Islands in the Stream

In the epoch we are imagining, what might gradually implode, along with a faith in the kind of reasonably certain knowledge we in fact enjoy all the time, would be the idea of a human subject unified enough to embark on significantly transformative action.
The Illusions of Postmodernism

     “No no,” I said, “we aren’t trying to avoid that at all.” I was on the seventeenth tee of Streamsong’s Red course, trying to explain to the lady just how her shot should go. Slowly, as she absorbed what I was saying, successive waves of understanding washed over the woman’s face. “But,” she objected. “You told my husband not to hit driver.”
     “Yes,” I said. “He’s playing a different set of tees.”
     “So you’re saying to hit the club you told him not to hit, precisely where you told him not to hit it?”
     “Yes,” I said.
     “But why?” she said.
     “Because you aren’t going to fly into that bunker. You’re going to carry it.”
     “But that means …”
     “What it means is that you’re going to drive the green.”
Her look said more, perhaps, about the state of gender relations in the Western world than any twenty Women’s Studies theses—a look that, perhaps, might also explain something about the Oscars, that celebration of blending images with dramatic dialogue.
   Cinemetrics—writes one of its practitioners, Kevin Lee, in the New York Times recently—“extracts statistical data from movies to reveal their inner workings.” Lee says he was inspired by the film Moneyball, which was about the application of statistical analysis to the mysteries of baseball, to apply something like the same techniques to the study of film: “The minutes,” for example, “an actress is seen in close-up can point to the power of cinematography in generating feelings of empathy with her.” It’s a way, in other words, to get away from the actor’s performance and get at the contributions of a film’s director and (or) editor: the stuff that otherwise we’d never notice as the frames flicker by. And, looking at this year’s Oscar nominees, Mr. Lee did discover something that most people would never notice: “this year’s lead actors average 85 minutes on screen, but lead actresses average only 57 minutes.”
     It’s quite a disparity, one might think—though it might also be merely noise, not signal. One expert, David Bordwell, “co-author of Film Art: An Introduction, a widely used textbook in film studies classes,” sought to explain the difference in screen time by referring to film genres: “Male stars,” Bordwell cautioned, “are typically the protagonists in action or goal-oriented narratives that require the viewer to follow the story through the lead’s experiences.” On the other hand, “Female stars are more typically cast in melodramas that require the lead to serve as a hub connecting different characters and subplots.” Investigating screen time, in other words, leads to the consideration that men and women get different kinds of stories.
     That’s just what brings us to the seventeenth tee on the Red course. The Red is known as the Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw course at Streamsong, and, along with Tom Doak’s Streamsong Blue course, it’s known as at the forefront of what’s called “minimalist” golf architecture. Both courses use techniques developed by the course architects of golf’s “Golden Age” (before the Great Depression), techniques that were then largely ignored by later generations of architects as “unfair” or “unsporting”: blind tee shots, for example, or all those aspects of the course that reward those who know it while penalizing those who don’t. After the Golden Age, in short, it became the prevailing belief that everything about a golf hole ought to be apparent—while that person stood on the tee—to somebody who’d never seen it before. Coore, Crenshaw, and Doak do not subscribe to that belief.
     What that means, in this particular case, is that the seventeenth hole on the Red plays radically differently for men and women. For most men (all except the very, very best players), the seventeenth is a difficult hole that requires a great deal of decision-making. Surveying the landscape from the elevated tee box, men can see that the tee shot has to carry a sandy waste that would not be out of place in Arizona. Next, there is a massive bunker along the right side, and another on the left—the latter positioned just at the edge of where most players’ drives will end up. Therefore, most men will approach the hole with some trepidation: hazards are everywhere. 
     Women, however—at least the reasonably strong players among them—can approach the seventeenth with anticipation: unlike the men, whose tee shots must first carry sandy wastes, the woman’s tee is placed at the beginning of the fairway. The woman’s tee is so far forward, in fact, that it changes the meaning of the left bunker: for the men, it’s positioned to be waiting to capture any drive that draws just a bit too much—but for the women, not only is it so close to the tee that just about any good shot will carry it, but the rear of it forms a slope poised to guide any shot that reaches it not only to the fairway, but to the green itself. On the seventeenth of the Red course, in sum, women can attack while men must defend.
     It’s quite a reversal for most women, and—so far—most appear to absorb the news with something of the attitude of a seven-year-old informed that every Saturday from here on out will be Christmas: joy, but also suspicion. Something is being held back. And, to be sure, something is: whereas men, from the tee of the seventeenth (which as mentioned is elevated above the fairway), can see all of the hazards that await, women can only discover that the hole is drivable if they consult a yardage book and figure out how far it is to carry that bunker—or informed by a capable caddie. In either case, it’s not something readily noticeable to someone who hasn’t seen the hole before. 
     That reaction of a surprise made up equally of hope and paranoia is, therefore, understandable: perhaps, just as the sort of data on offer by cinemetrics requires us to consider that most movies force women to play certain roles, it may also be true that most golf courses essentially force women to play in a certain manner. So much so, in fact, that if an architect asks for a different game, it’s nearly shocking as asking Meryl Streep to play John Rambo. But, also like cinemetrics, it’s only by doing investigation that the difference can become tangible at all.
     Golf, in other words, tells different stories about—and to—men and women, just like the movies do. Yet—and in this, golf is also like the movies—there’s another story here too: one about what is hidden and what is revealed, about knowledge and ignorance. Some people think that efforts like that of cinemetrics misses something inherent to the movies, or the art of storytelling: such people are, maybe we could say, like the baseball scouts depicted in Moneyball who thought they could tell something about a player, not by his fastball, but by how hot his girlfriend is.
     The opposite of such people, on the other hand, might be the sort of people who think that everything about a golf course ought to be easily (and immediately) seen, and that everything that doesn’t meet that standard is “unfair.” What the seventeenth at Streamsong’s Red course tells us is that not everything has to be known immediately, but that it can be discovered by anyone willing to do the work. And that—I’d say in a time when not only have the techniques of the Golden Age architects returned, but also the rampant inequality that made them possible—might be a story worth telling.