I don't know what a stimpmeter looks like, or the proper way to measure my stimp, or how to tell bentgrass from bermuda from bahia, or Bob May from Bob May from Brad Faxon from Joey Maxon. But I do know what I like, and I like golf. Thank goodness, because golf is unavoidable. Gaze down from any airplane, and you'll see—green with chemicals, groomed by rakes, visible from space—touring pro John Daly. You'll also see lots of golf courses.
I hate myself for loving golf, so I play it with guilt, which begins at the bag drop, where an attendant (he's either eight or 87) humps my clubs to a cart. What could look worse than letting Methuselah labor beneath the leviathan weight of your Rodney-in-Caddyshack bag? Answer: nor letting him. "He'd carry a steamer trunk up the stairs," a writer once said of skinflint baseball skipper Jeff Torborg, "to save a two-dollar tip to a bellhop." So I grease the geezer and feel even worse, as if I were putting a five-spot in my grandpa's birthday card.
Country clubs compound my guilt, filled as they are with all manner of manservants: lawn mowers, locker attenders, lob wedge polishers. (Ball washer, I was relieved to learn, is a mechanical device and not, like dishwasher, an undignified job description.) All are there to assist me in some way, though my average score resembles a near fatal fever. So I sprint through the clubhouse after every round, maniacally throwing dollar bills from a grocery sack, like Rip Taylor tossing confetti.
That does little to alleviate the guilt, because golf is institutionally elitist and economically exclusionary, with an abysmal record of racism. (Until a few years ago the only black golfer known to most Americans was O.J. Simpson.) There is much else to dislike about the game—golf jokes, golf shirts and golf books, which continue to spread like the grass diseases that doom golf courses: red thread (Laetisaria fuciformis), brown patch (Rhizoctonia solani) and gray leaf spot (Pyricularia grisea). Did I mention golf bores (Watercooleris longwindea), who endlessly rehash their rounds in the office and take an unwholesome interest in agronomy?
Televised golf leaves me further embarrassed to be a golf fan, at least during the soft-focus "essays"—set to a tinkling piano—that always include the same purple phrases in voice-over: the "gentle undulations" of a "softly sloping green" framed by "aromatic azaleas" and "whispering pines" stirred by "soft ocean breezes" and the "sweet caress of a six-iron" and Yes I said yes I will Yes!
Sorry. Where were we? Oh, right: I love golf in spite of its many pretensions, and I'd happily eat my Ben Hogan Apex Edge undercut cavity-back forged four-iron if only I could golf without being a golfer. Because the game itself is full of simple pleasures. I love planting the flagstick after putting out, as if I've just landed on Iwo Jima. I love seeing my footprints on a dew-soaked green: They look like an Arthur Murray dance chart for something called the Four-Putt. I love the names they give bunkers in Scotland: Heaved Haggis, Barrister's Bottom, the Vicar's Knickers, etc.
I love to play a horrible round on a Mojave-hot day and see (through a heat haze) the beer cart appear over a rise in the rough, like the cavalry come to my rescue. I love golf gadgets and will buy anything advertised on a golf infomercial. A few years ago Luis Gonzalez, now of the Arizona Diamondbacks, described to me the new driver he had purchased at two in the morning while watching such an infomercial. "It has holes in the head!" he said. "It whistles like a train when you swing it!" But how exactly does the club help you? an eavesdropper asked. Slowly, as if speaking to a child, Gonzo replied, "It whistles like a train when you swing it!"
Perhaps my head has holes in it, but I understood completely. Because nothing is more satisfying in all of sports—and thus there is no greater pursuit—than the perfectly struck drive. "You know," a friend of mine remarked last week, "I can hit a seven-iron farther than Mark McGwire can hit a baseball." He's right. A prodigious 500-foot homer is an easy 167-yard eight-iron; likewise, a 340-yard drive is almost twice the length of the longest home run ever hit. When it comes to the primordial pleasure of propelling an object as far as possible, you (an average, amateur, weekend golfer) are McGwire and Mantle rolled into one.
So I'll live with the guilt. Because while I'm cutting smiles into range balls, they're doing exactly the same to me.