The bursting of the Jordan Spieth bubble was disturbing to watch.  We all had an interest in the ascent of this wonder child, and his appearances in the major tournaments were compelling TV on a level that reminded one of Tiger Woods.  So young and talented and cool under pressure, yet so gracious and polite and likeable that he was the anti-Tiger.  Gifted by both heredity and environment, Spieth is an interesting guy.

The prodigy’s ascent was so remarkable, so swift, that one’s every instinct suggested that our young Icarus was flying too close to the sun.  And there had been signs, especially his having gone all of 3 months without a win.  Of greater concern was that it had become almost impossible to buy any major product or service for which there was no provider that had purchased Mr. Spieth’s endorsement.  His travel schedule was also troubling:  too many distant places, too many occasions for jet lag or reverse-jet lag.  Hard to believe it left him with enough energy even to play golf with his sponsors, much less compete effectively on the PGA Tour.

The warning lights were flashing during Spieth’s dazzling 66 in the first round of the Masters.  Not exactly done with scotch tape and paper clips, but a great score built more around game-management and putting than around superior ball-striking.  You felt the guy was a magician to be able to get so much out of so little.  You also felt that he was depending more and more on the putter, while getting less and less confident in his golf swing.  Like Tiger, he was losing the ability to hit the driver onto the fairway, to hit irons onto the best areas of the green. The second round was even shakier – a big lead gained and lost, and still more of the sense that the magic was tenuous, that the swing mechanics had become too suspect to permit a free-&-easy swing at the ball.  The pressure on the short game grew, in tandem with the breaking-down of the long game.

The third round went from worse to much-worse: another big lead squandered, with suspect ball-striking and a near collapse on the last two holes.  Two days, two big leads blown. Could he keep his composure, could he hold on for one more day?

The final round was as close to tragedy as one can come in matters that do not involve real life. For 9 holes it was vintage Spieth:  adequate ball-striking, excellent game-management, astonishing putting.  And then it happened:  bogey on 10, bogey on 11, and then the infamous 12th hole: three consecutive shots that would have embarrassed even you or me.

The man did not collapse totally.  No club-throwing, no damage inflicted on the putting surface, no slamming a club into a golf bag, no javelin-throws, no audible swearing, just a kid in great distress.  After one more bogey, Spieth somehow collected himself and almost made a game of it:  birdie, birdie, and near-birdie.  But with the failure to make the 3rd birdie, it was over, a 5-shot lead turned into a 3-shot defeat.

What happens now?  Nick Faldo, whose portfolio includes his having personally delivered the estocada to Greg Norman’s career with a victory that featured a meltdown by Norman, offered the disturbing opinion that Spieth would be “scarred” by the experience.  Anyone (such as your humble scribe) who has ever succumbed to the incurable illnesses known as the “yips” and the “shanks” could only shudder and think, yes, he might not recover, this might leave a permanent mark on our prodigy.

The public Spieth was having none of that, as he pronounced complete faith in his golf swing, his “team,” and his state of mind.  But one had to wonder about the private Spieth:  is he doomed to spend the rest of his career burdened by the fear that he might yip the next important shot?



In response to Brian Costa’s essay on why golf is failing (Wall Street Journal, 3/8/16 edition): Golf is losing popularity because it is a really, really hard game to play and we are a less and less patient society.

There are only two routes to competency in golf: natural gifts, and endless practice. Golf has its “naturals” – 100% of the pros on the PGA Tour or any of the lesser tours are naturals, people who have never had to think about their golf swing except to refine it. And there are lots of other naturals, people who made the college golf team, win their club championship every year, etc., even though they lack the special skill-set to tee it up with the big guys for a living. There are also people (not many) who took some lessons and practiced a lot in order to develop a good game, or at least a decent one, and who have had the time, patience, and financial means to do so. And then there is everyone else.

Everyone else is doomed to having a deficient swing for life. With one exception (Arnold Schwab), no one in the history of golf has ever gone from a lousy swing to a good one. Arnie shot in the mid-90s and had the worst slice I have ever seen, a majestic, parabolic ball flight that started out heading 45 degrees left of target (subject to allowances for atmospheric conditions, the curvature of the earth, etc.) but ended up right on target. Then he got fixed: spent an entire winter of séances with a teaching pro, and started shooting in the 70s. My theory is that Arnie was an ugly duckling whose inner swan was just waiting to be revealed by a perceptive instructor. For the rest of us, a bad swing is forever.

A few of us, through the jackpot combination of an indulgent spouse, children who actually do not miss you at all, and enough time and money to squander, climb magically from terrible to mediocre, and it is no easy climb. But for most normal people who try to take up golf, the results are so ugly, so discouraging, so utterly lacking in anything that even remotely resembles a usable golf swing, that it does not really feel like you are playing golf at all – and if you are, why bother? Why spend 6 hours trying to find your ball in the woods, trying to hit a ball off of sand or twigs, realizing that it takes your very best combination of technique and luck just to escape any hole with less than a double bogey? Especially when you have had to drop a hundred (or two, or more) just for the privilege of viewing – and spoiling – the gorgeous landscaping.

This is a game that will never grow, though it will never vanish, either. Thank goodness.


The controversy regarding the misconduct by pro football player Odell Beckham last Sunday, including the reactions to the NFL’s one-game suspension of Mr. Beckham, seems to have involved the usual array of fans divided between the “football is a violent game” crowd, and the “enough is enough” people. For a summary of the pertinent events and a reasonably balanced description of both extremes of the reactions to them, see this piece by Ian O’Conner:

Another perspective: football is indeed a violent game, and we love it for that, but the violence it presents is controlled violence, and what Mr. Beckham did to the defender was not at all controlled. The game is indeed a metaphor for war, which, though fought to the death, tends to be directed by people who are able to control and exploit their aggression and violence. Likewise, the violence in football is controlled, by both the people who make the rules (the league or conference in which it is played) and those who enforce them (the referees and their crews). Without intelligent control, football is just hockey (before it cleaned up its act) or pro wrestling (which is theater, not sport). Uncontrolled violence may be OK for Quentin Tarantino movies, but it would shrink the audience for football – which would be good for no one and a victory for some, like the people who are exploiting the issue of concussions in order to advance their case for destroying football by Ralph-Naderizing it.

Rules are necessary in every undertaking, be it serious or frivolous. Without the rule of law, there is chaos; we are just barbarian warriors, even if dressed up in Mao suits. Football, without rules that are reasonable and are clearly and uniformly enforced, would likewise degenerate into chaos and would lose its mass appeal. The NFL was not built on plays like the 5-lateral kick return that ended the 1982 Cal-Stanford game (and wiped out the Stanford band). Yes, the NFL often treats its players like delinquent, ill-mannered children; many of its rules aim to educate and improve the behavior of the players, right down to rules on how the players dress (like the proper way to wear your socks) and how they celebrate their triumphs large or small (no taunting or excessive celebrations). And the league has a point – the Beckham-Norman blowup would have been business-as-usual at junior high school-yards across America. Football wants to rise above that kind of adolescent behavior. It wants the players to conduct their mock warfare in a disciplined manner, because it wants to improve the game, to enhance its appeal, to prevent it from being demeaned. Football, without a “rule of law,” would be much less entertaining.

As Hayek demonstrated, the key to a true rule of law is to ensure that all the rules (regardless of how smart or dumb) be enforced uniformly, promptly, and without any kind of discrimination based upon whose behavior is being regulated – we must all comply with the same set of rules, and we should all expect to be punished for each of our transgressions. China claims it has a Rule of Law (“you break the law, you are punished”), but its enforcement is so arbitrary, inconsistent, and corrupt that it hardly merits the term.

It does not matter whether the talented Mr. Beckham is, at heart, a good guy, or whether he came from a troubled background. As a matter of fact, it appears that he came from a very solid home and received loads of support, and that the main stereotype he fits is that he was always surrounded by people telling him how great he was, or was going to be. Of course Pete Rose apparently was also a good guy, even though he has this one really bad habit.

Mr. Beckham should not be banned for life, or even for more than one game, but his behavior should not be ignored and the rules should not be relaxed to excuse such behavior. There is no irony in the notion that a game that encourages violence is also a game that regulates violence.


The myth of parity in the NFL, the notion that any team can win against any other team on any given Sunday, has been debunked. More than ever, there are many, many teams who could not beat this year’s frontrunners (the Patriots and the Packers), on any Sunday, Monday, or Thursday and regardless of whether the game were played in Boston, Green Bay, Houston, or Timbuktu.

It is widely understood that the demise of parity has coincided with the increasing importance of the quarterback position. Also widely understood is that there are only two elite QBs, and maybe another 10 semi-elite QBs, in the NFL, if by “elite QB” you mean one who can take his team to the Super Bowl even if the rest of the team is ordinary (Brady and Rogers), and by “semi-elite QB” you mean one who can take his team to the Super Bowl if the rest of the team is pretty good and pretty lucky. A classic non-elite, non semi-elite QB is Andy Dalton, who cannot take even a very good team beyond the first week of the playoffs. There is no comparable problem in any other major pro sport, which suggests football has much less margin for error in addressing it.

The other reason why parity is dead, which the public has been slower to recognize, is that there is a comparable hierarchy among General Managers. There are maybe a half-dozen elite or semi-elite GMs – guys who can consistently come up with a playoff-caliber roster, whether by drafting, trading, or picking up free agents. The recipe for acquiring a good QB is for a team to be very talented (having a GM who performs shrewd drafting, trading, and pickups) or very lucky. The luckiest team in NFL history is the Indianapolis Colts, who just happened, as the league’s worst team in 2 seasons that were 14 years apart, to get the #1 pick in the draft in the year when the elite Peyton Manning entered the draft (1998), and the #1pick in the year when the semi-elite Andrew Luck entered the draft (2012). Of course there are those rude enough to suggest that it takes more than mere ineptitude to finish last in the NFL.

The hapless Houston Texans have never had even a semi-elite QB, and their GM for the latest 9 years has been the decidedly non-elite Rick Smith. During Mr. Smith’s tenure, the Texans have progressed from a feckless expansion team (2002) to a feckless older team. The Texans’ Head Coach, Bill O’Brien, is only in his second season at the helm, and many are inclined to blame the team’s sorry state upon the talent level of the team’s roster, rather than upon O’Brien’s coaching.

So, what to do? For the Texans, there is only one pathway to progress: identify and hire an elite (or at least, semi-elite) GM, and try not to win any more games this season. Without a really good GM, the probability of acquiring an elite or semi-elite QB is low. No NFL team in its right mind would trade away or release an elite or even a semi-elite QB, meaning the only way to fix your QB situation is through the draft, and there are only two ways to do that: (i) improve your draft standing by losing the rest of your games this season; and (ii) bet the farm, like trading away your best player (J. J. Watt) in exchange for a vast improvement in your inventory of draft picks and, possibly, a pickup of better non-QB players from the other team(s). Yes, Watt might be the best player in the league, but he is not the league’s most valuable player, as witnessed not only by the MVP voting but by the fact that the Texans, who were a playoff team during the year Watt was drafted (2011), are now on track to be a 3 & 13 team in Watt’s 5th year, despite Watt’s great talent.

Yes, there is no assurance that the best QB prospect in the draft will be a Peyton Manning rather than a Ryan Leaf (#2 in the Manning draft, and a total bust). But there is no alternative. Drafting and trading are always a gamble, sometimes an extreme gamble, but, if you must gamble, why not at least hire a really good gambler to play your hand? Would you trust a Rick Smith to be the one negotiating the trading of a J. J. Watt?


Two things I do not like about the MLB Network’s telecast of the playoff games of the surprising Houston Astros: (i) while the announcers come armed with the usual load of statistics and vignettes, their reporting and analysis of the game itself are shallow and banal, unlike those of the Root Sports team that covers the team during the regular season; and (ii) the MLB set-up, though capable of providing graphics showing the exact location of each pitch when it crosses the plate, provides those graphics only sporadically and seldom when there is a close call. Why not on every pitch?

One thing one learns from watching the pitch-location graphics during the Astros’ regular season: the “strike zone” is a very flexible concept for most umpires. Some are excellent at getting the call right, but all of them make a lot of mistakes, and most of them have a pattern when it comes to marginal calls – for example, one ump may give you the low strike but not the high one, some have a generally big strike zone or a small one, etc. I see no indication that any ump is biased in favor of one team or another, but that does not mean their calls do not affect the outcome of the game. The Astros are a classic example of the impact of variable strike-zones.

The Astros have a finesse pitching-staff. Dallas Keuchel, their ace (and a likely Cy Young winner), rarely hits above 89mph on his fastball. His game is his mastery of the movement and location of a wide variety of relatively-slow pitches. He loves a big strike zone, because it gives him more leeway to pitch away from the center of the strike zone. When he is stuck with an umpire with a small strike zone, he is handicapped, because he must essentially “groove” his pitches toward the center of the zone to get strikes, and a team loaded with contact hitters (like the Royals) can work with that. But 11 of the Astros 12 pitchers are finesse pitchers. Their only power pitcher, the only one whose fastball is nearly un-hittable even if it is thrown right at the center of the strike zone, is Lance McCullers.

Last Sunday’s debacle (at least, it was a debacle for the Astros), was a perfect demonstration of the point. McCullers pitched beautifully, well into the 7th inning, giving up only 2 runs on just 2 hits. Meanwhile, the Astros’ power offense was free-swinging away, plating 6 runs, 3 of which came on home runs. But once McCullers was pulled (because of his youth and a high pitch-count), the Royals dinked and dunked their way in the 8th inning to 6 consecutive little-bitty hits (actually 5, as one ball took a weird hop on the ‘Stros and was called an error), exhausting 3 consecutive finesse-pitching relievers for the Astros.  The game was effectively over. The home plate ump did not call a bad game, as his strike zone was consistently shrunken for both teams, but his small zone, while fine with the Astros’ lone power pitcher, was a disaster for their delicate bullpen.

Tonight’s crucial game offers a potential repeat of Sunday’s disaster: another finesse pitcher going for the ‘Stros (McHugh) and another power pitcher going for the Royals (Cueto). If you are rooting for the Astros, you had better hope for a really wide and tall strike zone.