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.”

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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.

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.

Pebble Beach Wins U.S. Open

Pebble Beach came to Open Sunday like your average American youth or recent winners of the Tour de France: paranoid, angry, and full of resentment. For two consecutive days the course took it in the teeth from Phil Mickelson, Dustin Johnson, and Tiger Woods, who each lit up the Monterey coast the first two days of the weekend like it was in Louisiana, not California. Winged Foot and Bethpage might have been sniggering somewhere about “Torrey-Way-North.” But the course came back on the last day, delivering roundhouse after roundhouse, and the U.S. Open ended up being more notable for the dogs that didn’t bark.

Johnson, who had looked like the favorite after Saturday, got it first. He went six-over through the fourth hole after a triple, a double, and a bogey on holes two through four. Mickelson quietly snuck out of the picture after a birdie on the first hole—which he never duplicated the rest of the way. And Tiger bogey half the front nine to take himself out of contention shortly after the turn. This isn’t even to talk about Ernie Els or Davis Love or any of the others close to the lead—none of whom jumped out to claim the title when the leaders stumbled.

Part of Pebble’s mystique has been the name players who have won its Opens: Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson, and Tiger Woods (Tom Kite, who won in ‘92, tends to get left out of the discussion). Certainly one way to judge golf courses is by the players that win there. But for every Ben Hogan there is a Jack Fleck, and there needs to be some independent means of judging. History cannot be everything.

That brings me around to something I’ve been promising for a while now: a report on Medinah’s grand re-opening of Course #3 in preparation for the next Ryder Cup in America, coming in 2012. I’m going to leave out all the nonsense that surrounded the opening itself and get right to the golf course. And if there is a word that describes the new-look #3, it is this: “Florida.”

Mostly this is due to the brand-new 15th hole, which actually looks a bit like it could be a hole on that other course I have been describing this spring, Chicago Highlands. It’s very open, unlike Medinah’s usual tree-induced claustrophobia. Water runs up the right side, just as it does on Chicago Highland’s hole 11, which is a specimen of “Cape” hole. Unlike a Cape hole, however, the water on Medinah’s 15th is there not so much to disturb the tee shot—though it will—as to guard the reverse-Redan style green.

The idea is to require a player rolling the ball along the ground to hit a left-to-right shot, while the better player attacking from the air comes into the green right-to-left. This is all well and good and according to contemporary golf architecture manuals. It even fits in with many of Medinah’s other holes, which often require a tee shot with one shape and an approach shot with the opposite shape. Nonetheless, there’s something off about this hole.

Geoff Shackelford, the golf writer and architect, noted in a post about Medinah’s re-do that he’s “having a hard time envisioning a lake looking natural up there.” “Hopefully,” he goes on to say, “it’ll have a fountain.” Well, it doesn’t—yet—but it does make the golf course look like every course the tour plays in January, February and March. The only thing missing, besides the fountain, is a car from the title sponsor sitting in the middle of the pond.

There is one concession to tradition about the hole: there aren’t any yardage markers as yet. I presume that will shortly be rectified, but there is something charming about simply eyeballing your approach. Also, unlike virtually every other hole at Medinah, it is possible to run a shot up to the hole rather than requiring a high-flying long iron. It is possible that it will turn out to be a great addition to the golf course: it does seem to have potential for drama, particularly given the match-play format of the Ryder Cup. The sort of drama that didn’t happen at this year’s U.S. Open.