#Winning…

A few years back, perhaps two or three or ten, Rory McIlroy held off Phil Mickelson and Rickie Fowler to win his second PGA Championship in one of those muddled areas in the middle of the country. Research suggests it occurred in the center—although one cannot rule out the eastern or western half—of Kentucky.

The tournament, consistent with everything else this century, was immediately forgotten, but unlike most lost to time and space was resurrected recently on account of comments from both the winner and the primary loser.

Rory kicked things off, almost certainly with the knowledge that his words, mild for the playground, would be interpreted by the hypersensitive golf community as a direct shot at his competitors. Rory had the gall to claim that Phil’s joviality, and the bonhomie the Americans exhibited throughout the day, sparked in him a desperate urge to win, which of course he went on to do.

As for Phil, he took the familiar high road—during a recent podcast which, despite the hype, was memorable only for the new age nonsense he spewed about coffee—and said good for Rory, there’s nothing wrong with him, like all of us, deriving inspiration from whatever source necessary in order to play his best.

Those invested in the sport, as self-conscious as ever about its staying power, seized on the incident. While providing the requisite clicks and buzz, it also showed Rory, still heir to the throne, with an edge that even Tiger could admire. And the ever popular Phil again got to play the gracious loser, this time for the benefit of the next generation.

In retrospect, that particular PGA was striking for an altogether different reason, one almost entirely at odds from the conclusions being drawn from this recent dustup. In fact, the events that day directly contradict the image of a Tiger-esque Rory, hellbent on winning…

To refresh one’s memory, it got late early out there that Sunday at Valhalla. A Monday finish looked inevitable and the pooh-bahs of the PGA, having foolishly acquiesced to television’s request for a late afternoon start, were about to take it on the chin.

However, as golfers are wont to do when darkness descends, Rory, playing in the final group, picked it up a notch or three. As he arrived on the 18th tee Rory took no time hitting into the twosome ahead of him (Phil and Fowler) to save precious seconds. He then sprinted up to the ball and bunted a shot up the fairway, before eventually lagging a longish putt, in the dark, to the edge of the hole for a par and the win.

Let’s pause for a second here to consider the circumstances. On the 72nd hole of a major championship, nursing a one stroke lead, Rory rushed a drive, rushed the approach, and putted in the dark. That is, he flailed away like every other 14 handicapper “waved up” on an overcrowded public course in Kentucky that afternoon.

Except, Rory wasn’t even waved up. He barely asked for permission and hit while a visibly annoyed Mickelson was still barking at a rules official regarding the suitability of what was about to take place.

And most importantly for our purposes, Rory, without being able to see more than 3 feet in front of him on the green, elected to proceed with a 25 or so foot putt, the muffing of which could have cost him a major championship.

Now let’s not be naive. Professional golfers are independent contractors, aren’t paid by the hour, and are certainly not getting comped for spending an extra night in eastern, central, or even western Kentucky. Corporate commitments, family members, and assorted hangers-on were surely awaiting wherever it was that Rory was scheduled to fly to later that evening.

But these are also guys that have no trouble backing off just about any two-footer if, say, a bird should chirp at the wrong time.

So what was going on in Rory’s head during that “championship” Sunday?

It’s true his behavior betrayed that of someone with a chip on the shoulder. It’s also true that Rory wouldn’t be the only professional Mickelson turned off with an over exuberant celebration after, say, a mediocre chip to 8 feet. The fact that Rory raised the Phil/Rickie thing years later suggests something that day struck a nerve.

But even if Rory was motivated by the sanctimony endemic to this side of the pond, he betrayed something darker than a desire to win early that evening. His act instead was reminiscent of a spoiled kid intent on taking his ball and going home.

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But does the episode at Valhalla actually put Rory at odds with the true Tiger?

One might recall Tiger a decade earlier rushing off the premises after finishing late on Sunday at a PGA, despite the very real possibility that he’d wind up in a playoff on Monday. Phil, this time, did what was necessary to render extra holes moot, but the spectacle of Tiger potentially ceding a tournament to a rival by way of a premature departure was too good a story for even the obsequious pre-Thanksgiving 2009 golf media.

At his next appearance, the media indeed mustered the courage to challenge Tiger on his haste to flee the hinterlands of, in this case not Kentucky but metropolitan New York. Tiger mumbled something about the odds of Phil, Thomas Bjorn, Davis Love, and Steve Elkington—all closers extraordinaire, evidently—blowing it in tandem being infinitesimal. The media quickly grunted their consent and that was that.

Tiger’s actions at Baltusrol were less perplexing to me at the time than the Rory incident years later. Getting to 80 PGA Tour wins with Tiger’s disposition required becoming a self-centered sore loser, and there was no way his ego could stomach bearing witness to a Phil coronation. To the extent that he was actually willing to risk the public relations tsunami that would have descended had he been AWOL for a major championship playoff.

Too cynical? Was it instead a corporate commitment, his harem, or something more substantial beckoning him back to Florida?

Frankly, it’s irrelevant and the point remains: winning was secondary to Tiger that day, as it was to Rory just a few turns around the sun later. There is no escaping that you, the loyal fan, more often than not want it more than even the most determined in the professional ranks.

Keep that in mind that next time you’re flooded with disappointment after your favorite player three putts from 20 feet to lose a major championship. Or chooses a 15 hour flight to Dubai and a guaranteed payday—mind you with 9 figures already in the bank—while nursing a career on the precipice after multiple back surgeries…

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The Underground Detective

Thomas Boswell’s baseball columns might be close to unreadable now, but he’s excellent when writing about the human condition. Obituaries. Retirements. Hiring decisions. He’s insightful in a way others aren’t. Sure he’s no Gary Smith, but even Smith lost his fastball long before leaving Sports Illustrated. Hacks might be able to churn out the same drivel forever (see Lupica, Mike) but the most talented writers, it seems, burn out relatively quickly.

Not Boswell, who’s been at it since the tail end of the 60s. Boswell out wrote everyone not named Jaime Diaz regarding Seve’s fall and was Diaz’s equal in explaining Tiger’s frailties, nudged out only by Tom Callahan, who had the advantage, if you’d call it that, of being friends with Earl. Heck, after long leaving golf behind Boswell even wrote the best piece out there on the denuding of Oakmont, primarily by looking at the issue as a human and not a golf snob. Similarly, Boswell did a better job on Bud after his passing than any of the tennis elite.

After Arnold Palmer died, Boswell, in his weekly online chat, told a story of Arnold’s genuine excitement after scoring a hole-in-one on consecutive days on the same hole at some entirely forgettable senior tour event. And Boswell recounted his own excitement covering it. He used the story to get across the point that everyone else emphasized in their Arnold biopics — the man truly loved the game of golf. It was no act.

But Boswell then explained that he wouldn’t be touching Arnold in the newspaper. He said he didn’t really know Arnold. He never pilgrimaged to Latrobe, or walked through Arnold’s legendary barn. Boswell never did a one-on-one interview with him.

Boswell, in effect, said he’d be a fraud if he attempted to take on the topic, and further called out anyone who would deign to write about a subject they’d never met. “You can’t fake it,” he wrote.

And this is where I spit the bit.

For one thing, you can bet Boswell never interviewed Seve. And even if he had during a Kemper Open drive by, Seve certainly wouldn’t have opened up in any meaningful way. At best, Boswell likely talked to Dean Beman about how exasperating Seve was, and perhaps got a few quotes from Crenshaw types about Seve’s “genius.”

But this would have been nothing more than box-checking; Crenshaw and Beman had nothing to say about the man that wasn’t already well known. Yet, years later Boswell was able to get at Seve in a way that others covering golf for a living weren’t.

What’s more interesting, and telling, is that the one subject Boswell has flubbed is the athlete he’s known better than any. I stopped being a baseball guy in 1986 or so, but the game’s mid-Atlantic hero, Cal Ripken, is of that time, so I’d pay attention when the DC papers covered him. And Boswell was the dean of the sport in this very non-baseball city, so he was one of the few to read on the matter.

But all Boswell could muster on Cal was mush, hero-worshipping fluff. I recall a paragraph or two about “roughhousing” in the clubhouse — which I translated to mean acting like an ass — and a ridiculous reflection on the moment Boswell realized Cal had lost a step. The rest, platitudes.

A few lines I came across recently in a book on Cuba’s ‘el Duque’ (which touched on Cal’s “leadership” or lack thereof, during a playoff game against the Yankees) and some stories that surfaced in the New York papers after an Orioles infield prospect was traded to the Mets (add “selfish” and “ego” to the jackass theme above) were much more instructive.

Let’s get back to Arnold. You wouldn’t know it from reading most of the gibberish published lately, but the guy was a human being. And, actually, his flaws are entirely uninteresting. He had a weakness for the flesh? Set him next to every other rich and powerful man in history. What’s only interesting here is the length that “journalists” have gone over the years to cover up, or even excuse Arnold’s behavior.

Some books on Arnold late in his life gently addressed this stuff, but the recent obits skirted it entirely or covered it with the old “sex is on my face” trope (and you can be sure that Arnold made this comment the way Yogi Berra said the 47,000 quips attributed to him). Callahan’s writeup on Arnold was the most blunt, but even he sugarcoats it with a “boys will be boys” story.

Some journalists, and my revered Dan Jenkins is the absolute worst on this score, barely even hide their intention to use the pen to protect friends and to take on others they doesn’t like. Or those who wouldn’t cooperate over the years. How else to explain Jenkins never touching the issue in all the words he’s spilled on Palmer but lambasting, with unabashed glee, Tiger for similar transgressions?

I came across an interview Michael Bamberger gave to NPR a day or two after Arnold passed. It entirely uninteresting, until Bamberger responded to a throw away line from the host at the end.

“And what else is there to say about the life of this genuinely happy man?”

“Happy? “Arnold was not happy. He had a deep darkness, emanating from some of his notable failures on the course, that he carried with him to the end.”

Now this isn’t entirely news to those paying close attention, but never had I heard it in such stark terms. And one wonders where this theme was in the 1,500 words Bamberger had just written for Sports Illustrated. Bamberger, and everyone else who did know Arnold in the way that Boswell claims is necessary to write on a subject, didn’t just bury the lead. The ignored it.

Why?

Professional self preservation, I presume. How else to explain why it took Richard Ben Cramer, a man who didn’t make a living on sports, to finally explain DiMaggio. And someone like Mark Kram, on the eve of checking out of the game entirely, to put out the only honest profile on Ali. Something, it should be noted, that even Gary Smith, while still in the employ of the machine, hadn’t been able to do.

What this all proves is that Boswell’s throw away in the chat was 180 degrees off. Outsiders, particularly those disconnected from the subject at hand, are always the most insightful.

So, if you care at all about the people playing these games, discard the traditional fare and look for a detective. Best, an underground one.

Everything would be his…

Most call it his best book, a few even the best on golf, but it still took me about 25 years to find Dan Jenkins’s The Dogged Victims of Inexorable Fate. What an odd title, I never could quite make it out, and the fact that it was based on a Bobby Jones quote only further muddled the plot. I guess I assumed the book, if not the quote, was about a bunch of half-drunk Texans betting their mortgages on who could clear the local saloon with a one-iron.

And, of course, there is a section in there on that.

But the book, it turns out, is really nothing more than a reiteration of the same stories Jenkins has been telling for 50 years now, a compilation of his best, pre-1970, hits.

Regardless, it’s still worth reading, if only for the last 4 or 5 pages. He ends by describing the final afternoon of the 1960 US Open, a story I’ve read so many times I could tell it verbatim, and the sole tale Jenkins uses in the eulogy he published immediately after the death of Arnold Palmer.

Somehow though the version Jenkins recounts in Dogged is far and away the best, and in less than 500 words he better explains the man than any of the other tomes written about him.

Now I’m not going to waste time setting up that particular Open. If you don’t know about the pre-round banter in the grill room, Arnold subsequently driving the first green, the front nine 30, Hogan rinsing a wedge on 17, and a pudgy 20-year-old amateur named Jack something or other 3-putting away the championship, well, you know now.

Two things come across in the account in Dogged of that day.

First, you can stuff your Masters revisionism in a sack. The King was crowned on that front nine outside Denver, and defined, later, by his losses at Oakmont and Olympic. Arnold Palmer probably played more than a thousand tournaments, but only 3 or 4, all United States Open Championships, really mattered. And 1960 mattered most. Sometime late on that back nine out West, far from a certain course on the Georgia – South Carolina border, Jenkins recognized: Everything would be his now.

This point is muffed by most of the obits floating around, with many continuing to propel the myth that a limited invitation-only event, on a wholly unnatural made-for-TV course, held a couple of months too early in the season is an arbiter of anything.

More interestingly, in Dogged you learn what drove Arnold Palmer on the golf course. Late that afternoon the man had all but ascended Everest — similar to Tiger at, yes, Augusta in 1997. The world was about to be handed to him, he was about to recognize his life’s dream, and yet he remained fixated on an ultimately irrelevant putt that lipped out and cost him a 29 on the front nine.

And this is the crux of being a fan. The human beings in the arena are infinitely more interesting than the results of these silly events. Does anyone with any depth really care how Arnold, or anyone else for that matter, got or gets the clubface back to square? The carnival barkers on the Golf Channel, apparently, but they can stuff their fatwas on Tiger’s swing in a sack too.

Lee Trevino said he would have bet his mortgage there wasn’t a soul with greater love for the game than his own, until he got to know Arnold Palmer. Jack confirms this, sadly observing that Arnold became a bit lost, a few years ago, after his body finally gave way and golf, of any kind, fell out of reach.

Michael Bamberger, recovering from a misguided, or perhaps obligatory, Masters genuflection in Sports Illustrated’s Arnold obit, gets to the heart of the matter by recounting a tale of the once great man, well past his prime, shaking his putter with glee after a birdie brought him back into a friendly match with a 15 handicapper.

Now, the rank-and-file professional golfer, even those that make it to the top of the game, hang on to the bitter end. The senior tour, the corporate circuit, and the very nature of golf, make this possible in a way that’s out of reach for any other athlete.

There’s a different dynamic at play though for the best of the best. Their biographies are remarkably consistent, and they all end the same. The alpha loses a step, then another. And, the thought of being proven diminished is too heavy a burden. The clubs are hung up. When you were number 1, number 30 is an embarrassment. Heck, number 2 is. Jack liked to say that he had no interest in becoming a “ceremonial golfer.” The lure of the dollar might be the only thing that keeps Tiger from all but joining Mickey Wright in seclusion.

Not Arnold. He didn’t care if he was shooting 60 or 80. He was just trying to hit the ball on the center of the club and ram home a birdie.

Well, that’s the myth anyway. And even if there are less appealing sides to Arnold, as there are to any human being, there is no reason to think it doesn’t approximate the truth.

Is 14 > 18?

Some baseball player currently in Toronto — he hits 50 or so home runs a year and I couldn’t come up with his name if you gave me 100 guesses — recently complained that Major League Baseball neglects its current crop of stars in favor of lionizing its past. What kind of idiotic for profit organization, he was in effect saying, tells its customers the product they’re paying to see cannot possibly compare to its gilded age?

Well, golf — the Masters Tournament in particular — for one. Perhaps it’s a function of my age, but I no longer need to see the tournament commence with Arnold Palmer struggling to stand or Gary Player flexing in triumph after a drive a 15 handicapper might shrug at.

More disturbing though is the thought that media coverage in the lead up to every major golf tournament for at least the next seven years will center around… el Tigre. “Is he playing?” “Can he win?”

And, increasingly, “my god, how is he going to get through the rest of his life knowing that he threw away the chance to catch Jack Nicklaus?”

Implicit in all of this is the obvious understanding that 18 is greater than 14, ending any need for debate. Jack is the greatest, Babe Ruth and Cy Young rolled into one, his record being, the record. Worse, Tiger appears destined to be painted as the golf world’s Mickey Mantle, one whose appetites and insecurities kept him from surmounting Rushmore.

This is lazy thinking, touted even by those in and near the game that should know better — and that’s after putting aside the absurdity of trying to rank players from different eras, playing different opponents, with different equipment, on different courses, in what are, really, different games.

Yes, some events count more than others — “majors” certainly exist. This has always been thus, and is true for any game played. But the makeup of those tournaments has changed significantly over the years, and even among the now agreed upon “4” there is a distinct hierarchy.

For one thing, if you’re over the age of 50 there really only is one major. Sam Snead beat Ben Hogan repeatedly head-to-head, including at the Masters, has many more wins, and was a relevant player for a much greater period of time. Yet, he is never mentioned as an equal of Hogan’s, at best just a rival, and barely comes up in discussions of the greatest player. Why? Easy. He never won the US Open. And he took it to his grave.

Jack let his guard down once and after being asked for the thousandth time about Tiger muttered (to the astonishment, I’m sure, of the 25-year-old blogger set) that he went through much of his career not even knowing how many “majors” he’d won. Of course, he always knew his US Open record, and, for that matter, how many US Amateurs he’d won.

Bamberger’s book “Men in Green” recounts a recent conversation with Arnold, who laments that he lost his edge after winning the legendary 1960 US Open at Cherry Hills, failing to win a thing of note thereafter. Um, Arnold, you went on to win 43 times, not to mention twice apiece at the Masters and British Open…

They may as well be Andy Williams Invitationals to the King. Even at 87, I’m sure he gets sick whenever the USGA returns to Oakmont, and must still lie awake at times brooding about the final nine on Olympic. Augusta? I doubt he’d even remember his double on 18 there that gave the 1961 edition to Player if he wasn’t asked about it every year by a media more interested in myth than history.

Now, you might think the Union Jack or Boer War crowd would have their hackles up at this point, but even that is questionable. Yes, the British Open is storied and even Hogan and Snead, openly contemptuous of the tournament, felt compelled to sail over there on their own dime as a nod to its history. And yes, Bobby Jones, and Hogan later, were feted with ticker tape in lower Manhattan after winning it, an honor inconceivable for a golfer today.

But the tournament was not a particularly competitive affair for much of the last century; the world wars made sure of that. Tom Watson’s British Open record, now revered, was dismissed as an interesting footnote until he proved capable on higher ground, and the authoritative Peter Alliss has marveled at the marketing genius behind the recent rebranding of the event, calling it more or less irrelevant until Arnold swooped over to St. Andrews in 1960. Still, the British remained plagued by a weakened field at least until Seve and his friends re-jiggered the golfing universe in the 1980s.

I’m too fatigued to take on the PGA today, but let’s just accept it lost its considerable relevance soon after bowing to television and dropping its match play format. It’s also instructive that I can’t remember the last time I watched more than a few holes of the event. Probably that year Payne Stewart embarrassed himself on national TV outside Chicago.

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Now the Masters is… much more complicated. Of course it is as prestigious as any tournament in the world today, and it has been for some time. Certainly for anyone under, say 40, this article has a discordant feel to it. The pressure on the players to win at Augusta is undoubtedly as high as anywhere. Jordan Spieth’s second shot at 12 on Sunday proved that for those who can’t remember 1996, let alone 1986.

The question is, should it be?

Well, my answer to that should be obvious by now, but the details will have to wait until next time.

79 and done…

While golf’s chattering class fixates on technical issues that no-one cares about, like the bounce on Tiger’s wedges, the definition of the ‘yips’, and now, how best to activate one’s glutes, it is much more interesting to look at Tiger’s demise in comparison to the other greats of the sport.

But before doing that, let’s first all accept that it’s over. If the history of this game has taught us anything, it’s that once the ability to score is gone, it’s gone. It doesn’t come back, regardless of the age, health, or desire of the participant. Tiger can spend the next 18 months doing nothing but chipping and driving – and for that matter can head back up to Isleworth and shoot 62 every week with Cookie and Arjun and the rest of that crowd – and it won’t make an iota of difference. This is crystal clear to everyone outside of his biggest sycophants – you know, Phil Knight, Steiny, everyone in the golf media not named Dan Jenkins – and arguments you hear otherwise are a distraction. Tiger may have a swan song – although it’s increasingly looking like the 2013 Players was just that – but he is not winning 19 professional majors, and even Sam Snead is sleeping safer now.

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In just about every other sport, it’s simple. The hero ages, loses a step, fights an injury, struggles to hang on, and cries when he says goodbye. Jeter was the last to go through this, Peyton will be the next.

But golf… is different. Tom Watson more or less stopped winning at 34. Snead, an outlier, was a threat into his 50s. People like to fawn over the ’86 Masters, but Jack was done as a consistent winner more than six years before, in his late 30s. Arnold and Trevino just a bit later, in their early 40s. And then, most intriguingly, you have those that wake up one day and find they can no longer hit a golf ball during competition, the most prominent being Seve, but lesser players such as David Duval and Ian Baker Finch fit here too.

Jack Nicklaus, in a moment of rare insight – presumably all those legendary interviews he gave to Dave Anderson and Jenkins were off the record – once quipped that his biggest advantage over the field was that he didn’t drink. But it wasn’t a joke; alcohol certainly derailed, or at least suppressed, many a career, perhaps most notably Watson’s. Tiger may imbibe at times, but I sincerely doubt alcohol is his problem. If it is, his enablers have done a heroic job of hiding it.

Earl Woods – who predicted Tiger would stall at 14 majors, by the way – famously said that only a bad back or marriage would scuttle Tiger’s career.

You could say that both did in Jack, although everyone accepts that it was the appeal of family life that dulled his interest in competing. I’m not sure that’s entirely accurate though; it seems to me that Jack was more interested in becoming a titan of industry – perhaps not dissimilar from Hogan – and being recognized as the smartest guy in the room, something he couldn’t do by winning a few additional Andy Williams San Diego Opens. I also think losing repeatedly to Watson and Trevino on the biggest stages in the 70s damaged his ego irreparably, but again, I wasn’t sitting in on all those annual Winter caucuses with the press in West Palm, so I don’t know.

But back to Tiger. It’s not his back (or knee, or achilles, or glutes, or anything else related to his body.) He’s recovered from his few serious injuries – let’s remember, five wins in 2013 – and the rest have always carried a whiff of self-protection or ego inflation. It is no secret why the fastest men in the world inevitably clutch at their hamstrings once beaten, and it’s hard to think of any golfer that didn’t have to deal with some type of back issue.

So that leaves Elin. And while I do think Tiger’s breakup is ultimately to blame for the turn his career has taken, it hasn’t unfolded in the manner Earl, or most, would have predicted.

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Jack once explained – maybe he is the best interview of all time – that Gladwell’s excellence theory doesn’t hold with putting, that a golfer inevitably becomes worse over time, irrespective of practice, because one needs to be sure in order to putt. And, of course, the aging process is synonymous with creeping doubt.

Callahan’s book, the best ever written on Tiger, makes two things clear. First, Tiger has been coddled from day one and as a result is permanently immature and insecure. We’re not talking as a competitor here, but as a human being. The ridiculous behavior he exhibits – the insufferable entitlement, the tipping, the big timing, the inability to take any joke, the mentality that made it ok to stiff the widows of Jackie Robinson and Payne Stewart – that riles up the Jenkins types so much, is a self-defense mechanism. Tiger, if nothing else, is the anti-Arnold, never comfortable in his own skin.

The second thing that comes out of Callahan’s book, and some of Diaz’s stuff, is that Tiger surprisingly is not a bad person. He loved his Dad. He respected his parents. And, he’s often felt the sting of loneliness.

The problem is that, for most, there really is only one way to become the best in the world at anything. Have you ever looked at Lance Armstrong? Or Justine Henin? Stacy Lewis? Really looked at them? While they were winning? These are not people you’d ever want to rely on for a favor. Don’t think you’d ever want to share an elevator or cab with them either.

In this vein, Tiger’s personal life wasn’t an aberration. It wasn’t a distraction either. It gave him confidence, fed his ego, quieted his insecurity. And it was of a piece for a man who must have realized at a very young age, perhaps somewhere around the time of the first junior amateur, that if he was going to approach the expectations already hardening, that he would need to be ruthlessly selfish.

Thanksgiving evening 2009 upended Tiger’s world. Any certainty he had, about who he was, and how he lived, could only have been shattered. He was embarrassed and ridiculed on a level never seen before, for behavior, quite frankly, ignored or even lauded in earlier generations. Tiger, who had always played the victim card, now actually had a reason to feel under attack.

But more importantly, maybe, for the first time, Tiger recoiled at who he’d become. Maybe, with Elin gone and two kids to raise he decided the old way was unsustainable. Maybe he realized the pursuit of excellence was the problem, at least the way he was going about it. Maybe he came to understand that the right way to win is not the right way to live. And maybe now, like Seve well before his illness, he is discovering there is no other way to win, at least for him, and “it”, whatever “it” is, is not coming back. Ever.

The Wrong Way on Slow Play

Slow play was the issue de jour this past year, with the golf world united in its determination to tackle the problem. The Golf Channel anointed June “pace of play month”, the USGA spent who knows how much on its silly ode to Rodney Dangerfield, the PGA of America began touting four-hole rounds, and just about every golf-related journalist, teacher, blogger, equipment manufacturer, and fan chimed in with serious invective against the practice.

What’s surprising, however, is the sense that a) this is a new issue for the game and b) slow play’s source is somewhat mysterious with the solution complex and elusive.

First off, the view that this is a 21st century problem attributed to steroidal technology (necessitating more difficult golf courses), and the penchant for 20+  handicappers to mimic the obsessive-compulsive behavior of the current crop of tour pro is misguided. This isn’t to minimize the impact of the Ben Crane crowd on the rest of us, or the disaster that has been 80s/90s architecture, but slow play certainly predates island greens and the practice of marking two footers. Bethpage State Park has been known as the “home of the six hour round” for as long as I can remember, and these courses were built in the 1930s and barely measure past 6,000 yards (forget the Black; it takes, and has always taken, just as long to complete a round on any of the others.)

Is it then the byzantine nature of the rule book and its affinity for doling out cruel and unusual punishment? Not really; while stroke and distance for out of bounds might be ridiculous, and even the best players in the world apparently haven’t a clue where to drop after hitting into a hazard, you’d be hard pressed to find many amateurs trudging back to the tee after losing a ball five yards off the fairway, let alone many that even know what the rules call for in such a situation.

The source of the problem is much more basic and relatively simple. Former USGA honcho David Fay, not surprisingly, was the one voice who addressed it head on in the past year. Simply stated, the vast majority of amateur golfers, even the decent ones, stink, and it has forever been so. Churchill more than half a century ago probably expressed it best. Unfortunately, Fay’s solution (to hire kids to run around in the woods spotting errant shots) isn’t particularly practical, and in any event doesn’t go far enough.

But golf could survive golfers not being any good, assuming they’re playing under the right format. The real problem is that everyone these days is obsessed with “posting a score.” Yes, stroke play is the root of all evil here.

Double-digit handicappers should not be counting every stroke. Period.

Compounding things is this ridiculous ethos that has taken hold – I guess we should blame the mythologists from the Bobby Jones era – that one is somewhat less of a human being if he/she doesn’t treat golf as some sort of Calvinist undertaking. Thinking of hiring someone? ‘Take ‘em out to the course to take their measure’ is a current line of thinking. As if wasting 10 minutes of everyone’s time while digging out of a buried lie in a pot bunker is some kind of virtue. What utter rubbish.

Have you ever heard anything as absurd as the following, particularly coming from a college football coach, who’s profession, by definition, requires a complete disregard of the rules? (I’ll let you guess the identity of the coaches below):

“He shot a 108. I had to count all the balls he hit into the pond on No. 10. He said, ‘Steve, I had an 11, didn’t I?’ I said, ‘Coach, I’m afraid it was a 13.’ We went back, recounted, and it was 13.”

My god, playing behind these two could have been a scene out of Huis Clos.

I have a friend, a serious golfer, one good enough to pass the playing ability test and to come close to qualifying for the Mid-Am. He plays regular games against another low handicapper, wherein they team up with a couple of less skilled players. It has never, and I’m not exaggerating here, crossed their minds that they should be playing anything other than stroke play. They count each score, add them together, with lower aggregate winning. (As if they’re playing in the world cup or something.)

Can you imagine what these matches are like? Five minute ball searches every other hole…  discussions like this on the third, “better mark that 2 footer Joe; I’ll give you a read from the other side. Might be decisive.”

Somebody, somehow, needs to reintroduce match play to the amateur golfer, and fast (and I’m talking about the public golfer here; I really couldn’t care less how long it takes John Boehner to get around Burning Tree.)

Just think; if match play was the norm, Lou Holtz’s (well, just guess the other one) 13? After the second in the water, he’d have conceded and they’d have been on to the next hole. Joe’s two footer? Well, it would have been for a net seven, and with his partner already in for a par, he’d have picked up five minutes prior.

Now, I know the Scots would take it a step further and advocate alternate shot (one ball per pair). But that’s probably a step too far, with the typical public golfer paying close to $100 for a round on weekends these days. If we can just get the amateur to avoid thinking that they’re out there to compare their overall score to Phil Mickelson’s, we’d be a long way to fixing the pace of play problem.

Come to think of it, I might consider taking a prospective hire out on the golf course after all. If he or she were to kneel down to mark a tap-in in order to avoid stepping in the line of my six foot putt for double, I’d probably have picked up a pretty good clue that deadlines, and priorities, might be a problem…