(Tuesday, August 21, 2001)
As I stood on the green this morning watching my son practice hitting golf balls, it struck me that it really doesn’t take much to qualify as a sport any more in America.
As a summer activity the boy has taken up golf; first came golf lessons and now he likes to go to the practice greens some mornings and hit a bucket full of balls, one by one by one by one. Although I am anti-golf, I supported this activity because it seemed to be a decent activity for a seven year old with lots of summer vacation time on his hands. It’s something he will have to work at in order to become competent, and after becoming competent at it, some people seem to enjoy golf. To each his own.
I cannot hide my distaste for golf. Yet, I did not force the issue either way. And when he asked once why I never swing at the little white ball, I told him the story of Kenny Roberts taking Eddie Lawson golfing once back in the mid-1980s.
Roberts is an accomplished golfer and thought Lawson would enjoy it. Racer lore has it that Lawson made it to just two holes, when he suddenly looked at Roberts and asked, “Are you out of your mind? Is this some kind of a joke? Are you serious that you do this?!” Lawson then tossed the clubs, and walked back to his car. There’s another version where Lawson throws the clubs into a nearby pond, and that’s the one I laid on the kid.
“Do you think they’re still there, in the pond, I mean?,” he asked.
“Yeah, I don’t know,” I said, thinking to myself ‘you can bet your ass Lawson didn’t go get them’.
“Because we could go get them, and you wouldn’t have to buy me a set of clubs,” the kid said.
Fighting a losing battle I am, as Yoda might say.
There are always other people at the driving range when we hit it, even early on Sunday mornings. They all seem to take the activity of golf amazingly serious.
I study them. They do not speak, they analyze their motions down to the last detail, and some even set up cam-corders on tripods and shoot footage of themselves to later be analyzed. Whenever I see these cam-corder types, I always try to walk through their shooting area at some point, and just when I’m in focus, I scratch my ass, in the most exaggerated way I can without getting arrested. Just my way of adding to the already ridiculous behavior.
Two men who were hitting balls by us once broke the silence by discussing another friend of theirs who golfed, but they refused to play with because he was “too competitive”. “He takes this sport too seriously,” one said, while they both shook their heads in agreement.
I said nothing but pondered that sentence. Golf is not a sport. Golf is an activity, like bowling, throwing horseshoes and playing dominoes. It takes skill, talent and practice to be good. But it is not a sport.
The difference between a true sport and an activity is that true sports have the added dimension of real danger to them. To be a pure sport, there must be a chance that if things go horribly wrong you may get your pelvis smashed or your life stolen away. True sports require skill, talent and practice, and they also require bravery. Some true sports carry the risk that if things go wrong, your body will momentarily lose control of its bowels. True sports require that participants know these dangers going in, but willingly take part anyway.
Almost a long time ago, my friends and I listened to a man in a crowded bar as he told us about a softball game he had played in that afternoon. Mid-sentence, one of my oldest friends stopped him and said succinctly, “Hey buddy, if it don’t go 150 mph, I don’t want to know about it, okay?”. We loudly toasted his honor for saying what we all felt, as the ballplayer walked away.
This morning I slumped on the steel bag support as the kid whacked away at the balls, the grass and the dirt. An older fellow carrying a bag of clubs walked towards us and then past us, and as he passed I said, “Hi, how’s it going?”.
He said nothing. He looked down at my clothes, which today happen to be a circa 1993 Yoshimura Suzuki t-shirt, shorts and deck shoes, no socks.
He looked at my motorcycle shirt, then looked at my face and kept walking. He looked like a thinner Ernest Hemingway, sort of, with white hair, tanned skin and piercing eyes.
Hemingway said it better than anyone: “There are only three true sports,” he wrote, “bull fighting, rock climbing and motor racing. The rest are merely games.”