More on what makes golf great. And not so great.

Posted on April 11, 2010

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In the last post I sketched out some of the reasons why Tiger fans (and some Tiger haters) like golf. And by “like” in sports I don’t mean merely “enjoy” it or have a “revealed preference” for it. A true sports aficionado likes sports in the way an art-lover or wine-lover likes their thing. As an experience and appreciation with intrinsic value beyond the mere value of feeling pleasure on your couch. Not that there’s anything wrong with couch-based pleasures.

There are of course other things folks rightly enjoy about golf. A serious golfer must surely admire the sheer beauty of a perfect and powerful swing in a way that the rest of us will never appreciate. They will also have a better sense of just how difficult some kinds of shots or putts are. These things will be true of any sport. It is hard to appreciate the accomplishments if you don’t know exactly how difficult they are. (This is one reason Americans over 50 have always had a hard time appreciating soccer: if you’ve never played it, it’s just not obvious how difficult it is to place a long crossing pass and to have the other player “receive” it and keep it within a foot or two of his or her body.)

Golf is also played in a beautiful setting, especially when the courses are lovingly manicured and bathed in sunlight as they were at this year’s Masters. When well displayed — with a mix of panoramic and close-up shots, and a constrained use of graphics — this beauty provides an unexpected justification for owning a high-def, wide-screen TV.

And finally, golf has tradition. It connects us with a distant past which seems even more ancient than it actually is. The rules of the game have not changed in ways that would make the game unrecognizable in any way to a time-traveler, though the technological and physical developments of players would surely blow his mind. And in the modern (roughly post-war) era, it has meaningful record book that allows contemporaries to compete against the greatest ever.

But it is by no means a perfect sport. Tiger notwithstanding, it demands a more limited range of athletic abilities than other great sports. It is closer to curling, in this respect, than, say, basketball. It was a great story when a 60-year-old came within a stroke of winning the British Open last year. But come on, man: there’s something amiss in a sport when a 60 year-old has a shot.

The most serious shortcoming in golf as a sport, however, is the limited domain for complicated strategic rationality. That is, where players or teams compete directly against each other, and make choices that depend on how they predict their opponent will respond to those moves. By and large, with golf, you go out their and simply try to do whatever will minimize your number of strokes. If you know you are behind you can take more risks; and someone who’s ahead might take risks to build up a bigger lead in order to break the will of players trying to catch him or her. But overall, like many sequential sports (races in downhill skiing, cross-country skiing with staggered starts, figure skating, bowling) it is significantly less strategic than, say, curling. Has a commentator ever plausibly attempted to describe the back nine on day four of a major as being a “chess match on the links”?

It is partly because the sport is so much less strategic that we are forced to concentrate on the internal mental and emotional struggles of individual players. There is relatively little to talk or think about, given the slow pace of the game. In football, baseball, or even curling — sports that many Europeans find dreadfully slow, because they can’t “see” what the strategic deliberations are about — true fans and commentators have no trouble filling the time with active speculation about what the team should do next. You have just enough time to make a judgment yourself and then see if the team agreed; and ultimately if it worked. But in golf, apart from wondering about some tactical choices concerning clubs and shots in some situations, it’s mostly just a matter of waiting patiently to see if the player executes. There’s a lot on the line, and we find drama in the player’s mental and physical challenge. But for most viewers it is a relatively passive drama. More “wait and see” than “what should they do next?!”

(I won’t do it here, now, but discuss amongst yourselves: tennis trumps golf as a sport. It has the same glorious tradition and mental component, but the mental struggle is set within a much more demanding physical challenge, and the players are locked in a much more strategic cat-and-mouse chess match.)

And then there is the question of randomness. A major tournament involves roughly 280 shots, and will usually be won by less than three or four strokes. We will never explain a result by saying that the winner was “lucky” or that the loser was just “unlucky.” We will always construct a narrative that emphasizes precisely those mental qualities I wrote about previous post, especially for the winner. But still… when we watch a game we see so many instances of putts that just missed, or balls that just failed to roll into the water or the sand trap. We appreciate how much is still uncertain from the player’s own point of view when he or she has followed through after the swing. Every shot — given what the golfer can control mentally and physically — has a relatively small probability of landing right where he or she wants it to. Better golfers can increase that probability, and reduce the probability that it will drop more than 10 yards away. But it is always a question of probabilities. And the number of shots in a tournament is just not high enough to wash out the random noise.

But life is like that too. The most talented people in our fields don’t always win. Which, again, is why we can be inspired by the performances of a Tiger, a Phil, or an Annika; especially when they refuse to use “bad luck” as an excuse for quitting or shirking their own responsibility for their fate.

This Sporting Life is getting a chance to reflect on the qualities of sports and the meaningfulness of their championships as we move through the (so far mostly North American) sporting calendar. How we think about randomness — its role in generating drama, and whether it undermines the meaningfulness of victory — is becoming a bit of theme…

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