This Pitiless Storm

Poor naked wretches, whereso’er you are,
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,
How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,
Your loop’d and window’d raggedness, defend you,
From seasons such as these?
The Tragedy of King Lear Act III, Scene 4

“Whenever people talk to me about the weather,” the Irish writer Oscar Wilde once remarked, “I always feel quite certain that they mean something else.” As it happens, the weather at this year’s British Open has been delayed by high winds and will not be finished with the regulation 72 holes until Monday at the earliest. Which raises a question: why does the Open need to finish all 72 holes? The answer concerns something called a “Simpson’s Paradox”—an answer that also demonstrates just how talk about the weather at the British Open is in fact talk about something else. Namely, the 2016 American presidential election.

To see how, it’s first necessary to see the difference between the British Open and other professional golf tournaments, which are perfectly fine with shortening themselves. Take for instance the 2005 Northern Trust Open in Los Angeles: Adam Scott won in a playoff against Chad Campbell after the tournament was shortened to 36 holes due to weather. In 2013, the Tournament of Champions at Kapalua in Hawaii was “first cut to 54 holes because of unplayable conditions over the first two days,” according to Reuters, and was under threat of “being further trimmed to 36 holes.” The same story also quoted tour officials as saying “the eventual champion would wind up with an ‘unofficial win’” were the tournament to be shortened to 36 holes. (As things shook out they did end up completing 54 holes, and so Dustin Johnson’s win officially counted.) In a standard PGA tournament then, the “magic number” for an “official” tournament is 54 holes. But if so, then why does the Open need 72?

To answer that, let’s take a closer look at the standard professional golf tournament. Most such tournaments are conducted according to what the Rules of Golf calls “stroke play”: four rounds of golf, or 72 holes, at the end of which the players who have made it that far add up their scores—their number of strokes. The player with the lowest score, it may seem like it goes without saying, wins. But it does need to be said—because that isn’t the only option.

Many amateur tournaments after all, such as the United States Amateur, use the rules format known as “match play.” Under this format, the winner of the contest is not necessarily the player who shoots the lowest overall score, as in stroke play. Instead, as John Van der Borght has put the matter on the website of the United States Golf Association, in match play the “winner is the player who wins the most holes.” It’s a seemingly minor difference—but in fact it creates such a difference that match play is virtually a different sport than stroke play.

Consider, for instance, the Accenture Match Play tournament—the only tournament on the PGA Tour to be held under match play rules. The 2014 edition (held at the Dove Mountain course near Tucson, Arizona), had some results that demonstrate just how different match play is than stroke play, as Doug Ferguson of the Associated Press observed. “Pablo Larrazabal shot a 68 and was on his way back to Spain,” Ferguson noted about the first day’s results, while “Ernie Els shot 75 and has a tee time at Dove Mountain on Thursday.” In other words, Larrazabal lost his match and Els won his, even though Larrazabal was arguably the better player at this tournament—at least, if you consider the “better player” to be the one who puts his ball in the hole most efficiently.

Such a result might seem unfair—but why? It could be argued that while shooting a lower number might be what stroke play golf is, that isn’t what match play golf is. In other words, Larrazabal obviously wasn’t better at whatever it was that this tournament measured: if Larrazabal couldn’t beat his opponent, while Els could, then clearly Els deserved to continue to play while Larrazabal did not. While you might feel that, somehow or other, Larrazabal got jobbed, that’s merely a sentimental reaction to what ought to be a hardhearted calculation: maybe it’s true that under stroke play rules Larrazabal would have won, but that wasn’t the rules of the contest at Dove Mountain. In other words, you could say that golfing ability was, in a sense, socially constructed: what matters isn’t some “ahistorical” ability to golf, but instead how it is measured.

Here’s the $64,000 question a guy named Bill James might ask in response to such an argument, however (couched in terms of baseball players): “If you were trying to win a pennant, how badly would you want this guy?” In other words, based on the evidence presented, what would you conclude about the respective golf ability of Els and Larrazabal? Wouldn’t you conclude that Larrazabal is better at the task of putting his ball in the hole, and that the various rule systems that could be constructed around that task are merely different ways of measuring that ability—an ability that pre-existed those systems of measurement?

“We’re not trying to embarrass the best players in the game,” said Sandy Tatum at the 1974 U.S. Open, the so-called Massacre at Winged Foot: “We’re trying to identify them.” Scoring systems in short should be aimed at revealing, not concealing, ability. I choose Bill James to make the point not just because the question he asks is so pithy, but because he invented an equation that is designed to discover underlying ability: an equation called the Pythagorean Expectation. That equation, in turn, demonstrates just why it is so that match play and stroke play are not just different—yet equally valid—measures of playing ability. In so doing, James also demonstrates just why it is that the Open Championship requires that all 72 holes be played.

So named because it resembles so closely that formula, fundamental to mathematics, called the Pythagorean Theorem, what the Pythagorean Expectation says is that the ratio of a team’s (or player’s) points scored to that team’s (or player’s) points allowed is a better predictor of future success than the team’s (or player’s) ratio of wins to losses. (James used “runs” because he was dealing with baseball.) More or less it works: as Graham MacAree puts it on the website FanGraphs, using James’ formula makes it “relatively easy to predict a team’s win-loss record”—even in sports other than baseball. Yet why is this so—how can a single formula predict future success at any sport? It might be thought, after all, that different sports exercise different muscles, or use different strategies: how can one formula describe underlying value in many different venues—and thus, incidentally, demonstrate that ability can be differentiated from the tools we use to measure it?

The answer to these questions is that adding up the total points scored, rather than the total games won, gives us a better notion of the relative value of a player or a team because it avoids something called the “Simpson’s Paradox”—which is what happens when, according to Wikipedia, it “appears that two sets of data separately support a certain hypothesis, but, when considered together, they support the opposite hypothesis.” Consider what happens for example when we match Ernie Els’ 75 to Pablo Larrazabal’s 68: if we match them according to who won each hole, Els comes out the winner—but if we just compared raw scores, then Larrazabal would. Simpson’s Paradoxes appear, in short, when we draw the boundaries around the raw data differently: the same score looks different depending on what lens is used to view it—an answer that might seem to validate those who think that underlying ability doesn’t exist, but only the means used to measure it. But what Simpson’s Paradox shows isn’t that all boundaries around the data are equal—in fact, it shows just the opposite.

What Simpson’s Paradox shows, in other words, is that drawing boundaries around the data can produce illusions of value if that drawing isn’t done carefully—and most specifically, if the boundaries don’t capture all of the data. That’s why the response golf fans might have to the assertion that Pablo Larrazabal is better than Ernie Els proves, rather than invalidates, the argument so far: people highly familiar with golf might respond, “well, you haven’t considered the total picture—Els, for instance, has won two U.S. Opens, widely considered to be the hardest tournament in the world, and Larrazabal hasn’t won any.” But then consider that what you have done just demonstrates the point made by Simpson’s Paradox: in order to say that Els is better, you have opened up the data set; you have redrawn the boundaries of the data in order to include more information. So what you would have conceded, were you to object to the characterization of Larrazabal as a better golfer than Els on the grounds that Els has a better overall record than Larrazabal, is that the way to determine the better golfer is to cast the net as wide as possible. You have demanded that the sample size be increased.

That then is why a tournament contested over only 36 holes isn’t considered an “official” PGA tournament, while 54 holes isn’t enough to crown the winner of a major tournament like the Open Championship (which is what the British Open is called when it’s at home). It’s all right if a run-of-the-mill tournament be cut to 54 holes, or even 36 (though in that case we don’t want the win to be official). But in the case of a major championship, we want there to be no misunderstandings, no “fluky” situations like the one in which Els wins and Larrazabal doesn’t. The way to do that, we understand, is to maximize chances, to make the data set as wide as possible: in sum, to make a large sample size. We all, I think, understand this intuitively: it’s why baseball has a World Series rather than a World Championship Game. So that is why, in a major championship, it doesn’t matter how long it takes—all the players qualified are going to play all 72 holes.

Here I will, as they say in both golf and baseball, turn for home. What all of this about Simpson’s Paradoxes means, at the end of the day, is that a tournament like the Open Championship is important—as opposed to, say, an American presidential election. In a presidential election as everyone knows, what matters isn’t the total numbers of votes a candidate wins, but how many states. In that sense, American presidential elections are conducted according to what, in golf, would be considered match play instead of stroke play. Now, as Bill James might acknowledge, that begs the question: does that process result in better candidates being elected?

As James might ask in response: would you like to bet?

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The Curious Incident of the Silent Tournament

O Scotland! Scotland!
The Tragedy of Macbeth IV, 3

Where Scotland?
The Comedy of Errors III, 2

 

 

The “breakup of Britain must now be considered a realistic possibility,” according to James Kirkup of the Daily Telegraph, because in the United Kingdom’s May 7 general election the Scottish Nationalist Party swept all but three of Scotland’s parliamentary seats—an event that took nearly the entire British establishment by surprise. But the 7 May results are really two surprising events: as the New York Times reported, in the United Kingdom as a whole the Conservative Party won “an unexpected majority in what was supposed to be a down-to-the-wire election, proving polls and pundits wrong.” The two victories have made both Scotland and England virtually one-party states—which perhaps paradoxically may be a sign that the British state has taken a first step to a republic. At least, if golf’s British Open is a guide.

“Who’s he when he’s at home?” is a British idiom, meaning, “what’s he like when he’s among friends, when nobody’s watching?” Admittedly, the idea that a golf tournament might tell you something useful about an important thing like a national election is odd at best. But scholar Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origins and Spread of Nationalism shows how the claim might be justified: he argues that the “generation of the impersonal will” necessary to nations is “better sought in … diurnal regularities” than in the “rare and moveable feast” of an election. In other words, consulting official papers, census returns, election results and economic data and so forth are like visiting someone’s front parlor on Sunday: you’ll get a story, but only the most sanitized version. But by looking at something like the British Open it might be possible to get a sense of what Britain really thinks.

Anderson’s method, which teaches paying attention to small details, is after all rewarded by the very results of the 7 May election itself: reading the granular measurements of incomes, polling, and past results is what the official press did leading up to Election Day—just in time to receive the proverbial pie in the face. The Scottish Nationalist Party’s triumph is a classic example of an underdog’s victory—and it’s the definition of a David vs. Goliath battle that David’s win should be a surprise. Just so, when scholar Tom Nairn published The Break-up of Britain: Crisis and Neo-nationalism in 1977, few would have thought that Scottish nationalists would ever become the majority party in Scotland: at the time, Scottish electoral politics were dominated by the Labour Party, as they had been since the 1960s. Until this past election, Labour was still the top dog in Scottish politics—and then they weren’t.

Nevertheless, the idea that the SNP’s triumph might threaten the very integrity of the United Kingdom might, to the outsider, appear to be the apocalyptic hyperbole designed to sell newspapers. Scotland constitutes less than ten percent of the United Kingdom’s population; what happens there arguably can hardly affect much of the rest of the country. But that assumption would be false, as a scrutiny of the British Open might show.

From Anderson’s perspective, the fact that the golf tournament is far removed from the game of electoral politics is just what makes it worth examining—in a manner also suggestive of Arthur Conan Doyle’s greatest creation. Like the dog in “The Adventure of Silver Blaze”—the dog that, famously, didn’t bark—the silence of the R & A (the organization that has run the golf tournament since 2004), is after all a bit curious, even on its own terms. The R & A has a vested interest in maintaining the Act of Union that binds the United Kingdom together because the possibility of an independent Scotland presents, at minimum, a practical problem.

The group’s headquarters are in St. Andrews, first of all, but more importantly, of the nine golf courses in the Open Championship’s current “rota,” five lie north of Berwick-upon-Tweed: the Old Course at St. Andrews (the “Home of Golf), Muirfield, Royal Troon, Carnoustie, and the Ailsa Course at Turnberry, within sight of Ailsa Craig. But most of the Open’s fans lie south of the Tweed; logistically, if for no other reason, an independent Scotland would be a great complication for the R & A.

The R & A’s silence then is suggestive—at the very least, it reveals something about how how difficult it might be psychologically to think about an independent Scotland. For example, consider both the name of the tournament—the “Open Championship”—and how the winner of each year’s tournament is introduced following victory: the “champion golfer of the year.” Despite name of the tournament in America—the “British Open”—neither of these make any reference to Great Britain as a nation; the organizers of the golf tournament thus might appear to be philosophically opposed to nationalism.

In that view, nationalism is “the pathology of modern developmental history, as inescapable of ‘neurosis’ in the individual,” as Tom Nairn puts it. It’s the view that reads nationalism as a slap in the face to Enlightenment, which proclaims, as British academic Terry Eagleton says, “the abstract universal right of all to be free” regardless of the claims of nationality or other conceptual divisions of identity like class or race or gender. Hence, the name of the tournament and the title of the R & A’s champion could be a read as a sign that the R & A heroically refuses nationalism in the name of universal humanity.

Yet Anderson gives us reason to doubt that sanguine view. The name of the old “Union of Soviet Socialist Republics,” Anderson remarks for instance, billed itself as “the precursor” of an “internationalist order” because it refused to acknowledge nationality in its name—a style it shared with Britain’s current name. But where the Soviet Union’s name was meant to point to a post-nationalist future of a universal humanity, the name of the “United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland” is the name of a “prenational dynastic state.” Where the name of the Soviet Union bid towards a future beyond the nation-state, the name of the United Kingdom hearkens back before the nation-state.

The name in other words reflects the fact that Great Britain is ruled by an anachronistic form of government: a kingdom, a style of government virtually unique in the contemporary world. Whereas, as Benedict says, in “the modern conception, state sovereignty is fully, flatly, and evenly operative over each square centimetre of a legally demarcated territory,” a kingdom “revolves around a high centre”: the monarch, who may add or lose new territories as war and marriage might permit.

A kingdom’s borders are thus “open” to new territory in a way that a republic’s are not: Henry V, of Shakespeare’s famous play, ruled nearly as far east as Paris, and on a historical timescale it wasn’t that long ago that a resident of Calais was as much an “Englishman” as any Londoner. In those days, as Anderson says, “borders were porous and indistinct.” The “openness” of the Open may not therefore reflect a pious refusal of nationalism so much as it is a studied ignorance of nationalism’s terms—which is to say, it would reflect how most Englishmen (and, presumably, women) think about their country. The apparent universality of the name of the Open Championship may thus reflect more the atavistic qualities of the United Kingdom than a utopian vision of the future.

For the R & A to take a position regarding Scottish secession would require revisiting the name of the tournament, which would require rethinking the assumptions behind the name—and doing that would lead to a confrontation with the monarchy, because as Anderson demonstrates, the question of Scotland is necessarily a question of the monarchy. That is why, for example, he says that “[Tom] Nairn is certainly correct in describing the 1707 Act of Union between England and Scotland as a ‘patrician bargain.’” What Anderson means is that it was the “conception of a United Kingdom [that] was surely the crucial mediating element that made the deal possible”—in other words, only in a world where lands and peoples are no more than pieces on a chessboard can such deals be struck.

One has only to imagine Paris today selling Normandy to London to see how uniting England and Scotland would be “impossible,” as Nairn puts it, once “the age of democratic nationalism had arrived.” Many witnesses at the time testified to the Act of Union’s unpopularity with the Scottish people: one negotiator on the Scottish side—a pro-Union man to boot—wrote that he thought the Act was “contrary to the inclinations of at least three-fourths of the Kingdom.” Only under a monarchy could such a deal have been possible—again, another way to put the matter is to imagine the United States selling Louisiana back to France, or California back to Mexico.

It isn’t any wonder then why the R & A would refuse to bark; or to put it better, avoid discussing the matter. To discuss Scottish independence is to discuss how Scotland lost its independence, and to discuss that is necessarily to discuss the monarchy. To bring up one subject is to bring up, sooner or later, the other. Reversing the polarity, however, solves the problem of the “double event” of the 7 May general election: if Scottish nationalism threatens the monarchy by threatening the premises it relies upon, then why England simultaneously elected the most pro-aristocracy party isn’t much of a mystery—as Holmes remarks about coincidence in Sherlock, the most recent television adaptation of his adventures, the “universe is rarely so lazy.”

The World Forgetting

In August was the Jackal born;
The Rains came in September;
‘Now such a fearful flood as this,’
Says he, ‘I can’t remember!”
—Rudyard Kipling.
The Second Jungle Book. 1895.


“In the beginning,” wrote Pat Ward-Thomas, whose career as golf writer for the Guardian began in 1950, “it knew no architect but nature; it came into being by evolution rather than design, and on no other course is the hand of man less evident.” He was, obviously, speaking of the Old Course, at St. Andrews; the place where many say the game began and, it seems by the hysteria overtaking certain sectors of the golf world, is about to end. “I was horrified,” the golf architect Tom Doak—who is supervising the renovation of Medinah’s Course #1—recently wrote to the presidents of the American, Australian, and European societies of golf course architects, “to read of the changes proposed to the Old Course at St. Andrews.” The Old Course is aiming to beef up the course once again and Doak, for one, objects, on the grounds suggested by Ward-Thomas. But while Doak may be right to object, the reasons he gives for objecting are wrong.

Before getting to that, though, it needs to be established that there is some kind of hysteria. Luckily, Ian Poulter is involved. “I know lets draw a Moustache on the Mona Lisa” reads one of Poulter’s ungrammatical tweets (which is how you know it’s really from him). Another reads “if they make changes to the Old Course St Andrews they are insane.” I’d love to be able to reproduce the image here, but it’s worth remembering the look on Poulter’s face at Medinah during the late afternoon on Saturday. (Try here: http://www.cbssports.com/golf/blog/eye-on-golf/20408062/usa-10-europe-6-ian-poulter-goes-absolutely-crazy-to-give-europe-a-chance).

Instead of reproducing Poulter’s look, however, et’s look at the changes a bit more dispassionately. The R & A’s architect, Martin Hawtree, plans to work this winter on the second, seventh, eleventh, and seventeenth holes, while next winter working on the third, fourth, sixth, ninth, and fifteenth holes. The headline event seems to be the widening of the Road Hole Bunker—the infamous “Sands of Nakajima”—but most of the other work appears relatively innocuous: bringing the greenside bunkers a bit closer in on the second hole, for instance, or lowering a bit of the eleventh green to create a few more pin spots. According to the R & A, in short, all this seems just so many nips and tucks.

The reasons for the steps taken by the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, the body responsible for the Old Course, are clear: Stephen Gallacher for instance, who won the Dunhill Links Championship at St. Andrews in 2004, told the Scotsman “I take it they don’t want 59 shot on it.” The increasing distances hit by the professionals requires, as it has worldwide, longer and tougher courses, and the Old Course is no longer judged to be invulnerable to the modern power game. Most of the changes appear, without seeing a detailed map, designed to force professionals to be a bit more precise, whether off the tee or approaching the green.

Doak however views all this as, quite literally, sacrilege: “I have felt,” he says in his letter, “for many years that the Old Course was sacred ground to golf architects.” He appeals to history: “It [the Old Course] has been untouched architecturally since 1920, and I believe that it should remain so.” In so saying, Doak casts his lot with Ward-Thomas’ view of the Old Course as the world’s only “natural” course: built, as they say, by sheep and the winds blowing off the North Sea. In this, Doak is not only just in some technical sense off, but spectacularly wrong. The Old Course has the “hand of man” all over it.

“We do not know exactly when or how the current layout of the Old Course at St. Andrews developed,” writes the anonymous author of Scottish Golf History at the eponymous website, but as it happens this is not true, as the author somewhat uneasily relays within the same sentence as the above: “by 1764 St. Andrews consisted of twelve holes, ten of which were played twice, making a round of twenty-two holes in all.” It was in that year that the Royal & Ancient (not yet known by that name) decided that the first four holes, “which were also the last four holes” were too short, and turned them into two holes instead. But this was only one of a long line of changes.

These days the Old Course is played in a counter-clockwise fashion: the nine “out” holes lie closest to the North Sea to the town’s east and the nine “in” holes lie just inland. But prior to the nineteenth century the Old Course played clockwise: since there were no separate tee boxes then, play proceeded from the eighteenth green to what is now the seventeenth green, and so on. That created, as it might be imagined, some issues: “Because the middle holes … were played in both directions, it meant that golfers might often be waiting, not just for the group in front to clear the green, as today, but also for a party playing in the opposite direction to do the same.” One can only suppose there were the occasional disagreements.

The Old Course, as it stands today, is the handiwork of one man: “Old” Tom Morris, the legendary four-time winner of the Open Championship (the British Open to us on the left-hand of the Atlantic), and father of another four-time winner (“Young” Tom Morris). “Old” Tom seemingly had a hand in half the courses built in the British Isles at the end of the nineteenth century and from his shop virtually all of the great players and designers of the following generation or so issued. It was Old Tom who decreed that the Old Course should be played counter-clockwise (or widdershins). It was he who built the first and eighteenth greens. And, maybe most interestingly at this time of year, he introduced the concept of mowing to golf. (“Golf was a winter game until the middle of the nineteenth century,” says Scottish Golf History, “when mechanical grass cutters allowed play in the summer as well.”)

In any case, any serious investigation will demonstrate not only that the Old Course wasn’t designed by “Nature” but that long after Old Tom had been buried in the town cemetery, the Old Course was still undergoing changes. New bunkers, for instance, were constructed in 1949, which is one reason why Peter Dawson, leader of the R & A, said that the course has been “largely” unaltered over its history in the press release regarding the changes: Dawson, knowing the real history of the course, knows it has been tweaked many times.

Doak and Poulter’s stance, in other words, is historically inaccurate. That isn’t really, though, what’s so bothersome about their position. It isn’t in the facts, but rather in their logic, that their argument is ultimately faulty. But to understand why requires knowing something about a human activity whose origins also lie in Scotland; more specifically, just south of the Grampian Mountains.

That’s where Charles Lyell was born in 1797, within sight of the Highlands. He grew to become a lawyer, but it is for his book The Principles of Geology that he is best-known for today. And the reason why he is known for that book is because it expounded Lyell’s contention that “the present is the key to the past”: what Lyell argued was that it is by examining what happens today that geologists can learn about what happened to the earth ages ago, not by consulting religious books for signs of supernatural intervention.

What Lyell taught, in other words, is that in order to investigate the past the researcher should presume that processes existing today also existed then; that there wasn’t any sharp break between the present and the past. But Doak and Poulter’s argument necessarily implies a break with the past: if we should know so much regarding the changes in the Old Course since the nineteenth century, why should we presume that—prior to the intervention of “Old” Tom—the course, as Ward-Thomas put it, “knew no architect but nature?”

What Doak and Poulter’s argument rests on, in other words, isn’t an assertion about the superiority of God and/or Nature over Man, but rather on the superiority of “Old” Tom Morris as opposed to all other golf architects before or since. Which, it must be pointed out, is entirely arguable: as mentioned, at times it seems that Morris had a hand in half the golf courses in Britain. Still, there’s a considerable difference between chalking up a design to the hand of the Nature (Or the wanderings of sheep) and a particular man. Doak certainly may argue that Morris’ conception of the Old Course ought to be preserved—but he’s wrong to suggest it might be flouting the Divine Will to tinker with it.

Hallow This Ground

“Country clubs and cemeteries are the biggest wasters of prime real estate!”
—Al Czervik (Rodney Dangerfield)
Caddyshack, 1980



As I write it’s been a month since the Ryder Cup—it’s Halloween in fact—and I’ve been thinking about the thirteenth hole. The back tee on the thirteenth hole on Medinah’s Course Three is about a hundred yards behind the most forward tee-box on the par-three hole, and perhaps fifteen feet higher; during the Cup, viewers often witnessed Michael Jordan lying on the grass next to that tee, watching the players send their shots soaring through the slot in the trees and out over Lake Khadijah where, for the first time, the golf ball is exposed to whatever wind is there. It’s one of the most photogenic spots on Medinah’s property: while the first tee is a popular spot, the reigning photographic champion of Medinah’s Course Three is the back tee on the thirteenth hole. There are, it seems, a number of people who think they know why.

The thirteenth, for those who haven’t been there, is a very long three-par hole: two hundred and fifty yards long, give or take, and the tee shot has to carry part of Medinah’s Lake Khadijah (named after Muhammad’s wife) in order to reach the green. Most amateurs are content to take a picture from the height, then climb down to a more comfortable elevation—their cameras, after all, usually have more chance of capturing the green than their clubs do. It’s at this point, as a writer named Steve Sailer might put it, where the Anglo-Irish writer Edmund Burke (chiefly remembered as being a member of the British Parliament not unfriendly to the American Revolution, who later was an enemy of the French one), comes in.

Burke, to those with uneasy educations, first came to prominence via a book about the distinction between the beautiful and what he called the sublime. In an essay entitled, “From Bauhaus to the Golf Course: The Rise, Fall, and Revival of Golf Course Architecture,” Sailer notes that Burke’s distinction fits golf courses quite well, because while for Burke the “beautiful is … meadows, valleys, slow moving streams, grassland intermingled with copses of trees, the whole English country estate shtick,” the “sublime is nature so magnificent that it induces the feeling of terror because it could kill you, such as by falling off a mountain or into a gorge.” Or at least, the golf course is “the mock sublime, where you are in danger of losing not your life, but your mis-hit golf ball into a water hazard or ravine” or such.

The thirteenth is a good example of the “mock sublime”; while it’s true that no one is likely to die by falling off the tee, it is true that a great many hopes have been dashed, or at least threatened, there. Sam Snead, who had four runner-up finishes in the US Open over his career, missed the green during the final round of the 1949 edition, made bogey—and missed a playoff with Cary Middlecoff by a stroke. Ben Crenshaw saw his chances to get into the playoff at the 1975 US Open dowsed in the lake. In 1999 Tiger Woods, like Snead fifty years before, missed the green in the final round and it led to a double bogie—though, while Tiger’s over-par score allowed Sergio Garcia’s dramatic shot from behind a tree on the sixteenth hole to matter, it didn’t end up costing him the tournament.

At any rate, at times I’ll find myself behind somebody’s iPhone taking a picture of the foursome on that tee, looking down towards the distant flag. People like Sailer are dissatisfied by answering the question, “Why?” with invocations of past disasters or the musings of 18th century philosophers. For Sailer and the rest it seems that a Harvard biologist has produced just the right balm for this intellectual itch. Sailer himself notes the source of that balm in his essay, but it’s also been mentioned by David Owen—author of The Chosen One (about Tiger Woods) and a writer for the New Yorker among other places—in his blog.

Owen has been reading the biologist Edward O. Wilson’s recent book, The Social Conquest of the Earth, and in it the esteemed Harvard sociobiologist claims that human beings desire three items in their surroundings: they “want to be on a height looking down, they prefer open savanna-like terrain with scattered trees and copses, and they want to be close to a body of water, such as a river, lake, or ocean.” The reason for these three desires is, Owen says that Wilson says, because of an “‘innate affiliation’ that humans feel with landscapes that resemble ‘those environments in which our species evolved over millions of years in Africa.’” An affiliation that, surely, is satisfied by the heights of the back tee on the thirteenth hole; QED.

All of it sounds quite tidy as an explanation. People who think like this, however, might consider Sam Snead’s remark at a major championship contested only three years before the contest at Medinah. As his train pulled into town for the 1946 Open Championship (the proper name for the British Open), Snead infamously remarked that St. Andrews’ Old Course—the one that’s had golfers on it since the fifteenth century—looked like “an old, abandoned golf course.” (Unlike Medinah three years later, and despite his remark, Snead won the tournament.) At first look, Snead’s comment sounds like the same kind of humorous remark made by the “hillbilly” who once asked his agent how his photo got into a New York paper “when I ain’t never been there.” (Snead said later that he was just pulling legs.) But what Snead said isn’t just that.

It’s also a marker of time’s passage: how the look of St. Andrews had, by the 1940s, stopped being synonymous with “golf course.” By then, “golf course” meant something different. Not long before, that is, Snead’s comment would not have been understandable. “The chosen home of golf, its ‘most loved abode,’” wrote the writer and artist Garden Grant Smith in The World of Golf in 1898, “is the links, or common land, which is found by the seashore.” As John Paul Newport wrote in the Wall Street Journal about St. Andrews in 2010, links courses were built on “coastal waste land used for golf initially because it was unsuitable for farming.” And what’s most noticeable, or perhaps rather unnoticeable, about links golf courses as opposed to other kinds of golf courses is just what links courses don’t have: trees.

If trees could grow on that land, in other words, Scotsmen would have farmed it. So no true links course has any trees on it, which is how all golf courses looked—until the end of the nineteenth century. The course whose building signaled that shift was Willie Park, Jr.’s design of Sunningdale’s “Old Course” (it wasn’t called the Old Course when it was opened, of course) in 1901. The construction of Sunningdale’s first course had such an impact in part because of who its designer was: in addition to winning the Open twice himself, in 1887 and 1889, Park was the son of Willie Park, Sr., who not only had won the first Open Championship ever held, at Prestwick in 1860, but then won it again three more times. Junior’s uncle, Mungo Park, who is not to be confused with the explorer of the same name, also won the Open, in 1874.

Whatever Park did, in other words, came pretty close to defining what golf was: imagine the kind of authority Gary Nicklaus would have if in addition to his dad’s victories, he’d won the US Open twice, and so did one of his brothers. Anyway, according to Wikipedia’s entry on Sunningdale Golf Club Park’s design was “set in a heathland area, with sandy subsoil amid mixed treed foliage,” and was “among the first successful courses located away from the seaside, as many people had thought at the time that turf would not grow well in such regions.” The success of Sunningdale and Park’s Huntercombe—also opened in 1901 and where, later, James Bond would own a 9 handicap—proved to the traditionalists that golf could be played away from the sea.

Park’s later designs, like Olympia Field’s North course, further demonstrated that golf courses could be designed with trees on them. In retrospect, of course, that move would appear inevitable: as Garden Grant Smith observed in 1898, “we cannot all live by the seaside, and as we must apparently all play golf, we must take it where and how we can.” If proximity to the ocean was necessary to the game, it would still be a curious Scottish custom and not a worldwide sport.

It’s hard to think, then, that somehow golf is popular because it replicates the look of a landscape that, surely, only a small percentage of human beings ever experienced: the landscape of some percentage of Africa’s vastness. Consider, for instance, the description offered in 1865 by a Scotsman named William Saunders about a project he was working on: “The disposition of trees and shrubs is such as will ultimately produce a considerable degree of landscape effect” by working together with the “spaces of lawn provided” to “form vistas … showing … prominent points.” The effect aimed for by Saunders, in other words, sounds similar to that described by Wilson: grassy lawns interrupted here and there by copses of trees, arranged so as to open up what Saunders calls a “pleasure ground effect.” Saunders’ project, in short, sounds very like a modern golf course—and support for Wilson’s theory.

Yet what Saunders was describing was not a new golf course, but rather the design for a new kind of park: the national cemetery at Gettysburg, built in the aftermath of the great battle. I found Saunders’ remarks contained in a book entitled Lincoln at Gettysburg, and the book’s author, Garry Wills, takes pains to trace the connections between what ultimately got constructed in that Pennsylvania town and its forebears. The American source for the design of the Gettysburg burial ground, Wills says, was a cemetery built outside of Boston in 1831. Called Mount Auburn, it was it seems a place so well-known in the nineteenth-century that it even introduced the word “cemetery”—a word whose origin is Greek—to American English.

Like that of its Pennsylvania progeny a generation later, Mount Auburn would consist of “shady groves in the neighborhood of murmuring streams and merry fountains,” as Justice Story of the United States Supreme Court would say in a speech at Mount Auburn’s opening. These new places were to be unlike the churchyard, the former place of American burials; rather than urban, these places would be rural: “an escape from the theological gloom of churchyards, a return to nature,” as Wills says.

Mount Auburn, in turn, had its genesis in Pére Lachaise, the cemetery in Paris now best known to Americans as the final resting place of Jim Morrison, leader of the American band the Doors. Opened in 1804, Pére Lachaise was meant to be an alternative to the crowded churchyards of Paris; “outside the precincts of the city,” as the place’s Wikipedia entry reads. Alexandre Brongniart, the cemetery’s architect, imagined “an English garden mingled with a contemplation place,” as one website describes it. And Pére Lachaise was meant to supersede the old churchyards in another way as well: “Every citizen has the right to be buried regardless of race or religion,” declared Napoleon Bonaparte on the occasion of the cemetery’s opening—a line with an especial resonance in the context of Gettysburg.

That resonance, in fact, might intimate that those who wish to trace golf’s attraction back to Africa have other motives in mind. “In the US,” writes David Givens—director of the Center for Nonverbal Studies—in Psychology Today, “according to Golf magazine, ninety-eight percent of CEOs play golf.” According to Givens, golf’s centrality to modern American business culture is by no means arbitrary. “Stalking through grassy fields in close-knit, face-to-face groups, sticks in hand,” Givens says, “business people enjoy the same concentration, competition, and camaraderie their ancestors once experienced in Africa.” In other words, golf is popular because it is a lot like hunting a wildebeest.

“On the geological time scale,” writes John McPhee in Annals of the Former World, “a human lifetime is reduced to a brevity that is too inhibiting to think about deep time”—sometimes human beings like to castigate themselves for not thinking sufficiently long term. But it’s also wise, perhaps, not to follow all leads down to the rabbit hole of deep time’s abyss: this notion of golf’s appeal doesn’t do a great deal to explain why the golf course only began to resemble the African plain—if it has—within the past century, nor does it particularly explain why golf courses should resemble nineteenth-century cemeteries.

To believe Wilson and his followers, that is, we would have to believe not only that golf courses are more like Kenya than they are like Pennsylvania, but also that somehow those infinitely tiny bits of plasma known DNA somehow contains within it memories of an African past, and that those bits somehow trump the ideas championed by Napoleon and Lincoln—and those ideas are, perhaps, at least as plausible as the idea that a player’s golf clubs, and not just his cell phone’s camera, can capture the green from the back tee at the thirteenth hole.

The Mark of Z

“One way to characterize professional golf,” wrote John Cassidy earlier this summer in The New Yorker, “is to say that it has reached parity—there are so many good players, and they all have a roughly equal chance of winning.” Cassidy called it the “random golfer theory,” and has trotted it out after Webb Simpson’s win at Olympic and Ernie Els’ win at Lytham. The idea is that anybody within the top 100 has a shot of winning any major: an idea that is, more or less, borne out by the fact that of the past 17 majors, there has been 17 winners. Until now, which is to say that Rory’s win at the PGA has blown that idea up just as surely as the events of the past five years has blown up both the Black-Scholes formula and the hype of this year’s Ryder Cup at Medinah to what will, especially in the Fleet Street press, be absurd levels.

The cry will be, as it’s been since McIlroy won the U.S. Open at Congressional a year ago, for a Tiger vs. Mac showdown during Sunday’s singles matches, only with an even heightened pitch now that Rory’s won his first two majors at a more rapid clip than Tiger won his first two. And as it happens, Tiger’s second major was also a PGA, and, also, it was at Medinah. Which, as it further happens, was also the first time Tiger faced a competitor who seemed to have all the tools he did, but was from Europe—and younger to boot. And after that PGA, in 1999, Sergio Garcia, like Rory’s fans today, demanded to play Tiger in that year’s Ryder Cup.

Obviously, European fans are hoping for a different outcome this time around: that Ryder Cup was at the Country Club in Brookline, and the Euros got smoked in singles; that was the year that the American captain, Ben Crenshaw, said the night before the finale, “I got a good feeling about this.” It was also the year of the “excessive celebration” after Justin Leonard made his putt on the 17th hole of regulation—which came before Jose Olazabal had a chance to make his putt, which would have at least continued the match, a point that, if you believe the London papers, all of Europe has been brooding about for the past nearly-decade-and-a-half. Not that Europeans are well-known to carry around centuries-long grudges or anything.

In any case, this year’s Ryder Cup is shaping up, at least from the wrong end of the Atlantic, to be a kind of revanchist’s dream, only without soaking the fields of Flanders in blood. In place of Sergio, they have Rory, who actually wins tournaments, and even majors, without regripping his club twenty-five times or casually insulting entire states. And most alarmingly, at least from this side of the Atlantic, our main guy not only has never made a big deal out of these kinds of team events—Tiger is on record as saying he doesn’t regard the Ryder Cup as being the same as one of the four majors—but he hasn’t won a major in four years. Or, in other words, since their kid starting winning them. Which is where the Black-Scholes point comes in.

“If Capital One was trading at $30 a share,” says Michael Lewis in The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine, the Black-Scholes model for pricing options—those obscure financial instruments that have had so much say in our lives recently— “assumed that, over the next two years, the stock was more likely to get to $35 a share than to $40, and more likely to get to $40 than to $45, and so on.” This makes sense to us, intuitively: we like to think that “slow and steady wins the race,” for instance. But the real world does not always behave in that slow and incremental way: everyone would have bet that dinosaurs would be the dominant species on the planet for eons, until a meteorite crashed in southern Mexico. Sometimes things can change quite suddenly—and not reach any intermediate stops. Once, there were billions of dinosaurs. Then, there weren’t.

Once, there was a Tiger, and now there’s a Rory. In between there’s been a collection of Keegan Bradleys and Webb Simpsons, a collection that has largely made the golf press uneasy at best and, at worst, spooked. Golf is, after all, one of the few sports—the other that I can think of at the moment being horse racing—where nobody likes an underdog, at least until the point where it seems like the underdog can actually win; or, in short, become the overdog. Rory, with his eight-shot win at the PGA, might just have reached that point: a point that, as it happens, the wonks over at Grantland have quantified using a measure they call “Z-Score,” which is apparently a standard part of the average mathematician’s toolbag.

“Z-Score” is calculated by taking the winner’s score and subtracting the average score of all the players who finished the tournament, then dividing that against “the variance between the scores and the average performance,” as Grantland’s resident golf stat-head, Bill Barnwell, says. In other words, a tournament where the winner shot “20-under-par and the last-place finisher shot 20-over-par” would have a higher value than a tournament “in which the winner shot 3-under-par and the duffer in last shot 4-over.” Of the top ten scores ever figured, Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus have three apiece, with Tiger Woods’ performance at the 2000 U.S. Open, where he blew away the field by fifteen shots, achieving the highest “Z-Score” ever recorded at -4.12 (meaning that he was more than four standard deviations better than the average performance in the tournament.

It’s a good methodology in that it factors out things like weather (everyone plays in similar conditions, within reason) and so on, and to a degree allows us to compare performances across the generations. For instance, it’s now arguable that Jack Nicklaus’ performance at the 1965 Masters might be better than Woods’ win in 1997, even though Woods broke Nicklaus’ scoring record (271, or -11 to par, versus 270, or -12 to par), because while Woods’ “Z-Score” in 1997 was -3.24 Nicklaus’ “Z-Score” was -3.48. Or in other words, Woods was only a bit more than three times better than his competitors in 1997, while Nicklaus was nearly three-and-a-half times better. Obviously, this doesn’t really matter much (though Davis Love’s win at the 1997 PGA, which he took by five shots and produced a Z-Score of 3.54, looks a lot better after running it through this formula), but it’s fun to compare scores across eras.

Like, for instance, the scores Tiger Woods produced in his prime versus the scores Rory McIlroy has produced in his two major wins: last year’s U.S. Open at Congressional and this year’s PGA. McIlroy won both tournaments by eight shots, which is the kind of performance necessary to place on the Z-Score leaderboard, but Z-Score isn’t factored by how much the second-place guy shot, but rather by how much the field as a whole shot. Rory’s Z-Score for the tournaments places him comfortably within the top twenty Z-Scores ever recorded, but his -3.07 score for Congressional, together with his -3.15 score for Kiawah, aren’t enough to place him very close to Tiger’s epic win in 2000. The Congressional score, in fact, doesn’t even place Rory close to Jack Nicklaus’ -3.22 at Turnberry in 1977—you know, the “Duel In The Sun” Jack lost to Tom Watson.

Rory’s wins, that is, have been big—but they haven’t been that big, at least by comparison to Jack and Tiger. The win at Congressional, at least as measured by Z-Score, isn’t even as good as Padraig Harrington’s British Open win in 2008, which the Irishman won at 3-OVER par, only four shots better than his nearest competitor—Harrington rang up a -3.09 Z-Score during what was a famously-windblown tournament. Still, Rory’s fans might cite Barnwell’s observation that through “his first nine majors, McIlroy has put up an average Z-Score 0.97 standard deviations below the mean,” an average only exceeded by Seve Ballesteros (-1.04) and Ernie Els (-1.25) in anyone’s first nine majors. Rory is, obviously, still very young; it’s quite possible we still haven’t seen his best stuff.

Still, what the Z-Score tale tells us is that while Rory is a very, very good golfer, he doesn’t go to the same dimension-bending, dinosaur-slaying, places Tiger Woods could go in his prime. But if we haven’t yet seen Rory’s best, there are few places Rory could demonstrate that to better effect than Medinah, the course Tiger has tamed twice for two of his fourteen major titles and a membership in the club itself. It’s no honorary membership, either: Tiger has the same rights as any other full member, an honor the club presented him with after his second win in 2006, which is to say that, in a sense perhaps more real than any other course, Medinah really is Tiger’s home turf. For Rory to beat Tiger there would be, one suspects, a grievous blow to the competitive Tiger—all the implacable laws of sport, which are even more inflexible than any mathematical model, thus demand that there is only one possible final match for the Ryder Cup’s finale at the end of September: Woods v. McIlroy, for all the stakes that there are. May the best Z-Score win—and to hell with the “random golfer theory.”

Darth Looper

The putt came screaming down the hill—carrying with it my golfer’s hopes of a win and my hopes of a decent payday—like Luke Skywalker’s torpedo flew down the Death Star’s trench and, given the condition of the greens, the speed of it was a surprise. It’s been an unfortunate fact that the last two major championships at Medinah have been PGAs, traditionally played in August. August is usually a poor month for Medinah’s grass; the heat of a Chicago summer has never agreed well with Course 3. Medinah has been lucky that Tiger won both of them; if he hadn’t, the course’s condition during play would probably have been a bigger story. In 1999 for instance the green on the 16th hole, where on Sunday Sergio Garcia nearly made what would have been an epic birdie that would have tied Tiger for the lead, had almost no grass on it by Sunday. Things weren’t as bad in 2006, but they were slow; and this summer, even despite all the changes made (Sub-Air systems, entirely new grass, and this year even giant fans), there’s still a chance that Medinah might lose the greens entirely sometime in August.

All that lies in the future now, as we wait for the high furnace winds of August to arrive,  and the golf world awaits the final selections for the Ryder Cup teams, which won’t happen until after the PGA. As of this writing, the only thing to talk about in golf is Adam Scott’s Via Dolorosa over the final four holes of the Open Championship, known to us colonials as the British Open. There’s very little as agonizing as caddying for somebody experiencing such a collapse, as I found—again—at about the same time on that Sunday that Scott wandered through the stages of his stations of the cross at Royal Lytham.

My patron was an anxious little guy, a member playing a match for the President’s Cup—a ladder match tournament played through the season—ahead of the club championship, which would start later in the morning. (My loop for the championship had canceled 15 minutes before his tee time for reasons that are still unclear.) He’d asked for somebody who could read the greens, so I got sent.

His nerves were apparent from the very first tee, when he made some kind of forgettable and ridiculously bad joke about something or other. Having honors, he hit his ball a moderate way down the fairway, followed shortly by his opponent, who hit it about the same amount. The two were, by handicap indexes, exactly matched, even though you might not think it to look at them: my guy was in his fifties, perhaps; his adversary, perhaps in his early 40s, and far more athletic-looking. Yet the way they hit their golf balls betrayed an equality: neither could hit it much more than 240 yards with their drivers, though my guy made slightly better contact with his pull-slice kind of action than the other guy was with his. My guy hit the green in two shots; the other guy missed and after two putts from our hero, the Adversary was one down.

That lead didn’t last long—my guy hit it in the water on the second hole, after a pull job that didn’t get high enough to the elevated green. And after winning the third with a two-putt par to go up again—me having called for a six-iron, rather than the five my player thought was necessary—my guy three-putted to the Opponent’s one-putt for another push. On the sixth, we were on regulation, while the other guy was ten yards short of the green. He used his putter to advance the ball to the front part of the green—with a pin on the back, atop a tier whose steep approaches not only threatened to stop anything not well-struck, but actually Elvis them: “Return to Sender.”

Naturally, the guy sent his ball through the swale in front of the green, then up those slopes—and sank it. Just as naturally, my guy missed his par putt, despite it only being a few feet away and on the same tier. The match was shaping up to be the classic “ball-striking vs. putting” contest; which, to my mind, favored my player, considering the condition of the greens.

After all, if your game depends on putting, burned-out and slow greens, create so many obstacles that even a good putter can’t depend on making many. It changes the dynamic of the traditional structure of the tortoise-vs.-hare joust, which usually is the difference between, say, taking your life-savings, driving to Vegas, and putting it all down on the roulette wheel’s black, and putting a quarter of your paycheck into a savings account every month. Or in other words, betting on your putting against the other guy’s ball-striking is essentially saying that the value of your putt outweighs the value of all the strokes made by the other guy. It’s possible, sure, but on slow greens, a game based around putting isn’t just roulette but roulette with a broken wheel.

On the seventh, I reminded my player to tee his ball on the right side of the tee box, to accomodate his cutty kind of pull shape shot, which was fortunate because he started his ball well left of the fairway but it ended up dead center. After trading wins and pushes on the next three holes things started looking up at the beginning of the back nine. Sticking it to less than two feet in regulation on the tenth hole was great, though somehow the Adversary managed a par after getting lost in the woods off his drive. Thankfully, my guy made his birdie. Then came the eleventh, which appeared to be a kind of turning point.

My player hit a good drive down the center of the fairway, while the Adversary found the forest and its trees again. He had to play out, ending up about fifty yards away from the green. Meanwhile, I and my player were locked in a bit of a dilemma. The actual distance to the pin appeared to dictate a six-iron, but it was far towards the back of the green beyond which grew a thick stand of pine trees from which it’s impossible to recover. In addition, the green on the eleventh is slightly below the level of the fairway where we were, and the wind was slightly helping the kind of cut my player favored. I therefore advocated he use the seven-iron.

Thus far, I pointed out, we had played conservative golf: I had consistently pushed for the club that would put us near the center of the green without much trouble. And thus far we’d been rewarded: sure, the other guy had made some miraculous recoveries—but the point was that he’d had to make them. On every hole, even those when we’d missed the fairway somehow, we had been threatening to make bogey or better. Therefore I argued that while the seven-iron might not reach all the way back to the hole, it also wouldn’t reach the pines beyond, and so we’d not risk anything worse than a bogey. My player saw the point—and immediately hit it into the front right bunker.

And just after that, the Adversary hit his fifty-yard approach to bounce in front of the green and then roll up the green as if it were a judiciously-struck putt, eventually ending up not more than four feet from the hole … and on the same tier. So things certainly looked bad. Still when we reached our ball it appeared that the ball would have fallen from the sky at least as far as the green’s front, had it only been a yard or two more left, and, more significantly, had a very good lie in the bunker’s center.

The bunker shot came out okay—okay, but not great, right in the center of the green. I underlined the importance of hitting it firmly, he hit the par putt three feet by the whole, so seemingly we’d lost the hole. Until the sweet-putting Adversary had put his par putt about the same distance from the hole as he’d started—and then did it again. And again. My guy managed to make his bogey, and the Adversary actually picked up his ball and threw it into the pine trees near the green. Thing were looking up.

On the twelfth, I counseled a three-wood on the approach, despite the yardage seeming to dictate the hybrid he carried—which, he said, he didn’t hit particularly well—and my player found the green. (His comment was that he’d only hit the green in two once before.) Still, we were a long way from the pin, and above it, though the Opponent was also in a precarious position above the hole—and he was there in three. The line of putt I thought should be played was probably too high—though the breaks on the twelfth hole on Course 3 can be enormous—and my player didn’t hit it firmly enough considering how slow the greens were, so we ended up just slightly inside our Opponent’s ball. Luckily enough, he missed, but we ended up with another push on a hole that we could easily have won.

Still, after a two-putt par on the par-five fourteenth, we found ourselves three up with four holes to play. And after some bad Adversary shots on the fifteenth, followed by another miracle Adversary downhill putt from nearly off the green to make bogey, we merely had to two-putt for a par that would win the match. Of course, my guy hit the first one slightly too hard, which left him a three-foot putt for par. Which he pulled, missed on the low side, and never even sniffed the cup.

You already know what happened next. The Adversary hit a ridiculous third shot on the par-four sixteenth to inches from the cup; we missed our par (I possibly misread it slightly). On the seventeenth, I reminded my guy to place his ball on the right side of the box, especially on account of a tree that slightly overhangs the tee box there; naturally, he pulled his tee shot into the tree and failed to clear the water, which meant that we couldn’t take advantage of our Adversary’s wildly-overclubbed approach that left him twenty yards over the green. On the eighteenth, the Opponent hit another bad drive to our solid hit down the middle. His punch-out left him well short of the green. And so we had a dilemma.

The eighteenth hole on Course 3 had a Redan-style green, meaning that it is elevated above the fairway at a slight angle: the further left you go, the farther the shot must carry to reach home. (Another example of such a green is the fourth at Riviera.) But there is an opening on the right side of the green, between the deep bunkers in front of the green itself and to the left of the opening and the deep bunker to the right of the green, that allows a humbler, less-daring shot. Now, looking at our distance, my player said “The hybrid?” I mentioned that he had said earlier he didn’t like to hit that club, and we hadn’t used it all day. “The four then,” he concluded. And I said no—“The five.”

The idea was that by hitting a five my player would be able to control his shot better (all things being equal, a shorter club is easier) and thereby avoid the bunkers on the left, while at the same time, no matter how well he hit the ball, he would never be able to hit it so far as to carry into the bunker on the right. The golfer saw the virtue of the notion and, striking it well, left his ball in the middle of the opening about thirty yards from the flag. Next, the Opponent put his third shot well past the pin, leaving himself a dangerous twenty-five foot downhill putt for par.

When he hit it, my first thought was that he’d hit too hard—if it missed, there was no way the comeback putt would be any less than six feet, even on the slow green. But it didn’t miss. Instead, it struck the back of the cup, popped into the air a few inches, and dropped back into the center of the cup. We were all stunned, and my patron’s miss a minute or two later was a foregone conclusion. Through eighteen holes, we were now all square.

That raised the question of a playoff. Normally we would merely proceed to the first hole of the golf course and begin again—but with the last groups of the club championship, the members of the top flight of golfers who were really competing for the overall prize, going off, the club pro standing at the first tee told us it was impossible. This piqued my golfer, who had some hard words for the club pro, but as there was nothing to be done we proceeded to the first tee of Medinah’s Course 1, where the Adversary sliced his tee shot into the trees right of the fairway.

The first hole of Course 1 is a short par-five, only about 530 yards. The tee shot’s view is dominated by an enormous bunker that stands immediately beyond a stream that flows through the rest of the course, itself just beyond the edge of the forward tee box. The bunker is usually merely decorative, and is in the shape of a Bactrian camel; apparently this is in homage to Medinah’s connection to the Shriners, who take their club’s trappings from a kind of fantasia of the Arabian Nights—though the Bactrian, or two-humped, camel is from Central Asia, thousands of miles from Arabia. The other feature of the tee box is a couple of trees that cast their shade over the tee in the afternoon; the box faces north, which is to say that the trees stand on the left side as the golfer faces the green off in the distance.

I assume you can discern what happened next.

It did. My patron pulled his drive into the tree on the left, whereupon it ricocheted over the stream, hit another tree, and ended up between the camel’s humps just off the near edge of the bunker. Though it didn’t end up getting wet, we were still in about as impossible a situation as could be: because the edge of the bunker was so close, we needed a short club merely to make contact with the ball, not just to be sure to carry the ball out of the bunker. That done, we were still hitting our third shot from nearly four hundred yards; I won’t bore you with the comedy that followed—even after all that, because of the Adversary’s poor ball-striking we weren’t out of the hole until nearly the final putt—but as amusing as it was in some respect it did nothing to change the final result: my golfer lost.

Afterwards, I went to the caddie shack (actually a rather pleasant room connected to the pro shop) to sit in the air conditioning a bit and clean up. The caddie for the Adversary, who was about 14 years old, was there waiting for his ride, and when a couple of my friends asked me how it went, he piped up. In his telling, his golfer’s victory was a win for the romantic, the impossible, what TV shows like Star Trek call the “human.” When things looked blackest for his golfer, he had “encouraged” him, told him not to give up, and all of the other cliches used in sports movies and, come to think of it, a lot of others: at the end of Star Wars, for instance, Obi-Wan tells Luke to turn off his targeting computer and “trust the Force,” which allows him to get off the shot that scurries into the center of the Death Star’s exhaust port, destroying the evil weapon and winning the day for the good guys. According to this looper, the victory was entirely due to the encouragement he provided for his golfer, just as the Rebels in Star Wars won because of Obi-Wan’s coaching at the crucial moment. Which, I suppose, is itself an encouraging sign: it’s well-known that in these times of resistance to government health-care, or stimulus spending, or for that matter the fact of global warming, what’s really necessary is to inspire a love of irrationality in our youth.

Fitzgerald and McIlroy Are NOT Dead—Yet

Guildenstern: Good my lord, vouchsafe me a word with you.
Hamlet III, 2

There’s a legendary looper I know somewhat who works mostly on the LPGA—but also has worked at Riviera and various other places—named Mike Troublefield. I last ran into him some years ago at Lochinvar, outside of Houston, Texas (where Butch Harmon spent some time before becoming guru to the stars). When I first met Troublefield, while I was working an LPGA tournament at Stonebridge outside of Chicago, he introduced me to the concept of the “yaddie”: a caddie who, no matter the circumstance, just says “yeah” to whatever nonsensical shot his player wants to hit. In Troublefield’s estimation, which is now mine, the worth of a caddie is shown by his willingness to say, at least once in a while, “no” to his player. It’s a point I’ve been thinking about this summer because of the recent focus on elite players’ caddies: not merely Steve Williams, but also through the rather lesser-known controversy over Rory McIlroy’s caddie, J.P. Fitzgerald.

During the Irish Open last month, McIlroy lost three shots during the first day of the tournament to shoot 70, which is a respectable score, but it caused an American ex-pro-turned-commentator named Jay Townsend to go into full-blown meltdown mode: Townsend said, via Twitter, not only that McIlroy’s course management was “shocking,” but also blamed it on Rory’s caddie, Fitzgerald, by saying that “I thought JP allowed some SHOCKING [sic] course management today.” Rory fired back, also via Twitter, by replying “shut up … You’re a commentator and a failed golfer, you’re opinion means nothing!” [sic]. All of which is tremendous fun, but also brings up a sensitive subject: namely, how much was J.P. to blame for McIlroy’s meltdown at Augusta in April? Or to put it Troublefield’s way: is J.P. a yaddie?

To be sure, in light of his victory at Congressional in June, the collapse in Georgia seems merely a prelude—rather like Bobby Jones walking off the course at St. Andrews in the summer of 1921—but at the time it seemed ominous, with many speculating that McIlroy might turn out like Sergio Garcia, another young phenom who never (or hasn’t yet) learned how to close out his rivals. Now such fears appear ridiculous, but the real question isn’t whether McIlroy is a world-class player (which now is answered), but the passage of time allows us to ask a different question about McIlroy’s failure: the question of just how much responsibility (or ability) a caddie has to derail a player from boarding a bogey train.

Unfortunately, there isn’t any video available to me (that I know of) of the first round of the Irish Open this year, so it’s unclear to me just what it was that Townshend was referring to in his tweets. But it is possible to view video of Rory’s 10th hole at Augusta—where McIlroy made the triple-bogey that began the string of bad holes that lost him the tournament—on YouTube, which provides the only neutral evidence of the relation between J.P. and Rory and what J.P.’s possible role in the blow-up might have been. So I watched it.

Before getting to what I saw, though, it’s important to note just what sort of limitations a caddie’s job has. Obviously, J.P. doesn’t hit the shots; he merely carries the bag and (occasionally) might provide a bit of counsel. J.P. didn’t hit the huge hook that ended up so far left of the 10th fairway that it was nearly left of the Butler Cabin—Rory did. Just as clearly, neither of them (but particularly J.P.) could not have seen that coming (though it’s been remarked that the hook is Rory’s “miss,” the shot he tends to hit when he loses focus). In other words, J.P. can’t bear responsibility for Rory’s drive.

To this point, Rory had been playing spectacularly well that week, since after all he was winning the tournament. Some might point to the bogies he made at the first hole and the fifth in the final rounds as foreshadows of what was to come, but J.P. could not have thought of them as anything other than bumps in the road: both holes are spectacularly difficult ones now after the several redesigns at Augusta in recent years. Maybe Rory might not have been playing so well as he had in the first round, but then there weren’t a lot of 65s shot this year so Rory was bound to regress to the mean in following rounds (he shot 69 and 70 respectively in rounds 2 and 3). Rory’s lead was four shots beginning the final round so, as J.P. must have known, it wouldn’t take a spectacular round for the Northern Irishman to win. (All it would have taken, in retrospect, is another 69 to beat Charl Schwartzel, the man who ended up winning.)

Despite the bogies on the front nine, McIlroy had made a birdie on the difficult 7th, so not everything must have looked bleak to J.P.. There were plenty of birdie holes coming up, so the caddie must have been thinking that even after the horrible drive, a bogey or even a miracle par weren’t out of the picture, which could still be saved by birdies or even eagles on the two five-pars at 13 and 15. It wasn’t a reason to panic. McIlroy smartly pitched out to the fairway on 10, leaving a not-too-difficult shot to the green for his third shot. It’s on what happened next that any question of J.P.’s role has to rest.

What McIlroy did was hit virtually the same shot that sent him into the trees off the tee—a big hook that sent him into the trees (again) left of the green. The television coverage cut away from McIlroy to show what was happening elsewhere on the golf course, and anyway J.P. wasn’t miked (as some Nationwide tournaments have done with caddies recently) so it’s hard to say what the two discussed on the way to the ball. Even then, J.P. could not have been panicking—although it’s unusual for a professional golfer to miss the same way twice on the same hole, J.P. must have known that a smart chip to the green, followed by a good putt, would still salvage bogey and Rory’s chances. The mistake J.P. made, if he did make one, could only have come prior to the next shot, Rory’s fourth.

That shot was a chip that hit a branch of a tree, thereby coming up short of the green and rolling back down a slope, virtually to Rory’s feet. If there’s anything that J.P. could have said before that moment it would have been, or should have been, something like “take the tree out of play” and “plenty of green behind the pin.” In other words, what J.P. should have emphasized was that Rory’s primary job for that shot was to get the ball on the green rather than try to cozy the ball next to the pin, which is apparently what Rory actually tried to do. By missing that shot, Rory made double-bogey a virtual certainty rather than a possibility, as it had been at every point before then.

That shot was, as it turns out, the climax of Rory’s tournament: he did go on to three-putt the 11th and four-putt the 12th, but it’s arguable that those misses were simply the result of what had already happened. Rory didn’t miss any more shots like he had on 10 (at least, none so badly); he just seems to have been rattled by the triple-bogey into putting poorly. It’s possible to say, especially about the four-putt, that J.P. should have taken his man aside and slowed him down, forcing him to focus on the putts and thereby preventing those horrible miscues, but it also seems clear that the crucial hole was the 10th.

Of all the shots, in turn, that McIlroy played on that hole (7 of them!), it follows that the most significant was his fourth, which was the one that made the triple possible in the first place. In other words, even aside from the fact that the fourth was the shot for par (as unlikely as that was), it was the shot that created the likelihood for what eventually happened: prior to then, McIlroy might still have made par, while afterwards the triple became not only possible, but even likely. For the purposes of determining what responsibility J.P. bears for McIlroy’s loss in April, then, the most important point would seem to be what happened before Rory hit that shot of all the shots he hit that day.

Unfortunately, the video doesn’t show what happened: whether, in short, player and caddie had any kind of discussion about how to play it. And, actually, it’s difficult to even make out just what happened on that shot at all: McIlroy suddenly appears, after a commercial break, behind some sort of bush or small tree, and hits the ball; immediately after, there’s the sinking sound of a ball striking wood: McIlroy struck the tree. The announcers do claim that McIlroy had to try to fly it over that bush, but the video doesn’t provide enough evidence either way: maybe he did, which seems likely given that the announcers were proximate (if they were), and maybe, given that Nantz at least wasn’t directly at the 10th hole, not.

What’s interesting about that aspect of the shot is that the alternative to the high-flying shot CBS’ announcers believed necessary is exactly the sort of shot one might think a golfer who grew up playing in linksland—as we might think Northern Ireland, home of Royal Portrush among other links courses, to be—would relish: a low-flying, then rolling, shot up the bank of the 10th green, thereby avoiding the tree branch. But, as McIlroy said during this year’s Open Championship, he isn’t really that sort of player: he prefers the high-ball American style of flop shot, down-the-chimney golf. And that’s the sort of shot he attempted on the 10th: a high shot that, had it not hit the branch, would have landed near the pin and, with the right spin, would have stayed there. Knowing his player’s preferences, J.P. might have decided that the odds favored the kind of shot Rory likes to hit, rather than one that he didn’t.

That is to say that the call J.P. made, whether he vocalized it or not, is at the end of the day a judgement call. It so happens that J.P. guessed wrong. But what Troublefield would want to know about what happened on the 10th is whether J.P. questioned his player about it or whether he just went along with whatever the boss said. As I’ve mentioned there isn’t anything at least in the public record about what happened in the moments before that fourth pass, but there are two people who do know: J.P. and Rory.

For the moment, and particularly after the U.S. Open, Rory is happy with J.P.’s performance, which seems to indicate that J.P. did say what needed to be said at that time. But what will ultimately let us know about what happened in the valley of Augusta’s 10th on that Sunday in April is what Rory decides to do about J.P. after the season is over, when he has a moment to calmly reflect on a season where he might have started out halfway to a Grand Slam but let it slip away on a grassy Georgian knoll.