The Meaning of Golf
In this new column, we will publish excerpts from The Meaning of Golf, written by Craig Morrison, who seeks to find the beating heart of golf through its history, its tournaments, its characters, stories and challenges. This is a book that all lovers and
A new column publishes excerpts from The Meaning of Golf that seeks to find the beating heart of golf.
What is the meaning of golf? It’s a disappointment, rarely entirely gratifying. It always sees us hit imperfect shots and we believe we have let ourselves down. In all accounts of the greatest rounds, the sub-par rounds, the sub-60s even, there appears always to have been the possibility of at least one stroke less. The world’s best golfer in 2000, when winning 12 tournaments, reckoned he hit only one perfect shot in an entire season.
So, golf is a game of mishits, but in this way, it’s a great pleasure, the perfect pursuit. It is exceedingly satisfying because it leaves us, ultimately, unsatisfied. So, we crave more. It’s crack cocaine (though some drug addicts function more effectively than golfers: burning less money, spending less time away from loved ones, being more effective in the workplace…)
In golf, each shot is unique. In basketball, say, every free throw is made from the same spot, the same distance in a similar environment. This cannot be said of golf where every strike is quite different. That much is obvious when one considers climatic conditions, laws of probability, the competitive circumstances, the endlessly different courses worldwide… In this way golf teaches us adaptability.
Golf worked for poor shepherds in Scotland just as it works for bankers spending their weekends in The Hamptons. It reminds all of us that whatever we want for will ultimately be deprived us. The first economic principle is that people always want more. It’s part of the human condition. And golf - in spite of the luxury it sometimes affords us and the sums it can cost us - always bites back, reminding us we can’t have everything. In this way, it’s spiritual. Through golf we can measure ourselves not wholly by money, not even by happiness. It sees us measure ourselves against nature, or an approximation of nature, and we find ourselves reassuringly wanting.
Can we live with ourselves? Can we stand the truth of exactly what and who we are? Is it possible to know one’s weaknesses, one’s failings, and still carry on? This is the sort of stuff one might learn in a life and death situation. At a push, we get some ideas about it in the middle of a long training run. But we can learn a little of such things through golf as well. When fully engaged with golf it begins to ask questions of us.
Golf is both trivial and significant. To be germane about it, golf is a game in which one tries to put a small ball into a hole from different distances, eighteen times, in as few shots as possible, the shots being struck with a variety of implements (varyingly unfit for the purpose is the usual addendum). To take a grander
view, to look for the significance, golf is the most interesting of all sports, the one in which demanding physical skills - dexterity and timing especially - must be used alongside considerable mental skills, not exactly intellectual ability, but at least the ability to control or quieten the mind.
It cannot be sold to those who don’t play it. The elevator pitch for the game, the one just proposed, is not great. But many exquisite joys are inexplicable to the uninitiated. Who really liked their first strong drink, their first cigarette? A favourite piece of music - one’s desert island disc - is rarely a tune so catchy it was appreciated at first listening. The hit single (to use a dated term), doesn’t always last like the trickier album track (to use another). Golf is like that. There are barriers to entry which, when overcome, increase its desirability. For the first-time player, unless their inaugural strike takes glorious flight, golf’s appeal is not obvious. But it grows on you, like a dangerous illness. Hopefully, you learn to live with it.
Like all good pursuits it is impossible to master. Even golfing mediocrity is tough to achieve. Despite that, in fact because of it, golf is endlessly appealing to those who will embrace it. But it’s not easy to love. Falling for golf is a bit like falling for your kidnapper. It’s a kind of Stockholm Syndrome.
In strokeplay golf a round is constructed shot by shot. Like a house of cards, it doesn’t take much for it to collapse.
It begins hopefully with one passable strike out on to a suitably wide first fairway. The player then gingerly knocks one onto the first green. Two putts and they’re on their way. They take the ignominy of some silly dropped shots and perhaps even make them up with a birdie or, depending on ambition, a smattering of pars. As the round goes on the importance of each shot grows. The validity of every shot already gone hangs on the one about to be played. Shot adds to shot until a bitter end or perhaps a sweet finale. But what’s the use of 17 good holes and one shocker?
And so, it is the player begins to ‘feel the heat’, to soak up pressure ‘down the stretch’. After a run of great holes, a golfer finds himself in uncharted waters and begins to panic... It might all be trivial in the grander scheme of things. Nobody dies. All concerned will get home to their beds just the same. But in the moment, it is crushing. And in the moment, at the top of the game, a Major tournament perhaps, the heat is white hot, the sort of sensation few of us will ever know.
In cricket, the batsman approaches a high score in a similar way, for a while at least, building his innings, each shot taking on increased importance. To get over the century is tough and when it happens it is monumental. But then the pressure’s off. 110 runs is a glorious score. More would be better. But the anxiety is gone. Arguably the pressure’s off when he has made what he knows to be an acceptable score. For the first few batters 50 might do. Tail-enders could be happy with 20. When they pass these scores, they can relax. But in golf the burden only grows and the tension is there till the final putt drops.
In matchplay, golf we can free ourselves of such fears. We play against our opponents, the overall tally not being part of the equation. Playing alone, we compete simply against ourselves and the course. But in all golfing formats we know, with complete clarity, if we’ve done well or otherwise. We don’t need a scorecard or a result to tell us if we have done ourselves proud.
Golf is full of contradictions. Consider these.
It is therapeutic but vexing. It can be cruel, torturing the mind, yet it is a pleasant escape. It might be played with friends but is in essence a solitary pursuit. And playing this sport well often leads to panic which in turn brings on poor play.
But golf’s not a sport, is it? How can this inherently safe, low-impact, non-contact hobby be considered sport? You don’t necessarily work hard, physically, when golfing. You don’t really have to change your shoes. Surely, it’s simply a pastime.
Yet golf’s adherents believe it is a sport, a superior sport even (and not just in the attitudes of some of its snobbier institutions). Most definitions of sport refer to skill and physical exertion, competition in the name of entertainment. Older definitions relate to fun, as in he’s a good sport. Golf meets and exceeds the physical skills and competitive criteria while also functioning as a pastime for the less than athletic who happen to be good sports.
That the battle between players is abstract, that it can be simply a player versus the course, that the winning is in numbers and not blows landed, puts off those want contact in their games. There’s no actual physicality, no rough and tumble, yet most of us have met golf club secretaries we’ve wanted to punch. And many of us have thrown a club or at least an invective.
Craig Morrison is the author of 18 Greatest Scottish Golf Holes and 18 Greatest Irish Golf Holes. He is a freelance golf writer, a contributor to many international titles, including HK Golfer. An Anglo-Scot, he lives in Somerset, England.