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.

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Only You

 

 

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.

 

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.

Molehills and Mountains

This is a bit late, but recently I was reading golf.com’s weekly roundtable discussion, “PGA Tour Confidential,” about the Sony Open in Hawaii two weeks ago, and this caught my eye: Mark Wilson, it seems, won the tournament without looking at the leaderboard during the final round. Sports Illustrated’s Gary Van Sickle remarked, “You don’t need to see the leaderboard until the 71st or 72nd hole. Watching the board is the caddie’s job.” This struck me as something of a novelty, though it recalled a few moments over the past couple of years. Is it better to look, or not? And, more importantly, is the job description of the tour looper being redefined?

Ben Crane—he of the notoriously slow play and cutesy Internet videos—won the Farmer’s Insurance Open at Torrey Pines in 2010, also without looking at the leaderboard on Sunday. When he tapped in his final putt of the day on the 18th hole, his playing partner Ryuji Imada said “‘Congratulations,’” to which Crane replied, “‘Did I win the tournament?’” Imada said, according to Crane, “‘Uh, yeah.’”

Almost three years ago at Royal Birkdale for the 2008 British Open, amateur Chris Wood nearly became the third man in the memorable playoff between Tom Watson and Stewart Cink (which Cink, disappointingly for many, won) despite making “a habit of not looking at the leaderboard,” as the Times of London reported the following year. “‘My caddie wouldn’t let me look at the leaderboard,’” the Times wrote in that story, “‘but I got a couple of sneaky looks in.’”

Late in 2009, the man who was leading the Dubai World Championship at the halfway mark also claimed not to be looking at the leaderboard. “‘It’s a pointless exercise,’ Lee Westwood said,” wrote Lawrence Donegan of the Guardian, “‘I’ve only got enough room in my head for the things that I’m doing, never mind anybody else.’” According to the laws of journalism, anything that happens three times is a trend, so obviously that’s what’s occurring.

Farrell Evans, another Sports Illustrated golf reporter, however strongly disagreed with Van Sickle during the roundtable. “Any guy who says he’s not scoreboard watching,” Evans argues, “will never become a great champion.” Of course Lee Westwood is, as of this writing, the number one player in the world, which would seem to take a certain steam of Evans’ boiler.

Evans had his defenders on the panel, however. “Every single big-time player looks,” argues Michael Bamberger—author of a solid book called To The Linksland. The notion seems to be that the Tiger Woodses and Phil Mickelsons of the world naturally look, which is to say that not looking reveals some sort of 2nd tier status on the part of players who don’t. Westwood does seem to be an argument against this point—unless maybe his recent upgrade means he’s now looking.

What everyone on the panel appears to forget is that the ability for any player to know exactly where he stands at any given time on the golf course is a relatively recent development. As late as the 1960 U.S. Open at Cherry Hills—where Hogan, Palmer, and Nicklaus dueled over the final 18, and the lead changed hands 25 times in the last two hours or whatever it was—there was no leaderboard at golf tournaments. So Evans is wrong: plenty of players have become great champions without looking. They didn’t have any choice.

What Evans, one supposes, means to say is that no great player would have turned looking down, had they a choice about it. This is a more interesting proposition: the idea is that the greats are driven by competition against other people, not the Zen-like competition against the golf course so often advocated by golf psychologist types. This is a favorite trope of golf writers, who like to talk about Tiger’s “killer instinct” and the like. But likely that’s because golf writers are always looking for “human drama,” which golf is always conceived of as lacking.

That’s like saying, however, that mountain climbing is uninteresting because, you know, the mountain is just sitting there, anyway. Most of golf isn’t about beating the other guy, but about finding creative answers to the problems the architecture creates. That’s the way that professionals talk about golf, despite the way it’s portrayed on television. Tiger isn’t talking to Stevie about how he needs to kill Mickelson; what they’re talking about is whether it would be smarter to hit a fade up the left side to take advantage of a dog-leg, or whatever. But that sort of thing doesn’t make it to television.

Or hasn’t yet. The other big news in the last week or so in golf is about Davis Love’s decision to wear a microphone on the golf course during this week’s tournament at Torrey Pines. That’s been something television has been pushing for years now, as a way to add “drama” to what’s an infamously tedious broadcast to non-golfers. I happen to be in favor of such a move, because I think that it does open up viewers to the “man vs. nature” aspect of the sport in a way that non-golfers (and perhaps most golfers) fail to realize.

What it’s also going to do, at least if the golf.com crew is to be believed, is make the whole question of whether to look at the leaderboard a little more interesting for the home audience. Is the player’s caddie going to tell him he has a three-shot lead and he damn well better not try to go for that green? Or not? Is every tournament going to end with all of us saying My god, he doesn’t know? Television—and golf.com—sure hopes so.

I doubt any of this is true. The claim about “not looking at the leaderboard” is a lot of malarky, because if any of these players had really been in doubt about their standing—if that is, they’d tripled-bogeyed some hole or other—they for sure would have looked. The reason Crane or Wilson or Westwood didn’t look at the leaderboard was because none of them had any bad holes that caused them to look. What was Arnold Palmer at Cherry Hills in 1960 going to do—birdie all seven of his first seven holes, instead of the six he did?

Despite the efforts of sportswriters and television, that is, at the end of the day golf really is kind of a boring sport, at least to those who want head-to-head competition all the time. Sometimes that isn’t true—like in playoff situations or match play—but for the most part golf is more like mountain climbing than it is like boxing. Maybe that’s interesting to you, maybe it isn’t. The way we’ll find out, I suppose, is whether caddies, by virtue of their sudden new duties of scoreboard watching, are suddenly getting paid more. But I don’t think it’s going to happen.

 

Rough Weather

You and you are sure together
As the winter and rough weather.
—As You Like It Act V, iv.


There’s a band in Chicago that plays every first and third Wednesdays of the month—and the occasional fifth Wednesday, which is a source of some small joy to their fans. The city entire has that joy this week, the third Packers week of the football season. The weeks the Chicago Bears play the Green Bay Packers loom large in each team’s schedule: Doug Buffone, the old Bear Hall-of-Famer, says that those games are “mini Super Bowls.” This week, the two teams play for the right to go to the actual Super Bowl. It’s a fitting time, then, to discuss just what Sweden means to professional golf.

The Chicago Bears and the Green Bay Packers are the two oldest teams in the National Football League: they go together just as surely as the winter and rough weather often found in their stadiums. They played their first game on November 27, 1921, which the Chicago team won, 20-0. Since then they have played 180 other games; the Bears winning 92 and the Packers 83, with 6 ties. The Green Bay Packers have won twelve league championships, the Bears nine. On the other hand, the Bears have 26 players in the Hall of Fame, while Green Bay has 21.  Each team has more players in the Hall of Fame than any other team.

It is by far the most storied rivalry in the National Football League: Mike Singletary, the Hall of Fame Bear linebacker from the 1985 Super Bowl team, said recently that during Packer games “There are gonna be more penalties. Guys hit harder. Guys who are hurt are gonna play.” Which is to say, the dead walk on Packers week.

Those dead are presided over by two figures from each club: George Halas of the Bears and Curley Lambeau of the Packers. Both men were originally players, then became coaches and the leaders of their respective organizations. But the paths each took also demonstrate something of just why this football rivalry has impact beyond the sport.

Halas founded a family dynasty: in a world of corporately-owned sports franchises, the Bears are one of the last still run as a family business. It’s an arrangement that went out of fashion for the rest of the world sometime at the end of the 19th century.

The story of Curley Lambeau and the Packers is stranger still. The Packers are the only major-league professional sports organization in the United States run as a non-profit. There are roughly 100,000 shareholders in the Green Bay Football Corporation, owning almost five million shares. These shares do not pay dividends, do not appreciate in value, and bring no chance at season tickets.

No single stockholder can have more than 200,000 shares, so no one can ever assume control of the team. The Packers can never be moved from Green Bay, which is almost irrelevant because almost all of the stockholders are Green Bay natives. It is an arrangement that is a kind of parody of the corporate sports franchise. If socialism had a professional American football team, it would be the Green Bay Packers.

If socialism had a factory for turning out professional golfers, on the other hand, it would be Sweden, a nation of only 9 million that is yet disproportionately represented on both the men’s and ladies’ professional golf tours. Annika Sorenstam is the lead for this story: she dominated the LPGA for nearly a decade before finally calling it quits in order to raise children. But many other Swedish golfers have also made headlines in the past few decades: how, given such a small country—and the winters and rough weather—can that be?

One answer can be found by contrast with American golf, which might be likened to the Chicago Bears model. Like the Bears, the PGA Tour is a kind of toy version of the 19th-century vision of laissez-faire capitalism. Each golfer represents a competing firm struggling in a Darwinistic Sturm und Drang struggle to the death with his opponents.

Getting to that point is its own struggle. Golf in the United States is a hodge-podge, with differing state-level golf associations and youth golf associations. If lucky, the junior player develops enough to attract interest from various colleges and universities, which then compete for the best players, and then, by some further magic, the lucky player might have the good fortune to have found a program that provides the right kind of training to enable them to advance to the professional ranks. At every stage, golf in the United States is highly decentralized.

That’s by contrast to the Swedish model. As described by “Swedish Golf Success: Its History and Future,” a technical study done by American, Australian, and Swedish professors, that success is largely due to the highly-structured environment Sweden has developed for its young players at an early age. The Swedish Golf Federation takes care of its young players: it provides training and access to national and international tournaments early. Hence, younger golfers with potential can quickly be identified, and thus given more resources, all overseen by one central and national authority. Like Green Bay and its Packers, the nation is united.

Granted, what works for Sweden would be hard to duplicate in the United States, where the population of Chicago and its suburbs alone is larger than the entire Scandinavian nation. It’s something to think about in the United States, however; perhaps particularly since golf will become part of the Olympics in 2016. It’s widely assumed that Americans will dominate that event—which, in all likelihood, is what will happen.

Yet that’s what Americans always thought about basketball, until the past decade or two. The last year in golf, where Phil Mickelson was the only American to win a major championship (and Phil faded out the rest of the year), has shown—or should have shown—that American dominance at a sport is what the philosophers call contingent: it is not ordained by God or Nature. Hogan said golf ability is “dug out of the ground”—it’s a matter of effort. The sort of effort required though would have to be like Sweden, or Green Bay: you know, where “You and you are sure together.”

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.

Na, na, na

It’s been something of a whirlwind two days: I began the weekend wanting to write something about Tiger’s exit from the Players Championship—specifically, the incident last Friday when that kid reportedly said, as Tiger Woods left the course for the day, “Say goodbye to #1, Tiger! Kiss it goodbye!” If Phil Mickelson had won the tournament, Tiger would have surrendered his crown as #1 player in the world. It was a great anecdote, with obvious allusions to the old story about the kid confronting “Shoeless” Joe Jackson in 1919: “Say it ain’t so,” said that child, then, a tone so different from Tiger’s child-demon; Mickelson, who happened to overhear the exchange, said “Be polite” to the kid. But that isn’t what this will be about.

Nor will it be what I had thought since late Sunday night would be the big story of the week: Robert Allenby’s series of weird decisions to close out the Players Championship and essentially hand it over to Tim Clark. Not that Clark didn’t deserve to win—he shot the low round of the day, 67, when a lot of the field wasn’t breaking par—but Allenby’s decisions seemed to take a lot of the drama out.

To clarify, I am not talking about the two putts missed at 16 and 17—the last one, especially, reminded me of Jack Nicklaus’ line: “I made it but it didn’t go in”—but rather the decisions he made on the 18th hole, which the press asked him about repeatedly afterwards. This Sunday, Allenby was the last man on the golf course with a chance to tie Tim Clark, and he needed a birdie on 18 to do it after missing chances at 16 and 17.

I’ve written about Allenby before, most notably questioning his work with his caddie at Torrey Pines earlier this year when Allenby, near the lead of the tournament on Sunday, flew his ball over the green at 14 and essentially blew his chances at the win with one swing. (Incidentally, it seem to me that “Caddie Killer” Allenby’s looper at the Players was not the same guy as his looper at Torrey, though it’s hard to tell.) Sometimes the putts fall and sometimes they don’t, so it’s hard to criticize Allenby on that front.

What’s hard to understand is how, knowing he needed a birdie to tie, he hit a 3-wood off the eighteenth tee instead of his driver. At the press conference afterwards Allenby defended his decision by making three different points. Let’s tackle them in order, shall we?

1. “That’s the toughest tee shot on this golf course … especially if you’re a right-to-left player like myself, and you’ve got the wind coming off the right and into.” Allenby actually makes a solid point here: it’s hard to birdie from the water.

2. “it’s just not a hole that you can hit driver because if you hit it straight, you’re going to be blocked out with the trees. I did that the first day with 3-wood” Uh, Robert, Lee Westwood and virtually everyone else in the field hit driver here, and I didn’t notice any of them blocked out by trees. And what trees are you talking about anyway? The ones on the right side of the fairway? Very little about this makes sense to me.

3. “I think I’ve only ever hit one driver in my whole life on 18, and that was into about a 30, 40-mile-an-hour wind.” Allenby returns to some kind of sense here: ok, he isn’t used to hitting driver at that hole. It’s a defensible decision, even if his reasons for never hitting driver there—see #2, above—are pretty inexplicable. The thought is, stay with what’s comfortable. But as Allenby hasn’t won in the United States for nine years, maybe he shouldn’t be looking for “comfortable.”

After the tee shot, Allenby was left with a 4-iron to the green, strange because a lot of other players (who hit driver off the tee) were left with 6 or 7-irons or better to the green. If you need birdie, which club would you rather be hefting?

After hitting that 4-iron to the right of the green, Allenby decided to putt instead of chip, despite the fact that while putting is generally better than chipping for amateurs, pros know that chipping usually has a better chance of going in the hole (while also having a greater chance of missing the hole by a greater margin than a putt would). Allenby defended that decision afterwards by saying “I know probably the commentators are going, oh, he should have chipped it. But you know what, I’d love to see them get in that situation and try to do that.” Well, that’s certainly true. But it’s also true that most commentators aren’t PGA Tour pros, and Allenby is. If anyone has the skills to pull off that shot, one would have to conclude that Allenby should be among them. It isn’t clear from his response whether Allenby really thought his best chance to make it was to putt, or whether he was thinking that he definitely didn’t want to give up a chance at second place.

Allenby’s trevails aside, what I really came away from the weekend—in golf, Monday is the weekend—wanting to write about however was my participation in Monday’s local qualifying for the U.S. Open. I ended up getting the bag of a member’s kid from my home track, Dan Stringfellow, who just happens to be this past year’s Illinois high school champ. The kid was unbelievable, at times driving it a hundred yards past the two pros in our group, and his record matches his skill: the only guys close to him for their high school careers are, all of them, present or former members of the PGA Tour. He’s only 17 still, at least for another week or so, but he’s been recruited to play at Auburn—a relative golf powerhouse—next fall.

Illinois of course is not particularly known as a golf powerhouse, though the state has produced a few pro golfers like Jay Haas, Todd Hamilton, Gary Hallberg, and a few other guys. But Stringfellow might be on another level than those journeyman pros: the sound his club makes meeting the ball is different than almost any professional player I’ve ever heard. The great players do make a different sound than others: talking about Jason Heyward, the Atlanta Braves new prospect, Terry Pendleton (the Braves hitting coach) said recently that “There are just some guys that hit the thing, and it’s, like, Oooh, that’s different. That’s way different.” It’s the same in golf—Tiger Woods, in 1999 anyway, sounded way different than anyone else on tour. Stringfellow makes a similar sound, which doesn’t make him Tiger Woods, yet, but it does mean that he has, as the recruiters like to say, potential.

Unfortunately, it seems that he hasn’t figured out the flat stick yet, as we missed something like 6 to 8 putts that easily could have dropped. He didn’t make anything more than 5 feet—and missed one of those. So the 75 he actually did shoot could have, with very little imagination, been a 68. Or better. The kid, it seems is still learning how to go really low; it may be that playing against Illinois high school competition, where 75 is a good score, hasn’t pushed him enough as yet. It may be that, like Allenby, he hasn’t developed enough of what the gutter press likes to call the “killer instinct.” But Stringfellow’s story is just beginning: he may or may not be the kid to knock Tiger off his pedestal, but the kid that will is alive now, somewhere. The only question, really, is whether he’ll be polite.