Miracle—Or Meltdown?—At Medinah

Very sensible men have declared that they were fully impressed at such a time with the conviction that it was the burning of the world.
—Frederick Law Olmstead
“Chicago In Distress”
The Nation
9 Nov. 1871

“An October sort of city even in spring,” wrote the poet about Chicago. Perhaps that’s why the PGA of America came to Chicago in September, thus avoiding that month of apocalyptic fires and baserunners who forget to tag second. But as it happens, even the Ryder Cup team couldn’t escape the city’s aura by arriving a month early: the Americans still crashed-and-burned during the singles matches on the final day. Ascribing the American loss to “Chicago” is however a romantic kind of explanation—a better one might concern a distinction that golfers of all skill levels ought to think about: the difference between a bad shot and the wrong shot.

The conclusive match at this year’s Ryder Cup was probably that between James Furyk (ha!) and Sergio Garcia, the match that drew the European team level with that of the Americans. After winning the first five matches of the day, the Europeans had suffered setbacks at the hands of the two Johnsons, Dustin and Zach, who had slowed the European charge by winning their two matches. Had Furyk won his match, the American team would have held onto the lead, and since Jason Dufner ended up winning his match immediately afterwards, the United States would only have needed a half in either Steve Stricker’s or Tiger Woods’ matches to win the Cup.

Furyk was leading his match late, one up through 16, and it looked as though he had his match in hand when, in Furyk’s words, he misjudged the wind—it was “a little confusing to the players”—and ended up in the back bunker, where he chipped out and left himself “about a 12-footer straight uphill that I misread.” Furyk went on to say that “I heard that most players missed that putt out to the right today.” Furyk missed his putt by leaving it out to the right.

On the 18th Furyk made another series of miscues: first he hit his drive too far right—he commented later that he “was actually surprised it was in the bunker.” It’s a comment I find difficult to understand: if you know the hole, you know that the 18th tee calls for a draw shot, certainly not a fade, which is to say either that Furyk did not understand the hole (which seems unlikely) or that he completely mishit it. And that raises the question of why he did not understand why he was in the bunker: on a course like Medinah, any mistake of execution—which is essentially what Furyk admitted to—is bound to be punished.

Next, Furyk said that he hit a “very good” second shot, but that “the wind was probably a little bit more right-to-left than it was into [towards]” him and so he “was a little surprised to see [the shot] went as long as it [did].” From there, he said he hit his “first putt exactly how I wanted … but it just kept trickling out,” and his second putt “never took the break.” What each of these shots have in common, notice, is that they are mistakes of judgment, rather than execution: it wasn’t that Furyk hit bad shots, it’s that he hit the wrong shots.

That’s an important distinction to make for any golfer: anyone can hit a bad shot at any time (witness, for instance, Webb Simpson’s cold-shank on Medinah’s 8th hole of Sunday’s singles matches, which is as of this writing viewable at cbssports.com.) Bad shots are, after all, part of golf; as the British writer once wrote of the American Walter Hagen, “He makes more bad shots in a single season than Harry Vardon did from 1890 to 1914, but he beats more immaculate golfers because ‘three of those and one of them’ counts four and he knows it.” Hagen himself said that he expected to “make at least seven mistakes a round,” and so when he hit a bad it one it was “just one of the seven.” But wrong shots are avoidable.

Bad shots are avoidable because they depend not on the frailties of the human body (or, should one wish to extend the thought to other realms, to the physical world entirely) but on the powers of the human mind. In other words the brain, if it isn’t damaged or impaired in some way, ought to arrive at the correct decision if it is in possession of two things: information and time. Since Furyk was playing golf and not, say, ice hockey, we can say that the “time” dimension was not much of an issue for him. Thus, the mistakes Furyk made must have been due to having possession of bad or incomplete information.

It’s at this point that it becomes clear that Furyk’s loss, and that of the American team, was not due to Furyk’s decisions or those of any other player. If Furyk lost because he hit wrong shots, that is, the American side allowed that mistake to metastasize. While the matches were going on John Garrity of Sports Illustrated pointed out, as David Dusek of Golf.com paraphrased it afterwards, that “no one on the U.S. team communicated to the matches behind them that 18 was playing short”—as witness Phil Mickelson bombing his approach over the 18th green—“and that the putt coming back down the hill didn’t break.” Garrity himself later remarked that while he didn’t think much of “the whole ‘cult of the captain’ trend,” he would concede that captains “can lose a Ryder Cup.” “Surely,” he thought, “somebody was supposed to tell the later players how 18 was playing.” On the U.S. side, in short, there wasn’t a system to minimize errors of judgment by distributing, or sharing, information.

That’s a mistake that no individual player can shoulder, because it ultimately falls on the American captain Davis Love III. The golf press is fond of citing the “old saw” that the captains don’t hit any shots in the Ryder Cup. Yet only somebody who isn’t involved in hitting shots—somebody who can survey the whole course—can avoid the mistake observed by Garrity. As a Chicagoan could tell you, any cow can kick over a lantern. But as a Southerner like Love might tell you, only another kind of barnyard animal would not think to tell the neighbors about a barn ablaze.

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So Quickly


September has come back,
Again …
So quickly

“When September Arrives, Again”
Lawrence S. Pertillar

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*

*

Nobody, so far as I could tell, took it over the corner on the sixteenth hole on Tuesday, though the wind was blowing hard from the southwest. The sixteenth is also known, at least to those of us who were there, as Sergio’s hole, because of the shot Sergio Garcia hit at the 1999 PGA Championship, when he missed a tree-root, hit his ball—with his eyes closed—and ran up the hill to follow it. It may have been the last moment of pure joy Sergio ever experienced, as the years—and the missed putts—seem to have weighed heavier and heavier on him. But Sergio’s old role, as spark-plug of the European players, seems to have been passed down, as to watch Rory McIlroy today was to see the kind of exhilaration that’s been missing from golf since Sergio took that shot.

I went to the Ryder Cup at Medinah today for two reasons, the first being to take my mom. The other, however, was more purposeful: to see McIlroy. I saw the 1999 PGA and what I remember most about it, aside from seeing Tiger hole out a 280-yard three-wood shot on the range before Saturday’s round, was just hearing the sound the ball made coming off Tiger’s club that year. It didn’t make, or didn’t quite make, the same sound when Tiger returned in 2006: in 1999, his shots sounded like a funeral salute by the USS Missouri followed by the sound of a Saturn V rocket lifting off. The only player whose shots made anything like the same sound that year was Sergio.

I wanted to know if McIlroy’s shots made the same sound, and though, because of the logistical difficulties of negotiating Medinah’s back nine in traffic, I only really got to seem him play one hole—the fourteenth—it was enough. He hit a second shot out of the rough on that hole that made The Sound, a sound that no one else’s golf ball made—and that I haven’t heard since 1999, during the tournament that began Tiger’s superhuman annus mirabilis from that late summer until the spring following the next year. Still, neither McIlroy nor anybody else took over the corner on sixteen, the shot I’ve waiting all season for someone to hit.

Over the winter the crew took out a bunch of trees all over the golf course, and a lot of them were on the inside of sixteen’s dogleg left: there’s now an open area there that used be arboreally enclosed. And with a following wind I thought that, particularly during a practice round, somebody might try it, even if it meant some risk to spectators. But nobody dared. And Tiger had long since left the golf course before his foursome—the teams practiced in foursomes today—reached the sixteenth hole. So I could not tell if Tiger’s golf ball still made the same sound, or how it compared to Rory’s sound.

Which is unfortunate, because almost certainly the story of this Ryder Cup is going to be Tiger vs. Rory, no matter if they end up playing against each other in singles or not (and almost certainly they must, as no one will accept anything else). And that itself begins another chapter in the history of this tournament: a chapter with especial meaning if one takes the Ryder Cup as a metonymy—and as George Orwell once suggested, there isn’t any meaning to athletic competition if we don’t—for some larger story.

“The 1991 Ryder Cup,” begins Curt Sampson’s latest book excerpt in Golf this month, “began in 1985.” That was the year that the European squad—which had been the Great Britain & Ireland side until 1979, and before that simply the British team—beat the Americans at the Belfry, in England. It was the first time the team from the right-hand side of the Atlantic had won since 1957, when the Welsh captain, Dai Rees, and his squad had held off the Americans at Lindrick. And that occasion had itself been the first time the accented team had won since before the Second World War.

“When the first wave of tough young American pros, steeled in the caddie yards, started winning in the late twenties,” Sampson writes, “the game was changed forever.” In those years, one might say, the narrative line was that of the upstart Yanks, the former colonials, come to repay the imperialists. And, for the most part, the “chivalrous but overwhelmed Brits” acted their role: dutifully laying down before the American firepower every two years just as, during the Second World War, the Brits seceded place before the American commanders.

Yet what Rory’s new accession to the world #1 position seems to imply that a new generation of people from the islands to the northwest of the European continent have no memories of the Blitz and rationing, or the strums of Mississippi-born, Chicago-bred Negros on electric guitars. And that, for Europe at last, the long legacy of a century’s battles against totalitarianisms of one kind or another, is over. If the long darkness of the Ryder Cup, as seen from the east side of the sea, mirrored Europe’s own eclipse during the Cold War, in other words, it seems that a new day is dawning.

All of which seems to imply that it is now the United States that plays the role once played by imperial Britain: a fading power, still august in its dotage but whose day is slowly receding. It’s an image that I suppose a great many people, even aside from European golfers, might like to conjure. Yet I happened to watch Bill Clinton on the Daily Show the other day, and he made a point young Rory and his fans—and, perhaps, others with more sinister thoughts— might like to contemplate.

People pessimistic about America, the former president pointed out, ought to know that, in two decades, America will be younger, in a demographic sense, than Europe. It will also be younger than Japan. And also (perhaps more astonishingly)—because of the one-child policy and a complete lack of immigration—America will be younger than China. Which is to say that, even if the next Tiger happens to have been born in Northern Ireland—which hasn’t yet been proven—it may be more likely than not that the next Rory will be born in America. Though, it may be, he will arrive—like the wind on Tuesday—from the southwest, and his surname be not dissimilar from, say, Garcia.

Going Deep at Medinah

The Chicago Sun-Times—cadet-branch descendent of my great-uncle’s newspaper, the Chicago Daily News—had an article the other day on Ryder Cup team captain Davis Love’s views on the proper length of the rough at Medinah: he expects his team to be full of long-hitting bombers “so it would probably be to our benefit not to have really deep rough.” But the length of the rough isn’t one of the most important of the decisions Love will have to make between now and the September matches; the most important is who Davis will choose to fill the four captain’s picks allotted him. I think he ought to listen to what the other players say.

In Golf Is Not a Game of Perfect, Bob Rotella writes that “the kind of memory that promotes good shotmaking” is “a short-term memory for failure and a long-term memory for success.” In other words, a golfer needs to be able to flush out the last shot and move on to the next without a fear. But this is difficult to do, as a study of the PGA Tour may have demonstrated a few years ago: pro golfers are more likely to make a par putt than a birdie putt from the same distance. Devin Pope and Maurice Schweitzer, of the Wharton School, found that the “tendency to miss birdie putts more often existed regardless of the player’s general putting or overall skill; round or hole number; putt length; position with respect to the lead or cut; and more,” according to the New York Times.

The purpose of the paper was to discover more evidence for the notion that human beings are, to use the technical term, “loss averse”: people will go to greater lengths to avoid a loss than they are to reap a gain. Or as the Times puts it, human beings have a “psychological preference to avoid a perceived penalty (losing a stroke relative to par) rather than go for a perceived gain (gaining a stroke).” Human beings are fundamentally pre-disposed to remember failures and pain than they are to remember successes and pleasures; hence, we will do virtually anything to avoid losing but not quite so much to achieve a win—even if, as is the case on tour, birdies are actually more valuable than pars, and even more valuable than bogies are hurtful.

“Given that players typically attempt nine birdie putts per round,” the Times says “this [effect] cost each golfer about one stroke per tournament—which can translate to hundreds of thousands of dollars in prize money.” Or as Pope said, “Even experienced professionals playing for high stakes are not rational”: every stroke counts the same, so presumably tour pros should spend just the same effort on birdie putts they do on par putts, though they demonstrably do not. What that suggests, however, is a strategy Davis Love might employ in seeking to complete his team.

What he needs, in other words, might be players completely without care, who’ll fire a birdie putt with the same gusto they might a par putt. Where could such players be found? I’d suggest that, if you were looking for Americans with a proven ability to ignore the past—though maybe you wouldn’t need to look much further than that—you might go looking for a pool of people used to ignoring potential setbacks in favor of potential gains. They wouldn’t be concerned with possible negative consequences to their actions so much as the possible positive ones. It so happens that there might be a pool of such people in, quite literally, Davis’ backyard—if one cares to look.

Obviously, identifying such a pool would depend on the criteria used; Fox Butterfield, in his All God’s Children: The Bosket Family and the American Tradition of Violence, has perhaps given us one. “There is no one here but carries arms under his clothes,” Alexis de Toqueville recorded an Alabama lawyer telling him in his diary during the travels that produced Democracy in America: an incident cited by Butterfield. Later, in 1880, a correspondent for the Cincinnati Commercial named H.V. Redfield, “put together the first quantitative study of the subject,” Butterfield tells us, which found that homicide rates were perhaps a hundred times greater in the South. In the early 1930s, the first federal study of homicide data found that “the ten states with the highest murder rates were all Southern or border states.” (Compare: “Between June 1849 and June 1850, there was only one recorded murder in [Illinois’] thirty-two northernmost counties.”) Redfield thus became one of the first to argue that “the South had produced a culture of violence.”

It could be argued, so to say, that perhaps it is no accident that if any region of the nation is overrepresented on the PGA Tour, it’s the South—and that those reasons go beyond reliable access to golf-friendly weather. Maybe, in order to play good golf, it’s necessary to be —well, one hesitates to use the word sociopathic—a bit more heedless, a bit more reckless. And maybe Southerners live in a world not quite so unforgiving towards those with a bit of a wild streak in them: perhaps unsurprisingly, since Southerners live in a landscape constructed with the help of one of the worst of human crimes, the one finally ended in 1865.

Maybe this is why the casual golf fan is always being surprised by figures with names like “Webb Simpson,” names that wouldn’t seem out of place were they from deep in Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County or minor characters in To Kill a Mockingbird. Regardless, it does suggest a strategy for Davis when he’s selecting the members of his team: all things being equal, pick the Southerner. He might be completely irrational, but that’s not a disqualification for golf. All that Davis has to do to find his team, in other words, is listen for the accent.

The Razor’s Edge

… for that path is sharp as a razor’s edge, impassable,
and hard to follow, say the wise.
—Katha Upanishad 1.3.14
 

“Never start a ball over a hazard,” said the kid, with a confused look on his face. He was baffled, though he might not have described it this way, because while many might think that the patron saint of golf, if it has one, is Saint Andrew (whose ensign, an “X,” isn’t particularly encouraging for a golfer, and whose feast day, November 30, isn’t a particularly good one for golf, at least in the Northern Hemisphere), it’s actually William of Ockham, whose commemoration date is that ideal day of the 10th of April, and who is best-known for writing “Plurality should not be postulated without necessity,” otherwise known to philosophers as “Occam’s Razor.” Or, to put it in golf terms, the notion that you ought to play a hole in as few shots as possible. What was perplexing the kid was that the hole we were looking at smashed that straight to hell. Sorting it out, in turn—a phraseology not used lightly—necessitates considering Walt Disney, Tiger Woods, the Rules of Golf, long-handled putters and the recent changes regarding Q-School proposed by the PGA Tour, though getting there implies a less-direct route than William might like.

The kid and I were standing on the tee of one of the weirder holes I’ve ever seen: a sweeping dog-leg 5-par around an oxbow bend in the Buffalo Bayou, Houston’s main river. The tee shot is basically blind: you can see the beginning of the fairway but not the rest of the hole; the dogleg is so severe that hitting the ball that way is too short a distance for a driver. The only way to play that hole, in other words, is to flout deliberately one of those rules professional golfers live by, the rule that you should never intentionally put a hazard into play. But in order to play this hole in the fewest amount of strokes it’s necessary to take the risk of the hazard: the conundrum put the aspiring-tour-pro head of the kid into brain-lock.

On most days, I was the kid’s caddie, on what was then the Adams Tour, a mini-tour based in Texas during the late fall into winter, but since getting to Houston he’d had trouble breaking 90 in the stiff Texas wind, and, in need of cash, we’d both turned to looping like attractive would-be pre-med coeds turn to … well, whatever it is that they do. So there we were, at Houston Country Club, the oldest golf club in Houston and one of the oldest in Texas, and though the golf course isn’t as old as the club (which had moved from its old location in the 1950s), still it was designed by Robert Trent Jones, Sr., one of the giants of golf architecture.

Houston Country Club is a posh joint run by old-time oil swells (one of its founders was Howard Hughes’ father, Howard Hughes, Sr.): all of which is to say that HCC is probably one of the most conservative places in the country, if not the planet. It’s disturbing, in other words, to find such a rebel of a hole at the golf course’s heart: in order to score well on that course a birdie is absolutely necessary there, which is to say that it demands precisely that rule-flouting that the club’s members, presumably, would abhor in their own lives. But you play the golf course as you find it, not how you’d wish it to be—and if the members of Houston Country Club are unaware of the ironies of their own course, then that’s one of the burdens of professional knowledge, I suppose. That doesn’t mean, to be sure, that the swells can’t suddenly re-discover the rules when it’s convenient, though—a point that has a direct bearing on the story that Houston Country Club and its caddie program is best-known for having a tangential connection with these days, since it was there that Taylor Smith completed his back nine on this planet.

Taylor Smith finished his days as a caddie at Houston CC in 2007, at the age of 40, apparently of pancreatitis. He’d never married, never had any children so far as anyone knows. He is, at best, a footnote in golf history: the guy who’d almost had to face down Tiger Woods in a playoff but didn’t and, because he didn’t, handed Tiger his second win on tour. The story of how he didn’t is a story about conflicting rules and how to apply them, and perhaps is instructive about golf and other matters.

The scene of the tale was Walt Disney World in October of 1996, the PGA Tour’s Orlando stop and one of the last chances for a player to make enough money to secure his tour card for the following season. Smith didn’t particularly need that chance: he’d already had two top-five finishes and would finish the season with a comfortable $220,000, which in those days was more than enough to make the top 125. Still, Smith was still looking for a win and at Orlando he not only made the cut, but spent Saturday night sleeping near the lead along with another guy whose career would also be cut short: Payne Stewart. Then there was a kid whose last name was Woods.

Back then Eldrick was still a young golfer trying to solidify his presence on the Big Show: though only a bit before the Disney he’d already won at the Las Vegas Invitational (beating Davis Love in a playoff), which meant his status for the next season wasn’t in doubt, he hadn’t yet become the Tiger Woods of whom other golfers were, for a time, afraid. Smith, in the final round, surely didn’t play scared: he calmly rolled in a putt on the last green to tie Woods at 267 for the tournament, 21 shots under par. And that despite the fact that, even aside from Woods, he had every reason to be anxious during that final round.

Earlier that day, while making the turn, Smith’s playing partner Lennie Clements, noticed something about the putter Smith was using: one of the two grips the long putter had was flat on one side. Clements knew this was a problem, and indeed a rules official confirmed that the putter violated Appendix II, 4-1c(v): “A putter may have more than one grip, provided each is circular in cross-section and the axis of each coincides with the axis of the shaft.” Smith played on anyway under an appeal of the decision and finished the round. But his protest—and the fact that, as many acknowledged then and now, there’s little reason to think that the flat grip could have assisted him any more than the fact that he had a broom-handle putter (perfectly allowable under the rules) already anyway—fell on deaf ears. Woods thereby won by default.

Smith won a lot of plaudits after the tournament though, via what many called the “classy” way he handled his DQ. When it was all over, he said that Clements “did the right thing” by calling over a rules official, and according the Orlando Sentinel a year later, Smith’s “noble handling of the disappointment gained him coast-to-coast style points.” But the same story (“As a Rule of Thumb, Give Smith His Due”) also hints at something darker: “tour insiders,” it says, “say he has had difficulty letting it go.” What Smith “dwelled on,” the story says, was “the revelations about the possibility that Woods, too, had been unknowingly playing Disney with a non-conforming putter.”

The tour got a phone call, it seems, on the Monday after the tournament was over that alleged that Tiger’s Scotty Cameron putter—the same one that he’d also used to win at Las Vegas earlier that fall—did not conform to Rule 4-1b of the Rules of Golf, which mandated that the neck of a putter measure five inches or less from the point of contact with the shaft and the putter’s bottom. The tour called Tiger’s camp immediately—but didn’t actually inspect the putter until two days later, by which time it had already been replaced in Tiger’s bag by another, conforming, putter. Which, as it turns out, was something of a moot point anyway, since as Rule 34-1 holds, “a penalty must not be rescinded, modified or imposed after the competition has closed,” a rule that has something of the same effect as Article I, Section 9 (the rule against ex post facto laws) does in the United States Constitution. Because Smith’s non-conforming putter was discovered at the time, in other words, he suffered a penalty that Tiger, whose putter never did get inspected, escaped.

Almost certainly, of course, that Woods wasn’t subject to the same level of scrutiny as Smith was what bothered Smith—though more certainly Smith isn’t around to be asked about it. Why it’s of anything more than an antiquarian’s interest though is in light of the recent proposal of the PGA Tour to eliminate Q-School as a direct route to the tour. Smith originally got on the Big Show through Q-School, the annual tournament whose final stage is 6 days long and is probably the most grueling competition in golf, while Tiger, of course, never had to play Q-School because he got invited to tournaments through sponsor exemptions—and then he won. Yet the routes of both of these men to the tour would be closed if the tour has its way.

Under a proposal first outlined to PGA Tour players at the annual meeting on the Tuesday before the tour stop at Torrey Pines, Q-School as a route to the PGA Tour would be eliminated. Instead, the Fall Finish tournaments (of which the Disney used to be one) would become a three-event shootout between the top 75 Nationwide players and the 75 Big Show players on the bubble, with 50 PGA Tour cards at stake. The Q-School tournament, whose traditional dates in early December would in any case be disrupted by the new format, would become merely a route to the Nationwide Tour.

Or whatever they will call it, since the PGA Tour has also announced that Nationwide Insurance is pulling out as a title sponsor. One of the consequences of that decision might be that Tiger’s route to the PGA Tour might also be closed: a few potential sponsors of the Fall Finish tournaments have said that they aren’t interested unless their tournaments are part of the FedEx Cup chase, which means that the new PGA Tour season will have to start in October right after the Tour Championship. Instead of being events traditionally skipped by the bigger names on tour, who usually take a break after the Tour Championship—and thus allowing younger guys like Woods to catch some sponsor exemptions and get a chance to compete at a high level without directly facing the best of the best immediately—the change threatens to make the PGA Tour a constant, year-around affair.

And, perhaps solving some headaches for the tour’s staff, would immediately have the effect of dividing professional golfers rather handily into two classes: PGA Tour players and all others. Instead of the fluidity represented by the careers of Tiger and Taylor, we’d have very, very solidly defined career paths: players, even great ones, would have to spend a year on the Nationwide Tour (or whatever it is named in the future) without exception, while there also would be no way for a marginal player to catch lightning in a bottle for a week and ride to a fun (and lucrative) year on the PGA Tour. The new system would act … well, very much like a razor, sharply delineating who is deserving of special treatment and who is not with what is evidently a satisfying clarity to the tour.

It will also have the effect of multiplying the classes of golfers into two: those with access to the rich purses of the PGA Tour and those playing on whatever the Nationwide Tour will become, where the purses are roughly one-tenth as much. It might be worth noting, in this connection, that while generally speaking the kid’s rule about where you should never start your tee shot is valid, it’s also true that there is, in golf architecture, a species of golf hole known as a “Cape hole.” The species is named for the 14th at C.B. Macdonald’s National Golf Links of America, on Long Island; what makes it the archetype for the species is that a water hazard runs along one side of a fairway that curves around it, meaning that the further a tee shot is flown over the hazard the greater the potential reward in terms of distance left to the green. At times, in other words, it’s necessary to hit it directly at a hazard. Houston Country Club’s par-five is an example.

There are, also, others.

Fifteen-Love

It wasn’t just that the shot was right at the flag, nor that it seemed to hang in the crystalline air of late summer/early fall like an angel misplaced it in the sky, that was so impressive. It was the purity of the strike, a purity communicated at once by the crack of contact announced at the moment of impact and reinforced by the directness of the ball’s flight—a flight that said this ball was on business and had no time for wind currents or other foolery. It was a ball that demanded, “Pay me”—pay before it even hit the ground, pay before it did that impossible thing that could only cost you more, pay before you’d owe more than you could possibly settle.

The shot was from the fifteenth tee at Medinah, a new tee that was built specifically for the 2012 Ryder Cup. I was first on the tee at the fifteenth hole, so I walked up to the Ryder Cup captain, Davis Love III, and introduced myself. Love is well-known as a “Southern gentleman”—a term with its own ironies, as I’ve been reading Fox Butterfield’s All God’s Children: The Bosket Family and the American Tradition of Violence—so I was careful to remove my hat and sunglasses first. “I’m Davis Love,” he said, and I went on to go out to forecaddie for my group.

Despite the efficiency of his tee-ball, Davis was not in town on Ryder Cup business. He’d already done that the week prior, when what was supposed to be “Media Day” at Medinah—to showcase the course a year prior to the matches—was washed out by a frigid rainstorm. (During that trip, Love and Jose Olazabal, the European captain, hit golf balls from the 15th-floor balcony of the Trump hotel to a green floating on a barge on the Chicago River; the video is amusing though badly shot, unfortunately. But it does give a sense of the weather on Media Day.) Instead, he was essentially performing for the enjoyment of the day’s principle guests: holders of American Express’ “Black Card.”

The Black Card was invented on the back of unfocused rumors during the 1980s—wild stories about how the richest of the rich were possessed of a kind of magical key that could open any door. American Express at the time denied the rumors, but in 1999 the company turned rumor into reality by creating the “Centurion Card”: a black card. Which is to say that the card’s invention may owe itself to gossip—an odd origin for a financial instrument, one might think.

Yet the Black Card is one of those symbols of wealth that have begun to pop up in recent decades: like Bugatti sports cars or Louis Vuitton luggage. From what I know, in the 1970s no one, even the wealthiest, knew about Bugatti sports cars or Louis Vuitton luggage. Things of that sort were the products of alien technology, or (it is the same) of craftsmen whose art dated far back into the Victorian Age. No one had them, or even knew they existed. Not even the wealthy, really. Which is to say that it might be best possible to understand the last 40 years of American life as the discovery of la dolce vita by the descendants of the peasants of five continents.

Part of that life is learning the aristocratic game of discovering the “best” or “most elegant” of products: this is, largely, what Apple Computer has learned to sell, for instance. It’s a game whose ends are not merely in the enjoyment of the commodity, but also in the matter of exclusion: surely one of saffron’s selling points in previous centuries wasn’t just the taste it adds to cooking (which it does) but also in the fact that your average peon out in the fields wasn’t getting his hands on any. Part of the enjoyment of having a Black Card, in other words, is knowing that almost nobody else has it. Wherever you are, you are likely to be the only one.

The Black Card, it seems, organizes special events for its “members”—to use a bit of corporatespeak—and a round at Medinah, coupled with an appearance by Love, was one of its offerings this year. Clearly, American Express was jerking Davis Love’s golden lasso, the endorsement fees it pays him, and just as clearly Medinah was joining him at the trough of corporate largesse.

This isn’t to say, of course, that Love or Medinah were whoring themselves out—that ship sailed a long time ago, after all. It is, however, to say something about how direct life has become in the past several decades: where once deals might have been made, but never acknowledged, now no one seems even mildly surprised.

Still, though Medinah may have been engaged in mercenary labor that week, the very next week the club returned to one of its oldest and least mercenary of events: Caddie Day. Held this year, as every year, on Columbus Day, Caddie Day is a day set aside by the club to allow its caddies to play the golf course, which then is followed by a dinner, then some sort of after-dinner speech, and finally the distribution of quite-excellent prizes. (This year they included two iPads, in addition to thousands of dollars of golf equipment and many other sorts of objects.)

Last year the first of the Black Card outings, which was something of a last-minute event, had the unfortunate timing of coming on Columbus Day—which meant that some of us had to work on a day ostensibly set aside to reward our season’s labor. Dickensian, no? As they might say in an office on K Street, the optics weren’t good. Nevertheless, a lot of us did work. After all, what choice did we have?

This year however American Express had the good taste to schedule its outing on the Monday prior to Caddie Day, which left us able to enjoy the day and, perhaps as importantly, play the golf course on which we spend the majority of our work days, Course #3. I had the pleasure of playing with Pat Foley, voice of the Chicago Blackhawks and, to my surprise, happened to play decently well: I shot 91. (I made no worse score than double bogey and did not three-putt once, which enabled me to shoot the score I did despite the fact that I was seemingly incapable of hitting an iron shot from the fairway that wasn’t fat.) We won the match we had with the other half of our foursome handily, thanks to steady play by both Pat and myself. Given the fact that the round took something like six hours, I was happy with the result.

The climactic moment of Caddie Day is, always, the presentation of the Caddie of the Year, a title won by some combination of the amount of loops done and the favor of the caddiemaster. There’s never a formula, and the number of loops people have done is always secret. (A classic management technique, btw.) This year’s winner was Cincinnati (short for the Cincinnati Kid), who finally made it after 15 years and somewhere under a dozen firings. The prize he selected was an iPad, donated by a member with somewhat-mysterious connections to the aforementioned Apple Computer. Even caddies, it seems, are not immune to the lure of elegance.

Reports That Davis Love Is Brain-Dead May Not Be Greatly Exaggerated

After waiting the century Mark Twain directed his publishers to wait, his autobiography has finally come out. That has little to do with golf, I suppose, until I tell you I had Twain in mind perusing the latest news about the PGA Tour. That news has concerned the tour’s push for a series of “designated tournaments” that would require some number of appearances from the top players, with the idea of supporting those tournaments—like, for instance, whatever they’re calling the Greater Milwaukee Open now—that have in effect become second-class citizens of the Tour because, for whatever reason (scheduling conflicts, etc.), the top players no longer, or never did, come to play. The LPGA already has a similar policy—but despite being publicly supported by a number of players, including ones on the tour’s policy board, it has been allowed to die a quiet death. The only player, so far as I know, to speak on the record about why is Davis Love III, noted major-winning golfer and, as profiles of him always seem to mention, “Southern gentleman.”

According to Love, reports CBS golf reporter Steve Elling, the problem “is that tournaments under discussion for inclusion as designees had expressed reservations about being cast as failures of a sort.” “‘It sounds great,’” Love told Elling, “‘unless you are one of those tournaments, then it becomes, ‘We have Phil Mickelson, but they made him play.’ I think that almost makes it worse.” This last sentence is, I think, difficult to understand: I can’t say for sure to what the words “almost,” “it,” and “worse” refer.

By “it,” I can only suppose Love means the “stigma” of being a tournament that Tiger et al do not play. But surely anyone can tell which tournaments Tiger does or does not play just by looking at any listing of who is playing. I don’t think it’s any secret that Tiger is probably not going to play the Greater Greensboro Open, whereas Davis Love’s remarks seem to say that this could somehow be kept secret, that somehow nobody would know Tiger wasn’t going to show up that week until they were actually on the grounds.

“Worse” seems to refer to a notion that actually doing something about the de facto split between A-list and B-list tournaments would be counterproductive—taking action, to Love’s mind, would increase, not decrease, the damage. He doesn’t, however, appear quite sure about that—hence the word “almost.” But that’s the way he wants to bet.

Still, why does Love believe that inaction is better than action? His motivation, so far as I can say, has entirely to do with some concept of honor or face or the like: by admitting that some tournaments are not of the same quality as others, those tournaments would lose face. It’s just here that Davis Love’s remarks suggested Twain to me, because of Twain’s penetrating dissection of the Southern mind in Life on the Mississippi.

That mind, Twain says, has everything to do with what’s become known as a “culture of honor” that included dueling and, in the extremis, ambush. Twain cited the following incident as typical of the South, which he found in a local newspaper of the day:

One day last month, Professor Sharpe, of the Somerville, Tenn., Female College, ‘a quiet and gentlemanly man,’ was told that his brother-in-law, a Captain Burton, had threatened to kill him. Burton, it seems, had already killed one man and driven his knife into another.  The Professor armed himself with a double-barreled shot gun, started out in search of his brother-in-law, found him playing billiards in a saloon, and blew his brains out.

Seemingly an isolated incident, but already by 1880 there was study of the South’s violent culture done by a reporter for the Cincinnati Commercial, and in 1933, “the year the federal government first published homicide data for the entire country, the ten states with the highest murder rates were all Southern or border states that had been involved in the Confederacy,” as Pulitzer Prize-winner Fox Butterfield observed in his All God’s Children in 1995. And two researchers at the University of Michigan, Malcolm Gladwell tells us in his recent Outliers, were able to reproduce the same effect in students from the South attending the University of Michigan in the 1990s.

Davis Love’s position about the tour’s proposed new policy, now in limbo, has nothing to do with blood feuds or murder, of course. But his thinking about it, or so I would judge, has everything to do with a notion of “honor,” and that, I would submit, has everything to do with Love’s upbringing in Georgia. In the 19th century, Fox Butterfield observes, Southern juries “were readily prepared to entertain arguments that a defendant had … been provoked on a point of honor,” and so acts that would be considered criminal in other parts of the United States could have little or no consequence in the South. What Love is saying cannot be understood unless it be that the policy proposal is an insult to the “honor” of certain tournaments—as if golf tournaments were themselves a species of Southern gentleman.

As I’ve said though, Love’s position only makes sense if there were some way in which we didn’t know that there’s a difference between, say, the John Deere Classic (which used to be the Quad Cities Classic) and the U.S. Open. Surely the difference is readily apparent: who does Love think he’s fooling? It might be arguable that seeking to “flatten” those differences by requiring big-name players to play some of the lesser tournaments each year is misguided, because such differences are inevitable; what seems ridiculous, to me at any rate, is to argue against such an attempt because there aren’t any differences.

What might also be said about this whole matter is something about molehills and mountains, tempests and teapots, because after all it’s just a minor disagreement about how to make millionaires even richer. But there is, or so I suspect, something deeper at work here: something about appearances and reality. Davis Love is saying that we must maintain the pretense that all tournaments are equal when we all—including Davis Love—know that isn’t so. What Davis Love’s argument amounts to is that pretending that all tournaments are equal relieves us of the responsibility of actually doing anything that might make them actually more equal. It’s a kind of thought, I fancy that the more wizened of my readers might recognize, that’s been applied at other times and places. Is anyone, besides Davis Love, volunteering to move there?