Like many American sports fans, I used to be vehemently anti-golf. I dismissed it as boring, pointless, and unimpressive. I would hate when my grandpa would come over on Sundays because I knew the family room TV would be taken over by a broadcast of men in bright shirts swinging a stick while other men who used to wear bright shirts and swing sticks would whisper about them. Basically, this was the only golf-related thing I ever enjoyed.
However, my stance on golf has almost completely shifted over the past five years or so, and I would now consider myself to be somewhere in the range of “person who only watches Tiger Woods” and “enthusiastic casual fan.” Not bad right?
Although I started to appreciate golf more after trying (and failing) to play it, my enjoyment of the game didn’t really reach its apex until I went to the 2011 British Open at Royal St. George’s. In what was probably the non-soberest six weeks of my life, I was studying abroad in London at the time, and three of my friends who I’d met on my trip brought up the idea of heading to the tourney since it was only a train ride away. Knowing I’d be able to brag about having gone to the British to any male between 25-60 even if I didn’t care about golf, I decided to tag along, which turned out to be one of the best sports decisions of my life.
Our foursome (that’s some golf lingo for all you GREEN-horns out there…nope? Too much?) hopped on the train Friday morning and headed to Sandwich (Which is the name of a town. Ridiculous) for our first day of The Open on an absolutely beautiful day. Despite a monster post-clubbing hangover, I enjoyed every second of it, catching naps between tee shots and quaffing down fish and chips for the 93rd time of my trip.
That night, we headed to the nearby town of Margate, chatting with a friendly group of gentlemen on the train. “Margate,” they muttered nervously. “Why are you guys headed there?” They looked as if we had just told them we were prostitutes, so we quickly explained that that’s where our hostel was. “Welp,” they chuckled, “don’t go out after dark!”
Margate was terrifying. Imagine a decrepit Jersey Shore boardwalk if it had been dressed up for a horror movie shoot. The entire town was abandoned arcade buildings and seedy strip clubs. So, we did what any reasonable college-aged Americans would do in a place like that and got pizza, fried chicken, and booz, and carried each other to our hostel the minute before it closed. We took turns showering in the airplane-sized bathroom, and when I got out, I realized that I hadn’t packed a towel (or toothbrush, or contacts, or a jacket), so I dried myself off with my shirt from that day.
The next morning, we woke up to pouring rain and whipping winds. Grabbing 2-liter bottles of hard cider and a pack of crackers to split for the train ride, we headed back the Saturday round of the Open. In case you didn’t read the parenthetical in the previous paragraph, allow me to reiterate that I DIDN’T HAVE A JACKET. It was like, 40 degrees in monsoon conditions, and I was wearing a button down shirt with khakis. Hell, I wasn’t even wearing socks. Of course my friends had freakin’ arctic gear like they were extras in Vertical Limit or something, so instead of being a spoiler for the group I decided to go for my only possible option: drink as much high-alcohol-content-beer-with-a-name-I’ve-never-heard-of until I don’t feel cold anymore. And it kind of worked. Here are the highlights from the day.
- As my friends and I approached one of the greens, one of the British spectators noticed my pathetic clothing, got my attention and said, “You’re a f***in’ moron.” I raised my beer and recited the “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” in my head.
- Phil Mickelson gave us a goofy thumbs up when we yelled “Sweet pants Phil!” as he was walking down the fairway. His pants were pinstriped, what were we supposed to do?
- My buddy Tim got Dustin Johnson’s autograph.
- When Rory McIlroy stepped into the tee box on the 10th, he glanced at me shivering uncontrollably with a beer in either hand, laughed and said, “The f*** you doin’, man?”
- I got to see Angel Jimenez smoke a cigar on the practice green.
- My buddy Steve, who lives in Minnesota is a big Steve Stricker fan (probably because he’s also a guy named Steve from Minnesota). So, when Stricker approached one of the tee boxes, Steve yelled, “HEY STRICK, GO GOPHERS!!!” We didn’t get much reaction from Stricker but his caddy held up his driver, which had a Minnesota gopher cover, and pointed at it, smiling. Stricker shanked the hell out of the tee shot.
- I ate fish and chips for the 94th time of my trip.
Despite my borderline hypothermia, I still had an absolutely spectacular time, and not only did I get to enjoy myself, I was part of sports history. How many times will anyone ever be able to go to Sandwich for The Open Championship? A handful? And you know what else? I had this much fun, and Tiger Woods wasn’t even there.
I get that my British Open story might not be that convincing. The enjoyment was more about the experience and less about the golf, so why would anyone else care? “I certainly still wouldn’t watch on TV,” people might say. Fair. Allow me to continue my argument then.
On the surface, golf on TV can be very boring, but to the trained eye it becomes something nuanced, meaningful, and extremely entertaining. Lets get specific.
Every Single Golf Shot is Meaningful
In golf, every single shot you take is the most important one of the tournament. One bad shot could completely derail your entire chance of winning, and this is completely unique to golf. Think about it; if you airball a shot in basketball, so what? Ultimately, it’s not any different from hitting the rim. In baseball, if a pitch goes past the catcher, the worst case scenario is the runner advancing. Furthermore, in basketball or baseball you don’t then have to shoot from where your ball ended up. But in golf, if you hit one shot in the woods, it may take you four to get out, so the pressure not to screw up is immense. Imagine punting out of your end zone 250-300 times in four days. That’s golf.
The One-Up Factor is Great
One of the most entertaining and powerful moments in golf is when the two players in the final-pairing go down to the wire. Basically it becomes a game of “can you top this?” Two golfers going head to head, trying to balance caution and aggression as they march through the course with everything on the line, is perhaps the most powerful dynamic in sports. It’s like college football overtime on steroids. Imagine this, but instead of playing for a big mac, both players’ legacies, futures in the sport, and a multi-million dollar payday were on the line.
The Amount of Unpredictability
Perhaps the craziest thing about golf is that no matter how skilled you are, no matter how consistent your swing might be, you really have no control over what happens. Here’s a hypothetical: two basketball teams are in a playoff series. The first game is normal. In the second game, the baskets move to a different location on the court, and the playing surface is now wet. In the second game, the hoops move again, and now you have to shoot in 20 mile-an-hour wind. For game four, the hoops move, and then the conditions get so bad that in the middle of the game you have to stop and reconvene the next day. However, some of your players aren’t playing anymore because they already played enough, so now the game might just be 3-on-3. Insanity, right? Not for golfers.
Even without that sort of scenario, just think about how you’re at the mercy of a rolling ball every time you shoot. How many times have we seen a golfer make an unbelievable shot that comes within inches of the hole, but then it hits a slope and rolls 20 yards away? Or if a golfer misses the mark, but the ball bounces off a ridge and rolls directly towards the hole. What if you hit a divot? What if your ball rolls a foot longer than you wanted and instead of making the fairway, you’re in pine straw? You just never know.
The Importance of Fan Interaction
Is there any other sport where the athletes can hear everything the fans say about them? As a golf spectator, you’re only a few feet away from the athletes, and the only thing separating you from them is a thin rope (maybe even less than that if they miss a shot badly). Go back to my interaction with Phil Mickelson. Would any other sport let you comment on a guys’ pants, and have him respond to you? You just don’t get that in any other sport, and that’s entertaining, even on TV. Plus, what about the stuff fans yell after a player tees off? I’m watching the Masters right now, and some guy just yelled “Baba Booey!” after Tiger had swung. How much do you want to bet that he texted his buddies before he yelled to tell them to watch? If you go to a baseball game, you can say to your friends, “Look for me in the outfield on TV,” but your friends can’t hear you yelling “Pitcher’s got a big butt!” at CC Sabathia. For the record, my favorite thing for people to yell is “GET IN THE HOLE” when players tee off on a par 5. Gets me every time (you KNOW I did that at The Open when I was there). Lastly, players actually have to judge what is going on around them at other holes by the fan reactions. If a guy hits a huge shot, the fans go nuts, and the pressure gets even heavier on the players who hear it. How cool is that?
The Necessary Skill and Athleticism
One of the biggest misconceptions about golfers is that they aren’t athletes. True, most golfers couldn’t play other professional sports, but a hell of a lot of non-golf pro athletes can’t play golf, either. Remember this?
And that guy’s one of the best players in NBA history!
I know guys like John Daly and Angel Jimenez hurt my argument here, but think about this. Those two guys are skilled enough to swing a three-foot club with a two-inch sweet spot to hit a ball with the diameter of a silver dollar to an exact distance, while putting spin on the ball and adjusting for the conditions, while smoking or drinking. Imagine how incredible they could be if they weren’t doing those things.
The Video-Game Effect
In the same way that the FIFA Soccer video game franchise has made international futbol (God, I’m SO multicultural) much more accessible and fun to follow, the Tiger Woods PGA Golf games have done the exact same thing. I would guess that 75% of Americans who know what a “Zlatan Ibrahimovic” is only do because they learned about him from FIFA. Similarly, do you think Camilo Villegas’s crazy putting approach would be as famous as it was if EA hadn’t made a computerized version of it?
The other part of this is that Tiger Woods is extremely fun to play, with friends or by yourself. I’d probably rank it as one of the top three sports video game franchises ever (with FIFA and Madden as the other two). And like other sports games, when you play enough, you’ll find your preference for players in real life will end up being based off how they behave in the game. (For the record, I absolutely HATE Luke Ridnour because he stole minutes from my point guard in NBA 2K12. HATE HIM.) So if you find yourself hesitant to get into golf, buy Tiger Woods and you won’t be able to help yourself.
Alone on an Island
Unlike any other sport (except tennis), the players are competing completely by themselves. There are no teammates to pick them up, and no coaches to make decisions for them. I know each player gets a caddy, but when it comes down to it, every shot is up to the player; the caddy is only there for input and advice. Whether a player succeeds or fails, all of the responsibility is on them. Great goalies often have a great defense in front of them. Great hitters often have protection around them in the lineup. Great receivers often have a good quarterback throwing to them. Great shooters have a point guard to get them the ball. Golfers have an old guy carrying their clubs.
Could you imagine any other sport where this would be okay? For example, we KNOW this wouldn’t work in the NBA:
Player fashion is one of the coolest parts of golf. Without players being able to express themselves how they want, we wouldn’t have Greg Norman’s hats, Ricky Fowler’s flamboyance, or, most importantly, Tiger’s Sunday red.
Every single course has a history to it, as does every tournament, even the non-majors. That’s like every regular season game in another sport having an epic, 50-year backstory. Also, the legends of the game are immortalized more than nearly any other sport. Everyone has heard the name Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer (he has his own drink for God’s sake!), Gary Player, and Tiger. Is that the case anywhere else? Have your grandmother, mother, and daughter all heard of Pele? Pete Sampras? Joe Montana? Wayne Gretzky? Michael Jordan (probably)? Babe Ruth (probably)? Golf certainly holds its own here.
As small as it might seem, putting is one of the coolest moments for fans in all of sports. Where else can an entire crowd go “awwwwwwwWWWWYEAHHHHHHH” for every time something happens (closest thing I could think of was the line replay in tennis)? The length of time it take for a put to go in, amplified by the anticipation that precedes the shot, bolstered by the celebratory moment afterwards makes it unique. A exciting putt is like a field goal kick that takes twice as long as usual, curves the whole time it’s in flight, and spins around the uprights before it goes in.
Am I Making My Point Here?
There is so much that goes into making golf great that I haven’t even covered everything here, and this is already the longest post I’ve ever written on this blog. More than all of my basketball posts. More than any music post. And I don’t think it’s even close. Doesn’t that say something?
So crack a beer, grill some burgers, and watch the Masters tomorrow and Sunday. You won’t regret it.