I took up golf at the tender age of 46. My department at Rocketdyne was having a tournament and they needed bodies to fill up open slots. After a significant amount of badgering, I agreed to participate. To be fair, I had been introduced to golf when I was fifteen. My father had taken it up and he wanted me to enjoy it as he did. Unfortunately, he also wanted me to be right-handed. I’m not. He insisted I would be better off golfing right-handed and I tried, but it wasn’t to be. I felt incredibly awkward and didn’t want to put up with what I perceived to be an inordinately difficult effort to make the switch.
Couple that with the belief (this was back in 1962) that golf was primarily for old farts, and a strong desire to spend time surfing, and I didn’t last long at all. I guess, then, it’s not entirely correct to say I took it up at 46, despite the intervening 31 years before I handled a golf club again. Regardless, I played in the company tournament and spent a little time on the driving range and practice green in preparation. I was hooked—big time!
My uncle offered to have a friend make me a set of custom clubs for a very reasonable price, which I did. I quickly discovered, however, golf can be a very expensive sport, especially when you spend all your spare time hitting balls or playing. I could not afford to keep up the pace I was going at. In order to continue, I wrote and published a newsletter for the course I spent all my time at, Simi Hills. None of the articles were based on anything but my own fertile imagination and conjecture, but the General Manager of the course loved it and asked me to do it on a monthly basis, with real information this time.
In exchange for my efforts, he began allowing me to hit as many balls as I wished on the range and I took full advantage of it, frequently hitting hundreds of balls as I perfected my game. Soon I was invited to play with the head pro and the GM and, of course, it was as good as getting hours and hours of free lessons. I got my handicap down to 12 within a fairly short while, no mean feat for a man who was then pushing 50.
As I increased both my physical capabilities and my understanding of the game, I was soon approaching a single-digit handicap. It was then my wife and I decided to adopt. I wasn’t actually too keen on the idea at first, as I had visions of retirement, travel, and lots of golf. However, the desire to be a parent overcame my (very strong) desire to continue playing golf and, once the process began rolling along, it became harder and harder to play or practice. By the time we returned home with our oldest, in 2002, I was 55 and it became very difficult to fulfill my duties as a husband and father and still have time to play golf.
So, why am I telling you all of this? I still watch golf quite a bit and, lately, I’ve been playing a very realistic virtual game (World Golf Tour) online. Also, I have given a lot of thought to the role golf plays and how it jibes with my world view. I am aware there are numerous arguments for golf being a wasteful, indulgent sport of the rich. I am aware golf courses take up a lot of property for the use of, perhaps, not very many people. My best, somewhat informed, guesstimate is that the average full-size course is used by around 350 golfers a day. That’s not very many compared to the numbers using a municipal park or a National or State park. It surely explains why golf is so expensive, as it is a heavily tended and manicured environment.
Many courses, some suggest as many as 40% in the 1990s, were built as a part of a real estate development, and I’m not even going to get into the place Country Clubs play in terms of the exclusivity and expensiveness of golf. A large percentage of golfers are very well off. I suppose, comparatively, I am one of them. Certainly, when I was still employed in an excellent, well-paying job, I had the money to play a couple of times a month and practice several days a week when I wished.
There are, however, significant attempts to bring golf to the less-than-affluent, Tiger Woods’s “The First Tee” likely being the most prominent. Frankly, I don’t believe golf need be an “exclusive” sport. Furthermore, I think it has values to teach, as The First Tee does, that are difficult to find in today’s hyper-competitive environment found in many other sports. Inasmuch as I started so late in life, golf hasn’t taught me so much as it has reinforced in me many values I find important and useful, e.g. integrity, self-assurance, patience, calm deliberation, respect for others, etc. I also found on the golf course a place where everything else in my life melted away for a few hours. I was able to put my job and my responsibilities out of my head for a while; no mean feat for one such as I.
There’s one other thought I had – and this whole post (which is somewhat off the top of my head, though I’ve thought about it a lot) was begun with this thought in mind – that bothers/concerns me. The military has long had a close association with golf (see this USGA history) and I have no problem with this. It does, however, lend even more credence to the belief that golf is exclusive because, historically, it has been primarily the Officers who had the time and money to play. That may be changing, but my goal isn’t to analyze the development of golf inside the military. What I am interested in understanding is what it means that every golf tournament now seems to have members of the military ceremoniously tending at least one flag on the course – generally the 18th.
I find myself wondering if this doesn’t, in some small way, signify our becoming more and more a military culture and also, given our penchant for honoring our armed forces for serving, yet never questioning how and why we ask them to serve, if this isn’t a bit backwards. What does it say about us as a society that we don’t seem to question how our military is used, yet now (post-Vietnam) bend over backward to thank them for their service? How do we justify asking them to do what many believe is not in our best interests, yet feel a heartfelt “thank you for your service” is somehow enough to justify our cavalier attitude toward the forces behind their service and sacrifice?
This leads me to other questions, such as are we becoming a sort of Sparta by proxy? Are we a nation that uses its wealth to prosecute wars that are unnecessary and only serve the interests of the truly wealthy and powerful, simultaneously insulating the average citizen from the sacrifices and costs involved? Are we asking the members of our armed forces to kill, fight, and die for no other reason than to preserve our position as the world’s largest consumers of natural resources, then showering them with just enough pomp and circumstance to obfuscate the ugly and horrific reality?
This is where I find cognitive dissonance. As I watched the end of the Greenbrier Classic yesterday, there were two service members tending the pin on the 18th. I am pretty sure I’ve seen this at just about every tournament I’ve watched this year and it seems as though it’s been only recently this has happened regularly. I really love golf as a sport, though I do wonder where it fits in the overall cultural milieu I live in. I hate to see it used as a propaganda tool but, truth to tell, I’m not sure that is what’s happening. What do you think about this? Am I crazy; being too ideological; reading too much into a genuine expression of gratitude? The dissonance is killing me.