That sir which serves and seeks for gain,
And follows but for form,
Will pack when it begins to rain,
And leave thee in the storm
—King Lear II.iv
We’d been in the badly-lit cart barn for over an hour, as the storm came ashore from the Gulf of Mexico, when my fellow caddie Pistol discovered the scorecard that had been resting on the steering wheel of the cart he was in. The card recorded the events of the first two holes played by a foursome on Streamsong’s Red course, and told a tale of much woe: the foursome had played the first hole in an eye-gouging fourteen over par. Five of those over-par strokes came from one poor wretch’s nine. “The fact,” Pistol laconically observed, “that the guy wrote down the nine means it probably wasn’t his first this month.” Still, he’d written down the nine, for some mysterious reason—but why? Something I had read recently suggested not only existential despair, but also that the answer might have to do with slot machines and Australian beards.
According to a recent study of styles of men’s facial hair—as revealed by newspaper photographs going back more than a century by two researchers from the University of New South Wales—there is no one “right”method of wearing facial hair. Instead, what’s fashionable in beard styles is simply something they call “negative frequency dependence,” which just means that whatever the desirable style of the day is will simply be determined by what’s rare, not because of something internal to the style itself. “Patterns of facial hair enjoy greater attractiveness when rare than when they’re common,” the researchers found. Which, I’d grant you, hardly seems earthshaking, nor does it appear to have much to do with golf.
Bear with me though, as we try to answer the question of why anyone would habitually write down their nines. “True” golfers, of course, will harumph at the question itself. “Golf is like solitaire,” Tony Lema once said: “When you cheat, you only cheat yourself.” Yet given the scores of the other players in the foursome, nines were not unfamiliar to the group—in that case, however, why continue to play? Why not either improve or … just cease to keep score? Continuing, year after year, decade after decade, to play golf poorly seems like one of those mysteries of the human race that alien archeologists will one day wonder over.
As Bill Pennington of the New York Times reported in 2005, the “average 18-hole score for the average golfer remains at about 100, as it has for decades, according to the National Golf Foundation.” This, despite the millions spent on game improvement technology like titanium woods and over-engineered golf balls; technology often researched by (former) rocket scientists who’ve left the NASA or the defense industry in order to find an extra four yards from your seven-iron. Yet, despite the money spent, the fact that this quest has largely been fruitless is just accepted: “Maybe we’re all supposed to stink at this,” says the revered commentator David Feherty in Pennington’s story.
Yet Feherty’s line explains nothing, just as—the American philosopher Richard Rorty liked to point out—the doctor in the Moliere play’s claim that opium put people to sleep because it had a “dormitive power” explained nothing. Recently however I came across an article that just might explain something about this gap between the billions spent and the apparent lack of result: a piece by one Professor Ian Bogost, of Georgia Tech, in The Baffler about a seemingly unrelated subject—the rise of “social media” games like FarmVille or Candy Crush. What Bogost suggests is that such games have a lot to do with that perennial stalwart of the Las Vegas economy: slot machines.
Citing the work of psychologists Geoffrey and Elizabeth Loftus, Bogost tells us that slot machines exploit “a type of operant conditioning that provides a reward intermittently,” or “partial reinforcement.” In other words, precisely the mechanism that B.F. Skinner explored in his behaviorist experiments with rats: so long as, once in what can be a very great while, a reward gets doled out, there’s virtually no end to which mammals will not go. As the subject of the recent short film, Lapse: Confessions of a Slot Machine Junkie, says about his time in front of the machines, slot machine zombies that sit in front of their spinning fruit in the casinos that have sprung up across America in recent decades are “Irrational, stupid, like a little rat in a wheel.” But slot machine junkies continue on with their behavior even though many of them realize how absurd their behavior is.
For Bogost, that explains the appeal of video games like FarmVille: they “normalize corrupt business practices in the guise of entertainment.” Games like these are called “free-to-play,” which means that they’re free to begin to play: the real point of them, however, is to “give users opportunities to purchase virtual items or add-ons like clothing, hairstyles, or pets for their in-game characters.” Or simply the opportunity to continue to play: like their forebears in the video arcades, these games are often designed so that at a certain point a player must either wait some time before playing again, or send out “invites” to the social media friends, or simply throw down some amount of money to continue to play right then and there. As Bogost puts it, “FarmVille users might have been having fun in the moment, but before long, they would look up to discover they owed their souls to the company store.”
What that would seem to say is that the man taking a nine—and not thinking it extraordinary—is playing golf for the few moments of pleasure the game affords him, and ignoring the rest: remembering the fifty-foot putt that dropped, and not the seven shots that preceded it. Or the solid nine-iron from the fairway that somehow stopped next to the cup—and not the sliced drive into the woods, followed by the three chip shots that restored him to the fairway, that led to the moment. It would be a species of what’s often called “selective memory,” which is something that we all think we are familiar with on a conversational level these days. But the more sobering idea to arise from Bogust’s piece isn’t that people ignore evidence that doesn’t suit them—but that golf exists, not in spite of, but because of the intermittent rewards it spits out.
What the idea of “partial reinforcement” suggests is that—seemingly paradoxically—if the casinos rejiggered the slots to pay out more often, that would lead to less play rather than more. The slot machine zombies aren’t there for the payoff, but—it could be said—for the long stretches between payoffs. In the same way, it may be that the golfer isn’t there for the brilliant shots, but for the series of shots between the fantastic ones: if golfers were better, in other words, the game would not have as much appeal. Just as the slot machine player, deep down, doesn’t want to win—or rather, wants to win just enough times to maintain the illusion that he’s playing to win—so the golfer doesn’t want to get better. In that sense, then, what all the money spent on researching the latest hot ball or driver is being spent on is creating that illusion for the golfer: the illusion that he really does want to get better—when in fact he does not.
It’s about here—in the midst of a rather dark picture not merely of golf, but human beings generally—where the beards come back in. What the foregoing suggests, after all, is that the reason people continue to play golf badly is precisely because of the rarity of good shots—just as people, according to the Australians, are attracted to certain beard styles because of their rarity, not because of anything intrinsic to the styles themselves. The appeal of the idea, at least when it comes to golf, is that it explains just why people would rather spend money on expensive golf clubs, rather than something that would actually improve their games in a lasting way: namely, lessons from a certified professional golfer. So long, in other words, as a person is able to hit the occasional good shot—which, strictly in terms of chance, he or she is bound to do once in a while—it does not particularly matter that all the rest of the time he or she is hitting terrible ones.
Purchasing expensive equipment then could be thought of in two different ways: the first is that it’s the same kind of shortcut as, say, taking speed can temporarily help with weight loss. Just as practice is the only real way to get better, so is diet and exercise the only real way to improve your body. But just as a “magic” pill can cause a temporary weight loss without effort (even if it’s all gained back later), so can a new driver or irons cause a minor improvement from your older clubs. Since getting a new club requires only money, whereas lessons and practice requires time, it’s easy to see why people would go for that kind of fix.
Yet, that’s not the only possible interpretation here: there’s a darker one suggested by the investigation into beards. Remember, no kind of beard is intrinsically better than any other kind—which is to say, there’s no way to investigate beards rationally and discover a single “best” kind. If golf is more like that, rather than the kind of thing that can be worked at, then buying a new golf club is, in this scenario, not so much a means of improvement (even if it’s known to be the same kind of shortcut as, say, taking speed can temporarily help with weight loss) but instead a kind of offering to the gods of rationality itself. That is, buying a golf club is like burning a goat (or, say, your daughter if you have a pressing need to get to Troy and the winds are not cooperating): it’s a way to simultaneously a recognition that golf is largely a matter of change (at least in your own case) and also an attempt to influence that hand of fate. What is disturbing about this, to be sure, is the whiff of primitivism about it—the suggestion that the Enlightenment is merely a passing moment in the history of humanity, and that the return of the Dark is merely just beneath the surface, or a turn around the corner.
The storm outside our cartbarn continued. The crowd within it slowly dwindled, as the golfers, slowly and then at once, gave up hope of completing their rounds. Their caddies followed. As they day drew drearily on, and the moisture from the Gulf of Mexico syncopated upon the just and the unjust alike, there were only a few of us left. Pistol remained. “What else,” he remarked in the midst of a long silence that was only broken by the occasional crash of thunder, “have I to do?”
“Grow a beard?” said a voice somewhere in the echoing darkness.
The course closed for the day shortly thereafter.