Why do we golf?

Is it the fun-horrible fashions we get to wear? The visors? Addiction, obsession, the pursuit of perfection…? Here, two philosophy professors indulge Kingdom’s existential questions and offer insights on why we torture ourselves.

Short answer: We might (not) be nuts

By Reade Tilley

As the great René Desgolfcartes once said: “golfo, ergo bogeyo,” and yet he continued to play, unnecessarily subjecting himself to frustration and pain every weekend. What was he thinking? Or rather, what are we thinking, for while Desgolfcartes never existed, the rest of us certainly do (I think). We labor to put a ball in a hole, then we take it out and put it in another hole. Why? After years of repetitive stress injuries to my ego I was compelled to look for answers, and so I reached out to two professors of philosophy with expertise in the philosophy of sport: Dr. W. Thomas Schmid of UNC Wilmington, and Dr. Christopher Yorke at The Open University. Here’s what they had to say: “You’re crazy.”

Well, no, they didn’t say that. Not exactly. In fact, it appears there could be more to this game than meets the id. The good news: You’re probably not a masochist. You might be revisiting your childhood, honing your warrior skills or doing something that makes sense only to you. Your answer might or might not be in this conversation but, if nothing else, I hope that this helps you to form a more eloquent response the next time someone asks you: Why do you golf?

What’s The Point?

“Getting a ball in a hole… There’s nothing intrinsically valuable about that state of affairs,” says Wolfe, referencing Bernard Suits, a key 20th century figure in the philosophy of games. “One of the things Suits talks about is, ‘the prelusory goal.’ In golf, for example, that would be getting a ball in a hole, but we don’t seek ball-filled holes as a species, that is not something we put a high priority on. Even golfers, they don’t just want ball-filled holes, otherwise they would just carry the ball to the hole and put it in. Suits puts it to the reader, saying, ‘Look, why are we being technically unintelligent here? Why are we making it harder for ourselves to achieve the prelusory goal, introducing the golf club and obstacles between having a ball and putting it in a hole?’ Sports and games are the kinds of activities that are interested in process more than product. If any sport is valuable it’s because of the difficulty it generates that we can savor trying to overcome. Suits talks about a ‘Goldilocks’ zone, a zone in which a good game exists. On the one side, ‘Impossible Golf,’ where the hole is the size of a pinhole. On the other side, the hole is a meteor crater and it’s too easy. So over time we have this sport that’s built up over an appropriately difficult activity wherein the value that we ascribe to it is ascribed to it on the virtue of that difficulty; and for some reason we find this intrinsically valuable.”

“As far as when it began, that’s an anthropological theme,” offers Schmid, author of Golf As Meaningful Play and a self-described weekend warrior type of golfer (Wolfe does not play). “People have been throwing rocks or spears or aiming things at targets probably for as long as there have been people, and golf is kind of a target sport in one way. It also has problems, and we’re a problem-solving animal. It’s part of a very ancient beginning in what it is that composes human beings, and yet with sport you get something new, you’re taken out of the practical world. You’re no longer trying to spear a deer, you’re trying to hit the little ball into a little hole, and if you get it in you jump up and down, and if you mess it up you go screaming off the green (or maybe you don’t, fortunately). The passions involved are related to this very ancient sort of structure of human life, which is to try to bring something about consciously, to carry out a physical activity that achieves an end.”

Does Golf Impart Ethics?

You’ve heard it said before and you might have said it yourself, some version of “golf makes you a better person,” but Wolfe and Schmid aren’t convinced.

“In general, ethics is not something that you can learn except by making a decision to be an ethical person,” says Schmid. “I’m sure there are pros who are infinitely greater golfers than you or I will ever be, but at some point they realized they were leading messed-up lives and that golf wasn’t helping them. And in fact, they had to straighten out their personal lives before they could get better in their golf games, so the idea that golf leads to ethics or that ethics is something you can teach seems to me to be a little iffy. You can certainly give people rules, you can certainly model good behavior, but I’ve seen grown men move the ball in a trap out of a situation when it was completely unnecessary, and they were just cheating to get ahead… I do think that there’s a way in which you can play the game of golf ‘right’ and there can be an ethical dimension to it, but it seems to me that people probably have to learn that themselves and it comes at very different parts of their lives.”

Wolfe concurs. “There’s a philosophy of emotivism, where you think that all of morality boils down to things you think are morally good—the things that make you go ‘Yay!’ And the things you don’t like, you give them a negative moral charge. Whenever I hear someone putting golf on a pedestal—‘It’s the best way to instill moral values!’—what I’m hearing is just a little bit like ‘Yay golf!’ Unless you have some sort of study showing that golf really is the best methodology for implicating virtues, it’s hard to say that golf gives more value or structure to people’s lives than darts or field hockey.

“I guess what you could say if you were going down that line, is that there’s human ingenuity baked into golf at every level. Someone has to create and curate golf courses, and each one is slightly different, and it’s not a standardized course where no matter where you play you’re bringing the same techniques to bear. Each golf course will bring something from you and give you something unique to appreciate. I’ll refer to [philosopher] Jon Pike and affordance theory. An affordance is any interface of an organism in their environment that allows the potential for action. If you have a different course with different traps and obstacles, each course is going to open up a unique set of affordances; those affordances will allow for the expression of human capacities in slightly different ways. I wouldn’t say that would give you a sufficient theoretical foundation to tout golf as the morally superior form of sport, but there is an interesting curiosity about it for the aesthetic appreciation rather than, say, the moral elevation.”

What About A Spiritual Component?

Wolfe and Schmid aren’t psychologists or spiritual gurus, but I was curious what they thought of people who claim a spiritual element to golf, from those who say simply that they find peace clear through to the Shivas Irons Society and golfers who claim to have seen Hindu deities on course.

Wolfe is direct: “There are people who see the face of Jesus in burnt toast. Why should golf be any different? Why shouldn’t people have transcendental manifestations when they tee off? If you play enough rounds of golf with enough people over enough time, they will occur and then become part of the story of the game.”

Schmid’s view isn’t entirely dissimilar: “If you’re talking about somebody who is certain that God is out there on the golf course, I would refer them to Caddyshack and the minister who discovered that maybe God wasn’t 100% on his side and therefore said there is no God.

“There are these moments in sport that seem transcendent, right? A soccer player kicks a ball backwards and it’s the perfect goal, then he scores another one and then a third. Michael Jordan making long distance shots over and over again… This is the ‘in the zone’ experience, and some people tend to associate this with feelings of transcendence. They’re so in tune with the experience it’s not like they’re trying to do something, it’s like something is coming through them. There’s this aspect of transcendence, but if there’s a relationship with religion it has to be related to humility, and there’s an aspect to golf to develop a sense of humility, and the moral aspect has to be related to your sense of community and the kind of community you can form in playing golf, the mutual pleasure that you can take in your friends’ success. There certainly is an aesthetic meaning in golf, but I don’t know; religion is not just about the presence of God, it’s also about the yearning for that kind of wholeness in one’s life and in the things you do, and the realization that we don’t achieve that wholeness; we maybe have intonations of it, but I don’t know that we really get there on a golf course.”

Is Golf Bad For Me?

“The game can be played in a way that enhances its feelings of freedom or feelings of constraint,” Schmid says. “Are you drawing on it to enhance your life or are you taking it in a way that doesn’t enhance your life? And for a lot of golfers, I think very often it really doesn’t enhance their life much. They become rabidly perfectionist about the game, they go out and come home angry because they play angry, they’re too competitive with their playing partners, they don’t appreciate a lot of the aspects of the game that are not simply making the lowest score and winning the match, and I think that’s destructive. There, too, it can be escapist. You can lose sight of how the game ought to fit into your life. Also, people can delude themselves, they can think things like, ‘If I can only get to a 6 handicap I will be a better person’… There are a lot of ways you can get screwed up in golf.”

Can My Playing Golf Create Goodness?

“There’s something that Gwen Bradford [professor of philosophy at Rice University] dabbles in,” Wolfe explains. “She has a book called Achievement in which she discusses amare bonum bonus, ‘to love the good is good.’ You could say that if there is value in sport, in golf for example, and it’s good to achieve things under difficult circumstances, then loving the good would also be good. I suppose spectators enjoying this second order of good, of seeing the good exhibited, could also receive benefit.”

Am I Wasting My Time?

“Big organized sport began, in many ways, under conditions where people had to work enormous hours,” says Schmid. “If you think of the beginnings of soccer, you think of golf or baseball or other sports in the 19th century, people worked really hard at a lot of jobs that weren’t particularly meaningful, and then they had some leisure time, and sport became this venue, this arena, in which they could perform, in which they could display excellence, test themselves. There were a lot of opportunities for friendships that weren’t hierarchical, relationships where you weren’t being told what to do by your foreman or whatever. That and the qualities of life that are available in that kind of free and yet still skill-related environment…

“Golf is in this incredible garden filled with hazards and filled with beautiful opportunities, and so it’s quite a beautiful place just as a physical setting, and as a temporal setting it’s time apart. I would emphasize that when you think of it that way, it’s a return to youth, a return to when life was simpler and having fun wasn’t something that you only could do when you had time off, so I think that’s part of it. If we are looking for need, those are some of the things that speak to our need for venues as human beings, venues in which we can experience freedom, can experience achievement, can experience friendship, and golf is like that.”

Wolfe, likewise, offers some reassuring perspective when it comes to spending time on course: “Imagine if we had a life that was simply an ant’s life, we only did things that were scratching itches and this kind of thing, we do x to get y, so there’s a product at the end of every one of those activities. For Suits, he says this kind of life actually takes out of existence what makes life worth living. If there’s anything that makes life worth living, it’s something that we choose because we want to do it, something we find valuable in and of itself. It’s following Aristotle’s discussion of value. Where golf is chosen among competing activities it must be chosen because of its importance to that person. We shouldn’t see golf or any other sport in terms of what it gives to our working life—‘it is valuable because it helps me work through business problems,’ or something like that. To Suits and myself, that is completely the wrong way to view it. What I would say is that the proof is in the playing: The fact that people play golf is evidence of its value.”

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