This weekend Rory McIlroy not only held off a burning-bright Tiger Woods (who laid down a little 62) and won the Honda Classic, but succeeded Luke Donald as the best golfer in the world. Suddenly, whereas three years ago (as I wrote about in a previous post) Tiger had no rivals—a subject of much complaint by the golf press—now there is not only Tiger v. Phil but also Tiger v. Rory. But why should the new World #1 be from some small town in Northern Ireland, a country with fewer people than we have here in Chicago? The answer to that—which I suspect has much to do with that “Superstar Effect” I discussed in an earlier post—may in turn answer another, as put by the website ethnicmajority.com back in April of 2009: “Why are there no black pro golfers (other than you know who)?” Tiger’s success seemed to augur a new era of African-American golf—it may be, however, we have it backwards, and that it’s his success that explains why that hasn’t happened, not something that needs explaining.
Why there hasn’t been a successor to Tiger Woods from the African-American community has been a question for sportswriters with intellectual predilections for some time. ESPN devoted an episode of their show Outside the Lines to the question all the way back in June of 2001—“One … And Only”—and despite the occasional heralding of a successor, no black golfer has become a regular on the PGA Tour since Tiger won the Masters in 1997, now nearly fifteen years ago. The explanations mainly fall into two camps: racism or economics.
. “You need $70,000 a year to do that,” Tim Hall, a black player on the Nationwide Tour, told NBC.com in 2009 about playing on mini-tours—the proving grounds where would-be tour pros either find their games, or don’t. For people like Hall, such as Julius Erving (Dr. J), who spoke to ESPN for the Outside the Lines program, the main explanation for the conspicuous lack of black players at elite levels—even black colleges can’t fill out their teams with black players—is economic: as a writer for the website Color Lines put it in April of 2007, the “overwhelming majority of Black Americans cannot afford to practice golf and thereby do not gain a competitive edge in golf.”
The other side is represented by those who would explain black golfers lack of success in the familiar terms of racism. Undoubtedly, golf has a history: Augusta National’s annual tournament is, after all, called the Masters—an unfortunate name for a Southern organization to use, undoubtedly—and until 1961, as many know, the PGA Tour had a “Caucasians only” clause. This isn’t even to begin to rehearse, say, the 1990 Shoal Creek incident, when the president of that golf club, due to hold the PGA Championship that year, said about the lack of African-American members that “this is our home, and we pick and choose who we want.” The trouble is, however, that from 1961, when the PGA Tour ended the “Caucasian” clause (under the threat of a lawsuit by the California attorney general), until 1985, there were 26 black golfers who earned tour cards for the Big Show. Since then, only Woods. In order to be convincing, the burden of the “racism” theory is to explain why racism has, in golf, somehow gotten worse since the early 1960s.
As it happens, a similar question has been asked in a field in which I’m somewhat familiar, the study of literature. Why is it, for instance, that the giants of “English” literature have, since the 18th century, largely not been Englishmen? “From Conrad, Wilde and James,” writes scholar Terry Eagleton, “to Shaw, Pound and Eliot, the high literary ground is seized by those whose very marginality allows them to bring fresh perspectives to the society they have adopted.” “English” literature, in other words, has mostly been the province (a deliberate pun) of men and women whose origins lay far from London. Earlier, mostly Irish; latterly, from yet further on the periphery.
Something similar, perhaps, is at work in golf: though the sample size is a great deal smaller, it’s still true that on the list of World #1s, as ranked since the 1980s, the first player on it is Bernhard Langer, a German—not a nation known for its golfers (though this has been changing slowly recently, as witness Martin Kaymer; a point that may lend credence to my drift here). From there it alternated for several years between Seve Ballesteros and Greg Norman—from Spain and Australia respectively—and from there to even more improbable stories: like that of Vijay Singh, who’s from Fiji. Every golfer on that list is the product of one implausible story after another, whether it be a shoeless Seve hitting rocks on a Spanish beach to Vijay somehow climbing from the South Pacific to major champion.
The point is, it’s virtually inevitable that the World #1 will be the product of such a narrative. A really crazy story—the man-bites-dog story of world rankings—would be if somebody like newly-turned pro Peter Uihlein, son of the chief executive officer of Titleist golf Wally Uihlein and thus recipient of every possible break, became World #1. Davis Love III, for instance, whose father was himself a well-known and respected professional—and thus would seem to have had an advantage—never became the best player in the world. No: the best player in the world is, seemingly always, an oddball of one sort or another.
The natural question then is, why so? In his Atlas of the European Novel, the literary scholar Franco Moretti examines the construction of small libraries: “small [library] collections are hyper-canonical,” which is to say that “they have all the great books, and don’t care about the inferior ones.” But great books are ones that are obviously different from the rest: not only are they as good as run-of-the-mill books (which themselves are better than that half-finished draft in your aunt’s desk), but also have something extra, that makes them stand out. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be preserved at all. But that also makes them terrible models for would-be writers.
“What is wrong,” Moretti says about this practice of small libraries to have only the best of the best, “is the implicit belief that literature proceeds from one canonical form to the next, in a sort of unbroken thread.” Literature, Moretti says, actually works quite differently: “cheap jokes on bureaucrats, and Gogol’s Overcoat; rough city sketches, and Dickens’ London novels; silly colonial adventures, and Heart of Darkness.” In other words, literature is generated by having the space to work: Dickens doesn’t write David Copperfield right out of the box. Dickens has predecessors, precursors, a field to inhabit.
In this way, Moretti proposes a theory of literary history borrowed from Viktor Sklovsky, the “canonization of the cadet branch.” As Sklovsky put it in Theory of Prose: “The legacy that is passed on from one literary generation to the next moves not from father to son, but from uncle to nephew.” In order to have great literature, you need to have a lot of other kinds of literature: what George Orwell called, borrowing from Chesterton, “good bad books.” But—and this is where the “Superstar Effect” comes in— “good bad books” are the sort likely to be produced by those already located in the center: in order to get truly great books you need somebody with an outsider’s perspective. Why?
Here’s where Jennifer Brown’s research that led to the discovery of the “Superstar Effect” in golf—when Tiger was in his prime, he gained nearly a shot on the field in every tournament he entered, just by entering it—comes in. The implication of that research was that those on the “inside” (guys already on the tour) were intimidated by Tiger: he was, it seems, so foreign to their ideas of what was possible on a golf course that it threw off their games. Moretti similarly argues that those on the “inside”—close to the centers of literary production—simply can’t produce “great” literature: they are too close not to be judged, and found wanting.
In order to get to be an insider at all, that is, you have to devote a great deal of time to imitating one’s forebears—which is why it’s generally better to start out imitating solid, second-rate books rather than masterpieces—whether it be on the golf course or the page. But that pursuit necessarily supposes closing off other, potentially more interesting, options—the kind that only an outsider, who can’t get there any other way, must exploit. Of course, what that means is that, by definition, most “outsiders” will be destined to remain that way—ignored. But those that do “break through” will, necessarily, have some special quality about them. There are no “better-than-average” outsiders; conversely, all insiders must be at least better-than-average.
Somebody from Holywood, in County Down, Ireland, therefore, isn’t going to be just a journeyman golfer on the European Tour: that slot has already been filled with someone with the economic resources and connections. African-Americans like to tell their kids they have to be twice as good as anybody else to get noticed: here’s an empirical reason why. On the other hand, Rory’s success will now have consequences for any other golfers growing up in Holywood: the standard they’re judged by isn’t going to be the guy ranked #70 on the European Tour’s Order of Merit (money list), which is still a very respectable level of play; it’s going to be RORY MCILROY, #1 Player in the World.
In other words, if it was difficult before to imagine a great pro golfer to come out of Holywood, it must be even more difficult now, what with the expectations put in place by McIlory. Every action for such a hypothetical player will be scrutinized by the light of the predecessor, stacking the odds yet further. Though it isn’t true that lightning never strikes the same place twice, perhaps it’s so that the phrase holds water in human endeavors: it isn’t likely that there’s going to be a world-famous folk troubadour out of Hibbing, Minnesota (home, as any Iron Ranger will tell you, of Robert Zimmerman, aka Bob Dylan) any time soon.
Similarly, any young African-American golfer is going to be judged against the standard set by Woods, not the more-reasonable—though still wildly-overoptimistic—standards of merely making a good living by playing golf. African-Americans don’t have that problem in other fields: a young black basketball player knows that, even if he doesn’t make it to the NBA, he can still play overseas, or at least perhaps get a college education out of it. There’s enough of a pool, a “critical mass,” that that hypothetical player knows he doesn’t have to be an All-Star. It’s ok to be above-average; it’s ok not to be Michael Jordan.
It only, therefore, seems paradoxical that Tiger Woods is, and has been for many years, the only African-American on the PGA Tour. His very success doesn’t make it a mystery why there aren’t more black golfers: it actually may make it less likely that an African-American should become a touring professional. That is, obviously, a disturbing possibility. Yet, if that’s true, avoiding it doesn’t actually help produce more black golfers. Confronting it would lead to a different plan of attack: what would become important would stop being attacking racism in golf at some retail level, one club at a time—or even the general mission of creating black golfers at all, as the various charities founded in the wake of Woods’ success do. Instead, energy would be focused on creating more golfers, period—expanding access to everyone, without exception.
That is what Americans used to do, anyway. On ESPN’s “The 1 … And Only,” Lee Elder, the first African-American ever to play in the Masters tournament (in 1975, the year Tiger was born), pointed out that black golfers “all pretty much came out of the caddy ranks in the early days.” That’s not surprising, since that’s also how a lot of other players came to golf back then: Ben Hogan, Byron Nelson, Chick Evans, Francis Ouimet, and Lee Trevino all owed their careers to caddying—not to mention foreign players like Ballesteros. But looping is not a charitable operation: it’s paid labor, not a handout—or an “internship” or the like. Notice what that does: it creates the space, a field, for someone to work in; much like, perhaps, the existence of all those cheap colonial adventure stories, like King Solomon’s Mines might have created the space—what Virginia Woolf called a “room of one’s own”— for Conrad to write Heart of Darkness.
It’s not as if, for instance, that someone found Leonardo da Vinci (whose name means, “from Vinci,” a town as obscure as Holywood) as a child, knew who he’d become (which would, one supposes, make such a person an even greater genius than Leonardo), and paved his way. Instead, Leonardo got lucky enough to find himself in the workshop of Andrea Verrocchio, a workshop whose alumni included Lorenzo di Credi, Domenico Ghirlandaio, Francesco Botticini, and Pietro Perugino—great artists all, even if we mostly only remember them through the reflection of Leonardo’s glory. But Verrocchio’s workshop gave them, and Leonardo, work to do—and money to get for it. Greatness comes from having lots of pretty good stuff around: if you want to produce a Tiger Woods or a James Joyce or a Leonardo, in other words, you have to produce lots of Mark O’Mearas, P.G. Wodehouses, and di Credis. And that’s not cheap: you have to pay all of them.
That’s something that it seems as though America has forgotten lately, as wages have stagnated since the 1970s while, at the same time, the financial rewards for “superstars” has exploded. In academia, for instance, that’s led to highly-paid, “superstar” professors and legions of graduate students without hope of employment; in the business world a galaxy of CEOs who make hundreds of times what their workers make; and in music a few dozens of musicians who can sell out stadiums while your local tavern thinks it’s a big deal to have a band once a month. Maybe that’s the bargain that we’ve made lately. But if so, we shouldn’t kid ourselves about, say, why there aren’t more black pro golfers.
Or, you know, a middle class.