18 Good Things About Golf: No. 18


18. Golf reminds you of your mortality. Like life, a round of golf begins in easy optimism, progresses through a lengthy middle period in which hope and despair are mingled, deteriorates into regret, confusion, and resignation, and comes abruptly to an end. Teeing off on the tenth hole, I usually find myself feeling pretty much the way I did when I turned thirty-five: Hey, what happened to the first nine? Then: Oh, well, maybe I’ll birdie in. Being reminded of one’s mortality is good for one’s game. If you knew you were going to live forever, how hard do you think you would work on your putting?

angry golfer

Still, what is finally fascinating and appealing about golf is not its similarity to life but its differences from it. Unlike life, golf has rules, internationally recognized governing bodies, and a clearly defined purpose. When people say that golf is like life — or, in extreme cases, that golf is life — what they really mean is that they wish life were more golflike than it actually is. Golf is life simplified and improved. Golf would be truly like life only if, as John Updike once wrote, “some players were using tennis rackets and hockey pucks, some were teeing off backward from the green to the tee, and some thought the object of the game was to spear other players with the flagsticks.” In the end, the game is really just a game. Its tragedies are ephemeral, its victories are artificial, and the pro overcharges for balls.

Hmmm. Like life after all.

You can read the other 17 reasons here.

18 Good Things About Golf: No. 17

1920: Golfer Harry Vardon (1870 - 1937) at the Open Championship at Deal, Kent. (Photo by Central Press/Getty Images)

Harry Vardon, 1920. (Photo by Central Press/Getty Images)

17. Golf keeps you interested in being alive. Harry Vardon once wrote, “I have sometimes heard good golfers sigh regretfully, after holing out on the eighteenth green, that in the best of circumstances as to health and duration of life they cannot hope for more than another twenty, or thirty, or forty years of golf, and they are then very inclined to be a little bitter about the good years of their youth that they ‘wasted’ at some other less fascinating sport.” You don’t hear people talking like that about their jobs, except, perhaps, inversely.

Whenever I play a round with a good older golfer, I mentally subtract my age from his or hers, and figure that, with a little luck, maybe I’ll be able to play decently at least as long as that. The only reason I don’t regret not having played golf through my adolescence and young adulthood is that if I had done so I would have been miserable during the eight years my wife and I lived in New York City, where playing golf in-season is frustratingly time-consuming. I now judge all illnesses and injuries solely according to their probable impact on my game. I drive my car more slowly than I once did, because even a minor car accident would be golf-threatening. When I see a man on crutches or in a wheelchair, I think, “Gee, I bet he can’t hit it more than about a hundred yards.” I used to think that if I suffered some terrible injury to my hands I would have the surgeon fuse my fingers so that they would fit on the home keys of a typewriter keyboard; I now know that I would have them fused in a slightly strong overlapping golf grip.

18 Good Things About Golf: No. 16


16. Golf is a literate game. Reading about golf provides plentiful opportunities for genial self-deception. The flaws in your swing recede as you imagine the clashes of titans. As always, your enjoyment is heightened by the certainty that, if you had come to the final nine with a lead that big, you wouldn’t have let victory slip through your fingers, unlike Palmer or Spieth. Then a remark of Hogan’s reminds you of a grip change your pro recommended last year—a grip change that felt peculiar the one time you tried it but that might be your ticket (you now see clearly) to the Senior Tour. Then a description of the sixteenth at Cypress Point transports you to the part of your mind where your children are grown, your spouse is merciful, and you have all the money in the world.

On the page, golf is a game you could almost get the hang of. As you read, your slice becomes a gentle draw, and your best shots swell in your memory until they have pushed aside every lip-out, chili dip, pop-up, and shank. Sometimes when I’ve been reading about golf, a feeling starts to build that’s like a smoker’s yearning for a cigarette. It’s a physical longing, which, as often as not, leads to anxious glances at the clock. Could I get to the driving range and back before the plumber arrives? Will my editor really care if that article is another day late? Isn’t there maybe just enough daylight left for nine holes, if I don’t bother to change my shoes?

Best of all, reading about golf is less susceptible than golf itself to the depredations of age. When the yips have stolen our putting stroke, when we can no longer lift our driver, when even a cart seems like too much effort, we will still have golf’s huge and continually growing library to keep us in the game, even if we have to hire a caddie to read it to us.

Taylor on Golf-001.jpg

18 Good Things About Golf: No. 15


15. Many of golf’s best moments occur off the course. There are the beers on the patio when your round is over. There is the midnight inspiration that sends you tiptoeing into the backyard in your pajamas with a pitching wedge and a sleeve of balls. There are the equipment catalogs that make you feel like a kid with an inside track to Santa Claus. There is that first glimpse of Amen Corner on TV each April—official proof that winter is gone. And there is the pile of golf books and magazines that teeters next to your chair, ready to return you to your favorite frame of mind whenever it’s too cold, too dark, or too wet to play.

For most of us, golf improves in retrospect. That triple-bogey on 17 reveals itself, upon reflection, to have been a double-bogey derailed by an unrepaired ball mark. And if your playing partner hadn’t coughed at the top of your backswing on the tee your drive most likely would have stayed to the left of the water: bogey. And if somebody’s dog hadn’t dug up that greenside bunker during the night your sand shot surely would have landed on grass instead of sand, and you’d have had your par. In fact, you once sank a birdie putt from almost as far away. You can still remember every inch of that curling 40-footer, which broke left instead of right but, because you pushed it, still tumbled in. And today, but for a handful of flukes, you damn near made birdie again.


18 Good Things About Golf: No. 14


14. Golf is a game of good and bad luck. It is played on purpose under circumstances that ensure superior skills alone will not always determine the victor. A ball sliced out of bounds may hit a tree and ricochet back to the middle of the fairway. A perfectly struck drive may land on a sprinkler head and carom out of bounds. In an attractively thought-provoking way, golf is frequently unfair. The player who drains a 60-foot putt to close out a match knows that his victorious stroke was the sum of a thousand offsetting errors and accidents that could easily have added up in a different way. Perhaps as a result, golfers tend to be more gracious in defeat and less pompous in victory than other athletes. (I’ve heard this, anyway.)


18 Good Things About Golf: No. 13

Maybe try adding a cigar: Fuzz and Les, August, 2010.

13. Golf is continually challenging. I used to play frequently with a low-handicap player and long-time student of the game named Art. During one round, he was having trouble with his driver, and on the second tee he said to me in exasperation, “I can’t remember how I take the club back.” Every golfer knows that situation. One day, your swing is there; the next day (or hole), it’s not. No matter how good your game may seem at any particular moment, there’s always some part in need of tinkering, and you always know that the parts which now seem sound may suddenly disintegrate. This prospect of arbitrary, undeserved disaster causes strange behavior. Nick Faldo doesn’t trim his fingernails once a tournament has begun. Tom Watson carries an odd number of coins.

Because the golf swing is so ephemeral, it requires special treatment. My own theory is that you should always be changing something about your game, even when you’re playing well. Your swing won’t stay still, so you mustn’t either. Your only chance of keeping up is to stay a step ahead. Maybe strengthen your grip slightly, or open your stance a bit, or think a little harder about the position of your chin—anything to distract the game-destroying gremlins that are always standing on your shoulder, waiting for you to become complacent. Once when I was playing especially well, I decided suddenly to stop wearing a glove. I wasn’t unhappy with gloves; I just needed something different to think about. And, if my game suddenly went south the following week, I wanted something dumb to blame it on.

18 Good Things About Golf: No. 12

12. Golf confers no necessary advantage on extreme youth. The average age of recent major tournament winners is thirty, a time of life by which professional football players are viewed either as has-beens or as medical anomalies. (The average retirement age in the N.F.L. is twenty-eight.) It’s not unusual for pros in their forties to compete successfully with players half their age. When Raymond Floyd turned fifty, in 1992, he seemed capable of dominating both the regular and the senior professional tours. Phil Mickelson didn’t win his first major until he was thirty-three, which is two years older than Roger Federer is now. Tom Watson nearly won a sixth British Open in 2009, when he was fifty-nine. Youth means less in golf than it does in other sports because golf is as much a mental game as a physical one. It rewards experience, poise, and strategic resourcefulness, just as life does, and it isn’t dominated by adolescent thugs.

18 Good Things About Golf: No. 11

Four walkers, Old Head Golf Links, Kinsale, Ireland, May, 2006.

11. If you walk and play fairly quickly, golf provides real exercise—not aerobic exercise, usually, but a mildly elevated level of metabolic activity. Golf doesn’t ruin your knees the way running and tennis do, and the time you spend playing golf is time you can’t also spend sitting in front of the TV eating coffee ice cream and drinking Yoo-hoo. Mark Twain famously dismissed golf as “a good walk spoiled,” but it’s actually a walk improved, since golf, unlike mere walking, gives you something challenging to think about, as well as something interesting to do with your hands. Golf is a walk with a purpose.

Member-guest, 2007.

18 Good Things About Golf: No. 10

Stanley, with a golf accessory designed to speed up play.

10.  Although golf is expensive in absolute terms, on an hourly basis it isn’t much costlier than bowling. A perfectly serviceable set of used clubs can be had for a couple of hundred dollars—or less, if you know an obsessive with a garage full of equipment he can no longer stand to look at. An hour or two spent poking through the bushes on virtually any course will turn up a month’s supply of balls. Sneakers can usually be worn instead of golf shoes, especially now that golf shoes increasingly look like sneakers. Even relatively fancy courses now offer recession-inspired discounts on greens fees and memberships. I know hunters and fishermen who spend more.

The truly oppressive cost of golf is the cost in time: dawdling choppers make life miserable for everyone stuck behind them. They transform what ought to be a pleasurable diversion into an all-day slog, and they hurt the game itself, by increasing the national supply of player frustration and spousal resentment. The ideal solution would be for everyone to play faster, but since that’s unlikely to happen the best remedy is to bypass the slowpokes, by avoiding, whenever possible, the most popular times, days, weeks, and months. My friends and I often go out late in the afternoon for what we call a Two-Hour Eighteen™: a full round, on foot, faster than most Americans play nine holes in a cart. We pick times when our course is likely to be empty or nearly so, and we don’t take practice swings, agonize about where to aim putts we weren’t going to make anyway, or stand still while other people hit. When you can comfortably play eighteen holes in two hours or two hours and fifteen minutes, you can put in a reasonable day’s work, get in a full round, enjoy a beer with your pals, and still be home in time to ask, “Hey, Honey, what’s for dinner?”

When I took up golf, twenty years ago, I worried that I was too horrible to swing in public. But I soon realized that, bad though I was, I wasn’t much worse than most of the other golfers I saw, and that even the good ones didn’t mind playing with me as long as I kept up. In fact, they scarcely noticed me at all, so absorbed were they in their own struggles. As my friend Jim explained, “Nobody ever gave a shit about how anybody else played golf.

Save time by showering at the course. Member-Guest 2011.

18 Good Things About Golf: No. 9

Looking at clubhouses counts as sightseeing. Royal & Ancient Golf Club, Old Course, St. Andrews, Scotland, May, 2008.

9. Golf provides an organizing principle for travel. Mere idle globe-trotting doesn’t appeal to me; I like a trip to have a purpose. For that reason, I enjoy traveling with children. Having kids along forces you to do things you really enjoy (buying ice cream, visiting a dungeon museum, taste-testing foreign candy) and to skip things you really don’t (going to plays, touring the wine country, looking at statues). Keeping your kids from slitting each other’s throat compels you to find activities that actually are interesting, as opposed to merely sounding like the kinds of activities that people engage in when they go on vacation. When children are not available, golf can serve a similar function. Rather than tramping aimlessly around Scotland in the hope of being moved by the differences between it and America, you tramp around Scotland checking off names on your life list of Open Rota courses.

On a golf trip, every day has the same unimprovable agenda: wake up, take shower, drink coffee, eat bacon, play eighteen holes, eat lunch, play eighteen holes, drink beer, take shower, eat dinner, go to sleep. The best golf trips, unlike the vacations that wives plan, never leave you wondering what to do next, and there is never an empty three-hour time block in which you might suddenly be expected to look at a cathedral. You don’t have to wait between lunch and golf, or between golf and beer, or between beer and shower, or between shower and dinner. When one agreeable activity ends, another begins. And on the last day, during the long drive back to the airport, you can pass the time by planning the next trip.

I did actually have a look at a Scottish castle in April, but it was on the road between golf courses and I needed to take a whiz.