The End of Golf?

And found no end, in wandering mazes lost.
Paradise Lost, Book II, 561

What are sports, anyway, at their best, but stories played out in real time?
Grantland “Home Fields” Charles P. Pierce

We were approaching our tee shots down the first fairway at Chechessee Creek Golf Club, where I am wintering this year, when I got asked the question that, I suppose, will only be asked more and more often. As I got closer to the first ball I readied my laser rangefinder—the one that Butler National Golf Club, outside of Chicago, finally required me to get. The question was this: “Why doesn’t the PGA Tour allow rangefinders in competition?” My response was this, and it was nearly immediate: “Because that’s not golf.” That’s an answer that, perhaps, appeared clearer a few weeks ago, before the United States Golf Association announced a change to the Rules of Golf in conjunction with the Royal and Ancient of St. Andrews. It’s still clear, I think—as long as you’ll tolerate a side-trip through both baseball and, for hilarity’s sake, John Milton.

Throughout the rest of this year, any player in a tournament conducted under the Rules of Golf would be subjected to disqualification should she or he take out their cell phone during a round to consult a radar map of incoming weather. But on the coming of the New Year, that will be permitted: as the Irish Times wonders, “Will the sight of a player bending down to pull out a tuft of grass and throwing skywards to find out the direction of the wind be a thing of the past?” Perhaps not, but the new decision certainly says where the wind is blowing in Far Hills. Technology is coming to golf, as, it seems, to everything.

At some point, and it isn’t likely that far away, all relevant information will likely be available to a player in real time: wind direction, elevation, humidity, and, you know, yardage. The question will be, is that still golf? When the technology becomes robust enough, will the game be simply a matter of executing shots, as if all the great courses of the world were simply your local driving range? If so, it’s hard to imagine the game in the same way: to me, at least, part of the satisfaction of playing isn’t just hitting a shot well, it’s hitting the correct shot—not just flushing the ball on the sweet spot, but seeing it fly (or run) up toward the pin. If everyone is hitting the correct club every time, does the game become simply a repetitive exercise to see whose tempo is particularly “on” that day?

Amateur golfers think golf is about hitting shots, professionals know that golf is selecting what shots to hit. One of the great battles of golf, to my mind, is the contest of the excellent ball-striker vs. the canny veteran. Bobby Jones vs. Walter Hagen, to those of you who know your golf history: since Jones was perhaps known for the purity of his hits while Hagen, like Seve Ballesteros, for his ability to recover from his impure ones. Or we can generalize the point and say golf is a contest between ballstriking and craftiness. If that contest goes, does the game go with it?

That thought would go like this: golf is a contest because Bobby Jones’ ability to hit every shot purely is balanced by Walter Hagen’s ability to hit every shot correctly. That is, Jones might hit every shot flush, but he might not hit the right club; while Hagen might not hit every shot flush, but he will hit the correct club, or to the correct side of the green or fairway, or the like. But if Jones can get the perfection of information that will allow him to hit the correct club more often, that might be a fatal advantage—paradoxically ending the game entirely because golf becomes simply an exercise in who has the better reflexes. The idea is similar to the way in which a larger pitching mound became, in the late 1960s, such an advantage for pitchers that hitting went into a tailspin; in 1968 Bob Gibson became close to unhittable, issuing 268 strikeouts and possessing a 1.12 ERA.

As it happens, baseball is (once again) wrestling with questions very like these at the moment. It’s fairly well-known at this point that the major leagues have developed a system called PITCH/fx, which is capable of tracking every pitch thrown in every game throughout the season—yet still, that system can’t replace human umpires. “Even an automated strike zone,” wrote Ben Lindbergh in the online sports magazine Grantland recently, “would have to have a human element.” That’s for two reasons. One is the more-or-less obvious one that, while an automated system has no trouble judging whether a pitch is over the plate or not (“inside” or “outside”) it has no end of trouble judging whether a pitch is “high” or “low.” That’s because the strike zone is judged not only by each batter’s height, but also by batting stance: two players who are the same height can still have different strike zones because one might crouch more than another, for instance.

There is, however, a perhaps-more rooted reason why umpires will likely never be replaced: while it’s true that major league baseball’s PITCH/fx can judge nearly every pitch in every game, every once in (a very great) while the system just flat out doesn’t “see” a pitch. It doesn’t even register that a ball was thrown. So all the people calling for “robot umpires” (it’s a hashtag on Twitter now) are, in the words of Dan Brooks of Brooks Baseball (as reported by Lindbergh), “willing to accept a much smaller amount of inexplicable error in exchange for a larger amount of explicable error.” In other words, while the great majority of pitches would likely be called more accurately, it’s also so that the mistakes made by such a system would be a lot more catastrophic than mistakes made by human umpires. Imagine, say, Zack Greinke was pitching a perfect game—and the umpire just didn’t see a pitch.

These are, however, technical issues regarding mechanical aids, not quite the existential issues of the existence of what we might term a perfectly transparent market. Yet they demonstrate just how difficult such a state would, in practical terms, be to achieve: like arguing whether communism or capitalism are better in their pure state, maybe this is an argument that will never become anything more than a hypothetical for a classroom. The exercise however, like seminar exercises are meant to, illuminates something about the object in question: since a computer doesn’t know the difference between the first pitch of April and the last pitch of the World Series’ last game—and we do—that I think tells us something about what we value about both baseball and golf.

Which is what brings up Milton, since the obvious (ha!) lesson here could be the one that Stanley Fish, the great explicator of John Milton, says is the lesson of Milton’s Paradise Lost: “I know that you rely upon your senses for your apprehension of reality, but they are unreliable and hopelessly limited.” Fish’s point refers to a moment in Book III, when Milton is describing how Satan lands upon the sun:

There lands the Fiend, a spot like which perhaps
Astronomer in the Sun’s lucent Orb
Through his glaz’d optic Tube yet never saw.

Milton compares Satan’s arrival on the sun to the sunspots that Galileo (whom Milton had met) witnessed through his telescope—at least, that is what the first part of the thought appears to imply. The last three words, however—yet never saw—rip away that certainty: the comparison that Milton carefully sets up between Satan’s landing and sunspots he then tells the reader is, actually, nothing like what happened.

The pro-robot crowd might see this as a point in favor of robots, to be sure—why trust the senses of an umpire? But what Fish, and Milton, would say is quite the contrary: Galileo’s telescope “represents the furthest extension of human perception, and that is not enough.” In other words, no matter how far you pursue a technological fix (i.e., robots), you will still end up with more or less the problems you had before, only they might be more troublesome than the ones you have now. And pretty obviously, a system that was entirely flawless for every pitch of the regular season—which encompasses, remember, thousands of games just at the major league level, not even to mention the number of individual pitches thrown—and then just didn’t see a strike three that (would have) ended a Game 7 is not acceptable. That’s not really what I meant by “not golf” though.

What I meant might best be explained by reference to (surprise, heh) Fish’s first major book, the one that made his reputation: Surprised by Sin: The Reader in Paradise Lost. That book set out to hurdle what had seemed to be an unbridgeable divide, one that had existed for nearly two centuries at least: a divide between those who read the poem (Paradise Lost, that is) as being, as Milton asked them, intended to “justify the ways of God to men,” and those who claimed, with William Blake, that Milton was “of the Devil’s party without knowing it.” Fish’s argument was quite ingenious, which was in essence was that Milton’s technique was true to his intention, but that, misunderstood, could easily explain how some could mis-read him so badly. Which is rather broad, to be sure—as in most things, the Devil is in the details.

What Fish argued was that Paradise Lost could be read as one (very) long instance of what are now called “garden path” sentences, which are grammatical sentences that begin in a way that appear to direct the reader toward one interpretation, only to reveal their true meaning at the end. Very often, they require the reader to go back and reread the sentence, such as in the sentence, “Time flies like an arrow; fruit flies like a banana.” Another example is Emo Philips’ line “I like going to the park and watching the children run around because they don’t know I’m using blanks.” They’re sentences, in other words, where the structure implies one interpretation at the beginning, only to have that interpretation snatched away by the sentence’s end.

Fish argued that Paradise Lost was, in fact, full of these moments—and, more significantly, that they were there because Milton put them there. One example Fish uses is just that bit from Book III, where Satan gets compared, in detail, with the latest developments in solar astronomy—until Milton jerks the rug out with the words “yet never saw.” Satan’s landing is just like a sunspot, in other words … except it isn’t. As Fish says,

in the first line two focal points (spot and fiend) are offered the reader who sets them side by side in his mind … [and] a scene is formed, strengthened by the implied equality of spot and fiend; indeed the physicality of the impression is so persuasive that the reader is led to join the astronomer and looks with him through a reassuringly specific telescope (‘glaz’d optic Tube) to see—nothing at all (‘yet never saw’).

The effect is a more-elaborate version of that of sentences like “The old man the boats” or “We painted the wall with cracks”—typical examples of garden-path sentences. Yet why would Milton go to the trouble of constructing the simile if, in reality, the things being compared are nothing alike? It’s Fish’s answer to that question that made his mark on criticism.

Throughout Paradise Lost, Fish argues, Milton again and again constructs his language “in such a way that [an] error must be made before it can be acknowledged by the surprised reader.” That isn’t an accident: in a sense, it takes the writerly distinction between “showing” and “telling” to its end-point. After all, the poem is about the Fall of Man, and what better way to illustrate that Fall than by demonstrating it—the fallen state of humanity—within the reader’s own mind? As Fish says, “the reader’s difficulty”—that is, the continual state of thinking one thing, only to find out something else—“is the result of the act that is the poem’s subject.” What, that is, were Adam and Eve doing in the garden, other than believing things were one way (as related by one slippery serpent) when actually they were another? And Milton’s point is that trusting readers to absorb the lesson by merely being told it is just what got the primordial pair in trouble in the first place: why Paradise Lost needs writing at all is because our First Parents didn’t listen to what God told them (You know: don’t eat that apple).

If Fish is right, then Milton concluded that just to tell readers, whether of his time or ours, isn’t enough. Instead, he concocted a fantastic kind of riddle: an artifact where, just by reading it, the reader literally enacts the Fall of Man within his own mind. As the lines of the poem pass before the reader’s eyes, she continually credits the apparent sense of what she is reading, only to be brought up short by a sudden change in sense. Which is all very well, it might be objected, but even if that were true about Paradise Lost (and not everyone agrees that it is), it’s something else to say that it has anything to do with baseball umpiring—or golf.

Yet it does, and for just the same reason that Paradise Lost applies to wrangling over the strike zone. One reason why we couldn’t institute a system that could possibly just not see one pitch over another is because, while certainly we could take or leave most pitches—nobody cares about the first pitch of a game, for instance, or the middle out of the seventh inning during a Cubs-Rockies game in April—there are some pitches that we must absolutely know about. And if we consider what gives those pitches more value than other pitches—and surely everyone agrees that some pitches have more worth than others—then what we have to arrive at is that baseball doesn’t just take place on a diamond, but also takes place in time. Baseball is a narrative, not a pictorial, art.

To put it another way, what Milton does in his poem is just what a good golf architect does for the golf course: it isn’t enough to be told you should take a five-iron off this tee, while on another a three wood. The golfer has to be shown it: what you thought was one state of affairs was in fact another. And not merely that—because that, in itself, would only be another kind of telling—but that the golfer—or, at least, the reflective golfer—must come to see the point as he traverses the course. If a golf hole, in short, is a kind of sentence, then the assumptions with which he began the hole must be dashed by the time he reaches the green.

As it happens, this is just what the Golf Club Atlas says about the fourth at Chechessee Creek, where a “classic misdirection play comes.” At the fourth tee, “the golfer sees a big, long bunker that begins at the start of the fairway and hooks around the left side.” But the green is to the right, which causes the golfer to think “‘I’ll go that way and stay away from the big bunker.’” Yet, because there is a line of four small bunkers somewhat hidden down the right side, and bunkers to the right near the green, “the ideal tee ball is actually left center.” “Standing behind the hole”—that is, once play is over—“the left to right angle of the green is obvious and clearly shows that left center of the fairway is ideal,” which makes the fourth “the cleverest hole on the course.” And it is, so I’d argue, because it uses precisely the same technique as Milton.

That, in turn, might be the basis for an argument for why getting yardages by hand (or rather, foot) so necessary to the process of professional golf at the highest level. As I mentioned, amateur golfers think golf is about hitting shots while professionals know that golf is selecting what shots to hit. Amateurs look at a golf hole and think, “What a pretty picture,” while a professional looks at one and thinks of the sequence of shots it would take to reach the goal. That’s why it is so that, even though so much of golf design is mostly conjured by way of pretty pictures, whether in oils or photographic, and it might be thought that pictures, since they are “artistic,” are antithetical to the mechanistic forces of computers, it might be thought that it is the beauty of golf courses that make the game irreducible to analysis—an idea that, in fact, gets things precisely wrong.

Machines, that is, can paint a picture of a hole that can’t be beat: just look at the innumerable golf apps available for smart phones. But computers can’t parse a sentence like “Time flies like an arrow; fruit flies like a banana.” While computers can call (nearly) every pitch over the course of a season, they don’t know why a pitch in the seventh inning of a World Series game is more important than a spring training game. If everything is right there in front of you, then computers or some other mechanical aids are quite useful; it’s only when the end of a process causes you to re-evaluate everything that came before that you are in the presence of the human. Working out yardages without the aid of a machine forces the kind of calculations that can see a hole in time, not in space—to see a hole as a sequence of events, not (as it were) a whole.

Golf isn’t just the ability to hit shots—it’s also, and arguably more significantly, the ability to decide what the best path to the hole is. One argument for why further automation wouldn’t harm the game in the slightest is the tale told by baseball umpiring: no matter how far technological answers are sought, it’s still the case that human beings must be involved in calling balls and strikes, even if not in quite the same way as now. Some people, that is, might read Milton’s warning about astronomy as saying that pursuing that avenue of knowledge is a blind alley, when what Milton might instead be saying is just that the mistake is to think that there could be an end to the pursuit: that is, that perfect information could yield perfect decision-making. We extend “human perception” all we like—it will not make a whit of difference.

Milton thought that was because of our status as Original Sinners, but it isn’t necessary to take that line to acknowledge limitations, whether they are of the human animal in general or just endemic to living in a material universe. Some people appear to take this truth as a bit of a downer: if we cannot be Gods, what then is the point? Others, and this seems to be the point of Paradise Lost, take this as the condition of possibility: if we were Gods, then golf (for example) would be kind of boring, as merely the attempt to mechanically re-enact the same (perfect) swing, over and over. But Paradise Lost, at least in one reading, seems to assure us that that state is unachievable. As technology advances, so too will human cleverness: Bobby Jones can never defeat Walter Hagen once and for all.

Yet, as the example of Bob Gibson demonstrates, trusting to the idea that, somehow, everything will balance out in the end is just as dewy-eyed as anything else. Sports can ebb and flow in popularity: look at horse racing or boxing. Baseball reacted to Gibson’s 13 shutouts and Denny McLaine’s 31 victories in 1968, as well as Carl Yastrzemski’s heroic charge to a .301 batting average, the lowest average ever to win the batting crown. Throughout the 1960s, says Bill James in The New Bill James Historical Abstract, Gibson and his colleagues competed in a pitcher’s paradise: “the rules all stacked in their favor.” In 1969, the pitcher’s mound was lowered from 15 to 10 inches high and the strike zone was squeezed too, from the shoulders to the armpits, and from the calves to the top of the knee. The tide of the rules began to swing the other way, until the offensive explosion of the 1990s.

Nothing, in other words, happens in a vacuum. Allowing perfect yardages, so I would suspect, advantages the ballstrikers at the expense of the crafty shotmakers. To preserve the game then—a game which, contrary to some views, isn’t always the same, and changes in response to events—would require some compensating rule change in response. Just what that might be is hard, for me at least, to say at the moment. But it’s important, if we are to still have the game at all, to know what it is and is not, what’s worth preserving and why we’d like to preserve it. We can sum it up, I think, in one sentence. Golf is a story, not a picture. We ought to keep that which allows golf to continue to tell us the stories we want—and, perhaps, need—to hear.

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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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