Thursday, October 07, 2004


The Admirable Game

I used to feel that golf was not for me. First of all, it is not a sport—it is less exercise than walking, and the halt, lame, and aged can all play. It seemed unnatural. It seemed ridiculous. (What kind of great goal is hitting a little ball into a hole in the ground, missing on every stroke but the last?) I thought it was elitist, the province of rich intolerant old Republican white males and a few reclusive millionaire lesbians on the LPGA tour. It's expensive. It was boring to watch on TV. And, finally, like opera, I didn’t think I’d ever be able to enjoy it.

Well, I was wrong, that's all. Golf is wonderful.

The first reason is simple: you get to go outside. There is a photographer who did a series of landscape photographs on golf courses who thought golf courses are today’s equivalent of the formal gardens of the 18th century—a way to get out into “prepared” nature and promenade around. As such, it is truly pleasant. It’s like a walk in a very nice park but with a purpose.

As far as personal interactions go it is also surprisingly benificial. Effectively, what you have is an excuse for serious conversation without the attendant obligations or stress. That is, you can bring up serious or deep topics with your playing partners, but if there's ever a lull in the conversation or an awkward moment, you can always talk about golf. This is handy; it really makes talking much easier and much more pleasant. It’s the social equivalent of an analyst making a patient lie on a couch and stare up at the ceiling. I find it unsurprising that a great deal of business is conducted on golf courses; talking while golfing is a great way to maybe talk serious stuff, maybe not, and not feel trapped or stressed about it either way.

The golf swing is a thing of beauty. Complicated enough to remain at least intermittently a mystery even to the greatest players, it requires the same combination of concentrated, practiced attention, together with mental relaxation and spontaniety, as a perfect brushstroke by a master calligrapher. Care too much, and you will screw up; be too concerned about results, and you will not get results. Want the ball to go up? Then you must hit down on it. Muscle your swing, and the ball will fall short—but relax and swing easily, and the ball will go far. Aggression goes unrewarded. Anger never helps. It’s almost a perfectly transparent manifestation of the state of your mind and your ability to control your mind—the closest thing to meditation you can do in company. I’m convinced that golf is the #1 way in which the principles of Eastern religions enter into the actual experience of the average upper-class and upper-middle-class American male. I know of no more perfect embodiment of the principles of Zen.

It is ultimately non-competitive. No one wins, no one loses—just like in kindergarden, but without the condescension (“it's a tie! Everybody wins!” my kindergarten teacher used to say, to my even prepubescent annoyance). You play against “par”—a mythical idea of potential; against the course, which turns from friend to foe and back again like the weather does, only more quickly; and against yourself, your own moods, cognition, coordination, and past record. Any further competition is added on...contrived by the players in their desire to be competitive. Compare this to a footrace: in a footrace, somebody has to win. It’s inherent in the concept. Golf is the opposite—it’s inherently noncompetitive, and you can overlay competition on top of it if you want to.

And it’s non-sexist and non-ageist. Want your daughters to play college football? Good luck. Want to be playing playground hoops with the guys at 70? Hope you drank your milk and ate your broccoli when you were young, sport. In golf, not only can men and women both play, they can play in the same foursome. Grandparents can play with their grandchildren.

If golf is not a sport, then at least it’s the best game ever invented. Far from being stupid and useless, which I used to be convinced it was, I now think that my non-acceptance of golf was a function of immaturity. I just didn't understand. I’m not saying I understand entirely now. But I've been enlightened, at least.

© 2004 by Michael C. Johnston
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