I took a golf class in college, and one of the course requirements was to purchase and study a textbook on the game of golf. I’m sure it had a lot on golf’s history and some instruction for beginners, but all I remember is this nugget: the book claimed that what makes golf different from every other sport is that you have to “hole out.” The point being, I guess, that unlike hockey and basketball everyone eventually gets the ball in the goal no matter what. And unlike a race, everyone finishes, if not in the same manner.
Well, I thought that was a stupid way to differentiate golf from every other sport, and I think most people would agree with me. But we might not be able to agree on what actually does make golf different. It is the only sport in which the low score wins. It is the sport in which the mental aspect completely overwhelms the physical. It is the sport in which repeated motion is the most valuable yet most elusive. It is the most frustrating sport. It is still the most “upper class” sport. Here’s mine: golf is the only major sport whose competitive balance is not naturally preserved; that is, the “golfer versus the course” struggle is becoming less of a struggle as technology and physiology alter the game completely.
Pitcher Curt Simmons said that trying to throw a fastball past Henry Aaron was like trying to sneak a sunrise past a rooster. Those who tried to tackle Jim Brown will swear up and down that he was the best running back who ever lived. And if Wilt Chamberlain were here, he could attest that Bill Russell is the best post defender who will ever play the game of basketball. What competitors in major team sports have to say about each other is quite different from what Jack Nicklaus might say about Arnold Palmer because Jack never tried to stop Arnie from hitting a 300-yard drive. Sure, not all competitors in baseball, football, and basketball face each other head to head, but there is an aspect to these sports that makes them fundamentally different. In other major sports, the drama is always characterized as “man vs. man” or “team vs. team.” In golf, as the hushed tones at Augusta and St. Andrews remind us, each man is battling “the course.”
This difference in the nature of competition is nice in that it gives golf a very unique feel, but it is problematic as generations of golfers face an opponent that never changes. In basketball, where offense and defense mirror each other most closely, the quickness of an offensive player is matched, roughly, by the quickness of his defender. This type of parity is maintained by the fact that as humans become quicker, through whatever means, both the offensive and defensive players will see improvement. In football, weight training techniques benefit both offensive and defensive linemen. Baseball’s balance between pitchers and batters has experienced an ebb and flow over the last century, but any advantages are still usually negligible, excepting artificial factors like steroids, body armor, and umpires who do not enforce the rules.
Golf has a problem maintaining this sort of natural balance for one obvious reason: as the players get better, their opponents (the courses) do not. As a result, reaching certain par 5’s in two has become routine or even expected when it was perhaps unthinkable a generation ago. Due to improvements in conditioning, golfers can be more consistent in their drives and fairway shots. Thus the fatigue factor is reduced, meaning that some Sunday afternoons this year will be different than they would have been thirty years ago.
Technology has not yet found a way to alter radically the way a golf course “plays,” but it can certainly help a golfer. Back when woods were actually made of wood, golf clubs rewarded precision. This was not because their makers valued a perfectly crafted shot but because they knew not how to make them any other way. In this age of hollow metal “woods” and cavity-backed irons, golf clubs have much, much larger “sweet spots” and are more “forgiving.” So, rather than lay up, more golfers can confidently hit over an obstruction than could have before.
Of course, any professional can hit his clubs well enough. The area in which technology has really made golf a problem is at the amateur level. Many people are fine with the advancements that technology has brought to the game, but others will be forgiven for grimacing when you tell them that your new club has made you five strokes “better” when you haven’t even taken it out of the box. Now, its natural that every golfer will want to have whatever equipment will make him better. It wasn’t too long ago that everyone had to have Air Jordans. Advances in equipment are inevitable. What makes those advances worrisome is the unchecked effect they can have on the way golf courses play. Golf, more than most other sports, is learned. Previous generations of professionals have spent numerous hours training themselves in skills that today’s weekend warrior can simply purchase. Because golf places such an emphasis on repeated motion, any trade-off of practice for automation will be a bad one.
So the lengthening and toughening of championship golf courses will probably continue as long as humans and technology continue to improve. And unlike a lot of golf purists who don’t like seeing certain trees at Augusta taken out of play, I can’t say I’ll be bothered by it. I think it’s unavoidable if we want today’s players to face challenges similar to yesterday’s. But there’s one fact that should be of consolation to everyone: even with all the technology in the world to get you onto the green, you still have to putt the ball. Which is why I always say that what makes golf different from other sports is that every player has to hole out.