Miracle—Or Meltdown?—At Medinah

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”
The Nation
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.

Salmonds Swims Upstream As Ryder Cup Slips Across Pond!

Al: Why can’t I go left through those trees, up that hill, over that bunker, and onto the green?
Me: Physics.
Medinah Country Club, 1 Oct. 2012

“So you’re saying there’s no route to get there in three,” Al said as we stood in the trees right of the seventh fairway. “Yes,” I replied, “that’s what I’m saying.” “That’s pretty pessimistic” he said.
I told him I’m part Scot.
“We’re all optimists now,” he said. “That’s all in the past.” The stereotype of the dour Scot, he meant, was dead and gone, and Scotland looks forward to a new future, an optimism that, perhaps, is more reflective of a European than American mindset nowadays—and some might think that that’s why it’s Europe, rather than America, that’s got the Ryder Cup.

Scotland’s future is already mapped by my golfer, who was (and still is) Alex Salmond, the First Minister of Scotland and Leader of the Scottish Nationalist Party. He was playing at Medinah on the day after the Ryder Cup ended, as part of tourism blitzkrieg his government was advancing to promote the next Ryder Cup, which will be held at Gleneagles in 2014. “Do you agree,” Salmond’s government wants to ask the Scots in that same autumn of 2014, “that Scotland should become an independent country?” Salmond’s ambition is to become the first Prime Minister of an independent Scotland. Independence is, he said, something that’s going to happen.

It might be a surprise to some Americans that such a question could be asked at all, given that Scotland has been an integral part of the United Kingdom (is, in fact, one reason why Great Britain is referred to as a “United Kingdom” at all), as a practical matter, since the accession of James I to the English crown in 1603. The last time, until recently, the matter was even in dispute was in the rebellion of 1745—“the ’45”—commemorated by Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson’s novels, like Waverly and Kidnapped.

In reality, the Scots have had a kind of home rule since 1999, when a Scottish Parliament took its seat in Edinburgh at Holyrood for the first time since the Parliament of Scotland merged with the Parliament of England to form the Parliament of Great Britain at Westminster in London in 1707. Three hundred years later, in 1997, the Scots voted to take back command of their own future in a referendum whose success Salmond is trying to recapture.

Regardless of whether it’s successful or not, the campaign has gotten great numbers of Scots to think about their future, which is probably a good thing. And it has also gotten very many other residents of those islands north and west of France to think about theirs too, as witness the contrary campaign put together by the supporters of the Acts of Union and the Westminster Parliament, who use the tagline “Better Together!” That campaign was something of a muted—at least for viewers on this side of the Atlantic—narrative thread for the Olympic Games held in London this past summer, as each British medal, within the islands, became in effect an argument for the status quo.

The argument made the Better Together! people is the same one that is always made by centralizers, going back before even the examples of Abraham Lincoln, in America, and Bismarck, in Germany. On the Better Together! website, one version of the argument is put by “Mary from Glasgow”: “When the bank we have our mortgage with was going under the whole of the UK bailed us out. Geordies, Scousers, Cockneys, Brummies, and Scots taxpayers: we were there for each other.” The greater power wielded by larger concentrations of people, in other words, enable more and better results for everyone—which would seem to put the Better Together! people, at least from an American perspective, on a footing with liberals like FDR or LBJ, people who wanted to use the massive power of the U.S. federal government to do good.

Yet it’s Yes Scotland, the outreach program of the Nationalists and Better Together!’s opposition, that wants to sell the idea of independence on the basis of reform. “Do we want,” says Yes Scotland’s website, “to be a nation that for the first time tries properly to get to grips with the persistent poverty that still blights Scotland, or one where economic policy is set by the financial institutions that got bailed out when their run of luck ran out?” And “Do we want a policy on immigration and asylum which is limited by the prejudices of the mid-market London media, or do we want to seize the economic and social benefits that immigration brings?” And “an independent Scotland could … claim the economic opportunities of a major shift to renewable [energies].” The argument for independence, in other words, is that it would allow for a quicker, or more direct, pace of change than afforded by the status quo.

There aren’t, of course, any easy comparisons between European and American conditions: Scotland’s call for independence has a rough comparison to the call of some American conservatives for “states’ rights,” a call that’s traditionally been associated, with good reason, with the most backward and retrogressive policies. Reading Yes Scotland is like reading the manifesto of an organization that demanded the secession of Alabama and Mississippi because it would advance the cause of African-American human rights. Yet what’s interesting about examining both sides’ arguments is that both sides advance their agendas in light of what would be best for the community at large.

In that sense, the old anecdote about the difference between the European and American Ryder Cup teams—that the one needed one table for twelve guys, and the other needed twelve tables—takes on something of a new meaning. It’s certainly clear, that is, that the American squad suffered from a lack of teamwork and direction, from the nearly complete failure of the four captain’s picks (Furyk, Snedecker, Stricker, and Dustin Johnson; only Johnson had a winning record) to the strange inability of the American team to relay the fact that Medinah’s 18th hole was playing short on Sunday.

That last is perhaps the most significant: traditionally, the American team has done poorly in the “team” aspects of the Ryder Cup—the alternate-shot and better-ball formats—and much better in the singles matches on the final day. Ostensibly, that’s because of the American insistence on individualism as opposed to Europe’s brand of collectivism. But in this Ryder Cup, it was Europe that did poorly in the “team” matches, losing 10-6 after the first two days. Yet they dominated in the singles, taking the first five matches of the final day. Those losses were arguably because the U.S. captain, Davis Love, failed to properly order his golfers—Bubba Watson vs. Luke Donald? Who thought that would go well?—which is to say, again, that poor leadership was to blame. Since Love effectively said that he was basically just letting his players do what they want, Johnny Miller apparently pointed out that that wasn’t leadership at all.

Davis is, as I’ve pointed out, a “true Southern gentleman” and from the very area of the country (the Low Country of South Carolina and Georgia) that invented the doctrine of “states’ rights,” so perhaps it isn’t surprising that he ought to be so laissez-faire about his captaincy. But it’s worth noting the distinction to be made between “states’ rights” and what (some of) the Scots are doing: “states’ rights” is usually a means of avoiding leadership, while what the Scots seek to promote is, from their perspective, precisely to seize leadership.

It’s worth noting in this connection, perhaps, that in 1320 the Scots issued the Declaration of Arbroath, which was the first declaration of independence in the world. “As long as but a hundred of us remain alive,” it reads, “never will we on any conditions be brought under English rule. It is in truth not for glory, nor riches, nor honours, that we are fighting, but for freedom – for that alone, which no honest man gives up but with life itself.” In that document, for the first time in world history, is the principle that sovereignty derives from the governed, and not from the governors, expounded. Which, as it happens, was similar to another argument being advanced around the same time, by one William of Ockham.

William, a Franciscan monk, was writing then about how the Pope’s power ultimately derived from the Church, and not the other way around. It’s that same William who wrote that “nothing ought to be posited without a reason given, unless it is self-evident or known by experience,” which is also known today as Occam’s Razor. Which, you might also know, is about how to find the shortest route between two points. It used to be Americans who thought that way, you might think. Alex Salmond, and the European Ryder Cup team, seem to argue differently.

So Quickly

September has come back,
Again …
So quickly

“When September Arrives, Again”
Lawrence S. Pertillar




Nobody, so far as I could tell, took it over the corner on the sixteenth hole on Tuesday, though the wind was blowing hard from the southwest. The sixteenth is also known, at least to those of us who were there, as Sergio’s hole, because of the shot Sergio Garcia hit at the 1999 PGA Championship, when he missed a tree-root, hit his ball—with his eyes closed—and ran up the hill to follow it. It may have been the last moment of pure joy Sergio ever experienced, as the years—and the missed putts—seem to have weighed heavier and heavier on him. But Sergio’s old role, as spark-plug of the European players, seems to have been passed down, as to watch Rory McIlroy today was to see the kind of exhilaration that’s been missing from golf since Sergio took that shot.

I went to the Ryder Cup at Medinah today for two reasons, the first being to take my mom. The other, however, was more purposeful: to see McIlroy. I saw the 1999 PGA and what I remember most about it, aside from seeing Tiger hole out a 280-yard three-wood shot on the range before Saturday’s round, was just hearing the sound the ball made coming off Tiger’s club that year. It didn’t make, or didn’t quite make, the same sound when Tiger returned in 2006: in 1999, his shots sounded like a funeral salute by the USS Missouri followed by the sound of a Saturn V rocket lifting off. The only player whose shots made anything like the same sound that year was Sergio.

I wanted to know if McIlroy’s shots made the same sound, and though, because of the logistical difficulties of negotiating Medinah’s back nine in traffic, I only really got to seem him play one hole—the fourteenth—it was enough. He hit a second shot out of the rough on that hole that made The Sound, a sound that no one else’s golf ball made—and that I haven’t heard since 1999, during the tournament that began Tiger’s superhuman annus mirabilis from that late summer until the spring following the next year. Still, neither McIlroy nor anybody else took over the corner on sixteen, the shot I’ve waiting all season for someone to hit.

Over the winter the crew took out a bunch of trees all over the golf course, and a lot of them were on the inside of sixteen’s dogleg left: there’s now an open area there that used be arboreally enclosed. And with a following wind I thought that, particularly during a practice round, somebody might try it, even if it meant some risk to spectators. But nobody dared. And Tiger had long since left the golf course before his foursome—the teams practiced in foursomes today—reached the sixteenth hole. So I could not tell if Tiger’s golf ball still made the same sound, or how it compared to Rory’s sound.

Which is unfortunate, because almost certainly the story of this Ryder Cup is going to be Tiger vs. Rory, no matter if they end up playing against each other in singles or not (and almost certainly they must, as no one will accept anything else). And that itself begins another chapter in the history of this tournament: a chapter with especial meaning if one takes the Ryder Cup as a metonymy—and as George Orwell once suggested, there isn’t any meaning to athletic competition if we don’t—for some larger story.

“The 1991 Ryder Cup,” begins Curt Sampson’s latest book excerpt in Golf this month, “began in 1985.” That was the year that the European squad—which had been the Great Britain & Ireland side until 1979, and before that simply the British team—beat the Americans at the Belfry, in England. It was the first time the team from the right-hand side of the Atlantic had won since 1957, when the Welsh captain, Dai Rees, and his squad had held off the Americans at Lindrick. And that occasion had itself been the first time the accented team had won since before the Second World War.

“When the first wave of tough young American pros, steeled in the caddie yards, started winning in the late twenties,” Sampson writes, “the game was changed forever.” In those years, one might say, the narrative line was that of the upstart Yanks, the former colonials, come to repay the imperialists. And, for the most part, the “chivalrous but overwhelmed Brits” acted their role: dutifully laying down before the American firepower every two years just as, during the Second World War, the Brits seceded place before the American commanders.

Yet what Rory’s new accession to the world #1 position seems to imply that a new generation of people from the islands to the northwest of the European continent have no memories of the Blitz and rationing, or the strums of Mississippi-born, Chicago-bred Negros on electric guitars. And that, for Europe at last, the long legacy of a century’s battles against totalitarianisms of one kind or another, is over. If the long darkness of the Ryder Cup, as seen from the east side of the sea, mirrored Europe’s own eclipse during the Cold War, in other words, it seems that a new day is dawning.

All of which seems to imply that it is now the United States that plays the role once played by imperial Britain: a fading power, still august in its dotage but whose day is slowly receding. It’s an image that I suppose a great many people, even aside from European golfers, might like to conjure. Yet I happened to watch Bill Clinton on the Daily Show the other day, and he made a point young Rory and his fans—and, perhaps, others with more sinister thoughts— might like to contemplate.

People pessimistic about America, the former president pointed out, ought to know that, in two decades, America will be younger, in a demographic sense, than Europe. It will also be younger than Japan. And also (perhaps more astonishingly)—because of the one-child policy and a complete lack of immigration—America will be younger than China. Which is to say that, even if the next Tiger happens to have been born in Northern Ireland—which hasn’t yet been proven—it may be more likely than not that the next Rory will be born in America. Though, it may be, he will arrive—like the wind on Tuesday—from the southwest, and his surname be not dissimilar from, say, Garcia.

Spanish Lessons

Q. Would you use a local caddie at Medinah?

SERGIO GARCIA: No. I’ll see who I use.
Sergio Garcia at the Barclays, 25 August 2012


Sergio Garcia, whose earliest professional memories of major championship golf are bound up with Medinah Country Club and the 1999 PGA (he shot a course-record on Saturday, hit a shot that people still talk about on Sunday, and battled Tiger all the way to the last hole), took a local caddie at the Wyndham two weeks ago—and won. This week, at the Barclays at Bethpage, he took his friend Wayne Richardson, who usually works for CBS Sports—and finished third after leading through 54 holes. Naturally, the press corps asked him about his future looper plans, including whether he would use a local caddie for the Ryder Cup at Medinah. Sergio demurred, but the fact that he was asked the question at all simply astonished me—and inspired a bit of fancy. So, let’s say some kind of miracle happened (which it won’t, for innumerable reasons) …

The first thing that a caddie needs to know about his player is how far the player hits the ball with all of his clubs, and as it happens Golf magazine has a feature called “What’s In My Bag?” that not only tells you what clubs are in a player’s bag, but also how far he hits each one. Unfortunately, Sergio does not seem to have a relationship with Golf, or at least he hasn’t been a subject for that column before so far as I can tell. What my research found is that Sergio’s distances have been a matter of debate on golfwrx.com, a website for jesus-these-people-are-nerdy-even-for-me golf wonks, for years. Even back in 2008, as it happens also at the Barclays, the golfwrx people were talking about how the television announcers were saying Garcia didn’t carry a three-iron, as he hit his four-iron 250 yards. (See this page: http://www.golfwrx.com/forums/topic/188848-sergio-garcia-no-3-iron-whats-in-his-bag-at-barclays/). Which is, obviously, absurd.

On first hearing such a thing, I’d say that the amateur’s reaction is “What?” But there are reasons Sergio might actually hit a four-iron that far, including the fact that a lot of people wouldn’t recognize what he’s hitting as a four-iron. Most tour players’ clubs are bent a few degrees flatter, meaning that a tour pro’s seven-iron likely has a loft closer to the amateur’s six-iron—and since most amateur clubs these days have less loft than clubs did even ten years ago, Sergio’s four-iron might be pushing the loft of, say, Tom Watson’s two-iron in 1977.

The other reason is that Sergio’s swing involves what’s called “de-lofting” the clubface at impact. In other words, his hands are so far in front of the ball when the club makes contact (with said ball) that the effective loft of the club might be as much as a club more. When Sergio hits his ball, that is, a seven-iron has effectively become a six-iron, and so on. It’s possible to watch videos of Sergio’s swings on YouTube and other places, so if you feel the need to check this out, go ahead and I’ll wait.

If you’re back (or never left—I usually just keep reading when websites encourage those kinds of jumps), maybe we can proceed. What I resolved to do, in the absence of any better information, is find out where Sergio ranks in driver distance, find a comparable player whose iron distances are known, and kind of work from there. Clearly, there’s a lot of give in that sort of exercise, but this is all fantastical anyway so what the hell.

Sergio is, as of this writing, tied for 74th on the PGATour’s official stats for driving distances, which as it happens is not that far from Ricky Barnes, who’s tied for 78th. Barnes, as it also happens, has been featured in Golf’s “What’s In My Bag?” column, so for the purposes of what follows I’ll be roughly using Barnes’ distances to stand in for Sergio’s. All caveats apply, and all mistakes are, obviously, mine. In a sense I’ll be caddieing for a kind of Barney Garcia monster, but it’s also true that I’ve seen both Barnes and Garcia play in person, and while nobody’d ever mistake one for the other, I’ll try to have an idea where I’m starting to go seriously adrift—and remember, the Ryder Cup is match play, which means that complete precision isn’t quite necessary.

To begin then—and only to begin, because I’m not so silly as to try to cover the whole course here since reading anything that long would lead to my readers to start demanding caddie fees themselves—with Course Three’s first hole. The first is the one that, in the old joke we like to tell guests—after they’ve hit their fourth shot into some kind of proximity to the green, then chipped up and three-putted—is the easiest one on the course. According to Sergio’s driving distance stats, he averages about 290 yards off the tee. (This is surely nonsense, because even in 1999 I saw him hit a drive that went at least 360 yards on Course Three’s twelfth hole, and during that tournament he averaged about 315 yards off the tee in the first round.) But let’s say Sergio is conservative.

The first hole is only 435 yards or so from the very back, so that Serge—we’re already on a nickname basis—only needs 280 or so off the tee to get it to the 150 yard marker: Ricky Barnes hits his nine-iron about that far, as do most tour pros these days, so that’s about all any of them need to go these days. Past the 150 marker is a downslope, so a good drive that’s further than that will probably end up inside a hundred yards—with the caveat that it’s on a downslope, and it’s harder to hit the ball square on a downslope. The choice Serge will face here then is: try to intimidate his opponent by bombing one down the hill (and risk getting a weird lie), or laying up to a reasonable distance, then sticking the second shot close. What choice he makes on the very first tee, in other words, will say a lot about what Sergio thinks of his opponent’s abilities.

The second hole at Medinah is one Sergio’s had some history on: he holed out a chip there in 1999 for a seemingly-impossible birdie during his opening 66, which set the course record (until Skip Kendall fired a 65 the next day). The second will measure around 190 yards from the back tees during the Ryder Cup, so Serge will probably want to hit a seven-iron (Ricky Barnes hits his seven 180, but Phil Mickelson hits his 190; Serge is probably closer to Phil than to Ricky). But although September is usually fairly mild when it comes to wind speed in the Windy City, that average is weighted.

According to Weatherspark.com, in Chicago “the highest average wind speed … occurs around September 29, at which time the average daily maximum wind speed is 16 mph.” That’s a pretty considerable number, at least for golf; it would mean that Serge would have to hit at least another club to be sure of carrying the water that fronts the hole. Most likely, that wind would be out of the south or west (each has a 17 percent chance, according to Weatherspark), which on the second hole means it would be coming from the player’s right; that would mean that Serge would probably want to hit a left-to-right cut shot, which would also have the benefit of holding the somewhat-shallow green better. The downside is that cut shots usually don’t go as far, meaning that Garce (we are now being slightly creative with the nicknames) might have to club up even more, possibly to as much as a five-iron.

Still, Sergio’s length would probably be to his advantage over nearly anyone on the U.S. squad, which would mean that he’d have the chance to send a really dominating message to his opponent on the first two holes: a huge drive on the first hole, followed by a soaring iron shot to the second green, might be enough to win him the first two holes by themselves. Which would certainly help the Spaniard out, since Sergio isn’t known for his putting prowess—though he’s apparently putting better: he’s ranked 20th this year in the new putting stat, “Strokes Gained,” which measures how many shots a golfer has gained (or lost) against the field each week on the greens.

That brings us to where I might really be able to help Sergio, which is on Medinah’s greens. I don’t mean to boast, but there isn’t anyone on the planet who can read those greens better than I can, and there are a few spots on the first two greens where experience might actually matter even against guys who read greens every week with hundreds of thousands of dollars on the line. Both of the first two of Course Three’s greens have hidden breaks: the first has a mound towards its front that can make putts go the opposite way to where they might appear to want to go, while the second, notoriously, usually breaks away from the water to the green’s front. With good reads, Sergio could easily go birdie-birdie to open his match—and leave the second green with a two-up lead.

I am sure that all of the caddies for the Ryder Cup will see these breaks early in the practice round, but sometimes it’s possible to miss something in the heat of competition, and maybe it’s worth something to have somebody who can say—with authority—precisely the way the greens will behave. If I really did have anything to offer Sergio, or anybody else on the Ryder Cup team, it would be that I suppose. There are some places on those greens that I’ve seen even professionals misread badly; it’s possible, I suppose, that I might be able to help out in that dimension at least. And it might help Sergio—who ended up losing the Barclays to Nick Watney this afternoon—even more. When it was all over, Watney said this: “I made more putts than I made all year.”

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.”

Games of Consequence and Rules of Three

… books of a large design, shadowing the complexity of that game of consequences to which we all sit down, the hanger-back not least … 
—Robert Louis Stevenson

I haven’t seen Medinah’s Course 3 for a week, though the last I saw of it the course wasn’t looking good. The fairways began showing the same sort of thinning and browning that showed up last year about this time, and the greens also turned brown in spots. They are ominous signs, though it’s also true that by late September last year most of the wear and tear had disappeared, which I’m sure is what the PGA of America is hoping will happen by this year’s Ryder Cup. Still, the hot and humid weather has had a more personal effect on me: it’s an indirect reason why I haven’t seen it lately, as I violated one of caddying’s cardinal rules: the one about shutting up.

I was assigned that day to a group composed of two foursomes, each led by a member, going out on consecutive tee times. Each of the members was, it seems, doing a favor for another man, not a member, who was bringing out six guests to play Course 3. This isn’t entirely uncommon for Medinah, which is often the site of such mini-outings. The problem, from the point of view of the caddies, is that when such groups reach the tee they can be the site of rather nasty scrums, as each caddie struggles to identify a player to work for based on nothing more than a view of the bags available and (perhaps) a quick glance at the players—trying to gauge which of them is likeliest to part with the biggest side-tip, or slip, as we term it.

Usually, when I approach a foursome, I try to ask the member involved who he would like me to work for, whether it be for himself or perhaps some favored guest or other. Maybe it’s the best player; maybe it’s the guest the member wants to have the best service. Most of the members already know me, so they’re happy to direct me. But in this case the member didn’t know any of the guests, so he directed me towards the man in charge of the outing—who didn’t really understand what I was asking him.

That man did take me around to a player who hadn’t played Medinah before and wanted to take pictures of himself standing in front of the clubhouse and so on before setting out. I took the guy’s camera and positioned him in the best spots—but, unfortunately, I didn’t take the precaution of grabbing his bag first. That was a bad decision.

When we got around to getting the guy’s bag, another caddie had already taken hold of it. Now, most of the caddies at Medinah respect me, if nothing else because of my long tenure at the place. This particular caddie, however, doesn’t—or at least, doesn’t show it. Perhaps it’s because of some natural male competitiveness, or just some kind of machismo. Alternately—and I don’t doubt this has played a role—, I’ve criticized the guy before for his work ethic, or lack of one, both to his face and to our superiors. My complaints, however, have largely fallen on deaf ears (though it’s true that, were there any disciplinary action taken, it’s unlikely anyone would have told me about it.) All of which sounds, I’d admit, like beating-around-the-bush, but it’s hard to get at the point without wasting your time recounting four or five anecdotes that would take up far more time than I’d like to spend. The bottom-line is that I don’t like this guy, and he doesn’t like me.

Anyway, I try to tell him that he should give me the bag, due to the aforementioned photo-taking and conversation, but he basically ignores me, which leads to some harsh words before the guy essentially sprints down the fairway to escape me. I end up taking the bag of the last guest to arrive. The guest I took the pictures with originally, as it happens, is in the first group to tee off, and as I’m standing there on the tee he approaches me to say something apologetic about what happened. I’m pretty mad at this point—though not at the guest—and it’s what I said next that led to the problem: “Maybe you could have been more assertive, sir.”

Now, as I’ve said, the guy hasn’t been to Medinah before and probably had no experience with caddies whatever, not to speak of what to do when loopers are fighting over his bag, and he begins to say essentially that when somebody points out it’s his turn to tee off and he returns to the purpose he came to Medinah about. Which, I thought, was the end of that—in the category of “Things Uttered In Anger” I hardly thought what I said really qualified as actually worth reviewing. But in that—clearly I haven’t watched enough “Downton Abbey” or other PBS shows designed to instruct on proper means of deference—I was wrong.

I had pulled third in the next day’s lottery, which I was quite happy about as it meant that I most certainly would work—it had been rather a question since the imposition, since the beginning of July, of restricted tee times designed to protect the course, which had also the effect of reducing the number of loops possible. An hour or two had passed as I waited to be assigned when, suddenly, the door separating the caddie yard from caddiemaster’s office flew open, and there was my boss. Obviously, he was upset. He repeated the outlines of the narrative I’ve just related, which I couldn’t deny, at the end of which he just said something to the purpose of taking a couple of weeks off. Which, up to now, is what I’ve done. At least from Medinah. I’ve been going to Butler instead. Don’t tell anyone; I’m far too polite to tell my readers (such as they are) to shut up about it.

Going Deep at Medinah

The Chicago Sun-Times—cadet-branch descendent of my great-uncle’s newspaper, the Chicago Daily News—had an article the other day on Ryder Cup team captain Davis Love’s views on the proper length of the rough at Medinah: he expects his team to be full of long-hitting bombers “so it would probably be to our benefit not to have really deep rough.” But the length of the rough isn’t one of the most important of the decisions Love will have to make between now and the September matches; the most important is who Davis will choose to fill the four captain’s picks allotted him. I think he ought to listen to what the other players say.

In Golf Is Not a Game of Perfect, Bob Rotella writes that “the kind of memory that promotes good shotmaking” is “a short-term memory for failure and a long-term memory for success.” In other words, a golfer needs to be able to flush out the last shot and move on to the next without a fear. But this is difficult to do, as a study of the PGA Tour may have demonstrated a few years ago: pro golfers are more likely to make a par putt than a birdie putt from the same distance. Devin Pope and Maurice Schweitzer, of the Wharton School, found that the “tendency to miss birdie putts more often existed regardless of the player’s general putting or overall skill; round or hole number; putt length; position with respect to the lead or cut; and more,” according to the New York Times.

The purpose of the paper was to discover more evidence for the notion that human beings are, to use the technical term, “loss averse”: people will go to greater lengths to avoid a loss than they are to reap a gain. Or as the Times puts it, human beings have a “psychological preference to avoid a perceived penalty (losing a stroke relative to par) rather than go for a perceived gain (gaining a stroke).” Human beings are fundamentally pre-disposed to remember failures and pain than they are to remember successes and pleasures; hence, we will do virtually anything to avoid losing but not quite so much to achieve a win—even if, as is the case on tour, birdies are actually more valuable than pars, and even more valuable than bogies are hurtful.

“Given that players typically attempt nine birdie putts per round,” the Times says “this [effect] cost each golfer about one stroke per tournament—which can translate to hundreds of thousands of dollars in prize money.” Or as Pope said, “Even experienced professionals playing for high stakes are not rational”: every stroke counts the same, so presumably tour pros should spend just the same effort on birdie putts they do on par putts, though they demonstrably do not. What that suggests, however, is a strategy Davis Love might employ in seeking to complete his team.

What he needs, in other words, might be players completely without care, who’ll fire a birdie putt with the same gusto they might a par putt. Where could such players be found? I’d suggest that, if you were looking for Americans with a proven ability to ignore the past—though maybe you wouldn’t need to look much further than that—you might go looking for a pool of people used to ignoring potential setbacks in favor of potential gains. They wouldn’t be concerned with possible negative consequences to their actions so much as the possible positive ones. It so happens that there might be a pool of such people in, quite literally, Davis’ backyard—if one cares to look.

Obviously, identifying such a pool would depend on the criteria used; Fox Butterfield, in his All God’s Children: The Bosket Family and the American Tradition of Violence, has perhaps given us one. “There is no one here but carries arms under his clothes,” Alexis de Toqueville recorded an Alabama lawyer telling him in his diary during the travels that produced Democracy in America: an incident cited by Butterfield. Later, in 1880, a correspondent for the Cincinnati Commercial named H.V. Redfield, “put together the first quantitative study of the subject,” Butterfield tells us, which found that homicide rates were perhaps a hundred times greater in the South. In the early 1930s, the first federal study of homicide data found that “the ten states with the highest murder rates were all Southern or border states.” (Compare: “Between June 1849 and June 1850, there was only one recorded murder in [Illinois’] thirty-two northernmost counties.”) Redfield thus became one of the first to argue that “the South had produced a culture of violence.”

It could be argued, so to say, that perhaps it is no accident that if any region of the nation is overrepresented on the PGA Tour, it’s the South—and that those reasons go beyond reliable access to golf-friendly weather. Maybe, in order to play good golf, it’s necessary to be —well, one hesitates to use the word sociopathic—a bit more heedless, a bit more reckless. And maybe Southerners live in a world not quite so unforgiving towards those with a bit of a wild streak in them: perhaps unsurprisingly, since Southerners live in a landscape constructed with the help of one of the worst of human crimes, the one finally ended in 1865.

Maybe this is why the casual golf fan is always being surprised by figures with names like “Webb Simpson,” names that wouldn’t seem out of place were they from deep in Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County or minor characters in To Kill a Mockingbird. Regardless, it does suggest a strategy for Davis when he’s selecting the members of his team: all things being equal, pick the Southerner. He might be completely irrational, but that’s not a disqualification for golf. All that Davis has to do to find his team, in other words, is listen for the accent.

The Vanity of Art: Tom Doak Vs. Medinah

… why hath thy queen
Summon’d me hither, to this short-grass’d green?

The Tempest IV, i

Looping for one of the incoming officers at Medinah about a month ago, I was told that Tom Doak had been selected to be the architect for a renovation of Medinah’s Course 1—Course 3’s older, but far-less heralded, brother. The Ryder Cup, coming next year, will use a lot of Course 1’s terrain for parking lots, staging areas, and corporate tents, which means the course will be torn up—a perfect opportunity to use that repair work to rethink the entire golf course. The redesign idea is thus no surprise. What is a surprise, however, is using Doak: he’s on record as disparaging Medinah, both in his (infamous) Confidential Guide to Golf Courses (which ripped on lots of famous old courses) and later. Doak is a wild card, and by picking him Medinah is taking a roll of the dice—not least because Course 1, as it now stands, is a paradigmatic example of everything Doak hates in golf architecture.

That makes it like its brother course, Course 3, which has always stood, to Doak, as a pinnacle of bad golf architecture. Here is Doak, for instance, in an interview with Golf Digest in October of 2005: “The most overrated courses,” he said, “tend to be ones that hold important tournaments and major championships.” “Invariably, they’re long, tight, and repetitive, with virtually every hole offering similar shot values,” he continues; “Firestone and Medinah are classic examples.” Many Medinah members would, and have, bristled over statements like this, and my informant tells me that there was quite a disagreement among the members about hiring Doak—the vote, it seems, broke down along generational lines: older members were against, and younger ones were in favor.

Presumably, the older ones remembered Doak’s longstanding opinion of Medinah, while the younger ones were captivated by Doak’s resume since publishing The Confidential Guide in his mid-twenties. As of now, four of his designs are in Golf magazine’s “Top 100 Courses in the World” list: Pacific Dunes (at Bandon Dunes in Oregon), Barnbougle Dunes in Tasmania, Ballyneal in Colorado, and Cape Kidnappers in New Zealand. Cape Kidnappers, in particular, is spectacular in photographs, with holes routed along massive cliffs along the ocean. But photographically-spectacular courses are not really, according to the man himself, Doak’s design aim.

Everything about Doak, in fact, seems contrary to the way in which golf design has headed since the 1980s. While golf courses have gotten longer and longer, Doak says—in an interview with Golf magazine published this month (June 2011)—that “modern courses are too long.” And where a lot of courses designed in the last 30 or 40 years have tried to stand out with flashy, or even kitschy, bunkers (Cantigny’s “Dick Tracy” bunker comes to mind) and “water features” (Donald Trump, anyone?), Doak says that his “favorite hazard is short grass.” That, to a lot of golfers, might not make sense: isn’t short grass the fairway?

Well, yes, it is, but the short grass Doak has in mind isn’t the flat sort of fairway you might find at your local muni. What he’s thinking of is the “collection areas” at Pinehurst #2, Donald Ross’s Carolina masterpiece. “Short grass,” Doak says, “is always subtle and sometimes diabolical.” He’s thinking of the “steeply banked fairway that repels a slightly errant drive into an area where the approach shot is more difficult” (a feature, by the by, of Course 3’s hole 12). He’s considering “[w]ide expanses of fairway that lull the player to sleep so he doesn’t pay attention to the best position for his tee shot, and which makes it hard to determine the distance of a fairway bunker he’s tempted to carry” (a feature of Course 3’s hole 10, among others). Like Carl Spackler in Caddieshack, who made explosive “models” of his enemy the gopher’s “friends” (the bunny and squirrel), Doak believes in using the golfer’s ally (the fairway) against him.

This is nearly unthinkable heresy for American golfers, but it isn’t unknown to golf: it is, in fact, how the game began. St. Andrews for instance is well-known to have nearly infinitely-wide fairways and nevertheless it has been confounding golfers for over 500 years—which brings up another point about Doak’s biography. For two months in the summer of 1982, he caddied at St. Andrews, where presumably he learned of the Scottish methods of playing the ball on the ground instead of, as is usual on American tracks, through the air. It isn’t unusual there, from what I understand, of hitting a 6-iron like a putt from 85 yards. An American would, of course, be likely to use his 60-degree wedge from such a distance (and inevitably mishit it), but to the Scots such a choice has never made any sense. A 60-degree shot requires a precise strike on the clubface; a 6-iron merely needs something nearly precise. Or even imprecise.

Yet it’s difficult to picture making use of that philosophy on Course 1. It is the antithesis of Doak’s (or should we say, Scottish) ideas. Doak isn’t much of a believer in bunkers, water, or trees (I haven’t mentioned it, but Doak is on board with the anti-tree movement of the past decade or so.) Course 1 however, built in 1924 (the first of Medinah’s three courses, which explains why it’s Course 1), is built around water, sand, and trees. The 10th hole of the course, for instance, gives an idea of how Course 1 operates.

The 10th on Course 1 is a short par-5 of only 460 yards or so, which is shorter than many of Course 3’s par-4s. The tee shot is governed by a pond that stretches along the entire right side of the fairway, all the way to the green. A big drive, however, can easily get within 200 yards—at which point the approach is blocked by a set of massive willow trees that require the golfer to either go around them or over them to get to the green. Any approach that manages to climb over the willows, though, risks landing in a huge bunker directly in front of the green—so you have to judge not only how high you can hit your club, but also how far it will carry. It’s a classic risk-reward hole, but without water, sand, and trees, it’s a kind of lengthy par-4, not a par-5 you might be still be talking about five years from now.

The 10th is also a problem for Doak in terms of routing: it’s the sort of hole that needs to be played toward the middle of a round, after a player has found his rhythm. Only if you’re confident of your swing would you try to take on the willow trees—which is one reason why it is the 10th hole in the current routing. The problem is that the 9th hole—a marathon 600+-yard par-5—is the perfect finishing hole for the course, which in the current routing ends with a difficult-but-sub-200-yard par-3. It’s unusual for a golf course today to end on a par-3—though Congressional, site of this year’s U.S. Open, does in its non-tournament routing—and the current routing has often been a topic of discussion. But to get the ninth as a finishing hole while preserving the 10th’s status near the middle of the course as a whole is a difficult juggling act; it might require demolishing and rebuilding several other holes.

That isn’t hard to imagine Doak doing because many of the holes on the course are fairly pedestrian, especially during a rather mediocre slog through the middle of the back nine. Still, the course is often ranked within the top 20 in Illinois—Course 3 is usually #1—which means that many holes are of high quality. The 7th through the 9th, for instance, are nearly the equal of several of the best holes on Course 3, and it would be a shame for the course to lose them.

Doak though has demonstrated the kind of imaginative ability that a design problem like this one requires—and more than that, a species of contrariness that he’s going to need if he’s going to bring whatever vision he creates to the turf. If he means to implement his stated design philosophy on Course 1 he’s going to have to re-imagine the course completely, which will be difficult to do on a track that’s nearly 90 years old—not to mention the members nearly that age. What he does may just be a kind of tweaking—fixing a bunker here, cutting a tree there. But I don’t think Medinah is paying him for that.

I think that what Doak—and Medinah—may be aiming at is nothing less than a revolution in American course design. If Course 1 can be re-made in line with Doak’s vision, then virtually nothing is impossible for golf architecture. Nothing of Doak’s plan has been made public as yet—I am not sure at this writing whether it even exists. But the canvas Doak has been presented with is virtually unique: he’s been handed the keys to the family’s ancient Rolls Royce and told to pimp it out, with a budget presumably paid for by the proceeds from the Ryder Cup. Where some of Doak’s architectural contemporaries would be tempted to add, say, 22-inch rims and flatscreen TVs, Doak’s impulse seems rather the other way: he appears to question why anyone’s carriage ever needed an engine rather than a horse.

That sounds like rather a diss, but it isn’t: Doak’s object, it seems to me, isn’t just to churn out another sequence of holes that look like, and play like, every other set of holes anywhere in the world, but rather to get at something fundamental, something about how we play the game. Maybe even why we play this game. My choice of the word “philosophy” to describe Doak’s ideas about golf architecture isn’t meant lightly: it’s a word that’s often bandied about, but in Doak’s case I think it actually means something, because he’s a guy who’s actually thought about very, very fundamental matters. This doesn’t mean that his ideas are right, or the only ones, but it does mean that what he does is carefully thought out, and that’s something that’s rare enough in any profession. It also doesn’t mean that Doak’s redesign of Course 1 is destined for greatness—but it does mean that there he has been given a very, very rare opportunity. It remains to be seen what he does with it, whether it be spectacular success or merely, as Prospero says in The Tempest, “Some vanity of mine own art.”

On the Mendoza Line at Sawgrass

The “Mendoza line” is a term sabermetricians—those curious stats-addled baseball fans who now, through the success of Moneyball and Red Sox GM Theo Epstein, rule baseball—use to refer to a certain minimum amount of skill needed to play major league baseball. Specifically, it’s the minimum batting average that a major leaguer can get away with while not being sent down to the minors. No matter how brilliant a defensive player you are, you still need to hit at least at the Mendoza line to stay in the big leagues. Golf though, with its varied tournament sites, doesn’t have a strict correlative for the Mendoza line: a single skill that determines the difference between the tour player and your average club pro.

Short hitter? Some golf courses favor short, accurate players. Bomber? Some golf courses have wide fairways. It’s always been part of golf’s charm that no matter what kind of golfer you are, there’s probably a place for you to play. No tournament has better exemplified that point than the Players Championship since it moved permanently to TPC Sawgrass in 1982—or better exemplified what’s become a kind of theme of this blog: that most matches are won on the first tee; i.e., that the rules of the game have a lot more to do with the outcome than most people realize.

“If people don’t think course setups don’t make a difference, check my record here at this tournament,” said Scott Hoch in 2002. Hoch is a multiple winner on the PGA Tour and a near-winner of a major—he famously missed a two-footer to win the 1989 Masters—and his record at the Players Championship (or as the Tour now prefers it, the Players) is pretty odd. Between 1988 and 1995, Hoch never finished the tournament, withdrawing twice. In 1997, however, after the tour decided to grow a thicker rough at TPC Sawgrass, Hoch finished second.

“Before, if you hit anywhere other than the water, you would be all right,” Hoch said. “That’s definitely not my game.” Hoch was never a long hitter, and courses that bombers ruled, like St. Andrews (site of this year’s Open Championship, which Hoch infamously called a “the worst piece of mess”), were never friendly to him. Nevertheless, he had a pretty good tour career, even winning the Vardon Trophy in 1986 for the lowest scoring average for the year.

John Strege has a pretty good piece about all of this in this week’s Golf Digest website, where most of the above can be found. He cites Fred Klauk, the longtime superintendent at Sawgrass who retired in 2008, on the point: “‘When we caught a wet year, that’s when a longer player won,’” Klauk said. “‘That’s when Tiger won.’” Numerous power players have won the tournament like Tiger, Davis Love, and Jack Nicklaus, but so have short, but accurate, players like Fred Funk and Justin Leonard. Who’s won has been at least in part a function of the course’s setup in any given year, in a way that’s arguably different than any other sport.

That isn’t to say that there aren’t ways of constructing a field of play to favor certain styles. Baseball is perhaps the best example other than golf: the Chicago White Sox, for instance, have been known for decades to instruct their grounds crew based on the composition of their infield: slow but offensively-potent infielders has dictated a slow infield, while defensively-brilliant but offensively-challenged infielders has dictated a fast infield.

Baseball fields themselves have been the best parallel to the changing courses on the PGA Tour: Bill James, the dean of sabermetricians, has devoted a lot of study to “park effects,” determining for instance that the Chicago Cubs have historically undervalued their pitching (because Wrigley Field favors the offense) and overvalued their offense (for the same reason). But professional golf has one big difference from professional baseball: pro golfers, as independent contractors, can choose where they wish to play. The White Sox can’t refuse to play at Yankee Stadium.

In golf, in other words, it’s what happens behind the scenes that often determines a winner, not necessarily entirely what happens on the field of play. At least, to some larger degree than in other sports. Golf itself has slowly become aware of the effect of course setup, which has never before received as much attention as it has in recent years: Mike Davis of the USGA and Kerry Haigh of the PGA of America—responsible for the setup work at the US Open and PGA Championship—have become almost as well-known in golf circles as the top players themselves.

That, to put it mildly, is not necessarily a good thing. “We’re not trying to embarrass the best players in the world,” Sandy Tatum of the USGA said at the Massacre at Winged Foot in 1974, “We’re trying to identify them.” Tatum’s words recognized the threat course setup poses to golf: it’s important to golf for course setup to be invisible, because if it becomes recognized as important then it’s possible that the game itself becomes somehow tarnished. It’s the same argument as that regarding steroids or other “PEDs”: if course setup is the most important, or even very important, in determining (“identifying”) the best player, then that makes the competition seem artificial or contrived. Some part of the sport’s legitimacy is lost.

Now, why is that? Well, presumably it’s because we want our champions to be born, and not made. If course setup is too big a factor then it begins to seem like the winners are the winners only because the people in charge wanted them to win, and not because they were better than anyone else in the field, just as allowing PEDs to influence sports means that the winners will be those with the connections and wealth to access them have an advantage (along with the willingness to sacrifice their bodies). Making course setup too big a factor is thus a threat to the integrity of the game itself—yet at the same time, courses do need to be setup, which is to say that there will always be arguments about it.

What we’d like, in other words, is for the Buddha himself to come down and tell us who should win, say, the US Open. Unfortunately, the Buddha is usually unavailable, and not just to a certain Florida-based golfer. That isn’t to say that, if there are any, climate deities do not have a say in the outcomes of golf tournaments: according to reports, this year TPC Sawgrass has had weather that’s inhibited the growth of the kind of thick, nasty rough that’s a penalty to long-but-wayward drivers. There isn’t a Mendoza line, in short, in golf as a whole, but there may be one for individual tournaments, and this year’s winner then may very likely be just that sort of player: a guy who can throw it out there without worrying too much about where it goes. Sound like anyone to you?