Men of Skill

I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill …
Ecclesiastes 9:11

 

“It was a matter of chance,” says Fitzgerald, at the beginning of Gatsby—surely, even now, the Greatest of the Great American Novels—“that I should have rented a house in one of the strangest communities in North America.” The town Fitzgerald calls West Egg is “strange” first of all because it has developed so fast that the “small eyesore” of a house of Gatsby’s middle-class narrator, Nick Carraway, still sits next-door to the “imitation of some Hotel de Ville” of the fabulously wealthy Gatsby. Fitzgerald is also careful to note that the name West Egg is derived from the shape of the town’s geography: an egg-shaped peninsula that juts out into “the great wet barnyard of Long Island Sound … like the egg in the Columbus story.” This detail, dropped seemingly so carelessly in the first chapter, appears irrelevant—what Columbus story?—but in fact it is a key to Fitzgerald’s design, for “the Columbus story” is just what Gatsby is: a story about just what is—and what is not—chance. Gatsby is, in other words, just like the new book ostensibly by Steve Williams, the New Zealander who once caddied for Tiger Woods back when the globe’s most famous black golfer did not have access to the nuclear codes.

Matters of chance are also just what this blog is about, in case you didn’t know—and apparently, through some oversight of the committee, many of you don’t know. Over the course of this autumn I’ve gotten some feedback from readers, such as there are any of you: one, a professional writer employed by network television on a show too well-known to be mentioned here (whose comments were relayed through a third party), said that I cover too narrow a territory; the other (a member of an historically-significant golf club in Chicago—my readers may be few, and maybe don’t like me much, but they are not inconsequential) implied that I ought to stick more to golf. Juxtaposed these comments are, to say the least, confusing: the one says I am too narrow and the other too broad. But that is not to say that each does not have a point.

I do after all stray from discussing golf (especially lately), yet it is also true that while I have covered a number of different subjects on this blog—from golf architecture to the Civil War to British elections—what I do discuss I view from a particular vantage point, and that view remains the same whatever the topic under discussion. In my defense then, what I would say is that in all of these cases, whatever the ostensible subject matter the real object is the question of chance, or luck, in human affairs, whether it be batting averages or stock market returns, elections or breaking par. The fact that I have to say this perhaps demonstrates the validity of the criticisms—which is what brings me around to the latest from Steve Williams.

Williams recently “wrote” the book Out of the Rough (golf books in general are seemingly required to be titled by pun—Williams’ title appears to owe something to John Daly’s 2007 memoir, My Life In And Out Of The Rough). The book has become a topic of conversation because of an excerpt published on the New Zealand website Stuff in which Williams complains that—aside from essentially throwing him under the bus after the notorious Thanksgiving weekend escapade through which the world learned that Tiger’s life was not so buttoned-down as it appeared—Tiger also routinely threw his clubs “in the general direction of the bag, expecting me to go over and pick it up.” Any caddie with experience knows what Williams is talking about.

Likely every golf club has a member (or two) who indulges in temper tantrums and views his (these members are always men) caddie as indistinguishable from his golf bag. (For instance, Medinah’s latest entry in this sweepstakes—the previous occupant having been tossed for his club-throwing boorishness—is a local car dealer who, as he is happy to tell anyone in earshot, worked his way up from Gatz-ian poverty, yet appears incapable of empathy to others in similar situations.) Anyone remotely familiar with caddieing in other words knows that throwing clubs, even at the bag, just is not done; that Tiger routinely did so is an argument Williams is aiming at his readers who, since they are interested enough in golf to buy his book, will take Tiger’s club-throwing ways as a sign of Tiger’s jerkishness. This should not exactly be news to anyone who has ever heard of Tiger Woods.

Yet over at the website Deadspin, Williams has become the object of ridicule by both public commenters and the website’s reporter, Patrick Redman. That is because of a further comment the caddie made about Woods’ club throwing habit: it made him, Williams wrote, “uneasy,” because “it was like I was his slave.” It’s a line that has irritated the hell out of Deadspin readers: returning to the subject of titles, for instance, one commenter remarked “Too bad Twelve Years A Slave was already taken,” while as another scoffingly put it: “You had to bend over and pick stuff up for your job? What a bummer.—[signed] Actual Slaves.” By comparing himself to a slaves, in short, Williams revealed himself as, according to another commenter, “a serious asshole,” and according to yet another “a delusional asshole.” It’s precisely this point that raises the stakes of the dispute into something more than simply a matter of men chasing a ball for money—though it’s worth taking a slight detour regarding money before returning to just what irritates people about Williams—and what that has to do with Gatsby, and Columbus.

In his piece, Redman asserts Williams’ complaint is ridiculous first of all because “picking up clubs and putting them into a golf bag was Williams’ job,” and secondly because the Kiwi caddie “was paid handsomely for his services, earning at least 10% … of Woods’ earnings.” Before getting into the racial politics that is the deeper subject of Redman’s ire, it’s worth asking whether his assertions here are true. And in fact, as someone with some experience as a professional caddie, I can say that the idea that Woods’ paid Williams 10% of winnings is ludicrous on its face, because at best, tour caddies earn 10% on wins, not week-to-week earnings; even assuming that Woods paid Williams at that rate on wins, which is questionable (it’s more likely that Williams was paid a—generously extreme—salary, not a percentage) that’s nowhere close to an overall 10% figure on earnings. To put the point in Hollywood’s terms, this is like claiming a character actor (whose credit comes after, and not before, the title) could get a percentage of a film’s gross, not net, revenue. In other words, Redman is not very knowledgeable about either golf or economics—a riposte that, to be sure, doesn’t address the substance of his criticism, but is significant in terms of what Redman’s piece is really about.

The point I think can be illustrated by retelling the story Fitzgerald alludes to in Gatsby: the story of Columbus’ egg. First related by the Italian Girolamo Benzoni in his 1565 bestseller, History of the New World, the story goes that after returning from the Americas, Columbus was at a dinner party when someone said “‘Sir Christopher, even if your lordship had not discovered the Indies … [someone] would have started a similar adventure with the same result.’” In reply, Columbus merely asked that an egg be brought to him, then dared anyone present to make the egg stand on its end unaided. No one could. When they finished trying, Columbus “tapped it gently on the table—breaking it slightly—and, with this, the egg stood on its end.” Benzoni draws the point—nearly literal in this case—of the story thusly: “once the feat is done, anyone knows how to do it.” Columbus was saying, in effect, “hate the game, not the player.”

Like the Spanish nobles, in other words, Steve Williams—by disliking Woods’ habit of club-throwing—was asserting his equality with his boss: just because his story did not happen to develop in precisely the same way as Woods’ story that does not mean that, in principle, Williams deserves any less dignity than Tiger Woods does. But Woods’ defenders, on Deadspin, read Williams’ remarks differently: they view him as not understanding that his circumstances as a white man were, just as much if not more than Tiger’s, fortunate ones. Williams in other words was one of chance’s winners, even if—in Williams’ mind—he is a kind of Columbus, or Gatsby: a self-made man who has gotten where he is despite, not because of, chance.

It’s just here, the astute may have noticed, that matters of golf and chance intersect with politics in general, and in particular the battle between those who assert, as Penn State English professor Michael Berubé has put the point, “that class oppression [is] the most important game in town,” and those who indulge in supposedly “faddish talk of gender and race and sexuality.” Williams’ memoir, in other words, seems to implicitly take the view that (in Berubé’s words) “the real struggle” has “to do with capital and labor,” while on the other hand his detractors seem to take the position that the whole discussion—even down to the very terms of it—is simply an effect of what Berubé calls “tribal identity.” “Class oppression,” they seem to suggest, is a white people problem.

Yet, as I have said before in different ways in this blog, considerations of the role of chance will not, and can not, go away merely by wishing them so: while it may be, as those on Berubé’s side of the aisle maintain, that factors we might consider “social” or “cultural” may play a larger role than we might suspect in the outcomes of our respective voyages to the New World, nevertheless there will also remain some portion of every outcome, however small, that is merely due to chance itself. Or to put it another way—as Berubé does—it is simply true “that anthropogenic climate change is real, that vaccines do not cause autism, that the Earth revolves around the Sun, and that Adam and Eve did not ride dinosaurs to church.” For some time, what’s been called the Cultural Left has been busily asserting otherwise, suggesting that what appear to be matters of chance are, somehow, actually within human control. But what that perspective fails to understand is that such is, after all, just what Columbus—and Jay Gatsby—argued. What the story of Tiger Woods tells us, however, is that time and chance happeneth to us all.

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2 thoughts on “Men of Skill”

  1. Golf has never been my number 1 sport, but there is something about Woods and his roller coaster through the sport that has gripped people.

    I also very much enjoyed your style of writing – a reference to Gatsby to open a golfing post is novel but always welcomed! If the author would like to contact myself – Ollie Turner, Founder at http://www.thesportspace.org – I would be interested in welcoming him to write a guest post for our global blog.

    Thanks and happy writing.

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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