Wednesday, October 6, 2010

The Charm of Golf

Also posted at

Who says golf is staid and boring? The Ryder Cup, held this year at the splendid Celtic Manor Resort in Wales, provided four days of utterly captivating, albeit intermittent, golf. The Cup, which pits U.S.A.’s best against Europe’s best every two years, was dragged to a fourth day for the first time in its feted history after rain had wreaked havoc on days one and three. Europe’s Graeme McDowell, the reigning U.S. Open champion, held his nerve to win the last singles tie – a must-win – against Hunter Mahan, to give his team a 14 ½ to 13 ½ victory, after the U.S.A. had rallied spectacularly on the final day. Although the rain, from time to time, threatened to washout the event, the action in itself remained riveting. There wasn’t a moment of monotony in the play, and although the U.S.A. can stake claim to having performed better in almost every round, Europe’s brilliance on day three in the foursomes and the fourballs ultimately proved the difference.

The comradeship between the Europeans, the charismatic leadership of Colin Montgomery – a Cup hero in his own right – Lee Westwood’s sturdy skills, the talent and the bravado of the youngsters – Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland and Rickie Fowler of the U.S.A. – the silken putting skills of U.S.A.’s Steve Stricker, and the sheer nerves of steel that Graeme McDowell showcased at the end, were all equally marvellous to watch. And adding to the allure of the Cup was the stunning setting at Celtic Manor.

But for all the irresistible charm of golf, and particularly the Ryder Cup, the question remains: can golf rightly be considered a sport? The International Olympic Committee certainly seems to think it can – having reinstated the event for the 2016 Summer Olympics. Many, though, believe that the absence of physical risk disentitles golf from being regarded as a sporting activity. Simon Barnes, former chief sports correspondent of the Times, has been openly loathsome of the ‘activity’ – as I’ll call it, at least, for the moment. He says: “Golf is what you do when you’re too old for sport and I wish every delight to every one who picks up a club. Just don’t start comparing it to, say, cricket, football, rugby, women’s gymnastics, figure-skating, athletics or three-day eventing.”

John Hopkins, Times’ golf correspondent, however, presents a contrary view. He says that a 59 year old man – in the instance cited, Tom Watson – can challenge Tiger Woods, owner of 14 Majors, for a championship is why “golf is a celebration, a reason for living, a reason for not putting the clubs up in the attic next to the water tank and, instead, for striding to the 1st tee with a heart full of hope”. He adds, “It is a celebration because golf is a sport that involves knowledge, experience, character, resolve, intestinal fortitude, perspicacity, phlegmatism, integrity, determination, obduracy. Oh yes, and skill”.

Going by the dictionary meaning, I don’t see how golf cannot be categorised as a sport. The Oxford Dictionary defines sport as an activity involving physical exertion and skill in which an individual or team competes against another or others for entertainment. The aspect of physical exertion in golf may not be as apparent as in other sports – it does not, for instance, involve any running – but an eighteen-hole round works a person’s shoulders and wrists to the hilt. And it most certainly fulfils the requirement of skill. As easy as it may seem on television, landing a ball on a fairway from 400 yards out or sinking a 16 inch putt on a treacherous green is no child’s play. Hell, it isn’t even easy on the Nintendo Wii, as I found out recently to my great horror. Add to that the aspect of entertainment – the narratives woven into a golfing contest are often thoroughly enthralling, as opposed to the popular opinion held by many of the game’s dull and dreary image. I am quite certain that a basic understanding of the rules and nuances of the game would dispel any notion of boredom and would help one to comprehend the stupendous skill and mental fortitude required to succeed at the game.

The Ryder Cup, no doubt, has the added dimension of being a team event, making it appealing even to those who only have a passing interest in the game. The tourney brings in other dynamics – captaincy, player pairings, varying formats, etc. – which make the narrative of the drama by itself a sheer thrill. But leaving the Ryder Cup as well as the aspect of skill aside, golf still has the capacity to throw up the most wonderful stories. Of course, much like any other sport, there can be some contests that are rather one-sided, like an easy straight sets victory in tennis for instance. But, if one finds excellence tedious, then, as Barnes himself has stated, sport is not what the person must look toward.

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