If I had my way, no man guilty of golf would be eligible to hold
any office of trust or profit under these United States.
Of course, it was many decades ago that the Sage of Baltimore
wrote these audacious words. So, good grief, what would poor
Mencken say now on the subject? Back then, three quarters of a
century ago, when he was so exercised, golf had hardly intruded
on the body politic; it was but a country-club game, played by
the elite. People then actually used golf, the noun, as a verb.
They golfed (as they yachted and summered).
Today, surely, Mencken would be apoplectic, besieged as we all
are by golf. Everybody, including a lot of rude, declasse people,
plays golf. Moreover, I've suspected for a long time that
although there are more of them now, golfers remain a people
apart--that, as Fitzgerald said about the very rich, golfers are
different from you and me. Well, anyway, from me.
Golf has become an utter phenomenon, ubiquitous upon the earth
(especially the United States division), a dominant cultural
force that has replaced most sensible, traditional American
activities such as reading, the cocktail hour, sunbathing,
worship of the Almighty, bridge and matinees.
September 6, 1998
Worse (better?), if Mencken's proposed antigolf statute were
enforced, the entire government and much of Wall Street would be
disenfranchised. The New York Times has even reported, with a
straight face, that a survey showed that the lower an executive's
handicap, the more successful he is as a businessman. It tells us
a great deal that the pollsters, apparently assuming that all
execs play golf, didn't even bother to check out the possibility
that not playing golf would make an executive even better at
business. But then, few bona fide serious Americans can, any
longer, plead not guilty to golf.
How well I know. Occasionally, I am invited to play in some
charity tournament. (Perhaps you weren't aware that, nowadays,
the entire eleemosynary structure in the U.S. rests on charity
golf tournaments; giving in America today is on the Golf
Standard.) When I reply that I am sorry, but I do not happen to
play golf, the response is incredulity. It's as if I have said
that I am sorry, but I do not choose to have indoor plumbing in
my house; or I am sorry, but my hobby is flag burning.
It's not that I have anything against golf, you understand. I
have written, and still passionately believe, that a golf course
is the most glorious thing that man and God have ever made
together. Ah, you see, precisely because I don't play, I don't
notice the rough. And I possess an actual golfing history: I
caddied as a boy. I also have friends and family members who
play golf, and at least a significant minority of them seem
perfectly well-adjusted. I'm not one of those angry triathlon or
bodybuilding fanatics who put golf down as a travesty of
exercise, a pseudo sport. No, I just choose not to play.
There's a whole other world out there. Golfers find this notion
unacceptable. In the U.S. today, if you don't play golf, you must
This has all happened fairly quickly. Why, I can remember when
all the beautiful people only skied. Now, in the manner of
strip-mining, golf courses are being built on the fanciest
mountains in Colorado, even if that means you have to play your
short irons rather like a sidehill badger. For a long time, too,
I thought that the cathedrals of fin de siecle America were our
sports arenas. However, I have come to believe otherwise: The
monuments that will be remembered most from this time will be our
golf courses, delicately carved out of the most prized earth even
as the suburban citizen fights in vain for a small plot, in hopes
there to raise a family.
But: priorities. Be honest--does America want houses or fairways
in the 21st century? There are now something like 100 golf
courses that have been retrieved out of the desert around Palm
Springs, almost 200 around Phoenix, all using enough water every
day to keep the Brazilian rain forest from burning for another 37
But all that seems to matter is that more land is gobbled up for
golf courses so that more real estate agents can sell more condos
overlooking more water holes to those flourishing new ethnics,
the Golfer-Americans. No one--especially, it seems, those
low-handicap executives--heeds the cautionary tale that comes from
Japan, where huge numbers of the 1,500 or so courses built in the
last few years have gone belly-up. In Connecticut it took the
charisma of Paul Newman and $500,000 in seed money from him to
save 740 acres of open space from being imprisoned as yet another
golf development. Of course, rarely does golf have to contend
with such a tasteful and resolute eminence as Mr. Newman.
Rather, even as we have become more egalitarian as a society, the
institution of golf has been awarded a free pass, been allotted a
privileged place in our culture. Doesn't anybody worry that the
President of these United States spends obsessive hours on golf
courses (even in the depths of winter) when he should be leading
the free world? You think Saddam Hussein is out practicing chip
Perhaps this merely tells us that we don't really need a
full-time president anymore. Just a First Golfer. Or maybe good
golf is simply the symbol of what leadership requires today. It
wasn't that long ago that our chiefs had to be able to ride a
horse well, wielding a fancy saber at the gallop. No doubt the
Clinton Memorial will show him slugging a fairway wood, eyes
boldly fixed on the distant green.
Or isn't it interesting that at a time when America is so manic
on the subject of fitness, our business and political leaders
exercise by riding golf carts--notwithstanding that it has been
documented that the calories burned up by playing 18 holes while
using a cart can be replaced by consuming one (1) chicken
McNugget dipped in barbecue sauce?
But the fitness nuts are silent on the subject. I can only
imagine that's because they're all up jogging in place and doing
sit-ups at 4 a.m. as they wait in line to sign up for a
late-afternoon tee time.
In fact, as near as I can tell, golf has risen above criticism.
Even for those pledged to document it, golf isn't a sport so much
as it is a sacred way of life. Why, even your hard-boiled,
tough-guy sports columnists, including my colleague whose writing
is located in the fairway on the back page of this magazine, will
rag on just about every sport, but they're all like li'l puppy
dogs, whimpering verse, when it comes to the links. Just once
before I die, I want to read one sportswriter with the courage to
write, "F--- Amen Corner."
You see, golf is what the range used to be, a homey place where
never is heard a discouraging word. In fact, by law, there are
only three things in golf that anyone is allowed to criticize:
1) the pin placements at the U.S. Open, 2) the rough at the U.S.
Open, 3) Colin Montgomerie.
Sometimes, when I lie awake at night, all I can think is: What
did poor Colin Montgomerie do to deserve this? Oh, well.
But if there's no criticism allowed in golf, there is this
compensatory sociological curiosity: all--all--sports jokes are
about golf. A friend of mine, a celebrated comedy writer named
Jack Winter, first pointed this out to me. Have you ever once
heard a tennis joke? he asked. A bowling joke? A football joke?
In the entire history of comedy, there has never been a single
hockey joke. Yet there are always golf jokes. A veritable
I have given this a great deal of thought. There used to be many
stupid jokes about fishermen. There are still a few hilarious
fishing bumper stickers, such as I'D RATHER BE FISHING. But no
more fishing jokes. Golf jokes have overwhelmed them. Not only
that, but now most of the hilarious sports bumper stickers are
also about golf, like MY OTHER CAR IS A GOLF CART.
Even more bizarre, the law about golf jokes is that even though
there are thousands of them, they can fall into one of only two
categories. First are the magic golf jokes, wherein God, Moses,
Saint Peter, et al. are playing together and all making
miraculous shots (har-de-har-har). Second are the side-splitting
husband-plays-too-much-golf jokes. Golf jokes have no other
roots, but the variations on the same two tired punch lines just
go on and on. Maybe it's because golf is becoming a form of
religion, with its own liturgy.
What tells me that golfers are truly a different race, though, is
the way they feel about golf balls. Golfer-Americans worship
these inanimate objects quite unashamedly. By contrast, have you
ever seen, for example, a bunch of normal American tennis players
at the start of a match? Balls? Everybody says, "Who brought the
balls? Can we use this old can? They're still kinda fuzzy." But
Golfer-Americans are absolutely maniacal about their balls. They
even attribute human qualities to them, in the same way that
Disney anthropomorphizes animals. When a golfer hits a ball awry,
he says, "My ball found the bunker," as if this unhappy turn of
events had nothing to do with who hit the ball, as if the ball
sought out the bunker of its own free will. You ever hear a
quarterback say, "My pass found the cornerback"? Of course not.
Golf operates differently. It's like one of those parallel
universes that the starship Enterprise was always stumbling
onto. Where's Spock when we need him? "Captain, huge numbers of
chubby, oddly dressed humanoids seem to spend an excessive
amount of time at massive outdoor temples where they speak to a
small, pockmarked sphere. It is most peculiar for what seems to
be, otherwise, such an advanced race."
Oh, sometimes I have wondered how my life would have been if I,
too, had played golf. I would have spent thousands of hours,
hundreds of days, on the course instead of in the world.
Nassaus, better balls, mixed foursomes, the driving range, the
putting green. And gaily reliving it all at the l9th hole: male
bonding. My vacations would have been planned around golf. My
testicles would have grown demonstrably larger and more
metallic. I would have talked about Big Bertha as the only woman
in my life. I would have found just the right ball for me. I
would have addressed it. And I would have found all new friends.
Joined select Golfer-American clubs, of course. Made blockbuster
insider business deals in the locker room after a member-guest.
But probably, too, my life would have been much less productive.
Let's face it, the American Dream of most young men, circa 2000,
is to rush through life so they can retire and resettle in Dixie
or in Irrigationiana, where they can play golf all year round, to
the exclusion of all other pursuits. Really, now, is that the
freedom that Sergeant York, John Wayne and Tom Hanks fought for?
Or as Don Hewitt, my hero and the creator of 60 Minutes, replied
without shame when someone asked him why he, at age 75, and Mike
Wallace, a certified octogenarian, still labor every day to
actually create something: "Mike and I don't play golf."
Maybe, I began to think, we are breeding two entirely different
races in America. Co-existing, yes, side by side, pretending to
get along. Really, though: different beings, different souls,
thinking differently, acting differently, treating women and
animals and God differently, inexorably heading in different
directions--us to the City on the Hill (or, anyway, to the
multiplex theater at the mall), they to the gated condo
community overlooking the prettiest water hole.
It was time to find out if a Deford Report in 1998 would discover
what the Kerner Report did 30 years ago, that America is two
societies, only now the division is one golf, one not golf. A
poll was commissioned by this magazine, and wise, unbiased men
and women contacted people all across the land to discover if
things had come to this sad pass.
As you can see, yes, they have. My suspicions were confirmed. We
are indeed a dual society now, in that tee-to-green of life. The
Golfer-Americans in our midst are different from the rest of us.
The proof follows. Read it and weep. Or: Read it and putt.
Our poll indicates that golfers are a special breed of Americans,
distinctive in a number of ways. They are a visceral group that
is living large, enjoying the physical pleasures of life and not
being terribly concerned about the consequences. Golfers' main
pursuit is their own happiness, and they feel they are achieving
--PETER HARRIS, president
Peter Harris Research Group (and himself a Golfer-American)
Harris's polling of more than 1,200 Americans shows that the
Golfer-American, defined as someone who plays a minimum of 26
rounds annually, is different from the rest of us in the
The Golfer-American is far more interested in golf than other
Americans are interested in their favorite activities. Golf is a
passion...but: Golfer-Americans drink twice as much liquor as
other Americans, they gamble significantly more, and they eat
more steak, listen to more rock-and-roll and watch more sports
and dramatic series on TV, and go see more action films. Also,
the Golfer-American is richer than other Americans (probably no
surprise) and thinks he's healthier (even though he knows he's
not working at it). This poses the obvious question: Is it
better to booze it up, snarf down T-bones and ride around in a
cart and think you're just fine, or should you do all the really
careful things but still worry?
On the other hand Golfer-Americans are not as artistically
creative as other people, are less interested in church and
movies, are less intense about volunteer work and eschew spending
time helping the needy or, for that matter, participating in
Basically, when not obliged to perform everyday vocational and
animal functions, Golfer-Americans play golf. Hey, let's hit
another bucket, and then we'll have a brewski.
Golfer-Americans and other Americans do have a few things in
common. These include listening to classical music (14% of
golfers and 13% of others cite this as "a favorite leisure
activity"), not getting involved in politics (only 8% of golfers
and 7% of others consider politics "important"), liking their
jobs (40% for golfers, 39% for others) and being satisfied with
their sex lives (29% for golfers, 32% for others).
But--are you ready for this? I mean really ready?--47% of
Golfer-Americans' spouses (which is essentially wives, since 98%
of the spouses polled turned out to be women) think their
husbands are better lovers because they play golf. Let's restate
that: Virtually half of all golfers' wives think golf improves
their mates' sexual performance. Why does any linksman even
bother to stop at the 19th hole? (For purposes of comparison, a
mere 15% of wives think that playing golf leaves their husbands
"so wasted that they're useless.")
Probably the most fascinating revelation of the poll is that all
those stupid golf-widow jokes are wrong. Golfer-Americans feel
they have significantly better family relations--both with their
wives and their children--than other citizens feel they have. Why,
more than two thirds of Golfer-Americans rate their marriages as
either "almost perfect" or "very good."
Not only that, but the wives themselves endorse their husbands'
golf--and not only for its sexual bounty. Ninety-nine percent of
golf wives think "it's great that my husband gets a chance to
play a sport." Have 99% of any sample of wives ever agreed on
anything? And despite all the jokes, only 24% think that golf
"takes time away" from activities the couple could do together.
The poll shows conclusively that Golfer-Americans are much more
inclined to do things with their wives than are other American
husbands with their wives. Even when it comes to activities that
Golfer-Americans participate in less often than other men--stuff
like going to a museum or a concert--the golfers are more likely
to participate with their wives. By an incredible margin,
Golfer-American husbands are more likely than other married men
to go on a vacation with their wives. Eighty-five percent of
golfers vacation with their spouses, while only 59% of nongolfers
with similar incomes do.
What are the only three things that nongolfer husbands do more of
with their wives? Work in the yard, go buy groceries and help
clean the house. Hey, let's play another 18!
While, with our sitcom mentality, we have always blithely
concluded that wives resent their husbands for going off to the
course with the guys (the bad influences), evidently another
sentiment rules. Golfer-Americans' wives understand that their
husbands love the sport and that it makes them happier...and
better to have around when they get back home. Don't fight it:
It's bigger than both of us. Meanwhile, the husbands feel so
guilty that they're getting away from yardwork and the Stop &
Shop to do something they love that they devote what free time
is left to making the little women happy. (Of course, it
probably helps that Golfer-Americans are richer than other
citizens and feel so healthy.)
Golfer-Americans who work for a living have approximately the
same amount of free time as their employed nongolfing brethren,
but a surprisingly large number of the golfers--41%--take time off
from the workweek to get in a game. (How many doctors were
included in the sample wasn't revealed.) Obviously this leaves
more time on the weekends for couples to do things together away
from the links. As self-indulgent as Golfer-Americans are, they
appear to possess more of a wife- and family-centered side than
do those husbands who don't play golf. Marriage counselors,
please note. Of course, it's only fair to report that golf is a
source of stress in 20% of marriages. The family that plays
together stays together.
Nothing sets Golfer-Americans apart from their alter egos more
than the reasons why they love their game. For example, the
reason nongolfers most often give for playing another sport is
that it's good exercise. But only 8% of Golfer-Americans are
under any illusion that golf is good exercise. This shows, by the
way, how much the golf establishment was out of touch with its
constituency in the Casey Martin affair. Blustery arguments that
golf was physically demanding obviously fell on the deaf ears of
Similarly, golfers, unlike other American athletes, don't much
play their sport for fun. Only 8% of Golfer-Americans think that
fun is the most appealing aspect of the game. In other sports
more than twice as many participants say they love their game
most because it's enjoyable. So if golf isn't good exercise or
much fun, why do golfers play?
Well, 42% of Golfer-Americans love the game because it's
challenging. For 24%, being outdoors is the prime attraction
(12% of nongolfers say this about their sports), and for 19%
it's being with friends (a factor mentioned by only 12% who play
other sports). However, when the question is phrased in another
way, the friendship element takes on added importance. When
Golfer-Americans were asked, "If you could no longer play golf,
what would you miss the most?" only 13% cited the competition,
while 38% said they would miss the camaraderie. Harris says,
"Clearly, golfers are motivated by the challenge of playing, and
they become absorbed with trying to do well at a difficult game.
However, it's the companionship that they would miss the most."
What's especially fascinating about this revelation is that a
great deal was made of a 1995 article in the Journal of Democracy
titled "Bowling Alone: America's Declining Social Capital," by
Robert Putnam, a Harvard political scientist. Putnam argued that
the diminishing popularity of bowling night bespoke an erosion of
the nation's community spirit. But maybe the decline of
participation in bowling--and in the League of Women Voters, the
Elks and the Boy Scouts--only speaks to the lack of modern appeal
of those activities and organizations. The example of golf
suggests that Americans are as much a community as ever. The U.S.
is a veritable buddy-dom.
To hell with playing golf. I just want to be a Golfer-American.
The sex is great. Your wife wants you to go off with the guys.
You can drink all the booze and eat all the steak you want, take
off from work in the middle of the week, gamble and listen to
rock-and-roll, and you don't even have to pretend to worry about
GOLFERS ARE SPORTS NUTS
To complete this poll, more than 1,200 randomly selected
Americans were interviewed by the Peter Harris Research Group.
They comprised a cross section of 602 men and women from around
the country, 516 golfers and 172 spouses of golfers. The
interviews averaged 24 minutes for the cross section, 30 minutes
for the golfers and 27 for the spouses. Below, Golfer-Americans
and the cross section were asked to list their favorite leisure
GOLFER-AMERICANS CROSS SECTION
Watch football on TV 63% 41%
Bet on the sports you play 50% 8%
Watch basketball on TV 48% 35%
Watch action-adventure films 44% 36%
Watch baseball on TV 43% 31%
Watch golf on TV 42% 5%
Listen to rock-and-roll 39% 31%
Eat at steak houses 33% 19%
Listen to classical music 14% 13%
Consume how many alcoholic 4.2 1.9
drinks per week
GOLFERS ARE HAPPIER
A higher percentage of Golfer-Americans and their spouses
responded "almost perfect" or "very good" to nearly all of the
questions they were asked about their personal lives than did
those in the cross section.
GOLFER-AMERICANS SPOUSES SECTION
Relationship with spouse 67% 74% 52%
Relationship with children 72% 69% 58%
Health 51% 59% 33%
Sex life 29% 38% 32%
Job 40% 51% 39%
Savings/investments 33% 36% 14%
Time spent with pals 18% 20% 20%
68% of Golfer-Americans think that Casey Martin should be
allowed to ride in a motorized cart. Twenty-three percent side
with the PGA Tour in thinking Martin should walk. Nine percent
aren't sure. Those Golfer-Americans who play at private courses
and are most likely to use a cart were the ones most opposed to
15% of Golfer-Americans have moved so that their homes would be
closer to a golf course.
43% of Golfer-Americans expect to be playing more often in 15
years, and 42% expect to get better. Only 27% of other athletes
expect to be playing more often in 15 years and just a third of
them believe they'll be better.