Great Lengths

‘A first class hole must have the subtleties and strategic problems which are difficult to understand, and are therefore extremely likely to be condemned at first sight even by the best of players.’
Alister MacKenzieThe Spirit of St. Andrews (1933; pub. 1995)

Both men were over two hundred yards from the hole when we arrived at their golf balls, far to the left side of Streamsong Red’s thirteenth. My player, though not as skilled a golfer as his companion, was slightly closer to the green; the other player was further away. His caddie counseled him to take a long club, and play up to the right of the dune fronting the thirteenth’s green. The man did, hitting a heroic shot that flew over the center fairway bunker, to the right of the dune. It left him with a short wedge into the green, only partially obscured by the massive dune. My player looked at me, presumably expecting me to counsel similarly. But while I told the other player, “good shot,” I was handing my guy a wedge.

My reasoning, had there been time to follow it at length, had much to do with a golf course nearly three thousand miles away: Riviera Country Club, outside Los Angeles. The thirteenth hole on Streamsong’s Red Course draws from that golf course on two distinct levels: in the first place, it is a short par five, designed to follow the long par four twelfth—a rehash of a trick the Coore and Crenshaw team had already used on the first and second hole of the same course: a short par five following a par four of nearly the same length. The artifice is inspired by the opening holes of Riviera, a course that begins with one of the easiest par fives in golf and is followed by one of the most difficult par fours. But the Red Course, and specifically the thirteenth, also draws much from the thought of Riviera’s architect, George Thomas.

“Each hole at Riviera,” reads the course’s review at the website, Golf Club Atlas, is a ‘how to’ of golf architecture.” One of these is the contrast between the first and the second holes: one of the easier par fives on tour (often not even requiring a driver to reach in two shots) followed by the course’s number one handicap hole. The idea is a kind of rhyme, where what happened on the previous hole matters in a way not often found in less sophisticated designs.

One way the first two holes at Riviera rhyme, for example, is by contrast of their greens: the first hole’s green is very wide, yet not very deep, while the second’s is the opposite. Hence, the one mitigates a shot that is the correct distance but is indifferently aimed, while the second mitigates the opposite kind of shot. Conversely, each also punishes the “wrong” sort of shot—the sort that might have been just the thing on the previous hole. It’s a subtle but far-reaching effect, one that can be hard to detect—unless you happen to read the scorecard.

A careful reading of any course’s scorecard can, in other words, reveal holes of extremely similar distances; the lesson Coore and Crenshaw, following Thomas, would impart is: “Pay attention when two holes of similar lengths have different par values.” The numbers are a clear signal to the careful golfer, because the choice of length is not haphazard; it is a sign that those two holes have a relation to each other. In the case of the thirteenth and the twelfth on Streamsong’s Red, each is—in part—a funhouse version of the other. Where one is downhill (the 12th) the other is uphill (the 13th), and where one offers a clear view of the green the other obscures it. But the dune of the thirteenth is not just a mirror; it is a razor.

It’s a razor because the thirteenth on the Red Course embodies George Thomas’ thought in an even more subtle sense. “The spirit of golf,” Thomas wrote in his Golf Architecture in America, of 1927, “is to dare a hazard, and by negotiating it reap a reward, while he who fears or declines the issue of the carry, has a longer or harder shot for his second.” Everything in golf revolves around that axis mundi; it is the turtle upon which the disc of the world, as the recently-deceased Terry Pratchett might have appreciated, rests. Proceed by one path, and others become unavailable—every choice, like Borges’ “Garden of Forking Paths,” is determined by previous choices.

One way the thirteenth does this is by separating the golfer from a clear view of the green until he nearly stands upon it. But it does not do that entirely: from the extreme left it’s possible to see the flag, if not the green itself. The trouble—and of course, as George Thomas’ maxim advertises, there is a trouble—is that, from the left, a player must traverse nearly a hundred yards of sand; not so from the right, where a smooth road of fairway grass chases gently to the green. The architecture appears to be designed, in Thomas’ sense, to reward a “spirited carry” over the dune.

Some version of that thought, presumably, is why my colleague counseled his player to play up the right side with the strong shot he hit. Yet two wedge shots of just more than a hundred yards would easily reach the green—a shot that even the worst golfer can usually manage. So, why have a player choose a club far more easily mishit, like a long iron, to a target that grants only a modest advantage? I didn’t ask the other caddie for his rationale, but I’d presume it has something to do with the conventions of golf, at least as played by Americans in the early 21st century—conventions that seem to ignore the second part of George Thomas’ remarks about the “spirit of golf.”

That second part is this: “yet the player who avoids the unwise effort gains an advantage over one who tries for more than in him lies and fails.” In other words the player who can pull off a difficult shot should get the edge over the player who can’t—but the player who knows his own game ought to get the edge over the player does not. In that sense, the thirteenth’s “spirited carry” over the dune rewards, as it should, the player with a possible eagle—but as few seem to realize, it does not reward a heroic second shot that does not finish on the green. In fact, it positively threatens the player who makes that choice.

Just out of sight from the fairway, concealed from anyone standing at a distance from the green, about eighty yards short and to the right of the green, Coore and Crenshaw dug a deep bunker that threatens any ball hit past the beginning of the tall dune, but not onto the green itself. In other words, to try to hit a long shot that does not attempt the green risks sticking the struck ball in that bunker. Needless to say, it is a difficult recovery that more or less takes par—and certainly birdie—off the table. The player who know he cannot carry the dune, and lays up in front of the dune, has a much easier time of it than the golfer who hits a long second shot that does not reach the green.

The answer for most American golfers, I’d say, is to hit it as far as possible anyway—even if there isn’t a reward at the other end. But that is the ruse of the Red’s thirteenth: sometimes it’s actually more “daring” to decline the dare. It may be worth noting that Thomas himself, at least as ventriloquized by the golf writer Geoff Shackelford, was rather pessimistic about that possibility of such a lesson ever being learned: “I sense that that the combination of technology, refined conditioning, the aerial game and the overall curiousity with fairness have combined to eliminate strategy,” says “Thomas” in an interview published in Golf Club Atlas, and these are signs, the great Californian concludes, of “a society willing to go to great lengths to avoid thought.” This may yet be unfair, however: the existence of the thirteenth at Streamsong’s Red is an argument to the contrary.

Advertisements

Windy Orders

Time flies like an arrow; fruit flies like a banana.
Modern Saying


There’s a story told at Royal Troon, site of the “Postage Stamp” par-three hole, about the lady golfer, playing into an extreme wind, who was handed her driver by her caddie. After she hit the shot, as the ball fell helplessly short against the gale, she shouted reproachfully, “You underclubbed me!” It’s a story that has a certain resonance for me—perhaps obviously—but also, more immediately, due to my present work at a golf course in South Carolina, where I have repaired following the arrival of snow in Chicago. It’s easy enough to imagine something similar occurring at Chechessee Creek’s 16th hole—which, if it did, might not furnish the material for a modest laugh so much as, in concurrence with the golf course’s next hole, demonstrate something rather more profound. 
     Chechessee Creek, the golf course where I am spending this late fall, is a design of the Coore/Crenshaw operation, and it’s very well known that Ben Crenshaw, one of the principals of the firm, considers Chicago Golf Club to be the epitome of good course design. It’s reflected in a number of features of the course: the elevated greens, the various “dunes” strewn about for no apparent reason. But it’s also true that Chicago Golf is, despite its much greater age, by far the more daring of the two courses: it has blind shots and incredibly risky greens where putts can not only fall off the green, but go bounding down the fairway twenty yards or more. There are places where at times it is better to hit a putt off the green deliberately—because that is the only way to get the ball to stop near the hole. Chechessee Creek, for good or ill, has none of these features.
     What it does have, however, is a sense of what David Mihm, writer of the EpicGolf website, calls “pacing.” “Golf is a game,” he points out, “that is experienced chronologically”—that is, it isn’t just the quality of the holes that is important, but also their situation within the golf course as a whole. “By definition,” he says, “part of a hole’s greatness must depend on where it falls in the round.” 
     Chicago Golf Club has that quality of pacing in abundance, starting with the very first hole, Valley. By means of a trompe l’oeil the hole, in reality a 450 yard monster of a par four, appears to be a quite sedate, much-shorter hole. It’s only upon seeing his drive “disappear” (into the concealed vale that gives the hole its name) that the golfer realizes that his eye has misled him. It’s a trick, sure, that would be fantastic on any hole—but is particularly appropriate on the first, since it signals to the golfer immediately—on the first shot of the day—that this is a different kind of golf course, and that he cannot trust what he sees. 
     I would not say that Chechessee Creek exemplifies that notion to the same degree; it may not be too much to wonder whether South Carolina, or at least the Lowcountry, Tidewater parts of it, might not be too level of a countryside really to lend itself to golf. (“All over the world,” says Anita Harris, the geologist turned tour guide in John McPhee’s monumental Annals of the Former World, “when people make golf courses they are copying glacial landscapes.” South Carolina, needless to say, did not experience the devastations of an ice sheet during the last Ice Age, or any other time.) Still, there is one set of holes that does exhibit what Mihm is talking about—and perhaps something more besides. 
     The sixteenth hole at Chechessee is, as perhaps might be put together, a long par three hole; so long, in fact, that it isn’t unlikely that a short hitter might use a driver there. But, of course, there is the small matter of pride to contend with—few (male) golfers ever want to concede that they needed a driver on a “short” hole. It’s something I saw often working at Medinah, when coming to the thirteenth hole—almost inevitably, someone would not hit the correct club because he took as it an affront to suggest hitting a driver or even a three wood. Fair enough, one supposes; these days, the long par three might be close to becoming a design cliche (and in any case, all iconic courses I have seen have one: Olympia Fields, Chicago Golf, and Butler do, as does Riviera). 
     Just having a long par three isn’t enough, obviously, to satisfy Mihm’s criteria, and it isn’t that alone that makes Chechessee unique or even interesting. What makes the course go is the hole that follows the sixteenth, the seventeenth (duh). It’s an intriguing design in its own right, because it is an example of a “Leven” hole. According to A Disorderly Compendium of Golf (and what better source?), Leven holes are modeled on the 7th at the Leven Links, a hole that no longer exists. The idea of it is simple: it is a short hole with an enormous hazard on one side of the fairway; at Chechessee, the hazard is a long-grassed and swampy depression. Thus, the question posed is, how much of the hazard will you dare? Bailing out to the side leaves the player with a poor, often obstructed view of the green; at Chechessee, that function is furnished by an enormous pine tree.
     Yet that dilemma alone isn’t the real crux of the matter—what matters is that the seventeenth follows the sixteenth. After all, at the sixteenth the golfer is tempted, by his own ego, not to hit enough club. Conversely, at the seventeenth, the golfer is tempted to hit too much club. The quandary posed at each tee, in short, is precisely the mirror of the other: failing to reach for a driver on the sixteenth can cause the player to demand it on the seventeenth—with disastrous consequences in each case. And that is interesting enough merely in terms of golf, to be sure. But what is likely far more intriguing about it is that the placing of these holes could not be better situated to illustrate—nay, perform—what two psychologists said about how the human mind actually works.  
      The psychologists were Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky—Kahneman recently received the Nobel Prize for his work with Tversky, who couldn’t receive the award because he died in 1996. What their work did was to uncover, by means of various experiments, some of the hidden pathways of the human mind: the “cognitive shortcuts” taken by the brain. One of these discoveries was the fact that human beings are “loss averse”—or, as Jonah Lehrer put it not long ago in the New Yorker, that for human beings “losses hurt more than gains feel good.” Kahneman and Tversky called this idea “prospect theory.” 
     The effect has been measured in golf. In a paper entitled “Is Tiger Woods Loss Averse? Persistent Bias In the Face of Experience, Competition, and High Stakes” two Wharton professors found that, for PGA Tour golfers, “the agony of a bogey seems to outweigh the thrill of a birdie.” What their data (from the PGA Tour’s ShotLink system, which measures the distance of every shot hit on tour) demonstrated was that tour players “make their birdie putts approximately two percentage points less often than they make comparable par putts.” Somehow, when pros are faced with a par putt instead of a birdie putt—even though they might be identical putts—they make the former slightly more than the latter. What that translates into is one stroke left on the table per tournament—and that leaves $1.2 million per year in prize money being given away by the top twenty players.
     It’s a phenomenon that’s been found again and again in many disparate fields: investors hold on to too many low-risk bonds, for instance, while condos stay on the market far too long (because their owners won’t reduce their price even during economic downturns), and NFL coaches will take the “sure thing” of a field goal even when it might actually hurt their chances of winning the game. This last, while being about sports, has also another dimension of application to golf: the way in which what can be called “social expectations” guides human decision-making. That is, how our ideas about how others judge us plays a role in our decisions.
     In the case of the NFL, studies have shown that coaches far more likely to make the decision to kick the ball—to punt or attempt a field goal—than they are to attempt a first down or a touchdown. This is so even in situations (such as on the opponent’s 2 yard line) where, say, scoring a field goal actually leaves the opponent in a better position: if the team doesn’t get the touchdown or first down, the opponent is pinned against his own goal line, whereas a field goal means a kickoff that will likely result in the opponent starting at the twenty yard line at least. NFL coaches, in other words, aren’t making these decisions entirely rationally. To some, it suggests that they are attempting to act conventionally: that is, by doing what everyone else does, each coach can “hide” better.
     What that suggests is just why golfers, faced with the sixteenth hole, are averse to select what’s actually the right club. Each golfer is, in a sense, engaged in an arms race with every other golfer: by taking more club than another, that implicitly cedes something to the player taking less. This, despite the fact that rationally speaking selecting a different club than another golfer does nothing towards the final score of each. Taking less club becomes a kind of auction—or as we might term it, a bidding war—but one where the risk of “losing face” is seen as more significant than the final score. 
     The same process is, if it exists at all, also at work on the seventeenth hole. But this time there’s an additional piece of information playing out in the golfer’s mind: whatever happened on the last hole. One plausible scenario—I’ve seen it happen—is that the player doesn’t take enough club on the sixteenth, and comes up short of the hole. Having made that decision, and been wrong, the golfer determines on the next hole to make the “sensible” choice, and lays up away from the hazard—leaving a difficult second shot to a small green. But here’s the thing: the “carry” on the tee shot on seventeen, which I’ve withheld until now, is only about 210 yards—which is about the same as that of the sixteenth hole. In other words, the reality is that—evaluated dispassionately—golfers should probably hit about the same club on each hole. If they don’t, it’s probably due to a collision between “prospect theory” and “pacing”—which is to say that the Coore and Crenshaw design of Chechessee Creek is, all things considered, clubbed about right.   

The Road to Ensenada

The road to Ensenada
Is plenty wide and fast …
— “The Road to Ensenada.”
Lyell Lovett.

 

****Update: Kyle “Voltaire” Stanley wins at Phoenix, vindicates idiot looping blogger! (See below.)


After Palm Springs for the Hope, the PGA Tour caravan hikes up out of the desert valley and over the mountains to the ocean and San Diego, a trip that goes—like our recent weather in Chicago—from summer to winter and back again in a few hours. The scenic route is Route 74 out past Bighorn Golf Club and what used to be Stone Eagle, the “Pines to Palms Highway.” I traveled Route 74 a few years ago to work the pro-ams at Torrey Pines at what was then the Buick and is now the Farmers’. Route 74 is a pretty stunning trip if you like your mountains steep and rocky and your roads narrow, and trying to gauge whether to pass a slowpoke car is a gamble with your life. It wasn’t a bet we took often, if we did at all. But that’s real life: in sports, the decision of whether to go or not go is a bit easier to calculate.

Once again the 18th hole at Torrey Pines is the subject of controversy, and just like last year it centers on the question of whether to go for the green or not on the second shot. This year, the subject of that debate is Kyle Stanley, not Michael Sims, and the situation was slightly different: Stanley was trying to protect a lead he already had, not attempting to chase down someone else. Still, like Sims, Stanley ultimately elected not to go for the green on his second shot, and the commentators have all ripped him and his caddie for the decision.

After another big drive—he averaged about 311 yards all week, and is currently second in that category this year—Stanley was looking at 240 yards over a pond to get to the green: not a shot that most amateurs would even consider. Consulting with his caddie, Brett Waldman (who was playing the Nationwide Tour himself last year), Stanley hit a routine shot down to 77 yards out, from which he hit a great wedge—a shot that was too good, as it turns out, because after flirting with the pin it spun back and into the pond fronting the green. Stanley then hit his next (fifth) shot 45 feet past the hole. He left his first putt three-and-a-half feet short, and finally missed his next to make eight.

Gary Van Sickle of Sports Illustrated was one critic. Van Sickle said in the “PGA Confidential” roundtable over at Golf that Stanley “should have blown his second over the green; the [grand] stands are a free drop.” Van Sickle is referencing a “Local Rule” that is adopted for the PGA Tour, an adaptation of Rule 24-2 of the Rules of Golf, “Immovable Obstruction,” that makes grandstands into “temporary immovable obstructions.” The provisions of the rule call for a free one-clublength drop from the obstruction, which is exactly what Arjun Atwal did to win the Wyndham Championship in 2010.

Facing an unpalatable 5-iron shot to the uphill final green off a downhill lie, Atwal elected to hit his second shot instead with a hybrid club that traveled into the grandstands surrounding the green. Whereupon, according to the rules, Atwal received a free drop near the green from where he made an up-and-down for a par and the win. Apparently, this strategy is now a popular choice among the press, and even some players—none of whom seem to consider that perhaps sending a golf ball at a gallery at somewhere north of 150 miles per hour is in any way questionable.

Steve Elkington, for instance, the sweet-swinging major winner (at Riviera in 1995) tweeted, “the only way to make 8 is LAYUP.” Stephanie Wei, of Golf, the Wall Street Journal, and her own blog, thought “sure [that] 90% or more of players/caddies on tour will tell you it was the wrong play.” Instead, “why not just go for it in two and airmail it into the grandstands?” This argument goes that even had the worst happened, and Stanley hit his ball into the pond, he would have been left with a relatively-easy up-and-down that, even with a three-putt, would still have led to a seven—which would have been enough to win the tournament. What all of these people argue is that Stanley should have Atwal’d—damn the consequences. But let’s leave aside a school of thought that advocates firing missiles at unarmed civilians from an un-returnable distance.

Stanley obviously didn’t Atwal. But while in any sport it’s always easy to criticize after the play has happened, it’s something else to be able to point to reasons that a given player or coach should or should not have done something before it happened—which is one reason why whether a given coach’s decision to go for it on fourth down or not has become such a hot topic among stats guys in the NFL these days. The premise of these investigations is to determine, so far as possible, whether a decision was a good one or not given what could have been known prior to the play. In other words, given what a coach could have known or should have known before the ball was snapped, did he make the right call or not?

Bill Barnwell for example, resident NFL stats guy at ESPN’s Grantland site, has been writing about this issue all season. A typical column is like the one he wrote back in November about Atlanta’s decision to try to convert a fourth-and-inches from their own 29-yard line against New Orleans that week in overtime: it didn’t work, New Orleans promptly went and kicked a field goal, and Michael Smith, the Falcons’ head coach, ended up taking a lot of heat—for a decision that, Barnwell argues, was actually the correct one.

The Saints, Barnwell pointed out in that column, had at that point in the season “the worst run defense in football,” and the Falcons had already converted four other fourth downs in that same game. And handing the ball back to Saints quarterback Drew Brees (remember, they were in overtime) wasn’t a fun option either: the “Falcons held the Saints to a three-and-out just twice during regulation,” and of the 10 times Brees had gotten the ball to that point in the game, he’d led four 50-yard-plus drives. According to advancednflstats.com, in that situation the Falcons had a 47 percent chance of winning by going for it and a 42 percent chance of winning if they punted—and even if they didn’t convert, they still had an 18 percent chance of winning because most often opponents that close to the goal line won’t really take a stab at the endzone and instead settle for a long field goal; and 50-yarders are still chancy in the NFL.

That doesn’t mean, of course, that the two situations are exactly analogous. But it does furnish a means of looking at Stanley and Waldman’s decision-making that isn’t just beating them up for having bad luck. Without having access to all of the Shotlink data on the PGA Tour’s website, it’s still possible to get a sense of the kind of player Stanley is—and that kind is bomber. This is a guy who hits the ball a long way: he ranks second on tour this year in driving distance. That would seem to argue for going for it: if 240 doesn’t mean a lot to him, why not go for the home run, i.e. putting the ball in the grandstands?

Yet despite being a longball guy, Stanley did not make a lot of eagles last year—or the year before. In fact, in the past three years he’s only made four eagles, putting him way outside the tour leaders in that category. That’s probably for two reasons: despite being long, Stanley isn’t very accurate from great distances: last year he ranked 73rd in Greens-In-Regulation from over 200 yards, hitting the green less than half the time. When he does hit the green, the ball tends to be quite a way from the hole: nearly fifty feet from 225 to 250 yards. And finally, like maybe a lot of long guys, Stanley isn’t that great of a putter: according to the new “Strokes Gained” stat, which measures how much a player is gaining or losing to the field on the greens, he ranked a lowly 126th, losing nearly a third of a stroke to the field on the green.

Not that Stanley is that great the closer he gets to the green necessarily: last year he ranked 91st in GIR from less than 75 yards. He didn’t even hit the green more than 90 percent of the time from that distance. (Though he was close at just over 88 percent.) But here’s where it gets interesting because, as Geoff Shackleford at shackleford.com points out, the 18th hole at Torrey isn’t that penalizing: despite the hole having a “hillocky, artificially-tiered overbuilt mess of a green complex,” Stanley still “could have hit it to three-quarters of the surface, put a lot of spin on the ball, and not brought the water into play.” And as far as the “hitting it into the stands” theory goes, check out this link to Graham McDowell’s recent adventure with a grandstand in Abu Dhabi on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GIom4D9zrC4.

McDowell, as it happens, got lucky enough to put the ball close to the hole on that shot, but would you be willing to bet a few hundred thousand dollars that you’d get a similarly lucky bounce? The premise of the “hit it in the grandstands” theory is that you get a free drop, which is true enough, but things can happen when the ball lands. (Like, say, hit a fan at 150 mph plus.) Anyway, aside from the risk to spectators, essentially what the “grandstand” theory says is that the surface of grandstands 240 yards away is much more predictable and receptive than that of a green 75 yards away. Would you be willing to bet your house on that? If so, there’s a road running south out of Palm Springs you might like to try.

Don’t look down.

***UPDATE, 5 Feb 2012:

It isn’t often that Voltaire and golf can get mentioned in the same sentence, but Kyle Stanley’s life’s story in the past two weeks constitutes at least as thorough a demolition of Spinoza and Leibniz as Voltaire’s Candide. “For each thing,” Spinoza argues in the Ethics, “there must be assigned a cause, or reason, both for its existence and for its nonexistence”; later, Leibniz would claim, more baldly, that “nothing happens without a reason”—an idea Voltaire ridiculed in Candide with the ironic slogan “all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds.” Those who argue that Stanley ought to have gone for the green on his second shot on his last hole at Torrey Pines on the final day of the tournament—thereby putting the fans surrounding the green at risk—are all Spinozists: they believe that everything must have a cause, and since Stanley not winning must have a cause they find it in the fact that Stanley did not go for the green. By winning this week in Arizona, Stanley has demonstrated both the reality of “brute facts”—inexplicable objects—and that this reality in no way lessens our own responsibilities either in terms of effort or intellect. Kyle “Voltaire” Stanley: it’s got kind of a ring to it, doesn’t it?

Fitzgerald and McIlroy Are NOT Dead—Yet

Guildenstern: Good my lord, vouchsafe me a word with you.
Hamlet III, 2

There’s a legendary looper I know somewhat who works mostly on the LPGA—but also has worked at Riviera and various other places—named Mike Troublefield. I last ran into him some years ago at Lochinvar, outside of Houston, Texas (where Butch Harmon spent some time before becoming guru to the stars). When I first met Troublefield, while I was working an LPGA tournament at Stonebridge outside of Chicago, he introduced me to the concept of the “yaddie”: a caddie who, no matter the circumstance, just says “yeah” to whatever nonsensical shot his player wants to hit. In Troublefield’s estimation, which is now mine, the worth of a caddie is shown by his willingness to say, at least once in a while, “no” to his player. It’s a point I’ve been thinking about this summer because of the recent focus on elite players’ caddies: not merely Steve Williams, but also through the rather lesser-known controversy over Rory McIlroy’s caddie, J.P. Fitzgerald.

During the Irish Open last month, McIlroy lost three shots during the first day of the tournament to shoot 70, which is a respectable score, but it caused an American ex-pro-turned-commentator named Jay Townsend to go into full-blown meltdown mode: Townsend said, via Twitter, not only that McIlroy’s course management was “shocking,” but also blamed it on Rory’s caddie, Fitzgerald, by saying that “I thought JP allowed some SHOCKING [sic] course management today.” Rory fired back, also via Twitter, by replying “shut up … You’re a commentator and a failed golfer, you’re opinion means nothing!” [sic]. All of which is tremendous fun, but also brings up a sensitive subject: namely, how much was J.P. to blame for McIlroy’s meltdown at Augusta in April? Or to put it Troublefield’s way: is J.P. a yaddie?

To be sure, in light of his victory at Congressional in June, the collapse in Georgia seems merely a prelude—rather like Bobby Jones walking off the course at St. Andrews in the summer of 1921—but at the time it seemed ominous, with many speculating that McIlroy might turn out like Sergio Garcia, another young phenom who never (or hasn’t yet) learned how to close out his rivals. Now such fears appear ridiculous, but the real question isn’t whether McIlroy is a world-class player (which now is answered), but the passage of time allows us to ask a different question about McIlroy’s failure: the question of just how much responsibility (or ability) a caddie has to derail a player from boarding a bogey train.

Unfortunately, there isn’t any video available to me (that I know of) of the first round of the Irish Open this year, so it’s unclear to me just what it was that Townshend was referring to in his tweets. But it is possible to view video of Rory’s 10th hole at Augusta—where McIlroy made the triple-bogey that began the string of bad holes that lost him the tournament—on YouTube, which provides the only neutral evidence of the relation between J.P. and Rory and what J.P.’s possible role in the blow-up might have been. So I watched it.

Before getting to what I saw, though, it’s important to note just what sort of limitations a caddie’s job has. Obviously, J.P. doesn’t hit the shots; he merely carries the bag and (occasionally) might provide a bit of counsel. J.P. didn’t hit the huge hook that ended up so far left of the 10th fairway that it was nearly left of the Butler Cabin—Rory did. Just as clearly, neither of them (but particularly J.P.) could not have seen that coming (though it’s been remarked that the hook is Rory’s “miss,” the shot he tends to hit when he loses focus). In other words, J.P. can’t bear responsibility for Rory’s drive.

To this point, Rory had been playing spectacularly well that week, since after all he was winning the tournament. Some might point to the bogies he made at the first hole and the fifth in the final rounds as foreshadows of what was to come, but J.P. could not have thought of them as anything other than bumps in the road: both holes are spectacularly difficult ones now after the several redesigns at Augusta in recent years. Maybe Rory might not have been playing so well as he had in the first round, but then there weren’t a lot of 65s shot this year so Rory was bound to regress to the mean in following rounds (he shot 69 and 70 respectively in rounds 2 and 3). Rory’s lead was four shots beginning the final round so, as J.P. must have known, it wouldn’t take a spectacular round for the Northern Irishman to win. (All it would have taken, in retrospect, is another 69 to beat Charl Schwartzel, the man who ended up winning.)

Despite the bogies on the front nine, McIlroy had made a birdie on the difficult 7th, so not everything must have looked bleak to J.P.. There were plenty of birdie holes coming up, so the caddie must have been thinking that even after the horrible drive, a bogey or even a miracle par weren’t out of the picture, which could still be saved by birdies or even eagles on the two five-pars at 13 and 15. It wasn’t a reason to panic. McIlroy smartly pitched out to the fairway on 10, leaving a not-too-difficult shot to the green for his third shot. It’s on what happened next that any question of J.P.’s role has to rest.

What McIlroy did was hit virtually the same shot that sent him into the trees off the tee—a big hook that sent him into the trees (again) left of the green. The television coverage cut away from McIlroy to show what was happening elsewhere on the golf course, and anyway J.P. wasn’t miked (as some Nationwide tournaments have done with caddies recently) so it’s hard to say what the two discussed on the way to the ball. Even then, J.P. could not have been panicking—although it’s unusual for a professional golfer to miss the same way twice on the same hole, J.P. must have known that a smart chip to the green, followed by a good putt, would still salvage bogey and Rory’s chances. The mistake J.P. made, if he did make one, could only have come prior to the next shot, Rory’s fourth.

That shot was a chip that hit a branch of a tree, thereby coming up short of the green and rolling back down a slope, virtually to Rory’s feet. If there’s anything that J.P. could have said before that moment it would have been, or should have been, something like “take the tree out of play” and “plenty of green behind the pin.” In other words, what J.P. should have emphasized was that Rory’s primary job for that shot was to get the ball on the green rather than try to cozy the ball next to the pin, which is apparently what Rory actually tried to do. By missing that shot, Rory made double-bogey a virtual certainty rather than a possibility, as it had been at every point before then.

That shot was, as it turns out, the climax of Rory’s tournament: he did go on to three-putt the 11th and four-putt the 12th, but it’s arguable that those misses were simply the result of what had already happened. Rory didn’t miss any more shots like he had on 10 (at least, none so badly); he just seems to have been rattled by the triple-bogey into putting poorly. It’s possible to say, especially about the four-putt, that J.P. should have taken his man aside and slowed him down, forcing him to focus on the putts and thereby preventing those horrible miscues, but it also seems clear that the crucial hole was the 10th.

Of all the shots, in turn, that McIlroy played on that hole (7 of them!), it follows that the most significant was his fourth, which was the one that made the triple possible in the first place. In other words, even aside from the fact that the fourth was the shot for par (as unlikely as that was), it was the shot that created the likelihood for what eventually happened: prior to then, McIlroy might still have made par, while afterwards the triple became not only possible, but even likely. For the purposes of determining what responsibility J.P. bears for McIlroy’s loss in April, then, the most important point would seem to be what happened before Rory hit that shot of all the shots he hit that day.

Unfortunately, the video doesn’t show what happened: whether, in short, player and caddie had any kind of discussion about how to play it. And, actually, it’s difficult to even make out just what happened on that shot at all: McIlroy suddenly appears, after a commercial break, behind some sort of bush or small tree, and hits the ball; immediately after, there’s the sinking sound of a ball striking wood: McIlroy struck the tree. The announcers do claim that McIlroy had to try to fly it over that bush, but the video doesn’t provide enough evidence either way: maybe he did, which seems likely given that the announcers were proximate (if they were), and maybe, given that Nantz at least wasn’t directly at the 10th hole, not.

What’s interesting about that aspect of the shot is that the alternative to the high-flying shot CBS’ announcers believed necessary is exactly the sort of shot one might think a golfer who grew up playing in linksland—as we might think Northern Ireland, home of Royal Portrush among other links courses, to be—would relish: a low-flying, then rolling, shot up the bank of the 10th green, thereby avoiding the tree branch. But, as McIlroy said during this year’s Open Championship, he isn’t really that sort of player: he prefers the high-ball American style of flop shot, down-the-chimney golf. And that’s the sort of shot he attempted on the 10th: a high shot that, had it not hit the branch, would have landed near the pin and, with the right spin, would have stayed there. Knowing his player’s preferences, J.P. might have decided that the odds favored the kind of shot Rory likes to hit, rather than one that he didn’t.

That is to say that the call J.P. made, whether he vocalized it or not, is at the end of the day a judgement call. It so happens that J.P. guessed wrong. But what Troublefield would want to know about what happened on the 10th is whether J.P. questioned his player about it or whether he just went along with whatever the boss said. As I’ve mentioned there isn’t anything at least in the public record about what happened in the moments before that fourth pass, but there are two people who do know: J.P. and Rory.

For the moment, and particularly after the U.S. Open, Rory is happy with J.P.’s performance, which seems to indicate that J.P. did say what needed to be said at that time. But what will ultimately let us know about what happened in the valley of Augusta’s 10th on that Sunday in April is what Rory decides to do about J.P. after the season is over, when he has a moment to calmly reflect on a season where he might have started out halfway to a Grand Slam but let it slip away on a grassy Georgian knoll.

The Kong of Golf

“There are generally,” Nick Paumgarten at The New Yorker wrote recently, “two approaches to thinking about games: narratology and ludology.” Paumgarten is writing a profile of Shigero Miyamoto, the “King of Videogames”—he is the man behind Donkey Kong, Super Mario Brothers, the Legend of Zelda series, and another bunch of zillion-selling videogames that have literally changed the terms not merely of videogames, but childhood itself. By “narratology” and “ludology,” Paumgarten means two things: the second is how a game plays, or its mechanics; the first, however, is the story a game tells. But the division between the two is far older than videogames.

One way to think of the distinction is to think of Arnold Palmer, the King of Golf. One reason for his title is because (according to myth) he always went for every shot. He was, in sum, a master of ludology—he could hit the most difficult shots. Palmer only thought of hitting the best possible shot on every occasion. Of course, Palmer didn’t really, because golf is not just about hitting golf shots, but that’s how people remembered him.

People today tend to forget about a golf course’s narratological aspects, I think, for several reasons, one perhaps being Palmer’s example. But Palmer, despite a swing that most people think of as at best unorthodox, is also perhaps behind what might be a significant reason for narratology’s decline: the rise of golf pro at the expense of the caddie.

It’s a subject I’ve discussed before, but essentially the point is this: golf pros teach a particular way of swinging the club. They take no account of the particular situation a golfer might be in—every swing, on the practice range, takes place in an idealized space, with no reference to what happened before—or what might happen afterwards. Or, in short, the way Palmer played.

Learning golf from a golf pro is in Paumgarten’s terms, an exercise in ludology. What a caddie does, however, is quite different. The caddie’s job is to select the best shot for the golfer at that moment. It is not to find a shot the golfer might be able to hit with another hundred or thousand repetitions, it is to find the one that will work now—with reference to the shots the golfer has already hit during that round, and with reference to the ones the golfer will likely have to hit to reach the green. To put it in philosophic terms, the golf pro is a Platonist, dealing with ideal conditions, while the caddie is an Aristotelian, dealing with gritty reality.

Golfers, used to learning to play on driving ranges with instruction either from a golf pro or—perhaps more likely—a friend or relative influenced by the teachings of golf pros, become accustomed to the ideal space created by the range. They take each shot as a singularity, expecting to play the shot as if they would at the range where if they fail they can always just tee up another ball. They forget about the shots they’ve hit previously and forget their next shot should not be their best shot—the one they might be able to hit under ideal conditions at the range—but the one they are likely to hit. But the driving range is not the golf course, and ludology alone is not golf.

Golf, like videogames, has that other element described by Paumgarten—narratology. There is a story to each course, and each round played on every course has its own story. This is perhaps less surprising than it might appear—Milman Perry and Albert Lord discovered in the 1930s that epic poetry, like The Iliad or The Odyssey, was originally an oral form composed around discrete episodes, each of which had to be completed before moving to the next. Every poet or bard who recited or sang an epic might recite it slightly differently each time—using alternate line readings, perhaps—but each recitation took place within an organized frame. Just so, videogames proceed according to differing “levels,” within which the player might take any number of different actions, but that proceed until the end of the game.

Golf is played in that sort of space: each hole is like a “level” in a videogame, or an episode in an epic poem. The narratological aspect of a course is recognized by the fact that holes on particularly well-known courses, like videogame levels or episodes in an epic, have distinct names. The Odyssey for instance has episodes like “Scylla and Charybdis,” Level One of Donkey Kong is called “Barrels,” St. Andrews has the Road Hole and the 12th at Augusta National is “Golden Bell.” These names aren’t merely a useful shorthand to remember the hole, or simply picturesqueness. They are also reminders of what golf is—and at times, a clue as to how to play.

Those names are also reminders to golf architects that the job is not just to construct interesting holes, but also to string them together well. No golf course, for instance, ought to begin with the toughest hole—like a videogame, courses should begin with easier holes and gradually (or not so gradually) become more difficult. But that’s a relatively easy assignment. What’s more interesting—and perhaps a mark of a superior architect—is to construct a hole that depends for its interest upon an earlier hole, that builds upon the past.

The interest of the 8th at Riviera Country Club for instance depends on the fact that from the 7th tee the golfer has to hit a shot into a very narrow landing area. On the 8th tee the golfer has to choose between two different landing zones: a broad one on the right fairway and a tight one on the left fairway. Naturally, if the tee shot on the 7th was troublesome the right fairway on the 8th will look more inviting—but that sets up a more difficult approach to the green. It’s precisely for this reason that a good caddie can be helpful: a skilled player who for some reason had trouble on the 7th might elect to take the right side without a caddie in his ear.

That’s one reason why golf architects and caddies are natural allies—and both are enemies of that other reason narratology is often lost by golfers: the golf cart. To understand golf’s narratology needs a slow examination of each hole, which is to say that an appreciation of narratology requires walking.

Zipping from shot to shot means missing the connection of each shot to the next, and each hole to the ones following. Without those connections the golfer loses the plot, like the reader who reads The Odyssey for the battles, or the videogamer who uses the cheat codes. Riding a golf cart, in that sense, isn’t playing golf at all.

Most guides to golf courses, the kind the upscale courses put on their yardage books, are written by golf pros and as such are written from a ludological perspective. The pro tells you where to hit your tee shot and then how to hit the approach. I’ve never seen any guides written from a narratological standpoint, though I think these would probably be more useful.

Such guides would be written by way of at least two or three different viewpoints: one for the skilled player, which would probably be closest to the guides written by pros, and at least one other for the less-skilled player. I have rather an ambition to write such a guide at least for the golf courses I’m familiar with most. If Arnold Palmer is the King of Golf, perhaps there’s room for Kong.

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.

Golf Architecture as Narrative Art

You think you can leave the past behind,
You must be out of your mind.
If you think you can simply press rewind,
You must be out of your mind, son
You must be out of your mind.
—Magnetic Fields “You Must Be Out Of Your Mind.” Realism.

I sometimes get asked just what the biggest difference is between the amateur and the professional games are, and about as often I want to say, “Amateurs always start on the first tee.” This is a smart-alecky remark, but it isn’t just smart-alecky. For over a century the United States Open sent every player off from the first tee the first two days of the tournament, a tradition that ended in 2002 at Bethpage in New York. Now, only the Masters and the Open Championship in the U.K. still start everyone on the first tee every day. Mostly nobody notices, in part because televised golf encourages a kind of schizoid viewing habit: we skip from hole to hole, shot to shot, seemingly at random, without order.

“Here’s Ernie at 11,” the announcer will say, never mind that the last thing we saw was the leaders hitting their approach shots into 7, and right before that we saw Player X finishing up at 18. All of this approaches the golf course like a deck of cards to be dealt at random: which is precisely the opposite of how the amateur player always sees a golf course, one hole at a time.

Pro golf, both on television and the way the players themselves experience it, is different. A golf course, like a book, is designed to be played in a certain order, which makes golf architecture different from other kinds of architecture or other kinds of art like painting or sculpture, as much as the brochures and the television announcers like to make mention of this week’s “breathtaking beauty.” Golf architecture though has just as much in common with temporal arts like music or narrative: what’s important isn’t just what’s happening now but what’s happened before.

Did the architect create the illusion that those bunkers weren’t a problem on the last hole, causing you to play safe on this one—or vice versa? Maybe two greens with similar-looking slopes will play differently because the grain runs differently on each. There’s a lot of games architects can play that take advantage of what we’ve learned—or thought we learned—on previous holes.

Mostly though the obvious tricks are easily discovered, or only work once. Courses like that are like murder mysteries spoiled after somebody tells you just how Mr. Green bought it from a rutabega poisoned by the maid, who turns out to be employed by and who the hell cares. What makes a course worth playing is one that continues to bewilder, even after you know the secret of it. Nobody gives a damn if you know “Rosebud” was the sled—Citizen Kane is still good. Good architecture, I would submit, tells a story.

Maybe the best example of what I mean is Riviera Country Club in Los Angeles, where the tour plays the L.A. Open every year. Widely acclaimed as an architect’s dream course, Riviera is also remarkably fun to play while still being one of the toughest tracks the professionals play every year. The first tee begins a few steps, quite literally, from the clubhouse, on a patch of grass high above the rest of the course. The tee shot drops out of the sky just as you do from the heights—Icarus (or Lucifer) plummeting, as Milton says, “toward the coast of Earth beneath,/Down from th’ Ecliptic, sped with hop’d success.” The first is the easiest hole on the course, a par five with the tee not only elevated, but a wide landing zone to receive the shot. The green is wide, and in general it’s a lullaby of a hole.

The second, however, turns the tables quickly. It’s a long dog-legged par four with out-of-bounds (the driving range) left and trees right: the tee shot is either to a narrow piece of fairway or the riskier shot over the neck of the dogleg on the right over the trees. Either way, the approach is to a very narrow green with deep bunkers left and a hillside with very tall rough on the right. The professionals regard a four here as dearly as a five is cheap on the first hole. Usually the second is the toughest hole on the course every year.

Whereas the first hole rewards the bomber, the second favors the straight-shooter. In other words, what worked on the first hole is exactly what’s penalized on the next, and vice versa. Riviera continues on like this all the way around the course, giving and taking away options throughout and always mixing it up: what worked on the last hole won’t necessarily work on the next; in fact, following the same strategy or style of play is exactly what leads to big numbers.

What’s really astonishing about Riviera is that it doesn’t matter whether you know what’s coming: just because you know the first hole is easy, and why, and the second is hard, and why, doesn’t change things. There isn’t any short-cut—such as is often found on the videogame Golden Tee for instance—that, once discovered, ends the problem the next hole presents. That ability to confound is something rare in a golf course. Most courses reward a particular style—Jack Nicklaus’ courses are notorious for rewarding high fades, the shot Nicklaus liked to hit in his prime.

The great courses, though, not only mix up styles, but also tell a story. As Rob says in High Fidelity, “You gotta kick it off with a killer to grab attention. Then you gotta take it up a notch. But you don’t want to blow your wad. So then you gotta cool it off a notch. There are a lot of rules.” Rob’s point owes something perhaps to Stanley Fish, the Miltonist, who argued in Surprised By Sin that the way Paradise Lost works is to ensnare the reader constantly, setting up one expectation after another, dashing each in turn.

At Riviera, for instance, the first two holes raise hopes and then dash them—or conceivably raise them to a higher pitch, should you somehow make a miraculous birdie on the second. The rest of the course continues to toy with a player’s mind. Two years ago Geoff Ogilvy, the Australian pro I’ve written about before, talked with Geoff Shackelford of Golf Digest about the short 10th hole and how important that hole’s place in the routing is:

“The eighth and ninth holes are very hard, but you know that the 10th and 11th [a reachable par 5] offer a couple of birdie or even eagle chances. So [the 10th hole] sits in the round at the perfect time,” says Ogilvy. “It’s definitely a much better hole than it [would be] if you teed off there to start your round when the dynamics just aren’t nearly the same.”

Sequence matters in other words even if, as at Riviera, players are guaranteed to have to start at least one round on the 10th hole because the first two days use split tees.

Medinah, where I usually work, often takes a lot of crap from the big-name golf writers on just that point: Bradley Klein, for instance, who’s not only the architecture critic for Golfweek but was also PGA Tour caddie and a professor of political science, doesn’t think much of the course. In 1999, he said it was “stunningly mediocre.” Klein doesn’t convince me. Maybe it’s because I am—maybe more so than anyone on the planet—familiar with the course, but it might also be that Klein either isn’t aware of the role of narrative in architecture, or isn’t familiar enough with Medinah to understand its narrative.

There’s a stretch of holes, for instance, that I think illustrate what I’ll call the High Fidelity or Paradise Lost principle pretty well: the ninth through the eleventh. The first and the last hole of this stretch are both dogleg-left four pars, sandwiching a long five par that goes directly into the prevailing wind. The ninth and the eleventh are both similar-looking holes to the unwary: both require you to choose either to try to carry the dogleg with a driver off the tee or lay-up with some other club. But the tee shot on nine is into the prevailing wind and uphill, while the eleventh is with the prevailing wind and downhill. What worked on the first one won’t work on the other. In addition, the tenth is so long, and into the wind, that the player usually thinks more club is necessary on the eleventh tee—but that’s usually exactly the wrong choice.

Medinah just underwent a renovation last year—again—so I will see how the changes went and report back on them here. What I wanted to do here first though was to describe a bit about how I’m going to understand that change, which is to evaluate the golf course through the story it tells. Playing the course as the architect meant it to be played is one advantage the amateur has over the professional. The PGA Tour isn’t far removed from the shotgun starts that are a feature of your typical pro-am event, where it doesn’t matter what hole you start on. But enjoying the structure, the internal logic, of course design is not only one of the game’s pleasures, but also I think a means of improving your own golf: understanding what the architect wants is a big step towards lowering your score. “But to convince the proud what signs avail?” Milton says in Paradise Lost, “Or wonders move the obdurate to relent?” Reading the signs in order, I think, is the amateur’s one advantage over the professional—it is a pleasure not unlike the bite of a noted apple.