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.”


The Anger of Achilles

Rage—Goddess, sing the rage of Achilles,
Murderous and doomed.
The Iliad. Book I.

The Bob Hope got itself played in Palm Springs last week—despite all the efforts of Aeolus, god of wind—and watching it always reminds me of the third hole at Silver Rock, a shortish par three, when Justin Leonard’s caddie corrected me on the yardage I was giving Derek Anderson, who was then still Cleveland’s hope for the future. Silver Rock is one of those modern courses with many, many tee boxes installed by architects fighting a rear-guard action against the equipment-makers—a war that has all of the vitality Rome’s legions on the Rhine must have had in the century or two after Marcus Aurelius—and looking in the yardage book, I’d mistaken the tee box we actually were on for another because I’d missed seeing one of the tee boxes. The yardage I’d given Derek was something like 12 yards off: enough to put him on the wrong club. Justin’s caddie corrected me, which might have been the end of it but for the tenor of the man’s voice. He was angry.

Now, golf and anger are no strangers to each other: “Some emotions,” even the great Bobby Jones once said, “cannot be endured with a golf club in your hands.” “Terrible” Tommy Bolt, a U.S. Open-winning subscriber to Jones’ theory, advised not only to throw your clubs in front of you (it saves a walk), but also never to break both your putter and driver in the same round: canny pieces of advice from a man not unfamiliar with helicoptering drivers or putters.

Nowadays, of course, such displays of temper are hugely frowned upon, perhaps in keeping with the general vibe of today’s world: my great-uncle, who was city editor of the Chicago Daily News far back in the last century, was renowned for his temper—he “ruled the staff … in fiery justice” his obituary said— as were a lot of city editors at the time. Twenty years ago, though, even a leading candidate for the Oldest Living City Editor, Julius Parker of the Chattanooga Free Press, then 79, admitted to the American Journalism Review that he tried “not to shout as much as I used to.”

Even so rarified an air as academia, which one might suppose has as little to do with a the clatterings of a newsroom as a milkmaid has to a milking machine, isn’t immune to a change in the culture as a whole. For instance, John Milton’s foremost living scholar, Stanley Fish (of Berkeley, Johns Hopkins, Columbia, and, most notoriously, Duke), recently wrote in one of his columns (“The Digital Humanities and the Transcending of Morality”) for the New York Times’ digital edition—which he had, until the very column I am citing, refused to call a blog—that “the new forms of communication—blogs, links, hypertext, re-mixes, mash-ups, multi-modalities and much more—that have emerged with the development of digital technology” challenge the old model of scholarship entirely. It’s a claim that might appear quite unrelated to the one in the previous paragraph—it doesn’t follow that angry city editors have anything to do with scholarship, exactly—but a closer examination of Fish’s argument might reveal that even if the two worlds of newspapering and scholarship aren’t in harmony, they’re singing a similar song.

The reason Fish gives for refusing to call his blog a blog is, it seems, exactly the reasons many defenders of what’s being called the “digital humanities” are proclaiming are the virtues of the practice of blogging and other, newer, forms of scholarly communication. Blogs, and other forms of writing on the Internet, are “provisional, ephemeral, interactive, communal, available to challenge, interruption and interpolation, and not meant to last,” whereas for the past 50 years or so Fish has been “building arguments that are intended to be decisive, comprehensive, monumental, definitive and, most important, all mine.” But for those practicing the new forms of scholarship, such ends are mistaken.

What the “digital humanities” promises, according to Fish (as their enemy, perhaps it is wise to take his point with a grain of salt), is a mode of scholarship in which “knowledge is available in a full and immediate presence” to everyone everywhere: which is to say, the usual kind of left-wing millenarianism. (Indeed, The Digital Humanities Manifesto 2.0 explicitly describes itself as having a “utopian core shaped by its genealogical descent from the counterculture/cyberculture of the 60s and 70s.”) The promise is, as Fish notes Milton described while facing an earlier version of the same sort of thing, as being that we should be “all in all.” In other words, even if Fish and, say, my great-uncle, might have had serious disagreements about … well, virtually everything, the digital humanities people might describe them as being roughly similar in their views about what, for instance, might constitute a proper piece of writing.

It’s true, to be sure, that Clem’s standing orders to his reporters (“Short words … short sentences … short leads … short paragraphs”) isn’t quite the style of Fish, the Ivy League professor—nor, equally surely, that of Milton, who virtually defines a “difficult” style of writing—but I suspect he’d have agreed with Fish’s point about the relation between death and writing. “To be mortal,” Fish says, is not only to be “capable of dying” but also to have a “beginning, middle and end,” which is what “sentences, narratives, and arguments have”—and from which the “digital humanities,” it seems, promises to liberate us. As Fish, the old scholar of Milton, knows, that’s what’s always promised, and as Milton knew (it’s what Paradise Lost is about, after all), it’s what we never get.

Still, it’s true that both newspapering and academia are getting rather a larger reminder of the significance of mortality these days than either might like. Both occupations have been sounding the death knell for decades: Clem’s newspaper, the Daily News, went under in 1978, and the transformation of image of humanities professors as august persons protected by tenure and remote in their wood-paneled offices to be-spectacled, goatee-wearing adjuncts who are probably working more than one job (a job that, if they are lucky, is not at a McDonald’s) is not only well underway, but nearly over in many places. In that sense, the vision of the “digital humanities” looks rather more like just trying to make the inevitable a cheering, rather than awful, vision of the future.

That vision of the future, however, despite what it might say about being “inclusive” and the like (“all in all”), necessarily doesn’t include everything in it: presumably, it doesn’t include beginnings and endings, or arguments, or anger. Or—here one assumes—golf: which is, after all, a sport devoted to beginnings (like, say, tee boxes) and endings (holes), arguments (which tee box was it?), and very often involves anger. That’s all right: it’s in the nature of radicalism to deny the present. What isn’t clear, at least to Fish I suppose, is just how to make all of that disappear: without, at the same time, effectively making much else disappear as well.

“You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs,” goes one of the oldest leftist remarks—skewered by George Orwell, who asked “Yes, but where is the omelette?” If, for instance, the claim of the “digital humanities” is that by, say, breaking down “the more traditional structures of academic publishing,” as Fish cites one Matthew Kirschenbaum as arguing for, will somehow lead to—well, something, anyway—it certainly can’t be told by the economic data: all the indicators have been flashing red for some decades. For most of the American population, many many observers have noted, wages have remained more or less the same since about 1972.

I don’t want to spend a lot of time rehearsing the whole, which litters today’s landscape—it is the reason for the Occupy Wall Street movement—but let me select a few pieces of evidence. The Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman, reviewing Edward N. Wolff’s Top Heavy: A Study of the Increasing Inequality of Wealth in America, observes that the evidence for increasing economic inequality is “overwhelming, and it comes from many sources—from government agencies like the Bureau of the Census, from Fortune’s annual survey of executive compensation, and so on.” And that inequality has itself been unequal: “the top 5 percent have gotten richer compared with the next 15, the top 1 percent compared with the next 4, the top 0.25 percent compared with the next 0.75, and onwards all the way to Bill Gates.” Each level, in other words, has seen their income levels soar at an exponential rate—Bill Gates’ wealth has expanded not arithmetically, but according to a multiple: a multiple that is, for the Bill Gates category (the top .01 percent), at 497 percent.

Despite that, the Official American Left—ensconced in its ivory tower—has little to say about income inequality, even if it has a lot to say about protecting the rights of minorities. As even the notorious Marxist professor of literature Terry Eagleton has written, the very “idea of a creative majority movement” has “come to seem like a contradiction in terms” to many academics. In that sense, maybe golf, and anger, might have something to teach—and maybe that lesson isn’t necessarily that remote from the dusty halls of academe. The Iliad, after all—widely regarded as the beginning, along with the Pentateuch, of Western literature—begins with Homer invoking the Muse’s help to tell his tale: the story of the anger of Achilles. As for golf, anyone who says he’s played without feeling one emotion on the first tee and another on the final green is lying: if the game is about nothing else, it is about beginnings, middles, and endings.

And, also, keeping score.