Instruments of Darkness

 

And oftentimes, to win us to our harm,
The instruments of darkness tell us truths …
—William Shakespeare
    The Tragedy of MacBeth
Act I, scene 3 132-3 (1606) 

 

This year’s Masters demonstrated, once again, the truism that nobody watches golf without Tiger Woods: last year’s Masters, played without Tiger, had the lowest ratings since 1957, while the ratings for this year’s Saturday’s round (featuring a charging Woods), were up nearly half again as much. So much is unsurprising; what was surprising, perhaps, was the reappearance of a journalistic fixture from the days of Tiger’s past: the “pre-Masters Tiger hype story.” It’s a reoccurance that suggests Tiger may be taking cues from another ratings monster: the television series Game of Thrones. But if so—with a nod to Ramsey Snow’s famous line in the show—it suggests that Tiger himself doesn’t think his tale will have a happy ending.

The prototype of the “pre-Masters” story was produced in 1997, the year of Tiger’s first Masters win: before that “win for the ages,” it was widely reported how the young phenom had shot a 59 during a practice round at Isleworth Country Club. At the time the story seemed innocuous, but in retrospect there are reasons to interrogate it more deeply—not to say it didn’t happen, exactly, but to question whether it was released as part of a larger design. After all, Tiger’s father Earl—still alive then—would have known just what to do with the story.

Earl, as all golf fans know, created and disseminated the myth of the invincible Tiger to anyone who would listen in the late 1990s: “Tiger will do more than any other man in history to change the course of humanity,” Gary Smith quoted him saying in the Sports Illustrated story (“The Chosen One”) that, more than any other, sold the Gospel of Woods. There is plenty of reason to suspect that the senior Woods deliberately created this myth as part of a larger campaign: because Earl, as a former member of the U.S. Army’s Green Berets, knew the importance of psychological warfare.

“As a Green Beret,” writes John Lamothe in an academic essay on both Woods, elder and junior, Earl “would have known the effect … psychological warfare could have on both the soldier and the enemy.” As Tiger himself said in a 1996 interview for Orange Coast magazine—before the golfer put up a barrier between himself and the press—“Green Berets know a lot about psychological torture and things like that.” Earl for his part remarked that, while raising Tiger, he “pulled every dirty, nasty trick I could remember from psychological warfare I learned as a Green Beret.” Both Woods described this training as a matter of rattling keys or ripping Velcro at inopportune moments—but it’s difficult not to wonder whether it went deeper.

At the moment of their origin in 1952 after all, the Green Berets, or Special Forces, were a subsection of the Psychological Warfare Staff at the Pentagon: psychological warfare, in other words, was part of their founding mission. And as Lamothe observes, part of the goal of psychological warfare is to create “confidence” in your allies “and doubt in the competitors.” As early as 2000, the sports columnist Thomas Boswell was describing how Tiger “tries to imprint on the mind of every opponent that resistance is useless,” a tactic that Boswell claimed the “military calls … ‘overwhelming force’”—and a tactic that is far older than the game of golf. Consider, for instance, a story from golf’s homeland of Scotland: the tale of the “Douglas Larder.”

It happened at a time of year not unfamiliar to viewers of the Masters: Palm Sunday, in April of 1308. The story goes that Sir James Douglas—an ally of Robert the Bruce, who was in rebellion against the English king Edward I—returned that day to his family’s home, Douglas Castle, which had been seized by the English. Taking advantage of the holiday, Douglas and his men—essentially, a band of guerrillas—slaughtered the English garrison within the church they worshipped in, then beheaded them, ate the Easter feast the Englishmen had no more use for, and subsequently poisoned the castle’s wells and destroyed its supplies (the “Larder” part of the story’s title). Lastly, Douglas set the English soldiers’ bodies afire.

To viewers of the television series Game of Thrones, or readers of the series of books it is based upon (A Song of Ice and Fire), the story might sound vaguely familiar: the “Douglas Larder” is, as popular historian William Rosen has pointed out, one source of the event known from the television series as the “Red Wedding.” Although the television event also borrows from the medieval Scot “Black Dinner” (which is perhaps closer in terms of the setting), and the later incident known as the Massacre at Glencoe, still the “Red Wedding” reproduces the most salient details of the “Douglas Larder.” In both, the attackers take advantage of their prey’s reliance on piety; in both, the bodies of the dead are mutilated in order to increase the monstrous effect.

To a modern reader, such a story is simply a record of barbarism—forgetting that medieval people were, though far less educated, equally as intelligent as nearly anyone alive today. Douglas’ actions were not meant for horror’s sake, but to send a message: the raid on the castle “was meant to leave a lasting impression … not least upon the men who came to replace their dead colleagues.” Acts like his attack on his own castle demonstrate how the “Black Douglas”—“mair fell than wes ony devill in hell” according to a contemporary account—was “an early practitioner of psychological warfare”: he knew how “fear alone could do much of the work of a successful commander.” It seems hardly credible to think Earl Woods—a man who’d been in combat in the guerrilla war of Vietnam—did not know the same lesson. Nor is it credible to think that Earl didn’t tell Tiger about it.

Certainly, Tiger himself has been a kind of Douglas: he won his first Masters by 12 shots, and in the annus mirabilis of 2000 he won the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach by 15. Displays like that, many have thought, functioned similarly, if less macabrely, as Douglas’ attacks. The effect has even been documented academically: in 2008’s “Dominance, Intimidation, and ‘Choking’ on the PGA Tour,” professors Robert Connolly and Richard Rendleman found that being paired with Tiger cost other tour pros nearly half a shot per round from 1998 to 2001. The “intimidation factor,” that is, has been quantified—so it seems jejune at best to think somebody connected to Tiger, even if he had not been aware of the effect in the past, would not have called his attention to the research.

Releasing a story prior to the Masters, then, can easily be seen as part of an attempt to revive Tiger’s heyday. But what’s interesting about this particular story is its difference from the 1997 version: then, Tiger just threw out a raw score; now, it’s being dressed in a peculiarly complicated costume. As retailed by Golf Digest’s Tim Rosaforte, the story goes like this: on the Tuesday before the tournament Tiger had “recently shot a worst-ball 66 at his home course, Medalist Golf Club.” In Golf Digest, Alex Meyers in turn explained that “a worst-ball 66 … is not to be confused with a best-ball 66 or even a normal 66 for that matter,” because what “worst-ball” means is that “Woods played two balls on each hole, but only played the worst shot each time.” Why not just say, as in 1997, Tiger shot some ridiculously low number?

The answer, I think, can be understood by way of the “Red Wedding”: just as George Martin, in order to write the A Song of Ice and Fire books, has revisited and revised many episodes of medieval history, so too is Tiger attempting to revisit his own past—a conclusion that would be glib were it not for the very make-up of this year’s version of the pre-Masters story itself. After all, to play a “worst-ball” is to time-travel: it is, in effect, to revise—or rewrite—the past. Not only that, but—and in this it is very much like both Scottish history and Game of Thrones—it is also to guarantee a “downer ending.” Maybe Tiger, then, is suggesting to his fans that they ought to pay more attention.

The Mark of Z

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Only You

 

 

This weekend Rory McIlroy not only held off a burning-bright Tiger Woods (who laid down a little 62) and won the Honda Classic, but succeeded Luke Donald as the best golfer in the world. Suddenly, whereas three years ago (as I wrote about in a previous post) Tiger had no rivals—a subject of much complaint by the golf press—now there is not only Tiger v. Phil but also Tiger v. Rory. But why should the new World #1 be from some small town in Northern Ireland, a country with fewer people than we have here in Chicago? The answer to that—which I suspect has much to do with that “Superstar Effect” I discussed in an earlier post—may in turn answer another, as put by the website ethnicmajority.com back in April of 2009: “Why are there no black pro golfers (other than you know who)?” Tiger’s success seemed to augur a new era of African-American golf—it may be, however, we have it backwards, and that it’s his success that explains why that hasn’t happened, not something that needs explaining.

Why there hasn’t been a successor to Tiger Woods from the African-American community has been a question for sportswriters with intellectual predilections for some time. ESPN devoted an episode of their show Outside the Lines to the question all the way back in June of 2001—“One … And Only”—and despite the occasional heralding of a successor, no black golfer has become a regular on the PGA Tour since Tiger won the Masters in 1997, now nearly fifteen years ago. The explanations mainly fall into two camps: racism or economics.

. “You need $70,000 a year to do that,” Tim Hall, a black player on the Nationwide Tour, told NBC.com in 2009 about playing on mini-tours—the proving grounds where would-be tour pros either find their games, or don’t. For people like Hall, such as Julius Erving (Dr. J), who spoke to ESPN for the Outside the Lines program, the main explanation for the conspicuous lack of black players at elite levels—even black colleges can’t fill out their teams with black players—is economic: as a writer for the website Color Lines put it in April of 2007, the “overwhelming majority of Black Americans cannot afford to practice golf and thereby do not gain a competitive edge in golf.”

The other side is represented by those who would explain black golfers lack of success in the familiar terms of racism. Undoubtedly, golf has a history: Augusta National’s annual tournament is, after all, called the Masters—an unfortunate name for a Southern organization to use, undoubtedly—and until 1961, as many know, the PGA Tour had a “Caucasians only” clause. This isn’t even to begin to rehearse, say, the 1990 Shoal Creek incident, when the president of that golf club, due to hold the PGA Championship that year, said about the lack of African-American members that “this is our home, and we pick and choose who we want.” The trouble is, however, that from 1961, when the PGA Tour ended the “Caucasian” clause (under the threat of a lawsuit by the California attorney general), until 1985, there were 26 black golfers who earned tour cards for the Big Show. Since then, only Woods. In order to be convincing, the burden of the “racism” theory is to explain why racism has, in golf, somehow gotten worse since the early 1960s.

As it happens, a similar question has been asked in a field in which I’m somewhat familiar, the study of literature. Why is it, for instance, that the giants of “English” literature have, since the 18th century, largely not been Englishmen? “From Conrad, Wilde and James,” writes scholar Terry Eagleton, “to Shaw, Pound and Eliot, the high literary ground is seized by those whose very marginality allows them to bring fresh perspectives to the society they have adopted.” “English” literature, in other words, has mostly been the province (a deliberate pun) of men and women whose origins lay far from London. Earlier, mostly Irish; latterly, from yet further on the periphery.

Something similar, perhaps, is at work in golf: though the sample size is a great deal smaller, it’s still true that on the list of World #1s, as ranked since the 1980s, the first player on it is Bernhard Langer, a German—not a nation known for its golfers (though this has been changing slowly recently, as witness Martin Kaymer; a point that may lend credence to my drift here). From there it alternated for several years between Seve Ballesteros and Greg Norman—from Spain and Australia respectively—and from there to even more improbable stories: like that of Vijay Singh, who’s from Fiji. Every golfer on that list is the product of one implausible story after another, whether it be a shoeless Seve hitting rocks on a Spanish beach to Vijay somehow climbing from the South Pacific to major champion.

The point is, it’s virtually inevitable that the World #1 will be the product of such a narrative. A really crazy story—the man-bites-dog story of world rankings—would be if somebody like newly-turned pro Peter Uihlein, son of the chief executive officer of Titleist golf Wally Uihlein and thus recipient of every possible break, became World #1. Davis Love III, for instance, whose father was himself a well-known and respected professional—and thus would seem to have had an advantage—never became the best player in the world. No: the best player in the world is, seemingly always, an oddball of one sort or another.

The natural question then is, why so? In his Atlas of the European Novel, the literary scholar Franco Moretti examines the construction of small libraries: “small [library] collections are hyper-canonical,” which is to say that “they have all the great books, and don’t care about the inferior ones.” But great books are ones that are obviously different from the rest: not only are they as good as run-of-the-mill books (which themselves are better than that half-finished draft in your aunt’s desk), but also have something extra, that makes them stand out. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be preserved at all. But that also makes them terrible models for would-be writers.

“What is wrong,” Moretti says about this practice of small libraries to have only the best of the best, “is the implicit belief that literature proceeds from one canonical form to the next, in a sort of unbroken thread.” Literature, Moretti says, actually works quite differently: “cheap jokes on bureaucrats, and Gogol’s Overcoat; rough city sketches, and Dickens’ London novels; silly colonial adventures, and Heart of Darkness.” In other words, literature is generated by having the space to work: Dickens doesn’t write David Copperfield right out of the box. Dickens has predecessors, precursors, a field to inhabit.

In this way, Moretti proposes a theory of literary history borrowed from Viktor Sklovsky, the “canonization of the cadet branch.” As Sklovsky put it in Theory of Prose: “The legacy that is passed on from one literary generation to the next moves not from father to son, but from uncle to nephew.” In order to have great literature, you need to have a lot of other kinds of literature: what George Orwell called, borrowing from Chesterton, “good bad books.” But—and this is where the “Superstar Effect” comes in— “good bad books” are the sort likely to be produced by those already located in the center: in order to get truly great books you need somebody with an outsider’s perspective. Why?

Here’s where Jennifer Brown’s research that led to the discovery of the “Superstar Effect” in golf—when Tiger was in his prime, he gained nearly a shot on the field in every tournament he entered, just by entering it—comes in. The implication of that research was that those on the “inside” (guys already on the tour) were intimidated by Tiger: he was, it seems, so foreign to their ideas of what was possible on a golf course that it threw off their games. Moretti similarly argues that those on the “inside”—close to the centers of literary production—simply can’t produce “great” literature: they are too close not to be judged, and found wanting.

In order to get to be an insider at all, that is, you have to devote a great deal of time to imitating one’s forebears—which is why it’s generally better to start out imitating solid, second-rate books rather than masterpieces—whether it be on the golf course or the page. But that pursuit necessarily supposes closing off other, potentially more interesting, options—the kind that only an outsider, who can’t get there any other way, must exploit. Of course, what that means is that, by definition, most “outsiders” will be destined to remain that way—ignored. But those that do “break through” will, necessarily, have some special quality about them. There are no “better-than-average” outsiders; conversely, all insiders must be at least better-than-average.

Somebody from Holywood, in County Down, Ireland, therefore, isn’t going to be just a journeyman golfer on the European Tour: that slot has already been filled with someone with the economic resources and connections. African-Americans like to tell their kids they have to be twice as good as anybody else to get noticed: here’s an empirical reason why. On the other hand, Rory’s success will now have consequences for any other golfers growing up in Holywood: the standard they’re judged by isn’t going to be the guy ranked #70 on the European Tour’s Order of Merit (money list), which is still a very respectable level of play; it’s going to be RORY MCILROY, #1 Player in the World.

In other words, if it was difficult before to imagine a great pro golfer to come out of Holywood, it must be even more difficult now, what with the expectations put in place by McIlory. Every action for such a hypothetical player will be scrutinized by the light of the predecessor, stacking the odds yet further. Though it isn’t true that lightning never strikes the same place twice, perhaps it’s so that the phrase holds water in human endeavors: it isn’t likely that there’s going to be a world-famous folk troubadour out of Hibbing, Minnesota (home, as any Iron Ranger will tell you, of Robert Zimmerman, aka Bob Dylan) any time soon.

Similarly, any young African-American golfer is going to be judged against the standard set by Woods, not the more-reasonable—though still wildly-overoptimistic—standards of merely making a good living by playing golf. African-Americans don’t have that problem in other fields: a young black basketball player knows that, even if he doesn’t make it to the NBA, he can still play overseas, or at least perhaps get a college education out of it. There’s enough of a pool, a “critical mass,” that that hypothetical player knows he doesn’t have to be an All-Star. It’s ok to be above-average; it’s ok not to be Michael Jordan.

It only, therefore, seems paradoxical that Tiger Woods is, and has been for many years, the only African-American on the PGA Tour. His very success doesn’t make it a mystery why there aren’t more black golfers: it actually may make it less likely that an African-American should become a touring professional. That is, obviously, a disturbing possibility. Yet, if that’s true, avoiding it doesn’t actually help produce more black golfers. Confronting it would lead to a different plan of attack: what would become important would stop being attacking racism in golf at some retail level, one club at a time—or even the general mission of creating black golfers at all, as the various charities founded in the wake of Woods’ success do. Instead, energy would be focused on creating more golfers, period—expanding access to everyone, without exception.

That is what Americans used to do, anyway. On ESPN’s “The 1 … And Only,” Lee Elder, the first African-American ever to play in the Masters tournament (in 1975, the year Tiger was born), pointed out that black golfers “all pretty much came out of the caddy ranks in the early days.” That’s not surprising, since that’s also how a lot of other players came to golf back then: Ben Hogan, Byron Nelson, Chick Evans, Francis Ouimet, and Lee Trevino all owed their careers to caddying—not to mention foreign players like Ballesteros. But looping is not a charitable operation: it’s paid labor, not a handout—or an “internship” or the like. Notice what that does: it creates the space, a field, for someone to work in; much like, perhaps, the existence of all those cheap colonial adventure stories, like King Solomon’s Mines might have created the space—what Virginia Woolf called a “room of one’s own”— for Conrad to write Heart of Darkness.

It’s not as if, for instance, that someone found Leonardo da Vinci (whose name means, “from Vinci,” a town as obscure as Holywood) as a child, knew who he’d become (which would, one supposes, make such a person an even greater genius than Leonardo), and paved his way. Instead, Leonardo got lucky enough to find himself in the workshop of Andrea Verrocchio, a workshop whose alumni included Lorenzo di Credi, Domenico Ghirlandaio, Francesco Botticini, and Pietro Perugino—great artists all, even if we mostly only remember them through the reflection of Leonardo’s glory. But Verrocchio’s workshop gave them, and Leonardo, work to do—and money to get for it. Greatness comes from having lots of pretty good stuff around: if you want to produce a Tiger Woods or a James Joyce or a Leonardo, in other words, you have to produce lots of Mark O’Mearas, P.G. Wodehouses, and di Credis. And that’s not cheap: you have to pay all of them.

That’s something that it seems as though America has forgotten lately, as wages have stagnated since the 1970s while, at the same time, the financial rewards for “superstars” has exploded. In academia, for instance, that’s led to highly-paid, “superstar” professors and legions of graduate students without hope of employment; in the business world a galaxy of CEOs who make hundreds of times what their workers make; and in music a few dozens of musicians who can sell out stadiums while your local tavern thinks it’s a big deal to have a band once a month. Maybe that’s the bargain that we’ve made lately. But if so, we shouldn’t kid ourselves about, say, why there aren’t more black pro golfers.

Or, you know, a middle class.

 

Tell You Wrong

I embrace my rival, but only to strangle him.
Jean Racine. Britannicus, Act IV, iii.

“Joe Frazier, I’ll tell the world right now, brings out the best in me,” Muhammed Ali said after the “Thrilla in Manila” in 1975, the third and final fight between the two: the one that “went the distance” of 15 rounds in the searing tropical heat of a Third World dictatorship, the one that nearly killed both men and did land them both in the hospital. Phil Mickelson wasn’t as lyrical after giving Tiger Woods an eleven-shot beating at Pebble Beach a few weeks ago: “Although I feel like he brings out the best in me,” Mickelson observed, “it’s only been the past five years.” (Since 2007 Mickelson’s been 8-3-1 when playing against Tiger, bringing the overall record to 13-13-4 in the thirty times they’ve been paired together.) For years, golf writers have lamented the fact that there have been no Tom Watsons or Lee Trevinos around to challenge Tiger as those players did Jack Nicklaus; as it turns out, it seems that rival—Phil—has been there for five years. But are rivals only recognizable in retrospect, and if so what does that mean for the “rivalry” theory?

I take it for granted that anyone reading this will be familiar with the complaint that Tiger has not faced any worthy rivals; as an example, I will cite a story from Yahoo Sports from nearly four years ago. It’s simply entitled “Tiger Misses What Arnie, Jack Had: Rivals.” “Tiger has no true rival,” wrote Dan Wetzel then, “no one familiar face just as cold-blooded, talented and intelligent to push him to perhaps even greater heights.” The complaints implicitly voiced here are longstanding, going back at least to the excitement surrounding the PGA at Medinah in 1999, when Sergio Garcia appeared to many about to challenge Tiger. Such complaints appear much like the usual sportswriter’s fantasies, like the “clutch” player—so far as I know, no player has ever been shown to perform better than his career numbers might indicate in particular situations, in any sport—or that running and defense wins football games. A contrarian might reply, for instance, that Tiger’s run was fueled by a number of breaks: the fact that David Duval essentially fell off the planet after 2001 might be the first item on that list.

Phil’s record with Tiger might suggest that simply because only a few of Phil’s and Tiger’s matchups have come on the final day of a major that one of them ended up winning (which disqualifies, for instance, the electric final day of the 2009 Masters, when Phil shot a 30 on the front nine but didn’t win), they have in fact been “rivals” the whole time—which in turn might suggest that a further combing of the data might discover other “rivals” whose presence had been undiscovered because they had not appeared at widely-televised moments. It’s kind of a silly argument, but as it turns out someone’s taken it seriously and quantified the difference between Tiger and his fellow competitors—and it’s really true: Tiger, in his heyday, didn’t have anyone who remotely approached him.

In 2008, as it happens, a paper published in the Journal of Political Economy by one Jennifer Brown entitled “Quitters Never Win: The (Adverse) Incentive Effects of Competing with Superstars,” found that in general players not named Woods took an additional .8 more shots in every tournament Tiger entered. The effect was even more pronounced in the first round of tournaments, where Woods was effectively conceded another third of a shot by the field, and yet more so among “elite” players: those close to the top of the leaderboard gave away nearly two shots to Tiger. Although these margins seem thin, the difference between first and second on the PGA Tour is usually one shot; what that’s meant, according to Brown, is that meant the rest of the tour players have conceded something on the order of $6 million to Tiger over the course of Tiger’s career.

Still, while that does I think prove the “no rivals” theory it doesn’t actually provide any causation: one possible explanation, for instance, might be found in the way that Tiger himself plays. According to his former coach, Butch Harmon, Tiger has methods to confound his playing partners: in an interview with Steve Elling of CBSSports.com, Harmon said that Tiger for instance will “often putt out first” (which means that galleries will often be moving to the next hole while whoever he’s playing with is putting); that Woods will try to get to the tee box last, so the crowd will give him its biggest cheers; change his pace of play to play “fast” with slow players and vice versa; and hit three-wood instead of driver on some holes, so as to hit his approach first—thereby making his opponent wait to hit his shot. None of these methods are against the rules, of course—but they don’t win friends in the locker room either.

Yet Brown’s paper found no evidence that players playing with Tiger are more affected than those not playing with him. Joel Waldfogel reported in Slate that Brown’s work found that “being in Tiger’s foursome [sic] has no additional negative impact on performance.” In other words, even if Tiger was practicing gamesmanship—and it was successful—it didn’t show up in the statistics. Playing with Tiger or not playing with Tiger, all that seems to matter is that the other players know he’s there.

One way to test for that is to see if the other players have been “attempting longer, riskier shots to try to keep up with Tiger.” A website called Physorg.com notes that Brown’s account does this: if players were trying such a strategy, there would likely be what financial professionals would call “volatility”: there’d be more eagles—and double bogeys—when Tiger played than in other tournaments. In reality though, there “were significantly fewer eagles and double bogeys when Woods played.” Tiger’s presence wasn’t causing the other players to adopt a “high-risk, high-reward” strategy. Instead, it seems that he really just caused them not to throw things into some higher gear that, possibly, might have been available to them.

What’s interesting about this is that what it suggests that Tiger’s dominance was, in fact, the effect of something within his opponents’ craniums, not just a statistical anomaly caused in part by Tiger’s skillfulness but also by chance. But what it also suggests is that the nature of that dominance didn’t lie in something sportswriters ascribed to Tiger’s “aura” or his vaunted “Zen-like” mental discipline: the potential mechanism that Brown theorizes to explain the effect is quite different.

Brown finds the mechanism by analogy to other fields: she “cites the competition among newly hired associates at a law firm as another example of a nonlinear incentive structure,” as another review of her work says. Such a structure might be better known from the practice of the firm in Glengarry Glen Ross—where, as Alec Baldwin’s character Blake said, first place is an Eldorado, second is a set of steak knives, and, anticipating Donald Trump, “third prize is you’re fired.” In a law firm, usually only one associate might be hired from a given group: in law firms as in Ricky Bobby’s NASCAR, “if you’re not first you’re last.”

The mechanism Brown proposes, as described by Jonah Lehrer in an essay on the paper for the Wall Street Journal is therefore that “the superstar effect is especially pronounced when the rewards for the competition are ‘non-linear,’ or there is an extra incentive to finish first.” In such a contest, the rewards for finishing first are so exponentially better that finishes less than first are, by comparison, not as meaningful. “We assume,” as Lehrer puts the point, “that the superstar will win, so why chase after meaningless scraps?” In other words, Brown’s theory is that professional golfers, seeing Woods’ name in the pairing sheets, consciously or not effectively “mail in” their effort. They aren’t expending everything they have because they don’t expect to be rewarded for extra effort.

What that suggests though is that what’s going on in tour players’ heads isn’t a fear of Tiger so much as it is a rational calculation based, ultimately, on some sense of fairness or justice. Isn’t that what we might call a reasonable conclusion in the face of evidence of a “rigged” game? It wouldn’t matter from this point of view (though you might compare my previous work on Taylor Smith) whether the game were “actually” gamed in some fashion or other in Tiger’s favor, merely that players behaved as if it were. Or to put it another way, from an individual tour player’s perspective it wouldn’t matter whether Tiger was who he was from sheer ability or from some shadiness: the player-not-named-Woods’ own abilities would be disturbed in some way in either case.

Now this is extremely interesting because what it suggests is that even the perception of inequality is harmful. Brown suggests that societies that insufficiently spread the wealth, however that is defined, in the long run are inefficient: they fail to get the best out of their people. Unequal societies waste human resources. And worse.

If Brown, for instance, was looking for a society that uses a “nonlinear incentive structure” as its working principle, she might have stopped looking for it on pristine golf courses and started in on the southwest corner of Utah, which is perhaps (and probably not coincidentally) some of the most isolated terrain in the continental United States. In that territory north of the Grand Canyon lie the adjacent towns of Colorado City, Arizona and Hilldale, Utah. What’s noticeable about these two towns is that there are lots of large families headed by “single” women: the product of a polygamous sect, the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS). It’s an issue adequately explored elsewhere—Jon Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven is perhaps an excellent beginning—but what’s not usually mentioned is something that has rather a bearing on Jennifer Brown’s research.

“Often,” observed the historian of marriage Stephanie Coontz, “the subordination of women is in fact also a way of controlling men.” Or as Libby Copeland, writing for Slate, puts it: “Rich old guys with lots of wives win twice: They have more women to bear them babies and do household work, and they also gain an advantage over other men.” Since they control access to marriage, any man who wants to get married has to deal with them—and since the rich old guys are taking a surplus, that makes a lot of boys inessential to the society. In a polygamous community, then, we’d expect to see a lot of homeless teenaged boys: in 2007, Time magazine said the number of boys abandoned by their polygamous families in that state may number in the thousands. The results of a “nonlinear incentive structure,” as Ms. Brown calls it, aren’t especially difficult to discern in this case: I don’t think the problem of a surplus of unsupervised and despairing teenagers needs much detailing. Nor, perhaps, do Tiger’s off-course problems appear as inscrutable.

I don’t mean, to be sure, to minimize the sufferings of women and children in such a community, but it is worth noting that such arrangements necessarily burden the whole community and not just particular groups in it. By laying down in front of Tiger, for instance, PGA Tour players effectively ceded him not only today’s purses but tomorrow’s: a tour that had had one or two other guys who could have gone the distance with Tiger in 2001 or 2002 might have gotten an even greater television contract. But by understanding the mechanism by which the trick is done goes a long way toward understanding how to combat it: removing the “nonlinear incentive structure,” rather than, as has been suggested, somehow convincing everyone on the tour that they’re “tougher,” or whatever, than they thought. Or to put it in terms relevant to a larger field, stop working on “raising self-esteem” or the like and more on regularizing pay-scales.

That isn’t, necessarily, to demand that the PGA Tour stop disproportionately rewarding its winners: golf is a sport, and sports aren’t necessarily the same as other parts of life. It can, and has, been argued that pro golf, in particular, needs a dominant, or a few dominant, players in order to make it interesting to the general public: if a different pro won every week, tournaments might come to seem like lotteries for people with the leisure to raise golfers. The regular appearance of some few names, perhaps, creates the possibility of drama.

Drama like that of the last Ali-Frazier fight. Frazier had trained for the fight like a man possessed, knowing that it would be his last shot at the title. Ali, in the midst of domestic turmoil, less so. Sometime in the seventh round, in the early Philippine afternoon—the fight started in the late morning for international television—Ali began to fade from the heat and a relentless assault from Frazier, who would not stop coming despite the furious combinations Ali laid on him. “Joe,” Ali said during a clinch, “they told me you was all washed up.” “They told you wrong, pretty boy,” Frazier replied. It’s arguable that, whatever the medical histories, neither man left that ring whole. For years, golf has wondered how to get that kind of effort out of its players. What evidence suggests is that if golf wants true rivalries, and the drama that results, it might do better to stop catering to the elite—which, despite the fact that it apparently remains unlearned in parts of Utah or the Philippines (or Wall Street), doesn’t appear a difficult lesson.

30 Seconds Over Waialae

“It needs to be good for the next player,” the man was telling me, though it took me a moment to understand him through the molasses of his Georgia-inflected speech. We were on the fourth hole of Augusta National—named “Flowering Crabapple”—and the man, who was considerably older than me, was raking out his player’s bunker to the left of the green with the care that, very likely, the White House gardeners devote to the Rose Garden. But we were done with the hole; we were moving on; there wasn’t time to do things the old man’s way. He was thinking of his responsibility to the other golfers; it was better, I thought, that he take care of his own player first.

Jeff Maggert—and Air Vice Marshal Sir Ralph Cochrane, whom I’ll get to a bit later—might disagree. First though, it’s necessary to explain that I’ve been reading Dan Jenkins’ The Money-Whipped, Steer-Job, Three-Jack Give-Up Artist this past week, which mentions the term “lurkers” (guys who haven’t won on tour) and why they are anathema to sportswriters. “Lurkers,” Jenkins explains, “are your basic nobodies,” players who “lurk around the top of the leaderboard where big names are involved and occasionally win a tournament, thereby screwing up everybody’s story.” But why do they screw up everybody’s story? Jeff Maggert, so I think, can answer part of that question.

Ask Jeff Maggert, for instance, about the 2003 Masters. Or better, ask his caddie, Brian Sullivan. To rehearse the story: on the third hole of the final round at that year’s Masters, Maggert hit himself in the chest with his own golf ball after rebounding it off the face of a fairway bunker. (There are, to be fair, rather a lot of them.) Maggert took a two-shot penalty, lost the lead he’d slept on Saturday night to Mike Weir, and never really recovered.

What not many remember though is that Maggert wasn’t completely out of the tournament until the twelfth hole, where he managed to hit his second shot into Rae’s Creek (incurring more penalty shots) because of what his caddie, Brian Sullivan, said was a case of “Somebody” doing “a very poor job of raking that trap”: instead of rolling back to the bottom of the bunker, his tee shot hung up on the bunker’s face, in a furrow created by a rake. Maggert ended up making an eight on the par-three hole—if he’d just bogied that hole and the third, he would have won the tournament by a shot.

The “somebody” whose rake job may have cost Maggert several hundred thousand dollars (and his looper tens of thousands) was Paul Tesori, best known for his “Tiger Who?” hat during the 2000 Presidents’ Cup when Tesori was working for Vijay Singh, then competing with Tiger for the #1 ranking. About that rake job, Tesori said in 2010 that it “was perfect,” and that when he heard about Sullivan’s comments he approached Sullivan and offered to settle it “like men.” Which is to say that what happens in a bunker can very often lead not only to fiscal consequences, but also physical ones.

But no matter how violent those consequences might be, they’re not as weighty as those that pressed on Sir Ralph in 1943 and ’44, when the black-painted night bombers flown by the men of Cochrane’s 5 Group, along with all the other bomb groups, were taking heavy casualties from Nazi night fighter planes because at that point in the war the long-range American fighter, the P-51, had yet to make an appearance in Europe. The only protection the bombers had from enemy fighters was their own gunners.

What Cochrane proposed to do was, instead of loading up the bombers with more guns, was just the opposite: he wanted to take all the heavy guns out of the bombers, along with their turrets and, incidentally, the gunners. What that would do was make the bombers lighter, hence able to fly not only faster, but higher, therefore avoiding the night fighters—and the anti-aircraft fire, or “flak”—altogether. (Also, for perhaps poetic reasons, Cochrane wanted to paint these planes white, instead of black.) But Bomber Command nixed Cochrane’s idea.

The reason Bomber Command didn’t want to follow Cochrane’s suggestion was because (in the words of Freeman Dyson, who conducted the original research and whose article “How To Dispel Your Illusions” from the 22 December issue of the New York Review of Books I’ve freely used here), Bomber Command “saw every bomber crew as a tightly knit team of seven.” Bomber Command also believed that as each “team … became more skillful and more closely bonded, their chances of survival would improve.” Experience, that is, improved survival chances, and the gunners were part of each team’s collective experience. Taking out the gunners, in other words, would destroy unit teamwork, thus making it less likely that each crew would ultimately survive. Such at least was Bomber Command’s theory.

Unfortunately, as Freeman Dyson, who ran the numbers, found out, this theory was entirely false. “Teamwork” or “morale” or “experience” didn’t actually improve any given bomber crew’s ability to survive. After canceling out for weather and geography and so forth, Dyson found that “whether a crew lived or died was purely a matter of chance.” Bomber Command’s belief in the value of experience, or skill, “was an illusion.” The men who crewed the bombers and survived the war did so by sheer luck.

Translating this awful story into the story of the 2003 Masters (perhaps a horrifying reduction to some people), what we could say is that Sullivan’s contention is that Maggert lost simply due to chance, or luck, whereas Tesori’s contention would be that ultimately Mike Weir’s skill overcame all obstacles. As the story of Bomber Command’s fateful decision makes clear (the pathos of which makes Randall Jarrell’s 1945 poem, “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner”—“I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters”—all the more awful) Tesori’s version is one that we are more susceptible to believe in. The idea that the universe is orderly, one supposes, is more important than the lives of bomb crews.

Regrettably for Sullivan, the evidence appears to be that if there was anyone who “deserved” to win the 2003 Masters, it was the man who did win: Mike Weir, who arguably had the steadiest tournament of any player. ’03 was a year of tough weather—the Thursday round was washed out—and high scores were typical even for players who finished well up on the leaderboard. Ernie Els for example, who eventually finished in 6th place, had a first-round 79. Tiger Woods, who came back on Saturday to scare everyone, had to come back from a first-round 76. But where all of the golfers who finished in the top-ten had one low round to balance their high round, Weir (who also had a 75 in his mix) had two low rounds of four-under 68s. And Weir’s first round of 70 was just a bit better than anyone else’s third-lowest scoring round.

So what one could say is that, while Maggert’s lowest scoring round, 66, was better than Weir’s lowest scoring round, overall Weir had the better tournament—though that would mean discounting the two disastrous holes that cost Maggert the tournament: the 7 and 8 that, had they been merely a bogey and a double bogey, would have made up the difference between the two. In other words, our perception of Weir’s tournament as “steadier” is driven by our knowledge of what eventually happened, not necessarily by the actual value of each player’s golf. Or to put it another way, thinking that Weir “deserved” to win still could be a bit like thinking that the bomber crews that survived the war “deserved” to survive.

In golf, it’s usually only a single shot that makes a difference between first and second place, which is to say that a single round, or even a tournament, is something of too small a sample size to declare whether one player is intrinsically better than another. What we could do instead is compare the careers of Maggert and Weir, in which case what we’d find is that Weir has 8 PGA Tour wins to Maggert’s 3—and Maggert’s wins were at the Disney, the St. Jude, and the World Match Play.

The first two of these tournaments are what could be called “second tier” events: the level of competition is not so high as in some other tournaments. (The Disney is played in the fall, when most of the superstars take time off, while the St. Jude also isn’t on most top players’ rotations because it falls near the Memorial, Jack Nicklaus’ tournament.) And match play, as I’ve discussed before, is an inherently uncertain format that virtually every year it’s played generates complaints about “no names.”

Weir though has not only won a major (which, granted, is just what the discussion is about) but also a Tour Championship (he beat David Toms, Ernie Els, and Sergio Garcia in a playoff) and a World Golf Championship tournament, along with back-to-back wins at the Nissan Open (formerly the L.A. Open and now the Northern Trust Open) at Riviera Country Club. It’s arguable that the quality of Weir’s wins is better than Maggert’s—in addition to the greater number of tournaments Weir has won. In that sense, we could argue that Weir has, over the course of his career, demonstrated a higher quality of golf than has Maggert.

These days the PGA Tour has developed Shotlink, which tracks every shot hit by every player, with what club and with what result. As it happens, that technology was introduced in 2003 at the Nissan Open that Weir won, which is to say that it must be available for the Masters tournament that year. But that data is locked up behind a paywall that I, for one, haven’t ponied up for, so while the question is in principle answerable, it’s also true that obtaining that answer requires resources that probably would be better spent elsewhere.

Anyway, even if that data were freely available, it’s not as though it would end the argument necessarily. While both Weir and Maggert have been very solid players, neither is the superstar sort. You aren’t going to find either one on the cover of any non-golf magazine; if there is some difference in quality between the two, it isn’t necessarily that great. Even if Weir’s second shots ended up marginally closer to the hole, perhaps Maggert’s second shots during his round of 66 were much, much better than Weir’s, or Maggert’s putting was demonstrably better than Weir’s throughout the tournament, or some other thing. Regardless, who raked, or didn’t rake, whose bunker doesn’t particularly matter now, nearly a decade after the event, to anyone outside of those involved.

The point however is that, even if we are able to construct a narrative after the fact that awards Mike Weir the prize, that narrative is not any more “real.” Perhaps, in other words, the “real” quality of their golf is about the same, but Weir somehow received more “breaks” than did Maggert. Improbable, perhaps, but then so is throwing heads 17 times in a row—or surviving thirty missions 6 miles over Germany.

Had things gone differently, we would have constructed a story that would convince us that Jeff Maggert deserved the trophy more because of the sheer brilliance of his third-round 66—just as we very nearly did, in reality, have to consider that possibility due to the scary 65 Len Mattiace did actually throw at Weir in the final round, which led to the playoff that Weir won. But playoffs are, perhaps, the ultimate in coin-tossing luck when it comes to golf: Weir, who has been involved in 5 playoffs during his PGA career and lost two of them while winning three, might affirm that himself.

Most times, in other words, merely a coin flip or less separates winners and losers on the PGA Tour, and yet every week someone is required to come up with that week’s storyline. It’s kind of heroic what golf writers are able to do week in and week out: they turn absurd coincidence into high drama, turn the recipients of good fortune into Bronze Age heroes. It’s been noted by many that golf is one of the few sports where no one cheers for the underdog: everyone wants Tiger (or Phil or some other “star”), not some no-namer, to win.

“When I died,” says Jarrell’s ball turret gunner, a man with no name, “they washed me out of the turret with a hose.” A win for a “star” is, in a curious way, an affirmation of human ability in a cold universe; a win for a no-name is just another affirmation of the random chance that surrounds us. That is why the title of one of Dan Jenkins’ books about golf is The Dogged Victims of Inexorable Fate.  Jarrell’s finale is a line pregnant with our own mortality: a reminder that, at the end of our days here on the Big Golf Course, there are no winners and losers. Lurkers are like Jarrell’s gunner—unlike when Tiger or somebody wins, they are signs, essentially, of that pale rider whose vehicle might be the Ghost of St. Trond’s Messerschmitt or, say, a rake.

Incidentally, Johnson Wagner won the Sony Open this past week—the first full-field event of the year—by two shots over four other guys.

What, haven’t you heard of him?

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.

Rough Weather

You and you are sure together
As the winter and rough weather.
—As You Like It Act V, iv.


There’s a band in Chicago that plays every first and third Wednesdays of the month—and the occasional fifth Wednesday, which is a source of some small joy to their fans. The city entire has that joy this week, the third Packers week of the football season. The weeks the Chicago Bears play the Green Bay Packers loom large in each team’s schedule: Doug Buffone, the old Bear Hall-of-Famer, says that those games are “mini Super Bowls.” This week, the two teams play for the right to go to the actual Super Bowl. It’s a fitting time, then, to discuss just what Sweden means to professional golf.

The Chicago Bears and the Green Bay Packers are the two oldest teams in the National Football League: they go together just as surely as the winter and rough weather often found in their stadiums. They played their first game on November 27, 1921, which the Chicago team won, 20-0. Since then they have played 180 other games; the Bears winning 92 and the Packers 83, with 6 ties. The Green Bay Packers have won twelve league championships, the Bears nine. On the other hand, the Bears have 26 players in the Hall of Fame, while Green Bay has 21.  Each team has more players in the Hall of Fame than any other team.

It is by far the most storied rivalry in the National Football League: Mike Singletary, the Hall of Fame Bear linebacker from the 1985 Super Bowl team, said recently that during Packer games “There are gonna be more penalties. Guys hit harder. Guys who are hurt are gonna play.” Which is to say, the dead walk on Packers week.

Those dead are presided over by two figures from each club: George Halas of the Bears and Curley Lambeau of the Packers. Both men were originally players, then became coaches and the leaders of their respective organizations. But the paths each took also demonstrate something of just why this football rivalry has impact beyond the sport.

Halas founded a family dynasty: in a world of corporately-owned sports franchises, the Bears are one of the last still run as a family business. It’s an arrangement that went out of fashion for the rest of the world sometime at the end of the 19th century.

The story of Curley Lambeau and the Packers is stranger still. The Packers are the only major-league professional sports organization in the United States run as a non-profit. There are roughly 100,000 shareholders in the Green Bay Football Corporation, owning almost five million shares. These shares do not pay dividends, do not appreciate in value, and bring no chance at season tickets.

No single stockholder can have more than 200,000 shares, so no one can ever assume control of the team. The Packers can never be moved from Green Bay, which is almost irrelevant because almost all of the stockholders are Green Bay natives. It is an arrangement that is a kind of parody of the corporate sports franchise. If socialism had a professional American football team, it would be the Green Bay Packers.

If socialism had a factory for turning out professional golfers, on the other hand, it would be Sweden, a nation of only 9 million that is yet disproportionately represented on both the men’s and ladies’ professional golf tours. Annika Sorenstam is the lead for this story: she dominated the LPGA for nearly a decade before finally calling it quits in order to raise children. But many other Swedish golfers have also made headlines in the past few decades: how, given such a small country—and the winters and rough weather—can that be?

One answer can be found by contrast with American golf, which might be likened to the Chicago Bears model. Like the Bears, the PGA Tour is a kind of toy version of the 19th-century vision of laissez-faire capitalism. Each golfer represents a competing firm struggling in a Darwinistic Sturm und Drang struggle to the death with his opponents.

Getting to that point is its own struggle. Golf in the United States is a hodge-podge, with differing state-level golf associations and youth golf associations. If lucky, the junior player develops enough to attract interest from various colleges and universities, which then compete for the best players, and then, by some further magic, the lucky player might have the good fortune to have found a program that provides the right kind of training to enable them to advance to the professional ranks. At every stage, golf in the United States is highly decentralized.

That’s by contrast to the Swedish model. As described by “Swedish Golf Success: Its History and Future,” a technical study done by American, Australian, and Swedish professors, that success is largely due to the highly-structured environment Sweden has developed for its young players at an early age. The Swedish Golf Federation takes care of its young players: it provides training and access to national and international tournaments early. Hence, younger golfers with potential can quickly be identified, and thus given more resources, all overseen by one central and national authority. Like Green Bay and its Packers, the nation is united.

Granted, what works for Sweden would be hard to duplicate in the United States, where the population of Chicago and its suburbs alone is larger than the entire Scandinavian nation. It’s something to think about in the United States, however; perhaps particularly since golf will become part of the Olympics in 2016. It’s widely assumed that Americans will dominate that event—which, in all likelihood, is what will happen.

Yet that’s what Americans always thought about basketball, until the past decade or two. The last year in golf, where Phil Mickelson was the only American to win a major championship (and Phil faded out the rest of the year), has shown—or should have shown—that American dominance at a sport is what the philosophers call contingent: it is not ordained by God or Nature. Hogan said golf ability is “dug out of the ground”—it’s a matter of effort. The sort of effort required though would have to be like Sweden, or Green Bay: you know, where “You and you are sure together.”

Mental Masters

Over at Golf magazine the assembled panelists try to assess this past week’s Masters’ tournament, and there seems to be a pretty wide agreement that as a Masters’ tournament it ranks third, behind Jack Nicklaus’ 1986 win and Tiger Woods’ 1997 coronation, the order depending on the generation of the speaker. This is a lot of nonsense, which the panel half-admits when they concede that it is “social significance” that factors into their thinking. In terms of the sheer quality of the shots, this tournament was probably the best golf tournament that ever was: even Jack’s second nine score of 30 on Sunday in ’86 is overshadowed by a three-hole stretch of Phil Mickelson’s round—on Saturday.

Tiger’s win in ’97 did open up an entirely new vista about how to play golf—the game we see today was pretty much invented by Woods—but as an athletic competition it was kind of boring, what with him winning by 12 and such. Phil Mickelson’s win over the weekend, on the other hand, was exciting throughout. Phil’s weekend, in fact, puts in question some of the ideas that I’ve been fiddling with in this blog: the twin notions that golf is a game of avoiding bogies, not making birdies, and the idea that golf is a “mental game,” unlike more purely physical sports.

I’ve dealt with the first idea at some length elsewhere, but my prior post on the “mental game” business I don’t think really addressed the point squarely. My analogy in making the comment is from the arguments over the existence of “clutch hitting” in baseball, or the “hot hand” in basketball. Rob Neyer on ESPN.com cited a 1977 Baseball Research Journal article against the latter idea, and statisticians have demonstrated again and again that the idea that a shooter can get “hot” is just as much an illusion. Some players are better than others, and given enough opportunity runs of “luck” are likely, not unusual.

It turns out that the tower of academic excellence that is the University of North Texas has already published an article, “An Examination of the ‘Hot Hand’ in Professional Golfers,” that’s examined the topic. Turns out, it seems, that professional golfers “were just as likely to score a birdie or better following a par or worse hole as make a birdie or better following a birdie or better hole.”

Another study by the same author—R.D. Clark—found that while golfers tended to be “streaky,” which is to say that their under-par rounds tended to cluster together (as did their over-par rounds), this had more to do with the difficulty of the golf courses than anything else. “Clutch shots” in golf, in other words, are just as much of a statistical illusion as clutch hitting in baseball.

That isn’t though what most people tend to mean when they talk about golf as a mental game. What people tend to mean is something like what drives teaching pros these days to focus so much on “pre-shot routine,” and the golf press to spend so much time lauding Tiger Woods’ “inner focus.” As it happens, academics have found that having a pre-shot routine—a set pattern, or ritual, that is done before every shot—does tend to improve performance.

What isn’t clear is why—and really, that’s the important part. It might be because it helps improve focus—the contention of the “golf is mental” crowd. Or it might be because it allows “an automatic execution of technique,” as J. Hellstrom of Orebro University (it’s in Sweden, and surely as respected as the University of North Texas) puts it. But saying “golf is unconscious” doesn’t quite have the same ring.

Phil’s shot on 13 in the final day, not to mention his hole-out on 14 the day before, puts both of those ideas in question. Here was Phil, perhaps the streakiest big-time player ever, hitting go-for-broke shots in the clutch. What better demonstration that making birdies matters, and what better affirmation of the idea that “golf is mental” could there be?

Dr. Alan Reifman has already jumped all over this in his blog “The Hot Hand in Sports,” a website for “the Study of Sport Streakiness.” Dr. Reifman points out that since the Masters began in 1934, there’s been innumerable rounds played by some of the world’s best golfers—the presumption being that, given so many rounds, it would be harder to explain why there hadn’t been two back-to-back birdies by the same player than explaining why there had. Phil’s performance wasn’t due to luck, in short, but just because he is tremendously skilled.

The idea that “golf is mental” is, I think, primarily a way for amateurs to excuse their lack of skill: presumably, pro golfers are that skilled because of their possession of some magical “mental power” that enables them to transcend the abilities of mere mortals. Since the amateur doesn’t possess this magic, he’s off the hook. But while that might be comforting in some odd way, the reality is that professional golfers are better not because of magic, but because they’ve hit a lot more golf balls, and hit them better. I don’t think of this as at all disheartening; most of us, I think, wouldn’t trade our lives for the grind of hitting golf balls every day for years on end, which is what every professional golfer has done with his or her life. And it also offers a path to get better: practice. But maybe avoiding that word is why the “golf is mental” idea was invented in the first place.

Gravity’s Rainbow

Somewhere there’s music,
How faint the tune.
Somewhere there’s heaven,
How high the Moon.
—“How High The Moon”
    (b/w “Walkin’ and Whistlin’ Blues”)
    Les Paul & Mary Ford.
    Capitol Records, 1951.

Spring, in another stunning March upset, has beaten the Masters to Chicago this year. But in most years the Masters opens the golf season, and I watch with a golf-nut friend who’s crazy-jealous I’ve walked the hallowed greens. Usually I retell the story of once standing on the 8th green with a veteran caddie, who asked me how I thought a putt would break. I said I thought it would move a foot right-to-left; actually, it broke four feet the other way. This kills my friend and (often) any other golfers around, because green-reading is one of those peculiar-to-golf skills; a soccer field (or pitch) is for instance always level, or should bePele didn’t have to ask his coach where to hit the ball. But golf’s surfaces are never level, so one of the questions golfers often ask me is about putting, or more specifically about reading greens. It’s difficult to answer the question politely, because most of what golfers think about putting and green-reading is flat-out wrong.

The best thing I’ve ever heard on the subject is oddly from Phil Mickelson, who’s probably better known for missing short putts than making long ones. “The true apex of the putt’s roll,” Phil said not long ago, “occurs at the moment you strike it; it always rolls downhill from there.” It’s an owlish quote, which mimics the subject: most amateurs have at least an intuitive sense that there’s something deeply strange about reading greens; some seem to have a kind of superstitious fear about it. There is something deeply uncanny about making a long putt on a bumpy green: sometimes it can appear that the ball is moving on its own, governed by supernatural forces. (Compare any number of Tiger’s putts over the years.)

Putting is also magical because it can have such an effect on scoring: pro golf is largely a matter of who’s putting good that week, and there isn’t a golfer alive who hasn’t had a ball find the hole from some ridiculous distance. Putts have the spark of the divine in them. I’ve done enough green-reading to know I’m pretty good at it, even on greens I haven’t seen before, and there’s little satisfaction better for a looper than your player saying “Man, I never would have hit it there!” after making some improbable snake. Some people therefore regard me as some kind of magician; others regard green-reading as akin to dowsing or psychic surgeryjust hit it at the hole is their attitude. These people are wrong, but often they’re less wrong than the medicine-man people.

Most people fall between the two, and often ask about just how I read greens. The question presupposes some method or checklist, but mostly I don’t follow any standardized procedure exactly. I just look at where the ball is and where the cup is, and then I can “see” the line a putt has to take. This is difficult for certain kinds of minds to understandthey tend to be of the “hit it at the hole” schoolbut what I think is that my mind has just compressed a lot of experience into various subroutines my conscious mind doesn’t pay much attention to any more.

Some of these “subroutines” are the idiot stuff the golf magazines always go on about: finding the highest point on the green (very important), finding a drainage point or a nearby creek or pond (slightly less important), or where the sun sets (not very important). And of course knowing what sort of grass the green isnorthern bent grass rolls truer than southern Bermuda, for instance. Or finding out if there’s some terrain feature that subtly influences things: in Palm Springs, all putts want to go to Indio at the east end of the valley, while at Riviera all putts try to find the Pacific at the low end of the canyon. For the most part though these tricks are only minimally helpful.

On the Nationwide Tour I once had a pro who wanted to know what “o’clock” a putt needed to fall. What he meant by that was he envisioned the hole like the face of a clock, with twelve o’clock representing the precise opposite side of the hole from his ball. A putt that broke a lot right-to-left might cause the ball to fall in the hole at the three o’clock position; one that didn’t break as much might fall at the five o’clock position. If he knew the clock position he could trace the line back to his ball and find where he needed to start the putt. This is actually pretty close to how I work, though I tend to see the whole path and not just the point of entry.

A word about what I mean by “see”: it’s a phenomena I don’t understand precisely, but the nearest analogy I can draw is the way a wet green will show the path a putt has followed on it. The ball picks up water as it travels, so it will leave a track through a wet green clearly showing how it went. Similarly, I tend to “see”I mean this literallythe path a ball must follow in its entirety, start to finish. Communicating that vision can be difficult, so I tend to use discolorations in the green to show my players, or on longer ones pick out a tree or other landmark beyond the green as a target, but I use those targets as communication tools, not to find the line itself. On my best reads I see the whole thing, all at once.

Now, that’s the sort of thing that makes green reading sound like voodoo, and there is something to that because for a long time I found only certain players, generally very skilled ones, could understand what I meant. For the most part I avoid trying to describe what green-reading really is to people who don’t get it because mostly it’s a waste of timethey don’t have the experiences that can translate what you mean to them. However, some time ago I discovered a golf instructor who “gets” what it is that I do, and so now I tend to refer to him whenever I get into a discussion with someone who really wants to know and isn’t just passing time. His name is Dave Pelz, the short-game wizard now used by Phil Mickelson.

What drew me to Pelz is that he says that almost everyoneamateurs and pros alikeunderreads greens. Pelz is a former NASA scientistyes, rocket scientistand he has statistics to back his claims up. In my experience, he’s rightwitness the Ian Poulter experience I described in an earlier post, for instance. Nobody ever plays for enough break, or curve, on their putts. I am continually having conversations like this one:

Golfer: It can’t be that high! You can’t be serious!

Me: Yep.

But what Pelz does, as I’ve never been quite able to do, is explain just why that is. His point is expressed, though cryptically, in the quote from his student Mr. Mickelson I quoted above.

Pelz is attacking a common misconception about putting, one that even PGA Tour players have. Pelz puts the misconception this way in a recent Golf magazine article, citing an instructional video that advised students to “visualize the high point of the putt’s roll on its way to the hole, then aim at that high point.” Sounds pretty good right? Actually, as Pelz demonstratesand I would concur after several decades of looking at putts good and badthis is about as stupid as it’s possible to get without just stopping at the nearest bridge and jumping off.

It isn’t an entirely unapt metaphor, because what Pelz is arguingthis is maybe where the rocket science comes inis that the above instruction completely discounts the role of gravity. Here’s where we can return to Phil’s words, specifically the part about the “true apex.” What Phil is trying to say here is that if you did as the instructional video mentioned above said, your putt will inevitably fall off before reaching that pointunless you hit it so hard that the ball never breaks at all, one reason why the “point and shoot” crowd is slightly less mentally challenged. In order to hit the “high point,” in other words, you actually have to aim above it. Forces are at work to slow a putt right after impact, which is why so many good-looking putts climb right up to the hole and then break right across it, ending up on the low or “amateur” side.

The point is that, in putting, there are in effect three different targets. There’s the hole, sure. But there’s also the point at which you aim your putter and then the point where you actually expect your putt to go. Your aim point in short is higher than your actual targetwhere you really expect the putt to gowhich in turn is above the hole. So very often when I’m telling a guy where to hit his putt he’ll ask if it’s a “cup outside” or something and I will explain that in fact he must aim at a point that might be several feet outside. Hence sometimes-comical, sometimes-rude conversations like the one I reproduced above.

It may have occurred to some of you that the idea of aiming at a metaphorical-Mars-in-order-to-hit-the-Moon may not be accidentally the work of someone from NASA. Nor that the idea may be applicable in other arenas in life. JFK’s call for a literal moonshot resulted in a lot of things that maybe wouldn’t have gotten done had we aimed just at them, and not all of them are new dry-freeze techniques or handheld calculators. Unfortunately the people who tend to adopt slogans like “Aim High” (a slogan of the Air Force) are exactly the sort of people who misunderstand why it makes sense to read putts that waybecause they aren’t really paying attention to how putts work. Next time you are playing with someone, here’s an easy intelligence test: ask him about what he thinks about “goals.” (It’s super-easy to lead that conversation.) Next, just observe what happens on the green. When he misses on the low sidethey all dojust ask if he was aiming high enough. Nine times out of ten, nobody makes the connection.

Aiming high is valuable, sure, but it is not an end to itself. I was originally reminded of all of this putting business last week when seeing Irish singer Imelda May at Martyrs’, the Chicago venue that witnessed her first visit to the United States last September. Her audience has grown in the meantimeshe performed the tribute to Les Paul at this year’s Grammy Awards by singing his best-known song (with Jeff Beck, btw) and she’s getting better known by the day it seems. Searching out the lyrics for the song to use for this week’s entry, I discovered that the song was originally written for the 1940 Broadway revue Two for the Show, which was set in London. As it happens, that has rather something to do with Dave Pelz’ original profession at NASA, an agency constructed from the remains of the Nazi V-2 program. The question at the heart of the song—“How High The Moon?”—is not really about setting high goals or the usual sort of Corporate America pablum. “How High The Moon?” was a serious moment in an otherwise-comic musical: at the end of the song, everyone looks up at the sky and cowers, terrified.

Why?

Because a clear night, during the Blitz, meant a “bombers’ moon”—a high road to Picccadilly for the Luftwaffe.