We’ve been dabbling in the 2020 Virtual Sports trend here at WagerBop, and the few readers who found an accidentally non-indexed article in late spring are probably confused by the absence of World Virtual Championships stories from June and July. When the 2nd wave of COVID-19 infections struck across the United States, we decided to save the content for August, when sports would likely remain at a standstill. Of course, the opposite has happened – NBA, NHL, MLB, and PGA Tour pros are returning to action at a marked clip well before the end of summer.
We’re still going ahead with a summer of simulated championships, though, even as the promise of real titles once again draws eyes to screens all over the globe. The most important thing is to simulate what could happen if the big-money men’s sports world ever set its bull**** aside and allowed All-Star planetary tournaments to take place, not simply using Virtual events as a “time filler” when there’s only so much of the real thing to turn to. Sports simulations become part of a living record of historical analysis, such as Mohammad Ali’s “fights” with Joe Louis and Rocky Marciano via nascent computer programs in the 1970s. So take your time, and make sure you get them right.
One can only wish the stuffed shirts at NBC Sports and the Golf Channel felt that way.
Golf Channel’s virtual “Open for the Ages” ran from Thursday to Sunday of last week, airing live commentary over doctored footage of historical golf stars playing The Old Course at St. Andrews. The field included the last 50 years of British Open champions, competing on even terms in the top form of their prime years. It’s a tad fishy that the fictional event’s Sunday showdown pitted Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods at the top of the leaderboard, but Big Jack’s win is certainly a plausible outcome of any tournament under any circumstances. So far, so good.
More interesting is the content at bottom of the Open for the Ages scoreboard. Arnold Palmer, winner of 2 straight British Opens in 1961 and 1962, finishing dead-last. Gary Player, lifter of 9 major championship trophies between 1959 and 1978, finishing T-2nd-to-last. Included among the players who finished well ahead of Palmer and Player (and Lee Trevino for that matter) are John Daly, Louis Oosthuizen, and Zach Johnson.
Peter Thomson, who won the Open Championship 5 times and understood the Old Course like Picasso understood blue, finishing tied with Player at -3, 13 strokes behind Jack’s winning 272 and 12 behind Tiger at -15.
You would expect to see a few great golfers fall short in a by-the-numbers simulation. As Robert Trent Jones once pointed out, a well-kept secret of the links is that Bobby Jones (no relation) carded competitive rounds in the 80s. Tiger and Jack’s back-9 duel for the Forever Claret Jug would point to NBC Sports, which kept its methodology fairly close to the vest, hedging slightly on any scientific method for the sake of TV drama, especially after swashbuckling British Open legends like Tom Watson and Seve Ballesteros were portrayed lurking on the last 18. Some of the scoring must have been necessitated by the finite quality of archival footage – if there’s no video of Nick Faldo stuck in a fairway bunker on #12, you can’t include Nick’s shot-to-follow in the doctored clips.
It’s not necessarily a bad thing to have “Dungeons & Dragons” style overlords manipulating the results of sports simulations and poly-generation experiments. If a computer tells you that Michael Moorer would have knocked-out Mohammed Ali in the 1st round, whatever info and instructions went into the machine were tainted and must be corrected by the “hand of God” in the virtual event’s reported results. For example, NBC’s smartest golf advisors like John Feinstein and Johnny Miller would agree there is no chance of a healthy Tiger Woods in his prime scoring poorly at a wide-open, relatively-short Old Course layout over 4 rounds. Woods, after all, shot a brain-melting 53 under par over 16+ rounds at the 4 major championships in 2000. If a souped-up PlayStation or CPU simulation spat-out a 4-round score of “Tiger Woods: 296” the Golf Channel team would be correct to ask for a do-over.
That being the case, why wasn’t anything done about Arnold Palmer’s scores in Open for the Ages? Or Gary Player’s for that matter? If anyone thought a dead-last or 2nd-to-last finish was a realistic scenario for either champion, does that person have any business being around an expensive TV golf project?
Arnold Palmer was a late-bloomer whose prime lasted 5-7 seasons on tour. In that time, he won 4 U.S. Masters championships, a U.S. Open, and 2 British Opens in a row. Arnie’s worst finish in a major between 1959 and 1962 was T-17th in a loaded PGA Championship field. What’s more, competing at the Old Course would benefit a power player like Palmer in his prime, given the number of drive-able Par 4s and reachable Par 5s. When John Daly won his 2nd of 2 majors at the Old Course in 1995, he was often found pitching out of green-side rough…pitching for eagle.
Arnie’s scoring at St. Andrews reveals rounds in the 60s even on days when his putting had the yips. It is simply unfathomable that Arnold Palmer of 1961 would lay a high-profile stink bomb by the Valley of Sin.
Palmer’s final round “scorecard” is even more of a joke. Trailing the leaders by a wide margin, Arnold Palmer – the 1960s-version – supposedly scored 2 birdies, 1 bogey, and 15 pars, with the final 10 pars all in a row. Anyone who has read the 1st chapter of Go For Broke! knows that plodding along with pars when losing on the weekend is about the furthest thing imaginable from Arnie’s actual golf game.
Here’s a more-realistic “simulation” (off the cuff, using a computer for blogging purposes only) of what Palmer’s final Open for the Ages stretch should have looked like:
Hole #10 – Drives Par-4 green 350+ yards downwind. Birdie.
Hole #11 – Tries daring shot over Strath Bunker. Misses landing by 2 feet, buried lie in sand. Bogey.
Hole #12 – Drives Par-4 green, makes spectacular putt for eagle.
Hole #13 – Massive drive into a gorse bush.
And so on, including brave episodes at the Road Hole despite goals fading out-of-reach by then. It’s not out of the question that Arnie, not wanting to go down as a quitter of an All-Time Fantasy event, would have preferred to make a few bogeys rather than 10 straight pars and a “just here for the sunshine” kind of scorecard. Gary Player’s banal results are almost as much of a mystery, with monotonous pars dotting the scorecard of a golfer so aggressive he threatened to beat his age at Augusta National when Tiger was an up-and-comer there.
Golf Channel also chose to make Open for the Ages a birdie-fest, with relatively light winds and scores well under par. Matching golfers across decades offers flexibility in scoring parameters even in a made-for-TV virtual tourney, because players can par or even bogey holes off-screen if necessary, and golfers can be made to play with old/new averaged shot distances on a course with contemporary length. Jack and Tiger played 2 very different styles of golf at St. Andrews, but Nicklaus wasn’t opposed to hitting a wedge into a Par-5…he just didn’t get to try it as often as Tiger. Jack would never consistently beat Tiger from the same tees based on the pair’s raw driving statistics, but in their 20s, each enjoyed fantastic driving power relative to other PGA players.
NBC could have pretended that Jack and Arnie got to use modern gear. You don’t show the club-heads close-up on a typical golf broadcast, and even if some of the footage did, there’s always Adobe. “Ceremonial” Arnold Palmer hit average distances and might have finished last in Open for the Ages. 1961’s Arnie with 2020’s nuclear gear on an easy St. Andrews setup? Not happening. One wonders how Nicklaus’ file created a top-2 scorecard unless Big Jack could hit it the same length as Y2K Tiger Woods, and why only certain old-time power hitters were allowed to score well.
Perhaps the Golf Channel factored the entire records of Claret Jug champions into its Open for the Ages. That would account for Arnie, Player, and Trevino struggling to keep-up on the leaderboard. Palmer played far into old age as a ceremonial entry, while Player kept trying at Augusta and elsewhere throughout his 60s. But the theory just leads to another contradiction, as Watson posted decades of ordinary scores in majors and looked great in OFTA. The same is true for Nicklaus even though Big Jack remained solid and consistent as a rookie and again as an elder.
It’s not like Open for the Ages was a surprise summer hit or anything. Whether the event was an incompetent stab at a historical golf simulation made by ignoramuses, or a rigged farce with weird biases and oversights, it will fade out of memory soon enough. Outside of a few online forums and drunken clubhouses, NBC’s slap at the legacies of at least 3 great British Open winners will be forgotten too.
But the concept stands as a reminder what not to do with a virtual tournament. It’s less an issue of protecting legends’ reputations as a having an eye for what made those reputations to begin with. If each golfer’s whole tournament record and physical decay get factored into an historical contest, fine. Let’s talk about Tiger’s years upon years of being too injured to even swing a 7-iron. Then discuss Tiger beating Arnie by a billion strokes on Golf Channel.
It’s disappointing to know that the Royal & Ancient Club was involved in the fiasco, too.
So, if WagerBop’s Virtual Olympic Men’s Basketball tourney includes Team Canada upsetting Lebron James, Stephen Curry, and Team USA in a close contest, well, more power to the Habs. But if James misses 20 free-throws in a row, or if Tuukka Rask allows 6 goals on 7 shots-against for Team Finland, that computer is going to get the MacReady treatment…and we’ll “carpenter” out a better simulation and a different outcome.
Palmer spent his last few years arguing for more fairness for the hobby player in the Rules of Golf. It feels righteous to stick up for Big Arnie’s golf game about 6 days after Open for the Ages premiered and about 60 years since his 65 at Cherry Hills. Nobody could ever simulate Arnold Palmer’s swing, and apparently, no Fantasy guru (or sports-television producer) can be bothered to simulate his finest form.
Kurt has authored close to 1000 stories covering football, soccer, basketball, baseball, ice hockey, prize-fighting and the Olympic Games. Kurt posted a 61% win rate on 200+ college and NFL gridiron picks last season. He muses about High School football on social media as The Gridiron Geek.