Silent Majorities

“Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.”
—Mark Twain.

“Why’d you say that?” asked Mark, as I returned to the side of the tee box where the other caddies stood during my first loop since returning from Evansville. “Because we’re playing as a team,” I said, “so it’s worth the gamble.” We were on the fourteenth hole at Butler, a “Cape” hole—a type of hole, in other words, designed for gambling. I had just stepped in to tell my golfer—a guest of a member, playing as part of one of those “Wall Street meets Main Street” corporate outings where a huge company meets with its bankers—about a possible shot that he had never considered before; one that, actually, few players at Butler, even members, ever consider. In Mark’s view, I was “confusing” them; or, as he put it, “over-caddieing.” “Be still,” he might as well have said.

Had he known it, he might have held out as an example an incident that had just occurred to me a few days previously. Just the week before, I’d been in Evansville, Indiana: the United Leasing tourney in Evansville, Indiana, at Victoria National Golf Club. The player I’d gotten had never played the golf course before the first round of the tournament—he was an alternate and only got to Evansville late the previous afternoon. The first few holes were relatively uneventful, even if he did lose one or two shots to par; we were playing the more difficult of the two nines, though the hardest holes were still to come. Until we got to the second par five of the nine, the beginning of a hugely difficult closing stretch.

“I don’t want you to, you know, mention something like that, you know, once I’ve made my decision,” my pro said afterwards, as his ball sailed majestically to the left over the pond in front of the green, into the thick fescue to the side of the bunker. I was getting the mildest rebuke I’d ever gotten on the golf course—much milder than  I’d gotten in exactly the same scenario in Georgia a couple of months ago. (I wrote about that in my previous post.) That’s mostly because my golfer at this tournament was reputed to be one of the best guys on tour, but also perhaps because he recognized just how weird the situation was.

The situation was this: we were looking at a three wood shot into a par five, over a pond with the aforementioned fescue left. We were already a shot or two over par, with the hardest part of the golf course still to come (but with the easier side after that, because we’d started on the tenth hole.) His notion was to gamble to make an eagle or two-putt birdie; mine, to lay up, since due to an accessible hole birdie was still possible via a good third shot to the green. So to give him a nudge in that direction, I’d pointed out that the lie for his second shot was downhill—implicitly meaning that it was slightly more likely to hook into said fescue. The game that he and I were playing, in other words, was a kind of chess—the meaning isn’t in what’s said, but what’s implied.

My golfer’s implicit rebuke was that I’d implanted an evil thought in his head, one that had, in that mysterious way that the mind speaks to the body, influenced him to hit a bad shot. He did not say this, to be sure—because to do that would be to suggest that I had that kind of power. And that, in turn, would suggest that his mind did not have command over his body. It would suggest a weakness.

What he needed to do, impossibly, was to stop me from perpetrating the kind of crime he was committed to asserting was inconceivable. And all of this had to happen at a level beyond the articulate, beyond speech. Whether he knew all of that, or not, I suspect that one difference between my golfer last week and the one I worked for in Georgia is that this one understood the absurdity, and maybe accepted it, better than the other did. Which makes it sound like the Indiana guy was way wiser and so forth—but the guy in Georgia made the cut. In that sense, then, maybe Mark had a point about the existence of “overcaddieing.”

Even granting that point, however, our circumstances at that time and place (“now and here,” as Abraham Lincoln liked to say) arguably constituted an exception to generally accepted practice. There are two reasons for thinking such: the first being the particulars of the fourteenth at Butler; the second being the peculiar circumstances of the round our golfers were playing. Both, in my view, required a kind of thinking contrary to “standard” views of how to play golf.

As I mentioned, the fourteenth at Butler is a “Cape” hole: a Cape hole being one where the golfers must choose how much of a large lateral hazard (usually water) to go over in order to reach the fairway. The model of the type—as Plato might put it, the Form of a Cape hole—is the fourteenth at National Golf Links of America (Charles Blair Macdonald’s cathedral on Long Island), where the hazard used is sand instead of water. (The hazard can vary: at Fishers Island’s Cape hole, which oddly is also a fourteenth hole, the hazard is a marsh.) Most Cape holes however, like the fourteenth at Butler, use water as the primary hazard. It’s a speculative kind of hole, in short: the bet the player makes is about how much of the hazard his drive can carry. The more of the hazard that’s flown over on the drive means a second shot that is that much easier.

Butler’s Cape however has an unusual feature. On most Cape holes, the hazard marks a boundary: once the ball has crossed into it, there’s usually no escape or hope. A ball inside the hazard is either lost or (more or less) unplayable. But the fourteenth at Butler is different: the pond on that hole is also the hazard on the par three fifth hole. On the fifth, however, the hazard is to the player’s right, whereas on the fourteenth the hazard is to the player’s left. Which is to say that it’s possible (for a strong player) to drive the fifth green, or even over the fifth green, and have an easy shot to the fourteenth green—a shot of less than one hundred yards. The fourteenth at Butler, in other words, like other Cape holes, is a risk/reward—but one that hides, like an Easter egg, a reward that most players will never even see.

The fourteenth at Butler, then, has an even richer potential upside than most Cape holes, which is a kind of hole that’s designed to be about weighing the costs and benefits anyway. Furthermore, as I mentioned the foursome Mark and I (and two other caddies) were working for was part of a larger corporate outing. And the format of that outing even further discounted rewards at the expense of risk. (Intriguingly so, since innovation isn’t exactly the calling card of either investment banking or American manufacturing—and arguably that disaster results when either tries.) It was simple: one net score for each hole per foursome, a format that encourages risk-taking: since the other three scores are don’t matter, it’s worth taking chances in the hope of a really low score.

Insofar, then, as I was pointing out the circumstances that warranted a higher degree of risk-taking than standard, I’d refute Mark’s charge of “overcaddieing.” Still, even I happened to be right about that particular circumstance, the larger question—whether “overcaddieing” exists, and what it means—remains. I think that implicit in Mark’s rebuke is the notion that caddies should only volunteer so much information, that it ought to be measured out in doses. As a member at Butler, who observed me throwing information at a guest by the car load during a practice round before the important member-guest tournament (the guest had only played the course once), remarked, he didn’t like that style: he was of what he called the “See ball, hit ball” school. (For what’s it’s worth, the guest said he appreciated the information during the practice round—and our side ended up winning not only our flight, but also the tournament itself.)

To a lot of caddies—to a lot of golfers, in fact—considerations of the format, or virtually anything, should be ignored: according to that view, golfers should just “play their games” (play, that is, just as they would at any other time) and let the chips fall where they may. It’s the same thought, I think, that leads some to theorize that golfers should just “play the course” instead of considering their opponent, for instance. Professional golfers will sometimes say, after winning a tournament, that they never looked at a leaderboard—and when, as other times happens, a winner confesses to doing so, it’s often said nearly apologetically, almost as if a student confessed to looking over a colleague’s shoulder while taking a test.

It’s an attitude I was reminded of recently while reading a London Review of Books review of Mark Twain’s Autobiography—only recently published because Twain (whose real name was Samuel Clemens) insisted that it remain hidden for a century after his death. In his review, the novelist Thomas Powers recounts an anecdote Twain retails about a Viennese servant—a story “too funny to be read safely in public”—who, as Twain writes, “talks all the time, talks in her sleep, will talk when she is dead.” Twain, for his part, is enthralled by this woman: “When she is at it,” Twain says, meaning talking, “I would rather be there than at a fire.” But Olivia, Twain’s wife, is not, as Powers observes: “she wants silence, she wants Twain to step in on her side, she wants the servant to say ‘Yes, Ma’am!’ and halt with that.” “Be still,” she says to the servant. If she’d been a golfer, Olivia would have been of the “See ball” variety.

In the view of Twain’s biographers, says Powers, Olivia “brought a secure emotional structure into Twain’s life but only at a high cost, imposing a severe check on his fresh eye, quick sympathy and honest tongue.” It was her “deeply conventional” influence that led Twain to conceal a lot of his writing during his lifetime: one reason why the Autobiography was embargoed for a century after Twain’s death. Olivia’s view was Victorian: she was engaged in a constant war against Twain’s unconventional impulses—the impulses that led him, among other things, to write a book about an escaped slave and a “poor white trash” boy. It’s called The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

It may be, certainly, that the impulses that lead someone (or one someone) to write Huck Finn are not the same as that which lead to successful golf. But it may also be that the boundaries of what golf is, or could be, are vaster than we presently imagine. We think, for instance, that golfers, even professionals, always need quiet just before hitting their shots, despite the fact that professional basketball players routinely hit free throw shots against a background of cheers (or boos), or field goal kickers do the same. Yet Bubba Watson had the crowd cheer as he drove his ball off the first tee at last year’s Ryder Cup. (And Ian Poulter joined him.) That doesn’t mean that requiring silence isn’t a good idea—it just means that we ought to think about it. Just because that’s how it’s always been done isn’t a good reason.

At the same time, blindly rewarding the “creative” or “innovative” isn’t always the correct choice either. The history of both Wall Street and Main Street in recent decades demonstrates just what kind of disasters can happen when people previously trained for unquestioned conventionalism (as both bankers and businessmen traditionally have been) are suddenly let loose: mostly, it leads to outsourcing, stagnant wages, and criminal investigations. Instead, what ought to be rewarded isn’t following one program or another: it’s the critical intelligence to judge which is the more appropriate. As it now stands, “overcaddieing,” a charge that ought to be known by its proper name, anti-intellectualism, is a proper kind of charge in golf, just as one popular kind of dismissal about virtually anything in current American life is “overthinking.” But the last accusation, I suspect, anyone dispassionately observing either America’s golf courses, or its boardrooms, would think of hurling at either is the crime of thought.