Guilty Pleasures Despite its elitism, pomposity and exceedingly ugly clothing, golf is impossible to resist

June 24, 2001

I don't know what a stimpmeter looks like, or the proper way to
measure my stimp, or how to tell bentgrass from bermuda from
bahia, or Bob May from Bob Tway from Brad Faxon from Joey Maxon.
But I do know what I like, and I like golf. Thank goodness,
because golf is unavoidable. Gaze down from any airplane, and
you'll see--green with chemicals, groomed by rakes, visible from
space--touring pro John Daly. You'll also see lots of golf
courses.

I hate myself for loving golf, so I play it with guilt, which
begins at the bag drop, where an attendant (he's either eight or
87) humps my clubs to a cart. What could look worse than letting
Methuselah labor beneath the leviathan weight of your
Rodney-in-Caddyshack bag? Answer: not letting him. "He'd carry a
steamer trunk up the stairs," a writer once said of skinflint
baseball skipper Jeff Torborg, "to save a two-dollar tip to a
bellhop." So I grease the geezer and feel even worse, as if I
were putting a five-spot in my grandpa's birthday card.

Country clubs compound my guilt, filled as they are with all
manner of manservants: lawn mowers, locker attenders, lob wedge
polishers. (Ball washer, I was relieved to learn, is a mechanical
device and not, like dishwasher, an undignified job description.)
All are there to assist me in some way, though my average score
resembles a near fatal fever. So I sprint through the clubhouse
after every round, maniacally throwing dollar bills from a
grocery sack, like Rip Taylor tossing confetti.

That does little to alleviate the guilt, because golf is
institutionally elitist and economically exclusionary, with an
abysmal record of racism. (Until a few years ago the only black
golfer known to most Americans was O.J. Simpson.) There is much
else to dislike about the game--golf jokes, golf shirts and golf
books, which continue to spread like the grass diseases that doom
golf courses: red thread (Laetisaria fuciformis), brown patch
(Rhizoctonia solani) and gray leaf spot (Pyricularia grisea). Did
I mention golf bores (Watercooleris longwindea), who endlessly
rehash their rounds in the office and take an unwholesome
interest in agronomy?

Televised golf leaves me further embarrassed to be a golf fan,
at least during the soft-focus "essays"--set to a tinkling
piano--that always include the same purple phrases in
voice-over: the "gentle undulations" of a "softly sloping green"
framed by "aromatic azaleas" and "whispering pines" stirred by
"soft ocean breezes" and the "sweet caress of a six-iron" and
Yes I said yes I will Yes!

Sorry. Where were we? Oh, right: I love golf in spite of its many
pretensions, and I'd happily eat my Ben Hogan Apex Edge undercut
cavity-back forged four-iron if only I could golf without being a
golfer. Because the game itself is full of simple pleasures. I
love planting the flagstick after putting out, as if I've just
landed on Iwo Jima. I love seeing my footprints on a dew-soaked
green: They look like an Arthur Murray dance chart for something
called the Four-Putt. I love the names they give bunkers in
Scotland: Heaved Haggis, Barrister's Bottom, the Vicar's
Knickers, etc.

I love to play a horrible round on a Mojave-hot day and see
(through a heat haze) the beer cart appear over a rise in the
rough, like the cavalry come to my rescue. I love golf gadgets
and will buy anything advertised on a golf infomercial. A few
years ago Luis Gonzalez, now of the Arizona Diamondbacks,
described to me the new driver he had purchased at two in the
morning while watching such an infomercial. "It has holes in the
head!" he said. "It whistles like a train when you swing it!" But
how exactly does the club help you? an eavesdropper asked.
Slowly, as if speaking to a child, Gonzo replied, "It whistles
like a train when you swing it!"

Perhaps my head has holes in it, but I understood completely.
Because nothing is more satisfying in all of sports--and thus
there is no greater pursuit--than the perfectly struck drive.
"You know," a friend of mine remarked last week, "I can hit a
seven-iron farther than Mark McGwire can hit a baseball." He's
right. A prodigious 500-foot homer is an easy 167-yard
eight-iron; likewise, a 340-yard drive is almost twice the
length of the longest home run ever hit. When it comes to the
primordial pleasure of propelling an object as far as possible,
you (an average, amateur, weekend golfer) are McGwire and Mantle
rolled into one.

So I'll live with the guilt. Because while I'm cutting smiles
into range balls, they're doing exactly the same to me.

COLOR ILLUSTRATION: DAN PICASSO

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)