Luck of the Irish

 … I hear him mock
The luck of Caesar, which the gods give men
To excuse their after wrath.
Antony and Cleopatra V, ii

Stephanie Wei, the ex-Yalie golf blogger, recently got her press credentials revoked for the crime of filming tour players during a non-televised Monday practice round at the WGC-Match Play using a live-stream video app. According to her own account, the tour said that her “live-streaming of behind-the-scenes content had violated the Tour’s media regulations.” Wei has admitted that the tour did have a right to take away her credentials (it’s in her contract), but she argued in response that her work produced “fresh, interesting and different content,” and thus enhanced the value of the tour’s product. Wei’s argument however, as seductive as it might be, is a great example of someone manipulating what Thomas Frank has called “the titanic symbolic clash of hip and square” for their own ends: Wei wants to be “hip”—but her actual work is not only just as “square” as any old-school sportswriter who didn’t see fit to mention that Ty Cobb was one of the meanest and most racist men in America, or that Mickey Mantle was a nihilistic drunk, but in fact might be even more harmful.

As Thomas Frank was writing so long ago as the 1990s, the new digital economy has been sold as an “economic revolution,” celebrating “artists rather than commanders, wearers of ponytails and dreamers of cowboy fantasies who proudly proclaim their ignorance of ‘rep ties.’” In contrast to the old world of “conformity, oppression, bureaucracy, meaninglessness, and the disappearance of individualism”—in a word, golf—the new would value “creativity” and “flexibility.” It’s the bright new world we live in today.

So inevitable does that narrative appear that of course Deadspin, the hipsters’ ESPN, jumped on it. “It’s not surprising,” proclaimed Samer Kalaf, “that the PGA Tour, a stuffy organization for a stuffy sport, is being truculent over something as inconsequential as this, but that doesn’t make it any less ridiculous.” The part of Judge Smails (Caddyshack’s prototypical stuffed shirt) is played in this drama by the PGA Tour’s Ty Votaw, who told that in the eyes of the tour, what Wei did was “stealing.” On the theory of the tour, what Wei did extracted value from the tour’s product.

Wei herself, to be sure, had a different theory about her actions. Wei wrote that her purpose in transmitting the “raw, alternative footage”—excellent use of buzzwords!—was to “spread fanfare.” In other words, Wei was actually doing the PGA Tour a favor because of her hip, new kind of journalism. It’s an argument you are probably familiar with, because it is the same one the venues that don’t pay bands, or the companies that tell you to take an internship, or people who tell you to “get on YouTube” make: think of the exposure, man!

Yet while Wei pleads her case on the basis of her hepcat, app-using new jive journo-ing, in fact her stuff isn’t much, if any, different from the bad old days of sports reporting, when writers like Grantland Rice were more interested in palling around with the athletes (and, more worryingly, the owners) than with the audience. The telling detail can be found in her coverage of Rory McIlroy’s win at the very same tournament she got busted at: the Match Play.

The Match Play, obviously, is conducted under match play rules and not stroke play, which meant that, to win, Rory McIlroy had to win seven consecutive matches. In several of those matches, McIlroy came from behind to win, which prompted the following from Wei: “What I found the most interesting [what? Wei is missing a noun here] about McIlroy’s victory,” Wei wrote, “and his route to the winner’s circle was the way he found another gear when he was losing late in the match.” This McIlroy is not the same McIlroy as the one “we knew two years ago”—he is “a more mature one that knows how to dig deep.” Wei thusly repeats one of the most standard sorts of sportswriting cliche.

What of it? Well, the difficulty with this particular cliche, the reason why it is not “on a par” with those jolly old-school fellows who didn’t mention that a lot of ball players took speed, or cheated on their wives, or beat them, or that the owners were chiseling everyone for pennies on the dollar while looking the other way as men’s brains were slowly battered into jello—oh wait, that still happens—is that it justifies a species of rhetoric that gets repeated in many other arenas of life. (The most important of them being, of course, the economic.) That is the rhetoric of “toughness,” the “intangibles,” and so on—you know, the ghosts that don’t exist but are awfully handy when justifying why nobody’s getting a raise.

The belief in a player’s “toughness” or whatever words a given sportswriter can invent—the invention of such terms being largely what sportswriting is about—has been at best questionable, and at worst a knowing cynicism, ever since Gilovich’s, Tversky’s, and Vallone’s landmark 1985 paper, “The Hot Hand in Basketball: On the Misperception of Random Sequences.” The “hot hand,” the three proved, is merely a product of cognitive bias: when people are asked, for instance, to predict sequences of coin tosses, they inevitably expect the tosses to be half heads and half tails—even though such an even breakdown, no matter how many tosses are made, is nearly impossible.

So too in sports: writers continually ask their audience to believe that an athlete has “matured,” or “dug deep,” or what have you, when the more likely explanation is just that the athlete’s inherent talent level eventually expressed itself—or, in the case of a losing effort, the other side “got lucky.” Outcomes in sports are determined by skill (and the lack of it), not by “grit” or “will.” Rory won because he is a better golfer than nearly anyone on the planet, and while that skill can be masked by chance, over time it is more likely to expose the other player’s relative lack of skill.

Rory McIlroy won his tournament because he is a good golfer, not because he has some kind of psychological strength the rest of us lack. The fact that Stephanie Wei participates in this age-old sporting charade demonstrates that, for all her pretensions to the contrary, there isn’t a great deal different between her “new school” approach and that of her “stuffy” opponents. There is, perhaps, even reason to cheer for the PGA Tour in this dispute: at least they, unlike many in the age of the New Economy, believe people ought to get paid.


After the Messiah

There was trouble in the state of Lu, and the reigning monarch called in Confucius to ask for his help. When he arrived at the court, the Master went to a public place and took a seat in the correct way, facing south, and all the trouble disappeared.

—Frances Fitzgerald
    Fire in the Lake: the Vietnamese and the Americans in Vietnam 

Speaking to the BBC about the new season before the turn of the year, Rory McIlroy placidly remarked that “trying to make up for ’13 with two in ’14 would be nice.” Rory’s burden is however not as light as was his tone: only 16 men have done the same since 1922. But Rory’s opponents do not just live in the record books: recently, Tiger Woods’ agent more or less told Golf Digest that Tiger needed to win a major this year. Although it’s possible for both men to achieve their goals, it isn’t likely: the smooth 63 McIlroy put on Woods at Dubai, while playing in the same group, served that notice. But because of something called the ”Tiger Woods Effect,” the collateral damage of this war might include other parties—chief among them the FedEx Cup.

The “Tiger Woods Effect” was named in a 2009 paper by an economics professor: Jennifer Brown of Northwestern University. The paper, entitled “Quitters Never Win: The (Adverse) Effects of Competing With Superstars,” examined PGA Tour results during the early years of the twenty-first century; perhaps unsurprisingly, all golfers, even the best, played worse when TW was in the field versus when he wasn’t. The difference was about a stroke worse per tournament, and when Tiger was really “on,” the other players were about two shots worse. After controlling for other possible explanations, Brown argued that what this might mean is that human beings, faced with the near certainty that no matter their effort they are doomed to second place (even if that belief is misplaced), eventually can no longer give their best efforts. This is what the Effect is.

Once we realize we can’t win—or at least, believe that—human beings will not produce extra effort, Brown’s theory claimed: a theory that the mere existence of the FedEx Cup validates nearly single-handedly. Almost certainly, that is, the FedEx Cup was introduced precisely as a response to the “Tiger Woods Effect”—it was first announced in 2005, around the time that Woods was completing the “Tiger Slam” by winning all four majors in a row. The Cup itself has been “tweaked” every year since it began in 2007, but its basic form has remained.

Throughout the “regular season” players accumulate “points”—which are not just the amount of dollars won in each event. In August, the point leaders gather for a series of “playoff tournaments” whose fields grow progressively smaller, so that by the time of the Tour Championship in September there are only thirty players in the field. As things now stand (after the ”tweakings”), because the four playoff events have higher point totals than the regular season events, it’s theoretically possible for even the 30th ranked player to win the $10 million dollar prize that constitutes the FedEx Cup and the title “tour champion.”

For the PGA Tour, the idea is to generate excitement—$10 million, it seems, is cheap for what it buys. As a Grantland piece (“Putting For Dough” 19 Sept. 2013) suggests, however, there’s something odd about the notion, if you think about it: the problem is, if the FedEx Cup is meant to identify the best player in golf, it’s indisputable that, nearly every year, “Tiger Woods has had the best season of anyone.” Woods won five events in 2013 alone, and nearly $8 million in prize money. How can, in other words, someone get more money than Woods just for playing well at the right time of year? “Golf,” as the Grantland piece puts it, “is a cumulative sport”—the FedEx Cup is a glaring exception to that rule.

The FedEx Cup, in sum, is essentially a way to give a big prize to someone not named Woods at the end of the golf season—depending on the mood, it might be called the “Best White Golfer Award” or something equally snarky. It could be thought of as an example of practical racism at work on par with Jim Thorpe having his Olympic medals taken away, or Jack Johnson pursued by the law, or Muhammed Ali being shut out of his sport for years of his athletic prime. Why not just go off the money list? Why all the finagaling about “points?” Why, in a sport filled with conservative ideologues, should this obviously “socialistic” mechanism exist?

“Never was any such event,” wrote the Frenchman de Toqueville, about the French Revolution, “stemming from factors so far back in the past, so inevitable and yet so completely unforeseen.” Or to put it another way, history proceeds by way of ironies—which is perhaps likely what upsets Woods, if he thinks of it at all. In one sense, that is, there is no better exemplar of the kind of Ayn Randian John Galt-type hero in golf than Woods, and yet it seems that golf has gone out of its way to avoid rewarding him properly.

It’s in that way, however, that Woods shares the most with the man Tiger’s father always asserted would be the standard to measure his son by. In the years since Martin Luther King’s assassination, the congruence between one aspect of King’s legacy and a certain capital-friendly American ideology hasn’t escaped the intellectual grasp of some on the right. John Danforth, for instance, was a Republican senator from Missouri when he championed the notion of a holiday to honor Dr. King: to Danforth, King symbolized “the spirit of American freedom and self-determination,” as a recent article in Salon tracing the history of the holiday’s establishment notes. Tiger Woods’ ascension to the world’s most successful pitchman in history, in other words, is likely the result of many factors, deep forces that can only be glimpsed, and not fully understood, by those moved by them.

Woods’ nearly monomaniacal work ethic, for example, doesn’t have its source solely in his father’s service in the United States Army. Almost certainly, even if Woods is unconscious of it, it has roots that go back long before he, or even his father, was born. Just as certainly, it has something to do with the real legacy of the civil rights movement in general and Martin Luther King, Jr. in particular.

“My father,” wrote Hamden Rice recently in the Daily Kos, “told me with a sort of cold fury” just what it was that Dr. King had done for the South when, as a “smart ass home from first year of college,” Rice had dared to question King’s real contribution to the civil rights movement. “‘Dr. King,’” Rice’s father said, “ended the terror of living in the South.’”

What Rice’s father meant was by no means figurative: what he was referring to was the fact that Southern white people “occasionally went berserk, and grabbed random black people, usually men, and lynched them.” What King’s movement had done was ended that—something that usually gets glossed over when MLK Day runs around: the fact that, in America, sometimes some people got randomly murdered with, essentially, the blessing of the state.

The connection between this state-sponsored terrorism and Woods’ career isn’t entirely psychologically implausible if Rice is correct about the effect the terror had. Remembering those days prior to the movement, Rice recalls how his father taught him “many, many humiliating practices in order to prevent the random, terroristic, berserk behavior of white people.” His point is that centuries of horror drilled in codes of behavior—ones that, in fact, it was precisely King’s mission to teach Americans (all of us) to unlearn.

Where the codes taught behavior designed to avoid what were, to be euphemistic, poor outcomes, King taught people to confront their fears. Be reprimanded, be fired, go to jail. Be beaten. And, if necessary, die, rather than continue to submit. The civil rights movement taught, as Rice says, “whatever you are most afraid of doing vis a vis white people, go do it.” Or, as we might say, just do it. King’s message was that African-Americans could only achieve their freedom themselves—which, at the end of the day, is just what the civil rights movement was.

Yet, while of course such a kind of attitude is necessary to throw off the yoke of the Bull Connors of the world, it’s also an attitude that might be outdated. No one’s ever questioned Woods’ work ethic, for example—but a viable question to ask about Woods is whether his ferocious ability to put in the time hasn’t actually hurt his career. Woods’ left knee, among other injuries, essentially shattered because of all the pressure put on it over the years—pressure that included endless hours on the range perfecting all of the various swings he has caused to be taught to him.

No golfer in history has had so many swing coaches, nor different swings: Tiger’s won majors with at least three different methods of hitting the golf ball, which might be some kind of record itself. Tiger’s continuing search for the perfect swing is a kind of metonym for his own “search for excellence,” as the management theory books put it—but might it also be a sign of an engine, with nothing else to work on, tearing itself apart? Rather than something praiseworthy, isn’t there something a bit much about tearing down a perfectly functioning machine in the hope of building something fractionally better?

In that sense, then, it’s possible to read the FedEx Cup as not just a lavish reward for the Best Non-Tiger Golfer. It’s possible to read the FedEx Cup not just as an anti-Tiger manifesto, but an argument for a different set of values: the FedEx Cup celebrates the latecomer versus the early-riser, the “brilliant” rather than the “hard-working.” It’s Romantic against Classical; Dionysian versus Apollonian. It, nearly literally, rewards what some might term a certain kind of lackadaisical, nonchalant approach: the kind of behavior that, one suspects, drives Woods himself apoplectic.

The kind of behavior, that is, that might lead a golfer to be late for an important tee time, for example. Rory McIlroy, who arrived for his singles Ryder Cup match in September of 2012 so late that he arrived in a police car, may know something about that.

Round and Rounder


Hell goes round and round. In shape it is circular, and by nature it is interminable, repetitive, and nearly unbearable.
The Third Policeman Flann O’Brien

“Is it about a bicycle?” asks Sergeant Pluck when the unnamed narrator of the Irish writer Flann O’Brien’s novel The Third Policeman first encounters him. The sergeant goes on to explain himself by observing that “you would be surprised at the number of people in these parts who are nearly half people and half bicycles”—a ridiculous idea Pluck defends on the basis of the atomic theory: any object placed in conjunction with another will naturally exchange atoms with it, and so consequently people who spend too long on their bicycles are in danger of becoming their bicycles. Pluck doesn’t mention the danger to the bicycles of becoming Irish—though perhaps he ought to have given that there’s been rioting in Belfast since 3 December last year. Still, though Sergeant Pluck hasn’t considered the dangers of becoming Irish, there’s one man who, very publically, is: Rory McIlroy, who must decide by 2016 whether to become Irish—if, that is, all of the bicycles haven’t become Irish by then.

In the next Summer Olympics in 2016, golf will be a medal sport for the first time since 1904, if only on a trial basis. It sounds like a wonderful opportunity for the world’s best golfer, who will be just 27, to win further glory—who knows how many majors McIlroy might win by then—but as terrific as the chance might appear, the Rio Olympics also pose a dilemma for the native of County Down. In order to play, he will have to answer the question all sportsmen and women from Northern Ireland who qualify for the Games must eventually answer whenever the Olympics rolls around.

Earlier this month the golf pro addressed once more that question: which country to play for, the United Kingdom, the nation of his citizenship, or the Republic of Ireland, which traditionally has claimed sovereignty over the whole island? “In Beijing the majority of athletes from Northern Ireland represented Ireland,” noted the Daily Telegraph in 2009, “but it was a close split.” As the reigning PGA Champion said in early January, he has three options: “Play for one side or the other—or not play at all because I may upset too many people.”

Still, nobody much believes that McIlroy would really choose not to play. So the bookies seem to think, anyway—the odds are heavily in favor of McIlroy playing—and the commercial logic of McIlroy’s situation does appear to prove their point. As the world number one has said, the Olympics “spread the game all over the world and make it recognized in different countries, which can only be good”—good for golf’s manufacturers, for instance. And whether McIlroy plays or not is, according to Irishman and fellow tour player and major winner Padraig Harrington, “a very big deal because golf is on a trial period in the Olympics.” Or in other words, without the best player in the world Olympic golf threatens to become merely an exhibition, not a truly competitive event.

Almost certainly then McIlroy will play in the Olympics—for one side or another. Which side, however, is somewhat unsettled, in part because McIlroy has not had to make this kind of choice before. On the island of Ireland golf is governed by a single body, the Golfing Union of Ireland: in international competitions, all Irish golfers, North and South, play for the same team. “It does not matter,” as the Daily Telegraph observed in 2009, “if you hit your wedges in Ulster or Munster, you play amateur golf for Ireland”—as McIlroy did throughout his amateur career.

Thus far in his career then McIlroy has not needed to make a choice—but he’s made his leanings apparent. When golf became approved as an Olympic sport again, in 2009, McIlroy said that he’d “always felt more British than Irish.” When, after McIlroy won the US Open in 2011, a spectator shoved the tricolor of the Republic at McIlroy as the golfer walked off the 18th green, McIlroy ignored it. And his website, until recently, had the Red Hand of Ulster—an “exclusively loyalist symbol, an emblem of raw hostility to Catholics,” Niall Stanage called it in the New York Times in 2011—atop it. To have such a symbol proudly displayed is surprising to many because—though this is relatively unknown—McIlroy is a Catholic.

It’s for that reason that many think McIlroy should choose to represent the Republic in the Olympics. “Representing Britain,” wrote Stanage, would to some be “tantamount to backing a state … regarded as oppressive.” Some might go even further and regard choosing Britain to be a betrayal of his own family: in 1972, at the height of what the Irish call “the Troubles,” McIlroy’s great-uncle, Joseph McIlroy, was shot and killed “for trying to integrate his Catholic family into an overwhelmingly Protestant part of east Belfast,” as Fionola Meredith put it in the Belfast Telegraph. Most in fact believe—no one was ever convicted of the killing—that the 32 year-old father of four, murdered in his own kitchen, was shot by the loyalist Protestant paramilitary Ulster Volunteer Force.

One of the symbols of the Ulster Volunteer Force is the Red Hand of Ulster.

* * *

For some, such a strange turn could only be explained by psychological means; say, by Pavlov’s “ultra-paradoxical phase,” or what’s known as “Stockholm syndrome.” But going to such lengths may be unnecessary, because by virtually any measure, McIlroy’s decision should not be much of a dilemma—even if his religion were of no account. On the one hand, the choice McIlroy should make appears fairly obvious. On the other hand, it is entirely possible that, by the time McIlroy needs to make it, his hand will be forced by events outside of his control.

Before getting to that though it’s necessary to point out that the angst McIlroy appears to be spending on this issue seems peculiar: the choice between playing for the Kingdom or the Republic seems at best an artificial one. All golfers on the island play, as mentioned, for the Golfing Union of Ireland, which governs golf both North and South. It is, in other words, a body whose existence owes a great deal to what might be accounted the “common sense” view of how to administer the island itself.
“Irish unity makes sense,” recently said Gerry Adams, the leader of the Irish republican Sinn Fein party, by way of reiterating the traditional Irish nationalist argument for a single government to rule the whole island. “Imagine the financial and efficiency benefits if there were one education system, one health service, one energy network and all-island investment practices,” Adams continued.

Adams did not argue on “emotional” grounds; he did not make the argument that Ireland ought to be for Irishmen or something of the sort. Adams instead said it made “political sense” and “economic sense.” His argument was the rational one that two governments over very nearly the same territory—Ireland is so small a place that it might fit inside a good size Wyoming county—are, necessarily, wasteful. If McIlroy were to represent the United Kingdom, in other words, he would be endorsing an arrangement that is needlessly inefficient—or, in sum, irrational.

Of course, nationalism is of necessity not always amenable to rational analysis. It may be that nationalism is the most recent emotion human beings have developed—certainly, it is one of the few emotional states that has a datable history. Only in the past two centuries, as Benedict Anderson pointed out in his Imagined Communities, have we really had nationalism. It’s a history, as a matter of fact, that is revealed by the very name of the kingdom towards which Rory McIlroy’s loyalty leans.
As Anderson pointed out before Berlin’s wall fell, “the Soviet Union share[d] with the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland the rare distinction of refusing nationality in its naming.” (If the kingdom’s title did name a nationality, Anderson says, what would it be? “Great Brito-Irish?”) The name of the kingdom, instead, marks it as a survival of those dynastic states that were common throughout the world before 1914—states usually ruled by a monarchy that may or may not have spoken the same language as its subjects, and was indifferent to whether it did or not.

The United Kingdom is one of the last survivors of that kind of state: “there has not,” as Anderson observes, “been an ‘English’ dynasty ruling in London since the eleventh century (if then).”
Which, it’s worth mentioning, makes it odd for McIlroy—or any other subject of the Crown—to have an emotional attachment to the United Kingdom. Nevertheless, it seems that despite pre-dating the modern era of nationalism, the United Kingdom has been able to construct its own version of it even if British people are known for not being as demonstrative in their national affections as, say, Americans or Brazilians. For instance, most government offices in the United Kingdom only fly their national flags—which are actually royal flags—less than twenty times a year, mostly to honor various royal birthdays rather that “national” holidays that (for instance) might mark significant historical events or the like.

How often the national flag gets flown probably isn’t as significant a marker of sentiment, though, as the fact that a sizable chunk of the “nation” not only isn’t particularly nationalistic, but actively wants out of it. If the United Kingdom consists largely of four segments—England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland—then it’s probably notable if two of those segments want, if not out, then at minimum a new arrangement. Scotland and Wales have had that new arrangement since a referendum was passed in 1997; in 1999, a Scottish Parliament sat at Holyrood in Edinburgh for the first time since the Act of Union in 1707. But the current First Minister of Scotland, Alex Salmond—whom I caddied for at Medinah on the day after McIlroy’s European team won the Ryder Cup from the Americans—wants to put to the Scottish people a further referendum in the autumn of 2014: “Do you agree that Scotland should become an independent country?” If that referendum should pass—and Alex Salmond says it is likely—then it’s possible that the United Kingdom would not be so united by the time the Olympics roll around again.

In that case, obviously, McIlroy might not be able to play for the United Kingdom because there wouldn’t be any such thing any more. But if there isn’t, it likely wouldn’t be because of the wishes of many of his compatriots. In Belfast, for instance, a Union Jack has flown above City Hall every day since 1906. A portion of the population of Northern Ireland, in other words, is committed to the idea of the United Kingdom in a far more intense fashion than virtually anyone else within it: a commitment illustrated by the events of the past few months.

In March of 2011, the Belfast City Council rejected a proposed plan to fly both the Union Jack and the tricolor of the Republic of Ireland above City Hall. On 5 May of that year, however, the voters returned a city council that, for the first time in Belfast’s history, held a majority of Irish nationalists—the largest number of whom (16 0f 51) were of Sinn Fein, the nationalist republican party. It was a result that reflected the demographic realities of the city—which since at least 2001 has had a majority of Roman Catholics—and the new, republican-controlled council thence commissioned a survey of City Hall visitors in September of 2011 on the flag question.

That survey, perhaps unsurprisingly, found that most Roman Catholics were—unlike Rory McIlroy—either indifferent or felt offended by the Union Jack flag. On the basis of the survey, in June of 2012 the council began a “consultation programme” about whether to continue to fly the flag every day. Most official buildings in the United Kingdom as whole usually fly their flags only 18 times a year (a number of those are royal birthdays). A final vote on the matter was announced for November of 2012, which in the event was pushed back. Hence the council voted on 3 December.
Directly afterwards, a mob attempted to rush City Hall, held off only by police. There were several injuries, but while rioting continued for the next week or so, things did not become serious—at least by Belfast standards—until 10 December.

On that day, a Protestant mob attacked police guarding the home of a Protestant city councilor who backed the nationalist position, and someone in the crowd threw a Molotov cocktail, or “petrol bomb,” into a police car. The policewoman inside did escape—but the event underlined that the flag issue wasn’t going away. The riots have, as of this writing, continued virtually every day since the vote in towns throughout Northern Ireland, and have included violent attacks on Catholic neighborhoods like Belfast’s Short Strand.

McIlroy’s statements in favor of the United Kingdom, therefore, put him at odds with the rest of the Catholic community in Northern Ireland; the difficulty, of course, is why this should be so. Examining McIlroy’s situation, one factor stands out: the rise—in the words of the New York Times—of what, in “the poor Catholic districts along the Falls Road or the working class Protestant quarters of the Shankill, people refer to the city’s more affluent fringe as ‘cloud cuckoo-land.’” McIlroy grew up in the town of Holywood, a place less than half an hour from the surveillance cameras and barbed wire of Belfast but a world away in terms other than geographical.

As William E. Schmidt reported for the Times as long ago as 1991, when Rory McIlroy was two years old—as seen from the Falls Road or the Shankill, Holywood is “as foreign and inaccessible as the far side of the moon.” For those living out in the suburbs of County Down, said the Rev. Eamon O’Brien, “a Catholic priest whose parish of 800 poor and mostly unemployed is in the middle of a Protestant neighborhood in East Belfast”—the same part of town where Joseph McIlroy was shot in his kitchen—the “‘troubles are as far away for some people who live in Northern Ireland as they are for people living in the U.S., and that includes a lot of middle-class Catholics.’” McIlroy, whose father worked multiple jobs to pay for his early golf, might not qualify as middle-class exactly, but his triumphs do nevertheless signal the success of those who turned their backs on the Troubles.

Or, to put it another way, were allowed to so turn their backs. “After years of overt discrimination in the civil service”—which in 1991 accounted for nearly half of all jobs in Northern Ireland, Schmidt reported then—“the percentage of Catholics now employed in Government jobs … is more than 39 percent, nearly equal to their percentage in the overall population, which is about 42 percent.” Though McIlroy’s parents were not employed by the government, it seems clear that he must have benefitted, directly or indirectly, by the end of anti-Catholic discrimination. Almost certainly, it’s what allowed his family to escape the streets of Belfast for the leafy countryside of Holywood and avoid the fate of his great-uncle. It’s that fact that allows an understanding of how McIlroy could become attached to a state that, by all rights, he ought at best be indifferent towards.

* * *

Perhaps the most significant sociological study of Northern Ireland in recent years is one that has little to do with the Troubles, precisely. It’s a study published by Democratic Dialogue, a Belfast think tank, and authored by Patrick McGregor and Patricia McKee. Their study found, very simply, that “the rich in Northern Ireland”—like the rich in a lot of other places—“have indeed become richer” and, in fact, they are “becoming richer more rapidly than the rest of society.” Northern Ireland has been becoming a “winner-take-all” society, like the United Kingdom and the United States have been documented to do since 1980: one in which the richest are capturing an increasing share of society’s total wealth.

Increasing inequality arguably has more significance in Northern Ireland, where nearly a third of the people—and there are less than two millions of them—are under the poverty line, than it might be in the rest of Britain, where only a fifth are. In Northern Ireland, that is, the gap is thusly that much more visible. What one might expect to see in and around Belfast then isn’t protests about flags, but rather protests about unfair economic policies—and those protests would not be divided along sectarian lines, but rather economic ones: poor Protestants and Catholics joining to protest against rich Protestants and Catholics. But that isn’t what’s being observed. Instead, the poor Protestant community—bankers and lawyers aren’t throwing cobblestones—is insisting on its own separateness from the rest of the island. In a way, that is, the flag riots are a plea on cultural, not economic, grounds for what Americans are used to call “diversity” and “multiculturalism.”

This is an odd development because it has traditionally been the Irish nationalists who have made “cultural” kinds of arguments—something that Brian O’Nolan, the man who created Flann O’Brien and wrote the novels he published under that name, knew very well. O’Nolan’s work, in fact, may be read as questioning just that part of the nationalist platform—which is why it is especially ironic to see that his work has been appropriated by academics whose professional commitments are just to the kinds of “cultural politics” that O’Nolan himself spent his career ridiculing.
The Third Policeman, for instance, written between 1939 and 1940, is often discussed among literary people as “one of the earliest—and most exciting—examples of post-modernist fiction,” as the publisher’s blurb for the study Flann O’Brien: Portrait of the Artist As Young Postmodernist has put it. If, for the author of that study—Keith Hopper—one way to define post-modernism is the belief that “the real world is not ‘given’ but constructed”—that we cannot interact with the world other than through the medium of language, or “language games”—then it’s possible to view The Third Policeman as, among other things, an investigation into how science is “a paradigmatic language game.” Or to put it another way, it’s possible to enlist O’Nolan’s work in an argument that would assert the primacy of “culture,” as opposed to any other factor, in our lives.

That may be true in some sense, because almost certainly Sergeant Pluck’s “Atomic Theory” owes something to the arrival in Dublin in October of 1939 of Erwin Schrödinger—the Austrian physicist who created the paradoxical thought experiment known as “Schrödinger’s Cat.” Schrödinger had been invited to direct Ireland’s new Institute of Advanced Studies at the behest of Eamon de Valera, Prime Minister (or, in Irish Gaelic, Taoiseach) of Ireland, who’d been a teacher of mathematics and Irish Gaelic before taking up the struggle for Irish independence. In America, Princeton had set up an Institute of Advanced Studies to capture scientists, like Albert Einstein, fleeing Europe ahead of the Nazis, and de Valera thought he could do something similar for Ireland. In Schrödinger, de Valera had a prize only a little less valuable than Einstein himself: Schrödinger had helped to invent quantum mechanics, for which he’d received the Nobel Prize in 1933.

Schrödinger however is best known among non-scientists for his “cat,” which he described in 1935. It was intended as a reductio ad absurdum of what’s known as the “Copenhagen interpretation” of quantum mechanics, under which (to simplify the point) an atom could be both a particle and a wave, in contradistinction to classical physics under which an atom could be either, but not both. The point of Schrödinger’s paradox, without giving a lengthy description, was to say that thinking an atom could be both a particle and a wave was as well as thinking a cat could be both dead and alive.

Or, perhaps, that someone could be a person and a bicycle. Yet while the comedic potential of Schrödinger’s paradox seems just the sort of thing that might have caught Brian O’Nolan’s attention, what perhaps deepened O’Nolan’s interest in Schrödinger’s arrival in Dublin was that de Valera, seizing the opportunity, piggybacked a School for Celtic Studies (a school for the study of Irish Gaelic, in other words) on top of the scientific center. De Valera in that way leveraged Schrödinger’s scientific prestige to enhance the Irish government’s policy of promoting Gaelic as Ireland’s “official” language, which had been enshrined in the Irish Constitution of 1937 along with recognition of the pre-eminence of the Catholic Church, strong censorship laws, and a prohibition of divorce.

O’Nolan certainly would have recognized the hypocrisy—and comedic potential—in de Valera’s use of Schrödinger. The Taoiseach and his government were famously puritanical: later on during World War II, in 1944, the Irish government—on the advice of the Roman Catholic hierarchy—banned that dangerously sexual new product, tampons. (Yes, that really happened.)On the other hand, Schrödinger’s personal life was, to put it mildly, colorful even by today’s standards: the Nobel Prize winner lived with both his wife and his mistress, and the child he’d had by the latter—a fact that, in the small town that Dublin was in the 1940s, could not have escaped attention of anyone not willfully ignoring it.

De Valera’s position was, to be sure, not his alone: it was the culmination of a movement that had spread in Ireland beginning in the nineteenth century, the “Gaelic Revival” that produced, among other things, William Butler Yeats’ poetry and the creation of the Gaelic Athletic Association in 1884. That latter organization’s first president, T.E. O’Sullivan, gives a sense of what the Revival aimed for when said that the goal of the new athletic league was to “foster a spirit of earnest nationality” and also that it was a method of “saving thousands of young Irishmen from becoming mere West Britons.” (A “West Briton” was something like what an “Uncle Tom” is in America.) The suggestion of religion in these remarks is telling: the use of the words “spirit,” “earnest,” and “saving” indicates the close links between religion and the new movement not only in the sense of the ties between Catholicism and Gaelicism, but also that Gaelicism was itself a kind of religious endeavor. Playing an Irish sport like hurling, according to O’Sullivan, could mean salvation.

James Joyce, as is well-known, had thought that kind of provincialism nonsense; it’s why he had once for instance polemically asserted that “a nation which never advanced so far as a miracle play affords no literary model to the artist, and he must look abroad.” For its part, the de Valera government would return the animosity: when Joyce, who never married his mistress Nora Barnacle, died in 1941 in Switzerland, de Valera inquired whether he had died a Catholic “and being informed to the contrary, had ordered no Irish diplomatic official be present.” Joyce, in turn, was O’Nolan’s literary hero: in 1954, O’Nolan helped organize the first “Bloomsday,” the international commemoration of the day (4 June 1904) Joyce’s Ulysses is set, and in O’Nolan’s later work, The Dalkey Archive—which cannibalized The Third Policeman extensively—Joyce appears as a character.

O’Nolan had by that time made his opposition to de Valera’s Ireland as explicit as seems possible. Another of his books, written under another of his pen names (Myles na gCopaleen, in Irish Gaelic), is entitled—in Irish Gaelic—An Béal Bocht, which means The Poor Mouth. The title refers to the Irish custom of exaggerating one’s difficulties in order to elicit sympathy—either from an attentive stranger or, say, a bill collector—and it’s pretty directly aimed at de Valera’s brand of Irish nationalism. Written in Irish Gaelic, the novel is set in Corca Dhorcha (in English, “Corkadorkey”), a place where “it never stops raining and everyone lives in desperate poverty (and always will) while talking in ‘the learned smooth Gaelic,’” as one review summarized it.

The novel is, in other words, a satire about the kinds of “professional Gael” who were practicing “cultural politics”—as opposed to some other kind—even so early as the nineteenth century. Hence, Corkadorkey is visited “by hordes of Dublin Gaeilgeoiri (Irish language lovers), who explain”—to the locals, who already speak the language—“that not only should one always speak Irish,” but that “every sentence one utters should be about the language question.” The cultural tourists ultimately leave when they finally find the poverty of Corkadorkey, which they initially took as a sign of the area’s Irish authenticity, to be just too depressing.

O’Nolan’s work, in other words, is a send-up of people who think “culture” is somehow the most important thing we do—a lesson that might be as applicable today, when the American academy is full of such people, as it was in de Valera’s Ireland. What’s strange, however, is that today it is the people who would have, and still do, oppose de Valera’s conception of a unified Ireland who appear to be his best students: in Northern Ireland, it is the Protestants who want to talk about “culture”—in the form of the flag—and Sinn Fein that wants to talk about economics and “common sense.” But how did this happen?

* * *

Or to put the point the way one academic literary critic, Walter Benn Michaels (of, most recently, the University of Illinois at Chicago) has, how did “the question of identity—who you are … come to replace … the economic question of what you have?” The answer, one might think, is “slowly,” and the answer to it might thereby be thought to be, correspondingly, difficult to arrive. But that question, it seems, received an answer all the way back in 1999—if, that is, one had been paying attention to the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu and his student Loïc Wacquant.

Way back then, the two argued, the world’s academic community had become dominated by a number of global “commonplaces,” which they defined in terms of “the Aristotelian sense of notions or theses with which one argues but over which there is no argument.” One of these was “the need for the recognition of (cultural) identities.” Just as, in short,

in the nineteenth century, a number of so-called philosophical questions that were debated throughout Europe … originated, as historian Fritz Ringer has demonstrated, in the historical predicaments and conflicts specific to the peculiar world of German universities, so today many topics directly issued from the particularities and particularisms of US society and universities have been imposed upon the whole planet under apparently dehistoricized guises.

According to these two scholars, then, the notion of “cultural identity,” which seems at minimum congruent with Eamon de Valera’s promotion of “Celtic Studies,” for example, is part of the “global vulgate”: a language spoken by the academics, non-governmental and governmental agencies, and foundations of our times.

The “particularism” that Bourdieu and Wacquant allude to, of course, and that Walter Benn Michaels makes explicit, is Jim Crow: the rules and customs of the American South that were designed to oppress Southern African-Americans and that, less explicitly, also applied in the American North. The struggle against Jim Crow was, perhaps more than anything other than perhaps the Cold War, the great event of the last half of the twentieth-century: it was the change that arguably inaugurated every other. What Bourdieu and Wacquant in effect do, and Michaels does a bit more explicitly, is make the charge that—like every establishment ever—left-wing academics and their comrades are nostalgically fighting the last war, rather than the present one. “There is almost a kind of liberal nostalgia,” Michaels says, “for the time in which anti-racism wasn’t so mainstream in American society.”

Now, of course, “no one can imagine themselves to be committed to racism” and still be part of mainstream conversation, as Michaels noted in an interview with the online magazine Jacobin recently—no matter where, on the spectrum of possible responses to economic questions, one happens to fall. Both the Republican Party and Barack Obama are officially against racism, after all. That effective ban has certainly traveled worldwide, at least since the end of apartheid in South Africa.

At the very least, it has traveled to Northern Ireland, where as mentioned even twenty years ago the effects of past discrimination were slowly being lifted. It’s important to note that in many ways the system in place in Northern Ireland was almost precisely congruent to that of Jim Crow: as Chicago newspaper reporter John Conway noted in Belfast Diary: War as a Way of Life, a book about the height of the Troubles, in Northern Ireland the Protestant-run government “gerrymandered election districts and altered voting procedures to ensure that Catholics would not be represented in proportion to their numbers.” Even, that is, “in areas where Catholics were the majority population, they were the minority on elected councils,” and since these “councils allocated housing and jobs … the discrimination against Catholics was institutionalized.” That formal system of discrimination is ending, and McIlroy’s success is one visible sign of that.

And that, Michaels might say, is just the trouble: what Protestant loyalists could, and maybe should, dislike about Rory McIlroy isn’t that he is Catholic, it’s rather that his vast success demonstrates not only that the old ways of oppressing Catholics aren’t working anymore—and thus that older avenues of possible advancement are closed to younger Protestants—but instead that his success serves to, in Michaels’ words in a review of Kenneth Warren’s What Was African-American Literature? for the Los Angeles Review of Books, “legitimate inequality.” How? Because—and the analysis works both for the United States and Northern Ireland—while there have been successful individuals of each society’s oppressed groups, the reality for the majority of the society has been one of increasing inequality.

Which, by the way, is also a reason—a reading of Michaels could suggest—why Catholics might dislike McIlroy. Speaking of the African-American experience, but in a manner that’s readily appropriated in the Irish context, Michaels says that “the idea that we should expect poor black people left behind to be gratified by the success of rich ones moving up is about as plausible as the idea that poor whites, contemplating [a successful black person], should think to themselves, ‘Hell yeah—he’s doing it for all of us.’” In other words, the success of a person from a previously-oppressed identity group isn’t necessarily all peaches and rainbows: it also could function as a permission for greater inequality. Tiger Woods’ success doesn’t necessarily mean better times for other African-Americans. It might even mean the opposite—and some would say it has.

* * *

All of that, to be sure, is quite a lot for any person to decipher and digest, which is maybe why a lot of people appear to want to give McIlroy a pass on the Olympics question. “No sportsman,” said Padraig Harrington, the champion Irish golfer, back in early January, “should have to make that decision.” “Let’s not wreck the buzz,” chimed in Matt Cooper of the Irish Examiner, “by foisting national identities onto his personal achievements,” while Kevin Garside, also in the Belfast Telegraph, just directly urged that “Rory McIlroy must learn to keep quiet over Olympic question.” At the same time Fionola Meredith, also in the Belfast Telegraph, claimed that McIlroy is “not a symbol, he’s an individual in his own right and he doesn’t actually belong to us,” and that’s why he should “continue to duck the national flags aimed at him.” Mainstream opinion, that is, appears to think that McIlroy should not have even have to address the question.

Some people just seem to think that professional golfers are not subject to the same kinds of obligations that others face. “Let’s please give the kid a break,” wrote Mark Steinberg, Tiger Woods’ agent, to the New York Times once, in response to the troubles that surrounded his client. Woods was, at the time, married, with two children, and 34 years old—an adult who’d never fulfilled his father’s promise to “bring to the world a humanitarianism which has never been known before.” But Tiger, as we now know, lived a double life—and not just in the tabloid sense we’ve learned about in the last few years.

Tiger, after all, was initially sold as a symbol of the end of racism: the story of how he was “the only black child in his kindergarten class,” and on the first day he was tied to a tree by some older kids and spray-painted with the word “nigger” got told again and again. His own father, Earl Woods, had played baseball for Kansas State University, the first African-American to do that—but on Southern road trips he’d had to stay in black hotels. Tiger’s success therefore meant, according to the narrative sold by his marketers, the end of racism: it’s what Nike meant by the “I Am Tiger Woods” ad, for example—the one that just had many, many people, of all sorts of “diverse” complexions, ages, and genders, repeating the titular mantra, over and over.

It’s worth remembering, though, that once athletes did feel that, even if they played children’s games for a living, that did not make them children. Jackie Robinson, Muhammed Ali, and Arthur Ashe, among many others, did not think of themselves as children—and probably would have threatened anybody who thought they were. Millions of people worldwide make far more difficult decisions every day than the one Rory McIlroy is being asked to make. No matter how young 23 is, McIlroy has passed over that border between childhood and

* * *

“Better pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age,” wrote Brian O’Nolan’s master, James Joyce, towards the end of “The Dead.” It is the final story of the collection Dubliners, published in June of 1914, just before the beginning of the First World War. In the course of the story the hero, Gabriel, discovers that his wife, Gretta, had not only been loved by him alone: once, long ago, she had been wooed by another.

Michael Furey loved her so much that he had been willing to die for her—whether she loved him or not, though she “was great with him at the time.” And that is something humbling for Gabriel, because he “had never felt like that towards any woman,” not even his wife. In the event, Michael Furey does die, long before Gretta meets her husband, and Gabriel, after learning this, is awestruck by “how she who lay beside him had locked in her heart for so many years that image of her lover’s eyes when he had told her that he did not wish to live.” All this happened and Gretta never told him, Gabriel, of it. He has, in a sense, never known his own wife.

“One could,” says Marco d’Eramo, the Italian sociologist, in The Pig and the Skyscraper: Chicago: A History of Our Future, “compare amor patrio to the idea of marital fidelity, the bonds of nationality to those of wedlock”—an eerie comment in the context of “The Dead.” In an earlier incident in Joyce’s story, during a dinner party, another guest, Miss Ivors (who wears a “large brooch” that bears “on it an Irish device”), had accused Gabriel of being a “West Briton” because he writes for an English-language newspaper, the Daily Express. Gabriel feels the charge inapposite because he believes that “literature was above politics,” and he sees “nothing political in writing reviews of books.” But Miss Ivors corners him, and asks him “And haven’t you your own land to visit … that you know nothing of, your own people, and your own country?” To which Gabriel replies: “O, to tell you the truth … I’m sick of my own country, sick of it!” He does not know his country, nor does he love it.

The character of Gabriel thus anticipates that larger-scale resistance that would spring up later in the century to what Wilfred Owen would call “The old Lie”: “Dulce est decorum est/Pro patria mori.” Gabriel is, in that sense, a prototype for all of the slackers and ironists that have come in the wake of Joyce and Owen—those followers of Hemingway’s famous remark, in A Farewell to Arms, that “the things that were glorious had no glory and the sacrifices were like the stockyards at Chicago if nothing was done with the meat except to bury it.” They resist what Benedict Anderson calls the “deep, horizontal comradeship … that makes it possible … for so many millions of people, not so much to kill, as willingly to die for such limited imaginings.” The readers of Joyce, Hemingway, Owen, and all of the other writers who, influenced or not by the horrors of the trenches of northern France, rejected patriotism, that “limited imagining,” as a possible belief.

For decades afterwards, and still today, it’s been a mark of a certain kind of intellectual, usually literary in tone, to mimic that rejection of nationalism by the “Lost Generation”—sometimes, though not always, accompanied by an acceptance of the internationalism of Communism or some other radical doctrine. I don’t want to describe all of the consequences of that turning point, though it’s worth considering what the American philosopher Richard Rorty said in a book called Achieving Our Country. “National pride,” Rorty says there, “is to countries what self-respect is to individuals: a necessary condition of self-improvement.” Without it, in Rorty’s argument, there’s no means of making things better—because without the state there is no institution capable of holding its own with larger forces.

Some might even say that the growth of such an intellectual rejection of nationalism was precisely the precondition for the worsening wage conditions within Northern Ireland and elsewhere: correlation is not causation, of course, but it’s notable that the rise of levels of inequality not seen since the previous century has been accompanied by a turn away from nationalism on the part of the “Left.” It’s an arguable point, to be sure, but what I’d like to point out is just that reading Joyce, and maybe Flann O’Brien, as simply, and simplistically, rejecting nationalism is a misreading—“The Dead” is not so unequivocal.

After learning about his wife and Michael Furey, Gabriel looks out of his window. It is winter, and it is snowing. “Yes,” he thinks, “the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland.” And now comes one of the most famous passages in all literature, written in English or not:

It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

What Joyce means by this passage, or indeed the story as a whole, has been argued over by the professionals since it was published. But perhaps there are some features that could be teased out: one is that “Ireland” extends from Dublin west to the “Shannon waves”—i.e., Ireland is the whole of the island. Another is, perhaps, that it is better to decide, to live and die, be one and then the other, than to hang on and be both and (inevitably) neither. And yet a third might that your country is where your dead—your memories—are buried.

If so, then it perhaps could be argued that Joyce did have a sense of patriotism—just one that wasn’t so simple as a rejection of the conception of patriotism possessed by people like Eamon de Valera. In Joyce’s time the island west of Wales was part of what was then called the “United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.” In the ages before that, the island had been divided into separate “kingdoms”—each largely a collection of various villages. Joyce could not have known this at the time he wrote “The Dead,” but after Partition, in 1922, the island would be home to two states, Northern Ireland and the Republic: the Bog of Allen and the Shannon remain where they are, but the names of the states that contain them change.

In “The Dead,” Gretta cannot revive Michael Furey, just as the kingdoms of the island before modernity will not return. But what Joyce’s story recalls is that, no matter the names of the places, there is nonetheless a connection between the living and the dead, and it is to build such a connection that the “nation” exists at all. The nation may be, as the academics say, “socially constructed,” but it isn’t any less real for all that. Joyce did not disagree with Eamon de Valera’s idea of the importance of nationalism itself, just de Valera’s implementation of it. What Joyce—and Brian O’Nolan after him—rejected about de Valera’s brand of nationalism was that it elevated the nation above the people it is meant to protect. Conversely, however, “The Dead” rejects a dismissal of nationalism, as represented by Hemingway or Owen: the story of “The Dead” is the story of Gabriel’s sudden maturation—he now knows something about his wife that is simultaneously something about his country. He learns where Michael Furey is buried.

Joseph McIlroy was buried in Northern Ireland—at least, that is what they called the place where his grave was dug when it was dug. What Joyce’s story recalls is that, no matter the names of the places, there is nonetheless a connection between the living and the dead, and it is to build such a connection that the “nation” exists at all. But the point of that connection, in turn, must necessarily be to protect the living—what happens to Gretta or Gabriel or Miss Ivors is beyond Michael Furey’s care now; the dead are beyond need. Rory McIlroy’s choice of what nation to represent in the Olympics, then, ought to reject facile kinds of nationalistic fervor—but he ought to reject a specious kind of internationalism also. Both wheels, one might say, are necessary to ride anywhere—which is also to say that Sergeant Pluck is right: McIlroy’s choice is a story about a bicycle.

So Quickly

September has come back,
Again …
So quickly

“When September Arrives, Again”
Lawrence S. Pertillar




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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Mark of Z

“One way to characterize professional golf,” wrote John Cassidy earlier this summer in The New Yorker, “is to say that it has reached parity—there are so many good players, and they all have a roughly equal chance of winning.” Cassidy called it the “random golfer theory,” and has trotted it out after Webb Simpson’s win at Olympic and Ernie Els’ win at Lytham. The idea is that anybody within the top 100 has a shot of winning any major: an idea that is, more or less, borne out by the fact that of the past 17 majors, there has been 17 winners. Until now, which is to say that Rory’s win at the PGA has blown that idea up just as surely as the events of the past five years has blown up both the Black-Scholes formula and the hype of this year’s Ryder Cup at Medinah to what will, especially in the Fleet Street press, be absurd levels.

The cry will be, as it’s been since McIlroy won the U.S. Open at Congressional a year ago, for a Tiger vs. Mac showdown during Sunday’s singles matches, only with an even heightened pitch now that Rory’s won his first two majors at a more rapid clip than Tiger won his first two. And as it happens, Tiger’s second major was also a PGA, and, also, it was at Medinah. Which, as it further happens, was also the first time Tiger faced a competitor who seemed to have all the tools he did, but was from Europe—and younger to boot. And after that PGA, in 1999, Sergio Garcia, like Rory’s fans today, demanded to play Tiger in that year’s Ryder Cup.

Obviously, European fans are hoping for a different outcome this time around: that Ryder Cup was at the Country Club in Brookline, and the Euros got smoked in singles; that was the year that the American captain, Ben Crenshaw, said the night before the finale, “I got a good feeling about this.” It was also the year of the “excessive celebration” after Justin Leonard made his putt on the 17th hole of regulation—which came before Jose Olazabal had a chance to make his putt, which would have at least continued the match, a point that, if you believe the London papers, all of Europe has been brooding about for the past nearly-decade-and-a-half. Not that Europeans are well-known to carry around centuries-long grudges or anything.

In any case, this year’s Ryder Cup is shaping up, at least from the wrong end of the Atlantic, to be a kind of revanchist’s dream, only without soaking the fields of Flanders in blood. In place of Sergio, they have Rory, who actually wins tournaments, and even majors, without regripping his club twenty-five times or casually insulting entire states. And most alarmingly, at least from this side of the Atlantic, our main guy not only has never made a big deal out of these kinds of team events—Tiger is on record as saying he doesn’t regard the Ryder Cup as being the same as one of the four majors—but he hasn’t won a major in four years. Or, in other words, since their kid starting winning them. Which is where the Black-Scholes point comes in.

“If Capital One was trading at $30 a share,” says Michael Lewis in The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine, the Black-Scholes model for pricing options—those obscure financial instruments that have had so much say in our lives recently— “assumed that, over the next two years, the stock was more likely to get to $35 a share than to $40, and more likely to get to $40 than to $45, and so on.” This makes sense to us, intuitively: we like to think that “slow and steady wins the race,” for instance. But the real world does not always behave in that slow and incremental way: everyone would have bet that dinosaurs would be the dominant species on the planet for eons, until a meteorite crashed in southern Mexico. Sometimes things can change quite suddenly—and not reach any intermediate stops. Once, there were billions of dinosaurs. Then, there weren’t.

Once, there was a Tiger, and now there’s a Rory. In between there’s been a collection of Keegan Bradleys and Webb Simpsons, a collection that has largely made the golf press uneasy at best and, at worst, spooked. Golf is, after all, one of the few sports—the other that I can think of at the moment being horse racing—where nobody likes an underdog, at least until the point where it seems like the underdog can actually win; or, in short, become the overdog. Rory, with his eight-shot win at the PGA, might just have reached that point: a point that, as it happens, the wonks over at Grantland have quantified using a measure they call “Z-Score,” which is apparently a standard part of the average mathematician’s toolbag.

“Z-Score” is calculated by taking the winner’s score and subtracting the average score of all the players who finished the tournament, then dividing that against “the variance between the scores and the average performance,” as Grantland’s resident golf stat-head, Bill Barnwell, says. In other words, a tournament where the winner shot “20-under-par and the last-place finisher shot 20-over-par” would have a higher value than a tournament “in which the winner shot 3-under-par and the duffer in last shot 4-over.” Of the top ten scores ever figured, Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus have three apiece, with Tiger Woods’ performance at the 2000 U.S. Open, where he blew away the field by fifteen shots, achieving the highest “Z-Score” ever recorded at -4.12 (meaning that he was more than four standard deviations better than the average performance in the tournament.

It’s a good methodology in that it factors out things like weather (everyone plays in similar conditions, within reason) and so on, and to a degree allows us to compare performances across the generations. For instance, it’s now arguable that Jack Nicklaus’ performance at the 1965 Masters might be better than Woods’ win in 1997, even though Woods broke Nicklaus’ scoring record (271, or -11 to par, versus 270, or -12 to par), because while Woods’ “Z-Score” in 1997 was -3.24 Nicklaus’ “Z-Score” was -3.48. Or in other words, Woods was only a bit more than three times better than his competitors in 1997, while Nicklaus was nearly three-and-a-half times better. Obviously, this doesn’t really matter much (though Davis Love’s win at the 1997 PGA, which he took by five shots and produced a Z-Score of 3.54, looks a lot better after running it through this formula), but it’s fun to compare scores across eras.

Like, for instance, the scores Tiger Woods produced in his prime versus the scores Rory McIlroy has produced in his two major wins: last year’s U.S. Open at Congressional and this year’s PGA. McIlroy won both tournaments by eight shots, which is the kind of performance necessary to place on the Z-Score leaderboard, but Z-Score isn’t factored by how much the second-place guy shot, but rather by how much the field as a whole shot. Rory’s Z-Score for the tournaments places him comfortably within the top twenty Z-Scores ever recorded, but his -3.07 score for Congressional, together with his -3.15 score for Kiawah, aren’t enough to place him very close to Tiger’s epic win in 2000. The Congressional score, in fact, doesn’t even place Rory close to Jack Nicklaus’ -3.22 at Turnberry in 1977—you know, the “Duel In The Sun” Jack lost to Tom Watson.

Rory’s wins, that is, have been big—but they haven’t been that big, at least by comparison to Jack and Tiger. The win at Congressional, at least as measured by Z-Score, isn’t even as good as Padraig Harrington’s British Open win in 2008, which the Irishman won at 3-OVER par, only four shots better than his nearest competitor—Harrington rang up a -3.09 Z-Score during what was a famously-windblown tournament. Still, Rory’s fans might cite Barnwell’s observation that through “his first nine majors, McIlroy has put up an average Z-Score 0.97 standard deviations below the mean,” an average only exceeded by Seve Ballesteros (-1.04) and Ernie Els (-1.25) in anyone’s first nine majors. Rory is, obviously, still very young; it’s quite possible we still haven’t seen his best stuff.

Still, what the Z-Score tale tells us is that while Rory is a very, very good golfer, he doesn’t go to the same dimension-bending, dinosaur-slaying, places Tiger Woods could go in his prime. But if we haven’t yet seen Rory’s best, there are few places Rory could demonstrate that to better effect than Medinah, the course Tiger has tamed twice for two of his fourteen major titles and a membership in the club itself. It’s no honorary membership, either: Tiger has the same rights as any other full member, an honor the club presented him with after his second win in 2006, which is to say that, in a sense perhaps more real than any other course, Medinah really is Tiger’s home turf. For Rory to beat Tiger there would be, one suspects, a grievous blow to the competitive Tiger—all the implacable laws of sport, which are even more inflexible than any mathematical model, thus demand that there is only one possible final match for the Ryder Cup’s finale at the end of September: Woods v. McIlroy, for all the stakes that there are. May the best Z-Score win—and to hell with the “random golfer theory.”

A Bandon Hope

Mike, a former looper at Medinah, has been working in Colorado for the summer and Scottsdale in the winter the last several years. About a month ago he called to say that he was planning on going to Bandon this summer instead. For those who don’t know, Bandon Dunes is the most golf of all the world’s golf resorts: there aren’t the various sideshows to be found at your Pebble, or Myrtle, Beaches. For that matter, there’s an argument to be made that it’s more golf than St. Andrews, which after all is also a university town and one of the oldest settlements in Scotland, which itself is pretty old. At Bandon there’s just golf. And I’ve just discovered that Bandon is so golf that it contains within itself a a course that’s even more Bandon than Bandon.

It’s a course that so repudiates even the shreds of commercialism that Bandon itself so mercilessly throws in the face of its competitors that this course may be the most golf place on the planet. Naturally, I have advised Mike to look into this, but I have yet to hear a report, as I think Reuben—the caddiemaster at Whisper Rock in Scottsdale—has been holding Mike hostage in order to finish the tournament season at the Rock.

As such, I can only report my own web investigations, which have been as thorough as two separate Google searches can be. Near as I can make it, the course is located directly north of Bandon Dunes proper, but is still owned by the same, or nearly the same, people. It has nicknames among the staff at Bandon proper: Area 51, or the Secret Course. Its proper name, however, is the Sheep Ranch.

It could equally, or perhaps better, be called the Anti-Course. Golf courses are determined by their routings, we could say: you begin on number one and proceed around to number 18, following the course map and figuring out yardages and so on. The Sheep Ranch has none of that: there are 12 or 13 greens, lettered instead of numbered. And this is how you play it, according to one Jeff Wallach:

A local rule holds that whoever wins a hole walks off the green, finds a flat spot, and invents a tee—just like they did in Scotland 500 years ago. He also gets to pick where the next hole is by pointing to a flag and saying, “Let’s go there.” And there might mean a green sitting on a ridge beyond a rock-filled bunker a punch shot away. Or it might mean “THERE”—700 or 800 yards distant at the other end of the property.

“While here,” another writer notes about the place, “I found myself really enjoying golf, and not the process of golf, or a score I might record.” Obviously, it’s impossible to imagine five or six foursomes an hour teeing off on such a ground. But money isn’t the point.

The existence of the Sheep Ranch reminds us that the conventions of 18 holes, or playing them in order, or knowing what the yardages are and so on, are all just that: conventions, with no more force than our own agreement. Apparently, the idea behind the course is to pare golf down to its essentials: hitting a rock with a stick the fewest times, with enough variation in topography to keep it interesting. And perhaps not least, with a view toward beating the man in front of you, rather than some abstraction named “par.” Obviously, matches at the Sheep Ranch would be played not least for the right to name the next target, which seems a valuable enough goal to render other prizes trivial.

Golf, the institution that’s developed around this primal activity, has other ideas of what constitutes proper competition: as for instance the Ryder Cup, coming to Medinah this September. The Ryder Cup has been a kind of embodiment of a remark of George Orwell’s: “At the international level, sport is frankly mimic warfare.” There’s been, for example, the “War by the Shore” at the Ocean Course on Kiawah Island in 1991, a tournament noted for the jingoism displayed by the home crowd. (To be fair, there was an actual war on at the time. Though it was, to be equally fair, the Gulf War—which, as a war, ranked somewhere between Korea and the invasion of Grenada.) Still, it seems that to some sportswriters lately that this particular Ryder Cup will be a war over one particular issue: which system of developing golfers, the American or European, is better.

The recent answer to this question has been clear: this year’s European Ryder Cup side will likely be a team with a higher world ranking than the Americans, which portends a system in which golfers might turn pro directly upon reaching 18 rather than hanging around a college a few years. Rory McIlroy, in other words, rather than Tiger Woods.

Farrell Evans, writing for earlier this year after the Honda Classic, contrasted two golfers at the same age: Rory—who won the Honda—and Harris English, the 22 year-old Georgian who won last year as an amateur on the Nationwide and started the final round of the Honda two shots behind McIlroy. But actually, Evans argues, English started that round a lot further back: English spent the past four years playing college golf at the same time that, in Evans’ words, Rory has been “playing in pro events around the world.” As a result, at an age “when most American players are just starting their pro careers, McIlroy is turning the corner to the next level”—which is to say that English is “really four years behind [McIlroy] in development.” Which, it seems, explains how McIlroy won while English shot a 77 to tie for 18th.

That “explanation” is, to be sure, nonsense when it comes to the final round of the Honda—just for starters, Rory’s own career is a caution about what can happen in final rounds—but that doesn’t mean that Evans’ thesis is invalid when it comes to considering larger samples. The Official World Rankings list five Europeans versus five Americans in the top 10, but the top three spots are held by Euros (McIlroy, Donald, and Westwood). Americans also only hold five spots of the next ten. Of the non-Americans in the top 20, only Luke Donald, whose alma mater is Northwestern, can really be claimed as a product of the American college golf circuit: virtually all of the others have careers like McIlroy, turning pro at a young age and just doing the job instead of, as in the American model, “training” for the job first.

Going out and doing the job, instead of investing a great deal in some form of apprenticeship first, is however contra the American model of producing not just professional golfers, but all athletes. Excepting baseball, all major American sports depend largely on a free farm system provided by the major colleges that delivers trained athletes to the doorstep of the professional leagues without costing those leagues anything, as laid out in Taylor Branch’s piece in The Atlantic in October of last year, “The Shame of College Sports.” Branch, a historian and author of the tour-de-force three-volume history of the civil-rights movement, America in the King Years, makes college athletics to be a plantation where the schools make billions and the field-hand athletes make nothing. In America, Branch explains, the market for athletes isn’t a free one: American athletes essentially donate some years of development to these educational institutions with the return of gaining access to the pros and the security, in the event of failure, of having a college degree to fall back on.

What Evans suggests is that, at least in the case of golf, this may no longer be an even trade: instead of raising a potential pro’s value going to college might just be lowering it to an extent that the value of the degree granted no longer compensates for lost development opportunities. Europe, of course, never constructed such close links between professional athletics and education: nobody’s paying twenty-five euros to see the University of Sheffield’s cricket team.

In Europe, that is, universities are for learning, and pro sports are pro sports: athletes perform, in other words, for a piece of the pie. Which, if one thinks about it, is rather more of what Americans tend to think is an American sort of model than what we often think of as a “European” one. However one comes down on the debate over college athletics (if that’s even a worthy subject of debate), Rory’s success may have an impact on a much-larger class, since it’s arguable that professions that don’t judge their potential recruits on vertical leaping have been greatly influenced by the NCAA model.

Witness, for instance, Jim Frederick’s piece in an issue of The Baffler from 1997, “Internment Camp: The Internment Economy and the Culture Trust.” Many, many industries benefit from the practice of “unpaid interns”: college kids who come in over the summer, say, and, by fetching coffee and the like, are supposed to learn something about how the “real world” works. Like the NCAA’s “student-athletes,” they are working for free. Frederick argues that the existence of unpaid internships is, in effect, a handout to employers—and not only that, but a subversion of the American ideal of equality, since only those able to afford it are able to take such “jobs.” Internships like that are essentially mechanisms whereby to reproduce the upper-middle class. But Rory’s path is a rejection of that model: he may have to pay for his failures, but he gets paid for his successes.

It’s something that quite a few Americans may be unfamiliar with in the age of the internship—or, for that matter, an age when wages have been in a free fall for nearly forty years. Which is to say that, when it comes to this year’s Ryder Cup, it may be that if you want to root for “America,” you’d do well to root for Rory & Co. As the Sheep Ranch might demonstrate, it isn’t where the course is, but how you play it, that counts.

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 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 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.