The Essence of an Ancient Game
Why The Masters has nothing to do with the golf the rest of us play
The Masters is complete. We have a winner, a major champion. The official professional golf season has begun. For those of us who love the game, it is always glorious to watch the final round on TV and celebrate the uncanny skills and abilities of golf’s greatest competitors. And even if you are not a golfer, The Masters is a symbol of spring and is revered as one of the greatest events in sports.
But The Masters is not golf, not the golf most of us know.
If you play the game, you likely have walked far more fairways of common rye grass than the cultivated blades of bent grass. You likely have never played with a caddy carrying your bag. You’ve never had to make a putt worth thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of dollars. What we do have in common with those who play the game professionally is the game’s spirit. Still, I would contend that golf’s spirit is far more alive on the grounds of your local municipal course than along the hallowed fairways of Augusta National.
For those who do not play the game, it can be difficult to understand a player’s obsession with golf. To the outsider the game looks ridiculously slow, takes half-a-day to play, and costs too much. And it’s a hard game. Very hard.
But those who have attempted to play golf and have fallen tired and frustrated by it, may be going about it all wrong. To understand the true nature of the game, to enjoy it to its fullest and discover its beauty, one must give up the notion that you can conquer it.
You can’t. So, stop trying.
Instead, most of us might do well to consider the game differently. Think of it as essentially a nature walk, a contemplative stroll on good land, using your mind to find some level of grace and calmness. This is the ultimate essence of the game. Not the score. Not how far you hit the ball. Not whether you can beat your opponents. Those are matters for the professional golfer, the ones who play at The Masters.
It is often said that golf is a metaphor for life. How you handle the good and bad shots says something about how you navigate life’s ups and downs. Playing golf can help you discover the road away from the ego and toward a sense of thankfulness—thankful for the great outdoors, for a slow methodical walk, for the crisp air in a morning round. Golf reminds us how to be grateful.
In my novella Sandman: A Golf Tale, a talented young man questions why he plays the game, believes there must be more to it than the never-ending quest to tally your best score, hit your longest drive, beat your friends. It is not those who see the boy’s unique skills who help him find his true connection to golf. It’s instead a homeless man who hangs out near the course, a man with a remarkable and secret connection to the game. It’s only when the boy begins to investigate the man’s life that he finds answers to questions about golf’s true meaning and about the mysteries of living a good life.
I first was introduced to the game as a boy by my father, like so many others. Even in the first encounters with the game, I began its see that it was unique. It started with a neat little trick my father would perform. He first would miraculously balance one golf ball on another. Then, using a sand wedge he would hit the bottom ball, sending the top ball high into the air. As the ball fell, my father with one graceful motion, would catch the ball in the chest pocket of his shirt. Over and over, I would ask him to show me that trick. One time, when I was a little older and he had performed it for what seemed the millionth time, he took the ball from his pocket and looked at me with purpose. “You know, this is not really what golf is about,” he said. “It’s not about tricks and gimmicks.”
He looked away for a moment, as if trying to fully understand what he was saying.
“It’s really not a game,” he said. “It’s about your mind, about controlling your emotions, about determination, and staying focused. Understanding yourself. About nature and a good walk.”
A few years before my father died, he was no longer performing his trick. Instead, I was the one who had taken to attempting it. But I couldn’t quite get the delicate precision or the slowness of mind it required. Then one day while trying to perform the trick before my own two young sons, I finally was able to balance the two balls and take a careful swing. The first ball flew beyond me with grace, almost in slow motion, and the second climbed into the air, floating like a leaf in the wind. My golf shirt didn’t have a pocket, so instead, I caught the ball in the palm of my hand.
“Wow,” my son said. “Can you do that again?”
I smiled and asked, “You want to try hitting some balls at the driving range?”
I don’t remember if we headed to the range that day or the next, but eventually we arrived there and hit ball after ball. My sons are now 29 and older, and are not much into golf these days, certainly not like their father, but I believe they understood then and understand now what the game means to their dad, how it transcends sport, and how The Masters, with all its history and golf glory, has little to do with why we get up before the sun on a Saturday morning to meet our friends for a long walk on the green dewy grass of our favorite neighborhood links.