… how sour sweet music is,
When time is broke and no proportion kept!
History of Richard II (c. 1595)
The phrase “paradox of proportionality” was, says Tom Doak—author of Streamsong Red and the Sheep Ranch and Cape Kidnappers and Stone Eagle and perhaps a dozen other highly entertaining golf courses—“was just something I said off the top of my head a few years ago in a discussion.” He invented the phrase in response to the common complaint of golfers that some architectural feature is “unfair” for one reason or another. What if, Doak asked in turn, a perfectly “fair” golf course could be invented? “What you would get,” he surmised, “is a course on the straight and narrow … for every yard offline you hit a particular shot, you’d get a proportionately harder next shot.” That is, a shot that is twenty yards offline, say, would be punished twice as much as one that is ten yards offline. Yet, while the phrase may have been invented at the spur-of-the-moment, it also reflects a conversation about golf architecture that goes back at least to the 1920s. As Doak’s phrase and my emphasis makes clear, it is the word proportionately that’s of crucial significance: around this word, as I’ll show, universes spin.
What Doak means by “proportionate” is that if courses were designed in this way, it “would make the game easiest for the good player, and hardest for the bad player.” Which, on the surface, might sound just, or fair: shouldn’t things be easiest for the good player? What’s the point of being good, if not? But that’s what makes for the paradox, Doak says: in reality, “good players need to be challenged”—that is, they need an arena to demonstrate their skill—and “bad players need a way around that doesn’t cost them too much.” If the game is hardest for the very worst players, in other words, there isn’t going to be a game much longer.
That then is what Doak means by what he calls the “paradox”: “if you design a course strictly to punish bad shots proportionately, you get just the opposite” of a course that would allow bad players to survive while delighting the better player. To allow golf to survive as a sport, Doak says that it’s necessary to design golf courses that are—“paradoxically” you might say—unfair. But while to put things this way makes Doak sound like a kind of socialist—it’s difficult not to hear an echo of “from each according to his abilities, and to each according to his needs” in what Doak writes— it’s also possible to describe his position in terms that have directly the opposite political valence.
That’s how the debate that Doak here enters turned nearly at the very beginnings of the modern age of the sport itself: as one Bob Crosby has noted on the website, Golf Club Atlas, at the zenith of the Jazz Age, one Joshua Crane—an excellent player in his own right, and critic of golf architecture—insisted that golf “is improving because the punishment for poor play is becoming universally fairer.” Golf became better, Crane argued, the more it acceded to “the demands of human nature for fair play”—the “real pleasure” of the game, Crane argued, was in the “manipulation” of all the elements of the game (shotmaking, first of all) “in a skillful and thoughtful way, and under conditions where victory or defeat is due to superior or inferior handling, not to good or bad luck beyond either player’s control.” In Doak’s terms, Crane was in effect arguing that golf architecture ought to be “proportionate”: Crane was essentially claiming that golf ought to be easiest for the good player, and hardest for the bad player.
Opposing Crane, and thus championing the position eventually occupied by Doak, was the golf architect, Max Behr—“Yale’s first graduate to design golf courses,” according to a website maintained by the university. (I once saw Robert Duvall in the parking lot at Lakeside Golf Club in Burbank, California—one of Behr’s best known designs.) Contrary to Crane, Behr believed that what he called “the moral dimension”—i.e., what Crane thought of as “fair play”—had no place in golf architecture. To the contrary in fact, according to one of his foremost interpreters: Bob Crosby of Golf Club Atlas writes that Behr thought that it is “the threat of inequitable, devastating hazards that accounts for the highest drama in the game,” which for Behr was “the whole point of good golf architecture.” Indeed, so long as “the player is given the option to play away from hazards,” Behr thought that the “architect owes the player nothing in terms of equity.” Hole-wrecking, even round-wrecking, hazards were entirely part of the game—even perhaps the point of the game—to Behr, while Crane thought they were anathema.
All through the late summer and autumn of 1926, and into 1927, the combat between the two men raged in the pages of the arrestingly-named Country Club & Pacific Golf and Motor Magazine—an apparently fine publication that would, like so many other literary efforts, not survive the crash of Wall Street less than three years in the future. They argued the point in several fashions; one way to describe the difference between the two men is to put it in terms of ideal scores. As Crane saw golf, an ideal scorecard would be a series of fives say, or—for the better player—a series of fours. Crane’s notion of a “good score” would be, in other words, something like “5-5-5-4-5-4-5-5-5” for nine holes. But Behr’s “ideal” scorecard (and, I suspect, Doak’s) would look quite different: that scorecard might read “4-6-2-5-9-2-4-5-6.” If I’ve done the math right, both cards come in at 43—but one suspects that the Behr scorecard contains, as Behr wished, a great deal more drama. To Behr, that was the whole point. To Behr, it wasn’t what you shot, but how you shot it that mattered; to Crane, the reverse.
Put in this way, it is Behr who might sound something like those conservative voices who, for example, argued against the federal bailouts of the large banks on the grounds that such bailouts encourage “moral hazard”—the notion that, as Andrew Beattie at Investopedia has put it, “a party that is protected in some way from risk will act differently than if they didn’t have that protection.” By protecting banks against the risk of catastrophic losses, you have encouraged them to behave in ways that risk catastrophic losses.
Just so, Behr could be imagined as saying, by in effect protecting golfers from the risk of huge scores, you are encouraging them to play lackadaisically; that is, without the sort of strategic planning Behr thought was essential to playing golf well. Behr thought of this, according to Bob Crosby, as “strategic freedom”; the “primary pay-off” of which, Crosby says, “is the drama created by a player’s fore-knowledge that his failure to pull off an aggressive … strategy might indeed have consequences that are devastating, disproportionate and ‘unfair.’” Behr in short thought that golfers ought to have a choice about which path to take to the hole: a risky choice and a less-risky one. But that freedom, he argued, ought to be backed by some pretty severe consequences of failure.
In that sense then, it’s possible to read Behr’s idea as being archly-capitalist, rather than, as I said earlier about Doak, socialistic. (For the record, both Behr and Crane were strongly conservative, while Doak’s politics are entirely unknown to me.) For example, it’s possible to hear an echo of Behr’s philosophy of golf courses in the recent debate over health care—particularly, as Malcolm Gladwell pointed out in the New Yorker some years ago, over the question of “moral hazard.” Apparently, in 1968 “the economist Mark Pauly,” Gladwell tells us, “argued that moral hazard played an enormous role in medicine”—the idea being that making “you responsible for a share of the costs” of your medical bills “will reduce moral hazard.” That is, you will be—as Behr argued about golfers—a more careful person, and more diligent about your health needs.
Yet, whereas that may be true in a game like golf, Gladwell’s informants argue that such is an absurd line of thinking when applied to medical care. One of them, the economist Uwe Reinhardt of Princeton University, says flatly that “[m]oral hazard is overblown” when it comes to medicine because nobody goes to the doctor blithely. “We go to the doctor,” as Gladwell remarks, “grudgingly, only because we’re sick.” Whereas, in the notional, Behr-like, world suggested by the then-current system before Obamacare, people would supposedly spend their off hours trekking to the doctor’s office were they not impeded by the costs, people like Reinhardt just observed that in reality nobody goes to the doctor cheerfully. Or as Reinhardt put it, do people “check into the hospital instead of playing golf?”
The answer, of course, is “no”—an answer that also suggests just why it is so dangerous to mix arguments over games with arguments over politics. I would, for example, much rather play a golf course designed by Doak or Behr than one designed by Crane. Conversely, however, I would much rather get my medical care from a system designed by Crane than I would one designed by Behr. Does this mean that one philosophy is better than the other in all situations? No; it just means that what we want from our entertainment is different than what we want—or should want—from the systems that support our lives.
Once—or so I understand—this was known as “having a sense of proportion.”