Public Enemy #2

Why Steve Stricker Is Way More Dangerous Than Anyone Can Imagine

Words pay no debts…
Troilus and Cressida III, 2

Dustin Johnson won the Tournament of Champions, the first PGA tournament of the new season (though it won’t be, as we shall see, next season), by beating Steve Stricker in the last round; afterwards, Stricker announced he is going into a “semi-retirement.” Some rather sour people might say that’s a season too late, given Stricker’s disappointing performance at Medinah last fall, but for others the tour loses a man widely regarded as one the good guys: “Stricker is your nice and genuinely down-to-earth Midwesterner” wrote Stephanie Wie of Golf.com. Stricker’s been ranked as high as #2 in the World Rankings, yet nobody would ever confuse him with Tiger Woods: he’s simply not competitive in the way Tiger is. Yet it is, maybe oddly, Steve Stricker who is a bigger threat to golf’s future than Tiger Woods.

Admittedly that’s a strange sentiment: when Tiger’s indiscretions became public a few years ago, a lot of people thought he’d lost huge numbers of fans to the sport, particularly women. Undoubtedly, that fear drove Tiger’s corporate sponsors, like Buick and the rest, to abandon their deals with him by invoking whatever the “moral turpitude” clauses in his contracts were. And in some sense those predictions are right: some casual fans surely did stop watching after Woods’ trouble. But just as surely, the television ratings indicate that such an effect, if it mattered at all, hasn’t mattered much: what those numbers show is that what matters now, as it has since Tiger first turned pro, is whether Woods is playing in the tournament or not. People watch when he is, and they don’t when he isn’t.

Maybe more of them are rooting for Tiger to fail these days—there were always some before the scandal, too—but the numbers say that Tiger is, if anything, a boon to the sport. Not so Stricker: nobody, aside from maybe his family and friends, watches the PGA Tour to see how Stricker is doing unless, as at Medinah last year, they are watching him represent the United States in some team competition or other. Still, that’s not why I say that Stricker represents a threat to the sport: sure, he’s pretty dull, and doesn’t emote anything like Tiger does (at least on the course), but that doesn’t pose any kind of existential crisis. No, what makes Stricker pose a threat to the game isn’t, in fact, his play during this century at all: it’s his play from the beginning of his career, not the end, that is the threat.

That beginning is referred to in John Feinstein’s sequel to A Good Walk Spoiled: that somewhat tedious tome entitled The Majors. Even there, Feinstein only refers to the events in question in passing, either not realizing or downplaying their significance. The crucial paragraph is this:

it had been a U.S. Open qualifier in 1993 that had jump-started his career. He had qualified in Chicago and finished as co-medalist to get into his first Open. he went on to make the cut at Baltusrol, which convinced him he was good enough to play with the big boys. That had led to his solid summer in Canada, which had gotten him an exemption into the Canadian Open. Totally unknown at the time, he led the Canadian for two rounds and ended up finishing fourth. Then he made it through all three stages of Q-School to get his PGA Tour card.

The story this paragraph tells is, at least on the surface, a heartwarming one: the story of a Midwestern kid made, suddenly, good. It makes for excellent copy and reminds us of all those other archetypal American stories. Just as another archetypal American story does, though that one also reminds us of just why we ought not to shut off our critical ears when listening to them.

That story is called The Great Gatsby, Midwesterner-who-made-good F. Scott Fitzgerald’s answer to the “Midwesterner-who-made-good” story. As you’ll recall from high school English, Gatsby is the story of how poor Jimmy Gatz becomes rich Jay Gatsby, and how, no matter how much wealth he piles up, the powers-that-be never will let him into the inner circle of power, which will always escape down another corridor, through another side-door. Still, all that depressing narrative isn’t really why Fitzgerald’s novel is important here: the consequential point, so it seems to me, comes in a single sentence in Chapter One, before things have barely begun at all.

“If personality is an unbroken series of successful gestures,” wrote Fitzgerald about Gatsby, “then there was something gorgeous about him, some heightened sensitivity to the promises of life, as if he were related to one of those intricate machines that register earthquakes ten thousand miles away.” It’s a sentence with its own beauty, to be sure: it begins with an obscure generalization, before rushing down to that indelible use of a Richter machine in a simile. But the crucial part of the sentence, for my purposes here, is that first phrase, about the “unbroken series.”

To know why requires reference to yet another book, one I’ve referred to before: Fooled by Randomness, by one Nassim Taleb. In that book, Taleb writes of what he calls the “lucky fool”—a category that, if you aren’t one yourself, ought to be fairly self-explanatory. “It has been shown,” Taleb says (though he doesn’t cite his sources, unfortunately), “that monkeys injected with serotonin”—a neurotransmitter that appears to play a great role with our moods and dispositions—“will rise in the pecking order”—apes being hierarchical creatures—“which in turn causes an increase of the serotonin level in their blood—until the virtuous cycle breaks and starts a vicious one.” The monkey references aside, it’s difficult to think of a more concise description of Steve Stricker’s summer of 1993.

“‘I went from nowhere going into that Open qualifier in ’93 to being on the tour in six months,’” Feinstein reports Stricker saying. It’s a heartwarming tale, speaking to the hope that golf, and perhaps sport in general, can represent. But it also represents something darker: a threat, as I said, to golf itself: “When you have large numbers of teenagers who are successful major league pitchers, isn’t that persuasive evidence that the quality of play is not the same?” wrote the sabermetrician—baseball stat-head—Bill James about the difference between nineteenth-century and twentieth-century baseball. James’ point is that a sport whose most successful practitioners are men in their primes, not the extraordinarily-young or other kinds of outliers, is a sign that the question is actually a sport: a game of skill, not a game of chance.

Stricker’s run to the PGA Tour threatens the notion that golf is a sport because it suggests that golf really is that which a lot of amateurs say golf is: a “head game,” or a game whose major determinating factor is psychological. As Tom Weiskopf once said about Jack Nicklaus: “Jack knew he was going to beat you. You knew Jack was going to beat you. And Jack knew that you knew that he was going to beat you.” To some, of course, such conditions are the essence of sport: we’re used to the usual kinds of athletic blather, usually spouted by football coaches, about the importance of will in sports, and all the rest of that.

The reality though is that a “sport” whose determining factor was the athletes’ respective “willpowers” would be ridiculous. What a combination of Taleb’s suggestion and Weiskopf’s observation about Nicklaus might create would be a picture of a “sport” played by players who had happened—not by their own merit, but simply on the fact that somebody has to win every contest—to win enough, at the right times, to create the serotonin levels sufficient to defeat most others most times. (This is not even to speak of the way in which golf is structured to reward veteran players at the expense at newcomers.) Golf would be, so to speak, a kind of biochemical aristocracy: entry would be determined, essentially, via lottery, not by effort.

There is only one way to counter an allegation like that: to allow the players to display their skill as often as possible, or in other words to make the sample sizes as large as possible. It’s that point that the PGA Tour has addressed by changing the structure of the professional game in a way that will allow Johnson’s win at the first tournament of the 2013 season to make him the defending champ at the sixth tournament of 2014—without changing any dates.

The Fry’s.com Open, at Corde de Valle on October 10th, will start what will be a kind of counterpart to the FedEx Cup: though instead of playing for a ten-million dollar bonus, as the top-ranked players will be, this tournament will be for the bottom dwellers on the PGA Tour. Those low-ranked players from the big tour will play the high-ranked players on the Web.com Tour (the farm system for the big tour, formerly known as the Nationwide Tour) in a battle for access to the big paydays on the PGA Tour.

That method will replace the old Q-School, the finals of which—a six-day tournament usually played somewhere like the tough PGA West Stadium course—used to give away PGA Tour cards. But for some years the Web.com Tour has overtaken Q-School as a means of becoming a PGA Tour player: slowly but surely the numbers of cards available to Q-School grads has fallen, and those for Web.com grads has risen. The reason has been to address just that potential criticism: players from the developmental tour have, presumably, had more opportunity to prove their talents, and thus their success is more likely to be due to their own merit rather than being on the receiving end of a lucky draw.

The trouble is, however, that it isn’t clear that increasing those sample sizes has really done anything to reward actual talent as opposed to luck. “For four years from 2007 through 2010, 34 of 106 (32.1%) players who made it to the PGA Tour via Q-school retained their cards that year,” as Gary Van Sickle pointed out on Golf.com last March, “while 31 of 100 players (31%) who reached the PGA Tour via the Nationwide retained their cards.” In 2011 those numbers remained about the same. In other words, the differences in sample sizes—a whole season versus one week—does not appear to have much effect on determining who advances or does not advance to the big tour. That is, to put it mildly, a bit troubling.

Steve Stricker has earned roughly $35 million on the PGA Tour; it’s the highest figure for anyone who’s never won a major championship. By contrast, the career money leader on the Web.com Tour is Darron Stiles, who’s won just over $1.8 million. It’s an indication of just how skewed the pay structure is between the two tours: roughly speaking, the total purse at a PGA Tour event is roughly ten times what a comparable event on the other tour is. Yet, as mentioned, it can be difficult to distinguish between the two tours’ players’ respective merits. If so, that could mean that the difference in pay isn’t due to what the players put out on the playing field. Huge differences in pay that can’t be easily explained is, of course, cause for concern: one reason why Steve Stricker, resident of a nation where a CEO can be compensated hundreds of times more than workers on the lowest rung of the ladder and congressmen can be elected for decades to districts made safe by gerrymandering, might be a threat to graver matters than golf.

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The Weight We Must Obey

The weight of this sad time we must obey,
Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.
King Lear V,iii

There’s a scene in the film Caddyshack that at first glance seems like a mere throwaway one-liner, but that rather neatly sums up what I’m going to call the “Kirby Puckett” problem. Ted Knight’s Judge Smails character asks Chevy Chase’s Ty Webb character about how if Webb doesn’t, as he claims, keep score, then how does he measure himself against other golfers? “By height,” Webb replies. It’s a witty enough reply on its own of course. But it also (and perhaps there’s a greater humor to be found here) raises a rather profound question: is there a way to know someone is a great athlete—aside from their production on the field? Or, to put the point another way, what do bodies tell us?

I call this the “Kirby Puckett” problem because of something Bill James, the noted sabermetrician and former , once wrote in his New Historical Baseball Abstract: “Kirby Puckett,” James observed, “once said that his fantasy was to have a body like Glenn Braggs’.” Never heard of Glenn Braggs? Well, that’s James’ point: Glenn Braggs looked like a great ballplayer—“slender, fast, very graceful”—but Kirby Puckett was a great ballplayer: a first-ballot Hall of Famer, in fact. Yet despite his own greatness—and surely Kirby Puckett was aware he was, by any measure, a better player than Glenn Braggs—Puckett could not help but wish he appeared “more like” the great player he, in reality, was.

What we can conclude from this is that a) we all (or most of us) have an idea of what athletes look like, and b) that it’s extremely disturbing when that idea is called into question, even when you yourself are a great athlete.
This isn’t a new problem, to be sure. It’s the subject, for instance, of Moneyball, the book (and the movie) about how the Oakland A’s, and particularly their general manager Billy Beane, began to apply statistical analysis to baseball. “Some scouts,” wrote Michael Lewis in that book, about the difference between the A’s old and the new ways of doing things, “still believed they could tell by the structure of a young man’s face not only his character but his future in pro ball.” What Moneyball is about is how Beane and his staff learned to ignore what their eyes told them, and judge their players solely on the numbers.

Or in other words, to predict future production only by past production, instead of by what appearances appeared to promise. Now, fairly obviously that doesn’t mean that coaches and general managers of every sport need to ignore their players’ appearances when evaluating their future value. Indisputably, many different sports have an ideal body. Jockeys, of course, are small men, whereas football players are large ones. Basketball players are large, too, but in a different way: taller and not as bulky. Runners and bicyclists have yet a different shape. Pretty clearly, completely ignoring those factors would lead any talent judge far astray quickly.

Still, the variety of successful body types in a given sport might be broader than we might imagine—and that variety might be broader yet depending on the sport in question. Golf for example might be a sport with a particularly broad range of potentially successful bodies. Roughly speaking, golfers of almost any body type have been major champions.

“Bantam” Ben Hogan for example, greatest of ballstrikers, stood 5’7” and weighed about 135 pounds during his prime, and going farther back Harry Vardon, who invented the grip used almost universally today and won the British Open six times, stood 5’9” and weighed about 155 pounds. But alternately, Jack Nicklaus was known as “Fat Jack” when he first came out on tour—a nickname that tells its own story—and long before then Harry Vardon had competed against Ted Ray, who won two majors of his own (the 1912 British and the 1920 U.S. Opens)—and was described by his contemporaries as “hefty.” This is not even to bring up, say, John Daly.

The mere existence of John Daly, however, isn’t strong enough to expand our idea of what constitutes an athlete’s body. Golfers like Daly and the rest don’t suggest that the overweight can be surprisingly athletic; instead, they provoke the question of whether golf is a sport at all. “Is Tiger Woods proof that golf is a sport, or is John Daly confirmation to the contrary?” asks a post on Popular Science’s website entitled “Is Golf a Sport?” There’s even a Facebook page entitled “Golf Is Not a Sport.”

Facebook pages like the above confirm just how difficult it is to overcome our idealized notions of what athletes are. It’s to the point that if somebody, no matter how skillful his efforts, doesn’t appear athletic, then we are more likely to narrow our definition of athletic acts rather than expand our definition of athletic bodies. Thus, Kirby Puckett had trouble thinking of himself as an athlete, despite that he excelled in a sport that virtually anyone will define as one.

Where that conclusion could (and, to some minds, should) lead us is to the notion that a great deal of what we think of as “natural” is, in fact, “cultural”—that favorite thesis of the academic Left in the United States, the American liberal arts professors proclaiming the good news that culture trumps nature. One particular subspecies of the gens is the supposedly expanding (aaannnddd rimshot) field called by its proponents “Fat Studies,” which (according to Elizabeth Kolbert of The New Yorker) holds that “weight is not a dietary issue but a political one.” What these academics think, in other words, is that we are too much the captives of our own ideas of what constitutes a proper body.

In a narrow (or, anti-wide) sense, that is true: even Kirby Puckett was surprised that he, Kirby Puckett, could do Kirby Puckett-like things while looking like Kirby Puckett. To the academics involved in “Fat Studies” his reaction might be a sign of “fatphobia, the fear and hatred of fatness and fat people.” It’s the view of Kirby Puckett, that is, as self-hater; one researcher, it seems, has compared “fat prejudice … to anti-semitism.” In “a social context in which fat hatred is endemic,” this line of thinking might go, even people who achieve great success with the bodies they have can’t imagine that success without the bodies that culture tells them ought to be attached to it.

What this line of work might then lead us to is the conclusion that the physical dimensions of a player matter very little. That would make the success of each athlete largely independent (or not) of physical advantage—and thereby demonstrate that thousands of coaches everywhere would, at least in golf, be able to justify asserting that success is due to the “will to succeed” rather than a random roll of the genetic dice. It might mean that nations looking (in expectation perhaps of the next Summer Olympics, where golf will be a medal sport) to achieve success in golf—like, for instance, the Scandinavian nations whose youth athletics programs groom golfers, or nations like Russia or China with a large population but next to no national golf tradition—should look for young people with particular psychological characteristics rather than particular physical ones.

Yet whereas “Fat Studies” or the like might focus on Kirby Puckett’s self-image, Bill James instead focuses on Kirby Puckett’s body: the question James asks isn’t whether Puckett played well despite his bad self-image, bur rather whether Puckett played well because he actually had a good body for baseball. James asks whether “short, powerful, funny-looking kind of guy[s]” actually have an advantage when it comes to baseball, rather than the assumed advantage of height that naturally allows for a faster bat speed, among the other supposed advantages of height. “Long arms,” James speculates, “really do not help you when you’re hitting; short arms work better.” Maybe, in fact, “[c]ompressed power is more effective than diffuse power,” and James goes on to name a dozen or more baseball stars who all were built something like Honus Wagner, who stood 5’11” and weighed 200 pounds. Which, as it happens, was also about the stat line for Jack Nicklaus in his prime.

So too, as it happens, do a number of other golfers. For years the average height of a PGA Tour player was usually said to be 5’9”; these days, due to players like Dustin Johnson, that stat is most often said to be about 5’11”. Still—as remarked by the website Golf Today—“very tall yet successful golfers are a rarity.”I don’t have the Shotlink data—which has a record of every shot hit by a player on the PGA Tour since 2003—to support the idea that certain-sized guys of one sort or another had the natural advantage, though today it’s possible that it could easily be obtained. What’s interesting about even asking the question, however, is that it is a much-better-than-merely-theoretically-solvable problem—which significantly distinguishes it from that of the question that might be framed around our notions of what constitutes an athletic body, as might be done by the scholars of “Fat Studies.”

Even aside from the narrow issue of allocating athletic resources, however, there’s reason for distrusting those scholars. It’s true, to be sure, that Kirby Puckett’s reaction to being Kirby Puckett might lend some basis for thinking that a critical view of our notions of what bodies are is salutary in an age where our notions of what bodies are and should be are—to add to an already-frothy mix of elements—increasingly driven by an advertising industry that, in the guise of either actors or models, endlessly seeks the most attractive bodies.

It would easier to absorb such warnings, however, were there not evidence that obesity is not remaining constant, but rather a, so to say, growing problem. As Kolbert reports, the federal government’s Centers for Disease Control, which has for decades done measurements of American health, found that whereas in the early 1960s a quarter of Americans were overweight, now more than third are. And in 1994, their results got written up in the Journal of American Medicine: “If this was about tuberculosis,” Kolbert reports about one researcher, “it would be called an epidemic.” Over the decade previous to that report Americans had, collectively, gained over a billion pounds.

Even if “the fat … are subject to prejudice and even cruelty,” in other words, that doesn’t mean that being that way doesn’t pose serious health risks both for the individual and for society as a whole. The extra weight carried by Americans, Kolbert for instance observes, “costs the airlines a quarter of a billion dollars’ worth of jet fuel annually,” and this isn’t to speak of the long-term health care costs that attach themselves to the public pocketbook in nearly unimaginable ways. (Kolbert notes that, for example, doors to public buildings are now built to be fifteen, instead of twelve, feet wide.)

“Fat Studies” researchers might claim in other words, as Kolbert says, that by shattering our expectations of what a body ought to be so thoroughly fat people (they insist on the term, it seems) can shift from being “revolting … agents of abhorrence and disgust” to “‘revolting’ in a different way … in terms of overthrowing authority, rebelling, protesting, and rejecting.” They might insist that “corpulence carries a whole new weight [sic] as a subversive cultural practice.” In “contrast to the field’s claims about itself,” says Kolbert however, “fat studies ends up taking some remarkably conservative positions,” in part because it “effectively allies itself with McDonald’s and the rest of the processed-food industry, while opposing the sorts of groups that advocate better school-lunch programs and more public parks.” In taking such an extreme position, in short, “Fat Studies” ends up only strengthening the most reactionary policy tendencies.

As, logically speaking, it must. “To claim that some people are just meant to be fat is not quite the same as arguing that some people are just meant to be poor,” Kolbert observes, “but it comes uncomfortably close.” Similarly, to argue that our image of a successfully athletic body is tyrannical can, if not done carefully, be little different from the fanatical coach who insists that determination is the only thing separating his charges from championships. Maybe it’s true that success in golf, and other sports, is largely a matter of “will”—but if it is, wouldn’t it be better to be able to prove it? If it isn’t, though, that would certainly enable a more rational distribution of effort all the way around: from the players themselves (who might thereby seek another sport at an earlier age) to recruiters, from national sporting agencies to American universities, who would then know what they sought. Maybe, in other words, measuring golfers by height isn’t so ridiculous at all.