Yesterday my friend Yakut emailed me the article “Federer as Religious Experience” by David Foster Wallace, which appeared in the New York Times’ Play Magazine on August 20, 2006 (available here). Wallace penned an immaculate piece on Roger Federer, who also happens to be my favorite tennis player these days. As per his custom, Wallace resorts to 17 footnotes, provides detailed accounts of what he terms “Federer Moments” from the Nadal v. Federer Wimbledon Final of 2006, comments – in a tongue-in-cheek fashion, of course – on the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Museum and the tournament’s rules. It is a great ode to Federer, and contains a healthy rebuke of Nadal – who happens to be my least favorite pro these days. If you’re a tennis – and DFW – fan, enjoyed his essays in Consider the Lobster, and do not have the guts to restart Infinite Jest just yet, but would like to continue reading some brilliant prose, you should definitely check it out.
From the 18th tee of the almost universally renowned Cabot Links on Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, a golfer faces a sensory overload of views, along with a rather brutal, 475-yard, mostly-uphill, usually dead-into-the-wind par four. To the right, the Gulf of St. Lawrence, itself a feature visible from each and every hole on the course, churns. Ahead, there are minefields of deep bunkers framed by ragged edges. In the near distance, the down-on-their-luck houses of Inverness spread across the horizon, peppered with a few new massive vacation house construction projects. In the further distance, a high mountain tumbles into the sea. Within all this, a golfer cannot immediately determine a target line for the tee shot. This is a blind beginning, over a rise to rolling fairway.
But, lo!, the twin spires of St. Peter’s Roman Catholic Parish resolve the problem, gleaming white target lines that, indeed, are precisely where a player should aim. That’s good design, both because the steeples offer a visual clue on how to play the hole and because steeples as visual clue are so, well, linksy. We’ve all heard such things on television while watching the British Open, how players have to aim at this hotel or that shed or that yonder knob. Over time, towns built up around the old links across the pond, and along the way players figured out which landmarks could serve as golfing cairns across the horizon. So too, it seems, with Cabot, and the crafty player feels good about picking that sightline and piping a drive into the blindness, then ecstatic when the trust is rewarded with a drive that catches the tumbles of the fairway properly to set up the best shot into the home green.
Yet, here, I find myself making the non-standard choice of invoking French social theorist Jean Baudrillard in what counts, nominally, as a golf course review. In brief, Baudrillard argues that we live in a world that has slipped far away from its moorings in experience and, instead, “substitutes signs of the real for the real,” a situation he describes as a world full of “simulacra” and experiences that are effectively “simulations” of reality. Las Vegas is a good example, where visitors “experience” thunder showers in an indoor version of Spain and can shop fake Parisian boulevards without leaving a casino.
Furthermore, the current fashion of newly-built golf courses adopting the aesthetics of the ancient indicates a shift in the sort of simulation golfers prefer. For a long time, the immaculate green perfection of Augusta National held sway as the model, tight mowing and crisp lines and pristine sand and expensive maintenance conceived as the best and only way to manage a course. Now, with the 15-year success of Bandon Dunes in coastal Oregon, and the accolades of newly opened, fuzzy-bunkered Streamsong in the U.S. golf epicenter of Florida, and the ragged design cues of 2015 major tournament venues Chambers Bay and Whistling Straits, it’s clear that golf has entered into some kind of links renaissance. The idea, at heart, is to craft courses that feel old, that somehow “honor the game” in what sorts of shots they demand and images they produce.
At the final tee of Cabot, the links “feel” derives from the cleverness of the course architect — Rod Whitman — who must have seen St Peter’s on a visit to the site and realized how he could route a hole to make use of the steeples as guides. The sightline isn’t organic, then, in the manner of an old links, even if it functions in exactly the same way and, certainly, offers for the player the same sensation, a thrill of discovery, of resourcefulness, of connections to the ways things used to be done. This isn’t to say that the experience of that drive is bad, just that it is deeply constructed.
And in the same way, the full experience of playing Cabot relies on a steady stream of breathless accolades, as well as an equally voluminous (if quiet — this is Canada, after all) self-generated argument about its own existence as the only authentic links course in North America, save a course or two at even more far-flung Bandon. Golfers make long trips to Cabot and Bandon and others because of this supposed authenticity, where even the remoteness is part of the deal, a rugged journey that suggests the high quality of the experience about to be had. It doesn’t hurt that the long journey stays within the confines of the ocean and eliminates the need to abandon Anglo North American cultural norms.
Cutting to the first chase: Cabot Links is a joy and a marvel to play, certainly an authentic links if authenticity can be determined based on a golf course’s openness and/or requirement of an imaginative ground game, or by its location close to the whipping wind and salty air of a nearby sea, or by tufts of tall fescue securing dunes and hiding wayward golf balls, or deep pot bunkers that appear as snarling menaces ready to suck up every shot, or even by the local presence of lilting Irish or Scottish accents.
Of these aspects, the last one is perhaps both the most surprising and the most real. All through Atlantic Canada, but particularly along Cape Breton, the tonalities and rhythms of English carry the timbre and meter of the old island from whence many came, a few hundred years back. Even road signs on Cape Breton frequently carry the Gaelic beneath the English, a mark of the heritage of the residents and a hint that, in places, folks still speak it, just as the presence of French on other sides indicates the determined clinging-on of Acadians that, excepting New Brunswick (Canada’s Only Bi-Lingual Province!), form a small but vocal language minority.
But the other aspects determining the linksiness of Cabot are best considered through the lens of Jean Baudrillard, even though French critical theory checks in awfully low on the list of conversational topics one is likely to encounter while golfing. Indeed Cabot, and its growing presence in the former coastal coal mining town of Inverness, seems like an awfully apt case study in simulation. I don’t mean this as criticism, really, since I thoroughly enjoyed playing the course. Certainly the design of it has been remarkably well-executed, and the economic engine of the Cabot Resort — expanding with the official opening of a new course next year, Cabot Cliffs, and that already includes a high-end hotel, and arty condos, and several eateries that offer both jobs and dining opportunities for locals — is real and welcome in a remarkably gorgeous swath of North America that, like most of the whole of Atlantic Canada, has unfairly suffered both economic collapse and the ignominy of serving as the butt of regional jokes not far different than those that plague my own home turf of Appalachia.
Let’s put it this way: Cabot Links is as authentic as a contemporary links course can be, which is to say not at all, even though it totally is. If I want to be a purest here, a role I’m taking on as the linchpin of this review, I can cut the argument down to the simple root of history. You can’t just build a links course with a backhoe and an artful design, since the template of links courses lie within the haphazard centuries-long evolution of St. Andrews or, if you want to really be a purest, some unknown, windblown, overgrown, still-yet-to-be-found-by-the-tourists weed track in the middle of nowhere Scotland. Such courses aren’t so much built as gradually weathered from the rudiments of the landscape. A sheep huddling from the wind here. A shepherd whacking a rock with a stick there. Stout and whiskey and knickers and tams and hickory shafts and all that.
None of these things can be claimed by Cabot, since the course itself was ripped out and built up around and over the remains of a played-out coal mine just a few years ago (opening, as it did, in 2012). Cabot was conceived with the notion of building a links, which more or less violates the mystic sense of a place simply being a links. Nonetheless, the Cabot pro-shop is filled with expensive paraphernalia that harkens back to an imagined magical sense of antique linksiness: a thousand dollar leather golf bag hand-hewn in Oregon, tartan plaid putter covers, tartan plaid baby booties, and so forth. As much as this simulacra was built to sell the idea of a links course as a destination, so too is the pro shop filled with wares that sell the faux-residue of woodsmoke and peat.
Appearance matters more than anything, since with the true nature of Baudrillardian simulation substance has been replaced by symbol. The course itself presents itself as pleasing, and cleverly-designed, and rough hewn and — here we are again — authentic. Take the tee markers. They’re a curious choice of raw 2×4 chunks, beveled at the edge and wood burned with the Cabot logo. Hole markers, also, are engraved and painted into chunks of wood. And since the Gulf of St. Lawrence is right there next to it all, blowing mist and snow and wind and sun and all sorts of rapidly shifting meteorological messiness, all of this wood is battered and grayed and splintered and just so authentically old.
This is it in a nutshell, these tee markers made cheaply but cleverly, a brilliant little visual cue that encourages the golfer walking the links to accept this experience as old, not new, regardless of its actual age. Alongside that, the tee markers offer almost enough guidance to make a newbie comfortable with his or her choices on where the next hole happens to be, but leave enough mystery intact to further cultivate the illusion of aged quirkiness, of an organically-developed, ancient course routing that must be discovered. A player gets the sense that the locals know the way around and that you, as a visitor to this hallowed ground, must learn the aged wisdom of the locale.
The pleasure of playing Cabot lies in the way a golfer discovers and navigates the many ways it simulates/is the playing of a links. The cups are discs of metal that cling like tiny, ancient bells when a ball falls in, and the flagsticks click in firmly, to keep them from being dislodged by the wind. The turf around the bunkers is ragged and unkept, but purposefully so. There are fairy circles of mushrooms in the fairways, and brownness in the grasses, and texture to the fescue greens, which still putt well and clear, even in late autumn when I played, following a horrible summer of Atlantic Canada putting greens, so many of which had been wrecked by the massive snows of the preceding winter. My own home course on nearby Prince Edward Island had more than a few greens that, frankly, sucked the entire summer. And by “sucked” I mean had large swaths of grassless mud. There’s even a little public boardwalk among the dunes, passing right beside Cabot, so you can wave and say hello to non-golfers out walking the dog. As the dude in the pro-shop told me before the round, one of the markers of a true links is that it interacts with the town, and the path makes sure that it does. Another check on the list of things that make Cabot Links authentic.
The walking path is charming, as is more or less everything about Cabot Links, from the magnificent ruffles of the golf course, tousled like a crusty old codger who you can’t help love, to the saccharine practice of stenciling golf-writer quotes on each of the hotel doors. Ours was attributed to P.G. Wodehouse: “The only way of really finding out a man’s character is to play golf with him.” Even the bathroom had charming art, in the form of a framed map of Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island, in French, from before the French had been tossed out, when Nova Scotia wasn’t Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island was Ile St Jean.
Here it is, then, the rushing return of Baudrillard, his frenchy theory bringing me out of that frenchy map and into the ways that the charms of Cabot are also the absence of anything. The map on the bathroom wall, for example, is a fabricated fancy now. None of the places on it exist, inasmuch as we only consider things as existing when we accept their stable reality. Simply, Ile St Jean is Prince Edward Island, and what’s labeled on the map as “Labrador” is now the Bras d’Or Lakes of Cape Breton Island, and the stencils on the doors are quotes extracted from their context to become inspiration decoration, and the tousling of Cabot is blessedly intentional, done by nature and machine but certainly neither natural nor incidental. Cabot is because someone wanted it to be, not because it evolved its way into being, as with the old courses of yore.
I think, then, of the town of Inverness, and particularly to our morning trip for breakfast, to a coffee shop in the middle of the short main drag. It was suspiciously nice, lots of cash spent on decor and furniture, modern with a hint of age. Later, we learned that the shop is owned by Cabot also, the arms of the resort reaching down the street to lay claim to more space. Or, rather, to create more space: golfers needed a coffee shop, so the resort built one. Part of me finds that terrifying, a certain kind of golfish Disneyification, a town shaped to appear like an ideal seaside village perfect for a bucolic vacation. Yet, on the other hand, as with the golf course itself, the coffee shop offers a job or two for locals, and a place for locals to have a coffee and a pastry and a warm place to chat.
Similarly, but without any breath of concealment, the resort runs a “public house” on the main drag, though it’s connected to the hotels by staircases and common design themes. It’s a known fabrication, but the beer on tap includes local Cape Breton brewery Big Spruce (worth a visit in its own right, to sip flights while looking across Bras D’Or; it’s about an hour from Cabot and 10 minutes from Bell Bay). There was also plenty of authenticity in the baby-faced giant working the bar on the night we visited. He spoke with the right kind of Cape Breton-lilted quietude to let you know that, should anyone get rowdy, he’d take you out back and break you in half. That’s charm, too, something I’d expect to find in Ireland or Scotland, or throughout the Maritimes for that matter, a region of North America resplendent in charm, friendliness, and men ready and willing to kick your ass if the need arises.
So this is the pastiche of the simulation: Cabot and all that comes with it is built equally on the expectations golfers bring to the word “links” and the realities of its locale. What I like best, then, are the ways that authenticity cannot help but assert itself among the artful contrivances of the place. That’s not gorse on the sand dunes, for example, but instead is the vernacular foliage, wild rose (itself technically an invasive) and marram grass and sea oats and shrubs native to the place. The locals aren’t putting on those accents. The lobster boats in the marina beyond the picturesque green of #6 aren’t just for show. Inverness exists with its history, and at least so far hasn’t been cleaned up to pretend that it’s a tidy prosperous place, even if the apparent inevitability of the golf course has been carefully detailed by planning committees and financiers.
As far as authenticity goes, despite the efforts of the Cabot PR machine and the love sprinkled upon the course by the big golf magazines, a properly insufferable postmodernist has to, in the end, refuse its existence. Yes, Cabot lets you pretend you’re on a true links. But you aren’t. It was just built to seem that way, just as more or less every links course anywhere must be considered as some combination of real and fake. Indeed, even venerable St. Andrews is regularly torn up and renovated with heavy equipment to fit its style to the modern game, so perhaps the question of authenticity isn’t one that needs to be considered, nor the steady claims of achieving it worth making. Whether Cabot is or isn’t a links doesn’t have any effect on the pure pleasure you’ll find when you chip an 8-iron from 100 yards away, then watch your ball tumble and trundle up and around the shaped humps of Cabot Links, the best simulacra of a links golf course you’ll find on the East Coast of Canada, perhaps anywhere.
My neighbor and friend Jacob Lambert wrote a powerful piece for Philadelphia Weekly recently about his brother David, who has been diagnosed with acute bipolar disorder:I was at home in Bella Vista when he called. Last I’d heard he’d “eloped” from the hospital and was wandering his old East Village haunts. This was nothing new; many times over the years, his ward status had been upgraded, giving him a bit of freedom – and he’d simply walk off, winding up in Manhattan, then Bellevue, then back at the hospital he’d started from.Today, though, he wasn’t calling from a pay phone on Bleecker Street. He was on a cell phone at Seventh and Pine, saying he was browsing apartments, was owed $100,000 and would be buying me a new Mercedes. He sounded as bad as ever, and the call ended when he set down the phone to talk to a stranger.Incidentally, Jacob also runs the hilarious Philly Turkey, a must read for Philly natives.
It’s that time of year again, sports fans. Time to break out the pail and the stool and start milking that billion-dollar cash cow called the NCAA men’s basketball tournament but universally known by its brand name — March Madness — along with its ever-growing herd of clichés, including The Dance, the bubble, Selection Sunday, bracketology, the office pool, one and done, Cinderella, the First Four, the Sweet Sixteen, the Elite Eight, and finally, mercifully, sometime in early April, the Final Four.
Along the way, since every last game of the tournament is now televised, we’ll get our fill of shrieking coaches, 40-minute games that drag on for more than two hours, players paved with tattoos who hang on the rim and weep on cue and sometimes manage to remind us, despite the increasingly long odds, that college basketball can still be a thing of spontaneous, unpredictable, crazy beauty.
We’ll also get squads of robotic cheerleaders straight out of the uncanny valley, adorable mascots in furry costumes, close-ups of fans in body paint, fans waving giant human-head cutouts, fans acting like they’re being electrocuted whenever they sense the hot red eye of a TV camera — all of it chopped up by a seemingly endless parade of commercials urging us to buy this or that brand of car, cell phone, fast food, insurance, soft drink, sneaker, credit card, or beer. During the championship game, advertisers will pay $1.5 million for 30 seconds of air time.
How did this come to pass? How did a beautiful game played by unpaid teenagers get turned into an advertising bonanza for corporate America? The short answer is: big money. In 2010, CBS and Turner Sports paid the National Collegiate Athletic Association $11.5 billion for the rights to broadcast the tournament for the next 14 years. The slightly longer answer is that stroke of evil genius that made the big money possible: the TV timeout.
Today there is a stoppage of play at the first whistle after the 16-, 12-, 8- and 4-minute marks of each 20-minute half in every televised college basketball game. The games stop cold, pure and simple, so that advertisers can pitch their wares. These TV timeouts, along with the five regular timeouts awarded to each team, destroy the essence of a game that used to be all about momentum and flow. The only flow that matters today is the cash flow.
I thought the TV timeout was a relatively recent abomination, but I was surprised to discover that basketball purists have been railing against it for nearly half a century.
On March 12, 1967, The New York Times sports page carried this headline: Coaches at N.I.T. Disturbed by TV Time-Outs During Play. The story reported that the televised National Invitational Tournament game between Providence and Memphis State at Madison Square Garden was interrupted 10 times by timeouts — eight of them called by a CBS employee who sat courtside and signaled to the referees when to stop and resume play so the network could air commercials. Providence coach Joe Mullaney was furious that Memphis State’s rally was given an unfair boost by the CBS-dictated timeouts. “Also,” the article noted, “each time-out lasted 75 seconds instead of 60.” The long slide down the slippery slope into the money pit had begun. As the Times writer so deftly put it:
College basketball rules give each team the right to call five time-outs during a 40-minute game. A basic element of strategy is proper use of the time-outs: some must be husbanded to set up plays in the closing seconds of a close game, others may be used to provide rest at a crucial moment or break the momentum of the opposition.
The eight TV timeouts during NCAA tournament games now routinely drag on for three minutes, while the halftime break has been stretched from 15 to 22 minutes. As a result, the games are robbed of flow, they last too long, and there’s no premium on fielding a deep bench because the starters get regular breathers while corporate America gets to sell stuff and the NCAA gets rich. The big loser is the game of college basketball.
So when exactly did the term “March Madness” enter the glossary of American sports clichés? That depends on who’s answering the question. Eddie Einhorn, who died on Feb. 24 at 80, was a key engineer of college basketball’s transformation from regional winter diversion into global televised spectacle. His telecast of the 1962 NCAA title game between Cincinnati and Ohio State was not seen outside of Ohio. This was not satisfactory for Eddie Einhorn. In his book How March Became Madness: How the NCAA Tournament Became the Greatest Sporting Event in America, Einhorn pegs the birth of the malady to a game on Jan. 20, 1968. Played before a crowd of 52,000 in the Houston Astrodome, it was the first college basketball game televised nationally in prime time. With millions watching on TV, Elvin Hayes and his Houston teammates ended the 47-game winning streak of mighty UCLA, led by Lew Alcindor, who later became Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Smelling money, NBC began broadcasting the NCAA tournament the following year.
In his book When March Went Mad: The Game That Transformed Basketball, Seth Davis argues that the pivotal moment was the championship game on March 26, 1979, between Michigan State, led by Magic Johnson, and Indiana State, led by Larry Bird, a dream TV matchup between two charismatic stars that would generate the highest Nielsen rating of any basketball game ever played. “The game of basketball was about to change forever,” Davis writes in the strangely purplish yet bland style of the sportswriter. “The 1979 NCAA championship game helped catapult college basketball, and especially the NCAA tournament, into the national consciousness.”
That year’s NCAA tournament grossed more than $5 million in TV revenue. Today the take is more than $1 billion a year — 200 times as much. That kind of money can ruin just about anything, and the damage to college basketball goes far deeper than the insidious ways commerce has altered what happens on the court. Much darker is what happens behind the curtain, in the high-pressure world of recruiting “student-athletes,” of building a successful “program,” then staying on top. Elite coaches earn north of $6 million a year coaching unpaid players, and when the stakes are that high, sleaze is a virtual given.
This year, for instance, two of the game’s most revered coaches will be sitting out the NCAA tournament because of violations. Louisville’s Rick Pitino, the third highest-paid coach in the land, coach of national champions at Kentucky in 1996 and at Louisville in 2013, has been sidelined by the Louisville administration because one of his assistants paid sex workers and strippers to have sex with basketball recruits, players, and their fathers at dorm parties that ran for four years. Two of the sex workers were daughters of the madam who orchestrated the fun, Katina Powell, who wrote a damning book called Breaking Cardinal Rules: Basketball and the Escort Queen. Louisville basketball, it turns out, is truly a family affair. An investigation by the NCAA is continuing.
Southern Methodist University’s Larry Brown, who coached Kansas to the national championship in 1988, will also be watching the tournament at home this year. The NCAA banned SMU from postseason play and suspended Brown for nine games because one of his prize recruits, a McDonald’s All-American named Keith Frazier, had been admitted to the university even though he was academically unqualified, and then his grades were doctored to ensure his eligibility. When the scandal broke, Frazier left the team and transferred to North Texas.
“The tragedy,” Michael Powell wrote in The New York Times, “is that the adults in big-time high school and college basketball…exert far more energy trying to churn out victories than trying to provide an education. Young men like Frazier, who just three years ago was Brown’s top recruit, are collateral damage.”
This was not Larry Brown’s first brush with the NCAA sheriffs. Kansas was banned from postseason play in 1989 because Brown was caught on tape admitting to illegal cash payments, with assistants acting as bag men. At UCLA, Brown coached the team to the title game, only to have the tournament wins tossed out by the NCAA because Brown had fielded two players who were academically ineligible.
But repeat offenders like Larry Brown are aware that after the storm blows over, the money and the recruits will keep pouring in. Asked if the sanctions had damaged his recruiting efforts, Brown replied, “Not one bit. I think it’s only helping.”
There may be something even more insidious about March Madness than the money and the cynical treatment of “student-athletes” like Keith Frazier. Maybe the most insidious thing is the carefully nurtured lie that the tournament is a wide-open affair, an equal-opportunity nationwide free-for-all in which all 68 teams have a legitimate shot at the title. This is another piece of the bedrock American myth that says anyone can get rich, anyone can become president, even Cinderellas make it to the dance. Nonsense. There are 16 seeds in each of the four regions in the tournament, and the lowest seed ever to win it all was #8 Villanova in 1985, which is another way of saying that far fewer than half of the teams have a realistic chance of winning the title. Of course some players and coaches are thrilled just to get a chance to appear briefly on the big stage, and there’s nothing wrong with that. And every once in a long while there are pleasant surprises, such as when Steph Curry and his unheralded Davidson teammates, a #13 seed, made a scintillating run to the round of eight in 2008. But let’s not lose sight of the facts that schools that make the tournament earn $1.67 million even if they never win a game, and a run to the Final Four brings in the handsome sum of $8.3 million.
Simply put, in college basketball, as in the rest of American life, there are the haves and the have-nots, the blue-bloods and the also-rans. The rich will keep getting richer and everyone else will keep buying into the delusion that they can get rich too — even though the deck is rigorously stacked against them. As Republican presidential hopeful Marco Rubio put it, “We are a nation of haves and soon-to-haves.” As if. Elite programs have the leverage — the prestige, the facilities, the money, the fans, and, yes, the TV exposure — that guarantees they will continue to attract the top talent. Meanwhile, March Madness will continue to feed the fantasy among American kids that they’re destined for a big-time college team and its natural payoff, a high-paying berth in the NBA. Many of those young dreamers will wind up like Keith Frazier, collateral damage who bought into the myth of the cash cow and found out the hard way that big money and college sports are a toxic mix.
So be it. Time to crack open a beer, turn on the tube, and let the games begin. Sure, I’ll watch the final minutes of a few games this year because I’ve been playing basketball as long as I’ve been walking upright and I think the game is one of mankind’s few truly beautiful creations. In the bursts of action between the endless commercial breaks, I’ll get reminded, once again, that many of the kids who play the game today are insanely talented. Too bad they’re being so shamelessly exploited.
Image Credit: Flickr/Håkan Dahlström.