You Have to Play for Something

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“What’ll we play for?” I asked.

“Oh, let’s not play for anything,” he said. “Let’s just play for fun.”

So we played for fun, but it wasn’t fun.

Some people have the idea that placing a modest wager on a round of golf is a desecration of some abstract ideal of recreation, or something. But golf without risk is also golf without reward. In my experience, the guys who insist on playing “just for fun” also tend to slap at six-footers as though the point of the game were merely to get on to the next hole. They never experience the exhilaration of sinking a ten-foot curler with a 25-cent greenie on the line.

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Hustlers aside, the purpose of playing for money isn’t economic; it’s psychological. The parties to a two-dollar nassau aren’t trying to get rich. They’ve merely agreed to suspend disbelief, for the next few hours, in the significance of what they’re doing. Competing for money is one of the few opportunities a grownup has to play the way children do—to increase the pleasure of a make-believe activity by taking it sort of seriously.

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The size of a golf wager doesn’t matter, as long as it isn’t so high that it makes any of the participants worry about the sum instead of the game. In Scotland once, I played a local stranger for a golf ball, and we both played as hard as if we were playing for the Ryder Cup. (And I still have his golf ball.) If we’d played “just for fun,” we’d have had a fine day anyway, but the round would have been less memorable.

P1150520When the same players play together for long enough, their gains and losses tend to be self-canceling, because luck, over time, regresses to the mean. Every fall, the guys I play with on Sunday mornings take a weekend golf trip to Atlantic City. Before we start, we each give Hacker (real name) $100. He keeps track of all our competitions and distributes the winnings at the end.

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One year, he lost his master sheet and stayed up all night recreating it from our scorecards. I told him he should have just handed every player an envelope containing $100 and said, “Here’s what you won.” By that point, the actual money was irrelevant: we’d already had our fun.

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