The Razor’s Edge

… for that path is sharp as a razor’s edge, impassable,
and hard to follow, say the wise.
—Katha Upanishad 1.3.14
 

“Never start a ball over a hazard,” said the kid, with a confused look on his face. He was baffled, though he might not have described it this way, because while many might think that the patron saint of golf, if it has one, is Saint Andrew (whose ensign, an “X,” isn’t particularly encouraging for a golfer, and whose feast day, November 30, isn’t a particularly good one for golf, at least in the Northern Hemisphere), it’s actually William of Ockham, whose commemoration date is that ideal day of the 10th of April, and who is best-known for writing “Plurality should not be postulated without necessity,” otherwise known to philosophers as “Occam’s Razor.” Or, to put it in golf terms, the notion that you ought to play a hole in as few shots as possible. What was perplexing the kid was that the hole we were looking at smashed that straight to hell. Sorting it out, in turn—a phraseology not used lightly—necessitates considering Walt Disney, Tiger Woods, the Rules of Golf, long-handled putters and the recent changes regarding Q-School proposed by the PGA Tour, though getting there implies a less-direct route than William might like.

The kid and I were standing on the tee of one of the weirder holes I’ve ever seen: a sweeping dog-leg 5-par around an oxbow bend in the Buffalo Bayou, Houston’s main river. The tee shot is basically blind: you can see the beginning of the fairway but not the rest of the hole; the dogleg is so severe that hitting the ball that way is too short a distance for a driver. The only way to play that hole, in other words, is to flout deliberately one of those rules professional golfers live by, the rule that you should never intentionally put a hazard into play. But in order to play this hole in the fewest amount of strokes it’s necessary to take the risk of the hazard: the conundrum put the aspiring-tour-pro head of the kid into brain-lock.

On most days, I was the kid’s caddie, on what was then the Adams Tour, a mini-tour based in Texas during the late fall into winter, but since getting to Houston he’d had trouble breaking 90 in the stiff Texas wind, and, in need of cash, we’d both turned to looping like attractive would-be pre-med coeds turn to … well, whatever it is that they do. So there we were, at Houston Country Club, the oldest golf club in Houston and one of the oldest in Texas, and though the golf course isn’t as old as the club (which had moved from its old location in the 1950s), still it was designed by Robert Trent Jones, Sr., one of the giants of golf architecture.

Houston Country Club is a posh joint run by old-time oil swells (one of its founders was Howard Hughes’ father, Howard Hughes, Sr.): all of which is to say that HCC is probably one of the most conservative places in the country, if not the planet. It’s disturbing, in other words, to find such a rebel of a hole at the golf course’s heart: in order to score well on that course a birdie is absolutely necessary there, which is to say that it demands precisely that rule-flouting that the club’s members, presumably, would abhor in their own lives. But you play the golf course as you find it, not how you’d wish it to be—and if the members of Houston Country Club are unaware of the ironies of their own course, then that’s one of the burdens of professional knowledge, I suppose. That doesn’t mean, to be sure, that the swells can’t suddenly re-discover the rules when it’s convenient, though—a point that has a direct bearing on the story that Houston Country Club and its caddie program is best-known for having a tangential connection with these days, since it was there that Taylor Smith completed his back nine on this planet.

Taylor Smith finished his days as a caddie at Houston CC in 2007, at the age of 40, apparently of pancreatitis. He’d never married, never had any children so far as anyone knows. He is, at best, a footnote in golf history: the guy who’d almost had to face down Tiger Woods in a playoff but didn’t and, because he didn’t, handed Tiger his second win on tour. The story of how he didn’t is a story about conflicting rules and how to apply them, and perhaps is instructive about golf and other matters.

The scene of the tale was Walt Disney World in October of 1996, the PGA Tour’s Orlando stop and one of the last chances for a player to make enough money to secure his tour card for the following season. Smith didn’t particularly need that chance: he’d already had two top-five finishes and would finish the season with a comfortable $220,000, which in those days was more than enough to make the top 125. Still, Smith was still looking for a win and at Orlando he not only made the cut, but spent Saturday night sleeping near the lead along with another guy whose career would also be cut short: Payne Stewart. Then there was a kid whose last name was Woods.

Back then Eldrick was still a young golfer trying to solidify his presence on the Big Show: though only a bit before the Disney he’d already won at the Las Vegas Invitational (beating Davis Love in a playoff), which meant his status for the next season wasn’t in doubt, he hadn’t yet become the Tiger Woods of whom other golfers were, for a time, afraid. Smith, in the final round, surely didn’t play scared: he calmly rolled in a putt on the last green to tie Woods at 267 for the tournament, 21 shots under par. And that despite the fact that, even aside from Woods, he had every reason to be anxious during that final round.

Earlier that day, while making the turn, Smith’s playing partner Lennie Clements, noticed something about the putter Smith was using: one of the two grips the long putter had was flat on one side. Clements knew this was a problem, and indeed a rules official confirmed that the putter violated Appendix II, 4-1c(v): “A putter may have more than one grip, provided each is circular in cross-section and the axis of each coincides with the axis of the shaft.” Smith played on anyway under an appeal of the decision and finished the round. But his protest—and the fact that, as many acknowledged then and now, there’s little reason to think that the flat grip could have assisted him any more than the fact that he had a broom-handle putter (perfectly allowable under the rules) already anyway—fell on deaf ears. Woods thereby won by default.

Smith won a lot of plaudits after the tournament though, via what many called the “classy” way he handled his DQ. When it was all over, he said that Clements “did the right thing” by calling over a rules official, and according the Orlando Sentinel a year later, Smith’s “noble handling of the disappointment gained him coast-to-coast style points.” But the same story (“As a Rule of Thumb, Give Smith His Due”) also hints at something darker: “tour insiders,” it says, “say he has had difficulty letting it go.” What Smith “dwelled on,” the story says, was “the revelations about the possibility that Woods, too, had been unknowingly playing Disney with a non-conforming putter.”

The tour got a phone call, it seems, on the Monday after the tournament was over that alleged that Tiger’s Scotty Cameron putter—the same one that he’d also used to win at Las Vegas earlier that fall—did not conform to Rule 4-1b of the Rules of Golf, which mandated that the neck of a putter measure five inches or less from the point of contact with the shaft and the putter’s bottom. The tour called Tiger’s camp immediately—but didn’t actually inspect the putter until two days later, by which time it had already been replaced in Tiger’s bag by another, conforming, putter. Which, as it turns out, was something of a moot point anyway, since as Rule 34-1 holds, “a penalty must not be rescinded, modified or imposed after the competition has closed,” a rule that has something of the same effect as Article I, Section 9 (the rule against ex post facto laws) does in the United States Constitution. Because Smith’s non-conforming putter was discovered at the time, in other words, he suffered a penalty that Tiger, whose putter never did get inspected, escaped.

Almost certainly, of course, that Woods wasn’t subject to the same level of scrutiny as Smith was what bothered Smith—though more certainly Smith isn’t around to be asked about it. Why it’s of anything more than an antiquarian’s interest though is in light of the recent proposal of the PGA Tour to eliminate Q-School as a direct route to the tour. Smith originally got on the Big Show through Q-School, the annual tournament whose final stage is 6 days long and is probably the most grueling competition in golf, while Tiger, of course, never had to play Q-School because he got invited to tournaments through sponsor exemptions—and then he won. Yet the routes of both of these men to the tour would be closed if the tour has its way.

Under a proposal first outlined to PGA Tour players at the annual meeting on the Tuesday before the tour stop at Torrey Pines, Q-School as a route to the PGA Tour would be eliminated. Instead, the Fall Finish tournaments (of which the Disney used to be one) would become a three-event shootout between the top 75 Nationwide players and the 75 Big Show players on the bubble, with 50 PGA Tour cards at stake. The Q-School tournament, whose traditional dates in early December would in any case be disrupted by the new format, would become merely a route to the Nationwide Tour.

Or whatever they will call it, since the PGA Tour has also announced that Nationwide Insurance is pulling out as a title sponsor. One of the consequences of that decision might be that Tiger’s route to the PGA Tour might also be closed: a few potential sponsors of the Fall Finish tournaments have said that they aren’t interested unless their tournaments are part of the FedEx Cup chase, which means that the new PGA Tour season will have to start in October right after the Tour Championship. Instead of being events traditionally skipped by the bigger names on tour, who usually take a break after the Tour Championship—and thus allowing younger guys like Woods to catch some sponsor exemptions and get a chance to compete at a high level without directly facing the best of the best immediately—the change threatens to make the PGA Tour a constant, year-around affair.

And, perhaps solving some headaches for the tour’s staff, would immediately have the effect of dividing professional golfers rather handily into two classes: PGA Tour players and all others. Instead of the fluidity represented by the careers of Tiger and Taylor, we’d have very, very solidly defined career paths: players, even great ones, would have to spend a year on the Nationwide Tour (or whatever it is named in the future) without exception, while there also would be no way for a marginal player to catch lightning in a bottle for a week and ride to a fun (and lucrative) year on the PGA Tour. The new system would act … well, very much like a razor, sharply delineating who is deserving of special treatment and who is not with what is evidently a satisfying clarity to the tour.

It will also have the effect of multiplying the classes of golfers into two: those with access to the rich purses of the PGA Tour and those playing on whatever the Nationwide Tour will become, where the purses are roughly one-tenth as much. It might be worth noting, in this connection, that while generally speaking the kid’s rule about where you should never start your tee shot is valid, it’s also true that there is, in golf architecture, a species of golf hole known as a “Cape hole.” The species is named for the 14th at C.B. Macdonald’s National Golf Links of America, on Long Island; what makes it the archetype for the species is that a water hazard runs along one side of a fairway that curves around it, meaning that the further a tee shot is flown over the hazard the greater the potential reward in terms of distance left to the green. At times, in other words, it’s necessary to hit it directly at a hazard. Houston Country Club’s par-five is an example.

There are, also, others.

Advertisements

The Road to Ensenada

The road to Ensenada
Is plenty wide and fast …
— “The Road to Ensenada.”
Lyell Lovett.

 

****Update: Kyle “Voltaire” Stanley wins at Phoenix, vindicates idiot looping blogger! (See below.)


After Palm Springs for the Hope, the PGA Tour caravan hikes up out of the desert valley and over the mountains to the ocean and San Diego, a trip that goes—like our recent weather in Chicago—from summer to winter and back again in a few hours. The scenic route is Route 74 out past Bighorn Golf Club and what used to be Stone Eagle, the “Pines to Palms Highway.” I traveled Route 74 a few years ago to work the pro-ams at Torrey Pines at what was then the Buick and is now the Farmers’. Route 74 is a pretty stunning trip if you like your mountains steep and rocky and your roads narrow, and trying to gauge whether to pass a slowpoke car is a gamble with your life. It wasn’t a bet we took often, if we did at all. But that’s real life: in sports, the decision of whether to go or not go is a bit easier to calculate.

Once again the 18th hole at Torrey Pines is the subject of controversy, and just like last year it centers on the question of whether to go for the green or not on the second shot. This year, the subject of that debate is Kyle Stanley, not Michael Sims, and the situation was slightly different: Stanley was trying to protect a lead he already had, not attempting to chase down someone else. Still, like Sims, Stanley ultimately elected not to go for the green on his second shot, and the commentators have all ripped him and his caddie for the decision.

After another big drive—he averaged about 311 yards all week, and is currently second in that category this year—Stanley was looking at 240 yards over a pond to get to the green: not a shot that most amateurs would even consider. Consulting with his caddie, Brett Waldman (who was playing the Nationwide Tour himself last year), Stanley hit a routine shot down to 77 yards out, from which he hit a great wedge—a shot that was too good, as it turns out, because after flirting with the pin it spun back and into the pond fronting the green. Stanley then hit his next (fifth) shot 45 feet past the hole. He left his first putt three-and-a-half feet short, and finally missed his next to make eight.

Gary Van Sickle of Sports Illustrated was one critic. Van Sickle said in the “PGA Confidential” roundtable over at Golf that Stanley “should have blown his second over the green; the [grand] stands are a free drop.” Van Sickle is referencing a “Local Rule” that is adopted for the PGA Tour, an adaptation of Rule 24-2 of the Rules of Golf, “Immovable Obstruction,” that makes grandstands into “temporary immovable obstructions.” The provisions of the rule call for a free one-clublength drop from the obstruction, which is exactly what Arjun Atwal did to win the Wyndham Championship in 2010.

Facing an unpalatable 5-iron shot to the uphill final green off a downhill lie, Atwal elected to hit his second shot instead with a hybrid club that traveled into the grandstands surrounding the green. Whereupon, according to the rules, Atwal received a free drop near the green from where he made an up-and-down for a par and the win. Apparently, this strategy is now a popular choice among the press, and even some players—none of whom seem to consider that perhaps sending a golf ball at a gallery at somewhere north of 150 miles per hour is in any way questionable.

Steve Elkington, for instance, the sweet-swinging major winner (at Riviera in 1995) tweeted, “the only way to make 8 is LAYUP.” Stephanie Wei, of Golf, the Wall Street Journal, and her own blog, thought “sure [that] 90% or more of players/caddies on tour will tell you it was the wrong play.” Instead, “why not just go for it in two and airmail it into the grandstands?” This argument goes that even had the worst happened, and Stanley hit his ball into the pond, he would have been left with a relatively-easy up-and-down that, even with a three-putt, would still have led to a seven—which would have been enough to win the tournament. What all of these people argue is that Stanley should have Atwal’d—damn the consequences. But let’s leave aside a school of thought that advocates firing missiles at unarmed civilians from an un-returnable distance.

Stanley obviously didn’t Atwal. But while in any sport it’s always easy to criticize after the play has happened, it’s something else to be able to point to reasons that a given player or coach should or should not have done something before it happened—which is one reason why whether a given coach’s decision to go for it on fourth down or not has become such a hot topic among stats guys in the NFL these days. The premise of these investigations is to determine, so far as possible, whether a decision was a good one or not given what could have been known prior to the play. In other words, given what a coach could have known or should have known before the ball was snapped, did he make the right call or not?

Bill Barnwell for example, resident NFL stats guy at ESPN’s Grantland site, has been writing about this issue all season. A typical column is like the one he wrote back in November about Atlanta’s decision to try to convert a fourth-and-inches from their own 29-yard line against New Orleans that week in overtime: it didn’t work, New Orleans promptly went and kicked a field goal, and Michael Smith, the Falcons’ head coach, ended up taking a lot of heat—for a decision that, Barnwell argues, was actually the correct one.

The Saints, Barnwell pointed out in that column, had at that point in the season “the worst run defense in football,” and the Falcons had already converted four other fourth downs in that same game. And handing the ball back to Saints quarterback Drew Brees (remember, they were in overtime) wasn’t a fun option either: the “Falcons held the Saints to a three-and-out just twice during regulation,” and of the 10 times Brees had gotten the ball to that point in the game, he’d led four 50-yard-plus drives. According to advancednflstats.com, in that situation the Falcons had a 47 percent chance of winning by going for it and a 42 percent chance of winning if they punted—and even if they didn’t convert, they still had an 18 percent chance of winning because most often opponents that close to the goal line won’t really take a stab at the endzone and instead settle for a long field goal; and 50-yarders are still chancy in the NFL.

That doesn’t mean, of course, that the two situations are exactly analogous. But it does furnish a means of looking at Stanley and Waldman’s decision-making that isn’t just beating them up for having bad luck. Without having access to all of the Shotlink data on the PGA Tour’s website, it’s still possible to get a sense of the kind of player Stanley is—and that kind is bomber. This is a guy who hits the ball a long way: he ranks second on tour this year in driving distance. That would seem to argue for going for it: if 240 doesn’t mean a lot to him, why not go for the home run, i.e. putting the ball in the grandstands?

Yet despite being a longball guy, Stanley did not make a lot of eagles last year—or the year before. In fact, in the past three years he’s only made four eagles, putting him way outside the tour leaders in that category. That’s probably for two reasons: despite being long, Stanley isn’t very accurate from great distances: last year he ranked 73rd in Greens-In-Regulation from over 200 yards, hitting the green less than half the time. When he does hit the green, the ball tends to be quite a way from the hole: nearly fifty feet from 225 to 250 yards. And finally, like maybe a lot of long guys, Stanley isn’t that great of a putter: according to the new “Strokes Gained” stat, which measures how much a player is gaining or losing to the field on the greens, he ranked a lowly 126th, losing nearly a third of a stroke to the field on the green.

Not that Stanley is that great the closer he gets to the green necessarily: last year he ranked 91st in GIR from less than 75 yards. He didn’t even hit the green more than 90 percent of the time from that distance. (Though he was close at just over 88 percent.) But here’s where it gets interesting because, as Geoff Shackleford at shackleford.com points out, the 18th hole at Torrey isn’t that penalizing: despite the hole having a “hillocky, artificially-tiered overbuilt mess of a green complex,” Stanley still “could have hit it to three-quarters of the surface, put a lot of spin on the ball, and not brought the water into play.” And as far as the “hitting it into the stands” theory goes, check out this link to Graham McDowell’s recent adventure with a grandstand in Abu Dhabi on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GIom4D9zrC4.

McDowell, as it happens, got lucky enough to put the ball close to the hole on that shot, but would you be willing to bet a few hundred thousand dollars that you’d get a similarly lucky bounce? The premise of the “hit it in the grandstands” theory is that you get a free drop, which is true enough, but things can happen when the ball lands. (Like, say, hit a fan at 150 mph plus.) Anyway, aside from the risk to spectators, essentially what the “grandstand” theory says is that the surface of grandstands 240 yards away is much more predictable and receptive than that of a green 75 yards away. Would you be willing to bet your house on that? If so, there’s a road running south out of Palm Springs you might like to try.

Don’t look down.

***UPDATE, 5 Feb 2012:

It isn’t often that Voltaire and golf can get mentioned in the same sentence, but Kyle Stanley’s life’s story in the past two weeks constitutes at least as thorough a demolition of Spinoza and Leibniz as Voltaire’s Candide. “For each thing,” Spinoza argues in the Ethics, “there must be assigned a cause, or reason, both for its existence and for its nonexistence”; later, Leibniz would claim, more baldly, that “nothing happens without a reason”—an idea Voltaire ridiculed in Candide with the ironic slogan “all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds.” Those who argue that Stanley ought to have gone for the green on his second shot on his last hole at Torrey Pines on the final day of the tournament—thereby putting the fans surrounding the green at risk—are all Spinozists: they believe that everything must have a cause, and since Stanley not winning must have a cause they find it in the fact that Stanley did not go for the green. By winning this week in Arizona, Stanley has demonstrated both the reality of “brute facts”—inexplicable objects—and that this reality in no way lessens our own responsibilities either in terms of effort or intellect. Kyle “Voltaire” Stanley: it’s got kind of a ring to it, doesn’t it?

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.

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.