“Let’s go out and play” is not an expression we associate with adults, yet adults are eager, even desperate, to play. Play could transport us from the sedentary earnestness that can make up so much of our lives. It could refresh us and inject an element of amusement into our ordinary activities. In early societies, many games, rituals and entertainments served such a role in community life.
We want to play, but damn if we seem to know how. Just go to one of our cavernous book palaces these days. The atmosphere is playful (Ah! Let’s play. Let’s browse. Let’s buy.), but the content is deadly serious. Let’s achieve something in business, in child rearing, politically, socially, spiritually, literarily, and above all in sport, which is often the achievement metaphor for all the rest.
After I had the obligatory latte on my first visit to the latest big book carnival, I was drawn to the golf section (Imagine, an entire section!). Nearly every selection was bent on achievement but almost none on appreciation and enjoyment. By most accounts, the thing to do with a sport is to apply the Desert Storm dictum: “Let’s choke it off and kill it.”
As I watch people take up golf in their late thirties and forties, I’m often struck by the seriousness that arises in the face of the inherent silliness that is golf. Golf is indeed tricky to learn, but in the end it’s a sport, desporter, a diversion, a time apart, a walk in the woods interrupted by ridiculous outbursts. When you stray too far from that, the colorfully veiled desperation that drives the sporting “industry” takes over, and the pursuit of golf becomes something almost pathetic.
Seriousness is the death of play. We can all remember the experience we had as children when a game got out of hand. One person takes it too seriously and then another and before you know it, you have a fight on your hands. What began as enjoyment turned into struggle. If it happens often enough, struggle becomes a way of life.
I had the good fortune to learn golf at a playful age. When I was eight, I took my first lesson from Art Edgar, a Scottish golf pro, at a club in Scotland, Pennsylvania. Art was lanky and hawkish like Ben Hogan and delivered his instructions in a thick but gentle brogue. On day one, I and about ten other children were whacking mostly dirt, but under his tutelage slowly we saw the ball take flight. Everyone loves flight.
Seized by that primal urge, I played golf in every available moment. I lived it and breathed it. Slapping plastic balls in the backyard. Taking balls out to vacant lots and hitting them hour after hour. Caddying for others and learning the pace of the game-long stretches of silence punctuated by bursts of conviviality. There was great solace in all that. I could never handle the baseball or football coach screaming epithets when you screwed up, but I could make the little white ball take flight. I could pick a target and hit it.
Inevitably, I got involved in competition and managed to secure a place on the high school golf team. Not an exalted place, but a place nonetheless. This ensured you an entire day off on the day before a match and on the day of the match itself. A day in school was no match for a day on the golf course.
The second year I naturally tried out again, but this time on a new and unfamiliar course. On the last day, I exploded on the fourth hole, scoring a nine. For the remainder of the day I struggled to regain my composure and my place on the team. On the final hole, I lost to my opponent by one stroke, as hoots of joy sprang up from several of his friends.
Black with despondence, I sped home on the hilly back roads near Fayetteville, Pennsylvania, trying to out-race my depression. Suddenly, my visual field turned black as the hood of my ’53 Chevy sprang up and bent over the roof. Screeching and fishtailing, I pulled the car over, tied the hood down and limped home, where my father put the car in the garage for good. What was supposed to be making me happy had made me miserable. Whatever joy I had felt with Art Edgar was sapped dry. I hung up my golf sticks and gave up the game.
That memory stuck. It took me decades to shake the seriousness that clouded my appreciation of golf. Actually playing—playing—golf was a childhood memory. As an adult, I found I had to pursue it and conquer it, even though the fickleness of the game always defeated my ambitions.
There’s the great irony and the great secret of golf’s allure, and perhaps the allure of any sport. Playfulness is what lends sport its subtlety, grace, and enjoyment. It transcends the equipment fetishes, the overly coiffed courses made for TV viewing, the books and magazines, the endless drivel of the announcers, the Calvinistic rule-worship, the haughtiness of the country club set, and the over-spiritualization of the Zen-in-the-art-of crowd.
Wandering in a field hitting crab apples with a wooden-shafted iron after a glass of scotch can bring all the joy one needs from sport. No book and no membership credentials required, just a simple sense of how it all began.
Surely, when struggle has eclipsed delight, even in play, we need to take a closer look.