Golf: the snobbish sport of suburbia

Hitting a small ball a long way needs skill, but golf is unusual in that it requires no tactical skill
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The Independent Online

When the literary agent Pat Kavanagh wrote, in the course of a letter to The Times Literary Supplement, that bitterness was the most potentially corrosive emotion in a writer's life, she was only half-right. The same weakness can strike down virtually anyone after a certain age. A virus borne on the airwaves of contemporary culture, it can strike as easily as the common cold and then eat into the soul.

When the literary agent Pat Kavanagh wrote, in the course of a letter to The Times Literary Supplement, that bitterness was the most potentially corrosive emotion in a writer's life, she was only half-right. The same weakness can strike down virtually anyone after a certain age. A virus borne on the airwaves of contemporary culture, it can strike as easily as the common cold and then eat into the soul.

The trick is, if one has to be embittered about something, to find a socially acceptable target: logging in Tasmania, or the decline of songbirds, or the irresistible progress of some grinning jackass of a politician. It is generally regarded as a bad sign, psychologically speaking, when you can be enraged by an activity that the rest of the world finds harmless.

It was in a moment of late-night bank holiday stupor that I discovered that I had succumbed to the virus. Reading the Sunday newspapers, I had left the TV flickering soundlessly in the background. Some sort of big golf tournament was taking place in America, there was live coverage and it was more interesting than the diet of Hercule Poirot or cosy romantic comedies that were on the other channels.

Occasionally I turned the volume up to find who was winning, only for the voice of the commentator Peter Alliss, droning some banality or trying unsuccessfully for a joke, to cause me to hit the "mute" button. But then, unusually for a golf match, there was an exciting finish. An American called Mickelson was at the final hole and needed a tricky putt to win the championship.

Unfortunately Alliss, who had been commentating on the tournament for the previous four days, lost count of how many strokes Mickelson had played at the last hole and mistook his victory for a draw. "It's not over yet," he intoned but then, as Mickelson danced about in delight, the penny dropped. "Oh," said the Voice of Golf. "It is. I got carried away thinking there was going to be a play-off."

Everyone has their bêtes noires among sporting pundits. I have difficulty listening to football commentaries when the whiney Alan Green or the absurdly pretentious Stuart Hall are in front of the microphone. But there is something about Alliss - plump, patronising, self-consciously droll - that seems perfectly to represent the game itself.

I imagine that every golf club has its own version of the Voice of Golf, presiding at the 19th hole, reminiscing about the past, chuckling at his own cumbersome little witticisms, sounding off about this and that, occasionally letting slip some clod-hopping piece of Little England bigotry. When Alliss referred airily to a Japanese golfer as a "wily Oriental" or shared with viewers what he would like to do to thieves who broke into his pal Bruce Forsyth's house - "I would have them on a short chain on a wall for a week, they would do all their business and sit in their muck and then I'd say, 'What d'you think about that?'" etc, etc - he was speaking as the Mr Average of the links.

Just as football represents for some people all that is least attractive about the modern world, so the game of golf has the same effect on me. It has a naff, trim aesthetic which dictates the clothes that golfers wear and the terrible effect that a rash of courses have on the countryside. It is proudly exclusive, obsessed with petty rules of etiquette and decorum. While clubs may not be as overtly racist and sexist as they once were, a kind of snobbery, far worse than anything found on the hunting field, lives on.

Hitting a small ball a long way with accuracy obviously requires skill and psychological robustness, but golf is unusual among popular sports in that it requires absolutely no tactical skill. The mind-games and strategies that are part of the truly interesting areas of human competition have no place when the only object is to get round a course with as few strokes as possible, when the competition is essentially yourself. It could be said that the 100 metres sprint hardly requires tactics, but there at least there is a need for fitness and strength which, to judge from the slack muscle tone and incipient beer bellies of the top golfers, has no particular importance on the links.

This is the true sport of middle management, a celebration in play of suburbia played out on what is essentially a grand, well-tended lawn. Although several of my friends indulge in it, I see it as a weakness in them, a yearning for some kind of order and hierarchy that is missing elsewhere in their lives. Republican presidents play golf, as do networking businessman, and upwardly mobile footballers.

For a while, I had a problem with fact that one of my literary heroes, John Updike, is famously an enthusiastic amateur golfer, but soon even that became clear. Updike is the muse of middle America: pottering about on the greens is to him what donning a pair of boxing gloves was to Norman Mailer.

More problematic is the news that Willie Nelson has a low handicap, but then even cowboys have their weaknesses. Only when Bob Dylan himself is spotted on a golf cart will I revise my opinion of this supremely uncool and pointless occupation.

Terblacker@aol.co.uk

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