You can make a course so hard that only the best can play it, but that doesn’t ensure you’ll see the best play. (More)

Watching last weekend’s U.S. Open Men’s Golf tournament almost made me regret that squirrels invented golf. You probably haven’t heard that story, just as you hadn’t heard about Isaac Newtufts simultaneously dropping a nutshell and an apple core on Newton’s head. Both hit at the same time, thus proving Newtufts’ theory that acceleration due to gravity is a constant. Newton wrote up the theory and left Newtufts out of the story, just as Artair and Gordon MacPhluphy are left out when humans talk about the birth of golf. Here’s how it happened:

One fine Scottish day, Artair and Gordon were busy burying nuts. Rather than dig a hole, put a nut in it, and cover it up, the Brothers MacPhluphy decided to dig all the holes ahead of time. They counted the holes dug on their toes, and squirrels have four front and five back toes, for a total of eighteen. By the time they dug the eighteenth hole they were bored and needing a break. Each took a walnut and a twig, and they began whacking their walnuts from one hole to the next. Artair had just taken a mighty swing when he looked up and saw his brother standing in the way. He began to yell his brother’s name in warning and switched to “olf” (local dialect for “oops”) as the nut landed on Gordon’s tail. Now you know why a golf course has eighteen holes, why a golf ball is about the size of a walnut and has dimples, and why the game is called “golf” and not “goops.”

Except this year’s U.S. Men’s Open should have been called “goops.”

The Olympic Club is always a hard course, with its steeply sloping fairways and greens. The United States Golf Association run the tournament, and they made the course harder – as they always do for the Open – by lengthening holes, narrowing fairways, letting the rough grow taller, and cutting the greens shorter. Even a slightly offline tee shot was likely to land in thick rough. Putts often broke by several feet, and missed putts could roll yards past the hole. The USGA’s theory is that the best golfers make fewer mistakes, so penalizing mistakes more severely ensures that only the best golfers can win.

If the world golf rankings mean anything, that theory didn’t work out. In the Open format, only the 60 players with the lowest scores after two rounds (including ties) qualify to play on the weekend. Three of the five top-ranked players didn’t make the cut. Of the 15 top-ranked players going into the Open, only five finished in the top 15 on the Open leaderboard. The winner – then-14th ranked Webb Simpson – finished at one over par. The USGA had made an already hard course into a monster.

As I watched the world’s best players hack around in frustration, I thought about David Brooks’ column in last Friday’s New York Times, and this paragraph in particular:

The welfare model favors security over risk, comfort over effort, stability over innovation. Money that could go to schools and innovation must now go to pensions and health care. This model, which once offered insurance from the disasters inherent in capitalism, has now become a giant machine for redistributing money from the future to the elderly.

In golf terms, Brooks and Republicans see modern social democratic welfare states as a retirement community course. The holes are short, the fairways wide, the hazards few, the greens easy to read. Only the worst incompetence is penalized, so it’s hard to distinguish the best from the rest. Why work hard to hone your skills if the course of life is so easy that anyone can do well? As the ad for The Ladders upscale job search site put it: “When you let everyone play, nobody wins.”

If you think the goal of society should be to identify and (lavishly) reward the best people, then Brooks’ and Republicans’ argument makes sense (if you leave out the part where many of the ‘best’ were born on the back nine). But what if you think the goal of society should be to identify and implement the best solutions? Brooks and Republicans might argue that’s no different, as the best ideas will come from the best people. Identify and (lavishly) reward the best people, supply-siders say, and their brilliance will make life better for the rest of us. What’s more, if the rest of us know the penalties for even slight mistakes will be severe, we will work harder to avoid those mistakes. On a hard course, everyone must be at the top of their game … and the harsh conditions will distinguish the best from the rest.

But as we saw Saturday, the real world dynamics of innovation and risk don’t support that theory. If we want to identify and implement the best solutions, we need more people taking risks to try more ideas. Most of those ideas will not work, and most ideas that might work will need to be refined through trial and error. If even slight mistakes bring harsh penalties, the most rational choice is to avoid risks … and not try to innovate at all.

Harshly penalizing even slight mistakes won’t make more people innovate better, just as turning every course into an Open-style Olympic Club monster won’t make more people better golfers. If every course were that hard, almost no one would play golf at all.

That’s fine if you think golf – and life – should be reserved for the privileged few. But that’s not what Artair and Gordon MacPhluphy had in mind. The Old Course at St. Andrews has always been open to the public, except for a 45-year period when golf was banned entirely, and another period where the rabbits invaded. Wouldn’t you know they mention the rabbits … and leave out Artair and Gordon. Goops.

Good day and good nuts.

+++++