Darth Looper

The putt came screaming down the hill—carrying with it my golfer’s hopes of a win and my hopes of a decent payday—like Luke Skywalker’s torpedo flew down the Death Star’s trench and, given the condition of the greens, the speed of it was a surprise. It’s been an unfortunate fact that the last two major championships at Medinah have been PGAs, traditionally played in August. August is usually a poor month for Medinah’s grass; the heat of a Chicago summer has never agreed well with Course 3. Medinah has been lucky that Tiger won both of them; if he hadn’t, the course’s condition during play would probably have been a bigger story. In 1999 for instance the green on the 16th hole, where on Sunday Sergio Garcia nearly made what would have been an epic birdie that would have tied Tiger for the lead, had almost no grass on it by Sunday. Things weren’t as bad in 2006, but they were slow; and this summer, even despite all the changes made (Sub-Air systems, entirely new grass, and this year even giant fans), there’s still a chance that Medinah might lose the greens entirely sometime in August.

All that lies in the future now, as we wait for the high furnace winds of August to arrive,  and the golf world awaits the final selections for the Ryder Cup teams, which won’t happen until after the PGA. As of this writing, the only thing to talk about in golf is Adam Scott’s Via Dolorosa over the final four holes of the Open Championship, known to us colonials as the British Open. There’s very little as agonizing as caddying for somebody experiencing such a collapse, as I found—again—at about the same time on that Sunday that Scott wandered through the stages of his stations of the cross at Royal Lytham.

My patron was an anxious little guy, a member playing a match for the President’s Cup—a ladder match tournament played through the season—ahead of the club championship, which would start later in the morning. (My loop for the championship had canceled 15 minutes before his tee time for reasons that are still unclear.) He’d asked for somebody who could read the greens, so I got sent.

His nerves were apparent from the very first tee, when he made some kind of forgettable and ridiculously bad joke about something or other. Having honors, he hit his ball a moderate way down the fairway, followed shortly by his opponent, who hit it about the same amount. The two were, by handicap indexes, exactly matched, even though you might not think it to look at them: my guy was in his fifties, perhaps; his adversary, perhaps in his early 40s, and far more athletic-looking. Yet the way they hit their golf balls betrayed an equality: neither could hit it much more than 240 yards with their drivers, though my guy made slightly better contact with his pull-slice kind of action than the other guy was with his. My guy hit the green in two shots; the other guy missed and after two putts from our hero, the Adversary was one down.

That lead didn’t last long—my guy hit it in the water on the second hole, after a pull job that didn’t get high enough to the elevated green. And after winning the third with a two-putt par to go up again—me having called for a six-iron, rather than the five my player thought was necessary—my guy three-putted to the Opponent’s one-putt for another push. On the sixth, we were on regulation, while the other guy was ten yards short of the green. He used his putter to advance the ball to the front part of the green—with a pin on the back, atop a tier whose steep approaches not only threatened to stop anything not well-struck, but actually Elvis them: “Return to Sender.”

Naturally, the guy sent his ball through the swale in front of the green, then up those slopes—and sank it. Just as naturally, my guy missed his par putt, despite it only being a few feet away and on the same tier. The match was shaping up to be the classic “ball-striking vs. putting” contest; which, to my mind, favored my player, considering the condition of the greens.

After all, if your game depends on putting, burned-out and slow greens, create so many obstacles that even a good putter can’t depend on making many. It changes the dynamic of the traditional structure of the tortoise-vs.-hare joust, which usually is the difference between, say, taking your life-savings, driving to Vegas, and putting it all down on the roulette wheel’s black, and putting a quarter of your paycheck into a savings account every month. Or in other words, betting on your putting against the other guy’s ball-striking is essentially saying that the value of your putt outweighs the value of all the strokes made by the other guy. It’s possible, sure, but on slow greens, a game based around putting isn’t just roulette but roulette with a broken wheel.

On the seventh, I reminded my player to tee his ball on the right side of the tee box, to accomodate his cutty kind of pull shape shot, which was fortunate because he started his ball well left of the fairway but it ended up dead center. After trading wins and pushes on the next three holes things started looking up at the beginning of the back nine. Sticking it to less than two feet in regulation on the tenth hole was great, though somehow the Adversary managed a par after getting lost in the woods off his drive. Thankfully, my guy made his birdie. Then came the eleventh, which appeared to be a kind of turning point.

My player hit a good drive down the center of the fairway, while the Adversary found the forest and its trees again. He had to play out, ending up about fifty yards away from the green. Meanwhile, I and my player were locked in a bit of a dilemma. The actual distance to the pin appeared to dictate a six-iron, but it was far towards the back of the green beyond which grew a thick stand of pine trees from which it’s impossible to recover. In addition, the green on the eleventh is slightly below the level of the fairway where we were, and the wind was slightly helping the kind of cut my player favored. I therefore advocated he use the seven-iron.

Thus far, I pointed out, we had played conservative golf: I had consistently pushed for the club that would put us near the center of the green without much trouble. And thus far we’d been rewarded: sure, the other guy had made some miraculous recoveries—but the point was that he’d had to make them. On every hole, even those when we’d missed the fairway somehow, we had been threatening to make bogey or better. Therefore I argued that while the seven-iron might not reach all the way back to the hole, it also wouldn’t reach the pines beyond, and so we’d not risk anything worse than a bogey. My player saw the point—and immediately hit it into the front right bunker.

And just after that, the Adversary hit his fifty-yard approach to bounce in front of the green and then roll up the green as if it were a judiciously-struck putt, eventually ending up not more than four feet from the hole … and on the same tier. So things certainly looked bad. Still when we reached our ball it appeared that the ball would have fallen from the sky at least as far as the green’s front, had it only been a yard or two more left, and, more significantly, had a very good lie in the bunker’s center.

The bunker shot came out okay—okay, but not great, right in the center of the green. I underlined the importance of hitting it firmly, he hit the par putt three feet by the whole, so seemingly we’d lost the hole. Until the sweet-putting Adversary had put his par putt about the same distance from the hole as he’d started—and then did it again. And again. My guy managed to make his bogey, and the Adversary actually picked up his ball and threw it into the pine trees near the green. Thing were looking up.

On the twelfth, I counseled a three-wood on the approach, despite the yardage seeming to dictate the hybrid he carried—which, he said, he didn’t hit particularly well—and my player found the green. (His comment was that he’d only hit the green in two once before.) Still, we were a long way from the pin, and above it, though the Opponent was also in a precarious position above the hole—and he was there in three. The line of putt I thought should be played was probably too high—though the breaks on the twelfth hole on Course 3 can be enormous—and my player didn’t hit it firmly enough considering how slow the greens were, so we ended up just slightly inside our Opponent’s ball. Luckily enough, he missed, but we ended up with another push on a hole that we could easily have won.

Still, after a two-putt par on the par-five fourteenth, we found ourselves three up with four holes to play. And after some bad Adversary shots on the fifteenth, followed by another miracle Adversary downhill putt from nearly off the green to make bogey, we merely had to two-putt for a par that would win the match. Of course, my guy hit the first one slightly too hard, which left him a three-foot putt for par. Which he pulled, missed on the low side, and never even sniffed the cup.

You already know what happened next. The Adversary hit a ridiculous third shot on the par-four sixteenth to inches from the cup; we missed our par (I possibly misread it slightly). On the seventeenth, I reminded my guy to place his ball on the right side of the box, especially on account of a tree that slightly overhangs the tee box there; naturally, he pulled his tee shot into the tree and failed to clear the water, which meant that we couldn’t take advantage of our Adversary’s wildly-overclubbed approach that left him twenty yards over the green. On the eighteenth, the Opponent hit another bad drive to our solid hit down the middle. His punch-out left him well short of the green. And so we had a dilemma.

The eighteenth hole on Course 3 had a Redan-style green, meaning that it is elevated above the fairway at a slight angle: the further left you go, the farther the shot must carry to reach home. (Another example of such a green is the fourth at Riviera.) But there is an opening on the right side of the green, between the deep bunkers in front of the green itself and to the left of the opening and the deep bunker to the right of the green, that allows a humbler, less-daring shot. Now, looking at our distance, my player said “The hybrid?” I mentioned that he had said earlier he didn’t like to hit that club, and we hadn’t used it all day. “The four then,” he concluded. And I said no—“The five.”

The idea was that by hitting a five my player would be able to control his shot better (all things being equal, a shorter club is easier) and thereby avoid the bunkers on the left, while at the same time, no matter how well he hit the ball, he would never be able to hit it so far as to carry into the bunker on the right. The golfer saw the virtue of the notion and, striking it well, left his ball in the middle of the opening about thirty yards from the flag. Next, the Opponent put his third shot well past the pin, leaving himself a dangerous twenty-five foot downhill putt for par.

When he hit it, my first thought was that he’d hit too hard—if it missed, there was no way the comeback putt would be any less than six feet, even on the slow green. But it didn’t miss. Instead, it struck the back of the cup, popped into the air a few inches, and dropped back into the center of the cup. We were all stunned, and my patron’s miss a minute or two later was a foregone conclusion. Through eighteen holes, we were now all square.

That raised the question of a playoff. Normally we would merely proceed to the first hole of the golf course and begin again—but with the last groups of the club championship, the members of the top flight of golfers who were really competing for the overall prize, going off, the club pro standing at the first tee told us it was impossible. This piqued my golfer, who had some hard words for the club pro, but as there was nothing to be done we proceeded to the first tee of Medinah’s Course 1, where the Adversary sliced his tee shot into the trees right of the fairway.

The first hole of Course 1 is a short par-five, only about 530 yards. The tee shot’s view is dominated by an enormous bunker that stands immediately beyond a stream that flows through the rest of the course, itself just beyond the edge of the forward tee box. The bunker is usually merely decorative, and is in the shape of a Bactrian camel; apparently this is in homage to Medinah’s connection to the Shriners, who take their club’s trappings from a kind of fantasia of the Arabian Nights—though the Bactrian, or two-humped, camel is from Central Asia, thousands of miles from Arabia. The other feature of the tee box is a couple of trees that cast their shade over the tee in the afternoon; the box faces north, which is to say that the trees stand on the left side as the golfer faces the green off in the distance.

I assume you can discern what happened next.

It did. My patron pulled his drive into the tree on the left, whereupon it ricocheted over the stream, hit another tree, and ended up between the camel’s humps just off the near edge of the bunker. Though it didn’t end up getting wet, we were still in about as impossible a situation as could be: because the edge of the bunker was so close, we needed a short club merely to make contact with the ball, not just to be sure to carry the ball out of the bunker. That done, we were still hitting our third shot from nearly four hundred yards; I won’t bore you with the comedy that followed—even after all that, because of the Adversary’s poor ball-striking we weren’t out of the hole until nearly the final putt—but as amusing as it was in some respect it did nothing to change the final result: my golfer lost.

Afterwards, I went to the caddie shack (actually a rather pleasant room connected to the pro shop) to sit in the air conditioning a bit and clean up. The caddie for the Adversary, who was about 14 years old, was there waiting for his ride, and when a couple of my friends asked me how it went, he piped up. In his telling, his golfer’s victory was a win for the romantic, the impossible, what TV shows like Star Trek call the “human.” When things looked blackest for his golfer, he had “encouraged” him, told him not to give up, and all of the other cliches used in sports movies and, come to think of it, a lot of others: at the end of Star Wars, for instance, Obi-Wan tells Luke to turn off his targeting computer and “trust the Force,” which allows him to get off the shot that scurries into the center of the Death Star’s exhaust port, destroying the evil weapon and winning the day for the good guys. According to this looper, the victory was entirely due to the encouragement he provided for his golfer, just as the Rebels in Star Wars won because of Obi-Wan’s coaching at the crucial moment. Which, I suppose, is itself an encouraging sign: it’s well-known that in these times of resistance to government health-care, or stimulus spending, or for that matter the fact of global warming, what’s really necessary is to inspire a love of irrationality in our youth.

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Games of Consequence and Rules of Three

… books of a large design, shadowing the complexity of that game of consequences to which we all sit down, the hanger-back not least … 
—Robert Louis Stevenson

I haven’t seen Medinah’s Course 3 for a week, though the last I saw of it the course wasn’t looking good. The fairways began showing the same sort of thinning and browning that showed up last year about this time, and the greens also turned brown in spots. They are ominous signs, though it’s also true that by late September last year most of the wear and tear had disappeared, which I’m sure is what the PGA of America is hoping will happen by this year’s Ryder Cup. Still, the hot and humid weather has had a more personal effect on me: it’s an indirect reason why I haven’t seen it lately, as I violated one of caddying’s cardinal rules: the one about shutting up.

I was assigned that day to a group composed of two foursomes, each led by a member, going out on consecutive tee times. Each of the members was, it seems, doing a favor for another man, not a member, who was bringing out six guests to play Course 3. This isn’t entirely uncommon for Medinah, which is often the site of such mini-outings. The problem, from the point of view of the caddies, is that when such groups reach the tee they can be the site of rather nasty scrums, as each caddie struggles to identify a player to work for based on nothing more than a view of the bags available and (perhaps) a quick glance at the players—trying to gauge which of them is likeliest to part with the biggest side-tip, or slip, as we term it.

Usually, when I approach a foursome, I try to ask the member involved who he would like me to work for, whether it be for himself or perhaps some favored guest or other. Maybe it’s the best player; maybe it’s the guest the member wants to have the best service. Most of the members already know me, so they’re happy to direct me. But in this case the member didn’t know any of the guests, so he directed me towards the man in charge of the outing—who didn’t really understand what I was asking him.

That man did take me around to a player who hadn’t played Medinah before and wanted to take pictures of himself standing in front of the clubhouse and so on before setting out. I took the guy’s camera and positioned him in the best spots—but, unfortunately, I didn’t take the precaution of grabbing his bag first. That was a bad decision.

When we got around to getting the guy’s bag, another caddie had already taken hold of it. Now, most of the caddies at Medinah respect me, if nothing else because of my long tenure at the place. This particular caddie, however, doesn’t—or at least, doesn’t show it. Perhaps it’s because of some natural male competitiveness, or just some kind of machismo. Alternately—and I don’t doubt this has played a role—, I’ve criticized the guy before for his work ethic, or lack of one, both to his face and to our superiors. My complaints, however, have largely fallen on deaf ears (though it’s true that, were there any disciplinary action taken, it’s unlikely anyone would have told me about it.) All of which sounds, I’d admit, like beating-around-the-bush, but it’s hard to get at the point without wasting your time recounting four or five anecdotes that would take up far more time than I’d like to spend. The bottom-line is that I don’t like this guy, and he doesn’t like me.

Anyway, I try to tell him that he should give me the bag, due to the aforementioned photo-taking and conversation, but he basically ignores me, which leads to some harsh words before the guy essentially sprints down the fairway to escape me. I end up taking the bag of the last guest to arrive. The guest I took the pictures with originally, as it happens, is in the first group to tee off, and as I’m standing there on the tee he approaches me to say something apologetic about what happened. I’m pretty mad at this point—though not at the guest—and it’s what I said next that led to the problem: “Maybe you could have been more assertive, sir.”

Now, as I’ve said, the guy hasn’t been to Medinah before and probably had no experience with caddies whatever, not to speak of what to do when loopers are fighting over his bag, and he begins to say essentially that when somebody points out it’s his turn to tee off and he returns to the purpose he came to Medinah about. Which, I thought, was the end of that—in the category of “Things Uttered In Anger” I hardly thought what I said really qualified as actually worth reviewing. But in that—clearly I haven’t watched enough “Downton Abbey” or other PBS shows designed to instruct on proper means of deference—I was wrong.

I had pulled third in the next day’s lottery, which I was quite happy about as it meant that I most certainly would work—it had been rather a question since the imposition, since the beginning of July, of restricted tee times designed to protect the course, which had also the effect of reducing the number of loops possible. An hour or two had passed as I waited to be assigned when, suddenly, the door separating the caddie yard from caddiemaster’s office flew open, and there was my boss. Obviously, he was upset. He repeated the outlines of the narrative I’ve just related, which I couldn’t deny, at the end of which he just said something to the purpose of taking a couple of weeks off. Which, up to now, is what I’ve done. At least from Medinah. I’ve been going to Butler instead. Don’t tell anyone; I’m far too polite to tell my readers (such as they are) to shut up about it.

Going Deep at Medinah

The Chicago Sun-Times—cadet-branch descendent of my great-uncle’s newspaper, the Chicago Daily News—had an article the other day on Ryder Cup team captain Davis Love’s views on the proper length of the rough at Medinah: he expects his team to be full of long-hitting bombers “so it would probably be to our benefit not to have really deep rough.” But the length of the rough isn’t one of the most important of the decisions Love will have to make between now and the September matches; the most important is who Davis will choose to fill the four captain’s picks allotted him. I think he ought to listen to what the other players say.

In Golf Is Not a Game of Perfect, Bob Rotella writes that “the kind of memory that promotes good shotmaking” is “a short-term memory for failure and a long-term memory for success.” In other words, a golfer needs to be able to flush out the last shot and move on to the next without a fear. But this is difficult to do, as a study of the PGA Tour may have demonstrated a few years ago: pro golfers are more likely to make a par putt than a birdie putt from the same distance. Devin Pope and Maurice Schweitzer, of the Wharton School, found that the “tendency to miss birdie putts more often existed regardless of the player’s general putting or overall skill; round or hole number; putt length; position with respect to the lead or cut; and more,” according to the New York Times.

The purpose of the paper was to discover more evidence for the notion that human beings are, to use the technical term, “loss averse”: people will go to greater lengths to avoid a loss than they are to reap a gain. Or as the Times puts it, human beings have a “psychological preference to avoid a perceived penalty (losing a stroke relative to par) rather than go for a perceived gain (gaining a stroke).” Human beings are fundamentally pre-disposed to remember failures and pain than they are to remember successes and pleasures; hence, we will do virtually anything to avoid losing but not quite so much to achieve a win—even if, as is the case on tour, birdies are actually more valuable than pars, and even more valuable than bogies are hurtful.

“Given that players typically attempt nine birdie putts per round,” the Times says “this [effect] cost each golfer about one stroke per tournament—which can translate to hundreds of thousands of dollars in prize money.” Or as Pope said, “Even experienced professionals playing for high stakes are not rational”: every stroke counts the same, so presumably tour pros should spend just the same effort on birdie putts they do on par putts, though they demonstrably do not. What that suggests, however, is a strategy Davis Love might employ in seeking to complete his team.

What he needs, in other words, might be players completely without care, who’ll fire a birdie putt with the same gusto they might a par putt. Where could such players be found? I’d suggest that, if you were looking for Americans with a proven ability to ignore the past—though maybe you wouldn’t need to look much further than that—you might go looking for a pool of people used to ignoring potential setbacks in favor of potential gains. They wouldn’t be concerned with possible negative consequences to their actions so much as the possible positive ones. It so happens that there might be a pool of such people in, quite literally, Davis’ backyard—if one cares to look.

Obviously, identifying such a pool would depend on the criteria used; Fox Butterfield, in his All God’s Children: The Bosket Family and the American Tradition of Violence, has perhaps given us one. “There is no one here but carries arms under his clothes,” Alexis de Toqueville recorded an Alabama lawyer telling him in his diary during the travels that produced Democracy in America: an incident cited by Butterfield. Later, in 1880, a correspondent for the Cincinnati Commercial named H.V. Redfield, “put together the first quantitative study of the subject,” Butterfield tells us, which found that homicide rates were perhaps a hundred times greater in the South. In the early 1930s, the first federal study of homicide data found that “the ten states with the highest murder rates were all Southern or border states.” (Compare: “Between June 1849 and June 1850, there was only one recorded murder in [Illinois’] thirty-two northernmost counties.”) Redfield thus became one of the first to argue that “the South had produced a culture of violence.”

It could be argued, so to say, that perhaps it is no accident that if any region of the nation is overrepresented on the PGA Tour, it’s the South—and that those reasons go beyond reliable access to golf-friendly weather. Maybe, in order to play good golf, it’s necessary to be —well, one hesitates to use the word sociopathic—a bit more heedless, a bit more reckless. And maybe Southerners live in a world not quite so unforgiving towards those with a bit of a wild streak in them: perhaps unsurprisingly, since Southerners live in a landscape constructed with the help of one of the worst of human crimes, the one finally ended in 1865.

Maybe this is why the casual golf fan is always being surprised by figures with names like “Webb Simpson,” names that wouldn’t seem out of place were they from deep in Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County or minor characters in To Kill a Mockingbird. Regardless, it does suggest a strategy for Davis when he’s selecting the members of his team: all things being equal, pick the Southerner. He might be completely irrational, but that’s not a disqualification for golf. All that Davis has to do to find his team, in other words, is listen for the accent.