Monday, August 24, 2009
Some sports are beautiful to watch. The power and sheer aggression of a rugby scrum or a football running back pushing through a pile of 300-pound linemen; the graceful, mechanically flawless stride of a 100-yard sprinter; the telepathic connection between two basketball players on a perfectly executed alley-oop or three-on-two fast break; the beauty of a center fielder jumping as high as humanly possible to rob a bleacher-bound baseball of its destiny; the impossibility of a soccer forward firing a shot from the top of the box surrounded by defenders and somehow making the ball fly into the top corner of the net—if you see any of these things, it doesn't matter whether you're a sports fan or whether you understand the rules of the game, or even whether you speak the same language as the announcer. You'll get up from your seat and say some variation of “Oh my God!” or “Awwww, yeah!”
Watching golf, on the other hand, never makes anyone go “Awwww, yeah!” Here's what watching golf is like: a man approaches a little stick poking out of the ground, puts a ball on the stick, and stands over it holding a club. This standing can go on for several minutes. Finally, the man lifts the club back over his shoulder and swings it forward with a force that sends the ball flying into the distance. The audience cranes their necks—where did the ball go? No one is sure. Then the man walks off towards where the ball went, and another man walks up to the stick and does the same thing. If you are standing near the green instead of the tee, you'll see much the same process, except the men hit the ball much softer and you get to watch the ball go into the hole, which is after all the whole point of the sport.
If you watch golf on TV, the experience is much more exciting, because the TV producers show nothing but the exciting or important shots—long puts, well-hit approaches, holes-in-one that are as much luck as anything. It's a highlight reel, and a highlight reel of anything, even fishing, is fun to watch. If you're flipping through the channels and you don't have an emotional attachment to professional golf, you'll be just as likely to watch Iron Chef as the PGA Championship.
But hey, golf may suck to watch, but does it suck to play? Ask most golfers and unless they've had a good round recently, they'll say, “Golf is a terrible game.” It costs hundreds of dollars to buy the equipment, you have to pay the course if you want to play, and it's the type of game that seems designed to continuously frustrate you. And that's if you're one of the lucky people who has had the chance to play.
To say that golf has some racial baggage is an understatement. Some sports may have banned non-whites from competing for a long time, but the PGA was the only one that held out until 1961. Even now that blacks are allowed to play, Tiger Woods is the only African-American golfer on the tour. It's like that old joke about Jewish Professional Athletes being the shortest book in the world, only Black Professional Golfers is even shorter. (There is an African-American Golfer's Digest, but one wonders how much there is to digest there.)
But that's unfair to golf. It doesn't try to keep black people out, it just tries to keep poor people out. Until very recently, almost all golf courses were privately owned clubs that only extended membership to the wealthy and privileged. If you weren't in the upper circles of society—or at least upper-middle class—you would never get the chance to hold a putter. Thanks to the prohibitive cost of clubs and greens fees, that's still largely true. And country clubs, by and large, don't give a shit. As recently as 1990, a golf course declined to host a PGA Tour event rather than accept a non-white member.
Oh yeah, the most prominent golf course in America still doesn't want women around. So it's got that going for it, which is nice.
Finally there's the sheer amount of space golf takes up. Most sports, the ones that aren't designed specifically to keep the proletariat out, can be played on relatively small surfaces—one hundred yards across at most, say. Each hole in golf requires hundreds of yards of grass. Courses sprawl across acres, acres that the general public is kept out of. And you can only play golf in these spaces. It isn't a park where many sports can be played. You can't lounge around on the meticulously maintained grass and enjoy the view—in fact, you'll get yelled at if you try. Is golf really such a great game that it requires all this space, all this effort, all this money?
Sure, some people enjoy playing golf—I'm not judging them, nor would I judge people who enjoyed strangling cats. I think that most of these people (the golfers) don't actually enjoy knocking a little white ball around with sticks. What they like is getting out with their buddies and walking (or driving a cart) around what is basically a big park. They like drinking beer and eating good food in the clubhouse, getting away from their wives, maybe smoking some cigars—stuff that has nothing to do with golf, which is good, because golf sucks.