(The PGA Tour’s West Coast swing is well under way and marching toward Augusta, so thoughts turn to golf. This post kicks off a series of occasional pieces on the game that I’ll call “Adventures in Bogeyland,” since that’s where I spend most of my time when playing, unless I’m in Double Bogeyland.)
I didn’t start golfing until my mid-30s, which is easy to tell from my swing — a creaky, autodidactic assemblage of body movements that occasionally manages to make contact with the ball. (You can always spot somebody who started playing when they were a kid — the swing is usually fluid and natural. I hate those people.) So, I’ve been playing for roughly 35 years now and in any given round, standing on the first tee, I can still feel as excited as the first time I played. There are many reasons for this, but surely one of them is the unique nature of this game. There is nothing quite like it. As Robin Williams hilariously showed in his masterly history of golf on YouTube, the game can border on the absurd. And yet it also creates moments of pure joy and awe. In between those two points is the spectrum of golf, a sport unto itself. Here are some things that make the game stand apart from other athletic endeavors — the things that make golf, golf.
History. Golf isn’t the oldest sport; it’s pre-dated by running, wrestling, hurling, javelin throwing, boxing, hockey, polo, gymnastics and “dwile flonking” (an old English sport involving lots of drinking wherein two teams try to fling a beer-soaked cloth called a dwile at each other’s head; if it misses, the opposing team forms a straight line where the duffer must down a pot of beer before the dwile gets passed from player to player down the line — this is probably a precursor of beer pong). But golf is much older than the American trifecta of baseball, basketball and football. Tennis dates back to the 15th century — about as old as golf — but its popularity was probably tamped down when in 1437 the game indirectly led to the death of King James I. He tried to use a drain outlet on the tennis court to escape assassins, but it had been blocked to prevent the loss of tennis balls. James, unfortunately, was trapped and killed. Golf began in earnest in Scotland during the late 15th century, when King James IV picked up a set of clubs and started playing. It’s rumored that the first words he uttered after his first shot were “Do we get a breakfast ball?”
The Pitch. The playing grounds of baseball, football, basketball and tennis are all the same — each one is identical, by design — and relatively confined. The tennis pitch is the smallest, about 2800 square feet, which is one-third the size of an average putting green in golf. The football pitch is 100 yards long, but a 7,200-yard-long golf course measures more than 4 miles in length (unless you hit the ball like I do, which extends it to 7 miles or more). And no two courses are alike.
The Ball is Stationary. In what other sport does the ball just sit there? Bowling, I guess, but is bowling really a sport? In golf, you pretty much get all the time in the world to hit the ball — sometimes too much time, which leads to excessive thinking and a bad outcome. Baseballs, footballs, basketballs are all in motion, all the time (excepting free throws in basketball; but then people who have had too much too drink wave styrofoam noodles and scream behind the basket). And why is it that professional baseball players can hit a ball coming at them on some wicked trajectory at 98 mph with an entire stadium yelling, yet professional golfers staring at an immobile ball demand total silence? I once had a guy getting ready to hit back off and give me a look when I opened a bag of potato chips. I kid you not.
Beauty. Most golf courses, at least some parts of them, are beautiful — lots of green, long views, trees and flowers, even some wildlife are all part of the game. If you ever have the good fortune to be on Arrowhead Point at Pebble Beach — that famous string of holes from 6 through 8 — and then turn to holes 9 and 10 running along the coastline, you’ll have a pretty good idea of what heaven might look like.
Rules. This is not necessarily a positive distinction for golf. Most people would agree that the Rules of Golf are similar to how Churchill described the Russians: “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” The Rules of Golf are dense enough (the USGA rules book is 133 pages) but then there are the applications of the rules to specific conditions. The so-called “Decisions of Golf” — examples of how to apply the rules — number more than 1,200. When I was on the board of the Northern California Golf Association, directors had the opportunity to attend rules school, which took two to three days. The pass/fail rate for the test at the end of the class was 50 percent. The USGA, to its credit, undertook a project several years ago to “simplify” the rules, but if you follow the new rule for placing a ball after hitting it out-of-bounds you practically need a protractor to do it. This is why many casual golfers prefer to call them “guidelines” instead of rules.
The Emotional Spectrum. When I started work at a PR agency in the late 90s as VP of the Corporate Practice, my boss said, “The thing about agency work compared to working at a corporation is the highs are higher and the lows are lower.” He was right about that. And it could also be said about golf. There is nothing to equal the feeling of hitting the ball pure, watching it arc up against the blue sky and flutter down to a soft landing two feet from the pin. On the other hand, there is no more humiliating feeling than setting up for a 180-yard shot to the green with a 4-hybrid and skinning it into the pond 20 yards up on your left. During a round with my son once, he swung hard and hit the ground about 2 inches behind the ball, wincing in reaction. “Did that hurt?” I asked. “Only my feelings,” he responded.
The Handicap System. When you think about it, golf is the perfect sport for socialists. “From each according to their ability, to each according to their needs” pretty much sums up the handicap system, which allows golfers of all abilities to compete with each other. I’m surprised Bernie Sanders and AOC don’t play more.
Longevity. I’ve been playing for 35 years and can reasonably expect to continue playing for another 15 or 20 years, depending on a number of variables. Tennis players can play well into the later years, but there may be more physical repercussions if they do. It’s an intergenerational sport par excellence. Kit and I once had a pickup game with an older fellow. He didn’t hit it far, but he always hit it straight. After a few holes I said, “How long have you been playing?”
“Oh, eight or nine years,” I heard him say.
“Wow, you’re really good for starting only nine years ago!” I said.
“No,” he corrected me. “I said 89 years! I started when I was four.”
Despite the quirks and mysteries, the humiliations and frustrations, the time and money, it’s a great game, perhaps the greatest. More to come!