A Momentary Lapse

 

The sweets we wish for turn to loathed sours
Even in the moment that we call them ours.
The Rape of Lucrece, by William Shakespeare

“I think caddies are important to performance,” wrote ESPN’s Jason Sobel late Friday night. “But Reed/DJ each put a family member on bag last year with no experience. Didn’t skip a beat.” To me, Sobel’s tweet appeared to question the value of caddies, and so I wrote to Mr. Sobel and put it to him that sure, F. Scott Fitzgerald could write before he met Maxwell Perkins—but without Perkins on Fitzgerald’s bag, no Gatsby. Still, I don’t mention the point simply to crow about what happened: how Dustin Johnson missed a putt to tie Jordan Spieth in regulation, a putt that arguably a professional caddie would have held Johnson from hitting so quickly. What’s important about Spieth’s victory is that it might finally have killed the idea of “staying in the moment”: an un-American idea far too prevalent for the past two decades or more not only in golf, but in American life.

Anyway, it’s been around a while. “Staying in the moment,” as so much in golf does, likely traces at least so far back as Tiger Woods’ victory at Augusta National in 1997. Sportswriters then liked to make a big deal out of Tiger’s Thai heritage: supposedly, his mother’s people, with their Buddhist religion, helped Tiger to focus. It was a thesis that to my mind was more than a little racially suspect—seemed to me that Woods’ won a lot of tournaments because he hit the ball further than anyone else at the time, and it was matched by an amazing short game. That was the story that got retailed then however.

Back in 2000, for instance, Robert Wright of the online magazine Slate was peddling what he called the “the New Age Theory of Golf.” “To be a great golfer,” Wright said, “you have to do what some Eastern religions stress—live in the present and free yourself of aspiration and anxiety.” “You can’t be angry over a previous error or worried about repeating it,” Wright went on to say. You are just supposed to “move forward”—and, you know, forget about the past. Or to put it another way, success is determined by how much you can ignore reality.

Now, some might say that it was precisely this attitude that won the U.S. Open for Team Jordan Spieth. “I always try to stay in the present,” Jordan Spieth’s caddie Michael Greller told The Des Moines Register in 2014, when Greller and Spieth returned to Iowa to defend the title the duo had won in 2013. But a close examination of their behavior on the course, by Shane Ryan of Golf Digest, questions that interpretation.

Spieth, Ryan writes, “kept up a neurotic monologue with Michael Greller all day, constantly seeking and receiving reassurance about the wind, the terrain, the distance, the break, and god knows what else.” To my mind, this hardly counts as the usual view of “staying in the present.” The usual view, I think, was what was going on with their opponents.

During the course of his round, Ryan reports, Johnson “rarely spoke with his brother and caddie Austin.” Johnson’s relative silence appears to me to be much like Wright’s passive, “New Age,” reality-ignoring, ideal. Far more, anyway, than the constant squawking that was going on in Spieth’s camp.

It’s a difference, I realize, that is easy to underestimate—but a crucial one nonetheless. Just how significant that difference is might be best revealed by an anecdote the writer, Gary Brecher, tells about the aftermath of the second Iraq War: about being in the office with a higher-ranking woman who declared her support for George Bush’s war. When Brecher said to her that perhaps these rumors of Saddam’s weapons could be exaggerated—well, let’s read Brecher’s description:

She just stared at me a second—I’ve seen this a lot from Americans who outrank me; they never argue with you, they don’t do arguments, they just wait for you to finish and then repeat what they said in the beginning—she said, “I believe there are WMDs.”

It’s a stunning description. Not only does it sum up what the Bush Administration did in the run-up to the Iraq War, but it’s also something of a fact of life around workplaces and virtually everywhere else in the United States these days: two Americans, especially ones of differing classes, rarely talk to one another these days. But they sure are pretty passive.

Americans however aren’t supposed to think of themselves as being passive—at least, they didn’t use to think of themselves that way. The English writer George Orwell described the American attitude in an essay about the quintessentially American author, Mark Twain: a man who “had his youth and early manhood in the golden age of America … when wealth and opportunity seemed limitless, and human beings felt free, indeed were free, as they had never been before and may not be again for centuries.” In those days, Orwell says, “at least it was NOT the case that a man’s destiny was settled from his birth,” and if “you disliked your job you simply hit the boss in the eye and moved further west.” Those older Americans did not simply accept what happened to them, the way the doctrine of “staying in the present” teaches.

If so, then perhaps Spieth and Greller, despite what they say, are bringing back an old American custom by killing an alien one. In a nation where 400 Americans are worth more than the poorest 150 million Americans, as I learned Sunday night after the Open by watching Robert Reich’s film, Inequality for All, it may not be a moment too soon.

Advertisements

Left Behind

Banks and credit companies are, strictly speaking, the direct source of their illusory “income.” But considered more abstractly, it is their bosses who are lending them money. Most households are net debtors, while only the very richest are net creditors. In an overall sense, in other words, the working classes are forever borrowing from their employers. Lending replaces decent wages, masking income disparities even while aggravating them through staggering interest rates.
Kim Phillips-Fein “Chapters of Eleven”
    The Baffler No. 11, 1998


Note: Since I began this blog by writing about golf, I originally wrote a short paragraph tying what follows to the FIFA scandal, on the perhaps-tenuous connection that the Clinton Foundation had accepted money from FIFA and Bill had been the chairman of the U.S. bid for the 2022 World Cup. But I think the piece works better without it.

“Why is it that women still get paid less than men for doing the same work?” presidential candidate Hillary Clinton asked recently in, of all places, Michigan. But the more natural question in the Wolverine State might seem to be the question a lot of economists are asking these days: “Why is everyone getting paid less?” Economists like Emmanuel Saez of the University of California, who says that “U.S. income inequality has been steadily increasing since the 1970s, and now has reached levels not seen since 1928.” Or Nobel Prize winner Paul Krugman, who says that even the wages of “highly educated Americans have gone nowhere since the late 1990s.” But while it’s not difficult to imagine that Clinton  asks the question she asks in a cynical fashion—in other words, to think that she is a kind of Manchurian candidate for Wall Street—it’s at least possible to think she asks it innocently. All Americans, says scholar Walter Benn Michaels, have been the victims of a “trick” over the last generation: the trick of responding to “economic inequality by insisting on the importance of … identity.” But how was the trick done?

The dominant pedagogy of the American university suggests one way: if it’s true that, as the professors say, reality is a function of the conceptual tools available, then maybe Hillary Clinton cannot see reality because she doesn’t have the necessary tools. As well she might not: in Clinton’s case, one might as well ask why a goldfish can’t see water. Raised in a wealthy Chicago suburb, on to Ivy League colleges; then the governor’s mansion in Little Rock, Arkansas and the White House; followed by Westchester County, then back to D.C. It’s true of course that Clinton did write a college thesis about Saul Alinsky’s community organizing tactics, so she cannot possibly be unfamiliar with the question of economic inequality. But it’s also easy to see how economics is easily obscured in such places.

What’s perhaps stranger though is that economics, as a subject, should have become more obscure, not less, since Clinton left New Haven—and even if Clinton should have been wholly ignorant of the subject, that doesn’t explain how she could then become a national candidate for president of the party. Yet at about the same time that Clinton was at Yale, another young woman with bright academic credentials was living practically just down the road in Hartford, Connecticut—and the work she did has helped to ensure that, as Michaels says, “for the last 30 years, while the gap between the rich and the poor has grown larger, we’ve been urged to respect people’s identities.” That doesn’t mean of course that the story I am going to tell explains everything about why Hillary asked the question she asked in Michigan, instead of the one she should have asked, but it is, I think, illustrative—by telling this one story in depth, it becomes possible to understand how what Michaels calls the “trick” was pulled.

“In 1969,” Jane Tompkins tells us in “Sentimental Power: Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the Politics of Literary History,” she “lived in the basement of a house on Forest Street in Hartford, Connecticut, which had belonged to Isabella Beecher Hooker—Harriet Beecher Stowe’s half-sister.” Living where she did sent Tompkins off on an intellectual journey that eventually led to the essay “Sentimental Power”—an essay that took up the question of why, as Randall Fuller observed not long ago in the magazine Humanities, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin was seen by most literary professionals as a cultural embarrassment.” Her conclusion was that Uncle Tom’s Cabin was squelched by a “male-dominated scholarly tradition that controls both the canon of American literature … and the critical perspective that interprets the canon for society.” To Tompkins, Uncle Tom’s Cabin was “repressed” on the basis of “identity”: Stowe’s work was called “trash”—as the Times of London did at the time it was published—because it was written by a woman.

To make her argument, however, required Tompkins to make several moves that go some way towards explaining why Hillary Clinton asks the question she asks, rather than the one she should ask. Most significant is Tompkins’ argument against the view she ascribes to her opponents: that “sentimental novels written by women in the nineteenth century”—like Uncle Tom’s Cabin—“were responsible for a series of cultural evils whose regrets still plague us,” among them the “rationalization of an unjust economic order.” Already, Tompkins is telling her readers that she is going to argue against those critics who used Uncle Tom’s Cabin to discuss the economy; already, we are not far from Hillary Clinton’s question.

Next, Tompkins takes her critical predecessors to task for ignoring the novel’s “enormous popular success”: it was, as Tompkins points out, the first novel to sell “over a million copies.” So part of her argument is not only the bigotry, but also the snobbishness of her opponents—an argument familiar enough to anyone who listens to right-wing talk radio. The distance from Tompkins’ argument to those who “argue” that quality is guaranteed by popularity, and vice versa—the old “if you’re so smart, why ain’t you rich” line—is about as far from the last letter in this sentence to its period. So Tompkins deprecates the idea that value can be independent of “success”—the idea that there can be slippage between an economic system and reality.

Yet perhaps the largest step Tompkins takes on the road to Hillary’s question simply concerns how she ascribes criticisms of Uncle Tom’s Cabin to sexism, or Stowe’s status as a woman—despite the fact that perhaps the best-known critical text on the novel, James Baldwin’s 1949 essay “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” was not only written by a gay black man, but Baldwin’s based his criticism of Stowe’s novel on rules originally applied to a white male author: James Fenimore Cooper, the object of Mark Twain’s scathing 1895 essay, “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses.” That essay, with which Twain sought to bury Cooper, furnished the critical precepts Baldwin uses to attempt to bury Stowe.

Stowe’s work, Baldwin says, is “a very bad novel” for two reasons: first, it is full of “excessive and spurious emotion.” Secondly, the novel “is activated by what might be called a theological terror,” so that “the spirit that breathes in this book … is not different from that spirit of medieval times which sought to exorcise evil by burning witches.” Both of these reasons derive from principles propounded by Twain in “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses.”

“Eschew surplusage” is number fourteen of Twain’s rules, so when Baldwin says Stowe’s writing is “excessive,” he is implicitly accusing Stowe of breaking this rule. Even Tompkins admits that Uncle Tom’s Cabin breaks this rule when she says that Stowe’s novel possesses “a needless proliferation of incident.” Then, number nine on Twain’s list is “that the personages of a tale shall confine themselves to possibilities and let miracles alone”—the rule that Baldwin invokes when he criticizes Uncle Tom’s Cabin for its “theological terror.” When burning witches, after all, it is necessary to have a belief in miracles—i.e., the supernatural—and certainly Stowe, who not only famously claimed that “God wrote” her novel but also suffused her novel with supernatural events, believed in the supernatural. So, if Baldwin—who remember was both black and homosexual—is condemning Stowe on the basis of rules originally used against a white male writer, it’s difficult to see how Stowe is being unfairly singled out on the basis of her sex. But that is what Tompkins says.

I take such time on these points because ultimately Twain’s rules go back much further than Twain himself—and it’s ultimately these roots that are both Tompkin’s object and, I suspect, the reason why Hillary asks the question she asks instead of the one she should. Twain’s ninth rule, concerning miracles, is more or less a restatement of what philosophers call naturalism: the belief “that reality has no place for ‘supernatural’ or other ‘spooky’ kinds of entity” according to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. And the roots of that idea trace back to the original version of Twain’s fourteenth rule (“Eschew surplusage.”): Thomas Aquinas, in his Summa Theologica, gave one example of it when wrote that if “a thing can be done adequately by means of one, it is superfluous to do by several.” (In a marvelous economy, in other words, Twain reduced Aquinas’ rule—sometimes known as “Occam’s Razor,” to two words.) So it’s possible to say that Baldwin’s criticisms of Stowe are actually the same criticism: that “excessive” writing leads to, or perhaps more worrisomely just is, a belief in the supernatural.

It’s this point that Tompkins ultimately wants to address—she calls Uncle Tom’s Cabin “the Summa Theologica of nineteenth-century America’s religion of domesticity,” after all. Also, Tompkins doesn’t try to defend Stowe against Baldwin on the same grounds that two other critics tried to defend Cooper against Twain. In an essay named “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Defenses,” Lance Schachterle and Kent Ljungquist argue that Twain doesn’t do justice to Cooper because he doesn’t take into account the different literary climate of Cooper’s time. While “Twain valued economy of style,” they write, “such concision simply was not a characteristic of many early nineteenth-century novelists’ work.” They’re willing to allow, in other words, the merits of Twain’s rules—they’re just arguing that it isn’t fair to apply those rules to writers who could not have been aware of them. Tompkins however takes a different tack: she says that in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, “it is the spirit alone that is finally real.” According to Tompkins, the novel is not just unaware of naturalism: Uncle Tom’s Cabin actively rejects naturalism.

To Tompkins, Stowe’s anti-naturalism is somehow a virtue. Stowe’s rejection of naturalism leads her to recommend, Tompkins says, “not specific alterations in the current political and economic arrangements but rather a change of heart … as the necessary precondition for sweeping social change.” To Stowe, attempts to “alter the anti-abolitionist majority in the Senate,” for instance, are absurdities: “Reality, in Stowe’s view, cannot be changed by manipulating the physical environment.” Apparently, this is a point in Stowe’s favor.

Without naturalism and its corollaries—basic intellectual tools—it’s difficult to think a number of things: that all people are people, first of all. That is, members of a species that has had, more or less, the same cognitive abilities for at least the last 100,000 years or so, which implies that most people’s cognitive abilities aren’t much different than anyone else’s—nor are they much different from anyone in history’s. Which, one might say, is prerequisite to running a democratic state—as opposed to, say, a monarchy or aristocracy, in which one person is better than another by blood right. But if naturalism is dead, then the growth of “identity” politics is perhaps easy to understand: without the conceptual category of “human being” available, other categories have to be substituted.

Without grouping votes on some basis, how could they be gathered into large enough clumps to make a difference? Hillary Clinton must ask for votes on the basis of some commonality between voters large enough to ensure her election. Assuming that she does, in fact, wish to be elected, it’s enlightening to observe that Clinton is appealing for votes on the basis of the next largest category after “human being”—“woman,” the category of 51 percent of the population according to most figures. That alone might explain why Hillary Clinton should ask “Why are women paid less” rather than “Why is everyone paid less?”

Yet the effects of Tompkins’ argument, as I suspect will be drearily apparent to the reader by now, are readily observable in many more places than Hillary Clinton’s campaign in today’s world. Think of it this way: what else are contemporary phenomena like unpaid internships, “doing it for the exposure,” or just trying to live on a minimum wage or public assistance, but attempts to live without material substance—that is, attempts to live as a “spirit?” Or for that matter, what is credit card debt, which Kim Phillips-Fein was explaining in The Baffler so long ago as 1998 as what happened when “people began to borrow to make up for stagnant wages.” These are all matters in which what matters isn’t matter—i.e., the material—but the “spirit.”

In the same way, what else was the “long-time” Occupy Wall Street camper named “Ketchup” doing when she said, to Josh Harkinson at Mother Jones, that the “‘whole big desire for demands is something people want to use to co-opt us’” but, as Tompkins would put it, refusing to delineate “specific alterations in the current political and economic arrangements?” That’s why Occupy, as Thomas Frank memorably wrote in his essay, “To the Precinct Station,” “seems to have had no intention of doing anything except building ‘communities’ in public spaces and inspiring mankind with its noble refusal to have leaders.” The values described by Tompkins’ essay are, specifically, anti-naturalist: Occupy Wall Street, and its many, many sympathizers, was an anti-naturalist—a religious—movement.

It may, to be sure, be little wonder that feminists like Tompkins should look to intellectual traditions explicitly opposed to the intellectual project of naturalism—most texts written by women have been written by religious women. So have most texts written by most people everywhere—to study a “minority” group virtually requires studying texts written by people who believed in a supernatural being. It’s wholly understandable, then, that anti-naturalism should have become the default mode of people who claim to be on the “left.” But while it’s understandable, it’s no way to, say, raise wages. Whatever Jane Tompkins says about her male literary opponents, Harriet Beecher Stowe didn’t free anybody. Abraham Lincoln—by all accounts an atheist—did.

Which is Hillary Clinton’s model?

Silent Majorities

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.