GLOSSARY / Pleased to be below par? That's life for a golfer

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The Independent Online
FOR ITS more passionate fans golf is not just part of life, it is life by other means, a strange distillation1 by which the challenges you normally encounter over the course of years are fitted into a course of 18 holes. In 1924 Lloyd George observed that 'you get to know more of the character of a man in a round of golf than you can get to know in six months with only political experience' and the Israeli statesman Abba Eban once confessed that it had given him 'an understanding of the futility of human effort'.

You can see something of this universality in the language of the game. I had assumed, watching the Open last week, that the more familiar golfing terms had moved out into the world from a private technical vocabulary with an ancient history. The age of the game (the OED's first reference dates from 1457) suggested that it had probably generated words that only later spread beyond the cognoscenti. But the opposite is true. In forming its vocabulary, golf seems to welcome2 in the outside world.

The most obvious example is 'handicap', which begins not as a term associated with sport (in golf and racing) but as a game in itself (Pepys writes in his diary: 'Here some of us fell to handicap, a sport that I never knew before, which was very good'). Not being a betting man, I'm still not sure that I understand the dictionary's description, but in essence it seems to be some kind of triangular wager, a complicated form of The Price is Right.

A racing variation of the game follows shortly, as does the practice of weighting horses to level up the odds. Soon after that a handicap can refer to any attempt to even up competition, either by time penalties or points advantages. Oddly, the OED offers no golfing example under the heading of 'handicap' as a noun, though it does include it in its definition of 'handicapped'.

A 'fairway' originally referred to a navigable channel in a waterway (the first example is from as far back as 1584) and enters the golfer's vocabulary only later, though it has a delicious appropriateness for those in peril on the tee, anxious to bring their ball to port. A 'bunker' is an earthen bank or a roadside ditch before it is a sand-filled trap for the unwary, and the language contains the possibility of going through 'the rough' before that name is given to the ill-shaven sideboards of a golf course. 'Par' exists for hundreds of years before it is taken up by the game (at about the same time as early systems for determining players' handicaps were developed) and golf is out of step with the rest of the world, offering one of the few circumstances in which it is a good thing to be 'below par'.

I cannot find many examples of everyday phrases derived from the game alone - 'par for the course' and 'hole in one' being the only two that come to mind. But then the real golfer doesn't quite understand the distinction between the game and everyday life anyway.

To see how accessible its language is, how open to all comers, you have only to compare it with a pastime that wants to keep the world at bay. The teen magazine Phat received a lot of free publicity last week because it put a gun-toting youth on its front cover. If you look inside, the panic turns out to have been premature - it is just a skateboarding magazine, remarkable more for the opacity of its writing than its corrupting power. Take this example from a report on a Dublin competition: 'Some rad skating got Blayney Hamelton a set of wheels and second place with tricks including lipslide blunt over hip, pressure flip over hip and some fat Ollies.' First place went to Gavin Nolan, who offered 'frontside 180 flip, backside half-Nab and fakie crooked grind to noseslide'.

Like surfing, which gave it birth, skateboarding is a non- proselytising3 religion, a community of the elect which stresses its separateness by arcane language.

Where golf lives in the world, skateboarding withdraws, and you can no more imagine somebody using it as a metaphor for life's struggles than you can imagine businessmen sealing a contract by turning out fat Ollies on the concrete ramps underneath the Hayward Gallery on London's South Bank.

1 From the Latin distillare, to trickle down, to drip, from de and stillare, to drop.

2 Originally from the Old English wilcuma (will, desire, pleasure and cuma, comer, guest) though the word adapts its form to well and the infinitive of come, on the model of the French bienvenu.

3 From the Latin proselytus, one who comes or approaches, a convert.