Across America tomorrow and through the weekend, people who normally have a hard time making the 8:00 a.m. train will be fully engaged before the sun rises. Who would think that watching men chase a ball with sticks could be so motivating? People who do not play the game have a hard time understanding but those who do play (or at least try) cannot get enough of it. Less than 10% of Americans play one round of golf a year, even fewer play regularly. But golfers have such an intense interest in what happens on the links that the sport was among the first to have a television network solely devoted to it.
Golfers know the game is an exercise in masochism. You and you alone control where the ball goes. Yet the ball almost never ends up where you direct it. By the third hole, you are stripped of any illusion of control. As you make the turn for the back nine, you are begging under your breath for relief. When you see the cart girl on the 15th fairway, you whisper your safe word (“beer”) and begin to gingerly nurse your wounds. Once, twice, maybe three times you strike the ball cleanly, a nanosecond of pleasure fills your soul. But as soon as your spirit began to take flight, a bad bounce, an awkward lie, my God a yip!, steals your joy.
As you wearily de-cleat from your Saturday morning round, you swear it is over; never again. Five hours of pain is not worth 15 seconds of pleasure, no matter how exquisite that pleasure may be. Tennis will be your game or maybe something useful like do-it-yourself around the house. As if.
By Sunday afternoon, you are in front of the television, rapt attention paid to those masters of the universe who can direct the ball where they intend it. Maybe you started on HGTV, but there was a commercial; it was boring to begin with. You flip over to the Golf Channel–just for the commercial, you tell yourself. But your gaze lingers, it is just so freaking beautiful. These gods and goddesses walk as if they own the fairways and greens. Skilled with all manner of instruments, precise in their application and most of all powerful, you watch them and submit again. With just a bit more training, a few more callouses, you too can achieve this exalted state. And so it goes, an endless cycle of pain and pleasure, the promise always just out of your reach.
One week a year, the tables turn. Golfers have contested the Open Championship (or the British Open for the uninitiated) since 1860. Played on slightly improved sheep-grazing pastures throughout Scotland and England, it is the elements that rule here. The cold, the wet and most of all the wind, mock the gods. The wind turns the slightest mis-hit into a ball fifty yards off course. Or maybe perfectly struck, the ball lands in a hell hole in the middle of the fairway, placed there for the exclusive purpose of random and undeserved punishment. Balls are lost, people hit the ball backwards just to escape. Hopefully, the rain is almost horizontal. The interview tent is for survivors, not winners.
And you get to sit on your couch and delight in the carnage. You have practiced, played and paid for years without the mysteries of the game being revealed in full to you. But now you get to watch those used to walking in the light, fight the darkness; their struggle is sublime. Through your remote you exert the ultimate control. Phil chunks a wedge two feet; you replay it fifteen times. Tiger and his struggles? Delicious. Just delicious. “Honey, come watch this–I could hit that shot better than he did.” Sure, you submit for 51 weeks a year, but this week you can revel in their pain.
Tomorrow’s forecast? In the 50’s with heavy rain and winds up to 30 m.p.h. I will be up at 5:00 a.m..