It’s the Charisma, Stupid: Tiger Crosses Back Over

So my wife and I have a 12-year-old girl staying with us for a while and last Thursday evening she settled down beside me (armed with a big bag of magic markers and a sketch pad) as I watched a recording of The Masters first round. She wasn’t paying much attention. In that way she was a credible stand-in for the broader American public, which, let’s face it, doesn’t pay much attention to golf, even its majors. Indeed, when she did take notice, she playfully mocked the idea of watching golf altogether — that is, until she noticed Tiger Woods walking off a tee.

“Who’s that?” she asked.

That’s Tiger Woods, I told her. I swear to god, I did not prep her in any way; she picked him out of the crowd of players all on her own. The next afternoon, during the live broadcast of Round 2, she wandered back into the living room. Unbidden she asked, “How’s Tiger doing?”

He’s doing quite well, actually. You like him?

“Yeah.”

Why?

“He’s handsome.”

What else do you like about him?

“He’s cool. Look at the way he’s walking around. He’s very confident.”

What about that mock turtleneck? Is that cool?

“Oh yeah. Those are in.”

Watching golf with a 12-year-old, distaff, golfing neophyte is a fascinating exercise in its own right. This one in particular had strong opinions: She thought Jon Rahm looked like a fat punk; she didn’t like him at all and rode him without mercy throughout (“He should just go home”). She quickly remarked on the unusually lanky stature of both Tony Finau and Matt Kucher. Brooks Koepka was notably swaggy — but nothing like Tiger, in her opinion. Surprisingly, Ricky Fowler’s youthful mien did nothing for her — something about his eyebrows being too dark (“And I don’t like his shirt”). Norwegian amateur Victor Hovland was pilloried for his prominent schnozz, which, in fairness, was fair comment.

But these were all bit players in the drama so far as she was concerned. Tiger was the anointed one.

A lot has already been written about how Tiger’s victory on Sunday has introduced his phenomenon to an entirely new generation of golfers. I don’t anticipate this girl will suddenly want to play the game, or start wearing mock T’s. But it has been 11 years since Tiger won a major. This weekend’s performance reminded us all of what we’ve been missing.

Forget the 15 majors, the renewed Nicklaus chase. We’ve missed this man’s naked charisma most of all. No golfer in history has half the presence Tiger exhibits just walking down a fairway. Charisma is a hard thing to quantify, but it’s also one of the few things that readily spills over from a niche sport like golf into the larger culture. And that’s another thing golf has been missing these past 11 years.

I watched Sunday morning’s finale at Tomaso’s, a fashionably down-market, diner-sized canteen in Portland, Maine. At 10:30 a.m., when I showed up, there weren’t but 3 or 4 us there. An hour later, the brunch crowd had attracted a full house of young, bearded, IPA-swilling hipsters This was no sports bar, much less a golf bar (does such a thing even exist north of Pinehurst?). Even so, when Tiger birdied 15, the place went crazy. The barman quickly turned off the music (a pleasant alt-country playlist featuring the likes of Ryan Adams, Old Crow Medicine Show and Jason Isbell) and turned up the CBS television feed. Tiger had the place in the palm of his hand. When his tee shot on 16 came to rest 2 feet from the hole, the patrons inside Tomaso’s erupted.

About this time, I noticed a text had arrived. A friend of mine was down in Boston at the TD Garden watching the Celtics-Pacers playoff game, an inelegant affair he referred to as a “game/rock fight.” He reported there were “tons of people clustering around TVs on the concourse watching golf. It’s amazing how much love there is for Tiger.”

There’s really is something about this guy — something non-golfers can appreciate. Yes, he has battled back from considerable personal/physical adversity, but this obscures the larger point: He was stupidly charismatic when he appeared on the Mike Douglas Show at the age of 2, when he won three straight U.S. Amateurs, when he debuted as Nike’s cross-over pitch man, when he claimed those 14 majors… Apparently, after a decade away, he remains stupidly charismatic, not just to core golfers but to casual fans and mere onlookers around the world.

Sunday night, my daughter sent me a text: “Is Tiger Woods good again?”

She’s 20 years old, a junior in college, and couldn’t care less about golf. But somehow the news had reached her via the broader cultural news drip. I asked exactly how she learned of his Masters victory.

“I saw him on the TV at this bar! Some people were watching.”

Do you find him charismatic?

“Not really. He’s cheated on a lot of women.”

My daughter is clearly not so forgiving of Tiger, in part because she’s a woke young woman, but also because she’s yet to make the mistakes that Tiger and the rest of us 40, 50 and 60somethings have made. But her admonition is well taken: Recognizing and appreciating anew Tiger’s ungodly magnetism doesn’t mean we should get all crazy (again) about what his charisma really means.

It doesn’t mean, for example, that we should start believing Tiger’s mere presence will bring millions of kids (or Millennials, or Baby Boomers) into the game. That never held in 2003; it doesn’t hold now. Nor does it mean we should start building new golf courses willy nilly to accommodate this chimerical wave of converts. It doesn’t mean Tiger has, on account of his victory, instantly become a particularly good man or father. It made no sense to ascribe him these qualities in 2007 frankly; knowing what we know, it makes even less sense now. Why we blithely attach these sterling personal traits to men (or women) who exhibit extraordinary sporting skill is beyond me. One hopes we’ve learned our lesson here.

But it does seem clear that Tiger and the professional game in which he competes have changed more than a little in the 11 years since he limped to his last major win. Today’s Tiger is 43 years old, his hairline in full retreat. He’s been through a world of shit, both physical and personal. The process of dealing and coming back from all that would change anyone. His swing and his outlook on life are forever altered.

And here we confront what might be the most interesting manifestation of all this change: Sunday’s victory was the first time Tiger has ever come from behind in the final round to win a major tournament. The greatest front-runner in history has learned how to come back.

Tiger won from the front so frequently because, from 1997 through 2008, his outsized aura truly cowed most all of his would-be competitors. Remember how they’d wilt when paired with him? Francesco Molinari and Tony Finau did not play well beside Tiger on Sunday but here, too, the game has changed a great deal in 11 years. Today’s PGA Tour is stocked to the gills with young, dynamic, swaggering talent. It will be fascinating to watch this generation of professionals compete with the man many of them grew up idolizing.

Because one thing has not changed: You can’t take your eyes off this Tiger Woods fellow. This was true over the weekend; it was true through 2008. If we’re honest with ourselves, it was true afterward, through his many struggles. We rather shamelessly rubbernecked the wounded, struggling Tiger like we ogled an accident on the side of the road. More than a decade has passed and we still can’t take our eyes off him. Why? Because he still has more charisma than anyone who has ever played this game, more perhaps than all the major winners in history, combined. Even a 12-year-old, non-golfing girl can see that.

‘You have no idea all the shit that I’ve built’

Roger Goettsch and his pride and joy, a ’49 Chevy pickup he restored.

[Ed. I once learned at an AP seminar that anyone, in the right hands, could be the subject of a prize-winning profile. This one may or may not qualify, but it’s pretty darned good and has been widely shared in golf circles these past few months. See here the published version in Golf Course Management magazine. See the slightly longer and more casually profane original draft below.]

By HAL PHILLIPS
I received the following email from Roger Goettsch, CGCS, in the spring of 2018: I recently designed and built two different wetting forks for applying wetting agents to the soil in our LDS (localized dry-spot areas). We have had issues getting wetting agents into the soil due to the thatch layer and this seems to have helped… He attached pictures of the wetting forks in action, along with shots of the “Plug Pushers” he also designed and built, to remove cores following aeration.

Goettsch is the head superintendent at Shanqin Bay Golf Club in the small town of Longgun, on the island of Hainan, in the People’s Republic of China. Like many American-trained supers working overseas, Goettsch can’t get his hands on every last piece of equipment his little heart desires. So he just builds what he can, himself, putting to work his AutoCAD skills, his welding and fabrication expertise, and a mechanical imagination born deep in the American heartland. Goettsch has worked all over North America, and now Asia, leaving behind him a trail of custom-designed and custom-built equipment — like breadcrumbs in the woods.

“You have no idea all the shit that I’ve built,” he says, upon compiling for GCM a list of Top 10 Greatest Hits. “Literally, what you’re seeing there are just the big items from the last decade or so. There’s at least another 20 big-ticket items I’ve leaving out and several hundred more I’ve just sort of forgotten.”

Like those sprig planters you built for all those contractors? Or the fairway aerifier you whipped up that one night?

“Well, not one night. We were growing in a Palmer course in Ft. Worth, Texas, working with Arnold’s project architect, Bob Walker. He’ll confirm this story. The soil was horrible there, dark heavy clay. We just had to aerify it. So I decided to build an aerifying machine with my head mechanic, Bill Hess. We had to get this done because I promised Bob Walker I’d have it ready for his next site visit. So me and Bill had been working on it several days, but we worked till 4 a.m. that last night and Bill — I had trained him how to weld — all of a sudden hollers over at me: Roger we gotta quit… I fell asleep welding.”

When pressed for why exactly he’s compelled to build so many things — while simultaneously working full time, taking care of first-class courses from the Gulf to the South China Sea — Goettsch chalks it up to self-reliance, a quality his dad embodied and passed along to young Roger in the farmlands of western Iowa.

“That’s the through line for all this stuff, based on my upbringing — being self-sufficient. You know what they say: The DNA precedes you.”

•••

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NC Legislature Earns ‘Commendation’ for Self-Hating Political Mendacity

The term Jim Crow is rightly loaded down with racial connotations, but it’s important to recognize that, at its core, Jim Crow was a political system. Yes, a central byproduct was a social system that consigned black folk to second/third class citizenship. But this social construct was enabled and perpetuated by overarching political power. At its elemental core, Jim Crow was a system of voter suppression and nullification that allowed a political minority of white southerners to wield unchecked political power and maintain a culture of white supremacy in their respective states — not merely election to election but for a period of some 100 years.

With this in mind and the November elections behind us (pending a few recounts and lawsuits — you were always a rank choice, Bruce), Republican-controlled legislatures today are busy trying to similarly subvert the will of voting majorities while they still can, however they can. Accordingly, it’s high time we bestowed the next Harris Nightmare Award (HNA) for nakedly self-hating political mendacity.

Our choice for the 2018 post-electoral HNA: The GOP-controlled North Carolina legislature, which, in the face of U.S. Circuit Court rebukes and the failure of state and federal investigations to identify meaningful in-person voter fraud, have succeeded in amending the state constitution to permanently suppress the vote via strict voter ID requirements.

This effort alone would not distinguish the NC legislature from dozens of other Republican-controlled bodies across the nation, but for the fact that November’s election in North Carolina did manifest what appears to actual voter fraud — of a kind that 1) the newly ratified amendment would not begin to address; and 2) appears to have been perpetrated entirely by consultants directly employed by Republican Mark Harris, a U.S. Congressional candidate whose razor-thin victory over opponent Dan McCready was apparently enabled by brazenly illegal efforts centered on absentee ballot vote suppression.

Republicans generally and the North Carolina legislature in particular have cited rampant in-person voter fraud as foundational to their arguments for requiring photo ID. There’s still vanishingly little evidence of such fraud; these claims are rhetorical cover for efforts (in the shameful tradition of Jim Crow) to hold down or nullify the votes of Democrats and independents.

But lo and behold, we’ve finally identified actual voter fraud and it’s specific to NC Republicans themselves!

In a striking note of bipartisan resistance, North Carolina’s State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement — a body comprising four Democrats, four Republicans and one independent — has unanimously voted to postpone certification of the Harris election (which he won by 905 votes) pending an evidentiary hearing scheduled for Dec. 21, 2018.

Named for Dr. Thomas Harris, author of the 1969 pop-psychology treatise I’m OK—You’re OK, The Harris Nightmare Awards call out the cynical, pre-emptively tit-for-tat nihilism that has informed Republican politics since the mid-1990s. In the Age of Trump, this phenomenon has been raised to high art. Hence the need for suitable commendations, like the HNAs.

Most folks will be familiar with the title of Harris’ book, which refers to an optimal state of human relations, one that most of us do indeed strive day-to-day to achieve. “Treat they neighbor as thyself” predates the good doctor’s coinage, but they go together: For one cannot hope to treat his/her neighbor well if, to begin with, one does not possess a decent, ultimately edifying sense of self-worth.

There are two more middling, less healthy states that Harris used to describe people suffering from undue superiority (I’m OK—You’re Not OK) and undue inferiority (I’m Not OK—You’re OK).

It is the fourth state, I’m Not OK—You’re Not OK, that is generally reserved for inveterate grumps and outright sociopaths. Go here for a more lengthy treatment of why this phrase so cogently describes today’s GOP and the media apparatus that supports it. In short, right wing media have decided there is more to gain politically, in the long run, by asserting the rampant political motivation and outright fakery of all media. By doing so, they stake out their own position and self-worth quite clearly: “We’re fake; they must be fake.” Or even, “We’re fake because they’re fake.”

I’m Not OK—You’re Not OK.

But this phenomenon extends well beyond right-wing media circles. Hence the need for the Harris Nightmare Awards, our humble attempt to shame the unshameable.

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When (Cartoon) Art Imitates Live (Action)

I don’t want to blow anybody’s mind, but the classic cartoon Go-Go Gophers is further evidence of a little acknowledged but fascinating trend in 1960s cartooning, whereby animators actively ripped off popular live-action television shows of the time, essentially mining/co-opting them for themes, plots and personalities.

These cartoons were the stuff of my childhood — on Saturday mornings, after school — and I expect much of my cohort will read this and nod knowingly. “Ah yes,” they will ruminate, mindfully stroking their gray beards, “The Flintstones.”

Yes, but it’s bigger than that.

The Flintstones are indeed the best-known example of this dynamic and the first cartoon ever to air on network television in prime time. Launched in 1960, the show was a blatant rip-off of The Honeymooners, then a vivid-but-still-a-mere memory; its 39 episodes had aired from 1955-56 (though star Jackie Gleason would reprise the role and the show intermittently for years). Fred and Wilma Flintstone were clear homages to the lead, live-action roles played by Gleason and Dorothy Meadows. Barney Rubble was even more distinctively based on Art Carney’s character, Ed Norton. I think everyone realized what was going on here, even at the time. It was part of the imprimatur that led to the featuring of The Flintstones in prime time, something unprecedented for an animated series at that time and frankly, still today, apart from The Simpsons.

But cartoonists would eventually prove some of the most facile and prolific rip-off artists in 20th century media history. They saw The Flintstones formula working and reprised the process without shame — to a degree we kids didn’t realize at the time and, I’d wager, few appreciate still today.

Exhibit A? The inimitable Go-Go Gophers, an under-appreciated cartoon and one based completely on another live action (and culturally tone-deaf) TV show from that era, F Troop. Indeed, Go-Go Gophers was the cartoon that decades ago tipped me off to and set me thinking on this weighty matter.

As a kid, I thought F Troop was sorta funny and, crucially, I liked the theme song. Fittingly, each episode of Go-Go Gophers also begins with one of cartooning’s all-time great themes songs, followed by an uncanny homage to F-Troop’s fertile-if-untoward frontier theme. One wonders today how anyone could see the opportunity for such broad humor in the slow-moving genocide of an indigenous people… (We could include here a sitcom based in a German POW camp, with the Holocaust presumably taking place all around it. When Hogan’s Heroes was airing, perhaps folks were similarly dumbfounded by our bygone acceptability of black minstrel humor, like Amos & Andy, just 30 years prior. Thirty years from now, we may similarly come to grips with other such untoward manifestations of white supremacy and the patriarchy.)

Be all that as it may, the creators of Go-Go Gophers (ad guys from Dancer Fitzgerald Sample, apparently seeking to provide content during which their General Mills client’s cereals could be advertised) and their producers (Total Television then CBS, starting in 1967, as part of the brilliant Underdog Show) devised a cast of characters that does the live-action show one better. The two aboriginal characters (members of the Hakawi Tribe) are straight cribs from the TV show, but you’ll recall the cartoon Colonel inhabits a Teddy Roosevelt milieu, while the Sergeant (played by Forest Tucker on TV) is animatedly morphed into a laconic John Wayne-ish figure.

Larry Storch’s memorable TV character, “Agarn”, didn’t make the cut. Neither did the Colonel’s live-action love interest, a sort or Annie Oakley figure clearly inspired by Ellie May from the Beverly Hillbillies. (In the 1960s, when in doubt, no matter how incongruous to the sitcom premise, producers were sure to write into the show some hot young blond. See The Munsters and, for that matter, The Jetsons). Television producers did a lot of shameless things, then and now. They borrowed from any genre or competing show that worked, and so they could hardly complain when cartoon producers did the same.

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So Provincial! Central European Art Claims, on Parade

I can’t remember any trip of mine so richly affected by so many formal art exhibits. In the space of five Central European days in October, my family took in shows featuring Gustav Klimt, Andy Warhol, Alfons Mucha, the Maine-trained Donna Huanca, Salvador Dali and Frida Kahlo. Only the Klimt, long a favorite of mine, had been planned. The others we happened upon more or less by chance, as apparently one does in Prague and Budapest. Observations include:

Ethnography Matters: Austrians naturally claim Klimt for their own; he headlined the Secessionist Movement based in his native Vienna, so it’s no surprise his most famous works remain permanently on show at the Belvedere, an 18th century palace built by the Habsburg Prinz Eugen. Sharon and I went there straight from our morning plane, checked our bags in the cloakroom, and gadded about the grounds before meeting our son Silas and his girlfriend Rene, who’d been backpacking about the Continent since Sept. 7. We treated them to lunch then went back across the strasse to see the Klimt, who didn’t disappoint. The Belvedere curators require tourists (and the place was teeming with them) to roam through 2.5 full floors of oversized Romantic Eras shite before getting to the Secession stuff (which included some Munch and Von Gogh I’d never seen). Our hosts knew exactly whom we’d come to see — the entire experience was built around it. There was even a special room where folks could take selfies with an oversized poster version of The Kiss — some 50 feet from the real thing.

We were further struck by the way Slovaks studiously maintain a different sort of claim (but still a legitimate one) on Andy Warhol, born Andrew Warhola, the son of immigrants from Eastern Slovakia (in the various placard lit his mother was repeatedly referred to as Ruthenian, a reference to Greek Orthodox Slavs who live outside the Rus). This show, in Prague, occupied the third floor of GOAP Prague (Gallery of Art Prague). The more intimate, dormered fourth floor concentrated solely on Warhol’s young life and his parents’ early days in Pittsburgh where so many Slovaks and Poles landed (remember the wedding scene from The Deerhunter?). This was wholly appropriate — the attic is where old family stuff is meant to be stashed.

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A Man (in) Full: Headcheese, Jelly Sticks & my Dad’s Food Fetish

So, I try to write each August about my dad, the original Hal Phillips, who passed away seven years ago this month, all too soon. Hardly a day goes by when I don’t think of him in some way, shape or form. Many times, that moment comes when I open the refrigerator door and see my collection of hot sauces.

My dad was an enthusiastic eater and devotee of exotic, spicy and otherwise full-flavored food. Growing up, we used to kid him that he had essentially deadened his taste buds — such was the relish with which he applied not just hot sauce but salt, butter, condiments and dressings of any kind. He took this ribbing as he took most efforts to curb his foundational behaviors — with good-natured indifference — then went ahead and treated his pig knuckle with another dollop of blazing-hot mustard.

My paternal, Jersey-based grandmother was not an enthusiastic or particularly skilled cook (whenever we went to visit, she would serve us the same thing, in great quantities: steak, corn and a black forest cake from Sara Lee). American cuisine in the 1940s and ’50s — in private homes, in restaurants — was pretty bland. My dad’s reaction to this cultural upbringing was to find himself a wife who, among other things, appreciated and was equipped to prepare a wide variety of food.

For her part, my mom, Lucy Dickinson Phillips, was raised on the West Coast, which, because it was still America in the ’40s and ’50s, was similarly staid on the food front. But Californians did have good Mexican, not to mention proper Chinese. What’s more, her mother occasionally cooked things like (gasp!) curry. In this and so many other ways, my mom proved the woman of my dad’s dreams.

Perhaps on account of their relatively white-bread American upbringings, older couples today are often satirized for this single-mindedness. How was your trip to New York? “Oh, we found the most wonderful northern Italian restaurant near Washington Square…” My parents routinely answered travel questions in this fashion; mom still does. As a good cook, she grew annoyed when my dad would salt or spice food before tasting it. But their 50 years together were a more or less uninterrupted, gleeful quest for good eats. As such, it has fallen to their children to react in kind — to try and restore some level of sanity and moderation to the food-intake process.

This remains a work in progress.

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I’m Not OK—You’re Not OK: Walker Earns Inaugural Harris Award for Political Nihilism

With this communication, we introduce and inaugurate the random presentation of the Harris Nightmare Awards (HNAs). Named for Dr. Thomas Harris, author of the 1969 pop-psychology treatise I’m OK—You’re OK, The HNAs will henceforth call out the cynical, pre-emptively tit-for-tat nihilism that has informed Republican politics since Newt Gingrich executed his hostile take-over of the party in the mid-1990s. In the Age of Trump, this phenomenon has been raised to high art. Hence the need for suitable commendations.

Most folks will be familiar with the title of Harris’ book, which refers to an optimal state of human relations, one that most of us do indeed strive day to day to achieve. “Treat they neighbor as thyself” predates the good doctor’s coinage, but they go together: For one cannot hope to treat his/her neighbor well if, to begin with, one does not possess a decent, ultimately edifying sense of self-worth.

There are two more middling, less healthy states that Harris used to describe people suffering from undue superiority (I’m OK—You’re Not OK) and undue inferiority (I’m Not OK—You’re OK).

It is the fourth state, I’m Not OK—You’re Not OK, that is generally reserved for inveterate grumps and outright sociopaths. Go here for a more lengthy treatment of why this phrase so cogently describes today’s GOP and the media apparatus that supports it. In short, right wing media have decided there is more to gain politically, in the long run, by asserting the rampant political motivation and outright fakery of all media. By doing so, they stake out their own position and self-worth quite clearly: “We’re fake; they must be fake.” Or even, “We’re fake because they’re fake.”

I’m Not OK—You’re Not OK.

But this phenomenon extends well beyond right-wing media circles. Hence our need for the Harris Nightmare Awards, whose first designee is the inimitable Scott Walker, inert presidential candidate from 2016 and two-term governor of Wisconsin now running for a third term. His opponent this fall will be former state superintendent of schools, a Democrat named Tony Evers. Walker remains unfazed.

“I’m not worried about who runs for governor on the Democrat side,” he told a group of followers in Reedsburg earlier this month. “Because they’re all about the same, they’re all just as liberal as the others. What I worry about are outside groups—names like Barack Obama, and Eric Holder’s group, people like Tom Steyer and George Soros, the billionaires from outside the state who are dropping millions of dollars in the state.”

Behold, our first but oh-so worthy HNA designee (because politicking this nihilistic produces no “winners”).

To call Walker’s opposition to out-of-state political spending “highly ironic” would be to spectacularly understate the matter. Since his first run for governor in 2009, Walker has been the pet project of billionaire libertarian donors Charles and David Koch, whose views on campaign-finance laws, among other things, Walker has dutifully promoted with legislation in Wisconsin — for a price. They don’t live in Wisconsin. Since 2009, the Koch’s very own “outside group”, Americans for Prosperity (AFP), has backed Walker’s three runs (he prevailed in a recall election back in 2012) to the tune of untold millions — untold because in our post-Citizens United era (another AFP pet project), we don’t have any idea how much AFP actually provided.

We do know how much the 2018 campaigns of Walker and Evers have spent so far: Outlays on the Republican side since the primary are about $5.4 million compared with roughly $2.2 million for Democrats. The Republican Governors Association (by definition an “outside group”) has reserved $5.7 million in TV ads for the final two months of the race while the Democratic Governors Association (yet another) has booked another $3.8 million. Americans for Prosperity on Tuesday announced a $1.8 million television and digital ad buy.

In Walker’s warning of “outside groups” unduly influencing Wisconsin elections, we see the longstanding, one-sided dynamic that produced the HNAs — one where right-wingers just assume left-wingers operate as mendaciously as they do, as utter movement soldiers. This attempt at immoral equivalence doesn’t wash, has never washed, but has nevertheless informed right-wing charges of left-wing mendacity in the context of campaign spending, gun-control, media bias, labor law and dozens more realms. It stems from this basic tenet, held on the right: Some right winger in a position to favor or otherwise advance a right-wing cause will surely do so, will do whatever it takes — in large part because he/she reasons, cynically and inaccurately, that counterpart left-leaning types are already operating on the same mendacious level.

I’m Not OK—You’re Not OK.

Until last month, no poll had ever shown Walker trailing a declared Democratic opponent by more than a few points in any of his 3-plus gubernatorial races. NBC/Marist released a poll in July showing Evers ahead of Walker by 13 points. Another poll, from Emerson College, had Evers ahead by 7.

On, Wisconsin! On, Wisconsin! Stand up, Badgers sing!

Grim Realities for England’s Global Football Following

While their close neighbors and erstwhile enemies in Ireland, Scotland and Wales crow this morning over another anguished English exit from the World Cup, great swaths of the globe suffer alongside the Albion faithful. Some of this is due to the sheer size of the cultural footprint left by the mother country, once an Empire, today a Commonwealth. Yet millions more in places that have shaken off even that lighter cohesion (Hong Kong, Singapore, Mumbai, Capetown) still follow the English game because the English introduced it to them a century ago. Billions more pay special attention for reasons better explained by 21st century marketing: Across Asia, the Middle East and the United States, 25 years of English Premier League broadcasts have bred spectacular ratings and merchandize sales, ephemeral things that have ultimately morphed into a form of allegiance — a fandom all the better fed by internet access to the always entertaining, bandwagon-inclined British football media.

For 30 minutes in Moscow on Wednesday, the English would appear to have produced — for the first time in 54 years — a team equal to this global glut of hope and expectation.

To the delight of Gaels everywhere, it was instead Croatia that earned a place in Sunday’s World Cup final against France, claiming a dogged 2-1 victory in extra time. This had been another pillar of English support Wednesday — the prospect of a cross-Channel, once-more-into-the-breech final, a rematch some 1,054 years in the making! But the indefatigable Croats were deserving winners. They adjusted and persevered where England could not.

The opening half hour would appear to have signaled the next in a series of sanguine developments for the English at this World Cup. A weak group had led to a preposterously easy side of the tournament draw. A great escape vs. Colombia in the Round of 16 (on penalties of all things) was followed by a thorough bludgeoning of Sweden (a team England had beaten just twice in 16 tries). In Wednesday’s semifinal, Kieran Trippier’s splendid free kick put England ahead 1-0 after just 7 minutes. The ensuing 20 minutes saw Raheem Sterling, the sprightly Man City striker, run rings around the Croatian defense.

This was the key to the game: England found it so easy to get Sterling in behind Croatian centerbacks Dejan Lovren and Domagoj Vida, another goal seemed just a matter of time. Harry Kane indeed should have made it 2-0 after 15 minutes, having found himself on the doorstep with the option to shoot or slide it to Sterling for a tap-in. He went for goal, had it saved, then clanged the rebound off keeper Danijel Subasic and the post. That ball goes in and there’s no way back for the Croatians, though it seemed of little consequence at the time. The English were that good, that confident on the ball, that in control of this match.

That dominance, in a roundabout way, proved England’s undoing. Instead of continuing to patiently knock the ball around and pick the Croats apart (a side running on fumes after playing two exhausting knockout games in the previous 7 days), England were beguiled by Sterling’s ability to get in behind Lovren and Vida. The last 15 minutes of the half were squandered, as the English eschewed possession and impulsively pumped long balls over the top.

Pundits have claimed that England played an excellent half on Wednesday. They did not. They played an excellent half hour, then muddled their way to the break with a lead only half (or a third) of what it should have been.

Croatia made one vital adjustment before intermission, dropping Lovren and Vida off Kane (and his withdrawn running mate Dele Alli), in order to better cope with the speedy threat of Sterling. After halftime, they changed things up again — pressing England higher up the pitch. All of a sudden, central midfielder Jordan Henderson had no time on the ball. After 45 minutes of expert English distribution out of the back, Croatia took this away.

England made no adjustment at halftime and much as it tried, could not make one on the fly. The long balls continued, with ever diminishing returns. Faced with this increased pressure, Henderson and the entire English defense were a study in creeping panic — launching hopeful balls forward rather than risk having it taken by the Croats who, the longer this game went (despite their travails), looked the more energetic side. In the first 30 minutes Henderson & Co. looked imperious. After 60, they no longer wanted the ball at their feet. At this level, that is a recipe for just one thing: hanging on for dear life.

All of this ignores fully half the match, which would indeed require 120 minutes to decide. Ivan Perisic (I’ll not be bothering here with all the various Croatian accent marks, you’ll notice) leveled things on 70 minutes and England’s descent into anxiety and fatigue only got steeper. They were lucky to make it to extra time, when Mario Mandzukic struck the winner some 7 minutes before the onset of penalty kicks. England made the maximum four substitutions over the last hour, desperately looking to change the game, to change its own footing in and approach to the match. Nothing worked. Trippier injured his groin after the Mandzukic goal; having exhausted their allotment of subs, England finished meekly, playing 10 v. 11.

In the end, the Croats proved more canny, more flexible, more skilled, more confident, more dogged, more fit. They were deserving winners.

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In or Out? Why Linesmen So Often Get it Wrong

This ball was deemed out of play. Clearly, it was not…

We’ve reached the first 48-hour break in what has been a delightful frenzy of World Cup matches. The round of 16, our first knock-out stage, concluded Tuesday. Quarterfinals start Friday. Through the magic of YouTubeTV and its DVR function (we cut the cable cord in June), I’ve managed to see most every game. A few observations:

This may strike one as extremely small bore but I think the marginal sideline in/out decision is called wrongly more often than anything else in top-class football. The statute is clear: FIFA’s Rule 9 reads, “The ball is out of play when it has wholly crossed the goal line or touch line whether in the ground or in the air.” The advent of goal-line technology has given us  a new, better perspective on this rule. A birds’-eye view of the ball is what matters; the ball is in play until it’s entirely over the line, until there can be seen (from above) a sliver of green grass between the ball and touchline. Technology, now in the hands of a Video Assistant Referees (VAR), has brought new accuracy to goal-line decisions (and schooled observers on the over-arching rules relating to all in/out decisions — but touchline decisions remain in the hands of linesmen and the man in the middle, and they get it wrong way too often. I’ve noticed this for years now but VAR has brought in into clearer focus. Touchline decisions are called differently and I think I know why: Linesmen aren’t looking at it from above, of course. From a ground level view, if linesmen see any sort of green between ball and line they judge the ball to be out of play when the entire ball, according to Rule 9, has clearly not passed wholly over the line — something that would be obvious with a birds-eye view. The lead image atop this post (a screen grab; thanks again, YouTubeTV) provides a perfect example. This ball was called out for a corner. One can sorta tell the players are increasingly peeved by this double standard and why shouldn’t they be? Players on the ball do have a bird’s-eye view. There appears to be one standard for the goal line and another for every other boundary on the field. I’ve not seen nor heard nor read of VAR ever being used to mete out a touchline decision. I’m not advocating for that. But possession is important and in/out should better hew to the standard spelled out in Rule 9.

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The short-handed Colombians were put out of the tournament by England Tuesday in a Round of 16 affair that was at once pedestrian and completely riveting. That’s what an otherwise punchless World Cup match that goes to penalty kicks can do, especially where England are involved. Just the idea that some 60 million Brits were watching the game — increasingly pissed, in the fetal position, waiting for something catastrophic to happen — imbues all of their knock-out fixtures with that certain, extra-special something. Their boys didn’t disappoint — blowing the game, then rescuing it — and the rest of us duly lapped up the many layers of shadenfreude. The English did indeed have it won before conceding a 94th minute equalizer and sleep-walking through extra time toward penalties, the tie-breaking mechanism that has put them out of three World Cups and three European Championships. It’s a tragically accurate running joke in England that the national team cannot cope with, much less win, a penalty shoot-out at a major tournament (Tuesday’s win makes them 2-6 overall). It’s harped upon nearly as often as the fact that, “We invented this game.” But they won this shootout, celebrated accordingly, and they’re off to face plucky Sweden in a Saturday quarterfinal where the stakes, the alcohol intake, the national anxiety will be that much higher.

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Golden Boy James Rodriquez was the reason Colombia played short-handed Tuesday, having pulled up lame in the last group game. James (pronounced hah-mez) bears a fairly striking resemblance to a young John Harkes, US midfielder from the ‘80s and ‘90s. The Colombian and his coiffure cut a more metrosexual pose than Harkes and his period mullet ever could. But close enough to meet the ‘Separated at Birth’ threshold, eh? Or maybe first cousins?… This is the sort of thing an American soccer fan is reduced to when we fail to qualify.

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I’ve now watched and participated in hundreds of these penalty shootouts (the Round of 16 produced three in eight matches). I’m surprised goalkeepers, at this elite level, don’t hold their ground at least once in the first couple kicks, if not to account for a Panenka or blast down the middle, then to plant in the heads of subsequent shooters the possibility that he might not be guessing/diving one way or the other as the shootout progresses. For keepers, this guessing has been the long-standing strategy: Shooters are so close that goalies must guess which way a shooter is going with the ball — and hope for the best. Yet so many elite players today basically trust their ability to see the keeper’s movement and, at the very last second, go the opposite way with the ball. A goalie who doesn’t move would completely freak the shooter out – and give every succeeding shooter uneasy food for thought.

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More observations from the first two weeks: Poor Japan. They deserved better than a 3-2 Round of 16 loss to Belgium on the last kick of the game. But honestly, WTF were they thinking — committing so many men to a corner kick (tiny team vs. big team) in the 94th minute tied at 2? It was a bold decision, I’ll grant you. But I’d have put a few token dudes in the box, stayed behind the ball essentially, and taken my chances in extra time… Sweden has played 50 World Cup matches in its history. Only Mexico has played more without winning a Cup. Yet Sweden’s international record is far more decorated. Indeed, Sverige is perhaps the globe’s most underrated soccer nation. This country of just 7 million souls, where one cannot play outside all year round, has produced a World Cup finalist (1958), three semifinalists (1938, 1950, 1994) and two quarterfinalists (1934, 2018). It may well better a last-8 finish this year — all without Zlatan Ibrahimovich, the finest Swedish player of his generation (perhaps of all time) who, though still active (in MLS), petulantly retired from international play two years ago. Sweden’s example is something for American soccer boosters to ponder when reckoning grandiose future goals. The US has reached a single quarterfinal, full stop… FIFA is as corrupt as they come, but it’s important to recognize the root and nature of that corruption. Since the late 1980s, FIFA’s particular corruption is born of the fact that each and every participating nation (all 211 of them) have a vote in where the World Cup will be held every four years. And make no mistake: Those votes do in fact get bought. But let’s also be real: Without this sort of arrangement (which leads to both coalition-building and corruption), there would never have been World Cups in Africa, or Russia, or the Middle East. Yes, it’s conventional wisdom that Qatar paid through the nose, to literally hundreds of national football federations, order to secure the 2022 event. And yes, repressive regimes benefit from buying such events — but so do the soccer-loving masses in those countries and regions. Ask an African soccer fan if it was worth it to have the 2010 event in South Africa. Ask a Saudi if they’re happy the World Cup is coming to Qatar. Moving the Cup around is good for the world game. Without its particular brand of corruption, the event would be held somewhere in Europe or North/South America every four years, forever… Mark Geiger, the only American referee participating in this World Cup, drew a very tough assignment in the England-Colombia match. It’s hard to imagine how a more experienced, skilled ref would’ve handled things without killing the game: Colombia deserved to have 2-3 guys sent off for dissent alone following the quite-right penalty kick decision that put England up 1-0. Radamel Falcao has complained publicly about Geiger’s performance, claiming he favored the English. But any neutral observer could plainly see the Colombians, down a goal, ratchetded up the physicality in hopes of turning the match back in their favor. Unfortunately, Geiger didn’t want to decide said match by sending anyone off — something the savvy Colombians sensed immediately. In bending over backward to preserve Colombia’s chance of ultimately getting a result, Geiger may have torpedoed his own career at this level.

Now It Can Be Told: When Media FAMs Go Wrong…

The history of media seeking to leverage their publishing capabilities to secure various fringe benefits is long indeed. Traditionally, as befits transactions undertaken by relative paupers, these perks rarely rise above the level of heavy hors d’oeuvres. I worked at a daily newspaper back in the early ‘90s where the nightly assignment schedule invariably included this reception or that event — places often devoid of news value but where free food could be had. Open bar? Well, the entire editorial staff might show up for something like that.

Lookit, reporters and editors don’t traditionally make a lot of money; they’re frequently quite young. This is to say, freeloading of this kind shouldn’t be viewed as particularly untoward or shameful. It’s something of a necessity frankly. One of our many mascots in that newsroom was a giant cartoon headshot of a Dick Tracy-like character, complete with ‘40s era fedora. Tucked in his hatband was an index card that might simply have read “PRESS”; instead it read, “I’m with the PRESS. Where’s the FOOD?”

Several links up the food chain in this realm is the media FAM trip — FAM being short for “familiarization”. There’s no way to spin such an event in light of journalistic standards and ethics: These are flat-out junkets whereby some publicity-seeking entity lures reporters and freelancer types on some trip with the understanding that, once they’ve been wined/dined and return home, media will write nice stories about the resort property, the golf course or cuisine to be had there, or maybe the broader “destination” itself. In the golf and travel realm, where I’ve toiled for more than two decades now, FAM trips are the ultimate perk because, well, let’s not be coy: In addition to all sorts of free food & drink, participating media also get complementary air fare, lodging and assorted swag.

The quid pro quo nature of the FAM exercise is little discussed but well understood. One doesn’t visit a golf course or hotel, on a FAM, only to savage the place in print. That would be untoward. As our moms all told us, if you don’t have anything nice to say, say nothing at all (or concentrate on something else that doesn’t suck).

Here’s another FAM trip bylaw: Answer the bell. No matter how much free boozing and carousing was had the night before, media guests have an obligation to show up, on time, first thing the next morning (according to the itinerary) without fail.

There’s one more, less formal understanding re. media FAMs to establish: Something is sure to go wrong. I’ve been on dozens of these junkets as a working journalist. I’ve organized dozens more on behalf of various clients. When one is devising a week-long itinerary in a foreign country — for one’s self — something is sure to be overlooked. When organizing for a dozen people, most of whom will be drunk 35 percent of the week? The odds only increase. The mere presence of a dozen journalistic chancers eating, drinking and indulging on someone else’s dime makes the possibility of mishap a mortal lock.

Someone, someday, will write a comprehensive book about all the great FAM trips gone awry: who got thrown in jail, what foreign dignitary got naked, and why shellfish is always a risky choice. In the meantime, writers will merely trade these yarns back and forth like war stories. In that tradition I offer up the itinerary from a single morning gone wrong, in Jakarta, during Ramadan, back in 2012. This was a trip I helped to organize and host. I promised the client I wouldn’t breathe a word until a reasonable period of discretion had passed. Still, I have changed the names to protect, not the innocent necessarily, but rather those professional reputations still in play.

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In most respects, this particular FAM was a roaring success. It produced dozens of glowing, published pieces re. the awesome golf product on offer in and around Indonesia’s sprawling capital. To produce this content I had wrangled a genial and cosmopolitan group of 12 media and tour operators hailing from the UK, China, South Korea, Japan, Hong Kong, Australia and the U.S. From the Fond Memory Dept., I could just as easily cite the epic karaoke session, the compelling version of “Take It To The Limit” I performed with the band at our closing soiree, the five superb rounds of golf we played, or the incredible dinner we organized for 20 at the Four Seasons. But none of those vignettes would include the burning of tires or police in combat gear.

See below a timeline of events, the morning after said banquet. I can vouch for its accuracy because, like James Comey, I was moved to take contemporaneous notes, on my phone — such was the utterly random nature of the proceedings.

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