Great Lengths

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Advertisements

Get Lucky

All ends with beginnings
“Get Lucky”
Daft Punk
Random Access Memories (2013)

No one in their right mind would have thought the shot was any good when it departed the man’s club; no one reading the man’s card, later, would have thought it anything less than majestic. Standing at the sixth tee on Streamsong’s Red Course, displaying a form that most professionals would have described as “slouchy,” the man searched after his pellet with worried eyes as it took off at an angle best referred to as “obtuse” in a direction usually noted in connection with the phrase “last seen.” The ball had not, in short, behaved in the manner the golfer had intended—even though the evidence of the scorecard might appear to differ.

The sixth on the Red is a short par three, with a pond to the right and a large bunker—so inviting to the pond’s resident alligators—intervening between the pond and the green. There is a dune to the left that forms the base for seventh hole’s tee box slightly in front of the green, and another dune farther on, creating about a twenty-yard space between the two dunes that is hidden from the tee. The golfer’s ball had disappeared into this space, and since both of the dunes were covered with tall grass and brush, it seemed likely that we had already lost sight of that ball for the last time.

Somehow, however, as you have likely already guessed, the ball reappeared from behind the dune it had not buried itself in and sped, as if shot by an improbably goodhearted troll, towards the green’s flagstick, which it struck directly and then, guided inexorably by the laws of physics, buried itself underground like an especially amiable corpse. An “ace,” a hole-in-one: golf’s holy grail, with the kicker that it was not found (or created) by some wizened, ascetic practitioner. It was as if, instead of Don Quixote, Sancho Panza, seated on his ass, had charged the windmills. And won.

It was perhaps the most spectacular instantiation of the maddening phrase amateur golfers are so fond of repeating: “better to be lucky than good”—a phrase that is all too often invoked, not merely in golf, but in wider arenas also. Such as, for instance, in the business of interpreting.

“If I say, ‘I promise to loan you five pounds,’ but as the words cross my lips have no intention of doing so, I have still promised,” writes the British literary critic Terry Eagleton. That’s because the “promising is built into the situation”—promising isn’t, Eagleton claims, “a ghostly impulse in my skull.” All that matters is whether I have said the words that make a promise, not whether I intended to promise or not—a view that is a kind of restatement of the golfer’s adage.

Think, for example, of the home run. “If a batter in a softball game hits a fair ball into the stands,” asks Walter Benn Michaels, “it is not evidence she hit a home run; it is a home run.” When it comes to home runs, the intention of the batter does not matter: as Michaels says, “[w]e do not care whether she was trying to hit a home run, or whether she even meant to swing.” Just as a promise is a promise, a home run is a home run; one reason perhaps why the foreign Marxist Eagleton could share a view of intention with a justice of the United State Supreme Court not known for his sympathies for the revolution: Antonin Scalia.

“What we are looking for when we construe a statute,” Scalia once wrote to describe his approach to interpreting the law, is not “what the legislature intended” but instead “what it said.” Scalia, like Eagleton, refuses to play the game of climbing inside another’s mind.

That’s why, in the words of one of Scalia’s readers (the literary scholar Walter Benn Michaels), what Scalia claims to be interested in is not “what the authors meant by the words … but in the meaning of the words themselves.” Scalia’s claim, in other words, is that words have a meaning that is independent of the uses a writer might put them towards.

It’s an approach that, like Eagleton’s description, has the virtue of appearing to wash its hands of the messy business of discovering the inside of an author’s mind and instead focus on what might seem to be the only tangible evidence available: in this case, the words on the page. Interpreting a law ought to be as simple as recognizing an ace, Scalia wants to say. Intention shouldn’t matter.

Yet to erase intention from the act of construing meaning is, Michaels wants to say, as ridiculous as excluding water from Niagara Falls: without it, there’s nothing left. It’s a point Michaels (along with Stephen Knapp) made thirty years ago in an article entitled “Against Theory”: an article that contains its own knockdown anecdote. Instead of a sports analogy, however, Knapp and Michaels’ account is about a visit to the shore.

“Suppose that you’re walking along a beach,” this story goes, “and you come upon a curious sequence of squiggles in the sand.” On further examination, you find that the squiggles greatly resemble several lines of Wordsworth’s “A Slumber.” How, Michaels and Knapp ask, would we respond to such a discovery?

If we are curious, we might want to think about what might have generated the squiggles—yet while there might be many possible candidates, all of them reduce to two categories. “You will either be ascribing these marks to some agent capable of intentions (the living sea, the haunting Wordsworth, etc.),” Knapp and Michaels say, “or you will count them as nonintentional effects of mechanical processes (erosion, percolation, etc.).” And so the point arrives: if it is demonstrated that the squiggles are produced by some natural cause, “will they still seem to be words?”

The answer clearly is no—the squiggles “will merely seem to resemble words.” As one who agrees with Knapp and Michaels’ view, Stanley Fish, put the point in a column for the New York Times: “The moment you decide that nature caused the effect,” whatever that effect is, “you will have lost all interest in interpreting the formation, because you no longer believe that it has been produced intentionally, and therefore you no longer believe that it’s a word, a bearer of meaning.” The sudden appearance of a seeming depiction of the True Cross on a water-stained wall, or a human face on Mars, is only interesting insofar as we believe that some agent (whether God or aliens) caused the appearance; once we discover that it is only the residue of a mechanical failure in the pipes, or an especially blurry photographic development, coupled with the human brain’s tendency to search for patterns, the phenomena is no longer interesting. Messages are only meaningful inasmuch as they are produced by agents; anything else is not a message at all.

In that way, a home run (or an ace), can only be thought of as having a meaning insofar as it is a purposive act: only a home run hit by a god—that is, a home run hit by a being who can hit (or not hit) home runs as he chooses—could possess meaning. We can know this because even the greatest of home run hitters cannot produce one at will (despite what is rumored about the 1932 World Series and Babe Ruth): hitting a home run requires the cooperation of sudden bursts of wind and other hidden forces beyond the control of any single person. In other words, hitting a home run, or a hole-in-one, might seem like the most intentional act possible—but it isn’t, as the “better to be lucky” adage ruefully communicates. Both are somewhere between a face on Mars and a message, and probably more like the former than the latter.

Antonin Scalia’s dream, in short, of a perfectly communicated law, one that is as easily interpreted as a hole-in-one, is an impossible one: anything so easily understood would not be worth the (minimal) effort it would take to understand. As Fish says, intention “is not something added to language; it is what must already be assumed if what are otherwise mere physical phenomena (rocks or scratch marks) are to be experienced as language.” Which, one supposes, is why hole-in-ones are so fascinating to golfers: they are a moment of in which the physical, non-human world appears to take an interest in our affairs, a moment where the divine appears, for just a moment, to intervene. The reason they can appear so is because of their strange mixture of both intention and random chance, which blurs a line so definitively drawn.

Perhaps that is the reason for the adage: it may be that human beings long for release from the consequences of their own actions—which is to say, release from a world so divided between human actions and natural events. If there is a link between that longing, and the world we now have—one in which, for example, torture is acceptable behavior, but the connection between productivity and wages has been effectively severed—it is probably too much to say that such is the shared intention of the foreign Marxist and the Supreme Court justice. But I may be a poor kind of reader for the purposes of these gentlemen: unlike them, I would rather be good than lucky.

Excellent Foppery

IMG_1766

That sir which serves and seeks for gain,
And follows but for form,
Will pack when it begins to rain,
And leave thee in the storm
King Lear II.iv

 

We’d been in the badly-lit cart barn for over an hour, as the storm came ashore from the Gulf of Mexico, when my fellow caddie Pistol discovered the scorecard that had been resting on the steering wheel of the cart he was in. The card recorded the events of the first two holes played by a foursome on Streamsong’s Red course, and told a tale of much woe: the foursome had played the first hole in an eye-gouging fourteen over par. Five of those over-par strokes came from one poor wretch’s nine. “The fact,” Pistol laconically observed, “that the guy wrote down the nine means it probably wasn’t his first this month.” Still, he’d written down the nine, for some mysterious reason—but why? Something I had read recently suggested not only existential despair, but also that the answer might have to do with slot machines and Australian beards.

According to a recent study of styles of men’s facial hair—as revealed by newspaper photographs going back more than a century by two researchers from the University of New South Wales—there is no one “right”method of wearing facial hair. Instead, what’s fashionable in beard styles is simply something they call “negative frequency dependence,” which just means that whatever the desirable style of the day is will simply be determined by what’s rare, not because of something internal to the style itself. “Patterns of facial hair enjoy greater attractiveness when rare than when they’re common,” the researchers found. Which, I’d grant you, hardly seems earthshaking, nor does it appear to have much to do with golf.

Bear with me though, as we try to answer the question of why anyone would habitually write down their nines. “True” golfers, of course, will harumph at the question itself. “Golf is like solitaire,” Tony Lema once said: “When you cheat, you only cheat yourself.” Yet given the scores of the other players in the foursome, nines were not unfamiliar to the group—in that case, however, why continue to play? Why not either improve or … just cease to keep score? Continuing, year after year, decade after decade, to play golf poorly seems like one of those mysteries of the human race that alien archeologists will one day wonder over.

As Bill Pennington of the New York Times reported in 2005, the “average 18-hole score for the average golfer remains at about 100, as it has for decades, according to the National Golf Foundation.” This, despite the millions spent on game improvement technology like titanium woods and over-engineered golf balls; technology often researched by (former) rocket scientists who’ve left the NASA or the defense industry in order to find an extra four yards from your seven-iron. Yet, despite the money spent, the fact that this quest has largely been fruitless is just accepted: “Maybe we’re all supposed to stink at this,” says the revered commentator David Feherty in Pennington’s story.

Yet Feherty’s line explains nothing, just as—the American philosopher Richard Rorty liked to point out—the doctor in the Moliere play’s claim that opium put people to sleep because it had a “dormitive power” explained nothing. Recently however I came across an article that just might explain something about this gap between the billions spent and the apparent lack of result: a piece by one Professor Ian Bogost, of Georgia Tech, in The Baffler about a seemingly unrelated subject—the rise of “social media” games like FarmVille or Candy Crush. What Bogost suggests is that such games have a lot to do with that perennial stalwart of the Las Vegas economy: slot machines.

Citing the work of psychologists Geoffrey and Elizabeth Loftus, Bogost tells us that slot machines exploit “a type of operant conditioning that provides a reward intermittently,” or “partial reinforcement.” In other words, precisely the mechanism that B.F. Skinner explored in his behaviorist experiments with rats: so long as, once in what can be a very great while, a reward gets doled out, there’s virtually no end to which mammals will not go. As the subject of the recent short film, Lapse: Confessions of a Slot Machine Junkie, says about his time in front of the machines, slot machine zombies that sit in front of their spinning fruit in the casinos that have sprung up across America in recent decades are “Irrational, stupid, like a little rat in a wheel.” But slot machine junkies continue on with their behavior even though many of them realize how absurd their behavior is.

For Bogost, that explains the appeal of video games like FarmVille: they “normalize corrupt business practices in the guise of entertainment.” Games like these are called “free-to-play,” which means that they’re free to begin to play: the real point of them, however, is to “give users opportunities to purchase virtual items or add-ons like clothing, hairstyles, or pets for their in-game characters.” Or simply the opportunity to continue to play: like their forebears in the video arcades, these games are often designed so that at a certain point a player must either wait some time before playing again, or send out “invites” to the social media friends, or simply throw down some amount of money to continue to play right then and there. As Bogost puts it, “FarmVille users might have been having fun in the moment, but before long, they would look up to discover they owed their souls to the company store.”

What that would seem to say is that the man taking a nine—and not thinking it extraordinary—is playing golf for the few moments of pleasure the game affords him, and ignoring the rest: remembering the fifty-foot putt that dropped, and not the seven shots that preceded it. Or the solid nine-iron from the fairway that somehow stopped next to the cup—and not the sliced drive into the woods, followed by the three chip shots that restored him to the fairway, that led to the moment. It would be a species of what’s often called “selective memory,” which is something that we all think we are familiar with on a conversational level these days. But the more sobering idea to arise from Bogust’s piece isn’t that people ignore evidence that doesn’t suit them—but that golf exists, not in spite of, but because of the intermittent rewards it spits out.

What the idea of “partial reinforcement” suggests is that—seemingly paradoxically—if the casinos rejiggered the slots to pay out more often, that would lead to less play rather than more. The slot machine zombies aren’t there for the payoff, but—it could be said—for the long stretches between payoffs. In the same way, it may be that the golfer isn’t there for the brilliant shots, but for the series of shots between the fantastic ones: if golfers were better, in other words, the game would not have as much appeal. Just as the slot machine player, deep down, doesn’t want to win—or rather, wants to win just enough times to maintain the illusion that he’s playing to win—so the golfer doesn’t want to get better. In that sense, then, what all the money spent on researching the latest hot ball or driver is being spent on is creating that illusion for the golfer: the illusion that he really does want to get better—when in fact he does not.

It’s about here—in the midst of a rather dark picture not merely of golf, but human beings generally—where the beards come back in. What the foregoing suggests, after all, is that the reason people continue to play golf badly is precisely because of the rarity of good shots—just as people, according to the Australians, are attracted to certain beard styles because of their rarity, not because of anything intrinsic to the styles themselves. The appeal of the idea, at least when it comes to golf, is that it explains just why people would rather spend money on expensive golf clubs, rather than something that would actually improve their games in a lasting way: namely, lessons from a certified professional golfer. So long, in other words, as a person is able to hit the occasional good shot—which, strictly in terms of chance, he or she is bound to do once in a while—it does not particularly matter that all the rest of the time he or she is hitting terrible ones.

Purchasing expensive equipment then could be thought of in two different ways: the first is that it’s the same kind of shortcut as, say, taking speed can temporarily help with weight loss. Just as practice is the only real way to get better, so is diet and exercise the only real way to improve your body. But just as a “magic” pill can cause a temporary weight loss without effort (even if it’s all gained back later), so can a new driver or irons cause a minor improvement from your older clubs. Since getting a new club requires only money, whereas lessons and practice requires time, it’s easy to see why people would go for that kind of fix.

Yet, that’s not the only possible interpretation here: there’s a darker one suggested by the investigation into beards. Remember, no kind of beard is intrinsically better than any other kind—which is to say, there’s no way to investigate beards rationally and discover a single “best” kind. If golf is more like that, rather than the kind of thing that can be worked at, then buying a new golf club is, in this scenario, not so much a means of improvement (even if it’s known to be the same kind of shortcut as, say, taking speed can temporarily help with weight loss) but instead a kind of offering to the gods of rationality itself. That is, buying a golf club is like burning a goat (or, say, your daughter if you have a pressing need to get to Troy and the winds are not cooperating): it’s a way to simultaneously a recognition that golf is largely a matter of change (at least in your own case) and also an attempt to influence that hand of fate. What is disturbing about this, to be sure, is the whiff of primitivism about it—the suggestion that the Enlightenment is merely a passing moment in the history of humanity, and that the return of the Dark is merely just beneath the surface, or a turn around the corner.

****

The storm outside our cartbarn continued. The crowd within it slowly dwindled, as the golfers, slowly and then at once, gave up hope of completing their rounds. Their caddies followed. As they day drew drearily on, and the moisture from the Gulf of Mexico syncopated upon the just and the unjust alike, there were only a few of us left. Pistol remained. “What else,” he remarked in the midst of a long silence that was only broken by the occasional crash of thunder, “have I to do?”
“Grow a beard?” said a voice somewhere in the echoing darkness.
The course closed for the day shortly thereafter.

Is Streamsong Real?

“Young man, the Soviet Union is our adversary. Our enemy is the Navy.”
    —General Curtis Le May

Just finding Streamsong, the new golf resort ballyhooed as the “Bandon Dunes of Florida,” is an exercise in navigation: miles from any interstate highway, it’s surrounded by what appears, alternately, to be the savannah of the Serengeti Plain or an apocalyptic post-industrial hellscape. Either a lion pack or Mad Max appear likely to wait around the next turn. It’s a Florida unknown to the tourists on either coast—but Streamsong exists where the real map of Florida is being drawn, where the real history of the state is being written. That, even if one of Florida’s major exports is a denial that history exists, and the resort’s operations may in one sense dispute the very idea of maps.

Streamsong is located in the central part of Florida, far from the tourist beaches; there are no other big-time golf courses in the area. It consists, so far, of two 18-hole golf courses, the Red and the Blue. The Red was designed by Tom Doak’s Renaissance Design team, and the Blue by the partnership of Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, the Masters winner who is a connoisseur of golf course design. Both teams are grouped together as part of golf’s “minimalist” design movement; according to Renaissance Design, the “minimalist’s objective is to route as many holes as possible whose main features already exist in the landscape.” The landscape at Streamsong, however, that faced the two architectural teams was by no means natural.

This part of Florida is the preserve of enormous cattle ranches and massive phosphate mining operations. They’re industries that don’t often make it into the tourist brochures. Yet as dependent as Florida is on tourism—and at least some of it is definitely golf-related—Streamsong is the result of changes in the second of those industries. And, as it happens, it’s mining that’s at the center of a debate over the future of the state itself, as reported in the Tampa Bay Times in 2010.

Phosphate mining is, according to the director of the Tampa Port Authority Richard Wainio, “a singular industry … Florida doesn’t have a lot of big industries, and this is at or near the top of the pile as far as economic benefit for the state.” The phosphate industry, which ships its product through Tampa Bay, is in other words the economic machinery that the gloss of Disney World and South Beach obscures. Most of the state’s visitors, and likely by far the majority of its citizens, have little notion of what phosphate mining is nor how it can affect their lives. A little backstory might be in order then.

It begins somewhere around 50 million years ago, during the Eocene era—when the piece of Africa that would become Florida broke away from its parent plate and attached itself to the North American plate during the event that shattered the super-continent Pangea. In the eons since, shallow seas rose and fell over the rock, depositing the fossils that, when they were discovered in the 19th century, led to the central part of the state to be called “Bone Valley.” Animal bones and teeth concentrate phosphorus, as does the existence of animal life generally: phosphorus contains a lot of energy within its chemical bonds, which makes it necessary for nearly all life on earth—and thus, valuable.

“Bone Valley” is drained by the Peace River, which rises near the town of Bartow, the nearest larg(ish) town to Streamsong. A report by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on the river—done because the Corps manages the slow-flowing “river of grass” called the Everglades—not long ago held that “phosphate mining had led to the loss of 343 miles of streams and 136,000 acres of wetlands in the Peace River region.” That finding was a major piece of the evidence introduced by the enemies of phosphate mining in their lawsuit.

The largest company to mine phosphates in the Bone Valley is a company called Mosaic, a behemoth corporation formed out from a merger of two predecessors: IMC Global and the crop nutrition department of Cargill, each of them massive companies in their own right. Mosaic “is the largest producer of finished phosphate products, with an annual capacity greater than the next two producers combined.” If any one company has contributed to the degradation of the Peace River, then Mosaic—whose corporate forebears have operated in the Peace River watershed since before 1909—is the primary suspect. And Mosaic is, also, the owner of Streamsong—despite being such a large company, the resort is the company’s first foray into golf, or anything like tourism at all.

It’s an odd kind of timing, of course, since the numbers of golf courses in the United States are declining, not rising these days. Golf is an industry that took a major hit during the recent economic troubles: “Over the past decade,” said the New York Times in 2008, “the leisure activity most closely associated with corporate success in America has been in a kind of recession.” Nevertheless, Mosaic went ahead and built two courses by top-name design teams at just the time many courses in the United States were shutting down. Just what that timing may, or may not, have to do with a lawsuit filed in 2010 by environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, seeking to limit phosphate mining is unclear.

If building Streamsong is a tactical exercise meant to further a long-term corporate goal—and there’s no knowing at the moment if it is—then it’s well-within a Florida tradition of commercial strategy. European intellectuals, for instance, have long noted that Florida is, perhaps even more than California, known as a place with a tenuous connection to reality: the homeland of what the sophisticated Europeans call “hyperreality,” a place where signs no longer refer to an external “reality.” Where, in fact, the difference between signs and their referents no longer exists.

One such thinker, the Frenchman Jean Baudrillard, conjured up the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges’ fable, “On Rigor In Science,” to describe Disneyland. Borges’ short, one-paragraph tale describes an imperial society so wedded to precision that nothing less than “a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire” would do. In such a place, the difference between a place and its representation would break down; so too, Baudrillard argues, are the Disney parks “perfect model[s] of all the entangled orders of simulation.” Another such Florida place, which as it happens was the starting point for my own trip to Streamsong, was that seemingly-dull “retirement community” (as they’re called), “the Villages.”

According to one resident, the Villages are “one of the places the Spanish looked for the Fountain of Youth.” But where Ponce de Leon left empty-handed, the new residents of the place are more fortunate: “‘we found it!’” Just how the Villages found this “Fountain of Youth” is something that the Mosaic Company might do well to examine. Assuming, to be sure, that it hasn’t already.

The real history of the Villages is that they began as a way to sell Florida swampland in the Lady Lake area of the state when the previous way of selling it—mail order—was outlawed by federal law in 1968. (Because it lent itself to fraud so easily, obviously.) Partners Harold Schwartz—significantly, a former Chicago advertising executive—and Al Tarrson’s attempts to develop the land as a mobile home park throughout the 1970s largely failed until in 1983 Schwartz bought out Tarrson and brought his son, H. Gary Morse (also a Chicago ad man), on to run the company. Morse’s idea was to re-aim their company towards a higher-income bracket than potential mobile-home owners; the master-stroke was building a golf course and not charging greens fees to play it. Tens of thousands of residents followed.

That isn’t, obviously, the history that the resident who talks about Ponce de Leon refers to when he mentions the Fountain of Youth. THAT history, it seems, comes from another source: according to a story from the St. Petersburg Times in 2000, “the Morse family (with the help of a bottle of Scotch and a case of beer) concocted a ‘fanciful history’” of the Villages; complete, in fact, with a reference to a tale of a visit from Ponce de Leon himself. The reason for this fabricated history is simple enough: as Gary Morse himself told the St. Petersburg Times reporter, “We wanted a town to remind them of their youth.”

Yet while the original “town center” development in the Villages—“Spanish Springs”— began the idea concocting “history” out of whole cloth, it’s the newest,—“Lake Sumter Landing”—that sails to a farther shore. “It features,” one Timothy Burke, a student at the University of South Florida notes in his paper, “An Economy of Historicity: The Carefully-Crafted Heritage of the Villages,” “no fewer than 76 ‘historic’ locations”—despite the fact that many of these sites “hadn’t existed six months prior.” Nearly every shop in the shopping district has a plaque adverting the building’s antiquity, complete with some tale or other of a previous tenant or notable: as Umberto Eco, author of “Travels in Hyperreality,” might say, Lake Sumter Landing “blends the reality of trade with the play of fiction.” So, the local movie theater not only claims to be an old vaudeville palace, it asserts that a traveling magician once “threw a playing card from the stage at the ceiling of the theater so hard that the card lodged in a crack in the plaster—where it remains to this day.” The top? Yeah, we’re over it.

Still, the idea behind the plaques isn’t just for entertainment value. Reading these plaques, nearly all of which refer to how the “original” inhabitants of the place arrived there from somewhere else—as, perhaps not coincidentally, do the current residents. It’s one way that, as Burke says, “the stories contributed to their adaptation of the Villages as a ‘home’”: the fictional characters described in the fictional histories inevitably come from places like Maine or New York, not Alabama or Tennessee. So, for instance, the fictional Upton family, proprietors of the eponymous Feed and Tack Store—“now” a restaurant—came to Lake Sumter from Pennsylvania. Almost certainly, the meaning of these varied origins is meant to reflect the varied origins of the current residents: the former Nebraska businessmen or Cleveland dentists who chose to spend the rest of their lives there. The “fanciful history,” in other words, allows each new resident to imagine themselves already having “roots” in what is, in reality, a landscape almost wholly ignorant of what actually preceded it.

Burke interviews one resident, for instance, about the fictional history, and asks whether “she felt there was an authentic heritage to the Lady Lake area that was being overlooked” by the fictional history of Spanish Springs and Lake Sumter Landing. “‘Oh,’” the former New Jersey schoolteacher says, “‘but this is Florida. It probably wasn’t the nicest history.’” Perhaps so: actual local historians, Burke says, report that before the “northern invasion” of the Chicago advertising executives, “the Lady Lake area was ruled by cattle baron Clyde Bailey”—who, given the history of the cattle industry in America, was presumably not a Boy Scout.

Assuming though that we can juggle the distinction between “real” and “fake” on top of “nice” and “not nice”—a pretty complex mental operation—maybe we can presume that—though the “fake” history of Lake Sumter Landing is likely “nicer” than the “real” history of Clyde Bailey’s Lady Lake—it doesn’t necessarily mean that the real history of the Villages is all that much different from that of Lady Lake. Like the old-time robber barons of a company town, Gary Morse owns “all or part of pretty much everything worth owning in the Villages, including the bank, the hospital, the utilities, the garbage collection company, the TV and radio stations, and the newspaper,” according to a story in Slate. But not merely that—which is what got Morse in trouble with the IRS recently.

This summer, the IRS ruled that government bonds issued by the Villages’ governing board—called a community development district, or CDD—“did not deserve to be tax-exempt” like other bonds issued by CDDs throughout Florida. Why? “Because,” as Slate said, “everyone who sits on the district board—like everything else in the Villages—is controlled by Morse.” Or as the New York Times reported: “the IRS states that the district does not function like a true government.” An actual government, for example, is usually worried about what its voters might think about how that government spends its money.

That’s why IRS agent Dominick Servadio questioned “why the Village Center Community District used $60 million in bond proceeds to buy guardhouses, golf courses, and small parks that cost Mr. Morse … less than $8 million to build,” according to the Times. “‘If I was a resident of The Villages,’” Mr. Servadio wrote, “‘I would be outraged by this transaction.’” The Villages, it seems, has responded by saying that Mr. Servadio is not nice: “‘It’s really been upsetting the residents,’” the Times quotes Janet Tutt, district manager for the Villages, “‘to deal with the stress and anxiety.’” One imagines that yes, there is likely some stress involved when discovering that one’s government has been swindled for a 700 percent profit—but just where that blame lies is perhaps not so clear-cut as Ms. Tutt might say.

None of this, to be sure, has anything directly to do with Streamsong which, so far as I know, does not pretend to have always been there. It is true that a golf course—particularly one built in Florida, which was unaffected by the Ice Ages—is always a kind of fakery, because despite what Tom Doak might claim no golf course simply takes the land it’s built on as is: “All over the world,” says geologist Anita Harris in John McPhee’s Annals of the Former World, “when people make golf courses they are copying glacial landscapes.” Yet fairly obviously, the resort wasn’t built simply because the company felt that its land demanded a golf course to be put upon it, in the way that some say that the sea by Monterey, California demanded Pebble Beach be built. Almost certainly, the company expects some return for its investment: a return that may or may not have any reference to the Sierra Club’s lawsuit.

Yet even were there some “plot” involved in the building of Streamsong, the judgement of whether it actually signifies something “nefarious” or not ultimately comes down to what value you place on phosphate mining generally. As it happens, phosphates are part of all living things: it’s an essential nutrient for plants, for instance, and necessary for nearly all metabolic processes in animals. Phosphates also allow muscles to store energy for immediate use, and they build our teeth and bones. This is not even to address industrial uses—without phosphate mining, in short, a great deal of the contemporary world, “natural” and “artificial,” falls apart.

Countering those points, the Sierra Club notes what opponents of mining always note: that the benefits of mining rarely accrue to those living near the site of the mine. Sixty percent of the ore shipped out of Florida, for example, leaves the United States—historically, mostly to China—and while the mining industry provides some jobs, those numbers are dwarfed by the numbers of jobs in Florida that depend on a clean Peace River watershed, including the hundreds of thousands that drink Peace River water. As with nearly all mining operations, phosphate mining leaves behind it a cleanup trail—and in the case of Florida, that includes small amounts of radioactive uranium that will likely outlast even the corporations that do the mining, much less any of us human beings alive today.

To which Jean Baudrillard, for one, might reply “Just so.” Already, in 1975, the French intellectual had published “Simulacra and Simulations,” which argued that, today, the distinction between the Real and the Imaginary had fallen: in his words, the “territory no longer precedes the map.” “Disneyland,” he says, “is presented as imaginary in order to make us believe that the rest is real, when in fact Los Angeles and the America surrounding it are no longer real.” Or, to put it in a way that might be more applicable to those residents of the Villages who appear quite ready to believe that the place was built by Santa Claus, Disneyland “is meant to be an infantile world, in order to make us believe the adults are elsewhere, in the ‘real’ world, and to conceal the fact that childishness is everywhere.” Is Streamsong a cover for iniquitous business practices, or an attempt at an “enlightened” capitalism that recognizes the (alas, completely necessary) damage it does?

Or, to put it another way: Is Streamsong Real?