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.

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:

(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.

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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.

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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.

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.

green grass field
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.