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.

Welcome to Fairway Philosophy

In the 4th century, the early Christian thinker Tertullian asked, derisively, “What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem?” This rhetorical query seems intended to distance philosophy—Athens—and theology or divine revelation—Jerusalem. Yet much of the Christian tradition has answered contrary to Tertullian. Athens and Jerusalem do have much to say to each other.

Now to the point at hand. To ask the question: “What does Athens have to do with St. Andrew’s?” What of philosophy and golf? (Athens—philosophy—and St. Andrews—used as a symbol for all of golf, inclusive of courses from Merion to your local Muni.) Do they enjoy any convergence? The short answer is to say: Yes, most certainly. As philosophy is oriented toward and concerned with the totality of reality as such, then, yes, philosophy can be concerned with golf and its attending realities.

“What does Athens have to do with St. Andrew’s?” What of philosophy and golf?

The topics, ideas, and realities to focus upon are many. As a sampling of seminal questions:

  • What does the game of golf suggest about the human person as such?
  • Does the game help us see something about our nature as embodied and intellectual beings?
  • What does it say of us that we fashion games? That is, what is a philosophy of play?
  • What can golf show us about friendship, and man as a social animal?
  • What is the relationship between humanity and nature?
  • What does golf show us about our aesthetic sensibilities?
  • What can golf suggest regarding leisure and work?
  • What is the relationship between friendship, competition, and humor?
  • Can playing golf help us understand time a little better?
  • Can golf be seen as a particular epistemological access point that gives a unique image of the person and the world?
  • What does golf suggest about character, virtue, vice, happiness?
  • Is there a philosophy of walking (yes)? And if so, does it impact golf (probably)?

So this is a golf site devoted to meaning, not mechanics. For both philosophy and golf I am an amateur in its present and more original meaning: a lover of some endeavor; and someone who endeavors to become better at both. Philosophy as the love and pursuit of wisdom; golf a game I and countless others do in fact love. This site is an endeavor in getting to know both golf and philosophy better, which, it is hoped, helps give a clearer and better image of the human person and the person’s place in the cosmos.

The goal of this site is to publish readable pieces. Readable in both accessibility and length (ballpark 400-800 words). I invite potential contributors to consider enriching the exploration to which this site is committed. You can reach me at athensstandrews@gmail.com to send along your ideas.