Like all good pursuits it is impossible to master. Even golfing mediocrity is tough to achieve. Despite that, in fact because of it, golf is endlessly appealing to those who will embrace it. But it’s not easy to love. Falling for golf is a bit like falling for your kidnapper. It’s a kind of Stockholm Syndrome.
In strokeplay golf a round is constructed shot by shot. Like a house of cards, it doesn’t take much for it to collapse.
It begins hopefully with one passable strike out on to a suitably wide first fairway. The player then gingerly knocks one onto the first green. Two putts and they’re on their way. They take the ignominy of some silly dropped shots and perhaps even make them up with a birdie or, depending on ambition, a smattering of pars. As the round goes on the importance of each shot grows. The validity of every shot already gone hangs on the one about to be played. Shot adds to shot until a bitter end or perhaps a sweet finale. But what’s the use of 17 good holes and one shocker?
And so, it is the player begins to ‘feel the heat’, to soak up pressure ‘down the stretch’. After a run of great holes, a golfer finds himself in uncharted waters and begins to panic... It might all be trivial in the grander scheme of things. Nobody dies. All concerned will get home to their beds just the same. But in the moment, it is crushing. And in the moment, at the top of the game, a Major tournament perhaps, the heat is white hot, the sort of sensation few of us will ever know.
In cricket, the batsman approaches a high score in a similar way, for a while at least, building his innings, each shot taking on increased importance. To get over the century is tough and when it happens it is monumental. But then the pressure’s off. 110 runs is a glorious score. More would be better. But the anxiety is gone. Arguably the pressure’s off when he has made what he knows to be an acceptable score. For the first few batters 50 might do. Tail-enders could be happy with 20. When they pass these scores, they can relax. But in golf the burden only grows and the tension is there till the final putt drops.
In matchplay, golf we can free ourselves of such fears. We play against our opponents, the overall tally not being part of the equation. Playing alone, we compete simply against ourselves and the course. But in all golfing formats we know, with complete clarity, if we’ve done well or otherwise. We don’t need a scorecard or a result to tell us if we have done ourselves proud.
Golf is full of contradictions. Consider these.
It is therapeutic but vexing. It can be cruel, torturing the mind, yet it is a pleasant escape. It might be played with friends but is in essence a solitary pursuit. And playing this sport well often leads to panic which in turn brings on poor play.
But golf’s not a sport, is it? How can this inherently safe, low-impact, non-contact hobby be considered sport? You don’t necessarily work hard, physically, when golfing. You don’t really have to change your shoes. Surely, it’s simply a pastime.
Yet golf’s adherents believe it is a sport, a superior sport even (and not just in the attitudes of some of its snobbier institutions). Most definitions of sport refer to skill and physical exertion, competition in the name of entertainment. Older definitions relate to fun, as in he’s a good sport. Golf meets and exceeds the physical skills and competitive criteria while also functioning as a pastime for the less than athletic who happen to be good sports.
That the battle between players is abstract, that it can be simply a player versus the course, that the winning is in numbers and not blows landed, puts off those want contact in their games. There’s no actual physicality, no rough and tumble, yet most of us have met golf club secretaries we’ve wanted to punch. And many of us have thrown a club or at least an invective.
Craig Morrison is the author of 18 Greatest Scottish Golf Holes and 18 Greatest Irish Golf Holes. He is a freelance golf writer, a contributor to many international titles, including HK Golfer. An Anglo-Scot, he lives in Somerset, England.
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