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June 22, 2009

Prospectus Today

Bethpage Black

by Joe Sheehan

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"So when do you start Golf Prospectus?"

I got that question twice yesterday, once from MLB.com's Mike Siano as we sat on the hill overlooking the eighth green at Bethpage, and once via Twitter from a friend who'd read that I was attending yesterday's action at the US Open.

It's not the worst idea in the world. In golf, as in baseball, technology has increased the amount of data that can be collected about professional golfers and the games they play. We have basic statistics, such as scoring averages, money earned, and major wins, going back forever. Come forward in time, and performance metrics such as fairways hit, sand saves, and putts are available. In recent years, we've added a whole slate of stats tracked via satellite technology, such as driving distance and performance on putts of various lengths. Golf courses don't track perfectly to ballparks, but you could probably come up with some decent "park factors" for courses over time. And the individual nature of golf means you don't have the confounding factors that can make baseball analysis such a challenge. No one's pitching to Tiger Woods.

Trust me, I'm not volunteering. As my performance in the Rotowire fantasy golf league has shown over the years, what I know about golf can comfortably fit inside a divot. It's not like my play of the game earns me any credit, either; my single most-frequent reaction to holes at Bethpage Black was, "I could never play this course." When you consider the amount of data available, the level of interest in the game and, quite frankly, the demographics of the target market, a golf annual in the Prospectus mold seems like a winner.

That notion, however, wasn't my takeaway from a day spent ruining a lousy pair of pants walking through the mud of Bethpage State Park. No, I found that watching a golf tournament from the course brought up a lot of the issues I've been struggling with this season, my 10th writing a regular column for Baseball Prospectus. As I've written, I've been to a bunch of games this year, many more than usual, and I've enjoyed every minute of them. Short of playing baseball, watching baseball at the park is the best way to experience the game. You simply see more of it, and live more of it, from the stands than you do at home.

Watching golf from the course is like that. I saw so many great shots yesterday. I cheered along with thousands of others when Tiger Woods canned a big birdie at the third green, and when Phil Mickelson stuck an approach shot at #2 early in the fourth round. I groaned repeatedly when most of the field missed birdie putts coming through the third early in the day. I clapped for my favorite golfers, including Anthony Kim and Angel Cabrera, and withheld that praise-no one really boos on a golf course, especially with Colin Montgomerie not around-for Carl Pettersson and Hunter Mahan, who have ruined my fantasy teams in recent seasons. I put down hot dogs and ducked under an umbrella and cursed my lack of height. Repeatedly.

The thing is, while the experience of golf is better from the tournament, the experience of the tournament is better from home. At the tournament, you have two choices, more or less. You can watch a hole, or you can watch a pairing. Some people follow a group around from start to finish, most notably the small city of Tigerville that made Andres Romero's day so interesting. This is what you would do if you're a fan of one golfer, or if you wanted to see the entire course, or if you just felt like taking a slow four-mile stroll. The other method, the one we employed for the most part, is to hang out at a hole and see all the golfers come through. We spent an hour at the third green, seeing that Woods birdie, a couple of nice up-and-downs, and some terrific tee shots. Then we scampered to the eighth to see many of the same players on another par-three. Finally, we saw the front-nine flight of players in the fourth round as they came through the second green and third tee.

In either case, you're seeing a tiny fraction of the event, and it's a fraction pulled completely out of context. There's a leaderboard running 10 deep on each hole, and you hear scattered cheers-the largest of the day for Ricky Barnes' early eagle-and some people have headsets for listening to the coverage. For the most part, though, you're in the forest, appreciating the very nice trees, with little sense of the whole. You get just enough information to remind you that there's a larger context for what you're seeing, just enough to feel a little left out when that roar goes up somewhere over your shoulder. There are no cell phones or PDAs allowed on the grounds-correctly so, even if it did leave me with the shakes-so there's no good way of getting that big-picture perspective. You just have to throw yourself into the experience and catch up later.

That's what going to a ballgame is like. You get that in-depth understanding of everything that happens, you experience the thrill of the great catch, the late-inning rally, the lead change, the play at the plate. You don't just see it, but you hear it and smell it and taste it. It's this addictive drug, this game of ours, and you want to go back the next day and the next and the next, because it seems like more fun than humans should be allowed.

Then you get home, and you find out that while you were huffing baseball, 14 other things were happening, and you now know nothing about them, and you need to know about them, because they're important. Repeat this exercise enough times, and you'll start to feel disconnected from the season itself. I can tell you any number of things about the Yankees, Mets... even, weirdly, the Orioles... but I feel less knowledgeable about the Royals or Cubs or A's than I have in years. I saw Tiger Woods play three holes yesterday, Henrik Stenson too, but never once laid eyes on Lucas Glover or Ricky Barnes, in part due to NBC's desire to start "Merlin" on time darkness. There's no way, none, that I could begin to write the story of the tournament from being there, and frankly, I find myself wondering how golf writers-and I mean gods like Dan Jenkins-do it. I want to know how you balance experiencing the event with collecting enough knowledge about it to be analytical. I want to be able to tell the story and also break down the game.

Maybe it has to be a choice. Maybe, and I say this as someone who has always advocated the position of "informed outsider," doing both isn't possible. Oh, you can pull it off at the World Series, when the meta is the micro, but there may be no way to attend 40, 60, or 80 baseball games a year and still be able to break down the entire league, just as there's no way to sit under an oak tree, by a green pond, slugging down ice-cold Coke and listening to the combination of bullfrogs and eight-irons, and get a handle on the US Open.

But god, I'm going to try.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Joe's other articles. You can contact Joe by clicking here

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