If you want to know a person’s character, play a round of golf with him. If he cheats more than is absolutely necessary, loses his temper when he goes into a hazard, does not come ten minutes before tee-off, does not observe the dress code, impatiently waits for his turn and does not remain silent during his opponent’s turn, throws or kicks his club (a right reserved for senior golfers only), and — most importantly — does not let his future boss win, do not hire him.
If you are like most people, you probably change the channel very fast whenever there is a golf game on. Before I took up the sport, I admit that I was in that camp. And to be honest, it is still boring to watch other people play golf. In my opinion, it is not a spectator sport.
In fact, it is much more than a sport. It is a way of life unto itself, which is probably why it is so addictive. But this article is not about golf jargon or on how to play golf (I lied); it is about why one should play golf. “I guess there is nothing that will get your mind off everything like golf. I have never been depressed enough to take up the game, but they say you get so sore at yourself you forget to hate your enemies,” said American comedian Will Rogers. In the current flood of conspiracy theories and negative propaganda everywhere, maybe an article on golf is a useful distraction.
The name ‘golf’ has many origin myths, and a simple Google search reveals that the notion of golf being an acronym for “Gentlemen Only, Ladies Forbidden” is just an urban legend. The word ‘golf,’ it is believed, originated from the Dutch and old Scot language. The medieval Dutch word for ‘club’ was ‘kolfe’ or ‘kolve,’ and when it was picked up by the old Scots’ dialect, it became ‘glove,’ ‘gowl’ or ‘gouf.’
Actor and comedian Leslie Nielsen, who hosted an instructional series on golf, gives another rather interesting reason: “The reason they call it ‘golf’ is that all other four-letter words were used up.”
Regardless of the origins of its name, the game itself is a character-building experience. It is probably the only game where you play against your own self, although it is always more fun beating another — by hook or by crook.
Not that a golfer and a gentleman would ever stoop to cheating. Moving the ball around is allowed if it is a ‘free pick’ and if you get caught doing it, feign ignorance. And just because you are bad at mathematics and consequently make counting mistakes while keeping score, that should not be an excuse to blemish your impeccable reputation. Finally, you cannot be held responsible for the unwarranted actions of your caddy.
My personal introduction to the game came as a result of high blood pressure. I was faced with a choice: I could either give up smoking (unthinkable) or I could take up walking. I ended up accepting the lesser evil. A friend, to whom I remain eternally obliged, bought me a golf set and literally chauffeured me to the golf course early one morning. That was the beginning of a lifelong love affair.
For the past few years, I have been an ‘early bird,’ the kind of golfer who is present when they open the gates of the club every morning, come rain or shine, and is generally considered insane by family and friends.
I disagree with Mark Twain: golf is not a walk spoilt. Quite the contrary, it adds an addictive dimension to walking. My blood pressure is now under control. I have reason to suspect that these regular early morning walks in one of the biggest gardens in the city may have something to do with it. I shudder to think what would have happened if I had not discovered golf. If blood pressure or a nervous breakdown from the doctor’s bill would not have gotten to me, sheer boredom would have.
By now, the answer to “why golf?” should be materialising. Well, it is healthy, relaxing and teaches one to be thankful and humble. Once you duff a couple of times in the sand trap or miss a two-foot putt, the insignificance of existence becomes starkly evident. If you have never witnessed the American Indians’ rain dance and are deeply curious, visit the local golf club and wait for someone to duff thrice in the sand.
As in every game, there are a lot of funny terms in golf like duff, birdie, albatross and many more. Mulligan, for instance, is like a try ball. There are many stories of its origin but one tilts towards the story where a club’s boss insisted on a corrective shot and all that the poor employees could do was name it after him. Handicap is a personal favourite. Its calculation is probably more complex than rocket science and discovery as uncertain as the origin of the universe. It has something to do with how many strokes you get against your opponent, which somehow can never be agreed upon, resulting in ferocious arguments over attempts to collect bets.
American golfer Jack Nicklaus says: “A kid grows up a lot faster on the golf course. Golf teaches you how to behave.” I concur.
Improvements in one’s behaviour as a result of regular golfing include controlling one’s anger (after repeated duffs in the sands, you end up realising that anger is futile and the ball is not coming out either way), being polite (saying “great shot” every time your opponent has one while cursing under your breath), being more religious (praying all the time that your ball goes where it is supposed to and that your opponent’s should not), being punctual (if you are not on the tee at the agreed time, eventually others will stop playing with you), socialising (acknowledging strangers who reciprocate just because you are at the golf course), building confidence (telling other golfers that their game has improved considerably, though this has nothing to do with reality) and accepting compliments (when you get the aforementioned compliment yourself, knowing that it is not necessarily true). The list is endless.
To be fair, one should also highlight the game’s negative aspects. The most prominent of these is that it is a gambling den and is subject to the associated pitfalls. Surprisingly, however, losing a bet in golf is rarely about the money lost. It is about self-esteem and ego which, in a weird way, manifests itself in a positive manner. You definitely return to win the next day, or at least try to. Golf develops a fundamental characteristic for success in life: perseverance.
Perhaps more importantly, golf teaches you a lot about the people you play with. “Eighteen holes of match or medal play will teach you more about your foe than 18 years of dealing with him across a desk,” said Grantland Rice, an American sports writer. Golf also teaches you a lot about yourself. It brings out your natural self when it is impossible to feign or control your emotions and habits through all 18 holes of golf.
Yet, the biggest reason why I continue to play golf is my golfing buddies. I started off playing alone, but now my early morning golfing ritual includes six golfers, all from diverse backgrounds. We have insightful discussions every day. We update each other of news and current affairs, share animal jokes and honey toast breakfasts, learn to do the slow walk, succumb to the temptations of gambling and discover erratic new golf swings. During all this, we even manage a round of golf.
Golfers are an optimistic lot. In spite of being frustratingly aware that, short of a miracle, nothing will improve their game, the search for the elusive Grail continues. British golfer Ted Ray once said, “Golf is a fascinating game, it has taken me nearly forty years to discover that I can’t play it.” Unfortunately, I am no different. But despite the fact that my ego regularly gets trampled and that all my delusions about my skill level are routinely demolished, I find myself returning to the course every day. I may never perfect my swing, but I do manage to create memories that I will cherish for a lifetime. And as far as I’m concerned, that’s a hole in one.
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, July 15th, 2012.