The Jazz of Iwo Jima

“Do you like a 9 or a wedge,” my golfer asked me. We stood about 140 yards to the center of the green at the ninth hole of Chicago Highlands, facing downwind to a flag roughly towards the front. He was a good player; the yardage and the wind indicated that either of those clubs were possible. I pretended to think a moment—I’d already been rehearsing what to say—then replied, “I think it’s a 7.” My golfer looked back at me without saying anything for a moment, then said, “But we’re downwind.” “I know,” I said, “that’s why.” There was another silence.

It may be a bit late to jump on the bandwagon, but Golf Digest’s architecture editor, Ron Whitten, named Chicago Highland’s 9th the “Hole of the Year” for 2010. The title may not be the most euphonic, but the ninth is a golf hole—a “giant chocolate drop of a hole” according to Whitten—that has, to one degree or another, been an enigma to the golfers I’ve worked for this year. It’s a hole I’ve mentioned here, though only in passing, despite the fact that it has been the center of nearly every discussion provoked by the question (“what do you think of the course?”) that I try to ask every one of my golfers.

At most courses I’ve worked at, the better the golfer the more nearly the opinions tend to converge—an interesting phenomenon, that—but at the Highlands, and especially as concerns the 9th, opinions have both converged and yet spread during each conversation, particularly among the better players. Although many of the same points are raised, the golfers I’ve talked to have become less, rather than more, uncertain about their own minds when discussing the golf course. That’s unusual.

To those who don’t know it, the hole is this: the highest point on the golf course, surrounded on all sides by fairway—it’s not for nothing that, as Whitten says, the hole has been compared to Mt. Suribachi on Iwo Jima, setting for the famous photograph of U.S. Marines raising the flag there. The only feature to the hole besides the hill is a small pot bunker about twenty yards directly in front of the green. The bunker is the single obstacle; there is no water, nor even any rough really. Naturally, it’s difficult to avoid looking at that bunker, the only bunker, from the tee.

Also naturally, the bunker—reminiscent, so far as I can tell, of the “D.A.” at Pine Valley’s 10th—is deep, so deep that merely escaping it requires effort. The green, only 20 yards away, is just as naturally unreachable for most—though I did see what may have been the first birdie by someone who’s tee shot found the bunker. Yet curiously, the bunker is for most purposes a smokescreen to the hole’s real challenges, which are more hidden and cerebral. And, in fact, have little to do with the tee shot, and the bunker’s devilish prominence for that tee shot, at all—a fact that makes the hole’s outward similarity to Mt. Suribachi a more-than-casual comparison.

The name of the John Wayne film that memorialized the Battle of Iwo Jima—The Sands of Iwo Jima—actually disguises the reality of the battle: the word “Sands” induces thoughts of beaches, so that one imagines the difficulty of the battle was merely landing on the island at all. The word “sands” conjures the nightmares of Omaha Beach on D-Day during the invasion of Normandy—but the strategy of the Japanese at Iwo Jima had nothing to do with stopping the invasion at the waterline. Instead, the Japanese depended on what military tacticians call “defense in-depth”; constructing a series of hidden tunnels and bombproof shelters, the Japanese proposed to draw the Americans into a meat-grinder that would delay the march towards Tokyo. The “sands” of Iwo Jima, that is, were a mirage: the danger lay not at the high-tide mark on the beach but hidden beyond it. What looked, to the Americans, like a relatively simple conquest once a few speed-bumps were driven over, would become ever-more consuming …

In the same way, the “beach” on the ninth is also a mirage: the real problem posed by the design has to do with the green, which is tiny and extremely bumpy, with little dips and hollows scattered about. The question the golfer has to ask is, do you come at the green low, or high? In other words, do you try to land a high, spinning shot directly on top of the pin—with the risk that a spinning shot might come all the way back down the slope? Or do you try to hop the ball in front of the green, hoping that it comes to rest somewhere close to the pin—with the risk that the ball may not stop, may just keep rolling right off the green down the slope on the other side?

I’ve guessed wrong as often as I’ve been right about what shot to play—every shot is different, I suppose, depending as it does not only on the conditions (particularly the wind) but also on the golfer—but the real point of interest to me is that there is a difference at all. That is, most times for approach shots the difference is a comparatively trivial question of which iron to play (9-iron or 8-iron?), while the approach to the ninth actually demands that the golfer think of what shot to play, only then leading to the question of which club. That is a kind of thinking that, I’d say, most golfers in America have never really faced in their entire careers.

Almost all approach shots on American golf courses, in other words, ask for precisely the same thing: usually a high-flying ball that lands and stops somewhere near the pin. Asking for something else, then, often will send American golfers into a kind of catatonia or paralysis; the low-running shot is just simply not in their bags. A number of times, while looping the ninth, I’ve mentioned the possibility of trying to run a shot into the green and been met with blank stares, or even outright dismissal, because the golfer cannot comprehend what it is that I’m saying.

Even good golfers can be capable of this, which is perhaps why a number of very solid players I’ve worked for have been disparaging of the ninth. Some of them have called the hole an example of “goofy golf,” a term that has come into vogue as a means of rejecting different forms of architecture. But some, after denigrating the hole, have also come—after some discussion, at times—to find some merit in the hole. Perhaps, after thinking about it, they come to realize that the initial way they played the hole was not the only way to play it; that, if they had played it some other way, they might have had some success. And that, for some golfers, is unusual: good golfers, after all, have found some means of being successful most of the time; for a hole to cause them to re-evaluate not their execution but their strategy is something rare.

“As one who has steadfastly insisted he’d seen it all in golf design, I humbly beg for a mulligan,” says Whitten. He is, I would say, paying tribute to that aspect of the ninth, something that’s exceedingly rare in golf. “There is no hip-hop, rap, or even jazz in golf architecture; it’s all Stephen Foster and John Phillips Sousa,” as Whitten has complained elsewhere. In other words, most golf architecture is merely the slavish imitation of the past: the “Redan” hole, the “Cape” hole, the “Biarritz” green; all holes first designed nearly a century or more ago. That isn’t to say that such holes are bad, of course—there’s a reason they’ve been copied, which incidentally is mostly because those styles of holes offer a choice in how to play them—but Whitten’s point is that there is very little in the way of new thinking in golf architecture.

The ninth, I think, offers a way around that. Driven by equipment changes, the setups on Tour and elsewhere have worked towards narrower fairways to offset the tremendous jump in driving distances: the ninth has one of the widest fairways I’ve ever seen. Driving distances have increased so much that classic courses are constantly pushing back their tee boxes: the ninth plays under 300 yards most days. The USGA and the R & A have worked to limit the amount of spin pros can get from their wedges: a spinning wedge shot to the ninth leads almost inevitably to a ball that drops off the front edge of the green. Maybe, I’d suggest, the ninth isn’t “goofy golf” at all; maybe it is, instead, “golfy golf.” Or, maybe, just golf.

My golfer, in the end, hit a low eight-iron that landed in the front of the green—and rolled to the back, a long way from the hole. He ended up three-putting for bogey; not a particular surprise on a green so dominated by rolls and mounds. But on the other hand, as he said later, at least he didn’t double—a speed-bump, not a quagmire.

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The Col de la Ramaz

Lance Armstrong lost the Tour de France last week—and no, this blog has not suddenly become about bicycling. I bring up bike racing because it is one of the few other sports that is so concerned with terrain as golf, and though Armstrong only officially lost with the end of the race, he actually lost it two weeks ago at a place called the Col de la Ramaz, the “Gateway to the Sun,” the first Alpine stage in this year’s Tour. Steep climbs and descents, in other words, make the distinctions between riders more explicit—the peloton is bunched in the flats but becomes a long line in the mountains. In golf too, matches are often decided on holes with large changes in elevation—and most golfers, unlike most bike riders, are unaware of the point.

In bike racing, that is, the theory that elevation plays a crucial role is something of a given; there’s actually a well-known book entitled The Tour Is Won In The Alps, about the role of the Alpe d’Huez in the Tour. In 2004 Armstrong won an epic time trial up the Alpe d’Huez, catching and passing one of his rivals, Ivan Basso, despite starting two minutes behind. The Alps was where he lost it this year when he could not keep pace with the leaders, losing time to Contador and others.

There isn’t a track in golf with anything like the elevation changes of the Alpe d-Huez or the Col de la Ramaz of course, because that would be crazy (imagine the golf carts!). But as a caddie I’ve noticed that it isn’t unusual for a friendly golf match to come down to who could club better on some elevated par-3 late in the round. The correct choice often leads to a tap-in par that can either seal up victory or signal a late charge from the underdog, while conversely an incorrect choice may end with a disastrous double-bogey.

Yet golfers, unlike bikers, are for the most part ignorant of the role of elevation, just as they are with most other environmental factors like wind. It’s quite usual for me in my job as a caddie to get golfers who automatically reach for the same club upon hearing the yardage—no matter that hitting that club from the same yardage, downwind, sent the ball over the green on the last hole or that the same club from the same yardage, on this upwind hole, will not even reach the green.

That probably isn’t an accident; most people are probably more familiar with sports that are more or less environmentally-independent, like basketball. Even baseball and football, outdoor sports, are still played on fields that are more or less standardized—and most people spend almost the entirety of their days indoors now, in their air conditioned cars, offices, and homes. So it isn’t any wonder that most golfers ignore wind or height: when have they ever really encountered those particulars of the earth before?

Golf architects though are well-aware of the effects of elevation. It isn’t coincidental, for instance, that both Medinah and Chicago Highlands, my courses this summer, feature a shortish downhill 3-par 17th hole deviled by wind. Both holes are designed to have a huge impact on the golfer’s round: an exhilarating birdie or par, or a despairing double-bogey or worse. Many matches I’ve caddied on have been decided at these holes: that’s what they were designed to do, to have a large impact on the outcome of a game.

So how do you decide what to do when facing one of these holes? The magazines and the instruction books always will say to take more club than you think you need, in order to prevent a mishit from becoming part of the water hazard in front of the green for instance. Or to figure a club difference for every 5 yards’ difference in elevation. Or to figure a club difference for every 8 miles-per-hour difference in wind speed. These are all, sure, good guidelines to begin thinking about what club to pull. But all are really just rules of thumb—it would be great if every golf hole told you which set of guidelines to pick when selecting a club to play, but every hole is different each time you play it. Wind and elevation are constantly interacting with each other in a chaotic stew.

All of that might lead you to think that those factors are the first things I think about when clubbing a golfer. That however isn’t true. What I first think about is what I think about first on every approach to the green: how I want the ball to land. Do I want the ball to land and stop dead—say, because there’s a hazard the ball needs to carry or be short of? Or do I want the ball to run a bit after impact—because there’s no obstacles in front of the green so I can afford to land the ball short and roll it up? Or, as at the 17th at the Highlands, do I think I can get away with running it because the green is so steeply banked that it will effectively slow any ball hit into it? In other words, first I think about the shape of the shot.

After figuring out the shape is when I start consulting numbers—but generally these aren’t the yardages to the flag. What I want to know is what the distances are to the front and back of the green, in order to determine whether the green can take the shot I want to hit to it. In short, how much room for error do I have? Only when I have those numbers can I start to think about the effect of wind and elevation: the shot-shape and the front and back yardages have effectively defined the possible solution, generally within a three-club or even two-club range. By the time I’m thinking about elevation, in other words, I’ve already eliminated much of the bag.

At the 17th at Medinah, for instance, the flag can either be at the front left or the back right, or somewhere in between. The back right location has almost no room to land the ball, so if my golfer is trying to get there—not something I’d advise normally—the flight has to be high in order to get the ball to stop. At that point I can think about the distance, which is usually around 175 yards from the middle tee box. That means that my golfer is usually trying to hit a full, high 6-iron into the green; that’s possible if the wind is behind, but not so much if the wind is against.

Wind can interact differently depending on the particular hole, too. Medinah’s 17th, like Augusta’s 12th, is protected by a hillside stocked with a strong stand of tall trees. Hence, on a front left pin where there’s more room for the ball to run, I might actually ask the golfer to hit less club than the wind might indicate, because it’s possible to hit a low-flighted ball that stays below the treeline and is thus protected from the wind. Such a ball might roll out a bit, but because there’s room to run it out it might be a better shot than a fuller shot with more club, because the full shot would rise above the treeline and be buffeted back to earth.

Most golfers get this backwards: in effect, they pick the club first and then think about what kind of shot they are going to hit with it. But this is ineffective; it’s like looking around for nails because the only tool you’ve got is a hammer, as the saying goes. As I’ve said before, yardages are, if not irrelevant in the final analysis, at least merely one factor; Sam Snead, it’s often said, could hit any club in his bag 50 to 200 yards. The point is that what club you hit into a given green is something that you should determine at the time, in the conditions you find there—if you find yourself always hitting the same club into a given green, either you’re playing too easy a set of tees or you’re kidding yourself.

What I’m suggesting is that if there’s a big elevation change on some hole on your course consider it a personal Col de la Ramaz. Instead of dreading it, though, you should welcome it, because it’s your opportunity either to deliver a knockout punch to your opponent if you’re up—or get back into the game if you’re down. It’s an opportunity to use what Bobby Jones considered the most dangerous 6 inches in golf—your mind.

Escaping Alcatraz

Stone walls do not a prison make,
Nor iron bars a cage;
Minds innocent and quiet take
That for an hermitage.
—“To Althea, From Prison”
Richard Lovelace, 1642.

By the fourth tee, a three-par at Chicago Highlands, I’d had enough. “Look,” I said, “you have to put the bag on the right side.” So far, the other two caddies with me had been placing the bag almost haphazardly, sometimes even behind the golfers. “Oh.” one of them said, “Nobody told us that.” For those unaware, where to place the bag is usually one of the first things one learns in caddie training. But since the Highlands is a new course, without a caddiemaster, the golf pros were doing the training in between setting up kids’ clinics, getting the honeywagon cleaned out, and ordering beer for the beverage cart. Something had to give.

Moving the bag is a sort of skill that is so basic that it’s hard to remember that it is a skill—something unnatural, something that must be taught. Usually a looper learns it the first day and quickly forgets about it: it becomes a reflex, unconscious. It is, in a sense, a fundamental, like the grip a golfer uses to hold the club. But just as golfers know that how to hold the club is critical to hitting a golf shot, moving the bag is one of those skills that can influence everything. Joe Daley taught me that a long time ago, at a tournament that no longer exists.

We—yeah, I said “we”—hadn’t missed a fairway all day, and except for two missed up-and-downs sometime after the turn, it had been one of the most boring rounds of golf ever—which, I would hasten to add, is exactly what pro golfers want. It isn’t that exciting for fans, but if you are trying to make money by putting a ball in a hole there isn’t much better. Walking up the 18th fairway at Kemper Lakes on the first day of the Nationwide Tour’s Chicago Open, I felt pretty good about our chances. Then I saw the scoreboard.

I had first met Joe Daley a few days earlier, after arriving at Kemper near dawn. I’d worked the Illinois PGA sectional there earlier in the year, and I met Kemper’s head pro then. At the beginning of the week I headed to the caddie tent, checked in, and shortly afterward the pro came looking for me, saying he had a guy looking for a local bagman.

He said Joe would be there a bit later, and when I returned to the tent, where a number of veteran tour loopers were drinking coffee and sharing tales of the road; they asked who I’d gotten. I told them. The looks they gave each other—and the little they wanted to talk about the subject—spoke volumes.

Joe Daley’s nickname on tour is “Sarge,” and it isn’t because he has a military past. He has a reputation as a taskmaster with a temper, a temper that some might remember from the time he ended up missing his tour card by a single shot at Q-School in 2000. One of the shots he hit during that six-round tournament came on the 17th hole at the Stadium Course at PGA West, a hole nicknamed “Alcatraz.”

Alcatraz is an island green, like the 17th at TPC Sawgrass. Daley missed the green on his tee shot, got wet, hit his third shot to 18 feet, then missed his first putt. He then hit his second putt, and fifth shot, into the hole—and then, after a second or two, the ball spun out because of a badly-placed cup. (The video is still up on the webs somewhere, I think.) Like its namesake island prison, there is no escape from Alcatraz.

Like a lot of pro golfers, though maybe to an extreme that might be influenced by his experience at Alcatraz, Joe is (or was) obsessed with nearly every detail. That included the actions of his caddie.

Joe, for example, wanted the bag placed directly to his right upon arriving at the ball—which isn’t quite standard practice, which is for the bag to be placed slightly behind the ball. (All relative to the target, of course.) Joe had other ideas too, such as that he wanted his ball washed immediately upon arriving at the green. He didn’t want me to set the bag down and then come back to the ball. He wanted me to wash the ball with the bag still on my shoulders—kind of a pain with a tour bag, which can weigh over fifty pounds.

There’s a famous scene in the movie Hoosiers that maybe demonstrates why pro golfers usually are obsessed with minor details like this, though not often to that degree. In the scene, Gene Hackman’s team of nobodies from small-town Indiana have reached the state finals at the big fieldhouse in Indianapolis. None of the team has ever seen a building that big before. Hackman’s character tells his assistant to measure the height of the basket. It’s ten feet. The foul line is regulation too: Hackman wants to demonstrate that nothing about the court is different, just the size of the stands. It’s a lesson in the idea of the “level playing field” so beloved, say, of international economists.

A scene like that though would never work in a golf movie—because in golf, there’s no such thing as a level playing field. Joe Daley’s experience at Alcatraz is maybe the extreme example of that: even the properties of the cup, though almost always the same, could possibly be different. Even if it’s just that one day, out of thousands of possible days … In golf, far more than almost any other sport, there’s so little within human control that golf pros can become a little OCD with the things that are within their control.

All of which can tend to make Joe out to be kind of an oddity, which he is in a way, but I don’t want to suggest he’s a bad guy. He isn’t—in fact, he’s quite an intelligent one, and pretty engaging. He had a theory about how he wanted the bag placed: it created, he said, a “workspace” for him. Before it was set down, he was effectively on break, willing to chat about just about anything. Once the bag was down, however, Joe was working.

That’s in line with the thinking of a number of instructors and sports psychologists, all of whom claim that the golfer must distinguish between what happens between shots, walking up the fairway for instance, and what happens after reaching the ball. It’s the reigning philosophy of Vision54, the Swedish golf school that takes Ben Hogan’s dream of birdieing every hole literally—and produced Annika Sorenstam.

Pia Nilsson and Lynn Marriott, the partners in Vision54, describe in their book Every Shot Must Have a Purpose, a distinction between what they call the “Think Box” and the “Play Box”: “All decisions,” they say, “are made in the Think Box.” “All action,” on the other hand, “unfolds in the Play Box.”

What they argue is that golfers should make their decisions about what shot to hit and so on before getting over the ball—but once over the ball, decision-making ends and all effort is devoted to execution. The golfer has to create a difference between ordinary and extraordinary space, the space between the ball and the space over the ball.

Part of that difference is created by the caddie, by where the bag is set down, which may act as a conditioning agent like Pavlov’s tinkling bell, alerting the golfer not that dinner is served, but that it’s time to hit a shot. And it’s right here that the deep strangeness both of the act of setting the bag down, which Joe Daley somehow intuited, and the theories of golf coaches, comes to light.

The idea of course is the same as that animating, say, the creation of universities or research labs or monasteries: the idea of a separate sphere where the “life of the mind” or the “life of the spirit” can be undertaken without concern for mundanities like where the beer cart is, for instance. That at least makes the act of setting the golf bag down into a kind of profound, even mystical, act.

It’s worth remembering at this point, however, the old philosophical notion of the dialectic—if setting a golf bag down can be an expression of the same impulse that led to religion or science, it may also be attached to the same sort of impulse that led, say, to “redlining” certain neighborhoods in American cities, or the U.S. Supreme Court’s “separate but equal” decision of Plessy v. Ferguson. Divorcing oneself from the rest of the world, after all, is not always an angelic act. It is, though, a consequential one—even if you are unaware of those consequences. Just like my fledgling loopers at the Highlands, for instance, Southerners and Northerners, Germans and South Africans, have always defended themselves against accusations about segregation by saying “I didn’t know” or “Nobody told me”—a defense that only works if one presumes it matters whether everyone has the same knowledge. Or in other words, a level playing field.

It may be, however, that such fields are becoming harder to find; maybe the lesson of where to put the golf bag, then, is a better one to teach than the lesson of Hoosiers—it’s a film explicitly drenched in nostalgia, after all. Maybe golf, in that sense, better fits the conditions of the contemporary world: when I walked up the 18th at Kemper with Joe Daley’s bag on the first day of that long-ago tournament, we had missed maybe two shots all day. Then I saw the scoreboard—our two over par, which seemed not so bad to me, was 12 shots off the lead.

Golf, unlike basketball, has little to do with “fair,” and maybe that’s a good lesson—if the world is like Alcatraz. It’s worth remembering, however, that Joe Daley’s story is only notable for being so odd, just like the claim to fame of Alcatraz the prison rested on its being different not only from the world itself, but even other prisons. Sometimes the world is like Hoosiers and sometimes it’s like Alcatraz—but it isn’t all one or the other. Thinking it is one or the other is just another form of imprisonment—or in other words, another way of waiting for someone to tell you how to get out.

Pebble Beach Wins U.S. Open

Pebble Beach came to Open Sunday like your average American youth or recent winners of the Tour de France: paranoid, angry, and full of resentment. For two consecutive days the course took it in the teeth from Phil Mickelson, Dustin Johnson, and Tiger Woods, who each lit up the Monterey coast the first two days of the weekend like it was in Louisiana, not California. Winged Foot and Bethpage might have been sniggering somewhere about “Torrey-Way-North.” But the course came back on the last day, delivering roundhouse after roundhouse, and the U.S. Open ended up being more notable for the dogs that didn’t bark.

Johnson, who had looked like the favorite after Saturday, got it first. He went six-over through the fourth hole after a triple, a double, and a bogey on holes two through four. Mickelson quietly snuck out of the picture after a birdie on the first hole—which he never duplicated the rest of the way. And Tiger bogey half the front nine to take himself out of contention shortly after the turn. This isn’t even to talk about Ernie Els or Davis Love or any of the others close to the lead—none of whom jumped out to claim the title when the leaders stumbled.

Part of Pebble’s mystique has been the name players who have won its Opens: Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson, and Tiger Woods (Tom Kite, who won in ‘92, tends to get left out of the discussion). Certainly one way to judge golf courses is by the players that win there. But for every Ben Hogan there is a Jack Fleck, and there needs to be some independent means of judging. History cannot be everything.

That brings me around to something I’ve been promising for a while now: a report on Medinah’s grand re-opening of Course #3 in preparation for the next Ryder Cup in America, coming in 2012. I’m going to leave out all the nonsense that surrounded the opening itself and get right to the golf course. And if there is a word that describes the new-look #3, it is this: “Florida.”

Mostly this is due to the brand-new 15th hole, which actually looks a bit like it could be a hole on that other course I have been describing this spring, Chicago Highlands. It’s very open, unlike Medinah’s usual tree-induced claustrophobia. Water runs up the right side, just as it does on Chicago Highland’s hole 11, which is a specimen of “Cape” hole. Unlike a Cape hole, however, the water on Medinah’s 15th is there not so much to disturb the tee shot—though it will—as to guard the reverse-Redan style green.

The idea is to require a player rolling the ball along the ground to hit a left-to-right shot, while the better player attacking from the air comes into the green right-to-left. This is all well and good and according to contemporary golf architecture manuals. It even fits in with many of Medinah’s other holes, which often require a tee shot with one shape and an approach shot with the opposite shape. Nonetheless, there’s something off about this hole.

Geoff Shackelford, the golf writer and architect, noted in a post about Medinah’s re-do that he’s “having a hard time envisioning a lake looking natural up there.” “Hopefully,” he goes on to say, “it’ll have a fountain.” Well, it doesn’t—yet—but it does make the golf course look like every course the tour plays in January, February and March. The only thing missing, besides the fountain, is a car from the title sponsor sitting in the middle of the pond.

There is one concession to tradition about the hole: there aren’t any yardage markers as yet. I presume that will shortly be rectified, but there is something charming about simply eyeballing your approach. Also, unlike virtually every other hole at Medinah, it is possible to run a shot up to the hole rather than requiring a high-flying long iron. It is possible that it will turn out to be a great addition to the golf course: it does seem to have potential for drama, particularly given the match-play format of the Ryder Cup. The sort of drama that didn’t happen at this year’s U.S. Open.

Thunderstorms and Neon Greens

There’s big black clouds blowin in from the west
I’ve been drivin all day lord I sure could use some rest
There’s a motel up ahead where I can unwind
Cause I sure love thunderstorms and neon signs

I grew up on the rough from town to town
My daddy’s line of work kept us movin’ around
I got fond memories of the what things were back then
The warmth of the neon when a bad storm was movin’ in

[So] whenever I hear the wheels begin to whine
It takes me back to another time.

—“Thunderstorms and Neon Signs”

Wayne Hancock.

“He hit it too hard” was the first thing I thought when the ball left the face of the putter. We were on the 17th hole of Chicago Highlands a week or so ago, in the middle of a match between a member (whom I will refer to as Mr. B) and his partner and two guests. A moment earlier I had asked Mr. B to play his birdie putt well above the hole, a line that even he thought might be too high, though we’d been having success all day on the lines I chose for him. Now the match was on the line—a win on this hole would close out the bets—and he, though doubting, went with my read anyway. And now it looked like the ball was going to go by the cup without so much as saying hello.

Making putts is a matter of two different factors: speed and line. It’s always possible to hit every putt directly at the hole, provided you hit it hard enough, but too hard and it’s unlikely that the ball will be traveling slowly enough to fall into the cup—instead it will, as the noted pro Isaac Newton predicted, just keep traveling over it. Making putts is a matter of choosing the right direction to aim (line) and the right amount of force to apply to the ball (speed).

I came across a good metaphor for the process listening to NPR last week about the benefits of free range beef herding, where I learned that grass seeks “bilateral symmetry at the soil horizon.” What that means that roots tend to go as deep as the shoots above the surface, and vice versa—roots must balance the shoots, in other words, just as speed has to balance line. But the slogan is also useful for golf in a literal way, because of what it teaches about grass itself.

That I was listening to the program at all was because it rained all day in Chicago, a good steady and soaking rain that sunk in deep. That’s good for the golf courses because the water drives so far that it takes the roots of the grass down with it as those roots—seeking that symmetry—chase after the water. Deep roots means that the greenkeepers will be able to cut the greens shorter, or in other words faster.

Faster greens means that it takes less force to hit a ball to the hole, which is to say that speed becomes discounted relative to line. I can’t hit the ball for my golfers, but I can tell them where to play it: for me, line is more important than speed, because that’s what I can control. So if line is at a premium in relation to speed, then it’s likely I can be more helpful. So despite being a day off for me, rain days are important because they help promote line as opposed to speed.

Rain days can also be fun though too: it’s a tradition both on tour and in caddie yards across the country to spend a rain day at the movies. Movie houses near tournaments might get a dozen tour players and their caddies during a good soak, as during the recent Memorial tournament, and I can relate a few times when the entire Medinah yard has popped up at the nearest theater.

There was, for instance, the one time in the late 90s when a friend and I went to see Something About Mary—and then, after it was over and we were in the parking lot, went back and saw it again. We weren’t exactly discerning critics then, not that much has changed since.

Such moments might appear the antithesis of golf, but they aren’t really. Rain days, inactive as they are, actually affirm golf’s connection, however tenuous it might be in these days of SubAir drainage systems and computer-directed irrigation systems, to the natural world. Rain days are reminders of what might seem like the past, a world subsumed by modernity: which believes, as the Englishman L.P. Hartley put it in The Go-Between long ago, “The past is another country; they do things differently there.”

But as William Faulkner wrote nearly sixty years ago, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Part of the mental furniture of our lives of cell phones and televisions, cars and airplanes, is the belief that there is some fundamental difference between now and then. It’s possible to argue that the former requires the latter, but it’s likely that such is an unanswerable question—which makes it, at least according to the modern world, uninteresting.

If our everyday lives, in other words, are lived according to the rule of speed, where we simply charge headlong at our goals as fast as we are able, rain days remind us of the importance of line: that it isn’t always so important that we are making progress as that we are aiming at the right targets. It’s hard to tell which should be more important in our own lives, of course, which is one reason why I enormously enjoy juxtaposing Hartley and Faulkner—Hartley, the European, in a way advocates for the importance of speed, while Faulkner, the American, does the same for line, which nicely scrambles our traditional association of Europe with the past and America with the future. If only deciphering the world, or the 17th green at Chicago Highlands, were so simple: according to the social scientists there is more social mobility in Europe now than America.

As it so happens, on Mr. B.’s putt the slope of the green was so severe that traveling up it caused the ball to lose more speed than I thought it would; it reached the apex of its arc and traveled slowly, but then more quickly as gravity took over, toward the hole. Somehow, the ball knew the balance between speed and line better than either of us: the cup, with complete indifference, accepted the ball directly in its center.

Three-Week Comas and 200-Yard Wedges

“No, I like the wedge. Seriously.” I was looping for my first Medinah member to make the trip to Chicago Highlands, and trying to talk him into hitting a wedge from 192 yards. He was a short hitter, and had probably never hit a wedge more than 140 yards in his life, so he was having trouble buying it.

Looping the Highlands has been fascinating from day-to-day, not only because of how much the wind can affect shots, but also, and perhaps predominantly, because of the hard bounces that come from the turf. I’m told that the hardness will soften with time, but as of now playing there is like playing on the Streif at Kitzbuhel—the hardest downhill skiing racecourse in the world. But it’s hard to get that idea across to men used to playing the typically soft courses of the American Midwest, where overwatering is a way of life.

There’s something to be learned from the Streif however. It begins with the infamous Mausefalle (“Mousetrap”) and proceeds through the Karusell to end after the Zielschuss, and speeds can break 90 mph. It’s been the site of several of the most serious crashes in ski racing history, most recently Daniel Albrecht’s crash in 2009 that resulted in a three-week coma. But it isn’t the speed that makes the Streif so dangerous. The Mausefalle, for instance, can be deadly not because of the speed, at least not entirely. It’s called the Mousetrap because it’s a high-speed jump followed by an extreme left turn—and not everyone can make the transition. It isn’t the jump, in other words, but where you land that can mean life and death in the Alps.

Chicago Highlands certainly does not risk life and limb in quite that way, but the course forces you to pay attention to the ground. This is something that I think most (American) golfers don’t really understand, although at the highest levels it’s been known for some time. A recent article in the Financial Times makes the point for me: “the short-game expert Dave Pelz once conducted some research for the PGA Tour, and found that it was not the pros with the best driving or iron play or even putting statistics who were winning the most money, but those had the best chipping and pitching.” And when it comes to chipping and pitching, “the first thing to decide before you play a chip shot is not what club you’re going to use—it’s where to land the ball.” This is something extremely useful for every player, I’ve found: my usual first question around the green has for years been “where do you want to land it?”

From that question flows all else. It determines what sort of shot the golfer is going to play: high or low, spinning or rolling. And that then determines what club to hit. Thinking about chipping in this way, I think, not only will help your game but also make it a lot more fun than mindlessly grabbing for your sand wedge every time you are within 20 yards of the green—you’ll start to imagine the sorts of shots that are possible, and with time begin to hit them too. And really that’s the fun of the game: figuring out an answer to the problem the course throws at you. Otherwise you might as well be at the range.

In the case of my Medinah member, we were—although he might not have realized it at the time—essentially playing a shot from 192 as if it were a chip from just off the green, because the course is so fast that it can effectively expand the area around each green. Although almost 200 yards, in other words, the way I thought about it was the same way I’d think about a chip from 2 yards off the green: where to land it? In this case, downwind and downhill, the place to land it was well in front of the green, where it would get a pretty good kick to the left which would then be exaggerated by the green itself. That is what happened, and he ended up with about a ten-footer for birdie.

Which, of course, he missed—since he wouldn’t shut up about hitting a “200-yard wedge.”

Finding the Head By Losing Your Way

It was obvious the kid had, as the old loopers say, “lost the head” by this point. He’d been playing well to now, for a child who, as near as I could tell, wasn’t in high school yet. He was a big hitter, driving it over 220. But this time that wasn’t enough—he’d put it right in the huge bunker that sits across the 18th fairway at Chicago Highlands, where I’ve been working lately while waiting for Medinah’s main track to open. Now he was preparing to hit a 5-wood out of it, despite the fact that he had to know that a 5-wood had no chance of clearing the lip of the bunker. I found the rake and waited, figuring we might be a while.

Sportswriters and the athletes who swallow their repetitious phrases like to talk about golf, like other sports, as being about “one shot at a time,” or as Tiger Woods likes to say, “baby steps.” I don’t know much about other sports, but in golf it’s nonsense: every shot sets up the next, and if you aren’t thinking about your next shot you aren’t really playing. That’s what the old caddies mean when they talk about “losing the head”: what they mean is the golfer has become so obsessed with this shot that he’s lost sight of the overall goal.

According to the Wall Street Journal recently, the game itself may have lost its head in recent years; apparently my young charge is something of an anomaly. The story the paper ran was entitled “Golf’s Big Problem: No Kids Are Joining The Game.” This, the same month during which the young have dominated the world of men’s tournament golf: an 18 year-old Ryo Ishikawa shot 58 to win in Japan on the same day that 20 year-old Rory McIlroy shot 62 to win at Quail Hollow on the PGA Tour; this past week a 22 year-old Jason Day won the Byron Nelson while a 16 year-old Jordan Spieth not only made the cut, but finished tied for 16th. The Bible of the financial community, however, ties it together by way of blaming Tiger Woods: his rise inspired a great many juniors not only to hone their games, but also a lot of golf courses to get longer; “Tigerproofing” as Augusta National’s changes were called some years ago. “Want to make an eight-year-old cry?” asks the Journal. Just throw the child on the “testosterone-induced courses constructed over the past decade.” But the course I’ve been working at, Chicago Highlands, has it seems been developed precisely in order to answer these questions.

The club has a two-pronged strategy. The first is straightforward: free lessons any time. It’s an interesting development in terms of labor relations between golf pros and their clubs: standard practice is for pros to be paid by the lesson. Perhaps it’s in part a response to the increasing amount of graduates of professional golf management programs in the nation’s universities now that the split between club pros and touring pros has seeped down to the college level—which itself might be analogous to the situation whereby increasingly lower-level courses in the universities are taught by graduate students and “adjunct” faculty: i.e., people without tenure, i.e. cheaper. Strictly in terms of golf’s growth, however, it’s amazing no one has thought of this before: the sport has never really been taught at a mass level, which is why most if not everyone is so, so incredibly bad at it.

(As an aside, has there ever been a human activity in the history of the world in which people have been both so incredibly awful and yet passionate about it at once? Discuss.)

The second strategy pursued by the Highlands is one that’s been proposed many times, but that most courses have been reluctant to do: building multiple tee boxes. Most golf courses have two, or possibly three tee boxes; only recently have courses been built with more. More tee boxes means that golfers can arrange themselves according to their skill level better, with consequences for the speed of play for instance. (It should be faster.) On the other side is the fact that more tee boxes cost more in terms of mowing and watering and so on. But what’s never been really argued, so far as I know, is whether or not by appealing to more people, multiple tee boxes would draw more people into the game, and thus pay for itself—which is what the Journal implicitly argues. Chicago Highlands, which seems to agree with the thought, has six different tees.

Now, the decision of which tee to play is one that always runs up against the equation that longer equals better. Certainly longer does, on the whole, equal harder, but that’s not always the case; witness, for instance, two of the golf courses at my usual club, Medinah. Course No. 3, site of five major championships and numerous tour events, is at present more than 1200 yards longer than Course No. 2, but there are those who might argue that No. 2 is the better golf course.

Course No. 3 presents innumerable challenges, sure, but often they aren’t strategic decisions—they’re just examinations of whether the golfer can hit the required shot. Can you hit a two-hundred yard shot over water that stops on the green? for example. Course No. 2, however, presents lots of strategic decisions: the fifth hole asks for a decision to hit anything from a seven-iron to a driver off the tee, depending on how much the golfer wants to risk. The question of which one is a better golf course depends on whether one thinks that golf is more about physical ability or intelligent decisions.

Multiple tee boxes means that every player can find a length that allows them to forget about the mechanics of hitting the ball—that’s what the practice range is for—and immerse themselves in making decisions about what to do. Or in other words, begin playing golf, instead of hitting shots. In effect, more tees means more golf—even for the better player. Even the single-digit handicapper might find another world opening up by playing his usual course from one or two tees closer: suddenly, shots open up never available before, and thus different decisions.

The Highlands is, as I’ve mentioned before, already a golf course built around playing golf, rather than hitting shots. Multiple tee boxes just opens up that many more possibilities. A good player could have just as much, if not more, fun playing the course from the most forward tee box on every hole as he could from the back. Take the 7th hole for instance: from the black tees, it measures 623 yards, a monster. But from the red tees, it’s only 430. Yet, assuming it were thence considered a par four rather than a par five, it might not play very easily; at that distance a number of bunkers unreachable from the black tees—and almost incidental for a good player—are suddenly in play.

St. Andrews is the ultimate example of what we might call “course hacking” in this way: at the beginning of every season, the course is played backwards, or clockwise, as against the usual counter-clockwise hole rotation. That means that you play from the 1st tee to the 17th green, then from the 18th tee to the 16th green, and so on. According to one account, the “result is a lot of blind shots, vague yardage guesses, and people hitting into one another – head on.” Or in other words, fun.

That’s one thing that the kid in the 18th hole’s fairway bunker had forgotten about by then. He was screamingly mad, though completely quiet about it on the outside: a point in his favor I thought. Nevertheless, he went through with his crazed scheme with the 5-wood, which he did manage to get out of the bunker though it went only about 50 yards after catching the lip. He had become obsessed with hitting the shot, in other words, rather than playing the game. It’s a distinction that perhaps the golf world has lost sight of in recent years: 16-year olds building career plans around the PGA Tour might not be the best sign of the game’s health. Playing around with the tee boxes, however, might be a way to find the head again.