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.

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Black Swans and Red Numbers

Camilo Villegas’ low opening round at the Phoenix Open on Thursday was so low that it has allowed him to hold on to the lead despite a 69 on Friday—not that two under is a bad score, but if Villegas wants to win the tournament 69 will probably have to be his worst round of the week. Robert Allenby, the Australian golfer who I have discussed here before (“‘Caddie Killer’ or Killed by Grooves?”), had what might be regarded as the good fortune to shoot his 69 on Thursday, and is moving up the leaderboard today. Allenby isn’t the only one, but I have discussed him before and he is from Australia, home of cyngus atratus, the black swan.

As it happens, black swans are not merely ornithological curiousities, but also furnish the title of a recent book called The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable by a man with the improbable name of Nassim Nicholas Taleb, whose thinking has greatly influenced how I have thought about scoring in golf. (Like the segue?) Anyway, Villegas’ performance thus far in this tournament brings up an addendum to my post about match-play, “Match the Emperor,” where I argued that in a stroke-play tournament a double-bogey was much more hurtful to a golfer than an eagle was helpful, despite the fact that both were an equal distance (plus or minus two) from par. Learning why will also teach you why anybody who compares golf to life is an idiot—especially if they are handling your money.

In match-play, I said, a double-bogey is not as harmful as it is during stroke-play. The addendum I want to discuss now is that while there is an asymmetry during a single round, my suspicion is that asymmetry also lessens the more rounds there are. What that means is that a double-bogey during the six-round Q-School finals—the tournament that can get an aspiring tour player his “card,” exemption, for the following year’s tour—should be less harmful than a double-bogey during a regular (4-round) tour stop, which in turn should be less harmful than it might be on the LPGA or Champions (nee Senior) tour, where they often play only three-round tournaments. Before, I tried to say that the amateur tends to regard the double-bogey and the eagle as equivalent, because they look that way on the scorecard, but that the professional knows that this is not true. Now, I want to show how that asymmetry can vary depending on the circumstances—but that there is always some asymmetry, that the double-bogey is always more harmful than the eagle is helpful.

To illustrate the point, I’m going to draw on the work of Taleb, who hasn’t written anything about golf but has written a great deal about the finance industry, which has certain similarities to golf—perhaps not accidentally, since it’s arguable that both are Scottish. Taleb begins by noting that the discovery of black swans in Australia was a great surprise for Europeans—before that, a “black swan” was a mythical animal, like a unicorn. (Presumably, white swans had something of the same effect on the Aborigines, though probably the huge boats and guns were even more surprising.) Thinking about it later, the British philosopher John Stuart Mill, following on David Hume (a Scot!), wrote that “No amount of observations of white swans can allow the inference that all swans are white, but the observation of a single black swan is sufficient to refute that conclusion.” If all the swans so far have been white, that is, a single black swan in effect outweighs all of them.

What Taleb wants to argue is that are thus valuable exactly insofar as they are rare—if there are about equal numbers of white swans and black swans, then a single new one won’t really change things very much. Here’s where the financial angle comes in, though I’m not going to get very far into the details: the inference Taleb draws is that, precisely because “black swans” (or rare events) are so rare they can never be properly valued by a given market. If they could be, then they wouldn’t be rare. QED. That fact, he says, has certain consequences for correct strategy in the financial markets.

Because human beings are wired the way they are, Taleb says—the arguments here are involved and not really germane—we prefer to have small but continuing successes. Hard work, we say, pays off; it’s better to be ant than the grasshopper, and so on. But as Taleb points out, there is no difference between gaining one bean a day for fifty days and getting no beans for 49 days and then harvesting fifty on the fiftieth day—or, say, planting fifty beans on one day in order to get 100 beans fifty days later. All of these methods have the same result: you are plus fifty beans at the end. As human beings, though, we prefer the first strategy to the others: there’s a steady reward every day, and at some deep level—Taleb thinks it’s biological, but it doesn’t make a difference—that’s comforting.

To put it another way, we would prefer to continue counting white swans. Black swans are disturbing. As rare events, they can be analogized to the method of getting no beans and then getting a whole bunch all at once. There you are, counting white swans, when all of a sudden a black one shows up. That is not a comfortable situation for most human beings: the Australian birds were so disturbing they made two giants of European philosophy think about them at length. Who the hell cares? They’re birds. So what?

The “so what” is that, again, “black swans”—rare events—are always undervalued. So what Taleb says most investors would be better off doing is the strategy that he follows. The mechanics aren’t important, but suffice it to say that Taleb actually loses a bit of money every day. What Taleb says is that because he is waiting for a rare event, when it happens it will be so undervalued by the market that his returns will overwhelm his losses. That sounds more than a little insane, of course. Conversely, people who pursue the opposite strategy, making a bit of money every day, will appear like hardworking, solid leader-types.

Until they blow up.

There they are, in other words, industriously counting their white swans, which continuously and regularly show up every day without any trouble. And then, one day, a black swan shows up on some distant continent somewhere. Or maybe the Russian government decides to default on their bonds all of a sudden—which, foreshadowing the events of the last year, caused the hedge-fund Long Term Capital Management to collapse and nearly take the global financial system, or at least the American branch of same, with it. Or some jackasses fly into a building. Or shoot the nation’s leader. Or, on the other side, a member of some oppressed group becomes the nation’s leader. Or that sports team famous for never winning finally does. And so on.

Betting on the unexpected, in other words, is a lock—something unexpected is going to happen. It’s guaranteed, if by nothing else than by the human proclivity for white swans. There is, of course, one problem with this idea, which the experienced will have spotted a mile a way. It’s the same problem faced by poker players: sure, such a strategy will always work—with an unlimited bankroll. What Taleb wants to say is that there are ways to structure your bets to get around that problem, because there are many more bets available in Chicago, New York, or London or Tokyo than are available at a casino. And more importantly, while the odds of blowing up (going bankrupt) can be calculated fairly precisely in poker or any human game, just so are they incapable of being so calculated in real life. There are infinitely more possible outcomes in reality than there are in a game.

Any golfer who tried to follow Taleb’s advice, after all, would very quickly exit the game. You can’t, in other words, bogey every hole—and then shoot 99 under par on the last hole to win by two. The outcome has been artificially constrained: that is exactly what makes golf a game. There isn’t any way to shoot a quadruple albatross, say. In that sense, following what we could call the “white swan” strategy in golf—or, “avoid all double-bogies”— is very wise. But what Taleb wants us to see is that following that sort of strategy in real life (or at least, the capitalist version of it contained in the financial markets) wouldn’t just be imprudent, but suicidal: it’s the only strategy guaranteed to fail.

Many commentators have noted the golf scores of Bernie Madoff, the Ponzi schemer, demonstrate the point. National Public Radio (thanks, federal government!) asked Drew Baden, head of the physics department at the University of Maryland, to look at Madoff’s scores as reported to the USGA per his handicap, and Baden found “Madoff’s scores make a nice bell curve.” Baden says that Madoff’s scoring was even more consistent than Tiger Woods’—a man who, aside from anything else, has missed the cut at something like less than ten tournaments in his career. It’s arguable, in fact, that Tiger Woods is the most consistent golfer in the history of the world—the rare outlier, or black swan, of all those playing a white swan strategy, we might say—(!)—but according to his scores, Madoff was even more consistent. That’s astonishing because even a scratch golfer is expected to throw in a score of 85 once in a while. Madoff was not a scratch golfer—he was a 10—but only 3 rounds in 20 were more than two shots different from his usual score of 84. It’s absurd: almost certainly Madoff was cheating.

That’s interesting not intrinsically to be sure but because Madoff in his business life routinely reported the same steady rate of return every year to his investors, usually around ten per cent to fifteen per cent I understand. But as a number of financial people have observed, such consistent returns are no more so, and almost assuredly less so, than on a golf course. Investment funds never perform that way: they will have some years where they go up twenty-five percent and years where they might drop ten. Madoff’s “errors” thus also each mirror the other. The financial crimes are the same as the golf “crimes”—smart people, in either case, should have known better. Madoff’s investors—attracted by the steady rate of return—should have known such results were highly improbable, just because they seemed so probable. Taleb calls this the “Ludic fallacy”: thinking that reality can behave like controlled situations, like games. Or, to put it another way, Madoff’s investors mistook golf for life.

Getting back to reality, or at least that representation of it called the PGA Tour, Robert Allenby shot another 69 today. He made six birdies and four bogies. Two of the bogies came on par-fives though; making a six on a par-five is almost as bad as making a double-bogey, because it means giving up almost two shots to the field (mathematically it is probably something like 1.6 or something). Allenby ended up about where he was yesterday, but he got Linda Ronstadted by those now above him on the leaderboard, most of whom had four to six under rounds today. In that sense, a low round can be, in effect, a kind of unexpected black swan in a game that for the most part militates against wild swings of fortune. While you can’t have a super low hole that can right a bad round suddenly, you can have a super low round that can move you from 48th to sixth, as Hunter Mahan did today. This afternoon, to demonstrate the other side of the point, Camillo Villegas shot even par to drop from first to fifth.

Brandt Snedeker is your leader with a 66 after the third round, five under par. On the 14th, Snedeker saved a bogey with a thirty-two-foot putt, thus avoiding a double-bogey. It was the first bogey Snedeker made in 27 holes. He’s leading therefore because he has been the best at following the “white swan” strategy that golf demands. What would be great to know is if these players were consciously following these strategies: are the guys who are laying up on the par-fives making more birdies, or are the players all going for it and it just happens to have worked out for some and not for others? At the highest levels of the game, does strategic thinking make a difference, or not? My suspicion—since I think it does at the levels I have seen, which includes only one step removed from the tour—is that it does. It certainly does where most of us play, which is why the best advice to a golfer is always, “It’s just a game.” Golf isn’t as ridiculous.

“Caddie Killer” or Killed By Grooves?

The Bay Hill tournament isn’t until the end of March, but I was thinking about it this week watching Torrey Pines (I think it will be policy here to refer to tournaments by their locations or old names unless somebody wants to give me a check, and anyway Farmers Insurance didn’t buy the name until a week before the opening tee shot) because of Robert Allenby. On the 14th hole on Sunday, Allenby was just a couple of shots off the lead, still with a real chance to win the tournament. What happened next has become exhibit A in the “debate” over the rule changes the USGA has made this year about groove changes, but my mind drifted to another situation faced by another player last year at Bay Hill. It might be that what happened to Allenby didn’t have so much to do with rule changes as it does with Allenby—and how he deals with caddies.

The situation I recalled was the one facing Sean O’Hair at the 16th during last year’s tourney at Arnold Palmer’s place in Florida, one of the first tournaments to put microphones on players and caddies during a round. O’Hair started the day with a five shot lead over Tiger Woods, who had slowly run O’Hair to ground throughout the day until Woods tied O’Hair with a birdie at 15. At 16 they stood level, and O’Hair faced one of the biggest shots of his life. His caddie, Paul Tesori, himself a former tour player, urged O’Hair to take more club because of the dropping temperatures—cooler air means less ball distance—but O’Hair, 26 years old, refused the advice of the older man. The result seemed scripted: O’Hair rinses, Tiger makes a ridiculous birdie putt (for the second time in two years) to win the tournament on the 18th. But the best part was on the 18th fairway, when Tesori told O’Hair to take more club, “since we’ve established the ball isn’t going as far …” I.e., since your stupidity just us cost about a half-million dollars, kid. One of the all-time great examples of a good looper’s importance.

Anyway, about Allenby: on the 14th at Torrey Pines he ended up hitting his shot over the green and down a cliff, at least 20 yards too long. The golf press is taking this as a sign regarding the new “groove rules,” which have the effect of reducing spin the ball takes as it leaves the clubface; spin being what controls trajectory, and hence distance. But I had a completely different thought: Allenby’s nickname among tour loopers is “Caddie Killer” because he likes to hire and fire his caddies often; he’s also something of a bear to work for, at least on the course it seems. Looked at from this perspective, the problem groove here might be in Allenby’s head, not his golf club’s.

Looking over the shot at 14, Allenby had 162 yards to the pin. That isn’t a big distance for a tour pro: the longer hitters at that distance under perfect circumstances might be hitting a 9 iron. But Allenby’s circumstances were not perfect: he was in the rough. In past years that would not have been much of an issue because the wide grooves on irons then forced grass and moisture away from the ball at impact, causing the ball to behave much as it would from the fairway. With the new rules, however, shots from the rough have become more of a crapshoot, as it used to be years ago. If water or grass gets between the ball and the clubface, the ball does not spin as much, meaning it will (usually) go higher and tend to roll forward instead of landing gently. In the lingo, it’s called a “flier.” Allenby’s caddie, Mike Waite, wanted to go with a 6 iron; Allenby, fearful of hitting the dreaded flier, wanted to go with an 8. They compromised with a 7. This time though, unlike O’Hair and Tesori’s situation, the player was right and not the caddie—but the result was the same: a blown tournament.

The question is, which the golf press seems to miss, is whether this was really a case of “bad grooves.” The rule was originally made in order to create a “backdoor rollback”—by changing the clubs, and not the ball, the USGA would in theory reduce tee shot distance because players wouldn’t risk hitting it into the rough if they didn’t know how they could recover. By changing the clubs, instead of the ball, the USGA didn’t risk getting sued by ball manufacturers (that ballmakers and clubmakers are for the most part the same companies seems irrelevant). In recent years driving accuracy has become an almost meaningless statistic: all that matters has been how far, not where, because you could always recover from almost anywhere since the lie your ball got was almost irrelevant. Allenby’s situation—compounded by the fact that Allenby also airmailed the 18th green two weeks ago in Hawaii to blow that tournament—seems to confirm the USGA’s theory.

There are however a couple of reasons for the bluejackets in Far Hills to hold off with the backpatting just yet. In the first place, and here I speak from some experience, Torrey Pines is widely known among tour caddies as a notoriously unfriendly place to loop. The weather is often unpredictable and the sea air can vary wildly from day-to-day: a club that works at one distance one day might go a different distance on another. The sprinkler heads with the yardage markers are few and hard to find. One commentator said it was likely there would be more weird flier situations like Allenby’s, where the ball either failed to reach or sailed over a green—before the tournament. That’s calling your shot. But what that means is that the USGA’s theory might not be proved by Allenby’s mishap on 14.

What it might mean is that Allenby needs to re-evaluate his teamwork with his caddie. I was unable to discover just how long Mr. Waite has worked for Allenby, so I don’t know if they have a long-standing relationship or what. Allenby though has a history as a hire-and-fire guy it appears: did that play a role in what happened? Was Waite asking Allenby, say, to hit a knockdown 6-iron (a shot that doesn’t travel as far as a full shot), a suggestion that Allenby didn’t take the time to understand fully before making his decision? (With commercials, it’s hard to tell how long the two conferenced before pulling the trigger.) Or did Waite just, as loopers say, fuck up with a bad number or a bad judgment about how the shot would play? Even that latter doesn’t make Waite a bad caddie necessarily—maybe he hasn’t had very long to work with Allenby, and isn’t really sure about Allenby’s distances or just his style of play. Some players want a caddie to talk them down from the brink, others want their caddie to challenge them to perform. Any of these are possible, despite the instant analysis that blamed the “groove rule.”

What all of this highlights is the very real importance of the player-caddie relationship on the tour, something that is often lost in these days of laser-shot distances and precisely-fitted clubs. Focusing on the “groove rule” does fit with the ruling ethos about that relationship, which is “well, ultimately it’s the player’s decision.” But while that is true enough, it also doesn’t help Allenby figure out what to do next: if it wasn’t the groove rule—and there really isn’t any way to know unless both Allenby and Waite agree to say something, because they’re the only ones who know if it was or not—then should Allenby fire Waite and get somebody else? Or learn to work with loopers better? And more importantly, it’s just wrong: it turns what could be an interpersonal problem into a technological one without determining if it is a technological problem. But then, there’s a lot more places about which that could be said than pro golf.