Why I Play Golf…

The great man, Bobby Jones. Better than Tiger. Honest.

It’s the evening of the final major of the year, the USPGA (the red headed stepchild of other majors), and i’m about to settle in and see whether Tiger can win another to close in on Mr Nicklaus.

And, I thought – amidst all the nonsense I wang on about brands, I thought I’d write a piece about just why I like the sport so much.

And God knows, I do. I’ve played ever since I was 14, when I watched my father get into it around the time of his 50th birthday. That was 11 years ago, and my interest has waxed and waned depending on how well I was playing. But I still return to it. And now, based in London, I feel the need to play more than ever. Absence makes the heart grow fonder and all that.

I’ve always been moderately competent at sport (or cheerfully mediocre). I’ve got reasonable hand eye co-ordination, and can usually be relied upon to give someone a game of football, tennis or badminton. But as time goes on, I find all of them lacking a certain something when I play. I mean, I love to watch football in any form, along with tennis – some of the things the pros can do really fascinates me. To watch, football is still my favourite, just because when it’s played with any degree of skill, there’s a lot more artistry to it than any other sport. The likes of cricket and rugby can be exciting, but there’s not the constancy of football.

Now, when it comes to playing, it’s got to be golf. I still remember going down to the driving range with my first club (a slightly too small 7 iron, as it turned out), and thwacking balls. It was in no way as intuitive as tennis, where I was able to return without really thinking about it. When it came to golf, you really had to think about your grip, your setup and concentrate on making good contact. And so, with a mixture of tops, thins, slices and hooks and, now and then, missing the ball, I worked my way through 90 balls.

God, that was bloody frustrating. But it was also exhilarating; when I saw my little yellow ball (range balls are frequently scrubbier/yellower/not as good as normal course balls) flying to the 100 yard marker, I felt a sense of achievement I just didn’t get outside of scoring a goal in football – and even then, it wasn’t quite the same; who knew if you’d do anything like as well with your next swing?

And, looking around, you saw a mixture of ages, sexes and athletic abilities doing exactly the same thing. People who would quite obviously have been bloody fantastic at the usual sports were bloody AWFUL at golf. And this was interesting to me. A chance to be good at a sport which was as much played between the ears as anything else.

So I embarked on a series of lessons. Lessons which taught me how to hit the ball with some degree of competency, and finally prepared me to hit the course with my little half set.

And, as you’d expect, round a proper 18 hole course, with my first go – I worked up a cricket score. I remember most of the shots in that 110. And you’d have been forgiven for thinking I should have thought about giving up; but no – one of the truly wonderful things about golf is that no matter HOW badly you play, there’s always one shot to give you hope for next time, to make you think you should be able to play like that all the time. For me, it was a 5 wood to within 10 foot on a par 3, which I parred. I was hooked.

Golf allowed me to meet up with various people, to play lots of different courses – way before advertising was amazed about ‘communities’, I was part of an online golf messageboard (yes, sad bastard, I know), and met some of the guys and played with them.

As I got better, I became more competitive, but it wasn’t with a person. It was me versus the course. Golf is the only sport where one moment can entirely unravel your day; where a duff iron shot can cost you nine shots on a Par 4, where your carefully planned round can fall apart.

And, of course, my patience with it came and went. I have quit, vowing never to play again, several times. I swear, I mentally beat myself up. But I keep coming back. Why?

Well, it’s not just the one perfect shot. When i’m out on a golf course, I feel more at peace than anywhere else. I love the countryside, and walking around, soaking up the beautiful scenery whilst playing with some degree of skill, and just talking to my playing partners. More often than not, it’s my father, and we swear and moan our way round, as well as chatting about how well things have gone.

Crucially, I think I love it because of the imagination involved. Every shot is completely different. The skills required to hit a 7 iron off a good lie are completely different to hitting a low, hooking chip and run from behind a tree. You have to be able to think and plot your way round. What’s the wind doing? How does the lie look? What would make the most sense – should you play out sideways or go for it?

It’s why so many of the top players have such complex pre-shot routines. You have to be able to imagine these things coming off, in a way you really don’t for tennis or badminton, or rugby and football – it’s too quick. Whereas in golf, you have time to assess your lie, to think about all the things that could go wrong in your swing (and believe me, there are a lot), and be put off by things around you.

I also (and this is the middle class Englishman in me) love the etiquette inherent in the game. There’s so much respect. You don’t stand in your opponent’s line of sight, you rake bunkers, you replace your divots/holes in the ground after you’ve played. You praise good shots. You don’t make noise when other people are playing. You attend the flag/pull it out for your playing partners. You show respect for the course and for others. No other sport has such levels of respect, and I’ll include cricket in this. It’s not so much a part of the fabric of the game, right through to the highest level. In no other sport can you call a penalty on yourself, and the pros do.

Then there’s the 19th hole (or pub, to the uninitiated), where your round is endlessly replayed and talked about. Which will, I’ll be honest, bore any non golfers – along with watching golf on tv – which, if you’ve never played, is about as enjoyable as watching grass grow.

Yes, there’s a lot wrong with the sport – the sexism at certain clubs, the exorbitant price of playing, the slightly over the top dress code (though any sport which insists on a collared shirt being worn is frankly doing the world a favour – no-one wants to see 40+ year old men in football shirts) and the snobbishness. But that’s getting better, in my experience.

The sheer pleasure of walking 18 holes, of all the little dramas that come and go in the course of one hole (never mind 18), the camaraderie, the continual thought process of each shot, and the beauty of wandering around beautiful countryside is why I play.

Anyway. I’ll get back to seeing if Tiger can hold off Paddy. Let’s see.