Quittin’ time

I’m outta here!

Yeah, me too!

The pace of posting has slowed down here of late, there’s no denying it.  Full time employment will have that effect.  It does sort of chew up the hours.  Guess that’s why it’s called a job.

But the golf world hasn’t exactly been showering us with great story lines, either.  When the weather during the tournament schedule so far is one of the biggest topics of conversation you know that’s a good indicator that there ain’t shit going on.

But that all changed when Rory McIlroy walked off the course at the Honda Classic in Palm Beach Gardens.

Thank you, Jesus!

As a general rule, events in the sports world generate divided reactions. It’s a good trade, no it’s a bad trade.  One man’s close call is another man’s crime against humanity.  One side’s great play is the other side’s defensive lapse.  One fan base relishes a moment of glory while another nurses a scar in its collective memory.

But every once in a while people unite in their reactions.  And this is one of those times.

Unless you’re hurt, or unless the rain has turned horizontal and you’ve lost feeling in your hands, you simply don’t walk off the course.  Everybody has bad days, but you’re supposed to suck it up, finish the round and pay your bets like a man.  We’ve likely all known players who had a habit for quitting when things didn’t go their way, and their reputations suffered for it.  There was a former member of my club who did it and he was roundly criticized behind his back for doing so.  On another occasion I was playing in a team match against the Stanford University Men’s Club when I noticed a path through the underbrush near one of the tee boxes on the front nine.  I asked one of our hosts where it led and he told me that this was known as So-and-so’s trail, since this particular Mr. So-and-so was known for taking this shortcut back to the clubhouse when the round hadn’t started off to his liking.   Let’s just say that this information was conveyed in a tone that didn’t indicate that Mr So-and-so was viewed as being particularly intrepid for having blazed this trail.

There is also more than a whiff of spoiled ingratitude to the whole episode.  We all get it that performance in this game is a hugely relative matter and that a shot that might delight a novice is something to work on at the range for an expert.  When we say that the pros are playing a different game we are acknowledging the statistical reality that horrific for them doesn’t even come close to overlapping with average for us.  But still, who wouldn’t love to have Rory’s swing and be able, for just one day, or for even one hole, to be able to play as he does, and yet there is he is, sulking off the course, in effect turning his back on the enormous blessing that his talent represents.  It makes his quitting seem petulant and immature.

But we’ve all seen this before. Who hasn’t played with a talented young golfer who has a little hissy fit when his approach shot from 120 away doesn’t land in the right part of the green or whose 290 yard drive winds up under a tree?  Boo hoo.  But Rory isn’t just any golfer.  Looming over all of this is the humongous deal he signed with Nike.  For an endorsement contract rumored to be in the neighborhood of $200 million dollars, Rory has agreed to stop using the Titleist equipment that he used in his ascent to the top and play with Nike clubs instead.  Now on the first tee, Dr. Faustus.

Now I ain’t sayin he a ……

If you need this explained to you, you’re reading the wrong blog!

Question for the day: what impact would it have on pace of play if Brandt Snedeker became the dominant player in the game? You’re right, probably none.  But it would be cool if he were the role model in that regard.

But back to my intended topic: the results of the pro-am at the AT&T.  Snedeker and his partner tied for first at 31 strokes under par.  That makes a certain amount of sense.  When Bill Murray and D.A. Points won two years ago, Points was also the professional winner as well.  If your professional partner is beating the field, all you have to do, as the amateur,  is make a reasonable contribution– most likely on your stroke holes–and you’re going to be in contention.  In this case Brandt’s partner, a guy by the name of Wilt, contributed a respectable 12 strokes, or three a day, to the team performance.

Ah yes, but go back to the second sentence of the above paragraph.  They tied for first.  So, who pray tell is sharing that coveted title with them?  The team of Letzig and Erickson, which is all well and good, except for one strange thing: Letzig didn’t make the cut (which happens after the third day at the AT&T because of the three course rotation).  After three rounds Michael Letzig was 6 over par and yet he and his amateur partner, John Erickson, came in at 31 under for the tournament.  (Side note: Monday morning I couldn’t find Letzig anywhere on the leaderboard and that kind of freaked me out. I assumed at first that my eyesight was going since that tiny little agate print is a bit of a strain, as I read the professional results up one side and down the other, looking and looking for his name.  But then I remembered about this thing called the internet…)

Let’s assume for the sake of argument, that Mr. Letzig, no longer facing the pressure of playing for a check, shot an even round of par on Sunday.  After all he is a pro, and that’s what pros do, right? That means that his amateur partner contributed a stunning 37 strokes over the four days of competition.  This is where the math gets brutally overwhelming.  In other words,  on average, Mr. Erickson shot a net score under par on half the holes for four days in a row.

Well, gosh, you say, maybe he just played really well.  How well, you ask?  The odds of shooting 9 strokes under your index in two consecutive rounds is 1 in 83,000.  That is pretty good.  This is obviously even better.  In fact, suspiciously better.  In fact the odds of it being a legitimate achievement bring to mind that old joke that ends with the words, “and Slim just left town.”

For the record, Mr. Erickson was playing as an 18.  And, really, why shouldn’t he? If you’re going to pick a handicap, I say go for 18.  First, it makes it easy to stay in character.  You don’t have to ask if you’re getting a stroke on a hole because YOU’RE GETTING STROKES EVERYWHERE! Every par is a net birdie, every birdie is a net eagle.  It’s like frigging Christmas out there.  Second, you’re only passing yourself off as an average hacker who’s just gosh darn tickled to break 90.  You’re not setting yourself up as special, just average.

It brings to mind those cell phone ads where the interviewer poses questions such as “What’s better, faster or slower?” to a table of overly caffeinated six year olds.  In this instance the transcript looks like this:

Interviewer: What’s better, a bigger handicap or a smaller handicap?

Fat kid in the argyle sweater: Bigger, because then it’s easier to beat your friends and take all their money so you can buy yourself a little pet monkey that you can take out to the course with you and it scoops up its poop and throws it at your friends when they’re putting!

Interviewer: But won’t that make your friends mad?

Girl in gingham dress and pigtails: You just tell them to take a lesson or find another game or stop whining about it.

Voice over: It’s not complicated.

No, it’s not.

The five stages of sports grief

She always sits on the 50 yard line

My family moved to Palo Alto California in 1957.  Growing up on the San Francisco Peninsula in the sixties there were three sports teams that mattered: the Giants, Stanford football and the 49ers.

It goes without saying that I did not enjoy the outcome of Super Bowl XLVII.

Now you don’t have to have been a psych major to be familiar with Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s five stages of grieving.  In case you’ve forgotten, they are as follows: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.

So, what are the five stages of sports grief?

1. Anger:  You react to the drop, the call, the foul, the whatever, with explosive cursing and yelling.  You groan, you yell at the flat screen.  Then, and only then do you move to stage 2.

2. Denial: Now is the time for denial, a stage enabled by the technology of replay: “That didn’t really happen. Let’s see it again.”  And again and again.  If it is subject to review, you wait for the guys upstairs to render their judgement.  If not, you have a choice. You can accept the verdict, or go to your grave convinced an injustice was done.

3. Replay: Kubler-Ross was concerned with people who were sick and facing death.  Grieving sports fans are, for the most part, healthy and upset about something that has already happened.  This is neither the time nor the place for bargaining.  Instead you start the questioning and the exploration of alternative universes where the 49ers call another running play or throw the ball to Vernon Davis, or Dusty Baker doesn’t hand the game ball to Russ Ortiz.

4. Exhaustion: After a while you just can’t sustain it.  When people say that “Life goes on,” what they are really saying is that eventually you have to get back on the bus.  You can’t sit on the sidelines indefinitely obsessing about a sports team’s poor clock management, because you only have so many timeouts yourself.  The synapses dedicated to sports outrage and frustration just get tuckered out and don’t light up anymore.

5. Acceptance: You move on. BUT, this is not about accepting that “it’s just a game.” Fuck that.  This is about accepting the two-sided coin that gets flipped at the end, not the beginning, of every game.  There can’t be a winner without a loser.  Yeah, I really like it when my team wins the Super Bowl or the World Series, but the flip side of that is every bit as dark and painful as the victory is sweet.  In one city there is a parade, and in the other a bunch of guys on their way to work, thinking to themselves, “Why didn’t……?”

But ultimately it comes down to this: despair always gives way to hope, because it’s not that “it’s only a game.”  The salvation is that there is always another game.  Pitchers and catchers report February 13.  I rest my case.

Bold predictions

It’s only the middle of January so I can still make predictions for the year ahead, right? Well here we go, but before I launch in, I have to say that I think I’m going to nail these.  We’ll check back in a year and see how I’ve done, but I’m thinking perfection here.

And here’s why: the key to infallibility, folks, is inscrutability.  Be ambiguous.  Give yourself some wiggle room.  Do what the Delphic Oracle did: sniff some fumes and just wing it!  Be intentionally vague and non-specific.  Your odds of being “right” go up dramatically if accuracy is a matter of retroactive interpretation. Besides, it makes you sound  heavy and insightful.

So here they are, my “you can take it to the bank” predictions for golf in 2013:

A player of mixed ancestry will win a major.

A man from a divided country will win a major.

A player who looks like a cartoon character will win a major.

Only one player will be compared consistently with the earlier version of himself.

A player from a country surrounded by water will win a major.

The golf media will identify at least three emerging rivalries.  None will materialize in a Sunday final pairing.

The leaderboard for at least one LPGA tournament will NOT look like the directory for a Seoul apartment building.

There will be sudden death playoffs, but everybody will live.

There you have it. Let’s check back in on these when 2014 rolls around.

We interrupt this broadcast…

We’ll get back to golf in just a minute folks. In the meantime let’s discuss Topic A in the Bay Area sports world: Alex or Colin?

Let me illustrate how pervasive this issue has become.  I work at a non-profit organization that is committed to providing financial services to low and moderate income households so that they can pull themselves up and get ahead. This past Friday we had an Advisory Board meeting, an occasion when we assemble people from academia and the world of socially responsible investing to tell them about all the cool stuff we’re doing.  I was not participating, but through my office walls  I could hear the conversation  as our executive staff and some of the Board members had lunch.  They started, as you might expect, all fiscal cliff and bank bailout and current trends in the mortgage market.  But then that ran out of gas.

So where do you think the conversation with all these high-minded types, people  engaged in the important work of advancing economic justice wound up? Syria? Nah. Climate change? Nope.  No, they got into it about who should start as QB for the San Francisco 49ers.

A quarterback controversy is like catnip to sports minded males.  We can’t resist it.  It appeals to our inner General Manager, or the head coach we know we could be.  It calls upon all those delicious human reactions like hindsight and second-guessing.

And it goes deeper than that.  It is essentially a sibling rivalry and that conjures up every bit of emotion associated with that sort of competition.  Cain and Abel was a quarterback controversy.  In fact a lot of messy situations throughout human history were quarterback controversies.  Shia versus Sunni is a still unresolved dispute over who should have gotten the starting job after Mohammed retired.  And the Great Schism, when there were Popes in Rome and Avignon?  A quarterback controversy so bad they broke the team into two.

No, it’s clearly intriguing and weirdly addictive stuff.  And the bad news–if you see this sort of thing as a distraction–for Niners fans? It’s only getting started.

Talkin’ about a reformation

Hey! Who let this guy in the club?

Alrighty then, so NOW we’ve got something to talk about.  It turns out that in the wake of the decision to ban anchored putting a whole new, larger, and far more significant issue has emerged: should there be a different set of rules for pros as opposed to amateur golfers? You know, one set for those who get paid to play, and another for those who pay to play.

Well I have an emphatic and unequivocal response to that suggestion: No. Never.

I have a noble–or at least noble sounding–reason for this stance, as well as a rationale, that if not ignoble, is  simply more accommodating to the reality of the game as most of us play it.  Since most of you are pressed for time, let me start with the first.

I reject the idea that there should be bifurcation of the rules because, although raised a Protestant, I am proud to be a member of the catholic and holy apostolic church of golf.  One set of rules uber alles.  Sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.  The rules on the muni are as it is at Augusta, stroke and distance, now and forever, amen.  We have our saints (Hogan, Nelson, Jones), as well as our sacraments (“And he said unto them, verily, as I mix equal parts of iced tea and lemonade, you shall name this after me.”)

As a member of this global fraternity and sorority, I sit here in the rainy early morning hours in San Francisco knowing that  right now a golfer somewhere in this world is taking a drop for an unplayable lie and that another is glumly hitting a provisional, and that reassures me that we are all in this together.  I think I speak for a lot of golfers when I say that while watching the Big Boys play on TV I experience a sense of solidarity, knowing that although mine is a far inferior version, we are all playing essentially the same game, subject to the same random misfortunes and governed by the same rules.  Why break that up?

As for my second reason, well, that can wait.  It’s Friday and I’ve got work to do, and so, I would wager, do you.  Hasta luego.

Okay, but only because I feel like I have to

I count five. How many do you see?

Given that I am somebody who writes about the game, I feel an obligation to say something, anything, about the USGA and R&A’s colossally historic and significant decision to ban anchored putting.  And I will, but first I should examine why this issue doesn’t get my juices flowing.  What has struck me the most as I watched the buildup to Wednesday’s announcement was my apathy about the whole controversy.  I had an opinion, but that’s not the same thing as really caring.

Having given this a moment or two of thought, I think my indifference is just masked aversion to the topic of putting itself.  I think putting is fundamentally the most misleading and ultimately the most embarrassing thing about the game.  And of course, as every golfer reading these words is no doubt thinking, it is also the most decisive determinant of success when playing.  But, even acknowledging the critical importance of putting, I still think the less said about it, the less people see of it, the better.

Here’s what I mean by that: I would hope that even the most jaded non-golfer out there would appreciate the athleticism of a Dustin Johnson or Rory McIlroy as they uncoil and launch a ball a distance of over three football fields towards a target area the size of half a tennis court.  But, let’s face it, the last ten feet or so of their ball’s journey to the bottom of the cup just doesn’t look all that impressive.  What the non-golfer sees when he sees putting is some guy doing something that any slob can do, just not that well.  In a world that generates a daily barrage of video images of improbably phenomenal athletic feats, the footage of some guy in red slacks rolling a ball fifteen feet into a little hole seems, frankly, pretty lame.  We may all know that it’s a good bit harder than it looks, but that doesn’t change the fact that the image undermines the argument that golf is a demanding sport.

And so, I found our little civil war to be just a tad embarrassing.  I don’t blame the rest of the world for eavesdropping on the conversation and then voicing a skeptical “Really?” to the proceedings.  To the outsider it must seem like the modern equivalent of those medieval debates about the number of angels that can dance on the head of a pin.

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