This Pitiless Storm

Poor naked wretches, whereso’er you are,
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,
How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,
Your loop’d and window’d raggedness, defend you,
From seasons such as these?
The Tragedy of King Lear Act III, Scene 4

“Whenever people talk to me about the weather,” the Irish writer Oscar Wilde once remarked, “I always feel quite certain that they mean something else.” As it happens, the weather at this year’s British Open has been delayed by high winds and will not be finished with the regulation 72 holes until Monday at the earliest. Which raises a question: why does the Open need to finish all 72 holes? The answer concerns something called a “Simpson’s Paradox”—an answer that also demonstrates just how talk about the weather at the British Open is in fact talk about something else. Namely, the 2016 American presidential election.

To see how, it’s first necessary to see the difference between the British Open and other professional golf tournaments, which are perfectly fine with shortening themselves. Take for instance the 2005 Northern Trust Open in Los Angeles: Adam Scott won in a playoff against Chad Campbell after the tournament was shortened to 36 holes due to weather. In 2013, the Tournament of Champions at Kapalua in Hawaii was “first cut to 54 holes because of unplayable conditions over the first two days,” according to Reuters, and was under threat of “being further trimmed to 36 holes.” The same story also quoted tour officials as saying “the eventual champion would wind up with an ‘unofficial win’” were the tournament to be shortened to 36 holes. (As things shook out they did end up completing 54 holes, and so Dustin Johnson’s win officially counted.) In a standard PGA tournament then, the “magic number” for an “official” tournament is 54 holes. But if so, then why does the Open need 72?

To answer that, let’s take a closer look at the standard professional golf tournament. Most such tournaments are conducted according to what the Rules of Golf calls “stroke play”: four rounds of golf, or 72 holes, at the end of which the players who have made it that far add up their scores—their number of strokes. The player with the lowest score, it may seem like it goes without saying, wins. But it does need to be said—because that isn’t the only option.

Many amateur tournaments after all, such as the United States Amateur, use the rules format known as “match play.” Under this format, the winner of the contest is not necessarily the player who shoots the lowest overall score, as in stroke play. Instead, as John Van der Borght has put the matter on the website of the United States Golf Association, in match play the “winner is the player who wins the most holes.” It’s a seemingly minor difference—but in fact it creates such a difference that match play is virtually a different sport than stroke play.

Consider, for instance, the Accenture Match Play tournament—the only tournament on the PGA Tour to be held under match play rules. The 2014 edition (held at the Dove Mountain course near Tucson, Arizona), had some results that demonstrate just how different match play is than stroke play, as Doug Ferguson of the Associated Press observed. “Pablo Larrazabal shot a 68 and was on his way back to Spain,” Ferguson noted about the first day’s results, while “Ernie Els shot 75 and has a tee time at Dove Mountain on Thursday.” In other words, Larrazabal lost his match and Els won his, even though Larrazabal was arguably the better player at this tournament—at least, if you consider the “better player” to be the one who puts his ball in the hole most efficiently.

Such a result might seem unfair—but why? It could be argued that while shooting a lower number might be what stroke play golf is, that isn’t what match play golf is. In other words, Larrazabal obviously wasn’t better at whatever it was that this tournament measured: if Larrazabal couldn’t beat his opponent, while Els could, then clearly Els deserved to continue to play while Larrazabal did not. While you might feel that, somehow or other, Larrazabal got jobbed, that’s merely a sentimental reaction to what ought to be a hardhearted calculation: maybe it’s true that under stroke play rules Larrazabal would have won, but that wasn’t the rules of the contest at Dove Mountain. In other words, you could say that golfing ability was, in a sense, socially constructed: what matters isn’t some “ahistorical” ability to golf, but instead how it is measured.

Here’s the $64,000 question a guy named Bill James might ask in response to such an argument, however (couched in terms of baseball players): “If you were trying to win a pennant, how badly would you want this guy?” In other words, based on the evidence presented, what would you conclude about the respective golf ability of Els and Larrazabal? Wouldn’t you conclude that Larrazabal is better at the task of putting his ball in the hole, and that the various rule systems that could be constructed around that task are merely different ways of measuring that ability—an ability that pre-existed those systems of measurement?

“We’re not trying to embarrass the best players in the game,” said Sandy Tatum at the 1974 U.S. Open, the so-called Massacre at Winged Foot: “We’re trying to identify them.” Scoring systems in short should be aimed at revealing, not concealing, ability. I choose Bill James to make the point not just because the question he asks is so pithy, but because he invented an equation that is designed to discover underlying ability: an equation called the Pythagorean Expectation. That equation, in turn, demonstrates just why it is so that match play and stroke play are not just different—yet equally valid—measures of playing ability. In so doing, James also demonstrates just why it is that the Open Championship requires that all 72 holes be played.

So named because it resembles so closely that formula, fundamental to mathematics, called the Pythagorean Theorem, what the Pythagorean Expectation says is that the ratio of a team’s (or player’s) points scored to that team’s (or player’s) points allowed is a better predictor of future success than the team’s (or player’s) ratio of wins to losses. (James used “runs” because he was dealing with baseball.) More or less it works: as Graham MacAree puts it on the website FanGraphs, using James’ formula makes it “relatively easy to predict a team’s win-loss record”—even in sports other than baseball. Yet why is this so—how can a single formula predict future success at any sport? It might be thought, after all, that different sports exercise different muscles, or use different strategies: how can one formula describe underlying value in many different venues—and thus, incidentally, demonstrate that ability can be differentiated from the tools we use to measure it?

The answer to these questions is that adding up the total points scored, rather than the total games won, gives us a better notion of the relative value of a player or a team because it avoids something called the “Simpson’s Paradox”—which is what happens when, according to Wikipedia, it “appears that two sets of data separately support a certain hypothesis, but, when considered together, they support the opposite hypothesis.” Consider what happens for example when we match Ernie Els’ 75 to Pablo Larrazabal’s 68: if we match them according to who won each hole, Els comes out the winner—but if we just compared raw scores, then Larrazabal would. Simpson’s Paradoxes appear, in short, when we draw the boundaries around the raw data differently: the same score looks different depending on what lens is used to view it—an answer that might seem to validate those who think that underlying ability doesn’t exist, but only the means used to measure it. But what Simpson’s Paradox shows isn’t that all boundaries around the data are equal—in fact, it shows just the opposite.

What Simpson’s Paradox shows, in other words, is that drawing boundaries around the data can produce illusions of value if that drawing isn’t done carefully—and most specifically, if the boundaries don’t capture all of the data. That’s why the response golf fans might have to the assertion that Pablo Larrazabal is better than Ernie Els proves, rather than invalidates, the argument so far: people highly familiar with golf might respond, “well, you haven’t considered the total picture—Els, for instance, has won two U.S. Opens, widely considered to be the hardest tournament in the world, and Larrazabal hasn’t won any.” But then consider that what you have done just demonstrates the point made by Simpson’s Paradox: in order to say that Els is better, you have opened up the data set; you have redrawn the boundaries of the data in order to include more information. So what you would have conceded, were you to object to the characterization of Larrazabal as a better golfer than Els on the grounds that Els has a better overall record than Larrazabal, is that the way to determine the better golfer is to cast the net as wide as possible. You have demanded that the sample size be increased.

That then is why a tournament contested over only 36 holes isn’t considered an “official” PGA tournament, while 54 holes isn’t enough to crown the winner of a major tournament like the Open Championship (which is what the British Open is called when it’s at home). It’s all right if a run-of-the-mill tournament be cut to 54 holes, or even 36 (though in that case we don’t want the win to be official). But in the case of a major championship, we want there to be no misunderstandings, no “fluky” situations like the one in which Els wins and Larrazabal doesn’t. The way to do that, we understand, is to maximize chances, to make the data set as wide as possible: in sum, to make a large sample size. We all, I think, understand this intuitively: it’s why baseball has a World Series rather than a World Championship Game. So that is why, in a major championship, it doesn’t matter how long it takes—all the players qualified are going to play all 72 holes.

Here I will, as they say in both golf and baseball, turn for home. What all of this about Simpson’s Paradoxes means, at the end of the day, is that a tournament like the Open Championship is important—as opposed to, say, an American presidential election. In a presidential election as everyone knows, what matters isn’t the total numbers of votes a candidate wins, but how many states. In that sense, American presidential elections are conducted according to what, in golf, would be considered match play instead of stroke play. Now, as Bill James might acknowledge, that begs the question: does that process result in better candidates being elected?

As James might ask in response: would you like to bet?

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The Curious Incident of the Silent Tournament

O Scotland! Scotland!
The Tragedy of Macbeth IV, 3

Where Scotland?
The Comedy of Errors III, 2

 

 

The “breakup of Britain must now be considered a realistic possibility,” according to James Kirkup of the Daily Telegraph, because in the United Kingdom’s May 7 general election the Scottish Nationalist Party swept all but three of Scotland’s parliamentary seats—an event that took nearly the entire British establishment by surprise. But the 7 May results are really two surprising events: as the New York Times reported, in the United Kingdom as a whole the Conservative Party won “an unexpected majority in what was supposed to be a down-to-the-wire election, proving polls and pundits wrong.” The two victories have made both Scotland and England virtually one-party states—which perhaps paradoxically may be a sign that the British state has taken a first step to a republic. At least, if golf’s British Open is a guide.

“Who’s he when he’s at home?” is a British idiom, meaning, “what’s he like when he’s among friends, when nobody’s watching?” Admittedly, the idea that a golf tournament might tell you something useful about an important thing like a national election is odd at best. But scholar Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origins and Spread of Nationalism shows how the claim might be justified: he argues that the “generation of the impersonal will” necessary to nations is “better sought in … diurnal regularities” than in the “rare and moveable feast” of an election. In other words, consulting official papers, census returns, election results and economic data and so forth are like visiting someone’s front parlor on Sunday: you’ll get a story, but only the most sanitized version. But by looking at something like the British Open it might be possible to get a sense of what Britain really thinks.

Anderson’s method, which teaches paying attention to small details, is after all rewarded by the very results of the 7 May election itself: reading the granular measurements of incomes, polling, and past results is what the official press did leading up to Election Day—just in time to receive the proverbial pie in the face. The Scottish Nationalist Party’s triumph is a classic example of an underdog’s victory—and it’s the definition of a David vs. Goliath battle that David’s win should be a surprise. Just so, when scholar Tom Nairn published The Break-up of Britain: Crisis and Neo-nationalism in 1977, few would have thought that Scottish nationalists would ever become the majority party in Scotland: at the time, Scottish electoral politics were dominated by the Labour Party, as they had been since the 1960s. Until this past election, Labour was still the top dog in Scottish politics—and then they weren’t.

Nevertheless, the idea that the SNP’s triumph might threaten the very integrity of the United Kingdom might, to the outsider, appear to be the apocalyptic hyperbole designed to sell newspapers. Scotland constitutes less than ten percent of the United Kingdom’s population; what happens there arguably can hardly affect much of the rest of the country. But that assumption would be false, as a scrutiny of the British Open might show.

From Anderson’s perspective, the fact that the golf tournament is far removed from the game of electoral politics is just what makes it worth examining—in a manner also suggestive of Arthur Conan Doyle’s greatest creation. Like the dog in “The Adventure of Silver Blaze”—the dog that, famously, didn’t bark—the silence of the R & A (the organization that has run the golf tournament since 2004), is after all a bit curious, even on its own terms. The R & A has a vested interest in maintaining the Act of Union that binds the United Kingdom together because the possibility of an independent Scotland presents, at minimum, a practical problem.

The group’s headquarters are in St. Andrews, first of all, but more importantly, of the nine golf courses in the Open Championship’s current “rota,” five lie north of Berwick-upon-Tweed: the Old Course at St. Andrews (the “Home of Golf), Muirfield, Royal Troon, Carnoustie, and the Ailsa Course at Turnberry, within sight of Ailsa Craig. But most of the Open’s fans lie south of the Tweed; logistically, if for no other reason, an independent Scotland would be a great complication for the R & A.

The R & A’s silence then is suggestive—at the very least, it reveals something about how how difficult it might be psychologically to think about an independent Scotland. For example, consider both the name of the tournament—the “Open Championship”—and how the winner of each year’s tournament is introduced following victory: the “champion golfer of the year.” Despite name of the tournament in America—the “British Open”—neither of these make any reference to Great Britain as a nation; the organizers of the golf tournament thus might appear to be philosophically opposed to nationalism.

In that view, nationalism is “the pathology of modern developmental history, as inescapable of ‘neurosis’ in the individual,” as Tom Nairn puts it. It’s the view that reads nationalism as a slap in the face to Enlightenment, which proclaims, as British academic Terry Eagleton says, “the abstract universal right of all to be free” regardless of the claims of nationality or other conceptual divisions of identity like class or race or gender. Hence, the name of the tournament and the title of the R & A’s champion could be a read as a sign that the R & A heroically refuses nationalism in the name of universal humanity.

Yet Anderson gives us reason to doubt that sanguine view. The name of the old “Union of Soviet Socialist Republics,” Anderson remarks for instance, billed itself as “the precursor” of an “internationalist order” because it refused to acknowledge nationality in its name—a style it shared with Britain’s current name. But where the Soviet Union’s name was meant to point to a post-nationalist future of a universal humanity, the name of the “United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland” is the name of a “prenational dynastic state.” Where the name of the Soviet Union bid towards a future beyond the nation-state, the name of the United Kingdom hearkens back before the nation-state.

The name in other words reflects the fact that Great Britain is ruled by an anachronistic form of government: a kingdom, a style of government virtually unique in the contemporary world. Whereas, as Benedict says, in “the modern conception, state sovereignty is fully, flatly, and evenly operative over each square centimetre of a legally demarcated territory,” a kingdom “revolves around a high centre”: the monarch, who may add or lose new territories as war and marriage might permit.

A kingdom’s borders are thus “open” to new territory in a way that a republic’s are not: Henry V, of Shakespeare’s famous play, ruled nearly as far east as Paris, and on a historical timescale it wasn’t that long ago that a resident of Calais was as much an “Englishman” as any Londoner. In those days, as Anderson says, “borders were porous and indistinct.” The “openness” of the Open may not therefore reflect a pious refusal of nationalism so much as it is a studied ignorance of nationalism’s terms—which is to say, it would reflect how most Englishmen (and, presumably, women) think about their country. The apparent universality of the name of the Open Championship may thus reflect more the atavistic qualities of the United Kingdom than a utopian vision of the future.

For the R & A to take a position regarding Scottish secession would require revisiting the name of the tournament, which would require rethinking the assumptions behind the name—and doing that would lead to a confrontation with the monarchy, because as Anderson demonstrates, the question of Scotland is necessarily a question of the monarchy. That is why, for example, he says that “[Tom] Nairn is certainly correct in describing the 1707 Act of Union between England and Scotland as a ‘patrician bargain.’” What Anderson means is that it was the “conception of a United Kingdom [that] was surely the crucial mediating element that made the deal possible”—in other words, only in a world where lands and peoples are no more than pieces on a chessboard can such deals be struck.

One has only to imagine Paris today selling Normandy to London to see how uniting England and Scotland would be “impossible,” as Nairn puts it, once “the age of democratic nationalism had arrived.” Many witnesses at the time testified to the Act of Union’s unpopularity with the Scottish people: one negotiator on the Scottish side—a pro-Union man to boot—wrote that he thought the Act was “contrary to the inclinations of at least three-fourths of the Kingdom.” Only under a monarchy could such a deal have been possible—again, another way to put the matter is to imagine the United States selling Louisiana back to France, or California back to Mexico.

It isn’t any wonder then why the R & A would refuse to bark; or to put it better, avoid discussing the matter. To discuss Scottish independence is to discuss how Scotland lost its independence, and to discuss that is necessarily to discuss the monarchy. To bring up one subject is to bring up, sooner or later, the other. Reversing the polarity, however, solves the problem of the “double event” of the 7 May general election: if Scottish nationalism threatens the monarchy by threatening the premises it relies upon, then why England simultaneously elected the most pro-aristocracy party isn’t much of a mystery—as Holmes remarks about coincidence in Sherlock, the most recent television adaptation of his adventures, the “universe is rarely so lazy.”

Hallow This Ground

“Country clubs and cemeteries are the biggest wasters of prime real estate!”
—Al Czervik (Rodney Dangerfield)
Caddyshack, 1980



As I write it’s been a month since the Ryder Cup—it’s Halloween in fact—and I’ve been thinking about the thirteenth hole. The back tee on the thirteenth hole on Medinah’s Course Three is about a hundred yards behind the most forward tee-box on the par-three hole, and perhaps fifteen feet higher; during the Cup, viewers often witnessed Michael Jordan lying on the grass next to that tee, watching the players send their shots soaring through the slot in the trees and out over Lake Khadijah where, for the first time, the golf ball is exposed to whatever wind is there. It’s one of the most photogenic spots on Medinah’s property: while the first tee is a popular spot, the reigning photographic champion of Medinah’s Course Three is the back tee on the thirteenth hole. There are, it seems, a number of people who think they know why.

The thirteenth, for those who haven’t been there, is a very long three-par hole: two hundred and fifty yards long, give or take, and the tee shot has to carry part of Medinah’s Lake Khadijah (named after Muhammad’s wife) in order to reach the green. Most amateurs are content to take a picture from the height, then climb down to a more comfortable elevation—their cameras, after all, usually have more chance of capturing the green than their clubs do. It’s at this point, as a writer named Steve Sailer might put it, where the Anglo-Irish writer Edmund Burke (chiefly remembered as being a member of the British Parliament not unfriendly to the American Revolution, who later was an enemy of the French one), comes in.

Burke, to those with uneasy educations, first came to prominence via a book about the distinction between the beautiful and what he called the sublime. In an essay entitled, “From Bauhaus to the Golf Course: The Rise, Fall, and Revival of Golf Course Architecture,” Sailer notes that Burke’s distinction fits golf courses quite well, because while for Burke the “beautiful is … meadows, valleys, slow moving streams, grassland intermingled with copses of trees, the whole English country estate shtick,” the “sublime is nature so magnificent that it induces the feeling of terror because it could kill you, such as by falling off a mountain or into a gorge.” Or at least, the golf course is “the mock sublime, where you are in danger of losing not your life, but your mis-hit golf ball into a water hazard or ravine” or such.

The thirteenth is a good example of the “mock sublime”; while it’s true that no one is likely to die by falling off the tee, it is true that a great many hopes have been dashed, or at least threatened, there. Sam Snead, who had four runner-up finishes in the US Open over his career, missed the green during the final round of the 1949 edition, made bogey—and missed a playoff with Cary Middlecoff by a stroke. Ben Crenshaw saw his chances to get into the playoff at the 1975 US Open dowsed in the lake. In 1999 Tiger Woods, like Snead fifty years before, missed the green in the final round and it led to a double bogie—though, while Tiger’s over-par score allowed Sergio Garcia’s dramatic shot from behind a tree on the sixteenth hole to matter, it didn’t end up costing him the tournament.

At any rate, at times I’ll find myself behind somebody’s iPhone taking a picture of the foursome on that tee, looking down towards the distant flag. People like Sailer are dissatisfied by answering the question, “Why?” with invocations of past disasters or the musings of 18th century philosophers. For Sailer and the rest it seems that a Harvard biologist has produced just the right balm for this intellectual itch. Sailer himself notes the source of that balm in his essay, but it’s also been mentioned by David Owen—author of The Chosen One (about Tiger Woods) and a writer for the New Yorker among other places—in his blog.

Owen has been reading the biologist Edward O. Wilson’s recent book, The Social Conquest of the Earth, and in it the esteemed Harvard sociobiologist claims that human beings desire three items in their surroundings: they “want to be on a height looking down, they prefer open savanna-like terrain with scattered trees and copses, and they want to be close to a body of water, such as a river, lake, or ocean.” The reason for these three desires is, Owen says that Wilson says, because of an “‘innate affiliation’ that humans feel with landscapes that resemble ‘those environments in which our species evolved over millions of years in Africa.’” An affiliation that, surely, is satisfied by the heights of the back tee on the thirteenth hole; QED.

All of it sounds quite tidy as an explanation. People who think like this, however, might consider Sam Snead’s remark at a major championship contested only three years before the contest at Medinah. As his train pulled into town for the 1946 Open Championship (the proper name for the British Open), Snead infamously remarked that St. Andrews’ Old Course—the one that’s had golfers on it since the fifteenth century—looked like “an old, abandoned golf course.” (Unlike Medinah three years later, and despite his remark, Snead won the tournament.) At first look, Snead’s comment sounds like the same kind of humorous remark made by the “hillbilly” who once asked his agent how his photo got into a New York paper “when I ain’t never been there.” (Snead said later that he was just pulling legs.) But what Snead said isn’t just that.

It’s also a marker of time’s passage: how the look of St. Andrews had, by the 1940s, stopped being synonymous with “golf course.” By then, “golf course” meant something different. Not long before, that is, Snead’s comment would not have been understandable. “The chosen home of golf, its ‘most loved abode,’” wrote the writer and artist Garden Grant Smith in The World of Golf in 1898, “is the links, or common land, which is found by the seashore.” As John Paul Newport wrote in the Wall Street Journal about St. Andrews in 2010, links courses were built on “coastal waste land used for golf initially because it was unsuitable for farming.” And what’s most noticeable, or perhaps rather unnoticeable, about links golf courses as opposed to other kinds of golf courses is just what links courses don’t have: trees.

If trees could grow on that land, in other words, Scotsmen would have farmed it. So no true links course has any trees on it, which is how all golf courses looked—until the end of the nineteenth century. The course whose building signaled that shift was Willie Park, Jr.’s design of Sunningdale’s “Old Course” (it wasn’t called the Old Course when it was opened, of course) in 1901. The construction of Sunningdale’s first course had such an impact in part because of who its designer was: in addition to winning the Open twice himself, in 1887 and 1889, Park was the son of Willie Park, Sr., who not only had won the first Open Championship ever held, at Prestwick in 1860, but then won it again three more times. Junior’s uncle, Mungo Park, who is not to be confused with the explorer of the same name, also won the Open, in 1874.

Whatever Park did, in other words, came pretty close to defining what golf was: imagine the kind of authority Gary Nicklaus would have if in addition to his dad’s victories, he’d won the US Open twice, and so did one of his brothers. Anyway, according to Wikipedia’s entry on Sunningdale Golf Club Park’s design was “set in a heathland area, with sandy subsoil amid mixed treed foliage,” and was “among the first successful courses located away from the seaside, as many people had thought at the time that turf would not grow well in such regions.” The success of Sunningdale and Park’s Huntercombe—also opened in 1901 and where, later, James Bond would own a 9 handicap—proved to the traditionalists that golf could be played away from the sea.

Park’s later designs, like Olympia Field’s North course, further demonstrated that golf courses could be designed with trees on them. In retrospect, of course, that move would appear inevitable: as Garden Grant Smith observed in 1898, “we cannot all live by the seaside, and as we must apparently all play golf, we must take it where and how we can.” If proximity to the ocean was necessary to the game, it would still be a curious Scottish custom and not a worldwide sport.

It’s hard to think, then, that somehow golf is popular because it replicates the look of a landscape that, surely, only a small percentage of human beings ever experienced: the landscape of some percentage of Africa’s vastness. Consider, for instance, the description offered in 1865 by a Scotsman named William Saunders about a project he was working on: “The disposition of trees and shrubs is such as will ultimately produce a considerable degree of landscape effect” by working together with the “spaces of lawn provided” to “form vistas … showing … prominent points.” The effect aimed for by Saunders, in other words, sounds similar to that described by Wilson: grassy lawns interrupted here and there by copses of trees, arranged so as to open up what Saunders calls a “pleasure ground effect.” Saunders’ project, in short, sounds very like a modern golf course—and support for Wilson’s theory.

Yet what Saunders was describing was not a new golf course, but rather the design for a new kind of park: the national cemetery at Gettysburg, built in the aftermath of the great battle. I found Saunders’ remarks contained in a book entitled Lincoln at Gettysburg, and the book’s author, Garry Wills, takes pains to trace the connections between what ultimately got constructed in that Pennsylvania town and its forebears. The American source for the design of the Gettysburg burial ground, Wills says, was a cemetery built outside of Boston in 1831. Called Mount Auburn, it was it seems a place so well-known in the nineteenth-century that it even introduced the word “cemetery”—a word whose origin is Greek—to American English.

Like that of its Pennsylvania progeny a generation later, Mount Auburn would consist of “shady groves in the neighborhood of murmuring streams and merry fountains,” as Justice Story of the United States Supreme Court would say in a speech at Mount Auburn’s opening. These new places were to be unlike the churchyard, the former place of American burials; rather than urban, these places would be rural: “an escape from the theological gloom of churchyards, a return to nature,” as Wills says.

Mount Auburn, in turn, had its genesis in Pére Lachaise, the cemetery in Paris now best known to Americans as the final resting place of Jim Morrison, leader of the American band the Doors. Opened in 1804, Pére Lachaise was meant to be an alternative to the crowded churchyards of Paris; “outside the precincts of the city,” as the place’s Wikipedia entry reads. Alexandre Brongniart, the cemetery’s architect, imagined “an English garden mingled with a contemplation place,” as one website describes it. And Pére Lachaise was meant to supersede the old churchyards in another way as well: “Every citizen has the right to be buried regardless of race or religion,” declared Napoleon Bonaparte on the occasion of the cemetery’s opening—a line with an especial resonance in the context of Gettysburg.

That resonance, in fact, might intimate that those who wish to trace golf’s attraction back to Africa have other motives in mind. “In the US,” writes David Givens—director of the Center for Nonverbal Studies—in Psychology Today, “according to Golf magazine, ninety-eight percent of CEOs play golf.” According to Givens, golf’s centrality to modern American business culture is by no means arbitrary. “Stalking through grassy fields in close-knit, face-to-face groups, sticks in hand,” Givens says, “business people enjoy the same concentration, competition, and camaraderie their ancestors once experienced in Africa.” In other words, golf is popular because it is a lot like hunting a wildebeest.

“On the geological time scale,” writes John McPhee in Annals of the Former World, “a human lifetime is reduced to a brevity that is too inhibiting to think about deep time”—sometimes human beings like to castigate themselves for not thinking sufficiently long term. But it’s also wise, perhaps, not to follow all leads down to the rabbit hole of deep time’s abyss: this notion of golf’s appeal doesn’t do a great deal to explain why the golf course only began to resemble the African plain—if it has—within the past century, nor does it particularly explain why golf courses should resemble nineteenth-century cemeteries.

To believe Wilson and his followers, that is, we would have to believe not only that golf courses are more like Kenya than they are like Pennsylvania, but also that somehow those infinitely tiny bits of plasma known DNA somehow contains within it memories of an African past, and that those bits somehow trump the ideas championed by Napoleon and Lincoln—and those ideas are, perhaps, at least as plausible as the idea that a player’s golf clubs, and not just his cell phone’s camera, can capture the green from the back tee at the thirteenth hole.

July Days

Other lands have their vitality in a few, a class, but we have it in the bulk of our people.

—Walt Whitman

And so it is July. The grass, so lush and green in April and May, has begun to brown over in spots, and everyone is, just now, realizing that the early season is over and they are, just now, about as good as they are going to get this season. And it’s dawned on some—not you, I hope—that this is probably about as good at this game as they ever will. For the professionals it has become make-or-break time, the time of year to put some serious money in the bank, or at least enough to keep their tour cards for another year, or at least get into the finals of Q-School, or second stage, or some kind of status on the Nationwide Tour, or something, just something to keep from having to go home again—home to that insurance job the brother-in-law’s been talking about, or that club pro job somebody promised once, “if it didn’t work out.” And so July is, for golf, not a lazy, happy time at all: it is a time of cruelty, and of victims piling up like the cracked shells of turtles beside a Florida highway.

July is also, by design or happenstance, the month of the Open Championship, or as we colonials like to call it, the British Open—which is, often, a championship of misfortune and sorrow, of too-proud Frenchmen, horrible bounces, and the heartbreak of old men allowed a brief glimpse of the glorious past … before that door is closed on them, wickedly and forever. The Masters is, of course, the tournament of hope, like the spring it heralds, and the U.S. Open, usually, is the tournament of the expected: it is a hard tournament, but the winner is nearly always the man who’s played the most consistently, so that it (mostly) feels like justice has been done by the end of it. But the Open is a tournament of darkness and mystery, and there’s hardly a year that goes by without someone wondering what might have been, if only …

At least some of that mystery has, in the past, come from the ignorance of we Americans—both the players themselves and we, the audience at home. An American watching the Open has always the uneasy sense that the spectacle on display is some different game that, coincidentally, has many of the same trappings and the same spelling as the familiar old game but is in fact something entirely other, something strange and uncanny. Why is that man using his putter—the flag stick isn’t even in the picture! Or, why hasn’t Tiger hit his driver in two days? And so on.

This year, however, some have the odd sense that we have already seen this tournament: the shot of the year, for instance, is probably Charl Schwartzel’s 120-foot chip-in on the first hole of the final round of the Masters—with a six-iron. What American player would even have thought of that? (Ask yourself: would you?) It was the kind of shot that Americans only see once a year, at the Open, but there it was at the course most Americans might think of as epitomizing the high-flying aerial American game: Augusta. (They’d be wrong about that, in one sense—because Augusta is actually receptive to a ground-game, but it’s true that the players who’ve dominated the Masters have been high-ball players.) And, to be sure, the U.S. Open was the coronation of a new king of European, and British, golf: Rory McIlroy.

So this year’s Open begins with, perhaps, a new sense of itself: the winner of the tournament is always introduced with the title, “the champion golfer of the year,” and if, in past decades, the words have always been imbued with some sense of irony (who ever thought Bobby Locke, as great as he was, was the match of Nelson or Hogan or Palmer?), there’s a notion on the march, now, that maybe those words are not just another relic of the nineteenth century, a token of past imperial splendor. More than a decade ago, Britain tried to re-invent, “re-brand” as the advertisers say, itself with the “Cool Britannia” label, acclaiming the election of Tony Blair’s New Labour Party as the final entombment of the old, class-bound, traditional England. Maybe it did and maybe it didn’t, but perhaps it’s true that the children of the ‘90s, including Rory McIlroy, really did grow up with a different sense of themselves and their possibilities, and that maybe—it’s impossible to know—that’s made a difference.

Almost certainly it’s made a difference in the game of golf: where once it was the Americans who came to Europe and sneered (Sam Snead, famously, first saw St. Andrews and thought he was looking at a pasture), now it’s the Europeans who seem self-confident, who look at the great American cathedrals of the game—Augusta, Pebble Beach—and view them as just another route to a paycheck. And possibly—in golf, at least—that’s what’s necessary to produce: that sense that all the world has just been born, and that you are the equal of anyone in it.

What’s astonishing, though maybe not as astonishing as some might like, is that traditionally that sort of sensibility has been the special province of Americans, not Europeans. It’s what George Orwell, that canny Englishman, meant when he said that what he admired about Walt Whitman, poet of America, was that Whitman really conveyed how, in what now might be a long-ago America, “Everyone had inside him, like a kind of core, the, knowledge that he could earn a decent living, and earn it without bootlicking.” Whitman himself defined freedom as the ability “to walk free and own no superior,” which is just the sort of sensibility that, it now seems, is more readily to hand on the far side of the Atlantic than on this.

Some time ago, the neoconservative David Brooks asserted that the difference between young African-Americans and young people of African descent in France (who were then rioting) was that African-Americans always had the option to go to college, whereas “in France the barriers to ascent are higher”—but the reality is, as the newspaper that published Brooks (The New York Times) was forced to admit, in fact social mobility “is not higher in the United States than in Britain or France.” The reality today, according to the social scientists that study such things, actually is that a young person with aspirations today is probably better off going to Berlin than to Los Angeles or New York or Chicago. And maybe that’s hard for Americans to hear, given that entire libraries are filled with stacks of books telling us that what makes us who we are is just that sense that anybody can be anything, the entire line of thought that is condensed in the old line that, in America, anybody can be president.

Yet while our present executive does, in some kind of 21st-century manner, exemplify the cliche, it’s also true that Rory McIlroy has probably seen more real political change in his lifetime than many Americans twice his age. It’s well-known, for instance, that to be an incumbent congressman in America is as near as it is possible to get to guaranteed employment outside the law or academia, while Rory witnessed, at the ripe age of 10, one of the most historic constitutional changes ever seen in the world: the “House of Lords Act of 1999,” which abolished the British aristocracy’s hereditary right to representation in Parliament. In other words, Rory saw what Washington and Jefferson and Adams and company put their lives and fortunes at risk to have a chance to see: the end of the nobility as a real political force in Britain. Not since the 1960s has anybody put forward an idea as monumental as that, but Britain in the 1990s not only talked about it—they acted on it. Young Americans, on the other hand, have simply watched as a mostly-moribund clique of liberals has tried to hang on to victories that were won by 1968, as the siege engines of the ravenously greedy have drawn in ever-tighter.

To say that the one has anything to do with the other (politics, golf) is, to be sure, just the sort of thing that isn’t done in America today—though just where the idea came from that there are things that are and aren’t done is a bit of a question—and anyway amounts to nothing when deciding who to bet on for the Open, which as I’ve mentioned is probably the hardest of the major championships to handicap because the rolls and folds of a links course—the only kind the Open is played on—can be so capricious. It’s unlikely that Rory McIlroy can follow up his victory in America with another in his “home” major—he hasn’t, for instance, played against serious competition since winning at Congressional. But if he can, in the seriousness and cruelty of July, he might say to the world that it is Europe—that “ancient bone-yard,” as Orwell called it—that is America now.