Web Exclusives: The Varsity Typewriter
a PAW web exclusive column by Patrick Sullivan '02 (email: pas@princeton.edu)

May 15, 2002:
A walk in the Woods way

Golf — always the same, but never the same

By Patrick Sullivan '02

Mark Twain once said that "golf is a good walk spoiled."

While I am in no position to argue with the great American bard, I would humbly counter that golf is a good walk made better.

It’s a game of inches, of concentration, and of frustration. No matter the how physically talented any athlete is, all first-time players are equalized by this incredible game. There is no such thing as a "typical" golfer. Short (Cory Pavin), tall (Tiger Woods and Greg Norman), fat and drunk (John Daly) — golfers come in all shapes and sizes. Golf requires internal finesse — chess with a stick on a 1000-acre board where so much can go wrong. You don’t need large forearms or strong legs to be good. Rather, concentration, focus, and precision are your tools of choice. A good driver might also come in handy.

In writing this column, I hope only to illustrate my love of a game that people often liken to a nicotine addiction. Once you’re hooked, you cannot stop playing. Golf — like nicotine — will beat you before you conquer it. As many people as there are that love golf, there are probably equally as many who detest it as much as second-hand smoke in a restaurant. There’s no middle ground in the debate, either: Who isn’t a smoker but "doesn’t mind" second-hand smoke?

I grew up around the game of golf. Not as a silver-spooned country club member, but as a slave . . . er . . . caddie at an exclusive golf club in my town. At the age of 13, I began schlepping bags for cigar-smoking, old-money bankers. Not yet through the growing pains of puberty, I’d stagger around the beautifully manicured course, a sticky faux-leather bag strapped to my back. "Here’s your nine-iron, sir" and "would you like me to tend the pin?" A championship golf course is typically more than a five-mile walk, and much more if you’re following a golfer who plays "army golf" (left, right, left). Needless to say, my first "job" was a literal backbreaker. I’d come home at night, convinced that my foot arches had collapsed from all that walking.

Maybe Twain was on to something here . . .

I initially hated the game, a natural reaction to my sore back and tired legs, combined with the measly $18 payment per caddied round. A dollar per hole of agony hardly seemed worth the trouble. But gradually — as I, and my wages, grew — my loathing turned to respect, my respect to enjoyment, and my enjoyment to thorough addiction. After nine years as a caddie, I have learned to love and respect a game that simply cannot be mastered. I’ve carried thousands of golf bags, observed hundreds of golfers, seen just about every shot imaginable, and yet I still obsess about the game.

Why, after all this time around the game of golf, would I possibly still love it so much?

Simply, every round is a new experience. Football fields don’t change sizes. Basketball rims are always 10 feet tall. Golf is different. Every swing results in a unique outcome, a new lie on the fairway (or in my case, the rough), a different wind direction. Should I play it safe or shoot directly for the pin? Will the wind affect my ball flight? If I don’t remember to turn my hips, I’ll slice, so I need to watch that. Keep your head down. If the ball is above your feet, you’re prone to hooking. Don’t bend your wrists at the top of the back swing…

You get the idea. Try remembering 40 things you need to do correctly in hopes of hitting the desired shot. Now make it difficult: you have to remember them all — in order — in the time it takes to swing. Good luck!

Golf will humble the best player, reward the worst, and torture the majority of willing masochists. All it takes is one good shot per round to keep somebody coming back. A purely struck six-iron on the 14th hole feels incredible. You make solid connection, take a small divot, stop at the top of your back swing, pose, and watch intently as the white sphere hurtles 170 yards forward, landing softly on the green, 10 feet from the pin. Even if you take four putts to hole out, the proverbial "golf gods" have injected their potion into your veins: You’ll come back the next time, perfectly willing to subject yourself to 90 some swings if only to make that one gratifying shot.

I often wish I were good enough to be a professional golfer. Consider the 18th hole of the Masters Tournament, two weeks ago. Tiger Woods stood over a 12-foot birdie putt, already assured of capturing the coveted Green Jacket. The crowd sat motionless and silent as he prepared to play. As soon as the club touched the ball, ten thousand people erupted euphorically, standing and shouting, willing his golf ball into the cup. Even from my 13-inch television in my dorm room, I felt the chills of that moment. To be that good — to be that adept at the single hardest, most mentally frustrating game of our time — seems a rare, almost superhuman skill. Mastering (no pun intended) golf takes more concentration and persistence than almost any other sport in the world. Only the most select group of golfers can achieve such confidence in this mind-game.

Yet at the same time, I enjoy the smaller aspects of a round of golf, pleasantries that Tiger or David Duvall often miss in their high-pressure tournaments. Lately I’ve been playing a lot with my friends. We all bought student memberships to Springdale Golf Club. Whereas in March, the afternoons found us cramped in our musky Firestone carrels, we now subject ourselves to a different variety of torture: the afternoon nine-hole round.

My daily foursome defines the word "hacker." All of us have, at one point or another, hit that perfect shot — that one swing per round that feels effortless. More frequently, our group has been known to throw clubs (accidentally and deliberately), hit other golfers, bounce shots off buildings, miss one-foot putts, and even — on only one occasion — fall over after a swing. We don’t exactly play pretty golf. But when was the last time you saw Davis Love III laugh at his playing partner for knocking himself over after a particularly vicious swing? For as painfully frustrating as golf can be, equally hilarious moments often befall the average afternoon hacker.

But amidst coping with our less than professional golf skills, we still manage to enjoy golf for its simpler and less frustrating aspects. Four friends can spend an afternoon outside, catching up, swapping stories, and talking about plans for next year. Take away the golf, and in my opinion that still seems like a good walk. Then add a mentally challenging game of risk, reward, and frustration, the camaraderie of three friends and the elusive hopes of someday breaking 80 for 18 holes, and that walk becomes even better.

Like Tiger, when I stand over a shot and execute it well, I too hear the approval of the gallery. Its not 10,000 screaming fans but three good friends and a simple "nice shot." That is all the nicotine I need to fuel my addiction: My idea of a good walk is to stroll down a fairway, putter in hand, after a well-played golf shot.


You can reach Patrick at pas@princeton.edu.