Two games, one ball

(And before we start, yes, the title of this post is an intentional reference to a notorious video of several years ago.)

The other day a guy I follow on Twitter, Joe Wiesenthal–@TheStalwart–did a small but remarkable thing on that social media platform.  He posed the following question: “What’s a raging controversy in a community or field that you’re obsessed with, but which very few people know about?”  This was that rare instance in which somebody was using Twitter to reach out beyond the intramural blood sport that passes for dialogue on that platform, and asking, “Hey, what else is going on out there?”

I was on BART when I saw his tweet, and when I tapped the icon to reply I saw that one of the first responses was the one I was going to offer: the controversy over introducing a  reduced flight golf ball to the professional tour.  And Joe had been quick to respond that he had no idea this was A Thing.

But, as those of us who follow the game know, it is the subject of debate.  I think it would be good–or at least interesting–to use a reduced flight ball on occasion and have some Tour events take place at some of the classic courses that are considered to be outmoded in this new era of prodigious distance.  I wouldn’t dial the ball back for all events, just a handful.  This would make professional golf resemble its cousin, professional tennis.  The Grand Slam events take place on different surfaces, and the true measure of the greatest is their ability to adjust to a ball that behaves differently depending on the event they’re playing.  That’s what makes Roger Federer’s career so remarkable.

But one of the curious aspects of this debate, or at least the debate that I can observe on my Twitter feed, is the pushback from amateurs who don’t want the ball they play with to be dialed back.  But who said that had to be part of the deal?  Dustin Johnson has yardage he could reasonably be expected to give up, I and a lot of others don’t.

One of golf’s appealing features is that those of us who have to pay to play can emulate–to a limited degree–the game of those who are paid to play.  We can drain the long putt, knock it close on a pitch shot, execute the perfect bunker shot.  Just not that often.  And then there’s a long list of other stuff–the 340 yard drive, the 190 yard 8 iron–that isn’t going to happen absent a gale force wind at our backs.  Whenever we get a chance to get up close to the pros and see them play in person, it is a certainty that somebody in your group of spectators will shake their head and say, “They’re playing a different game.”

So, if they’re playing a different game,  make them–on occasion–play a different ball.  Two games, one ball?  Maybe that doesn’t work all the time. But leave my ball alone.  Because, I’m very fussy about that sort of thing.  I only play with the least scuffed up one I’ve found out on the course in the past couple weeks.


POTUS and Golf


Alan Shipnuck has written an excellent article in Golf Digest examining Donald Trump’s relationship and involvement with golf.  Go read it for a very thorough and well-researched discussion of the topic.  But as excellent as Alan’s work is, I think there’s still room to add another perspective.  Let’s consider for a moment how the nature of the game not only fits Trump’s personality, but also reinforces some of his less admirable traits.  There’s what we know about him, and there’s what we know about the game and that’s all it takes to get started.

Golf is the most self-referential of all sports.  In golf, it really is all about you.  There is no opponent who is trying to propel some object past you or knock you to the ground. You are not part of a team in which you have a defined and limited role.  Teamwork, such as it exists in golf, consists of helping your partner read a putt, but then only when asked.  There’s never a decision to be made between taking the shot or passing to a teammate.  You always take the shot.  It’s just you and your ball.  Yes, there are external factors like the course or the elements, but everyone else is dealing with the same conditions.  Your score is the reflection of how you, solely on your own, dealt with them.

So what game could possibly be better suited for a raging narcissist like our 45th President?  It’s a perfect match.

Golf is the most social of sports.  Let’s face it, there’s a lot of downtime in our game: waiting to hit your tee shot, driving or walking off in search of your tee shot, evaluating what club to use on your fifth shot, reconvening on the green for what we refer to as putting when what we’re really doing should be called An Appeal Process for Being Granted a Gimmee.  As a result we have lots of time to talk.

Now, say what you will about our President, he does strike me as an especially social guy in the sort of superficial way that golfers can be.   You know what I’m talking about: the kind of guy who’s introduced to you on the first tee, immediately forgets your name within five seconds of hearing it, and then proceeds to talk about himself for the next four hours. So once again, golf enables him to be in his element.  He can josh and needle, sprinkle his commentary with names of the rich and famous he claims to know, boast about himself, talk about the courses he’s played and restaurants where he’s eaten. You know, be That Guy, the one that everyone thinks is a blowhard.  I’ve read that at times Trump can be an amusing, or even charming blowhard, but he is one nonetheless, and the game has granted him a perfect stage upon which to strut.  Try talking about yourself  for four hours while cycling or playing tennis.  You got to play golf to give yourself that amount of air time.

Golf places a premium on self-confidence.  Now success in any sport requires self-confidence.  But I think it could be argued that golf, perhaps more than any other sport, goes overboard in encouraging and rewarding a positive attitude about one’s self.  Anyone who has read about the mental side of the game has been reminded over and over about “trusting your swing” and approaching each shot with resolve and commitment.  We are told that we need to forget whatever has happened before and stay in the present moment, that quiet patch of time in which we proceed, with the utmost calm and confidence, to execute the next shot.

Now those of us who live in what a spokesperson for the Bush administration once called the “reality based world” can find it challenging to psyche ourselves up in this manner.  Instead, we accumulate, over the course of a round, a pretty accurate mental catalogue of just how well we’re swinging the club that day.   After skulling three pitch shots we are not brimming with confidence as we stand over the fourth. To approach it in any other manner would seem more than slightly self-delusional.

Ah, but imagine that you are not that way.  Instead, think about believing that in any situation or any setting that you are simply the best, the greatest, the mostest of the most.  What screw up? I don’t know what you’re talking about. It was the greatest whatever whenever.

Sound like anybody you’ve heard of?  Again, no wonder he loves golf!  It not only encourages him to forget any faults or errors, but rewards that very attitude.

Golf is a game of prestige.  Having said that, there is nothing intrinsically elitist about the game.  It grew out of a diversion for shepherds who needed something to do while tending their flocks.  But then the English and Scottish aristocracies got hold of it, and thus began the long detour into increasing levels of exclusivity.  Over the centuries the game has acquired the various trappings of prestige: the exclusive private club, the iconic courses, the whole array of expensive greens fees, equipment and other accoutrements.

But there is a critical distinction about this prestige: it is something that can–in most instances–be bought.  It is all for sale. It is acquired through transaction, not accomplishment. Write the check and it can be yours.  And thus, once again, we find ourselves smack dab in The Donald’s element.  You can buy your way in, and if you’re him, set up a business built on charging other people the entrance fee.  It’s all supposed to be very classy, but in the end, it’s all merchandise.

Golf is a game of honor that is easily debased.   Golf is quite eager to proclaim itself a game of honor.  Look at these players who called penalties on themselves!  Look at all these rules that are fastidiously self-enforced by millions of players every weekend.  And yet these noble examples stand out in a sea–or should I say swamp–of corruption.

We golfers are all familiar with the litany of ways that the score on any given hole can be adjusted, misrepresented or corrupted.  Then there is the matter of posting a score at the end of a round so that the governing authority for your region can assign you an index, which in effect is your ID badge as a golfer.

Golf is a game of numbers that can be fudged.  You know, like, tax returns.  There is no other sport that offers so many opportunities to commit fraud.  Basically you can present yourself as something you’re not: a 14-handicap, when 10 would be more accurate, or for those whose self-regard depends on appearance and labels, a 4-handicap when something higher would be a more accurate reflection of actual performance.

Golf is an hospitable environment for Trump because you can create all this maneuvering room between what you say you are and what you really are.  You can brand yourself as something you aren’t and then you see how long you can get away with it.


I could go on, but I think we’ve covered the major points.  You may have noticed that I didn’t discuss how golf–when played from a cart–can be particularly undemanding as a physical activity and therefore ideal for somebody like Trump who apparently believes that humans are–like batteries–born with a fixed amount of energy that will only be prematurely depleted if one exercises vigorously.  That was too easy.

I read an article recently that, in passing, referred to Trump as the face of golf.  In its own way, I found that one of more alarming implications of the current regime.  He is not the face of the game I love.  But at the same time it is worth considering, at least for those of us who play the game but disagree with his policies, that there is an almost symbiotic relationship between aspects of golf and the Trump personality.  Look at how much he plays.  He needs the game. It feeds him.





When bad things happen to great golfers

The turn of events on the back nine this past Sunday at the Masters may have been shocking but in a way it was an appropriate ending for a tournament whose first memorable moment was Ernie Els’ horrific six-putt from two feet on the first hole.  Ernie’s nightmare on the first was a classic example of the sort of thing you hear about and can’t believe, so you have to see it for yourself, and then once you’ve seen it you wish you hadn’t because there is something terrifying about seeing a member of Golf’s Hall of Fame caught in some vicious circle of hell where he cannot for the life of him get the ball to drop into the hole.  It’s also worth remembering that the Big Easy’s fly swatting exhibition was something very few golfers have ever seen.  Yeah, of course we’ve seen the full array of lousy shots and misses and all the rest, but any of us, even a particular playing partner of mine, would have given him the fourth or the fifth putt.  Only a sadist would have made him keep on putting.

Which brings me to the other bookend for the weekend, Jordan at the 12th.  If Ernie at the first hole was the unimaginable, Jordan at the 12th was the unexpected enactment of the familiar.  All of a sudden one of the best in the world looked like any of the crappy golfers most of us spend our weekends with. And to be clear, it isn’t the first shot I’m talking about.  It was that chicken-winged turf excavation that he executed after taking his drop.  That was the money shot, or to be more accurate, the Not-Going-to-Get-Another-Jacket shot.

Now a common response among golfers to mishaps such as this is to cite them as evidence of how hard the game is.  I don’t exactly agree.  The shock value comes from something different.  The standard appraisal of the golf games of players on the PGA tour is that they are playing a different game than the rest of us: the monumental distance off the tee, the precision of the approach shots. the deft touch out of the bunker and around the green.  But when Jordan Speith chunks his third shot into Rae’s Creek he turns things upside down.  He’s no longer playing a different game, now he’s playing our game and it’s very unsettling for us to see that.



The Open 2.0

Just one week away from the tournament known simply as The Open.  But before we go any farther, let me make one point.  Does anybody remember the topic of our last post?  That’s right, it was about The Other Guy and how he usually doesn’t show up.  And now that seems sadly prophetic in the wake of Rory’s ankle injury…Meanwhile, over at Wimbledon, it’s Djokovic v. Federer in the finals.  Just sayin’.

This year’s Open feels a bit like a redo in the wake of last month’s US Open, which looked like and appeared to play like a British tournament during a particularly dry year.  For those of us in California it was a bit like a glimpse into a dystopian version of golf’s future: a game banished to the site of a former toxic landfill and played on browned out fairways and sun blasted greens; freight trains rumbled by, trees were scarce and the fairways were marked by dried out fescue and hulking industrial ruins…

One of the things I like the most about The Open is the scheduling.  And my wife totally agrees.  There’s nothing she likes better than coming downstairs in the morning and having a golf tournament on the telly at six in the morning…Another favorite feature? The four hole playoff.  Sudden death is too abrupt and too contingent on one errant swing, and that whole day thing on a Monday that the USGA thinks is the right way to settle matters? Screw that….In fact, as far as that goes, the 18-hole playoff strikes me as a bit of an elitist leftover for an organization that is supposedly all about growing the game. It smacks of an attitude that says, “Why of course the gentlemen will return on Monday to determine the championship, and besides the club would ordinarily be closed that day so this won’t inconvenience the members any further.”

But among the things I am not looking forward to are the cliches and trite phrases that American sportscasters and writers feel compelled to put in their bags and then employ when covering an event like The Open: “across the pond” (yuck), “birthplace of the game,” “the coveted (it’s always coveted) claret jug.”  And this year, Jordan Speith’s remarkable play in the majors provides a chance off to dust off “historic quest”, “third leg” and the rest.

The Other Guy, Epilogue

Just reaching back here folks and picking up on this thread….

In the end, one of the interesting things about the role of The Other Guy in golf is that he doesn’t always show up.  Consider for a moment the breathless commentary that follows a victory by one of the emerging stars of the game.  Get set, we are told, for the new rivalry. It’s gonna be Rory vs. Jordan, or Ricky vs. Rory or whatever hypothetical confrontation seems the most compelling at the time.

And then it doesn’t happen.

Sure the New Rivals show up for the majors and compete for the same antique glob of silver.  But, as befits a game in which participants have a tendency to act immaturely and do a fair amount of whining, the competition proceeds like a play date for toddlers: it’s essentially parallel play in which competitors play with their own stuff and don’t do any sharing.  You rarely get the head-to-head competition that we are told to expect.

Consider for a moment the shocking, and in some sense troubling, end to the U.S. Open last month.  The suspense as DJ lined up his eagle putt hinged on whether he would make it and win his first major, or alternatively, miss it and set up the Most Annoying Playoff in Golf, an 18 hole match on a work day.  But as we all witnessed, DJ fell through a virtual trap door, landing in one of the most tortured Circles of Golf Hell, the flubbed short putt.

There was going to be this great head-to-head match.  Polite well-bred young lad from Texas against the guy who had to take a leave from the Tour last year.  Family entourage vs. sexpot wife.  Brains vs. brawn.

But then Dustin didn’t show up.

This all underscores the cruel and razor thin margin between success and failure in golf.  Right now Wimbledon is in full swing, heading towards a final that will most likely feature two of the topmost seeds.  Tennis is like that. It delivers, over the years, a steady diet of Connors v. Borg, Federer v. Nadal.  And this is no surprise if you think of the number of times a competitor hits the ball over the course of a tennis tournament. It’s well into the thousands, and so the Law of Large Numbers exerts its influence and the best players rise to the top.

But not so with our game. The winner of one of our tournaments hits the ball a total number of times that is well under 300 strokes.  This leaves far too much room for the random event, for the undetected bump in the green, or the unlucky roll of an otherwise well-struck shot.  Hence the reverence when golf writers consider a duel such as Nicklaus v. Watson at Turnberry in 1977. It just doesn’t happen that often.  And why is that? That’s right.

The Other Guy didn’t show up.


Sorry for the gap in posting, but I got busy.  And to be more specific, over the course of the long Memorial Day weekend, I was busy losing.

Saturday was a version of my regular game.  Somehow I shot two under my handicap and still lost three ways to two different guys.  Then, on Sunday, I had my two-man match in the single elimination tournament I discussed earlier, and yes, we lost that as well.  And, oh yeah, the weather was miserable, this sort of December in May stuff that plagued us for weeks.

Losing may be the flip side of winning, but that makes the two outcomes sound like mirror images: same components, just reversed.  But there are significant differences.  As discussed in the post “The Other Guy,” there is a good deal of relativity wrapped up in winning.  You won, maybe because the other guy played horribly.  Losing, on the other hand, has a more absolute feel to it.  You lost. You’re the loser.  Yeah, sure there were other golfers playing at the very same time you were, and they may have played worse than you, but you know what, you weren’t playing them, were you?  Nope, in your little corner of the world you are the guy who came up short.

To a certain extent, winning and losing offset each other: for every winner a loser and vice versa.  It’s a vast zero sum game.  Certainly our weekend games have that flavor to them.  Over time the money just sloshes back and forth, from one wallet to the other, as games go into slumps or putting strokes falter.  A playing partner/opponent will find something that “works” and there is a stretch of good rounds, followed by either an erosion of that “thing that was working” or simply a reversion to the mean.

But in tournament play, or on the grander scale of professional sports, there is, in the final analysis, a sizeable imbalance between losing and winning.  In the end there is only one ultimate winner in the NBA or NFL; everyone else is just some form of loser.  Although the outcomes of all the individual games balance out, there is a whole lot more losing than there is winning when it comes to finding a champion.  As Jerry Seinfeld once pointed out, there is nothing lamer in the world than being silver medalist.  In essence, you are being recognized for being  the best loser of them all.

I think this explains why lots of golfers shy away from competitive tournaments, even at the friendly level of intra-club competition.  They much prefer the regular game where each outcome lacks finality because it just a prelude to another match, part of a chain of Saturday mornings that stretches back in time and hopefully far into the future.


The Other Guy, Part II

So where were we?

Oh, yes, we were talking about how winning or losing, or in more general terms, success or failure, is a result of how the other guy does.  You don’t have to play your best, or even that well, to be the one to whom the money is passed at the end of a round.  You just have to play better than the other guy.

But there’s a lot that goes on during a round that suggests that this other guy has a lot of different identities.  And, when you get right down to it, that Other Guy really isn’t the other guy.  He’s actually different versions of yourself.  That’s the real other guy.  Consider the following:

There is that bit of conventional wisdom that says in order to win, all you have to do–most times–is shoot your handicap.  Okay, but that makes shooting your handicap sound that playing your average game, when your handicap is based on a collection of your better scores.  So, in this case, shooting your handicap means playing better than that dufus who posted all those higher numbers.  You know him, right? Dresses like you, same swing, same pre-shot routine.  Yeah, that guy.  Play better than he does and  you should do okay.

Or, there is The Other Guy as Hypothetical Guy.  He’s not really a competitor.  He’s more an aspiration, or more accurately a fantasy, and, as his name implies, you’re not going to see him out on the course.  But he’s out there.  The proof of his existence can be found in the reactions you see and hear when, for example, approach shots to a pin tucked in the back left of a well-bunkered green don’t result in a birdie putt of eight feet.  Really, you’re surprised?  Who did you think was hitting the shot?  The only possible explanation is that you thought this was some of sort of scramble, and Hypothetical Guy–that impossibly better version of yourself–was going to stuff that approach.

Hypothetical Guy is like the golf messiah.  We keep hoping he’ll show up but he never does.  We want him to thread the needle, pull off that short-sided bunker shot, drain that putt.  We want to play like Hypothetical Guy because if we could, then the Other Guy becomes our normal self, and we all know how easy it is to beat him.

Even the pros, apparently striding alone down the well-manicured fairways of their tournament venues, are accompanied by their own Hypothetical Guys.  That’s who they’re thinking about when they arrive on the green of a par-five and see that their eagle putt is 20 feet, not five.  But the big difference between them and us?  Their Hypothetical Guys aren’t like a child’s imaginary friend.  They’re more like gods out of Greek mythology.  They actually can materialize and make lightning strike and cause miracles to happen.  It’s when his Hypothetical Guy doesn’t show up that we see the anguish on a Tour player’s face after he hits a shot that any of us would find more than satisfactory.

And so this brings us back to where we started, The World Match Play Championship.  In a fundamental respect the format wasn’t that different than the normal weekend on Tour.  Everybody, pro or amateur, is playing against the Other Guy. You just can’t always see him.