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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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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