Archive for April, 2011

Royal Couple Elopes!

April 27, 2011

This astonishing news just in: Prince William and Kate Middleton, the overly-publicized couple scheduled for the fairy tale royal wedding this Friday in London, have eloped!

We are pretty sure that the royal family are not amused.

Well-connected sources — and I always have well-connected sources — say that the hounded couple got tired of living in a fishbowl and being subjected to inhumane scrutiny. They agreed that they had had enough, and after a brief discussion at the Bag of Nails, decided to steal away last night. They donned disguises, borrowed a friend’s car, and headed north. Exhausted, they spent the night at the same pub in the Scottish Highlands that was featured in the 1935 Alfred Hitchcock film, “The 39 Steps.”

In that classic movie, one of Hitchcock’s best, an innocent man is chased by both the police and the bad guys. Prince Harry, William’s younger brother by two years, said that William had been identifying lately with the Richard Hannay character, the innocent man. William was tired of being hunted by the relentless paparrazi, representing the bad guys; his family, putting his every move under a royal microscope and expecting him to toe the royally stultifying line, were like the police.

No wonder the young couple cracked.

When informed of the escape, Prince Charles said it reminded him of a “corker” of a polo match he was in once. (At that, the BBC reporter rolled his eyes, and explained that Charles had once been struck on the head with a polo ball.) Camilla Parker-Bowles, his significant other, remarked that she had the highest hopes that Kate had brought along an ample supply of hats.

The Queen, showing a surprising range and depth of humor, said that she loved a good practical joke, and told the story of how Prince William, while still a little tyke, had once replaced the sugar in a 17th century sugar bowl with salt. Summoning up a favor nearly 500 years old, she placed a clandestine call to the Vatican, and had them dispatch a squadron of Swiss Guards to Scotland to find the headstrong couple and bring them back to London.

According to the Archbishop of Canterbury, who claims to prefer salt in his tea over sugar, the Swiss Guard’s outlandishly dated costumes would allow them to move unnoticed thoughout Scotland, where unusual garb is the norm. The Archbishop seemed to be at least partly in control of what is said to be a volcanic temper; he was responsible for orchestrating the official wedding, and would have been front and center during the entire ceremony.

It is well-known that he planned to retire after this most flamboyant feather in his cap, and was going to write a screenplay for a movie about the wedding. Russell Brand — with heavy makeup and a dubbed voice — was to play the role of the Archbishop.

Any gossip about a movie of an extravagantly fabulous royal wedding may be wasted, since rumors misting up from Scotland indicate that the couple is already married. My sources reveal that William and Kate were married by a local priest in the ruins of Urquhart Castle, on the shore of Loch Ness. The only witnesses, required by British law, were lads pulled from a local pub. It is said that Nessie surfaced briefly, and frolicked in the cold waters of the loch during the impromptu wedding ceremony. According to grainy photos I looked at after consuming most of a bottle of single malt scotch, she was grinning.

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Easter

April 25, 2011

Happy Easter everyone!

As you know, we celebrate Easter because that’s the day that the Easter Bunny was born. He was born on Easter Island a very long time ago. The remote island, also known as Rapa Nui, is just over 2000 miles west of Chile. (If you didn’t know that Chile is in South America, then shame on you!) Easter Island is where those famous weird statues are located, the ones that look like huge people were buried standing up, staring out to sea.

Jared Ruby, a highly respected anthropologist, theorizes that these statues used to be very large bunnies with long ears, as if the ancients worshipped the Easter Bunny. After all, the Easter Bunny brings baskets of eggs, candy and presents to children, and isn’t that a really wonderful thing that we should be thankful for? Ruby thinks that the presence of these huge rabbit statues represents a form of adoration bordering on deification. If the Easter Bunny was not so revered, why else would huge statues of him be constructed?

Ancient documents have been found in caves on the islands, written in a strange language that seems to combine German and Polynesian. In addition, the printing on the documents is unusual, because it appears to be one of the earliest examples of two-columns-per-page printing. These documents have been analyzed by scientists at MIT, who determined that the material that had been written on is actually many square yards of rabbit ears that were flattened and dried. This is why these historical papers are being called the Dead Ear Scrolls.

When translated, these scrolls suggest that Easter Bunnies came from a single original Bunny, and were all descended from him. The Easter Bunny was thought to be immortal, since he had been around for so long. But actually, the “Easter Bunny” was the current living bunny in the family line. The title was passed along from father to son, like the Phantom from the comic strip. They just let people believe that EB, as he is known among the family, is immortal, since that seemed to bestow more prestige and power on him, and people loved him more for it.

The Dead Ear Scrolls go on to say that, more than being immortal, the Easter Bunny myth was that he died each year after all the hard work of delivering eggs and candy. Then, the next year, he would somehow come back to life.

Footnotes to the scrolls show that the family thought it was sort of comical that people believed that once an Easter Bunny died he could somehow be resurrected, and come back to life. But people will believe anything, as noted by the popular theologian, P.T. Barnum. I mean, really, if something or someone dies, that’s it — they’re dead; end of story. David Hume, the Scottish Enlightenment philosopher, in his 1748 work, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, wrote an essay called “On Miracles.” In it he says that it’s hilariously improbable — that’s what miracles are — that someone could die and then be brought back to life.

Further, the scrolls tell us that over a long period of time, the Easter Bunny provoked the ire of the Catholic Church. Some high-ranking officials of the church frowned upon the growing fame and popularity of the Easter Bunny, and also didn’t like the idea that people thought that he was immortal, since that was their territory. The scrolls even tell us that sometimes, shockingly, the Bunny did not die of natural causes.

Indeed, it seems that, following in the tradition of the Spanish Inquisition, church officials had tortured and killed many Easter Bunnies. Over the years the Bunny had been put on the rack and the Judas Cradle, had been subjected to the Pear of Anguish and the Chair of Torture, had been burned at the stake, and had his feet crushed and roasted. In later years he had been shot, stabbed, drowned, electrocuted, strangled, zapped with radiation, dropped from an airplane, poisoned and hit on the head with a very large Bible.

(It was very clear that the Catholic Church didn’t like the competition represented by the Easter Bunny, and so they sent a zealous commando, like the Silas character in “The DaVinci Code,” to Easter Island to knock the ears off all the statues. That’s why the statues as we see them now look more like people than large bunnies.)

Mostly, though, the happy family members of the Easter Bunny line live to a very old age, and become very good golfers and ardent birdwatchers. Not only are some of the birds catalogued by the birdwatching Bunnies the sources of all those Easter eggs, but if you look very closely at the contents of an Easter basket, you may see some golf balls nestled among the eggs.

Masters Part 4

April 21, 2011

Unfortunately, the writing team at the Fountain was behind a very slow foursome, which prevented the timely posting of Part IV of this series on the Masters.

Let me begin by saying that I am glad that Tiger Woods did not win. It’s hard to explain why, and I do not consider it bad sportsmanship. It’s sort of like the grossly insensitive “jokes” Gilbert Gottfried told about the Japanese, right after their earthquake/tsunami/nuclear tragedy, that got him fired from Aflac — it was simply too soon. It is too soon for me — after the well-publicized, gutter level philandering — to feel anything approaching forgiveness or loyalty to Woods, or the partisan zeal of a fan.

I wanted anybody else to win the green jacket.

Over the first three days it was interesting to observe the way the golfing fans on the course reacted to Woods. Interesting in that he was treated more like a pariah than a pantheon. Tom Boswell, my favorite sports writer, noted in his article, “The silence around Tiger is deafening.” Yet on Sunday, when Woods started a charge remniscient of Arnie Palmer in the 1960’s, the crowds broke their vows of silence and found their voices. As part of a self-fulfilling prophecy, strong evidence of Tiger bias was on display at CBS. They wanted to forget his reprehensible behavior. They wanted to see him win, and long before the tournament was over I had the feeling that the boys in the CBS truck thought that a Tiger win was a fait accompli.

(The CBS truck is where the producer and key technical staff are housed, with their nimble hands on lots of very high tech TV and computer equipment. Inside this state-of-the-art mobile production studio is where they manage the cameras and audio, decide which camera’s output goes to broadcast, which material to replay, what to show in slow motion, etc. Way back in my younger days I worked in a TV studio, where I pushed buttons and made TV miracles happen.)

In the UK, golf tournament coverage is more balanced than it is here. All players get a share of attention, which makes sense because great shots are being hit by players scattered across the course. When I was in Scotland, I talked to lots of golfers, and they told me that they like to see great golf shots, no matter who hits them. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that real golf fans everywhere want to see the best golf, not just watch one player the whole time. Here in the US, it’s just TIGER TIGER TIGER. C’mon! This is a golf tournament, not ‘The Tiger Woods Show.’

At the Masters, I wanted to see lots of different guys hitting the creative and difficult shots Augusta National requires, not just him. But the boys in the truck devoted most of the broadcast to him, imagining that he was the only one viewers wanted to see. When McIlroy finally collapsed — more on this later — and fell to nine-under par, that put him in a group of four players, including Woods. What name was at the top of that group on the TV leaderboard? Tiger Woods. Why? Someone in the truck had to decide in what order the names would be listed, and they wanted Tiger’s name at the top. Bias. McIlroy had led the tournament for three and a half days, so isn’t that reason enough for McIlroy’s name to be at the head of the group? Hadn’t he earned it? If sorted alphabetically — no matter if you choose either ‘T’ or ‘W’ — once again Tiger should not have been first.

At the end of Sunday he was definitely not first. But neither was McIlroy.

On the back nine on Sunday, after the 21-year old Rory McIlroy had been leading the tournament for 63 holes — an amazing achievement — he crumbled, choked, fell apart, had a spot of bother, and melted into a puddle of goo. Last week’s cover of the New Yorker magazine, seen up at the top, did a nice job of foretelling Rory’s fate. On hole #10 his self-destruction began. He launched his tee shot far into the woods, hitting one of the hundreds of different kinds of trees. Ted Ray would have called it “a monarch of the forest.” As Boswell noted, no one had ever expected — in 75 years of the Masters — that a player would wind up in the front yard of one of the cabins, used to house visiting dignitaries. These prestigious cabins are situated about eight Tarzan rope swings away from the fairway. At the Masters, unlikely things have always happened.

For someone who respects the value of statistics, and their ability to analyze the improbable, this intrepid reporter understood that it was extremely unlikely that McIlroy would win. First of all, no one had ever won the Masters from start to finish, and second, Rory was only twenty-one. (Let’s not quibble with months and days.) I dug up the ages of all the first-time winners of the Masters, from Horton Smith, the first winner, who was 26 in 1934, to Mark O’Meara, who was 41 in 1998. The ages are approximately normally distributed, which cleared the way for some introductory level statistics calculations.

The population mean was 31.804 years, and the population standard deviation was 4.689 years. This gives us a calculated Z-score of -2.304 — you’ll have to trust me on this one, since I have a really honest face. That Z-score, when translated into English, means that there was approximately a 1% chance that someone aged 21 or younger would win the tournament.

McIlroy, god bless him, had little hope. But just you watch, we’ll be seeing much more of him soon.

Unhappy with your putter? Send us yours, and we’ll conduct a forensic analysis to see what was wrong with it. Then we will recycle it, unless, like some putters, it is possessed. In that case we’ll have to perform an exorcism, which will cost you. A lot.

Masters Part 3

April 10, 2011

Masters Part 3a

Now that the first two days are over, the real tournament can get underway. Half of the golfers competing in the Masters have been eliminated, because they did not survive the “cut.” Most tournaments do this — they start with a whole bunch of players, and based on the cumulative two-day scores, a cut line is determined. If your score is higher than this line, sorry, Charlie, you have to go home. The rest of the players then compete for prize money, prestige, sponsorship, rankings and T-shirts.

At the Masters, they started with about a hundred players, and now there is about fifty. After two days, at the top of the leaderboard is the young Irishman, Rory McIlroy, who looks like someone out of a Mark Twain story.  He’s tall and thin and has a great smile. Instead of waving a paint brush at picket fences he is waving his magic putter on the way to a score of ten under par.

Masters Part 3b

As my wife noted elsewhere, Saturday is known on the PGA Tour as “moving day.” That does not mean that U-Haul vans are used, but that players are more aggressive on the course, and are trying to jump up much higher on the leaderboard. The great Bobby Jones, founder of the Masters, won a lot of tournaments by battling, not with any two-legged opponents, but with what he called Old Man Par. It didn’t matter what an adversary did; what mattered was the scorecard.

On the first two days of a tournament, players are trying to make the cut, and so generally play somewhat conservatively, trying to avoid making big mistakes. Hitting fairways and the middle of greens won’t hurt you, and if your putter is in a friendly mood, then some birdie putts will drop. Going for the heroic shots can put you in deep bunkers, in the water, or in the azalea bushes, in which case you may never be seen again. (One day I’ll tell you about balls I hit into gorse at St Andrews, balls that were never seen again.)

So moving day is when players reappraise the risk/return ratio and dial it up. Instead of laying up on par 5 holes like they did on Thursday and Friday, on Saturday they eat their spinach and go for it. (Interesting that golf has remained free from the steroid scandals endured by baseball and football; this week was the perjury trial — the result of steroid use — of the Exhalted One, Barry Bonds.) More risky tee shots are taken, bolder approach shots to greens are attempted, in spite of the protection provided by trees, bunkers, streams, ponds and devious contours on fast greens.

Tiger Woods, who has won here in 1997, 2001, 2002 and 2005, usually moves up the leaderboard on Saturdays like an express elevator. On this Saturday, however, he shot a 2-over 74, moving down to 6 under for the tournament. Rory McIlroy, the just-barely-of-legal-drinking-age leader on Thursday and Friday, shot a 2-under 70, and moved to twelve under par for the tournament.

The final round on Sunday looks to be an exciting, gut-wrenching contest, between young guns who lack experience but not talent, and older, more seasoned veterans who have won at Augusta before. I know precisely where on the couch I’ll be sitting.

Masters Part 2

April 8, 2011

There is so much beauty on display at the Masters golf tournament, played this week in Augusta, Georgia. Some of that beauty comes from Mother Nature, in the hundreds of species of flowering trees, bushes and exotic plants. There is beauty that comes from the human character in times of conflict and triumph. And lastly, and this will make my dad happy, is the beauty of mathematics to analyze what happens and to help us draw conclusions about what we saw.

As I suggested yesterday, to address the first kind of beauty you should watch the tournament on the biggest high-def TV you can find. If your neighbor has a better one than you, take him some really good beer (ie. not Bud) and invite yourself in; or you could go to a well equipped bar, where you could watch, and people will actually bring you beer; or you could stimulate the economy by buying the biggest and best TV for miles around.

In the finest old Scottish tradition, the holes are not only numbered but named. Each hole is named for a particular flowering tree, such as Magnolia (#5), Azalea (#13), Camellia (#10), and Flowering Peach (#3). Adding to the visual treat are the sparkling waters of the creeks and streams that meander and burble around the course. Even non-golfers will find plenty to see and enjoy.

Along with all the attractive flora, there are countless stories of human conflict and triumph that this fertile course has grown. One of my favorite Masters stories is about Ben Crenshaw. Born in 1952 and the possessor of one of the smoothest putting strokes in all of golf, ‘Gentle Ben’ won the tournament the first time in 1984. A Texas boy, his mentor and only golf teacher since he was as tall as a niblick was Harvey Penick. Penick (PEE – nick) started as a caddie at Austin Country Club as a little tyke, then rose through the ranks, becoming assistant pro while still a teenager. When he graduated from high school, he was promoted to head pro. (Coincidentally, that was in 1923, the year Bobby Jones won his first US Open.) He held that post for 50 years, and after 1973 continued as a teacher of golf.

During this semi-retirement, Penick wrote the best-selling “Little Red Book,” a small gem of laconically instructional golf wisdom. Like Michael Murphy’s “Golf in the Kingdom” this should be on every golfer’s shelf. Or in my case, shelves.

Fast forward to spring of 1995, and Harvey was dying. There is no way to tell how much Penick’s poor condition affected Crenshaw’s game, but clearly it had been in decline. Harvey had seen Crenshaw’s game deteriorate, and even while the Grim Reaper was practicing his backswing, Penick gave Crenshaw pointers. He then passed away a week before the Masters, which devastated Crenshaw. On the Wednesday before the tournament began, Crenshaw traveled nearly a thousand miles to serve as Harvey’s pallbearer. His heart heavy, he returned to Augusta to play in the tournament.

Over those four days Crenshaw was a wonder, hitting pure shots and sinking putts with that syrupy stroke. At that time he was 46, approaching geezerhood as far as Masters winners go. He won his second Masters tournament by only one stroke. He collapsed in emotion, as you can see by the photo at the top. After it was over, when he was interviewed for the TV cameras in Butler Cabin, he said that he felt as if he had a 15th club in his bag — Penick’s memory and presence —  giving him that little advantage. (Players are allowed only fourteen clubs.)

As for mathematics, it gives us insights, and helps us to make sense of seemingly chaotic action. Contrary to popular belief, math is perfectly natural, and like with golf, a little study and practice is rewarded. For example, not all holes are created equal. One way to measure their difficulty is to calculate the average number of strokes required. Zillions of hole-by-hole scores have been used to compute this. Hole #10, a par 4, has the highest average score, at 4.32, or about one third of a stroke over par. Number 12, a par 3, is second, with an average score of 3.30; #11 is third, at 4.29 strokes. A score of one stroke over par is called a bogey; two strokes over par is a double-bogey (gosh); and the common name for anything more than two strokes over par is something you shouldn’t say in front of your in-laws.

For scores of years, therefore, golfers have had the most trouble with this trio of holes. This does not mean that every golfer has a horrible time on those holes; some golfers beat the averages and score under par. (One stroke under par is called a birdie; two strokes under par is an eagle; and more than two strokes under par is called a miracle.) But, the fact that the average is higher than par indicates that most golfers had a spot of bother, perhaps even a bad enough experience to cause lesser men to throw their clubs.

This succession of holes makes even the steely-nerved tremble. Here I will add that hole #13, when concatenated to holes 11 & 12, are historically referred to as “Amen Corner.” If you look at a map of the course, you see the corner part, since the three holes bend like an clockwise elbow in the farthest, southeast part of the course. If our Hole Difficulty Index is the average number of strokes taken, then #13, a par 5 hole, is the 17th hardest, with an average of 4.80 strokes, clearly under par. I would argue that since the hardest three holes are 10, 11 and 12, I would suggest that holes 10 through 13 should receive the Amen Corner honorific.

However, since #10 is not really in the corner, as you can see from the map, I will lose that argument. The name Amen Corner, and much has been written about this, was first used by the avuncular golf writer Herbert Warren Wind, in a 1958 Sports Illustrated article. He was looking for a phrase with similar punch as baseball’s “hot corner” or football’s “coffin corner.”

Many players have exited Amen Corner in much worse shape than when they entered, while the better players came out either no worse or better. Such is the importance and dramatic influence of this part of the golf course.

Many years ago I found that issue of Sports Illustrated in the stacks of a library, and I spent a very happy couple of hours reading Wind’s article. I know that information technology and even current attitudes towards reading suggest the end of books and brick-and-mortar libraries, but for me reading a book is a sublime pleasure that I will not surrender willingly.

Another nice use of math is to compare those golfers who have played a large number of rounds at Augusta. The leader of those who have registered more than 100 rounds — that’s more than 25 years — is the ever young Fred Couples. (“Boom Boom” won in 1992, and had a great round today, Friday.) His 18-hole scoring average is 71.94. It is amazing that a player’s scoring average at the Masters can be under par, given that it is such a brutally tough course. The other very impressive names on the list are: Jack Nicklaus 71.98, Tom Watson 72.34, Gene Littler 72.90, Raymond Floyd 72.03, Byron Nelson 73.19, Ben Crenshaw 73.28, Sam Snead 73.30, and Gary Player 73.54. This Who’s Who of golf history have won a total of 20 Master championships.

One thing that mathematics cannot do, though, is express what a beautiful, smooth and effortless swing Couples has. Last year, when he hit the age of 50, he was able to join the Champions Tour. With that beautiful swing he leads the Champions Tour in driving distance with an average of 298 yards. This is, um, a bit longer than my average.

We like watching the young guns, too. Our favorite is Rory McIlroy, from Ireland. We saw him play in Carnoustie, Scotland, and laughed at what the announcers said. One noted that he had a long and violent swing, coming out of his shoes as he swung as hard as he possibly could. The other announcer said, “Well gee, Bob, he’s 18!” That pretty much captured it.

The Masters

April 7, 2011

This is the week of the Masters, one of the greatest golf tournaments of the season, and I, for one, am excited. It was founded by Bobby Jones, the American golfing legend on the right, and was first held in 1934. My younger readers may wish to stop and reflect that this was before cell phones and the Internet; in that era golfers didn’t keep score using an app on their smartphones, rather they used a paper scorecard and an odd tubular device called a pencil.

There are many competitive events for amateur and professional golfers played during the year, and the Masters is considered one of the most important ones, which are referred to as the “major” tournaments. These days we think of the four majors as the US and British Opens, the PGA and the Masters, of which the Masters is the youngest. (The oldest is the British Open, which was first played in 1860.) There is more prestige for a golfer to have won a major tournament than one of the lesser events. Part of this is because of the historical significance, since as we’ve seen some of these golf tournaments go back 150 years, and the major tournaments are typically played on the best and most difficult golf courses. Part is because of the degree of the internal pressure involved, from those damn little voices inside a golfer’s head. And part is because of the presence of the best players in the game breathing down your neck, the external pressure of great competition.

Then there is the issue of money, millions of dollars. While some tour events offer more prize money than some of the majors, the prestige from having won a major translates into more sponsorship money and more bragging rights in the locker room. (Ladies, no blushing, please!)

As of this writing Jack Nicklaus, born in 1940, is the king, the all-time leader in major tournament wins. Nicklaus won 18 majors spanning 25 years: 6 Masters, 4 US Opens, 3 British Opens, and 5 PGA’s. Many golf historians think his record of 18 majors is unbreakable. The greatest golfers in history, such as Walter Hagen, Sam Snead, Ben Hogan, Arnold Palmer and Gary Player, have each won “only” 11 or less, so in comparison, having won 18 majors is staggering. Many top golfers play for years before winning one, and obviously many more have never won a major tournament, or even any tournament at all. We call these golfers “teenagers.”

No one has ever won all four of the professional major golf tournaments in one calendar year. This holy grail has been named the “Grand Slam.”

The professional golfer with perhaps the greatest chance of catching Nicklaus is Tiger Woods, who so far has won 14 majors: 4 Masters, 3 US Opens, 3 British Opens and 4 PGA’s. He won his last major, the US Open, in 2008. Woods seemed on a collision course with destiny, if we apply our friend mathematics in a simplistic way. If it took Woods roughly 12 years to win 14 majors, then it should take about 3.5 more years — meaning in around 2011 or 2012 — to win the 4 additional majors he needs to catch Nicklaus. We might conclude this if we  make all sorts of naïve assumptions.

Instead, Tiger Woods found himself on a different collision course in 2009, when his Cadillac Escalade — one of the dumber vehicles ever invented — ran into a tree and other impediments while evading his wife, on whom he had been cheating.  He has now gone some 20 tournaments without winning, his career stalled like the monster SUV he crashed. He had won an astonishing 71 tournaments — including majors — over a 14-year span. So averaging about 5 wins a year, one would expect that in the last year and a half, he should have won 7 or 8 events, of which at least one would have been a major. However, he has played in about 20 tournaments since his imbroglio (Italian for major screw-up), and he has not only not won a single tournament, but in only one of the events he entered did he finish any higher than 20th. He’s way behind schedule.

But enough about Woods, let’s talk about Bobby Jones. We mentioned earlier that nowadays the Grand Slam consists of the four most important professional golf tournaments of a given year. Back in 1930, Jones stunned the world by winning the earlier version of the Grand Slam. Back then, as now, some events were tougher challenges and more prestigious than others, and those four special tournaments were: the US Amateur and the British Amateur, and the US Open and British Open. An “open” tournament is one which anyone can enter, both amateurs and professionals; one must simply qualify. As you may well imagine, these are the most prodigiously difficult tournaments to win because all the best players show up. Notice that back then, that august group of four tournaments included two amateur events, which means that professional golfers would not have been able to play. This casts an interesting light on Jones’s career, since he retained amateur status through all those years, and yet he beat, in “open” tournaments, the best professionals of the day!

He would have won a great deal of money had he been designated a professional, but he chose to remain an amateur. As an amateur, the rules were very strict in that he was not allowed to collect prize money. On the one hand the professionals he beat suffered from a loss of face — losing to an amateur would do that — but on the other hand they welcomed the first place money, even when they came in second.

Another interesting sidebar is that in 1930, both amateur events were what is called match play, in which the gladiatorial contest is man against man, and the winner is determined by who wins the most holes. The other kind of event, which we see most often today, is called stroke play, in which each golfer plays (usually) four rounds of golf, and the lowest score wins. Some consider match play to be a real pressure cooker, and a more rigorous test than stroke play.

Bobby Jones won his first major tournament, the US Open, in 1923, and ended his competitive golf career in 1930 with a total of 13 majors: 4 US Opens, 5 US Amateurs, 3 British Opens and one British Amateur. It is very impressive that over that span of years, he entered 21 major tournaments and won 13 of them, for an incredible 62% winning percentage. No one else has come close.

As you can see, any discussion of the history of major tournaments and grand slams is like comparing apples and oranges, since in some cases amateur events and match play are involved, and in other cases professional events and stroke play.

Jones retired from competitive golf after his amazing year of 1930, but continued to play somewhat more relaxed rounds with his father and old friends. He never lost his considerable passion for the game, and sought other outlets, other ways to contribute to the game that had given him so much. That opportunity arose in his grand slam year of 1930, when he discovered a decrepit, overgrown horticultural experiment gone awry, dating back to the Civil War, in Augusta, Georgia.

Fruitlands Nurseries had been a successful provider of exotic fruit trees and flowers for many years, but had suffered a downturn and neglect. Like many great people who see things others can’t, Bobby Jones saw the 365 acre property, and imagined a great golf course. With a little financial help and a similar helping of golf course design savvy from one of the greatest golf course architects, Jones’s dream turned into reality, and the old nursery became Augusta National Golf Club. This course, Augusta National, is where the Masters has been hosted since 1934.

One of the reasons for the tournament’s uniqueness is that it is always held at the same course. It is considered one of the most beautiful golf courses in the world. (You should watch the tournament on the biggest high-definition TV screen you can find.) Other major golf tournaments like the US Open and the British Open are held on different golf courses each year. (It might be more correct to say that the British Open — or simply the “Open Championship” in the UK — is held on a course selected from a finite rota or set of links style golf courses every year. Links style courses are those that lie along the sea shore, so that the weather plays a key role.) It is this continuity and rich history of the Masters that renders it so special, a hallowed ground for golfers.

My wife and I have a tenuous but precious link to Bobby Jones. In 1958 he went to St Andrews, Scotland, where he had both won and lost life-changing tournaments at the Old Course, the most famous golf course in golf history. By that time he had been suffering from syringomyelia, a serious disease that dissipated his spine, and turned a vigorous athlete into a hobbling and delicate old man way before his time. He was to be the non-playing golf captain of an American team of amateur golfers competing in an international event.

Before he left for Scotland he had received a letter from the town’s clerk, who asked if Jones wouldn’t mind accepting an award while he was there. Jones inferred that this award was to be like so many other keys to the cities he had graciously received from towns big and small over his illustrious career. It turned out that the honorary title, Freedom of the City and Royal Burgh of St Andrews, was far more rare and special, and had been bestowed upon only one other American — to Benjamin Franklin, in 1759. Keep in mind that St Andrews is roughly one thousand years old…

The award ceremonies, featuring an emotional speech by Jones — which forces me to use at least six kleenex every time I read it — were held at Younger Hall.  The large and grand building, part of the University of St Andrews campus on North St, is where I met my wife.

It was the fall of 2006, the morning of the orientation for foreign post-graduate students. I was in a quiet, private mood, and so instead of joining the boisterous crowd in front of the entrance, I was across the street. What happened next was one of the weirdest things to ever happen to me.

In the crowd I noticed a girl with really nice blonde hair. Friends who have known me for a while would have said, right off the bat, that this was strange, because I love red hair. (One day I’ll tell you more.) She was in the crowd with her back to me; all I saw was her hair.

Then, a little voice said, “Go talk to her.”  I swear, it’s the truth.

I thought, “OK, I’m in Scotland now, nothing stopping me from recreating myself, and there’s nothing wrong with talking to her.” As I started to walk across the street, the massive doors to Younger Hall opened, and the crowd began to pour in. I thought, “Huh, I’ve lost her.” A few moments later and I was in the large room, looking at a multitude of metal folding chairs, many with butts on them. After a quick scan — and I can remember it like it was this afternoon — I saw her maybe 25 feet away from me. There was one empty chair next to her. So I sat down. I took a couple breaths and introduced myself. A moment later the principal of the University (the UK version of the president) came out onto the stage, and welcomed us.

Then he said, “Look around. One out of three of you will meet your future spouse here.” At that point I took another quick look at her, and thought, “Nah, she’s too young, and she’s out of my league.” Later, she told me that she glanced at me and thought, “Not him. He’s too old!”

The next fall, I proposed to her at Edinburgh Castle, in Scotland’s capital city, and we married a year later in Hingham, Massachusetts. She promised to love and obey, and to caddie for me when I play at Augusta National.

The Shine’s off of Sheen

April 5, 2011

This weekend Charlie Sheen showed the world what he is made of at his first rantfest “concert” in Detroit. He claims to possess a mixture of Adonis and warlock DNA, but the truth of that has been torpedoed. It appears that the lab running the blood tests, purportedly not affiliated with BALCO, has made a tiny mistake.

While Sheen did indeed deliver supernatural rants after the initial applause died down, this premature curmudgeon was roundly booed within an hour of the beginning of his “performance.” Many of those who attended, some having traveled far and having payed a whopping $75 per ticket, demanded their money back.

Interesting that the 5,000+ tickets for this first show at Detroit’s Fox Theatre sold out in minutes, nearly the same length of time required for the crowd to start booing the self-proclaimed Martian rock star of “Two and a Half Men.” Sheen’s considerable PR skills were on display when he reminded a heckler that  “I’ve already got your money, dude.” Here at the Fountain we don’t like to abuse our audience, and we hope you don’t have to ask for a refund.

There is considerable disgreement among mental health professionals as to the reasons for Sheen’s crash and burn and burn some more. Some feel that he has had too much sex with his live-in, porn star “goddesses” and that the result of all that violent activity rivals the brain injuries suffered by NFL players. Others believe that his personal trainer is Greg Anderson, the enthusiastic amateur pharmacist who assisted Barry Bonds with his performance supplements. Still others point to Sheen’s contact with the Chinese, when he was hired to assist the Peoples Bullying Party with public relations. They say that while in Beijing, Charlie developed an addiction to powdered baby formula, which had been tainted with melamine, a substance commonly used to make plastic spatulas. On numerous occasions he revealed an inexplicable desire to use his bare hands to scoop up fried eggs right from the pan.

Using a metallurgical metaphor for his deteriorating mental condition, Boeing engineers suggest that Sheen is experiencing the same sort of destructive metal fatigue as seen recently in the fuselage of the 737 on Flight 812 from Phoenix to Sacramento. Passengers had just paid too much for very mediocre food, and so were not in the mood to see a huge hole open up right above their heads, interrupting the screening of “Mars Needs Moms.”

High-level rumors from Washington suggest that negotiations for a complex deal rivalling an inter-league MLB trade is underway. Hollywood agents and United Nations diplomats are looking at a possible three-way geopolitical solution to a unique, multi-organizational problem.

Follow this carefully — you may need a scorecard.

I can reveal here that according to top-secret sources Charlie Sheen is being short-listed to take over the voicing duties for the Aflac duck; Gilbert Gottfried, who had been the Aflac spokes-quacker and had been fired for making over-the-top insensitive Twitter tweets about Japan, will assume control of the government in Libya; and lastly, Colonel Muammar el-Qaddafi will leave Tripoli and become the new star of “Two and a Half Men.”

Top US government strategists believe that this new arrangement will satisfy a variety of policy goals: Sheen gets to continue indulging in fowl play and making noise; Gottfried is sent as far away from the US as possible; and CBS and Warner Brothers can get back to generating high ratings and obscene cash flows from an irascible character who loves voluptuous blonde nurses.

Should all these myriad machinations go belly-up, number-crunching gnomes at Lloyds of London have released odds suggesting that the only avenue left for Sheen will be to travel the world conducting assertiveness training seminars.

Eight-Upsmanship

April 1, 2011

As reported recently, the Chinese military is preparing for a peaceful future. This peaceful future is going to feature lots and lots of people and weapons. While this may appear to some observers as a contradiction in terms — I mean, what is a “purely defensive” military anyway? — the Peoples Bullying Party does not see a problem.

There are currently 43 gazillion troops in the Chinese army, with another 18 gazillion to be called up as soon as they reach the age of twelve. (At that age they are considered too old to be working in factories.) This military multitude needs stuff to carry into battle, otherwise they would just be a bunch of guys marching instead of an army, and that would look silly.

Chinese generals have long complained about the squirt guns and flutes doing double duty as blow guns, even though the latter weapon, a wooden tube with a few holes drilled in it, was hailed as the army’s least expensive ordnance. It was a soldier’s best friend, a weapon and an iPod that never needed batteries. These generals have been given bigger budgets for arms procurement, and are licking their chops. The developer of the most advanced and imaginative weapons in the US is DARPA (Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency). China created its own version, CRAPA (Chinese Research Armaments Pretty Advanced), to come up with the next generation of weaponry.

One of the first products to come out of the agency is the Tree with a Thousand Ears, pictured above. This arborist armament is designed to perform battlefield intelligence gathering. However, the construction of these new snooper trees presented a special challenge.

China watchers are aware that no species is exempt from the Party’s recent build-up of pressure on political dissidents. Many known activists, bloggers, human rights lawyers, and small dogs wishing to take part in clandestine “Jasmine Revolution” gatherings have been taken into custody. Some have been incarcerated, some have been tortured, and others have had their water dishes revoked. Now overworked propaganda officials have set their sights on spiders. CRAPA researchers claim that these spiderweb trees possess interception capabilities far superior to any known antenna.

Chinese police were alerted to the presence of dissident spiders after collecting spider text messages for some time; these eight-legged creatures are highly skilled and prolific texters. Sadly, spiders working to improve spider rights have been forced into military service, since secret police agents armed with large nets have captured the families of those spiders identified as dissidents.

These hapless arachnid relatives are being held hostage in dirty buildings all over China. The spiders put to work in the trees have been told that they will never see their families again if they do not cooperate.

The spiderweb tree supposedly can pull in a variety of messages, including cell phone calls, text messages and Facebook photos of coeds drunk at parties. While its range is as yet undetermined, apparently it can block communications from extremely close range. Note how the technician in the lower left of the frame is unable to send a text message.

One recent spider tree success story involved intercepting and blocking cell phone calls that included the taboo word “protest.” A young Chinese man was talking about possible restaurants with his girlfriend, who was being difficult. He teased her, using the Shakespearean line, “the lady doth protest too much.” When he said the word, “protest” a second time, the phones were disabled. The Chinese military planners feel that the ability to prevent enemy soldiers from discussing Shakespeare’s tragedies will be a big advantage.

The Pentagon confirms that they have pin-pointed the precise location of these subversive web-sites, and using an eight-bullet PowerPoint slide, have averred that they will be of little consequence in modern electronic warfare.

Another advanced weapon in the pipeline is a missile system known as the “carrier killer”. This name was given to indicate a special set of performance parameters designed to sink enormous aircraft carriers. An elite engineering team working on this missile have symbolically proclaimed their solidarity by adopting flat-top haircuts. It is not yet verified if the missile system has reached the operational phase, but the military procurement office has communicated that it is having trouble purchasing baking soda and vinegar in large quantities.

Perhaps a prudent exhortation for American sailors serving on aircraft carriers can be borrowed from “The Thing from Another World“, when the Scotty character says, “Watch the skies!”