18 Good Things About Golf: No. 8

8. Golf reminds you that, all things considered, the world would probably be a better place if all the truly important decisions were made by women. Male golfers have a much greater tendency than female golfers to view playing golf as the most important non-work, non-family activity in their lives, and to conduct themselves accordingly. At my own small club, the men, as a group, are far more likely to: play in rain, hail, burning heat, darkness, and snow; keep score; offer unsolicited, counterproductive swing advice to their playing partners; practice their short game; buy a stupid thing they saw in a Golf Channel infomercial; describe, shot by shot, a dreary recent round; employ a caddie; refuse to play without having something on the line; play more than eighteen holes in a day; travel anywhere at all for the sole purpose of playing golf; and regularly watch women’s golf tournaments on TV. The women, meanwhile, are generally more likely, as a group, to: believe that luncheons and dinner dances are essential club activities; skip a tournament if they feel it’s someone else’s turn to win the trophy; call it a day after nine holes; hold no particular opinion about the condition of the greens; view changing the color of the club-house trim as a capital-spending priority; refuse to play for money; and not even think of going for a swim in the pond on the fourth hole in their underpants. In other words, if women golfers viewed golf the same way men golfers do, civilization would have come to an end long ago. So good for them.

 

18 Good Things About Golf: No. 7

Strokes: member-guest, 2011.

7. Golf, like all sports, is perfectly meritocratic: If you shoot the best score, you win. At the same time, though, golf is highly socialistic. In fact, it’s the world’s only welfare state that works. The U.S.G.A.’s handicapping system takes strokes from each according his ability and gives them to each according to his need—communism with a human face. Unlike raw capitalism, golf has figured out how to foster individual achievement without smothering the hopes of those who can’t keep up. Like most golfers, I am proud to give strokes yet unashamed to receive them.

Because of handicaps, competitive matches can be played by players of greatly different levels of skill. If Rory McIlroy, for some reason, could find no one else to play with, he could play with me and, after spotting me one or two dozen strokes, still hope to have an interesting contest. Golf is the only sport I know of in which direct competition between pros and amateurs, or between men and women, or between adults and children, or between young women and old men, or between old women and touring professionals, is routinely feasible. The use of different tees makes it possible to adapt the course to the abilities of the players, and the handicapping system allows further adjustments. As a result, you can play golf on an equal footing not only with your wife but also with your kids or grandkids. Thus, golf simultaneously enhances sexual parity (important to liberals) and traditional family values (ditto to conservatives).

You’d think that a system designed to facilitate gambling among strangers would be fatally vulnerable to inconsistencies and abuses. In fact, though, the handicapping system, like the post office, works better than we have any right to expect. I often play nassaus with people I don’t know—people whose ideas about reportable scores may differ wildly from my own—and yet, far more often than the laws of probability would predict, our matches come down to the final press or the final hole or the final putt. How does that happen?

The explanation, I believe, is that human nature makes the handicap system almost magically self-correcting. A golfer with a pop has a mindset different from that of a golfer playing naked. Players with too many strokes inevitably find ways to waste them, and players with too few are often inspired to shoot better than they know how. (Ben Hogan—or was it Sam Snead?—once played a match with an amateur who complained that he wasn’t receiving enough strokes, and Snead—or was it Gene Sarazen?—replied, “Then you’re just going to have to play harder.”) Every club has its sandbaggers, chiselers, pretenders, and poseurs, but, over the course of a season or two, the bets tend to even out. One way or another, most of us manage to live up or down to our innermost expectations.

18 Good Things About Golf: No. 6

Member-Guest 2008: D.O., K.T., J.P.N.

6. Golf, when used properly, promotes a healthy sense of play. Most grownups don’t play enough, in the kid sense. In fact, most of what passes for play in the adult world is just work by other means. Many golfers treat golf not as a game but as a job they wish they had the guts to quit. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Golf is ideally suited to pretending.

Like most adults, I have watched my childhood powers of fantasy atrophy into powers of self-delusion. When I was eight years old, I had no trouble pretending that the monthly meetings of my Cub Scout pack were the conferences of a secret international intelligence organization whose members happened to wear blue shorts, neckerchiefs, and beanies. Nowadays, I mostly accept reality for what it is: no more slow-motion touchdown receptions, very little air guitar. On a golf course, however, I occasionally find myself playing in the old way—for example, pretending that my club’s three-day member-guest is the Walker Cup. Of course, doing that requires a herculean suspension of disbelief. (Not many world-class amateurs follow a sliced drive with a shanked approach, a sculled pitch, a chunked chip, and three feeble putts.) But there are occasional moments of transcendence.

To be continued.

Member-Guest 2010: Barney, Paul.

18 Good Things About Golf: No. 5

5. Its sociability notwithstanding, golf is unusual among competitive sports in that it can be played alone. Teeing off by yourself as the sun is coming up is an intoxicating experience and a good way to settle your mind for whatever lies ahead. Nine holes alone on an uncrowded course in the early evening is as good as a martini at expunging the day’s accumulation of disappointment and regret. Even fifteen minutes on a driving range can transform your outlook—occasionally for the better.

My yips don’t yip when no one is watching. My putts don’t leak below the hole. My arms are ribbons and my head keeps still. I stay behind. I don’t come over. By the time the clubhouse comes back into view, I’m pretty sure I’ll never make another bogey. I could beat all the guys who beat me now if I could play them in absentia.

Solo golf is so easy that you shouldn’t have to turn in your scores. It gives you a glimpse of the golfer you might have been and might still be—a player who goes for it in two, slams three-footers against the back of the cup, and always reaches for the driver. When you play alone, your inner self sits down and lets your better self play through. By the time you finish, your swing is back where it’s supposed to be.  You can face the world again.

Even in a crowd, golf is a solitary contest. Its essence, in the words of  Herbert Warren Wind, is “man’s battle against himself.” Maddeningly, many of the problems that plague poor players are exacerbated by their efforts to prevent them. Aiming farther to the left makes the ball fly farther to the right; flexing arm muscles while swinging makes drives weaker, not stronger; trying to swing harder makes the clubhead move more slowly. The paradox of the golf swing is that one begins to gain control of it only by seeming to let it go.

The best time to play alone is when the course is alone as well—say, late one afternoon very early in the season, when most of the other members haven’t figured out that the course is open again. The parking lot is almost empty. The pro has gone home. You don’t feel tight, so there’s no need to bend or stretch or even take a practice swing.  And you can grab your bag as soon as your ball is in the air:  you know where your drive is going to be.

18 Good Things About Golf: No. 4

4. Golf is a sociable game. There’s so much down time during a typical round that playing companions can actually carry on real conversations between shots—something not possible with, for example, tennis. Like most golfers, I play most of my golf with people I know already—guys I tend to think of as my best friends, even though I’m not sure where some of them work or whether they have kids. (My wife: “You and Jim have played golf every Sunday for years. Wouldn’t you like to invite him and his wife to dinner?” Me: “Jim is married?”)

However, I’ve played some of my favorite rounds with strangers, after showing up at an unfamiliar course by myself or with less than a full foursome. At various times over the years, on public courses on four continents, I’ve fortuitously been paired with: a French real-estate developer who had a weekend house in Morocco; a guy from Colombia who owned and operated a souvlaki pushcart in Manhattan; the man who served as the Senate’s chief counsel during the Iran-Contra hearings; a retired Korean wigmaker; three guys who were playing hooky from their jobs on the assembly line at Boeing; a French-Lebanese guy who made his living (in Dubai) importing rough-cut diamonds (from Africa); a guy who was both a beer salesman and the reigning U.S. Mid-Amateur champion; a future chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission; a teacher who had recently started a golf program at an inner-city high school; a guy who, when I told him I’d never played golf in the Philippines, said, “You must!”; a retired cotton broker who had once been a colleague of Paul McCartney’s father; and an unemployed carpenter who looked like George Carlin and told me that the key to golf is to “swing easy as hard as you can.” How many other relatively ordinary activities throw you together for an afternoon with people like that?

Of course, virtually all of the conversing that takes place during golf, whether with friends or with strangers, is about golf. I used to belong to a weekly poker group. When I would come home from a game, my wife would ask me if I had picked up any gossip. “No,” I would say. “We just played cards.” She was appalled that half a dozen friends could sit around a table for four or five hours and never say anything more interesting than “I’m out” or “More beer?” (Most social interaction among men is what child psychologists call “parallel play.”) More recently, my wife asked me what my brother and I had talked about during a long day together at the golf course. “Our swings,” I said, truthfully. The only men I know who don’t talk about golf while playing golf are those who have decided that talking about golf while playing golf hurts their golf.

18 Good Things About Golf: No. 3

3. Playing eighteen holes with someone is a good way to take his or her measure. The game has a way of magnifying character flaws—whininess, explosiveness, dishonesty, lack of charity, self-delusion—that may be less detectable in off-course situations. You can know a guy for twenty years and not realize he’s an asshole until you’ve played a round of golf with him. The much-derided male custom of cultivating business relationships on golf courses actually has demonstrable value. Would you really want to invest your life’s savings with somebody who had just toed his ball into a better lie when he thought you weren’t looking?

18 Good Things About Golf: No. 2

2. Golf is founded on honesty. It’s the only professional sport in which players are expected to—and often actually do—call penalties on themselves. A football running back would be considered negligent if he didn’t try to steal a few extra inches by nudging the ball forward after being tackled. No baseball player has ever told an umpire, “I’m afraid I missed the bag when I slid into second.” A golfer, in contrast, is expected to penalize himself if, for example, his ball moves a fraction of an inch when he accidentally nudges a twig leaning against it while searching for it deep in the woods.

Nevertheless, there’s probably more routine cheating in golf than in any other sport. There’s an old joke about the golfer who is so accustomed to fudging his score that, when he one day makes a hole-in-one, he marks it on his card as a zero. Most amateurs play the game according to absurdly generous rules of their own devising—taking “a drop” for a ball hit out of bounds; pressing the head of their club into the turf behind their ball to clear a path for their swing; ignoring double hits, whiffs, and unputted putts. There have been well-known professionals with reputations for not calling penalties on themselves, and even for improving their lie they thought no one was looking. Still, intentions count for something, and golf intends to be a game of honor.

18 Good Things About Golf: No. 1

My wife used to view my infatuation with golf as the moral equivalent of a love for vivisection or human trafficking. (“I didn’t marry a golfer,” she sneered at one point.) She eventually came around, thanks to John Updike and her own sudden interest in ice hockey, a game she started playing when she turned forty. (When she went to goalie camp, as a beginner, she was placed in a group of 6-11-year-olds and spent a lot of time helping them lace up their skates and go to the bathroom.) Now, she often borrows my Bob Rotella books, which she says help her on the ice, and we sometimes watch golf or hockey on TV together. This past weekend, during the W.G.C.-Accenture Match Play Championship, she recognized Rory McIlroy from behind, by his walk. Similarly, I now almost understand what “offside” means in hockey.

Not every golfer has a spouse who’s as highly evolved as mine. Such golfers might find it useful to make a list of the game’s positive features, for consultation during arguments like the ones that used to take place in my house. Here’s the first:

1. Golf is just a game. Games don’t do anything to solve the world’s problems, but they don’t do very much to make most of them worse, either. That is more than can be said about a lot of the things that a lot of people spend a lot of their time doing.