Magazine | April 2, 2018, Issue

In Defense of Golf

The Riviera Country Club, Pacific Palisades, Calif. (Robert Laberge/Getty Images)
It’s america’s most misunderstood game

‘I hate golf. And hopefully, by the end of this, you’ll hate golf too.” That’s bestselling author Malcolm Gladwell, opening an episode of his widely acclaimed podcast, Revisionist History, last year. Helpfully titled “A Good Walk Spoiled,” the installment serves up a giddy 34-minute anti-golf rant.

While you might think of golf as an innocent pastime or a fun way to spend an afternoon — or even a total snore, puzzlingly narrated in hushed, reverent tones — according to Gladwell, it’s a powerful scourge ravaging America. Golf, we are told, is a “dangerous, costly obsession.” It lurks in the dark corners of elitist hearts. It is an “aristocratic” addiction. It is “crack cocaine for rich white guys.”

Gladwell obviously delights in despising golf, or at least pretending to feel that way. If you listen to the full podcast, you’ll discover that he doesn’t actually hate golf, at least not as a sport. Gladwell hates country clubs, particularly the Brentwood Country Club in Los Angeles, which is “vast, gorgeous, and” — please insert your own tone of quiet dismay here — “private.”

Let me be clear: One cannot overstate how much Malcolm Gladwell hates the Brentwood Country Club. The Brentwood Country Club, you see, is surrounded by a fence. Gladwell jogs around it when he visits friends in West Los Angeles, vexed that he cannot enter and annoyed that there aren’t more golfers per grassy square foot. The running path rimming the club is narrow; the fence is high, with enviable inner-fence foliage. Why, Gladwell asks, is the club not a “huge, magnificent park,” free and open for Gladwell to charge right through, heart-rate monitor in hand, plotting new and nefarious podcasts about the seizure and redistribution of private property all the way?

To Gladwell’s unending dismay, the Brentwood Country Club remains private, and so, it is presumed, we must hope for its destruction by a vengeful meteorite, or at least an updated scheme of progressive taxation. Gladwell also happens to hate California tax law, particularly as it relates to private clubs, and has a rather energetic bee in his bonnet about the golf habits of various CEOs. But those topics do not a particularly interesting podcast make, so here we are. Back to golf.

I usually like Revisionist History, by the way. There have been many fantastic episodes, including one exploring how would-be busybody guardians of supposed public health ruined McDonald’s french fries — truly, a tragedy for the ages — and one featuring a wonderful examination of sad country songs that might literally make you cry. But somehow, it is the topical umbrella of golf — pure, simple golf, with its maddening, mystical powers — that sent a perfectly nice podcast careening, wild-eyed and goofy, right off the rails.

Golf, it seems, is a sport that certain people passionately love to hate.

“Golf is a plague invented by Calvinist Scots as a punishment for man’s sins,” journalist James Reston once quipped. “The reason they call it ‘golf’ is that the other four-letter words were used up,” said actor Leslie Nielsen, the author of not one but two books on the sport (The Stupid Little Golf Book and Bad Golf My Way). The most famous golf-bashing quote — “Golf is a good walk spoiled” — is often attributed to Mark Twain, but it’s almost impossible to tell who first came up with that particular gem.

Shane Ryan, the author of a bestselling book covering the PGA tour, let it all hang out in the New York Times last summer, detailing “how I learned to hate golf.” Ryan’s prose is a churning cauldron of merrily over-the-top lava, noting the sport’s “gnawing frustration” and “white-hot rage” and “that beautiful, cathartic boiling point” that might inspire a player choking like Greg Norman at the 1996 Masters — a collapse so epic and mind-boggling that it has earned viral YouTube tributes, complete with tragic background music — to completely freak out, breaking his own golf club in two.

“This pre-eruption stage will include the poison of false hope, a warm chemical reaction spurred on by the rare but addicting accident of a perfectly struck ball,” he writes. “Pay no attention to this fleeting optimism — in golf, the brightest hour is just before dusk, and these flashes of competence will only add fuel to the anger when it comes rushing back.”

It is here that I will remind you that we are talking about a game in which you use a fancy stick to whack around a little white ball.

Regardless: “False hope.” “Anger.” “White-hot rage.” Whether tongues are planted slightly in cheek or not, that doesn’t sound like fun. And yet “there’s a kind of poetry to golf that becomes apparent when you divorce it from its larger American cultural niche,” Mr. Ryan goes on to admit. “There were days when I could feel my soul align with this quieter aspect. On the rare mornings when I maintained a Zenlike mind-set for an entire round, I’d leave the course with a sense of fulfillment and dignity, as opposed to the shame and humiliation that accompanied so many of my rounds.”

Ding ding ding! There it is! There’s a lot to unpack in that paragraph — and we’ll get to golf’s supposed “larger American cultural niche” in a bit — but one thing is clear. It is something even the world’s most passionate golf-hater will begrudgingly admit: To golf well, you must master your emotions, focus like a laid-back laser, and quiet your mind.

To actually do this, as Arnold Palmer once put it, is “deceptively simple and endlessly complicated.” Golf, as the writer Finley Peter Dunne once noted, “is a game you play with your own worst enemy — yourself.” Golf, Bobby Jones said, “is played on a five-inch course — the distance between your ears.” Golf forces all players, in the words of Harvard professor–turned–1960s lifestyle guru Ram Dass, to “be here now.” It is, in short, the anti-Internet.

“All seasoned players know, or at least have felt, that when you are playing your best, you are much the same as in a state of meditation. You are free of tension and chatter,” wrote the legendary and beloved golf pro Harvey Penick, author of a number of books on the topic. In our cacophonous and overscheduled and easily distracted full-throttle world of beeps and dings and whirrs and amazingly compulsive phone-checking, in fact, the game of golf might be exactly what America needs.

As an aside: I have never once felt “shame and humiliation” during a round of golf. This is because I have accepted that I am not a very good golfer. (I’m also an optimist, so I’ll add a wide-eyed and cheery “Not yet, anyway!” here.) My husband, meanwhile, is an excellent golfer, who has adopted a Zenlike coping mechanism for my occasionally competent, occasionally woeful state of play. I call it “the Face.”

“You’re making the Face!” I’ll accuse him, right after whiffing a drive. Being a compassionate sort, he will immediately deny it, but I can tell you one thing: The Face is impossible to hide. Imagine a wildly enthusiastic rookie circus master, bathed in the gleaming big-top spotlight for the first time only to discover that his star lion is laid low with a bout of food poisoning. Imagine sour chocolate pudding. Imagine a crabby raccoon. This is the Face. It is pure, shimmering truth breaking through mimetic muscles.

Golf, in its own way, centers on truth as well. When it comes to any and all golf-related debacles that lead to a display of the Face, after all, I have no one to blame but myself. Comedian and writer Larry Wilmore, who gave Gladwell a good-natured ribbing about the latter’s golf-bashing last year, concurs. As he told Gladwell: “We have to take you out and play some golf sometime. It is a great game for kids, by the way, too. One of the fun things about golf when you’re teaching it to children is the self-responsibility of it, where they are completely responsible for everything that happens in it. . . . It kind of reveals your character. It kind of reveals who you are.” Indeed.

Speaking of kids, let us think, if just for a moment, about the major complaints surrounding “kids these days”: They’re addicted to screens. They have fleeting attention spans. They rarely get outdoors. They struggle to accept personal responsibility, thanks to America’s peculiar brand of Mach 1 helicopter parenting. Guess which delightful outdoor activity, imported from boggy 15th-century Scotland, can address these issues and more? (While we’re at it, let’s be real: In our culture, adults struggle with these issues almost as frequently as kids.)

In his 2004 book, the international bestseller In Praise of Slowness: Challenging the Cult of Speed, journalist Carl Honoré described the concepts of “fast” and “slow” as “shorthand for ways of being, or philosophies of life. Fast is busy, controlling, aggressive, hurried, analytical, stressed, superficial, impatient, active, quantity-over-quality. Slow is the opposite: calm, careful, receptive, still, intuitive, unhurried, patient, reflective, quality-over-quantity. It is about making real and meaningful connections — with people, culture, work, food, everything.” Under “everything,” I’m going to go ahead and add golf, as I’m sure it’s included. It would be madness if it were not.

Golf is more than just mental discipline, however, and goes beyond a Bill Murray–style Caddyshack ramble about putting with the Dalai Lama and achieving total enlightenment. Last year, Anthony Williams, a “grassroots ambassador” for the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America, told Golf Digest about his attempts to introduce Georgia schoolkids to the game of golf. “I see kids who tell me it’s their first time, and I say ‘First time on a golf course?’ And they say, ‘No, first time standing on live grass.’”

This is stunning, and disappointing, and it seems like it shouldn’t be true. Multiple studies have correlated spending time outside in nature — or, in the case of a golf course, outside in extremely well-groomed nature — with better mental health, lower stress levels, better eyesight, improved concentration, increased creativity, and a stronger immune system. Golf, in other words, could have health benefits. It forces you to stay outside, beyond the call of social media or the rabbit hole of your computer or the flickering of your TV, for a full 18 holes. So really, what’s not to love?

I’m sorry you asked: “Even as I fell deeper under golf’s sway, it became harder to ignore the ugly political side of the game,” Shane Ryan continues in his New York Times golf-hating piece. The sport, he writes, is plagued with “rigid conservatism,” with “endless evidence that American professional golfers are, with few exceptions, the entitled products of a selfish, insular and elitist culture of wealth,” a situation that he finds “offensive and enraging.” “I deluded myself,” he continues, “that I could separate the sport from its millionaires and that on a personal level I could achieve mastery over my mercurial disposition.”

In other words, golf is bad because a lot of rich people like it. This is a reverse snobbery of sorts, and also kind of a weird critique, given that rich people like a lot of things. A lot of rich people enjoy food. A lot of rich people enjoy puppies. A lot of rich people like books, or Leslie Nielsen movies, or balloon animals. Richard Branson, one of my all-time favorite high-profile ridiculously over-the-top rich people, enjoys kite-surfing with a former Democratic president, often right off of his private island in the British Virgin Islands. Does that make kite-surfing bad? Does that make the British Virgin Islands bad? If you’re Bernie Sanders, you might go on and on about how private islands are bad, I suppose. But come on, people. Kite-surfing looks fun. I have not tried it, but it looks fun on almost a scientific level.

The very worst brand of golf-bashing, of course, is partisan. In April 2017, GQ weighed in with this doozy: “Is Donald Trump Making America Hate Golf Again?” Now, as you’ll recall, President Obama played his fair share of golf and didn’t take a whole lot of guff from GQ in the process. No matter: “To his supporters, President Obama’s rounds seemed like another class and race barrier broken by the most powerful black man in history. Trump’s rounds, on the other hand, embody each disparagement of the game, and the surrounding conversation has ripped the Tiger blanket off golf’s problems, re-exposing old wounds.”

Ah. That’s an argument, I suppose. But again, deep down, it does not seem really to be about golf, does it? More important, I fully support presidents of either party golfing, because having them golf is far better than giving them more time to cook up new and innovative ways to add layers to our already-dysfunctional behemoth federal government. But that’s just me.

According to a 2015 study from the National Golf Foundation, of the 34,011 golf courses around the world, 15,372 of them are in the United States. That’s an impressive 45 percent. And despite the continued existence of Malcolm Gladwell’s personal Moriarty — I’m speaking, of course, of the Brentwood Country Club — 71 percent of all golf courses are accessible to the public. That’s something to celebrate and encourage, not disparage with a broad brush.

In Austin, Texas, a beloved local public golf course — the Lions Municipal Golf Course, known as “Muny” — has morphed into a symbol of this larger debate. Added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2016, the course is also “a civil rights landmark,” as noted in a recent profile in Garden & Gun. “Back in 1951, three years before Brown v. Board of Education, two black children who lived nearby defied Jim Crow laws and walked onto the course one morning to play a round. . . . City officials decided to let them play on, unofficially making Muny the first desegregated public golf course in a Southern state.”

Today, the course, controlled by the University of Texas at Austin, is threatened with a plan to raze it for development. Celebrities including Luke Wilson, two-time Masters champion Ben Crenshaw, and Willie Nelson have pitched in to save the 141-acre Muny, where barefoot golfers mingle with dogs and kids. Muny is accessible. It is affordable. It is a community landmark. “It’s so much more than a golf course,” Wilson told Garden & Gun. Having played Muny myself, I can tell you that he’s right.

“Look around” on site at Muny, Crenshaw told Garden & Gun, “and you see all different walks of life interacting with each other and learning and enjoying this ancient game.” In the end, despite its enthusiastic band of haters, golf is also deeply, passionately loved. It’s an ancient game for a reason.

Give it a try. You might be surprised. If you whiff your first drive, I promise not to make the Face.

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