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Wednesday, June 05, 2019

"THE MARCH OF FOLLY" By Barbara Tuchman

I began to re-read this book (originally published in 1984, now available as an e-book on Bookbub for $1.99) and realized that its theme fits in nicely with the one that I blabbered about (maybe it should be “bloggered”); that is, the common folly of people who act against their best interests. [See my posts on this blog relating to "Borenstein's Law."]

In trying to explain to my colleagues in criminal defense why our clients act so recklessly, not just in committing crimes, but in doing so in a manner making it likely that they will be caught, and then dealing with the police and their lawyers in the same foolish, self-destructive way, I concluded that it was not abnormal human behavior — but rather, quite common — to act that way. The innocent, too, often act in ways that make them appear to be guilty, usually out of distrust, fear, or ignorance of the system.

Using well-known examples, I proved that even people who are intelligent, worldly, successful and rich fall prey to the human frailty of acting contrary to their best interests, often resulting in their downfall.

In studying the problem, I came across several theories intended to explain this behavior. One was an ancient Greek concept, called Akrasia . Another was the theory of Type “T” personality, relating to the craving for thrills. A third, related cause, was lust: sexual desire for some involves a need to dominate and to humiliate others. Literature is full of examples of characters who risked marriages, careers, and their very lives just to insert a bit of drama into their routine existences.

Tuchman’s book gives examples of governments that pursued policies that were clearly contrary to their nation’s best interests, often with disastrous effects. Whether by starting a war or other committing “wooden-headed” actions, there are so many examples in history (as well as the quasi-history of the Bible’s descriptions of the follies of some Hebrew kings; and the Greek "historical / mythical tale of the Trojan Horse) that Ms. Tuchman concludes that instances of wise decision-making are harder to find. (She does cite the example of Anwar Sadat / Menachem Begin in 1979; even though Sadat paid for it by his assassination, it ensured peace between Egypt and Israel after 30 years of belligerence.)

Tuchman poses the hypothesis this way:

“A PHENOMENON noticeable throughout history regardless of place or period is the pursuit by governments of policies contrary to their own interests. Mankind, it seems, makes a poorer performance of government than of almost any other human activity.

 “In this sphere, wisdom, which may be defined as the exercise of judgment acting on experience, common sense and available information, is less operative and more frustrated than it should be.

 “Why do holders of high office so often act contrary to the way reason points and enlightened self-interest suggests? Why does intelligent mental process seem so often not to function?”
[Tuchman, Barbara Wertheim, “The March of Folly” (Kindle Locations 157-161)]

“Folly or perversity”, she finds, is one kind of misgovernment, often combined with three other kinds: “tyranny or oppression;” “excessive ambition;” and “incompetence or decadence.”

She defines self-interest as “whatever conduces to the welfare or advantage of the body being governed; folly is a policy that in these terms is counter-productive.”

This definition is the same in my thesis: the welfare or advantage to the client defines his/her self-interest, and whatever action the client commits or decision he/she makes contrary to that is folly.

As a scholar, Tuchman disciplines herself when she requires that to qualify as folly, the policy must have been perceived as counter-productive in its own time, not merely by hindsight. For her, this means judging it by the values of its own time and place. So, she seeks evidence that contemporaries saw the problem.

Second, she demands evidence that a “feasible alternative course of action must have been available.” This also finds a parallel in my sphere. For example, my client insisted on testifying even though I advised against it. His best chance of acquittal was to rely on the weaknesses of eyewitness identification. But by claiming self-defense, he had to admit his presence at the scene, thereby removing all doubt about the ID’s and placing his dubious credibility on the line, thus assuring his conviction.

Just as I noticed that degree of intelligence, social class, culture, or ethnicity has no bearing on whether someone will act against his self-interest, Tuchman concludes that the same holds true for governmental folly. Democracies may act just as foolishly as communist regimes or fascist regimes or monarchies; all classes are susceptible to these missteps.

She acknowledges that “folly or perversity is inherent in individuals” but she does not shrug her shoulders to accept it in government because, she argues, the consequences of governmental folly are so dire for humankind . . . and the planet that we should not accept it as the norm.

The practice of “self-deception” is common in governments. “It consists in assessing a situation in terms of preconceived fixed notions while ignoring or rejecting any contrary signs.”
Military planners have been guilty of this many times, at the cost of millions of lives. The First World War is a prime example. Most of Hitler’s blunders in The Second are due to his wooden-headed refusal to adapt to the evidence of changing conditions.  

Of course, the parallels to criminal cases are clear: I can’t count the numbers of clients who went down in flames because they refused to accept a plea offer of a lesser crime after being confronted with overwhelming proof of their guilt of the greater one. “It is,” Tuchman writes, “acting according to wish while not allowing oneself to be deflected by the facts.” Tuchman adds: “The refusal to benefit from experience” is also a hallmark of this kind of wooden-headedness.

I agree with that. My client who shoplifted at the same May Company department store in which he had been arrested six months before and was caught by the same security personnel who remembered him is but one example in my memory.

Tuchman also has some examples that do not find easy parallels in my business, but are interesting nonetheless.

She mentions the case of Montezuma who led the Aztecs to their destruction by adhering to his delusion that Cortez and his soldiers were omnipotent aliens sent by the gods to fulfill a prophesy even after there was ample proof that they were mortals who could be easily outnumbered and defeated by his armies.

“One cannot quarrel with religious beliefs, especially of a strange, remote, half-understood culture. But when the beliefs become a delusion maintained against natural evidence to the point of losing the independence of a people, they may fairly be called folly. The category is once again wooden-headedness, in the special variety of religious mania. It has never wrought a greater damage.”
 [Tuchman, “The March of Folly” (Kindle Locations 347-350). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.]

Although she doesn’t cite it, I wonder if Prohibition could be seen as another example of “religious mania” defining policy in the face of logic, common sense, and understanding of human behavior. The impulse to enforce morality by legislation is certainly folly. 

In one respect I found a chance to quibble with the historian.
She rightly expresses her admiration for the class of men who we call our “founding fathers.” 

“[T]hey were fearless, high-principled, deeply versed in ancient and modern political thought, astute and pragmatic, unafraid of experiment, and — this is significant — ‘convinced of man’s power to improve his condition through the use of intelligence.’” [Tuchman, (Kindle Locations 429-430)].

She accounts for this amazing “burst of talent from a base of only two and a half million” by citing their exposure to values of The Age of Reason. During their time, there was:

“a wide diffusion of education, challenging economic opportunities, social mobility, training in self-government — all these encouraged citizens to cultivate their political aptitudes to the utmost. With the Church declining in prestige, and business, science and art not yet offering competing fields of endeavor, statecraft remained almost the only outlet for men of energy and purpose. Perhaps above all the need of the moment was what evoked the response, the opportunity to create a new political system. What could be more exciting, more likely to summon into action men of energy and purpose?” [Tuchman, (Kindle Locations 433-437).

Two things occurred to me. First, I recalled that the man who is thought to be one of the greatest of the founding fathers, the epitome of all the values Tuchman ascribes to them, is Alexander Hamilton. Despite his rationality when it came to the needs of government, he made foolish decisions in his personal life that were disastrous to his career ... and to his very life.

Second, most of the founding fathers were lawyers or at least had training in the English Common Law, as well as experience in legislating as members of town councils or colonial legislatures. They came from a tradition of respect for the law, and when it came to stating their case for independence, they framed their argument in rational terms, eschewing the hate-speech of violent revolution. 

Once independence was gained, they approached the task of governing with the same lawyerly care, devising a Constitution and Bill of Rights that has lasted ... until now. 

In concluding her first chapter of her book which was published in 1984, Barbara Tuchman warned us about the danger of incompetent governance.

“For two centuries, the American arrangement has always managed to right itself under pressure without discarding the system and trying another after every crisis ... Under accelerating incompetence in America, this may change. Social systems can survive a good deal of folly when circumstances are historically favorable, or when bungling is cushioned by large resources or absorbed by sheer size as in the United States during its period of expansion. Today, when there are no more cushions, folly is less affordable....” [Tuchman, Barbara Wertheim (2011-07-20). The March of Folly (Kindle Locations 442-444). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.]


Sadly, enough Americans in 2016 voted against their own best interests to empower a foreign country to manipulate our political system so as to cripple the democracy, perhaps irrevocably.    

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Charlie Gessler

CHARLIE GESSLER

I started as a law clerk in the Public Defender’s office while waiting for bar exam results. My first assignment was the “Division 20 panel,” the misdemeanor courts which were then in the Civil Courthouse (The new CCB was not yet open.) Charlie Gessler was our supervisor, a job the office assigned to trial lawyers as a break. I didn’t know him then, but my first impression was that he appeared to be the model of the sort of civil service lawyer that my generation was meant to improve upon.

     You see this was the late 60’s. My notion was that we were in the office to shake things up, to start the revolution from within the system. These older guys had to step aside.

     Charlie was a bit younger than the WW II vets who were running the office, Littlefield and Moore and others like them. But still, he was older (36) than we were, and he looked like he was from a different generation. He was balding with a fringe of graying hair that wasn’t long enough for the current style. He never would wear denim suits with flared pants, boots, purple shirts and wide patterned ties. 

     He was pale, not tanned. He wore short sleeve white shirts and thin ties that might have had a baby’s spit up stain. He always carried a Styrofoam coffee cup. I guessed that he lived in a suburban home, drove a station wagon, had 2.2 children and went to church every Sunday.

     One morning I had a question for him. “I subpoenaed this doctor, but he has a problem. He has surgeries all day and he can’t come to court.” I had told the doctor that I understood his situation. I thought my supervisor would say that his patients’ lives took precedence over our little misdemeanor.

     Charlie was an intense listener. He pursed his lips when you talked, sniffed breaths, moved his hand to his chin in thought. He asked me a pertinent question. “Is he an essential witness?”
    
     “The client is charged with possession of controlled substances. He says the doctor prescribed them.”

     “All right,” Charlie said. “Tell the doctor that we will try to work with his schedule, but if he refuses to appear we will get the judge to send a sheriff to arrest him.”

     Just like that. I was shocked. It didn’t seem to fit – not my image of the civil servant, the career public defender. My first lessons: (1) our client comes first; and (2) maybe I was selling guys like Charlie just a bit short.

     For years, I joined those who ate in the lunchroom on the 19th floor of the CCB. It was a tough crowd, especially when someone was in trial and came in looking for sympathy. What they usually got was sarcasm rather than pity.

     By then, Charlie was getting a ration of difficult cases. For weeks he had been defending a client the press called “The Skidrow Slasher.” That title should give an impression of what Charlie was facing. Each day of the trial, he faced the ever more gory details, the mounting evidence against his client. At noon, he would come into the lunchroom, with his usual Styrofoam coffee, unwrap a sandwich, chew, and accept the ribbing about the miserable case he was stuck with.

     “How’d it go today, Charlie?” From the snickering gadflies, none of whom envied Charlie his daunting task of being pummeled into dust each day. 

     Charlie shrugged, said in his usual grave yet calmly enthused voice: “Had a good morning. Think I developed an argument on the use allegation in count twenty-six.” 

     I thought that was funny . . . until I was faced with a tough case. I realized that the definition of wins and losses for a public defender is relative. Charlie understood that for anyone, any lawyer, and especially a public defender, winning meant doing the best you can for your client, even in the midst of a horrible case. If that means cutting one year from multiple life sentences, so be it. You fight hard for that one year. 

     Charlie Gessler earned respect the old fashioned way. One of his appointed clients was G. Gordon Liddy, of Watergate infamy. Liddy was charged with the break-in of Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office in L.A. He saw himself as the good soldier, stoic and silent in loyalty to his perceived duty. He would fall on the sword to protect his secrets. He famously held his hand over a candle to prove his manly virtue.

     Liddy later said that of all the lawyers he knew, Charlie Gessler was the only one he admired. To my knowledge, Charlie kept Liddy’s secrets, whatever they were.

     When I was assigned to appellate, Charlie asked me to file a writ on one of his capital cases. His client had gone to a police station to inquire about his brother who was there as a possible witness. They were placed in an interview room while the cop went for coffee. A hidden microphone captured incriminating statements and Charlie filed a motion to suppress.

     I wrote the brief and the California Supreme Court accepted the case. Unfortunately, they ultimately ruled against us, deciding for the first time, and contrary to Katz v. U.S. (which had held that the 4th Amendment protects people, not places) that a police station is a place where no one has a reasonable expectation of privacy.

     Later, when Charlie coordinated death penalty cases, he helped me clarify my thinking many times. His ability to listen intently and get to the gist of any problem was his strength. He took his profession seriously and did it with pride.

     Long after the hot shots of my generation “burnt out,” some without having done anything that really got them warm, much less burnt, Charlie Gessler kept going. He never demanded attention or praise for doing his work. He retired quietly.

     One year I joined Charley, his wife and Mike Adelson and his wife for dinner in Monterey at the annual Death Penalty Seminar. Both Mike and I had left the office long ago. Charley had recently retired. We reminisced about the old days and I realized what nostalgia was all about.
1933 - 2019 



Thursday, April 18, 2019

A LONG RAMBLING ESSAY ABOUT TIGER WOODS AS POP ICON


Tiger Woods is just another pop icon, not a religious icon; he not "evil" and not "good," but maybe he has been  resurrected.    

PREFACE:

First off, I don’t love Tiger Woods. I do admire his talent and skill at playing golf. At times I have been in awe of his brilliance at playing this sport  --- or “game” if you are still in denial that golf is, in fact, a sport.
     I was a small boy when I last idolized any sports hero. When the Dodgers left Brooklyn, I was twelve, and ready to grow up.
     I do think Woods is a genius of a sort. He is certainly one of the two greatest professional golfers ever, and he probably ranks among the most proficient athletes in any sport ever.
     I don’t like that he accepts praise from Trump and that he, like Michael Jordan, and unlike Ali, Curry, James, and other African Americans, cares more about corporate image than protesting injustice. He limits his good works to his foundation, a charity that, like so many others, exists as much to provide a tax break and salve to his image and conscience as to do good works.
     His serial infidelities during his marriage also reflect poorly on his character, although I don’t put him among those men who have physically abused women. I suspect that when his father died, the boy who had always been a work-obsessed nerd now found himself an object of desire. Risky behavior is nothing new for celebrities. Yet, none of that excuses his actions. While the hallmark of his golf style was thoughtfulness, his private life was thoughtlessly reckless, resulting in the destruction of his family and clean-cut image.

GOODNESS VS. GREATNESS

     So, I do not think he is a very “good” person. And I am not surprised. I have found that there is a disparity between “goodness” and “greatness” especially in geniuses. They are almost always too selfish to be “good” to those around them. They often disappoint spouses, offspring, friends, and colleagues, in favor of their own obsessive striving for their goals. Einstein, as an example, was unfaithful to his loyal wife, denied her credit for contributions to his work, abandoned her for another, and wasn’t very kind to his children, one of whom had what we now call special needs, needs that Einstein for the most part ignored.
     It seems to me that for many of the uniquely gifted, other human qualities have been neglected. It is so common in history, that it may be a requirement.

LIFE IN A BUBBLE

     Woods, like other elite athletes, lived his life in a bubble, led to believe he could not be beaten.  
     Woods was a golfing prodigy from the age of 2 when he appeared on TV with Bob Hope to show off his swing. In his teens he won the junior amateur national title 3 years in a row. He then won the US Amateur title for another 3 years, ending while he was at Stanford. Turning pro at 20, he signed a multi-million dollar endorsement contract with Nike and made their famous swoosh even more common than when it adorned Jordan’s basketball shoes.
     Earl Woods, the father who had guided his growth, forecast that his son would change the world, more important than Gandhi. To the media this sort of arrogant blasphemy was seen as contrary to the supposed gentlemanly humility that the golf community claimed.
     Tiger was raised to have a degree of self-confidence that he need not hide. When asked by reporters what his goal was for a coming tournament, Woods habitually had a one-word answer, “Winning.” Like the brash Ali, he usually did what he said he would. 
     Tiger was not unlike many elite athletes in that respect. They are raised from early in life to believe in their mission and their special gifts. Their faith is reinforced as they climb the ziggurat, defeating all their peers. Those few who reach the top expect to win every time, expect to be adored by others, and they are.
     That is why his spectacular fall was so dramatic. The scandal, the revelations of sordid affairs, the rehabs and phony admissions (the hackneyed “I take full responsibility”) that we always hear and snicker at, it all seemed so familiar.
     Although he returned to the golf tour and did win tournaments (3 in 2012, 5 in 2013, when voted Player of the Year for the 11th time), and was sporadically competitive in Majors, he lost 6 years: 2010-2011 to recover from the scandal; and then 2014-2017, with injuries.
     Instead of images of Woods making majestic swings and fist pumps, viewers watched him writhing in pain, trying to walk and even sit, grimacing in agony as he withdrew from tournaments time after time, a man bowed and aging pitifully. 
     When he was given honorary titles, named as assistant to Ryder Cup and President’s Cup captains, he told the young players who expressed their admiration for the old man that he doubted that he would ever play again. Tiger’s incredible playing career was surely over.
     The arc of his career was like that of Sandy Koufax, cut short in his prime, while we were left with what might have been. Once, they all said he would shatter Jack’s record, win 10 Masters, win 20 or more Majors. Now, he would never play golf again, never win any tournament again, certainly never win another Major, much less break “Jack’s Record.”

     Then, incredibly, in April, 2019, Tiger Woods was in the final group on Sunday at Augusta National in the Masters.  
  
SUNDAY, APRIL 14, 2019

     I went into Tiger mode all weekend, but especially Sunday. Ron asked if I wanted to watch the finals with him. I said no. I couldn’t deal with the distractions of Laura talking about Max or food and Ron’s asides about Nicklaus and Palmer, while I wanted to focus on each and every shot and word spoken and each sight.
     So, the final round began at 6 am and I watched every second until it ended around noon and then I watched the post game shows and then the highlights and then the replay.
     Sporting events provide the only real reality show. The outcome is not scripted, not edited, not contrived, not predictable. There are favorites, underdogs, long shots, there are surprises, disappointments; the range of emotions is broad and deep.
     There is also the chance to see something you have never seen before, something no one has ever seen before. And there is the chance to see someone who does something that is hard to do and does it better than anyone has done it.
     As a child, I watched baseball games on TV, seeing Ted Williams play his last games against the Yankees of Mantle and Berra. I watched Jackie Robinson and the other Dodgers of the 50’s at Ebbetts Field against Stan Musial, Hank Aaron, Roberto Clemente. Later I saw Ali, Gretsky,  watched the Celtics and Lakers and Wooden’s UCLA teams with Kareem and Walton. 
     At the kitchen table, I recall my father talk of seeing Ruth run the bases with his spindly legs, my grandfather talking of seeing Jack Johnson, Dempsey, Tunney, and we watched Sugar Ray and Marciano on the black and white little TV.
     My dad loved golf. He was a self-described duffer, but he admired Hogan, Snead, and then Palmer, Player, Nicklaus. We watched the charges by Arnie’s Army and the black and white Masters as it turned into dazzling color over the years.

GOLF

     And then there is this: I have grown to love to play the game. It adds another dimension to my appreciation of the watching. Part of baseball’s attraction was always that every boy and girl had played it. I could imagine myself on the field catching fly balls, fielding grounders.
     I stand on a tee, drive the ball 220 yards and feel strong and proud, as if I still have my youth. Then I think again: the pros drive the ball the length of a football field ahead of mine. It is awesome. Yet, we can play the same ball, use similar clubs, play some of the same courses.

     I first became aware of Woods when I was sharing a law office with two guys who played and followed the game in the 90’s. I had given it up shortly after Greg was born and my obsession was work. I played some racquetball for exercise and had no time for playing or even watching golf.
     The other guys said that this kid, a prodigy who won 3 US amateur titles was turning pro and might be the next Palmer or Nicklaus. Standing in the hallway between our offices, I asked if he really was the real deal. So many prodigies turn out to be duds. No, they assured me, this kid had it.
     So I began to watch again.
     The ’97 Masters was shocking. At that level, the skill variance among competitors is close. It is unusual for anyone to win by more than one or two strokes. Woods was 21, playing his first Major as a pro ... and won by 12 strokes. He then decided to alter his swing, to get even better. He won only once the next year, but in ’99 he won 8 times, including one Major. 
     Geniuses separate themselves from others in obvious and measurable ways. Einstein's breakthroughs in 1905-1910 were like that. In sport it is even more obvious, though just as rare. Babe Ruth in 1920 hit more home runs than other teams. Gretzky's records are unapproachable. 
     In 2000, Tiger Woods won 9 times, including the US Open by 15, the British by 8, and won the PGA with his “C game” in a thrilling playoff against some guy who was playing his once-in-his-life chance. (That is another thing sport sometimes gives: a nobody, a journeyman, who has one moment of glory can win against one of the greats.)
     When Woods won the next Masters in April 2001, he held all four major pro tournaments. No one had ever done that, not Arnie, Jack, not even Bobby Jones.

CABLANASIAN

     And that rose another point. Tiger’s father, Earl, was a black man. His mother, Kutilda, was Thai. The kid described himself as “Ca-bla-na-sian,” that is, a mix of many races. Sport often provides some kind of profound metaphor for popular culture. Jackie Robinson is the most obvious one: the first to break the color barrier in major league baseball when that sport was the most popular game. Ali was an icon of the ‘60’s.
     I had another childhood illusion: my Brooklyn Dodgers were “good” against the “evil” Yankees; workers versus management, liberals versus pinstripe conservatives; underdogs against power.

NOT A ROLE MODEL?

     Black performers changed all sports. They brought a unique flair to their performance that kept your eyes glued to them whenever they were on the field or court. Jackie danced off bases, dared pitchers to throw, stole the base — even stole home in the World Series. Then came Willie Mays, cap flying, basket catches. Jim Brown in football exhibited power, speed, grace, elusiveness, all with a contemptuous sneer. Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and many others changed their sports for the better.

THE REALITY SHOW

     Tiger Woods brought that style to the staid old rich white gentleman’s game. He crushed opponents with a steely-eyed glare. When he sunk a winding thirty-foot putt that no one else could hope to make, he didn’t merely tip his cap to acknowledge the cheers, he forced a fist pump into the air like an Ali uppercut, as if to knock the air out of the stomachs of the hundred others trying to beat him.
     The crowd got it, wanted more and he “moved the needle” even more than Arnie and his army ever did. The TV promoters loved it. The corporate sponsors drooled. So did the other pro golfers once they noticed that where they used to play for thousands, now they played for millions — I mean of fans AND dollars.
      The tradition-soaked white establishment were appalled by Woods' shenanigans. Sure, the teenage Bobby Jones threw tantrums, but when he matured he became the perfect gentlemen, respectful and humble. Palmer, the people's hero, looked like a Pittsburgh steamfitter, but on the course he was honorable and a fine sportsman. 
     Woods often scared the TV director by emitting guttural curses when he missed a shot. He brought rowdy young people among the "patrons" and "galleries" of golf spectators, and they responded to his gestures with unseemly noises that shook the air. "In the hole!" they screamed on tee shots made from more than 500 yards away; when Woods finished a hole many began to move on to the next one before other golfers had their chance to play.  

     The reality show demands drama, an arc that takes the hero or anti-hero from the bottom to the top and back to the bottom. In sports that arc is inevitable; whether due to the law of regression to the mean, or the physical demands on the body, or the mental demands on the ego, or simply the passage of time and aging, things change and human frailties take over. 
     Ali in decline took punches to his head that would lead to his premature aging, Mays dropped fly balls for the Mets in is last year. These were pitiful sights that touched us. They are intimations of our own mortality.

     One of the things that made Woods an idol was his commitment to fitness. Palmer changed the sport in his time because he was not soft or fat, like our image of golfers, who, like bowlers, could drink a beer and smoke a cigarette while playing. Woods took it to a much higher level, gaining strength and endurance and power in the gym and running miles every day. He violated the conventional rules that said weight lifting and muscle mass was anathema to the subtle touch and feel that golf required.
     On screen he looked like an athlete, the equal of Roger Federer or Jordan. At 6’1”, 180, he could be a defensive back in the NFL, many NFL players said. He was admired as an equal by Federer, Jordan, Griffey.

     Bill James, the founder of SABR-metrics, dissected baseball statistics with a scalpel and computer to define the greatest of all time (the GOAT). He differentiated between those who were great for their “peak seasons” and those who had great longevity.
     Golf does similarly. Palmer, for instance, won the Masters four times, and three other Majors, but all between 1958 and 1964 when he was 35. While he won many other tournaments, he never won another Major. (In golf, the Majors — four big events during the summer season: the Masters, U.S. Open, British Open, and PGA Championship — are the measure of historic superiority, partly because they attract the best players from around the world, and the most attention from the media. The term was first applied in the early 1900’s and stuck.) Jack Nicklaus is considered the greatest golfer who ever lived because he won 18 Majors, from 1962 to 1986, when he was 46 — a remarkable 24 year span.

     As a child, it was reported, Woods had a poster with Nicklaus’s picture and the Majors record on his bedroom wall. It was his goal. When he won his first, the ’97 Masters, by 12 strokes, it struck Nicklaus and all others as a lightning bolt. A black man (the only one in the field) won the tournament in a place, the Augusta National in Georgia, a shrine of Southern white privilege, the creation of Bobby Jones (who is a Southern icon as meaningful to Southern ideals as Robert E. Lee).
     Woods then went on to win fourteen Majors in the next ten years, including the Masters three more times. He won three in one calendar year and then the Masters at the start of the next, and so he had all four on his mantel at once.
     Bobby Jones in 1930 had won the four Majors of that era (that included two purely amateur events). The adoring press, dominated by Southern gents like Grantland Rice, labeled it “The Grand Slam” after the bridge term for a clean sweep. Critics now carped that Tiger’s achievement was not a true Grand Slam because the fourth, the Masters, came the next April. Still, it has come to be known as “The Tiger Slam,” and no one has come close to equaling it since.
     In non-Majors, Palmer won a total of 62, Nicklaus 73. By the summer of 2008, Woods had won 65 tournaments after winning the U.S. Open that June. But at 32, his body was beginning to fail. During the five days of the tournament, he grimaced every time he swung, obviously in great pain. Turned out he had broken bones in his knee. Still, he led going into the final round. But he fell behind, limping to the end. On the 72nd hole he had to make a difficult putt to get into a playoff (with another of the severl journeyman that gave him the most trouble, Rocco Mediate.) He had to play another 18 in excruciating pain, 90 holes of extraordinary golf over five days, to win his fourteenth Major.
     After rest and another procedure on his legs, he came back the next year to win six more tournaments. But in the PGA, he lost to an another unknown (Y.A. Yang) who had a career day, the first time he had lost a Major while starting the final day in the lead.

NOVEMBER, 2009 - MAY, 2017

     Then, in November, a report surfaced in a tabloid that he had an extramarital affair. His wife read it, and they argued. He left, and crashed his car. The media exploded, and so did his marriage and his image as clean-cut hero. It was a “Say-it-ain’t-so” moment. Corporate sponsors dropped him quickly. He had to give a mea culpa speech that sounded as lame and scripted as those of other famous transgressors.

     In the next decade, Woods would suffer physical and mental anguish. He would win more tournaments, but his back gave out. The golf swing puts great pressure on the spine: neck, wrist, hips, and especially, back. He played and won sporadically; some years he couldn’t play at all. He couldn’t finish some rounds, limping off in front of TV cameras that had shown him barely able to walk at all. Still, when he could contend, he could still win. In 2013, he felt well enough to win six times, and was voted Player Of The Year, the equal of MVP in team sports) for a record eleventh time (Jack won it five times).

     But then his back went out again. Over the next few years, he tried three surgical procedures, all without success. At one point, he couldn’t bend down to play with his children. In May, 2017, he hit the bottom. He was arrested for DUI of a mix of painkillers and sleeping drugs while dozing in his car on the side of a road. A mugshot of his droopy-lidded unshaved face exposed a broken man.

     It was a familiar tragedy, the once-great athlete now fallen into disgrace, mired in a self-medicated stupor, a shell of his former greatness.   
    
     After the typical cry for help, the report of another rehab.  He had gone to “couples counseling” and “sex addiction” therapy to try to save his marriage and his image — and lost both. He underwent a desperate back surgery, spinal fusion, that sometimes, but not even most of the time, allows for pain-free movement. He later said he did it more to allow himself to be able to play a little with his kids, rather than to play golf again.
     Woods resigned himself to a new role. He was named an assistant in the annual team events in pro golf: the Ryder Cup and President’s Cup. And, amazingly, while he mentored the young group of golfers who were competing, Woods found something he had not expected.

REDEMPTION

     Tiger Woods had always stood apart from his peers — if there were any “peers.” Like Ben Hogan in his era, Woods presented a stoic presence, usually close-mouthed, talking only of winning. He wasn’t even at his best in these team events. His focus and energy was devoted to himself. His father had taught him to “win for yourself, not for me or anyone else.”
     He did have some friends among golfers. Mark O’Meara, John Cook, Fred Couples, who had mentored him. Notah Begay, III, his Native-American teammate from Stanford, was a lifelong buddy.
     But, unlike his longtime rival, Phil Mickelson, Woods wasn’t a back-slapping, gee whiz hail-fellow. Phil curried the crowds the way Arnie did, making a grand show of being a good loser, something he did to Woods for a long time. Phil’s game was like Arnie’s, mercurial and thus sporadically great, often poor. Tiger’s game was more like Jack’s, methodical, clever, powerful but subtle. Woods had a historic streak of “cuts” made. (Each event takes four days: starting with up to 150 players, it is cut in half after the first two days. Woods rarely missed a cut, grinding to make it on those rare days when he didn’t have his best stuff.)

     To the media, Woods has always seemed sullen, cautious, so protective of his image that he never admitted any vulnerability. That always annoyed journalists, who always want a better story. Now they had one; a big story. And he would have his comeuppance. The press jumped all over it.

     When he had his great fall, many critics were relieved. He had failed the moral test, cheated on his wife, was promiscuous with many other women. The published photos exposed something that didn’t have to be stated: he cheated on his blond white wife with other blond Vegas “bimbos.”
     Tiger had never been a “race man” the way the Jackie or Bill Russell or Jim Brown had been. Like Jordan, he had steered away from racial issues. Woods idolized his father, who had been a Green Beret in Vietnam, where he had met his second wife, Kutilda, in Thailand. Tiger was named for an army pal of Earl’s.   
     The media now treated him as if his transgressions were as great as O.J. Simpson’s. It seemed that the press was more offended by his mortal sin of deceiving them than deceiving his wife. He fooled them about his image, and now they were getting revenge.
     The media gloated over photos of him bending to the ground in agony, and the final mugshot, and video of him slumped in the seat of his car the night of his arrest were the final nails in his public relations coffin.

     But the public loves stories of redemption. He showed up as a coach at the team events. Woods became friends with this new crop of stars. Turns out, they all had idolized him when they were kids. As athletes who excelled at many sports, they all had turned to golf in order to emulate the Tiger they saw on TV, the dude who made the sport cool, who looked and acted like a powerful athlete. Dustin Johnson, Justin Thomas, Ricky Fowler, Brooks Koepka --these guys work out in gyms, bulk up, drive the ball further than anyone, just like he did.
     In the needling way that athletes always show their affection for peers, they urged the “old man” to get back into it. And his competitive juices began to stir again. As he felt physically better toward the end of 2017 after his spinal fusion healed, he began to swing clubs. Still uncertain, he took baby steps. In 2018, he began to play. He showed flashes of his old self, but missed some cuts and faltered often. Gradually, he was gaining confidence and regaining his technique.
     For a time, he had stumbled when trying the subtle short shots around the green that had been his specialty. His chunked and stubbed shots looked amateurish, a shocking result that led some commentators to tsk-tsk with disdain.
    “He has the yips,” they insisted, applying a label that implies a hopeless state that marked the end of many careers. Hogan and Snead each had the “putting yips,” a mental block neither could overcome under the enormous pressure of golf events.
     The critics overlooked the possibility that Woods was learning to play with a spine that had fused vertebrae, demanding new techniques and denying him the hundreds of hours of practice that honed such skills. But he persisted and found a way. His “touch” returned.
     He began to drive the ball for distance, perhaps not quite the prodigious distance of DJ or the other longest of the new kids, but respectably long. And his short game recovered. The critics couldn’t believe it. 
     “But his putting isn’t what it used to be,” they still insisted.  
     That was another part of the game that had set Woods apart from all but Nicklaus. Like Jack, he was able always to control his nerves and concentration to summon his extraordinary hand-eye coordination and skill at predicting the slope and speed of greens under the enormous pressure — with millions of eyes on him, with the win on the line, with hundreds of thousands of dollars riding on it — to sink the essential putt.
     For stretches of time, in our memories, he never seemed to miss an important one. From three feet, from ten feet, and much further away, he never missed any, not when he had to make one!
     The highlight reel of his putts curling from left to right and left again, from a plateau down to a gully, at a 90° angle, and into the cup! The crowd cheered with what came to be called “The Tiger Roar,” greater even than those of Arnie’s Army when he was charging up the back nine. Now, he wasn’t making those, not all of them. He three-putted more times than he used to.
     And now the phrase, “used to” began to be repeated more and more. I am familiar with it in my own life. My friends often whine, “I used to hit the ball a long way” ... “I used to win all the time.” I tease them about it. It is a mark of the has-been, the “used-to-be.” It is the ripest sign of aging.
     The golf pro and announcer, Johnny Miller, who himself suffered from injuries and putting woes that ended his career, remarked that over the age of forty, no one sinks as before. It is the start of the end.

LIES, DAMN LIES ... AND STATISTICS

     The stats were piled against Woods. Few in their forties have ever won Majors. No one has come back to prominence after back surgery. No one with the “yips” comes back to former greatness. In ’97 Woods revolutionized the game and shocked the golf world by overpowering Augusta National. He drove the ball so far that they had to lengthen golf courses to try to “Tiger proof” them. He’s now lost that advantage. Statistically, he ranks far below the young guns.
     Woods, also like Nicklaus, intimidated his competition. One famously said of Jack: “He knows he is going to win; you know he is going to win; and he knows you know he is going to win.” The same was true of Woods in his prime. When he was in the lead, the others had no chance: he knew it, they knew it, and he knew they knew it. Some admitted, “We are all playing for second place.” The betting line always had Woods or ... the field. To catch him, his steadiness forced other contenders to take risks and thus to make mistakes. He kept pressing forward, never satisfied with just winning.
     He set goals. In the 2000 US Open at Pebble Beach, he entered the final round so far ahead that he could have coasted to the win. But he decided to play the final round with no mistakes, no bogeys, nothing worse than par. On some holes he was at risk of missing his goal, but he grinded and never faltered. He finished the tournament twelve under par, while his nearest competitor was three OVER par, fifteen strokes behind. 

     Now, the critics predicted, this new crop won’t be intimidated by him. When Woods came along, the previous generation, who still had hopes of contending — Couples, Faldo, Norman, et al — knew it was over for them. And his contemporaries — Els, Goosen, Harrington, Garcia, Mickelson, Singh — pressed so hard to keep up and almost always faltered under his gaze.
     Playing in the same group with Woods in any tournament, but especially a Major or one of the events created to cash in on his talent — with fields limited to the best of the best — The Players Championship (he won twice), the Fed Ex Cup Series (he won the first one and the third); and a series of four annual World Golf Championships (he won 18 times).

     In baseball, if you safely hit in only three of each nine at bats, you will be in the Hall of Fame (a symbol of the rarity of excellence, attained by only a small percent of the best players in the sport).
     In golf, most pro golfers play at least 20 tournaments a year, 4 of which are Majors. If in 20 years, the pro wins 20 times, including 1 Major, he will make the Hall of Fame. Phil Mickelson has won 45 times, including 5 Majors. He has won 7% of the time he has tried. Woods has won 23%.

    From ’96 – ’08, his win percentage was almost 40%, far ahead of anyone in history, a statistic made even more amazing because he, unlike Phil or any other pro, played only the event with the strongest fields on the toughest courses.

2018: THE COMEBACK

"There are no second acts in American lives." (F. Scott Fitzgerald)

     By the start of 2018, the consensus among all observers, whether gloating or saddened, whether gadflies, talking heads, or old pros, (and including myself and others) predicted that he would never win another tournament, much less another Major. He might continue to try in order to placate his sponsors (Nike swoosh on hat and shirt) and keep his “brand” afloat, and he might occasionally contend in some tournaments, but the best he could hope would be to become another journeyman, a once-was, an average also-ran in the field.  
    
     He began to contend in 2018, showing spurts of excellence, and then some stretches of brilliance, and then reaching the last day with chances to win — in the British Open on the back nine. And then at the PGA, he chased Koepka with a final round 64 that fell just short of catching the young stud. But neither Molinari in the Open nor Koepka had blinked as Tiger’s opponents used to, proof, the pundits smirked, that he no longer could win by intimidation.
     The FedEx Cup Series of three grueling events, that winnows the field from 125, down to 70, and then to the best, the hottest 30 golfers at the end of the season, was his crucible. Woods barely qualified, barely survived, and snuck into the final event.
     He had proved that his back would hold up, that his endurance would, at 42, allow him to make it. But against 29 of the best young athletes, could he finish? He had been the best finisher in history, almost always winning from in front, but now, could he do it again.
     In the final round of the Tour Championship, he was paired with Rory McIlroy. Rory, 29, won 4 Majors since 2012, and is considered by many to be the best of this “post Tiger” generation. Also in the field was Justin Rose, Jordan Spieth, Jason Day, and Dustin Johnson. All had held number 1 in world ranking, at least for some weeks in the "post Tiger" era. 
     Woods had held #1 for stretches of 5 years twice, last ranking #1 in 2013. By 2017 he had plummeted, ranked below more than 1,000 of the best players in the world. At the start of 2018, he was 700th. Now, he had worked his way all the way to among the top 30.)

     By the end of that day, the TV cameras showed him strolling up the 18th fairway with Rory conceding his win, while hundreds of fans marched behind and among them in a scene that made YouTube and Sportscenter explode. Proving all the critics wrong, Tiger Woods HAD won again, beating all the best current players, most of whom were small children in 1997.

     Okay, the critics conceded. Tiger came back and won another, his 80th tournament. Impressive. He is only 2 behind Snead’s 82. But, and it is a huge but: he still won’t ever regain dominance, never the intimidation factor. Sure, Rory wilted at the Tour Champs, but Koepka held him off at the PGA, and Molinari, the spunky little Italian, didn’t blink in the British Open and took him down in the Ryder Cup when Tiger was totally whipped by everyone, an old man wheezing to the finish. Jack’s record of 18 Majors is still safe.

     The Masters is the first Major of the 2018-19 golf season that started in October. There have already been about 20 tournaments. Woods had competed in just a few: Torrey Pines, The Players, The WGC in Mexico and the Match Play. He hadn’t won any, and only in the Match Play had he shown any sign that he might win again. After besting Rory, he was beaten by another unknown face-to-face. Tiger throughout his career showed that he could beat the best, yet at times, he might lose to a journeyman: Bob May, Y. A. Yang, and now, a Dane, Bjeeregard. And he missed a three footer, something he never “used to” do.
     Has he fallen back? Was the Tour win a one-shot deal. That is the lesson of history. The greats may show flashes of their old greatness, but they will never climb to the heights again. Even those who stuck by him and believed he would win again never expected him to regain his previous dominance. That was impossible.

     And now the Masters is over. Tiger Woods, at age 43, wins his 15th Major, 5th Masters, his 81st PGA win. For the first time, he came from behind. In every previous Major win, he had been leading or tied for the lead going into the final round. Critics always conceded that he is “the best front runner ever” but he could never come from behind to win a Major. That is considered a flaw, a character defect that diminishes him in the eyes of his many critics. But now he did it. Not in “his prime,” not when he can outdistance every other player, not when he is 20 years older than the others.  

A PUNDIT EATS CROW

     Brandon Chamblee is a former journeyman pro golfer who contended in a few tournaments twenty years ago and won once in his career. Since then, he has become an “expert” commentator on the Golf Channel and in articles in golf magazines. He is a self-styled expert on the golf swing, able to expound articulately about the differences between Hogan’s (who he idolizes as a fellow Texan), and Jack’s, as well as Nelson’s, Snead’s ... and of course Tiger’s.
     Chamblee has made a reputation as a severe critic of Tiger: challenging his many swing changes, citing technical flaws that he claims reduced his efficiency, decrying his coaching changes — from Harmon to Haney to Foley and others. Tiger, he cries, has wasted his talent, underachieved, and frittered a chance to be the greatest of all time. He will never get the chance again to match the GOAT, Jack Nicklaus.  
     Like economists, Chamblee's grasp of statistics intimidates other commentators who can't summon arguments to contest his forceful numbers-based opinions.  
     He can quote voluminous statistics to prove his points: that Tiger ranks poorly in driving distance and accuracy, putting consistency, his "strokes gained' rankings in every statistical category were pathetic. Chamblee was the first to call Tiger's chipping difficulties the “yips,” citing the history of that chronic illness to prove that Tiger would never win again.
     Of course, Chamblee pays lip service to Woods as one of the greats of the past, but he maintains that his idols, Hogan and that other Southern gent, Bobby Jones, were better people, and Nicklaus is the GOAT. Even when Chamblee’s adored statistics favor Woods, he can always find another one that casts doubt and diminishes Woods — in his firmly held opinion, which he urges as if it is gospel truth.

     Going into this Masters, Chamblee opined that Woods didn’t drive or putt well enough to contend with McIlroy, his current fave, or even any of the others. Then, when Molinari led Tiger and Finau by two strokes going into the last day at the Masters, Chamblee cited more stats to prove that Molinari had to win. And of course, he eagerly repeated, Tiger had never won coming from behind.

     The flaw in Chamblee’s reasoning is his reliance on incomplete statistics. Like opinion polls, they are snapshots of past performance, and only suggest, but by no means guarantee, future outcomes (as the stock market disclaimers always warn us). All sports rely on numbers to measure performance, and the numbers (now called analytics) often replace the judgment of experienced eyes in judging excellence and predicting outcomes. 
    But the fact is that an aging pitcher who used to throw 100 mph can still win by guile, changing speeds, knowing the batter's weaknesses, etc. "Clutch" is a term experienced observers apply to someone who may fail under average conditions, but who, when the game is on the line, can be depended on to succeed more often than others. 
    There are few analytics that can measure this value. 

GOAT TO GOAT

     After the tournament was over, Jack Nicklaus over the phone from Florida, was interviewed on the show that Chamblee shares with David Duval and Frank Nobilo.
     Nicklaus said he knew Tiger would win as soon as Molinari put his tee shot in the water on hole 12 and Tiger drove his to the middle of the green.
     Tiger had done the smart, conservative thing, the thing that Jack had always done under similar pressure, in order to win. Tiger, Jack observed, had been driving poorly in prior tournaments this season, but on the back nine today, with the Masters at stake, he drove brilliantly, hitting fairways on 13, 14, 15, and 17 with lengthy drives. Augusta is considered a "second shot course" because the approaches to the green are what separate the winner from also rans. And Tiger's iron play was the best Jack had ever seen.
     Once he gained the lead, his putting from long distance was precise, allowing him to make the needed birdies and pars, and even the bogies that kept him ahead. He made the short ones that he had not made earlier in the year. The ones he had missed the first two days of the Masters, Jack knew, were due to the unusual slowness of the greens after the heavy season of rains had take the fire out of the traditionally blazing fast undulating Augusta greens. It took Tiger time to adjust. By Saturday he had figured it out. By Sunday afternoon, he had, well, Mastered them.

     David Duval, who had competed for his entire career against Tiger, had teamed with him, and had lost his #1 rank to him as well as many chances at winning Majors, had predicted early in the week that Woods would win the Masters. Noblilo had been in the announcer’s booth on 12 and marveled at the outcome when Koepka, Poulter, Molinari, and Finau all made crucial mistakes while Woods calmly took advantage and won.

     Chamblee was strangely subdued during the show, tight-lipped, and unapologetic, never once uttering the admission that he had been wrong. Woods, he grumbled, was “an enigma.” He meant that he could not understand, and statistics could not explain, how Woods had done it.  
     Again.
     But the stats were revealing. 
     Chamblee and others had said the winner had to score best on the 4 par 5’s. In ’97, Woods had destroyed them, scoring 13 under par on those holes. That was due to his driving dominance, something he now lacks. McIlroy, Rose, DJ, Koepka, and many others outdrive him. Compared to any of them, Tiger's par 5 stats so far this year are weak. That is why he can’t win.
     Well, in this Masters, Woods scored just 8 under par on the par 5’s, never eagled any of them. But he used his precise iron game to score on the par 3’s and par 4’s, especially in the final round. Woods led the field in greens-in-regulation, a testament to his iron game and his intelligence, as Jack Nicklaus understood.

     Nicklaus, always the gentleman and good sport, repeated what he has said before: no one wants their records broken, but he never wanted anyone, much less Tiger, to fail due to injury. Let him try, compete, and if he beats me, so be it. 
    So, he joked, now that Tiger’s back, “I am shaking in my boots.”