A Stick. A Ball. A Hole.

Thoughts on the Meaning of Golf.

Golf is a Paradox. 

Exhibit 1 

In 1887, James Balfour, the elder of a leading St. Andrews golf family, wrote a short book of his reminiscences on playing the Old Course between 1842-1887. Over this 45-year period, the world’s most famous golf course changed dramatically. Originally, golfers played “out” to a series of greens along a thin strip of land to the end of the property. They would then turn back to play “in” to the same series of greens in reverse order. Traffic jams were part of it, along with rules for what group got to finish the hole first.   

As golf grew in popularity towards the mid-1800’s, the traffic jams became too much, so the Old Course was eventually widened and routed into what we now know and revere. Describing this change, Balfour remarks, “This was probably unavoidable, owing to the increased number of players, but it has taken away much of the interest of the game.”  

To James Balfour, who had seen it both ways, golf was more interesting in the era of few rules, little or no grooming and with matches played out and back through traffic jams; with a few wooden clubs and a ball made of feathers.   

He’s writing this in 1887, surrounded by legends, at the Old Course, the “Home of Golf” then and ever since. In his discussion about the advancements of equipment (the “Stick” and “Ball”), he notes that he “has read these two chapters to Tom Morris, and he endorses every word of them.”

What did Tom Morris endorse? To paraphrase - in 1887, the Stick and Ball were clearly better than they were when they started playing the game. Especially the ball.   

Two messages. And a paradox.  

(1) The equipment is now considerably better, and more available, to play with than when he started playing the game. 

(2) To accommodate the growth in interest, the course was changed significantly, so much of the interest of the game has been taken away.   

Exhibit 2 

There are thousands of books about the golf swing. Thousands of people make a living teaching the golf swing. We are covered in technology and digital options to dissect every nuance of the physical act. The golf equipment industry is $7 billion and growing. The science is well-fed.   

Key Numbers: 

- 80% of golfers cannot consistently break 100.  

- Only 10% of the North American population are golfers.    

Nearly 120 years ago, Harry Vardon, the best player in the world at the time, raised in poverty and humble to an extraordinary degree, promised that, by resisting the urge to ever swing meaningfully at a ball for at least three months, maybe six, most any beginner could “be down very near to scratch at the end of his first year.”    

Conversely, he stated that any golfer who jumped in too soon would be doomed to a lifetime of bad golf.   

He wrote this in his book ‘The Complete Golfer’ in 1905. Harry Vardon was the most famous golfer in the world when he wrote that. The book was very popular. He was essentially telling newbies not to dive in with their money and enthusiasm. He was a professional golfer who made his living from this money and enthusiasm. He stressed sacrifice and patience; you learn the game incrementally, one club at a time.   

What happened? Golf boomed between then and 1930. Men and women from all tiers of society were trying it out, many through Vardon’s book. The golden age of golf architecture flowed from Old Tom to the US through Donald Ross and C.B. Macdonald.    

The shafts were hickory and the balls were rubber. Still, a bunch of friends and golf course designers from Philadelphia were making golf holes that to this day qualify as some of the toughest in the world. There was obviously a lot of good golf that wanted to be tested.   

Exhibit 3 

Back in the 90's, when I could still play a bit, I fell in love with my Great Big Bertha and took great delight in how far I could hit it. It was lighter, so I could swing even harder. Square it up and it was 20 yards farther and very pretty to watch. Over the next ten years, I swung harder still with every new driver. And I went from a 4 handicap to a 10 - “Yada yada  I crushed one 320 yards and hit a 5-iron to 20 feet for eagle on number 11 . . . yada yada 6 penalty strokes . . . yada yada 83.”   

There was also a course building boom going on, which exploded with the advent of Tiger, so I was playing a whole bunch of the latest and greatest. I had no feeling for any of them.   

Eventually, my interest in Golf fell off a cliff. I did not understand why.   

And now my interest is suddenly back, in the strangest of times. Locked in my house for long periods of time, like so many others, I went through a golf renaissance. For me, that included looking closely at golf’s beginnings, including the earliest pictures of the very small group of caddies at St. Andrews. Here was the lightning bolt. Now, I understood why my own interest had waned.   

Perusing the golf anecdotes from 19th century Scotland, I realized that my own excitement for golf, like those caddies, is linked inexorably to the little piece of land I learned it on. My best golf experiences happened as I gradually overcame the challenges of that initial piece of land. At the beginning, every shot was a potential surprise and not a disappointment.   

The key word – “inexorably”. Unalterable.    

It is the course – the "Hole" – that provides the initial wonder and excitement. One’s initial passion for the golfing land keeps them in awe of it forever. Golf’s key barrier to overcome is how to instill this passion at the outset. Otherwise, the new golfer’s first relationship is with the "science", cold and intimidating.

Get a group of friends into a competitive situation with a common Stick, a Ball and a Hole and Golf’s true meaning is revealed. Friendship and competition on a unique and cherished piece of land.   

In time, as the golfer matures in the sport, the Stick and the Ball may become the primary interest. That’s where golf repels most of the non-golfers. It introduces the embarrassment of the wrong equipment and dress even before it introduces the embarrassment of trying to hit the ball.

A Stick. A Ball. A Hole.  

The Stick. Man-made. 

The Ball. Man-made. 

The Hole. In the ground, waiting there forever.   

There are endless ways to make this interesting. The Scots who first embraced golf thought so. Each Scottish village built the best golf experience possible on their unique piece of otherwise unusable linksland – regardless of the number of holes. The courses were known for their eccentricities and the local golfers mastered those oddities to their advantage in exciting matches against outsiders. Bunkers and mounds had names, usually with tragic stories attached to them.   

Modern Golf   

The alternate path is to evolve the Stick and Ball - and to make nature conform to the resulting changes. This unnatural conformation is the essence of “Modern Golf” - something that’s golf, but also something unnatural and stale. 

- 80% of golfers can’t consistently break 100 

- Only 10% of people golf

- Thousands of books and teachers 

- Launch monitors. YouTube videos 

- $7B industry

All the technology and scientific dissection. And yet, Vardon saying, quite confidently and unscientifically in 1905, “there is no reason why anyone should despair of becoming either a scratch player, or one who is somewhere very near it, and it is as easy to learn to play well as it is to learn to play badly.”   

Currently, there’s a global Golf boom. It turns out that its beginning aligns perfectly with the pandemic, so the learning so far is . . . going out golfing is better than sitting at home or wearing a mask. 

Will the golf boom last? It seems to me that if Golf remains constant, the boom will last as long as golf is more fun than lockdowns. But one day normalcy will return and Golf will again compete with normal life.   

If normalcy returns, without a significant change in perspectives, we should expect that Golf should go back into decline. Too time-consuming. Too expensive. Too difficult. The Stick and the Ball – the Science - own the industry. You can also add the Environment to the Science team.    

Science is a bully. Therefore, so is Golf. Bullies are irrational tyrants. Science thinks it can make everyone break 70. And yet, its approach spawns monster golf courses where few can break 100.

For all those who don’t golf, I feel there will only be more and more disdain for the game’s exclusivity. There will certainly be no sympathy for the Golf Industry whatsoever in matters involving the Environment.   

At one point, you must think that governments will look askew at that 10% participation number and start changing the use of municipal golf properties. Government has already shown an appetite to jump in to oppose course builders on environmental matters. It gets them elected and that’s not going away.   

Exhibit 4 – “Hope” 

Q: “So, why on earth would you form a golf company?” 

A: Because there will always be an incredible appetite for hitting a Ball with a Stick into a Hole.   

Look at these caddies.  

broken image

The first thing that strikes you is that tailoring in the 19th century must have been truly lacking. But, that’s not what you’re looking at. You’re looking at a bunch of enthralled kids, many whose enthusiasm for golf started in the actual streets of the town and compelled them onto the proper links laid out by the upper classes.   

These are the local working class whose lot was to serve the upper classes. In golf, that meant as caddies and ball and club makers. This particular group in St. Andrews quickly won over the leisure classes, by their superior golf and by their character. Once they earned that respect, they went out all over the country to build new courses in their image to spread the game.   

broken image

Each one of these working men could likely afford but one nice suit of clothes. For church and life’s special occasions. To be allowed to carry the clubs of the wealthy gentlemen on the golf links, they had to dress like respectable gentlemen. That meant wearing a suit. Where they got their “golf suits” is anyone’s guess, but there were clearly no tailors involved.   

There’s a meaning here. They got access to the land by making their own equipment. They satisfied the basic dress requirements. Once they got access to the land, their enthusiasm made them better at the game than the members. They installed their land-obsessed version of the game all over the UK and eventually golf found its way to the US and boomed across all classes.

There were bound to be losers. James Balfour's attachment to the first version of the Old Course was broken.

There’s nothing special about the invention of Golf. Give any group of children a cane, a cork and a bit of land and they will invent something close. In its earliest form, it will be the most fun and competitive. I remember when we invented golf as little kids, using hockey sticks, a tennis ball and an old can.

It was all about where we put the can.