All you need to know about golf

All you need to know about golf

Were an uninitiated observer – say from the planet Mars –to watch a round of golf being played by two men at the Masters, would that observer understand that what he was watching was in fact a sporting contest? To judge by the intoned whispered BBC commentary you might think that what was taking place was some kind of religious ceremony.

The Masters Golf from Augusta – BBC – 6-9 April 2007

Were an uninitiated observer – say from the planet Mars –to watch a round of golf being played by two men at the Masters, would that observer understand that what he was watching was in fact a sporting contest?  To judge by the intoned whispered BBC commentary you might think that what was taking place was some kind of religious ceremony.

After watching some play at the Masters 07 on TV I thought a little about what I had observed.  Looking at the golf on TV with a naïve eye what seems to be happening is that small groups of men are walking round a large park.  Sometimes large crowds are watching them. The men are not in any particular hurry. They stroll over the ground never breaking out of a certain relaxed stride.  They are all smartly dressed in the sort of casual clothes you buy at a shopping mall.  Some of the men carry large bags full of clubs; the men who use the clubs walk unencumbered. They stop from time to time and take a golf club out of its bag and strike a small white ball lying on the ground.  They keep hitting their ball until they eventually get it into a little hole that has been drilled into a very smooth sward of grass.   At this point they collect the ball and begin the process all over again. 

Looked at from a certain point of view golf seems not so much a sport as rather a particular sort of statement endorsing a particular sort of life style: the suburban life style.  It comes across as a ritualised expression of suburban etiquette, a carefully played out enactment of how suburban people should interact with each other.
Sport(in the modern sense of the word) is something else.

Sport is an activity in which individuals engage in rule bound opposition and competition. What is striking about golf is that these characteristics are minimalised.  The players are not in head to head contest as in running or swimming events: the players do not square up to each other like gladiators such as wrestlers or tennis players or the team games such a football and cricket: the players do not contest for mastery of a bounded terrain – in the sense that they can manipulate the play area aggressively to the disadvantage of their opponent – as witness sports such as snooker or croquet.  Golf might be thought to resemble field sports or gymnastics where opponents neither contest shoulder to shoulder nor face to face.  But these sort of sports are characterised by taking place in a closely contained area, a pit, where all the contestants are bound together within a circle of competitive intensity.  These sports also in general are characterised by explosive action of short duration.  Golf shares few of these qualities.

In golf the action, the execution of a shot may be explosive (or not as the case may be – putting is a gentle touch stroke).  But the game is a series of events taking place over the duration of about three hours during which the men walk through 18 holes laid out in a park, which is a diligently maintained space that represents the triumph of land management – landscape – over nature.  The characteristic feature of the sport is that the contestants spend most of their time within the bounds of the game simply strolling engaging each other in occasional pleasantries and always behaving towards each other with the utmost decorum,

On the surface there are few signs that this is a contest – even at the top level of the professional game. The men walk from hole to hole: each plays his own game and tries to get his own ball home.  There is little sense of urgency or of competition. You might if you did not know better suppose that what you were watching was some sort of charming male ritual, perhaps connected with fertility or even the church…..

At this point we have to take account of the suburban housing estate.  In England and the US it is probably no accident that golf courses and the game itself developed and increased in popularity with the spread of suburbia.   In the typical well to do suburban estate the houses are ideally all detached, set back from the street and fronted by tidy manicured gardens whose characteristic feature is either a smooth sward of lawn or gravel, bordered with flower or herbaceous beds.  Where the houses face each other there is a broad road between them, or where, as in modern developments broad roads are too much a luxury even for the upper middle income brackets, the houses are set at angle to each other so that none directly overlooks another.  To the untrained uninitiated eye the houses all look somewhat similar.  The cars parked in the drives mostly look new and gleaming and if you catch the dwellers on their non work days they wear smart casual clothes purchased at the a local shopping mall.  You might think that was it. Groups of similar looking structures occupied by groups of similar looking people who are minding their own business.   The estate design minimises sound spill between the units and sight lines between the houses do not facilitate easy visual monitoring between the units.  This isn’t a community in the traditional sense but community in its modern incarnation: a group of people brought together because they all share a defining trait in common: in this case the people are brought into community by their shared ability to buy into a neighbourhood that has a high price tag.  A community that has as a consequence of its elective nature, an innate sense of social status.

But these status conscious inhabitants are generally highly intra competitive.  Underneath the surface of the monochrome estate there are often intense rivalries  taking place between individual units for  claims to public acknowledgment of status within the community.  Competition in suburban communities tends to be understated – barely admitted to.  Victory does not go to those who flaunt conspicuous consumption or their wealth.  Victory goes to the understated display related to life style.  Ostentation and vulgar symbols of wealth earn fewer status points than having the right expensive but conservative car, holiday in the right places, send children to the right schools, belong to the right clubs.  Nothing announces these signifiers as competition, but covertly (occasionally overtly) there is a competing ethos once you live there and understand what is going on.    

Seen in the context of the suburban life style I begin to understand golf as a sporting contest, understated in form but real in substance.  Golf is an extension of the suburban estate ethos, a  life style that has adopted golf as its preferred form of sporting expression.  From the outside of the estate you really see very little, what is happening is a closed off utterance.  You see a group of unexceptional large brick houses, you see two guys watering the lawn. On the golf course the competition is not face to face, there is no overt agonistic display. no triumphant rictus or fist, no verbal aggression.  It is closed utterance.  But competitive it is, as two men walk a golf course in each others affective company, interacting politely and each taking it turn to play their ball. Just as competition exists on the suburban estate across all sorts muted indicators that are  familiar and accessible to the urban anthropologist rather than to the sport’s fan. 

What we have on the estate is a situation in which competition is incorporated into the life style itself, unstated but always present to the extent that it is a constant frame of reference for the inhabitants who have deeply internalised the rules of their status competition. By extension there is a similar ethos in golf as the preferred form of recreation of suburbia. It embodies a form of competition that is not directly visible, being a product of a lifestyle that in itself is intensely competitive whilst at the same time taking pains to deny that there is any competition (We’re all very friendly here!)  In golf with its handicap system everyone should end up with more or less the same score; the real competition is mediated through a series of social and individual testings which coalesce into pressure situations in which the individual has to demonstrate to his opponent that he can pass muster.  Golf is not so much won or lost as a match but as a test of character, a test of showing that you are a person of sufficient self control to be a worthy game playing inhabitant of suburbia.  It’s a pressure thing about control under pressure.

Even at the pro level golf is not a game played with a raw visceral self.  Its played with a mask.  Sports often reveal the undisguised and naked aspect or face of the individual.   Defeat and victory release strong emotive forces that tear the social mask away from the individual.  In golf the test seems to be whether one can keep the mask on all the time.  To walk from tee to tee from ball to ball from green to green as if nothing very much was happening.  To stroll across the park exchanging pleasantries and coded barbed comments without reacting to being in the game.  Golf mimics the rituals of the estates from which it recruits.  At the barb-b-q or Christmas party the overriding concern in interaction is with face.  To grin smile and nod and laugh at the right cues and to be prepared to defend one’s status with appropriate gesture or form of words should it be subtly threatened undermining of one’s status.  Golf like suburban life is played with a false self.  A self that is construct of status and the primacy of self image.  A round of golf like the company dinner party is ultimately a test of the robust nature of this false self, and the true object of the game as it has developed in its suburban ritual, even at the highest professional level, is to maintain this false self at a high level of operative efficiency.

This analysis shows golf to be a highly unusual sport in particular at the professional level where code of conduct is highly enforced (other sports of course have this – snooker for instance, but snooker players operate in a pit where the competition is direct and aggressively intended towards the opponent and where interaction with the opponent is not a necessary feature of the competition). The professional golfers are all very nice people who would be welcome as residents in any up market suburban housing enclave.  For the professionals the self of emotions fears and desires is reined in and kept under control. They play with the mask an idealised self constructed out of suburban norms and value systems and this self, regimented in the etiquette of middle class niceties is what we see in professional competition on the golf course.
It is no surprise then to understand that the golf course is also a special type of recruiting environment, able to inform the examiners if the applicant is one of us – able to sustain appearances under pressure able to perform with a false constructed self.

At this point I haven’t mentioned that the TV coverage of the Masters, which like all  golf coverage fully accords with the mores of the game.  The live commentary is delivered hushed tones in the reassuring rounded tones of middle England.  The voices are respectful of everyone: the players, the organisation, the spectators and comply fully with the etiquette of  the formal  dinner party.  The coverage and commentary are in relation to current TV and media norms in a sort of time warp, adopting a style and tone of reverence that are of an era when the media knew its place – as servants.  It is interesting that the anchor studio role of Gary Lineker was criticised in many quarters – in particular it is said by the Masters organisers who didn’t like his style.  Lineker’s attitude was in fact entirely traditional. His problem both in accent and tone was that he looks and sounds like that phenomenon known to all exclusive estates, an arrivist who didn’t make the appropriate expressive moves and gestures to disguise his provenance.  His crime was the old fashioned social faux pas of not having the decency to cover up or at least make his origins (working class footballer) unobtrusive. 

As a final note on a point already alluded to, the golf course is a certain type of park.  It is a high maintenance environment (one that is increasingly perceived in arid regions as destructive of environment on account of its demand for copious quantities of water) that is a faithful reflection of the idealised suburban world which supports it.  It reflects a suburban view of nature: it has all the constituent parts of the natural world: shrubs, trees, plants, flowers and grasses(of which few people know the names).  But this swath of nature is benignly ordered trimmed strimmed and managed. It is a non threatening environment and is part of the  order of things that exist for the enjoyment of life style. 
adrin neatrour
adrinuk@yahoo.co.uk

Author: Adrin Neatrour

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