The inherent equity of golf
I love golf. Okay? I said it, and I’m proud.
There are, after all, lots of things to love about golf – hitting a great shot, spending time with friends, enjoying nature, the Sisyphean task of trying to improve my swing. Perhaps the thing I love most about golf, though, is its egalitarian roots. Golf is inherently equitable in a way that no other sport is.
The more politically inclined amongst you are likely asking at this point, “What? How can golf be ‘egalitarian’? It’s a game of power, of status, of privilege, of wealth. It’s the pastime of the One Percent!” This perception – or misperception, in my view – is so strong that the University of North Carolina’s Employee Forum recently ruled that inviting co-workers to “play a round of golf” constitutes a “microaggression,” because doing so supposedly assumes “employees have the financial resources/exposure to a fairly expensive and inaccessible sport.”
You may not agree with UNC’s specious reasoning and uninformed view of golf. (I hope you don’t, frankly, because it’s truly bizarre.) Nevertheless, even the passionate golfers amongst you may be questioning my thesis here, countering with your own tales of bad bounces, lousy lies, and horror stories about the “rub of the green.”
In fact, both of these apparently distinct but equally inaccurate objections can be addressed at the same time.
I concede that golf is a sport generally played today by the moneyed elite. Take for example Gil Hanse’s brilliant Olympic golf course, which represents the first public course in Brazil, where the divide between rich and poor is one of the deepest and starkest in the entire world. Yet golf, more than any other sport, can be summed up with the socialist motto “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” Herein lies the great irony of the “golf demographic,” which is sadly consistent with its bourgeois stereotype: Golf’s very foundation is mortared with equity. For a sport that is inherently cruel in some senses, the hallmark of the sport is its fairness.
How can this be?
Consider first the handicap system. Although handicaps are calculated differently across continents by golf’s various ruling bodies, the sole purpose of all these varied arithmetical acrobatics is to allow players of disparate skill levels to play together – to compete head-to-head so that everyone has a chance to win. It is not wealth that is redistributed, but strokes. What other sport does this? If I walk into a pub to throw some darts, the local ace doesn’t spot me two bull’s-eyes in our game of cricket.
Next, consider the tee boxes, which are predicated on the handicap system. Some modern courses have up to six different teeing stations, allowing players of differing skills and physical capabilities (which are often, though by no means always, correlated) to play a course that is suitable for them. Last time I went down to the park to play a game of pick-up basketball, my hoop was not lowered by a couple feet to allow me to dunk.
Finally, consider the equipment. Within certain boundaries, every golfer, no matter his or her skill level, can find clubs that maximize good shots and minimize the bad ones. You’re a 25-year-old scratch golfer? Enjoy working those blades into tucked pins. You’re a 65-year-old 25-handicapper? Take that perimeter-weighted, progressive hybrid set and enjoy hitting high, soft, straight shots to the center of the green. With the strokes you get from the handicap system, and the distance you gain from playing the appropriate tees, you can play that flat-bellied scratch golfer head-to-head in the club match-play tourney – and you might even win.
I love golf. But I hate that golf gets a bad rap because it has developed into a symbol of elitism. I also hate that some of the people who play it forget that golf is at its very heart an equitable game.
To be clear, I do mean equity, not equality: We do not all possess equal golfing skill or physical strength. Some of us will simply be better at the game than others, and this is in itself a gratifying reward that allows better players more intangible benefits within the sport (such as the inherent thrill of watching your high draw sail 300 yards). But golf is structured to allow for equity, despite inequality. This very much egalitarian aspect of golf is precisely what makes it great and has allowed it to thrive for centuries. The sport and all of its players are better for this equity, because it makes it possible for anyone to play. The same goes for society: it works better when everyone is provided the opportunity to play along. And this, of all things, is the “life lesson” I would like to see golf teach to its players.
This lesson, however, doesn’t need to be taught to disadvantaged inner-city kids taking part in The First Tee program. These kids know that golf, like life, can be an unforgiving game. But they also know that, given the chance to play, every one of them can compete.
Instead, this lesson needs to be taught to non-golfers who consider golf to be some sort of microaggressive threat to social harmony. And it needs to be taught to certain golfers who pontificate about the evils of “socialism” and the “redistribution of wealth” after begging for the redistribution of strokes in an attempt to win a $5 Nassau.
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