Saturday, May 30, 2009
Used to be, not too long ago, somewhere in time between Babe Ruth and Tiger Woods, baseball was the only sport obsessed with statistics. You know wins, losses, RBI’s, home runs, batting average and a few other miscellaneous, insignificant numerical musings. These were the numbers we all dabbled in as boys with a sports fetish. Then came the computer age and every sport has hitched on to the arithmetical bandwagon.
Golf is no exception. Before the golden age of computers golf was relegated to a few “golf-style box scores” basically listings of who shot what and how much they won. Now the statistical world of golf is a virtual smörgåsbord of numbers squeezed into formulas which analyze every player in every tournament for every shot.
Please permit a couple of examples.
In the “Shot Link” section of the most recent Golf World we read the following about HP Byron Nelson Championship winner Rory Sabbatini’s road to victory: Sabbatini hit 49 greens in regulation and converted 25 birdie chances for a conversion rate of 51.02 percent while the field averaged a mere 30.32 percent. And add to that this statistical information about runner-up Brian Davis: his 21 birdie putts made was a mere seven feet, five inches, the result of hitting 19 approach shots during the week inside 10 feet - tops in the field. And this is just a microscopic sampling of what you can glean from the PGA Tour’s Stats. Or, if you want live, up to the minute coverage of how your favorite player is doing shot-by-shot, hole-by-hole, you can go to Shottracker. Indulge yourself.
Not to be outdone is the ultimate statistic book The USA Golfers Encyclopedia: The Ultimate Guide to Modern Professional Golfers and Tournaments compiled by Sal Johnson, purveyor of the everything-about-golf website golfobserver.com, and Dave Seanor, currently writing for examiner.com and golfobserver.com. The Encyclopedia is a statistical rendering of all golf tournaments and players over the past 50 years. It's a big book to say the least measuring in at 8.5x11 (just in case you want to punch holes and fit it in a notebook) and 1.75 inches thick extending out to 959 pages. Johnson and Seanor put one essential requirement for entry into this statical hall of fame: a minimum of 25 career starts. The remainder of their thinking is explained in Seanor's introduction. Be sure to read it.
Structurally, the volume has two sections: Part One: Player Statistics, A-Z (FYI Aaron to Zokol) and Part Two: Tournament Results, 1958-2008. It's a double dose of statistical heaven. But how interesting is it? How fascinating can nearly 1,000 pages of numbers be? In a word -FUN. For example, I was able to look up the PGA Tour record from the 1980's of my most recent boss. Want to have a little fun with names? How many players named Adams have played on the PGA Tour? It's easy to find in the Encyclopedia!
For the everyday golf fan this volume is fun, fact-filled and fascinating. For the golf writer it is worth its weight in gold.
Just one final request for Johnson and Seanor: this needs to be on disk and searchable.
Wednesday, May 13, 2009
When golf and politics collide, inevitably someone will hit it out of bounds or shank it deep into the woods. And in this era of political correctness, the scores are rising. Take this year's Northern Trust Open sponsored by XYZ Bank. (We're not naming names here in the interest of excessive name dropping. Whoops! Just notice Northern Trust. Nevermind.) XYZ had just accepted or been encouraged to accept a few wazillion dollars in bailout money. Then as part of their sponsorship of the golf tournament they threw a lavish concert/party for clients and guests who they were trying to impress with all their money. This was the equivalent of hitting two out of bounds in public relations terms.
This whole situation becomes a slippery slope of government regulation and public image. I bet you never thought you would be reading a golf column talking about government regulation unless it was about pesticides and green grass.
The most recent happening involving golf and politics involves of David Feherty of the CBS golf announce team. Feherty opened his mouth – rather pen – and made a crude joke about … well you read it.
From my own experience visiting the troops in the Middle East, I can tell you this though. Despite how the conflict has been portrayed by our glorious media, if you gave any U.S. soldier a gun with two bullets in it, and he found himself in an elevator with Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid and Osama bin Laden, there’s a good chance that Nancy Pelosi would get shot twice, and Harry Reid and bin Laden would be strangled to death.
In a sense the switchboards lit up like Tiger had committed a rules infraction during the final round of the Masters. Feherty is lucky he survived the night without the PC Police barging in and making a citizen's arrest.
But it's funny – unfortunately not as in ha-ha funny – that this PC requirement does not extend to all forms of entertainment. Comedienne Wanda Sykes can make a joke about hoping that Rush Limbaugh's kidney's fail in front of every White House correspondent and more cameras than cover a space shuttle launch and the PC police turn their heads and go out for donuts and coffee. But Feherty makes a remark in a magazine that only the writers' mothers read and he's immediately treated as if he signed a wrong scorecard.
Now here's the whole point. Feherty, a golf commentator, was asked to write a column with a political strain to it. That is a recipe for disaster. There are really two people to blame here: Feherty for not proofreading his article for pinhead statements and the editor of “D” Magazine who gave him the assignment without thinking of the literary nuclear bomb that was waiting to detonate.
Wednesday, May 06, 2009
Love him or hate him, there's no way to be inattentive to golf writer Dan Jenkins. Jenkins has been following the trials and tribulations on the fairways and greens for nearly sixty years. Regardless of one's appreciation of his body of work – books include Dead Solid Perfect, Semi-Tough, and most recently The Franchise Babe - that longevity alone should earn the reader's respect. Whether or not he “invented the art of golf writing” as claimed by John Feinstein on the jacket is another discussion.
Jenkins' latest volume is Jenkins at the Majors: Sixty years of the World's best golf writing, from Hogan to Tiger. It is collection and re-editing of his essays and press room work from 1951 to 2008. The bottom line on this book is quite simple: If you are a golf fan and have even the slightest interest in the history of the game, you need to read Jenkins at the Majors. It is a massive history lesson presented with the Jenkins' flavor. It is a time travel odyssey from Ben Hogan's victory in 1951 U.S. Open to Tiger Woods' win at the 2008 U.S. Open with 92 other layovers along the way. Unfortunately these 94 majors are less than half of the number (198) that Jenkins has covered.
The history aspect here is important. Whether we care to admit it or not, we are all to some degree interested in the history of the game. It may not reach back fifty or sixty years, but every golfer knows who Tiger Woods is. Our knowledge of the history of the game can always be improved and there is no substitute for getting it first hand.
Jenkins has a knack for catching just the right facts and quotes and then passing them along to his readers. For instance in his essay on Gene Littler's 1961 U.S. Open victory, Jenkins quotes Mike Souchak providing some unintentional prophecy, “I'm winning the Open and I hit a 5-iron 230 yards over the green...Nobody can hit a 5-iron that far!”
This volume also affords us the opportunity to watch Jenkins' literary style evolve over the years. His literary approach is sometimes off beat but always colorful. You'll enjoy some classic Jenkins' lines like the opener concerning the 1966 U.S. Open, “Nobody knows how to cook buffalo, bear and elk meat, so they probably thin Billy Casper eats it raw.”
And that's what makes this book so entertaining – a colorful history lesson from someone who has been there.