Masters Part 2

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.

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