By about hole No. 5 of the first round of golf I had ever played, I started to get a feeling of déjà vu. As I trudged along, pulling the bag of clubs behind me, following the meandering path, waiting my turn with increasing anxiety, humiliating myself in my attempts to get the ball in the hole, I realized what was so familiar. It was the same feeling you get being stuck at the airport. The long march dragging your suitcase, the apprehensive waiting, the embarrassing encounter with a stick (the TSA wand) as a crowd looks on, the disbelief that you are paying to do this to yourself.
The punitive feeling was enhanced by the fact that I was playing with a group of colleagues—tall, thin, athletic—and these über-Slate men made me feel stubbier and more uncoordinated than usual. Bob Wright had designated himself my day’s philosophy coach. He understood that while I had the mediocre physical conditioning sufficient for the game, I lacked the required mental stamina. Before we got to the first tee, he pointed out golf’s essential paradox. “People think the easy thing about golf is that the ball is still. But that’s the hard part.” He also gave me his spiel (elaborated on here and here) about how it is helpful while playing golf to adopt Tiger Woods’ Gandhi-like equanimity. Bob did remain serenely detached until he had to strike the ball, which each time resulted in a stream of sarcastic comments to himself. By the ninth and final hole he concluded, “This has been borderline unpleasant.”
During my brief immersion in the world of golf, I determined that gloom is an essential golf component, as befitting a game that started on the moody moors of Scotland. When tennis players get thoroughly beaten, they come off the court sweaty and smiling. Their endorphins have shot up, and they look cute in their outfits. Even skiers being carried off the slope on a stretcher seem bizarrely thrilled about the elemental encounter between body and mountain. But golf induces despair. Take the observations in the book The Bluffer’s Guide to Golf, by Peter Gammond, “The golfer [is] a miserable wretch at the best of times.” “A golf match is designed to make as many people as possible unhappy.” There are very few golf jokes, he writes, that do not mention “death and destruction.”
In Human Guinea Pig, I try odd or unusual jobs and hobbies, but there is nothing odd or unusual about trying to learn golf. There are about 30 million golfers in the United States. According to the Wall Street Journal, 3 million Americans pick up clubs for the first time each year, and an equal number put them down. Two million quit outright, half a million go on hiatus, and the rest die! (Maybe Americans’ life expectancy would increase if the CDC stopped investigating salmonella outbreaks and started shutting down golf courses.)
There’s a reason for all the gallows humor. Look at the statistics, and you’ll soon come to think of golf as the Deadliest Game. A 2000 study from the British Journal of Sports Medicine found more sudden deaths occur in golf than any other sport. The examples abound: Bing Crosby shoots an 85 and drops dead on the way to the clubhouse. Talk show host Mike Douglas falls ill on the golf course and dies shortly afterward. Opera singer Thomas Stewart pars a hole, then fatally collapses at the pin. (Sure, you could point out that golfing death rates may have something to do with the fact that the majority of golfers are older men—which is the same reason erectile dysfunction drugs have such a prominent place in the Golf Channel’s ad rotation. But I say it’s the grinding disappointment of the game that leads to such multiple organ failure.)
Then there are encounters with the elements—5 percent of deaths by lightning in this country occur on the golf course; Lee Trevino has been struck twice. There are the mortal collisions between golf ball and skull. The carts that go over cliffs.
All this is nothing compared with golf’s psychological toll. Sportswriters’ descriptions of the golfer’s psyche make you think they’re covering a Marine engagement in Anbar province. While playing a round, golfers spend only about 1 percent of their time hitting the ball, reports the New York Times. For the rest, writes the paper’s Damon Hack, they are “churning and burning” as they “think about what might happen.” He tells of one pro who had to give up the game because, as a friend explains, “he’s kind of seen too many bad things to recover from.” The Washington Post’s Thomas Boswell, who says the game is infernal, quotes a golf psychologist who says she knows professionals who end up wondering, “What did I do wrong to deserve this?”
I discovered a reason for the angst: Humans are not wired to play golf. A study in the journal Neuron says that the mind rebels against the body performing a repetitive movement exactly the same way each time—the researchers hypothesized that we evolved to evade novel threats so evolution created a brain that favors physical improvisation.
Bearing the burden of all this knowledge, I embarked on my most lethal assignment yet. I signed up for a series of five weekly lessons for $395 at Rock Creek Golf Course, a public course in Washington, D.C. Fortunately, my instructor, Ben Taylor, had preparation to deal with both the physical and mental aspects of the game, since he recently graduated from Johns Hopkins University with a degree in psychology.
Ben showed me the grip, then tutored me in the fundamentals of the swing: head down, wrist cocked, follow through, etc. He got me feeling surprisingly comfortable swinging, then he undid me by placing a ball in front of me. “It’s the swing, not the ball,” he said. “If you do the swing right, the ball will simply get in the way.”
Bob Wright was right—the hardest part of golf is that the ball doesn’t move. In most sports you react, in golf you act. The ball just sits there, showing off its dimples, taunting you. Golf has surely inspired more literature than any other sport—schlepping from one hole to the next gives golfers too much time to think. Much golf writing is about how golf is like life, or life is like golf. But I came to feel there was no sport less lifelike than golf. After all, what is life but a long series of reactions?
The worst part of the lessons was that I wasn’t as bad as I thought I would be, which made me that melancholy creature: a golfer with hope. I usually at least connected with the ball, and on random occasions I even hit one decently. Of course, each good stroke was followed by 20 lousy ones. I dutifully came out during the week to practice, and though the manic-depressive nature of the game started to wear me down, I was amazed to look up once and find five fawns eating the greens. Another time I was distracted by a brood of gobbling turkeys.
By the end of five classes, I knew a whole bunch of new things, like the difference between an iron and a wood, a drive and a chip, a birdie and a bogey. I was satisfied and felt ready to join the ranks of the millions of Americans who no longer golfed, when Ben told me for my graduation class I actually had to play a hole. It was 280 yards and a par 4. I thought I might have a chance if instead it were four yards and a par 280. Nonetheless Ben told me to tee up and hit. The ball went 80 yards toward the hole. My next shot advanced me 70 more yards. By my third stroke I was 25 yards from the green, and I switched to a pitching wedge (OK, Ben pulled a club out of the bag, told me it was a pitching wedge, and handed it to me). I meant to hit it high—instead the ball bounced along and landed only six feet from the hole! I overshot my first putt, and the ball went into the grass, so it took me three more putts to get in the hole for a total of eight strokes. I was elated.
And why, oh, why, didn’t I retire then? But no, I agreed to play nine holes with my giraffelike colleagues. I actually misled them by starting decently at the first hole, making a par 3 in five strokes—for me, a double bogey was the equivalent of a hole in one. From there I quickly degenerated and started taking 13, 15—who could count?—strokes to get to the hole. By the time I lumbered up the hill with my bag, I often found my ball was in a better position than where I’d hit it; I was so pitiable my partners moved it for me. Because of me the group behind us rang a bell—like at a spelling bee contestant who’s just been eliminated—indicating they couldn’t wait anymore. I couldn’t take it and started skipping holes. By that point I would have preferred being strip searched by the TSA to having to hit the ball.
Finally, the round came to an end. Yes, I was a “miserable wretch,” but as I left the course, I found myself flooded with a feeling of relief and gratitude: I had played my first round of golf, and I had survived. I will never risk it again.