Things that surprised me about golf
So, it turns out golf is a sport. By which I mean, its a real sport, a competitive physical activity that taxes the body and mind. I’m writing this on a Wednesday, three days after my first golf outing as an adult, and my back and forearms are still feeling the effort it took to complete a 9-hole round.
I may not like it, but I am not what peak performance looks like, and yet I am capable in the things I thought necessary to be good at golf: I can walk for days and I can juggle for hours without feeling too taxed. My surprise stems from the fact that golf is a sport sterotypically enjoyed by old white men, who are not normally associated with athletic prowess. Hell, the 45th President of the United States is famously obsessed with golf, and he seemed like a man ready to keel over in a strong wind. Practice, or “knowing the correct way to play golf”, probably helps here, but the amount of workout I got from 9 holes still surprised me.
My dad, who was quite fond of golf in his way, had a little plaque that said “Golf is a nice walk ruined by a little white ball”. Sometime around my transition to “teen”, he tried to take me golfing, and I think utterly despaired after my first 9 holes of ever taking me golfing again, but that quote has stuck with me throughout my life.
Golf is a nice walk! It’s actively pleasant to be out in the sunshine, normally in a little secluded patch of nature, walking with a friend, and the sport itself gives a conversation topic that feels easy. “What club are you thinking for the next hole?” “That last shot, eh?” “Look at that bird over there.”
Around the 6th hole, my golfing partner and I realized why the trope of sales people and executives being obsessed with golf exists. If you think of yourself as a person who is always busy, golf is a nice forced break in your day, out of the office and with some buddies. If you’re trying to sell someone on something, golf gives you at least an hour of time with that person, where you aren’t really competing with them because you’re both too busy competing against yourselves. You now have a shared experience as the basis for a relationship that can turn into something beneficial for both of you.
This realization surprised both of us, I think, because we are both engineers and have our own learned biases around salespeople. I certainly thought the trope existed as just another form of privilege, a sense of “I can take off part of my work day and go play around because I’m charming or powerful.” That isn’t untrue, but there is also a core of a good idea around building relationships on the golf course.
And, of course, it’s very easy to make the other person look good by deliberately being a little bad.
By competition, I don’t mean “competing for a score against whoever you’re playing with”. That drive to be better than my golfing partner existed at the beginning, because I have a small competitive streak, but halfway through the round something changed. With each swing, as I learned from first principles the mechanics of golf, as I moved from absolute ignorance to seeing the foothils of understanding off in the distance, I started thinking about how to consciously improve my skill not because I wanted to be better than my partner, but because I wanted to be better at golf. I wanted to stop landing deep in the rough, then stop just off the green, then start landing closer to the hole.
I realized, somewhere between the 8th and 9th hole, what the real attraction of golf as a sport is. There are few sports we play where you can have anything that resembles a perfect game. Team-on-team sports are right out. There are too many variables for any player to play a platonic ideal perfect game in football or soccer or basketball or hockey. In baseball, only the pitcher can play a game perfectly, and even then they have at least 9 opponents who are there to thwart their attempt. Golf is in a class with only maybe bowling or certain races. The only thing between you and a perfect game is you, your mastery of yourself, the sport, and how those combine to overcome the elements you play in.
Golf is the only sport I’ve experienced that combines true athleticism with a competition that is solely against yourself. I find myself wanting to play the same course again, because I see how I could improve, and the improvement will itself be a reward.
Golf is a waste of space. Especially for private golf courses, golf is land that could be better spent on just about anything else, especially in the parts of California that are under a major housing crunch. The public municipal courses are maybe better, because any member of the public can use them, but also maybe worse because they are now using public land for a sport that only a few can enjoy at a time, and using public dollars for the upkeep of that land.
Addtionally, golf is still a deliberately, institutionally exclusive club. We were both surprised at the number of golf courses, even the ostensibly public municipal courses, that don’t rent the equipment needed for using public land. The course in Alameda, where I live and my first thought for where to play, does not rent anything as far as we could tell, and we ended up going deep into the Oakland hills to find a place that would rent us clubs. A football, baseball, soccerball, or basketball can all be had for under $20; the cheapest set of clubs you can find on Amazon is over $100. Golf is exclusionary.
And yet, my biggest surprise of all, knowing the issues around land use and privilege and the long history of weaponized exclusivity, was that I enjoyed it. Every fiber of my being was ready to write off golf as some dumb thing rich white people do. To my chagrin I started really enjoying myself after a couple holes.
If every golf course was tomorrow turned into housing or a public park or some sort of open nudist recreational area, I would shed no tears. But while they exist, I surprise myself by wanting to go golfing again.