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A Match Play Puzzle

February 27, 2011 Leave a comment

Luke Donald, on the 9th hole today

[Andy Lyons/Getty Images]

The annual World Golf Championships match play tournament concluded this afternoon in Tucson, with Englishman Luke Donald defeating German Martin Kaymer in the final. There was an inch of snow overnight (in Tucson!), but it had melted by the time play began. The purpose of this post is to pose a question about the nature of golf that has long puzzled me, but first I will give some background.

Almost all golf tournaments are medal play, or stroke play, which means the winner is the player who takes the least strokes to get around the course. A professional men’s tournament almost always has four rounds, 18 holes each, played on successive days. In most tournaments, the field consists of 156 players, with about half of them cut at the end of the second day. (Only those who make the cut earn money.) Before the cut, they play in threesomes, the same threesome playing together on both the first and second days. After the cut, unless there are bad weather conditions or other reasons to shorten the playing time and play in threesomes, they play in pairs, with the leading pair going off last, the third and fourth best scorers, going off next to last, and so on.

To win, you must beat all 156 players. Obviously. The point of this observation, though, is that it leads to the golf truism that it’s hard to win tournaments — you have to beat not just the top 10 or 20 players in the field, but also the lesser-known player near the bottom who has a crazy good week. And that’s why the greatest players in the world generally don’t win that often. There are countless famous examples of this, perhaps none more famous than Jack Fleck‘s victory over Ben Hogan in the 1955 US Open. At the end of four rounds, Hogan had beaten everyone else. But he managed only to tie Fleck, who would beat him the next day by three strokes in an 18-hole playoff.

The alternative to medal play is match play. In match play, you are trying to beat the player paired with you, over 18 or sometimes 36 holes. You don’t count strokes. You count holes won. Thus, each hole that the two players play in the same number of strokes is considered “halved”, while each hole that one player in fewer strokes than the other is won by the first player. If you and I are playing and after 15 holes of 18, I have won 2 more holes than you, I’m “up 2”. Let’s say I win the next hole. I’m now up 3 holes, with 2 to go. Not much point playing the last two, and in fact they aren’t played. The match is over, with me winning by 3 holes with 2 to go, or “3 and 2”. Should we be “all square” after 18, we keep playing until one of us wins a hole and the match.

In a match play tournament, a single elimination draw is set up just like in tennis. Let’s say there are 64 competitors. Then they are seeded, or at least the top ones are, so that the top ones won’t play each other in the early rounds. In the first round of play, 32 match play matches are played, with 32 winners and 32 losers. Then the 32 winners play in 16 pairs, producing 16 winners, followed by the 16 winners playing in 8 pairs to produce 8 winners, and so on. Just like in tennis.

The PGA championship, one of golf’s four annual major tournaments, was run as match play through 1957, then converted to medal play, a great loss to golf tradition. For years, there was no match play tournament of consequence. But with the advent of the World Golf Championships, a match play tournament with a large purse and an international field of stature returned to the tour in 1999. This is the tournament that was played this week.

The oft-cited problem with match play tournaments is that the very best players may lose on day one, or day two, and then not be around on the weekend. This has two disadvantages: (1) top players may be less motivated to take the trip to the tournament, only to be bounced after one round; and (2) networks may not want to pay for the broadcast rights, only to be saddled on the weekend with just 8 players, few of whom may be widely known to the viewing public. By Sunday, they are down to showing two players, and let’s hope one of them is Tiger Woods or Phil Mickelson.

Speaking of Woods, he was runner up in 2000, and winner in 2003, 2004, and 2008. He’s done his share. But this year, not entirely surprisingly, he lost in round one. Mickelson lost in round two. Many famous players lost early. There is a certain inevitability to this. In medal play, a golfer can have a bad day and come back. In match play, after that bad day, you’re gone. And even if you have a good day, it only takes one golfer having a better day — your opponent — and you’re gone.

You may be aware that European golfers have moved well up in the world rankings lately. Entering the tournament, Europeans were ranked 1, 2, 4, 6, 7, and 9 (Lee Westwood of England, Martin Kaymer of Germany, Graeme McDowell of Northern Ireland, Paul Casey of England, Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland, and Luke Donald of England). Interspersed among them were three Americans: Tiger at 3, Mickelson at 5, and Stricker at 8. It is therefore no great surprise that the two finalists — Martin Kaymer and Luke Donald — were among these top Europeans. And, in fact, in the aftermath of the event, Kaymer will take over the #1 spot, with Donald jumping to #3.

So, what is it that puzzles me? Yes, two of the top players in the world made the finals, but if one examines who made the round of 16, or the quarterfinals, few of the top seeds survived this far. Everyone in the late rounds was among the better players in the world, recognizable to anyone who follows golf at all closely. Yet, the tournament, like the other match play championships over the past 13 years, didn’t have the same feel that a major tennis tournament does. You don’t find high seeds filling the bulk of the late round slots. You don’t expect to see the golf equivalents of Federer and Nadal surviving to the end. When they lose, it doesn’t really feel like a major upset. If #45 in the world beats #3, ho hum. In tennis, that’s almost unimaginable.

My question is, what is it about golf that makes it different from tennis? Match play tournaments are rare, but when they come around, no one who follows golf finds the early round losses by the stars to be genuine upsets. That’s golf. It happens. No one plays at the top of his game every day. And when you don’t, you are likely to lose. No big deal. In tennis, on the other hand, the top 5 or 6 players should always beat the players ranked below 20, and usually do, even on off days.

One possible answer is that there isn’t the same depth in tennis. There’s a big dropoff in quality after the top few, whereas the top 100 players in golf are much closer in quality. Maybe, but if so, what would be the reason? And how would we know? How could we measure it?

My guess is that this isn’t what’s going on. I think the explanation lies in some fundamental difference between the two sports, a difference that might make consistent excellence in golf harder to achieve than in tennis, or might make an only slightly better player beat a slightly weaker player a much higher percentage of the time in a tennis match than in a round of match play golf.

One difference is that the stakes are lower each time a tennis player hits a ball during a match than they are each time a golfer hits a ball. One bad golf shot and you’ve lost a couple of strokes, or a hole. One bad tennis shot and maybe you have a fault on a serve, with a second serve still to come. Put another way, a golfer is likely to hit the ball only 70 times or so in a match; a tennis player will have hundreds of shots.

I can think of other differences between the sports, such as the fact that tennis is played on a court of fixed dimensions whereas golf is played on a continuously varying course, but I don’t know how that would help to answer my question. It might be part of an argument one would make in support of the statement that excellence is harder to achieve in golf than in tennis — excellence in the sense of approaching an ideal of the perfect player. One might then argue that tennis players who are near the ideal, such as Federer and Nadal in recent years, are therefore more likely to dominate matches against other players.

Woods, of course, achieved the same level of success for much of the last decade. Would he have if more tournaments were run as match play rather than medal play? Probably not. He wouldn’t have the cushion of that one so-so round.

Well, I don’t have the answers. I’m just using this post to raise the question.

Categories: Golf, Tennis

Sentence of the Week

February 27, 2011 Leave a comment

I realize it’s a bit lame to choose my sentence of the week from the NYT’s weekly Vows column from the Sunday Weddings/Celebrations section. I mean, the column has a top ten or top five candidate every week. Easy pickings. But still, how could I resist when I read this gem from today’s Vows?

The life Ms. Klein was leading, teaching English at a Jewish school by day and dating and taking in the city’s cultural wealth by night, was a mix of artistic and traditional.

I shouldn’t comment, should I? It speaks for itself. But I’m so tempted.

The piece is longer than the usual Vows column. And it does tell a good story, of the romance between Ms. Klein and a Jewish artist from Strasbourg, which leads to another wonderful passage:

Until then, the blond, buoyant Ms. Klein was primarily dating bankers and lawyers. But she had come to recognize, she said, that “my heart is always with the artist.”

Indeed. Mine too.

Categories: Language, Life

Husky Fan?

February 27, 2011 Leave a comment

In my last post, I wrote about my iMac woes, which culminated in the trip Gail and I took to the Apple Store yesterday for the final resolution of my problems. We had a 10:00 AM appointment at the Genius Bar, 10:00 being the bar’s opening time, and we arrived a few minutes early, allowing us to watch the geniuses come out one by one from the back and take their seats at the bar. Then fellow supplicants began to take their seats across the bar from the geniuses, and soon it we were called to face Nate.

I already explained that Nate got started on restoring data to my once-ailing iMac, at which point he suggested we take off for half an hour while the files were transferred from Joel’s hard drive back to the iMac. On our return, Nate was busy with others, giving us what turned out to be about a 6 or 7 minute wait. Which brings me to the point.

Two genius locations down from Nate, a woman was on her genius bar stool being helped. Behind her, sitting up and looking for attention, was a hairy white dog, on the large side, though not super large or anything. He was on a leash, which was tied to the stool. I was standing about 5 feet away, and he seemed to have taken an interest in me. I didn’t want to get him worked up, but Gail assured me that I should go over and return his interest.

So I did. I put my hand out to his nose, then petted him. His tail was wagging furiously. I was a little puzzled about what breed he was, and was thinking of asking the woman, who at this point turned around to look at me. I said something, like maybe that the dog was a lovely one. Gail, still a few feet away, said something too. Then the woman asked, “Are you a husky fan?”

Now, I have to tell you, this was no husky. I don’t know much about dogs. I’m learning. Watching the Westminster Dog Show every year for the last decade has helped a lot. But I don’t need a dog show or a book to know what a husky looks like. I know huskies. Dog sleds, Alaska. Yup, I know huskies. And, of course, I’ve been associated to the University of Washington for three decades now. No one can be a part of UDub and be ignorant of our husky mascot.

So, why the heck was she asking me if I’m a husky fan? And here I was going to ask her what kind of dog it was. If I were a husky fan, I sure had chosen the wrong dog to pet. I was mystified. Then again, we were just across the street from the UW campus, so maybe the question had something to do with UW sports. Am I a UW sports fan? Well, sometimes. A little. Not entirely, because being one would mean I support the corrupt industry of big time NCAA sports. Still, this was no husky, and was she really asking me out of the blue if I root for UW?

I finally responded. “Not entirely.” That seemed about right, whatever she was asking.

And then she elaborated. Well, you see, she had taught the dog to respond to the UW fight song, Bow Down to Washington, by getting down flat on the floor. She could say “bow down” and the dog would obey. Or, I gather, she could play the song and he would do the same. She added that her boyfriend was a UW football player, and he loved this trick.

Okay, so that explained the question, and assured us that she didn’t think the dog was a husky. Gail finally asked just what the dog was. A labradoodle. And what a lovely labradoodle he was. Gail thinks we should get one. I’m thinking we should look at poodradors instead.

Categories: Computing, Dogs, Sports

iMac Woes

February 27, 2011 Leave a comment

I seem to be in business again, at last. As I noted in passing a week ago, one reason I’ve posted so little this month is that I have been having troubles with my iMac, the one I ordered the day after Thanksgiving and have had for almost three months now.

The problems started in early January. I would go to my mail app and each of my four inboxes would have a little spinning sign, showing the app wasn’t connecting with the mail servers. This would happen on occasion after an hour or two of activity on the computer and consistently after I woke the computer up from sleep. Sometimes the computer would, apparently, awaken overnight and presumably go through this state, then crash (a kernel panic), requiring that I hold the power button down for a few seconds to get the computer to shut off before I could restart.

If I was working with some other apps and the mail app went into this state, I could continue to work for a while, but soon my RSS feed would lose its connection to the server, then Safari would crash, then I’d have to restart, but I wouldn’t be able to restart. It would begin the shut down process and then stall, requiring the multi-second push of the power button.

This wasn’t conducive to working. At the beginning of this month, I brought the computer to the Apple Store Genius Bar for diagnosis. My genius soon found that the hard drive was failing. They ordered a new one, I got the call that it was in, but I deferred bringing in the computer for two weeks because I was extremely busy, I had learned to suck it up and shut the computer down multiple times a day, and I wanted to do a full backup before turning the computer in. Joel got tired of my passivity and finally did the backup himself.

So two Wednesdays ago I dropped off the iMac for its new hard drive. The store called Friday to say the work was done. I picked up the iMac on Saturday, eight days ago, and reinstalled all the data. Over the next eight hours, the computer proceeded to have four mail failures or kernel panics, one in the middle of my writing a blog post. Overnight it had a fifth. Gail made a new appointment with the Genius Bar and I brought it back in first thing Monday morning.

This was my chance to get tough. I explained that these trips and the crashes, and the backups and re-installs, were a waste of my time. I suggested I just be given a new machine so I could get on with my life. The kind genius pointed out that this sounded good, assuming the problem was one of hardware, but if it was software? Specifically, she explained that there could be a problem with my data, so I could reinstall it on yet another machine and find the same problem. Hmm. I realized she had a point. So much for playing tough guy. She ran some diagnostic tests, then proposed that they keep the computer, let it run for a while in the back, and see what they could learn. I meekly agreed.

Tuesday afternoon, Apple left a message that they were convinced the hardware was fine. It must be the software, and specifically something embedded in my mail settings. They proposed that they rebuild the operating system, then have me come in with my back up hard drive and have the data put back on the computer carefully. I called back Thursday morning, said sure, and Friday they said the work was done. So I made yet another Genius Bar appointment, 10 AM yesterday.

Back I went, with Gail at my side, to help me stay calm. Genius Nate helped us this time. Good guy. Rather than install everything from the backup, we first brought over all my files — music, photos, documents. This would take about a half hour, during which Gail and I went off for breakfast (Gail) and a snack (me). Back to the store, a 5-minute wait for Nate to be free, then we started from scratch to re-build my mailboxes, and to verify that the music, photos, and documents were all there.

We were home by noon, at which point the real work began. I downloaded apps, set up all my system preferences, set up preferences in all the apps, and on and on. Over two hours of work. Fortunately, I’m getting used to the routine, having done it last month with my new MacBook Air and in September with my iMac in my office, after it had to have a new logic board put in. In fact, I now have written down a check list of everything I do to set up and customize a Mac.

The good news: it seems to be working. And now I can go back to blogging. Sorry for the spotty posting of late.

Categories: Computing