Playing Around with Arthur

Gil Williamson

Golf: "I never learned anything from a match that I won." Bobby Jones

They presented an unusual pair, these golfers: Professor Edward Latimer, a middle-aged man of medium height, and his companion, a larger than life young fellow in immaculate golf apparel whose fluidly swift movements betrayed the fact that he was an android.

"Now, Arthur," began the Professor, "This will be your first ever round of golf, and we shall score it hole by hole. OK?"

"Yes, Professor," said the android - his lips moved, but the voice seemed to come from his chest, "I have perfected golf on the driving range you took me to. You told me that I can hit a golf ball very far and very straight."

"Yes, you can, Arthur, but, while it helps to hit a long, straight ball, there is more to the game than that. The driving range is a flat, open field. A golf course is not."

"I understand."

"OK. I'll just drive off." The Professor was a good golfer. He hit his ball to the corner where the fairway curved gently left - perfect for a second shot to the green.

Arthur smoothly placed the ball on the tee peg, and selected the largest club from the gleaming cluster of golf clubs in their brand new bag. He hit the ball in the same direction as the Professor's. It reached the corner and kept going, without turning, and finished forty yards from the fairway, in thick grass.

"Ah, Arthur, I should have explained. It's much easier to hit a ball when it's on the fairway."

"My ball is closer to the green than yours, Professor."

"Yes it is. Let's try to find it."

They found the ball, but when Arthur tried to hit it, he managed to uproot an impressive amount of grass, but the thick stems turned the head of his club, and the ball didn't make much progress. It took a few more mighty blows, with collateral damage to the local flora, to get the ball on the green.

Meanwhile, the Professor had reached the green with his second stroke. Putting was another revelation to Arthur. The putting green at the driving range had not featured any slopes, ridges or dips. On this real green, Arthur's putts, driven directly at the hole, veered, overshot, stopped short, or, due to excess speed, skipped over the hole in an almost comic fashion, while the Professor's ball fell in the hole at the second attempt.

"My hole, I think," said the Professor.

"Certainly, I had sixteen strokes on that hole," agreed Arthur, "I evidently have much to learn. On this first hole, I learned to keep my ball on the fairway, even at the sacrifice of distance. Also, I learned that, in putting, I must calculate the vector of the ball, taking into account friction, angle and topography." Nevertheless, Arthur sounded vaguely irritated. Professor Latimer observed a discordant note in his wonderfully modulated voice.

"Well done, Arthur. Next hole."

On the second hole, Arthur learned that fairways, as well as greens, exhibited uneven topography, that a ball travelled much further downhill than on the level, and that due to these factors, a golf ball, though it was hit straight at the green, might arrive in the sand bunker behind the green. Further, he discovered that hitting a ball out of a bunker was not an easy skill.

On the third hole, adverse gusts of wind caused Arthur's ball to veer sharply left, off the fairway. Following the Professor's advice, Arthur improved his ability to hit a ball out of thick grass by using an elevated club, bringing it down more vertically on the ball to reduce the amount of grass the club had to pass through before it reached the ball. Arthur grumbled at this stage that it had been unfair of the Professor not to fully brief him before they started. In all his dealings with Arthur, the Professor had not previously noticed grumbling as an aspect of Arthur's behaviour.

"I'm three holes up," Professor Latimer remarked. "There are fifteen to go. You have an excellent chance of beating me. You are a fast learner. Your play is greatly improved."

On the fourth hole, Arthur learned that, although the canopy of an oak tree is ninety percent air, the ten percent of leaves, twigs and small branches effectively block at least fifty percent of the paths that a ball might follow through the tree.

On the fifth hole, Arthur attempted to reach the green by projecting a ball at a low angle of incidence across a lake, relying on the skipping effect to keep it above water. It sank without trace some yards from the other side. Arthur was heard to complain that Barnes Wallis had some explaining to do.

"Five up, thirteen to play," said the Professor.

Hole six, par three, a short drive across a chasm to a small green. Arthur remarked, with a slight tremor in his voice, that his smallest pitching iron would be sufficient to reach the green. The Professor required a six iron, at least four clubs bigger, but his shot arrived comfortably on the green, and rolled past the pin to the back of the green.

Arthur appeared to take careful note of the range, then whacked his ball high in the air. The trajectory was perfect, the angle of descent to the green almost vertical, the terminal velocity extremely high. The ball entered the surface of the green, and was so plugged that it disappeared from sight altogether. The Professor noticed that the drizzle which had begun was actually steaming off Arthur's clothes. He touched the android, and realised that Arthur was running extremely hot.

"Don't worry, Arthur, we are permitted to dig the ball out and repair the green, without penalty," said the Professor.

"I am aware of that," replied Arthur, "Having Googled the circumstance just now."

They disinterred the ball, and Arthur putted it straight in the hole. A birdie, and a win! His first.

Score: The Professor - Four up.

On the seventh hole, the Professor succeeded in halving the hole, by playing the ball from the green-side bunker, straight in the hole.

"I believe," said Arthur, having apparently made some more internet searches, "That result is known as a 'golden ferret'. It is considered 'good luck'. I understand that luck is defined as a result which is unlikely, given the probability of success. So good luck for you, is bad luck for me."

"Very good, Arthur, but I should point out that Gary Player, a famous golfer, once remarked: 'The more I practice, the luckier I get'."

This remark was a mistake. Arthur apparently found the concept extremely hard to comprehend, and the Professor finally had to concede that the statement was possibly ironic. Arthur had already been told that, like most artificial intelligences, he would not be expected to understand irony.

The Professor won the eighth hole, again with a flukish shot. His second shot, from 150 yards, finished only six inches from the pin. Arthur had played the hole perfectly, with a very long drive and a magnificent pitch to the green, but required two putts.

The Professor now observed that Arthur had become even hotter. There were little pinking noises coming from his chest, and a smell of scorching. "I think, perhaps, Arthur, that we probably ought to stop now. It's my belief that you are over-heating."

Arthur's voice was very hoarse when he replied: "I generate more heat when my brain is working hard. My temperature at present is within the maximum permitted. I would like to continue."

"I cannot advise it, Arthur. We ought to stop and let you cool down."

"But I am losing, Professor. If we stopped now I would be unable to win, and I think that would be bad for me."

The Professor decided at that stage that it would probably be safer to carry on, but to contrive to let Arthur win, as he seemed to be agitated by losing.

This worked for a while. Arthur's temperature dropped as he won the next three holes, but on the twelfth, he noticed that the Professor was missing putts that he would normally have got very easily

"Professor. I think that you may be deliberately losing these holes. That is not in keeping with what I understand to be the spirit of the game."

"Not at all, Arthur, I was just a little pre-occupied with your temperature. I'll try a little harder."

The Professor contrived to touch Arthur's back briefly, and discovered that he had, indeed, cooled down a great deal. And Arthur then continued to play very consistently, so that by the beginning of the seventeenth and penultimate hole, Arthur was actually one hole up. And his voice had lost that rough edge.

Arthur's drive at the seventeenth was long, the trajectory only a few degrees low, and it was indeed unfortunate that his ball landed in the brook.

"I calculated that very carefully," he complained, "The ball should have stopped several feet short of the water. The physics was correct, I'm sure, taking into account club head speed, attack angle, dynamics of a sphere with dimples in it, viscosity of the air, bounce coefficient of the fairway, all based on previous observation."

He was getting hot again. The Professor said: "The reason, I think, was that you were teeing off from an uneven surface, so that your left foot was slightly lower than your right, introducing a slight downward adjustment to launch angle. Never mind, you can drop your ball on this bank of the stream and still be on the green for three. I am unlikely to get there in less because I simply haven't got your power."

Arthur was still fuming - literally - when they reached the brook. The ball was in very shallow water, just covered. Something resembling a growl issued from him.

"Take it easy, Arthur," said the Professor. "You are one up. Even if you halve the next two holes, you'll still win. Just drop the ball this side of the water for a one-shot penalty, and hit it to the green."

Arthur's grating voice was barely comprehensible: "That will cost me a shot. I can hit it from the water."

"Believe me, Arthur, many fine golfers have come to grief in this situation. No less a golfer than Tony Lema gave a hint for hitting a ball out of water."

"What was the hint?"


"Don't what?"

"He meant 'don't hit a ball out of water'."

Arthur turned his head towards the Professor. Although the expression on Arthur's face was quite neutral, the silent gaze was somehow threatening. Arthur chose a club, and stood up to his ankles in the stream. Steam rose. With a mighty heave, Arthur's club plunged into the water. A cloud of spray enveloped both of them. Arthur steamed. The Professor dripped.

"Where is the ball?" Arthur croaked, peering up the fairway with his Zeiss x-eyes.

The Professor took a couple of cautious steps backwards before indicating that the ball was still in the water, about a handsbreadth from its original position, but in deeper water.

Seriously alarming noises were now issuing from Arthur. He erupted from the stream, stood a moment, then flung the club away. His clothes smoked, then caught fire. When the clothes had dropped away in burning shreds and ashes, Arthur's synthetic skin could be seen to be melting, and metal, circuit boards and cables could be seen. The machine that had been Arthur simply died before the Professor's eyes, collapsing half into the water.

The University Board of Inquiry convened a few weeks later. Professor Edward Latimer stood accused of having negligently caused a valuable android, the property of the University, to wit: Arthur, to self-destruct while the Professor was entertaining himself with a frivolous game. Further, that he had negligently permitted said Arthur to be out in the rain and to walk in water, promoting further damage and ingress of foreign bodies. In addition he was to be billed for one almost-new golf club that was found to be missing from Arthur's golf bag, a set of brand new golf trousers and a second-hand Tiger Woods shirt.

One particularly meticulous board member was assigned to describing in detail the damage suffered by Arthur, though he generously discounted water immersion as a primary cause of breakdown, Arthur having been built to exacting waterproofing standards. The main point of failure originated, apparently, in the 'personality' module of the AI processor, which seemed to have become overheated and overloaded, spreading high temperatures to all sectors of the android's intellectual functions.

The Bursar asked the Professor why he had found it necessary to train the robot to play golf, when his physical capability and comprehension of competitive games had already been clearly established by earlier experiments.

"Ah, Bursar, I did not set out to test Arthur's ability to master physical skills or to use his logical, range-finding and calculation skills. He did, in fact, perform surprisingly well in those departments. By the end of the round, he was, technically, a better golfer than 90% of human golfers. He was winning a game which, at the halfway stage, he seemed certain to lose.

"No. I was seeking to test his ability to cope with frustration, stress and disappointment. He was subjected to bad luck, unpredictability of playing conditions, adverse weather, and the possibility of losing a game that he felt he should, in all justice, have won.

"I am sure that the golfing members of the Board would agree that there is no better test of mental fortitude than the game of golf."

Much nodding and murmurs of agreement ensued and Professor Latimer was exonerated of the main charges, though he was still required to reimburse the University for the burnt clothing, a missing 7 iron, three Titleist golf balls and a bag of 8 cm tee pegs.

© Gil Williamson 2015 All Rights Reserved

Date and time of last update 16:59 Sat 01 Aug 2015
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