October 2012

Golf : A Game of Love

Author: Paul Devere

Let us contemplate the beauty of golf. I’m not talking about those attractive LPGA players (who can drive the ball 270 yards—and you, average golfer, drive it 212) or those glam PGA Tour wives and significant others (many who actively support dozens of charities). I speak of the game itself.

Michael Murphy, with great eloquence, did a more than adequate job in his book, Golf in the Kingdom, to transport the game from mere fairways and greens to celestial Scotland. Writer Herbert Warren Wind transformed the game with his words, beyond a simple athletic event, and, in 1958, brought prayer to Augusta National by dubbing holes 11, 12 and 13 “Amen Corner.”

John Updike, one of my writer heroes, did more. Listen to him: “Some golfers, we are told, enjoy the landscape; but properly the landscape shrivels and compresses into the grim, surrealistically vivid patch of grass directly under the golfer’s eyes as he morosely walks toward where he thinks his ball might be. We should be conscious of no more grass, the old Scots adage goes, than will cover our own graves. If neither work nor play, then, if more pain than pleasure but not essentially either, what, then, can golf be? Luckily, a word newly coined rings on the blank Formica of the conundrum. Golf is, let us say, a trip.”

This from a 1973 New York Times essay, golf lover Updike wrote. That was when you could still go on a “trip” other than a cruise to the Bahamas with a bunch of old Boomers.

My other writer hero, Mark Twain, rather succinctly gave his impression of the game when he labeled golf, “a good walk spoiled.”

Why do 26 million people in the U.S. love this game so much they will spend thousands of dollars they do not have to beat themselves up? Why do so many others call it a waste of time and money, a scar on nature’s landscape, an infamous polluter, a rich man’s folly?

I took up golf writing in 1984 (an Orwellian impulse?) when I learned golf writers made twice as much as tennis writers for half the work. Because I was a tennis advocate (and player) on Hilton Head at the time, this might seem jaded, but car payments are car payments. And because I was living on a golf course at the time (#10, a par 3 on Devil’s Elbow North, Moss Creek), it seemed a natural transition.
Also, the tennis courts were a heck of a bike ride away.

However, I must be clear; I did not start playing golf until 1988, when our twins were born (I was 43). My editor at a national golf publication didn’t discover my innocent enough deception until 10 years later.

While my trajectory into the game of golf is relatively unimportant, what is important is the perception of the game’s allure given to me by one who had been playing since he could walk. Attempting to follow up on Updike’s “trip,” he made this observation: the sensation of thwacking a golf ball off a small plot of grass (tee) with the intention of getting it to fly to a larger plot of grass (fairway, or green on a par 3) seems to give the golfer (man or woman) striking the ball an emotion resembling anything from a fabulous romp in the hay with the most desirable person in any of his or her fantasies to being Supreme Emperor of the Universe. Unfortunately, that “thwack” (called a drive) only lasts less than one second, which is about the time it takes to max out your Visa at the pro shop when paying your green fee. (Rack rate at Harbour Town Golf Links, $260. Rack rate a Pebble Beach, $490, and that’s without a cart.)

Aside from money, an unwritten but well-known “rule of golf” is that the game gives and it takes away. Very much like love. It is a rule experienced by golfers at all levels of competence. According to statistics compiled by the USGA (United States Golf Association—the Vatican of golf), the ball thus “thwacked,” by an average player (85 percent of us) will travel an average of 212 yards (men) or 140 yards (women). These golfers will miss the fairway about 52 percent of the time. Only 28 percent will reach the green in regulation (i.e. par 3, one stroke; par 4, two strokes; and par 5 three strokes).

The give and take “rule” mentioned above goes like this: You, average golfer, drive the ball an awesome 30 yards farther than you ever have. Give. Your ball drills itself two inches into a sand bunker or plops into a water hazard. Take.
Yet, as if to thumb our collective noses at the golf gods, no matter how poorly we play, only about five percent of us take lessons from a professional instructor.
Given all the woe, the pain, the anguish, the disappointment golf has brought to those who play the game, why do we still love it? It can’t be for the clothes. Golfers are notorious for ensembles that include both plaid and polka dot patterns. And why the white shoes?

Maybe it is for the intellectual challenge. Yet writers like Wind and Murphy and Updike and Twain claimed that, in so many words, while playing allowing thoughts to enter your mind was a distraction. (For example, where else but on a golf course can you drive and drink at the same time? Of course, when you run the cart into a lagoon, the first thing you say is, “What was I thinking?!” Now you have the answer.)

No, the reason we love the game is—with all the frustrations, all the humiliations, the defeats, the hurt personal pride, the COST, the idiots in front of you who are taking their sweet d*mn time on the green, the lost balls, the depression, the disgruntled spouse, the silly clothes, the stupid jokes—we commit four to six hours where (at least we THINK) we are holding time in abeyance, where we can have the opportunity (though we don’t always take it) to enter that sphere Murphy writes about or take Updike’s “trip” into another world, where you do not grow older, where fantasy can be fulfilled. Especially on Number 18, a par 4, and because of the 30 mph wind at your back or a very lucky “thwack,” you’re up in two and about four long feet from the hole and you one putt and it goes and you get a birdie and so what if you didn’t break 100, you got a birdie! Amen, Mr. Wind!

Yes, you’ve got to love it.

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