A Course Called Home: Tom Coyne Explores America

There are two ways of getting home; and one of them is to stay there. The other is to walk round the whole world till we come back to the same place.

—G. K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man 

Tom Coyne’s new A Course Called America is brimming with the joy of discovery and the gratitude of homecoming. His past trans-Atlantic golf adventures are well appreciated by the American reader eager to experience—even vicariously—the purity of golf’s home and the links of the old sod. But, to open the cover of this newest volume, one must wonder if our native land has anything of lasting significance to offer. We might ask if it’s worth stepping out to traipse about America’s far-flung and homegrown fairways. Well, as we find, it is worth setting out, and setting out very far, so that we can come home, and return with thanksgiving. 

The scale of A Course Called America is grand, as is fitting given the proportions of its subject. And as one can’t experience a nation like the U.S. all at once, but piecemeal, the book is rather episodic. With each installment, Coyne seeks the Great American Golf Course—whether it be set upon a hill, or even in some neighborhood nook—and in so doing determine just what it is that makes a course great. He also hopes to figure out just what it is to be American, a concept more foreign to him at the outset than the Irish stamp on his passport.

Seeking a solid standard to orient him amid the American expanse, Coyne settles on the goal of playing every remaining U.S. Open venue. Add to that list those courses any of us would cross the country for, and we find that most all the stalwart names are on the itinerary: Oakmont, Merion, Pinehurst, Shinnecock, Pebble, even the white whale that is Cypress Point. And they’re all as good as billed, better even. 

But, to this reader, the most delightful discoveries Coyne makes are in the most unexpected and unlikeliest of places. Those in the looked-past corners of our most curiously carved up or capacious states. 

One such episode finds Coyne seeking passage across Lake Huron via ferry to Mackinac Island in Michigan. He is in search of a course whose name—Wawashkamo—means “crooked trail.” Fitting. In a turn reminiscent of A Course Called Ireland, Coyne has to hoof it with his sticks on his back as Mackinac Island eschews engines in favor of animal propulsion, whether human or horse. Eventually arriving at the course—it was the other one on the island—Coyne finds a nine-holer steeped in history, quirk, and intrigue. A place unlike any he had played before, which is something. 

Looking back at the cannon marking the first tee—the island was the site of a battle in the War of 1812—Coyne wonders how or why he was even there. And it really is wonder, born of clarity of sight and gratitude. The physical cause-and-effect were clear, he took a ferry, then put one foot in front of the other for a while. But that’s the cause of his being there only in the most rudimentary respect. He’s there: “Because I enjoy rolling a ball into a hole in the ground. And as I boarded my carriage, I felt more keenly aware than ever that I loved this game not just because it transported us in geography, but because it tossed us around in time as well.”

And so we continue with Coyne as he happens upon courses many a reader will now seek out as well, whether those hidden in plain sight or a ferry ride away or on a Top 100 list.

We discover with Coyne that Nebraska might be the spot for building grand, ambitious golf in the U.S., and that we might want to give sand greens a go, or that the next great nine we play might be with the Navajo, or even in some guy’s backyard. 

We also realize anew that we shouldn’t see states and actual Americans as we do on electorate maps. That the country isn’t as it appears on our rectangular glow boxes, and that people are good. And, in case you were wondering, we learn that Bill Murray is a grinder. 

(Another pleasant surprise for the reader is the realization that if this golf writing gig ever fizzles out for Coyne, he has a future as a food writer. Especially as he details with a sophomoric smirk the finer points of testing out fried bull gonads.) 

America’s Foremost Golf Resort Food Critic

As Coyne comes to know the dizzying number of great and beloved American tracks, from the destination resorts to the neighborhood nines, he acknowledges with a certain subtle gratitude those responsible for building these playing fields we get to wander. 

In this, we hear of the greats of the Golden Age: Ross, Thomas, Tillinghast, Maxwell, Mackenzie and Flynn, amongst others. But we also come to know those of the right-now, new Golden Age of golf architecture, with such notables as Coore and Crenshaw, Tom Doak, David McLay Kidd, Gil Hanse, and quite a few others that practice their craft with imagination and ingenuity. 

At a certain point, Coyne asks Hanse what makes for a great course. Hanse’s answer bears professorial erudition expressed with the simplicity of a master craftsman. To a phrase, a great course can take many shapes, but it must have one thing: a sense of place. That is, it belongs where it is. And, we might say, the people that frequent it belong there too. In a way the two shape each other, the course its players and the players their course. 

In light of this, it’s fitting that Coyne’s Great American Golf Adventure ends where it began. Of all the courses covered throughout Coyne’s continental circumnavigation, there is one that stands as the golf course. It was the name written first on the long list of American courses to visit. The one of his youth, where he learned the game, caddied, and would walk the well-worn fairways and tree lines with his dad. A place and time that remains still an idyll in both memory and meaning. That is, Rolling Green Golf Club in Springfield, Pennsylvania. And if that name doesn’t mean much to most readers, it’s no matter. It does to Coyne. And Mr. Coyne. 

The heart of A Course Called America beats loudest as Coyne and his dad walk together what used to be their home course. In recounting memories both distant and recent, funny and heartfelt, Coyne memorializes so much of what first makes us love this game and the people we play it with.  

“Put the words golf and course together and I see Rolling Green.”

Perhaps the moment that most perfectly captures the essence of Coyne’s quest comes as he and his dad play a fortuitous recent round at Rolling Green, their first there in a while: “I never remembered him mentioning how great a golf course this was, but now I caught him stopping to look around. ‘This is beautiful,’ he said, as if noticing for the first time.”

A Course Called America, by Tom Coyne, Avid Reader Press, 2021

Darwin on Tron Carter’s Lefty Evolution

Like many these past few months, I’ve watched with amused amazement as Tron Carter, of No Laying Up notoriety, has undertaken the willful experiment of playing his golf left-handed. This curious crossing-over seemed at first a playful ruse destined for a quick flash followed by a slow fizzling out. But with a certain doggedness—and much to his credit—Carter continues to approach his ball from the right.

The TC Way

This southpaw sojourn has yielded surprising results—amongst other things, that lefty finish often looks quite athletic—and has elicited a certain sympathy from the onlooker. Who can’t subscribe to this enterprise of pure grind, especially considering the utterly absurd and gratuitous lack of necessity to the whole thing. And I say this as a compliment. As I’ve recently been taking in the recent installments of NLU’s “Tourist Sauce: Oregon,” I’d say that this quixotic enterprise has also made for good theater.

It was with a not dissimilar joy of discovery that I recently came across a short piece of Bernard Darwins’ that considered this very sort of thing. In this brief essay, titled “The Re-birth of a Golfer,” Darwin opens by considering a fairytale wherein a soldier steals a magic box, within which are hidden three wish-granting dogs. As it goes, this sets matters in motion to the point where the soldier ends up wealthy and wed to the princess. Darwin stands envious and muses on that future moment when “some benevolent magician” will grant his every wish. He thinks one of these wishes, though modest, would “make us all happy.” This, namely, the gift of being “allowed to begin all over again the learning of some pleasant art.” 

Bernard Darwin, naturally right-handed

For the adult, once joyous and intoxicating activities like bike riding often lose their youthful luster and become tiresome. Our first forays into that form of self-propulsion, however, were so wondrous and wild: “can anybody deny that there was a romantic thrill in his earliest wobbles?” These for Darwin were remembered vividly: “a blazing hot day in September on the lawn at home, an angelic and perspiring parent who held me and the bicycle, while we made curious zig-zags across the grass.” The road we glided over on our first bike, “seems to me, in retrospect, to have been fringed by fairy trees and jewelled flowers.” 

Regarding the genesis of his own golfing life, Darwin remarks: “I began golf so long ago and at such an immature age that I can recall nothing about it, but it must have been delicious and I wish it could happen all over again.” Then he proposes something exotic:

If one had the strength of mind to do it, I believe it would be well worth while to start again as a one-handed player and pant for the day when one was given a twenty-four handicap. Or, perhaps, left-handed would be better . . . . No doubt there would be disappointments in store, but one would be getting slowly better instead of getting rather quickly worse, and there are few sensations more enchanting than the consciousness of improvement.

I have to confess that I don’t presently have the “strength of mind” deemed a prerequisite by Darwin for the flip to the other side of the ball. I still hold out hope that my regular right-handed play will yield that enchanting sensation Darwin associates with the “consciousness of improvement.” 

And yet, who can deny the appeal of beginning again, of being a golfer reborn? The game seen with innocent, expectant eyes. The course a wonderland, one’s body some strange amalgamation of motion. To throw oneself through the looking glass, headlong into what Darwin describes as the “strangeness and topsy-turvy-dom of being on the wrong side of the ball.” I imagine that at the very least, the joys of golf would be keen and fresh, which is what we looked for in the game in the first place. And perhaps what Tron Carter has found in his reborn golfing life.

Golf for the Nation: Donald Ross on Self-Governance

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“A country which gets golf-minded need not worry about the honor, the integrity and the honesty of its people.” –Donald Ross

I had before me the other day a short par 4 that dog-legged to the right. The right side of the hole was tree-lined, and a creek ran about 30 yards in front of the green. In other words: if you want a clear go at the green on your second shot, stay left off the tee. I went right.

Now in recovery mode, I hit a solid punch with a 7-iron that glanced off a tree branch, snuck over the creek, and settled directly in front of a curiously placed plant with fanning foliage. I don’t recall ever seeing this instance of flora before, and hope never to again. There was no conceivable shot that didn’t doubly bristle through its leaves. So after a few perfect practice swings—how often the case!—I duffed my first attempt. An actual duff. The ball moved about an eighth of an inch (.3175 cm, for European readers). The second attempt resulted in a squirty sort-of shank into a green side bunker. Lo and behold, I got up and down for what felt like a complicated double bogey.

After the hole, my playing partner keeping score says to me: “That’s a great bogey; seriously.” He taking my duffed attempt as yet another perfect practice swing. As much as I wish it had been the case—the “great bogey” being one of my favorite scores—I had to admit to my inept double. Erase that noble five, and slap a six on the card, my friend.

Now, why should you reading this care at all about a rather regular occurrence on the course? My intent in including this commonplace confession is to support the above-recorded point made by the venerable Donald Ross. A “golf-minded” player will certainly be guided by “the honor, the integrity and the honesty” the game demands, expects, and inculcates. (This anecdote, in case it’s not clear, is certainly not to extol my virtue—should there be any—but rather that of the game.)

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Mr. Ross overseeing his Torresdale course in Northeast Philadelphia

Golf stands as a practice—among any number of other similar practices—that is of its very constitution fashioned in a way such that pursuing the ends or goals of the game, as it is meant to played, one at the same time incurs an increase in certain traits of character. That is, virtues, excellence or strength of one’s person. These virtues not only enable us to meet the demands that are by nature internal to the game we play, they in turn better us beyond the confines of the course. And given the social nature of golf, these virtues orient us better toward those with whom we walk the course, as well as the byways of the broader world.

Or such is the ideal. Like all ideals, failure to meet them shows up in manifold ways. But to have the opportunity to get a stroke or two past the notice of one’s playing partners—“no one saw that swing, or would see me drop a ball here, or give this one a little nudge away from this tree root”—and not do so, this requires no act of courageous goodness or sacrifice, just the common everyday decision for truth, fairness, and goodness that provides for a civically healthy people.

To consider Ross’s line more fully now, the notion of golf improving the quality of a people’s character might at first seem far-fetched. We might ask: how could it be that the ins-and-outs of a game, a seeming trifle, shape and form the people of a nation for the better, let alone to the degree asserted by Ross above?

The line comes from a collection of Ross’s writings titled, Golf Has Never Failed Me. In an entry titled, “Do Golfer’s Need Rules?,” which is more aphorism than essay, Ross upholds the ideal of golf as a gentleman’s game, one where “every golfer is on his honor.” As such, then, golf doesn’t require more rules than are necessary. We should never seek to “control the game completely.” Golfers don’t need a slew of laws because they are ideally, in effect, a law to themselves.

That is, should the spirit and dictates of honor be instilled, fostered, and kept alive and well, golfers don’t need numerous and cumbersome external constrictions. Having interiorized the authentic spirit of the game, they govern themselves. And while Ross doesn’t use the term self-government here, it’s clear that this is what he has in mind.

As he pursues this line of thought further: “the game does more to bring out the finer points in a man’s character than any other sport.” Considering his time at Pinehurst, he continues, “I know of only two instances of a golfer cheating, two out of hundreds of thousands.” And so Ross can conclude: “a country which gets golf-minded need not worry about the honor, the integrity and the honesty of its people.”

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It’s these practices that we engage in, such as golf, those that some erroneously see as trivial and superfluous, that inculcate in a people—its practitioners—virtues and attitudes that contribute not only to an individual’s flourishing, but, given that these activities are social in nature, the individual’s particular growth in excellence of character can only contribute to the wellbeing of the social whole. More specifically, traits like honesty, fairness, integrity, patience, determination—those that are particularly helpful in golf—are clearly not just to the increase of an individual, but are socially beneficial.

To get back to the idea of self-government, a society of men and women who are able to virtuously govern themselves—their thoughts, desires, passions, emotions, attitudes, and actions—toward the good, makes beneficial self-governance in the broader, more communal and political sense, all the more possible and likely. This is the double-layered meaning of the term “self-government.” As Matthew Crawford puts it in his fascinating Why We Drive, the modern “liberal-republican” political tradition “holds that a people worthy of democracy must be made up of individuals capable of governing their own behavior in the first place, and have therefore earned their fellow citizens’ trust.”[1]

It is in a practice such as golf—as Donald Ross so aptly observed—that the habits and customs that shape a life lived well with others are fostered and given opportunity for expression. As a result, ideally, we see an increase in mutual trust and ease of social life. In light of this, we can say with Ross, that a nation can only benefit from her people being “golf-minded.”

 

[1] Crawford’s book sees the phenomenon of driving as a particularly rich arena wherein one might think through political, existential, ethical, and aesthetic questions. I reckon that golf is another such field ripe for philosophical exploration.

Fairway Philosophy

The Danger of a Hasty Pace: Walking, Time and Golf

Pace of play. From pleas for pros to be put on the clock, to the six-hour slog some golfers are consigned to on crowded public tracks, to the almost-mythical slow foursome that one can potentially meet at the very next tee, pace of play seems to be a ubiquitous golfing-concern. There are a number of threads tangled in this knot. There are of course pragmatic and PR-related elements. No one wants to play a five-hour round and no one wants golf thought of as a pastime that just takes too long. There are somewhat deeper considerations at play, though. At some level of our concern over pace of play, I think we have a particular way of viewing the reality of our experience of time and ourselves as temporally-bound creatures.

There is something here in the relationship between “clock-time” and what we might call “interior time,” or one’s subjective experience of our temporality. We all know this, we’ve all complained that the hour-long lecture felt far longer. We’ve all also marveled at how the two-hour dinner spent in good company seemed to end so soon.

“Clock-time” is going to be what it’s going to be: increments folded into bigger increments, then into yet more expansive increments. And though it’s subjectively experienced, this sort of time has something more of a rigid objectivity to it. “Interior time,” though objectively experienced in the life of subjects—us—has a greater malleability to it. Its “interior passage” through our consciousness quickens and slows, slackens and calcifies.

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But what does any of this have to do with golf? Quite a bit, I think. One facet of the game we can consider with these concepts is how we actually make our way around the course. That is, walking or riding. To put it more clearly: our mode of movement—walking, riding, skating, sledding, jogging, crawling—does some profound shaping of our experience of our temporal activity. How we move through space deeply impacts how we experience the passage of time.

All the permutations of the walking vs. riding debate can’t be hashed out here. But I’d say that in all this talk of the pace of play on the course, we ought to consider how it is that our mode of movement contributes to the formation of our experience of time. So, this is not so much a consideration of “clock-time,” but rather “interior time,” and how four-hours walking and four-hours riding might in the end be rather different four-hour spans.

I’m not dogmatically opposed to carts. In fact, there are times I’m happy to have rode for that hot mid-July round on the course clearly not designed with the walking golfer in mind. I do, however, have a strong predilection and proclivity for walking. Golf to me is a walkers’ game. More generally, I have an abiding interest in the phenomenon of walking. While this might seem a pedestrian preoccupation, I think there is something deeply meaningful in this quotidian human activity. Motivated by this interest, I’ve been dipping into Frédéric Gros’s A Philosophy of Walking. The book’s fifth chapter titled “Slowness” has some provocative thoughts on the difference between walking a span versus riding over it.

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He sees a real advantageousness to a slow mode of movement versus a hasty one: “Slowness really is the opposite of haste.” We like hasty travel with a premium placed on speed, but “the illusion of speed is the belief that it saves time.” At first it seems sensible; motorized travel covers the same distance faster than walking. Time saved. Right? “But haste and speed accelerate time, which passes more quickly, and two hours of hurry shorten a day.”

What if we’re slower, though? “Slowness means cleaving perfectly to time . . . this stretching of time deepens space.” This is one of walking’s secrets:

a slow approach to landscapes that gradually renders them familiar. Like the regular encounters that deepen friendship. Thus a mountain skyline that stays with you all day, which you observe in different lights, defines and articulates itself.

When zipping along, “the eye is quick, active, it thinks it has understood everything and grasped it all.” Alternatively, when walking, “nothing really moves: it is rather that presence is slowly established in the body.” Further:

When we are walking, it isn’t so much that we are drawing nearer, more that the things out there become more and more insistent in our body. The landscape is a set of tastes, colours, scents which the body absorbs.

When it comes to walking or riding the golf course, my intuition is that when riding we can allow ourselves to get into far too hasty a mode. Haste makes us feel the weight and burden of time. We try to close distances as quickly as we can, anxious until our arrival. The walker, too, is trying to cover ground, but the way in which it is done is profoundly different from its motorized alternative. The walker through his very feet is tapped into the course, its contours, turns. At this pedestrian pace, the course reveals itself to him more gradually, allowing this experience to stretch itself out.

While much pace of play disputes focus on “clock-time”—see the stopwatches that emerge when it’s Bryson’s turn to play his next shot—it would do us well to also keep some attention on “interior time,” that is, how our personal dispositions and habits of mind, as well as our modes of movement, shape our experience of time spent playing the great game of golf.

 

Dr. MacKenzie Defends Beauty

In Golf Architecture, Alister MacKenzie raises the following topic: a “common erroneous idea is that beauty does not matter on a golf course.” This objection to the notion of the significance of the beautiful for one’s golf is predicated, says MacKenzie, on the idea that all that matters is good golfing conditions: a good test of one’s game, with this having little to no connection to one’s aesthetic encounter with the course.

Responding, MacKenzie states:

I haven’t the smallest hesitation in saying that beauty means a great deal on a golf course; even the man who emphatically states he does not care a hang for beauty is subconsciously influenced by his surroundings. . . . and there are few first-rate holes which are not at the same time, either in the grandeur of their undulations and hazards, or the character of their surroundings, beautiful holes.

The natural is MacKenzie’s model. His desire is to “conserve existing natural features,” and if there is need, “to create formations in the spirit of nature herself.” In effect, MacKenzie makes clear his attempt to provide for “a splendid test of golf” on his courses, though at the same time he strove “to achieve beauty.”

As Andy Johnson of “The Fried Egg” has it: MacKenzie “was able to seamlessly blend his design features into the natural beauty of his land sites while still providing a strong and interesting test for the scratch player and a fun and playable course for the average players.”

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MacKenzie acknowledges that “it may at first appear unreasonable that the question of aesthetics should enter into golf-course design.” Looking at the question more deeply, however, “it becomes clear that the great courses, and in detail all the famous holes and greens, are fascinating to the golfer by reason of their shape, their situation, and the character of their modeling.”

Quite importantly, he then comes to a fine summative point: “When these elements obey the fundamental laws of balance, of harmony, and fine proportion they give rise to what we call beauty.”

Often when conversations regarding beauty arise there is a tendency to eschew any claims to objective qualities of beauty. That, in effect, to describe something as beautiful is merely to describe one’s emotional response to the thing. As this thinking goes: the thing isn’t beautiful, my feeling is one I call the experience of beauty. We might call this a radically subjectivized take on aesthetic experience.

This doesn’t seem to have truck with what MacKenzie is saying, though. Of course, a golf course architect will have rather definite aesthetic opinions and positions. But MacKenzie goes beyond the particulars of course architecture and enters the more general realm of the philosophy of beauty. When he cites the qualities of balance, harmony, and proportion, he is trading in rather classical categories. He puts before the reader rather objective traits of a hole, or green, or course. In other words, MacKenzie seems to be suggesting that there has to be something about the course itself that would make us consider it beautiful. The course itself is beautiful. This doesn’t nullify the subjective aesthetic experience of the golfer, in fact it elicits it.

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I think Roger Scruton’s book Beauty can be of aid in tying matters together. In it, he says that in the experience of beauty we are not just describing something we see, “we are giving voice to an encounter, a meeting of subject and object, in which the response of the first is every bit as important as the qualities of the second.”

What MacKenzie is suggesting here is that this encounter is, in fact, quite essential for the golfer. Anyone that claims otherwise is simply deluded. And to rechannel the words of Scruton, this encounter occurs between the subject that is the golfer, and the object that is the golf course. This encounter of beauty suggests that we stand in relationship with the course, and this relationship is at times one marked by awe and wonder.

The topic of golf course aesthetics is a fascinating one in its own right, however, I think the game of golf provides for a particular angle of approach to the topic of aesthetics in general. It makes us consider the experience of beauty as it pertains to the objective nature of that which we consider beautiful, alongside our particular, very personal, experience of this thing we perceive.

There is so much more to be said on this topic. Let this short post be an entrée to further thought, substance and experience.

Friendly Matches: Three Types of Golf-Friendship

“The Match” airs today. For whatever it’s going to be, watching it will be better than not watching it. On display will be all sorts of things: showmanship, shot-making, ostentatious wagering, crude commercialism, and the culmination of horrible, forced Twitter trash-talk.

Nonetheless, somewhere near the core of this over-the-top spectacle is the relationship between Phil and Tiger. It’s well-documented how the rivals have become friendlier of late. As Tiger said not long ago: “Our friendship has gotten stronger over the years.” “The Match” will allow us to daydream about making six-figure side bets–if you’re even into that sort of thing–however, it might also give us an occasion to consider the game of golf and its particular ability to build and foster friendships.

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A little while back, I suggested that friendship is necessary for a flourishing life, following the lead of both experience and Aristotle. Today I’d like to look at three types of friendships as analyzed by that same philosopher. Considering golf, it must be said that the game gives rise to, shapes, and enriches friendships. By taking in this read, hopefully you’ll be able to figure out what kind of golf-friend you are and what types of golf-friends you have.

We have three categories of friendship, then: 1. those based on pleasure, 2. those based on utility or usefulness, and 3. those that are “complete friendship,” centered in goodness, virtue, and mutual concern. These are each shaped by a certain kind of love, the type of love present determining what kind of friendship is present. And the type of love is determined by what in fact is loved in the friendship.

As Aristotle says, those that love because of pleasure, love the witty friend not for the friend’s own sake, but because he makes one laugh. Those that love a friend for her usefulness don’t love the friend herself, but rather, the goods that come from the friendship. Aristotle says these friendships are “coincidental,” and are “easily dissolved,” since the friendship only persists as long as it coincides with either the pleasures or goods derived from the relationship.

The third type of friendship, on the other hand, is enduring since the friends therein love each other for the other’s sake, not primarily for any good derived from the friend. In these friendships, we “wish goods to each other for each other’s own sake.” Friendships such as these, those built amongst people of virtue, are lasting since virtue is lasting. In this we love the friend because of who he is, his good character, without qualification or condition. Further, these friendships involve a mutual concern and “reciprocated goodwill.”

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In reference to the two aforementioned incomplete species of friendship, Aristotle makes the point that this complete form actually possesses that which is good in the other, imperfect iterations. For, the good and virtuous friend that we love for his own sake will be pleasant to be around, since the good are pleasant in company. Additionally, since the friend will love us for our own sake, the friendship is sure to be useful and advantageous to us, though not in the mercenary manner found in friendships solely based on usefulness.

There is so much more to be said about friendship and the game of golf. Consider this an initial exercise in the making of distinctions. Such distinctions and the realities they highlight can help us, though, as we continue to enrich our golf friendships, or perhaps think of what kind of golf friend we already are, or hope to be. The nice thing is, though, with the game of golf as a shared activity, all our golf friendships stand to benefit from the particularities the game affords those who call each other “friend.”

*Based on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, Book VIII, Chapters 1-4.

Two Necessary Things: Golf and Friendship

If you’re putting together a short list of reasons people golf, friendship will most likely find a spot toward the top. From strangers meeting for the first time on the first tee, to the decades-long weekly match among old friends, the game of golf seems to have a particular proclivity toward the fostering of friendships. I’d like to devote a couple of posts to this facet of the game, and in doing so I’d like to call in the thought of Aristotle on the subject. Not a golfer himself—unless the history of golf goes back way further than we presently think!—he is certainly regarded as expert on the topic of friendship. By calling to mind this ancient Greek—once widely-known as the Philosopher—I think we can get to know the game of golf, and its fostering of friendships, all the better.

While I’ve argued before that golf is an activity good for its own sake, I think it is, of its own very nature, such an activity that allows itself to be a common pursuit of a collected number of people. Which is just a long-winded way of saying that golf is played in common. And having a common pursuit amongst them, golf’s players find a touchstone for their friendship. In time, I’d like to examine golf’s particularities vis-à-vis the facilitation of friendships, but for today I’d like to introduce some preliminary thoughts from Aristotle on the topic.

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For starters, it is commonly held that friendship is “most necessary for our life,” in fact, “no one would choose to live without friends even if he had all the other goods” (Nicomachean Ethics, Bk. VIII, Ch. 1). All walks of life are needful of it. The rich more so than others, for they need friends in order to show their generosity, they are also in need of friends for the protection of their wealth. The poor in their misfortune need friends, as people are of the opinion that these are “the only refuge.” The young need friends to guide them, and the old need friends in their weakness. Those in the prime of life need friends to magnify their ability “to do fine actions.”

Overarchingly, “friendship would seem to hold cities together,” this being even more central to political life than justice, since friendship already entails justice within itself. As Aristotle puts it: “if people are friends, they have no need of justice, but if they are just they need friendship in addition; and the justice that is most just seems to belong to friendship.”

So much for the necessity of friendship. I hope to return to this topic later this week, looking at the different types of friends Aristotle considers. At the very least I hope it can be seen that because of golf’s intimate relationship to friendship, and friendship’s essential place in a person’s life, that golf is not at all trivial, but might in fact hold some discoverable secrets regarding human flourishing.

In any event, just consider No Laying Up’s recent “Strapped” episode. Big Randy and Young Neil express quite a bit about golf, camaraderie and friendship:

The Golf Course Perilous

From the player’s perspective the course is both inviting and disturbing, offering not only fairways and greens, but hazards of various kinds, and therein lies its dual possibilities. . . . How to quite explain the fearful allure of a curving stream or cavernous bunkers, if not in an image? How to convincingly impress the uneasy narrowness of a fairway, the tempting painful possibility of close-felt trees or an out-of-bounds? The viewer, to see and feel these things, has to imagine himself playing the game, seeking life on the green, fearing disaster in the water or trap.

–Walter T. Schmid, Golf as Meaningful Play, 2

The game of golf and its habitat show us a curious combination of the natural world and the formation of human meaning. Not articulated with words, it is nonetheless shown if one views the game and its courses from a certain angle. The golf’s landscapes have shaped the way the game is both understood and played. Further, the dunelands of Scotland and its four-legged residents gave contours to the game’s origins and heritage. Conversely, the game has given its fields a particular kind of meaning understood only within its parameters. Only the game can imbue a bucolic pastoral setting with non-pragmatic causes of trepidation and caution. Babbling streams that are easily crossed with one stride become the occasion for a golfer’s indecision and fear. A bunker no bigger than a child’s backyard sandbox can cause a grown man to stiffen like a corpse. A tree one would marvel at on a hike can now become the object of a verbal stream of vitriol as it knocks down the almost-perfect escape shot. It is a beguiling part of golf that an aesthetically beautiful scene, when played, can become the occasion for those interior responses fit for the ugly and harrowing.

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Man v. Sand

The course is nature suffused and woven together with creative, playful human impulses, meaning and culture. But it’s not as if this human-instilled meaning is superficial; simply layered upon the surface of neutral earth. Like the game itself, its playing field—with its challenges, particularities and beauties—is the result of countless men and women concocting with their creativity, thoughts, emotions and playfulness something larger and broader than any one person, time, or place. Along with this has come the stitching together of communal meaning, purpose, taste and appreciation. In other words, tradition. This word tradition communicates something of the ongoing, organic transmission of the game, its development and heritage.

But there is something of an inner key one needs to unlock this vision of the golf course, namely, the player-perspective Schmid refers to above. It’s through one’s initiation, apprenticeship, and slow mastering of the game that the scene of the golf course becomes more intelligible, more clearly displaying of its meaning.

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One could say that a baseball or football field require such a player-perspective to make sense of them and their essence as well. And this is true. Yet, only the golf course is as expansive and all-encompassing of the various facets of the natural world. Grass in all its glorious forms, water, wind, sand, stone, it’s all there. Its scale is far grander than those other games. At the end of the day, the baseball and football field are grass and soil, which is not to take anything away from them. (The finely manicure diamond at Citizens Bank Park is a welcome sight.) What this comparison does, I think, is highlight the quixotic relationship between the golfer and the course.  It helps us see, just a little more clearly, something about the game and why we love it.

 

 

Flattened Golf: Updike on the Televised Game

Like many, I just spent a healthy portion of last week taking in the British Open via my laptop and television. Between the barrage of Rolex commercials and kitschy Mastercard ads—nothing speaks of the Old Country like a credit card slogan recited with a Scottish accent—there was an undeniably great golf tournament on display. As we know, the vast majority of people that witnessed the crowning of the Champion Golfer of the Year did so not at Carnoustie, but from their own couch. It is with this in the background, that I’d like to take a look at a John Updike essay titled, fittingly, “Television Golf.”

In it, Updike—who I consider a foremost fairway philosopher—writes of the experience of watching golf as a devoted but decidedly amateur player himself. As a couch-bound patron, Updike sees certain real benefits televised golf brings us. He also takes notice of the limitations of the medium.

First, the good. Updike points out that viewing a tournament on TV provides unmatched views of the action. He goes so far to say that no other sport’s spectators benefit more from the game being televised than golf’s. Instead of attending the competition in person where you might be, “scurrying from here and there among the ropes and marshals and straining for a peek over the heads of hundreds of other spectators,” the domestic golf-viewer, “sits at ease and sees shot after shot in close-up.” By the end of Sunday’s viewing:

one rises up from the sagging couch bloated with golf, dazed and bedazzled by the beauty of the game, the slickness of the greens, the smoothness of the swings . . . the lavishness of the purse, and the manicured glory of the eucalyptus trees, or Georgia pines, or royal palms, or whatever they were.

And yet, says Updike, something significant is absent from televised golf: “the third dimension is missing.” The scale and proportions of the game are lost, that is, the “serene space of it all.”

According to Updike, much of golf’s joy is being there where the golf is happening. It’s “the walks and waits between shots, the textures and smells of out-of-doors,” the feel of the place and that unique experience of time one gets from the game. Provocatively, Updike argues that televised golf does something similar to a “pornographic film,” it “reduces golf to a two-dimensional spectacle.” It contorts, reduces, and flattens something that is so much more:

In its tendency to show golf as a series of putts that go in the hole or not, television presents a complicated, pleasurable activity stripped of foreplay, feeling, and the vast terrestrial and atmospheric context.

Updike moves on to theorize that many of us watch golf on television with hopes of improving our own games. The pros share some common traits worthy of our esteem and emulation. Comfortingly, however, “television golf offers a reassuring variety of workable styles.” We might even wonder why some of the idiosyncratic swings on tour lead to such great effects, but we stand consoled by the variety of tempos and techniques, hopeful our own could be as effective someday.

But as Updike ruminates, in time we might wander from the golf to another station or even let ourselves doze off with a nap. And here is the key difference Updike highlights between the pro golfer playing on television, and the once-a-week golfer on his duff: “the men who excel at golf do not let their attentions wander.” He also diagnoses the non-professional golfer—clearly here thinking of himself in this mix—as having a “secret will to lose.” Sort of like self-sabotage. Yet, the pro never rebels “against repeating the same workable swing.” So it is that, “even when we switch them off, they keep on playing. And that is why they are inside the little box making millions, and we are on the outside making a deep dent in the davenport.”

Comments

macbook-2558216_1920I think Updike’s overall thrust rather provocative, and in some very real ways, insightful. I would say his critique of the very medium of television—and the way golf is covered through it—is illuminating. It does in fact present a flattened and less rich version of the actual happenings on the course. It can’t do otherwise. There have been improvements in coverage, I think though. These don’t surpass the inherent limitations of television as medium, but the use of the medium has improved.

In particular, I have to give credit here to Fox’s coverage of the recent U.S. Open. Especially when uninterrupted by commercials, I thought Fox let the tournament breath, documenting the deliberations of players and caddies. It also seemed to capture the scene of Shinnecock, communicating something of its beauty and scale. The added audio sensitivity did provide for the novel sound of the ball rattling around the cup, but this oddity was far outbalanced by the added access to the thoughts of players and caddies. (I also say this having been very put out by the way Fox covered its first Open at Chambers Bay—did you know Jason Day suffered from vertigo there?—let’s just say they’ve shown great improvement.)

Another nice development since Updike’s time is online coverage. I do like being able to follow a particular group, or small set of groups, around the course. It provides for a greater enmeshment into the experience. Now, of course it is not anywhere close to the experience of playing a course, or even following a group in person. But, given what it is, a televised event, improvements have been made to slightly soften Updike’s critiques.

Given all this though, I think his criticism does not in fact undermine the worth of televised golf. What it does, though, I think, is give us a better sense of what that worth in fact is, and why even though we enjoy watching golf on television, we still look for so much more from the game.

 

(Golf) Pilgrim’s Progress

In Tom Coyne’s new book, A Course Called Scotland, we join him on pilgrimage to the heart of the game through the home of the game. Coyne sets before the reader a story to satisfy the golfing soul. As Coyne ambles along the Scottish coastlines in search of the secret to the game of golf, the reader’s joy is in seeing how much more than that the author finds along the way.

Pilgrim

The pilgrim’s path is never just about the miles put underfoot or the terrain traversed. It’s never just about the sacred sites. The pilgrim is also never just about this one individual pilgrim. The pilgrim’s physical journey is a sign and catalyst for an interior one. The external and internal, though distinct, are inseparable. They challenge each other, give context to each other, enrich each other. The pilgrim’s path is a penitential one, the stripping away of all that proves to be an obstacle to authenticity, fullness, and joy. The pilgrim’s progress is not measured primarily in geographic spans, but by way of interior transformation.

The pilgrim is also a living symbol. An existential claim about the human condition. And the claim is this: we are often disoriented, adrift, strangers in a strange land. We are incomplete and so we desire, we long. We are restless. And we can either wallow in this condition, convincing ourselves it’s good enough or we can seek a remedy. Restless and lost, the pilgrim seeks the place that will still the heart’s longings. Where is the pilgrim trying to get? Further up and further in. Into the heart of things. To the source. The inn at the end of the world. (Because of its profundity, there can’t be any one image for this Thing.) It is the pilgrim that, as a condensed symbol, embodies this image of humanity’s lot.

In A Course Called Scotland Tom Coyne is this pilgrim.

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I am in agreement with Coyne, I abhor “golf-is-life aphorisms,” as he puts it. The bad bounce into the bunker as metaphor for life’s tough breaks. It can come off as so forced. But that’s not what this is. Golf like all rituals—for every game is a ritual—is a focusing lens. By fashioning games, we give ourselves venues within which we test ourselves, sift through ourselves, come to know the human condition a little better. Some of these focusing lenses are more refined and rich than others. Tic-tac-toe doesn’t stir the heart. Golf, however, inspires a romance.

Nothing less could compel Coyne to undertake a walk around a course called Ireland. Nor yet, a two-month sojourn in Scotland, as he does in this book. There is a very specific goal in mind on this quest: qualify for the Open Championship. This is what every step and swing is moving toward. As the book’s subtitle suggests, though, Coyne is even more so in search of the secret to the game of golf. And where to look but the game’s home? As Coyne puts it: “This was golf’s Mesopotamia, its Jerusalem, and its Cooperstown—either I found golf’s soul here, or I was a fool for looking.”

Soul

The choice of the word “soul” is an interesting one. It’s not an uncommon one when referring to the inner essence of the game. While evocative, it is a bit ambiguous. Here I think the older, Latin word for “soul” is of help: Anima. The soul is that which animates, vivifies, gives life to a particular living being. It gives the thing its identity and is that thing’s living principle.

So what is that which breathes life into golf? What animates it? It’s an odd, perplexing, mysterious conjuration, golf is. Like all games, golf is an artefact of human creativity. And even though countless groups and individuals have conspired with nature to shape this thing we call golf, I think the reality is that the soul of golf—that which animates it—is the soul of man.

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The funny thing, though, is that the game can shape, focus, and instigate us. Even though it consistently confounds us, the golfer has a sense that there’s something more to the game than putting the round thing in the other round thing in as few swipes as possible. The horizons of the course—especially those of the Scottish variety described by Coyne—beckon us beyond the everyday. The very scale of golf—so much grander than most other games—can, at times, open onto at least the possibility of the transcendent. The game itself points beyond its own contours. At times, it seems to hint at something more, though it itself can’t tell us what it is.

The secret golf whispers to us is our own. C. S. Lewis called this our “inconsolable secret.” Lewis describes this as the longing for that which is ultimate:

Even in your hobbies, has there not always been some secret attraction which the others are curiously ignorant of—something, not to be identified with, but always on the verge of breaking through, the smell of cut wood in the workshop or the clap-clap of water against the boat’s side? . . . something which you were born desiring, and which, beneath the flux of other desires and in all the momentary silences between the louder passions, night and day, year by year, from childhood to old age, you are looking for, watching for, listening for? You have never had it.

For the golfer, the game—the purely hit iron, the tee shot sent off into the seemingly limitless horizon, the late-Autumn round walked through the gold of sun and fallen leaves—seems to point to this more, though it itself is not the more. Again, Lewis:

The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing.

We try to satisfy this longing in so many ways. Success, credentials, sex, drink, busyness, you name it, we try to fill the void. Coyne’s narrative has a deep and moving channel through it recounting his allegiance to counterfeits, most especially booze and the possibilities it seems to hold within. Emerging from this, through some sort of redemption, Coyne puts forward a hopeful image of passing through onto a life marked by a greater wholeness, though not without its acute challenges.

Standing out as more satisfactory matches to the deep longings held within the human heart in Scotland are beauty and harmony. There is also a certain reverence, though the type that is immune to stuffiness. This all seems to be a hallmark of Coyne’s narrative. It’s there amidst the shorelines and newly-minted friendships. It’s there through the quaint towns and stunning coastal roads. It’s there on the beach in St. Andrews with his daughter:

Standing here in front of me was proof, four feet tall in yellow boots, that life was stuffed with the extraordinary. I thought I had to keep fighting and grinding to grab it, but it turned out that I just needed to notice.

It’s at the end of a day stuffed full of golf:

The rush of the day settled into a keen sense of presence, and I felt a full awareness of where I was and the lengths I had traversed and how astonishing life was and how large and beautiful this world could be and how I was going to golf the UK and it was going to be the experience of a lifetime. I felt so much gratitude.

It’s at Askernish. You’ll have to read that one for yourself. It’s worth the price of admission.

 Golf

And for all this, A Course Called Scotland is a golf book. Coyne’s enjoyable narration of his sometimes thrice-daily rounds is read with a twinge of envy every now and then. His ability to set the scene and give the reader a taste of a breathtaking landscape and what it’s like to golf your ball through such beauty is certainly on display.

And through it all, we get to see in Coyne the travails and triumphs a player endures and enjoys so long as the golfer has given something of himself to the game. We see into the various iterations of how someone approaches the game, but by the end of the book we get the sense that Coyne has arrived at that place we all know is the point of golf, though so many of us seldom get out of our own way to get there: joy.

For as good as A Course Called Ireland was, and it certainly was good, Scotland surpasses its predecessor. By turns hilarious and heartfelt, Coyne’s book is confidently vulnerable. Read it for yourself. In doing so you’ll get closer to the secret of golf, which we all know is about so much more.

Walking with Thoreau

To ride or walk? The question is often answered before it’s asked. Riding is the standard at many an American golf course. Yet for those that do walk, there is a certain appreciation for this practice that goes beyond wanting a little exercise. But the question of “why” still remains. Walk or ride, you’re playing the same game, inhabiting the same space, seeing the same things. Is there something to the manner in which you traverse 6,500 yards that makes a meaningful difference to your experience of a round of golf? And if so, then perhaps this is an indication that this phenomenon goes beyond the confines of the course to life as a whole.

I think there’s an intuition here about walking. It’s the job of the philosopher or thinker to explore and expound upon such intuitions. With this in mind, I’m interested in what others have said about walking, and it’s a topic I’d like to return to periodically on this site.

For starters, in this post I’m looking at a Henry David Thoreau essay titled “Walking” (1862). The essay has a few different threads. It has an overarching consideration of the human person in relation to nature and in relation to the whole of society. It comments on civilization, the beauties of the natural world, education and knowledge, history, and addresses a certain lethargy and dullness he sees in the lives of his contemporaries. In this, the dull is the tame. Thoreau wants the wild of the wood, not the cultivation of the city. There’s more to the essay than I’ll comment on here. This post basically tries to figure out if his thoughts on walking—which are always about more than walking—provide any insight into the game of golf and its play.

Knights of Sauntering

Thoreau wants to address the “art of Walking,” an art he finds so few practitioners of, so few have a “genius, so to speak, for SAUNTERING.” Thoreau fancies himself, then, a knight of a “new, or rather an old, order,” that of “Walkers, a still more ancient and honorable class.” He laments the craftsmen and shopkeepers sitting in their shops all day. Whereas for himself:

I think that I cannot preserve my health and spirits, unless I spend four hours a day at least—and it is commonly more than that—sauntering through the woods and over the hills and field, absolutely free from all worldly engagements.

Further, it’s not about “taking exercise . . . it is itself the enterprise and adventure of the day.” I’ve made a similar point previously regarding the game of golf. Its uselessness is something that recommends its worth: it isn’t used for some further end. It itself is the goal. Exercise and comradery and a respite from the demands of life, all of this is part of it, but these are not some other, further goals for which we undertake a round of golf.

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Thoreau: All about the 4-hour walk

In this essay, Thoreau stands unimpressed by the society he inhabits. It’s the wild and unruly not the cultivated and crafted he’s after. (He also comes off as rather impressed with himself, which is a bit off-putting.)  So much of his walking-sensibility is steeped in the experience of distancing oneself from society, which according to Thoreau dulls the sensibilities and renders one devoid of life. As he laments: “How little appreciation of the beauty of the land-scape there is among us!”

Thoreau’s ideal is the wild: “Life consists in wildness. The most alive is the wildest. Not yet subdued by man, its presence refreshes him.” Further, he claims “it is the uncivilized free and wild thinking in Hamlet and the Iliad, in all the scriptures and mythologies, not learned in the schools, that delights us.” His “hope and the future for me are not in lawns and cultivated fields, not in towns and cities, but in the impervious and quaking swamps.” And it is walking that brings Thoreau to this place.

But, Thoreau says, “I feel that with regard to Nature I live a sort of border life, on the confines of a world into which I make occasional and transient forays only.” But in crossing the border, “the walker in the familiar fields which stretch around my native town sometimes finds himself in another land.”

There’s much more to say for this essay, and quite a bit to critique. But that’s enough for a brief introduction.

Thoreau on the Fairways?

So what of golf? Would Thoreau see this as an arena of life where his thoughts on walking find a home? I doubt it. As a game, golf is the result of human creativity and culture. While it can be a solitary endeavor, the game is in essence a certain type of societal effort. It is the result of a collection of persons connected by something shared in common. The comradery and friendship, even competition, of golf all mark its essence. It’s no mistake that clubs arise for the game’s play, promotion and preservation. Further, its playing fields are cultivated and shaped by human imagination and effort. The golf course doesn’t maintain the untouched wildness for which Thoreau is so desirous. So even walking the course seems to fail to meet Thoreau’s ideal.

Thoreau might also take aim at the private club:

At present, in this vicinity, the best part of the land is not private property; the landscape is not owned, and the walker enjoys comparative freedom. But possibly the day will come when it will be partitioned off into so-called pleasure-grounds, in which a few will take a narrow and exclusive pleasure only.

As one that lives close to an underplayed private 9-hole course, I can sympathize a little with Thoreau here. I’m not against the private club at all, but I do like something of the Irish and Scottish practice of having even membership clubs open to public tee times regularly.

This might be overstating a theoretical opposition between Thoreau’s thought and the game of golf, though. Of all games, golf seems the result of discovery. The result of cooperation with the natural world and what it gives. The development of the game on the Scottish dunes is one of accepting the givenness of nature and playing along with it. Surely, it’s the case that a departure has been made from this earlier idyll. Many a course of today’s game is the result of extensive human effort and reshaping of the landscape, sometimes abusively so.

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Nonetheless it remains that unlike the artifice of the baseball or football field, the golfer is found amongst trees and sand and sea. While certainly in the midst of the result of human efforts, the golfer traverses the course facing what the natural world offers. Golf in a climate-controlled dome would be a travesty. When done well, a golf course and its maintaining can be an example of stewardship and caretaking. See Machrihanish Dunes. (Of course, this isn’t always the model and too heavy of a hand can be taken where the natural world is harmed by golf and its practitioners.) I also think there is a more satisfactory anthropology present in the image of humanity as caretaker—gardener—as part of, but also a cultivator and shaper of nature.

Further, the golf course is in some ways a liminal place. An in-between. It’s a departure from the workaday world and an entry into a different sort of existence. Walking emphasizes this and allows one to experience this more fully. While golf is not the wild and untamed of Thoreau it is an alternative to the demands of commerce and business and necessity. It can help the golfer escape the numbing and dulling noise of the modern world. As a game, it is a free activity that, if done with the proper disposition, can provide a respite and recreation. Perhaps walking when playing can help this as a manner of emphasis and experience, a greater way of being enmeshed in the course rather than romping over it on four wheels. The walker is also freer. Where there is a cart-path only sign, the walker goes where he wants.

While Thoreau himself most likely would not have extended his thinking on walking to the world of golf, I do think there is a potential for portions of his thought to be applied to the game as experienced by the walking player.

The Witty Golfer

I get upset over a bad shot just like anyone else. But it’s silly to let the game get to you. When I miss a shot I just think what a beautiful day it is. And what pure fresh air I’m breathing. Then I take a deep breath. I have to do that. That’s what gives me the strength to break the club —Bob Hope

It goes by a couple names: wittiness, ready-wit, mirthfulness. (I think mirthfulness is my favorite, though I’ll use them all interchangeably.) Falling under the cardinal virtue of temperance, mirthfulness is the ingrained habit of joking well, laughing well, seeing the world with a playful vision, and includes providing for others’ enjoyment and levity. This wittiness implies the ability to recognize those facets and aspects of human life that call for a jovial or joking response.

The golf course is certainly an arena of human life where this virtue makes its great worth known. Whether laughing at oneself or helping a gloomy playing partner along with a quick one-liner, recognizing the comic element—maybe even the cheerful element—of the game is of great value.

In the next couple of paragraphs, I’ll draw on the thoughts of Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas regarding this virtue. My hope is that by looking to an ancient and medieval author, we moderns might more fully grasp what this great character trait is, how we might live it out more fully, and how it contributes to our pursuit of human flourishing.

Starting from a rather obvious point of departure, Aquinas argues that it is against reason for a person to be “burdensome to others”[i]. When it comes to the activity of conversation and communication, it is the bore, characteristically, that fits this description. The type of burden the bore places on others is either an inability to “offer pleasure to others,” or the “hindering [of] their enjoyment.” The person without mirth, according to Aquinas, is one that not only lacks “playful speech,” thereby not positively contributing to whatever social interaction is at hand, but one that is also taxing on others as they are “deaf” to others’ wit and amusement, thereby spurning the enjoyable offer of levity from others.

In the section of the Nicomachean Ethics dealing with the witty, Aristotle begins by acknowledging that rest is a part of life, part of this rest being “leisure and amusement”[ii]. When at this leisure and amusement, Aristotle considers there to be a fitting “kind of intercourse which is tasteful,” that is, saying and listening to what one should and how one should. The conversation and interaction that Aristotle holds up for admiration is the ability to “joke in a tasteful way,” and he considers those that can do so “ready-witted.” An aspect of this ready-wittedness, according to Aristotle, is a person’s conversational agility.

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Plato and Aristotle walk the fairway

Present with the mirthful character is tact. The tactful person differs from the buffoon as regards how they joke and what they joke about. Illustrating his point, Aristotle compares what he labels the “old and new comedies.”  He states that the old comedies “found their fun in obscenity,” while the new comedies turned to innuendo, with the difference between the two styles being of “no small degree in respect of propriety.”

I think another angle on this is that the truly witty person’s humor is agile, subtle, and has a certain intelligence and timing to it. Bob Hope’s joke above is a perfect example. The buffoon’s is a blunt instrument, the bore’s is non-existent.

The mirthful person, the person that jokes well, is not simply marked out by what sorts of jokes he will laugh at or make. This person will also illustrate his possession of the virtue exactly in what he will not laugh at, or by the types of jokes he will not make.

Aristotle’s exposition of this virtue forwards the ideal that when it comes to joking, the virtuous person, therefore, “will be . . . a law to himself.” Further, there is a certain versatility to the virtue, in that the way one jokes amongst friends will differ from how one jokes with children or how one will joke with grandparents, for instance.

In having taken a very quick and partial account of Aristotle and Aquinas’s take on the virtue of wittiness, it can be seen that a distinctive quality of this virtue is its concern for others. Namely, the humor employed by the mirthful is concerned with the enjoyment of others, and not only their enjoyment but the avoidance of their being offended or abused by such humor as well.

Like all virtues, they are best understood when embodied in particular men and women. In a certain way, you know it when you see it. And in seeing, a person can better emulate the admirable traits in others to the point that they become one’s own. Of course the line between wittiness and buffoonery can be blurry in places at certain times, but to be too concerned with this doesn’t seem to be in the spirit of the virtue.

So does this matter for golf? I’d say most certainly, yes. It matters for the overall enjoyment of a round, not just for oneself but for the whole group. It even matters for one’s play. We all know the dour effects of being overly-serious, or overly-dejected at a bad shot or bounce, or lip out, or flyer out of the rough . . . the list could continue. The worth of being able to lift yourself or a buddy out of golfer’s gloom can’t be underestimated. And not only that, wittiness or mirthfulness can only help us delight in the game more fully. And isn’t that what we’re after?

[i] Aquinas quotes taken from: ST, II, q. 168, a. 4, trans. English Dominican Province.

[ii]Aristotle quotes taken from: Nicomachean Ethics, Book IV, in Introduction to Aristotle, edited by Richard McKeon (New York: Random House, 1947), 394.

Fairway Philosopher: Tom Coyne (Part II)

Earlier this week, I started to comment on the recent work of Tom Coyne in this past year’s pages of the Golfer’s Journal. In short, I see two overarching effects of the four essays I’m considering: 1. a purification of our golf vocabulary, and 2. a reframing of our vision of the game. I put forward a couple words on no. 1 in the earlier post, and today I’d like to focus briefly on no. 2, that is, how Coyne is helping frame—maybe reframe?—the game of golf. What’s interesting here is that this vision is temporally comprehensive: it is attuned to the present state of the game, in touch with the richness of its heritage, and envisioning of what the game might be in the not too distant future.

This can be seen in three distinct essays, which when woven together provide a rich tapestry of what golf is, has been, and could be. In part, within these essays, Coyne addresses the following:

Prejudice and Push-carts

I admit it. To me it had been either carry your own, have a caddy—which I, myself, never did—or ride a cart. The pullcart was for the dufferingest of duffers. It’s an unjust prejudice, and I’m happy to say I’ve been disabused of it. In the Golfer’s Journal no. 1, Coyne’s essay, “The Push and Pull,” addresses the place of the pullcart in golf. To cut to the quick, Coyne highlights that at some of the best courses in Ireland and Scotland pullcarts—now often of the pushing variety—are ubiquitous. A succinct lampooning of the present American disposition against the man-powered club-carriage, that is. Further, Coyne does well to highlight the economic concern at play here. Were more golfers to forgo the driving cart, courses’ revenue would dip, perhaps jeopardizing the sustainability of courses where members demand “budget-busting, manicured perfection in their courses.” Perhaps, Coyne airs the question, “we could tolerate layouts that felt a little more natural . . . and if we didn’t demand castles for clubhouses . . . the cost of golf might come to resemble that of an actual game.” So much to say, were costs for course care to rescind, so might the addiction to the gas/electric cart. Further, this all gets into the walking vs. riding debate. One’s participation in, and relation to, the course is questioned here. Anecdotally, I only ever hear people comment on the greater sense of enmeshment into the game when walking. And beyond the game, a heightened sensitivity to the natural environs one inhabits on the course is, at least to me, noticeable when walking. Were the pushcart to greater facilitate this experience, then good on it and those that choose to utilize it.

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Endangered Species? Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Six Threes or a Dozen?

In the visually-impressive essay “Accidental Revelation,” found in the Golfer’s Journal no. 3, Coyne draws the reader’s attention to Shiskine Golf and Tennis Club, found off the west coast of Scotland on the Isle of Arran. There’s really a lot done in this essay, I’ll only comment on a bit of it.

Almost by happenstance, Coyne fortuitously happened upon this course, which, all-tolled, topped out at 12 holes. Placing this local quirk in a broader context, Coyne remarks, “eighteen holes and golf are linked like 12 eggs and a carton, like three balls and a sleeve, but the 18-hole standard is a relatively young convention in golf.” The essay then goes on a historical sweep through the variants of golf hole totals, showing along the way how St. Andrews eventually settled on the now-standard 18, and the substantial impact this has made on the game. When considering the historical span of the game, the 18-hole standard is a recent determination, in fact it “does not show up in some rule books until as late as 1950.”

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Photo Credit: Golf Advisor 

The question remains, though, what might all this have to do with the game of the present and near future? Coyne identifies the following problems, that for many, “golf, for our increasingly consumed and distracted modern world, is pricey, slow and hard.” Of course, we know of the present push for playing 9, yet Coyne opines: “I will confess that a nine-hole custom is not the panacea I wish for golf.” Something feels a bit unfinished about 9. 12 though? Coyne relates, “as we finished Shiskine, I felt a unique sensation come over me: I felt done.” And with time in the day to spare. Perhaps then the 12-holer would alleviate the triad of challenges to the game at present. 12 holes takes less time. With less course to care for, green fees might drop. Golf will—and always should—remain difficult, but for the beginner to not have to endure six more holes of bunkers, double bogeys and bungled putts, there might be less motivation for giving up the game.

Purposefully Harmonious

“His sideburns stretched to the corners of his mouth, and he wore a heavy kilt of green and black.” That’s quite an opening sentence for Coyne’s essay, “Proof in the Purpose,” found in the Golfer’s Journal no. 4. This one’s a lyrical though very tangible story of a golf course—its conception, creation, and continued excellence—as both harmonized with and enriching of its land and people. Scotland’s Machrihanish Dunes is set upon protected and fragile land. Getting approval for its building took years of patience and persuasion. The restrictions placed upon architect David McLay Kidd and his team rendered many a modern method of building and caring for a course off-limits. But the limits aided vision and clarity of purpose. The land too, now, was enlisted in the endeavor, it in a sense responding to some hidden vocation. Coyne here has woven together a narrative as rich and colorful as the fantastic images and layout of the essay. It’s worth a full read. It’s a written image depicting a course not imposed but discovered. Here are a few excerpts to convey the general ethos of the piece and place: “It was a new way, a fresh path forward; it was a sort of clemency for those of us who wanted to play past the fences. Done right, it was OK to want to golf through geography that scientists deemed off-limits. They proved it in Machrihanish, and the proof was in the purpose.” By way of closing, here is a poetic final impression from Coyne regarding placing the care of the land—its flora and fauna—over the whims of visiting golfers: “And we felt this joyful rearrangement of priorities in Machrihanish as we played; it was the thrill of golfing genuine landscape, and a reminder that only on ground not bent to please our preconceptions did we find golf to please our souls.”

All in all, we have here a set of enriching provocations. How and why we approach, understand and play the game are worthy of our consideration. This consideration is only made richer and fuller by the work of Tom Coyne. I’m looking forward to taking in his new book, A Course Called Scotland; a review of which is forthcoming on this site. Until then, check out his, and many others’, work in the Golfer’s Journal.

Fairway Philosopher: Tom Coyne

I’ve been a fan of Tom Coyne’s golf writing since I came across his A Course Called Ireland at a used book sale and subsequently journeyed through his peripatetic sojourn at a quick pace. Recently, his work for the Golfer’s Journal has been rather rich, and I’d like to devote two posts to what I think he has done this past year between the covers of that admirable quarterly. In short, I think he’s done two things: 1. Tried to purify our language, 2. Attempted to reframe our vision of the game. I’m not saying Coyne would endorse either summation, it’s just what I think I see going on.

As for no. 1, purifying our language, Coyne takes issue with a too loose use of the word “links.” In the Golfer’s Journal No. 2, Coyne’s essay titled, “Sacred Sand,” invites the reader to reconsider how we use this word, one that is often employed as a commonplace, referring to almost any and all golf courses. By doing so that which makes a true links course just that is obscured, and distinctions are lost. The loss of distinctions renders us less able to speak fluently about the multiform species of courses a golfer might meet and inhabit through a lifetime.

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Lahinch Golf Club

Coyne’s essay is both serious and playful, certainly not stuffy schoolmarm-ish vocabulary knit-picking. For Coyne, this makes for a true links course:

  1. It’s set upon ocean-side duneland: “Take a healthy slab of dark turf for your divot and you are not playing a links, where your divot should explode in the breeze as proper sandy poof. Gorse, humps and treeless vistas are all secondary indicators; the defining characteristic of a links is as simple as sand.”
  2. The formation of the course, its “kinks and ripples,” “are the stuff of primordial providence.” Coyne here gets poetically Platonic: playing a links, golfers play “their way across a landscape not built, but discovered.”
  3. For Coyne himself, there are also the factors of place and time to consider: “for me, a genuine links lives in the British Isles and predates the use of diesel in course design.”

The distinction now preserved, the distinctiveness of a links course can be more acutely appreciated and felt. Now the richness of the links emerges all the more clearly. And there is much to remark upon here, from geology to history to the playing experience, to the pints and soup and “droll caddies braving monsoons in brown sweaters.” The “irascible weather,” the seaside breeze, and the providential conspiring between man and nature. I can’t capture Coyne’s romp through the particular glories of a links course, nor will I try. I suggest you check out the essay for yourself: You can buy the issue here, it’s well worth it.

I’ll follow up with part two later this week.

Image Credit: By Tim Murphy, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=13165674

Is Golf a “Spiritual” Game?: Quid Est No. 1

Quid Est? (What is it?)

A series focused on the varied definitions of golf.

Rationale: Every week, I’m hoping to put up a new, brief post in a series titled Quid Est, meaning: What is it? A question meant to direct us toward the essence of the game of golf, or some aspect of it. Some definitions are likely better than others, some more accurate or rich than others. Here we can sift through them, gauging their relative perceptiveness or lack thereof.

No. 1: Golf as a spiritual, no, physical game

People say to me that golf is a spiritual game. I don’t believe I understand how that word applies to golf. According to my dictionary, the first meaning of spiritual is “Of the spirit or the soul as distinguished from the body.”

It is true that golf is a game in which you seem to get in touch with higher parts of yourself. We can say golf is spiritual in that respect. But we can’t leave the body out of the golf swing, can we?

—Harvey Penick, And If You Play Golf, You’re My Friend, 45

Penick’s meditation here on the nature of the game is short, but rich. Is golf a spiritual game? Many would say, yes, of course it is. But Penick does us a service by clarifying to a degree the meaning of this designation. Certainly, it can’t mean, as he insinuates, something unrelated to the body. Golf is clearly an embodied activity. It is suffused with the reality and implications of our embodiment. From our personal activity, our swing, our being with others, to the very environs of the golf course we might inhabit for a stretch of time and how this affects us, the whole thing is an incarnated reality. It has to do with the flesh.

And yet—and this is what I think Penick is trying to get at—the game, as he says, helps you “get in touch with the higher parts of yourself.” It seems that these “higher parts” are that which people are referring to when they call golf a spiritual game. What can we call these “higher parts”? The intellect, the soul, the heart, one’s character? Probably all of these things, depending on our meaning and understanding of them. Those things that can be enriched, elevated, actualized, or, conversely, impoverished, deadened, and corrupted. That of us that is of ultimate weight.

Just how the game enables us to attend to these realities should be the topic for another post. It’s a big question. But, really, the question of how golf might be, and is, a spiritual yet embodied game is a question that ultimately regards the nature of the human person. And it’s an age-old consideration at that. Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Descartes, Nietzsche, Merleau-Ponty, even Penick, to name only a few, have grappled with the tension—or harmony?—within us as embodied persons that seem also to have something about us that goes “beyond” the body, though something that is intimately, perhaps essentially, united to that body.

Thoughts?

Golf is Useless, Part II

In Part 1, I tried to briefly argue that the charge that golf is useless is in fact not an indictment, but a badge of honor. Golf, like so many other games, is good to do for its own sake. It needs no further justification and should resist coy attempts at instrumentalizing the game for some further, perhaps less noble, ends.

As will be my wont on this site, I turn next to the sage of the fairway (and bunker), John Updike. He was once in the presence of a young woman who informed him that life was too short “for crossword puzzles and for golf.” His ruminations are characteristically worth attention:

The nature of humankind must be considered before we decide what life is too short for. Is it too short for sex, for instance, or is sex its business? Men and women need to play, and it is a misused life that has no play scheduled into it. Crossword puzzles, even, have a fit place in some psychological budgets. With them, as with golf, we set ourselves to solve a puzzle nature has not posed. Nothing in natural selection demands that we learn how to beat a small ball into a hole with a minimum number of strokes.

Clearly, here, Updike sees the lack of necessity of golf as something that attests to its worth, not a detraction from it. This is not to say that it does not benefit us, though:

The great green spaces of a golf course remember the landscape in which the human animal found his soul. Certainly the site of our favorite fairway wandering toward the horizon is a balm to the eyes and a boon to the spirit. Our mazy progress through the eighteen is a trek such as prehistoric man could understand, and the fact that the trek is fatiguingly long constitutes part of its primitive rightness.

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Photo by Xin zheng on Pexels.com

Further, “a more reasonable length—twelve holes, say—wouldn’t have the resonance, the religious sense of ordeal. It is of the essence that a game of golf can’t be quickly over and done with; it must be a journey.”

Updike ends his meditation thus:

As soon say life is too short for sleep as say it is too short for golf. As with dreaming, we enter another realm, and emerge refreshed. Golf turns life inside-out; it rests the overused parts of ourselves, and tests some neglected aspects—the distance-gauging eye, the obscure rhythmic connection between feet and hands. For the hours and days it has taken from me, golf has given me back another self, my golfing self, who faithfully awaits for me on the first tee when I put aside the personalities of bread-winner and lover, father and son. Golf lengthens life, I should have told that young lady.

To reiterate in a way, I don’t think Updike sees golf as just some discardable way toward further ends. Rather, it is golf as a whole—certainly made up of various aspects, though nonetheless a whole—that within its world shapes and facilitates those phenomena that Updike so eloquently articulates.

So, golf is not solely useful, is not some tool. It is, alternatively, a sub-world to inhabit, and within it we find a version of ourselves. Within it we hopefully find those very selves bettered.

Golf is Useless (and Why That’s a Good Thing): Part 1

“Golf is the most useless outdoor game ever devised to waste the time and try the spirit of man.”

—Westbrook Pegler

“The best thing in us as precisely useless . . . things we enjoy doing for their own sakes.”

—James V. Schall

 

The question is more an accusatory jab than anything: “What is the point of golf? Nothing more than the most futile of exercises. Old men with stupid sticks smacking a small white ball toward a little flag-marked hole plugged in a big park. It all seems so very useless.” This sentiment and conclusion can be seen in the Westbrook Pegler quote above. Within it is the sense that golf is just a wasteful trial of no discernible worth.

Rushing to golf’s defense, a certain temptation emerges for the game’s defenders to marshal evidence that runs contrary to this accusation. Arguments made for the usefulness of golf. Surely—so it runs—you realize the value of fresh air, recreation, a long stretch of the legs, concerted concentration, not to mention the camaraderie. And, it must be admitted, there is something to all of is. I want to suggest, however, that the best apologia on golf’s behalf in the face of the accusation of uselessness is to admit the very charge and agree that the game, ultimately, is useless. And here’s the rub: that’s a good thing.

Certainly, golf is intimately related to, partially composed of, and inclusive of things like friendship, fresh air, exercise, gamesmanship, athleticism, aesthetics, recreation and, maybe for a rarified few, putting some cash in the pocket. I would like to argue, though, that golf is not, or should not be, only some interchangeable instrumental means used to achieve those further goals. In fact, it is the game in its wholeness that gives all those other goods their particular shape. They all take on a certain golfiness, to coin a terrible turn of the tongue. At its heart, golf shouldn’t be seen as just some means used to achieve some further ends. These ends are to be found within its overarching form.

The best and most noble things in our lives are the most useless. They don’t need to serve some further purpose. The hammer is useful, but only useful. The stroll with your wife is—even if in part for exercise and fresh air and getting out of the house—good for its own sake. Gazing at a beautiful painting or reading a poem or coloring with your kids, these are all good just for their own sakes. They aren’t done because they are useful for achieving some yet other purpose. By this all I mean is that there are some things we do that don’t need more of a justification than something like, “because I love it,” or “because it is beautiful.” Surely there are further ramifications of such actions, but, and here’s the key, the actions aren’t really done for these further ends.

Golf like all such things is done freely. I don’t need another reason, some further goal, some use of golf. It is done just for its own sake. To say that golf builds friendships, provides for some exercise and time in the great outdoors does nothing to negate this, it only describes in greater detail some aspects of the essence of the game and why people love it. For, again, all these constitutive components are given a particularly golf-y shape within the contours of the game. Here the game can be seen as a shared world for its inhabitants to enjoy such facets.

A follow-up Part II will appear on Wednesday. 

Updike on this Thing

An Updikean Addendum

I’d like to follow up an earlier post on happiness by looking at a portion of John Updike’s Golf Dreams. In this compilation is an excerpt from his novel Rabbit, Run. In it, the main character Rabbit is playing a round of golf with Episcopalian minister Jack Eccles. Eccles pesters Rabbit as to why Rabbit has recently left his wife. In the midst of this tension-filled scene Rabbit declares defiantly, “I told ja. There was this thing that wasn’t there.” Unsatisfied, Eccles interrogates his playing partner about this thing. What follows is worth quoting at length:

[Rabbit’s] heart is hushed, held in mid-beat, by anger. He doesn’t care about anything except getting out of this tangle. He wants it to rain. In avoiding looking at Eccles he looks at the ball, which sits high on the tee and already seems free of the ground. Very simply he brings the clubhead around his shoulder into it. The sound has a hollowness, a singleness he hasn’t heard before. His arms force his head up and his ball is hung way out, lunarly pale against the beautiful black blue of storm clouds. . . . It recedes along a line straight as a ruler-edge. Stricken; sphere, star, speck. It hesitates, and Rabbit thinks it will die, be he’s fooled, for the ball makes its hesitation the ground of a final leap: with a kind of visible sob takes a last bite of space before vanishing in a falling. “That’s it!” he cries and, turning to Eccles with a grin of aggrandizement, repeats, “That’s it.”

Here I think can be seen a certain satisfaction in having done well. A particular contemplative contentment. The moment is full, more than the sum of its parts. Therein can be found a harmonization and flowing freedom in realizing the sought-after goal. Which is to say, this all sounds rather Aristotelian. And perhaps this thing found in a purely hit tee shot is a condensed indication of a broader and richer phenomena.

Get Updike’s edited volume, Golf Dreams, it’s well worth it:

Happiness, Putter in Hand

“Happiness is a long walk with a putter.” –Greg Norman

“Happiness.” A word victimized by the banalities of greeting card companies, Pinterest, saccharine-sounding platitudes, and shallow cinematic treatment. And yet the word cannot be done away with. Nor should it.

But articulating its meaning, its essence, is a difficult task. Some would have it that the word “happiness” can be defined differently for each individual person. And of course the word allows for subjectivized colorings and shadings. But, if the word means whatever anyone wants it to mean, then it might as well be done away with, for it would have lost its communal meaning. A word without some sort of common, shared understanding is a solipsistic throw-away.

How to proceed, though? Even the philosophers can’t seem to agree. Gather Aristotle, Immanuel Kant, and John Stuart Mill around the table and they’ll all give you something else at odds with the other two.

Drawing from the world of golf, though, we can look to Greg Norman’s well-worn quote: “Happiness is a long walk with a putter.” No matter what the hole, course, or handicap, I think every golfer can attest to the joy of sticking a long approach on the green, this joy attended by its own sort of relief and contentment. No need to worry about some chip, flop, or bunker shot. All you have to do is stride along putter in hand, gathering a deep breath and soaking in the scenery.

So what the Shark was saying isn’t much different than the Philosopher.

And I really do think there is something in Norman’s words that is illuminating of the nature and essence of happiness, understood in a certain way. For here is the acknowledgement of happiness as being elicited, and in no way separable from, the realization and achievement of some activity’s goal.

Further, the long walk entails a noticeable period of enjoyment of that goal’s realization, the ability to relish in having done well. Of course, a three putt could dash one’s subjective interior state, but this need not take away the joy of a well-executed approach.

And this does, in fact, call to mind one of the aforementioned philosophers—the one formerly known as the Philosopher—Aristotle.

Now, as Aristotle notes, there is a such-and-such and a good such-and-such. We call “good” the one that realizes the end or ends of a particular activity. For the archer, it’s hitting the target. For the ship-maker it’s the well-made ship. For the human being, says Aristotle, there is one end or goal beyond and behind all other human activity. And to spoil the long chain of questions one could entertain to arrive at this good, it is the satisfaction in having lived well. Having lived virtuously so as to flourish in one’s life. And this we can call happiness.

So what the Shark was saying isn’t much different than the Philosopher.