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?


A Momentary Lapse


The sweets we wish for turn to loathed sours
Even in the moment that we call them ours.
The Rape of Lucrece, by William Shakespeare

“I think caddies are important to performance,” wrote ESPN’s Jason Sobel late Friday night. “But Reed/DJ each put a family member on bag last year with no experience. Didn’t skip a beat.” To me, Sobel’s tweet appeared to question the value of caddies, and so I wrote to Mr. Sobel and put it to him that sure, F. Scott Fitzgerald could write before he met Maxwell Perkins—but without Perkins on Fitzgerald’s bag, no Gatsby. Still, I don’t mention the point simply to crow about what happened: how Dustin Johnson missed a putt to tie Jordan Spieth in regulation, a putt that arguably a professional caddie would have held Johnson from hitting so quickly. What’s important about Spieth’s victory is that it might finally have killed the idea of “staying in the moment”: an un-American idea far too prevalent for the past two decades or more not only in golf, but in American life.

Anyway, it’s been around a while. “Staying in the moment,” as so much in golf does, likely traces at least so far back as Tiger Woods’ victory at Augusta National in 1997. Sportswriters then liked to make a big deal out of Tiger’s Thai heritage: supposedly, his mother’s people, with their Buddhist religion, helped Tiger to focus. It was a thesis that to my mind was more than a little racially suspect—seemed to me that Woods’ won a lot of tournaments because he hit the ball further than anyone else at the time, and it was matched by an amazing short game. That was the story that got retailed then however.

Back in 2000, for instance, Robert Wright of the online magazine Slate was peddling what he called the “the New Age Theory of Golf.” “To be a great golfer,” Wright said, “you have to do what some Eastern religions stress—live in the present and free yourself of aspiration and anxiety.” “You can’t be angry over a previous error or worried about repeating it,” Wright went on to say. You are just supposed to “move forward”—and, you know, forget about the past. Or to put it another way, success is determined by how much you can ignore reality.

Now, some might say that it was precisely this attitude that won the U.S. Open for Team Jordan Spieth. “I always try to stay in the present,” Jordan Spieth’s caddie Michael Greller told The Des Moines Register in 2014, when Greller and Spieth returned to Iowa to defend the title the duo had won in 2013. But a close examination of their behavior on the course, by Shane Ryan of Golf Digest, questions that interpretation.

Spieth, Ryan writes, “kept up a neurotic monologue with Michael Greller all day, constantly seeking and receiving reassurance about the wind, the terrain, the distance, the break, and god knows what else.” To my mind, this hardly counts as the usual view of “staying in the present.” The usual view, I think, was what was going on with their opponents.

During the course of his round, Ryan reports, Johnson “rarely spoke with his brother and caddie Austin.” Johnson’s relative silence appears to me to be much like Wright’s passive, “New Age,” reality-ignoring, ideal. Far more, anyway, than the constant squawking that was going on in Spieth’s camp.

It’s a difference, I realize, that is easy to underestimate—but a crucial one nonetheless. Just how significant that difference is might be best revealed by an anecdote the writer, Gary Brecher, tells about the aftermath of the second Iraq War: about being in the office with a higher-ranking woman who declared her support for George Bush’s war. When Brecher said to her that perhaps these rumors of Saddam’s weapons could be exaggerated—well, let’s read Brecher’s description:

She just stared at me a second—I’ve seen this a lot from Americans who outrank me; they never argue with you, they don’t do arguments, they just wait for you to finish and then repeat what they said in the beginning—she said, “I believe there are WMDs.”

It’s a stunning description. Not only does it sum up what the Bush Administration did in the run-up to the Iraq War, but it’s also something of a fact of life around workplaces and virtually everywhere else in the United States these days: two Americans, especially ones of differing classes, rarely talk to one another these days. But they sure are pretty passive.

Americans however aren’t supposed to think of themselves as being passive—at least, they didn’t use to think of themselves that way. The English writer George Orwell described the American attitude in an essay about the quintessentially American author, Mark Twain: a man who “had his youth and early manhood in the golden age of America … when wealth and opportunity seemed limitless, and human beings felt free, indeed were free, as they had never been before and may not be again for centuries.” In those days, Orwell says, “at least it was NOT the case that a man’s destiny was settled from his birth,” and if “you disliked your job you simply hit the boss in the eye and moved further west.” Those older Americans did not simply accept what happened to them, the way the doctrine of “staying in the present” teaches.

If so, then perhaps Spieth and Greller, despite what they say, are bringing back an old American custom by killing an alien one. In a nation where 400 Americans are worth more than the poorest 150 million Americans, as I learned Sunday night after the Open by watching Robert Reich’s film, Inequality for All, it may not be a moment too soon.

The Weight We Must Obey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Waste Land and Dustin Johnson

Fire in the Lake: the image of Revolution

Thus the superior man

Set the calendar in order

And makes the seasons clear.

I Ching.

I was raking out the bunker when my player told me to stop. Everyone else did too, as he looked around for a rules official who, fortunately, was quickly available. It was my first real introduction to the Rules of Golf—which are, unlike most other sports, usually capitalized. My first introduction, that is, in their hard-core, strict sense, which is the sense they have been appeared all throughout this last summer. If there is a Player of the Year in this season without Tiger, that is, the Rules of Golf must be the winner by a dominant, Tiger Woods-in-2000 margin.

The year began with the squabbles over grooves after the USGA and the Royal and Ancient decided to limit the kinds of grooves irons could have, with the idea that players could no longer simply ignore the rough beyond the fairways and fecklessly drive it without regard for where the ball ended up. This was heralded as a “backdoor” rollback of the distances the new golf balls were capable of traveling.

It became big news when one player, Scott McCarron, accused a bigger-name player, Phil Mickelson, of being a cheater because Mickelson threatened to use clubs immune to the grooves rollback (for reasons that are themselves a story), the ancient Ping Eye 2 model. But Phil won the Masters tournament later that spring and nearly everyone forgot about the whole incident.

The groove story continued later this summer when a player named Sarah Brown on the Futures Tour, a feeder to the LPGA, got disqualified from an event—during the final round, when she was a few shots off the lead. It turned out that the wedge she was using actually did conform to the rule, but by then she was off the course, with no chance to complete her round. An overzealous rules official got the blame, and Ms. Brown received some sort of settlement as recompense; the figure involved was cloaked in secrecy, but since almost any trial lawyer could have won the suit according to the national magazines it likely was something substantial.

How Sarah Brown got her grooves back only begins to scratch the surface of how rules have affected the year in golf: there was Jim Furyk’s disqualification for missing a pro-am at the Barclays, for instance. That incident involved a rule of the PGA Tour and not a rule of the game itself of course, but it didn’t do much to help dispel the image of the game as kind of stuffy, especially when the result was to banish the third-ranked player from the Tour’s “play-offs,” the Fed-Ex Cup.

That brings us around Dustin Johnson’s “duel with the sand” at Whistling Straits at the PGA. Gary D’Amato, golf beat writer at the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, quoted Straits architect Pete Dye as saying “Ray Charles could have seen it was a bunker,” throwing the blame entirely on Johnson. But dealing with bunkers has been a problem for the rules-makers of golf for a long time.

I was working a stop in the Chicago suburbs for what’s known as the Hooters Tour, one of the better of golf’s minor leagues. My player was an experienced guy who’d been on the PGA Tour for a season during the 1990s, and otherwise had knocked around the shadier neighborhoods of the golf world. He’d been the money-leader on the Hooters Tour the year before—proof of the maxim, “old age and treachery beats youth and skill.”

My player was experienced enough, in fact, to warn me about bunkers before we played our practice round, saying that he’d had some incident at a previous tour stop with a local caddie and stressing that he didn’t want it to happen again. Certainly I took what he said seriously, scoffed at the idea it could happen again, and intimated that something must have been defective with his looper. And then it happened.

My guy had hit into the same bunker as another of our playing partners, though the two balls were widely separated. This second player played first. Before my player could hit, and because I was trying to save some time, I started to rake out the second player’s mess in the sand, thinking I could do that while my player was preparing for his shot. That’s when everything stopped and we summoned the rules official. It turned out that what I did could be construed as “testing the sand,” and it got my player a two-shot penalty.

That didn’t go over well; as it occurred, the ruling probably cost my player a win (he finished third instead). But despite being so important that it quite literally determined the winner of that tournament, the rule was changed the very next year—what I did would no longer be considered a penalty. To my mind, anyway, that makes things more, not less, difficult: how could what I did be so disastrous as to affect materially the outcome of the contest, yet not so weighty as to be impossible to change?

That’s the Dustin Johnson problem in a nutshell: I don’t think that anyone would seriously argue that Johnson’s mistake in the sand made him a lesser golfer than Martin Kaymer, the eventual winner (though I suppose some might, on the theory that knowledge of the rules should be part of the skill set of the eventual champion). Yet it did end up being the difference between making that play-off and missing it. In other words, what’s driving the train here? The sport or the rules? And are the two distinguishable?

One way of framing this question is to ask whether Tiger Woods or Arnold Palmer would have been refused entry to the playoff had they done what Johnson did. Palmer was famously the recipient of a problematic ruling at the 1958 Masters, which he won over Ken Venturi after disagreeing with a rules official. Tiger was a beneficiary of the rules at Phoenix in 1999, when his large gallery obliged him by moving a huge boulder in his line. Both Palmer and Woods were within the rules—Palmer less obviously so—but one wonders what might have happened had Dustin Johnson already been a major winner.

What I think the question demonstrates is just how fragile the game can be—in the absence of a dominant figure, the point of the game becomes lost. The rules are meant to be a guide to the game, in other words, not the game itself, as odd as that idea might be given that the rules also define what the game is. But while the rules tell us what the game is, we also know what the game is by how a truly great player plays it—that is, if a truly great player plays the game one way, the rules themselves must be wrong. My sense about this year in golf is that without a dominant player to tell us what the game is aside from the rules, then the rules become our only source for that definition—and hence, all the difficulty this year about rules.

This is a sentiment that can be dangerous when applied outside of golf, of course. It runs straight from the legal theory of the divine right of kings—or Nixon’s idea that something is legal if the President does it. Charles I’s lawyers argued precisely this point in the “Ship Money Case”—and ended up getting beheaded for it, as the English people decided (emphatically) that maybe this wasn’t such a good theory to run a government on. But while it may be a bad theory for government, maybe it isn’t such a bad way to run golf: le roi est mort, vive le roi.