Silent Majorities

“Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.”
—Mark Twain.

“Why’d you say that?” asked Mark, as I returned to the side of the tee box where the other caddies stood during my first loop since returning from Evansville. “Because we’re playing as a team,” I said, “so it’s worth the gamble.” We were on the fourteenth hole at Butler, a “Cape” hole—a type of hole, in other words, designed for gambling. I had just stepped in to tell my golfer—a guest of a member, playing as part of one of those “Wall Street meets Main Street” corporate outings where a huge company meets with its bankers—about a possible shot that he had never considered before; one that, actually, few players at Butler, even members, ever consider. In Mark’s view, I was “confusing” them; or, as he put it, “over-caddieing.” “Be still,” he might as well have said.

Had he known it, he might have held out as an example an incident that had just occurred to me a few days previously. Just the week before, I’d been in Evansville, Indiana: the United Leasing tourney in Evansville, Indiana, at Victoria National Golf Club. The player I’d gotten had never played the golf course before the first round of the tournament—he was an alternate and only got to Evansville late the previous afternoon. The first few holes were relatively uneventful, even if he did lose one or two shots to par; we were playing the more difficult of the two nines, though the hardest holes were still to come. Until we got to the second par five of the nine, the beginning of a hugely difficult closing stretch.

“I don’t want you to, you know, mention something like that, you know, once I’ve made my decision,” my pro said afterwards, as his ball sailed majestically to the left over the pond in front of the green, into the thick fescue to the side of the bunker. I was getting the mildest rebuke I’d ever gotten on the golf course—much milder than  I’d gotten in exactly the same scenario in Georgia a couple of months ago. (I wrote about that in my previous post.) That’s mostly because my golfer at this tournament was reputed to be one of the best guys on tour, but also perhaps because he recognized just how weird the situation was.

The situation was this: we were looking at a three wood shot into a par five, over a pond with the aforementioned fescue left. We were already a shot or two over par, with the hardest part of the golf course still to come (but with the easier side after that, because we’d started on the tenth hole.) His notion was to gamble to make an eagle or two-putt birdie; mine, to lay up, since due to an accessible hole birdie was still possible via a good third shot to the green. So to give him a nudge in that direction, I’d pointed out that the lie for his second shot was downhill—implicitly meaning that it was slightly more likely to hook into said fescue. The game that he and I were playing, in other words, was a kind of chess—the meaning isn’t in what’s said, but what’s implied.

My golfer’s implicit rebuke was that I’d implanted an evil thought in his head, one that had, in that mysterious way that the mind speaks to the body, influenced him to hit a bad shot. He did not say this, to be sure—because to do that would be to suggest that I had that kind of power. And that, in turn, would suggest that his mind did not have command over his body. It would suggest a weakness.

What he needed to do, impossibly, was to stop me from perpetrating the kind of crime he was committed to asserting was inconceivable. And all of this had to happen at a level beyond the articulate, beyond speech. Whether he knew all of that, or not, I suspect that one difference between my golfer last week and the one I worked for in Georgia is that this one understood the absurdity, and maybe accepted it, better than the other did. Which makes it sound like the Indiana guy was way wiser and so forth—but the guy in Georgia made the cut. In that sense, then, maybe Mark had a point about the existence of “overcaddieing.”

Even granting that point, however, our circumstances at that time and place (“now and here,” as Abraham Lincoln liked to say) arguably constituted an exception to generally accepted practice. There are two reasons for thinking such: the first being the particulars of the fourteenth at Butler; the second being the peculiar circumstances of the round our golfers were playing. Both, in my view, required a kind of thinking contrary to “standard” views of how to play golf.

As I mentioned, the fourteenth at Butler is a “Cape” hole: a Cape hole being one where the golfers must choose how much of a large lateral hazard (usually water) to go over in order to reach the fairway. The model of the type—as Plato might put it, the Form of a Cape hole—is the fourteenth at National Golf Links of America (Charles Blair Macdonald’s cathedral on Long Island), where the hazard used is sand instead of water. (The hazard can vary: at Fishers Island’s Cape hole, which oddly is also a fourteenth hole, the hazard is a marsh.) Most Cape holes however, like the fourteenth at Butler, use water as the primary hazard. It’s a speculative kind of hole, in short: the bet the player makes is about how much of the hazard his drive can carry. The more of the hazard that’s flown over on the drive means a second shot that is that much easier.

Butler’s Cape however has an unusual feature. On most Cape holes, the hazard marks a boundary: once the ball has crossed into it, there’s usually no escape or hope. A ball inside the hazard is either lost or (more or less) unplayable. But the fourteenth at Butler is different: the pond on that hole is also the hazard on the par three fifth hole. On the fifth, however, the hazard is to the player’s right, whereas on the fourteenth the hazard is to the player’s left. Which is to say that it’s possible (for a strong player) to drive the fifth green, or even over the fifth green, and have an easy shot to the fourteenth green—a shot of less than one hundred yards. The fourteenth at Butler, in other words, like other Cape holes, is a risk/reward—but one that hides, like an Easter egg, a reward that most players will never even see.

The fourteenth at Butler, then, has an even richer potential upside than most Cape holes, which is a kind of hole that’s designed to be about weighing the costs and benefits anyway. Furthermore, as I mentioned the foursome Mark and I (and two other caddies) were working for was part of a larger corporate outing. And the format of that outing even further discounted rewards at the expense of risk. (Intriguingly so, since innovation isn’t exactly the calling card of either investment banking or American manufacturing—and arguably that disaster results when either tries.) It was simple: one net score for each hole per foursome, a format that encourages risk-taking: since the other three scores are don’t matter, it’s worth taking chances in the hope of a really low score.

Insofar, then, as I was pointing out the circumstances that warranted a higher degree of risk-taking than standard, I’d refute Mark’s charge of “overcaddieing.” Still, even I happened to be right about that particular circumstance, the larger question—whether “overcaddieing” exists, and what it means—remains. I think that implicit in Mark’s rebuke is the notion that caddies should only volunteer so much information, that it ought to be measured out in doses. As a member at Butler, who observed me throwing information at a guest by the car load during a practice round before the important member-guest tournament (the guest had only played the course once), remarked, he didn’t like that style: he was of what he called the “See ball, hit ball” school. (For what’s it’s worth, the guest said he appreciated the information during the practice round—and our side ended up winning not only our flight, but also the tournament itself.)

To a lot of caddies—to a lot of golfers, in fact—considerations of the format, or virtually anything, should be ignored: according to that view, golfers should just “play their games” (play, that is, just as they would at any other time) and let the chips fall where they may. It’s the same thought, I think, that leads some to theorize that golfers should just “play the course” instead of considering their opponent, for instance. Professional golfers will sometimes say, after winning a tournament, that they never looked at a leaderboard—and when, as other times happens, a winner confesses to doing so, it’s often said nearly apologetically, almost as if a student confessed to looking over a colleague’s shoulder while taking a test.

It’s an attitude I was reminded of recently while reading a London Review of Books review of Mark Twain’s Autobiography—only recently published because Twain (whose real name was Samuel Clemens) insisted that it remain hidden for a century after his death. In his review, the novelist Thomas Powers recounts an anecdote Twain retails about a Viennese servant—a story “too funny to be read safely in public”—who, as Twain writes, “talks all the time, talks in her sleep, will talk when she is dead.” Twain, for his part, is enthralled by this woman: “When she is at it,” Twain says, meaning talking, “I would rather be there than at a fire.” But Olivia, Twain’s wife, is not, as Powers observes: “she wants silence, she wants Twain to step in on her side, she wants the servant to say ‘Yes, Ma’am!’ and halt with that.” “Be still,” she says to the servant. If she’d been a golfer, Olivia would have been of the “See ball” variety.

In the view of Twain’s biographers, says Powers, Olivia “brought a secure emotional structure into Twain’s life but only at a high cost, imposing a severe check on his fresh eye, quick sympathy and honest tongue.” It was her “deeply conventional” influence that led Twain to conceal a lot of his writing during his lifetime: one reason why the Autobiography was embargoed for a century after Twain’s death. Olivia’s view was Victorian: she was engaged in a constant war against Twain’s unconventional impulses—the impulses that led him, among other things, to write a book about an escaped slave and a “poor white trash” boy. It’s called The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

It may be, certainly, that the impulses that lead someone (or one someone) to write Huck Finn are not the same as that which lead to successful golf. But it may also be that the boundaries of what golf is, or could be, are vaster than we presently imagine. We think, for instance, that golfers, even professionals, always need quiet just before hitting their shots, despite the fact that professional basketball players routinely hit free throw shots against a background of cheers (or boos), or field goal kickers do the same. Yet Bubba Watson had the crowd cheer as he drove his ball off the first tee at last year’s Ryder Cup. (And Ian Poulter joined him.) That doesn’t mean that requiring silence isn’t a good idea—it just means that we ought to think about it. Just because that’s how it’s always been done isn’t a good reason.

At the same time, blindly rewarding the “creative” or “innovative” isn’t always the correct choice either. The history of both Wall Street and Main Street in recent decades demonstrates just what kind of disasters can happen when people previously trained for unquestioned conventionalism (as both bankers and businessmen traditionally have been) are suddenly let loose: mostly, it leads to outsourcing, stagnant wages, and criminal investigations. Instead, what ought to be rewarded isn’t following one program or another: it’s the critical intelligence to judge which is the more appropriate. As it now stands, “overcaddieing,” a charge that ought to be known by its proper name, anti-intellectualism, is a proper kind of charge in golf, just as one popular kind of dismissal about virtually anything in current American life is “overthinking.” But the last accusation, I suspect, anyone dispassionately observing either America’s golf courses, or its boardrooms, would think of hurling at either is the crime of thought.

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April Cruel

“Well now that’s done: and I’m glad it’s over”
—T.S. Eliot
The Wasteland

According to a friend whose golfer narrowly missed the cut and, thus, spent Friday staring at the leaderboard as it clicked and clacked, sometime as that drowsy south Georgia afternoon drawled on toward sundown my golfer had been tied for ninth, and perhaps even as high as seventh. It may, for all I know, be possible to reconstruct events using tee times and the full leaderboard, but in the event I slept pretty well with the knowledge that, as Friday slipped into Friday night, we stood at tied for eleventh. Part of the myth of golf is that underdogs and unknowns can suddenly leap up from nowhere—a century ago near Boston, at the Country Club in Brookline, the former caddie Francis Ouimet beat the two British champions Harry Vardon and Ted Ray. But in pro golf, Friday afternoon is about as far from Sunday night as Galveston is from El Paso.

Still, if Sunday’s a week from Friday, Friday is a month from Monday, which is when professional tournaments hold their “qualifying tournaments.” These are 18 hole shootouts open to anybody with 450 bucks and the requisite USGA-certified handicap. Usually they consist of around 80 brave souls willing to wager their money against the chance of shooting low enough to get one of the five or six or so tee times assigned to “qualifiers.” Those “tournaments before the tournament” last all day, because everyone’s spending forever on their putts and so on, and then end with some kind of playoff for the last tee time available in the tournament proper: often there are four or more guys playing for one or more of the last remaining slots.

Qualifiers are thus always the last to be looking for a caddie. They show up to the tournament golf course on Tuesday morning with haunted and hunted looks, furtively searching out the faces of the loopers hanging out in the parking lots and wondering if one of those guys might be the final piece of the puzzle that might enable them to escape from the hell of Monday qualifying forever—the only way for a player without status (that is, a player without a “tour card” gained by his past performance) to get into a tournament without Monday qualifying is by finishing in the top twenty-five places in the previous week’s tournament. Conversely, the Monday qualifier is the time-honored way for a new caddie to learn his trade and break into the business—the “Mondayer,” as they’re called, gets you out of the parking lot and onto the golf course, where you can be seen by other, better-established, players.

I’d picked up my player in said time-honored fashion, in the parking lot on Tuesday. “Hey,” I said to the golfer carrying (as opposed to the light carry bags most Monday qualifiers have) a technicolor tour staff bag, “Are you set for the week?” No, the guy replied. But he wanted to look around a bit first. After this initial encounter, my guru Mullet told me what would happen: “He’s going to go around and see that all the quality experienced guys are already locked up for the week. Then he’s going to come right back to you.” And that is what happened.

My player was, as his tour golf bag signified, an actual touring professional: he had, in fact, not only won on what was now called the Web.com Tour (formerly the Nationwide Tour, and before that the Nike and Hogan Tours) but had also won on the PGA Tour itself. It’s a small piece of knowledge, but it contained worlds about the realities of life on tour: another chunk would reveal itself when I learned that our playing partners on Thursday, when the tournament finally began, were Rich Beem, winner of the 2002 PGA Championship, and Len Mattiace, who lost the Masters to Mike Weir in a playoff in 2003. Both Beem and Mattiace had, once, been ranked in the top 50 of the world rankings; life on tour could go sidewise at any time.

As, in fact, things had for my pro: after winning on the PGA Tour, he’d fallen on hard times lately—as his financial guy, Tom (who looked remarkably like the best-friend-turned-manager character on Entourage) told me on the eve of the tournament’s start Wednesday night. He’d gotten a divorce and—though the causality appeared unclear—had played only twice since October of last year. Making it into the field for the South Georgia Classic, in other words, meant at least one more week avoiding going into the shirt-folding trade. A top twenty-five finish in this tournament, in turn, would ensure dodging that fate for yet another week.

His showing in the tournament, in sum, was terribly important to his future. Every shot hit was one step closer either to the life and security he’d felt as a tour winner, or one step farther away: which is to say, one step closer to the life he’d been dreaming of from childhood, or one step farther away. Rolling off the eighth tee box—a par three—that Wednesday, we were discussing baseball. I asked him what team he followed, given that he was from the South: the Braves, or some other team, for some idiosyncratic reason. He was not. He liked football; baseball, he said, had too many games. He attended the games of his state’s university, a large member of the SEC; they gave him access to the sidelines, apparently. No, he didn’t donate to the university. He didn’t appear to think of this as unusual; or rather, there was something about him that seemed to dare you to find something unusual about it.

Ever since Francis Ouimet, American golfers have participated in what Tom Wolfe, speaking about the original seven Project Mercury astronauts in The Right Stuff, calls the “magical” practice of single combat: where “the mightiest soldier of one army would fight the mightiest soldier of the other army as a substitute for pitched battle.” Wolfe notes one curious fact about the practice: “the honor and glory” granted to these warriors “were in many cases rewards before the fact; on account, as it were.” Golfers, like other athletes, participate in this economy: that’s why mine had access to the sidelines for every home game of his hometown college team (which wasn’t his alma mater). He’d been riding a gravy train with biscuit wheels ever since he was a teenager, in short, and now somebody was threatening to take it away.

It wasn’t then the ideal situation to be introduced to someone, much less to work for, and whether it was that circumstance, or some quirk to his personality, I quickly realized he wasn’t the most personable guy. He was curt: on Wednesday, I waited for him to come out of the clubhouse at the appointed time—he wasn’t there. I eventually found him on the opposite side of the practice range from most of the players: his first remark to me was a snide “I don’t think anyone practices at the clubhouse.” During our practice round, while I adjusted to the fact that he stood on the opposite side of the ball (he’s a lefty), he continually reminded me that he’d been a golf pro since 1997; I fought the urge to note that I’ve been looping since 1995.

Along about then, when I realized what sort of person I was dealing with, I approached an experienced caddie about my situation: the problem, I told him, was that I had not had a conversation about payment immediately. “You got to get your money straight right away,” he said, after listening to my story. He told me that not getting the money straight was unprofessional, “on both your parts”—but that the burden fell more heavily on the pro, who should have known better. That was an egg that would remain broken however, because if I tried to approach him now about it, I could easily end up fired because there were still caddies available.

With that kind of smoothly-functioning working relationship established, then, we went to battle on the longest golf course played by the Web.com Tour: Kinderlou Forest, outside Valdosta, Georgia. Designed by Davis Love III, it’s a strange track: in addition to a punishing length, the par-fives in particular have the peculiar feature of being both ridiculously long but also absurdly penal toward long hitters, through the use of contrived angles and forced perspectives. One of them actually called upon the players to hit away from the fairway. Not a single golfer I talked to had much praise for the course, other than to say that the maintenance was good: drolly, the eventual winner would afterwards observe that “You won’t see par fives like this anywhere else in the world.” The course, oblivious to the obvious irony, immediately put that up on the website.

Throughout the spring the Southeast had suffered heavy rains, which was good for Georgia farmers (Georgia has been undergoing a drought that some think may be related to global warming) but not so good for golfers. Due to the wet conditions, the already-monster long Kinderlou track was playing even longer: a tee shot that might, on a dry course, run out twenty yards or more was more or less staying where it landed. And in another way the course played slightly differently than its design: because of the need for grandstands and such as befitting a tour stop, the nines of the course were reversed, so that what was the first hole for normal play was the tenth for the tournament, and so on.

The history of our week is recorded, somewhere, in the servers of the PGA Tour’s ShotLink system, which records every shot hit by every golfer in every sanctioned tournament worldwide. That record will reflect a one-under par first round, a fine three-under second round (which launched us up the leaderboard, since birdies on such a golf course were as scarce as anti-smoking laws in Georgia), and then a one-over par third round—a setback, but not terribly so given how hard scoring was. Although his ballstriking was sometimes not the best, he had an excellent short game that papered over a lot. Everything appeared set for a nice Sunday walk that would nail down my player’s entry into the next week’s tournament and (perhaps) begin a heartwarming story of professional redemption.

Sunday was another sunny Georgia peach of a day, foretelling the oceans of heat that come in summer. We set off just inside the top twenty-five cutline that was our implicit objective—which, given how things had gone the past three days, translated into a sense that an under-par score would lock up next week. And he seemed to respond: on the first hole, where he’d missed an ideal fairway lie each of the three previous rounds, he striped one down the middle. In fact, he played his best golf of the week: by the time his putt fell on the eighth hole, he was three-under for the round, and six-under for the tournament. We weren’t just looking at getting into the next tournament, we just might have been about to make some serious money.

What—predictably—followed was perhaps the worst hour I’ve ever spent on a golf course. At the ninth, a badly-pushed drive ended up on the inside of the dogleg-left, blocked by trees that rejected his first recovery shot. The bogey save appeared to right the ship, but missing the tenth green from the fairway less than 150 yards from the pin augured poorly. And then came the eleventh.

The eleventh at Kinderlou (the second on its standard scorecard) is a monster par-five that, on tour, begins with a tee shot over a massive ravine. That accomplished, a long downhill second shot can reach the front of an elongated green canted at an angle to the fairway. Behind the green is a lateral water hazard (a swampy forest) while another sits eighty yards short and right. The fairway itself is hugely wide, but aside from those two hazards it’s lined by both forest and tall grass. Still, for a professional none of those potential dangers exist: the longest club most professionals would be considering these days might be a five-wood, which generally speaking is a remarkably easy club to hit.

Par-fives on the professional circuit, though, can take forever to play because each group has to wait for the previous one to clear the green. We waited next to the ball as the golfers in front of us putted out. And waited. As we did my player debated his options: perhaps he should hit a soft five wood to the front of the green, allowing for a simple chip up to the hole. Or a hard three iron that might chase on to the green itself. The downhill slope and hazard beyond the hole precluded hitting a three wood, though maybe he could choke it up a bit … and so forth. In the event, he chose the five wood. And pulled it into the hazard short and right of the green.

Just barely, however, as we discovered when eventually we found the ball. It was less than a foot inside the hazard line, facing the green, with no obstacles in the path of a swing. Admittedly, the ball was sitting on bare earth, but that also meant that there was nothing to get between the ball and the club—it was, in sum, about as good an outcome as was possible given the previous shot. Which is why it was such a surprise when he bladed the ball (hit it with the leading edge of the club, instead of the face of the club) over the green and into the hazard beyond.

The tragicomedy that followed isn’t worth rehearsing, other than to note that he missed a three-footer to save double-bogey. The tee shot on the next hole, apologetically yet inevitably, sailed into the forest on the right side of the fairway. Yelling at the marshall whose duty it was to find the ball had its cathartic properties, but didn’t help us locate it. The rest of the round passed by in a stew of anger, regret, and ugly emotions that went, in large part though not completely, unexpressed. In other words, it was a like a lot of golf rounds, only with the added spice of being able to calculate precisely how much money got spent by each futile swing.

Afterward, we walked in silence towards the Range Rover (!) that the player used to transport himself. I took a last look at the clubs I’d carried for what had been nearly a week now, checking to make sure there was no grass or red clay of southern Georgia still remaining. There was nothing. I put them into the back of the truck. There was nothing more to do than to get paid. Which was when my player said, “I’m going to have to get your information …”

In the moment, I froze: I didn’t particularly know what to do. I was getting stiffed. Nothing in my experience had prepared me for this: in club caddieing, no matter how much they don’t like you, they still have to pay you something. And the worst of it was that—golf being so individualistic—there would be no recourse. At a club, you can go to the caddiemaster, or the head pro. But in this situation, there didn’t appear to be any higher authority. I thought for a moment.

Immediately after leaving the parking lot, I went to a tour official and told him substantially the story I just relayed. The man I spoke with in Valdosta asked me if I was going to Athens, Georgia, the tour’s next stop; I said I was. He said that if I hadn’t heard from my player by Friday that week I should contact a certain higher official with the professional circuit’s bureaucracy, which I did after I had no word that week. That official told me the tour would be “all over it”—and, in fact, they were. I’ve never met people who were quite so concerned about whether I’d gotten payed properly.

Over the next couple of weeks I got several phone calls from the main office of the PGA Tour in Ponte Vedre, Florida. There was quite some to do about the whole thing; at one point it slipped that the phrase “conduct unbecoming” had become part of the conversation between the tour officials and the player. Apparently the tour frowns on players stiffing caddies—a concern that was really surprising, and not a little touching. It shouldn’t have been, I suppose, since presumably the motive was to protect the tour: if it became a widely accepted notion that professional golfers are not fine and upstanding gentlemen … well, there’s a reason for golf’s self-advertisement as a sport apart from all the others. It was nice of the tour to look out for my interests so rabidly, but I’m not under much illusion that their motives were solely about my well-being.

It was, perhaps more rather than less likely, a part of why, as Tom Wolfe remarks, when it comes to single combat warriors it’s important that “the proper emotion, the seemly sentiment, the fitting moral tone should be established and should prevail.” Part of the role of the single combat warrior is not only performing on the field, naturally, but also (and maybe crucially) performing the act of being the mannerly gentleman—said person must provide the public with “the correct feelings!” Indeed, this might be more important than the on-field part—as perhaps the opposing cases of Tim Tebow (who by all accounts is a perfect gentleman, but whose on-field performance has, on the whole, lacked) and Tiger Woods (pretty much opposite) alternately demonstrate. And my player, whose demeanor already destabilized that balance, threatened it yet further. They were out to get him.

To many, who approached me at various times over the next week, that was as it should be: the tour acted to protect the interests of the majority of, not only its players, but everyone associated with it—all the people whose jobs depend on the seemingly-magical ability of some to put a small white ball into a slightly larger hole in the ground. Others, I suppose, might decry what might be viewed as a kind of interference or intrusion into what is, in mythology, golf’s individualistic purity.

In a recent story about a naval officer who—really—shot down down one of our own planes (an F-4) with an American crew in 1987, but is now up for admiral, the Washingtonian magazine notes that, until recently, the military “endeavored to promote officers whose records were as close to perfect as possible.” “But the effect of the so-called zero-defect culture,” the magazine goes on to say, “was that the services raised up a generation of cautious, risk-averse bureaucrats who were judged on how well they followed procedures and … not for innovation.” The effect of intrusion into players’ affairs is, so the argument might go, detrimental to the tour: it’s no wonder that, as critics have been saying since the 1970s at least, the PGA Tour is full of “mindless drones.” Tiger, you might say, wasn’t right to do what he did—but he did judge correctly that he had to hide it behind that robotic facade.

Tiger’s judgment that, for whatever reason, golfers—and especially him—don’t get to be human, don’t get to make mistakes, ultimately demonstrates just how bankrupt that idea is, in this line of thought: hiding behind such criticism, I suspect, is the notion that there unnameable John Daly-type players who have the potential to WOW us if we’d only let them have the chance. That might, I suppose, be true in some hypothetical sense—but the fact of the matter is that my player, at least, has not really demonstrated that he belongs out on tour, despite the fact that he’s won. Part of the argument against granting people like John Daly second (or third, or sixteenth) chances is that behaving oneself is not a separate thing from playing golf well: part of playing golf well, in this conception, is the ability to continue to play well, which ultimately has to do with not only how one treats one’s body, but also with how one treats others.

What we are left with, in short, is two visions of golf and, perhaps, the world itself: in one vision, each of our skills is separable from the rest of ourselves. In the other, not: we are whole beings, entire to ourselves. Our skills are extensions, or expressions, of our innermost selves—or they are incidental, merely the reflection of time we have devoted (or, as the case may be, not devoted) to their practice. Golf, for the most part, comes down on the former side: “There has always been,” as Jerry Tarde, editor of Golf Digest, wrote recently, “the impression that success in golf was tied to inner character, as in the widespread belief that you can know the measure of a man by simply playing a round of golf with him.” It’s a lovely idea, I suppose. But I suspect that it’s about as far from reality as El Paso from Galveston.

In any case, I just got a check. I don’t know what the tour said to the player, but evidently it worked.

Bend Sinister

The rebs say that I am a traitor to my country. Why tis this[?] [B]ecause I am for a majority ruling, and for keeping the power in the people[?]
—Jesse Dobbins
Yadkin County, North Carolina
Federal pension application
Adjutant General’s Office
United States Department of War
3 July 1883.

Golf and (the theory of) capitalism were born in the same small country (Scotland) at the same historical moment, but while golf is entwined within the corporate world these days there’s actually a profound difference between the two: for capitalism everything is relative, but the value of a golf shot is absolute. Every shot is strictly as valuable as every other. The difference can be found in the concept of arbitrage—which conventional dictionaries define as taking advantage of a price difference between two markets. It’s at the heart of the financial kind of capitalism we live with these days—it’s why everything is relative under the regime of capitalism—but it’s completely antithetical to golf: you can’t trade golf shots. Still, the concept of arbitrage does explain one thing about golf: how a golf club in South Carolina, in the Low Country—the angry furnace of the Confederacy—could come to be composed of Northern financial types and be named “Secession,” in a manner that suggested its members believed, if only half-jokingly, that the firebrands of 1860 might have not been all wrong.

That, however, gets ahead of starting another golf tournament on the tenth tee. Historically, as some readers may remember, I haven’t done well starting on the tenth hole. To recap: twice I’ve started loops for professional golfers in tournaments on the tenth tee, and each time my pro has blown the first shot of the day out of bounds. So when I saw where we were starting at Oldfield Country Club just outside of Hilton Head in South Carolina, site of an eGolf tournament, my stomach dropped as if I were driving over one of the arched bridges across the housing development’s canals.

Both of those tenth holes were also, coincidentally or not, dog-leg rights; holes that begin at the tee, or upper left so to speak, and move towards the green in a more-or-less curved arc that ends, figuratively, on the lower right. In heraldry, a stripe in such a fashion is called a “bend sinister”: as Vladimir Nabokov put it in explaining the title of his novel by that name, “a bar drawn from the upper left to the lower right on a coat of arms.” My player was, naturally, assigned to start at the tenth tee. My history with such starts went unmentioned.

Superstitious nonsense aside, however, there’s likely reasons why my pros should have had a hard time of a dog-leg right. Very often on a dogleg right trees close off the right side quickly: there’s no room on the right to start the ball there in order to draw it back onto the fairway; which is to say, golfers who draw the ball are at a disadvantage. As this is the typical flight of your better player—while it might be so that the very longest players very often play a “power fade”—it’s perhaps not accidental that marginal players (the only type I, as an unproven commodity, might hope to obtain) ought to be drawers of the ball.

Had I known what I found out later, I might have been more anxious: my golfer had “scrapped … Operation Left to Right”—a project designed to enable him to hit a fade on command—all the way back in 2011, as detailed in a series of Golf Channel articles about him and his struggles in golf’s minor leagues. (“The Minors” golfchannel.com) His favorite ball shape was a draw, a right-to-left shot, which is just about the worst kind of shot you can have on a dogleg-right hole. The tenth at Oldfield had, of course, just that kind of shape.

Already, the sky was threatening, and the air had a chill to it: the kind of chill that can cause the muscles in your hand to be less supple, which can make it just that much harder to “release” the clubhead—which can cause a slice, a left-to-right movement of the ball. Later on my player actually would lose several tee shots to the right, all of them push-fades, including a tough-to-take water ball on the twelfth (our third) hole, a drivable par four.
Eventually the rain would become so bad that the next day the final round would be canceled, which left me at loose ends.

Up past Beaufort there’s a golf club called Secession—a reference to South Carolina’s pride of place with regard to the events leading up to the Civil War: it was the first state to secede, in late December of 1860, and actually helped persuade the other Southern states to secede with it by sending encouraging emissaries to those states. Yet while that name might appear deeply Southern, the membership is probably anything but: Secession, the golf club, is an extremely private course that has become what Augusta began as: a club for the financial guys of New York and Chicago to go to and gamble large sums on golf. Or, to put it another way, the spiritual descendants of the guys who financed Abraham Lincoln’s war.

You might think, of course, that such a place would be somewhat affected by the events of the past five years or so: in fact not, as on the day I stopped in every tee box seemed filled with foursomes, with quite a few filled by loopers carrying doubles. Perhaps I should have known better, since as Chris Lehmann at The Baffler has noted, the “top 1 percent of income earners have taken in fully 93 percent of the economic gains since the Great Recession.” In any case, my errand was unsuccessful: I found out, essentially, that I would need some kind of clout. So, rather than finding my way back directly, I spent a pleasant afternoon in Beaufort. While there, I learned the story of one Robert Smalls, namesake of a number of the town’s landmarks.

“I thought the Planter,” said Robert Smalls when he reached the deck of the USS Onward outside of Charleston Harbor in the late spring of 1862, “might be of some use to Uncle Abe.” Smalls, the pilot, had, along with his crew, stolen the Confederate ship Planter right out from under the Confederate guns by mimicking the Planter’s captain—Smalls knew what the usual signals to leave the harbor were, and by the half-light of dawn he looked sufficiently enough like that officer to secure permission from the sentries at Sumter. (He also knew enough to avoid the minefields, since he’d helped to lay them.) Upon reaching the Union blockade ships on the open Atlantic, Smalls surrendered his vessel to the United States officer in command.

After the war—and a number of rather exciting exploits—Smalls came back to Beaufort, where he bought his former master’s house—a man named McKee—with the bounty money he got for stealing the Planter, and got elected to both the South Carolina House of Representatives and the South Carolina Senate, founding the Republican Party in South Carolina along the way. In office he wrote legislation that provided for South Carolina to have the first statewide public school system in the history of the United States, and then he was elected to the United States House of Representatives, where he became the last Republican congressman from his district until 2010.

Historical tourism in Beaufort thusly means confronting the fact that the entire of the Lowcountry, as it’s called down here, was the center of secessionism. That’s in part why, in a lot of South Carolina, the war ended much earlier than in most of the South, because the Union invaded by sea in late 1861: 80 years before Normandy, in a fleet whose size would not be rivaled until after Pearl Harbor. That’s also why, as the British owner of a bar in the town I’m staying in, Bluffton, notes, the first thing the Yankees did when they arrived in Bluffton was burn in down. It was in order to make a statement similar to the larger point Sherman would later make during his celebrated visit to Atlanta.

The reason for such vindictiveness was because the slaveowners of the Lowcountry were at what their longtime Senator, John Calhoun, had long before called the “furthest outpost” of slavery’s empire. They not only wanted to continue slavery, they wanted to expand its reach—it’s the moral, in fact, of the curious tale of the yacht Wanderer, funded by a South Carolinian. It’s one of those incidents that happened just before the war, one of those incidents whose meaning would only become clear after the passage of time—and Sherman.

The Wanderer was built in 1857 on Long Island, New York, as a pleasure yacht. Her first owner, Col. John Johnson, sailed her down the Atlantic coast to New Orleans, then sailed her back to New York where a William Corrie, of Charleston, South Carolina, bought her. Corrie made some odd alterations to the ship—adding, for instance, a 15,000 gallon water tank. The work attracted the attention of federal officers aboard the steam revenue cutter USS Harriet Lane, who seized the ship when she attempted to leave New York harbor on 9 June 1858—as a suspected slave ship. But there was no other evidence of the intentions of her owner other than the basic alterations, and so the Wanderer was released. She arrived in Charleston on 25 June, completed her fitting out as a slave ship and, after a stop in Port of Spain, Trinidad, sailed for the Congo on 27 July. The Wanderer returned to the United States on 28 November, at Jekyll Island in Georgia, still in the Lowcountry.

The ship bore a human cargo.

Why, though, would William Corrie—and his partners, including the prominent Savannah businessman Charles Lamar, a member of a family that “included the second president of the Republic of Texas, a U.S. Supreme Court justice, and U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Howell Cobb”—have taken so desperate a measure as to have attempted to smuggle slaves into the United States? The slave trade had been banned in the United States since 1808, as per the United States Constitution, which is to say that importing human beings for the purpose of slavery was a federal crime. The punishment was death by hanging.

Ultimately, Corrie and his partners evaded conviction—there were three trials, all held in Savannah, all of which ended with a Savannah jury refusing to convict their local grandees. Oncoming events would, to be sure, soon make the whole episode beside the point. Still, Corrie and Lamar could not have known that, and on the whole the desperate crime seems rather a long chance to take. But the syndicate, led by Lamar, had two motives: one economic, and the other ideological.

The first motive was grasped by Thomas Jefferson, of all people, as early as 1792. Jefferson memorialized his thought, according to the Smithsonian magazine, “in a barely legible, scribbled note in the middle of a page, enclosed in brackets.” The earth-shaking, terrible thought was this: “he was making a 4 percent profit every year on the birth of black children.” In other words, like the land which his slaves worked, every year brought an increase to the value of Jefferson’s human capital. The value of slaves would, with time, become almost incredible: “In 1860,” historian David Brion Davis has noted, “the value of Southern slaves was about three times the amount invested in manufacturing or railroads nationwide.” And that value was only increased by the ban on the slave trade.

First, then, the voyage of the Wanderer was an act of economic arbitrage, which sought to exploit the price difference between slaves in Africa and those in the United States. But it was also an act of provocation—much like John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry less than a year after the Wanderer landed in Georgia. Like the more celebrated case, the sailing of the Wanderer was meant to demonstrate that slave smuggling could be done—it was meant to inspire further acts of resistance to the Slave Importation Act.

Lamar was after all a Southern “firebrand,” common in the Lowcountry and represented in print by the Charleston Mercury. The firebrands advocated resuming the African slave trade: essentially, the members of this group believed that government shouldn’t interfere with the “natural” process of the market. Southerners like Lamar and Corrie, thusly, were the ancestors to those who today believe that, in the words of Italian sociologist Marco d’Eramo, “things would surely improve if only we left them to the free play of market forces.”
The voyage of the Wanderer was, in that sense, meant to demonstrate the thesis that, as Thomas Frank observed about how the ideological descendants of these forebears put it, that “it is the nature of government enterprises to fail.” The mission of the slave ship, that is, could be viewed as on a par with what Frank calls conservative cautions “against bringing top-notch talent into government service” or piling up “an Everest of debt in order to force the government into crisis.” The notion that the yacht’s trip was wholly contrived must have been lost on the Wanderer’s sponsors.

Surely, then, it isn’t difficult to explain the reasoning behind the appeal of a certain kind of South Carolinian thought and that of wealthy people today. What’s interesting about the whole episode, at least from today’s standpoint, is how it was ultimately defeated: by what, at least from one perspective, appears to be another case of arbitrage. In this case, the arbitrageur was named Abraham Lincoln, and he laid out what he was going to arbitrage long before the voyage of the Wanderer. It was in a speech in Peoria in the autumn of 1854, the speech that marked Lincoln’s return to politics after his defeat in the late 1840s after his opposition to the Mexican War. In that speech, Lincoln laid the groundwork for the defeat of slavery by describing how slavery had artificially interfered with a market—the one whose currency is votes.

The crucial passage of the Peoria speech begins when Lincoln begins to compare two states: South Carolina being one, likely not so coincidentally, and Maine being the other. Both states, Lincoln observes, are equally represented in Congress: “South Carolina has six representatives, and so has Maine; South Carolina has eight presidential electors, and so has Maine.” “Thus in the control of the government,” Lincoln concludes, “the two States are equals precisely.” But, Lincoln goes on to note, observe the numbers of their free people: “Maine has 581,813—while South Carolina has 274,567.” Somehow, then, the Southern voter “is more than double of any one of us in this crowd” in terms of control of the federal government: “it is an absolute truth, without an exception,” Lincoln said, “that there is no voter in any slave State, but who has more legal power in the government than any voter in any free State.” There was, in sum, a discrepancy in value—or what economists might call an “inefficiency.”

The reason for that discrepancy was, as Lincoln also observed, “in the Constitution”—by which he referred to what’s become known as the “Three-Fifths Compromise,” or Article One, Section 2, Paragraph 3: “Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States … according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons … [and] three fifths of all other Persons.” By this means, Southern states received representation in the federal government in excess of the number of their free inhabitants: in addition to the increase in wealth obtained by the reproduction of their slaves, then, slaveowners also benefitted politically.

In an article for the New York Times’ series Disunion (“The Census of Doom”), which is blogging the Civil War as it happened, Adam Goodheart observes that over the decade between the 1850 United States Census, however, as and the 1860 edition of same, the population of the North had exploded by 41 percent, while that of the South had only grown by 27 percent. (By comparison, Goodheart points out, between 2000 and 2010 the United States population grew by just 9.7 percent.) To take one state as an example, in less than 25 years one Northern state—Wisconsin—had grown by nearly 6400 (sic) percent. Wisconsin would, of course, go heavily for Lincoln in the presidential election—Lincoln would be the first president ever elected without the support of a single Southern state. (He wasn’t even on the ballot in most.) One Northern newspaper editor, Goodheart notes, smugly observed that “The difference in the relative standing of the slave states and the free, between 1850 and 1860, inevitably shows where the future greatness of our country is to be.” Lincoln’s election confirmed the fact that the political power held by the Southern states since the nation’s founding, with the help of an electoral concession, had been broken by a wash of new Northern voters.

If read in that light, then, the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution, which ended both slavery and the Three Fifths Clause, could be understood as a kind of price correction: the two amendments effectively ended the premium that the Constitution had until then placed on Southern votes. Lincoln becomes a version of Brad Pitt’s character in the movie of Michael Lewis’ most famous book—Billy Beane in Moneyball. Just as Billy Beane saw—or was persuaded to see—that batting average was overvalued and on-base percentage was undervalued, thus creating an arbitrage possibility for players who walked a lot, Lincoln saw that Southern votes were too highly valued and Northern ones too undervalued, and that (sooner or later) the two had to converge towards what economists would call “fundamental value.”

That concept is something that golf teaches well. In golf, there are no differences in value to exploit: each shot has just the same fundamental value. On our first tee that day, which was the tenth hole at Oldfield Country Club, my golfer actually didn’t blow his first shot out-of-bounds—though I had fully expected that to happen. He did come pretty close though: it flew directly into the trees, a slicing, left-to-right block. I took off after everyone had teed off: clearly the old guy who was marshaling the hole wasn’t going to be of much help. But I found the ball easily enough, and my player pitched out and ended up making a great par save. The punch-out shot from the trees counted just the same as an approach shot might have, or as a second putt.

Understanding that notion of fundamental value taught by golf—among other possible human acts—allows the further understanding that the “price correction” undertaken by Lincoln wasn’t simply a one-time act: the value of an American vote still, today, varies across the nation. According to the organization FairVote, as of 2003 a vote in Wyoming was more than three times more valuable than, say, my vote as a resident of the state of Illinois. Even today—as the Senate’s own website notes—“senators from the twenty-six smallest states, who (according to the 2000 census) represent 17.8% of the nation’s population, constitute a majority of the Senate.” It’s a fact that the men of the Secession Golf Club might just as well people ignored—because it just may be why 93 percent of the wealth since the Great Recession has gone to the wealthy.

To take a small example of how the two points might be connected, a recent New Yorker piece has pointed out that “in the fifth year of his Presidency, Obama has failed to place even a single judge on the D.C. Circuit, considered the second most important court in the nation” because the Senate has refused to confirm any of his nominees. This despite the fact that there are now four vacancies out of eleven seats. Why? Because the Senate’s rules allow a minority of Senators—or even just one, in the case of what’s known as the “hold”—to interfere with the will of the majority: an advantage Republican senators have not hesitated to seize.

Nearly twenty years after the publication of Bend Sinister, Nabokov chose to write an introduction in which he endeavored to explain the novel’s name. “This choice of title,” he wrote, “was an attempt to suggest an outline broken by refraction, a distortion in the mirror of being, a wrong turn taken by life, a sinistral and sinister world.” If there are wrong turns, of course, that would suggest that there are right ones; if there are “distortions,” then there are clarities: that is, there is an order to which events will (eventually, sooner or later) return. It’s a suggestion that is not fashionable these days: Nabokov himself isn’t read much today for his own beliefs so much as for the confirmation his novels can provide for one or another thesis. But if he is right—if golf’s belief in “fundamental value” is right—then there must necessarily come some correction to this ongoing problem of the value of a vote.

The location of the new Fort Sumter, however, remains unknown.