Just when my pie-in-the-sky, baseball-is-good-for-you, sports-loving feminist self was starting to make a tenuous peace with some of the downside of pro sports, the PGA came to town and ruined it all.
Every year, the Dallas-Fort Worth area, where I live, hosts two professional golf tournaments in a row: The Byron Nelson Classic and the Colonial (and yes, they have “official” tongue-twisting corporate-sponsorship names, but I’m just going to call them by their traditional monikers). And every year, I gross out.
I gross out because, more than any other, golf embodies the negative qualities of sports: It is a game that drapes itself in the concept of manners and “class,” yet it rips boorishly across the landscape, foisting acres of water-sucking vegetation upon deserts and depositing giant green footprints in the middle of towns. It is probably the least democratic of all pastimes, what with the greens fees and the country clubs and the expensive gear, and it remains an emblem of the gentry.
And the racial aspects? It’s the strangest thing: Tiger Woods, a man of color, is by far the best golfer in the world, and has been for quite a while. The man is a walking miracle—he doesn’t just win; he absolutely dominates. He’s like a man amongst toddlers, the way he strides confidently across the course, as a gaggle of lesser players try to keep up with his prowess. Golf has never seen the likes of him. He is extraordinary. And yet, the galleries that crowd the fairways to watch him, week in and week out, are the whitest bunch of douches this side of Fox News.
I know, because I’ve been there. I grew up as a member of the gallery at Colonial Country Club, where the Colonial tournament takes place. I was there often during pre-Tiger days (although, since Woods doesn’t play that tournament much, the distinction might not matter), as the beneficiary of prep-school friends whose dads could easily score the hard-to-get tournament passes. I’ve heard the racial slurs and snooty remarks and witnessed the drunken elitism. I’ve participated in the latter, to be honest, in my younger days, in the form of beers and margaritas in the roped-off VIP areas and in party pavilions adjacent to tennis courts.
And I’ve seen how the women act, and how they are treated. The template for behavior at these things is based on a few simple premises: The guys are there to watch other guys play golf. The girls are there to wait for the guys who are watching the other guys play golf, so that when they’re done, those spectator guys will watch the girls instead. So the girls hang out in the party pavilions and don’t venture out to actually witness what the men are there to see. Then everybody gets drunk. It’s gross.
But here’s the deal: I love golf itself. I love to play it and I love to watch it, although I rarely play it because its environmental footprint and its inherent sexism and elitism are just too much.
The reason I love golf is because, just as it epitomizes everything that can be awful about sports, it also is one of the best representations of what is good about them—specifically, golf’s unique melding of physical and mental challenges.
On the physical side, mastering the mechanics of a golf swing is, in theory, as ridiculous an enterprise as using cats to pull an Iditarod sled. There are too many elements that have to work together too precisely—it’s too much to ask of the human body. The swing must pass by your body two-and-a-half times, as it goes back from your midsection, up past your ear, then back down again, all the way past the other ear, and there are too many things that can go wrong along the way. The myriad components that go into a perfect golf swing can never be synchronized; it’s an ideal, a perfection that one can never reach.
Maybe it’s unattainable because, a golf swing—compared to, say, a baseball swing—is counter-intuitive. For a golf swing, you bend and twist your body into weird contortions. One arm is straight, the other bent. Your head stays down while your entire body gyrates around it, like you’re in one of these:
That’s where the physicality of the golf swing starts to bleed into the mental aspect. Because the ball is still, it is solely your responsibility to hit it. You can’t blame a mis-hit on being fooled by the ball’s direction or overpowered by its speed—it is there, ripe for the taking. It should be so simple.
But the taking is not simple, because it requires making sure—in a mere second or two—that your entire body is doing exactly what it supposed to be doing, every muscle, every tendon, every bone has to be on the same page. It requires perfection. And because it requires a perfection that you consciously know you will never reach, golf is the most intensely cerebral—maybe even the most cerebral—of all sports. There is constant fine-tuning and second-guessing, and the never-ending quest for that flash of Zen that will allow you to come to peace with your own body and its simple goal of striking the ball.
And by some miracle, sometimes it happens just right, and you hit it as close to perfectly as is human possible. The moment when that flash comes, and the mind chatter stops, and you know you have mastered your own brain for the briefest bit of time—that’s why I like golf. That’s why I miss playing golf. And that’s why I’m so sad that golf’s inherent complications remain so damning. I wish it were different.