As writers, we are often caught at the end of a golf season making excuses for our disproven theories shortly after the unexpected has happened. I had my fill after this year’s Masters. While Sergio was slipping on the Green Jacket I was sitting on my couch wondering how the hell he had pulled it off. Not two hours earlier I’d sat on that same couch and Tweeted that El Niño was finished as he gingerly approached his ball in the pine straw of Augusta’s 13th. Yet as many times as we’ve found ourselves in this situation, we have an obligation to try and provide some insight into how the future will unfold, even if it is a fruitless effort. The question is, what’s the impact of hoisting an unproven player on a pedestal?
In April of last year, not long after we writers were scrambling to determine if Jordan Spieth would spend the rest of his life in an underground bunker, Chuck Klosterman published his book entitled, But What If We’re Wrong?: Thinking About the Past As If It Were the Present. In his book, Klosterman examines times in the past when people were utterly wrong about convictions they knew to be fact. Klosterman points to things as foundational as our understanding of gravity. In the book, he quotes theoretical physicist, Brian Greene:
“For 200 years, Isaac Newton had gravity down. There was almost no change in our thinking until 1907. Then between 1907 and 1915, Einstein radically changes our understanding of gravity. No longer is gravity just a force, but a warping of space and time.”
What Klosterman doesn’t talk about is the impact being wrong has on the world around us. Most of the time it’s not a big deal, because we have to be wrong in order to fail, and we have to fail in order to innovate. I think about this often because as Klosterman writes, and I agree, “I’ve spent most of my life being wrong.” Here’s a tattered example that was almost as foundational to the golf world as gravity to Newton: Tiger Woods will break Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 major championships. Sadly this idea is now little more than a fleeting ambition. And while it took the perception of gravity two centuries to be shaken, Tiger’s ambitions seem to dwindle in a matter of hours. Did we, the media, have an impact on where Tiger resides today? I think we have to assume it could be possible to some degree.
That’s the interesting thing about the past. We have as much time to observe and study it as we’d like, but the present is here, then it’s gone and is suddenly transformed and available for introspection.
Anthony Kim set fire to the tour in 2007-2008. In 2007 alone (his first full year on the PGA Tour), he made north of $1.5 million, had 10 top-25 finishes and four top-10s. In 2008, he won twice in five weeks (at Quail Hollow and Congressional). Kim was going to be the next guy that gave Tiger a run. They were both Nike athletes and Kim was known as a feel player, which was opposite of how Tiger approached the game. In a clinic the two hosted together, a patron asked Kim what he did to control distance with his wedges. “My answers are terrible if you guys are trying to learn something,” he said. The crowd laughed. “I just try and figure out how far I’m hitting them right before I go play,” he said. That’s a feel player if there ever was one.
Everybody knew Kim was the next big thing. And while there have been players we were right about — Phil Mickelson, Rory McIlroy, Dustin Johnson and Jordan Spieth — for each one that did what we expected, there are 30 guys we said would be the guy and they fizzled out.
What I’d like us to think about is this: what if we’re the reason they fizzle out? If we as writers are asked to speculate, then I have to do my best to try and take a different road here. Klosterman asks, “But what if we’re wrong?” I’m asking, “What if it’s our fault we’re wrong?”
Of all sports, golf is the most fickle. We could almost say it’s a game that rests on the laurels of our hormones. Here’s a personal example. A couple of weeks ago I was playing one of the city municipal courses here in San Antonio, Mission Del Lago. My tee time was at 8:08 a.m. on that Saturday and as usual, I went alone. After I checked in the starter paired me up with a twosome and off we went. Despite starting the round with a weak double-bogey at the first, I rallied to get back to even par by No. 7 with a couple birdies.
I managed a couple pars at Nos. 8 and 9 to make the turn in 36. But after a birdie at a par-3 12th, followed by another one at the par-5 15th, I was on my way to shoot the best round of my life. To that point, I’d managed to stay out of my own way, not thinking too much about the score and just playing shot to shot. Then it happened. “Hey man, you’re playing great! What are you, like one or two over?” my partners asked.
“Well, I’m actually two under,” I replied as calmly as possible.
“No way! That’s awesome! You’re the best player I’ve ever played with,” the guy shot back.
I proceeded to make a triple at No. 16, a double at No. 17, and another double at No. 18 to finish at five-over par on the day. It was the most crushing 77 I’ve ever shot in my life.
Now, I’m not blaming my partners for my dreadful finish. But the problem is that in golf, once you have an idea in your head, it’s incredibly hard to shake it. I guess that’s what separates the elite players from the really good players. But what if the impact we (the media) have on a player’s future is underrated? What if it’s not the money or the sudden influx of people wanting more and more of their time? If we’re trying to look at the present as the past, then we have to ask that question, what if our prediction is the reason they didn’t succeed to the degree we expected or predicted them to?
What if, after Spieth hit that ball in the water on No. 12 at last year’s Masters, nobody had said a word? What if it was just ignored like every shot Ian Woosnam has hit at Augusta for the past decade? Or what’s more, what if we hadn’t mentioned it at all after that Green Jacket Ceremony in Butler Cabin. Every time Jordan Spieth had to answer the question, “Do you feel like you’ve moved past the water ball on the 12th at Augusta?,” he was forced to relive the moment he lost his chance at winning back-to-back Green Jackets. All the frustration and angst, the panic he must have had to stifle as he walked off the 12th green.
What if it wasn’t a topic of discussion for a year? Would Spieth have hit it in the water again on Sunday this year? I don’t know. But it’s interesting to think about. It’s interesting to think about the futures we plan out for these players, if even in a vague sense, and the surmounting pressure that shadows those plans.
What if we’d never dubbed Anthony Kim as the next great thing to take down El Tigre? Would he have made a stronger comeback after his thumb injury? This is the guy that, in his first Ryder Cup, in the first match on Friday, pummeled Sergio Garcia 5&4. I mean, he had a heavy burden on his shoulders when he was scheduled to come back. He was the it guy. That’s a lot of pressure for a 23-year-old kid. I’d have buckled like a baby deer learning to walk.
This concept of media creating what I’m going to dub as a reverse-self-fulfilling-prophecy is not unique to golf; it’s just that golf has proven to be the more fragile of the games. We see it each year with the NFL Draft. Quarterback “Y” is going to be the next Peyton Manning or Wide Receiver “X” is going to be the next Jerry Rice. And then someone like Tom Brady rides in on the white stallion of obscurity to become the greatest of all time. The major example that shoots this theory in the foot is Tiger Woods. But when we examine Tiger, we have to throw him out because he was raised in the spotlight. Hell, he was on The Mike Douglas Show in the same segment with Bob Hope at the age of two. Everything about him is an anomaly. Except that he, too, fell short of our expectations.
During television interviews, almost every professional golfer claims they don’t read about themselves or watch all that much golf at all. I buy it from the seasoned veterans, but not from the young guys. I’m not saying they’re lying, I’m just saying that I, as a writer, read every single comment on every article I write, and I think about each one. It affects me. And we’re talking small scale, like less than 1,000 comments on over 100 articles I’ve written. Imagine if, at the age of 23, you’re being dubbed as the player of a generation. It has to affect you. It’s just human nature.
John Rahm is a recent example. As of today, he’s exceeding expectations. But success in golf can enter stage right and exit stage left without so much as a passing nod. With a handful of top-10s, a win at Torrey Pines, a runner-up at the Match Play, and an excellent showing in his first Masters, we’ve built him up as the next great Spaniard. I hope he is, but what if we’re wrong?
There’s no way to curtail analysts making predictions, even bold predictions. And what fun would that be anyway? However, I think it’s fair to assess what the second- and third-order effects are of making predictions about players. It’s fair to wonder if the constant media feed claiming this player will be a star and that player will achieve “X” can have a negative impact. What if we’re constantly creating false positives?
I don’t know, maybe I’m wrong.