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.

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 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.

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. 

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.