It is appropriate that on the final day of the US Open golf championship that I explain why I play golf. My inspiration comes from a good friend and fellow writer. She recently asked me, “Golf? I don’t get golf.” She’s used to physically pushing her body to the extreme by climbing rocks or working out at the gym, so golf is not on her radar. Well, my dear, let me ‘splain.
I learned to appreciate the game of golf from my late grandfather. He was a lineman for the phone company who worked his way into management. He learned his golf during the Depression, when the great Bobby Jones, Gene Sarazen, and Walter Hagen were at the zenith of their games, and future greats Byron Nelson, Sam Snead, and Ben Hogan were beginning to make a name for themselves. I never knew how good Grandpa was, but his son, my uncle Tommy was a pretty good golfer. Every Saturday morning, dressed in “just shoot me now, these are ugly” golf pants and shirt, usually lime green, Grandpa would meet his regular foursome at Southwick Country Club for their weekly round and lunch. I would watch him load his clubs and trolley into his pickup truck, wondering about what sort of game is played with those odd sticks.
My first lessons with Grandpa were putting on the living room rug. He let me use a cut-down wooden shafted putter and an electric putting machine. I loved it when the ball was kicked back. If your putt was good, you’d first hear the rattling of the ball up into the “hole”, followed by a loud “click” as the machine returned the ball. My siblings and I were so smitten by the simple game that we would fight over the putter and the machine, to see who would use it first.
I didn’t pick up the game until my mid-20’s. In my teens, I had taken my putting skills to the next level: minature golf. The clown head and windmill were no match for me. Then I moved on to….the driving range. I couldn’t hit the ball straight to save my life. Grandpa would comment, “you swing that club like a baseball bat.” , meaning I swang too fast. But I was not worried. In the mid-80’s my then-fiance put a starter set of clubs on layaway for me. I was working thrid shift and she thought I’d want to play, to have something to do. Not long after I bought the clubs I met a man, who was a unattched minister. Unattached, meaning at the time he was not serving a parish. We became fast friends and soon he had me playing something resembling the game of golf. I was a rough study of a player, but I had enthusiasm and passion. I wanted to improve and play well.
My friend, who’ll I’ll identify as The Right Reverend Doctor Cheez-Whiz, not only introduced me to the game, but also to the ephemera surrounding golf. We started playing computer golf matches, where I would regularly get my butt kicked. He helped me appreciate Scottish culture and how passionate the Scots are about golf. His stories of his own travels in Scotland inspired me to visit Scotland…. twice. I have a friend, a pen pal who lives in St. Andrews, Fife, and I have a standing invitation to stay with him whenever I’m in town. I was last there in 2005 for the Open Championship. St. Andrews is a gorgeous town that is dear to my heart.
Ole Cheez Whiz helped me appreciate golf literature. Some of the earliest golf books date back to the 17th century. No other sport, except possibly baseball, has been so thoroughly chronicled than golf. I also began to appreciate the history and development of the game. He also introduced me to the mystical side of golf, in a book called, “Golf In The Kingdom” by Michael Murphey. The book is set in the 1950’s , centering around the author’s visit to The Kingdom, on the way to an ashram in India. He meets a local “professional” named Shivas Irons and joins him in a playing lesson with a student, on the links at Burningbush. He joins Shivas, his student, and other like-minded Scots in an evening of fine whisky and serious philosophizing over the game of golf. It’s a fascinating read and it captured my imagination.
What does this all have to do with WHY I play golf. Allow me to run down the list:
- You play the course, not your opponent. When playing in a match or as part of a tournament, you are playing against an opponent. Scores are compared and winners or losers are determined. But in the journey that is a round of golf, you are actually playing the course. Your opponent has no effect on your performance; it’s all you. The player encounters obstacles, such as sand bunkers, tall grass or “rough”, and water. Your opponent doesn’t create those to distract you, it’s a part of where you play the game.
- You enjoy the natural world while you curse at your ball. Mark Twain said that golf is a good walk spoiled. Perhaps MT never took a club in hand. I love the rich, earthy smell of a golf course. I love the smell of freshly-mown grass. I love to putt on a green early in the morning and watch the roostertail of dew from a putted ball. I like the slightly metallic taste of water from an on-course fountain. I love to walk the fairways at dusk and close my eyes, listening for the calls of birds and chattering of squirrels. A golf course takes you away from the noise of hectic everyday life.
- I love the feeling you get from a well-struck shot. It’s said that a great shot amongst the bad ones keeps golfers coming back for the next round. It’s not uncommon for a golfer, watching the ball in flight, and calling out, “Be the right club! or “Get legs!”, hoping that the ball will travel the proper distance. It’s a thrill to hit your driver off the tee, swinging smoothly and watching the ball fly straight as a string, then admiring the distance. That shot put you in position to shoot par or better. For bogie golfers like myself, a par score is like a birdie ( or one shot less than par).
- I love the solitude. If you are lucky enough to play a round with no groups in front or behind you, you are living well. You can walk at your own pace, not feeling rushed by other golfers playing behind you. You can hit more than one ball with a different club. You can revel in the luxury of having the course to yourself.
If you separate the game from the culture of golf, it takes on new meaning. I want no part of the private club culture. I want to play golf, not subsidise the dining room with unnecessry meals. I don’t want to buy unwanted equipment from the club professional, who makes his money off lessons and equipment sales. I just want to play golf, maybe have a burger and a beer afterward, and talk trash with other golfers. The golf course is a place to get away from home. I am happy with my old clubs, last year’s shoes, and to leave the scorecard in the pro shop. Golf is also not a metaphor for life, although some make strong arguments to suppor that notion. Golf does teach you honesty, integrity, fairplay, and how to be a graceful loser. All are lessons that translate to the Real World.
But….WHY do I play golf? You’ll just have to join me.