Golf Things Considered column by John Rogers
Golf was once considered an elitist, old man’s sport, a world where diversity meant little more than whatever variety of hideous colors made up the players’ plaid pants. But as things go in a relatively open and free society over time, golf has become accessible to almost everyone. The cookie-cutter country club types of yesteryear, once the poster boys of golf, have had to make room for John and Jane Doe. And now there are subcultures within golf, different species of golfers, and the game has become a melting pot for a range of personality types who are united only by their infatuation with chasing little balls into small holes with crooked sticks.
There are still elite country clubs and elitist golfers, some of whom pay obscene amounts of money for a membership at a club they visit once or twice a year; fly in from Wall Street, stay in a flat above the clubhouse, take a caddy, carry on a conference call during the round, and quit three holes early to head back to the Big Apple.
Then there’s Lakeview Golf Course, where I work. It was once a farm, and it started as a course for the working man, the kind of guy who knew a hostile takeover was when some kind of avian flu hit the turkey houses. Golf clubs were just a different set of tools for the tradesmen who made up our clientele; and their caddies were rickety old pull carts that knew the course well but were no good when it came to club selection.
This part of the Shenandoah Valley has changed in the 40 years since Lakeview was converted into a playground for country boys. There are universities and colleges, industries, Starbucks and high-tech companies. Lakeview’s membership is not just farmers and shift-workers anymore. Professors and doctors are here, too. But it’s still a cost-effective, no-frills kind of place. We prefer collared shirts, but don’t care if they’re white or blue.
In the past decade, the golf industry in general has evolved. Golf-course development has found a middle ground between Congressional Country Club and Lakeview. Courses referred to as “high-end daily fee” have been the trend. These courses offer a country-club atmosphere to the general public, often as the centerpiece to a community of clean, new, oversized houses with undersized yards. Buy a house for half a million, and the golf will only cost you $70 per round.
But the subcultures in golf transcend occupations and income levels. For instance, when it comes to the Rules of Golf, I have noticed there are Old and New Testament types. The Old Testament golfers are sticklers for the rules, as in “I saw you dislodge that pine needle with your practice swing,” or “Excuse me, you took relief from the hazard in the wrong place.” This breed of golfer can be annoying during a casual round, but makes a great partner during a match; he’ll be watching for your opponent to tee up an inch in front of the markers.
The New Testament golfer embraces the spirit of the game. “Hey, don’t hit off of those rocks – no need to tear up your beautiful clubs.” This is the lady who gives you every putt under four feet, and buys the first round after the round. New Testament golfers make the best weekend partners, but are out of their element when it comes to the legalistic confines of tournament golf.
Likewise, there are at least two subcultures when it comes to handicaps. There are Sandbaggers and Dreamers. We all know who the Sandbaggers are. These are the 12 handicappers who regularly shoot 73 when there’s money on the line. These are the guys (true story) who go into the last hole one over par and proceed to hit the ball into the pond and purposefully four-putt to make sure they make it into a weaker flight for the final round of a tournament. These are golfers who will compromise their eternal soul for a $75 gift certificate from the pro-shop so they can buy a new driver, hit more fairways, and make their handicap go up two more points. And when confronted about the inflated handicap, the Sandbagger will say, “Everyone else does it, I just keep it up enough to stay competitive.”
The Dreamer is not as common. He wants so badly to be a scratch golfer that he’ll get amnesia when it comes to the 88 he shot last week. His index drops to 2.8 even though his true scoring average is closer to 80. He’s competitive, and somewhat more honest than the Sandbagger, and he secretly expects to qualify for the Champions Tour when he turns 50. Just don’t take him as a partner in a handicap match if there are Sandbaggers on the other team; he doesn’t stand a chance.
There are also Walkers and Riders. Walkers tend to be traditionalists when it comes to golf, aware of the Rules and history of the game; they get to the course early, stretch, hit balls and pack a healthy snack of bananas and trail mix in the bag. Riders sit in the cart, one foot up on the console, smoking, annoyed at the frost delay that will make them late for kickoff of the televised football game later. A round of golf doesn’t go as well when these two types are mixed.
There are Range Warriors and Habitual Players. The first practices every day, the other plays. The Range Warrior has permanent blisters on his hands and is on a first-name basis with the instructors on “Golf Academy Live,” but only plays once a month. The Habitual Player has had the same handicap for 15 years, but hasn’t missed a day of golf in all that time, cutting out on Christmas Day as soon as the kids have opened their gifts; practice for him means hitting a second ball once in awhile.
Long and short, golf has gone the way of Eastern Europe. Everyone has his own language, his own way of doing things. The old order, the old walls of stuffy, country-club golf have come down, failing against the chaotic battering ram of democracy and free markets. Variety is the spice of life, and it’s not bad in golf either. Golf is what you want it to be, and that makes it a beautiful thing.