His Dark Materials

But all these in their pregnant causes mixed
Confusedly, and which thus must ever fight.
Unless the Almighty Maker them ordain
His dark materials to create more worlds
—Paradise Lost II, 913-16

One of the theses of what’s known as the “academic Left” in America is that “nothing is natural,” or, as the literary critic (and “tenured radical”) Stanley Fish more properly puts it, “the thesis that the things we see and the categories we place them in … have their source in culture rather than nature.” It’s a thesis however, that seems to be obviously wrong in the case of professional golf. Without taking the time to do a full study of the PGA Tour’s website, which does list place of birth, it seems undoubtable that most of today’s American tour players originate south of the Mason-Dixon line: either in the former Confederacy or in other Sun Belt states. Thus it seems difficult to argue that there’s something about “Southern culture” that gives Southerners a leg up toward the professional ranks, rather than just the opportunity to play golf more times a year.

Let’s just look, in order to keep things manageable, at the current top ten: Jordan Speith, this year’s Masters winner, is from Texas, while Jimmy Walker, in second place, is just from up the road in Oklahoma. Rory McIlroy doesn’t count (though he is from Northern Ireland, for what that’s worth), while J.B. Holmes is from Kentucky. Patrick Reed is also from Texas, and Bubba Watson is from Florida. Dustin Johnson is from South Carolina, while Charlie Hoffman is from southern California. Hideki Matsuyama is from Ehime, Japan, which is located on the southern island of Shikoku in the archipelago, while Robert Streb rounds out the top ten and keeps the score even between Texas and Oklahoma.

Not until we reach Ryan Moore, at the fifteenth spot, do we find a golfer from an indisputably Northern state: Moore is from Tacoma, Washington. Washington however was not admitted to the Union until 1889; not until the seventeenth spot do we find a golfer from a Civil War-era Union state beside California. Gary Woodland, as it happens one of the longest drivers on tour, is from Kansas.

This geographic division has largely been stable in the history of American golf. It’s true of course that many great American golfers were Northerners, particularly at the beginnings of the game (like Francis Ouimet, “Chick” Evans, or Walter Hagan—from Massachusetts, Illinois, and Michigan respectively), and arguably the greatest of all time was from Ohio: Jack Nicklaus. But Byron Nelson and Ben Hogan were Texans, and of course Bobby Jones, one of the top three golfers ever, was a Georgian.

Yet while it might be true that nearly all of the great players are Southern, the division of labor in American golf is that nearly all of the great courses are Northern. In the latest Golf Digest ranking for instance, out of the top twenty courses only three—Augusta National, which is #1, Seminole in Florida, and Kiaweh in South Carolina—are in the South. New York (home to Winged Foot and Shinnecock, among others) and Pennsylvania (home to Merion and Oakmont) had the most courses in the top twenty; other Northern states included Michigan, Illinois, and Ohio. If it were access to great courses that made great golfers, in other words—a thesis that would appear to have a greater affinity with the notion that “culture,” rather than “nature,” was what produced great golfers, then we’d expect the PGA Tour to be dominated by Northerners.

That of course is not so, which perhaps makes it all the stranger that, if looked at by region, it is usually “the South” that champions “culture” and “the North” that champions “nature”—at least if you consider, as a proxy, how evolutionary biology is taught. Consider for instance a 2002 map generated by Lawrence S. Lerner of California State University at Long Beach:

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(Link here: http://bigthink.com/strange-maps/97-nil-where-and-how-evolution-is-taught-in-the-us). I realize that the map may be dated now, but still—although with some exceptions—the map generally shows that evolutionary biology is at least a controversial idea in the states of the former Confederacy, while Union states like Connecticut, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania are ranked by Professor Lerner as “Very good/excellent” in the matter of teaching Darwinian biology. In other words, it might be said that the states that are producing the best golfers are both the ones with the best weather and a belief that nature has little to do with anything.

Yet, as Professor Fish’s remarks above demonstrate, it’s the “radical” humanities professors of the nation’s top universities that are the foremost proponents of the notion that “culture” trumps “nature”—a fact that the cleverest creationists have not led slide. An article entitled “The Postmodern Sin of Intelligent Design Creationism” in a 2010 issue of Science and Education, for instance, lays out how “Intelligent Design Creationists” “try to advance their premodern view by adopting (if only tactically) a radical postmodern perspective.” In Darwinism and the Divine: Evolutionary Thought and Natural Theology, Alister McGrath argues not only “that it cannot be maintained that Darwin’s theory caused the ‘abandonment of natural theology,’” and also approvingly cites Fish: “Stanley Fish has rightly argued that the notion of ‘evidence’ is often tautologically determined by … interpretive assumptions.” So there really is a sense in which the the deepest part of the Bible Belt fully agrees with the most radical scholars at Berkeley and other top schools.

In Surprised By Sin: The Reader in Paradise Lost, Stanley Fish’s most famous work of scholarship, Fish argues that Satan is evil because he is “the poem’s true materialist”—and while Fish might say that he is merely reporting John Milton’s view, not revealing his own, still it’s difficult not to take away the conclusion that there’s something inherently wrong with the philosophical doctrine of materialism. (Not to be confused with the vulgar notion that life consists merely in piling up stuff, the philosophic version says that all existence is composed only of matter.) Or with the related doctrine of empiricism: “always an experimental scientist,” Fish has said more recently in the Preface to Surprised By Sin’s Second Edition, Satan busies himself “by mining the trails and entrails of empirical evidence.” Fish of course would be careful to distance himself from more vulgar thinkers regarding these matters—a distance that is there, sure—but it’s difficult not to see why creationists shouldn’t mine him for their own views.

Now, one way to explain that might be that both Fish and his creationist “frenemies” are drinking from the Pure Light of the Well of Truth. But there’s a possible materialistic candidate to explain just why humanities professors might end up with views similar to those of the most fundamentalist Christians: a similar mode of production. The political scientist Anne Norton remarks, in a book about the conservative scholar Leo Strauss, that the pedagogical technique pursued by Strauss—reading “a passage in a text” and asking questions about it—is also one pursued in “the shul and the madrasa, in seminaries and in Bible study groups.” At the time of Strauss’ arrival in the United States as a refugee from a 1930s Europe about to be engulfed in war, “this way of reading had fallen out of favor in the universities,” but as a result of Strauss’ career at the University of Chicago, along with that of philosophers Mortimer Adler (who founded the Great Books Program) and Robert Hutchins, it’s become at least a not-untypical pedagogical method in the humanities since.

At the least, that mode of humanistic study would explain what the philosopher Richard Rorty meant when he repeated Irving Howe’s “much-quoted jibe—‘These people don’t want to take over the government; they just want to take over the English Department.’” It explains, in other words, just how the American left might have “become an object of contempt,” as Rorty says—because it is a left that no longer believes that “the vast inequalities within American society could be corrected by using the institutions of a constitutional democracy.” How could it, after all, given a commitment against empiricism or materialism? Taking a practical perspective on the American political machinery would require taking on just the beliefs that are suicidal if your goal is to achieve tenure in the humanities at Stanford or Yale.

If you happen to think that most things aren’t due to the meddling of supernatural creatures, and you’ve given up on thoughts of tenure because you dislike both creationist nut-jobs and that “largely academic crowd cynical about America, disengaged from practice, and producing ever-more-abstract, jargon-ridden interpretations of cultural phenomena,” while at the same time you think that putting something in the place of God called “the free market”—which is what, exactly?—isn’t the answer either, why, then the answer is perfectly natural.

You are writing about golf.

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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 Mark of Z

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hunting For (a Golden) Bear With Bubba Watson

 

“Nobody has pointed out,” William Shawn of The New Yorker wrote in early December of 1943, after Berlin had been turned largely to rubble by Allied bombers, “that the destruction of Berlin established the fact that it is now possible to destroy a city and that every city, but for the hairline distinction between the potential and actual, is afire.” If Berlin could burn, then so could New York (and, though the delivery system was different than Shawn might have imagined, it did). Shawn could have been a sports psychologist—he already knew one of the key techniques of modern golf shrinks, one advocated by Jack Nicklaus himself. But such is the state of golf instruction that not even Nicklaus can command unanimity: judging by certain remarks he made a couple of weeks ago while leading at Doral after the Saturday round, Bubba Watson disagrees.

Watson, a man who can’t be as unsophisticated as his name or his speech appears, said after Saturday that despite leading the golf tournament he didn’t need a sports psychologist to help him prepare for the final round. “If anybody says they are not nervous going into Sunday … they are just lying to you,” Watson said. “Their sports psychologist is telling them to lie to themselves.” The sentence, bad grammar and all, is apparently a reference to the common psychological technique of “visualization,” or in other words, of imagining that a given event has already happened: that a crucial putt has fallen, or that the player has already won.

The technique is best known, in golf anyway, because its champion has been the man who is (as of this writing) the best player ever, Jack Nicklaus. “I never hit a shot, not even in practice,” Nicklaus once said, “without having a very sharp, in-focus picture of it in my head.” He elaborated: “First, I see the ball where I want it to finish … Then … I see the ball going there: its path, trajectory and shape … the next scene shows me making the kind of swing that will turn the previous images into reality.” It’s an odd thing: Nicklaus is not only telling us he sees things that aren’t there, but that he actively tried to see them, before they happened.

Watson’s comment draws attention to just how odd this is. It is odd to see things that aren’t there, and it’s even odder to hear someone who was once at the top of their profession confessing to it—indeed, ascribing their professional success not to an ability to suppress what he sees (but isn’t there), but actively cultivating those visions as a source of that success. This is deeply strange, not least because while he was playing Nicklaus was widely thought of as the stereotypical golfing automaton.

In Jack Nicklaus: Golf’s Greatest Champion, Mark Shaw notes that a Bruce Ogilvie, “a professor of psychology at San Jose State University,” once conducted a study for Golf Digest expressly about why people disliked Nicklaus early in his career. “The most common complaint” of Ogilvie’s report? That “Nicklaus was considered to be a mechanical man, one who ‘played like a robot.’” Even if Nicklaus’ actual experience of his golf was as a flight of the imagination, the audience experienced it quite differently.

Similarly, Bubba Watson—like Arnold Palmer—is one of those players that golf writers like to say has “imagination,” by which they seem to mean “occasionally the ball curves, instead of going directly toward the target.” Bubba, we’re told, “doesn’t like to hit the ball straight,” because it “bores him.” Or as another blogger wrote: “it is Watson’s imagination and ability to shape his shots that we golf fans find the most captivating.” Or as a third notes: Bubba’s “personality is like his golf game: creative.” But it seems clear that even if the golf world experiences his golf one way, Bubba himself experiences it differently.

It’s the “mechanical man” who’s belaboring the “power of the imagination,” while it’s the “creative” shotmaker who’s putting on the cranky Samuel Johnson act—and that isn’t the only oddity about this exchange. Watson, for instance, is a Southerner: a region characterized, said Mark Twain long ago, by its “love for dreams and phantoms.” Twain wasn’t being complimentary; he went on to call it “the jejune romanticism of an absurd past,” and said that without it “the South would be fully a generation further advanced than it is.” So for a Southerner to reject the power of the imagination is distinctive and strange: much as it would be, for instance, for a Northerner to reject what Twain calls “practical, common-sense, progressive ideas.” To compare Nicklaus and (Bubba) Watson is, thusly, like conceiving of a world in which Ulysses Grant fought for Jeff Davis, and it was Robert E. Lee who led Mr. Lincoln’s army.

Maybe that’s just a hairline distinction these days.

3-Irons and Three-Jacks

Where France?
The Comedy of Errors III, ii

 

The guest wanted the 3-iron. Already, after only six holes of Course 3, we were at loggerheads, after he’d shaken me off twice on club calls. The first time had been on Medinah’s second hole, a brute of a 3-par over water to what’s virtually an island green. Our group was playing the white tees, however—due to the age of some members of the foursome—so, given that it was only 135 to the front of the green and my player was an 8 handicap, I thought a 9-iron would be plenty of club. Because he hit the ball on the top of the clubface (instead of the bottom where the mass of the clubhead is), it wasn’t. Twice.

The second time was on the second shot to the first 5-par, the fifth hole. Having 260 in from the middle of the fairway, uphill, he wanted to hit a 3-iron. This, despite the fact that, as I told him, there was no necessity to hit such a long club since there was no chance of reaching the green and the risk that, because such a long club is difficult to control, the possibility that an erroneous shot might end up in thick trees or even, possibly, out-of-bounds. Nonetheless, he hit the 3-iron which, perhaps predictably, hit the trees on the right and, less predictably, rebounded out into the fairway—to about where a decent 6-iron would have put him. I did not, despite my own inclinations, point this out to him.

Now we were on the approach to the sixth, after a mediocre drive that left him nearly 220 yards to the center of the green (even from the whites Medinah is long). But he was only 195 yards to the front of the green, with a pin in a difficult middle-left location that meant any ball past the hole would leave a tricky putt. The wind was directly behind. Thinking only of the distance to center, he wanted the 3-iron.

I ventured that I was not convinced the 3-iron was not correct. Immediately concluding that I wanted him to hit more club—he had only a 1-iron in the slot between the 3 and the driver—he said he did not like to use his 1-iron. (At which pointed I wondered to myself, not for the first time when confronting an amateur’s bag, why he had it.) I said, quite the contrary, I was thinking about less, rather than more, club, for the reasons I’ve already delineated. This did not appear to compute for him—he appeared ready for a throw-down over hitting more club, but unable to understand why I’d like to hit less.

The approach on the sixth hole on Course 3 is often long, but the hole, uphill on the tee shot, is downhill for the second. Nothing intervenes between the player and the green down the fairway, and in the front of said green the fairway is pitched, which often throws the ball forward onto the green. Particularly downwind, as we were, the shot often requires less club than the inexperienced player might suspect. This was one of those times, I thought.

I bring this story up not only because it happened a few days ago, but also because of a comment I came across quoted in John Huggan’s often-informative and usually-amusing golf column in The Scotsman. Huggan is interviewing Gil Hanse, designer of Castle Stuart—site of this week’s Scottish Open and a course that’s been called the best British course built since the Second World War. Castle Stuart is a links course, unlike the course that’s been the site of the Scottish Open for years, Loch Lomond, which is an American-style course.

The quote that interested me from Huggan’s interview was this one, where Hanse talks about what makes Castle Stuart different from most American-style courses. “It is odd,” said Hanse, “that so many people don’t realize how interesting and difficult short grass can be when used as a hazard.” In support of the point, Hanse recalls the playoff in the 1989 Open Championship (which we know over here as the British Open).

That playoff ultimately rode on the moment when Greg Norman “had missed a green but had nothing but short grass and a bank between him and the hole”:

He stood there and thought about it. Then he switched clubs. Then he thought about it more. Eventually he just chunked the shot. The best player in the world had been perplexed by the subtlety of what was in front of him. His mind was full of doubt.

Apparently, Hanse has applied the lesson to Castle Stuart, which has very wide fairways but yet still, in Hanse’s estimation, will present its own difficulties because, despite their width, the effective fairway—i.e., the best place to approach the green—won’t be any wider than the best players are used to playing. But by being so wide, the fairways will allow those players with the skill to play interesting shots even after missing the “correct” landing zone.

That was the original theory behind Augusta National as designed by Alistair MacKenzie and Bobby Jones: to allow multiple lines of play to the same hole instead of the architect dictating the player’s shot. But American golf—even Augusta is radically different than the course envisioned by its founders—has largely lost the insight: golf courses like, as Tom Doak has observed, Firestone (and Course 3) have told the golfer how to play them rather than allowing the player to choose among various options. But as my anecdote about the sixth hole is meant to illustrate, even Course 3—and especially since the renovation—still makes use of short grass as the best, because most deceptive, obstacle.

What happened to the guest is, of course, anti-climactic. After insisting on hitting the 3-iron, the ball took off, landed in front of the green, and took a huge jump forward. It certainly reached the pin; in fact, as you probably already know, it rolled well past it. Eventually it came to rest in the rough just over the green, perched on a cliff above the hole and leaving an incredibly difficult downhill putt with a severe break that, again predictably, the guest left short (fearing the slope). As you’ve probably also already realized, he missed the downhill eight-footer for par.

What the anecdote also, and perhaps more importantly, illustrates is something of the myopia of American golf—a myopia that was perhaps also displayed recently during PGA Tour player Bubba Watson’s recent Parisian adventure. Watson, according to many, acted out the European fantasy of the Ugly American while playing the French Open at the course that will be the site of the 2018 Ryder Cup competition, Le Golf National. When asked about his tour of Paris prior to the tournament, Watson said that he seen “the big tower, Eiffel Tower, an arch, whatever” and that he been to “it starts with an L, Louvre, something like that.”

Watson’s remarks would be merely a faux-pas, but some see in them a sign of something greater. Chubby Chandler, Rory McIlroy’s agent—he’s also Charl Schwartzel’s agent, which means that he’s on track for the Agent Slam this year—said in response to Watson (and his T-102 in the tournament) that it’s indicative of how Americans “don’t see any reason to play outside America.” And Jack Nicklaus himself sees in Watson a measure of how American golf is losing competitiveness: “Too many Americans know little beyond American golf.” What the golfers Nicklaus is speaking of don’t know, I’d submit (and I’d enter my guest as an exhibit in such a case) is how to play short grass—which American courses, too often, fail to use properly.

Maybe that’d explain why American teams, after decades of dominating the Ryder Cup, have been relatively unsuccessful (4-10) since at least the “War on the Shore” on the Ocean Course at Kiawah Island in 1991. Maybe that record will only change when American golfers are no longer surprised when their caddies tell them that a 220-yard shot only requires a 5-iron. Until then, when I think about the Ryder Cup and American success in it (or lack of it), I’ll think about the look on that guest’s face when I suggested it—and the look on his face while he watched his ball jump past the hole.

Thunderstorms and Neon Greens

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

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

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

—“Thunderstorms and Neon Signs”

Wayne Hancock.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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