The Occult Charm of Chicago Golf Club … (And Why It Doesn’t Matter)

I was standing with a rake in my hand while Chip Beck, the former Ryder Cupper, was giving a sand lesson to Butler’s head pro in the bunker on the par-three eighth. The basic problem, Chip said, was that the club pro wasn’t zipping his right hand under the ball, which wasn’t then spinning enough. It’s the sort of “secret” information amateurs are always asking me about, which is not unreasonable of them. Amateurs can see the vast difference between their game and the pro game, and they intuit that that difference must be due to some dark gnosticism. Which is true, in a way: there are things about golf that you won’t know unless you’ve spent some serious time practicing and studying. Yet that isn’t occult knowledge—it isn’t due to some inborn birthright, it’s just a matter of spending the time. And that isn’t the same thing.

It’s a point that was brought home to me by looping a golf course that in many ways is directly opposed to Butler National: Chicago Golf Club, in Wheaton, Illinois. Chicago Golf Club is one of the five founding clubs of the United States Golf Association and the first club in America to have eighteen holes. It’s notoriously hard to get on to; routinely, people attempting to play the 100 top golf courses in America or the world report getting stuck on Chicago Golf, which might be the least accessible course in the world.

Chicago Golf Club is, in other words, as traditional a golf course as exists anywhere. Its first members were stalwarts of the old WASP aristocracy—one of the club’s first presidents was, it seems, Robert Todd Lincoln, Abraham Lincoln’s only surviving son. It is so traditional, indeed, that since—aside from St. Andrews and a very few other courses—it’s one of the oldest golf courses in the world, it might be said that there’s none more traditional.

One of the ways Chicago Golf expresses its traditionalism is by outright banning the use of laser rangefinders and other kinds of technology on their golf course. It’s a policy that’s directly opposed to the policy at Butler National, where every caddie is not only allowed, but required, to have a laser rangefinder so that exact distances can be computed. Not only to the pin, in fact, but to any other obstacles that might require measuring.

The distance between the two policies became stark to me during a round at Chicago Golf where I had a guest who was a Butler member. He asked me early on how I knew where the pin was? I said: I don’t. This nearly broke the poor man’s head, it was so alien to him. But as I explained to him, since very seldom at Chicago Golf does the location of the pin even matter, not knowing the actual yardage is, in a way, to the golfer’s advantage.

What that uncertainty does is get the golfer out of the mindless rote of this yardage equals this club, which is not only very dangerous but also kind of defeats the purpose of golf itself. Part of the game, at least as played at Chicago, is the intellectual satisfaction of solving the puzzle, not simply the purely physical act of hitting a good shot. Without that, the sachems of Chicago decree, there’s very little point to the game at all—without it, golf is merely a very long range game of HORSE.

From the perspective of Chicago Golf, then, what’s done at Butler isn’t really even golf; it’s merely a kind of calisthenic done in a pasture. But while that’s perhaps a seductive image of golf, there’s another possible view. From the perspective of Butler National, it’s possible to say, what’s done at Chicago Golf is a kind of primitive, perhaps animistic, worship of a dead or dying god. The difference between Butler and Chicago, in other words, maps rather neatly onto another divide in sports these days.

“It’s a battle,” writes Sean McIndoe of the ESPN website Grantland recently, “sports fans have come to know well over the years.” And that’s the conflict between the “analytical” types with their “new stats and theories,” and the “old-school thinkers” who “question how much can be learned from a spreadsheet.” It’s a war, if it can even be called that, that’s been fought out in golf for decades: ever since somebody decided that maybe it might be a good idea to put a bush at the hundred yard marker, golfers have become ever more analytical.

These days, in fact, pro golfers are adding yet another figure to their ever-growing entourages: in addition to caddie, swing coach, mental coach, fitness guru, and dietician, some players are adding statisticians. Before the 2012 British Open, according to Josh Sens’ story in Golf magazine back in July, Brandt Snedecker consulted with “an English numbers wiz” named Mark Horton who told the professional that while his driving and iron play was good, what really drove Snedecker’s game was putting: “you’re one of the best I’ve ever seen.” And that meant, according to Horton, that Snedecker’s game plan for the majors should be really simple: “‘Just hit the damn green!’”

Luke Donald’s rise to Number One in the world golf rankings is similar: Pat Goss, the coach at Northwestern University where Donald was educated, was “an early adopter of the new analytics,” and studying Donald’s numbers he found that while the Englishman was a good ballstriker, he wasn’t much of a wedge player. Donald took that insight, practiced his wedge play, and as a result climbed the rankings until there wasn’t any further to go.

All of this statistical analysis, of course, might be irritating to the shamen of Chicago Golf, who might say that this sort of deep number crunching is antithetical to the sport. “The statistics,” says Goss, “take the emotions out of it.” But what’s left of the sport if the emotions are taken out? we could imagine a Chicago Golf member asking. What’s the point of playing at all in that case?

The easy way out, to be sure, is just to say that both ideas of the game can co-exist: one, say, for professionals, and one for amateurs. Such a view might comport with our age—an age that has returned, in many ways, to an outlook that might have been familiar to Robert Todd Lincoln. Witness for instance the great reverence for Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book, Team of Rivals and the Stephen Spielberg movie based on it, Lincoln. The political commenter Thomas Frank noted recently how, around the time of Barack Obama’s election to the presidency in 2008, the political class in Washington was fairly bursting with praise for Team of Rivals, praise that likely reveals more about today’s Washington than Lincoln’s.

Goodwin’s book is about how—gasp!—Lincoln assembled a cabinet of advisors (a team) who were—double gasp!—once his political competitors (rivals!). Despite being demonstrably true of virtually every leader in virtually every field ever—what leader hasn’t had to preside over people who, had things gone differently, might have been giving him orders?—Frank noticed that, to “a modern-day Washington grandee,” the idea that the electorally-defeated could still hang around held the promise of “an election with virtually no consequences.” “No one,” that is, “is sentenced to political exile because he or she was on the wrong side: the presidency changes hands, but all the players still get a seat at the table.” Every kid’s a winner.

In a way, it’s a lovely idea: nobody has to be wrong in such a world. It’s just that, as Frank points out, the film not only praises the notion of Compromise but takes it a step further: Lincoln, the film, “justifies corruption.” In fact: Spielberg & Co. “have gone out of their way to vindicate political corruption.” Oh, you want to ban slavery? the film says. Maybe you won’t mind a few payoffs then. More worrisome, however, is that underlying that message is the suggestion that there’s even anything to be right about—after all, even Thaddeus Stevens was only motivated not by hatred for an institution that denied to humanity to millions, but because he lived with a black woman.

It’s easy, though, to decry the “relativism” of our age, and it’s always easy enough to find examples of wishywashiness. What would be better would be to note just what it is about our own time that specifically lends itself to such arguments. Fortunately, an example is near to hand—the learned of our age nearly all subscribe to a belief that is, more or less, like the following. “Evidence,” wrote the literary critic, Stanley Fish, in a recent piece in the New York Times, “is never an independent feature of the world.”

Or, to put it another way, “there is no such thing as ‘common observation’ or simply reporting the facts,” because just what constitutes facts is what is at issue. In that sense, “simple reporting is never simple and common observation is an achievement of history and tradition, not the result of just having eyes.” Which is just to say that, since it cannot be that one person might see things more clearly than another—both being formed not by the perspicacity of observational powers, but rather by a particular upbringing within a particular community—hence it is better to proceed by “consensus,” rather than deciding that one person is right and the other wrong.

Naturally, that sounds like a reasonable method to proceed by—certainly, one might think that it resulted in the fewest hurt feelings. Yet, someone with a long memory might notice that such procedures may violate what the ancients called the “laws of thought”; namely what’s known as the law of non-contradiction.

There are, the ancients said, three laws of thought—or at least, one law and two corollaries. The first of these is the law of identity; anyone who says “it is what it is” is quoting this law. It means a thing is that and not something else. The law of non-contradiction is, arguably, a special case of that law; the best statement of it is by the Arab, Avicenna.

“Anyone who denies the law of non-contradiction,” wrote the Arab philosopher Avicenna, “should be beaten and burned until he admits that to be beaten is not the same as not to be beaten, and to be burned is not the same as not to be burned.” It’s perhaps an extreme way to make the point, but it’s a pretty arresting image. What it means is that either one statement, or its opposite, is true—but not both. Either the correct way to golf is that practiced by Chicago Golf, or by Butler National.

Which is it? Well, what one might notice about Fish’s theory is that it says that, in order to judge a thing, you have to already be enmeshed into it, already know the code words and the deep meanings—the “secret,” hermeneutical, gnostic knowledge of insiders. It says, in other words, that the true meaning of golf is that envisioned by Chicago Golf.

The view from Butler National, however, that holds that choosing the right club is based on an accurate reading of the actual yardage, not a deep familiarity with the particular course and the particular weather of a certain day. Just so, it’s the sabermetricians who say that anyone equipped with the right stats, not decades of watching minor leaguers, can select the major league ballplayers of tomorrow. It isn’t necessary to have the kind of “deep” knowledge that places like Chicago Golf (or the old baseball scouts of “Moneyball”) implicitly argue is required—a position that, one might think, is obviously on the side of what used to be called “the people” against the interests of the powerful.  And yet, through some kind of alchemy, it’s people like Fish who are widely acclaimed to be “leftists” these days.

In reality, however, there’s not a lot of need for “secret” knowledge to understand events. In the case of the government shutdown, for example, the math shows that it is about 18% of the population (as represented in Congress) that is attempting to thwart the will of the other four-fifths. Which is to say that if the Left wants to tackle a project that might actually matter to the masses, it might do better to teach how to count, rather than how to read. “Secret knowledge,” that is, is something most people can’t afford—nor do they have, in reality, any need for it.