In the third installment of our new(ish) regular column – in which we use our pondering skills to delve deep into cliches, stereotypes and seemingly unimportant male-orientated issues – we consider golf, the sporting world’s equivalent of marmite in a park
Before we begin, I have to come clean. I do not play golf. I never have and I never will. But, that’s not to say I haven’t dabbled. I have been sighted at golf’s periphery, I have a history. Like many bored tracksuited teenagers, on a few occasions in my youth I frequented a driving range, thrashing away at golf balls with a driver that for some reason my grandad kept under our stairs. I once drove a golf buggy at my sister’s wedding reception and more recently, for the last three months I have immersed myself in The Open for this very publication. It was only during the latter experience that I thought, you know what? Golf is fascinating.
In this world, people sit on the ends of the golf appreciation spectrum. They think it’s great or they think it’s shit. They love it or they hate it. It’s either the best thing ever, worth all the time and money in the world, or it’s just a waste of time, turn all the courses into public parks and let’s forget about it. It’s sporty marmite. Malcolm Gladwell, best-selling author and staff writer at The New Yorker hates it. He hates it because it privatises vast swathes of potential parkland in America and leaves a mess of addicted corporate suit types in its wake, many of which were too busy perfecting their swing when their companies were tanking in 2008. Bill Murray on the other hand, he loves it.
Love and hate aside, Golf isn’t in the best shape; equipment sales are down, memberships are down, tv audiences are down and even the rock and roll spirit the sport radiated at its mid-2000s peak appears to have petered out. The fall of Tiger Woods has done the sport no favours, neither did the financial crash of 2008, an event that left its target clientele struggling to concentrate. As England Golf’s participation director, Richard Flint, recently told The Guardian, there are three problems associated with golf: time, cost and perception. It takes ages, costs a bomb and it’s associated with old, middle-aged men (my words, not his). Not exactly an en vogue demographic.
Despite its obvious foibles and shortcomings though (historically stubborn lads of Muirfield, we’re looking at you), there’s something beautifully impossible about it. It’s the sport equivalent of a needle in a haystack. As Churchill once said, ‘golf is a game whose aim is to hit a very small ball into an even ever smaller hole, with weapons singularly ill-designed for the purpose.’ He’s right, not to mention the whole exercise takes place at some of the most stunning locations on earth. Free from the shelter and sterile environment of a stadium, in golf, ‘the rough’ does exactly what it says on the tin. The elements, water, terrain and even animals are all potential obstacles.
Although seemingly calm at first glance, golf is high drama. Don’t let anybody tell you otherwise. It’s heroes and villains. It’s Barack Obama versus Donald Trump. It’s the difference of a few centimetres. There’s something about a tiny ball struck from distance, rolling towards an underground cup, that’s unparalleled in sport. Don’t get me wrong, goals are great. Who doesn’t love goals? Paul Scholes [swap for Steven Gerrard in the Liverpool edition] arriving from outside the area to strike a badly cleared corner on the volley. Beautiful. Magical. But a hole in one? Someone stood there, poised, calm, the target they’re aiming for just a spec in the distance and despite the laws of everything that should and shouldn’t be possible, they manage to get that tiny ball in that hole with one, perfect, shot? That’s a completely different level of magic.
Golf is more than just a sport. It’s a meditation on life. As influential American golfer Bobby Jones once said, ‘Golf is the closest game to the game we call life. You get bad breaks from good shots; you get good breaks from bad shots – but you have to play the ball where it lies.’ Here’s to that. Here’s to golf. EJ