Last week the Detroit Tigers reined in their left centerfield
fence by 25 feet, and the Old Course at St. Andrews reduced the
depth of its diabolical Road Hole bunker by two feet, and USA
Today noted that the number of perfect games in bowling rose from
more than 5,000 in 1980 to more than 42,000 last year because
bowling lanes, like bowling groupies, are now tricked out with
oils to promote scoring.
In other words, sports are being made easier by the day, and the
lesson for athletes is clear: Why rise to meet a challenge when
the challenge will stoop to meet you?
Cutting your handicap is now as easy as clear-cutting your golf
course. That's what someone--presumably a member--did last month
at Tillicoultry Golf Club near Stirling, Scotland, where two
15-foot conifers that guarded the ninth green were felled with an
ax in the dead of night.
The perpetrator may have merely taken a broad interpretation of
Rule 23-1, governing the removal of loose impediments, but he--or
she, or they--make Andy McPherson want to heave his haggis. "The
course has to be hard in some places," says the Tillicoultry
greenkeeper. "Golf is not meant to be an easy game."
Tell that to the St. Andrews Links Trust. The Road Hole bunker
was the most famous hazard in all of golf, gaping like an
uncovered manhole beside the 17th green at the Old Course. It has
been renowned as the Sands of Nakajima ever since the 1978
British Open, when Tommy Nakajima took five strokes to get out of
it, looking, all the while, like a man trapped at the bottom of a
well. (Which is, in essence, what he was.)
Five-time Open champ J.H. Taylor took 13 to get out of that
bunker in 1921. Costantino Rocca lost the '95 Open playoff to
John Daly after taking three hacks to escape, one fewer than
David Duval took in the final round of the 2000 Open, where he
appeared--physically and psychologically--to be standing in the
mouth of the man in The Scream.
Yet as of last week the sand, tragically, is more Ipanema than
Nakajima. The bunker's been made benign. "It had become too
treacherous for the average golfer," explained a spokeswoman for
the St. Andrews Links Trust, which is responsible for the change.
"And even Ernie Els, who is such a great bunker player, had
problems getting out of it at the Dunhill Links tournament."
Too treacherous? Then why not turn the Paris-to-Dakar road rally
into the Paris--to--de Gaulle road rally, and replace the racing
motorcycles with dueling airport limousines?
Remember when sports were supposed to be treacherous? You didn't
ask Dick Butkus, just before he bit you, to kindly remove his
dentures. The four-minute mile is a difficult standard precisely
because miles are long and minutes are short and the two measures
are immutable. When Hillary had difficulty ascending Everest, did
they bring the mountaintop to Muhammad? They do now, as tourists
are "short-roped"--or chauffeured by Sherpa--to the summit.
We want instant gratification. We want heaven without dying. We
want fast-food meals and we want eight-minute abs. (Indeed,
seven-and six-minute ab programs have been developed for those
who find 480 seconds too great an investment for a washboard
stomach.) This distinctly American mania for shortcuts was best
expressed by comedian Steven Wright, who said, "I put instant
coffee in a microwave oven and almost went back in time."
Why lift weights when there are pec implants, or lose weight when
there's liposuction? Why swing for the fences when the fences are
swinging toward you? Baseball has juiced balls and juiced batters
and goosed ballparks, whose dimensions are dwindling by the
decade. Carlos Pena of the Tigers hit 19 home runs last season,
when the left centerfield fence at Comerica Park was 395 feet
from home plate. Without so much as a single sit-up, last week
Pena became a more potent slugger, when that power alley shrank
to 370. Likewise, the Lumberjack Nicklaus who chopped down the
trees at Tillicoultry may well believe--as his nonconforming
driver lands a turbocharged ball onto a 9th green newly denuded
of trees--that his golf skills have improved dramatically, just
as Roger Clemens and Kobe Bryant might imagine, in escaping the
Blue Jays and the Hornets for the Yankees and the Lakers,
respectively, that their championship rings are due entirely to
hard work. Some people (as has been said of President George
Bush) are born on third base and think they hit a triple.
Just because there were 198 perfect games in bowling in 1952 and
42,163 last year doesn't mean that we're a nation of better
bowlers. It means merely that we'll accept rewards without
working for them. Everyone wants to visit Maui; nobody wants to
Norma Desmond, the faded silent-film star of Sunset Boulevard,
said that she was still big, it was the pictures that got small.
Sports perform a similar sight gag: Barry Bonds appears larger
with every shriveling ballpark. But we all ought to know better.
We're only fooling ourselves. And we'll say with certainty 10
years from now, Golfers haven't gotten bigger. It's the bunkers
that got small.
B/W PHOTO: JEFFERY A. SALTER
The lesson for athletes is clear: Why rise to meet a challenge
when the challenge will stoop to meet you?