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Sunday, April 5, 2015

Luck, Probability, Or Predestination–A Bad Golfer’s Search For Meaning

The ball sailed high and straight, high into the early Spring sky, above the long fairway which after a long winter had finally begun to turn green, headed toward the first green nestled among three sand traps and shaded by an oak tree which, legend had it, had been planted by Alexander Hamilton himself 250 years ago.

Augusta National II

As the ball headed to its apogee, fine and straight, it started to veer right and lose degrees of horizontal plumb. Its true arc from tee to green now faded quickly into a sharp slice. In a second or two the ball had turned away from the center of the fairway and was now barely above the tops of the sycamores and chestnuts in the thick woods that bordered the course and sloped down to Route 72.

In a few seconds more the ball headed into the wooded copse through the canopy and down among the tree trunks where it rattled and banged before landing on the edge of the fairway in a perfect lie and and a chip shot to the green.

“Lucky shot”, said Chauncey Fillip’s opponent in the foursome. “That ball was a goner for sure.”

Chauncey smiled as he walked down from the tee towards his ball.  It was indeed a lucky shot. Nine out of ten balls disappearing into the wooded thicket never come out; but he was not surprised. He had the best luck of any golfer on the course.

On the fifth hole, for example – a long par five that dog legged to the left then narrowed into a treacherous chute lined with myrtles and tall, thick, almost impenetrable grass on the secondary rough.  Chauncey’s second shot  which was hit well and true over the center of the fairway far from the sand traps and in no danger of the woods was not going to clear the brook as he had hoped.  As soon as he hit it, he knew that the six-iron was not enough club, the ball would find the water and he would lose a stroke in a tight match.

Augusta National

However, rather than hit the water or sink into the reeds and long grasses on both sides, it hit the one rock that poked up on the far edge of the stream, ricocheted high in the air and landed in the middle of the fairway beyond, an easy wedge shot to the green.

Or on the 11th hole, the most difficult on the course, the narrow fairway hemmed in by the Farmington River on the left and a line of cedar trees on the right.  Only the best golfers managed to keep the ball straight and long enough to clear the cart path 220 yards ahead.  Golfer after golfer, intimidated by both the narrow lane of the fairway, the cedar trees, and especially the wide, fast river only a stone’s throw from the tee, either sailed their tee shots into the water, into the tops of the cedars, or into the brush below.  Most amateur golfers hit only an iron shot off the tee, preferring to chip their first shot only a few yards ahead rather than risk the hazards on both sides.

Image result for images golfs narrowest PGA fairways

Chauncey’s ball, because he had hit a a seven iron with a lot of loft sailed high over the fairway with just the right distance to give him a decent lie and a clear shot to the green; but to his dismay started his descent right over the cart path where it surely would be buried in the mud caused by the recent rains.  However, although the ball did come down onto the cart path, it hit the one patch of asphalt that remained after the hard winter; and bounced high off the hard surface and ended up well beyond the path and in a perfect lie.

Few members of the Farmington Country Club wanted to play with Chauncey less because he was such a mediocre and erratic golfer, but because of his incredible luck. His lucky bounces, near misses of hazards, perfect lies in the middle of puddles and muddy divots, and uncanny ability to sail over tree tops to land always with a clear shot to the green were dispiriting.  They worked hard on their game and spent many hours on the practice range, hoping to lower their handicaps and make it into the competitive ranks of the Club Challenge.  On the other hand there was Chauncey Fillip who could do little right but always ended up with a decent score.  It was maddening to see such an inept golfer end up so well.

Image result for images clubhouse augusta national

Chauncey had known he was lucky ever since he was a child.  One day when he was twelve, he paused his bike ride to watch the construction of the Lincoln Street bridge, a small Revolutionary War stone structure that spanned the street on which he lived. The fine masonry work had not yet begun, and earth movers and diggers were still clearing the way for metal struts and supports that would shore up the old bridge, preserving it for another decade.

As he watched the workmen below, he noticed a dump truck, loaded with gravel headed towards the bridge.  It was going faster than it should to make the narrow one-lane makeshift passageway across; and in fact was speeding right towards him. Chauncey grabbed for his bike, but before he could move, the truck was upon him.  At the very last second, however, the truck skidded on an oil slick just spilled by one of the backhoes working on the bridge, lost all traction, and thanks to the quick reaction of the driver, went up on two wheels, and missed him by only a few feet. The truck had come so close that Chauncey could see all the rusted, oily parts of the undercarriage. 

The truck careened past him,.crashed through the emergency barriers and thundered into the bank of the stream on the far side of the bridge, spilling 100 tons of gravel.

“Local Boy Missed By Truck” was the headline above a front page story in the New Britain Herald.

A number of years later Chauncey was walking on West 47th Street in New York looking for Katz’s Delicatessen, a Jewish restaurant which had been in the same location in years and which had the reputation of serving the best deli sandwiches in New York.  Chauncey was already looking forward to the first bite of an overstuffed pastrami and chicken liver on rye when a huge bolt, loosed somehow from a rusted hinge on the roof of the 25-story building above, whizzed past his ear and clanged loudly on the sidewalk.  It had gained maximum velocity many stories above, and one inch to the left and it would have hit the top of Chauncey’s skull, and penetrated deep into his bowels.

Not every bit of luck was life-saving.  He always got the last seat on the plane, unexpectedly good seats at the opera because of a last-minute cancellation; or a week of sunny weather on the Gulf Coast sandwiched in between two unusually cool and cloudy ones.  Food carelessly dropped as he ate fell neatly between his legs and not on his tie. Rooms at inexpensive hotels were never near the elevators or ice-makers. Gas stations appeared out of nowhere even on the most remote Montana highways just as he was running out of gas.

Image result for images met opera house nyc

As he got older Chauncey realized that he was unusual. He did indeed have good luck, far better than his friends whose balls always found the sand trap or were lost forever in the brook on the fifth hole, whose cars’ annoying scraping turned out to be a loose transmission and not, as in Chauncey’s case, a pesky branch caught in the undercarriage, and whose minor cough turned out to be far worse. Why, he wondered, am I so lucky? Or is it really luck after all?

Chauncey was not a religious man and understood divinity as man’s creation to settle an uncertain and troubled world.  There was neither God nor meaning in the universe, no predestined or preordained paths, and certainly no eternal rewards. Yet Chauncey could not entirely dismiss the possibility that there not only was a God but that He was sending him a sign.  How else to explain this uncanny string of good luck?

He thought of the Bernsteins, neighborhood friends whose children had gone to school with his, for whom everything went wrong. One daughter had juvenile diabetes, the other a severe learning disability. Harold Bernstein had slipped on a wet spot while playing tennis, suffered a mild concussion which later turned out to have disrupted both his vision and sense of smell.  His wife had fallen off of a camel which suddenly pulled up lame on a routine ride around the pyramids, had broken her clavicle, and because of shoddy treatment at an Egyptian hospital, never recovered full use of her left arm.

“What is luck?”, Chauncey asked Jared Bernstein, an observant Jew and a serious man. “Luck has nothing to do with it”, he replied. “It is God’s will.”

Image result for image rabbi reading the torah

Nonsense, thought Chauncey.  How and why would God bother with an insignificant camel ride or a random family in Harmon Park?  “Even the Christian Bible says so”, Bernstein went on. “"Are not two sparrows sold for a cent?”, he said quoting Matthew. “ And yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But the very hairs of your head are all numbered.…”

“God has a plan for all of us”, explained the pastor of the Wesley Heights United Church of Christ, “so why not you? Sometimes God’s design is revealed.”

From what Chauncey understood of Galatians, even if God did indeed pre-select individuals for salvation, the final disposition of saints and sinners would only be revealed on Judgment Day and not a minute before. More importantly, even if God chose to break his own rules and reveal his purpose to a select few, why him?  No, he would have to look elsewhere for answers.

In the movie Fearless the Jeff Bridges character is one of the few survivors of a plane crash, and he feels anointed. Since he has impossibly survived an accident fatal to 200 people, nothing can kill him. He wasn’t just lucky, but chosen.  He begins to take irresponsible risks challenging God to prove him wrong. He even eats a strawberry to which he has been systemically allergic since childhood.  He knows that he is now immune.

Image result for images movie fearless jeff bridges

“Body and mind are inextricably linked”, wrote a professor of psychiatric medicine in a national news magazine shortly after the movie had come out. “No one understands how and why the balance is tipped, but it always returns to equilibrium.” In other words the Bridges character’s will had somehow superseded the formerly dominant physiological aspects of his system. “The psycho-social aspects of allergy are still to be explored.”

Chauncey read the works of Henrik Pedersen, a Danish mathematician who had written on the laws of probability and false perceptions of intent and design.  Although the various felicitous events of Chauncey’s life seemed to all fit into a pattern of ‘good luck’, it was no such thing.  People rolled sevens ten out of ten times without disrupting the ineluctable mathematical laws of chance. Regardless of hot streaks of individual basketball players ‘in the zone’, the average field goal percentage never varied in any given year. In other words, it was only a matter of time before a streak of incredibly bad luck would right the ship.

Image result for images equations probability

So Chauncey Fillip waited for his luck to change.  Once it did, thus proving Pedersen and the laws of probability correct, he could go back to his settled world of practical realism. He was tired of doubt and uncertainty.  Tolstoy had spent his whole life looking for meaning and ended up worn out from the search. He woke up one morning late in life and realized that if millions of people believed in God at that very moment; and billions before them had as well, who was he to challenge His existence?

Tolstoy A Confession

Like Tolstoy, Chauncey backed into belief.  He realized that although he had incredibly good luck in many things, he was not without bad turns. What about getting stuck on the Jersey Turnpike for two hours?  Yes, he had not spent the half-day that most other commuters had after I-95 had been closed after a spectacular crash and explosion of two oil tankers; but more importantly he had not been the car ahead of the two Hess oil trucks. He improbably got hard-to-get last minute seats to Cancun in February; but he was not lucky enough to get upgraded to First Class like his seatmate did.

In a reverse Jeff Bridges, Chauncey deliberately added torque to his drives of the first tee to test his luck, and not surprisingly his balls rattled and banged deep into the woods and never came out.

“God’s in his heaven, and all’s right with the world”, he said as he watched his ball disappear among the birches and sycamores. 

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