Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Fore! A Report From the US Open

I'm writing today about golf, of all things; mainly because I happened to visit the US Open for one of its tournament days, and also because the final result appears to tell us something about our culture and, perhaps, human nature.

First, however, a quick link, which adds to the point made in the comments we quoted from Rep. Gilchrest yesterday. For today, the Center for American Progress is reporting on a bizarre scene taking place in the Senate, where they are closing in on a vote for the Hillary Bill of Wrongs—the criminalization of flag desecration. In other words, this is an addition to Rep. Gilchrest's list of dilatory inanities in Congress. The body count is past 2500 now, while more rather than fewer troops are required to maintain a baseline level of chaos in Iraq. Meanwhile, poor people here are getting poorer, inflation is raising its ugly head, employment rates are stagnating, the planet is being poisoned onto a steep path of perdition, and the corruption continues apace at the highest levels of government. But let's nail those flag-burners and all will be well. Double the penalty if they're gay and married.

So this past Friday, after posting my weekly Friday Reflection piece, I joined my friend and occasional Daily Rev correspondent, Shady Acres Mike, for a trip up to Westchester to the Winged Foot Golf and Country Club, to view, for my first time ever, golf professionals in action. Here's a little of what I discovered there.

• This event was organized with a positively military precision, down to the smallest details. We drove to a local community college where we parked and were then driven by waiting buses the eight miles or so to the scene of the US Open. Once there, we encountered a golf course that had been transformed into a vast stage upon which, guided by ropes and helpful volunteers, patrons could wander (as I like to say, golf's the only sport where the fans are allowed out onto the field) beside the elite of this elitist game.
• The place positively reeked of money—big corporate money. Vast white tents had been erected to provide comfort to corporate moguls who may have tired of walking in the heat to follow their favorite linksters. Among these tents was a collection of them dubbed "Tillinghast Village" after the designer of this marvelous golf course. Anyone who tells you that America is not an exclusive society should be sent to a PGA golf tour event. Just try and get into one of these corporate tents or step across the threshold of Tillinghast Village without proper credentials, and you'll see how inclusive our culture really is.
• About halfway through the day of walking beside the big boys (we followed Vijay Singh for awhile, then Mickelson, then Monty), we grabbed the cheapest sandwiches we could find ($7.00 for turkey and cheese on a roll) and sat down in the grass in a shady spot, away from the throngs. I stopped to feel the thickness of the rough (it was very dense, and I wouldn't want to try and hack a ball out of that stuff), and I noticed something. There were no bugs. I tried to find one, a single ant or a beetle or a worm, and I failed. The place had been positively nuked for insects. I speculated that you'd probably have to dig half a foot into the ground to come upon a single bug. So much for the organic golf movement here.
• That said, it was all a fascinating experience. I stood in places beside the tee boxes where, had I been the one with the club in his hands, I would have feared for my life as a spectator. But these guys never, ever miss; they never, ever shank a ball sideways; and so they are allowed to hit through tunnels of people (many pros will tell you that it helps them aim the shot properly). They were all (the ones we followed) very quiet and focused: there are no more Lee Trevinos out there, guys who will yammer a blue streak with the crowd, the officials, the volunteers, passing animals—anyone and anything with ears to hear—while receiving advice from the caddy, planning and executing the next shot. Guys like the Merry Mex, Fuzzy, and Chi Chi are apparently extinct on tour; they have been replaced by college-bred, grim, corporate professionals who are there to make the biggest checks and earn the greatest glory, while by turns ignoring and berating the fans, photographers, and other courtiers of golf.

Now, about the finish, which I watched on my old TV with its lousy rabbit-eared reception. Mickelson would later call himself an "idiot" for his gaffe on the final hole of the tournament that swung the trophy into the Australian Ogilvy's lap (though there is no question the kid from down under earned and deserved the victory for his consistently solid play over 72 grueling holes). But guess what, Phil did what a lot of people in this culture do—I see it all the time at work in my own profession. Folks make the same foolish mistake over and over again, but they keep getting away with it; they keep recovering just in time to salvage their egos and appearances. In Phil's case, it was an errant driver that haunted him throughout the round; but every time, he got back out of the mess his big club had left him in and saved par. Only on the very last hole did it finally catch up to him. He paid the price for his easy and complacent arrogance; but the point must be made that his experience to that point had told him that no lapse of judgment was irremediable.

So while many fans and media types made the gag reflex and used the C word, I merely saw the action of ego at work in the last hole of the US Open. As I saw during my own little visit there, ego abounds at the US Open—it is as big a presence as the 36,000 square foot "Merchandise Pavillion" (a Wal-Mart made of white canvas).

Phil Mickelson was not, in spite of his own self-assessment, an idiot. He was merely vulnerable—a man subject to the same delusions of self and other that possess the members of our species billions of times a day, in far less public settings. Having played it myself, I can attest that golf is, perhaps more than any sport, a game of feeling. Aggression, so often favored in other games, is a golfer's worst enemy, his undoing. Phil, under the influence of ego's caustic and aggressive assumptions, simply lost his feeling. And so he lost the US Open.

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