P.B.F.

The initials in my title stand for the words: “Post-Birdie-F%$kup. They are words taught to me by a friend I play golf with and they describe a pattern one finds in a great many sports —  not just golf. But in golf they describe the tendency of players to score a birdie and then, on the next hole, to get a triple boogie. “Can’t stand success,” they say. It happens a great deal. In tennis, for example, I noted that many of the people I played with (never me, of course) double-faulted after an ace. Great shot then PGGFFFFGH.

The saying goes: “Pride goeth before destruction; a haughty spirit before a fall.” This is usually shortened to “Pride Goeth Before a Fall,” which is a lazy way of saying the same thing. But whether we are talking about pride or a haughty spirit, we are referring to the tendency which has been around for a great many years apparently, to blow a lead, choke in a crisis, get a big head, get cocky after a good shot. Take your pick.

One of the aspects of this phenomenon is the tendency of highly rated players — say a top seed in a tennis tournament — to choke under the pressure (the air is thin at the top). When I coached tennis and used to take my players to the National Tournament in the Spring after the regular season I realized (years later) that the players I managed to get seeded never did well. The ones who did well, including three All-Americns, were always unseeded. They “flew beneath the radar.” If I had noticed it early on I would never have allowed my players to get the seed in the first place. It put undue pressure on them and they felt it and had difficulty making their bodies obey they commands of their minds. In a word, they choked. As all athletes know, it is easier to play when behind than when ahead — or favored to win.

Arthur Ashe once said that all athletes choke. The great ones learn how to play well even under the pressure. This is what separates the great athletes in every sport from the average to good ones: they handle the pressure better. This would include people like Tiger Woods in his prime, Jack Nicklaus, Chris Evert in her prime, Rod Laver, Roger Federer, and teams such as  the Chicago Bulls with Michael Jordan, the 1950s Yankees, the current Golden State Warriors, and other teams and players noted for their winning ways — regardless of the pressure. No P.B.F. for them, though even the great ones have problems at times.

As an example of this is Dustin Johnson the golfer was recently named the #1 player in the P.G.A.  In a recent W.G.C. match-play tournament he built a large 5-hole lead in the final match and then saw it whither away and had to hold on to squeak out a win by one hole. Even the great ones feel the pressure.

So what do we learn from this — those of us who aren’t involved in athletics at the higher levels? We learn that it is best to remain silent and fight the tendency to get smug when things go well for fear that it “will come back to bite us.” A president, for example, who is convinced that his personal prestige and bullying tactics are sufficient to move a bill through Congress may discover that his smug attitude is the very thing that turns those very Congressmen against him and he may lose the fight. P.B.F.

Beware the bug that comes back to bite you. Beware of P.B.F. It can strike anywhere and at any time!

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Enough Already!

I write this a few hours after Tiger Woods was forced once again to withdraw from a golf tournament because of pains in his lower back. Indeed, we have been given a detailed description of Tiger’s problems, including the fact that his “glutes” tightened up because fog delayed his tee time and he hadn’t had time to warm up properly when he had to actually hit his first shot — something the producers thought America needed to know. I suppose if those producers discovered what brand of deodorant the man uses they would determine that this is something America needs to know as well. Anyway, the whole withdrawal thing has been covered ad nauseam in the public media since the moment it occurred, including uninterrupted coverage on the Golf Channel of his long trip from the golf course via golf cart, his change of shoes, a closeup of his woebegone expression full of self-pity, to his eventual disappearance in his expensive rental car — the hell with the golf tournament and the fact that the rest of the players were still on the course! It does make one wonder.

After Tiger failed to make the cut in his last tournament, turning in a score that would suggest he was a moderately good amateur club player, the TV airways have been filled with endless analyses of his golfing problems, which focus on the fact that he has lost confidence in his stroke and is worrying too much about the mechanics of the game, etc. etc. To which I say two things: (1) Enough already! The man is over the hill and there are other good golfers out there who deserve a little TV time, and (2) Tiger’s problems have nothing whatever to do with his golf swing. They have to do with his utter confusion about just who the hell he is.

Tiger Woods is the reductio ad absurdum of the self-esteem movement that has swept the country and dominates our schools. He has been told since he was old enough to swing a golf club (on national TV at an age when most kids are still sucking their thumbs) that he is the greatest thing since sliced bread. Growing up he became convinced by doting parents and an adoring public that he could walk on water. After seeming to fulfill the hopes and expectations of all and sundry by winning stacks of golf tournaments while making an obscene amount of money, marrying a beautiful wife and having two lovely children, he was discovered to be an inveterate adulterer. His wife found out about his infidelities and chased him out of the house with one of his golf clubs (reportedly). Then came his total humiliation, including a very public divorce and a stay in a rehab center where he was supposed to learn how to keep it in his pants, after which he tried to come back to the golf course and win a few more major tournaments. It didn’t happen. He actually won a few minor tournaments, but it was clear that he was a shadow of his former golfing self. Why were we surprised? His self-concept had been shattered. He suddenly found himself up to his ears in the very water he had been told for years he could walk upon.

Though, doubtless, there are some who watch to see if Tiger still has some of the magic that made him one of the best golfers ever, I suspect that much of the golfing public continued to follow him with something akin to morbid curiosity: after all, how often does one get to watch the gradual meltdown of a major star, a superb athlete who could no longer “bring it” the way he had done for years? But those “fans” are like buzzards picking at the innards of a dead carcass; thanks to the entertainment industry the sporting pubic has been fascinated by the man’s demise, refusing to just let it go. Enough already! Let the poor man try to put his self back together, if he can — though a good psychiatrist would be more to the point than another swing coach. But, in the end, we assuredly can learn a valuable lesson from his fall from on high.

As I say, though an immensely talented athlete, he is a prototype of the spoiled child who has been told all his life he was exceptional. Reeking with self-esteem, he suddenly learned he had feet of clay. His sense of who he is has been severely damaged and no amount of stroke correction and no change in coaches can repair the damage that was done by doting parents and an adoring public who apparently never let him learn about failure. He is today a tattered shell of his former self, complete with numerous physical problems to go with a middling golf game. Just listen to his press conferences and read his body language!

Thus, those who think that we do our kids a favor by telling them how terrific they are until they feel entitled to have whatever they want should take a long look at Tiger Woods and reflect on the damage we can do to young people when we lead them to think they are superior beings and forget to remind them from time to time that, like everyone else, they are flawed. We need to let our kids fail so they can learn how to deal with failure. And we need to reserve our praise for those moments when they actually accomplish something noteworthy. Otherwise, they might fall from the heights we place them upon — like Tiger Woods.

Racism and Fried Chicken

You may (of may not) have heard about the brew-ha-ha between the professional golfers Sergio Garcia and Tiger Woods. They don’t like each other. That much is clear. After Tiger recently won the Players Championship Garcia complained that Woods had made noise drawing a club from his bag during Sergio’s back-swing — as he was about to hit his drive. Woods later said the Marshalls had told him Garcia had finished his stroke, though the Marshalls later denied having said anything (indeed, why should they say anything?). In any event, Woods complained that Garcia was “whining,” and when later asked if he had given any thought to picking up the phone and suggesting to Sergio that the whole thing is a tempest in a teapot and they should have done with petty quarrels. Woods simply said, “No.” Soon after, Garcia was asked if he was going to have dinner with Woods and the following exchange took place that is now causing a bit of a storm:

COMMENTARY | Sergio Garcia crossed a line Monday he never should have toed.

At the European Tour’s annual gala dinner ahead of its flagship event, the BMW PGA Championship in England, Garcia responded to a question asking if he would have dinner with Tiger Woods at next month’s U.S. Open at Merion.

His reply, according to The Guardian: “We will have him round every night. We will serve fried chicken.”

The comment about “fried chicken” is universally regarded as racist, since it alludes to the preference for fried chicken that is stereotypically associated with African-Americans. Fuzzy Zoeller, a lesser player than Garcia, had made a similar comment in 1997 following the Masters Tournament and is still apologizing for it. It is hard to live such a thing down, and Sergio is now busy attempting to back-track, though one suspects we have not heard the last of it. The media will keep it alive as long as possible — perhaps even longer!

But it is hard to like Tiger Woods, despite the fact that he is perhaps the greatest golfer who has ever played the game. His life is an embarrassment, given his sexual preference for a variety of women other than the one he happened to be married to — who also happens to be the mother of his children. All signs suggest that he is a typical self-absorbed American athlete who cares about nothing but himself. He lives the grand life-style so many Americans identify with success and would love to emulate; this may explain his immense popularity, though, here again, we must wonder how people are able to separate the man’s wealth and athletic ability from his character and adulate a man whose every action suggests a dwarfed consciousness limited to self with little or no awareness, much less concern, for his fellow humans. His psychic makeup may be explained, I suppose, by his doting father and mother while an only child growing up and the attention that has been heaped on him subsequently — not to mention the millions of dollars he rakes in each year with his putter and his winning smile. But, again, America’s fascination with this man, who appears almost daily on sports shows even when he is playing badly, defies adequate explanation. In fact, America’s ability to separate an athlete’s on-field behavior from his off-field shenanigans and indiscretions does give one pause. Here again we come back to what makes a person worth admiring: do we really forgive a man or a woman anything if he or she happens to be good at hitting a ball, skiing downhill at breakneck speeds, or dodging would-be tacklers? It appears we do.

In any event, I’m not black, but I like fried chicken and would be happy to join Sergio for a meal. However, I have no desire whatever to sit down to a meal or even a casual chat with Tiger Woods. I don’t like what the man is even though I admire what he can do with a golf club. And it has nothing whatever to do with his race: it’s because of something Martin Luther King spoke about long ago; namely, “the content of his character.”

Spring Has Sprung

It appears that Spring has finally come to the Upper Midwest. It has been a long Winter with snow on the ground since last December, snow which is still here and there on the North side of the groves and hedge rows. And while snow is in recent forecasts [!], we know it will be wet and will not stay around for very long. The temperatures are finally on the move upwards and the sounds and smells of another Spring are in the air.

Smells like starter-fuel for charcoal cookers, exhaust from lawnmowers and (speaking of sounds) motorcycles. Ah yes! The sounds of Spring, like the barking dogs tied outside by distracted owners who want to share the delights of dog-ownership with the folks in the block, or the cars the kids drive with their window open wide and the radio turned all the way up, destroying both tranquility and ear drums. I saw one the other day that had a sign in the back window: “If the music’s to loud, your to old.” Aside from the very loose usage of the word “music” this is assuredly an indictment of our education system if there ever was one! I guess I’m to old. In any event, the sights are almost as delightful, with fifth wheels and trailers returned to the lawns  and driveways from wherever they have been hibernating over the Winter, and large people walking around in shorts and tank tops with their all-too abundant flesh threatening to escape with every step, proving once again that some people are oblivious. It’s worthy of note in this regard that Minnesotans of all sizes and descriptions go by the calendar when it comes to choosing appropriate attire: if it’s April they will wear the shorts and tank tops even if the temperatures are around freezing! But Spring is on its way — finally — and while Emerson is supposed to have said that Spring is the saddest time of the year there is a great deal to delight in.

Brown-headed Thrush

Brown-headed Thrush

There are  the sounds of balls striking bats, golf clubs, and tennis rackets and the smells of new-mowed grass and blooming flowers. And for those of us who have been suffering from cabin fever for the past months, these sounds make up for the unpleasantness of loud radios, gassy smells, and excessive flesh mentioned above. And the ponds and rivers that were dry last Summer are full and flowing — at least at present. Add to these sights and sounds the melodies of the returning birds and the stunning colors they bring with them as the males preen and strut in their attempts to attract the most eligible mates. It’s not only the young men and women whose thoughts turn to love in the Spring: all of animal nature seems to be tuned into the Spring vibrations. It’s been a long Winter, but at last Spring has sprung in the Northern Plains.  We can’t all live in the tropics (Ecuador, for example), and not all Minnesotans are “snow birds” who head South for the Winter, so when the good weather returns those of us who have stuck it out over the Winter delight in the return of Spring and take the bad along with the immense good. As one of my favorite Gordon Bok songs says: “the world is always turning toward the morning,” and hope Springs eternal.

Contrasting Heroes

One of the most famous of the “Great Books” that educated people read for centuries — and which has been dumped on the garbage heap recently with the rest of the books by  “dead white European males” — is The Noble Lives of the Grecians and Romans by Plutarch. The book, which in translation is about 1300 pages in length, attempts to draw parallels between the lives of famous Greeks and Romans to serve as a model of behavior  for young men growing up following the book’s appearance in the early years of the Roman Empire. Plutarch was born around 50 A..D. and while many of the biographies he wrote are now considered inaccurate, he is nonetheless praised for providing us with “a  faithful record of the historical tradition of his age.” In a word, we are given a very detailed picture of what it is that people in those days, and for generations that followed, regarded as exemplary conduct. Most of the men Plutarch wrote about were regarded as heroes, men like Solon and Pericles of Athens, Alexander of Macedon, and Julius Caesar of Rome.

Plutarch, we are told by his modern editor, was “a moralist rather than an historian. His interest is less for politics and the changes of empires, and much more for personal character and individual actions and motives to action; duty performed and rewarded; arrogance chastised, hasty anger corrected; humanity, fair dealing, and generosity triumphing in the visible, or relying on the invisible world. His mind in his biographic memoirs is continually running on the Aristotelian Ethics and the high Platonic theories which formed the religion of the educated population of his time.”

In the year of our Lord Two Thousand and Thirteen, or the year of “His Airness” as they call one of this country’s greatest heroes, Michael Jordan, we are provided a study in contrasts. This week’s Sports Illustrated is about 40% full of pictures and stories that provide us with ample evidence of the degree to which this man is revered in this country. If we hadn’t seen the magazine, our eyes and ears could have provided ample evidence after a few moments of watching ESPN which seems to run on and on….(and on) about Jordan. The reason? We are nearing the 50th birthday of His Airness.

And how does Jordan compare with Pericles, Alexander, and Caesar? Not very well, sad to say. He is clearly one of the greatest, if not the greatest, basketball player who ever set foot on the court. Just ask him and he will proudly show you his six N.B.A. Championship rings. But as far as character is concerned, Jordan leaves something to be desired to say the least. His focus does not appear to be on living the good life, except as that is defined by Madison Avenue and the American population at large. He is worth a fortune and most, if not all of that fortune, he spends on himself. Consider the “newly built $12.4 million, 11 bedroom mansion in Jupiter, Florida on three acres of land” where Jordan and his 34 year-old fiancée recently moved — as we are told in Sports Illustrated. The home is near a golf course and also near his close friend Tiger Woods. Jordan loves to play golf and gamble, we are told, and he is part owner of the Charlotte Bobcats of the N.B.A. — a team which badly needs a player of near-Jordan caliber. To be near the team, Jordan also owns a “$3.2 million penthouse in a condominium in downtown Charlotte.” He paid $50 million of his own money to buy into the Bobcats. His money comes from endorsements, mostly: Nike pays him handsomely to put his name on basketball shoes which cost the kids of this country $250.00 a pair — an amount of money that mothers of young boys and girls in the inner cities must somehow come up with in order that their children get the very latest in foot gear. And if you are hungry you can enjoy a meal at one of the steak houses that bears his name and even delight in a five-course meal “inspired by his life and career” for only $125.00.

In a word, Michael Jordan represents in so many ways the ideals and achievements admired in this country which stand in such sharp contrast with the ideals and achievements of the “Grecians and Romans” Plutarch wrote about. In case you wondered, this is called “progress.”

Going For Olympic Gold

In its wisdom, the International Olympic Committee recently decided to drop wrestling from its “core sports” group. Wrestling will now have to vie with seven other sports for a single spot on the 2020 Olympics — and the betting is wrestling will not make it in. And the even safer bet is it’s all about money. So what else is new?

Wrestling, which goes back  to the first “modern” Olympics in 1896 in Athens — and almost certainly dates back to the games played by warring city-states in ancient Greece –will be replaced by (wait for it) GOLF! That’s right, the game that requires grace, quickness, agility, and strength will be replaced by a game for middle-aged Republicans. I exaggerate, of course: one of the professional golfers who is eligible to compete for this country in the Olympics is a Democrat — or so we are told. But it is also true that some of those who will compete will have problems lining up their putts because of the large gut that obtrudes. Is it just me, or does this whole thing seem almost sacrilegious?

In any event, this is clearly a sign of the times when money trumps tradition and long-time wrestling coach Vic Stanley, who commented on the recent decision, is surely correct in saying that the Committee is simply “following the money.” It’s a trend that started when the I.O.C. decided to drop altogether the distinction between amateur and professional — admitting, sadly, that it was a distinction without a difference as so many countries were paying the athletes and keeping them apart from the ordinary athletes in the lap of luxury. It was the same problems the tennis world had many years ago when they dropped the distinction and “opened” tennis to all players. It seems the “amateurs” like Roy Emerson were making more money than the professionals — under the table, of course.

So Pandora’s box was opened and we now have professional athletes making millions of dollars playing games year-round who compete for an Olympic medal — and a bit of money under the table as well. Nothing comes for free and jingoism is the rule of the day: how many medals do we have, Pop? Do we have the most, huh? There are very few nooks left where we can find the true amateur: the athlete who plays for the pure love of sport. Professionalism has filtered down even into the ranks of the children in Little League and Pop Warner football where parents hassle their kids over losses and corporate sponsors stand by with a check book looking for the latest talent. The answer is not to play with no score and no winners or losers (that’s downright dishonest and the kids know it) but to simply keep the money out of it. Sadly, I suspect, that ship has sailed.

Punishment

In a recent blog I quoted Tiger Wood’s statement that stroke penalties in golf for slow play were unacceptable because they would cost the players money. I want to pursue this a bit and talk about punishment in general. It does seem to me that the purpose of punishing someone for breaking the rules, or the law, is to make them want never to do that thing again. In golf, if players don’t want point penalties, then that would be an appropriate penalty precisely because they don’t want it: it would deter them from playing slowly. If we levied a penalty the players thought acceptable, it wouldn’t be effective. Indeed, it wouldn’t be a penalty at all. I sometimes wonder how Tiger ever got admitted to Stanford!

In any case, it raises the question of what punishment is all about. Thomas More, in his remarkable book Utopia, thought punishment ought to improve people, make them better. In our culture, historically, we have operated on the principle of deterrence: punishment ought to deter future undesirable behavior. But we apply this principle in strange ways. If a man robs a bank at gun point, we “put him away” for a few years. It is supposed to keep him from robbing banks in the future — not only while he is in jail. But we know this doesn’t really work, and the culprit is often robbing again once he is back on the streets — having learned new tricks while in jail, no doubt. The principle itself is strange anyway: years in prison for taking money that doesn’t belong to him. It’s the same punishment we dole out for a man who repeatedly beats his wife: doing time. In neither case does the punishment make much sense.

Don’t we like to say the punishment ought to “fit the crime”? Years in prison for beating one’s wife doesn’t seem to fit somehow. Perhaps we ought to put the man in a locked room with two or three other men and have him beaten up until he feels what his wife felt. This, in brief, is the principle Dante operated on in his Inferno: the punishment fits the crime. For example, usurers who were deeper in Hell than murderers since they commit a violent crime “against art, God’s grandchild” sit around a plain of burning hot sand with bags of coins strung around their necks forcing them to watch the bag through eternity — presumably waiting for it to grow larger. After all, that’s what usurers do: they lend money at interest and make the money grow without actually doing anything to earn the profits. At least that was the Church’s view at the time.

Dante, of course, never questioned the appropriateness of capital punishment. It was generally accepted by the church that one who commits murder forfeits his life and deserves to die at the hands of the state. Aquinas argued this in his Summa Theologica, insisting that those who murder are animals and ought to be treated as such themselves: it’s their choice. In principle I would agree, but as I have argued in a previous blog the flaw in the scheme is human fallibility. Jurors and even eye-witnesses make mistakes. If humans never made mistakes then capital punishment would be entirely appropriate. But we make mistakes more often than not, so it can, and does, lead to terrible blunders. Be that as it may, “doing time” is a strange way to punish a person for taking another person’s life, or for most of the acts we regard as criminal.

We aren’t very creative in thinking of appropriate ways to punish people, though I can think of one interesting counter-example. A judge in a township not far away from me fined a construction company $100,000 for bid-rigging — and insisted that the amount fined go to four regional universities to establish programs in business ethics. My university already had the program, so we used the money to start a lecture series and brought in some very interesting people who spoke to us about business and ethics. Now that was appropriate punishment, and a very constructive way to “make good” on a rotten situation.

But this example is certainly the exception. In general we like to think the punishment  ought to fit the crime; it ought to deter the criminal from further crime and, as Thomas More thought, ideally it ought to reform the criminal and make him a more useful member of society. This last element we seem to ignore for the most part in our desire to “get back” at the criminal. So in the final analysis, we punish people to make ourselves feel better, to relieve our own stress at the thought that the guy is “out there,” or to satisfy our own need for revenge. None of the lofty reasons we give for punishing people seems to hold water. So we settle for what makes us feel good.

Rules Or No Rules?

The issue of slow play in golf raises an interesting philosophical question. Really. A recent article in USA Today  informs us that the issue is not new and is getting worse.

That’s the general consensus as the pace of play has reared its unhurried head in the last two weeks. In the PGA Tour‘s showcase event, the May 10-13 Players Championship, Kevin Na caused a slow burn for fans around the world as he took hundreds of waggles and regularly backed off shots. He even purposely whiffed so he could start over as he struggled with inner demons that wouldn’t allow him to get comfortable.

Last week, Morgan Pressel was assessed a slow-play penalty that cost her a hole in a semifinal bout with Azahara Munoz in the Sybase Match Play Championship, turning a commanding 3-up lead with six holes to play into a 1-up advantage she eventually lost.

It is true that watching golf on TV (I have never attended a tournament myself) is like watching grass grow — in a drought. And the average golfer is mimicking the pros not only in dress but also in behavior, causing slow play on the nation’s golf courses.  If I thought that the professionals were taking extra time over their ball to ponder the moral implications of playing a game for millions of dollars in prize money and endorsements while so many of their fellow citizens live in poverty, I would not complain so loudly. But I somehow doubt that this is the case. Nonetheless, while hardly a major issue, slow play is an interesting one.

I say that because sports are one of the few places in our society where rules still apply and when people openly flaunt the rules of golf, in this case, it is somewhat disquieting. After all, there are rules governing pace of play in golf and players at the professional level have been “put on the clock” more than once. But seldom, especially in the men’s game, have any penalties been levied — not even financial penalties even though the players are making millions of dollars.

On the women’s side, the rules were recently enforced against Morgan Pressel, as the article mentions. And it created a flurry of discussion on Golf Channel later on — for several hours. Should she have been penalized, given the fact that she had been warned twice about her pace of play and didn’t show any signs of quickening her pace? Those who defend her talked about the money she stood to lose by, in effect, being ruled out of the match-play tournament. But this is irrelevant — even though Tiger Woods used the same argument to insist that something should be done in the men’s game, but not anything that will cost anyone money. Dismissing stroke penalties, Woods said, “Strokes (cost) money. People don’t realize how valuable one shot out here is.” Really now, have we come to this? Is prize money the sole consideration here? It seems clear that when a rule is broken and warnings have been delivered, a penalty should be enforced — and it should be a stiff penalty. If not money in the form of a fine (which many of these players could pay with the small change in their pockets) then taking strokes away from them, which will indeed cost the players both large sums of money and quite possibly the prestige of winning.

I applaud the LPGA in their attempt to move the game along by enforcing reasonable rules. And I fault the PGA for mouthing platitudes and refusing to apply the same rules against the men who can take five or six hours to play 18 holes of golf these days. Not only does it make for boring TV — which one can always turn off — but it does lead to imitation by amateurs. But, above all else, it is a rule. And in sports rules should be enforced or they aren’t worth the paper they are written on. The lack of enforcement of rules reduces the value of sports in our culture to the level of simply another business endeavor where rules are broken every day in the name of larger profits. But, then, perhaps that is where we have arrived.

Winning At Golf

For most of my life since I could swing a tennis racket that was my game. I calculate I must have played for about 50 years, mostly on hard courts. So now of course my joints, especially my knees, have about given out and at some point I will have to have them replaced. Oh Joy! In any event, I have taken up the “old man’s game” of golf. And I must say I enjoy it and have new-found respect for the game and especially for those who play it well. But along the way I have learned a few tricks from my friends about how you can win at the game, or at least turn in a respectable score.

That thought raises the interesting point that golf is the only game I can think of where you score backwards: the object is to get a low score. In fact, you not only want to get “par,” you would love to get below par, where you get a birdie or better yet an eagle. (Don’t ask where the birds came from.) But it makes me wonder why we say someone is not “up to par,” when being up to par is not as desirable as being down below par. That is, we would like to feel “birdie” since that means we feel even better than “up to par.” But since I live in rural Minnesota where people speak about going “down to the Cities” when they mean the Twin Cities which are about 150 miles North and East it appears we aren’t too particular about our prepositions. But I digress. I have learned how to carve strokes off my score so as to impress others and I want to pass that valuable information along to you.

To begin with, there’s the always reliable “foot wedge” which comes into operation when your ball is in an unfriendly place: just give it a gentle lift with your toe into an open space nearby. Of course if you play “Winter rules” in the Summer as I do, then you can nudge the ball wherever it lies and make sure it sits up where you can get a good, clean whack at it. And, of course, there’s the friendly Mulligan, a do-over that you can take whenever the ball goes somewhere you didn’t want it to go. The errant ball doesn’t count, of course. These are good ways to start your score on the down-slope.

But there’s more. For instance, you could simply stop keeping score when you have reached a number that strikes you as “about right.” Or you could stop playing altogether. But that would ruin the fun. So here are some other tips I have picked up. There’s the “Smucker” adjustment (names are changed to protect me from the culprit’s wrath. As I said, I already have bad knees and I don’t want anyone sending Tonya Harding after me). This adjustment allows the player to remove his ball from under a tree, for example, “one club length” from the tree — apparently the length of Paul Bunyan’s driver — and preferably into an open space where you have a clear shot at the green.

Once on the green there’s the O’Malley rule (again, protecting myself) that allows you to pick up your ball if it is within five feet of the hole because your partner has seen you “make those before.” Once you have seen someone sink a five-foot put it becomes unnecessary to see it again. And that means, since you picked up your ball, as my friend Harry (caution again) said, you don’t have to count the stroke: you didn’t actually hit the ball. This is a sure way to lower the score. On a short par 3, for example, if you can manage to land your ball within 5 feet of the pin, go and pick up your ball: you just made a hole in one! Just imagine how your scores will tumble!

In fact, with rules like these, and others I can’t recall off-hand, you can pretty much guarantee yourself a score that puts you into the “scratch” golfer category. Where that term comes from I don’t know, unless it means you have scratched several strokes off your score by resorting to clever tactics like those mentioned here. In any event, it sure is a fun game, and this is a way to make it even more fun. I hope I have helped. Enjoy!

Life Lessons

I wrote a blog recently about Phil Mickelson and the admirable things he is doing with his money to help those in need. In passing, I made reference to “The First Tee,” a charity it has become fashionable for obscenely wealthy golf pros to support — in their way. To be sure, one should applaud any attempt to help others, but a charity that is designed to teach young people how to play golf seems to be nothing more nor less than an excuse to promote golf, maybe have a photo-op, and take a tax break in the process. To be sure, the “charity” also claims to teach “life lessons” and that’s when things get interesting. Consider the following description of the charity.

The First Tee curriculum focuses on teaching character education and it’s “Nine Core Values” (honesty, integrity, sportsmanship, respect, confidence, responsibility, perseverance, courtesy, and judgment). The First Tee chapters use a teaching curriculum developed by experts in the field of positive youth development, and delivered by coaches. Through this experience, participants learn to transfer the values of golf to everyday life.

I have no idea what an “expert in the field of positive youth development” is, but let that pass. The nine “core values” that are “delivered by coaches” are certainly worthy values. But one must wonder aloud why it falls to coaches to teach “character education” when that would appear to be the job of parents, if “character education” is what I think it is — the phrase is somewhat opaque.

True, during recent years the job of teaching virtue has been shunted onto teachers and coaches because apparently the kids’ parents are too busy “making a living” to spend time raising their own children. They leave that to teachers and TV — and apparently to coaches as well. I will set aside the discussion of whether or not it is even possible for anyone except those in the immediate family to teach virtue (which Socrates insisted could not be taught at all, by the way). But the notion that it is the job of sports coaches to teach “core values” and “character” is absurd. Coaches teach athletes how to perform at a high level of skill in a sport. The “life lessons” are nothing more than affirmations of lessons the kids should have learned at home. If they haven’t been learned at home, they are certainly not going to be learned on a golf course. Let’s look at an example.

One of the core values is honesty. When a player grounds his golf club in a hazard he is supposed to “fess up” and take a stroke penalty. There are cases, even at the highest levels, where golfers actually do precisely this, and it is admirable. But I would argue that any golfer who does this is an honest person and that person learned to be honest by watching the way his or her parents and/or loved ones behaved and copying that behavior. We are talking about character here, and character is molded at home at an early age — not in later years at the local Country Club. The most a sports coach can do is reinforce that behavior and applaud the child when he or she behaves in an honest way. Coaches can teach kids golf; they cannot teach “life lessons.” And this would be true for all the nine “core values.” These values must be learned at home and, at best, reinforced in school and on the golf course. This is a worthy effort, but hardly justifies the hundreds of thousands of dollars that are spent on the effort by wealthy golf professionals that might be better spent on something worthwhile — like the preservation of the earth, for example, or saving the wolves. My guess is that the golf pros like to think they are “giving back” to the game while they take a nice little tax break. That’s what made Mickelson’s charitable works so praiseworthy: they seem to be genuine and not in the least self-serving. In any event, the pros who support “The First Tee” are certainly not teaching “life lessons.”