By Colby Cosh - Saturday, February 2, 2013 - 0 Comments
Phil Birnbaum, who along with “Tom Tango” is probably one of Canada’s two great gifts to quantitative analysis in sports, has been studying the NHL over the past few weeks. It was only after a second or third reading of his series breaking down luck versus skill in the NHL standings that I was able to really grasp what he was saying. I’m a fluent speaker of basic stats-ese, but not a native. Phil is a pretty approachable explainer of things (including some of the things devised by Tango), so usually I don’t have to bash myself over the head too hard with his findings. But I didn’t see how interesting the message was until now.
Probably all hockey fans know instinctively that the introduction of the shootout has injected a fair amount of randomness into the year-end NHL standings. Birnbaum, looking at the shootout-era data, has now shown just how much. In the old NHL that still had ties, it took an average of 36 NHL games for a team’s actual talent to become as important to its standings position as sheer randomness. “Talent” is defined here as repeatable ability, ability relevant to prediction: after 36 games, your team’s distance in the standings from .500 would be about half luck and half “talent”, and that would be reflected in your guess as to how they would do in the next 36 games (assuming nothing else about the team had changed). Over a full season, we could be confident that there was little randomness left in the ordering of the teams in the league table.
But in the new post-ties NHL, Birnbaum notes, the standard deviation of standings points has shrunk from about .2 per game to .15. Continue…
By Scott Feschuk - Friday, April 13, 2012 at 10:35 AM - 0 Comments
At the world’s most prestigious golf tournament, the world’s fastest bathroom lineups
If you want to see the world’s most intense concentration of middle-aged men, go to a professional golf tournament. Once there, you can ask yourself questions like: why on earth did I want to see the world’s most intense concentration of middle-aged men? Also, you can pass the time playing a fun game I invented. I call it Which Fat Sweaty Guy in the Stands Really Shouldn’t Be Wearing That Super-Clingy Golf Shirt?
But during the 76th Masters at the Augusta National Golf Club, I saw something I’d never seen before. I’m not talking about Louis Oosthuizen’s double eagle on the second hole, although that was neat. I’m not talking about Tiger Woods becoming a Hulk-style rage monster, snapping his putter in two and finishing his round without a shirt, because he’s saving that for the U.S. Open.
I’m talking about a lineup. A queue. But a queue unlike any other.
By Scott Feschuk - Monday, April 18, 2011 at 9:00 AM - 1 Comment
I grew up watching the Masters with Dad on TV. Actually going was another thing.
I’ve never drawn up a bucket list, for doing so would only remind Death that he eventually needs to claim me. But going to the Masters—as I did last week— would have ranked right up there with: a) seeing the Great Pyramids and b) sealing the inventor of Auto-Tune inside the Great Pyramids.
I grew up watching the Masters—sprawled on the floor as my dad cheered and cursed and snored in his chair. I remember Jack in 1986 and Tiger in 1997 and Greg Norman falling short in what felt like every Masters from 1942 to 2005. Plus, going to the tournament in person would save me from having to endure the TV guys going on about the damn azaleas. Such fragrant majesty!
Augusta National has so meticulously crafted its image as a place of tranquil, otherworldly beauty that it’s surprising to discover the club exists on our plane of reality, near strip malls and Waffle Houses and the like. I had anticipated moats and centaurs.
By John Intini - Friday, April 8, 2011 at 9:07 AM - 3 Comments
He’s plunged in the rankings, but Woods is still the undisputed fan favourite
A couple of weeks ago, hoping to catch a glimpse of “the old Tiger” Woods, fans descended on Bay Hill, the famous golf course in Orlando, Fla., for the Arnold Palmer Invitational. Whenever Woods set up on the practice green or the driving range, it seemed everyone from preschoolers to guys who looked like they could have been around in the 1920s when Bobby Jones was the golfer to beat stood wide-eyed and still. Even when he was 10 strokes off the lead going into the final round, thousands of fans, many in their Sunday best—a red golf shirt, Tiger’s trademark—lined the edges of the fairways, eight rows deep in some spots. They all seemed to be clinging to the prospect that here, at a tournament Woods had won six times, he might finally put an end to his 16-month drought.
There were certainly flashes of greatness—a miraculous iron shot over trees from deep in the rough on the ninth hole; a 55-foot birdie putt on 18—but those looking for vintage Tiger came away disappointed. Instead, they saw the same inconsistent golfer who hasn’t taken home a title since the trashing of his Cadillac Escalade in November 2009. The fender bender that would lead to the shattering of Woods’s squeaky clean image, and the stranger-than-fiction scandal that included everything from porn stars to a Perkins waitress, and six weeks in sex rehab. Woods posted a never-in-contention -1 at Bay Hill, finishing in a tie for 24th. And his final tune-up for this week’s Master’s only fuelled the critics, who question if the 35-year-old, who has slipped to No. 7 in the world, will ever dominate golf again.
By Colby Cosh - Monday, April 12, 2010 at 4:29 PM - 14 Comments
The gods of golf decided to go for cheap melodrama on Sunday, letting Phil Mickelson walk away from the field and take a third Masters as his cancer-fighting wife Amy looked on. Well, maybe we shouldn’t credit it to the gods, but to Mickelson’s all-around game, which only Tiger Woods can match at times when his morale and concentration aren’t shot to hell.
Insofar as fate or divine intervention had anything to do with Lefty’s win, they seemed to be against it. He had an extremely makeable birdie putt on the 2nd hole, but on his backswing a stamen from a pine tree plopped directly in the path of his ball. This was creepy, as Bill Simmons would say, on a Blair Witch level. As Jim Nantz and Verne Lundquist summoned their formidable intellectual powers to the task of figuring out what the hell happened, CBS cut to a wide shot of the hole. The day was sunny, without enough wind to stir a puff of pipesmoke; there were, and are, no trees within 70 or 80 yards of the hole. The offending vegetation appeared to have dropped vertically out of a clear sky. 81-year-old Dan Jenkins, the Twitterizing dean of the world’s golf writers, quipped “I’ve never seen that before, but this is only my 60th Masters.”
If Mickelson had lost by one shot, everyone would be making a big deal of the incident today; since it betokened nothing and is already being forgotten, let it serve an instructive lesson in how superstitions come about. But let’s also note that a stamen is the male reproductive organ of a plant. Apparently Phil has less trouble getting distracted by such things than some other golfers [rimshot].
I never liked the old Phil Mickelson much. Somehow, and I’m not at all sure this was ever a fair perception, he seemed to combine smugness, haphazard stewardship of his talent, and weak nerve; that he was liked by American galleries from the beginning only made matters worse. It was a source of wholly non-patriotic delight to me when fellow “lefty” Mike Weir beat him to a major-championship victory. (Weir, Mickelson, and New Zealander Sir Bob Charles, the only lefty swingers to win majors, are all right-handed in everyday life; the world is still waiting for a truly lefty Lefty.)
But in the face of the Tiger era, Mickelson buckled down, worked hard, and found another gear, without sacrificing his family, his cheerfulness, or his relationship with the fans. With each passing year he looks more impressive, more like someone who stands as a living rebuke to Woods—to say nothing of the Sergio Garcias, the David Duvals, and the Notah Begays, the players who had the innate gifts to match Mickelson’s tournament record but haven’t closed the deal. It’s doubly endearing that Lefty has been quietly trying to minimize the bathos of his wife’s and mother’s cancer diagnoses, subtly discouraging reporters from whispering at him as though they were huddled in the rear pews of a funeral Mass. (Journalists don’t equate cancer with death; they think it’s much worse.)
Before the fourth-round tee time, I heard some mike-wielding goofball actually approach Mickelson and attempt a lurid thumbnail sketch of a tumour-ravaged, vomit-flecked Amy feebly rising from her sickbed to watch Sunday’s golf from home. Mickelson, forgiving and full of pep, pointed out that the Mrs. had joined him in Augusta and would be in the gallery that very day. And so she was. She looked great.
By Colby Cosh - Sunday, April 11, 2010 at 5:27 AM - 2 Comments
The Masters news tonight is full of Phil Mickelson’s astonishing Saturday hulkout on holes 13, 14, and 15, where he went eagle, eagle, birdie-that-came-within-18-inches-of-another-eagle to carve five strokes off Lee Westwood’s lead in about the time it takes to eat a bowl of soup. It’s easy to overlook that Westwood is actually still the 54-hole leader at 12-under. Mickelson’s sequence was like a grenade going off in the middle of a tournament that is, otherwise, being decided on the greens—i.e., the most carefully tended real estate, square inch for square inch, that exists anywhere on planet Earth. (I once interviewed an Augusta greenskeeper who had learned turf science at Alberta’s Fairview College; he was bound by non-disclosure rules so strict that Augusta employees can’t even talk about how many Augusta employees there are, but I was left with little doubt that he and his colleagues are intimate with those greens down to the level of individual shoots of grass.)
Westwood is playing steady, confident, error-free golf. It’s a shame that Masters.com hasn’t preserved video of Westwood’s second shot at the par-4 7th. Off the tee, he put the ball in light rough with a stand of trees between himself and the hole, as many do there; most golfers most days would hem and haw over the ball and consult their caddies for a half-hour, especially with a green jacket in the balance, but Westwood stepped coolly to the ball (“Whoa, what? He’s hitting?”) and just schwacked it nonchalantly through the pines and onto the green, stirring nary a needle. He has apparently decided that the order of the day is no fear, no contemplation, no overthinking.
I had high hopes for the Lee Westwood-Ian Poulter battle that Friday’s round seemed to set up; the two Englishmen, the cut-rate James Bond and the eccentric fashion-victim, would have made an excellent Sunday pairing. Alas, Poulter carded a 74 on Saturday. He might still be reading the greens better than anybody, and a lot of men win majors by keeping their heads when all about them are losing theirs, but he doesn’t seem like a natural candidate to rally from six strokes behind.
Indeed, nobody does; 18 of the last 19 Masters champions have come from the fourth round’s final pairing, and Westwood and Mickelson will wake up with margins of four and three strokes, respectively, over their nearest competitors—the sturdy Korean bantam K.J. Choi and a certain philandering Cablinasian who, despite his high placing, seems to be having a tough weekend.
By Colby Cosh - Friday, April 9, 2010 at 1:35 AM - 11 Comments
In the spirit of Augusta National, maybe we should treat Tiger Woods as just another golfer today. Perhaps we all thought there was something unsavoury about Woods making his return in such a stifling totalitarian atmosphere, with the club refusing to bend its rules about television coverage and policing the galleries for the smallest demonstration of adverse sentiment. But you can’t deny it made for good viewing. The almost hysterical reserve of the broadcasters served to put the focus on Tiger’s golf, which remains exquisite despite his brief vacation.
(The one venue of protest was the sky—even Augusta National can’t control that—where planes hired by pranksters appeared trailing banners that read “TIGER—DID YOU MEAN BOOTYISM” and “SEX ADDICT? YEAH. RIGHT. SURE. ME TOO.” These struck me as disappointingly feeble wisecracks for someone to be spending that kind of money on.)
Woods’ 68 is his best-ever first round at the Masters, even though, unlike some players ahead of him on the leaderboard, his position in the next-to-last threesome on the course forced him deal with increasingly chaotic late-afternoon winds and even a smattering of rain during his time in Amen Corner. This didn’t stop him from making everyone else look helpless. Time and time again he’d swoop in on holes other golfers had all but vandalized and play approach shots that were the equivalent of declaring “THIS is how it’s done here, students.”
He posted two eagles, along with three bogeys that no one could reasonably regard as a sign of “rust”. I was most impressed with the birdie on the par-five 13th, where he played his second shot onto a geometrically perfect spot on the rising back surface of the green and watched it back up to within ten feet of the hole. He literally couldn’t have done that more elegantly if he had the ball on a string (not without teleporting so that he had a different angle on it after it landed, anyway). More often than anyone else, Tiger plays shots that are more impressive, even to a near-total golf ignoramus, than flukily putting the ball directly into the hole would be.
But I’m much more happy about the early tentative vindication for my thesis, developed after Tom Watson’s down-to-the-wire battle for the British Open last year, that there might be no such thing as an old golfer anymore. Why should there be? We have LASIK, a growing buffet of anti-inflammatories, and what amounts to cheap consumer bionics now. There’s probably a golf use for Botox, though I don’t know what it would be. (I’m no pharmacist but I suspect it would kill you if you took enough to keep your head still during your swing.) Watson’s Open run followed mere days after he received a double hip replacement. People joked about this, when he led at Turnberry after the first round, as if it were a liability. They’re bound to stop joking and start booking operating-room time any minute now.
Watson himself declared before the tournament that he is too old to stay in contention on a course as long as Augusta. Fans should be aware that it’s only 3% longer than the Ailsa Course he dominated at Turnberry. But maybe he should be taken at his word and expected to succumb to some upstart punk. Like clubhouse leader Fred Couples—who at 50 has the extremely rare distinction of having outlived two ex-wives—or 52-year-old Sandy Lyle, three strokes behind Couples and two behind Watson, whose game has been in the wilderness almost as long as Watson’s was.
Note, too, that Watson’s Open good-luck charm, British Amateur champ 16-year-old Italian Matteo Manassero, is playing at Augusta for the last time before going pro. Manassero shot 71 today, which leaves him T-22nd with Mike Weir and Ernie Els and on pace to make the cut easily. Maybe there’s no such thing as a young golfer either?