At the end of a tough, emotional day in Phoenix last week, my brother-in-law Cal idly flicked on the DVR to a pre-recorded golf tournament. The two of us became interested, but we were still able to talk to each other, like you can at a baseball game. My niece Stephanie, who was managing a five-week-old baby, happened to walk in front of us. I yelled, “Steph! Get out of the way! The ball’s about to drop!” She was startled for a nanosecond, then realized I was playing with her. But really: how could two grown men invest that much attention into golf, the most potentially boring of all televised sports?
Aside from the fact that it was the final round of the Buick Open and we were watching perhaps (though I’m perfectly willing to strike that qualifier) the greatest golfer who ever picked up a club, performing in the prime of his career, it’s a valid question indeed. I too once found tv golf the dumbest thing you could possibly broadcast. Then I started playing the game.
My friend Stanley Graham did it. He’s the kind of guy who lives to encourage; you could screech your way through Jack Benny’s violin scales and he’d say, “You’re getting much better.” It’s possible, but very difficult, to get Stanley mad. Over many weeks, he coaxed me onto a golf course, then he and Phil Allen patiently taught me the rudiments of the game. Keep your head down when you strike the ball (it’s counterintuitive: you want to watch your ball’s flight, but if you lift your head, you’re almost guaranteed to muff the shot. Watching your ball is what your partners are for). The ball farthest from the hole is played first (a moment’s reflection will reveal why). Bad luck is part of the game; you have to “play it as it lays,” though in non-competitive rounds (that is, no money on the line), I’ve witnessed the devilish use of a “foot wedge” to improve a lie. Foot wedges aside, you can’t touch your ball until it’s on the green. It’s rude, and potentially injurious to your fellow player’s putt, to walk across the line from his ball to the hole. The lowest score on a hole carries with it the “honor” of hitting first on the next tee. Stanley and Phil wisely refrained from cramming a lot of “swing thoughts” into my head; too many can paralyze you, even if you’re a seasoned pro. “Keep your head down” was plenty for me; it took several rounds to sink in.
Golf is a gentlemanly game, even if some of the world’s best players these days are women. Some of the rules seem Victorian, which is part of the charm. The thing I admire most is that a golfer is expected to police himself. Just last weekend at the Bridgestone Invitational, a pro moved his ball marker the length of his putter’s head to get it out of another player’s line, and failed to replace it (that’s a relatively rare occurrence which interrupted his routine) before it was his turn to putt. For this infraction, he was penalized two strokes, potentially representing many thousands of dollars. But get this: he called the penalty on himself. As performance-enhancing drugs fill sports with shameful asterisks, from football to cycling, pro golfers still respect the rules and, for the most part, each other.
As it is with most pursuits, the pros play a different game from you and me. They can all hit it a mile, on a trajectory that looks like a jetliner taking off. They don’t amble along in their electric golf carts to the next shot: they walk so fast that sometimes you have to do that little half-skip to keep up with them. They want to spend those precious seconds standing over the ball and figuring out what to do now. And when they squat down to read the twists and turns of a green, they’re actually evaluating it, instead of copying a pose they saw on TV.
Because of the leisurely pace and close proximity, you can learn a lot about people by playing a round of golf with them. The experience unerringly reveals character in everyone who tees it up. How competitive are they? Do they get angry when things don’t go their way (and they can’t always, not for four straight hours)? How many foot wedges do they use? Are they supportive of the other golfers? (As in friendly pool games, you usually hear sincere compliments on a good shot from the other players.) More than once, I’ve evaluated a club-thumper or –tosser by thinking, glad I don’t have to do business with this loser. I even declined one copywriting assignment, back when I made my living that way, for no other reason than my would-be client’s behavior on the course. Keep yer money, pal.
Stanley and Phil’s best efforts failed to produce a competent golfer in me. Phil used to call the sport “flog,” which is basically all I do. But I’ve never, ever, played a round that I didn’t enjoy, and I always can’t wait for the next one. The rap on golf among non-players is that you hit a little white ball as far as you can, then you go find it and hit it again. Haw haw haw. What you actually have to do is hit the little white ball toward a hole that you’re usually not close enough to see, being careful to avoid the sand, water and trees that are in your way, then develop a much softer touch as you get closer, and finally undergo a precise and nerve-wracking test of hand-eye coordination, on a surface that might resemble a pool table, provided that table had curves, ridges and undulations. You can’t put yourself in the professionals’ place unless you’ve tried it. Then, once you understand how truly difficult golf is, you enjoy watching a world-class player display his character. That’s why I’m going to be tuned in this coming weekend for the PGA Championship, golf’s final major tournament of the year. As in tennis, the majors really rev up the players – and, despite skeptical nieces, a revved-up golf pro is a beautiful sight to see.