Miracle—Or Meltdown?—At Medinah

Very sensible men have declared that they were fully impressed at such a time with the conviction that it was the burning of the world.
—Frederick Law Olmstead
“Chicago In Distress”
The Nation
9 Nov. 1871

“An October sort of city even in spring,” wrote the poet about Chicago. Perhaps that’s why the PGA of America came to Chicago in September, thus avoiding that month of apocalyptic fires and baserunners who forget to tag second. But as it happens, even the Ryder Cup team couldn’t escape the city’s aura by arriving a month early: the Americans still crashed-and-burned during the singles matches on the final day. Ascribing the American loss to “Chicago” is however a romantic kind of explanation—a better one might concern a distinction that golfers of all skill levels ought to think about: the difference between a bad shot and the wrong shot.

The conclusive match at this year’s Ryder Cup was probably that between James Furyk (ha!) and Sergio Garcia, the match that drew the European team level with that of the Americans. After winning the first five matches of the day, the Europeans had suffered setbacks at the hands of the two Johnsons, Dustin and Zach, who had slowed the European charge by winning their two matches. Had Furyk won his match, the American team would have held onto the lead, and since Jason Dufner ended up winning his match immediately afterwards, the United States would only have needed a half in either Steve Stricker’s or Tiger Woods’ matches to win the Cup.

Furyk was leading his match late, one up through 16, and it looked as though he had his match in hand when, in Furyk’s words, he misjudged the wind—it was “a little confusing to the players”—and ended up in the back bunker, where he chipped out and left himself “about a 12-footer straight uphill that I misread.” Furyk went on to say that “I heard that most players missed that putt out to the right today.” Furyk missed his putt by leaving it out to the right.

On the 18th Furyk made another series of miscues: first he hit his drive too far right—he commented later that he “was actually surprised it was in the bunker.” It’s a comment I find difficult to understand: if you know the hole, you know that the 18th tee calls for a draw shot, certainly not a fade, which is to say either that Furyk did not understand the hole (which seems unlikely) or that he completely mishit it. And that raises the question of why he did not understand why he was in the bunker: on a course like Medinah, any mistake of execution—which is essentially what Furyk admitted to—is bound to be punished.

Next, Furyk said that he hit a “very good” second shot, but that “the wind was probably a little bit more right-to-left than it was into [towards]” him and so he “was a little surprised to see [the shot] went as long as it [did].” From there, he said he hit his “first putt exactly how I wanted … but it just kept trickling out,” and his second putt “never took the break.” What each of these shots have in common, notice, is that they are mistakes of judgment, rather than execution: it wasn’t that Furyk hit bad shots, it’s that he hit the wrong shots.

That’s an important distinction to make for any golfer: anyone can hit a bad shot at any time (witness, for instance, Webb Simpson’s cold-shank on Medinah’s 8th hole of Sunday’s singles matches, which is as of this writing viewable at cbssports.com.) Bad shots are, after all, part of golf; as the British writer once wrote of the American Walter Hagen, “He makes more bad shots in a single season than Harry Vardon did from 1890 to 1914, but he beats more immaculate golfers because ‘three of those and one of them’ counts four and he knows it.” Hagen himself said that he expected to “make at least seven mistakes a round,” and so when he hit a bad it one it was “just one of the seven.” But wrong shots are avoidable.

Bad shots are avoidable because they depend not on the frailties of the human body (or, should one wish to extend the thought to other realms, to the physical world entirely) but on the powers of the human mind. In other words the brain, if it isn’t damaged or impaired in some way, ought to arrive at the correct decision if it is in possession of two things: information and time. Since Furyk was playing golf and not, say, ice hockey, we can say that the “time” dimension was not much of an issue for him. Thus, the mistakes Furyk made must have been due to having possession of bad or incomplete information.

It’s at this point that it becomes clear that Furyk’s loss, and that of the American team, was not due to Furyk’s decisions or those of any other player. If Furyk lost because he hit wrong shots, that is, the American side allowed that mistake to metastasize. While the matches were going on John Garrity of Sports Illustrated pointed out, as David Dusek of Golf.com paraphrased it afterwards, that “no one on the U.S. team communicated to the matches behind them that 18 was playing short”—as witness Phil Mickelson bombing his approach over the 18th green—“and that the putt coming back down the hill didn’t break.” Garrity himself later remarked that while he didn’t think much of “the whole ‘cult of the captain’ trend,” he would concede that captains “can lose a Ryder Cup.” “Surely,” he thought, “somebody was supposed to tell the later players how 18 was playing.” On the U.S. side, in short, there wasn’t a system to minimize errors of judgment by distributing, or sharing, information.

That’s a mistake that no individual player can shoulder, because it ultimately falls on the American captain Davis Love III. The golf press is fond of citing the “old saw” that the captains don’t hit any shots in the Ryder Cup. Yet only somebody who isn’t involved in hitting shots—somebody who can survey the whole course—can avoid the mistake observed by Garrity. As a Chicagoan could tell you, any cow can kick over a lantern. But as a Southerner like Love might tell you, only another kind of barnyard animal would not think to tell the neighbors about a barn ablaze.


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.”

Going Deep at Medinah

The Chicago Sun-Times—cadet-branch descendent of my great-uncle’s newspaper, the Chicago Daily News—had an article the other day on Ryder Cup team captain Davis Love’s views on the proper length of the rough at Medinah: he expects his team to be full of long-hitting bombers “so it would probably be to our benefit not to have really deep rough.” But the length of the rough isn’t one of the most important of the decisions Love will have to make between now and the September matches; the most important is who Davis will choose to fill the four captain’s picks allotted him. I think he ought to listen to what the other players say.

In Golf Is Not a Game of Perfect, Bob Rotella writes that “the kind of memory that promotes good shotmaking” is “a short-term memory for failure and a long-term memory for success.” In other words, a golfer needs to be able to flush out the last shot and move on to the next without a fear. But this is difficult to do, as a study of the PGA Tour may have demonstrated a few years ago: pro golfers are more likely to make a par putt than a birdie putt from the same distance. Devin Pope and Maurice Schweitzer, of the Wharton School, found that the “tendency to miss birdie putts more often existed regardless of the player’s general putting or overall skill; round or hole number; putt length; position with respect to the lead or cut; and more,” according to the New York Times.

The purpose of the paper was to discover more evidence for the notion that human beings are, to use the technical term, “loss averse”: people will go to greater lengths to avoid a loss than they are to reap a gain. Or as the Times puts it, human beings have a “psychological preference to avoid a perceived penalty (losing a stroke relative to par) rather than go for a perceived gain (gaining a stroke).” Human beings are fundamentally pre-disposed to remember failures and pain than they are to remember successes and pleasures; hence, we will do virtually anything to avoid losing but not quite so much to achieve a win—even if, as is the case on tour, birdies are actually more valuable than pars, and even more valuable than bogies are hurtful.

“Given that players typically attempt nine birdie putts per round,” the Times says “this [effect] cost each golfer about one stroke per tournament—which can translate to hundreds of thousands of dollars in prize money.” Or as Pope said, “Even experienced professionals playing for high stakes are not rational”: every stroke counts the same, so presumably tour pros should spend just the same effort on birdie putts they do on par putts, though they demonstrably do not. What that suggests, however, is a strategy Davis Love might employ in seeking to complete his team.

What he needs, in other words, might be players completely without care, who’ll fire a birdie putt with the same gusto they might a par putt. Where could such players be found? I’d suggest that, if you were looking for Americans with a proven ability to ignore the past—though maybe you wouldn’t need to look much further than that—you might go looking for a pool of people used to ignoring potential setbacks in favor of potential gains. They wouldn’t be concerned with possible negative consequences to their actions so much as the possible positive ones. It so happens that there might be a pool of such people in, quite literally, Davis’ backyard—if one cares to look.

Obviously, identifying such a pool would depend on the criteria used; Fox Butterfield, in his All God’s Children: The Bosket Family and the American Tradition of Violence, has perhaps given us one. “There is no one here but carries arms under his clothes,” Alexis de Toqueville recorded an Alabama lawyer telling him in his diary during the travels that produced Democracy in America: an incident cited by Butterfield. Later, in 1880, a correspondent for the Cincinnati Commercial named H.V. Redfield, “put together the first quantitative study of the subject,” Butterfield tells us, which found that homicide rates were perhaps a hundred times greater in the South. In the early 1930s, the first federal study of homicide data found that “the ten states with the highest murder rates were all Southern or border states.” (Compare: “Between June 1849 and June 1850, there was only one recorded murder in [Illinois’] thirty-two northernmost counties.”) Redfield thus became one of the first to argue that “the South had produced a culture of violence.”

It could be argued, so to say, that perhaps it is no accident that if any region of the nation is overrepresented on the PGA Tour, it’s the South—and that those reasons go beyond reliable access to golf-friendly weather. Maybe, in order to play good golf, it’s necessary to be —well, one hesitates to use the word sociopathic—a bit more heedless, a bit more reckless. And maybe Southerners live in a world not quite so unforgiving towards those with a bit of a wild streak in them: perhaps unsurprisingly, since Southerners live in a landscape constructed with the help of one of the worst of human crimes, the one finally ended in 1865.

Maybe this is why the casual golf fan is always being surprised by figures with names like “Webb Simpson,” names that wouldn’t seem out of place were they from deep in Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County or minor characters in To Kill a Mockingbird. Regardless, it does suggest a strategy for Davis when he’s selecting the members of his team: all things being equal, pick the Southerner. He might be completely irrational, but that’s not a disqualification for golf. All that Davis has to do to find his team, in other words, is listen for the accent.

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.