Great Lengths

‘A first class hole must have the subtleties and strategic problems which are difficult to understand, and are therefore extremely likely to be condemned at first sight even by the best of players.’
Alister MacKenzieThe Spirit of St. Andrews (1933; pub. 1995)

Both men were over two hundred yards from the hole when we arrived at their golf balls, far to the left side of Streamsong Red’s thirteenth. My player, though not as skilled a golfer as his companion, was slightly closer to the green; the other player was further away. His caddie counseled him to take a long club, and play up to the right of the dune fronting the thirteenth’s green. The man did, hitting a heroic shot that flew over the center fairway bunker, to the right of the dune. It left him with a short wedge into the green, only partially obscured by the massive dune. My player looked at me, presumably expecting me to counsel similarly. But while I told the other player, “good shot,” I was handing my guy a wedge.

My reasoning, had there been time to follow it at length, had much to do with a golf course nearly three thousand miles away: Riviera Country Club, outside Los Angeles. The thirteenth hole on Streamsong’s Red Course draws from that golf course on two distinct levels: in the first place, it is a short par five, designed to follow the long par four twelfth—a rehash of a trick the Coore and Crenshaw team had already used on the first and second hole of the same course: a short par five following a par four of nearly the same length. The artifice is inspired by the opening holes of Riviera, a course that begins with one of the easiest par fives in golf and is followed by one of the most difficult par fours. But the Red Course, and specifically the thirteenth, also draws much from the thought of Riviera’s architect, George Thomas.

“Each hole at Riviera,” reads the course’s review at the website, Golf Club Atlas, is a ‘how to’ of golf architecture.” One of these is the contrast between the first and the second holes: one of the easier par fives on tour (often not even requiring a driver to reach in two shots) followed by the course’s number one handicap hole. The idea is a kind of rhyme, where what happened on the previous hole matters in a way not often found in less sophisticated designs.

One way the first two holes at Riviera rhyme, for example, is by contrast of their greens: the first hole’s green is very wide, yet not very deep, while the second’s is the opposite. Hence, the one mitigates a shot that is the correct distance but is indifferently aimed, while the second mitigates the opposite kind of shot. Conversely, each also punishes the “wrong” sort of shot—the sort that might have been just the thing on the previous hole. It’s a subtle but far-reaching effect, one that can be hard to detect—unless you happen to read the scorecard.

A careful reading of any course’s scorecard can, in other words, reveal holes of extremely similar distances; the lesson Coore and Crenshaw, following Thomas, would impart is: “Pay attention when two holes of similar lengths have different par values.” The numbers are a clear signal to the careful golfer, because the choice of length is not haphazard; it is a sign that those two holes have a relation to each other. In the case of the thirteenth and the twelfth on Streamsong’s Red, each is—in part—a funhouse version of the other. Where one is downhill (the 12th) the other is uphill (the 13th), and where one offers a clear view of the green the other obscures it. But the dune of the thirteenth is not just a mirror; it is a razor.

It’s a razor because the thirteenth on the Red Course embodies George Thomas’ thought in an even more subtle sense. “The spirit of golf,” Thomas wrote in his Golf Architecture in America, of 1927, “is to dare a hazard, and by negotiating it reap a reward, while he who fears or declines the issue of the carry, has a longer or harder shot for his second.” Everything in golf revolves around that axis mundi; it is the turtle upon which the disc of the world, as the recently-deceased Terry Pratchett might have appreciated, rests. Proceed by one path, and others become unavailable—every choice, like Borges’ “Garden of Forking Paths,” is determined by previous choices.

One way the thirteenth does this is by separating the golfer from a clear view of the green until he nearly stands upon it. But it does not do that entirely: from the extreme left it’s possible to see the flag, if not the green itself. The trouble—and of course, as George Thomas’ maxim advertises, there is a trouble—is that, from the left, a player must traverse nearly a hundred yards of sand; not so from the right, where a smooth road of fairway grass chases gently to the green. The architecture appears to be designed, in Thomas’ sense, to reward a “spirited carry” over the dune.

Some version of that thought, presumably, is why my colleague counseled his player to play up the right side with the strong shot he hit. Yet two wedge shots of just more than a hundred yards would easily reach the green—a shot that even the worst golfer can usually manage. So, why have a player choose a club far more easily mishit, like a long iron, to a target that grants only a modest advantage? I didn’t ask the other caddie for his rationale, but I’d presume it has something to do with the conventions of golf, at least as played by Americans in the early 21st century—conventions that seem to ignore the second part of George Thomas’ remarks about the “spirit of golf.”

That second part is this: “yet the player who avoids the unwise effort gains an advantage over one who tries for more than in him lies and fails.” In other words the player who can pull off a difficult shot should get the edge over the player who can’t—but the player who knows his own game ought to get the edge over the player does not. In that sense, the thirteenth’s “spirited carry” over the dune rewards, as it should, the player with a possible eagle—but as few seem to realize, it does not reward a heroic second shot that does not finish on the green. In fact, it positively threatens the player who makes that choice.

Just out of sight from the fairway, concealed from anyone standing at a distance from the green, about eighty yards short and to the right of the green, Coore and Crenshaw dug a deep bunker that threatens any ball hit past the beginning of the tall dune, but not onto the green itself. In other words, to try to hit a long shot that does not attempt the green risks sticking the struck ball in that bunker. Needless to say, it is a difficult recovery that more or less takes par—and certainly birdie—off the table. The player who know he cannot carry the dune, and lays up in front of the dune, has a much easier time of it than the golfer who hits a long second shot that does not reach the green.

The answer for most American golfers, I’d say, is to hit it as far as possible anyway—even if there isn’t a reward at the other end. But that is the ruse of the Red’s thirteenth: sometimes it’s actually more “daring” to decline the dare. It may be worth noting that Thomas himself, at least as ventriloquized by the golf writer Geoff Shackelford, was rather pessimistic about that possibility of such a lesson ever being learned: “I sense that that the combination of technology, refined conditioning, the aerial game and the overall curiousity with fairness have combined to eliminate strategy,” says “Thomas” in an interview published in Golf Club Atlas, and these are signs, the great Californian concludes, of “a society willing to go to great lengths to avoid thought.” This may yet be unfair, however: the existence of the thirteenth at Streamsong’s Red is an argument to the contrary.

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Fitzgerald and McIlroy Are NOT Dead—Yet

Guildenstern: Good my lord, vouchsafe me a word with you.
Hamlet III, 2

There’s a legendary looper I know somewhat who works mostly on the LPGA—but also has worked at Riviera and various other places—named Mike Troublefield. I last ran into him some years ago at Lochinvar, outside of Houston, Texas (where Butch Harmon spent some time before becoming guru to the stars). When I first met Troublefield, while I was working an LPGA tournament at Stonebridge outside of Chicago, he introduced me to the concept of the “yaddie”: a caddie who, no matter the circumstance, just says “yeah” to whatever nonsensical shot his player wants to hit. In Troublefield’s estimation, which is now mine, the worth of a caddie is shown by his willingness to say, at least once in a while, “no” to his player. It’s a point I’ve been thinking about this summer because of the recent focus on elite players’ caddies: not merely Steve Williams, but also through the rather lesser-known controversy over Rory McIlroy’s caddie, J.P. Fitzgerald.

During the Irish Open last month, McIlroy lost three shots during the first day of the tournament to shoot 70, which is a respectable score, but it caused an American ex-pro-turned-commentator named Jay Townsend to go into full-blown meltdown mode: Townsend said, via Twitter, not only that McIlroy’s course management was “shocking,” but also blamed it on Rory’s caddie, Fitzgerald, by saying that “I thought JP allowed some SHOCKING [sic] course management today.” Rory fired back, also via Twitter, by replying “shut up … You’re a commentator and a failed golfer, you’re opinion means nothing!” [sic]. All of which is tremendous fun, but also brings up a sensitive subject: namely, how much was J.P. to blame for McIlroy’s meltdown at Augusta in April? Or to put it Troublefield’s way: is J.P. a yaddie?

To be sure, in light of his victory at Congressional in June, the collapse in Georgia seems merely a prelude—rather like Bobby Jones walking off the course at St. Andrews in the summer of 1921—but at the time it seemed ominous, with many speculating that McIlroy might turn out like Sergio Garcia, another young phenom who never (or hasn’t yet) learned how to close out his rivals. Now such fears appear ridiculous, but the real question isn’t whether McIlroy is a world-class player (which now is answered), but the passage of time allows us to ask a different question about McIlroy’s failure: the question of just how much responsibility (or ability) a caddie has to derail a player from boarding a bogey train.

Unfortunately, there isn’t any video available to me (that I know of) of the first round of the Irish Open this year, so it’s unclear to me just what it was that Townshend was referring to in his tweets. But it is possible to view video of Rory’s 10th hole at Augusta—where McIlroy made the triple-bogey that began the string of bad holes that lost him the tournament—on YouTube, which provides the only neutral evidence of the relation between J.P. and Rory and what J.P.’s possible role in the blow-up might have been. So I watched it.

Before getting to what I saw, though, it’s important to note just what sort of limitations a caddie’s job has. Obviously, J.P. doesn’t hit the shots; he merely carries the bag and (occasionally) might provide a bit of counsel. J.P. didn’t hit the huge hook that ended up so far left of the 10th fairway that it was nearly left of the Butler Cabin—Rory did. Just as clearly, neither of them (but particularly J.P.) could not have seen that coming (though it’s been remarked that the hook is Rory’s “miss,” the shot he tends to hit when he loses focus). In other words, J.P. can’t bear responsibility for Rory’s drive.

To this point, Rory had been playing spectacularly well that week, since after all he was winning the tournament. Some might point to the bogies he made at the first hole and the fifth in the final rounds as foreshadows of what was to come, but J.P. could not have thought of them as anything other than bumps in the road: both holes are spectacularly difficult ones now after the several redesigns at Augusta in recent years. Maybe Rory might not have been playing so well as he had in the first round, but then there weren’t a lot of 65s shot this year so Rory was bound to regress to the mean in following rounds (he shot 69 and 70 respectively in rounds 2 and 3). Rory’s lead was four shots beginning the final round so, as J.P. must have known, it wouldn’t take a spectacular round for the Northern Irishman to win. (All it would have taken, in retrospect, is another 69 to beat Charl Schwartzel, the man who ended up winning.)

Despite the bogies on the front nine, McIlroy had made a birdie on the difficult 7th, so not everything must have looked bleak to J.P.. There were plenty of birdie holes coming up, so the caddie must have been thinking that even after the horrible drive, a bogey or even a miracle par weren’t out of the picture, which could still be saved by birdies or even eagles on the two five-pars at 13 and 15. It wasn’t a reason to panic. McIlroy smartly pitched out to the fairway on 10, leaving a not-too-difficult shot to the green for his third shot. It’s on what happened next that any question of J.P.’s role has to rest.

What McIlroy did was hit virtually the same shot that sent him into the trees off the tee—a big hook that sent him into the trees (again) left of the green. The television coverage cut away from McIlroy to show what was happening elsewhere on the golf course, and anyway J.P. wasn’t miked (as some Nationwide tournaments have done with caddies recently) so it’s hard to say what the two discussed on the way to the ball. Even then, J.P. could not have been panicking—although it’s unusual for a professional golfer to miss the same way twice on the same hole, J.P. must have known that a smart chip to the green, followed by a good putt, would still salvage bogey and Rory’s chances. The mistake J.P. made, if he did make one, could only have come prior to the next shot, Rory’s fourth.

That shot was a chip that hit a branch of a tree, thereby coming up short of the green and rolling back down a slope, virtually to Rory’s feet. If there’s anything that J.P. could have said before that moment it would have been, or should have been, something like “take the tree out of play” and “plenty of green behind the pin.” In other words, what J.P. should have emphasized was that Rory’s primary job for that shot was to get the ball on the green rather than try to cozy the ball next to the pin, which is apparently what Rory actually tried to do. By missing that shot, Rory made double-bogey a virtual certainty rather than a possibility, as it had been at every point before then.

That shot was, as it turns out, the climax of Rory’s tournament: he did go on to three-putt the 11th and four-putt the 12th, but it’s arguable that those misses were simply the result of what had already happened. Rory didn’t miss any more shots like he had on 10 (at least, none so badly); he just seems to have been rattled by the triple-bogey into putting poorly. It’s possible to say, especially about the four-putt, that J.P. should have taken his man aside and slowed him down, forcing him to focus on the putts and thereby preventing those horrible miscues, but it also seems clear that the crucial hole was the 10th.

Of all the shots, in turn, that McIlroy played on that hole (7 of them!), it follows that the most significant was his fourth, which was the one that made the triple possible in the first place. In other words, even aside from the fact that the fourth was the shot for par (as unlikely as that was), it was the shot that created the likelihood for what eventually happened: prior to then, McIlroy might still have made par, while afterwards the triple became not only possible, but even likely. For the purposes of determining what responsibility J.P. bears for McIlroy’s loss in April, then, the most important point would seem to be what happened before Rory hit that shot of all the shots he hit that day.

Unfortunately, the video doesn’t show what happened: whether, in short, player and caddie had any kind of discussion about how to play it. And, actually, it’s difficult to even make out just what happened on that shot at all: McIlroy suddenly appears, after a commercial break, behind some sort of bush or small tree, and hits the ball; immediately after, there’s the sinking sound of a ball striking wood: McIlroy struck the tree. The announcers do claim that McIlroy had to try to fly it over that bush, but the video doesn’t provide enough evidence either way: maybe he did, which seems likely given that the announcers were proximate (if they were), and maybe, given that Nantz at least wasn’t directly at the 10th hole, not.

What’s interesting about that aspect of the shot is that the alternative to the high-flying shot CBS’ announcers believed necessary is exactly the sort of shot one might think a golfer who grew up playing in linksland—as we might think Northern Ireland, home of Royal Portrush among other links courses, to be—would relish: a low-flying, then rolling, shot up the bank of the 10th green, thereby avoiding the tree branch. But, as McIlroy said during this year’s Open Championship, he isn’t really that sort of player: he prefers the high-ball American style of flop shot, down-the-chimney golf. And that’s the sort of shot he attempted on the 10th: a high shot that, had it not hit the branch, would have landed near the pin and, with the right spin, would have stayed there. Knowing his player’s preferences, J.P. might have decided that the odds favored the kind of shot Rory likes to hit, rather than one that he didn’t.

That is to say that the call J.P. made, whether he vocalized it or not, is at the end of the day a judgement call. It so happens that J.P. guessed wrong. But what Troublefield would want to know about what happened on the 10th is whether J.P. questioned his player about it or whether he just went along with whatever the boss said. As I’ve mentioned there isn’t anything at least in the public record about what happened in the moments before that fourth pass, but there are two people who do know: J.P. and Rory.

For the moment, and particularly after the U.S. Open, Rory is happy with J.P.’s performance, which seems to indicate that J.P. did say what needed to be said at that time. But what will ultimately let us know about what happened in the valley of Augusta’s 10th on that Sunday in April is what Rory decides to do about J.P. after the season is over, when he has a moment to calmly reflect on a season where he might have started out halfway to a Grand Slam but let it slip away on a grassy Georgian knoll.

Between Ports

“And what did he die of so young, Gretta? Consumption, was it?”

“I think he died for me,” she answered.

—James Joyce. “The Dead” Dubliners 1914

We now are between the ports, as sailors say, of Thanksgiving and Christmas, that time of year that provides the setting for James Joyce’s “The Dead” and also Tiger Woods’ annual tournament at Sherwood near Los Angeles—the snow may be general all over Ireland, but never south of the San Gabriels. There is something perhaps unseemly about a golf tournament at this time of year, but it perhaps bears remembering that the Scots, the English and the Irish, who invented this little game, are also peoples peculiarly fascinated by the holiday. It’s in the little things, says Vincent from Pulp Fiction, that a culture is known; perhaps exploring why Christmas and golf should be two minor preoccupations of the cultures of the British Isles may also prove illuminating.

In any case, literature in English (not the same as English literature) is enwrapped by Christmas to a degree I think not seen in other languages—there is no French A Christmas Carol, or so I would wager. Joyce for instance chose the holiday as the setting for “The Dead,” one of the English language’s greatest short stories; there is no equivalent in other literatures of a great author like Dickens or Joyce taking Christmas as the setting for one of his best efforts. Even minor works of literature in English are influenced by the holiday; C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, first (and best) of The Chronicles of Narnia, concerns a land enchanted by the aforementioned witch, whose powers make it “always winter, but never Christmas.” That last I think furnishes a clue to the cultural fixation on Christmas by the English-speaking peoples.

That fascination, I’d say, is the memory of a political conflict, the English Revolution, or as some call it, the Civil War. The religious battles of the 16th and 17th centuries led to the rise of the Puritan movement, which sought to “get back to the text” of the Bible—which, as they saw it, contained no mention of Christmas, meaning that the pageantry that had grown up around the holiday was all of a piece with the incense and mysticism that characterized (in their view) the hated Catholic church. Oliver Cromwell, who would become the Lord Protector of England during the 1650s, enacted legislation in the 1640s to ban Christmas celebrations throughout the British Isles—Narnia, in other words, is a fantastic creation, but with its roots in a historical trauma.

The writers had particular reason to remember the event, because among the Puritans’ other legislation (including, significantly, acts banning gambling and other “sport”) was an act banning the performance of plays—an act, in other words, aimed directly at literature. The Irish, producers of most of the best of literature in English, had especial reason to remember the Puritans—the Long Parliament, in 1644, had passed a bill stating that “no quarter shall be given to any Irishman” in the battles of the Civil War, and Cromwell’s march through the country later in the decade led to the death of roughly a third of the island’s inhabitants. Christmas, Ireland, and the imagination are surreptitiously linked in the English language, by an underground river of history only occasionally discovered by traces at the surface.

Yet its traces can still be found; for instance, in the way that the Scots are still seen today. The stereotypical Scotsman is dour and miserly in the imagination of English speakers—which has very little to do with how the Scots actually are, in my experience anyway, and very much more to do with historical memory. What is the stereotypical Scot, if not Scrooge? It is not for nothing, so I think, that Disney calls one of their characters “Scrooge McDuck”—the “Mc” is there for a reason. And indeed, there is good reason for that Scottish connection.

It was in Scotland, after all, that the conflict that would eventually be called the English Civil War, or Revolution—some call all of the wars of this period part of the “Wars of the Three Kingdoms”—began, when the Scottish church resisted the religious policies of Charles I. The English side of the conflict was provoked when Charles needed money to pay for his armies to suppress Scotland—Parliament demanded some return on its investment in the form of an explicit statement of Parliamentary authority, which Charles refused. The Scots—or at least, some Scots, not including for instance the clans of the Highlands—were the most fanatical about such things as opposition to Christmas; the stereotype of the Scot, in short, is the trace of a historical memory of real events.

Yet if the Scots were, as a nation, opposed to Christmas, gambling, and sport, then how should golf come to become Scotland’s national game? Evidence of golf, however, can be found throughout the margins of the wars. Mary Queen of Scots—whose golfing son would become James IV of Scotland and James I of England, and whose grandson Charles I would be deposed by Parliament—was criticized by some Scots for frivolity (and a sign of her Catholicism) long before the conflict began, and golf’s shadow can be found all the way through to the life of the surgeon John Rattray, first winner of the Silver Club prize given by the Town of Edinburgh in 1744—and participant in the last attempt by Mary’s line to grasp the throne, the Rising of 1745, when the last of the free Highland clans went down at Culloden Moor. (Rattray would be spared the death penalty by the pleading of his golf buddy and political enemy Duncan Forbes, Scottish judge, supporter of the English crown—and owner of Culloden Moor.) Golf, it seems, united the Scots—it’s what made Forbes plead for Rattray’s life despite their opposition during the Rising, it’s what made both Mary and her son Scot despite the fact that one was Catholic and one Protestant.

Golf, in other words, is not mentioned in A Christmas Carol nor in Joyce, but it is there all the same, because the enemies of golf were also the enemies of Christmas (and literature), because the meaning of golf is the same as the meaning of Christmas—it is the sign of our escape from the everyday business of life, a means of uniting us when the battles of the world seem intent on dividing us. And so perhaps it is not so strange to be holding a golf tournament at this odd time of year, when for those of us in cold climates golf seems at best a distant mirage. In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe the coming of Christmas is followed rapidly by the coming of spring—that is, the time of year when we break out our clubs once again. The snow, to paraphrase Joyce, may fall faintly through the universe, but as those clubs in the corner and the coming of Christmas remind us, spring will follow for all the living and the dead.

Contemplating Riviera

Contemplating Hell, as I once heard it,

My brother Shelley found it to be a place

Much like the city of London. I,

Who do not live in London, but in Los Angeles,

Find, contemplating Hell, that is

Must be even more like Los Angeles.

— “Contemplating Hell.” Bertolt Brecht.

“It’s a great place to live,” wrote Mark Twain about Los Angeles, “but I wouldn’t want to visit there.” But that’s what the the PGA Tour is doing this week at Riviera for the LA Open. I worked at Riviera some years ago for a season, and it is really one of the toughest—and best—golf courses on tour, if not worldwide. The reason for that is not due to any of the reasons generally cited when talking about a golf course: it isn’t particularly long, at least by tour standards; there aren’t any water hazards; and there’s really only one blind shot—though it’s maybe one of the most famous blind shots in golf. Simultaneously Riviera does a lot of damage to scoring averages and yet is consistently praised by the professionals year-in and year-out. The list of champions at Riviera is basically a list of Hall-of-Famers, from Ben Hogan and Sam Snead to Phil Mickelson and DL3. Yet for Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods, the track off Sunset has been the Boulevard of Broken Dreams—neither has won here throughout their careers. Riviera, in short, is much like the city that it is set within: it’s different.

Start with the setting: the first tee is right outside the clubhouse on a small patch of grass elevated 75 or 80 feet above the fairway. The suggestion is both majestic and comforting; on a smogless day the Pacific is visible miles away, with the entire course spread below like a map—but rather than intimidating, the implication is aristocratic. All of this splendor exists for you; the tee box displays a fantastic view that nonetheless is maximally convenient. It’s about five steps from the locker room to the tee; there’s no struggle to achieve the vantage. That peculiar amalgam of spectacular natural scenery bent to serve aristocratic privilege of course just is Los Angeles. From there the first hole is short and fairly easy: just as the city of its setting can appear to new arrivals like an Eden, with its lovely weather and the vast quantities of surface politesse spilled about in every public encounter, so the first hole, though it is a five-par, makes Riviera seem like the day will be a cakewalking, lull-inducing stroll to par or better.

But that’s just what Riviera, or rather the original architect George Thomas, wants the golfer to think. The whiplash induced by the second hole rivals only the speed at which someone in Los Angeles will turn from introducing themselves to inquiring about your car, your house, and your yearly income. The second is a brutally hard hole, demanding a long tee shot over a dogleg, then requiring an uphill second shot to a narrow green surrounded on one side by a jungle and on the other a deep-and-steep bunker. And then the green itself is weird, with odd breaks. On the scorecard, the first hole is ranked seventeenth-most difficult, but the second hole is the most difficult. Second is first, as the loopers at Riviera say.

Every hole from then onwards has its oddities: both of the three-pars on the front side are some of the most unusual in golf. The fourth is well-known as one of Ben Hogan’s favorite holes; there isn’t a purer example, I think, of a Redan-style green anywhere other than the 15th hole at North Berwick, the original, or the fourth hole at the National Golf Links of America, where C.B. Macdonald first copied Berwick’s original. The sixth might be the craziest hole found outside of miniature golf: there’s a bunker in the middle of the green. Missing on the wrong side means either putting around the bunker or chipping over it, as Phil Mickelson once did some years ago. The eighth hole has two different fairways, meaning the player needs to choose a path before teeing off, and the tenth might be one of the most fun short holes in the world; it’s only 315 yards, but the green is tiny. The eighteenth is one of the most storied finishing hole in golf: in 1974, Dave Stockton hit a three-wood from 247 yards—it’s a four-par—and sank the putt to steal the tournament from Sam Snead, who by the way was 61 at the time. The tee shot is blind, straight up the hill out of the canyon you descended into after hitting your first shot back on the first tee.

That isn’t even to talk about the fact that the entire course—because it is set within a canyon whose lower reaches open to the ocean—slopes subtly towards the Pacific, meaning that putts can break the opposite of what they might look, nor the peculiar kikuyu grass that can grab a club in the rough. Nor the barranca grass infesting various swales that take the place of water hazards. What all of this means is that the golf course, with all of its quirks, rewards veteran players and not rookies, and the list of champions at Riviera, as mentioned, reflects that fact. Like Twain says about Los Angeles, Riviera smiles on those who’ve been there awhile—which is to say, as Bertolt Brecht might have had he thought more about Ben Hogan and less about the House Un-American Activities Committee, the winner in Los Angeles is usually the devil you know.