Best Intentions

L’enfer est plein de bonnes volontés ou désirs
—St. Bernard of Clairvaux. c. 1150 A.D.

And if anyone knows Chang-Rae Lee,” wrote Penn State English professor Michael Bérubé back in 2006, “let’s find out what he thinks about Native Speaker!” The reason Bérubé gives for doing that asking is, first, that Lee wrote the novel under discussion, Native Speaker—and second, that Bérubé “once read somewhere that meaning is identical with intention.” But this isn’t the beginning of an essay about Native Speaker. It’s actually the end of an attack on a fellow English professor: the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Walter Benn Michaels, who (along with with Steven Knapp, now president of George Washington University), wrote the 1982 essay “Against Theory”—an essay that  argued that “the meaning of a text is simply identical to the author’s intended meaning.” Bérubé’s closing scoff then is meant to demonstrate just how politically conservative Michaels’ work is— earlier in the same piece, Bérubé attempted to tie Michaels’ work to Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.’s The Disuniting of America, a book that, because it argued that “multiculturalism” weakened a shared understanding of the United States, has much the same status among some of the intelligentsia that Mein Kampf has among Jews. Yet—weirdly for a critic who often insists on the necessity of understanding historical context—it’s Bérubé’s essay that demonstrates a lack of contextual knowledge, while it’s Michaels’ view—weirdly for a critic who has echoed Henry Ford’s claim that “History is bunk”—that demonstrates a possession of it. In historical reality, that is, it’s Michaels’ pro-intention view that has been the politically progressive one, while it’s Bérubé’s scornful view that shares essentially everything with traditionally conservative thought.

Perhaps that ought to have been apparent right from the start. Despite the fact that, to many English professors, the anti-intentionalist view has helped to unleash enormous political and intellectual energies on behalf of forgotten populations, the reason it could do so was that it originated from a forgotten population that, to many of those same professors, deserves to be forgotten: white Southerners. Anti-intentionalism, after all, was a key tenet of the critical movement called the New Criticism—a movement that, as Paul Lauter described in a presidential address to the American Studies Association in 1994, arose “largely in the South” through the work of Southerners like John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, and Robert Penn Warren. Hence, although Bérubé, in his essay on Michaels, insinuates that intentionalism is politically retrograde (and perhaps even racist), it’s actually the contrary belief that can be more concretely tied to a conservative politics.

Ransom and the others, after all, initially became known through a 1930 book entitled I’ll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition, a book whose theme was a “central attack on the impact of industrial capitalism” in favor of a vision of a specifically Southern tradition of a society based around the farm, not the factory. In their vision, as Lauter says, “the city, the artificial, the mechanical, the contingent, cosmopolitan, Jewish, liberal, and new” were counterposed to the “natural, traditional, harmonious, balanced, [and the] patriachal”: a juxtaposition of sets of values that wouldn’t be out of place in a contemporary Republican political ad. But as Lauter observes, although these men were “failures in … ‘practical agitation’”—i.e., although I’ll Take My Stand was meant to provoke a political revolution, it didn’t—“they were amazingly successful in establishing the hegemony of their ideas in the practice of the literature classroom.” Among the ideas that they instituted in the study of literature was the doctrine of anti-intentionalism.

The idea of anti-intentionalism itself, of course, predates the New Criticism: writers like T.S. Eliot (who grew up in St. Louis) and the University of Cambridge don F.R. Leavis are often cited as antecedents. Yet it did not become institutionalized as (nearly) official doctrine of English departments  (which themselves hardly existed) until the 1946 publication of W.K. Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley’s “The Intentional Fallacy” in The Sewanee Review. (The Review, incidentally, is a publication of Sewanee: The University of the South, which was, according to its Wikipedia page, originally founded in Tennessee in 1857 “to create a Southern university free of Northern influences”—i.e., abolitionism.) In “The Intentional Fallacy,” Wimsatt and Beardsley explicitly “argued that the design or intention of the author is neither available nor desirable as a standard for judging the success of a work of literary art”—a doctrine that, in the decades that followed, did not simply become a key tenet of the New Criticism, but also largely became accepted as the basis for work in English departments. In other words, when Bérubé attacks Michaels in the guise of acting on behalf of minorities, he also attacks him on behalf of the institution of English departments—and so just who the bully is here isn’t quite so easily made out as Bérubé makes it appear.

That’s especially true because anti-intentionalism wasn’t just born and raised among conservatives—it has also continued to be a doctrine in conservative service. Take, for instance, the teachings of conservative Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia, who throughout his career championed a method of interpretation he called “textualism”—by which he meant (!) that, as he said in 1995, it “is the law that governs, not the intent of the lawgiver.” Scalia argued his point throughout his career: in 1989’s Green v. Bock Laundry Mach. Co., for instance, he wrote that the

meaning of terms on the statute books ought to be determined, not on the basis of which meaning can be shown to have been understood by the Members of Congress, but rather on the basis of which meaning is … most in accord with context and ordinary usage … [and is] most compatible with the surrounding body of law.

Scalia thusly argued that interpretation ought to proceed from a consideration of language itself, apart from those who speak it—a position that would place him, perhaps paradoxically from Michael Bérubé’s position, among the most rarified heights of literary theorists: it was after all the formidable German philosopher Martin Heidegger—a twelve-year member of the Nazi Party and sometime-favorite of Bérubé’s—who wrote the phrase “Die Sprache spricht”: “Language [and, by implication, not speakers] speaks.” But, of course, that may not be news Michael Bérubé wishes to hear.

Like Odysseus’ crew, there’s a simple method by which Bérubé could avoid hearing the point: all of the above could be dismissed as an example of the “genetic fallacy.” First defined by Morris Cohen and Ernest Nagel in 1934’s An Introduction to Logic and Scientific Method, the “genetic fallacy” is “the supposition that an actual history of any science, art, or social institution can take the place of a logical analysis of its structure.” That is, the arguments above could be said to be like the argument that would dismiss anti-smoking advocates on the grounds that the Nazis were also anti-smoking: just because the Nazi were against smoking is no reason not to be against smoking also. In the same way, just because anti-intentionalism originated among conservative Southerners—and also, as we saw, committed Nazis—is no reason to dismiss the thought of anti-intentionalism. Or so Michael Bérubé might argue.

That would be so, however, only insofar as the doctrine of anti-intentionalism were independent from the conditions from which it arose: the reasons to be against smoking, after all, have nothing to do with anti-Semitism or the situation of interwar Germany. But in fact the doctrine of anti-intentionalism—or rather, to put things in the correct order, the doctrine of intentionalism—has everything to do with the politics of its creators. In historical reality, the doctrine enunciated by Michaels—that intention is central to interpretation—was in fact created precisely in order to resist the conservative political visions of Southerners. From that point of view, in fact, it’s possible to see the Civil War itself as essentially fought over this principle: from this height, “slavery” and “states’ rights” and the rest of the ideas sometimes advanced as reasons for the war become mere details.

It was, in fact, the very basis upon which Abraham Lincoln would fight the Civil War—though to see how requires a series of steps. They are not, however, especially difficult ones: in the first place, Lincoln plainly said what the war was about in his First Inaugural Address. “Unanimity is impossible,” as he said there, while “the rule of a minority, as a permanent arrangement, is wholly inadmissable.” Not everyone will agree all the time, in other words, yet the idea of a “wise minority” (Plato’s philosopher-king or the like) has been tried for centuries—and been found wanting; therefore, Lincoln continued, by “rejecting the majority principle, anarchy or despotism in some form is all that is left.” Lincoln thereby concluded that “a majority, held in restraint by constitutional checks and limitations”—that is, bounds to protect the minority—“is the only true sovereign of a free people.” Since the Southerners, by seceding, threatened this idea of government—the only guarantee of free government—therefore Lincoln was willing to fight them. But where did Lincoln obtain this idea?

The intellectual line of descent, as it happens, is crystal clear: as Wills writes, “Lincoln drew much of his defense of the Union from the speeches of [Daniel] Webster”: after all, the Gettysburg Address’ famous phrase, “government of the people, by the people, for the people” was an echo of Webster’s Second Reply to Hayne, which contained the phrase “made for the people, made by the people, and answerable to the people.” But if Lincoln got his notions of the Union (and thusly, his reasons for fighting the war) from Webster, then it should also be noted that Webster got his ideas from Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story: as Theodore Parker, the Boston abolitionist minister, once remarked, “Mr. Justice Story was the Jupiter Pluvius [Raingod] from whom Mr. Webster often sought to elicit peculiar thunder for his speeches and private rain for his own public tanks of law.” And Story, for his part, got his notions from another Supreme Court justice: James Wilson, who—as Linda Przybyszewski notes in passing in her book, The Republic According to John Marshall Harlan (a later Supreme Court justice)—was “a source for Joseph Story’s constitutional nationalism.” So in this fashion Lincoln’s arguments concerning the constitution—and thus, the reasons for fighting the war—ultimately derived from Wilson.

 

JamesWilson
Not this James Wilson.

Yet, what was that theory—the one that passed by a virtual apostolic succession from Wilson to Story to Webster to Lincoln? It was derived, most specifically, from a question Wilson had publicly asked in 1768, in his Considerations on the Nature and Extent of the Legislative Authority of the British Parliament. “Is British freedom,” Wilson had there asked, “denominated from the soil, or from the people, of Britain?” Nineteen years later, at the Constitutional Convention of 1787, Wilson would echo the same theme: “Shall three-fourths be ruled by one-fourth? … For whom do we make a constitution? Is it for men, or is it for imaginary beings called states?” To Wilson, the answer was clear: constitutions are for people, not for tracts of land, and as Wills correctly points out, it was on that doctrine that Lincoln prosecuted the war.

James Wilson (1742-1798)
This James Wilson.

Still, although all of the above might appear unobjectionable, there is one key difficulty to be overcome. If, that is, Wilson’s theory—and Lincoln’s basis for war—depends on a theory of political power derived from people, and not inanimate objects like the “soil,” that requires a means of distinguishing between the two—which perhaps is why Wilson insisted, in his Lectures on Law in 1790 (the very first such legal works in the United States), that “[t]he first and governing maxim in the interpretation of a statute is to discover the meaning of those who made it.” Or—to put it another way—the intention of those who made it. It’s intention, in other words, that enables Wilson’s theory to work—as Knapp and Michaels well-understand in “Against Theory.”

The central example of “Against Theory,” after all, is precisely about how to distinguish people from objects. “Suppose that you’re walking along a beach and you come upon a curious sequence of squiggles in the sand,” Michaels and his co-author ask. These “squiggles,” it seems, appear to be the opening lines of Wordsworth’s “A Slumber”: “A slumber did my spirit seal.” That wonder, then, is reinforced by the fact that, in this example, the next wave leaves, “in its wake,” the next stanza of the poem. How to explain this event, Knapp and Michaels ask?

There are, they say, only two alternatives: either to ascribe “these marks to some agent capable of intentions,” or to “count them as nonintentional effects of mechanical processes,” like some (highly unlikely) process of erosion or wave action or the like. Which, in turn, leads up to the $64,000 question: if these “words” are the result of “mechanical processes” and not the actions of an actor, then “will they still seem to be words?”

The answer, of course, is that they will not: “They will merely seem to resemble words.” Thus, to deprive (what appear to be) the words “of an author is to convert them into accidental likenesses of language.” Intention and meaning are, in this way, identical to each other: no intention, no meaning—and vice versa. Similarly, I suggest, to Lincoln (and his intellectual antecedents), the state is identical to its people—and vice versa. Which, clearly, then suggests that those who deny intention are, in their own fashion—and no matter what they say—secessionists.

If so, then that would, conversely, make those who think—along with Knapp and Michaels—that it is intention that determines meaning, and—along with Lincoln and Wilson—that it is people that constitutes states, then it would follow that those who thought that way really could—unlike the sorts of “radicals” Bérubé is attempting to cover for—construct the United States differently, in a fashion closer to the vision of James Wilson as interpreted by Abraham Lincoln. There are, after all, a number of things about the government of the United States that still lend themselves to the contrary theory, that power derives from the inanimate object of the soil: the Senate, for one. The Electoral College, for another. But the “radical” theory espoused by Michael Bérubé and others of his ilk does not allow for any such practical changes in the American constitutional architecture. In fact, given its collaboration—a word carefully chosen—with conservatives like Antonin Scalia, it does rather the reverse.

Then again, perhaps that is the intention of Michael Bérubé. He is, after all, an apparently-personable man who nevertheless asked, in a 2012 essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education explaining why he resigned the Paterno Family Professorship in Literature at Pennsylvania State University, us to consider just how horrible the whole Jerry Sandusky scandal was—for Joe Paterno’s family. (Just “imagine their shock and grief” at finding out that the great college coach may have abetted a child rapist, he asked—never mind the shock and grief of those who discovered that their child had been raped.) He is, in other words, merely a part-time apologist for child rape—and so, I suppose, on his logic we ought to give a pass to his slavery-defending, Nazi-sympathizing, “intellectual” friends.

They have, they’re happy to tell us after all, only the best intentions.

April Cruel

“Well now that’s done: and I’m glad it’s over”
—T.S. Eliot
The Wasteland

According to a friend whose golfer narrowly missed the cut and, thus, spent Friday staring at the leaderboard as it clicked and clacked, sometime as that drowsy south Georgia afternoon drawled on toward sundown my golfer had been tied for ninth, and perhaps even as high as seventh. It may, for all I know, be possible to reconstruct events using tee times and the full leaderboard, but in the event I slept pretty well with the knowledge that, as Friday slipped into Friday night, we stood at tied for eleventh. Part of the myth of golf is that underdogs and unknowns can suddenly leap up from nowhere—a century ago near Boston, at the Country Club in Brookline, the former caddie Francis Ouimet beat the two British champions Harry Vardon and Ted Ray. But in pro golf, Friday afternoon is about as far from Sunday night as Galveston is from El Paso.

Still, if Sunday’s a week from Friday, Friday is a month from Monday, which is when professional tournaments hold their “qualifying tournaments.” These are 18 hole shootouts open to anybody with 450 bucks and the requisite USGA-certified handicap. Usually they consist of around 80 brave souls willing to wager their money against the chance of shooting low enough to get one of the five or six or so tee times assigned to “qualifiers.” Those “tournaments before the tournament” last all day, because everyone’s spending forever on their putts and so on, and then end with some kind of playoff for the last tee time available in the tournament proper: often there are four or more guys playing for one or more of the last remaining slots.

Qualifiers are thus always the last to be looking for a caddie. They show up to the tournament golf course on Tuesday morning with haunted and hunted looks, furtively searching out the faces of the loopers hanging out in the parking lots and wondering if one of those guys might be the final piece of the puzzle that might enable them to escape from the hell of Monday qualifying forever—the only way for a player without status (that is, a player without a “tour card” gained by his past performance) to get into a tournament without Monday qualifying is by finishing in the top twenty-five places in the previous week’s tournament. Conversely, the Monday qualifier is the time-honored way for a new caddie to learn his trade and break into the business—the “Mondayer,” as they’re called, gets you out of the parking lot and onto the golf course, where you can be seen by other, better-established, players.

I’d picked up my player in said time-honored fashion, in the parking lot on Tuesday. “Hey,” I said to the golfer carrying (as opposed to the light carry bags most Monday qualifiers have) a technicolor tour staff bag, “Are you set for the week?” No, the guy replied. But he wanted to look around a bit first. After this initial encounter, my guru Mullet told me what would happen: “He’s going to go around and see that all the quality experienced guys are already locked up for the week. Then he’s going to come right back to you.” And that is what happened.

My player was, as his tour golf bag signified, an actual touring professional: he had, in fact, not only won on what was now called the Web.com Tour (formerly the Nationwide Tour, and before that the Nike and Hogan Tours) but had also won on the PGA Tour itself. It’s a small piece of knowledge, but it contained worlds about the realities of life on tour: another chunk would reveal itself when I learned that our playing partners on Thursday, when the tournament finally began, were Rich Beem, winner of the 2002 PGA Championship, and Len Mattiace, who lost the Masters to Mike Weir in a playoff in 2003. Both Beem and Mattiace had, once, been ranked in the top 50 of the world rankings; life on tour could go sidewise at any time.

As, in fact, things had for my pro: after winning on the PGA Tour, he’d fallen on hard times lately—as his financial guy, Tom (who looked remarkably like the best-friend-turned-manager character on Entourage) told me on the eve of the tournament’s start Wednesday night. He’d gotten a divorce and—though the causality appeared unclear—had played only twice since October of last year. Making it into the field for the South Georgia Classic, in other words, meant at least one more week avoiding going into the shirt-folding trade. A top twenty-five finish in this tournament, in turn, would ensure dodging that fate for yet another week.

His showing in the tournament, in sum, was terribly important to his future. Every shot hit was one step closer either to the life and security he’d felt as a tour winner, or one step farther away: which is to say, one step closer to the life he’d been dreaming of from childhood, or one step farther away. Rolling off the eighth tee box—a par three—that Wednesday, we were discussing baseball. I asked him what team he followed, given that he was from the South: the Braves, or some other team, for some idiosyncratic reason. He was not. He liked football; baseball, he said, had too many games. He attended the games of his state’s university, a large member of the SEC; they gave him access to the sidelines, apparently. No, he didn’t donate to the university. He didn’t appear to think of this as unusual; or rather, there was something about him that seemed to dare you to find something unusual about it.

Ever since Francis Ouimet, American golfers have participated in what Tom Wolfe, speaking about the original seven Project Mercury astronauts in The Right Stuff, calls the “magical” practice of single combat: where “the mightiest soldier of one army would fight the mightiest soldier of the other army as a substitute for pitched battle.” Wolfe notes one curious fact about the practice: “the honor and glory” granted to these warriors “were in many cases rewards before the fact; on account, as it were.” Golfers, like other athletes, participate in this economy: that’s why mine had access to the sidelines for every home game of his hometown college team (which wasn’t his alma mater). He’d been riding a gravy train with biscuit wheels ever since he was a teenager, in short, and now somebody was threatening to take it away.

It wasn’t then the ideal situation to be introduced to someone, much less to work for, and whether it was that circumstance, or some quirk to his personality, I quickly realized he wasn’t the most personable guy. He was curt: on Wednesday, I waited for him to come out of the clubhouse at the appointed time—he wasn’t there. I eventually found him on the opposite side of the practice range from most of the players: his first remark to me was a snide “I don’t think anyone practices at the clubhouse.” During our practice round, while I adjusted to the fact that he stood on the opposite side of the ball (he’s a lefty), he continually reminded me that he’d been a golf pro since 1997; I fought the urge to note that I’ve been looping since 1995.

Along about then, when I realized what sort of person I was dealing with, I approached an experienced caddie about my situation: the problem, I told him, was that I had not had a conversation about payment immediately. “You got to get your money straight right away,” he said, after listening to my story. He told me that not getting the money straight was unprofessional, “on both your parts”—but that the burden fell more heavily on the pro, who should have known better. That was an egg that would remain broken however, because if I tried to approach him now about it, I could easily end up fired because there were still caddies available.

With that kind of smoothly-functioning working relationship established, then, we went to battle on the longest golf course played by the Web.com Tour: Kinderlou Forest, outside Valdosta, Georgia. Designed by Davis Love III, it’s a strange track: in addition to a punishing length, the par-fives in particular have the peculiar feature of being both ridiculously long but also absurdly penal toward long hitters, through the use of contrived angles and forced perspectives. One of them actually called upon the players to hit away from the fairway. Not a single golfer I talked to had much praise for the course, other than to say that the maintenance was good: drolly, the eventual winner would afterwards observe that “You won’t see par fives like this anywhere else in the world.” The course, oblivious to the obvious irony, immediately put that up on the website.

Throughout the spring the Southeast had suffered heavy rains, which was good for Georgia farmers (Georgia has been undergoing a drought that some think may be related to global warming) but not so good for golfers. Due to the wet conditions, the already-monster long Kinderlou track was playing even longer: a tee shot that might, on a dry course, run out twenty yards or more was more or less staying where it landed. And in another way the course played slightly differently than its design: because of the need for grandstands and such as befitting a tour stop, the nines of the course were reversed, so that what was the first hole for normal play was the tenth for the tournament, and so on.

The history of our week is recorded, somewhere, in the servers of the PGA Tour’s ShotLink system, which records every shot hit by every golfer in every sanctioned tournament worldwide. That record will reflect a one-under par first round, a fine three-under second round (which launched us up the leaderboard, since birdies on such a golf course were as scarce as anti-smoking laws in Georgia), and then a one-over par third round—a setback, but not terribly so given how hard scoring was. Although his ballstriking was sometimes not the best, he had an excellent short game that papered over a lot. Everything appeared set for a nice Sunday walk that would nail down my player’s entry into the next week’s tournament and (perhaps) begin a heartwarming story of professional redemption.

Sunday was another sunny Georgia peach of a day, foretelling the oceans of heat that come in summer. We set off just inside the top twenty-five cutline that was our implicit objective—which, given how things had gone the past three days, translated into a sense that an under-par score would lock up next week. And he seemed to respond: on the first hole, where he’d missed an ideal fairway lie each of the three previous rounds, he striped one down the middle. In fact, he played his best golf of the week: by the time his putt fell on the eighth hole, he was three-under for the round, and six-under for the tournament. We weren’t just looking at getting into the next tournament, we just might have been about to make some serious money.

What—predictably—followed was perhaps the worst hour I’ve ever spent on a golf course. At the ninth, a badly-pushed drive ended up on the inside of the dogleg-left, blocked by trees that rejected his first recovery shot. The bogey save appeared to right the ship, but missing the tenth green from the fairway less than 150 yards from the pin augured poorly. And then came the eleventh.

The eleventh at Kinderlou (the second on its standard scorecard) is a monster par-five that, on tour, begins with a tee shot over a massive ravine. That accomplished, a long downhill second shot can reach the front of an elongated green canted at an angle to the fairway. Behind the green is a lateral water hazard (a swampy forest) while another sits eighty yards short and right. The fairway itself is hugely wide, but aside from those two hazards it’s lined by both forest and tall grass. Still, for a professional none of those potential dangers exist: the longest club most professionals would be considering these days might be a five-wood, which generally speaking is a remarkably easy club to hit.

Par-fives on the professional circuit, though, can take forever to play because each group has to wait for the previous one to clear the green. We waited next to the ball as the golfers in front of us putted out. And waited. As we did my player debated his options: perhaps he should hit a soft five wood to the front of the green, allowing for a simple chip up to the hole. Or a hard three iron that might chase on to the green itself. The downhill slope and hazard beyond the hole precluded hitting a three wood, though maybe he could choke it up a bit … and so forth. In the event, he chose the five wood. And pulled it into the hazard short and right of the green.

Just barely, however, as we discovered when eventually we found the ball. It was less than a foot inside the hazard line, facing the green, with no obstacles in the path of a swing. Admittedly, the ball was sitting on bare earth, but that also meant that there was nothing to get between the ball and the club—it was, in sum, about as good an outcome as was possible given the previous shot. Which is why it was such a surprise when he bladed the ball (hit it with the leading edge of the club, instead of the face of the club) over the green and into the hazard beyond.

The tragicomedy that followed isn’t worth rehearsing, other than to note that he missed a three-footer to save double-bogey. The tee shot on the next hole, apologetically yet inevitably, sailed into the forest on the right side of the fairway. Yelling at the marshall whose duty it was to find the ball had its cathartic properties, but didn’t help us locate it. The rest of the round passed by in a stew of anger, regret, and ugly emotions that went, in large part though not completely, unexpressed. In other words, it was a like a lot of golf rounds, only with the added spice of being able to calculate precisely how much money got spent by each futile swing.

Afterward, we walked in silence towards the Range Rover (!) that the player used to transport himself. I took a last look at the clubs I’d carried for what had been nearly a week now, checking to make sure there was no grass or red clay of southern Georgia still remaining. There was nothing. I put them into the back of the truck. There was nothing more to do than to get paid. Which was when my player said, “I’m going to have to get your information …”

In the moment, I froze: I didn’t particularly know what to do. I was getting stiffed. Nothing in my experience had prepared me for this: in club caddieing, no matter how much they don’t like you, they still have to pay you something. And the worst of it was that—golf being so individualistic—there would be no recourse. At a club, you can go to the caddiemaster, or the head pro. But in this situation, there didn’t appear to be any higher authority. I thought for a moment.

Immediately after leaving the parking lot, I went to a tour official and told him substantially the story I just relayed. The man I spoke with in Valdosta asked me if I was going to Athens, Georgia, the tour’s next stop; I said I was. He said that if I hadn’t heard from my player by Friday that week I should contact a certain higher official with the professional circuit’s bureaucracy, which I did after I had no word that week. That official told me the tour would be “all over it”—and, in fact, they were. I’ve never met people who were quite so concerned about whether I’d gotten payed properly.

Over the next couple of weeks I got several phone calls from the main office of the PGA Tour in Ponte Vedre, Florida. There was quite some to do about the whole thing; at one point it slipped that the phrase “conduct unbecoming” had become part of the conversation between the tour officials and the player. Apparently the tour frowns on players stiffing caddies—a concern that was really surprising, and not a little touching. It shouldn’t have been, I suppose, since presumably the motive was to protect the tour: if it became a widely accepted notion that professional golfers are not fine and upstanding gentlemen … well, there’s a reason for golf’s self-advertisement as a sport apart from all the others. It was nice of the tour to look out for my interests so rabidly, but I’m not under much illusion that their motives were solely about my well-being.

It was, perhaps more rather than less likely, a part of why, as Tom Wolfe remarks, when it comes to single combat warriors it’s important that “the proper emotion, the seemly sentiment, the fitting moral tone should be established and should prevail.” Part of the role of the single combat warrior is not only performing on the field, naturally, but also (and maybe crucially) performing the act of being the mannerly gentleman—said person must provide the public with “the correct feelings!” Indeed, this might be more important than the on-field part—as perhaps the opposing cases of Tim Tebow (who by all accounts is a perfect gentleman, but whose on-field performance has, on the whole, lacked) and Tiger Woods (pretty much opposite) alternately demonstrate. And my player, whose demeanor already destabilized that balance, threatened it yet further. They were out to get him.

To many, who approached me at various times over the next week, that was as it should be: the tour acted to protect the interests of the majority of, not only its players, but everyone associated with it—all the people whose jobs depend on the seemingly-magical ability of some to put a small white ball into a slightly larger hole in the ground. Others, I suppose, might decry what might be viewed as a kind of interference or intrusion into what is, in mythology, golf’s individualistic purity.

In a recent story about a naval officer who—really—shot down down one of our own planes (an F-4) with an American crew in 1987, but is now up for admiral, the Washingtonian magazine notes that, until recently, the military “endeavored to promote officers whose records were as close to perfect as possible.” “But the effect of the so-called zero-defect culture,” the magazine goes on to say, “was that the services raised up a generation of cautious, risk-averse bureaucrats who were judged on how well they followed procedures and … not for innovation.” The effect of intrusion into players’ affairs is, so the argument might go, detrimental to the tour: it’s no wonder that, as critics have been saying since the 1970s at least, the PGA Tour is full of “mindless drones.” Tiger, you might say, wasn’t right to do what he did—but he did judge correctly that he had to hide it behind that robotic facade.

Tiger’s judgment that, for whatever reason, golfers—and especially him—don’t get to be human, don’t get to make mistakes, ultimately demonstrates just how bankrupt that idea is, in this line of thought: hiding behind such criticism, I suspect, is the notion that there unnameable John Daly-type players who have the potential to WOW us if we’d only let them have the chance. That might, I suppose, be true in some hypothetical sense—but the fact of the matter is that my player, at least, has not really demonstrated that he belongs out on tour, despite the fact that he’s won. Part of the argument against granting people like John Daly second (or third, or sixteenth) chances is that behaving oneself is not a separate thing from playing golf well: part of playing golf well, in this conception, is the ability to continue to play well, which ultimately has to do with not only how one treats one’s body, but also with how one treats others.

What we are left with, in short, is two visions of golf and, perhaps, the world itself: in one vision, each of our skills is separable from the rest of ourselves. In the other, not: we are whole beings, entire to ourselves. Our skills are extensions, or expressions, of our innermost selves—or they are incidental, merely the reflection of time we have devoted (or, as the case may be, not devoted) to their practice. Golf, for the most part, comes down on the former side: “There has always been,” as Jerry Tarde, editor of Golf Digest, wrote recently, “the impression that success in golf was tied to inner character, as in the widespread belief that you can know the measure of a man by simply playing a round of golf with him.” It’s a lovely idea, I suppose. But I suspect that it’s about as far from reality as El Paso from Galveston.

In any case, I just got a check. I don’t know what the tour said to the player, but evidently it worked.

Dolorous Strokes

I looked to you as it fell
And now you’re in my way.
“Call Me Maybe.”
Carly Rae Jepsen.

 

“Move!” Paulie was yelling at me the whole time, but after that story about J.R. he’d told earlier I figured he was screwing with me. In the story Paul had told early in the round, about J.R., both of them were out on a loop and forecaddieing one hole when a mishit drive came hurtling toward them. J.R. was either taking a piss, or in some other way distracted, and didn’t see the incoming missile. And when Paul tried to warn him, J.R. ignored the advice—Paul has such a reputation as a clown that most people have learned to ignore what he says. The same scenario played out again during this round—Paul warned me repeatedly, but I ignored him, in part precisely because of the story he’d already told.

As it turns out, it wasn’t so bad for me (the lady couldn’t hit it that hard), though it seems it was for J.R., who ended up with an ugly bruise. When caddieing, as with other things, we ignore others at our peril. Women don’t often play Course 3, with good reason—the carries over water alone are awful—but this was the lady’s most important client, from out of state, and he’d already turned down an invite to another club just to play this year’s Ryder Cup host site. She meant business, and if it meant occasionally whacking a caddie—specifically, the caddie she’d asked the head pro to set up for her—along the way, well, she was prepared to make sacrifices.

What I didn’t realize until later was just how far those sacrifices were going to go. Already, the group had missed the Ryder Cup itself by a few days, which arrived at Medinah last week in order to be photographed in front of the clubhouse for television purposes. I was interested to learn that the cup’s entourage is quite small by big-time trophy standards: only one guy, assigned just for this trip, stood watch over it while a photographer and his assistant took shots of it in front of the clubhouse. This differentiates it from, say, the Stanley Cup, which has its own full-time minder as well as its own room in the Hockey Hall of Fame. Also, the Stanley Cup is a behemoth compared to the Ryder Cup, which is only a bit more than a foot tall.

Of course, the Stanley Cup long ago sold out to the pro racket, while the Ryder Cup is perhaps the last major sporting event played by professionals simply, as Medinah member Michael Jordan’s old contract put it, “for the love of the game.” The Cup’s own PR makes a big deal out of this; it’s actually one last ideological bit of the ancien regime—that infrastructure of knights and feudal lords—still hanging on even now, early in the twenty-first century.

Golf is a sport of the bourgeois, not the aristos; Queen Mary might have played the game, but it’s horse racing that’s the sport of kings, and Scotland never had the money that could support the kind of polo-playing idlers a proper nobility requires. For all that the Ryder Cup might aspire to that kind of ludicrous display of foppery, in other words—and the official website is something to be read—golf is the sport of business people, not blood-lusting armored goons or dandyish fashion-crazed aesthetes. Golf is, in the end, about money.

It was just this, we learned afterwards, that the lady member didn’t understand. I had gotten about what I thought of as a somewhat pedestrian tip—standard hundred dollars for a single bag—but what I thought of as my helpers got screwed. The “A” caddie—one rank less than me—got half what I got, while the two “B” caddies—two ranks lower—got even less. Later, at dinner, I remarked to somebody that it was just this kind of thing that prevents women from rising higher in business: she had specifically asked a favor of the caddiemaster, who’d done what she’d asked—but she hadn’t given out the rewards that such a favor ought to bring.

Now, if she ever brought in that client or some other, and wanted to create the kind of experience a place like Medinah can provide (and brother, what we won’t do for a big tipper is a very short list, indeed), everyone involved will probably, without thinking about it consciously, throw some sand in the wheels: the clubhouse guys might not have the shoes ready to go on time; the valet guys (who she hadn’t parked with) might not have her car ready to bring the client back to the airport quite as efficiently as they might; the pro shop might not get her just the tee time she’d like.

Without even thinking about it, we are all going to be a step slow: not that we’re malicious or anything, but hey, if some big-timer is coming down the block, he’s (and it’s just because of things like this, I’d argue, that are what makes it more likely that “he’s” a he, and not a she) going to get our attention, and she isn’t. But this lady isn’t going to notice any of that—all she’s going to see is that she isn’t getting the attention some other member is getting, and she’ll probably chalk it up to the “old boys’ club” and leave it at that.

That doesn’t mean, of course, that she’ll get bad service; on the contrary, the job she got for her client was really a terrific day for me. I overclubbed the guy on the second hole, as per usual—there’s nowhere to go on that hole, as the green is so shallow; it’s a point to consider during the Ryder Cup matches this fall. But I got him a good read after he hit a good sand shot, and the putt fell. The rest of the day though was followed by poorly-struck approach shots; with some mediocre chipping and so-so putting these led to easy bogies, but still. Towards the end of the round the guest told me he’d just gotten off an airplane that morning after an early flight, which explained the bad iron play to one degree or another; nonetheless he shot an 83 or 84, which isn’t that bad when playing Course 3 for the first time. On this day, in other words, the lady member asked for, and got, the best that Medinah can do for her—and she didn’t reward anybody.

Afterwards, hearing me tell the story, a woman suggested that maybe she just didn’t know what or how to do it. But that’s the whole point: if you’re going to do something like that, you ought to know, or be willing to find out, what the going rate is. Anything else is a category mistake: thinking of an economic question as some other kind of problem. In Arthurian romance, there’s the curious story of the Fisher King—it formed the basis of T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland, if you’re hip to High Modernism.

In the sources used by Eliot, the king, often called Pelles, has been wounded by what’s called the Dolorous Stroke, which not only has caused this king’s unhealing wound, but also, by some magic or other, caused a kind of environmental catastrophe: it’s as if the land itself has been wounded, through an identification between the country and its leader. The only way to cure the king, and thus the country itself, is to ask the king a question (it’s the opposite of a riddle, in a way), and that question is, according to some sources, something like “Why do you (the king) suffer?” Or in other words, what’s necessary is to have some kind of human identification with the king, to put oneself in the king’s place and ask what that would be like.

In the Arthurian cycle though the knight in question (originally Percival, or in Wagner, Parzifal; in the later poems the role is played by Galahad) is too polite, too courtly, to ask the question the first time the two meet, which is what sets off the Grail Quest and a whole series of adventures that have to take place before the two can meet again. Only by undergoing those experiences can the knight learn enough to know to ignore the conventions of polite society and get at the human experience underneath them: to learn, in short, to ask the question that will heal.

In our own lives, of course, it very often takes a great deal of experience to get to that point; so much of our early lives are taken up with learning how to play our roles that it takes enormous efforts to learn when to ignore them and address the realities of the person, and not the role, that stands before you. And people who are unsure, or don’t know, just what their role is have just that much harder of a time of standing to the side of their roles and making that address.

Which, perhaps, explains something about what New Yorker writer John Cassidy calls the “random winner theory” of golf’s major tournaments, a theory that is even better illustrated by a contrast between two recent majors in two different, but related, sports: golf’s U.S. Open and tennis’ French Open. In tennis, three men—Djokovic, Nadal, and Federer—have won 28 of the last 29 Grand Slam tournaments, going back all the way to 2005. In half of these tournaments, one of those three has played another of them in the final. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, the man ranked fifth in the world, actually said before the French Open even started that he had no chance to win the tournament.

Such a statement would be ridiculous in golf; Cassidy invites us “to look at this list of the last seventeen major winners, tagged by their world ranking in the week before they won: 29, 1, 3, 3, 69, 72, 33, 110, 4, 37, 54, 13, 29, 8, 111, 108, 16.” These results would be impossible in tennis: “In most individual sports—tennis, sprinting, or skiing, for example—if you put the top six players together,” Cassidy says, “the victor would almost certainly turn out to be one of them.” But not in golf. Cassidy takes the results of this year’s U.S. Open as confirmation of what he’s saying: Webb Simpson, the winner, was ranked 14th in the world before he won at the Olympic Club.

That doesn’t mean that Simpson is a bad player, obviously—he won twice last year, in his breakout season. But it does suggest that the difference between Simpson winning and, say, David Toms (ranked 42nd) winning—or even Michael Thompson (ranked 107th), who ended up tying for second a shot behind Simpson—doesn’t have much to do with how superior Simpson is as a golfer to anybody else who finished high on the leaderboard. Rather, it concerns how much “luck,” or random chance, has to do these days with who wins what in golf. It hasn’t always, certainly, been that way in golf.

Prior to 2008, when Tiger Woods won his last major at Torrey Pines in June of that year at the Open, he’d been golf’s answer to Federer or Lance Armstrong: the dominant player. Tiger at his height used to win about one in every three or four majors, which is astonishing. Since that win, and perhaps more to the point, his gut-wrenching loss to Y.E. Yang at Hazeltine in 2009 (the only time Tiger has spit the bit with the lead in a major) and the subsequent, ahem, domestic issues, major tournaments have been pretty much open to anyone willing to win them.

Maybe what that suggests is that the way to win majors is to behave as Tiger behaved prior to the Thanksgiving incident: singlemindedly, and selfishly, pursuing one’s own goals at the expense of anyone around you. Or, to put it another way, to perform exactly one’s role. This was, it seems, Percival’s understanding of how to go about pursuing the Holy Grail: to ignore anything that did not appear to pertain directly upon that quest. The point of the story, of course, is that Percival does not find the Grail (or more precisely, does not recognize that he’s already found it, because in some versions it turns out that it was in the room with him when he first meets the Fisher King) until he learns, to put it lamely, that Some Things Are More Important.

Certainly, from the point of view of the Tour and the television executives who pay the tour, not having a dominant player is something to be mourned: ratings are always higher when Tiger has a chance of winning. Is this true, though? I certainly could have gotten more out of the guest had I asked him how he was feeling; he would have told me he’d just spent the morning traveling, which would have changed the way I was thinking about what shots he should hit. (Not to mention not getting hit by a golf ball.) The lady member will, more than likely, not get as much out of her membership as she might have had she only asked me. Maybe it’s possible that Tiger can’t ever become the old Tiger he once was: intimidating, unknown, and scary. Maybe all know too much now. But perhaps he isn’t out of options—and maybe neither is golf. At least, there might still be time to duck.