At first glance, golf looks easy. Use a crooked stick to deliver a good whack to a small ball on the ground. Find it. Hit it again. Make it disappear into a four-and-a-quarter-inch hole located a few hundred yards away from you in the fewest shots possible. Preferably accomplish this while avoiding trees, water hazards, sand-filled bunkers, and other players. Simple, yes? No. Golf is hard. There is a vast gulf between intention and execution. When you’re swinging a club at close to 100 miles per hour, all sorts of things can go wrong, including missing the ball entirely. I’ve played regularly for over thirty-five years. I’ve coached teams. Trust me; it’s not an easy game.
So why do so many people worldwide (one of the sport’s regulatory bodies estimates around 66 million) enjoy playing? Why do they willingly submit themselves to this four to five-hour torture? Because, in my opinion, when you hit that perfect shot, it’s magical. The ball flies in the same direction and height as you intended. An almost indescribable feeling of connection between mind and body washes over you. And you want to do it again and again, as often as possible. Unsurprisingly, many people consider their weekly golf games as their “addiction.”
All manner of people seek this thrill. Despite the game’s past snooty image, players come from different socio-economic, cultural, and political backgrounds. A conservative, southern Republican is just as likely as a liberal, northern Democrat to take up the game. Because of recent efforts to expand access to more people, a young girl from an economically challenged household now finds it easier to tee it up alongside boys of more privilege. The game doesn’t care where you come from. Because the game is so tricky, the playing field is leveled for everyone. Except for the ability to play private, magnificently manicured courses, no particular advantages are reserved for the wealthy. The game doesn’t care if you’re from Florida or Massachusetts. Each player has the same opportunities to experience the same joy and despair of the game.
One reason so many people play is the possibility of meeting other people who share a common interest. You can play the game alone, especially when they’re practicing or not keeping score. But golf is more fun when you play with friends or when the course starter pairs you with a stranger.
Playing with someone you’ve never met can be rewarding because you’re forced to obey the game’s protocol and etiquette or risk looking like a jerk. The rules of golf can be described as prissy. There is an order to play; players are expected to penalize themselves; arguing is considered gauche. Suddenly two people who may have vastly different views of the world are sharing a cart or a tee box. Expectations include a casual understanding of the rules and a tacit agreement among the players to abide by them. Generally, any deviations from the rules are hashed out before play begins. In my experience, conversation comes easily. Typically, it starts with discussions about golf: pros you like to follow, rules you hate, green speeds, mutual empathy for poor shots, and even fashion choices. But every time I’ve played with someone I don’t know, the talk expands to the economy and politics. And therein lies the open window. For hours, two people can voice their opinions and, far more importantly, listen to the other person’s takes on issues. A dialogue originates.
Why is this good? Because given today’s current politically polarized society, golf allows two people the chance to talk things through. Golf is more than a game; it’s a regulated platform, more personal and, I’d argue, miles more effective than social media. It’s a vehicle, if not for solving problems, at least for a beginning. I’d wager that four hours of play provides more of a debate stage than you’d get from a week’s worth of tweeting or posting. A golf course represents the Camp David of sports; a place where both sides can relax, play a game they love (albeit, probably poorly), and pretend to solve the world’s problems. And, if you’ve paid attention, the next time you play you’re armed with a wider breadth of information. Imagine if our world leaders all got together for a round or two. Maybe many of our Presidents, who were or are famously golfers, are on the right track.
So am I encouraging everyone to play some golf this weekend? Yes! If you don’t know the rules or how to play, take a lesson from a local pro. If you’re a novice, it’s a maddening exercise in futility, but chances are reasonable you’ll rapidly get better. It’s much healthier than sitting at a computer hurling insults or even perfectly composed rational arguments into the void. You’ll hopefully get some sunshine (please don’t forget the sunblock and protective clothing) and with any luck, you’ll pair up with someone on the first tee. You and your new friend may find the answers to all the world’s problems.
John W. Gardner
John W. Gardner taught high school history and government in New Orleans for eleven years. He also coached the swim and golf teams. For the last ten years, he has owned a small nutrition business. John and his wife Heather live in uptown New Orleans with Hazel, their rescue dog. Their son Noah is a senior at Trinity University. John plays golf whenever he can.