A Part of the Main

… every man is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine
—John Donne, Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions

The “natural selection pressures that drive evolution can flip-flop faster than previously thought,” reported the Kansas City Star, six years ago, on a study of Bahamanian lizards. The details are, as always, not nearly as interesting as the newspaper writers make them appear: they involve percentages of as little as two and three percent. But the scientists found them significant, and the larger point remains: Darwin “thought that evolution must occur slowly and gradually,” but actual observed nature doesn’t demonstrate that. Which is to say that change, when it comes, can come suddenly and unexpectedly—something that may hold as equally well for sports, say, as lizards. Like golf, perhaps.

If I were to tell you, for instance, that while seven percent of all white people earning less than $50,000 dollars a year participated in a particular something in 2009, nineteen percent of all white people earning more than $125,000 a year did, one plausible suspect for the role of the particular something might be the Republican Party. After all, Mitt Romney’s strategy to win the presidency this November involved capturing 61 percent of the white vote, according to an unnamed source quoted in the National Journal this past August. But that guess would be wrong: the “particular something” is a round of golf.

Surely it takes no great seer to tell us that if one partner in this twosome is in trouble, the other ought to be looking for a lawyer. Golf has found its numbers to be relatively static: back in 2008, the New York Times ran a story on the “disappearance of golfers.” One expert quoted in the story said that while the “man on the street will tell you that golf is booming because he sees Tiger Woods on TV … the reality is, while we haven’t exactly tanked, the numbers have been disappointing for some time.” Golfers are overwhelmingly whiter and wealthier than their fellow Americans just as Republican voters are, which is to say that, like the Republican party, golf needs to ask whether being whiter and wealthier (and, though I haven’t mentioned it, older) are necessary—or contingent—parts of their identities.

The answer to that question will likely determine the survival of each. “If demographics is destiny, the Republican party has a rendezvous with irrelevance” coming, as one journalist has put the point—and golf, one assumes, faces much the same issue. Still, it seems likely that golf has at least, if not a better, chance of survival than the Republican party: it was already long in existence when the Republican party was born.

I’m actually being facetious there—obviously, anything so important as golf will outlive a mere political party, the transient accumulations of various interests. The question thusly isn’t so much the end, but rather the means: the path whereby golf might succeed. And there, it may be, lies a tale.

The roots of that tale might lie with the work of a doctor named Ann McKee. She works at the Veteran’s Hospital in Bedford, Massachussetts, and it has become part of her job over the past decade to examine the brains of dead football players and other people who may have been exposed to repeated concussions over the course of their lives. She’s become expert in diagnosing—after death, which is the only time it can be diagnosed—a condition known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or C.T.E. What’s she’s found, however, is that there are more dangerous things than concussions.

What Dr. McKee’s work has shown, that is, is that while concussions are horrible injuries it’s really the repeated, low-level jarrings that an activity like football can cause the brain that seems to cause C.T.E., a disease that mimics Alzheimer’s in many ways, including a final descent into dementia. And what it’s meant, at least for the doctor, is that she’s found an answer to this question: if her son “had a chance to join the NFL,” Malcolm Gladwell of the New Yorker asked her, “what would she advise him?” And here is what the doctor said: “‘Don’t. Not if you want to have a life after football.’”

“And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls,” wrote John Donne four centuries ago: “It tolls for thee.” Dr. McKee’s reply to Gladwell’s question may be just such a church bell tolling in the night: at the least, it is the link between the NFL and those lizards sunning themselves in the Bahamas. For when the mothers of America begin to hear it, and what it might mean for their sons (and possibly their daughters), it may provoke something of a sea change among the behavior of Americans. Like the change in the lizards, it may come suddenly, and not gradually. One day, there just won’t be anybody at the stadium any more.

If that does happen, it seems absurd to think that Americans will abandon sport entirely. Baseball, one expects, would see a huge surge in popularity that would overtake even that wave during the steriod era. Basketball, obviously, would become even more popular than it already is. And, perhaps, just a bit of interest would run over golf’s way. Golf, in other words, unlike the Republican Party, may be on the cusp of a new boom. What seems improbable, in short, can quickly come to seem inevitable.

And so, since it may be that entire societies can, at times, be swept by vast tides that completely overcome that which came before, so too can obscure blog posts in the wilderness called the Internet be swung suddenly from what might appear to be their ostensible subjects. Which might be of some comfort to those who observe the completely evitable tragedies like the one last week in Connecticut, and wonder if, or ever, the United States will decide to do something about its ridiculous gun laws.

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The World Forgetting

In August was the Jackal born;
The Rains came in September;
‘Now such a fearful flood as this,’
Says he, ‘I can’t remember!”
—Rudyard Kipling.
The Second Jungle Book. 1895.


“In the beginning,” wrote Pat Ward-Thomas, whose career as golf writer for the Guardian began in 1950, “it knew no architect but nature; it came into being by evolution rather than design, and on no other course is the hand of man less evident.” He was, obviously, speaking of the Old Course, at St. Andrews; the place where many say the game began and, it seems by the hysteria overtaking certain sectors of the golf world, is about to end. “I was horrified,” the golf architect Tom Doak—who is supervising the renovation of Medinah’s Course #1—recently wrote to the presidents of the American, Australian, and European societies of golf course architects, “to read of the changes proposed to the Old Course at St. Andrews.” The Old Course is aiming to beef up the course once again and Doak, for one, objects, on the grounds suggested by Ward-Thomas. But while Doak may be right to object, the reasons he gives for objecting are wrong.

Before getting to that, though, it needs to be established that there is some kind of hysteria. Luckily, Ian Poulter is involved. “I know lets draw a Moustache on the Mona Lisa” reads one of Poulter’s ungrammatical tweets (which is how you know it’s really from him). Another reads “if they make changes to the Old Course St Andrews they are insane.” I’d love to be able to reproduce the image here, but it’s worth remembering the look on Poulter’s face at Medinah during the late afternoon on Saturday. (Try here: http://www.cbssports.com/golf/blog/eye-on-golf/20408062/usa-10-europe-6-ian-poulter-goes-absolutely-crazy-to-give-europe-a-chance).

Instead of reproducing Poulter’s look, however, et’s look at the changes a bit more dispassionately. The R & A’s architect, Martin Hawtree, plans to work this winter on the second, seventh, eleventh, and seventeenth holes, while next winter working on the third, fourth, sixth, ninth, and fifteenth holes. The headline event seems to be the widening of the Road Hole Bunker—the infamous “Sands of Nakajima”—but most of the other work appears relatively innocuous: bringing the greenside bunkers a bit closer in on the second hole, for instance, or lowering a bit of the eleventh green to create a few more pin spots. According to the R & A, in short, all this seems just so many nips and tucks.

The reasons for the steps taken by the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, the body responsible for the Old Course, are clear: Stephen Gallacher for instance, who won the Dunhill Links Championship at St. Andrews in 2004, told the Scotsman “I take it they don’t want 59 shot on it.” The increasing distances hit by the professionals requires, as it has worldwide, longer and tougher courses, and the Old Course is no longer judged to be invulnerable to the modern power game. Most of the changes appear, without seeing a detailed map, designed to force professionals to be a bit more precise, whether off the tee or approaching the green.

Doak however views all this as, quite literally, sacrilege: “I have felt,” he says in his letter, “for many years that the Old Course was sacred ground to golf architects.” He appeals to history: “It [the Old Course] has been untouched architecturally since 1920, and I believe that it should remain so.” In so saying, Doak casts his lot with Ward-Thomas’ view of the Old Course as the world’s only “natural” course: built, as they say, by sheep and the winds blowing off the North Sea. In this, Doak is not only just in some technical sense off, but spectacularly wrong. The Old Course has the “hand of man” all over it.

“We do not know exactly when or how the current layout of the Old Course at St. Andrews developed,” writes the anonymous author of Scottish Golf History at the eponymous website, but as it happens this is not true, as the author somewhat uneasily relays within the same sentence as the above: “by 1764 St. Andrews consisted of twelve holes, ten of which were played twice, making a round of twenty-two holes in all.” It was in that year that the Royal & Ancient (not yet known by that name) decided that the first four holes, “which were also the last four holes” were too short, and turned them into two holes instead. But this was only one of a long line of changes.

These days the Old Course is played in a counter-clockwise fashion: the nine “out” holes lie closest to the North Sea to the town’s east and the nine “in” holes lie just inland. But prior to the nineteenth century the Old Course played clockwise: since there were no separate tee boxes then, play proceeded from the eighteenth green to what is now the seventeenth green, and so on. That created, as it might be imagined, some issues: “Because the middle holes … were played in both directions, it meant that golfers might often be waiting, not just for the group in front to clear the green, as today, but also for a party playing in the opposite direction to do the same.” One can only suppose there were the occasional disagreements.

The Old Course, as it stands today, is the handiwork of one man: “Old” Tom Morris, the legendary four-time winner of the Open Championship (the British Open to us on the left-hand of the Atlantic), and father of another four-time winner (“Young” Tom Morris). “Old” Tom seemingly had a hand in half the courses built in the British Isles at the end of the nineteenth century and from his shop virtually all of the great players and designers of the following generation or so issued. It was Old Tom who decreed that the Old Course should be played counter-clockwise (or widdershins). It was he who built the first and eighteenth greens. And, maybe most interestingly at this time of year, he introduced the concept of mowing to golf. (“Golf was a winter game until the middle of the nineteenth century,” says Scottish Golf History, “when mechanical grass cutters allowed play in the summer as well.”)

In any case, any serious investigation will demonstrate not only that the Old Course wasn’t designed by “Nature” but that long after Old Tom had been buried in the town cemetery, the Old Course was still undergoing changes. New bunkers, for instance, were constructed in 1949, which is one reason why Peter Dawson, leader of the R & A, said that the course has been “largely” unaltered over its history in the press release regarding the changes: Dawson, knowing the real history of the course, knows it has been tweaked many times.

Doak and Poulter’s stance, in other words, is historically inaccurate. That isn’t really, though, what’s so bothersome about their position. It isn’t in the facts, but rather in their logic, that their argument is ultimately faulty. But to understand why requires knowing something about a human activity whose origins also lie in Scotland; more specifically, just south of the Grampian Mountains.

That’s where Charles Lyell was born in 1797, within sight of the Highlands. He grew to become a lawyer, but it is for his book The Principles of Geology that he is best-known for today. And the reason why he is known for that book is because it expounded Lyell’s contention that “the present is the key to the past”: what Lyell argued was that it is by examining what happens today that geologists can learn about what happened to the earth ages ago, not by consulting religious books for signs of supernatural intervention.

What Lyell taught, in other words, is that in order to investigate the past the researcher should presume that processes existing today also existed then; that there wasn’t any sharp break between the present and the past. But Doak and Poulter’s argument necessarily implies a break with the past: if we should know so much regarding the changes in the Old Course since the nineteenth century, why should we presume that—prior to the intervention of “Old” Tom—the course, as Ward-Thomas put it, “knew no architect but nature?”

What Doak and Poulter’s argument rests on, in other words, isn’t an assertion about the superiority of God and/or Nature over Man, but rather on the superiority of “Old” Tom Morris as opposed to all other golf architects before or since. Which, it must be pointed out, is entirely arguable: as mentioned, at times it seems that Morris had a hand in half the golf courses in Britain. Still, there’s a considerable difference between chalking up a design to the hand of the Nature (Or the wanderings of sheep) and a particular man. Doak certainly may argue that Morris’ conception of the Old Course ought to be preserved—but he’s wrong to suggest it might be flouting the Divine Will to tinker with it.