Luck of the Irish

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Road to Ensenada

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

 

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Don’t look down.

***UPDATE, 5 Feb 2012:

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

Romeos and Roses

“Three iron,” I said. My golfer was surprised because he expected an argument for the hybrid, which was already a step away from the club he was willing to settle for—three wood—and two away from the club he wanted to hit, the driver. So much our society is based on adversarial stances—the legal system, capitalism—so it might seem natural for there to be a take-and-give relationship between the caddie and the golfer. We are taught early that confronting your problems is the best method for life, a lesson only reinforced by the language of “recovery” that has so suffused our talk that it is hardly noticeable any more. But while maybe that’s the best method for reaching a verdict or a fair price or a scientific conclusion, it might not be best for golf.

The third hole of the final day of the club championship was no time for taking silly chances, I thought; particularly when the wind was gusting up to forty and the third was directly down it. My player hits a three iron 220 yards, the bunkers on the right side of the third were only 240 yards away—and more significantly, only 150 yards from the center of the green. So when he objected to the three iron by saying a hybrid would leave him with only a wedge in, I replied by saying that, with the wind, so would the iron.

Directly afterwards, he pull-hooked the three iron into the left trees—something he hadn’t done, he said as we walked up the fairway to the ball, in years. He also, oddly, apologized for the shot, and said that the three iron idea was “very, very smart.” But that didn’t change our situation. As it happened, we ended up saving a bogey, but this was a time when we needed to be making up shots on the leader, not throwing them away on ridiculously-missed shots.

My friend and colleague Scott, who wasted his childhood in one of the wealthiest towns on Chicago’s wealthy North Shore, and who the Mexicans refer to as “Whiskey” because of his unfortunate habit of sleeping off his benders in the caddie yard, is well-versed in the language of “recovery.” Scott refers to examples like the above as the “prove you wrong” syndrome, and diagnosed my weekend as a result of it during my postgame debriefing in the car on the ride home that afternoon.

Scott was a little salty due to not getting out that day, which other than the tournament was kind of slow.  That only compounded the general background peevishness that halos around him on account, most recently, of his shyster Ukrainian HVAC landlord, who is always collecting Scott’s loop money to repay the cost of a cargo van that Scott may or may not have wrecked once owned by said landlord. These facts, however, do not discount what he had to say entirely.

According to Scott, the theory of “prove you wrong” is known to every looper, even if only subverbally. It works like this: some golfers, when presented with a plan that does not originate with them, will unconsciously reject it, no matter how sensible it is. That rejection will be made manifest by a notably poor swing on the subsequent shot, no matter how ridiculously easy said shot might be.

It’s a theory that, certainly, Scott did not originate, since the theory has been  dramatized by a scene in the film Tin Cup—perhaps, in fact, THE scene from that movie, the one that maybe most perfectly captures something about the player-caddie relationship and thus, if you happen to think that that dialectic itself captures the essence of the game itself, which like no other sport (or at least, none that I’m aware of) requires a level of verbalization of the various options available to the player simply unavailable to games that are in motion (Michael Jordan couldn’t describe what he wanted to do to Scottie Pippen while it was happening), just is golf. It isn’t the one you’re thinking of, however; not the dramatic finale when the hero, Roy McAvoy (played by Kevin Costner, who is probably why that movie was not the total success the brilliance of its script conjures), finally holes out on the last hole of the last day at the Open—for a twelve.

Rather, it comes earlier in the film, when Roy is merely trying to make it through local qualifying. “Tight par five, out of bounds left,” says Romeo (played by Cheech Marin) about McAvoy’s next hole. Romeo wants his boss to hit a two iron, because a par guarantees Roy qualifies for the next round. But Roy rejects it—he doesn’t (just) want to qualify, he wants “the course record!” He wants the Big Dog: the driver.

But Romeo, anger in his heart, breaks Roy’s driver in two. Roy, trying not to lose his cool, then asks for the three wood. Romeo snaps that one too. Roy then asks for, and gets, the two iron, which he studies for a moment. Then Roy snaps that club in two. “Sometimes I fan that two iron,” Roy says by way of explanation. He proceeds through his bag, noting which miss each club is associated with: “I’ve hooked my four iron,” and “skulled the eight,” and so on. Roy even breaks his putter, “Mr. Three-Putt.”

This is an astonishing scene, because it dramatizes so effectively the conflict at the core of golf: the struggle between humdrum and daring, bump-and-run and flop shot, the soaring carry over water and the canny lay-up at just the right moment. At that center of golf is an argument between Michael and Lucifer, archangel and Devil’s Advocate; a debate that holds court over every course, everywhere; a debate that perhaps is only fully enacted during a pro-level tournament, one where the players can hit virtually any shot, but that is still enacted inside each and every player of the game’s mind, on every shot.

Roy proceeds to enact a kind of fantasy: he shoots a 65 using the only club he has left in his bag, a seven iron—the “only truly safe club” he has. In a movie infected by psychology (the Rene Russo character, Dr. Griswold, plays a therapist), it’s a moment that might be described by a psychologist as a picture of a victorious Id, a moment in which the shackles of the Superego (represented by Romeo) are thrown off in a dionysiac revel. But aside from what it might mean in terms of the human maturation process, it’s also a moment daydreamed by any golfer who has taken a dislike to his caddie.

That is, in addition to whatever else this scene might signify, it most certainly enacts a kind of “fuck you” to Romeo, which is exactly what some players sometimes feel about the guy who’s telling them that that particular flag isn’t reachable by that particular club on this particular day. And that brings us back around to the “prove you wrong theory,” because Scott’s idea is that, since most players are not capable of the kind of heights achieved by the McAvoy character (since he is, after all, a fictional character, for starters), they proceed, when faced by the kind of situation faced by McAvoy when Romeo hands him the two iron, to enact the fantasy in the other direction: like my player for the club championship, they hit bad shots.

It is, after all, a great deal easier to hit bad shots than it is to hit good ones—in the sense that there are far more ways to hit bad ones than good ones; a decent teacher would tell you that hitting good shots is actually easier on the body—which is why the scene from Tin Cup is  fictional. But the question that this raises makes the issue not simply a golfing matter, because the mechanism that produces the instinct to “prove you wrong” can only arise from two sources: one which might refer to, in the sense used by psychologists or philosophers, “mind,” and that related-but-not-identical object referred to by biologists as the brain.

In other words, the question rests on the issue of whether golfers can be contrary for some bio-mechanical reason (that is, because a rise in tension results in elevated levels of a chemical in the brain, for instance), or whether there is a kind of logical necessity about it, in the way that the philosopher Hegel supposedly argued that an affirmation automatically generates a negation—a necessity that is independent of humans’ status as animal beings. That’s the sort of question that’s properly termed “academic,” because not only is it difficult to see how it might matter in a practical sense but also because of its forbidding complexity. Happily, though, at least one recent winner on the PGA Tour provides some insight into the question as it relates to golf.

That winner is Justin Rose, who won this past weekend outside Chicago at Cog Hill in what used to be called the Western Open. After the tournament, reports blogger (and Sports Illustrated Golf Plus writer) Stephanie Wei, Rose said that what made a difference this past week in part was a change in procedure with his caddie, Mark Fulcher. “In the past,” Rose said, the pair’s method was for Fulcher to throw “number after number after number” at Rose, whereas “this week we boiled it down to the number that the shot was actually playing and then committed to the shot from there.”

Before, Rose was “taking responsibility [for figuring what distance the shot was] because I thought that’s what was best for me”—Rose acted, in other words, like his own caddie. But during the tournament once known as the Western Rose said to Fulcher, “Fooch, I want you to caddie for me this week.” Rather than taking an adversarial position relative to his caddie, Rose decided simply to accept what “Fooch” had to say.

That doesn’t really answer the academic question of “mind” versus “brain,” to be sure. But maybe it demonstrates a method of confronting the “prove you wrong” scenario: rather than wondering whether to agree or disagree with Fulcher on every shot, Rose had already committed to agreement. Maybe that way he avoided ever triggering the phenomena, whether it is rooted in the mind or the brain. In sum, it’s arguable that Rose achieved a good result by avoiding confrontation, not by fostering it. But maybe that’s a lesson we aren’t yet ready to confront.

Bad Lies

Danny: Why don’t you improve your lie a little sir?
Judge Smails: Yes, yes, winter rules …
Caddyshack 1980.

 

 

John Huggan, the golf columnist for The Scotsman, published a column the other day about cheating in golf—the nature of cheating has been somewhat prominent this year: Dustin Johnson aside, there was Kenny Perry’s Case of the Mysteriously-Reappearing Ball and, on the LPGA, the enigma of What the Korean Women Said. But before delving into the Korean example, I will say that I am myself often asked about cheating in golf, and mostly I work for amateurs playing fun rounds so I’d be lying if I said I didn’t see it. At the same time though, it’s also true that most golfers recognize a difference between golf with their buddies—“playing for fun”—and tournament play—“playing for keeps.” Which brings up F. Scott Fitzgerald and The Great Gatsby—and not because that novel is currently the subject of a project to (mis-)translate it into Korean and then back into (bad) English.

The connection between Fitzgerald’s novel and golf is through the character of Jordan Baker, friend of the heroine Daisy Buchanan and paramour of the narrator, Nick Carraway. Baker is a top amateur golfer—this in the days when golf was largely an amateur affair of the wealthy—and the passage is this:

At her first big golf tournament there was a row that nearly reached the newspapers—a suggestion that she had moved her ball from a bad lie in the semi-final round. The thing approached the proportions of a scandal—then died away. A caddy retracted his statement …

This remains, so I’d think, the most significant appearance of a caddie in all of literature, so far as I know, but what’s particularly interesting is just how this incident should so closely mirror an event of this past year’s LPGA season, which involved a couple of golfers with South Korean connections.

The facts, as related by an LPGA golfer named Larry Smich—whose role I will discuss—are something like this: Shi Hyun Ahn and Ilmi Chung were playing the 18th hole (also their final hole) during the Canadian Women’s Open this year. Both women drove the fairway. Ilmi hit hers on the green; Ahn missed, then chipped close and tapped in for par. At this point Ahn noticed the ball was not hers—as did, according to Smich, another caddie in the group—and began to converse with Ilmi in Korean. The group finished the hole and went to the scorers tent and signed their cards. Smich then alleges that Ahn approached her caddie to say, “You did not see anything.” However, sometime later one or both of the two golfers approached the rules committee to tell them what happened, and later still both golfers were disqualified under the rule for signing a wrong scorecard.

Now, this is a juicy story on several levels, not least because of golf’s reputation as a “gentleman’s game”—i.e., whereas in baseball or other sports a player has no duty to correct a referee or umpire’s call, in golf the player has a positive duty to uphold the rules. That duty isn’t because, or not just because, of golf’s snobbishness relative to other games—it’s mostly due to the necessity when conducting a tournament over several hundred acres where a referee can’t possibly be everywhere at once. It’s up to the players themselves, in other words, to “protect the field,” since cheating on even the smallest scale would destroy the sport, because opportunities for cheating are so pervasive and the risk of getting caught is, for the most part, ridiculously low.

The more explosive angle to Smich’s story, however, is that it confirms his allegations that Korean players do not have the same ethos against cheating as other golfers. “All this time, I’ve been detailing cheating by the Koreans,” Smich says. A lot of other commentators have, or all but have, called Smich a racist for his allegations: Stephanie Wie, who writes a blog called Wei Under Par and also has written for national magazines and Espn.com (and who, incidentally, played golf for Yale) says for instance she has “read his blog on occasion and have found some comments offensive and bigoted.” After searching his blog for those comments, I have to say I’ve come up empty—offensive, maybe, but not bigoted, I don’t think. Clearly Smich has an issue with Korean players. But I don’t think that issue is what Wei says it is.

The issue, as Smich sees it, has to do with how Korean players have treated their caddies. The Korean track record, Smich says elsewhere in his blog, is one of “abrupt firings and false promises.” But according to him this is unrelated; the Koreans, Smich maintains, have a habit of cheating. To this point, he does detail a couple of instances of Korean cheating, some examples of which are absolutely beyond the pale, deliberate cheating and not mistaken interpretations of the rules—like the “helpful” father who dropped a matching golf ball when his daughter couldn’t find hers, an act only discovered when the daughter’s original ball was found. But after reading his posts I wonder whether the issue of the Korean golfers (if they should be thought of as a collective at all) perhaps isn’t a cultural issue but rather a class issue. What might be disguising itself as racism might actually be a labor dispute.

And that is what makes The Great Gatsby interesting, says a recent book by a Fitzgerald scholar and professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, Walter Benn Michaels, who has previously held chairs at Johns Hopkins and the University of California at Berkeley. “The rich are different from you and me,” Fitzgerald once said to Ernest Hemingway in a celebrated remark. “Yes,” Hemingway even more famously replied; “they have more money.” It was, as much as anything else, Hemingway later wrote, just what “wrecked” Fitzgerald: the thought that the rich were “a special glamorous race.” Fitzgerald’s mix-up between race and money is just what interests Michaels.

The story of The Great Gatsby is about a man who somehow—probably illegally or, if you like, by cheating—gets rich enough to pursue the object of his dreams, a woman named Daisy Buchanan. But the novel isn’t a success story: Gatsby, in the end, fails. As Michaels says, “Gatsby is not really about someone who makes a lot of money; it is instead about someone who tries and fails to change who he is.” No matter how much he makes, in other words, Jimmy Gatz can’t really become Jay Gatsby:

If, in the end, Daisy Buchanan is very different from Jimmy Gatz, it’s not because she’s rich and he isn’t (by the end, he is) but because Fitzgerald treats them as if they really do belong to different races, as if poor boys who made a lot of money were only “passing” as rich.

“Passing,” in short, in the same way that light-skinned black people “passed” as white—Gatsby thereby gives “us a vision of our society divided into races rather than into economic classes.” And what Michaels wants to argue is that this is an operation that’s pretty widespread, and also very convenient.

In the book where he mentions all this, The Trouble With Diversity: How We Learned to Love Identity and Ignore Inequality, Michaels argues that the strategy of Gatsby is in fact the one we live under now: we disguise class differences as cultural ones. In a world where wages have basically remained the same since about 1973, and inequality is growing more and more rapidly, and social mobility is now greater in what used to be called “Old Europe” than it is in the land of opportunity—and if you doubt me, read those radical publications The Economist, The Wall Street Journal, and The New York Times—“the intellectual left,” Michaels says, “has responded to the increase in economic inequality by insisting on the importance of cultural identity.” If you want to get a hearing in America about any of this, in other words, you have to put in terms of a “culture of poverty” or the like. You can’t say, like Hemingway, that the rich have more money.

That’s what’s so interesting about the response to Smich—though what he’s talking about is clearly an economic problem, one way of dismissing his claims is to call him a “racist.” And one reason why it’s easy to do so is that his own thinking about the matter is so much inflected by race, or culture, or whatever term you wish to describe it. After all, the motives of the Korean players, if they are in fact cheating, must ultimately be economic—surely they aren’t cheating in order to avenge their grandparents’ honor or something. Just the same way, it may be—I don’t know this—that Smich is inclined to pay especial attention to Koreans because of their employment practices. Either way, however, the key to the matter is an economic one, not a cultural one—yet that difference is precisely the one that can’t be spoken about.

And maybe that furnishes a key to thinking about larger issues than golf: in America today, maybe that’s a way to understand the appeal of groups like the Tea Partiers and the like. Clearly these people are angry and scared—and at one time that anger and fright might have gotten channeled into the policies of an economic radicalism, like that of the New Deal. But today, Michaels wants to say, those channels are blocked by an intellectual class (and a Democratic Party) that would rather talk about “diversity” than pay-raises, about “culture” than about poverty, and about “difference” than equality. In practice, after all, “diversity hiring” and the like really does mean something like allowing rich African-Americans and other rich Americans to be more like other rich Americans, while essentially leaving the lot of—well, basically the other 90% of the nation—unchanged.

What Michaels wants to say, in short, is that you’d think that, like golfers, the American left would recognize some difference between playing with your friends and playing competitively—between playing for fun and playing for keeps. What constitutes “debate” in America today is just amateur golf—playing around with which rich guy (0r gal) gets what. “Winter rules,” you might say. Huey Long, the Senator from Louisiana, once proposed a law that would have made it illegal for anyone to make over one million dollars a year, or inherit more than five. Maybe we need some people who want to play with the ball down, bad lies or no. Walter Benn Michaels thinks so.

Old Age and Treachery

My grandfather used to say that “old age and treachery beats youth and skill,” a saying with great applicability to golf generally and one that professional golfers seem to be taking increasingly to heart. Another week on the PGA Tour has brought another lay-up on one of the last holes by one of the contenders. The man playing the “old age and treachery” part, however, is 20 year-old Rickie Fowler, the only man to compete with Ian Poulter for the title of low clotheshorse (Fowler wore an orange-and-white outfit in the final round. No word if he’s sponsored by the Dreamsicle people yet or not.). One stroke back at the time, Fowler laid up on the par-five 15th hole from 230 out, with a 210 carry distance over the water in front of the green. Helen Ross at PGATour.com defends Fowler’s decision by observing that of 246 players who went for the green this week, only 76 players made it, which is about a thirty percent success-rate. So maybe Fowler made the right call.

The 15th at TPC Scottsdale is a scary hole: the green sits on an island surrounded by water. And Ross’ numbers sound pretty authoritative—until you remember that some number of those players also missed the cut this week, and some further number were nowhere near the lead on Sunday. Some percentage of those players, in other words, weren’t playing anywhere near as good as Fowler clearly was. Fowler himself didn’t make any reference to Ross’ stat-based argument.

When Fowler described what he was thinking afterwards, he talked about his own sense of his position. “I was a little farther out than I would have liked to have been to go for it,” Fowler said. “Obviously if I was a couple [strokes] back … I would have gone for it. But … I was at the time … just one back, [and] putting a wedge in my hand from 80 yards, a lot of times I do make birdie there.” Perhaps even more crucially, Fowler had started the day in third place, so he was playing behind Hunter Mahan (the eventual winner), who two groups ahead on the course. Odds were, in other words, that Mahan could only get one more birdie out of the holes he had left, whereas Fowler had three more chances to make should he miss at 15.

What sticks in the craw, however, is that both of Fowler’s playing partners, Villegas and Calcavecchia, did go for it, even though they clearly weren’t playing as well as Fowler—which of course is one reason why they went for it, since they knew they weren’t playing for the win at that point. Fowler was, and he didn’t see any reason to try to decide the tournament on one shot. I’d like to think that is what his caddie told him: with the second-place finish, Fowler has nearly locked up his card for next year, and he’s bound to break through sooner or later, though the window to try and be the youngest winner on Tour since Tiger is closing.

Nevertheless, Fowler’s decision is disturbing because 210 is just not a long distance for a tour player—some of the longer guys will hit 6-iron from that distance. Fowler is probably not that long, but he is 21st in driving distance so he isn’t short either. A five-iron, a club not usually thought of as trouble, likely would have done the job if Fowler didn’t want to hit a hybrid, a club usually thought of as even easier to hit. And as I said, Fowler was playing good—which brings us back to Helen Ross’ big pile of stats.

The problem with Ross’ figures is something that statisticians call survivorship bias. Let’s say, for instance, that you are presented with somebody who’s tossed a coin head side up some improbable number of times in a row. Now, maybe that person is really skilled at tossing coins, or maybe has some quality we can call “luck”—or maybe that person is just the winner of a coin-tossing tournament with thousands of participants. With enough participants, somebody throwing ten heads in a row stops being improbable and starts becoming likely. Knowing that, we aren’t likely to think quite the same of the “lucky” coin-flipper, because there isn’t any difference between this person and anyone else in the tournament. This person just happens to be the one that won.

Ross’ stat about the 15th plays a similar sort of game, because it appears to presume that there is no difference in skill between any of the golfers: as if each of them, upon reaching the 15th, had precisely the same (thirty percent) chance, just as in the coin-tossing example everyone has precisely the same (fifty percent) chance of throwing a head each time. But golf is not coin-tossing. Fowler was demonstrably not “lucky” at that point in the tournament. He had been playing well—survived—for four days. He wasn’t an “average” player: he was one with a shot at winning.

Fowler’s chances of hitting that shot, therefore, were not thirty percent like Ross’ numbers make it appear. I don’t know what they actually were, but they could not have been thirty percent because Fowler had already demonstrated himself to be better than nearly everyone else in the field. For all we know, in fact, those chances might have been zero, as maybe Rickie can’t hit the ball 205 yards but is absurdly accurate from 199 and in. That is supremely unlikely, but it is a possibility Ross’ figure obscures.

Ross’ stat is in other words strictly window-dressing, because in no way would it ever factor into any professional’s decision-making. If Fowler’s caddie had said something like that, he might have been fired on the spot, and rightly so. Fowler decided to lay-up for a different reason. “I told myself I didn’t really want to go for it unless I had about a 5-iron in” is what Fowler said afterwards, which as I’ve said is close to what he did have. And though the green at the 15th is on an island, it isn’t an island green—there’s a lot of rough and bunkers around it—which is to say that the likelihood of Fowler missing so badly as to wet the ball wasn’t as great as it might seem.

What concerns me about all of this is simply the mercenary quality to it in such a young man: as I mentioned, Fowler is only 20. Plenty of people have talked about Fowler’s potential; Stephanie Wie of Wei Under Par.com has called him a “Wonder Boy,” and he now has three top-10s this year. He’s going to make money in golf, and he’s going to win sometime. Why then play like some wizened veteran? Maybe we can ask Helen Ross to fudge up … uh, give us stats on how boring golf makes Johnny turn the channel.