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.