(Un)fair Weather at Shinnecock Hills

Today’s third round of the U.S. Open golf tournament at Shinnecock Hills raises some fairness questions that we’ve seen before, but in a novel context.

The U.S. Open in general, and Shinnecock Hills in particular, seems to take pride in making the course so difficult that even the world’s best golfers begin to post scores not much better than ordinary skillful golfers playing golf under more reasonable conditions. Large parts of the greens are so severely sloped that a golf ball will not stay on them. They are so bumpy that the ball does not roll true on them. The rough is exceptionally rough. And the weather has conspired to exacerbate these problems considerably.

The persons responsible for this travesty claim that the course is difficult, but still “fair”. Let’s test this assertion using each of the three meanings of fairness: fairness (A), where reasonable expectations are honored; fairness (B), where everyone gets an equal chance; and fairness (C), where superior skill is to be rewarded.

The case for fairness (A) seems to rely on the idea that the expectations that matter are those of the organizers. Though it’s understood that the U.S. Open course will be difficult, the reactions of the players seem to suggest that no one was expecting (or quite prepared for) a course this bad. But the organizers will admit to have done nothing wrong, and so the course is fair because it plays the way they want it to play.

The fairness (B) case goes thus: yes, the course is all but unplayable, but it’s equally unplayable for everyone. This is, unfortunately, not particularly true.

As usual with professional golf tourneys, after the first two days of play, the tee times are arranged in reverse order according to the result of the first two rounds. Thus, players who barely made the cut tee off first, and can finish their rounds before the players who lead the competition have even started. So when, as today, the playing conditions vary considerably from one part of the day to another, some players are playing under much more difficult conditions than others.

If the playing conditions had started difficult and gotten better, the effect would have been similar of seeding effects, where good players (or at least more recently successful players) have an advantage. But when, as today, the conditions deteriorate as the days go on, the effect is like a perverse sort of anti-seeding, where good players are penalized rather than favored.

As it happened, two players who started 11 shots behind the leader, and thus got to play early in the day, ended up tied for first place! They’ll be the final pairing for tomorrow’s final round. It’s hard to see this as anything by an epic fail.

So, the tourney is not meeting reasonable expectations, and not treating competitors equally. But perhaps it’s still fair in the fairness (C) sense of rewarding superior play. It’s not clear that this is true. The course is so unusual that some of the skills that serve a player well under ordinary conditions are counterproductive. There is, perhaps, a skill set suited to this sort of play, but most of it is unfamiliar to the players. As an analogy, perhaps there is a special skill some people have to coax beautiful (or at least less ugly) music out of a piano that’s badly out of tune. But is this the skill that should be rewarded?

I doubt that such horrible conditions would have been encountered if those in charge had had to play the course.



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