Small Is Beautiful—Or At Least, Weird

… among small groups there will be greater variation …
—Howard Wainer and Harris Zwerling.
The central concept of allopatric speciation is that new species can arise only when a small local population becomes isolated at the margin of the geographic range of its parent species.
—Stephen Jay Gould and Niles Eldredge.
If you flipped a coin a thousand times, you were more likely to end up with heads or tails roughly half the time than if you flipped it ten times.
—Michael Lewis. 

No humanist intellectual today is a “reductionist.” To Penn State English professor Michael Bérubé for example, when the great biologist E.O. Wilson speculated—in 1998’s Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge—that “someday … even the disciplines of literary criticism and art history will find their true foundation in physics and chemistry,” Wilson’s claim was (Bérubé wrote) “almost self-parodic.” Nevertheless, despite the withering disdain of English professors and such, examples of reductionism abound: in 2002, journalist Malcolm Gladwell noticed that a then-recent book—Randall Collins’ The Sociology of Philosophies—argued that French Impressionism, German Idealism, and Chinese neo-Confucianism, among other artistic and philosophic movements, could all be understood by the psychological principle that “clusters of people will come to decisions that are far more extreme than any individual member would have come to on his own.” Collins’ claim, of course, is sure to call down the scorn of professors of the humanities like Bérubé for ignoring what literary critic Victor Shklovsky might have called the “stoniness of the stone”; i.e., the specificity of each movement’s work in its context, and so on. Yet from a political point of view (and despite both the bombastic claims of certain “leftist” professors of the humanities and their supposed political opponents) the real issue with Collins’ (and Gladwell’s) “reductionism” is not that they attempt to reduce complex artistic and philosophic movements to psychology—nor even, as I will show, to biology. Instead, the difficulty is that Collins (and Gladwell) do not reduce them to mathematics.  

Yet, to say that neo-Confucianism (or, to cite one of Gladwell’s examples, Saturday Night Live) can be reduced to mathematics first begs the question of what it means to “reduce” one sort of discourse to another—a question still largely governed, Kenneth Schaffner wrote in 2012, by Ernest Nagel’s “largely unchanging and immensely influential analysis of reduction.” According to Nagel’s 1961 The Structure of Science: Problems in the Logic of Scientific Explanation, a “reduction is effected when the experimental laws of the secondary science … are shown to be the logical consequences of the theoretical assumptions … of the primary science.” Gladwell for example, discussing “the Lunar Society”—which included Erasmus Darwin (grandfather to Charles), James Watt (inventor of the steam engine), Josiah Wedgwood (the pottery maker), and Joseph Priestly (who isolated oxygen)—says that this group’s activities bears all “the hallmarks of group distortion”: someone proposes “an ambitious plan for canals, and someone else tries to top that [with] a really big soap factory, and in that feverish atmosphere someone else decides to top them all with the idea that what they should really be doing is fighting slavery.” In other words, to Gladwell the group’s activities can be explained not by reference to the intricacies of thermodynamics or chemistry, nor even the political difficulties of the British abolitionist movement—or even the process of heating clay. Instead, the actions of the Lunar Society can be understood in somewhat the same fashion that, in bicycle racing, the peloton (which is not as limited by wind resistance) can reach speeds no single rider could by himself. 

Yet, if it is so that the principle of group psychology explains, for instance, the rise of chemistry as a discipline, it‘s hard to see why Gladwell should stop there. Where Gladwell uses a psychological law to explain the “Blues Brothers” or “Coneheads,” in other words, the late Harvard professor of paleontology Stephen Jay Gould might have cited a law of biology: specifically, the theory of “punctuated equilibrium”—a theory that Gould, along with his colleague Niles Eldredge, first advanced in 1972. The theory that the two proposed in “Punctuated Equilibria: an Alternative to Phyletic Gradualism” could, thereby, be used to explain the rise of the Not Ready For Prime Time Players as equally well as the psychological theory Gladwell advances.    

In that early 1970s paper, the two biologists attacked the reigning idea of how new species begin: what they called the “picture of phyletic gradualism.” In the view of that theory, Eldredge and Gould  wrote, new “species arise by the transformation of an ancestral population into its modified descendants.” Phyletic gradualism thusly answers the question of why dinosaurs went extinct by replying that they didn’t: dinosaurs are just birds now. More technically, under this theory the change from one species to another is a transformation that “is even and slow”; engages “usually the entire ancestral population”; and “occurs over all or a large part of the ancestral species’ geographic range.” For nearly a century after the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species, this was how biologists understood the creation of new species. To Gould and Eldredge however that view simply was not in accordance with how speciation usually occurs. 

Instead of ancestor species gradually becoming descendant species, they argued that new species are created by a process they called “the allopatric theory of speciation”—a theory that might explain how Hegel’s The Philosophy of Right and Chevy Chase’s imitation of Gerald Ford could be produced by the same phenomena. Like Gladwell’s use of group psychology (which depends on the competition within a set of people who all know each other), where “phyletic gradualism” thinks that speciation occurs over a wide area to a large population, the allopatric theory thinks that speciation occurs in a narrow range to a small population: “The central concept of allopatric speciation,” Gould and Eldredge wrote, “is that new species can arise only when a small local population becomes isolated at the margin of the geographic range of its parent species.” Gould described this process for a non-professional audience in his essay, “The Golden Rule: A Proper Scale for Our Environmental Crisis,” from his 1982 book, Eight Little Piggies: Reflections on Natural History—a book that perhaps demonstrates just how considerations of biological laws might show why John Belushi’s “Samurai Chef,” or Gilda Radner’s “Roseanne Rosannadanna” succeeded. 

The Pinaleno Mountains, in New Mexico, house a population of squirrel called the Mount Graham Red Squirrel, which “is isolated from all other populations and forms the southernmost extreme of the species’s range.” The Mount Graham subspecies can survive in those mountains despite being so far south of the rest of its species because the Pinalenos are “‘sky islands,’” as Gould calls them: “patches of more northern microclimate surrounded by southern desert.” It’s in such isolated places, the theory of allopatric speciation holds, that new species develop: because the Pinalenos are “a junction of two biogeographic provinces” (the Nearctic “by way of the Colorado Plateau“ and the Neotropical “via the Mexican Plateau”), they are a space where new kinds of selection pressures can work upon a subpopulation than are available on the home range, and therefore places where subspecies can make the kinds of evolutionary “leaps” that can allow such new populations, after success in such “nurseries,” to return to the original species’ home range and replace the ancestral species. Such a replacement, of course, does not involve the entire previous population, nor does it occur over the entire ancestral range, nor is it even and slow, as the phyletic gradualist theory would suggest.

The application to the phenomena considered by Gladwell then is fairly simple. What was happening at 30 Rockefeller Center in New York City in the autumn of 1975 might not have been an example of “group psychology” at work, but instead an instance where a small population worked at the margins of two older comedic provinces: the new improvisational space created by such troupes as Chicago’s Second City, and the older tradition of live television created by such shows as I Love Lucy and Your Show of Shows. The features of the new form thereby forged under the influence of these pressures led, ultimately, to the extinction of older forms of television comedy like the standard three-camera situation comedy, and the eventual rise of single-camera shows like Seinfeld and The Office. Or so, at least, it can be imagined that the story might be told, rather than in the form of Gladwell’s idea of group psychology. 

Yet, it isn’t simply possible to explain a comedic phenomenon or a painting movement in terms of group psychology, instead of the terms familiar to scholars of the humanities—or even, one step downwards in the explanatory hierarchy, in terms of biology instead of psychology. That’s because, as the work of Israeli psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky suggests, there is something odd, mathematically, about small groups like subspecies—or comedy troupes. That “something odd” is this: they’re small. Being small has (the two pointed out in their 1971 paper, “Belief in the Law of Large Numbers”) certain mathematical consequences—and, perhaps oddly, those consequences may help to explain something about the success of Saturday Night Live. 

That’s anyway the point the two psychologists explored in their 1971 paper, “Belief in the Law of Large Numbers”—a paper whose message would, perhaps oddly, later be usefully summarized by Gould in a 1983 essay, “Glow, Big Glowworm”: “Random arrays always include some clumping … just as we will flip several heads in a row quite often so long as we can make enough tosses.” Or—as James Forbes of Edinburgh University noted in 1850—it would be absurd to expect to find “on 1000 throws [of a fair coin] there should be exactly 500 heads and 500 tails.” (In fact, as Forbes went on to remark, there’s less than a 3 percent chance of getting such a result.) But human beings do not usually realize that reality: in “Belief,” Kahneman and Tversky reported G.S. Tune’s 1964 study that found that when people “are instructed to generate a random sequence of hypothetical tosses of a fair coin … they produce sequences where the proportion of heads in any short segment stays far closer to .50 than the laws of chance would predict.” “We assume”—as Atul Gawande summarized the point of “Belief” for the New Yorker in 1998—“that a sequence of R-R-R-R-R-R is somehow less random than, say, R-R-B-R-B-B,” while in reality “the two sequences are equally likely.” Human beings find it difficult to understand true randomness—which may be why it may be so difficult to see how this law of probability might apply to, say, the Blues Brothers.

Yet, what the two psychologists were addressing in “Belief” was the idea expressed by statisticians Howard Wainer and Harris Zwerling in a 2006 article later cited by Kahneman in his recent bestseller, Thinking: Fast and Slow: the statistical law that “among small groups there will be greater variation.” In their 2006 piece, Wainer and Zwerling illustrated the point by observing that, for example, the lowest-population counties in the United States tend to have the highest kidney cancer rates per capita, or the smallest schools disproportionately appear on lists of the best-performing schools. What they mean is that a “county with, say, 100 inhabitants that has no cancer deaths would be in the lowest category” of kidney cancer rates—but “if it has one cancer death it would be among the highest”—while similarly, examining the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment for 2001-02 found “that, of the 50 top-scoring schools (the top 3%), six of them were among the 50 smallest schools (the smallest 3%),” which is “an overrepresentation by a factor of four.” “When the population is small,” they concluded, “there is wide variation”—but when “populations are large … there is very little variation.” Or, it may not be that small groups push each member to achieve more, it’s that small groups of people tend to have high amounts of variation, and (every so often) one of those groups varies so much that somebody invents the discipline of chemistry—or invent the Festrunk Brothers.

The $64,000 question, from this point of view, isn’t the groups that created a new way of painting—but instead all of the groups that nobody has ever heard of that tried, but failed, to invent something new. Yet as a humanist intellectual like Bérubé would surely point out, to investigate this question in this way is to miss nearly everything about Impressionism (or the Land Shark) that makes it interesting. Which, perhaps, is so—but then again, isn’t the fact that such widely scattered actions and organisms can be united under one theoretical lens interesting? Taken far enough, what matters to Bérubé is the individual peculiarities of everything in existence—an idea that recalls what Jorge Luis Borges once described as John Locke’s notion of “an impossible idiom in which each individual object, each stone, each bird and branch had an individual name.” To think of Bill Murray in the same frame as a New Mexican squirrel is, admittedly, to miss the smell of New York City at dawn on a Sunday morning after a show the night before—but it also involves a gain, and one that is applicable to many other situations besides the appreciation of the hard work of comedic actors. Although many in the humanities then like to attack what they call reductionism for its “anti-intellectual” tendencies, it’s well-known that a large enough group of trees constitutes more than a collection of individual plants. There is, I seem to recall, some kind of saying about it.  

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Of Pale Kings and Paris

 

I saw pale kings and princes too …
—John Keats.
“La Belle Dame Sans Merci” (1819).

… and the pale King glanced across the field
Of battle, but no man was moving there …
Alfred Tennyson.
Idylls of the King: The Passing of Arthur (1871).

 

“It’s difficult,” the lady from Boston was saying a few days after the attacks in Paris, “to play other courses when your handicap is established at an easy course like this one.” She was referring to the golf course to which I have repaired following an excellent autumn season at Medinah Country Club: the Chechessee Creek Club, just south of Beaufort, South Carolina—a course that, to some, might indeed appear to be an easy course. Chechessee measures just barely more than 6000 yards from the member tees and, like all courses in the Lowcountry, it is virtually tabletop flat—but appearances are deceptive. For starters, the course is short on the card because it has five par-three holes, not the usual four, and the often-humid and wet conditions of the seacoast mean that golf shots don’t travel as they do in drier and more elevated locations. So in one sense, the lady was right—in precisely the same sense, as I suspect the lady was not aware, that Martin Heidegger, writing at an earlier moment of terror and the movements of peoples, was right.

Golf course architecture of course might be viewed as remote from the preoccupations of Continental theory as the greens of the Myopia Hunt Club, the lady’s home golf course, are from, say, the finish line of the Boston Marathon. Yet, just as Martin Heidegger is known as an exceptionally, even historically, difficult writer, Myopia Hunt Club is justly known to the elect as an exceptionally, even historically, difficult golf course. At the seventh U.S. Open in 1901—the only Open in which no competitor managed to break 80—the course established the record for highest winning score of a U.S. Open: a 331 shot by both Willie Anderson (who died tragically young) and Alex Smith that was resolved by the first playoff in the Open’s history. (Anderson’s 85 just edged Smith’s 86). So the club earned its reputation for difficulty.

The nature of those difficulties are, in fact, the very same ones those who like the Chechessee Creek Club trumpet: the deeper mysteries of angles, of trompe l’oiel, the various artifices by which the architects of golf’s Golden Age created the golf courses still revered today and whose art Coore and Crenshaw, Chechesee’s designers, have devoted their careers to recapture. Like Chechessee, Myopia Hunt isn’t, and never was, especially long: for most of its history, it has played around 6500 yards, which even at the beginning of the twentieth century wasn’t remarkable. Myopia Hunt is a difficult golf course for reasons entirely different than difficult golf courses like Medinah or Butler National are difficult: they are not easily apparent.

Take, for example, the 390-yard fourth: the contemporary golf architect Tom Doak once wrote that it “might be the best hole of its length in the free world.” A dogleg around a wetland, the fourth is, it seems, the only dogleg on a course of straight holes—in other words, slightly but not extraordinarily different from the other holes. However the hole’s green, it seems, is so pitched that a golfer in one of the course’s Opens (there have been four; the last in 1908) actually putted off the green—and into the wetland, where he lost the ball. (This might qualify as the most embarrassing thing that has ever happened to a U.S. Open player.) The dangers at Myopia are not those of a Medinah or a Butler National—tight tee shots to far distant greens, mainly—but are instead seemingly-minor but potentially much more catastrophic.

At the seventh hole, according to a review at Golf Club Atlas, the “members know full well to land the ball some twenty yards short of the putting surface and allow for it to bumble on”—presumably, players who opt differently will suffer an apocalyptic fate. In the words of one reviewer, “one of the charms of the course” is that “understanding how best to play Myopia Hunt is not immediately revealed.” Whereas the hazards of a Butler or Medinah are readily known, those at Myopia Hunt are, it seems, only revealed when it is too late.

It’s for that reason, the reviewer goes on to say, that the club had such an impact on American golf course design: the famed Donald Ross arrived in America the same year Myopia Hunt held its first Open, in 1898, and spent many years designing nearby courses while drawing inspiration by visiting the four-time Open site. Other famous Golden Age architects also drew upon Myopia Hunt for their own work. As the reviewer above notes, George Thomas and A.W. Tillinghast—builders of some of the greatest American courses—“were influenced by the abundant placement and penal nature of the hazards” (like the wetland next to the fourth’s green) at Myopia Hunt. Some of America’s greatest golf courses were built by architects with first-hand knowledge of the design style pioneered and given definition by Myopia Hunt.

Coore and Crenshaw—the pale kings of American golf architecture—like to advertise themselves as champions of this kind of design: a difficulty derived from the subtle and the non-obvious, rather than simply by requiring the golfer to hit the ball really far and straight. “Theirs,” says the Coore and Crenshaw website, “is an architectural firm based upon the shared philosophy that traditional, strategic golf is the most rewarding.” Chechessee, in turn, is meant to be a triumph of their view: according to their statement on Chechesee’s website, Coore and Crenshaw’s goal when constructing it “was to create a golf course of traditional character that would reward thoughtful, imaginative, and precise play,” and above all to build a course—like a book?—whose “nuances … will reveal themselves over time.” In other words, to build a contemporary Myopia Hunt.

Yet in the view of this Myopia Hunt member, Coore and Crenshaw failed: Chechessee is, for this lady, far easier than her nineteenth-century home course. Why is that? My speculation, without having seen Myopia Hunt, is that whereas Coore and Crenshaw design in a world that has seemingly passed by the virtues of the past, the Massachusetts course was designed on its own terms. That is, Coore and Crenshaw work within an industry where much of their audience has internalized standards that were developed by golf architects who themselves were reacting against the Golden Age architects like Tillinghast or Ross. Whereas Myopia Hunt Club can have a hole—the ninth—whose green is only nine yards wide and forty yards deep, the following generation of architects (and golfers) rejected such designs as “unfair,” and worked to make golf courses less “odd” or “unique.” So when Coore and Crenshaw come to design, they must work against expectations that the designer of Myopia Hunt Club did not.

Thus, the Golden Age designers were in the same position that, according to the German philosopher Martin Heidegger, the Pre-Socratic philosophers were: in a “brief period of authentic openness to being,” as the Wikipedia article about Heidegger says. That is, according to Heidegger the Pre-Socratics (the Greek philosophers, like Anaximander and Heraclitus and Parmenides, all of whom predated Socrates) had a relationship to the world, and philosophizing about it, that was unavailable to those who would come afterwards: they were able, Heidegger insinuates, to confront the world itself in a way different from those who came afterwards—after all, the latecomers unavoidably had to encounter the works of those very philosophers first.

Unlike his teacher then, Edmund Husserl—who “argued that all that philosophy could and should be is a description of experience”—Heidegger himself however thought that the Pre-Socratic moment was impossible to return to: hence, Heidegger claimed that “experience is always already situated in a world and in ways of being.” So while such a direct confrontation with the world as Husserl demands may have been possible for the Pre-Socratics, Heidegger is seemingly willing to allow, he also argues that history has long since closed off such a possibility, and thus forbade the kind of direct experience of the world Husserl thought of as philosophy’s object. In the same way, whereas the Golden Age architects confronted golf architecture in a raw state, no such head-on confrontation is now possible.

What’s interesting about Heidegger’s view, as people like Penn State professor Michael Berubé has pointed out, is that it has had consequences for such things as our understanding of, say, astronomical objects. As Berubé says in an essay entitled “The Return of Realism,” at the end of Heidegger’s massive Being and Time—the kind encyclopedic book that really emphasizes the “German” in “German philosophy”—Heidegger’s argument that we are “always already” implicated within previous thoughts implies that, for instance, it could be said that “the discovery of Neptune in 1846 could plausibly be described, from a strictly human vantage point, as the ‘invention’ of Neptune.” Or, to put it as Heidegger does: “Once entities have been uncovered, they show themselves precisely as entities which beforehand already were.” Before Myopia Hunt Club and other courses like it were built, there were no “rules” of golf architecture—afterwards, however, sayings like “No blind shots” came to have the weight of edicts from the Almighty.

For academic leftists like Berubé, Heidegger’s insight has proven useful, in a perhaps-paradoxical way. Although the historical Heidegger himself was a member of the Nazi Party, according to Berubé his work has furthered the project of arguing “the proposition that although humans may not be infinitely malleable, human variety and human plasticity can in principle and in practice exceed any specific form of human social organization.” Heidegger’s work, in other words, aims to demonstrate just how contingent a lot of what we think of as necessary is—which is to say that his work can help us to re-view what we have taken for granted, and perhaps see it with a glimpse of what the Pre-Socratics, or the Golden Age golf architects, saw. Even if Heidegger would also deny that such would ever be possible for us, here and now.

Yet, as the example of the lady from Myopia Hunt demonstrates, such a view has also its downside: having seen the original newness, she denies the possibility that the new could return. To her, golf architecture ended sometime around 1930: just as Heidegger thought that, some time around the time of Socrates, philosophy became not just philosophy, but also the history of philosophy, so too does this lady think that golf architecture has also become the history of golf architecture.

Among the “literary people” of his own day, the novelist and journalist Tom Wolfe once complained, could be found a similar snobbishness: “it is one of the unconscious assumptions of modern criticism,” Wolfe wrote, “that the raw material is simply ‘there,’” and from such minds the only worthy question is “Given such-and-such a body of material, what has the artist done with it?” What mattered to these critics, in other words, wasn’t the investigatory reporting done by such artists as Balzac or Dickens, Tolstoy or Gogol, but rather the techniques each artist applied to that material. The human misery each of those writers witnessed and reported, this view holds Wolfe says, is irrelevant to their work; rather, what matters is how artfully that misery is arranged.

It’s a conflict familiar both to literary people and the people that invented golf. The English poets, like Keats and Tennyson, who invented the figure of the Pale King were presumably drawing upon a verse well-known to King James’ translators; literary folk who feared the cost of seeing anew. The relevant verse, imaginably the source of both Keats and Tennyson, is from the James translation of the Book of Revelations (chapter 6, verse 8):

And I looked, and behold a pale horse:
and his name that sat on him was Death,
and Hell followed with him.

But opponents of the Auld Enemy saw the new differently; as novelist John Updike once reported, according the “the old Scots adage,”

We should be conscious of no more grass …
than will cover our own graves.

To the English, both heirs to and inventors of a literary tradition, the Pale King was a terrible symbol of the New, the Young, and the Unknown. But to their ancient opponents, the Scots, the true fear was to be overly aware of the past, at the expense of welcoming in the coming age. As another Celt from across the sea, W. B. Yeats, once put the same point:

Be not inhospitable to strangers,
lest they be angels in disguise.

Parisians put the same point in the aftermath of the shootings and bombings that Friday evening on Twitter by using the hashtag “#PorteOuverte”—a slogan by which, in the aftermath of the horror, thousands of Parisians offered shelter to strangers from whatever was still lurking in the darkness. To Parisians, like the Scots before them, what matters is not whether the Pale King arrives, but our reaction when he does.

The World Match Play: Everybody’s a Toyota

Should anybody be reading this, I wanted to let you know that I’m going to be posting a bit about the tournament in Tucson this week—expanding a bit on my last post concerning the classic golfing dilemma about when to hit the gas and when to stomp on the brake (probably best Toyota doesn’t have much of a sponsorship presence in golf, don’t you think?). Match play raises the stakes on that decision—there’s no tomorrow in match play. So expect something later today. The early line is still Geoff Ogilvy, already a subject of one of these posts, although le fromage-tete Stricker cannot be counted out. Big upset pick for the first round? Tim Clark over Vijay Singh, although many would say that’s a no-brainer given Clark’s strong play recently versus Singh’s slow slide from the top. Should be a fun day.

The Double-Down Miracle Shooter

Should I stay or should I go now?
Should I stay or should I go now?
If I go there will be trouble,
And if I stay it will be double.
So you gotta let me know,
Should I cool it or should I blow?
—“Should I Stay or Should I Go?”
The Clash.
Combat Rock.

People sometimes ask me about just what it is a caddie, or what we call a looper, does, which isn’t as easy a question as you might think. There’s the basics, of course—getting yardages and so on. But, unless somebody just really has no idea at all, that usually isn’t what my questioner wants to know. I don’t have that much experience with big-time pro golf, but I do have some: I’ve worked two Nationwide Tour events, one LPGA event, a United States Mid-Amateur (which is like the U.S. Open for everybody who didn’t turn pro after college), a United States Senior Amateur (etc.), and many mini-tour events. What people want to know is what actually happens “inside the ropes” as they say, when it’s just you and your player.

They have watched the hushed discussions on television as, say, Tiger and Stevie, or Phil and Bones, confer—what people want to know is, what are they talking about? The short answer is that it’s likely about who’s favored in that night’s game-of-the-century or … well, Tiger’s in enough trouble as it is. But that isn’t really what they want to know either. What they (you) want to know is, what are they talking about when it gets down to the only question that matters to a pro, which has perhaps been most poetically put by Joe Strummer and Mick Jones of The Clash: should I stay or should I go?

Or, as my pro once asked me in a Nationwide Tour event, “Should I go for the miracle shot?” And yes folks, pro golfers do ask that question. Or at least that guy did—he wasn’t a star, even on the minor-league tour, so maybe it speaks for itself that he was asking me at all. Still, it does happen, and for what it’s worth (usually not much), that’s what you are getting paid to do, something that still amazes me: it’s like standing next to Michael Jordan, waiting for him to ask you if you think he should go to the hole or just shoot the three. What does MJ want you to say—“nah, Mikey, just do a cross-over, beat the guard, take off at the foul line and shoot it over your shoulder, like always.” In no other sport, at least that I know about—I’m told that in auto-racing the driver keeps in pretty close contact with his crew-chief, but I’m not sure it’s the same—does anything like this happen, that an athlete in the middle of competition—not during a time-out—ask somebody else’s advice.

When that happens, and it has happened to me, I’m always tempted to give some smart-aleck reply, or just say “Sure, why not?” Or, “Hey man, if I knew wouldn’t I be hitting that ball?” That isn’t of course what you say though. Your guy actually wants to know—if he knew the answer to that question he would have already asked for the club he wanted. It’s real—MJ really does want to know what you think of Utah’s defense—and he wants to know right now. And this isn’t your buddy asking you during some let’s-skip-out-of-work Friday afternoon, or your brother asking you if you want to play “greenies.” Bobby Jones himself said that tournament golf is different from regular golf, and pro golf is another species entirely. Pro golf is: damn that hotel room cost more than the website said, and how am I gonna pay for it if we miss the cut, and it’s how many hours to Chicago is it from—where am I again? And he wants to know what?

Let me describe what our situation was when my pro asked me that question, and then I’ll go through how I thought about it. We—and yeah, I say we, because in effect it’s my money too—were on what I remember as the 13th hole on a Saturday. It was the first par-5 on the back nine at kind of a tricked-up famous-player helicopter-course—the famous player flies in on his helicopter, maybe hits a shot or two, picks up the check and scoots for the horizon before anybody realizes that the track would be better with a mechanical rabbit—in the kind of state that takes in more federal money than they pay in taxes but likes to complain about “Wash’ton” all the same, not that it mattered.

Our lie was on the thin side, but not terrible. The ball sat in front of the green about twenty yards from the pin. That doesn’t sound too bad, I realize, but the pin was right up against a bunker that we needed to traverse. So the question was, should we try to stick the ball close to the pin, risking leaving it short in the bunker but possibly gaining a birdie or even (with a lot of luck) an eagle? Or should we play safe, away from the pin but with a manageable—though still difficult—lengthy two-putt for par?

On that particular day here’s how I thought about it: first, it was a Saturday. On the pro tours, Saturday is “Moving Day” (thanks, John Feinstein!): it means you’ve made the cut, which means you are going to play tomorrow too. And that means you have a chance to fix whatever happens today. Risk is at a discount on Saturday. Second: it was early on the back nine. That means you’ve had some time to “get into” the round; your player knows how he’s hitting it that day, which isn’t always sure the first couple of holes.

After twelve holes we had made some birdies, so we were climbing the leaderboard. And there were still five holes after this one, meaning that, again, whatever happens on this hole we had a chance to fix. And third: it was a par-five, meaning that we could still save par after a bad shot. Bunkers don’t really scare pros; in fact, since the surface of a bunker is usually a lot more dependable than grass, most would rather hit out of them than anywhere else on the course. Even if we missed the shot and ended up in the bunker, we probably wouldn’t do any worse than a bogey—too bad but the upside, another birdie to add to our string, made it worth it.

At least that’s how I saw things. What I said was: “Yeah, let’s do it.” Now, this says a couple of things to the player. The first is, I’m paying attention. My pro hadn’t really asked me anything important before this moment the entire week. But when he asked me the question he didn’t have to clarify what he meant, because I already knew. That is not a trivial bit of information, because it tells the pro something significant: “I am not alone.” A lot of golf is played alone, of course: outside of marathon running, which at the highest level takes way less time than a round of golf, there are very sports that are as solitary as pro golf. (Maybe long-distance solo sailboating.) So to be able to tell him that he isn’t alone during an important decision is, to my mind anyway, pretty important. But that wasn’t all I said in those three words.

I also effectively said that not only do I think it’s a good idea, but I trusted him to be able to pull it off. That imparts confidence, no small thing when the difference between first and last place on any given day is maybe 10 seconds out of five-plus hours of golf. Secondly, by saying “let’s” I was effectively letting him off the hook if the shot went south: I agreed to the shot, so my neck was on the line same as his. If it didn’t work out it wasn’t all his fault. Again, no small thing. Psychological studies have been done that show sharing responsibility lessens the burden. (Have they really? Damned if I know for sure. But that’s the way I’d bet.) So, four words, at least four different meanings—actually more meanings than that, but there isn’t that much time. You want to ask me why I’m getting paid again?

As it happens, in this case it did go south. Not only did he put it in the bunker, but then he left the next shot in the bunker too because he was trying to hit another miracle shot. Now, that is a cardinal sin for pro golfers, and it is a pretty good rule for amateurs too: never double-down on miracles. (Actually, that’s a pretty good rule for anything.) The next shot was, naturally, long, and it took three more shots to get down from there for a smooth double-bogey, giving back two of the birdies we’d worked hard to get earlier. We did make some birdies afterwards, but we’d squandered a day where we might have made up six shots on the field. That would have really moved us up the board on a day the course was a nunnery. (Think about it.)

My golfer and I ended up finishing thirty-fourth or something for the tournament, which was that guy’s best finish of the year to that point. On the Nationwide Tour, that worked out to about thirty-five hundred dollars, of which my share came out to about three hundred on top of my per-diem. Not a lot of money, but I did get a compliment on how I’d done my job. Throughout the week I had gotten the correct yardages and done competently all the other things loopers do—I even found his ball in some weeds on the day before, which as it worked out meant that we made the cut. What I got the most satisfaction from that week was that I thought clearly under pressure. On that one shot things didn’t work out, but the important thing, or so I feel, was that I was able to analyze our situation quickly and confidently.

I don’t mean to sound overly complimentary about myself—loopers don’t hit the shots, and this certainly wasn’t the U.S. Open or anywhere close—but I did want to try to reproduce something like what happens during those moments on television when Phil or Ogilvy or whoever is looking at that flag with the tournament on the line and wondering how to get there. Miracles don’t happen by accident: they start by asking, as Strummer et al. put it, should I cool it or should I blow? And then trying to answer it.