Playing Golf (With My Flesh Crawling)

I recent­ly went out on the course of the Mound­builders Coun­try Club, which should not be there. And there, I saw the ugli­est land­scape I have ever seen, ugli­er than any load­ing dock, any slag heap; the putting green, hideous­ly aer­at­ed this late in the sea­son, stag­gered punc­tures in the earth; the lat­est wound on a land­scape will­ful­ly tram­pled now for two hun­dred years.

Why then praise golf? The golf of Trumps and lit­tle Trumps? Gal­lons of water poured down the drain? Vic­to­ries paid for with $500 clubs and $20,000 lessons? One of the many galling things about wealth inequal­i­ty is that it does not always result in gaudy, hideous things; but may as eas­i­ly pur­chase some­thing of actu­al pow­er, formed through the hoard­ing of tra­di­tion, exper­tise, and con­cen­tra­tion; an artic­u­lat­ed form of land with a pow­er not exclu­sive to know­ing the game it is made for. 

muirfield 1
Muirfield Village in Dublin, Ohio. JACK NICKLAUS GOLF for SNES, 1992.

I have a strange resent­ment of every sport based upon land that does not acknowl­edge the par­tic­u­lar­i­ty of the land it sits on; the desire for an even play­ing field and a trans­fer­able set of sta­tis­tics means a fun­da­men­tal flat­ness that pre­cludes the pos­si­bil­i­ty of know­ing any one place through the play­ing. To say it more sim­ply: I think, wouldn’t it be bet­ter if these base­ball fields had hills and dales, cat­tails and cac­ti to run around? If golf’s reliance on per­for­mance-opti­mized grass negates much of that val­ue, it nonethe­less works in a speci­fici­ty beyond back­drop views alone. The ges­ture of putting a green on an island in the ocean, with a lit­tle strait to dri­ve over, has a rak­ish, stu­pid charm, a fam­i­ly resem­blance to throw­ing men up onto the moon.

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Muirfield Village in Dublin, Ohio. JACK NICKLAUS 5 for Windows, 1997.

Charm is the word – the insin­u­at­ing mag­ic that isn’t done with you when you’re done with it. As much as I like to read the land­scape through hik­ing, the charm in the ori­gin sto­ry of golf is the abil­i­ty to eval­u­ate the land­scape through a dif­fer­ent lens than its walk­a­bil­i­ty (or, cer­tain­ly, the abil­i­ty to haul corn or coal out of it). The process of research that has cre­at­ed pure­bred land­scapes for golf has the same charm as – well, the devel­op­ment of pre­bred dogs. And the cen­tral move­ment of golf – from the gen­er­al to the spe­cif­ic, the large space to the small – has a charm that strange­ly over­rides what might as eas­i­ly be a sequence of uncon­nect­ed skill shots and bagatelles, the pos­si­bil­i­ty embod­ied by mini golf. It makes the tech­nique of shoot­ing nest with­in a larg­er world­view of approach­ing a land­scape, the habit of a hawk, to cir­cle high and plunge down to the point of a mouse. And that, in turn forms the struc­ture of long holes fit­ted intesti­nal­ly with­in the course. 

muirfield 3
Muirfield Village in Dublin, Ohio. JACK NICKLAUS 6: GOLDEN BEAR CHALLENGE for Windows, 1999.

Do I even need to say the last charm? It is the sim­ple charm of being the hid­den reverse of my own field, the thing that must not be spo­ken of. We would like noth­ing bet­ter than to claim every course for free access, for unre­strict­ed play, to raise prairies on the fair­way. And we do this by will­ful­ly look­ing through the charm that hums over it.

(October 2022)