Swing of Things
If you’re going to learn how to play golf for the first time, you might as well do it at The Masters
IKNOW ABOUT AS MUCH ABOUT THE mechanics, let alone the apparent thrill, of golf as I do about horology, which is to say: not a whole lot. But I’m willing to learn. There was a time when, thanks to movies and hip hop lyrics, I recognized Rolex, for example, as shorthand for success even if I didn’t understand why. Now, while I’m certainly not an expert on timepieces, my understanding of Rolex has moved passed the symbolic. But golf remains vaguely metaphorical. Then I went to Augusta for The Masters1.
This year marked the 50th anniversary of Rolex partnering with The Masters. The iconic timepiece brand is one of only a handful of official corporate sponsors, but to walk around the course, you would hardly know it. There are no signs. No billboards. No pretty women walking around in branded Lycra, encouraging attendees to try out their products.
Instead, walking around the course, you see a lot of people dressed to play golf, even though they are only there to watch it: polos and chinos in performance-enhancing fabrics, visors, and nylon vests. Everyone looks vaguely Utahan. The Masters is aggressively old school. No cellphones, laptops, or even beepers are allowed. The lack of branding is refreshing. When something is as steeped in tradition as The Masters, it can easily feel religious, to change much would feel crass, and off brand.
I bring this up for a good reason. See, the relationship between watches and golf — between Rolex and The Masters specifically — extends beyond business, and a shared demographic. Watches provide a satisfying lens with which to understand the sport, at least to me.
ON SUNDAY MORNING, hours before Sergio Garcia made the putt that earned him his first green blazer, I went to a golf clinic taught by Claude Harmon III.
This would be my chance to really understand golf’s appeal. I wasn’t looking forward to it. I felt like I was going to a free dinner, the kind you end up paying for by hearing about an exciting real estate opportunity in Montana. Neither of my parents golfed, so it was never a part of our family dynamic. Growing up, I put golf in the same category as jogging or blue cheese: it was something I’d probably like when I was older. But then I got older, started jogging, even learned to stomach blue cheese, and I realized in Augusta that I had never taken golf out of that One Day category. If I hadn’t gotten into it by now — aside from a few adolescent forays into mini putt — maybe I wouldn’t. Was it possible there was something about the way I saw golf that inspired my apathy? After all, that’s how I once felt about watches. They were mini status symbols, on their way to irrelevance now that everyone carried cellphones. Once I understood what actually makes a watch tick, I appreciated them on a more substantial level.
It’s almost as if education inspires appreciation.
And so I try to take an interest in learning how to swing. I am not horrible, it turns out, but I’m no prodigy either. I met, but did not exceed, my own expectations. Mostly though, I was surprised by how uncomfortable it was. Not because I was barely getting my ball airborne in front of Harmon, the third generation of a golfing dynasty who usually gives pointers to guys like Adam Scott (the player, not the actor). I mean that it was physically uncomfortable. Swinging at the ball felt rigid, prescribed, and mechanical. I’m sure I’d get used to the posture and form, but it felt so unnatural, and unnaturally complex. And yet, when Harmon was beside me, giving me instructions, making small corrections, wouldn’t you know it — I sent that ball soaring. And you know what? It was pretty satisfying.
As fun as it was, the clinic gave me an excuse for not caring about golf. At first, anyway. Golf was the sport of robots, I thought. It was soulless. The closer, more precise your movements, the more you could subsume your body’s natural form into the technical ideal of a golf swing, backed up by physics and data, the better golfer you would be. Where was the art in that? No wonder business people — stereotypically cold and numbers-driven — liked the sport so much. A team sport, like basketball (the only sport I had any real experience with as a child), had fundamentals one had to master, but that wasn’t necessarily how you won. It wasn’t how you became a champion. Because you had team dynamics, and opposition. You had to be versatile, creative, connected. There is something deeply human about a sport like basketball. I didn’t like golf because it just wasn’t me. I’m an artist, damn it. A free spirit, already shackled by society; I’m not looking for more rigidity in my off-hours.
Woe to the man who seeks to justify his ignorance after trying something only once. It’s the sport equivalent of looking at a Picasso with scorn, any child could do it. Even writing requires a rigid mastery of certain rules that feel unnatural. You can bend or break them only after you know the ideals perfectly. And it turns out, when you do know them perfectly, you realize how nearly perfect they are.
I once toured the in-house repair workshop at Rolex’s Canadian headquarters. It looks like room full of surgeons, operating on the organs of small mechanical patients. Their elbows rest on specially-designed shelves, so they can use their hands unencumbered. Everything has to be perfect, and yet everything is so small. I could never be a watchmaker. Frankly, details aren’t my thing. Also, I have stubby hands.
But it’s the inner workings of a watch that make it so exciting. Or rather, it’s knowing that behind the beautifully designed face, there exists this complex, rigid, and mind-bendingly precise mechanical ballet happening. It’s all that you don’t see that goes into a watch. That’s what makes them interesting, and actually justifies their position as a status symbol and reward. They are metaphors, but not just for success; they represent all that goes into success.
And that’s what golf is, too. That perfect, elusive swing — the one you execute with the precision and predictability of a Swiss watch — is always just within reach. And once you’ve come close to mastering it, to building it, you can put a face on it. It can be stately or brash, minimalist or showy, but underneath it is nothing if not consistent.
I was right when I considered golf to be an activity for grown ups. Growing up is all about learning to balance individuality with the strict needs of others, and that can feel unnatural. But beautiful, too. And yes, I understand the audacity and injustice of having a golf-virgin report on one of the most prestigious golf events of the year, a tournament that countless enthusiasts would eat their clubs to visit. But, as any golfer will tell you, life isn’t always fair.