There are certain things that you start to do as you get older. For example, you inadvertently become much less hesitant to waltz around the gym locker room naked, which often leads to sports-related conversations with other naked people. You start waking up earlier on the weekends to do weird things like “build a birdhouse,” and you begin watching “the news” at 6 o’clock instead of reruns of “Charles in Charge.” This is all normal, so I’m told. But one of the great parts about getting older is the inherent and ever-increasing appreciation for the game of golf, which, like random back spasms, only comes with age.
Now, I don’t consider myself a veteran of the aging process (I’m just 26), but as a kid, I was all about the big three — baseball, basketball, and football. And I still am, for the most part. But I married into a golf-playing family (my wife and mother-in-law being the only non-golfers), and after initially shunning their love for such a pointless activity, I slowly began to appreciate the game. Of course, this was mostly the result of marrying into an Italian golf-playing family, which left me no option other than adaptation, or I would, as they put it, “never eat again.” Nevertheless, the sport of golf is growing on me, and I can’t get it off.
I, like many young people, was steadfast in my opposition to golf. It’s too uppity — only attracting white, wealthy suburbanites with nothing better to do. It’s too expensive to play, too boring to watch. The announcers whisper. Mostly, it violated rule No. 1 of my own criteria for what should qualify as a sport, which is, “If you can smoke while you play it, then it’s not a sport.” But I suppose that golf-research analysts (if they exist) would quantify me as a “Tiger Woods baby-boomer,” as I only began to become mildly interested in the sport at around the same time that Woods was obliterating the Masters field in 1997.
The influence that Tiger Woods has had on the game of golf is truly remarkable in that, while many people originally tuned in to watch one man — who wasn’t even white — dominate the sport, they were inadvertently introduced to other participants of the PGA Tour. The same guys who were treated, by the increasing masses, as nothing more than doormats en route to another Woods’ PGA victory, are now even more popular than Woods himself. Win enough times and people yearn to see you lose, although we’re even past that point now, as Tiger has recovered from mediocre play to reclaim his superiority within the game, except that his perch is now occupied by three others.
They’re a kind of “Super Friends” who don’t necessarily get along, but golf’s “Big Four” — Woods, Phil Mickelson, Vijay Singh, and Ernie Els — adequately represent the progression of the sport. Most apparent are their ethnic backgrounds — Woods is a mix of Asian and African-American, Singh is from Fiji, Els is South African, and Mickelson just plain old American. More importantly, all four are men with distinct personalities and games — Woods the unofficial ambassador of the game that people love to hate (or love to love), Singh the proven winner who doesn’t hesitate to speak his mind, Els the soft-spoken one with the sweetest swing this side of Ken Griffey Jr., and Mickelson the risk-taking fan favorite who, up until last year’s Masters, made his living as the beloved underdog. Throw in the fact that all four are currently on top of their games, and golf is at its peak.
Or is it? What I can’t seem to figure out is if I’m late to the party, or if I’m just in time. Were my former misconceptions of golf just that, or has golf caught up to me? If getting into the sport of golf is simply part of the aging process, then how do you explain all the young people playing it? Or is that the manifested influence of Tiger Woods? I guess it doesn’t really matter, because I’m here now.
Of course, even with the “Big Four” headlining tournaments, it’s impossible to have a true appreciation for golf without actually playing it. (And yes — like you, I’m horrible.) But while golf is a notorious assault on your confidence and mental capacity, I also realized that I underestimated the athleticism of it (walking 18 holes really ISN’T a walk in the park), the machismo of it (my drive is longer than your drive), and the preciseness of it (why can’t I make a freakin’ three-foot putt?). In fact, I always thought that having a ground ball roll through your legs was the most humiliating moment in sports, however, whiffing on your drive off the first tee because you picked your head up too early, with the starter and a foursome behind you watching, is never fun. Do it twice in a row and you might as well go home. Golf is tougher than I thought, and that knowledge makes watching professional play all the more enjoyable. (Or frustrating, depending on how you look at it.) After all, the sports heroes of our youth were the guys who could best do what we wished we could do. In turn, those who we marvel at as adults are guys who can consistently birdie a Par 5.
It seems as though I was mistaken as a youth. Golf isn’t just for well-to-do, upper class whites. Just look at the most popular players in the game. And it’s not boring to watch, once you understand that a five-foot putt can mean $500,000. The announcers whisper out of respect, and although it remains a fairly expensive hobby, more often than not, it’s worth it. Plus, you can smoke while you play, if you choose to, which is nice, I suppose.
We’re currently riding the wave of last weekend’s Masters tournament — the first of four Majors to be played in the upcoming months — in which Tiger Woods rather officially took back his rightful place as golf’s greatest player, by defeating Chris DiMarco in a scintillating final round, and subsequent playoff. My interest in the sport is evolving, and it appears as though the same can be said for the rest of the country as a whole. We’re all getting older, I guess. And wiser, as maybe it takes time to mold an appreciation for a sport of such beauty, and hidden difficulty. It’s golf — it’s at its peak, and it’s what all the naked guys in the gym locker room are talking about.