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The Forever Fight

An outsider grapples with our game’s ongoing image problem.
Members Only Bench Royal and Ancient Golf Club St Andrews Fife Scotland

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“I know where we can build housing for the homeless: golf courses! It’s perfect! Just what we need. Plenty of good land, in nice neighborhoods—land that is currently being wasted on a meaningless, mindless activity engaged in primarily by white, well-to-do male businessmen who use the game to get together to make deals to carve this country up a little finer amongst themselves.”

I was 16 years old when I saw George Carlin deliver the above routine. Growing up in a rural farm town in central Illinois, this Carlin bit was as much exposure to golf as I’d ever had. It came at the exact wrong time for someone who would end up having a career as a professional sportswriter: the age when the first boilings of rebellion are bubbling up and everything that adults do (particularly rich adults in big cities) is corrupt and stupid and totally sucks. It cemented in my mind that golf was an elitist, exclusionary game that existed solely to separate the haves and the have-nots. When George W. Bush did that famous “Now watch this drive!” after his faux-forceful “We must stop terrorists” speech, I hated that he was so blasé, but, to be honest, I really hated that he was so blasé on a golf course.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned that most of these positions are silly. Golf is just a game, after all, and games, by definition, are zero-sum entities that definitionally resist any attempts to drape socioeconomic constructs on them. Republicans and Democrats all golf. The fairways do not care about your current tax bracket. Headwinds and waste bunkers all stand in opposition to our attempts to attach reason to them; they are simply nature. The circumstances around golf are not the game’s fault. It’s just a game.

Golf, it seems to me (and to many outsiders like me), has an image problem. Even now, I still have never been able to embrace it. The more I learn, the more it becomes increasingly clear that the problem lies with me and my perception of it, rather than with the game itself. But the problem still lies.

I know I am talking to the readers of a golf publication, and you are all very handsome people who wear many attractive clothes and who are spoken of fondly by their friends, families and colleagues, so please know that my criticisms are not meant to be personal. I like you. You are great. But I still cannot wrap my head around your sport. Take my humble criticisms, which are shaped in large part by this long-lasting image problem and against which, as golf fans, you could no doubt make many smart and reasonable arguments:

  • I still think it’s an exclusionary game that’s less about the activity itself and more about having a place you can go to that others cannot. This does not necessarily mean “just men” or “just white people.” It doesn’t even have to be political. But a large portion of the appeal appears to be getting away to a place where you cannot be found or bothered. I understand this inclination. But it is not a privilege many have.
  • I’m with Carlin here: I think golf courses are a waste of valuable land. Think of all the things you could do with the land we reserve for golf courses. Parks. Public housing. Youth recreation. Shooting range. Amazon store.
  • I think the sport itself is dull, both to play and to watch. You hit a ball. You walk—or ride!—to go chase it. Then you hit it again. 
  • I think it’s strange to be invested in a sport where you are following and cheering for individuals rather than teams. I’ll grant that cheering for any third party is inherently illogical, but it does feel a little different to say “Go Justin Thomas!” than “Go Cougars!” (This goes for athletes in all individual sports, with the possible exception of Serena Williams.)

I’m not even particularly proud of these things, but they are what I think, based on how the game has been presented to me since I was an impressionable teen. Too often over the years I’ve found that the game tends to confirm my biases rather than refute them. (Other sports, I’d argue, are more constantly changing and thus easier to evolve and surprise; golf is cheerfully retrograde, which is one of the reasons people love it and also one of the reasons many are left on the outside looking in.)

However! Since I’ve moved from New York City (where golf really is a toy of the wealthy) to the South (where it seems half the businesses close solely for their owners to sneak in nine holes), I’ve found myself more understanding of both the golfer and of the game itself.

Here’s a good example: My father-in-law is a successful businessman and an avid golfer. He is also a member at Shinnecock Hills, and he has invited me on several occasions to accompany him to play a round there. He knows that I do not golf, and I believe he is trying to do this to convert me. (He is also probably just being nice.) I have politely, even effusively, declined, and I would argue that this is not out of hatred for the sport, but out of respect for it. Shinnecock is one of the most beautiful golf courses in the world, a place the most dedicated golfers would give much valuable property, goods and services for the opportunity to play. It seems, then, disrespectful for me, a guy who doesn’t even like the game—not to mention someone who would put so many divots in the lovely place that they’d still be trying to fix them when the U.S. Open is there—to sully it with his presence. If someone who hated baseball got to take batting practice at Yankee Stadium, I’d resent them for it. I assumed golfers would do the same to me.

Yet when I tell this story to my golfing friends, they all look at me aghast. “You have the chance to play at Shinnecock and you don’t do it?” they say. “You’re an idiot. You fool!” I try to tell them that I decline because I admire their dedication to the game, but they always inform me that I’m missing the point. “The point is that you get to play there, and I get to know someone who played there,” one friend told me. “It doesn’t matter that you’re not good. It just matters that you got to play.” That strikes me not as exclusionary, but as quite kind. That sounds downright democratic to me, even Carlinian—the kind of image the game could benefit greatly from. It is possible, then, and pretty damned likely, that I understand golf and golfers a lot less than I think I do.

Will Leitch is the founder of Deadspin, senior writer for Sports on Earth, contributing editor for New York Magazine and film critic for Grierson & Leitch.