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It's Best to Be Lucky and Good

By Sally Jenkins
Tuesday, April 12, 2005; Page D01

The Masters was a matter of all kinds of luck, resultant, circumstantial, causal and moral. The difference between winning and losing was the width of a rotation: Tiger Woods's ball rolled into the cup on the 16th hole at Augusta National, while Chris DiMarco's banged the stick and rolled away on the 18th. Maybe it was a faint, world-away tectonic tremor, or the collective exhalations of thousands of spectators that sent Woods's ball tilting over the edge after hanging there, stopped on the edge of the small black circle.

Game theorists like to categorize: There are games of skill, games of chance, games of strategy and games of simulation. Golf, in this instance, defied category. Following the progress of Woods and DiMarco across the final holes at Augusta National was like watching a combination of roulette and Chutes and Ladders, with an enormous trophy at stake.

Tiger Woods, left, caddie Steve Williams thought they had it in the bag on the 16th hole. (Elize Amendol -- AAP)

_____TV Ratings_____

Tiger Woods's victory at the Masters was good news for CBS. The network's overnight ratings for coverage of Sunday's final round were a 10.3 with a 21 share. That was up 41 percent from Phil Mickelson's victory last year (7.3 with an 18 share) and the highest since Woods's victory at Augusta in 2001.

Usually the difference between winning and losing is wide enough that we can cling to the notion that the winner was incontrovertibly "better" than the loser. But in this case, there were two convincing performances and the difference between luck and skill was indistinct. There was no great disparity between the shot that just missed and the one that went in.

The math of it was absurd. The golf ball has a diameter of 1.68 inches. The cup has a diameter of about 4 inches. Woods's spikes were sunk in three inches of grass, his ball was well behind the green at the 16th, and he was holding in his hand a wedge that, let's face it, despite modern technology, still amounts to nothing more than a thin metal stick. Woods had to hit the ball away from the cup and hope to funnel it back. There were a thousand potential outcomes, none of them very promising. He might hit 50 balls to that spot without any of them actually going in. Nevertheless.

"All of a sudden, it looked pretty good," Woods said, "and all of a sudden it looked like really good, and it looked like how could it not go in, and how did it not go in, and all of a sudden it went in."

The sorting out of luck and skill is the emotional underpinning of golf. How much of that stroke was ability, and how much of it was good fortune? The answer is that Woods was every bit as good as he was lucky. Woods could hit an entire bucket of balls at that spot off the 16th, and none of them might go in, but probably all 50 of them would get close. That's how great he is. And that's what separates Woods from some of the lucky and unlucky souls in a book titled "As Luck Would Have It," in which author Joshua Piven catalogues all sorts of fortunate and unfortunate fools: the swimming pool repairman who had only a hundred-dollar bill to pay for his hot dog, asked for his change in lottery tickets, and won $180 million. The teller who was struck by lightning while at his window inside the bank.

Woods resembles none of these people: He is far more in control. Competition is about taking neutral or negative events and transforming them into positive ones. It's chance when Woods's ball takes that last half-roll and drops into the cup instead of hanging on the lip. But it was a stunning display of skill that allowed him to put the ball there in the first place.

"Unfortunately," DiMarco added, "it's not unexpected when he's doing it."

But what should we do about the fact that the shot that just missed was equally as good? If anything, DiMarco actually outplayed Woods over the final round -- and who knows why his chip shot from off the green at the 18th ran right into the stick, but didn't fall?

DiMarco, who has never won a major, came within one lipped-out wedge shot of beating the dominant player of his generation. As DiMarco eloquently put it: "My chip on the 18th had every right to go in the hole. If mine had gone in and his had stayed out at the 16th, if those two are turned, it's the other way around." Instead, he lost in a one-hole playoff and now Woods has a ninth major championship and a fourth green jacket. DiMarco has only a "moral" victory.

The fact that Woods gets more credit for holing out his shot than DiMarco does for just missing his is the golf equivalent of what philosophers call "moral luck." Moral luck is a much debated topic among academics: To what extent should we be assessed for things not entirely in our control? If two truck drivers are negligent in checking their brakes and one manages to control his truck while the other jackknifes his and kills somebody, we're sorely tempted to assign more blame to the driver who has the accident, even though both are guilty of the same amount of negligence.

In the case of Woods and DiMarco, let's flip the question around. To what extent is Woods more rewardable? It could just as easily have happened that Woods's ball hung on the lip, without falling, while DiMarco's on 18 could have dropped in. The answer is that in sports, we morally assess (and extravagantly reward) people based on luck of all kinds, though we don't especially like to admit it. That's just the deal. We're like gamblers who imagine we're somehow in charge at the roulette table, operating on a sensible scheme.

We prefer to think of winners as thoroughly deserving -- and we tend to treat them as more valuable people, too. It's simply more gratifying to think that rewards have been fairly distributed. In fact, the rewards of luck and skill are unpredictable and not everyone gets his just desserts. But what should we do about that? If a shot is a little too providential, should a course official step in and decide it doesn't count? Games would be meaningless and nonsensical if we tried to eliminate luck altogether.

The chances of only predictable, fair, and right things happening on a golf course are negligible. That's what makes it such an engrossing and even important game.

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