The Razor’s Edge

… for that path is sharp as a razor’s edge, impassable,
and hard to follow, say the wise.
—Katha Upanishad 1.3.14
 

“Never start a ball over a hazard,” said the kid, with a confused look on his face. He was baffled, though he might not have described it this way, because while many might think that the patron saint of golf, if it has one, is Saint Andrew (whose ensign, an “X,” isn’t particularly encouraging for a golfer, and whose feast day, November 30, isn’t a particularly good one for golf, at least in the Northern Hemisphere), it’s actually William of Ockham, whose commemoration date is that ideal day of the 10th of April, and who is best-known for writing “Plurality should not be postulated without necessity,” otherwise known to philosophers as “Occam’s Razor.” Or, to put it in golf terms, the notion that you ought to play a hole in as few shots as possible. What was perplexing the kid was that the hole we were looking at smashed that straight to hell. Sorting it out, in turn—a phraseology not used lightly—necessitates considering Walt Disney, Tiger Woods, the Rules of Golf, long-handled putters and the recent changes regarding Q-School proposed by the PGA Tour, though getting there implies a less-direct route than William might like.

The kid and I were standing on the tee of one of the weirder holes I’ve ever seen: a sweeping dog-leg 5-par around an oxbow bend in the Buffalo Bayou, Houston’s main river. The tee shot is basically blind: you can see the beginning of the fairway but not the rest of the hole; the dogleg is so severe that hitting the ball that way is too short a distance for a driver. The only way to play that hole, in other words, is to flout deliberately one of those rules professional golfers live by, the rule that you should never intentionally put a hazard into play. But in order to play this hole in the fewest amount of strokes it’s necessary to take the risk of the hazard: the conundrum put the aspiring-tour-pro head of the kid into brain-lock.

On most days, I was the kid’s caddie, on what was then the Adams Tour, a mini-tour based in Texas during the late fall into winter, but since getting to Houston he’d had trouble breaking 90 in the stiff Texas wind, and, in need of cash, we’d both turned to looping like attractive would-be pre-med coeds turn to … well, whatever it is that they do. So there we were, at Houston Country Club, the oldest golf club in Houston and one of the oldest in Texas, and though the golf course isn’t as old as the club (which had moved from its old location in the 1950s), still it was designed by Robert Trent Jones, Sr., one of the giants of golf architecture.

Houston Country Club is a posh joint run by old-time oil swells (one of its founders was Howard Hughes’ father, Howard Hughes, Sr.): all of which is to say that HCC is probably one of the most conservative places in the country, if not the planet. It’s disturbing, in other words, to find such a rebel of a hole at the golf course’s heart: in order to score well on that course a birdie is absolutely necessary there, which is to say that it demands precisely that rule-flouting that the club’s members, presumably, would abhor in their own lives. But you play the golf course as you find it, not how you’d wish it to be—and if the members of Houston Country Club are unaware of the ironies of their own course, then that’s one of the burdens of professional knowledge, I suppose. That doesn’t mean, to be sure, that the swells can’t suddenly re-discover the rules when it’s convenient, though—a point that has a direct bearing on the story that Houston Country Club and its caddie program is best-known for having a tangential connection with these days, since it was there that Taylor Smith completed his back nine on this planet.

Taylor Smith finished his days as a caddie at Houston CC in 2007, at the age of 40, apparently of pancreatitis. He’d never married, never had any children so far as anyone knows. He is, at best, a footnote in golf history: the guy who’d almost had to face down Tiger Woods in a playoff but didn’t and, because he didn’t, handed Tiger his second win on tour. The story of how he didn’t is a story about conflicting rules and how to apply them, and perhaps is instructive about golf and other matters.

The scene of the tale was Walt Disney World in October of 1996, the PGA Tour’s Orlando stop and one of the last chances for a player to make enough money to secure his tour card for the following season. Smith didn’t particularly need that chance: he’d already had two top-five finishes and would finish the season with a comfortable $220,000, which in those days was more than enough to make the top 125. Still, Smith was still looking for a win and at Orlando he not only made the cut, but spent Saturday night sleeping near the lead along with another guy whose career would also be cut short: Payne Stewart. Then there was a kid whose last name was Woods.

Back then Eldrick was still a young golfer trying to solidify his presence on the Big Show: though only a bit before the Disney he’d already won at the Las Vegas Invitational (beating Davis Love in a playoff), which meant his status for the next season wasn’t in doubt, he hadn’t yet become the Tiger Woods of whom other golfers were, for a time, afraid. Smith, in the final round, surely didn’t play scared: he calmly rolled in a putt on the last green to tie Woods at 267 for the tournament, 21 shots under par. And that despite the fact that, even aside from Woods, he had every reason to be anxious during that final round.

Earlier that day, while making the turn, Smith’s playing partner Lennie Clements, noticed something about the putter Smith was using: one of the two grips the long putter had was flat on one side. Clements knew this was a problem, and indeed a rules official confirmed that the putter violated Appendix II, 4-1c(v): “A putter may have more than one grip, provided each is circular in cross-section and the axis of each coincides with the axis of the shaft.” Smith played on anyway under an appeal of the decision and finished the round. But his protest—and the fact that, as many acknowledged then and now, there’s little reason to think that the flat grip could have assisted him any more than the fact that he had a broom-handle putter (perfectly allowable under the rules) already anyway—fell on deaf ears. Woods thereby won by default.

Smith won a lot of plaudits after the tournament though, via what many called the “classy” way he handled his DQ. When it was all over, he said that Clements “did the right thing” by calling over a rules official, and according the Orlando Sentinel a year later, Smith’s “noble handling of the disappointment gained him coast-to-coast style points.” But the same story (“As a Rule of Thumb, Give Smith His Due”) also hints at something darker: “tour insiders,” it says, “say he has had difficulty letting it go.” What Smith “dwelled on,” the story says, was “the revelations about the possibility that Woods, too, had been unknowingly playing Disney with a non-conforming putter.”

The tour got a phone call, it seems, on the Monday after the tournament was over that alleged that Tiger’s Scotty Cameron putter—the same one that he’d also used to win at Las Vegas earlier that fall—did not conform to Rule 4-1b of the Rules of Golf, which mandated that the neck of a putter measure five inches or less from the point of contact with the shaft and the putter’s bottom. The tour called Tiger’s camp immediately—but didn’t actually inspect the putter until two days later, by which time it had already been replaced in Tiger’s bag by another, conforming, putter. Which, as it turns out, was something of a moot point anyway, since as Rule 34-1 holds, “a penalty must not be rescinded, modified or imposed after the competition has closed,” a rule that has something of the same effect as Article I, Section 9 (the rule against ex post facto laws) does in the United States Constitution. Because Smith’s non-conforming putter was discovered at the time, in other words, he suffered a penalty that Tiger, whose putter never did get inspected, escaped.

Almost certainly, of course, that Woods wasn’t subject to the same level of scrutiny as Smith was what bothered Smith—though more certainly Smith isn’t around to be asked about it. Why it’s of anything more than an antiquarian’s interest though is in light of the recent proposal of the PGA Tour to eliminate Q-School as a direct route to the tour. Smith originally got on the Big Show through Q-School, the annual tournament whose final stage is 6 days long and is probably the most grueling competition in golf, while Tiger, of course, never had to play Q-School because he got invited to tournaments through sponsor exemptions—and then he won. Yet the routes of both of these men to the tour would be closed if the tour has its way.

Under a proposal first outlined to PGA Tour players at the annual meeting on the Tuesday before the tour stop at Torrey Pines, Q-School as a route to the PGA Tour would be eliminated. Instead, the Fall Finish tournaments (of which the Disney used to be one) would become a three-event shootout between the top 75 Nationwide players and the 75 Big Show players on the bubble, with 50 PGA Tour cards at stake. The Q-School tournament, whose traditional dates in early December would in any case be disrupted by the new format, would become merely a route to the Nationwide Tour.

Or whatever they will call it, since the PGA Tour has also announced that Nationwide Insurance is pulling out as a title sponsor. One of the consequences of that decision might be that Tiger’s route to the PGA Tour might also be closed: a few potential sponsors of the Fall Finish tournaments have said that they aren’t interested unless their tournaments are part of the FedEx Cup chase, which means that the new PGA Tour season will have to start in October right after the Tour Championship. Instead of being events traditionally skipped by the bigger names on tour, who usually take a break after the Tour Championship—and thus allowing younger guys like Woods to catch some sponsor exemptions and get a chance to compete at a high level without directly facing the best of the best immediately—the change threatens to make the PGA Tour a constant, year-around affair.

And, perhaps solving some headaches for the tour’s staff, would immediately have the effect of dividing professional golfers rather handily into two classes: PGA Tour players and all others. Instead of the fluidity represented by the careers of Tiger and Taylor, we’d have very, very solidly defined career paths: players, even great ones, would have to spend a year on the Nationwide Tour (or whatever it is named in the future) without exception, while there also would be no way for a marginal player to catch lightning in a bottle for a week and ride to a fun (and lucrative) year on the PGA Tour. The new system would act … well, very much like a razor, sharply delineating who is deserving of special treatment and who is not with what is evidently a satisfying clarity to the tour.

It will also have the effect of multiplying the classes of golfers into two: those with access to the rich purses of the PGA Tour and those playing on whatever the Nationwide Tour will become, where the purses are roughly one-tenth as much. It might be worth noting, in this connection, that while generally speaking the kid’s rule about where you should never start your tee shot is valid, it’s also true that there is, in golf architecture, a species of golf hole known as a “Cape hole.” The species is named for the 14th at C.B. Macdonald’s National Golf Links of America, on Long Island; what makes it the archetype for the species is that a water hazard runs along one side of a fairway that curves around it, meaning that the further a tee shot is flown over the hazard the greater the potential reward in terms of distance left to the green. At times, in other words, it’s necessary to hit it directly at a hazard. Houston Country Club’s par-five is an example.

There are, also, others.

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The Road to Ensenada

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

 

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Don’t look down.

***UPDATE, 5 Feb 2012:

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

Molehills and Mountains

This is a bit late, but recently I was reading golf.com’s weekly roundtable discussion, “PGA Tour Confidential,” about the Sony Open in Hawaii two weeks ago, and this caught my eye: Mark Wilson, it seems, won the tournament without looking at the leaderboard during the final round. Sports Illustrated’s Gary Van Sickle remarked, “You don’t need to see the leaderboard until the 71st or 72nd hole. Watching the board is the caddie’s job.” This struck me as something of a novelty, though it recalled a few moments over the past couple of years. Is it better to look, or not? And, more importantly, is the job description of the tour looper being redefined?

Ben Crane—he of the notoriously slow play and cutesy Internet videos—won the Farmer’s Insurance Open at Torrey Pines in 2010, also without looking at the leaderboard on Sunday. When he tapped in his final putt of the day on the 18th hole, his playing partner Ryuji Imada said “‘Congratulations,’” to which Crane replied, “‘Did I win the tournament?’” Imada said, according to Crane, “‘Uh, yeah.’”

Almost three years ago at Royal Birkdale for the 2008 British Open, amateur Chris Wood nearly became the third man in the memorable playoff between Tom Watson and Stewart Cink (which Cink, disappointingly for many, won) despite making “a habit of not looking at the leaderboard,” as the Times of London reported the following year. “‘My caddie wouldn’t let me look at the leaderboard,’” the Times wrote in that story, “‘but I got a couple of sneaky looks in.’”

Late in 2009, the man who was leading the Dubai World Championship at the halfway mark also claimed not to be looking at the leaderboard. “‘It’s a pointless exercise,’ Lee Westwood said,” wrote Lawrence Donegan of the Guardian, “‘I’ve only got enough room in my head for the things that I’m doing, never mind anybody else.’” According to the laws of journalism, anything that happens three times is a trend, so obviously that’s what’s occurring.

Farrell Evans, another Sports Illustrated golf reporter, however strongly disagreed with Van Sickle during the roundtable. “Any guy who says he’s not scoreboard watching,” Evans argues, “will never become a great champion.” Of course Lee Westwood is, as of this writing, the number one player in the world, which would seem to take a certain steam of Evans’ boiler.

Evans had his defenders on the panel, however. “Every single big-time player looks,” argues Michael Bamberger—author of a solid book called To The Linksland. The notion seems to be that the Tiger Woodses and Phil Mickelsons of the world naturally look, which is to say that not looking reveals some sort of 2nd tier status on the part of players who don’t. Westwood does seem to be an argument against this point—unless maybe his recent upgrade means he’s now looking.

What everyone on the panel appears to forget is that the ability for any player to know exactly where he stands at any given time on the golf course is a relatively recent development. As late as the 1960 U.S. Open at Cherry Hills—where Hogan, Palmer, and Nicklaus dueled over the final 18, and the lead changed hands 25 times in the last two hours or whatever it was—there was no leaderboard at golf tournaments. So Evans is wrong: plenty of players have become great champions without looking. They didn’t have any choice.

What Evans, one supposes, means to say is that no great player would have turned looking down, had they a choice about it. This is a more interesting proposition: the idea is that the greats are driven by competition against other people, not the Zen-like competition against the golf course so often advocated by golf psychologist types. This is a favorite trope of golf writers, who like to talk about Tiger’s “killer instinct” and the like. But likely that’s because golf writers are always looking for “human drama,” which golf is always conceived of as lacking.

That’s like saying, however, that mountain climbing is uninteresting because, you know, the mountain is just sitting there, anyway. Most of golf isn’t about beating the other guy, but about finding creative answers to the problems the architecture creates. That’s the way that professionals talk about golf, despite the way it’s portrayed on television. Tiger isn’t talking to Stevie about how he needs to kill Mickelson; what they’re talking about is whether it would be smarter to hit a fade up the left side to take advantage of a dog-leg, or whatever. But that sort of thing doesn’t make it to television.

Or hasn’t yet. The other big news in the last week or so in golf is about Davis Love’s decision to wear a microphone on the golf course during this week’s tournament at Torrey Pines. That’s been something television has been pushing for years now, as a way to add “drama” to what’s an infamously tedious broadcast to non-golfers. I happen to be in favor of such a move, because I think that it does open up viewers to the “man vs. nature” aspect of the sport in a way that non-golfers (and perhaps most golfers) fail to realize.

What it’s also going to do, at least if the golf.com crew is to be believed, is make the whole question of whether to look at the leaderboard a little more interesting for the home audience. Is the player’s caddie going to tell him he has a three-shot lead and he damn well better not try to go for that green? Or not? Is every tournament going to end with all of us saying My god, he doesn’t know? Television—and golf.com—sure hopes so.

I doubt any of this is true. The claim about “not looking at the leaderboard” is a lot of malarky, because if any of these players had really been in doubt about their standing—if that is, they’d tripled-bogeyed some hole or other—they for sure would have looked. The reason Crane or Wilson or Westwood didn’t look at the leaderboard was because none of them had any bad holes that caused them to look. What was Arnold Palmer at Cherry Hills in 1960 going to do—birdie all seven of his first seven holes, instead of the six he did?

Despite the efforts of sportswriters and television, that is, at the end of the day golf really is kind of a boring sport, at least to those who want head-to-head competition all the time. Sometimes that isn’t true—like in playoff situations or match play—but for the most part golf is more like mountain climbing than it is like boxing. Maybe that’s interesting to you, maybe it isn’t. The way we’ll find out, I suppose, is whether caddies, by virtue of their sudden new duties of scoreboard watching, are suddenly getting paid more. But I don’t think it’s going to happen.

 

Pebble Beach Wins U.S. Open

Pebble Beach came to Open Sunday like your average American youth or recent winners of the Tour de France: paranoid, angry, and full of resentment. For two consecutive days the course took it in the teeth from Phil Mickelson, Dustin Johnson, and Tiger Woods, who each lit up the Monterey coast the first two days of the weekend like it was in Louisiana, not California. Winged Foot and Bethpage might have been sniggering somewhere about “Torrey-Way-North.” But the course came back on the last day, delivering roundhouse after roundhouse, and the U.S. Open ended up being more notable for the dogs that didn’t bark.

Johnson, who had looked like the favorite after Saturday, got it first. He went six-over through the fourth hole after a triple, a double, and a bogey on holes two through four. Mickelson quietly snuck out of the picture after a birdie on the first hole—which he never duplicated the rest of the way. And Tiger bogey half the front nine to take himself out of contention shortly after the turn. This isn’t even to talk about Ernie Els or Davis Love or any of the others close to the lead—none of whom jumped out to claim the title when the leaders stumbled.

Part of Pebble’s mystique has been the name players who have won its Opens: Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson, and Tiger Woods (Tom Kite, who won in ‘92, tends to get left out of the discussion). Certainly one way to judge golf courses is by the players that win there. But for every Ben Hogan there is a Jack Fleck, and there needs to be some independent means of judging. History cannot be everything.

That brings me around to something I’ve been promising for a while now: a report on Medinah’s grand re-opening of Course #3 in preparation for the next Ryder Cup in America, coming in 2012. I’m going to leave out all the nonsense that surrounded the opening itself and get right to the golf course. And if there is a word that describes the new-look #3, it is this: “Florida.”

Mostly this is due to the brand-new 15th hole, which actually looks a bit like it could be a hole on that other course I have been describing this spring, Chicago Highlands. It’s very open, unlike Medinah’s usual tree-induced claustrophobia. Water runs up the right side, just as it does on Chicago Highland’s hole 11, which is a specimen of “Cape” hole. Unlike a Cape hole, however, the water on Medinah’s 15th is there not so much to disturb the tee shot—though it will—as to guard the reverse-Redan style green.

The idea is to require a player rolling the ball along the ground to hit a left-to-right shot, while the better player attacking from the air comes into the green right-to-left. This is all well and good and according to contemporary golf architecture manuals. It even fits in with many of Medinah’s other holes, which often require a tee shot with one shape and an approach shot with the opposite shape. Nonetheless, there’s something off about this hole.

Geoff Shackelford, the golf writer and architect, noted in a post about Medinah’s re-do that he’s “having a hard time envisioning a lake looking natural up there.” “Hopefully,” he goes on to say, “it’ll have a fountain.” Well, it doesn’t—yet—but it does make the golf course look like every course the tour plays in January, February and March. The only thing missing, besides the fountain, is a car from the title sponsor sitting in the middle of the pond.

There is one concession to tradition about the hole: there aren’t any yardage markers as yet. I presume that will shortly be rectified, but there is something charming about simply eyeballing your approach. Also, unlike virtually every other hole at Medinah, it is possible to run a shot up to the hole rather than requiring a high-flying long iron. It is possible that it will turn out to be a great addition to the golf course: it does seem to have potential for drama, particularly given the match-play format of the Ryder Cup. The sort of drama that didn’t happen at this year’s U.S. Open.

“Caddie Killer” or Killed By Grooves?

The Bay Hill tournament isn’t until the end of March, but I was thinking about it this week watching Torrey Pines (I think it will be policy here to refer to tournaments by their locations or old names unless somebody wants to give me a check, and anyway Farmers Insurance didn’t buy the name until a week before the opening tee shot) because of Robert Allenby. On the 14th hole on Sunday, Allenby was just a couple of shots off the lead, still with a real chance to win the tournament. What happened next has become exhibit A in the “debate” over the rule changes the USGA has made this year about groove changes, but my mind drifted to another situation faced by another player last year at Bay Hill. It might be that what happened to Allenby didn’t have so much to do with rule changes as it does with Allenby—and how he deals with caddies.

The situation I recalled was the one facing Sean O’Hair at the 16th during last year’s tourney at Arnold Palmer’s place in Florida, one of the first tournaments to put microphones on players and caddies during a round. O’Hair started the day with a five shot lead over Tiger Woods, who had slowly run O’Hair to ground throughout the day until Woods tied O’Hair with a birdie at 15. At 16 they stood level, and O’Hair faced one of the biggest shots of his life. His caddie, Paul Tesori, himself a former tour player, urged O’Hair to take more club because of the dropping temperatures—cooler air means less ball distance—but O’Hair, 26 years old, refused the advice of the older man. The result seemed scripted: O’Hair rinses, Tiger makes a ridiculous birdie putt (for the second time in two years) to win the tournament on the 18th. But the best part was on the 18th fairway, when Tesori told O’Hair to take more club, “since we’ve established the ball isn’t going as far …” I.e., since your stupidity just us cost about a half-million dollars, kid. One of the all-time great examples of a good looper’s importance.

Anyway, about Allenby: on the 14th at Torrey Pines he ended up hitting his shot over the green and down a cliff, at least 20 yards too long. The golf press is taking this as a sign regarding the new “groove rules,” which have the effect of reducing spin the ball takes as it leaves the clubface; spin being what controls trajectory, and hence distance. But I had a completely different thought: Allenby’s nickname among tour loopers is “Caddie Killer” because he likes to hire and fire his caddies often; he’s also something of a bear to work for, at least on the course it seems. Looked at from this perspective, the problem groove here might be in Allenby’s head, not his golf club’s.

Looking over the shot at 14, Allenby had 162 yards to the pin. That isn’t a big distance for a tour pro: the longer hitters at that distance under perfect circumstances might be hitting a 9 iron. But Allenby’s circumstances were not perfect: he was in the rough. In past years that would not have been much of an issue because the wide grooves on irons then forced grass and moisture away from the ball at impact, causing the ball to behave much as it would from the fairway. With the new rules, however, shots from the rough have become more of a crapshoot, as it used to be years ago. If water or grass gets between the ball and the clubface, the ball does not spin as much, meaning it will (usually) go higher and tend to roll forward instead of landing gently. In the lingo, it’s called a “flier.” Allenby’s caddie, Mike Waite, wanted to go with a 6 iron; Allenby, fearful of hitting the dreaded flier, wanted to go with an 8. They compromised with a 7. This time though, unlike O’Hair and Tesori’s situation, the player was right and not the caddie—but the result was the same: a blown tournament.

The question is, which the golf press seems to miss, is whether this was really a case of “bad grooves.” The rule was originally made in order to create a “backdoor rollback”—by changing the clubs, and not the ball, the USGA would in theory reduce tee shot distance because players wouldn’t risk hitting it into the rough if they didn’t know how they could recover. By changing the clubs, instead of the ball, the USGA didn’t risk getting sued by ball manufacturers (that ballmakers and clubmakers are for the most part the same companies seems irrelevant). In recent years driving accuracy has become an almost meaningless statistic: all that matters has been how far, not where, because you could always recover from almost anywhere since the lie your ball got was almost irrelevant. Allenby’s situation—compounded by the fact that Allenby also airmailed the 18th green two weeks ago in Hawaii to blow that tournament—seems to confirm the USGA’s theory.

There are however a couple of reasons for the bluejackets in Far Hills to hold off with the backpatting just yet. In the first place, and here I speak from some experience, Torrey Pines is widely known among tour caddies as a notoriously unfriendly place to loop. The weather is often unpredictable and the sea air can vary wildly from day-to-day: a club that works at one distance one day might go a different distance on another. The sprinkler heads with the yardage markers are few and hard to find. One commentator said it was likely there would be more weird flier situations like Allenby’s, where the ball either failed to reach or sailed over a green—before the tournament. That’s calling your shot. But what that means is that the USGA’s theory might not be proved by Allenby’s mishap on 14.

What it might mean is that Allenby needs to re-evaluate his teamwork with his caddie. I was unable to discover just how long Mr. Waite has worked for Allenby, so I don’t know if they have a long-standing relationship or what. Allenby though has a history as a hire-and-fire guy it appears: did that play a role in what happened? Was Waite asking Allenby, say, to hit a knockdown 6-iron (a shot that doesn’t travel as far as a full shot), a suggestion that Allenby didn’t take the time to understand fully before making his decision? (With commercials, it’s hard to tell how long the two conferenced before pulling the trigger.) Or did Waite just, as loopers say, fuck up with a bad number or a bad judgment about how the shot would play? Even that latter doesn’t make Waite a bad caddie necessarily—maybe he hasn’t had very long to work with Allenby, and isn’t really sure about Allenby’s distances or just his style of play. Some players want a caddie to talk them down from the brink, others want their caddie to challenge them to perform. Any of these are possible, despite the instant analysis that blamed the “groove rule.”

What all of this highlights is the very real importance of the player-caddie relationship on the tour, something that is often lost in these days of laser-shot distances and precisely-fitted clubs. Focusing on the “groove rule” does fit with the ruling ethos about that relationship, which is “well, ultimately it’s the player’s decision.” But while that is true enough, it also doesn’t help Allenby figure out what to do next: if it wasn’t the groove rule—and there really isn’t any way to know unless both Allenby and Waite agree to say something, because they’re the only ones who know if it was or not—then should Allenby fire Waite and get somebody else? Or learn to work with loopers better? And more importantly, it’s just wrong: it turns what could be an interpersonal problem into a technological one without determining if it is a technological problem. But then, there’s a lot more places about which that could be said than pro golf.