Very sensible men have declared that they were fully impressed at such a time with the conviction that it was the burning of the world.
—Frederick Law Olmstead
“Chicago In Distress”
9 Nov. 1871
“An October sort of city even in spring,” wrote the poet about Chicago. Perhaps that’s why the PGA of America came to Chicago in September, thus avoiding that month of apocalyptic fires and baserunners who forget to tag second. But as it happens, even the Ryder Cup team couldn’t escape the city’s aura by arriving a month early: the Americans still crashed-and-burned during the singles matches on the final day. Ascribing the American loss to “Chicago” is however a romantic kind of explanation—a better one might concern a distinction that golfers of all skill levels ought to think about: the difference between a bad shot and the wrong shot.
The conclusive match at this year’s Ryder Cup was probably that between James Furyk (ha!) and Sergio Garcia, the match that drew the European team level with that of the Americans. After winning the first five matches of the day, the Europeans had suffered setbacks at the hands of the two Johnsons, Dustin and Zach, who had slowed the European charge by winning their two matches. Had Furyk won his match, the American team would have held onto the lead, and since Jason Dufner ended up winning his match immediately afterwards, the United States would only have needed a half in either Steve Stricker’s or Tiger Woods’ matches to win the Cup.
Furyk was leading his match late, one up through 16, and it looked as though he had his match in hand when, in Furyk’s words, he misjudged the wind—it was “a little confusing to the players”—and ended up in the back bunker, where he chipped out and left himself “about a 12-footer straight uphill that I misread.” Furyk went on to say that “I heard that most players missed that putt out to the right today.” Furyk missed his putt by leaving it out to the right.
On the 18th Furyk made another series of miscues: first he hit his drive too far right—he commented later that he “was actually surprised it was in the bunker.” It’s a comment I find difficult to understand: if you know the hole, you know that the 18th tee calls for a draw shot, certainly not a fade, which is to say either that Furyk did not understand the hole (which seems unlikely) or that he completely mishit it. And that raises the question of why he did not understand why he was in the bunker: on a course like Medinah, any mistake of execution—which is essentially what Furyk admitted to—is bound to be punished.
Next, Furyk said that he hit a “very good” second shot, but that “the wind was probably a little bit more right-to-left than it was into [towards]” him and so he “was a little surprised to see [the shot] went as long as it [did].” From there, he said he hit his “first putt exactly how I wanted … but it just kept trickling out,” and his second putt “never took the break.” What each of these shots have in common, notice, is that they are mistakes of judgment, rather than execution: it wasn’t that Furyk hit bad shots, it’s that he hit the wrong shots.
That’s an important distinction to make for any golfer: anyone can hit a bad shot at any time (witness, for instance, Webb Simpson’s cold-shank on Medinah’s 8th hole of Sunday’s singles matches, which is as of this writing viewable at cbssports.com.) Bad shots are, after all, part of golf; as the British writer once wrote of the American Walter Hagen, “He makes more bad shots in a single season than Harry Vardon did from 1890 to 1914, but he beats more immaculate golfers because ‘three of those and one of them’ counts four and he knows it.” Hagen himself said that he expected to “make at least seven mistakes a round,” and so when he hit a bad it one it was “just one of the seven.” But wrong shots are avoidable.
Bad shots are avoidable because they depend not on the frailties of the human body (or, should one wish to extend the thought to other realms, to the physical world entirely) but on the powers of the human mind. In other words the brain, if it isn’t damaged or impaired in some way, ought to arrive at the correct decision if it is in possession of two things: information and time. Since Furyk was playing golf and not, say, ice hockey, we can say that the “time” dimension was not much of an issue for him. Thus, the mistakes Furyk made must have been due to having possession of bad or incomplete information.
It’s at this point that it becomes clear that Furyk’s loss, and that of the American team, was not due to Furyk’s decisions or those of any other player. If Furyk lost because he hit wrong shots, that is, the American side allowed that mistake to metastasize. While the matches were going on John Garrity of Sports Illustrated pointed out, as David Dusek of Golf.com paraphrased it afterwards, that “no one on the U.S. team communicated to the matches behind them that 18 was playing short”—as witness Phil Mickelson bombing his approach over the 18th green—“and that the putt coming back down the hill didn’t break.” Garrity himself later remarked that while he didn’t think much of “the whole ‘cult of the captain’ trend,” he would concede that captains “can lose a Ryder Cup.” “Surely,” he thought, “somebody was supposed to tell the later players how 18 was playing.” On the U.S. side, in short, there wasn’t a system to minimize errors of judgment by distributing, or sharing, information.
That’s a mistake that no individual player can shoulder, because it ultimately falls on the American captain Davis Love III. The golf press is fond of citing the “old saw” that the captains don’t hit any shots in the Ryder Cup. Yet only somebody who isn’t involved in hitting shots—somebody who can survey the whole course—can avoid the mistake observed by Garrity. As a Chicagoan could tell you, any cow can kick over a lantern. But as a Southerner like Love might tell you, only another kind of barnyard animal would not think to tell the neighbors about a barn ablaze.