Why Golf is Actually One of the Hardest Sports On the Planet

A frank discussion about the birdies and the bogeys that bring people back to the sport again and again.
Sunday 7 October 2018
Golf: harder than it looks. Photo: iStock

Golf. A sport. A hobby. A pursuit. A way of life. You either love it or you hate it. There is no middle ground. For those who play the game, especially the amateurs, it’s a passion. For those who’ve never played it, it’s very difficult to see what all the fuss is about. Inductees into the second category; let me give you a shot at enlightenment. I firmly believe that after reading this article, whether you know a bit about golf or less than zero, your perception about the game will be changed, forever.

There is a story that goes something like this: Four golfers have just teed off at the first hole, and their drives (first shots) have landed on or around the fairway. The fairway happens to be bordered by a road on one side, and as the players are preparing to play their second shots, one of them notices a funeral cortege (coffin ensconced in hearse; the requisite number of other vehicles following in a respectful, sedate procession) making its way slowly down the road.

One of the golfers, let’s call him ‘Eldrick’ (Tiger Woods’ real first name, by the way, but just a coincidence in this particular story), walks over to the side of the fairway close to the road, takes off his cap, holds it to his chest, and bows his head as the cortege passes by. His fellow golfers notice what he’s doing, and join him on the fence by the road, also removing their headwear and taking a moment to pay their respects.

“What a wonderful gesture,” says one of Eldrick’s playing companions. “You’ve reminded us of the meaning of respect and the importance of paying tribute to other people’s loss.” “Yes,” says Eldrick, manfully suppressing a tear. “Next week we would have been married for 22 years.” The story, apocryphal I’m sure (not very sure, but reasonably sure), speaks to the importance of the game for some people, and the reverence with which it is treated.

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A hole in one? Probably not. Photo: iStock

Bill Shankly once said that some people think football is a matter of ‘life or death’. He was disappointed with this attitude, saying that “I can assure them, it is much more serious than that.” Eldrick’s chosen activity on that fateful day suggests that golfers are of a similar persuasion when approaching their chosen sport, and have been known to, shall we say, be liberal in terms of their priorities.

When did all this madness begin? This is a difficult question to answer. The antecedents of the game may have come from China in the 13th Century, or the Netherlands in the 16th, while most attribute Scotland with formulating the structure of the sport that is familiar to us today. Whoever takes the blame, conceptually, it probably can’t be said to have emanated from the brightest of minds.

Why on earth would anyone want to hit a small, round object with a stick at a target hundreds of yards away? Was everyone drunk when they came up with the idea? Was it a slow day in whatever war was raging at the time? We all know how golf should be played, and we all know the objectives of the game. Let’s be honest, as a concept, it’s relatively simple: the golfer has to propel the ball from A (the tee box and starting point) to B (in the hole, the end point) in a prescribed number of shots, using a stick/club.

It may sound like a simple game, and in essence, it is. But it also happens to be counter-intuitive, and presents a significant emotional and psychological self-examination that can tell us more about ourselves than we ever knew or imagined. It’s important to know that the game of golf is a battle. It’s not physically violent – or at least shouldn’t be – but the lines are drawn from the very first moment that a golfer picks up a club at the first tee, all the way through to the customary handshake with playing partners after 18 holes. And the biggest battle is almost invariably between the golfer and…oneself.

That probably sounds nuts to most people, but one has to accept that golf is the ‘ultimate head game’ – an experience that pits the individual’s angels and demons against each other at almost every conceivable opportunity. The battles that take place within the individual golfer are both psychological and emotional.

We all know what to do, and on certain occasions, we are capable of doing it, but for the average golfer (among which I count myself) those occasions are too few and far between, leading to a frustration that is often dealt with in unsavoury ways. A golfer will hit a good shot and feel good about himself – for precisely the length of time that it takes to hit a bad shot, at which point the frustration builds, doubts bubble to the surface, self-questioning begins, and the entire mental miasma begins to reek. In these situations, you begin to find out who you really are; whether you can cope with adversity; whether you’re mentally stable enough to take the rough with the smooth; if you’re more likely to volunteer for community service or contemplate running amok in a fast-food restaurant or join a politically incorrect touring circus.

In the ‘ultimate head game’, controlling your emotions is key, irrespective of how good you are. Golf also gives other people a pretty good indication of who you are, what you are, and what you are capable of. Why do you think so many ‘business meetings’ are conducted on golf courses?

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The green: the other meeting room. Photo: iStock

If you really want to find out what someone’s like – even what their approach is to life in general – play a round of golf with them, and you’re almost bound to find out. Unless you’re sociopathic, or possibly even psychopathic (and I’ve played with a few golfers who were almost certainly both), your personality traits, both good and bad, will be revealed.

Believe it or not, despite its elitist veneer, golf is an egalitarian game that allows people of uneven abilities to play against each other on a relatively level playing field. This has been achieved via a ‘handicap’ system that allows a complete ‘duffer’ (golf parlance for “oh my god, seriously? They’ve allowed this guy on the course?”) to have a decent game with, for example, Dustin Johnson, the player currently ranked as the best in the world. With a handicap, you are, quite simply, allowed to take more shots than your opponent who has a lower handicap.

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All things being equal, therefore, should both players play to the best of their abilities, at the end of 18 holes, there will be nothing to choose between them – even if one has shot, say 66, and the other, 106. There are no other sports in the world that have a handicap system that works so well – not even polo, sailing, or horse racing – and it gives the game, in my opinion, a very competitive edge.

But what really stands out about golf, is that anyone, and I mean anyone, can be the best in the world. For, as they say in sales, a ‘limited period only’. If this also sounds nuts, let me explain with an example.

The son of a friend of mine, aged 16 years (let’s call him ‘Nasib’) had had one golf lesson, been given a crappy set of clubs, and went out on a course for the very first time. He hacked the ball around, this way and that, as any novice golfer would do, for the best part of 17 holes, but…and this is a big but, on one hole, he struck the ball perfectly. It was miraculous. The ball arced into the firmament; the trajectory looked good; and the ball bounced once…twice…and then dropped, as if it was its sole raison d’être, into the hole. A ‘hole in one’. Just one shot to move the ball from A to B. The entire purpose of the game. In one. The dream. Nirvana. Perfection. It’s a feat that every golfer dreams about, and only a tiny, minuscule percentage of golfers ever achieve in their entire golfing lives.

Had Dustin Johnson been playing alongside my friend’s son, it’s almost certain that he would not have been able to match the shot, and impossible for him to have bested it. An actuary with too much time on his (or her, but I’m suspecting ‘his’) hands worked out the odds of a hole in one for an ‘average golfer’ at 12,500-1, and for a professional at 2,500-1.

For a brief moment in time, my friend’s son was at the peak of the game. Not just his game, but the game – as good as any pro in the world. It simply doesn’t get any better than that, and in all likelihood – notwithstanding the law of averages and another 3,125 rounds of golf (please don’t ask me to explain) – it never will.

There is no other sport on earth where anything like this can happen. Apart from fluky holes-in-one (there is always an element of luck but as either Arnold Palmer or Gary Player, or anyone else may have said, “the more I practice, the luckier I get.”) even your average, experienced golfer will hit a perfect or near-perfect shot every once in a while. It’s enough to keep him, and many of us, coming back for more and more and…more. The thinking being; “I can do it. All I need to do now, is do it every time.”

Avid golfers will know what I’m talking about. Everyone else should. If you’ve done something perfectly once, why on earth should you not be able to do it again, and again, and…again? As an amateur footballer, you could produce the best free-kick/penalty of your life, but unless you’re up against a world-class goalkeeper, it means nothing. An occasional tennis player, even a pretty good one, could launch the perfect serve. But if he (or she) is up against Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal or Roger Federer, it’s very likely to be returned to sender, with interest. Produce a great delivery as a bowler in cricket and, against a peer, you might get a wicket. Do it against one of the best batsmen in the world, and the ball is more likely to end up in a different postcode.

I could go on, from sports as diverse as cycling, snooker, basketball, baseball, sailing or equestrianism. But the fact remains that anyone is capable of producing a shot in golf – an instant in time, an aberration perhaps but a moment of perfection that glorifies and makes manifest the human spirit.

What’s strange about golf is that despite its perceived elitist nature, it’s a great leveller, with an aspirational aspect that has more likelihood of being realised than any other sport. I am reasonably good at a few things in life – being argumentative, waterpolo, macramé, looking after cats – but apart from wanting and always striving to be a better person, there is nothing that I want to improve more than my golf game. I accepted the battle a long time ago, and realise the efforts of will and the collateral damage that had to be taken into account and endured in order to achieve my objectives, limited as they are. I’ll let the Black Knight and nine-time major winner have the last word: “Golf is a puzzle without an answer. I’ve played the game for 40 years, and I still haven’t the slightest idea how to play.” – Gary Player

This feature was originally published in the August 2018 issue of UNRESERVED.

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