A pastime for the well to do.
A lubricant of the business deal.
A last bastion for the social elite.
Gentlemen only. Ladies forbidden.
In the minds of many, golf has a horrible reputation. It is slow paced, the matches take at best hours and at worst days, and it can be very expensive. It takes years to learn to be barely proficient, and years beyond those for a player to develop an average skill set. You gotta have time and money. You gotta be patient. In addition to all of these barriers to entry, the game intimidates newcomers with an aura of exclusivity and the depth of the etiquette which governs play of the game.
Imagine then, the opposition I raised towards being signed up for the local junior golf program at the age of 12. My mother is the daughter of a Polish girl and a Slavic boy who were fortunate enough to emigrate to the States in an escape from their lives as refuges in post-war Austria. My father is the son of an orphan raised in Germantown, Pennsylvania and the heiress to a soap factory in Lebanon, Pennsylvania. They don’t make soap in small towns anymore. My mother works for the same company she has since she was 17. My father worked in a factory. As he did until the labor force was slashed. As he did until the plant closed. He works in another factory now.
I didn’t fit the mold. To make matters worse, this golf program was hosted at the local country club. Could things have started any less favorably?
I showed up that first day lacking a single golf club or a sense of what I was supposed to say or do. Looking at the other kids and their parents’ cars, I felt really out of place. I rolled up in our smoke belching but incredibly efficient tiny diesel VW. It was 13 years old, and very loud. All the other kids looked the part, at least in my eyes. I tucked my shirt in because my mom said I had to – these kids tucked their shirts in because they wanted to. All the other kids also seemed better than me. At least it seemed like they thought they were better than me. I didn’t know any of these other kids, other than recognizing a few faces that were cooler than I was, and I dared not speak to any of them. Fifteen minutes in and I was horrified.
I sat there quietly until, after what seemed like decades, the kindly gentleman in charge silenced our yaps (not my yap, I was far too pale to utter a word), and asked who needed clubs. I sheepishly raised my hand, and was pleasantly surprised to quickly find out I wasn’t the only one who didn’t have any clubs. I and a few of my new comrades were whisked away to a barrel of clubs and were each given our first clubs – I was given a Ram 3 wood, some generic 5 iron, a sand wedge, and an ancient Ping Anser knock off putter (Incidentally, I used that putter until I foolishly broke it after baseballing a ball into a field in Chambersburg, PA at the age of 20. What a dumbass I am).
Maybe it was that at the age of 12 I had something that was mine. My parents didn’t give me these clubs – I selected them and they were mine! Perhaps it was that minutes later I was there whacking stuff around with these clubs. Maybe it was the weather. I’m not going to speculate as to the cause of my infatuation, but infatuated I was.
By the end of the first group lesson, I had seen the beauty of this game. I immediately recognized that, above all, the golf swing is an exercise in precision. However, there was also a rawness about the instructor’s swing, there was an obvious urge to mash. Power, too, I found out, was an exciting element of the game. I was hooked, whether I fit in or not.
Fifteen years later, I’m here writing about the game I’ve come to love. On the course I’ve cemented my closest friendships, shared cherished moments with family, suffered embarrassing failures and celebrated triumphs. I’ve laughed, smiled, joked, broken clubs and flung out more four letter words than is acceptable anywhere.
I’ve also played hundreds of rounds alone, enjoying the solitude being on the course allows. On the quiet of the course, I have forgotten what disturbed me and focused on what made life enjoyable. I have taken the opportunity to get away, to calm myself down and to simply live reflectively.
The vast, vast majority of this has taken place on public and municipal courses, with my shirt untucked and my curly locks flowing freely. I have never felt as uncomfortable anywhere around the game than I did that first day. Instead of a stuffy air of pretentiousness, I found out that golf was, by and large, a welcoming and open community. Of course there are exceptions to this and pockets of crusty pompousness do continue to thrive. You don’t need to surround yourself with the stereotypical golfer though, and you will find that the stereotypical golfer is a tiny minority of all golfers. Public golf is a great equalizer; the course is the same for everyone, and open to anyone. Public golf is affordable, and offers the full variety of golf experiences for all those willing to breathe it in. Public golf is laid back, yet respects the virtues of etiquette. Public golf gives you the opportunity to meet and enjoy the company of strangers for four hours; to understand the draw of the game for another member of your community, chosen without your input by the starter. Golf connects people, wide and far.
Golf offers all of these things, and still more. The game transcends generations, and runs in families. It gives time to pause and stand in awe of the growth of all life and the passage of time.
This is a picture of the “Feeman’s Famous Foursome.” You can pick out my old man by the doofy hat he’s wearing. The other handsome fellows are my uncles. They’re standing on the first tee at Fairview Golf Course, less than a thousand yards from the house where I grew up. Those tiny pines in the background have grown into intimidating obstacles. Those young men have grown into varying degrees of old man, and the one of the left, my uncle Don, has passed on.
Time has passed and things have changed, but the game remains the same. The goal remains to hit your ball into the hole in as few strokes as possible. The essential two rules to the game aren’t all that bad as guidelines for life: 1) Play your ball as it lies and the course as you find it. 2) If you can do neither, do what is fair.
It’s a simple game, really. A step back makes any hole seem easy, any shot straight forward and any putt easily make-able. If you’re a golfer, or know any golfers, however, you know that the game is the most frustrating exercise in futility we’ve yet invented.
Fifteen years of toil and I’m just a carbon-copy of thousands of other 10 handicaps: I either fight the hook or block my drives out to the right. I pick the wrong iron when I hit it straight, and yank it badly when I’ve got the right stick. I know my way around any shot you put in front of me, but don’t know my way out of the figurative paper bag of the golf round.
Any healthy attitude towards your game ought to reflect a healthy attitude towards life, and in the chief opportunity offered by golf is the ultimate value of the game. Like life, your golf game will never be perfect, and only on the rarest of days will it ever be wholly satisfying. Despite it, you drag yourself back to the course as you drag yourself out of bed the next day.
Indeed, it is the constant opportunity for self improvement that draws so many to the game. It is a lifelong endeavor, fraught with disastrous approaches to improvement gone awry, yet abundantly full of seemingly minute changes which prove fruitful.
Even more comforting still is the calming presence of the game. Each round gives me, on average, 84 chances to make a better shot than I did the shot before. It gives me 17 chances to wipe the slate clean and chalk up another par. Each new day on the course gives me the chance to be a better player than I was the round before. In the event that things don’t go my way, the game still welcomes me back with open arms, continually baiting me to be a better player than I was before.
In these opportunities, the great value of golf is most apparent. A fantastic metaphor for life, golf certainly isn’t easy, but it is yours for the taking. Your golf game, experiences with the game and relationship to it are in your hands, and it will reward you according to the effort you put into it. Unwaveringly fair and objective, golf does not change, as the primary concerns of human existence do not change. And just as you can work to improve your game or your outlook on your game, you can change anything you want in your life or your outlook on life. You can include anyone you want into your circle of golfing buddies, or you can become intimately familiar with your own game. The course is yours.
Golf is family.
Golf is friendship.
Golf is community.
Golf is a group effort.
Golf is solitary.
Golf is opportunity.
Golf is beautiful.