The Weight We Must Obey

The weight of this sad time we must obey,
Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.
King Lear V,iii

There’s a scene in the film Caddyshack that at first glance seems like a mere throwaway one-liner, but that rather neatly sums up what I’m going to call the “Kirby Puckett” problem. Ted Knight’s Judge Smails character asks Chevy Chase’s Ty Webb character about how if Webb doesn’t, as he claims, keep score, then how does he measure himself against other golfers? “By height,” Webb replies. It’s a witty enough reply on its own of course. But it also (and perhaps there’s a greater humor to be found here) raises a rather profound question: is there a way to know someone is a great athlete—aside from their production on the field? Or, to put the point another way, what do bodies tell us?

I call this the “Kirby Puckett” problem because of something Bill James, the noted sabermetrician and former , once wrote in his New Historical Baseball Abstract: “Kirby Puckett,” James observed, “once said that his fantasy was to have a body like Glenn Braggs’.” Never heard of Glenn Braggs? Well, that’s James’ point: Glenn Braggs looked like a great ballplayer—“slender, fast, very graceful”—but Kirby Puckett was a great ballplayer: a first-ballot Hall of Famer, in fact. Yet despite his own greatness—and surely Kirby Puckett was aware he was, by any measure, a better player than Glenn Braggs—Puckett could not help but wish he appeared “more like” the great player he, in reality, was.

What we can conclude from this is that a) we all (or most of us) have an idea of what athletes look like, and b) that it’s extremely disturbing when that idea is called into question, even when you yourself are a great athlete.
This isn’t a new problem, to be sure. It’s the subject, for instance, of Moneyball, the book (and the movie) about how the Oakland A’s, and particularly their general manager Billy Beane, began to apply statistical analysis to baseball. “Some scouts,” wrote Michael Lewis in that book, about the difference between the A’s old and the new ways of doing things, “still believed they could tell by the structure of a young man’s face not only his character but his future in pro ball.” What Moneyball is about is how Beane and his staff learned to ignore what their eyes told them, and judge their players solely on the numbers.

Or in other words, to predict future production only by past production, instead of by what appearances appeared to promise. Now, fairly obviously that doesn’t mean that coaches and general managers of every sport need to ignore their players’ appearances when evaluating their future value. Indisputably, many different sports have an ideal body. Jockeys, of course, are small men, whereas football players are large ones. Basketball players are large, too, but in a different way: taller and not as bulky. Runners and bicyclists have yet a different shape. Pretty clearly, completely ignoring those factors would lead any talent judge far astray quickly.

Still, the variety of successful body types in a given sport might be broader than we might imagine—and that variety might be broader yet depending on the sport in question. Golf for example might be a sport with a particularly broad range of potentially successful bodies. Roughly speaking, golfers of almost any body type have been major champions.

“Bantam” Ben Hogan for example, greatest of ballstrikers, stood 5’7” and weighed about 135 pounds during his prime, and going farther back Harry Vardon, who invented the grip used almost universally today and won the British Open six times, stood 5’9” and weighed about 155 pounds. But alternately, Jack Nicklaus was known as “Fat Jack” when he first came out on tour—a nickname that tells its own story—and long before then Harry Vardon had competed against Ted Ray, who won two majors of his own (the 1912 British and the 1920 U.S. Opens)—and was described by his contemporaries as “hefty.” This is not even to bring up, say, John Daly.

The mere existence of John Daly, however, isn’t strong enough to expand our idea of what constitutes an athlete’s body. Golfers like Daly and the rest don’t suggest that the overweight can be surprisingly athletic; instead, they provoke the question of whether golf is a sport at all. “Is Tiger Woods proof that golf is a sport, or is John Daly confirmation to the contrary?” asks a post on Popular Science’s website entitled “Is Golf a Sport?” There’s even a Facebook page entitled “Golf Is Not a Sport.”

Facebook pages like the above confirm just how difficult it is to overcome our idealized notions of what athletes are. It’s to the point that if somebody, no matter how skillful his efforts, doesn’t appear athletic, then we are more likely to narrow our definition of athletic acts rather than expand our definition of athletic bodies. Thus, Kirby Puckett had trouble thinking of himself as an athlete, despite that he excelled in a sport that virtually anyone will define as one.

Where that conclusion could (and, to some minds, should) lead us is to the notion that a great deal of what we think of as “natural” is, in fact, “cultural”—that favorite thesis of the academic Left in the United States, the American liberal arts professors proclaiming the good news that culture trumps nature. One particular subspecies of the gens is the supposedly expanding (aaannnddd rimshot) field called by its proponents “Fat Studies,” which (according to Elizabeth Kolbert of The New Yorker) holds that “weight is not a dietary issue but a political one.” What these academics think, in other words, is that we are too much the captives of our own ideas of what constitutes a proper body.

In a narrow (or, anti-wide) sense, that is true: even Kirby Puckett was surprised that he, Kirby Puckett, could do Kirby Puckett-like things while looking like Kirby Puckett. To the academics involved in “Fat Studies” his reaction might be a sign of “fatphobia, the fear and hatred of fatness and fat people.” It’s the view of Kirby Puckett, that is, as self-hater; one researcher, it seems, has compared “fat prejudice … to anti-semitism.” In “a social context in which fat hatred is endemic,” this line of thinking might go, even people who achieve great success with the bodies they have can’t imagine that success without the bodies that culture tells them ought to be attached to it.

What this line of work might then lead us to is the conclusion that the physical dimensions of a player matter very little. That would make the success of each athlete largely independent (or not) of physical advantage—and thereby demonstrate that thousands of coaches everywhere would, at least in golf, be able to justify asserting that success is due to the “will to succeed” rather than a random roll of the genetic dice. It might mean that nations looking (in expectation perhaps of the next Summer Olympics, where golf will be a medal sport) to achieve success in golf—like, for instance, the Scandinavian nations whose youth athletics programs groom golfers, or nations like Russia or China with a large population but next to no national golf tradition—should look for young people with particular psychological characteristics rather than particular physical ones.

Yet whereas “Fat Studies” or the like might focus on Kirby Puckett’s self-image, Bill James instead focuses on Kirby Puckett’s body: the question James asks isn’t whether Puckett played well despite his bad self-image, bur rather whether Puckett played well because he actually had a good body for baseball. James asks whether “short, powerful, funny-looking kind of guy[s]” actually have an advantage when it comes to baseball, rather than the assumed advantage of height that naturally allows for a faster bat speed, among the other supposed advantages of height. “Long arms,” James speculates, “really do not help you when you’re hitting; short arms work better.” Maybe, in fact, “[c]ompressed power is more effective than diffuse power,” and James goes on to name a dozen or more baseball stars who all were built something like Honus Wagner, who stood 5’11” and weighed 200 pounds. Which, as it happens, was also about the stat line for Jack Nicklaus in his prime.

So too, as it happens, do a number of other golfers. For years the average height of a PGA Tour player was usually said to be 5’9”; these days, due to players like Dustin Johnson, that stat is most often said to be about 5’11”. Still—as remarked by the website Golf Today—“very tall yet successful golfers are a rarity.”I don’t have the Shotlink data—which has a record of every shot hit by a player on the PGA Tour since 2003—to support the idea that certain-sized guys of one sort or another had the natural advantage, though today it’s possible that it could easily be obtained. What’s interesting about even asking the question, however, is that it is a much-better-than-merely-theoretically-solvable problem—which significantly distinguishes it from that of the question that might be framed around our notions of what constitutes an athletic body, as might be done by the scholars of “Fat Studies.”

Even aside from the narrow issue of allocating athletic resources, however, there’s reason for distrusting those scholars. It’s true, to be sure, that Kirby Puckett’s reaction to being Kirby Puckett might lend some basis for thinking that a critical view of our notions of what bodies are is salutary in an age where our notions of what bodies are and should be are—to add to an already-frothy mix of elements—increasingly driven by an advertising industry that, in the guise of either actors or models, endlessly seeks the most attractive bodies.

It would easier to absorb such warnings, however, were there not evidence that obesity is not remaining constant, but rather a, so to say, growing problem. As Kolbert reports, the federal government’s Centers for Disease Control, which has for decades done measurements of American health, found that whereas in the early 1960s a quarter of Americans were overweight, now more than third are. And in 1994, their results got written up in the Journal of American Medicine: “If this was about tuberculosis,” Kolbert reports about one researcher, “it would be called an epidemic.” Over the decade previous to that report Americans had, collectively, gained over a billion pounds.

Even if “the fat … are subject to prejudice and even cruelty,” in other words, that doesn’t mean that being that way doesn’t pose serious health risks both for the individual and for society as a whole. The extra weight carried by Americans, Kolbert for instance observes, “costs the airlines a quarter of a billion dollars’ worth of jet fuel annually,” and this isn’t to speak of the long-term health care costs that attach themselves to the public pocketbook in nearly unimaginable ways. (Kolbert notes that, for example, doors to public buildings are now built to be fifteen, instead of twelve, feet wide.)

“Fat Studies” researchers might claim in other words, as Kolbert says, that by shattering our expectations of what a body ought to be so thoroughly fat people (they insist on the term, it seems) can shift from being “revolting … agents of abhorrence and disgust” to “‘revolting’ in a different way … in terms of overthrowing authority, rebelling, protesting, and rejecting.” They might insist that “corpulence carries a whole new weight [sic] as a subversive cultural practice.” In “contrast to the field’s claims about itself,” says Kolbert however, “fat studies ends up taking some remarkably conservative positions,” in part because it “effectively allies itself with McDonald’s and the rest of the processed-food industry, while opposing the sorts of groups that advocate better school-lunch programs and more public parks.” In taking such an extreme position, in short, “Fat Studies” ends up only strengthening the most reactionary policy tendencies.

As, logically speaking, it must. “To claim that some people are just meant to be fat is not quite the same as arguing that some people are just meant to be poor,” Kolbert observes, “but it comes uncomfortably close.” Similarly, to argue that our image of a successfully athletic body is tyrannical can, if not done carefully, be little different from the fanatical coach who insists that determination is the only thing separating his charges from championships. Maybe it’s true that success in golf, and other sports, is largely a matter of “will”—but if it is, wouldn’t it be better to be able to prove it? If it isn’t, though, that would certainly enable a more rational distribution of effort all the way around: from the players themselves (who might thereby seek another sport at an earlier age) to recruiters, from national sporting agencies to American universities, who would then know what they sought. Maybe, in other words, measuring golfers by height isn’t so ridiculous at all.

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July Days

Other lands have their vitality in a few, a class, but we have it in the bulk of our people.

—Walt Whitman

And so it is July. The grass, so lush and green in April and May, has begun to brown over in spots, and everyone is, just now, realizing that the early season is over and they are, just now, about as good as they are going to get this season. And it’s dawned on some—not you, I hope—that this is probably about as good at this game as they ever will. For the professionals it has become make-or-break time, the time of year to put some serious money in the bank, or at least enough to keep their tour cards for another year, or at least get into the finals of Q-School, or second stage, or some kind of status on the Nationwide Tour, or something, just something to keep from having to go home again—home to that insurance job the brother-in-law’s been talking about, or that club pro job somebody promised once, “if it didn’t work out.” And so July is, for golf, not a lazy, happy time at all: it is a time of cruelty, and of victims piling up like the cracked shells of turtles beside a Florida highway.

July is also, by design or happenstance, the month of the Open Championship, or as we colonials like to call it, the British Open—which is, often, a championship of misfortune and sorrow, of too-proud Frenchmen, horrible bounces, and the heartbreak of old men allowed a brief glimpse of the glorious past … before that door is closed on them, wickedly and forever. The Masters is, of course, the tournament of hope, like the spring it heralds, and the U.S. Open, usually, is the tournament of the expected: it is a hard tournament, but the winner is nearly always the man who’s played the most consistently, so that it (mostly) feels like justice has been done by the end of it. But the Open is a tournament of darkness and mystery, and there’s hardly a year that goes by without someone wondering what might have been, if only …

At least some of that mystery has, in the past, come from the ignorance of we Americans—both the players themselves and we, the audience at home. An American watching the Open has always the uneasy sense that the spectacle on display is some different game that, coincidentally, has many of the same trappings and the same spelling as the familiar old game but is in fact something entirely other, something strange and uncanny. Why is that man using his putter—the flag stick isn’t even in the picture! Or, why hasn’t Tiger hit his driver in two days? And so on.

This year, however, some have the odd sense that we have already seen this tournament: the shot of the year, for instance, is probably Charl Schwartzel’s 120-foot chip-in on the first hole of the final round of the Masters—with a six-iron. What American player would even have thought of that? (Ask yourself: would you?) It was the kind of shot that Americans only see once a year, at the Open, but there it was at the course most Americans might think of as epitomizing the high-flying aerial American game: Augusta. (They’d be wrong about that, in one sense—because Augusta is actually receptive to a ground-game, but it’s true that the players who’ve dominated the Masters have been high-ball players.) And, to be sure, the U.S. Open was the coronation of a new king of European, and British, golf: Rory McIlroy.

So this year’s Open begins with, perhaps, a new sense of itself: the winner of the tournament is always introduced with the title, “the champion golfer of the year,” and if, in past decades, the words have always been imbued with some sense of irony (who ever thought Bobby Locke, as great as he was, was the match of Nelson or Hogan or Palmer?), there’s a notion on the march, now, that maybe those words are not just another relic of the nineteenth century, a token of past imperial splendor. More than a decade ago, Britain tried to re-invent, “re-brand” as the advertisers say, itself with the “Cool Britannia” label, acclaiming the election of Tony Blair’s New Labour Party as the final entombment of the old, class-bound, traditional England. Maybe it did and maybe it didn’t, but perhaps it’s true that the children of the ‘90s, including Rory McIlroy, really did grow up with a different sense of themselves and their possibilities, and that maybe—it’s impossible to know—that’s made a difference.

Almost certainly it’s made a difference in the game of golf: where once it was the Americans who came to Europe and sneered (Sam Snead, famously, first saw St. Andrews and thought he was looking at a pasture), now it’s the Europeans who seem self-confident, who look at the great American cathedrals of the game—Augusta, Pebble Beach—and view them as just another route to a paycheck. And possibly—in golf, at least—that’s what’s necessary to produce: that sense that all the world has just been born, and that you are the equal of anyone in it.

What’s astonishing, though maybe not as astonishing as some might like, is that traditionally that sort of sensibility has been the special province of Americans, not Europeans. It’s what George Orwell, that canny Englishman, meant when he said that what he admired about Walt Whitman, poet of America, was that Whitman really conveyed how, in what now might be a long-ago America, “Everyone had inside him, like a kind of core, the, knowledge that he could earn a decent living, and earn it without bootlicking.” Whitman himself defined freedom as the ability “to walk free and own no superior,” which is just the sort of sensibility that, it now seems, is more readily to hand on the far side of the Atlantic than on this.

Some time ago, the neoconservative David Brooks asserted that the difference between young African-Americans and young people of African descent in France (who were then rioting) was that African-Americans always had the option to go to college, whereas “in France the barriers to ascent are higher”—but the reality is, as the newspaper that published Brooks (The New York Times) was forced to admit, in fact social mobility “is not higher in the United States than in Britain or France.” The reality today, according to the social scientists that study such things, actually is that a young person with aspirations today is probably better off going to Berlin than to Los Angeles or New York or Chicago. And maybe that’s hard for Americans to hear, given that entire libraries are filled with stacks of books telling us that what makes us who we are is just that sense that anybody can be anything, the entire line of thought that is condensed in the old line that, in America, anybody can be president.

Yet while our present executive does, in some kind of 21st-century manner, exemplify the cliche, it’s also true that Rory McIlroy has probably seen more real political change in his lifetime than many Americans twice his age. It’s well-known, for instance, that to be an incumbent congressman in America is as near as it is possible to get to guaranteed employment outside the law or academia, while Rory witnessed, at the ripe age of 10, one of the most historic constitutional changes ever seen in the world: the “House of Lords Act of 1999,” which abolished the British aristocracy’s hereditary right to representation in Parliament. In other words, Rory saw what Washington and Jefferson and Adams and company put their lives and fortunes at risk to have a chance to see: the end of the nobility as a real political force in Britain. Not since the 1960s has anybody put forward an idea as monumental as that, but Britain in the 1990s not only talked about it—they acted on it. Young Americans, on the other hand, have simply watched as a mostly-moribund clique of liberals has tried to hang on to victories that were won by 1968, as the siege engines of the ravenously greedy have drawn in ever-tighter.

To say that the one has anything to do with the other (politics, golf) is, to be sure, just the sort of thing that isn’t done in America today—though just where the idea came from that there are things that are and aren’t done is a bit of a question—and anyway amounts to nothing when deciding who to bet on for the Open, which as I’ve mentioned is probably the hardest of the major championships to handicap because the rolls and folds of a links course—the only kind the Open is played on—can be so capricious. It’s unlikely that Rory McIlroy can follow up his victory in America with another in his “home” major—he hasn’t, for instance, played against serious competition since winning at Congressional. But if he can, in the seriousness and cruelty of July, he might say to the world that it is Europe—that “ancient bone-yard,” as Orwell called it—that is America now.

Molehills and Mountains

This is a bit late, but recently I was reading golf.com’s weekly roundtable discussion, “PGA Tour Confidential,” about the Sony Open in Hawaii two weeks ago, and this caught my eye: Mark Wilson, it seems, won the tournament without looking at the leaderboard during the final round. Sports Illustrated’s Gary Van Sickle remarked, “You don’t need to see the leaderboard until the 71st or 72nd hole. Watching the board is the caddie’s job.” This struck me as something of a novelty, though it recalled a few moments over the past couple of years. Is it better to look, or not? And, more importantly, is the job description of the tour looper being redefined?

Ben Crane—he of the notoriously slow play and cutesy Internet videos—won the Farmer’s Insurance Open at Torrey Pines in 2010, also without looking at the leaderboard on Sunday. When he tapped in his final putt of the day on the 18th hole, his playing partner Ryuji Imada said “‘Congratulations,’” to which Crane replied, “‘Did I win the tournament?’” Imada said, according to Crane, “‘Uh, yeah.’”

Almost three years ago at Royal Birkdale for the 2008 British Open, amateur Chris Wood nearly became the third man in the memorable playoff between Tom Watson and Stewart Cink (which Cink, disappointingly for many, won) despite making “a habit of not looking at the leaderboard,” as the Times of London reported the following year. “‘My caddie wouldn’t let me look at the leaderboard,’” the Times wrote in that story, “‘but I got a couple of sneaky looks in.’”

Late in 2009, the man who was leading the Dubai World Championship at the halfway mark also claimed not to be looking at the leaderboard. “‘It’s a pointless exercise,’ Lee Westwood said,” wrote Lawrence Donegan of the Guardian, “‘I’ve only got enough room in my head for the things that I’m doing, never mind anybody else.’” According to the laws of journalism, anything that happens three times is a trend, so obviously that’s what’s occurring.

Farrell Evans, another Sports Illustrated golf reporter, however strongly disagreed with Van Sickle during the roundtable. “Any guy who says he’s not scoreboard watching,” Evans argues, “will never become a great champion.” Of course Lee Westwood is, as of this writing, the number one player in the world, which would seem to take a certain steam of Evans’ boiler.

Evans had his defenders on the panel, however. “Every single big-time player looks,” argues Michael Bamberger—author of a solid book called To The Linksland. The notion seems to be that the Tiger Woodses and Phil Mickelsons of the world naturally look, which is to say that not looking reveals some sort of 2nd tier status on the part of players who don’t. Westwood does seem to be an argument against this point—unless maybe his recent upgrade means he’s now looking.

What everyone on the panel appears to forget is that the ability for any player to know exactly where he stands at any given time on the golf course is a relatively recent development. As late as the 1960 U.S. Open at Cherry Hills—where Hogan, Palmer, and Nicklaus dueled over the final 18, and the lead changed hands 25 times in the last two hours or whatever it was—there was no leaderboard at golf tournaments. So Evans is wrong: plenty of players have become great champions without looking. They didn’t have any choice.

What Evans, one supposes, means to say is that no great player would have turned looking down, had they a choice about it. This is a more interesting proposition: the idea is that the greats are driven by competition against other people, not the Zen-like competition against the golf course so often advocated by golf psychologist types. This is a favorite trope of golf writers, who like to talk about Tiger’s “killer instinct” and the like. But likely that’s because golf writers are always looking for “human drama,” which golf is always conceived of as lacking.

That’s like saying, however, that mountain climbing is uninteresting because, you know, the mountain is just sitting there, anyway. Most of golf isn’t about beating the other guy, but about finding creative answers to the problems the architecture creates. That’s the way that professionals talk about golf, despite the way it’s portrayed on television. Tiger isn’t talking to Stevie about how he needs to kill Mickelson; what they’re talking about is whether it would be smarter to hit a fade up the left side to take advantage of a dog-leg, or whatever. But that sort of thing doesn’t make it to television.

Or hasn’t yet. The other big news in the last week or so in golf is about Davis Love’s decision to wear a microphone on the golf course during this week’s tournament at Torrey Pines. That’s been something television has been pushing for years now, as a way to add “drama” to what’s an infamously tedious broadcast to non-golfers. I happen to be in favor of such a move, because I think that it does open up viewers to the “man vs. nature” aspect of the sport in a way that non-golfers (and perhaps most golfers) fail to realize.

What it’s also going to do, at least if the golf.com crew is to be believed, is make the whole question of whether to look at the leaderboard a little more interesting for the home audience. Is the player’s caddie going to tell him he has a three-shot lead and he damn well better not try to go for that green? Or not? Is every tournament going to end with all of us saying My god, he doesn’t know? Television—and golf.com—sure hopes so.

I doubt any of this is true. The claim about “not looking at the leaderboard” is a lot of malarky, because if any of these players had really been in doubt about their standing—if that is, they’d tripled-bogeyed some hole or other—they for sure would have looked. The reason Crane or Wilson or Westwood didn’t look at the leaderboard was because none of them had any bad holes that caused them to look. What was Arnold Palmer at Cherry Hills in 1960 going to do—birdie all seven of his first seven holes, instead of the six he did?

Despite the efforts of sportswriters and television, that is, at the end of the day golf really is kind of a boring sport, at least to those who want head-to-head competition all the time. Sometimes that isn’t true—like in playoff situations or match play—but for the most part golf is more like mountain climbing than it is like boxing. Maybe that’s interesting to you, maybe it isn’t. The way we’ll find out, I suppose, is whether caddies, by virtue of their sudden new duties of scoreboard watching, are suddenly getting paid more. But I don’t think it’s going to happen.

 

Rough Weather

You and you are sure together
As the winter and rough weather.
—As You Like It Act V, iv.


There’s a band in Chicago that plays every first and third Wednesdays of the month—and the occasional fifth Wednesday, which is a source of some small joy to their fans. The city entire has that joy this week, the third Packers week of the football season. The weeks the Chicago Bears play the Green Bay Packers loom large in each team’s schedule: Doug Buffone, the old Bear Hall-of-Famer, says that those games are “mini Super Bowls.” This week, the two teams play for the right to go to the actual Super Bowl. It’s a fitting time, then, to discuss just what Sweden means to professional golf.

The Chicago Bears and the Green Bay Packers are the two oldest teams in the National Football League: they go together just as surely as the winter and rough weather often found in their stadiums. They played their first game on November 27, 1921, which the Chicago team won, 20-0. Since then they have played 180 other games; the Bears winning 92 and the Packers 83, with 6 ties. The Green Bay Packers have won twelve league championships, the Bears nine. On the other hand, the Bears have 26 players in the Hall of Fame, while Green Bay has 21.  Each team has more players in the Hall of Fame than any other team.

It is by far the most storied rivalry in the National Football League: Mike Singletary, the Hall of Fame Bear linebacker from the 1985 Super Bowl team, said recently that during Packer games “There are gonna be more penalties. Guys hit harder. Guys who are hurt are gonna play.” Which is to say, the dead walk on Packers week.

Those dead are presided over by two figures from each club: George Halas of the Bears and Curley Lambeau of the Packers. Both men were originally players, then became coaches and the leaders of their respective organizations. But the paths each took also demonstrate something of just why this football rivalry has impact beyond the sport.

Halas founded a family dynasty: in a world of corporately-owned sports franchises, the Bears are one of the last still run as a family business. It’s an arrangement that went out of fashion for the rest of the world sometime at the end of the 19th century.

The story of Curley Lambeau and the Packers is stranger still. The Packers are the only major-league professional sports organization in the United States run as a non-profit. There are roughly 100,000 shareholders in the Green Bay Football Corporation, owning almost five million shares. These shares do not pay dividends, do not appreciate in value, and bring no chance at season tickets.

No single stockholder can have more than 200,000 shares, so no one can ever assume control of the team. The Packers can never be moved from Green Bay, which is almost irrelevant because almost all of the stockholders are Green Bay natives. It is an arrangement that is a kind of parody of the corporate sports franchise. If socialism had a professional American football team, it would be the Green Bay Packers.

If socialism had a factory for turning out professional golfers, on the other hand, it would be Sweden, a nation of only 9 million that is yet disproportionately represented on both the men’s and ladies’ professional golf tours. Annika Sorenstam is the lead for this story: she dominated the LPGA for nearly a decade before finally calling it quits in order to raise children. But many other Swedish golfers have also made headlines in the past few decades: how, given such a small country—and the winters and rough weather—can that be?

One answer can be found by contrast with American golf, which might be likened to the Chicago Bears model. Like the Bears, the PGA Tour is a kind of toy version of the 19th-century vision of laissez-faire capitalism. Each golfer represents a competing firm struggling in a Darwinistic Sturm und Drang struggle to the death with his opponents.

Getting to that point is its own struggle. Golf in the United States is a hodge-podge, with differing state-level golf associations and youth golf associations. If lucky, the junior player develops enough to attract interest from various colleges and universities, which then compete for the best players, and then, by some further magic, the lucky player might have the good fortune to have found a program that provides the right kind of training to enable them to advance to the professional ranks. At every stage, golf in the United States is highly decentralized.

That’s by contrast to the Swedish model. As described by “Swedish Golf Success: Its History and Future,” a technical study done by American, Australian, and Swedish professors, that success is largely due to the highly-structured environment Sweden has developed for its young players at an early age. The Swedish Golf Federation takes care of its young players: it provides training and access to national and international tournaments early. Hence, younger golfers with potential can quickly be identified, and thus given more resources, all overseen by one central and national authority. Like Green Bay and its Packers, the nation is united.

Granted, what works for Sweden would be hard to duplicate in the United States, where the population of Chicago and its suburbs alone is larger than the entire Scandinavian nation. It’s something to think about in the United States, however; perhaps particularly since golf will become part of the Olympics in 2016. It’s widely assumed that Americans will dominate that event—which, in all likelihood, is what will happen.

Yet that’s what Americans always thought about basketball, until the past decade or two. The last year in golf, where Phil Mickelson was the only American to win a major championship (and Phil faded out the rest of the year), has shown—or should have shown—that American dominance at a sport is what the philosophers call contingent: it is not ordained by God or Nature. Hogan said golf ability is “dug out of the ground”—it’s a matter of effort. The sort of effort required though would have to be like Sweden, or Green Bay: you know, where “You and you are sure together.”

Contemplating Riviera

Contemplating Hell, as I once heard it,

My brother Shelley found it to be a place

Much like the city of London. I,

Who do not live in London, but in Los Angeles,

Find, contemplating Hell, that is

Must be even more like Los Angeles.

— “Contemplating Hell.” Bertolt Brecht.

“It’s a great place to live,” wrote Mark Twain about Los Angeles, “but I wouldn’t want to visit there.” But that’s what the the PGA Tour is doing this week at Riviera for the LA Open. I worked at Riviera some years ago for a season, and it is really one of the toughest—and best—golf courses on tour, if not worldwide. The reason for that is not due to any of the reasons generally cited when talking about a golf course: it isn’t particularly long, at least by tour standards; there aren’t any water hazards; and there’s really only one blind shot—though it’s maybe one of the most famous blind shots in golf. Simultaneously Riviera does a lot of damage to scoring averages and yet is consistently praised by the professionals year-in and year-out. The list of champions at Riviera is basically a list of Hall-of-Famers, from Ben Hogan and Sam Snead to Phil Mickelson and DL3. Yet for Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods, the track off Sunset has been the Boulevard of Broken Dreams—neither has won here throughout their careers. Riviera, in short, is much like the city that it is set within: it’s different.

Start with the setting: the first tee is right outside the clubhouse on a small patch of grass elevated 75 or 80 feet above the fairway. The suggestion is both majestic and comforting; on a smogless day the Pacific is visible miles away, with the entire course spread below like a map—but rather than intimidating, the implication is aristocratic. All of this splendor exists for you; the tee box displays a fantastic view that nonetheless is maximally convenient. It’s about five steps from the locker room to the tee; there’s no struggle to achieve the vantage. That peculiar amalgam of spectacular natural scenery bent to serve aristocratic privilege of course just is Los Angeles. From there the first hole is short and fairly easy: just as the city of its setting can appear to new arrivals like an Eden, with its lovely weather and the vast quantities of surface politesse spilled about in every public encounter, so the first hole, though it is a five-par, makes Riviera seem like the day will be a cakewalking, lull-inducing stroll to par or better.

But that’s just what Riviera, or rather the original architect George Thomas, wants the golfer to think. The whiplash induced by the second hole rivals only the speed at which someone in Los Angeles will turn from introducing themselves to inquiring about your car, your house, and your yearly income. The second is a brutally hard hole, demanding a long tee shot over a dogleg, then requiring an uphill second shot to a narrow green surrounded on one side by a jungle and on the other a deep-and-steep bunker. And then the green itself is weird, with odd breaks. On the scorecard, the first hole is ranked seventeenth-most difficult, but the second hole is the most difficult. Second is first, as the loopers at Riviera say.

Every hole from then onwards has its oddities: both of the three-pars on the front side are some of the most unusual in golf. The fourth is well-known as one of Ben Hogan’s favorite holes; there isn’t a purer example, I think, of a Redan-style green anywhere other than the 15th hole at North Berwick, the original, or the fourth hole at the National Golf Links of America, where C.B. Macdonald first copied Berwick’s original. The sixth might be the craziest hole found outside of miniature golf: there’s a bunker in the middle of the green. Missing on the wrong side means either putting around the bunker or chipping over it, as Phil Mickelson once did some years ago. The eighth hole has two different fairways, meaning the player needs to choose a path before teeing off, and the tenth might be one of the most fun short holes in the world; it’s only 315 yards, but the green is tiny. The eighteenth is one of the most storied finishing hole in golf: in 1974, Dave Stockton hit a three-wood from 247 yards—it’s a four-par—and sank the putt to steal the tournament from Sam Snead, who by the way was 61 at the time. The tee shot is blind, straight up the hill out of the canyon you descended into after hitting your first shot back on the first tee.

That isn’t even to talk about the fact that the entire course—because it is set within a canyon whose lower reaches open to the ocean—slopes subtly towards the Pacific, meaning that putts can break the opposite of what they might look, nor the peculiar kikuyu grass that can grab a club in the rough. Nor the barranca grass infesting various swales that take the place of water hazards. What all of this means is that the golf course, with all of its quirks, rewards veteran players and not rookies, and the list of champions at Riviera, as mentioned, reflects that fact. Like Twain says about Los Angeles, Riviera smiles on those who’ve been there awhile—which is to say, as Bertolt Brecht might have had he thought more about Ben Hogan and less about the House Un-American Activities Committee, the winner in Los Angeles is usually the devil you know.