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.

The other guy

A few weeks ago I mentioned to my wife that my club’s singles match play tournament was starting soon, to which she responded, “Oh, the one where you always lose?”

Yeah, that one.

I know what she meant to say was “eventually lose,” not “always lose,” because I do win a match here or there before I am eliminated.  It’s single elimination match play at full handicaps.  There is a two man bracket as well, and my partners and I haven’t fared much better in that competition either.  In classic sour grapes fashion I have tended to regard the whole competition as essentially a sting operation in which members whose “numbers” are–oh shall we say–somewhat suspect have a tendency to be the ones left standing as the competition grinds into the quarters, semis and finals.  Not everyone mind you, just the usual suspects.  But it is still a great way to get out there with members I wouldn’t ordinarily play with, and if only for that, the tournament serves a great function.

But the topic of match play brings back to mind the recently concluded tournament at Harding Park.  Match play, or some variation of it–most often the Nassau with the format of front-back-and-total– is the game all of us play in our regular outings.  The score on the card is merely a way to index our performance on some objective scale.  But to hear the commentators last weekend you would have thought that match play was another weird sport like curling or cricket in which the competitors spend a lot of time standing around and scoring is particularly arcane, and that this “strangeness” warranted constant reminders about the “unusual” format.  Maybe that’s the case for people who watch golf on TV but have never played the sport, and someday I’d like to meet all five of those people.

But for those of us with a regular weekend game where a couple bucks are on the line, this was all too familiar territory.  I don’t have a clue what it’s like to be six-under or twelve-under, but I do know the feeling of being up three, or down four and everything in between.  But more to the point we also saw instances where a guy shot two under and lost and another dude shot three over and won.  It’s all about the other guy.

And it’s that notion, the concept of the other guy, to which we’ll return in the next post.

Hitting like a girl and other thoughts

After a long absence, Why We Golf is back at you with some random observations in the wake of the past eleven days during which my hometown, San Francisco, was the center of the golf world.

First off, as for hitting it like a girl, God how I wish I could!  I was an on-course marshal for some of the leaders’ threesomes for the weekend rounds of the Swinging Skirts, hosted for the second consecutive year at my club, Lake Merced Golf Club.  I walked with Lydia Ko’s group on Saturday and on Sunday I followed Ryu, Kim and Sandra Gal. Yeah, I understand that Rory and the other Big Boys really bomb it but in certain respects it is more impressive to see these women, some of them quite small in stature, hit it as far as they do.  This isn’t golf as a demonstration of strength as much as an expression of what can be accomplished if all the movement in a golf swing is coordinated exactly.  It’s a bit of choreography in which movement, tempo and balance are in harmony.  It’s really impressive….But, having said that, I’m not so sure that I want to putt like a girl.  Except for Lydia, I didn’t see anybody really make any….Back over at Harding this past weekend, the Westside of SF put on a bit of a climate display: positively glorious on Thursday, but then by Saturday as windswept and cold as Patagonia.  In a way it made sense that the two winners on Sunday afternoon, McIlroy and Willett, were from the British Isles.  They likely felt right at home…And I think I speak for all San Franciscan golfers when I say that it was real fun to see our brand of golf on display for the world during these past two weekends.  Like anything in life, we get accustomed to the familiar, but one of the weird things about television is that it becomes a form of validation: if it’s on TV, then almost by definition something becomes special, and seeing our courses on center stage helped put them in a perspective where we could, if not rediscover, then re-appreciate them.  Theirs is a special look: the tilt and cant of their fairways, the towering cypress trees that look like underwater plants with their long trunks and sculpted canopies, the ripe juiciness of their rough.  And then there are the things that even the best players in the world can’t see, specifically the little breaks and tilts on the putting surface, the invisible tugs and pulls that commentators call subtle and that we players find so frustrating and at times infuriating…And speaking of television, I don’t think I need to see that Cadillac ad with Wozniak and the Asian fashion designer ever again.  Like not once more. That’s it.

And on a final note, after listening to him over the weekend, Johnny Miller has finally inspired me. It’s true.We all know that golfer fantasy question, “Who would be in your dream foursome?”  It’s the one where the conventional answer is your dad (if you played with him), Jack or Walter Hagen or Lee Trevino.  You know the drill.  Well, what about your nightmare foursome?  Who would be in that group? I know Johnny’s in mine.  Can you imagine playing with him?  I can hear him now: “It’s a simple putt, really.” “Why did he do that now?” “That is not where you want to be.”  And on and on.  To be honest, I’m not quite sure about the rest of the group.  Lucas Glover is in the running, just because he looks like such a miserable son-of-a-bitch, but I’m having a hard time coming up with a fourth.  Any suggestions?