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.

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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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