The Strange Nature of the Game
August 11, 2005
The truth is that this beguiling, bewitching game can also be befuddling. Golf is an endeavor of opposites and contradictions; it is counter-intuitive, counter-instinctive, and often counter-productive. But it seems to light up some uncharted corner of the human brain, like we vaguely recognize it as the game we play in the spirit world before birth and which we cling to through our mortal days, secretly hoping the Elysian Fields of the afterlife are really a links layout with open tee times for eternity.
Golf builds character in the sinner, yet leads the saint to swear. The ball does not behave as expected either: if you pull up, the ball goes down; swing down, the ball goes up; swing left to make it curve right, right to make it turn left; harder hits it shorter, but relaxed and easy knocks it out there.
This is a game where you can inexplicably shoot 53 on the front nine and 35 on the back (I know, I did it once); where you can feel like a master one day, and a complete beginner the next; where you can go a lifetime without a hole-in-one and then have two of them in a single round (I did not do that, but it has happened).
Golf opens the door to both masochism and unconditional love when it beats you down, strips away your last stubborn shreds of pride, and threatens to leave you without a moment’s notice; and you keep coming back for more. The game is as fickle as a jealous woman, and as faithful as Fido. It is more relaxing than a Corona commercial, more stressful than an audit at Enron.
Golf is an “old man’s game” dominated by young men. And women. It is an un-athletic sport that brings stellar athletes to their knees. It is an endless exercise in futility that perpetually provides us with hope. It is like a chess game that you win by turning off the brain.
Most bad habits are easy to slip into and nearly impossible to escape; but success at golf requires years of practice (to achieve mediocrity), and we quit every few months. It goes hand in hand with other vices like drinking, smoking, and gambling. But priests and pastors love it.
Golf is a gentleman’s game: we call penalties on ourselves and help our opponents avoid them. There is a dress code, and proper etiquette. Yet you see grown men throw golf clubs and let out the boot-lipped little brat of an inner child. This is a game where accountants forget how to count, and lawyers will pay the bill for a four-hour meeting.
There are a whole set of official rules to obey, and committees to enforce them, but no protection from the whims of fate or chance. Let your ball fall in the chasm left by some inconsiderate hacker ahead of you and it is a “rub of the green”, which means you are, shall we say, “sure out of luck.” If Mother Nature puts a puddle in your fairway, you get relief, but if an opponent leaves a spike mark on your line, too bad.
This is a highly social game that attracts introverts, and a thinking-man’s game well suited to people with a flat-line in the gray matter. It was played by Scottish shepherds 500 years ago, and played on the moon in the space age. The quirks and contradictions of this game appeal to people from all walks of life.
In other words, golf is something strange and rudimentary, like DNA. It can be turned into a lot of things. It can be what you want it to be. Recreation, competition, social, solitary, moral, a fall from grace, compulsive, an occasional escape, mystical, a business tool, hopeful, frustrating, elusive, faithful, thoughtful, thoughtless, simple, and endlessly complex.
It is not bad from behind the ropes, or on television, but it is best as a first-hand experience, something for which to be thankful, and in which to revel. In short, golf is just one big metaphor for life.