room in the Hockey Hall of Fame. Also, the Stanley Cup is a behemoth compared to the Ryder Cup, which is only a bit more than a foot tall.

Of course, the Stanley Cup long ago sold out to the pro racket, while the Ryder Cup is perhaps the last major sporting event played by professionals simply, as Medinah member Michael Jordan’s old contract put it, “for the love of the game.” The Cup’s own PR makes a big deal out of this; it’s actually one last ideological bit of the ancien regime—that infrastructure of knights and feudal lords—still hanging on even now, early in the twenty-first century.

Golf is a sport of the bourgeois, not the aristos; Queen Mary might have played the game, but it’s horse racing that’s the sport of kings, and Scotland never had the money that could support the kind of polo-playing idlers a proper nobility requires. For all that the Ryder Cup might aspire to that kind of ludicrous display of foppery, in other words—and the official website is something to be read—golf is the sport of business people, not blood-lusting armored goons or dandyish fashion-crazed aesthetes. Golf is, in the end, about money.

It was just this, we learned afterwards, that the lady member didn’t understand. I had gotten about what I thought of as a somewhat pedestrian tip—standard hundred dollars for a single bag—but what I thought of as my helpers got screwed. The “A” caddie—one rank less than me—got half what I got, while the two “B” caddies—two ranks lower—got even less. Later, at dinner, I remarked to somebody that it was just this kind of thing that prevents women from rising higher in business: she had specifically asked a favor of the caddiemaster, who’d done what she’d asked—but she hadn’t given out the rewards that such a favor ought to bring.

Now, if she ever brought in that client or some other, and wanted to create the kind of experience a place like Medinah can provide (and brother, what we won’t do for a big tipper is a very short list, indeed), everyone involved will probably, without thinking about it consciously, throw some sand in the wheels: the clubhouse guys might not have the shoes ready to go on time; the valet guys (who she hadn’t parked with) might not have her car ready to bring the client back to the airport quite as efficiently as they might; the pro shop might not get her just the tee time she’d like.

Without even thinking about it, we are all going to be a step slow: not that we’re malicious or anything, but hey, if some big-timer is coming down the block, he’s (and it’s just because of things like this, I’d argue, that are what makes it more likely that “he’s” a he, and not a she) going to get our attention, and she isn’t. But this lady isn’t going to notice any of that—all she’s going to see is that she isn’t getting the attention some other member is getting, and she’ll probably chalk it up to the “old boys’ club” and leave it at that.

That doesn’t mean, of course, that she’ll get bad service; on the contrary, the job she got for her client was really a terrific day for me. I overclubbed the guy on the second hole, as per usual—there’s nowhere to go on that hole, as the green is so shallow; it’s a point to consider during the Ryder Cup matches this fall. But I got him a good read after he hit a good sand shot, and the putt fell. The rest of the day though was followed by poorly-struck approach shots; with some mediocre chipping and so-so putting these led to easy bogies, but still. Towards the end of the round the guest told me he’d just gotten off an airplane that morning after an early flight, which explained the bad iron play to one degree or another; nonetheless he shot an 83 or 84, which isn’t that bad when playing Course 3 for the first time. On this day, in other words, the lady member asked for, and got, the best that Medinah can do for her—and she didn’t reward anybody.

Afterwards, hearing me tell the story, a woman suggested that maybe she just didn’t know what or how to do it. But that’s the whole point: if you’re going to do something like that, you ought to know, or be willing to find out, what the going rate is. Anything else is a category mistake: thinking of an economic question as some other kind of problem. In Arthurian romance, there’s the curious story of the Fisher King—it formed the basis of T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland, if you’re hip to High Modernism.

In the sources used by Eliot, the king, often called Pelles, has been wounded by what’s called the Dolorous Stroke, which not only has caused this king’s unhealing wound, but also, by some magic or other, caused a kind of environmental catastrophe: it’s as if the land itself has been wounded, through an identification between the country and its leader. The only way to cure the king, and thus the country itself, is to ask the king a question (it’s the opposite of a riddle, in a way), and that question is, according to some sources, something like “Why do you (the king) suffer?” Or in other words, what’s necessary is to have some kind of human identification with the king, to put oneself in the king’s place and ask what that would be like.

In the Arthurian cycle though the knight in question (originally Percival, or in Wagner, Parzifal; in the later poems the role is played by Galahad) is too polite, too courtly, to ask the question the first time the two meet, which is what sets off the Grail Quest and a whole series of adventures that have to take place before the two can meet again. Only by undergoing those experiences can the knight learn enough to know to ignore the conventions of polite society and get at the human experience underneath them: to learn, in short, to ask the question that will heal.

In our own lives, of course, it very often takes a great deal of experience to get to that point; so much of our early lives are taken up with learning how to play our roles that it takes enormous efforts to learn when to ignore them and address the realities of the person, and not the role, that stands before you. And people who are unsure, or don’t know, just what their role is have just that much harder of a time of standing to the side of their roles and making that address.

Which, perhaps, explains something about what New Yorker writer John Cassidy calls the “random winner theory” of golf’s major tournaments, a theory that is even better illustrated by a contrast between two recent majors in two different, but related, sports: golf’s U.S. Open and tennis’ French Open. In tennis, three men—Djokovic, Nadal, and Federer—have won 28 of the last 29 Grand Slam tournaments, going back all the way to 2005. In half of these tournaments, one of those three has played another of them in the final. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, the man ranked fifth in the world, actually said before the French Open even started that he had no chance to win the tournament.

Such a statement would be ridiculous in golf; Cassidy invites us “to look at this list of the last seventeen major winners, tagged by their world ranking in the week before they won: 29, 1, 3, 3, 69, 72, 33, 110, 4, 37, 54, 13, 29, 8, 111, 108, 16.” These results would be impossible in tennis: “In most individual sports—tennis, sprinting, or skiing, for example—if you put the top six players together,” Cassidy says, “the victor would almost certainly turn out to be one of them.” But not in golf. Cassidy takes the results of this year’s U.S. Open as confirmation of what he’s saying: Webb Simpson, the winner, was ranked 14th in the world before he won at the Olympic Club.

That doesn’t mean that Simpson is a bad player, obviously—he won twice last year, in his breakout season. But it does suggest that the difference between Simpson winning and, say, David Toms (ranked 42nd) winning—or even Michael Thompson (ranked 107th), who ended up tying for second a shot behind Simpson—doesn’t have much to do with how superior Simpson is as a golfer to anybody else who finished high on the leaderboard. Rather, it concerns how much “luck,” or random chance, has to do these days with who wins what in golf. It hasn’t always, certainly, been that way in golf.

Prior to 2008, when Tiger Woods won his last major at Torrey Pines in June of that year at the Open, he’d been golf’s answer to Federer or Lance Armstrong: the dominant player. Tiger at his height used to win about one in every three or four majors, which is astonishing. Since that win, and perhaps more to the point, his gut-wrenching loss to Y.E. Yang at Hazeltine in 2009 (the only time Tiger has spit the bit with the lead in a major) and the subsequent, ahem, domestic issues, major tournaments have been pretty much open to anyone willing to win them.

Maybe what that suggests is that the way to win majors is to behave as Tiger behaved prior to the Thanksgiving incident: singlemindedly, and selfishly, pursuing one’s own goals at the expense of anyone around you. Or, to put it another way, to perform exactly one’s role. This was, it seems, Percival’s understanding of how to go about pursuing the Holy Grail: to ignore anything that did not appear to pertain directly upon that quest. The point of the story, of course, is that Percival does not find the Grail (or more precisely, does not recognize that he’s already found it, because in some versions it turns out that it was in the room with him when he first meets the Fisher King) until he learns, to put it lamely, that Some Things Are More Important.

Certainly, from the point of view of the Tour and the television executives who pay the tour, not having a dominant player is something to be mourned: ratings are always higher when Tiger has a chance of winning. Is this true, though? I certainly could have gotten more out of the guest had I asked him how he was feeling; he would have told me he’d just spent the morning traveling, which would have changed the way I was thinking about what shots he should hit. (Not to mention not getting hit by a golf ball.) The lady member will, more than likely, not get as much out of her membership as she might have had she only asked me. Maybe it’s possible that Tiger can’t ever become the old Tiger he once was: intimidating, unknown, and scary. Maybe all know too much now. But perhaps he isn’t out of options—and maybe neither is golf. At least, there might still be time to duck.