[dropcap style=”font-size: 60px; color: #9b9b9b;”] G [/dropcap] oing to the golf course cannot be recommended highly or often enough. The Beast of Boredom is rank and hairy and rising always on its hind limbs to overtake you, and the internet alone will not save you. The solitary sound of that little ball as it is welted into deep-green empty space, however, is as numinous a thing as there is anywhere, in any sport, and it will not fail you.
For those of us who can’t dunk a basketball, or send a baseball to the econo-stands on a line, a beautiful drive is maybe the highest confluence of physical power, symmetry, and control we will achieve. And we are not all alone; as you know, the list of retired and working athletes who regularly play golf is as long in length as it is high in profile. Clyde Drexler, Pete Sampras, Jerry Rice to name a few, even Mark McGwire—oh the motley bouquet of P.E.D. applications—probably have, no offense, lower handicaps than you. McGwire is purported to be an even-par golfer, discouraging I know, but take heart: Your friends will take your reported 85 (or whatever) at face value.
Ah, the drive: The sacrosanct, fixed concentration before the stroke begins is broken by the slow, dilatory rise of the back swing. The back swing stretches the front facing shoulder as the club-head reaches over to its cap and swooshes back down, igniting the ball and the fragrance of the turf. The ball lifts and disappears in an evanescent gleam.
If you have never tried this, it’s worth a Saturday. It’s worth a Saturday in any case.
The game of golf is not, however, won or fully appreciated from the tee, and while this seems like common knowledge it also seems that most golfers tend to spend their money emphasizing this particular aspect of the game. If the above has you considering a weekend loaf on the links, or at least the driving range (I consider my effort a failure if it does not) please also consider the following before you do.
It is more important to have a good hat, or a shirt that fits right under the arm, or a descent pair of sunglasses than it is to have an expensive or new set of clubs. If you can find grandpa’s blades in the storage room, by all means use those—the point is it doesn’t really matter.
Bobby Jones Jr., the spindly little boy who grew up to be a golf champion and legend, the co-designer of Augusta National, and a practicing lawyer of descent reputation and character (among these things, which is the rarer achievement you may decide for yourself) set what was then the single round record (in a winning effort) at The Open at St. Andrews with 68 through eighteen. This was done in 1927 with clubs made from persimmon and hickory and it would be over thirty years before the record was lowered again. The current record—Nick Faldo’s second round 65—was set in 1990 and has been tied only once.
That’s 63 years of golf-club technology developed through the most industrious years of the 20th Century to yield three strokes at St. Andrews, or 1 stroke every 21 years. This period has accounted for the slowest rate of professional improvement since the game was invented. I’ll add that golf is now being played by more people in more places than ever—bigger pond equals bigger fish—and is exponentially more lucrative than it has ever been. The winner’s share for Faldo in 1990 was £85,000 and for the most recent champion, Louis Oosthuizen, £850,000. These two factors convincingly negate really any credit that could be given to the dubiously improved balls and clubs.
No player has ever shot under 63 at one of the four major-championships and Johnny Miller first did it in 1973. I scorn to remind you that that was over 40 years ago.
A record, forty years unbeaten, in a sport whose sponsors supply so much esteem to their equipment, and to themselves, of course, for the equipment’s ongoing refinement and development, must mean only one of two things: Either golf club and golf ball manufacturers are not taking their jobs seriously; or, and this is my itching suspicion, they do not actually have a job to do in the first place—besides stamping the little bludgeons out. After all, they are not dealing with electric cars or Lady-Viagra or other things which technology might foreseeably improve.
Remove the word golf and you will be confronted with the essential absurdity in the phrase club technology. We have had 41 seasons of voguish product lines and glittery new rollouts since any bunch of them actually delivered what they all have promised to confer. No need to feel sorry for the sheep-like bourgeoisie that Callaway, Titleist and Ping annually fleece of their pocket money, I agree. This, however, is a plain racket that panders in magazine ads to the most solipsistic depths in the American psyche and is an embarrassment to any thinking, albeit occasional, reader of Golf Digest on every other glossy page.
The Shooter McGavin vibe of the sports’ ostensible practitioners aside I won’t hear it said that a game I love is all about class, or money, or anything of the sort. Class and money are about class and money and they have as much to do with golf as they do with anything else, which admittedly is a lot.
Golf though, when seen from the fairway instead of the clubhouse, is about other things.
To begin with, it is about the dictatorial clutch of a good groundskeeper and the essential Hanoverian exercise of pitiless dominion over all that troublesome vegetation. It is about hoary double entendre and childish sexual innuendo, obviously. It is about a person in silly clothes trying to command a petulant little ball while adhering to austere, made-up rules of principle. And, most singularly—now largely a bygone casualty of TV invigilation—golf is about self-governance and personal accountability. Like P.G. Wodehouse said of character: “Golf… is the infallible test. The man who can go into a patch of rough alone, with the knowledge that [no one] is watching him, and play his ball where it lies, is the man who will serve you faithfully and well.” If you have the competitive vein and have ever felt unsure of who you are when no one is looking that little pencil will tell you right away.
The golf course is a land apart from everyday life where I can face my essential human futility—the inability to transmute intention into reality—on prettier and more reassuring grounds and terms. I wouldn’t be without it and I invite you all to join.