You probably know this: There are 36 possible combinations when rolling two dice. I don’t need to go through the all the possibilities — 1-1, 1-2, 2-1, 2-2 and so on — but I will tell you that only six of these combinations will give you a total of 10 or higher.
That means that whenever you roll two dice, your percentage chance of rolling a 10 or higher is 16.67% — the odds are 6 to 1 against it happening.
Question: If you picked up two dice right now and rolled a 10, 11 or 12, would you consider that a “major upset?”
I was thinking about this on Thursday when I read that 64th ranked Ernie Els defeating No. 1 ranked Luke Donald in the WGC-Accenture Match Play event was a “major upset.” I understand the sentiment, I really do. Donald had a magnificent 2011 season. He was the first player to ever lead the European Tour and PGA Tour in money won. Els, at age 42, is coming off a miserable season, one where he couldn’t make a putt and only finished in the Top 10 one time.
But it seems to me that calling Ernie Els’ defeat of Luke Donald over 18 holes of golf a “major upset” is ridiculous. It’s like calling Derek Jeter getting two hits off Justin Verlander a “major upset” *(May 2, 2011) or like calling Ray Allen outscoring LeBron James in a game a “spectacular upset” (December 27, 2011) or like the pitiable Houston Astros defeating the mighty Philadelphia Phillies in back-to-back baseball games a “titanic upset” (Sept. 12 and 13, 2011).
What constitutes an upset anyway? Ernie Els was a great golfer. He has won three major championships, twice finished second at the Masters, he has won 64 tournaments around the world. Luke Donald had a magnificent year, but he has never won a major title (or finished second, for that matter), he has won nine tournaments on the PGA and European tours, and he is off to a crummy start in 2011. You’re telling me it’s a MAJOR upset for Ernie Els to beat Luke Donald in one round? Come on. It’s one round of golf. We have crazy leaders in almost every major championship after one round of golf. I don’t think it would be a MAJOR upset if Tom Watson beat Luke Donald in one round of golf … or John Daly … or, well, any of these guys. Come on: A MAJOR upset?
It just feels like we are losing the meaning of upset. It can’t be an upset just because it seems a bit unlikely. Unlikely things fill our lives. That’s part of the joy of living. Bad golfers make holes in one. Poker players who don’t know the rules win big pots. Little kids who can barely lift a 6-pound bowling ball roll strikes now and again.
But “upset,” at least as I think the word should be used, represents something more than the uncommon. It represents a clear break from the expected, a clear and surprising turn. It isn’t just rolling 10 or higher with two dice. And a “major upset,” man, that’s a cataclysmic event, a jaw-dropper, that’s Buster Douglas knocking out Mike Tyson, that’s the movie Hoosiers, that’s the U.S. hockey team beating the Soviets*, that’s the U.S. beating the British in the Revolutionary War, that sort of thing. A major upset isn’t a David and Goliath story. It’s actually David and Goliath.
*This week was the anniversary of the Miracle on Ice. Here are 10 things you may not have known about the Miracle on Ice … I wrote this in 2010.
Major upset, seriously, you should have some pretty high standards for that phrase, don’t you think? When Ernie Els, in the middle of his terrible 2011 season, shot 65-66 the first two days at the Wyndham Championship, I don’t remember the world of golf going crazy about how how unlikely it was, how incredible and unbelievable and amazing it was, how the walls of probability and reality had come crashing to the ground. In fact, I didn’t remember it at all — I had to go back to his bio just to see it. This is golf. Astonishing golfers shoot mediocre rounds. Struggling golfers shoot spectacular rounds. Mike Donald led the Masters after a round and almost won the U.S. Open and then made one major championship cut for the rest of his career. In last year’s British Open, an English golfer Simon Dyson finished ahead of Luke Donald, Rory McIlroy, Lee Westwood, Martin Kaymer and Steve Stricker — who happen to make up the top five players in the world at the moment. Did anyone even notice? Of course not. That’s golf.
I should be able to write a golf post without mentioning Tiger Woods … but apparently I can’t. When Tiger Woods was at his peak, he had this almost magical ability to make golf seem predictable. He almost never missed cuts. He almost never had bad rounds. He almost never lost leads. From 1999 to 2009, he played in 10 Bridgestone Invitationals. He won seven of them and finished Top 5 in the the other three. He won the Memorial four times, the Arnold Palmer Invitational six times, the Buick Invitational six times. Golf is not a sport meant to be dominated like that. But Woods was from another planet. He was like Gretzky at his best, Chamberlain at his best, Jim Brown at his best — not just good, but sport altering.
He was so good, in fact, that it seems like everybody forgot that golf is really hard and unpredictable and maddening. The last 12 majors we’ve had 12 different winners. Luke Donald is a fine player. His spectacular 2011 season makes him as good a choice for No. 1 player in the world as any, I suppose. It’s possible he will have another great year, followed by another and another, and win major championships and become one of the all-time greats. It’s possible he won’t.
Either way, you can’t tell me that Luke Donald could be as “prohibitive” favorite over any of these high-level golfers in one round of golf, and certainly not over a three-time major winner no matter how much he has struggled. This match-play is fun, and it’s different, and it makes for some good television. But this isn’t the NCAA Tournament where the top seed never loses to the 16th. This isn’t tennis where the No. 1 player in the world almost never loses to the 64th best. This is golf with all the quirks, bad bounces, tough putts and strange turns that go with the sport. Unless they decide to let some guy from the local driving range into the field, there won’t be any major upsets.