Theory: Chambers Bay and the Point of Tournaments

What is a tournament about?

I don’t generally follow professional golf, but it’s just provided a case study that encapsulates a larger debate regarding what tournaments should be used for. The U.S. Open played over the weekend was–at least according to some–a weak measure of overall golf skill. Yet, it was an excellent test of who was tops at solving unique problems on a specific day. Views of the event thus depend on the purpose one thinks tournaments should serve, making it a great vehicle for discussing the issue.

A bit of background is in order. The U.S. Open is a major golf tournament held each summer. It moves from course to course, and this year was held at Chambers Bay in Washington state. Chambers Bay proved controversial. The drought afflicting the West Coast hit the already-difficult course, substantially impacting how it played. One player memorably “said that Chambers Bay Golf Course’s dry, bumpy greens were ‘pretty much like putting on broccoli;’” another replied that the greens didn’t have broccoli’s color, and were more like cauliflower. All of this led some to complain that the results were not a proper measure of skill, including one player who went off on network television about good putts being derailed and bad putts being knocked in.

For all the problems, though, the fact remains that the U.S. Open was extremely interesting to watch. Gut checks were constant. Can this guy get out of a giant maw of a sand trap, ten feet deep? One player was ill; could he make it through the last few hours? The course is extremely hilly, and the golfers had to keep it together when they hit a ball up toward the hole . . . and it rolled all the way back down to where it had started. (That happened more than once!) I can’t say whether Jordan Spieth, the ultimate winner, was the best overall golfer—but he was certainly the best at adapting to a crazy, challenging situation.

Is that enough to deserve to win? There are two camps, and it’s good practice as a lawyer to think about both sides’ arguments. Here they are, presented for your consideration.

The prosecution: this isn’t why we have tournaments.

We call the U.S. Open a championship event. That’s because it’s intended to determine who is the champion—the best. Chambers Bay, and by extension this U.S. Open, didn’t accomplish that.

Tournaments are, fundamentally, measures of skill. That’s why we have tournaments, with all their formal rules: to strip away everything that isn’t skill, and to ensure to the greatest extent possible that the most skilled player wins out. At a fundamental level, the difference between a tournament and playing casually with friends is that tournaments have as their purpose showcasing skill, with fun as a secondary goal, whereas most “play” is the other way around.

Being the best golfer means performing difficult tasks reliably. First one must hit a tiny ball with a stick so that it travels accurately to a location hundreds of yards away. Then one must hit the ball, again using a lengthy stick, so that it drops into a hole barely larger than the ball itself. We make tournament golfers do these things again and again, seeing who most consistently chooses the precise angles and forces necessary to get the ball where it is meant to go. Those choices are the essence of skill in golf, and we gather lots of data about how golfers make them so that we can make fine judgments between who is good at these decisions and who is the best.

Chambers Bay’s ragged greens undermined that analysis. We can’t say who was most reliably able to pick the correct angles and forces, because good decisions were undone by flaws in the playing surface. A random element crept in which made it impossible to say whether scores were based on skill or luck.

The 15th U.S. Open might have been won by the best golfer . . . or it might not have. We don’t know, and a tournament that leaves us uncertain on that point is a tournament that hasn’t done its job.

The defense: the event did everything an event can do.

It’s absolutely true that tournaments are meant to measure who’s the best. However, no single event can determine who’s the best in some cosmic sense. Chambers Bay did a fine job of establishing who was the best on the day, and that’s all we can ever ask of a tournament.

There’s never been a game where all involved played completely perfectly, to the outermost limit of their skill, so that we can say the winner was absolutely supreme. We have to accept that everyone involved in a tournament is merely mortal, and that every individual data point about player skill is therefore flawed and approximate. Overall best-ness can only be determined in hindsight, when more such points have accumulated than any single tournament can offer.

Once we acknowledge the limits on all tournaments, it’s clear that the U.S. Open was great. The event made players stretch beyond their normal boundaries, and allowed those who could do so to shine. Perhaps it tested whether a golfer was determined and even-keeled more than the golfer’s putting stroke; if so, that’s not a bad thing. Focus and steadiness are traits of good golfers, too.

Twenty years from now we’ll be able to look back and say whether Jordan Spieth was the best, or whether he triumphed over some other best to take this particular event. We need that extra time, with all the information it will bring, to make that evaluation. In the interim, the U.S. Open was a demanding challenge that tested the limits even of top people. An interesting game resulted. That’s what it’s reasonable to want from a tournament, and that’s exactly what the Open and Chambers Bay gave us.

Jurors, the matter is now in your hands

I have a personal sympathy for the second position–but the first has its merits. So: was this a good U.S. Open? More generally, are somewhat offbeat tournaments acceptable?


2 thoughts on “Theory: Chambers Bay and the Point of Tournaments

  1. Nice post – you managed to take a topic I have nearly no interest in (Sports, especially Golf), and make it worthwhile to read about (:

    For this specific instance, I’m inclined to side with the the prosecution. It sounds like the conditions here were quite rare for Golf, even given that there is a weather element to Golf that is less prominent in other sports. If such a rare event managed to change the terrain to such a large extent, than it’s really not representative of 90% of tournaments, so even if you are good that those types of rare scenarios, it doesn’t translate to overall skill to me.

    If such weather drastic weather changes are really a key element of golf, then they should purposefully hold tournaments on days that are likely to have bad weather. This may be taking things a bit too far, but I think you get my point.

    Having said that, I think the golfer him/herself can take advantage of these times and really get into the creative thinking that is required, and as a result have an enjoyable time.

    A final point – whether such tournaments really test a players ‘true’ skill can be easily seen by looking at the results of other tournaments. If the ranking that occurred as a result of this ‘freak’ tournament is so different from 90% of other tournaments (meaning players that are usually top rank became bottom, and vice versa), the results to me are mostly meaningless. Whereas if there is only a bit of variation that tournament may still be representative.

    1. Thanks! I’m glad you enjoyed the post. 🙂

      Your point that what makes for a *fun game* might be different from an ideal *tournament environment* is fascinating. I think that’s true in many tournaments for many games–and that it’s really a poor situation. Definitely something to think about going forward.

      Although I’m not a big golf person, I know that Jordan Spieth–the overall winner–is considered something of a phenom, having won a major tournament earlier in the year.

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