Time flies like an arrow; fruit flies like a banana.
There’s a story told at Royal Troon, site of the “Postage Stamp” par-three hole, about the lady golfer, playing into an extreme wind, who was handed her driver by her caddie. After she hit the shot, as the ball fell helplessly short against the gale, she shouted reproachfully, “You underclubbed me!” It’s a story that has a certain resonance for me—perhaps obviously—but also, more immediately, due to my present work at a golf course in South Carolina, where I have repaired following the arrival of snow in Chicago. It’s easy enough to imagine something similar occurring at Chechessee Creek’s 16th hole—which, if it did, might not furnish the material for a modest laugh so much as, in concurrence with the golf course’s next hole, demonstrate something rather more profound.
Chechessee Creek, the golf course where I am spending this late fall, is a design of the Coore/Crenshaw operation, and it’s very well known that Ben Crenshaw, one of the principals of the firm, considers Chicago Golf Club to be the epitome of good course design. It’s reflected in a number of features of the course: the elevated greens, the various “dunes” strewn about for no apparent reason. But it’s also true that Chicago Golf is, despite its much greater age, by far the more daring of the two courses: it has blind shots and incredibly risky greens where putts can not only fall off the green, but go bounding down the fairway twenty yards or more. There are places where at times it is better to hit a putt off the green deliberately—because that is the only way to get the ball to stop near the hole. Chechessee Creek, for good or ill, has none of these features.
What it does have, however, is a sense of what David Mihm, writer of the EpicGolf website, calls “pacing.” “Golf is a game,” he points out, “that is experienced chronologically”—that is, it isn’t just the quality of the holes that is important, but also their situation within the golf course as a whole. “By definition,” he says, “part of a hole’s greatness must depend on where it falls in the round.”
Chicago Golf Club has that quality of pacing in abundance, starting with the very first hole, Valley. By means of a trompe l’oeil the hole, in reality a 450 yard monster of a par four, appears to be a quite sedate, much-shorter hole. It’s only upon seeing his drive “disappear” (into the concealed vale that gives the hole its name) that the golfer realizes that his eye has misled him. It’s a trick, sure, that would be fantastic on any hole—but is particularly appropriate on the first, since it signals to the golfer immediately—on the first shot of the day—that this is a different kind of golf course, and that he cannot trust what he sees.
I would not say that Chechessee Creek exemplifies that notion to the same degree; it may not be too much to wonder whether South Carolina, or at least the Lowcountry, Tidewater parts of it, might not be too level of a countryside really to lend itself to golf. (“All over the world,” says Anita Harris, the geologist turned tour guide in John McPhee’s monumental Annals of the Former World, “when people make golf courses they are copying glacial landscapes.” South Carolina, needless to say, did not experience the devastations of an ice sheet during the last Ice Age, or any other time.) Still, there is one set of holes that does exhibit what Mihm is talking about—and perhaps something more besides.
The sixteenth hole at Chechessee is, as perhaps might be put together, a long par three hole; so long, in fact, that it isn’t unlikely that a short hitter might use a driver there. But, of course, there is the small matter of pride to contend with—few (male) golfers ever want to concede that they needed a driver on a “short” hole. It’s something I saw often working at Medinah, when coming to the thirteenth hole—almost inevitably, someone would not hit the correct club because he took as it an affront to suggest hitting a driver or even a three wood. Fair enough, one supposes; these days, the long par three might be close to becoming a design cliche (and in any case, all iconic courses I have seen have one: Olympia Fields, Chicago Golf, and Butler do, as does Riviera).
Just having a long par three isn’t enough, obviously, to satisfy Mihm’s criteria, and it isn’t that alone that makes Chechessee unique or even interesting. What makes the course go is the hole that follows the sixteenth, the seventeenth (duh). It’s an intriguing design in its own right, because it is an example of a “Leven” hole. According to A Disorderly Compendium of Golf (and what better source?), Leven holes are modeled on the 7th at the Leven Links, a hole that no longer exists. The idea of it is simple: it is a short hole with an enormous hazard on one side of the fairway; at Chechessee, the hazard is a long-grassed and swampy depression. Thus, the question posed is, how much of the hazard will you dare? Bailing out to the side leaves the player with a poor, often obstructed view of the green; at Chechessee, that function is furnished by an enormous pine tree.
Yet that dilemma alone isn’t the real crux of the matter—what matters is that the seventeenth follows the sixteenth. After all, at the sixteenth the golfer is tempted, by his own ego, not to hit enough club. Conversely, at the seventeenth, the golfer is tempted to hit too much club. The quandary posed at each tee, in short, is precisely the mirror of the other: failing to reach for a driver on the sixteenth can cause the player to demand it on the seventeenth—with disastrous consequences in each case. And that is interesting enough merely in terms of golf, to be sure. But what is likely far more intriguing about it is that the placing of these holes could not be better situated to illustrate—nay, perform—what two psychologists said about how the human mind actually works.
The psychologists were Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky—Kahneman recently received the Nobel Prize for his work with Tversky, who couldn’t receive the award because he died in 1996. What their work did was to uncover, by means of various experiments, some of the hidden pathways of the human mind: the “cognitive shortcuts” taken by the brain. One of these discoveries was the fact that human beings are “loss averse”—or, as Jonah Lehrer put it not long ago in the New Yorker, that for human beings “losses hurt more than gains feel good.” Kahneman and Tversky called this idea “prospect theory.”
The effect has been measured in golf. In a paper entitled “Is Tiger Woods Loss Averse? Persistent Bias In the Face of Experience, Competition, and High Stakes” two Wharton professors found that, for PGA Tour golfers, “the agony of a bogey seems to outweigh the thrill of a birdie.” What their data (from the PGA Tour’s ShotLink system, which measures the distance of every shot hit on tour) demonstrated was that tour players “make their birdie putts approximately two percentage points less often than they make comparable par putts.” Somehow, when pros are faced with a par putt instead of a birdie putt—even though they might be identical putts—they make the former slightly more than the latter. What that translates into is one stroke left on the table per tournament—and that leaves $1.2 million per year in prize money being given away by the top twenty players.
It’s a phenomenon that’s been found again and again in many disparate fields: investors hold on to too many low-risk bonds, for instance, while condos stay on the market far too long (because their owners won’t reduce their price even during economic downturns), and NFL coaches will take the “sure thing” of a field goal even when it might actually hurt their chances of winning the game. This last, while being about sports, has also another dimension of application to golf: the way in which what can be called “social expectations” guides human decision-making. That is, how our ideas about how others judge us plays a role in our decisions.
In the case of the NFL, studies have shown that coaches far more likely to make the decision to kick the ball—to punt or attempt a field goal—than they are to attempt a first down or a touchdown. This is so even in situations (such as on the opponent’s 2 yard line) where, say, scoring a field goal actually leaves the opponent in a better position: if the team doesn’t get the touchdown or first down, the opponent is pinned against his own goal line, whereas a field goal means a kickoff that will likely result in the opponent starting at the twenty yard line at least. NFL coaches, in other words, aren’t making these decisions entirely rationally. To some, it suggests that they are attempting to act conventionally: that is, by doing what everyone else does, each coach can “hide” better.
What that suggests is just why golfers, faced with the sixteenth hole, are averse to select what’s actually the right club. Each golfer is, in a sense, engaged in an arms race with every other golfer: by taking more club than another, that implicitly cedes something to the player taking less. This, despite the fact that rationally speaking selecting a different club than another golfer does nothing towards the final score of each. Taking less club becomes a kind of auction—or as we might term it, a bidding war—but one where the risk of “losing face” is seen as more significant than the final score.
The same process is, if it exists at all, also at work on the seventeenth hole. But this time there’s an additional piece of information playing out in the golfer’s mind: whatever happened on the last hole. One plausible scenario—I’ve seen it happen—is that the player doesn’t take enough club on the sixteenth, and comes up short of the hole. Having made that decision, and been wrong, the golfer determines on the next hole to make the “sensible” choice, and lays up away from the hazard—leaving a difficult second shot to a small green. But here’s the thing: the “carry” on the tee shot on seventeen, which I’ve withheld until now, is only about 210 yards—which is about the same as that of the sixteenth hole. In other words, the reality is that—evaluated dispassionately—golfers should probably hit about the same club on each hole. If they don’t, it’s probably due to a collision between “prospect theory” and “pacing”—which is to say that the Coore and Crenshaw design of Chechessee Creek is, all things considered, clubbed about right.