Why Writers Can’t Golf (and Golfers Can’t Write)

It’s said that the game of golf reveals character, and this is usually meant to imply that golf, played properly, requires a certain amount of personal integrity, since a golfer is relied upon to count up his own strokes and is obliged by the rules of the game to penalize himself when appropriate, even if no one else witnesses his play.

But to say that golf reveals character also means that if you play a round of golf with a man (women are different, for reasons I will get to), you will certainly learn a great deal – often more than you wanted to know – about his self-confidence, his sociability, his methods of coping with stress, his pridefulness or sensitivity to shame, his sense of humor or lack thereof, and a host of other aspects of what, in their totality, make him who he is and are likely to manifest themselves in other realms of life, like the business world, or euchre.

I don’t think you can learn nearly as much about a woman from a round of golf with her because, as a gross but I think irrefutable generalization, most women don’t have nearly as much invested in a round of golf as most men do, either in terms of personal ego or sheer time spent in preparing for it, so they just don’t care as much about how they play, and the game therefore isn’t an accurate barometer of their personality quirks. That, and women are, as a rule, just better-integrated and healthier personalities, who bring a more reasonable sense of proportion to life in general.

But the great truism that golf reveals character doesn’t explain my consistent experience of two interesting corollaries: that good writers can’t play golf worth a damn, and good golfers can’t write to save their lives.  Hence the very people who might best describe how to play golf well have no idea what that might entail, and the very people who know what being a good golfer is all about have no ability to describe it (as we shall see).

I consider myself in the first category, so I can speak with some authority to the proposition that writers can’t golf.  My dysfunctional and somewhat tortured relationship with the game of golf goes back to my adolescence in the suburbs of Pittsburgh, when I and a small group of other scruffy teenaged boys, some of whose fathers played golf, took it into our heads on sultry summer afternoons to borrow our dads’ clubs and play the negligibly-tended municipal courses and makeshift par-3 former pastures that abounded in those simpler days.  As our fathers were preoccupied with making enough money to put clothes on our scrawny backs and eventually foot the bill for our college tuitions (privileged little middle class scions that we were), we had no golf role models and no instruction, and could barely afford the hilariously modest tee fees these places charged, but our instincts were good and our bodies were made of rubber and we laughed a lot, didn’t keep score much, and when we did, shaved strokes flagrantly.  Often these outings were just an excuse to sneak a few smokes (our chief outdoor vice at the time).

Then I became a man, and put away childish things (well, some of them).  I went to college and took up tennis and went to law school and played some squash and went to work in a Wall Street law firm and took up riding the subway and never touched a golf club for another 20 years.

Let’s stipulate that the game of golf as we know it today is, on its face, indefensible.  Hugely wasteful of time, water, and real estate (and what more is there to waste, really?), offering little or no actual exercise, it was invented by Scottish sheep farmers who were bored out of their skulls, had lots of open, underused land lying around (the storied “links” of yore), and were merely trying to pass the time by whacking a little feather-stuffed ball around their seaside pastures with long sticks while they waited for the next foaling.

Somehow this patent silliness, no doubt abetted by the ready availability of Scotch whiskey, evolved into a more patrician pastime (wastefulness being the sine qua non of patrician pastimes) and, with the help of a ton of advertising and the advent of television, into everyman’s lifelong sport.  What was once an incidental game among neighbors on land that remained in its pristine state is now an excuse to convert vast tracts of desert or forest into prissily manicured parklands by the application of huge amounts of water and money, subsidized by sales of everything from course-side McMansions to aerodynamically designed golf balls.  In short, golf is now a mega-industry of dubious environmental merit, dominated by the likes of Donald Trump (an allegedly good golfer whose inauguration as President of the United States I am, as I write this, attempting to ignore).

It was only when my career segued into investment banking, where the schmooze-factor is exponentially higher than in law, that golf again intruded itself into my life.  I found myself attending conferences and seminars that were basically an excuse for clients and competitors to get together in some pleasant spot like Pebble Beach or the Boulders or the Greenbrier for a little back-slapping over cocktails, a speech or two, and some golf.  If you were going to go to these things at all, you were obliged to play golf, even though someone like me had no earthly business setting foot on courses like the one at Pebble Beach.  So I’d rent some clubs and join a foursome of men I barely knew and proceed to fulsomely demonstrate my deficient training and experience in the game.

What was notable about all this was the degree to which most men (and they were all men) found this to be great fun, and relished these opportunities for jocular bonhomie while waling away at the little white ball, whereas I approached every round of golf with a trepidation usually reserved for public speaking or oral surgery. This was in part because these other men, having played more or less consistently for most of their lives and having taken some lessons, hit longer and played better than I did, whereas I, having been much too busy for such frivolous endeavors, was basically out there making a fool of myself. I was the weak sister in every foursome (though everyone was too polite to mention it), the guy whose shots were usually greeted with appalled silence rather than the hearty “Nice shot!” or “That’ll play!” that followed the other guys’ swings.

Just so you know I’m not kidding (and not to evade the cruel specificity that real golfers demand in such accounts), when my scores were actually kept (though they were usually ignored as an act of mercy by all concerned), I was usually in the high teens (that is, for you golf virgins, 100 plus some high-teen number of strokes, meaning that I was taking, on average over 18 holes, more than six strokes to get from the tee (that flat square you hit from) to the cup (that hole in the green), even though “par” for those holes was a mix of five, four, and three strokes.

But this bloodless arithmetic understates the vast difference between my play and that of a golfer who consistently shoots in, say, the 90s. It’s the difference between watching your drive soar far, if not perfectly straight, down the fairway, and having it squirt sideways into a patch of poison oak or slice viciously into an adjacent forest.  It’s the difference between lofting the ball from bunker to green in a soft spray of sand, and burying your club in the dirt to a full stop two inches before it strikes the ball.  It’s the difference between putting from the fringe to within a foot or so of the hole and hearing “that’s good, pick it up” (meaning your mates concede that your next putt is so certain to go in that there’s no point in even doing it), and four-putting to the sound of crickets.

And so on.

This is the place to say that the stark contrast between the casual athletic competence of others and my own relative ineptitude evokes deep reverberations from my childhood. I was a smaller and skinnier boy than most of my peers, and while I somehow always considered myself agile, I wasn’t as strong as most of them.  My father had evidently played a pretty mean game of handball in college, but handball has not survived as a mainstream American sport, and he provided no example or encouragement toward athletic proficiency to me or my brother.  Worse, I am a left-hander who was, in the manner of the times, taught to play sports right-handed (I golf right-handed to this day, but throw and play tennis left-handed and switch-hit when obliged to play softball), and thus became ambidextrously mediocre.

Like most American boys, I was eventually dragooned into little league baseball, but with my string bean arms I was a weak batter and erratic fielder, always assigned to the outfield – indeed, the right outfield– never to the bases, much less the pitcher’s mound.

These childhood experiences of the ruthless meritocracy of sport provoked in me an inordinate amount of thinking about the nature of individual identity.  I wouldn’t have expressed it that way, of course, if I could have expressed it at all, but I did ponder at length the question of why I was me and not someone else. It seemed odd that chance alone, as I saw it, governed the colossal fact that I was skinny and short for my age and not very good at baseball, while Javier over there was robust and tall and an excellent pitcher. Would it have taken so very much for me to be him instead of who I was?  There was no answer but the silence of the outfield.

Thus the usual confluence of nature and nurture (or lack thereof) nudged me toward indoor pursuits, where brains (or lack thereof) are the great leveler. I became a reader and, inevitably, a writer, first of the professional kind, and later for fun, but a writer all along.

And writers can’t golf.  Can you think of a single world-class writer who was good at golf?  No.  John Updike, one of my literary heroes, wrote about golf with great humor and affection, but also with the self-mocking ruefulness of a life-long hacker, always in pursuit of the swing fix, the solution to the yips, the right grip that would release him from hacker’s hell.  My guess is he shot in the 90s, better than me but not what you’d call a good golfer. Hemingway or Fitzgerald or Cheever? Great boozers but bad golfers.  My hero James Salter?  Great skier but as far as I know never touched a club. Curt Hiassen, a successful writer of crime fiction, wrote the hilarious golf memoir A Downhill Lie, but it’s about his years-long efforts to improve his crappy game (though he sounds a lot better than me).

There may be rare exceptions to my thesis that writers can’t golf, but the logic of this thesis seems intuitively sound.  Writers are, by their nature and by the very process of writing, introverted, whereas the essence of golf is gregariousness and extroversion, the projecting of oneself, through one’s shots and one’s camaraderie, outward into nature. I became a reader and, therefore, a writer in part as a defense against and avoidance of the boyish physical activities at which I’d been taught I couldn’t excel, and that very defensiveness and avoidance has prevented me from getting better at golf. Quickness and agility eventually allowed me to become a respectable club tennis player and a decent skier, but golf remained an impenetrable conundrum.

The question of teaching is key here, and brings us to the second corollary: that golfers can’t write. You’d think that with the growth of the sport and the profusion of self-help publication outlets, several first-class books of instruction on how to get good at golf would exist.  But I’m here to tell you than they don’t.  In fact, what is out there is awful because, no matter how many ghost-writers are marshaled to help them, golfers can’t write.

This goes beyond the predictable resort to self-indulgent jargon which, as in any specialty, is deployed as evidence of expertise.  Hence the use of no-doubt meaningful but obscure terms like “Vardon grip,” “chili-dipping,” “fade,” “draw,” “lag putt,” “medal play,” “nutted,” “flushed,” “push,” “waggle,” and on and on.

Examples of golfers’ inability to write are legion, but we’ll confine ourselves to a few.  Take the late Harvey Penick, legendary golf instructor and Yoda to a small army of successful golf pro Skywalkers.  Here’s one of his helpful tips from his best-selling The Game of a Lifetime (more a compendium of hoary anecdotes than an instruction book, but it will serve to illustrate the point):

“If your middle irons get off and you can’t figure out why, try standing a little closer to the ball.”

What does “get off” mean in this sentence? I’m sure some golfer out there will jump in and explain that, obviously, “getting off” means the ball has sliced or hooked or dribbled or dunked, but why should the uninitiated require a translator?  I’m reading this book to learn about golf; the writer should not presume that I already know what he means.

Another of my favorites involves the geometry of the swing.  Golf books are incessantly talking about whether, during the swing, the club face (which we can infer is the front of the club head, down there at the end of the shaft) should be “open” or “closed” in various circumstances, as in this from Penick:

“We would rather see the clubhead more open than shut at the top of the backswing.”

What does this mean, and why on earth has it become universal golf code?  I’ve come to infer (but please correct me if I’m wrong) that “open” means that the club face, rather than being perpendicular to the hoped-for line of ball flight, is angled away from the golfer, and that “closed” means it’s angled toward him or her. But absolutely no one explains this, lest clarity set in. And leave completely aside the mental gymnastics required to visualize the club face being open or shut at the top of the backswing – open or shut relative to what, for God’s sake, when the club face is somewhere behind your head at that point?  Occasionally the inscrutable text will be accompanied by a picture and reveal what’s being said, but then why write about it at all?

More from Penick (and this guy had a ghostwriter, mind you):

“Stay under the ball and behind it.”  Huh?

“Swing under instead of over.”  WTF?

High-handicappers “come over the top, which is a natural result of aiming to the right.”  Come again?

Occasionally the casualty in these golf books is not just clarity, but the actual laws of physics.  Here’s a gem from the otherwise admirable Why You Suck At Golf (a title of irresistible appeal to me), by Clive Scarff, explaining why you need to accelerate on the downswing:

“To ‘hug’ a path, something moving on arc must be accelerating in order to attain the benefits of centripetal force.”

Now I’m not sure what the benefits of centripetal force in a golf swing would be, but I do know that accelerating an object doesn’t generate any and doesn’t enable the object to hug a curved path.  Centrifugal force is generated by a golf swing, and I can forgive a guy (especially a golfer) for confusing the two, but please do me the favor of explaining how any of these things help me hit the ball, or avoid the pseudo-science altogether.

Another typical golf injunction, from A Golf Swing You Can Trust, by touring pro John Hoskinson:

“Make sure your legs are set in an athletic position.”

I may infer what an “athletic position” might be, but if I’m reading your instruction book in part because I might not be as instinctively athletic as you, shouldn’t you spell it out? Writers who confuse adjectives with explanations aren’t writers – they’re golfers.

The obvious rejoinder to my complaint that golfers can’t write is that you can’t just read about golf, you have to get out there and do it, stand on a practice tee and have some pro manhandle you into realizing what you should be doing with a golf club.  And I’ve had that kind of lesson, where the pro wrenches your hips this way and that in an attempt to illustrate to you what your hips should be doing when you swing, or who stands there himself and rips a nice draw and stands back and says “like that.”  All I can say is that there are different ways of learning, and some of us are programmed to learn by reading, and I’m a willing reader of above-average intelligence, and I’ve yet to find a book of golf instruction that is informatively readable.

I suspect the reason that golfers can’t write is the obverse of the reason writers can’t golf. Golfers are, in the main, rampant extroverts who love being outdoors, and rampant extroverts who love being outdoors had to be badgered into learning to read, let alone spending all the indoor solitude required to get good at writing. Introspection, a prerequisite to effective writing, is fatal on a golf course. Self-doubt and metaphorical thinking are liabilities tee-to-green.

In fact, I can think of only two traits common to both good writers and good golfers: focus and calm.  Fine traits, and good enough reason for the two species to befriend one another and spend time together.  Sometimes, on a golf course.

I’ve played a lot more golf in the last ten years than I did in the preceding 20, and I’m a slightly better and more convivial golfer as a result, due in no small part to male friends who have made it easy and fun. And one must admit that on a beautiful spring day there a few places on earth more beautiful than a well-kept golf course.

Sometime soon, I plan to start keeping score.

2 thoughts on “Why Writers Can’t Golf (and Golfers Can’t Write)

  1. Hi Keith,

    I¹ll admit I struggle with golf instruction jargon, but does this mean you didn¹t get anything out of the Rick Reilly book?

    Talk soon,

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