What is the meaning of golf?
It’s a disappointment, rarely entirely gratifying. It always sees us hit imperfect shots and we believe we have let ourselves down. In all accounts of the greatest rounds, the sub-par rounds, the sub-60s even, there appears always to have been the possibility of at least one stroke less. The world’s best golfer in 2000, when winning 12 tournaments, reckoned he hit only one perfect shot in an entire season.
So, golf is a game of mishits, but in this way, it’s a great pleasure, the perfect pursuit. It is exceedingly satisfying because it leaves us, ultimately, unsatisfied. So, we crave more. It’s crack cocaine (though some drug addicts function more effectively than golfers: burning less money, spending less time away from loved ones, being more effective in the workplace…)
In golf, each shot is unique. In basketball, say, every free throw is made from the same spot, the same distance in a similar environment. This cannot be said of golf where every strike is quite different. That much is obvious when one considers climatic conditions, laws of probability, the competitive circumstances, the endlessly different courses worldwide… In this way golf teaches us adaptability.
Golf worked for poor shepherds in Scotland just as it works for bankers spending their weekends in The Hamptons. It reminds all of us that whatever we want for will ultimately be deprived us. The first economic principle is that people always want more. It’s part of the human condition. And golf - in spite of the luxury it sometimes affords us and the sums it can cost us - always bites back, reminding us we can’t have everything. In this way, it’s spiritual. Through golf we can measure ourselves not wholly by money, not even by happiness. It sees us measure ourselves against nature, or an approximation of nature, and we find ourselves reassuringly wanting.
Can we live with ourselves? Can we stand the truth of exactly what and who we are? Is it possible to know one’s weaknesses, one’s failings, and still carry on? This is the sort of stuff one might learn in a life and death situation. At a push, we get some ideas about it in the middle of a long training run. But we can learn a little of such things through golf as well. When fully engaged with golf it begins to ask questions of us.
Golf is both trivial and significant. To be germane about it, golf is a game in which one tries to put a small ball into a hole from different distances, eighteen times, in as few shots as possible, the shots being struck with a variety of implements (varyingly unfit for the purpose is the usual addendum). To take a grander view, to look for the significance, golf is the most interesting of all sports, the one in which demanding physical skills - dexterity and timing especially - must be used alongside considerable mental skills, not exactly intellectual ability, but at least the ability to control or quieten the mind.
It cannot be sold to those who don’t play it. The elevator pitch for the game, the one just proposed, is not great. But many exquisite joys are inexplicable to the uninitiated. Who really liked their first strong drink, their first cigarette? A favourite piece of music - one’s desert island disc - is rarely a tune so catchy it was appreciated at first listening. The hit single (to use a dated term), doesn’t always last like the trickier album track (to use another). Golf is like that. There are barriers to entry which, when overcome, increase its desirability. For the first-time player, unless their inaugural strike takes glorious flight, golf’s appeal is not obvious. But it grows on you, like a dangerous illness. Hopefully, you learn to live with it.