One of the great ironies of golf is that it is a game based almost exclusively on numbers yet almost none of its entertainment value is derived from those same numbers.
The 120th US Open at Winged Foot this past week was a prime example of the phenomenon, the golf world drowning in statistics about the course, the players and the tournament itself while the real show happened on the grass.
The statistical categories seem almost endless in the modern era and many seem to take great interest in studying them.
For me, though, poring over figures and data sets is the least interesting aspect of golf.
What makes golf interesting – especially at the highest levels – is the shots played in the moment.
A drive that finds the rough on the 71st hole of a major might statistically represent a 0.75 percent of a shot penalty (depending whether it has missed left or right, of course).
"More important to the discussion than any set of numbers is the role of the golf course and the intent with which the designer meant it to be played."
But that number is derived from studying the completed rounds and scores of the entire field, often over several days.
In the moment, the stat is of no value because the factors that count in the moment are about the player’s state of mind, the lie, position on the leaderboard and any number of other intangibles.
The same is true of the ongoing debate about distance and the misguided belief by some that scoring is somehow relevant to the discussion.
Anyone who needs to be disabused of this notion need look no further than the first two days at Winged Foot.
So easy is it to manipulate the difficulty of a golf course that after the outrage of 21 players shooting under par on Thursday, the USGA magically managed to contrive a golf course overnight that saw just three golfers achieve the feat on Friday.
Nobody hit it shorter on day two nor were the fairways any narrower or the rough meaningfully any longer, yet the course was a full three shots harder.
More important to the discussion than any set of numbers is the role of the golf course and the intent with which the designer meant it to be played.
Scoring and statistics ultimately tell us very little about these important aspects of the game, the things that actually make golf compelling to watch and play.
Sunday at Winged Foot threw up a prime example of this broader concept at the ‘par-5’ ninth hole.
Battling for one of the four most important trophies in the game, Matthew Wolff and Bryson DeChambeau came to this three shot hole and unleashed drives of 388.5 yards (355 metres) and 374.4 yards (342 metres) respectively.
Both hit short irons for their second shots and both went on the make eagle. It was impressive stuff, but does anybody believe it matched the intent of A.W Tillinghast?
And would the spectacle have been lessened had the two leaders been called on to hit a long iron or fairway wood for their approach?
One might actually make the case that because eagles would still have been a possibility – and that because getting up and down with a long club and a putt versus a short iron is surely more impressive – it may have been simultaneously more difficult AND more entertaining to watch?
The distance debate isn’t about yardages and numbers and scores. It is about the challenges players are presented in the moment and how they deal with those challenges.
And those are factors that are 100 percent dictated by the course, the all too often forgotten player in the distance discussion.