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.

Tee Time At Samarra

If you haven’t heard it, the story goes that a servant in Baghdad came to his master and said that he’d met Death in the market, and he, the servant, needed to run. He figured Samarra would be far enough.The master, being the generous sort, gave him his fastest horse. Later, the master himself visited the market in Baghdad, where he too saw Death. And Death asked, “How is your servant here in Baghdad today? We have an appointment tomorrow—in Samarra.” Which I suppose is a Muslim way of saying you can run, but you can’t hide.

That’s how I’ve been thinking about Lexi Thompson for the last month: it’s a story I’ve been wanting to discuss. A month ago, 16-year-old wonderkind Lexi Thompson was leading the Avnet LPGA Classic (LPGA tourney names are awful) after 54 holes. Had she won, she would have been the youngest winner of a professional event ever, at any level, male or female. Obviously, she didn’t. And the tale of how she didn’t hangs, as it happens, on her caddie.

But maybe you don’t know Lexi Thompson. Her brother is Nicholas Thompson, who plays on the PGA Tour. She was the youngest player ever to qualify for a U.S. Open—of either sex—at the age of 12. (She missed the cut.) In 2008 she won the U.S. Girls’ Junior. In 2009 she made the cut at the Open, at the age of 14. Last year, after turning pro (at 15), she made $72,000 at the Open, 9 shots behind Paula Creamer. Lexi Thompson, in short, is sick good.

At the Avnet—which is played in Mobile, Alabama, and yes, I had to look it up—she got into contention after hitting a 67 in the third round. Her final round started a bit rough, with two bogies in the first three holes, but she birdied the fifth and then rattled off eight pars. Nobody, it seems, was making much of a move—Maria Hjorth would eventually win—so if Thompson could make a couple of birdies at the close, a win was entirely possible. At the 3-par 14th, however, Thompson made a mistake that suggests Rory McIlroy’s collapse at Augusta in April.

The mistake turned on a disagreement with her father, who wanted a pitching wedge off the tee. Lexi, it seems, disagreed, but went with it anyway—and that’s where things went off the rails. “Just barely finishing her swing with the ball in the air,” according to Stephanie Wei of weiunderpar.com, “Lexi called out, ‘Wrong club,’ to vent her frustration.” And it was the wrong club: it ended up in a hazard. Thompson doubled that hole, then the next. She finished with a 78 and a tie for 19th.

Now, a couple of things about this (leaving aside the question of whether Wei’s account is accurate; it’s been disputed). The first is the notion of a “wrong club”: Sam Snead, on the range, used to hit every club in his bag from 50 to 200 yards. It might be better to say that Thompson hit the wrong shot for that club, were it not cumbersome and, in the end, tiresome because hey, the whole point of having different clubs is to have the same swing produce shots of different distances. Ultimately, it’s Lexi’s call to decide what shot-club combination she wants to hit, not her father’s or anyone else’s. But that brings up the second, and more serious, issue.

That is the issue that Wei addresses, which is that the reason Thompson ultimately went with her caddie (and daddy, the puntastic creepiness of which only highlights the issue) probably has something to do with the fact that she didn’t want to hear about it at dinner if Dad happened to be right. “I don’t know the Thompsons or their relationship well,” Wei says, but it’s pretty easy to imagine what that relation might be. One’s sympathies can only go out—to Mr. Thompson.

Anyone’s who’s looped has had, after all, the experience of a player who, disliking or dreading the shot required, consciously or unconsciously will hit a bad shot, almost as a kind of “Fuck you” to his or her caddie. In reality it’s directed at the little voice of doubt inside the player’s own head, which sometimes pops up when the caddie asks for a shot that the player can pull off, but that’s on some edge, real or imagined, of the player’s ability. In order to escape from the horrible bind, the player will sometimes just deliberately flame-out. Somehow, the player re-asserts control over his situation by saying, in effect, “See? I told you I couldn’t do it.”

Still, Wei is probably right that there’s something wrong about the player-caddie dynamic in Thompson’s case. If things have gotten to the point that the player is deliberately (consciously or not) sabotaging her chances, then obviously it’s time to re-evaluate. In this case, there might be something going on with typical teenage issues, or with the father-daughter dynamic (Wei says it’s “a recipe for disaster because it gets too emotional and teenage girls and their dads are bound to butt heads, especially on the golf course”). But it’s also something that a caddie often sees, even if the player is a middle-aged captain of industry.

Lexi’s father, not only as a father and thus presumably the more “mature” of the two— but also as a looper, should have seen this coming. He should have seen the signs of heightened emotion, the rise in tension in his player. The correct move in that circumstance is to try to back off the cliff, defuse the air and get his player into clear air where they could have made a rational decision that the player could trust. When tour pros and tour loopers talk about the caddie’s role as a “psychologist” that’s exactly what they mean.

Actual psychologists will tell you that situations of extreme stress will trigger what’s called a “fight-or-flight” reflex in human beings, when rational thought shuts down and the body floods with hormones designed to help either attack the threat or run away from it. That’s the real recipe for a bad shot—immersed in that stew of chemicals, the body often just physically cannot execute a good golf swing. Lexi Thompson’s father not only didn’t give his child a third option (between fight or flight), he also seemingly helped put her there in the first place by not stopping to ask why she was so anxious, and whether there was some other way to address it than by demanding a shot that Lexi didn’t (rationally or not) think she could hit. That’s bad caddieing. In response, Lexi Thompson made her appointment in Samarra.

Teeing Off the Imbalanced

One of the more irritating things amateurs like to talk about is how golf is a “mental game.” At a time when the myth of the “clutch player” has been slain once and for all, it’s an absurdity, and probably has done more damage to the game than all the diner waitresses in Florida. I discovered this truth on the LPGA Tour on my second day as a “local,” the polite term for cheap, non-tour caddie labor picked up by the young or the old on the LPGA Tour. I was working for an veteran pro who’d once been a Rookie of the Year but had since, as I found later from a hardened tour caddie, come to prefer the nearest casino to the golf course as her competitive arena. Maybe casinos gave her a better sense of the science of probability than most golfers.

It was our first shot of the day on a nothing hole, a hole so short my pro was going to use a 5-wood. We were starting on the 10th hole because it was our turn in the split-tee rotation (split-tees being something I wrote about a few weeks ago for those following along.) The golf course was one of those new courses built around a housing development, so there were houses (and out-of-bounds) both left and right, though with a decent amount of room between them—at least until you neared the green, where there was a choke point of trees. By using a 5-wood we could stay far enough back to be able to easily carry a wedge over the trees guarding the green. When it was her turn my pro took her club back, started forward and struck the ball.

While the ball is in flight, I’ll remind you that I noted a few weeks ago that Frank Chirkinian, the longtime golf producer for CBS, once puzzled over the fact that golf fans always root for the “overdog”—the suggestion being perhaps that golf is something of a sport for the “elite.” Maybe it isn’t any wonder why CEOs and their lawyers might be rooting for Goliath, in other words. That’s possible, of course, but Jonathan Mahler at the New York Times points out that it’s “impossible to predict who[‘s] going to be the big story at any given golf tournament. A leader one day could drop out of contention the next, replaced by someone you never heard of before — and might never hear about again.” My own experience on the LPGA only amplifies Mahler: golf in general, and pro golf in particular, is exponentially more volatile than any other sport, and even the most die-hard fans do not appreciate it.

There’s usually around 150 players in a standard golf tournament, professional or otherwise—a number suspiciously close to what’s called Dunbar’s Number, popularized some years ago by Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point. Robin Dunbar, an anthropologist, argued that based on comparisons with other primate species the human brain could only “socially organize” about that many people at one time: above that number, and a group becomes so focused on maintaining cohesion that it becomes incapable of action. Extending the theory, golf fans root for “overdogs” because they are the only familiar faces a fan can recognize week-to-week, which otherwise is a blur of interchangeable Hunters, Chips, and Scotts.

Imagine, for instance, a basketball tournament with 150 teams. Jerry Seinfeld once remarked that, because free agency makes players switch teams so often now, most fans are essentially “rooting for laundry,” and it’s funny because it’s true: teams establish a continuity, an institutional identity beyond the sum of their parts. Golf by its very nature can never have anything like that sort of immortality; even Jack Nicklaus, whose sons were pretty fair players, could not establish a dynasty anything like the Celtics or the Lakers. Teams are, perhaps, a kind of handy packaging of athletic performance that allows the fan to distill a great deal of randomness into a semblance of order: your team either won or lost today. But golf exhibits just how chaotic, how mercurial, athletic performance actually is.

Even from day-to-day, crazy things happen in golf that don’t happen in other sports. Players get knocked out of contention for every conceivable reason, from turning an ankle walking up a hill to misunderstanding a rule—what happened to Michelle Wie this weekend. Blowouts are unheard of—Tiger Woods’ wins at Augusta in 1997, where he won by 12 shots, and his annus mirabilis in 2000, where he won the U.S. Open by 15, notwithstanding—while they happen all the time in every other sport that isn’t just a race. Chirkinian’s bafflement, in other words, isn’t such a mystery if the question is taken seriously. In golf, the realm of the possible is a lot wider than it is in other sports. What happened next to my LPGA player illustrates something about that volatility.

After impact the ball came off the face good, if bearing right—a block, not a cut. There was still plenty of room though, because since my pro had hit a 5-wood instead of a driver the ball should have come up well short of a spot where the out-of-bounds fence encroached. Unfortunately, there was a lot of ground cover between the fence and the fairway: we didn’t have to be OB to lose the ball. To sum up the next five minutes: we lost the ball.

At professional tournaments, at least at the higher levels, there’s usually marshals to watch each fairway and locate every tee shot, but even that isn’t enough sometimes. For one thing (and here I have to apologize to my mom, who once volunteered to serve as a marshal), all marshals are incompetent, without exception. I don’t mean to be rude—though I admit to being impolite, which is not the same—but while it isn’t something that anybody in golf is going to publicize (how will they get volunteers?), anyone who thinks relying on retirees to watch tiny golf balls flying at close to 200 mph a hundred feet in the air is a solid idea is insane. No decent pro caddie ever relies on them (or should). In this case, I had a good line on where the ball landed, but a.) my player didn’t believe me and b.) neither did the elderly gentleman who had the responsibility to watch the shot.

I didn’t come here to write about bad marshals though, as terrible as they uniformly are (sorry Mom.) As a looper the decision to be made in reviewing this situation is: did I make the right call by staying at the tee? After all, it’s entirely possible for jocks to stroll down the fairway before the players tee off in order to keep an eye on things. It’s possible to say I made a mistake by not doing that, especially in this situation where there was OB both right and, as I neglected to say before, left.

The problem with doing that in this case though was that it was our first hole. Had it been our 10th hole, as it actually is in the course’s routing, I could have easily gotten down the fairway without a problem. (Well, somewhat of a problem because the course is designed for carts, leaving a huge gap between the 9th green and the 10th tee, but that’s a separate matter.) But because it was the first hole, walking out there implied uncertainty. There’s an argument, in fact, that even asking whether I should go out there—which is what I did because I hadn’t liked that hole ever since I had first seen it a few days before—in a sense caused my pro to misfire in the first place. My pro regally refused to allow me to head out, but perhaps just by asking I introduced some indecision in her mind. It’s about here that we get into that realm inhabited by darkness and voodoo—at least as a lot of people think about the game.

Such thinking though is ridiculous, as a moment of reflection will show. If we think of individual golfers as equivalent to teams in other sports, then there are more possibility for random events to affect the overall standings: for instance, on a team, if the second baseman goes down that usually will not affect the team overly much, whereas if the golfer is injured that’s it. The playing field is vastly more varied than even the quirkiest of major league ballparks, and so on. It may be though that our brains edit a great deal of our knowledge of that randomness out—if the notion behind Dunbar’s Number is correct, then our brains automatically ignore most of the players in the field from week to week. Even the best players in the world miss the cut from time to time, at which point they just drop out of our consciousness for a bit.

My pro, in other words, didn’t misfire on her shot for some mystical reason. My player just wasn’t very good, as these things go. Sure, she’d beat me—and likely you—even now. Once, she’d been ranked as high as the mid-twenties worldwide. But her best years were behind her: she’d first come out on tour during the 1980s when the LPGA (like the PGA Tour) was overwhelmingly American. She’d had a number of wins, but only a few, and they were long gone by the time she teed it up with me on her bag, probably swamped by the hordes of younger Swedes, Koreans, and various South Americans who have discovered that a little bit of athleticism will carry you a long way on the American golf tours. And as that veteran looper had told me, at this point she really wasn’t particularly interested in golf any more.

The rules of causality in other words don’t cease to operate on the first tee, despite the tendency for amateurs and golf writers to work together to make the golf course into some kind of Brigadoon. The reason you missed that putt is probably because you haven’t practiced four-footers since sometime during the Clinton Administration. Charles Howell III once landed a ball inside the cup, and ricocheted it out, not because golf has some better relations with the higher powers than other sports—as if golf had better lobbyists with the Buddha—but because there’s a lot more opportunity for strange things to happen than in other sports. I will grant you, though, that Fred Couples’ ball hanging above Rae’s Creek at the 1992 Masters was pretty weird.