Sunday, April 30, 2006

In Pursuit of Mediocrity

One of the advantages bowling has over golf is that you seldom lose a bowling ball. ~Don Carter

Even when I played golf, I was never a big fan of watching it on TV. The nature of the game doesn't lend itself well to television, although a tournament with a close finish can make for excellent drama. It's better when Vin Sculley is describing it, because he could bring real poetry to a potential victor striding down the eighteenth fairway. Of course, Sculley could bring poetry to guy taking out the trash, so this is more a tribute to Vin Sculley than to the drama of golf.

However, I didn't want to talk about television or Vin Sculley. I just wanted to explain that I follow the game somewhat peripherally. When the Masters was recently being played, many players were up in arms because the tournament organizers were going to toughen up the course. One might have suspected that they were going to put Burmese tiger traps on the tee boxes.

This isn't the first time that the best golfers in the world (at least according to them) have gotten bent out of shape by difficult golf courses. The U.S. Open is notorious for creating rough suitable for hiding an elephant and narrowing fairways to the width of your average hallway. The British Open is often played on course that appear to have no discernible fairways, just a mass of gorse that swallows golf balls (and the occasional caddy). The players frequently grumble about the U.S. Open, but they generally limit their complaints about the British to the weather. After all, a bunch of guys in kilts with wooden clubs started out playing the game on these courses.

Now it is possible to make a course downright unfair. Some U.S. Opens and occasionally the Masters have created greens that made putting on a glass table top seem simple by comparison. As a rule, they don't do this on purpose; it's a combination of cutting grass very short then having too much dry weather, but it creates an unfair condition nonetheless. I've been on public courses that have holes designed by some lunatic who was simply trying to fit a hole into the topography, creating such nonsense as right-angle dogleg holes.

That simply is not fair.

But, the pros' equipment is getting better each year. Club and ball designs, along with more athletic golfers, has resulted in routine 300-yard drives and ridiculously sub-par rounds on some courses. So, hole after hole, we see these guys putting for birdie because even hitting into what passes for rough on many course allows a nice easy shot to the green. These are the best golfers in the world, as I said, but it would be much more interesting to see them trying to hit out of the kind of places that average golfers find themselves in. The only way to have this happen is to toughen up the courses.

The history of athletics is one of improvement. Equipment gets better, athletes get stronger and faster, even the playing surfaces improve. I'm not going to beat the steroid horse to death in this piece. Even without hormonal and other supplements, athletes would dwarf the a athletes of 50 years ago. But, with all of this improvement, it seems silly that, in many quarters, competitors are looking for breaks.

Take football, for example. It seems that each year, offensive coaches scream for rule changes that will give them an advantage over the ever faster and stronger defenses. Even though the offense has equally bigger and faster players, they can't seem to overcome so-called defensive advantages.

Or consider baseball as another example. Even before steroids, the Lords of Baseball periodically livened up the baseball to try to up the number of home runs, which they seem to think is the only reason people go to games. One year, the situation got so ridiculous, what with skinny shortstops hitting tape measure homers, that Sparky Anderson did a little demonstration for reporters. When asked by reporters if he thought the balls were “juiced”, he took a ball from the previous year and one from the current year and dropped them. The current year ball bounced a foot higher. Anderson looked at the reporters and said, “What do you think?”

It's amazing, really. These sports all reached their levels of popularity with a minimum of screwing around. Baseball did liven the ball in the 1920's. Prior to this, 8 or 9 home runs might lead the league. Livening up the ball gave us the Babe Ruth era. Interestingly, Ruth still would have led the league every year in home runs even without the help of a live ball, just with significantly fewer. However, it was obvious that people did like home runs, so the opportunity to have more hit seemed like a good idea.

Football added separate offensive and defensive teams. No longer did teams risk star fullbacks and quarterbacks due their having to make tackles. More importantly, players stayed fresher, so the pace of the game could speed up. It would take the advent of endless commercial timeouts to slow the game back to a crawl.

Team sports or head-to-head competitive sports, like track and field, have a way of evening out. A sport like golf, though, where the equipment can virtually nullify a course's toughest attributes, needs to change the playing field, or else the game becomes a boring string of 23-under-par tournaments. But, changing the courses would mean the players would have to work harder on the finesse aspects of their game, since simply hitting over all the trouble wouldn't work anymore. But finesse, whether in golf, baseball, or any other sport, does not seem to be an appreciated quality these days.

It's not hat athletes don't want to work. Most work harder than any of the "golden age" stars of years gone by. But their hard work seems to be geared in only one direction: Body building. Bulk up, increase endurance, get stronger. Well, that's okay if you're lifting weights. But, bulk doesn't help if you're making a chip shot to a pin set very near to the edge of the green and trying to save par. Even improved equipment can't replace the touch necessary for that kind of shot. Only practice will help then. Well, practice and steady nerves.

But, practice takes time away from sponsor events, while you can hit the gym at any time. And developing steady nerves, well, you've either got nerve or you don't. Perhaps, therein lies part of the athletic griping. In days past, most athletes were not pampered from the moment they showed any sign of talent. In our day, though, a kid with athletic talent is immediately put on a pedestal, pampered and guided, with efforts made to smooth their way at each juncture.

Is it any wonder that they don't like challenges, like toughening a golf course? Or actually having to deal with enforced offensive holding or defensive pass interference rules?

We wanted heroes; we got prima donnas.

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