Of Pale Kings and Paris

 

I saw pale kings and princes too …
—John Keats.
“La Belle Dame Sans Merci” (1819).

… and the pale King glanced across the field
Of battle, but no man was moving there …
Alfred Tennyson.
Idylls of the King: The Passing of Arthur (1871).

 

“It’s difficult,” the lady from Boston was saying a few days after the attacks in Paris, “to play other courses when your handicap is established at an easy course like this one.” She was referring to the golf course to which I have repaired following an excellent autumn season at Medinah Country Club: the Chechessee Creek Club, just south of Beaufort, South Carolina—a course that, to some, might indeed appear to be an easy course. Chechessee measures just barely more than 6000 yards from the member tees and, like all courses in the Lowcountry, it is virtually tabletop flat—but appearances are deceptive. For starters, the course is short on the card because it has five par-three holes, not the usual four, and the often-humid and wet conditions of the seacoast mean that golf shots don’t travel as they do in drier and more elevated locations. So in one sense, the lady was right—in precisely the same sense, as I suspect the lady was not aware, that Martin Heidegger, writing at an earlier moment of terror and the movements of peoples, was right.

Golf course architecture of course might be viewed as remote from the preoccupations of Continental theory as the greens of the Myopia Hunt Club, the lady’s home golf course, are from, say, the finish line of the Boston Marathon. Yet, just as Martin Heidegger is known as an exceptionally, even historically, difficult writer, Myopia Hunt Club is justly known to the elect as an exceptionally, even historically, difficult golf course. At the seventh U.S. Open in 1901—the only Open in which no competitor managed to break 80—the course established the record for highest winning score of a U.S. Open: a 331 shot by both Willie Anderson (who died tragically young) and Alex Smith that was resolved by the first playoff in the Open’s history. (Anderson’s 85 just edged Smith’s 86). So the club earned its reputation for difficulty.

The nature of those difficulties are, in fact, the very same ones those who like the Chechessee Creek Club trumpet: the deeper mysteries of angles, of trompe l’oiel, the various artifices by which the architects of golf’s Golden Age created the golf courses still revered today and whose art Coore and Crenshaw, Chechesee’s designers, have devoted their careers to recapture. Like Chechessee, Myopia Hunt isn’t, and never was, especially long: for most of its history, it has played around 6500 yards, which even at the beginning of the twentieth century wasn’t remarkable. Myopia Hunt is a difficult golf course for reasons entirely different than difficult golf courses like Medinah or Butler National are difficult: they are not easily apparent.

Take, for example, the 390-yard fourth: the contemporary golf architect Tom Doak once wrote that it “might be the best hole of its length in the free world.” A dogleg around a wetland, the fourth is, it seems, the only dogleg on a course of straight holes—in other words, slightly but not extraordinarily different from the other holes. However the hole’s green, it seems, is so pitched that a golfer in one of the course’s Opens (there have been four; the last in 1908) actually putted off the green—and into the wetland, where he lost the ball. (This might qualify as the most embarrassing thing that has ever happened to a U.S. Open player.) The dangers at Myopia are not those of a Medinah or a Butler National—tight tee shots to far distant greens, mainly—but are instead seemingly-minor but potentially much more catastrophic.

At the seventh hole, according to a review at Golf Club Atlas, the “members know full well to land the ball some twenty yards short of the putting surface and allow for it to bumble on”—presumably, players who opt differently will suffer an apocalyptic fate. In the words of one reviewer, “one of the charms of the course” is that “understanding how best to play Myopia Hunt is not immediately revealed.” Whereas the hazards of a Butler or Medinah are readily known, those at Myopia Hunt are, it seems, only revealed when it is too late.

It’s for that reason, the reviewer goes on to say, that the club had such an impact on American golf course design: the famed Donald Ross arrived in America the same year Myopia Hunt held its first Open, in 1898, and spent many years designing nearby courses while drawing inspiration by visiting the four-time Open site. Other famous Golden Age architects also drew upon Myopia Hunt for their own work. As the reviewer above notes, George Thomas and A.W. Tillinghast—builders of some of the greatest American courses—“were influenced by the abundant placement and penal nature of the hazards” (like the wetland next to the fourth’s green) at Myopia Hunt. Some of America’s greatest golf courses were built by architects with first-hand knowledge of the design style pioneered and given definition by Myopia Hunt.

Coore and Crenshaw—the pale kings of American golf architecture—like to advertise themselves as champions of this kind of design: a difficulty derived from the subtle and the non-obvious, rather than simply by requiring the golfer to hit the ball really far and straight. “Theirs,” says the Coore and Crenshaw website, “is an architectural firm based upon the shared philosophy that traditional, strategic golf is the most rewarding.” Chechessee, in turn, is meant to be a triumph of their view: according to their statement on Chechesee’s website, Coore and Crenshaw’s goal when constructing it “was to create a golf course of traditional character that would reward thoughtful, imaginative, and precise play,” and above all to build a course—like a book?—whose “nuances … will reveal themselves over time.” In other words, to build a contemporary Myopia Hunt.

Yet in the view of this Myopia Hunt member, Coore and Crenshaw failed: Chechessee is, for this lady, far easier than her nineteenth-century home course. Why is that? My speculation, without having seen Myopia Hunt, is that whereas Coore and Crenshaw design in a world that has seemingly passed by the virtues of the past, the Massachusetts course was designed on its own terms. That is, Coore and Crenshaw work within an industry where much of their audience has internalized standards that were developed by golf architects who themselves were reacting against the Golden Age architects like Tillinghast or Ross. Whereas Myopia Hunt Club can have a hole—the ninth—whose green is only nine yards wide and forty yards deep, the following generation of architects (and golfers) rejected such designs as “unfair,” and worked to make golf courses less “odd” or “unique.” So when Coore and Crenshaw come to design, they must work against expectations that the designer of Myopia Hunt Club did not.

Thus, the Golden Age designers were in the same position that, according to the German philosopher Martin Heidegger, the Pre-Socratic philosophers were: in a “brief period of authentic openness to being,” as the Wikipedia article about Heidegger says. That is, according to Heidegger the Pre-Socratics (the Greek philosophers, like Anaximander and Heraclitus and Parmenides, all of whom predated Socrates) had a relationship to the world, and philosophizing about it, that was unavailable to those who would come afterwards: they were able, Heidegger insinuates, to confront the world itself in a way different from those who came afterwards—after all, the latecomers unavoidably had to encounter the works of those very philosophers first.

Unlike his teacher then, Edmund Husserl—who “argued that all that philosophy could and should be is a description of experience”—Heidegger himself however thought that the Pre-Socratic moment was impossible to return to: hence, Heidegger claimed that “experience is always already situated in a world and in ways of being.” So while such a direct confrontation with the world as Husserl demands may have been possible for the Pre-Socratics, Heidegger is seemingly willing to allow, he also argues that history has long since closed off such a possibility, and thus forbade the kind of direct experience of the world Husserl thought of as philosophy’s object. In the same way, whereas the Golden Age architects confronted golf architecture in a raw state, no such head-on confrontation is now possible.

What’s interesting about Heidegger’s view, as people like Penn State professor Michael Berubé has pointed out, is that it has had consequences for such things as our understanding of, say, astronomical objects. As Berubé says in an essay entitled “The Return of Realism,” at the end of Heidegger’s massive Being and Time—the kind encyclopedic book that really emphasizes the “German” in “German philosophy”—Heidegger’s argument that we are “always already” implicated within previous thoughts implies that, for instance, it could be said that “the discovery of Neptune in 1846 could plausibly be described, from a strictly human vantage point, as the ‘invention’ of Neptune.” Or, to put it as Heidegger does: “Once entities have been uncovered, they show themselves precisely as entities which beforehand already were.” Before Myopia Hunt Club and other courses like it were built, there were no “rules” of golf architecture—afterwards, however, sayings like “No blind shots” came to have the weight of edicts from the Almighty.

For academic leftists like Berubé, Heidegger’s insight has proven useful, in a perhaps-paradoxical way. Although the historical Heidegger himself was a member of the Nazi Party, according to Berubé his work has furthered the project of arguing “the proposition that although humans may not be infinitely malleable, human variety and human plasticity can in principle and in practice exceed any specific form of human social organization.” Heidegger’s work, in other words, aims to demonstrate just how contingent a lot of what we think of as necessary is—which is to say that his work can help us to re-view what we have taken for granted, and perhaps see it with a glimpse of what the Pre-Socratics, or the Golden Age golf architects, saw. Even if Heidegger would also deny that such would ever be possible for us, here and now.

Yet, as the example of the lady from Myopia Hunt demonstrates, such a view has also its downside: having seen the original newness, she denies the possibility that the new could return. To her, golf architecture ended sometime around 1930: just as Heidegger thought that, some time around the time of Socrates, philosophy became not just philosophy, but also the history of philosophy, so too does this lady think that golf architecture has also become the history of golf architecture.

Among the “literary people” of his own day, the novelist and journalist Tom Wolfe once complained, could be found a similar snobbishness: “it is one of the unconscious assumptions of modern criticism,” Wolfe wrote, “that the raw material is simply ‘there,’” and from such minds the only worthy question is “Given such-and-such a body of material, what has the artist done with it?” What mattered to these critics, in other words, wasn’t the investigatory reporting done by such artists as Balzac or Dickens, Tolstoy or Gogol, but rather the techniques each artist applied to that material. The human misery each of those writers witnessed and reported, this view holds Wolfe says, is irrelevant to their work; rather, what matters is how artfully that misery is arranged.

It’s a conflict familiar both to literary people and the people that invented golf. The English poets, like Keats and Tennyson, who invented the figure of the Pale King were presumably drawing upon a verse well-known to King James’ translators; literary folk who feared the cost of seeing anew. The relevant verse, imaginably the source of both Keats and Tennyson, is from the James translation of the Book of Revelations (chapter 6, verse 8):

And I looked, and behold a pale horse:
and his name that sat on him was Death,
and Hell followed with him.

But opponents of the Auld Enemy saw the new differently; as novelist John Updike once reported, according the “the old Scots adage,”

We should be conscious of no more grass …
than will cover our own graves.

To the English, both heirs to and inventors of a literary tradition, the Pale King was a terrible symbol of the New, the Young, and the Unknown. But to their ancient opponents, the Scots, the true fear was to be overly aware of the past, at the expense of welcoming in the coming age. As another Celt from across the sea, W. B. Yeats, once put the same point:

Be not inhospitable to strangers,
lest they be angels in disguise.

Parisians put the same point in the aftermath of the shootings and bombings that Friday evening on Twitter by using the hashtag “#PorteOuverte”—a slogan by which, in the aftermath of the horror, thousands of Parisians offered shelter to strangers from whatever was still lurking in the darkness. To Parisians, like the Scots before them, what matters is not whether the Pale King arrives, but our reaction when he does.

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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.

The Mark of Z

“One way to characterize professional golf,” wrote John Cassidy earlier this summer in The New Yorker, “is to say that it has reached parity—there are so many good players, and they all have a roughly equal chance of winning.” Cassidy called it the “random golfer theory,” and has trotted it out after Webb Simpson’s win at Olympic and Ernie Els’ win at Lytham. The idea is that anybody within the top 100 has a shot of winning any major: an idea that is, more or less, borne out by the fact that of the past 17 majors, there has been 17 winners. Until now, which is to say that Rory’s win at the PGA has blown that idea up just as surely as the events of the past five years has blown up both the Black-Scholes formula and the hype of this year’s Ryder Cup at Medinah to what will, especially in the Fleet Street press, be absurd levels.

The cry will be, as it’s been since McIlroy won the U.S. Open at Congressional a year ago, for a Tiger vs. Mac showdown during Sunday’s singles matches, only with an even heightened pitch now that Rory’s won his first two majors at a more rapid clip than Tiger won his first two. And as it happens, Tiger’s second major was also a PGA, and, also, it was at Medinah. Which, as it further happens, was also the first time Tiger faced a competitor who seemed to have all the tools he did, but was from Europe—and younger to boot. And after that PGA, in 1999, Sergio Garcia, like Rory’s fans today, demanded to play Tiger in that year’s Ryder Cup.

Obviously, European fans are hoping for a different outcome this time around: that Ryder Cup was at the Country Club in Brookline, and the Euros got smoked in singles; that was the year that the American captain, Ben Crenshaw, said the night before the finale, “I got a good feeling about this.” It was also the year of the “excessive celebration” after Justin Leonard made his putt on the 17th hole of regulation—which came before Jose Olazabal had a chance to make his putt, which would have at least continued the match, a point that, if you believe the London papers, all of Europe has been brooding about for the past nearly-decade-and-a-half. Not that Europeans are well-known to carry around centuries-long grudges or anything.

In any case, this year’s Ryder Cup is shaping up, at least from the wrong end of the Atlantic, to be a kind of revanchist’s dream, only without soaking the fields of Flanders in blood. In place of Sergio, they have Rory, who actually wins tournaments, and even majors, without regripping his club twenty-five times or casually insulting entire states. And most alarmingly, at least from this side of the Atlantic, our main guy not only has never made a big deal out of these kinds of team events—Tiger is on record as saying he doesn’t regard the Ryder Cup as being the same as one of the four majors—but he hasn’t won a major in four years. Or, in other words, since their kid starting winning them. Which is where the Black-Scholes point comes in.

“If Capital One was trading at $30 a share,” says Michael Lewis in The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine, the Black-Scholes model for pricing options—those obscure financial instruments that have had so much say in our lives recently— “assumed that, over the next two years, the stock was more likely to get to $35 a share than to $40, and more likely to get to $40 than to $45, and so on.” This makes sense to us, intuitively: we like to think that “slow and steady wins the race,” for instance. But the real world does not always behave in that slow and incremental way: everyone would have bet that dinosaurs would be the dominant species on the planet for eons, until a meteorite crashed in southern Mexico. Sometimes things can change quite suddenly—and not reach any intermediate stops. Once, there were billions of dinosaurs. Then, there weren’t.

Once, there was a Tiger, and now there’s a Rory. In between there’s been a collection of Keegan Bradleys and Webb Simpsons, a collection that has largely made the golf press uneasy at best and, at worst, spooked. Golf is, after all, one of the few sports—the other that I can think of at the moment being horse racing—where nobody likes an underdog, at least until the point where it seems like the underdog can actually win; or, in short, become the overdog. Rory, with his eight-shot win at the PGA, might just have reached that point: a point that, as it happens, the wonks over at Grantland have quantified using a measure they call “Z-Score,” which is apparently a standard part of the average mathematician’s toolbag.

“Z-Score” is calculated by taking the winner’s score and subtracting the average score of all the players who finished the tournament, then dividing that against “the variance between the scores and the average performance,” as Grantland’s resident golf stat-head, Bill Barnwell, says. In other words, a tournament where the winner shot “20-under-par and the last-place finisher shot 20-over-par” would have a higher value than a tournament “in which the winner shot 3-under-par and the duffer in last shot 4-over.” Of the top ten scores ever figured, Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus have three apiece, with Tiger Woods’ performance at the 2000 U.S. Open, where he blew away the field by fifteen shots, achieving the highest “Z-Score” ever recorded at -4.12 (meaning that he was more than four standard deviations better than the average performance in the tournament.

It’s a good methodology in that it factors out things like weather (everyone plays in similar conditions, within reason) and so on, and to a degree allows us to compare performances across the generations. For instance, it’s now arguable that Jack Nicklaus’ performance at the 1965 Masters might be better than Woods’ win in 1997, even though Woods broke Nicklaus’ scoring record (271, or -11 to par, versus 270, or -12 to par), because while Woods’ “Z-Score” in 1997 was -3.24 Nicklaus’ “Z-Score” was -3.48. Or in other words, Woods was only a bit more than three times better than his competitors in 1997, while Nicklaus was nearly three-and-a-half times better. Obviously, this doesn’t really matter much (though Davis Love’s win at the 1997 PGA, which he took by five shots and produced a Z-Score of 3.54, looks a lot better after running it through this formula), but it’s fun to compare scores across eras.

Like, for instance, the scores Tiger Woods produced in his prime versus the scores Rory McIlroy has produced in his two major wins: last year’s U.S. Open at Congressional and this year’s PGA. McIlroy won both tournaments by eight shots, which is the kind of performance necessary to place on the Z-Score leaderboard, but Z-Score isn’t factored by how much the second-place guy shot, but rather by how much the field as a whole shot. Rory’s Z-Score for the tournaments places him comfortably within the top twenty Z-Scores ever recorded, but his -3.07 score for Congressional, together with his -3.15 score for Kiawah, aren’t enough to place him very close to Tiger’s epic win in 2000. The Congressional score, in fact, doesn’t even place Rory close to Jack Nicklaus’ -3.22 at Turnberry in 1977—you know, the “Duel In The Sun” Jack lost to Tom Watson.

Rory’s wins, that is, have been big—but they haven’t been that big, at least by comparison to Jack and Tiger. The win at Congressional, at least as measured by Z-Score, isn’t even as good as Padraig Harrington’s British Open win in 2008, which the Irishman won at 3-OVER par, only four shots better than his nearest competitor—Harrington rang up a -3.09 Z-Score during what was a famously-windblown tournament. Still, Rory’s fans might cite Barnwell’s observation that through “his first nine majors, McIlroy has put up an average Z-Score 0.97 standard deviations below the mean,” an average only exceeded by Seve Ballesteros (-1.04) and Ernie Els (-1.25) in anyone’s first nine majors. Rory is, obviously, still very young; it’s quite possible we still haven’t seen his best stuff.

Still, what the Z-Score tale tells us is that while Rory is a very, very good golfer, he doesn’t go to the same dimension-bending, dinosaur-slaying, places Tiger Woods could go in his prime. But if we haven’t yet seen Rory’s best, there are few places Rory could demonstrate that to better effect than Medinah, the course Tiger has tamed twice for two of his fourteen major titles and a membership in the club itself. It’s no honorary membership, either: Tiger has the same rights as any other full member, an honor the club presented him with after his second win in 2006, which is to say that, in a sense perhaps more real than any other course, Medinah really is Tiger’s home turf. For Rory to beat Tiger there would be, one suspects, a grievous blow to the competitive Tiger—all the implacable laws of sport, which are even more inflexible than any mathematical model, thus demand that there is only one possible final match for the Ryder Cup’s finale at the end of September: Woods v. McIlroy, for all the stakes that there are. May the best Z-Score win—and to hell with the “random golfer theory.”

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.

July Days

Other lands have their vitality in a few, a class, but we have it in the bulk of our people.

—Walt Whitman

And so it is July. The grass, so lush and green in April and May, has begun to brown over in spots, and everyone is, just now, realizing that the early season is over and they are, just now, about as good as they are going to get this season. And it’s dawned on some—not you, I hope—that this is probably about as good at this game as they ever will. For the professionals it has become make-or-break time, the time of year to put some serious money in the bank, or at least enough to keep their tour cards for another year, or at least get into the finals of Q-School, or second stage, or some kind of status on the Nationwide Tour, or something, just something to keep from having to go home again—home to that insurance job the brother-in-law’s been talking about, or that club pro job somebody promised once, “if it didn’t work out.” And so July is, for golf, not a lazy, happy time at all: it is a time of cruelty, and of victims piling up like the cracked shells of turtles beside a Florida highway.

July is also, by design or happenstance, the month of the Open Championship, or as we colonials like to call it, the British Open—which is, often, a championship of misfortune and sorrow, of too-proud Frenchmen, horrible bounces, and the heartbreak of old men allowed a brief glimpse of the glorious past … before that door is closed on them, wickedly and forever. The Masters is, of course, the tournament of hope, like the spring it heralds, and the U.S. Open, usually, is the tournament of the expected: it is a hard tournament, but the winner is nearly always the man who’s played the most consistently, so that it (mostly) feels like justice has been done by the end of it. But the Open is a tournament of darkness and mystery, and there’s hardly a year that goes by without someone wondering what might have been, if only …

At least some of that mystery has, in the past, come from the ignorance of we Americans—both the players themselves and we, the audience at home. An American watching the Open has always the uneasy sense that the spectacle on display is some different game that, coincidentally, has many of the same trappings and the same spelling as the familiar old game but is in fact something entirely other, something strange and uncanny. Why is that man using his putter—the flag stick isn’t even in the picture! Or, why hasn’t Tiger hit his driver in two days? And so on.

This year, however, some have the odd sense that we have already seen this tournament: the shot of the year, for instance, is probably Charl Schwartzel’s 120-foot chip-in on the first hole of the final round of the Masters—with a six-iron. What American player would even have thought of that? (Ask yourself: would you?) It was the kind of shot that Americans only see once a year, at the Open, but there it was at the course most Americans might think of as epitomizing the high-flying aerial American game: Augusta. (They’d be wrong about that, in one sense—because Augusta is actually receptive to a ground-game, but it’s true that the players who’ve dominated the Masters have been high-ball players.) And, to be sure, the U.S. Open was the coronation of a new king of European, and British, golf: Rory McIlroy.

So this year’s Open begins with, perhaps, a new sense of itself: the winner of the tournament is always introduced with the title, “the champion golfer of the year,” and if, in past decades, the words have always been imbued with some sense of irony (who ever thought Bobby Locke, as great as he was, was the match of Nelson or Hogan or Palmer?), there’s a notion on the march, now, that maybe those words are not just another relic of the nineteenth century, a token of past imperial splendor. More than a decade ago, Britain tried to re-invent, “re-brand” as the advertisers say, itself with the “Cool Britannia” label, acclaiming the election of Tony Blair’s New Labour Party as the final entombment of the old, class-bound, traditional England. Maybe it did and maybe it didn’t, but perhaps it’s true that the children of the ‘90s, including Rory McIlroy, really did grow up with a different sense of themselves and their possibilities, and that maybe—it’s impossible to know—that’s made a difference.

Almost certainly it’s made a difference in the game of golf: where once it was the Americans who came to Europe and sneered (Sam Snead, famously, first saw St. Andrews and thought he was looking at a pasture), now it’s the Europeans who seem self-confident, who look at the great American cathedrals of the game—Augusta, Pebble Beach—and view them as just another route to a paycheck. And possibly—in golf, at least—that’s what’s necessary to produce: that sense that all the world has just been born, and that you are the equal of anyone in it.

What’s astonishing, though maybe not as astonishing as some might like, is that traditionally that sort of sensibility has been the special province of Americans, not Europeans. It’s what George Orwell, that canny Englishman, meant when he said that what he admired about Walt Whitman, poet of America, was that Whitman really conveyed how, in what now might be a long-ago America, “Everyone had inside him, like a kind of core, the, knowledge that he could earn a decent living, and earn it without bootlicking.” Whitman himself defined freedom as the ability “to walk free and own no superior,” which is just the sort of sensibility that, it now seems, is more readily to hand on the far side of the Atlantic than on this.

Some time ago, the neoconservative David Brooks asserted that the difference between young African-Americans and young people of African descent in France (who were then rioting) was that African-Americans always had the option to go to college, whereas “in France the barriers to ascent are higher”—but the reality is, as the newspaper that published Brooks (The New York Times) was forced to admit, in fact social mobility “is not higher in the United States than in Britain or France.” The reality today, according to the social scientists that study such things, actually is that a young person with aspirations today is probably better off going to Berlin than to Los Angeles or New York or Chicago. And maybe that’s hard for Americans to hear, given that entire libraries are filled with stacks of books telling us that what makes us who we are is just that sense that anybody can be anything, the entire line of thought that is condensed in the old line that, in America, anybody can be president.

Yet while our present executive does, in some kind of 21st-century manner, exemplify the cliche, it’s also true that Rory McIlroy has probably seen more real political change in his lifetime than many Americans twice his age. It’s well-known, for instance, that to be an incumbent congressman in America is as near as it is possible to get to guaranteed employment outside the law or academia, while Rory witnessed, at the ripe age of 10, one of the most historic constitutional changes ever seen in the world: the “House of Lords Act of 1999,” which abolished the British aristocracy’s hereditary right to representation in Parliament. In other words, Rory saw what Washington and Jefferson and Adams and company put their lives and fortunes at risk to have a chance to see: the end of the nobility as a real political force in Britain. Not since the 1960s has anybody put forward an idea as monumental as that, but Britain in the 1990s not only talked about it—they acted on it. Young Americans, on the other hand, have simply watched as a mostly-moribund clique of liberals has tried to hang on to victories that were won by 1968, as the siege engines of the ravenously greedy have drawn in ever-tighter.

To say that the one has anything to do with the other (politics, golf) is, to be sure, just the sort of thing that isn’t done in America today—though just where the idea came from that there are things that are and aren’t done is a bit of a question—and anyway amounts to nothing when deciding who to bet on for the Open, which as I’ve mentioned is probably the hardest of the major championships to handicap because the rolls and folds of a links course—the only kind the Open is played on—can be so capricious. It’s unlikely that Rory McIlroy can follow up his victory in America with another in his “home” major—he hasn’t, for instance, played against serious competition since winning at Congressional. But if he can, in the seriousness and cruelty of July, he might say to the world that it is Europe—that “ancient bone-yard,” as Orwell called it—that is America now.

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.