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.

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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
adulthood.

* * *

“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.

Public Enemy #2

Why Steve Stricker Is Way More Dangerous Than Anyone Can Imagine

Words pay no debts…
Troilus and Cressida III, 2

Dustin Johnson won the Tournament of Champions, the first PGA tournament of the new season (though it won’t be, as we shall see, next season), by beating Steve Stricker in the last round; afterwards, Stricker announced he is going into a “semi-retirement.” Some rather sour people might say that’s a season too late, given Stricker’s disappointing performance at Medinah last fall, but for others the tour loses a man widely regarded as one the good guys: “Stricker is your nice and genuinely down-to-earth Midwesterner” wrote Stephanie Wie of Golf.com. Stricker’s been ranked as high as #2 in the World Rankings, yet nobody would ever confuse him with Tiger Woods: he’s simply not competitive in the way Tiger is. Yet it is, maybe oddly, Steve Stricker who is a bigger threat to golf’s future than Tiger Woods.

Admittedly that’s a strange sentiment: when Tiger’s indiscretions became public a few years ago, a lot of people thought he’d lost huge numbers of fans to the sport, particularly women. Undoubtedly, that fear drove Tiger’s corporate sponsors, like Buick and the rest, to abandon their deals with him by invoking whatever the “moral turpitude” clauses in his contracts were. And in some sense those predictions are right: some casual fans surely did stop watching after Woods’ trouble. But just as surely, the television ratings indicate that such an effect, if it mattered at all, hasn’t mattered much: what those numbers show is that what matters now, as it has since Tiger first turned pro, is whether Woods is playing in the tournament or not. People watch when he is, and they don’t when he isn’t.

Maybe more of them are rooting for Tiger to fail these days—there were always some before the scandal, too—but the numbers say that Tiger is, if anything, a boon to the sport. Not so Stricker: nobody, aside from maybe his family and friends, watches the PGA Tour to see how Stricker is doing unless, as at Medinah last year, they are watching him represent the United States in some team competition or other. Still, that’s not why I say that Stricker represents a threat to the sport: sure, he’s pretty dull, and doesn’t emote anything like Tiger does (at least on the course), but that doesn’t pose any kind of existential crisis. No, what makes Stricker pose a threat to the game isn’t, in fact, his play during this century at all: it’s his play from the beginning of his career, not the end, that is the threat.

That beginning is referred to in John Feinstein’s sequel to A Good Walk Spoiled: that somewhat tedious tome entitled The Majors. Even there, Feinstein only refers to the events in question in passing, either not realizing or downplaying their significance. The crucial paragraph is this:

it had been a U.S. Open qualifier in 1993 that had jump-started his career. He had qualified in Chicago and finished as co-medalist to get into his first Open. he went on to make the cut at Baltusrol, which convinced him he was good enough to play with the big boys. That had led to his solid summer in Canada, which had gotten him an exemption into the Canadian Open. Totally unknown at the time, he led the Canadian for two rounds and ended up finishing fourth. Then he made it through all three stages of Q-School to get his PGA Tour card.

The story this paragraph tells is, at least on the surface, a heartwarming one: the story of a Midwestern kid made, suddenly, good. It makes for excellent copy and reminds us of all those other archetypal American stories. Just as another archetypal American story does, though that one also reminds us of just why we ought not to shut off our critical ears when listening to them.

That story is called The Great Gatsby, Midwesterner-who-made-good F. Scott Fitzgerald’s answer to the “Midwesterner-who-made-good” story. As you’ll recall from high school English, Gatsby is the story of how poor Jimmy Gatz becomes rich Jay Gatsby, and how, no matter how much wealth he piles up, the powers-that-be never will let him into the inner circle of power, which will always escape down another corridor, through another side-door. Still, all that depressing narrative isn’t really why Fitzgerald’s novel is important here: the consequential point, so it seems to me, comes in a single sentence in Chapter One, before things have barely begun at all.

“If personality is an unbroken series of successful gestures,” wrote Fitzgerald about Gatsby, “then there was something gorgeous about him, some heightened sensitivity to the promises of life, as if he were related to one of those intricate machines that register earthquakes ten thousand miles away.” It’s a sentence with its own beauty, to be sure: it begins with an obscure generalization, before rushing down to that indelible use of a Richter machine in a simile. But the crucial part of the sentence, for my purposes here, is that first phrase, about the “unbroken series.”

To know why requires reference to yet another book, one I’ve referred to before: Fooled by Randomness, by one Nassim Taleb. In that book, Taleb writes of what he calls the “lucky fool”—a category that, if you aren’t one yourself, ought to be fairly self-explanatory. “It has been shown,” Taleb says (though he doesn’t cite his sources, unfortunately), “that monkeys injected with serotonin”—a neurotransmitter that appears to play a great role with our moods and dispositions—“will rise in the pecking order”—apes being hierarchical creatures—“which in turn causes an increase of the serotonin level in their blood—until the virtuous cycle breaks and starts a vicious one.” The monkey references aside, it’s difficult to think of a more concise description of Steve Stricker’s summer of 1993.

“‘I went from nowhere going into that Open qualifier in ’93 to being on the tour in six months,’” Feinstein reports Stricker saying. It’s a heartwarming tale, speaking to the hope that golf, and perhaps sport in general, can represent. But it also represents something darker: a threat, as I said, to golf itself: “When you have large numbers of teenagers who are successful major league pitchers, isn’t that persuasive evidence that the quality of play is not the same?” wrote the sabermetrician—baseball stat-head—Bill James about the difference between nineteenth-century and twentieth-century baseball. James’ point is that a sport whose most successful practitioners are men in their primes, not the extraordinarily-young or other kinds of outliers, is a sign that the question is actually a sport: a game of skill, not a game of chance.

Stricker’s run to the PGA Tour threatens the notion that golf is a sport because it suggests that golf really is that which a lot of amateurs say golf is: a “head game,” or a game whose major determinating factor is psychological. As Tom Weiskopf once said about Jack Nicklaus: “Jack knew he was going to beat you. You knew Jack was going to beat you. And Jack knew that you knew that he was going to beat you.” To some, of course, such conditions are the essence of sport: we’re used to the usual kinds of athletic blather, usually spouted by football coaches, about the importance of will in sports, and all the rest of that.

The reality though is that a “sport” whose determining factor was the athletes’ respective “willpowers” would be ridiculous. What a combination of Taleb’s suggestion and Weiskopf’s observation about Nicklaus might create would be a picture of a “sport” played by players who had happened—not by their own merit, but simply on the fact that somebody has to win every contest—to win enough, at the right times, to create the serotonin levels sufficient to defeat most others most times. (This is not even to speak of the way in which golf is structured to reward veteran players at the expense at newcomers.) Golf would be, so to speak, a kind of biochemical aristocracy: entry would be determined, essentially, via lottery, not by effort.

There is only one way to counter an allegation like that: to allow the players to display their skill as often as possible, or in other words to make the sample sizes as large as possible. It’s that point that the PGA Tour has addressed by changing the structure of the professional game in a way that will allow Johnson’s win at the first tournament of the 2013 season to make him the defending champ at the sixth tournament of 2014—without changing any dates.

The Fry’s.com Open, at Corde de Valle on October 10th, will start what will be a kind of counterpart to the FedEx Cup: though instead of playing for a ten-million dollar bonus, as the top-ranked players will be, this tournament will be for the bottom dwellers on the PGA Tour. Those low-ranked players from the big tour will play the high-ranked players on the Web.com Tour (the farm system for the big tour, formerly known as the Nationwide Tour) in a battle for access to the big paydays on the PGA Tour.

That method will replace the old Q-School, the finals of which—a six-day tournament usually played somewhere like the tough PGA West Stadium course—used to give away PGA Tour cards. But for some years the Web.com Tour has overtaken Q-School as a means of becoming a PGA Tour player: slowly but surely the numbers of cards available to Q-School grads has fallen, and those for Web.com grads has risen. The reason has been to address just that potential criticism: players from the developmental tour have, presumably, had more opportunity to prove their talents, and thus their success is more likely to be due to their own merit rather than being on the receiving end of a lucky draw.

The trouble is, however, that it isn’t clear that increasing those sample sizes has really done anything to reward actual talent as opposed to luck. “For four years from 2007 through 2010, 34 of 106 (32.1%) players who made it to the PGA Tour via Q-school retained their cards that year,” as Gary Van Sickle pointed out on Golf.com last March, “while 31 of 100 players (31%) who reached the PGA Tour via the Nationwide retained their cards.” In 2011 those numbers remained about the same. In other words, the differences in sample sizes—a whole season versus one week—does not appear to have much effect on determining who advances or does not advance to the big tour. That is, to put it mildly, a bit troubling.

Steve Stricker has earned roughly $35 million on the PGA Tour; it’s the highest figure for anyone who’s never won a major championship. By contrast, the career money leader on the Web.com Tour is Darron Stiles, who’s won just over $1.8 million. It’s an indication of just how skewed the pay structure is between the two tours: roughly speaking, the total purse at a PGA Tour event is roughly ten times what a comparable event on the other tour is. Yet, as mentioned, it can be difficult to distinguish between the two tours’ players’ respective merits. If so, that could mean that the difference in pay isn’t due to what the players put out on the playing field. Huge differences in pay that can’t be easily explained is, of course, cause for concern: one reason why Steve Stricker, resident of a nation where a CEO can be compensated hundreds of times more than workers on the lowest rung of the ladder and congressmen can be elected for decades to districts made safe by gerrymandering, might be a threat to graver matters than golf.

Now and Forever

[B]ehold the … ensign of the republic … bearing for its motto, no such miserable interrogatory as “What is all this worth?” nor those other words of delusion and folly, “Liberty first and Union afterwards” …
—Daniel Webster. Second Reply to Hayne. 27 January 1830. 

       

       

The work on Medinah’s Course #1, older-but-not-as-accomplished brother to Course #3, began almost as soon as the last putt was struck during this year’s Ryder Cup. Already the ‘scape looks more moon than land, perhaps like a battlefield after the cannon have been silenced. Quite a few trees have been taken out, in keeping with Tom Doak’s philosophy of emphasizing golf’s ground (rather than aerial) game. Still, as interesting as it might be to discuss the new routing Doak is creating, the more significant point about Medinah’s renovation is that it is likely one of the few projects that Doak, or any other architect, has going on American soil right now. Yet today might be one of the best opportunities ever for American golf architecture—assuming, that is, Americans can avoid two different hazards.

The first hazard might be presented by people who’d prefer we didn’t remember our own history: in this case, the fact that golf courses were once weapons in the fight against the Great Depression. While immediately on assuming office in early 1933 Franklin Roosevelt began the Federal Emergency Relief Agency—which, as Encyclopedia.com reminds us, had the “authority to make direct cash payments to those with no other means of support,” amazing enough in this era when even relief to previously-honored homeowners is considered impossible—by 1935 that program had evolved into the Works Project Administration. By 1941, the WPA had invested $11.3 billion (in 1930s dollars!) in 8 million workers and such projects as 1,634 schools, 105 airports, 3,000 tennis courts, 3,300 dams, 5,800 mobile libraries. And lastly, but perhaps not leastly, 103 golf courses.

As per a fine website called The Living New Deal, dedicated to preserving the history of the New Deal’s contributions to American life, it’s possible to find that not only did these courses have some economic impact on their communities and the nation as a whole, but that some good courses got built—good enough to have had an impact on professional golf. The University of New Mexico’s North Course, for instance, was the first golf course in America to measure more than 7000 yards—today is the standard for professional-length golf courses—and was the site of a PGA Tour stop in 1947. The second 18-hole course in New Orleans’ City Park—a course built by the WPA—was host to the New Orleans Open for decades.

Great architects designed courses built by the WPA. Donald Ross designed the George Wright Golf Course in Boston, opened in 1938. A.W. Tillinghast designed the Black course at Bethpage State Park, opened in the depths of the Depression in 1936. George Wright is widely acclaimed as one of Ross’ best designs, while the Black hosted the first U.S. Open held at a government-owned golf course, in 2002, and then held an encore in 2009. Both Opens were successful: Tiger won the first, Lucas Glover the second, and six players, total, were under par in the two tournaments. In 2012, Golf Digest rated it #5 in its list of America’s toughest courses—public or private. (Course #3 at Medinah ranked 16th.)

Despite all that, some time ago one Raymond Keating at the Foundation for Economic Education wrote that “Bethpage represents what is wrong with … golf.” He also claimed that “there is no justification whatsoever for government involvement in the golf business.” But, aside from the possibility of getting another Bethpage Black, there are a number of reasons for Americans to invest in golf courses or other material improvements to their lives, whether it be high-speed rail or re-constructed bridges, at the moment.

The arguments by the economists can be, and are, daunting, but one point that everyone may agree on is that it is unlikely that Americans will ever again be able to borrow money on such attractive terms: as Elias Isquith put it at the website The League of Ordinary Gentlemen, the bond market is “still setting interest rates so low it’s almost begging the US to borrow money.” The dollars that we repay these loans with, in short, will in all likelihood—through the workings of time and inflation—be worth less than the ones on offer now. That’s one reason why Paul Krugman, the Nobel Prize-winning economist, says that “the danger for next year is not that the [federal] deficit will be too large but that it will be too small, and hence plunge America back into recession.” By not taking advantage of this cheap money that is, essentially, just lying there, America is effectively leaving productive forces (like Tom Doak’s company) idle, instead of engaging them in work: the labor that grows our economy.

America, thusly, has an historic opportunity for golf: given that American companies, like Tom Doak’s or Rees Jones’ or Pete Dye’s or Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore’s, or any number of others, are at the forefront of golf design today, it would be possible to create any number of state-of-the-art golf courses that would first, stimulate our economy, and secondly, reward American citizens with some of the finest facilities on the planet at what would be essentially little to no cost. And, it might be worth bringing up, maybe that could help us with regard to that troublesome series of golf events known as the Ryder Cup: maybe a generation of golfers weaned on fine public, instead of private, courses might understand the ethos of team spirit better than the last several ensembles fielded by our side.

Unless, that is, another faction of American citizens has their sway. On the outskirts of San Francisco, there is a golf course known as Sharp Park. It was originally designed by Alastir MacKenzie, the architect who also designed Cypress Point and Pasatiempo, in California, and public golf courses for both the University of Michigan and the Ohio State University (both thought to be among the finest college courses in the world)—and also a course for a small golf club named the Augusta National Golf Club. Sharp Park remains the only public course MacKenzie designed on the ocean, and MacKenzie’s goal in designing it was to create “the finest municipal golf course in America”—a goal that, present-day conditioning aside, many experts would say he succeeded, or nearly succeeded, in doing.

Unfortunately, a small number of “environmentalists,” as reported by San Francisco’s “alternate” newspaper, SFWeekly, now “want the site handed over to the National Park Service for environmental restoration.” According to a story by Golf Digest, the activists “contend it harms two endangered species, the San Francisco garter snake and California red-legged frog.” A year ago, though, a federal judge found that, contrary to the environmentalists’ accusations, “experts for both sides agree[d] that the overall Sharp Park frog population has increased during the last 20 years.” Ultimately, in May of this year, the judge found the evidence that the golf course’s existence harmed the two endangered species so weak that the court in effect dismissed the lawsuit, saying it were better that the public agencies responsible for monitoring the two species continued to do their job, rather than the judiciary.

I bring all of this up because, in investigating the case of Sharp Park, it is hard to avoid considering that the source of the environmentalists’ actions wasn’t so much concern for the two species—which, it must be pointed out, appear to be doing fine, at least within the boundaries of the park—as it was animosity towards the sport of golf itself. The “anti-Sharp Park” articles I consulted, for instance, such as the SF Weekly piece I mentioned above, did not see fit to note Alister MacKenzie’s involvement in the course’s design. Omissions like that are a serious weakness, in my view, to any claim of objectivity regarding the case.

Still, regardless of the facts in this particular case, the instance of Sharp Park may be illustrative of a particular form of “leftism” can be, in its own way, as defeatist and gloomy as that species of “conservatism” that would condemn us to lifetimes of serving the national debt. Had we a mass “environmental movement” in the 1930s, in other words, how many of those golf courses—not to mention all of the other projects constructed by the WPA and other agencies—would have gotten built?

That isn’t to say, of course, that anyone is in favor of dirty air or water; far from it. It is, though, to say that, for a lot of so-called leftists, the problem with America is Americans, and that that isn’t too far from saying, with conservatives and Calvin Coolidge, that the “business of the American people is business.” We can choose to serve other masters, one supposes—whether they be of the future or the past—but I seem to recall that America isn’t supposed to work that way. The best articulation of the point, as it so occurs, may have been delivered precisely one hundred and forty-nine years ago on the 19th of November, over a shredded landscape over which the guns had drawn quiet.

I’ll give you a hint: it included the phrase “of the people, by the people, for the people.”

Hallow This Ground

“Country clubs and cemeteries are the biggest wasters of prime real estate!”
—Al Czervik (Rodney Dangerfield)
Caddyshack, 1980



As I write it’s been a month since the Ryder Cup—it’s Halloween in fact—and I’ve been thinking about the thirteenth hole. The back tee on the thirteenth hole on Medinah’s Course Three is about a hundred yards behind the most forward tee-box on the par-three hole, and perhaps fifteen feet higher; during the Cup, viewers often witnessed Michael Jordan lying on the grass next to that tee, watching the players send their shots soaring through the slot in the trees and out over Lake Khadijah where, for the first time, the golf ball is exposed to whatever wind is there. It’s one of the most photogenic spots on Medinah’s property: while the first tee is a popular spot, the reigning photographic champion of Medinah’s Course Three is the back tee on the thirteenth hole. There are, it seems, a number of people who think they know why.

The thirteenth, for those who haven’t been there, is a very long three-par hole: two hundred and fifty yards long, give or take, and the tee shot has to carry part of Medinah’s Lake Khadijah (named after Muhammad’s wife) in order to reach the green. Most amateurs are content to take a picture from the height, then climb down to a more comfortable elevation—their cameras, after all, usually have more chance of capturing the green than their clubs do. It’s at this point, as a writer named Steve Sailer might put it, where the Anglo-Irish writer Edmund Burke (chiefly remembered as being a member of the British Parliament not unfriendly to the American Revolution, who later was an enemy of the French one), comes in.

Burke, to those with uneasy educations, first came to prominence via a book about the distinction between the beautiful and what he called the sublime. In an essay entitled, “From Bauhaus to the Golf Course: The Rise, Fall, and Revival of Golf Course Architecture,” Sailer notes that Burke’s distinction fits golf courses quite well, because while for Burke the “beautiful is … meadows, valleys, slow moving streams, grassland intermingled with copses of trees, the whole English country estate shtick,” the “sublime is nature so magnificent that it induces the feeling of terror because it could kill you, such as by falling off a mountain or into a gorge.” Or at least, the golf course is “the mock sublime, where you are in danger of losing not your life, but your mis-hit golf ball into a water hazard or ravine” or such.

The thirteenth is a good example of the “mock sublime”; while it’s true that no one is likely to die by falling off the tee, it is true that a great many hopes have been dashed, or at least threatened, there. Sam Snead, who had four runner-up finishes in the US Open over his career, missed the green during the final round of the 1949 edition, made bogey—and missed a playoff with Cary Middlecoff by a stroke. Ben Crenshaw saw his chances to get into the playoff at the 1975 US Open dowsed in the lake. In 1999 Tiger Woods, like Snead fifty years before, missed the green in the final round and it led to a double bogie—though, while Tiger’s over-par score allowed Sergio Garcia’s dramatic shot from behind a tree on the sixteenth hole to matter, it didn’t end up costing him the tournament.

At any rate, at times I’ll find myself behind somebody’s iPhone taking a picture of the foursome on that tee, looking down towards the distant flag. People like Sailer are dissatisfied by answering the question, “Why?” with invocations of past disasters or the musings of 18th century philosophers. For Sailer and the rest it seems that a Harvard biologist has produced just the right balm for this intellectual itch. Sailer himself notes the source of that balm in his essay, but it’s also been mentioned by David Owen—author of The Chosen One (about Tiger Woods) and a writer for the New Yorker among other places—in his blog.

Owen has been reading the biologist Edward O. Wilson’s recent book, The Social Conquest of the Earth, and in it the esteemed Harvard sociobiologist claims that human beings desire three items in their surroundings: they “want to be on a height looking down, they prefer open savanna-like terrain with scattered trees and copses, and they want to be close to a body of water, such as a river, lake, or ocean.” The reason for these three desires is, Owen says that Wilson says, because of an “‘innate affiliation’ that humans feel with landscapes that resemble ‘those environments in which our species evolved over millions of years in Africa.’” An affiliation that, surely, is satisfied by the heights of the back tee on the thirteenth hole; QED.

All of it sounds quite tidy as an explanation. People who think like this, however, might consider Sam Snead’s remark at a major championship contested only three years before the contest at Medinah. As his train pulled into town for the 1946 Open Championship (the proper name for the British Open), Snead infamously remarked that St. Andrews’ Old Course—the one that’s had golfers on it since the fifteenth century—looked like “an old, abandoned golf course.” (Unlike Medinah three years later, and despite his remark, Snead won the tournament.) At first look, Snead’s comment sounds like the same kind of humorous remark made by the “hillbilly” who once asked his agent how his photo got into a New York paper “when I ain’t never been there.” (Snead said later that he was just pulling legs.) But what Snead said isn’t just that.

It’s also a marker of time’s passage: how the look of St. Andrews had, by the 1940s, stopped being synonymous with “golf course.” By then, “golf course” meant something different. Not long before, that is, Snead’s comment would not have been understandable. “The chosen home of golf, its ‘most loved abode,’” wrote the writer and artist Garden Grant Smith in The World of Golf in 1898, “is the links, or common land, which is found by the seashore.” As John Paul Newport wrote in the Wall Street Journal about St. Andrews in 2010, links courses were built on “coastal waste land used for golf initially because it was unsuitable for farming.” And what’s most noticeable, or perhaps rather unnoticeable, about links golf courses as opposed to other kinds of golf courses is just what links courses don’t have: trees.

If trees could grow on that land, in other words, Scotsmen would have farmed it. So no true links course has any trees on it, which is how all golf courses looked—until the end of the nineteenth century. The course whose building signaled that shift was Willie Park, Jr.’s design of Sunningdale’s “Old Course” (it wasn’t called the Old Course when it was opened, of course) in 1901. The construction of Sunningdale’s first course had such an impact in part because of who its designer was: in addition to winning the Open twice himself, in 1887 and 1889, Park was the son of Willie Park, Sr., who not only had won the first Open Championship ever held, at Prestwick in 1860, but then won it again three more times. Junior’s uncle, Mungo Park, who is not to be confused with the explorer of the same name, also won the Open, in 1874.

Whatever Park did, in other words, came pretty close to defining what golf was: imagine the kind of authority Gary Nicklaus would have if in addition to his dad’s victories, he’d won the US Open twice, and so did one of his brothers. Anyway, according to Wikipedia’s entry on Sunningdale Golf Club Park’s design was “set in a heathland area, with sandy subsoil amid mixed treed foliage,” and was “among the first successful courses located away from the seaside, as many people had thought at the time that turf would not grow well in such regions.” The success of Sunningdale and Park’s Huntercombe—also opened in 1901 and where, later, James Bond would own a 9 handicap—proved to the traditionalists that golf could be played away from the sea.

Park’s later designs, like Olympia Field’s North course, further demonstrated that golf courses could be designed with trees on them. In retrospect, of course, that move would appear inevitable: as Garden Grant Smith observed in 1898, “we cannot all live by the seaside, and as we must apparently all play golf, we must take it where and how we can.” If proximity to the ocean was necessary to the game, it would still be a curious Scottish custom and not a worldwide sport.

It’s hard to think, then, that somehow golf is popular because it replicates the look of a landscape that, surely, only a small percentage of human beings ever experienced: the landscape of some percentage of Africa’s vastness. Consider, for instance, the description offered in 1865 by a Scotsman named William Saunders about a project he was working on: “The disposition of trees and shrubs is such as will ultimately produce a considerable degree of landscape effect” by working together with the “spaces of lawn provided” to “form vistas … showing … prominent points.” The effect aimed for by Saunders, in other words, sounds similar to that described by Wilson: grassy lawns interrupted here and there by copses of trees, arranged so as to open up what Saunders calls a “pleasure ground effect.” Saunders’ project, in short, sounds very like a modern golf course—and support for Wilson’s theory.

Yet what Saunders was describing was not a new golf course, but rather the design for a new kind of park: the national cemetery at Gettysburg, built in the aftermath of the great battle. I found Saunders’ remarks contained in a book entitled Lincoln at Gettysburg, and the book’s author, Garry Wills, takes pains to trace the connections between what ultimately got constructed in that Pennsylvania town and its forebears. The American source for the design of the Gettysburg burial ground, Wills says, was a cemetery built outside of Boston in 1831. Called Mount Auburn, it was it seems a place so well-known in the nineteenth-century that it even introduced the word “cemetery”—a word whose origin is Greek—to American English.

Like that of its Pennsylvania progeny a generation later, Mount Auburn would consist of “shady groves in the neighborhood of murmuring streams and merry fountains,” as Justice Story of the United States Supreme Court would say in a speech at Mount Auburn’s opening. These new places were to be unlike the churchyard, the former place of American burials; rather than urban, these places would be rural: “an escape from the theological gloom of churchyards, a return to nature,” as Wills says.

Mount Auburn, in turn, had its genesis in Pére Lachaise, the cemetery in Paris now best known to Americans as the final resting place of Jim Morrison, leader of the American band the Doors. Opened in 1804, Pére Lachaise was meant to be an alternative to the crowded churchyards of Paris; “outside the precincts of the city,” as the place’s Wikipedia entry reads. Alexandre Brongniart, the cemetery’s architect, imagined “an English garden mingled with a contemplation place,” as one website describes it. And Pére Lachaise was meant to supersede the old churchyards in another way as well: “Every citizen has the right to be buried regardless of race or religion,” declared Napoleon Bonaparte on the occasion of the cemetery’s opening—a line with an especial resonance in the context of Gettysburg.

That resonance, in fact, might intimate that those who wish to trace golf’s attraction back to Africa have other motives in mind. “In the US,” writes David Givens—director of the Center for Nonverbal Studies—in Psychology Today, “according to Golf magazine, ninety-eight percent of CEOs play golf.” According to Givens, golf’s centrality to modern American business culture is by no means arbitrary. “Stalking through grassy fields in close-knit, face-to-face groups, sticks in hand,” Givens says, “business people enjoy the same concentration, competition, and camaraderie their ancestors once experienced in Africa.” In other words, golf is popular because it is a lot like hunting a wildebeest.

“On the geological time scale,” writes John McPhee in Annals of the Former World, “a human lifetime is reduced to a brevity that is too inhibiting to think about deep time”—sometimes human beings like to castigate themselves for not thinking sufficiently long term. But it’s also wise, perhaps, not to follow all leads down to the rabbit hole of deep time’s abyss: this notion of golf’s appeal doesn’t do a great deal to explain why the golf course only began to resemble the African plain—if it has—within the past century, nor does it particularly explain why golf courses should resemble nineteenth-century cemeteries.

To believe Wilson and his followers, that is, we would have to believe not only that golf courses are more like Kenya than they are like Pennsylvania, but also that somehow those infinitely tiny bits of plasma known DNA somehow contains within it memories of an African past, and that those bits somehow trump the ideas championed by Napoleon and Lincoln—and those ideas are, perhaps, at least as plausible as the idea that a player’s golf clubs, and not just his cell phone’s camera, can capture the green from the back tee at the thirteenth hole.

Miracle—Or Meltdown?—At Medinah

Very sensible men have declared that they were fully impressed at such a time with the conviction that it was the burning of the world.
—Frederick Law Olmstead
“Chicago In Distress”
The Nation
9 Nov. 1871

“An October sort of city even in spring,” wrote the poet about Chicago. Perhaps that’s why the PGA of America came to Chicago in September, thus avoiding that month of apocalyptic fires and baserunners who forget to tag second. But as it happens, even the Ryder Cup team couldn’t escape the city’s aura by arriving a month early: the Americans still crashed-and-burned during the singles matches on the final day. Ascribing the American loss to “Chicago” is however a romantic kind of explanation—a better one might concern a distinction that golfers of all skill levels ought to think about: the difference between a bad shot and the wrong shot.

The conclusive match at this year’s Ryder Cup was probably that between James Furyk (ha!) and Sergio Garcia, the match that drew the European team level with that of the Americans. After winning the first five matches of the day, the Europeans had suffered setbacks at the hands of the two Johnsons, Dustin and Zach, who had slowed the European charge by winning their two matches. Had Furyk won his match, the American team would have held onto the lead, and since Jason Dufner ended up winning his match immediately afterwards, the United States would only have needed a half in either Steve Stricker’s or Tiger Woods’ matches to win the Cup.

Furyk was leading his match late, one up through 16, and it looked as though he had his match in hand when, in Furyk’s words, he misjudged the wind—it was “a little confusing to the players”—and ended up in the back bunker, where he chipped out and left himself “about a 12-footer straight uphill that I misread.” Furyk went on to say that “I heard that most players missed that putt out to the right today.” Furyk missed his putt by leaving it out to the right.

On the 18th Furyk made another series of miscues: first he hit his drive too far right—he commented later that he “was actually surprised it was in the bunker.” It’s a comment I find difficult to understand: if you know the hole, you know that the 18th tee calls for a draw shot, certainly not a fade, which is to say either that Furyk did not understand the hole (which seems unlikely) or that he completely mishit it. And that raises the question of why he did not understand why he was in the bunker: on a course like Medinah, any mistake of execution—which is essentially what Furyk admitted to—is bound to be punished.

Next, Furyk said that he hit a “very good” second shot, but that “the wind was probably a little bit more right-to-left than it was into [towards]” him and so he “was a little surprised to see [the shot] went as long as it [did].” From there, he said he hit his “first putt exactly how I wanted … but it just kept trickling out,” and his second putt “never took the break.” What each of these shots have in common, notice, is that they are mistakes of judgment, rather than execution: it wasn’t that Furyk hit bad shots, it’s that he hit the wrong shots.

That’s an important distinction to make for any golfer: anyone can hit a bad shot at any time (witness, for instance, Webb Simpson’s cold-shank on Medinah’s 8th hole of Sunday’s singles matches, which is as of this writing viewable at cbssports.com.) Bad shots are, after all, part of golf; as the British writer once wrote of the American Walter Hagen, “He makes more bad shots in a single season than Harry Vardon did from 1890 to 1914, but he beats more immaculate golfers because ‘three of those and one of them’ counts four and he knows it.” Hagen himself said that he expected to “make at least seven mistakes a round,” and so when he hit a bad it one it was “just one of the seven.” But wrong shots are avoidable.

Bad shots are avoidable because they depend not on the frailties of the human body (or, should one wish to extend the thought to other realms, to the physical world entirely) but on the powers of the human mind. In other words the brain, if it isn’t damaged or impaired in some way, ought to arrive at the correct decision if it is in possession of two things: information and time. Since Furyk was playing golf and not, say, ice hockey, we can say that the “time” dimension was not much of an issue for him. Thus, the mistakes Furyk made must have been due to having possession of bad or incomplete information.

It’s at this point that it becomes clear that Furyk’s loss, and that of the American team, was not due to Furyk’s decisions or those of any other player. If Furyk lost because he hit wrong shots, that is, the American side allowed that mistake to metastasize. While the matches were going on John Garrity of Sports Illustrated pointed out, as David Dusek of Golf.com paraphrased it afterwards, that “no one on the U.S. team communicated to the matches behind them that 18 was playing short”—as witness Phil Mickelson bombing his approach over the 18th green—“and that the putt coming back down the hill didn’t break.” Garrity himself later remarked that while he didn’t think much of “the whole ‘cult of the captain’ trend,” he would concede that captains “can lose a Ryder Cup.” “Surely,” he thought, “somebody was supposed to tell the later players how 18 was playing.” On the U.S. side, in short, there wasn’t a system to minimize errors of judgment by distributing, or sharing, information.

That’s a mistake that no individual player can shoulder, because it ultimately falls on the American captain Davis Love III. The golf press is fond of citing the “old saw” that the captains don’t hit any shots in the Ryder Cup. Yet only somebody who isn’t involved in hitting shots—somebody who can survey the whole course—can avoid the mistake observed by Garrity. As a Chicagoan could tell you, any cow can kick over a lantern. But as a Southerner like Love might tell you, only another kind of barnyard animal would not think to tell the neighbors about a barn ablaze.

Salmonds Swims Upstream As Ryder Cup Slips Across Pond!

Al: Why can’t I go left through those trees, up that hill, over that bunker, and onto the green?
Me: Physics.
Medinah Country Club, 1 Oct. 2012

“So you’re saying there’s no route to get there in three,” Al said as we stood in the trees right of the seventh fairway. “Yes,” I replied, “that’s what I’m saying.” “That’s pretty pessimistic” he said.
I told him I’m part Scot.
“We’re all optimists now,” he said. “That’s all in the past.” The stereotype of the dour Scot, he meant, was dead and gone, and Scotland looks forward to a new future, an optimism that, perhaps, is more reflective of a European than American mindset nowadays—and some might think that that’s why it’s Europe, rather than America, that’s got the Ryder Cup.

Scotland’s future is already mapped by my golfer, who was (and still is) Alex Salmond, the First Minister of Scotland and Leader of the Scottish Nationalist Party. He was playing at Medinah on the day after the Ryder Cup ended, as part of tourism blitzkrieg his government was advancing to promote the next Ryder Cup, which will be held at Gleneagles in 2014. “Do you agree,” Salmond’s government wants to ask the Scots in that same autumn of 2014, “that Scotland should become an independent country?” Salmond’s ambition is to become the first Prime Minister of an independent Scotland. Independence is, he said, something that’s going to happen.

It might be a surprise to some Americans that such a question could be asked at all, given that Scotland has been an integral part of the United Kingdom (is, in fact, one reason why Great Britain is referred to as a “United Kingdom” at all), as a practical matter, since the accession of James I to the English crown in 1603. The last time, until recently, the matter was even in dispute was in the rebellion of 1745—“the ’45”—commemorated by Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson’s novels, like Waverly and Kidnapped.

In reality, the Scots have had a kind of home rule since 1999, when a Scottish Parliament took its seat in Edinburgh at Holyrood for the first time since the Parliament of Scotland merged with the Parliament of England to form the Parliament of Great Britain at Westminster in London in 1707. Three hundred years later, in 1997, the Scots voted to take back command of their own future in a referendum whose success Salmond is trying to recapture.

Regardless of whether it’s successful or not, the campaign has gotten great numbers of Scots to think about their future, which is probably a good thing. And it has also gotten very many other residents of those islands north and west of France to think about theirs too, as witness the contrary campaign put together by the supporters of the Acts of Union and the Westminster Parliament, who use the tagline “Better Together!” That campaign was something of a muted—at least for viewers on this side of the Atlantic—narrative thread for the Olympic Games held in London this past summer, as each British medal, within the islands, became in effect an argument for the status quo.

The argument made the Better Together! people is the same one that is always made by centralizers, going back before even the examples of Abraham Lincoln, in America, and Bismarck, in Germany. On the Better Together! website, one version of the argument is put by “Mary from Glasgow”: “When the bank we have our mortgage with was going under the whole of the UK bailed us out. Geordies, Scousers, Cockneys, Brummies, and Scots taxpayers: we were there for each other.” The greater power wielded by larger concentrations of people, in other words, enable more and better results for everyone—which would seem to put the Better Together! people, at least from an American perspective, on a footing with liberals like FDR or LBJ, people who wanted to use the massive power of the U.S. federal government to do good.

Yet it’s Yes Scotland, the outreach program of the Nationalists and Better Together!’s opposition, that wants to sell the idea of independence on the basis of reform. “Do we want,” says Yes Scotland’s website, “to be a nation that for the first time tries properly to get to grips with the persistent poverty that still blights Scotland, or one where economic policy is set by the financial institutions that got bailed out when their run of luck ran out?” And “Do we want a policy on immigration and asylum which is limited by the prejudices of the mid-market London media, or do we want to seize the economic and social benefits that immigration brings?” And “an independent Scotland could … claim the economic opportunities of a major shift to renewable [energies].” The argument for independence, in other words, is that it would allow for a quicker, or more direct, pace of change than afforded by the status quo.

There aren’t, of course, any easy comparisons between European and American conditions: Scotland’s call for independence has a rough comparison to the call of some American conservatives for “states’ rights,” a call that’s traditionally been associated, with good reason, with the most backward and retrogressive policies. Reading Yes Scotland is like reading the manifesto of an organization that demanded the secession of Alabama and Mississippi because it would advance the cause of African-American human rights. Yet what’s interesting about examining both sides’ arguments is that both sides advance their agendas in light of what would be best for the community at large.

In that sense, the old anecdote about the difference between the European and American Ryder Cup teams—that the one needed one table for twelve guys, and the other needed twelve tables—takes on something of a new meaning. It’s certainly clear, that is, that the American squad suffered from a lack of teamwork and direction, from the nearly complete failure of the four captain’s picks (Furyk, Snedecker, Stricker, and Dustin Johnson; only Johnson had a winning record) to the strange inability of the American team to relay the fact that Medinah’s 18th hole was playing short on Sunday.

That last is perhaps the most significant: traditionally, the American team has done poorly in the “team” aspects of the Ryder Cup—the alternate-shot and better-ball formats—and much better in the singles matches on the final day. Ostensibly, that’s because of the American insistence on individualism as opposed to Europe’s brand of collectivism. But in this Ryder Cup, it was Europe that did poorly in the “team” matches, losing 10-6 after the first two days. Yet they dominated in the singles, taking the first five matches of the final day. Those losses were arguably because the U.S. captain, Davis Love, failed to properly order his golfers—Bubba Watson vs. Luke Donald? Who thought that would go well?—which is to say, again, that poor leadership was to blame. Since Love effectively said that he was basically just letting his players do what they want, Johnny Miller apparently pointed out that that wasn’t leadership at all.

Davis is, as I’ve pointed out, a “true Southern gentleman” and from the very area of the country (the Low Country of South Carolina and Georgia) that invented the doctrine of “states’ rights,” so perhaps it isn’t surprising that he ought to be so laissez-faire about his captaincy. But it’s worth noting the distinction to be made between “states’ rights” and what (some of) the Scots are doing: “states’ rights” is usually a means of avoiding leadership, while what the Scots seek to promote is, from their perspective, precisely to seize leadership.

It’s worth noting in this connection, perhaps, that in 1320 the Scots issued the Declaration of Arbroath, which was the first declaration of independence in the world. “As long as but a hundred of us remain alive,” it reads, “never will we on any conditions be brought under English rule. It is in truth not for glory, nor riches, nor honours, that we are fighting, but for freedom – for that alone, which no honest man gives up but with life itself.” In that document, for the first time in world history, is the principle that sovereignty derives from the governed, and not from the governors, expounded. Which, as it happens, was similar to another argument being advanced around the same time, by one William of Ockham.

William, a Franciscan monk, was writing then about how the Pope’s power ultimately derived from the Church, and not the other way around. It’s that same William who wrote that “nothing ought to be posited without a reason given, unless it is self-evident or known by experience,” which is also known today as Occam’s Razor. Which, you might also know, is about how to find the shortest route between two points. It used to be Americans who thought that way, you might think. Alex Salmond, and the European Ryder Cup team, seem to argue differently.