“Golf is the most useless outdoor game ever devised to waste the time and try the spirit of man.”
“The best thing in us as precisely useless . . . things we enjoy doing for their own sakes.”
—James V. Schall
The question is more an accusatory jab than anything: “What is the point of golf? Nothing more than the most futile of exercises. Old men with stupid sticks smacking a small white ball toward a little flag-marked hole plugged in a big park. It all seems so very useless.” This sentiment and conclusion can be seen in the Westbrook Pegler quote above. Within it is the sense that golf is just a wasteful trial of no discernible worth.
Rushing to golf’s defense, a certain temptation emerges for the game’s defenders to marshal evidence that runs contrary to this accusation. Arguments made for the usefulness of golf. Surely—so it runs—you realize the value of fresh air, recreation, a long stretch of the legs, concerted concentration, not to mention the camaraderie. And, it must be admitted, there is something to all of is. I want to suggest, however, that the best apologia on golf’s behalf in the face of the accusation of uselessness is to admit the very charge and agree that the game, ultimately, is useless. And here’s the rub: that’s a good thing.
Certainly, golf is intimately related to, partially composed of, and inclusive of things like friendship, fresh air, exercise, gamesmanship, athleticism, aesthetics, recreation and, maybe for a rarified few, putting some cash in the pocket. I would like to argue, though, that golf is not, or should not be, only some interchangeable instrumental means used to achieve those further goals. In fact, it is the game in its wholeness that gives all those other goods their particular shape. They all take on a certain golfiness, to coin a terrible turn of the tongue. At its heart, golf shouldn’t be seen as just some means used to achieve some further ends. These ends are to be found within its overarching form.
The best and most noble things in our lives are the most useless. They don’t need to serve some further purpose. The hammer is useful, but only useful. The stroll with your wife is—even if in part for exercise and fresh air and getting out of the house—good for its own sake. Gazing at a beautiful painting or reading a poem or coloring with your kids, these are all good just for their own sakes. They aren’t done because they are useful for achieving some yet other purpose. By this all I mean is that there are some things we do that don’t need more of a justification than something like, “because I love it,” or “because it is beautiful.” Surely there are further ramifications of such actions, but, and here’s the key, the actions aren’t really done for these further ends.
Golf like all such things is done freely. I don’t need another reason, some further goal, some use of golf. It is done just for its own sake. To say that golf builds friendships, provides for some exercise and time in the great outdoors does nothing to negate this, it only describes in greater detail some aspects of the essence of the game and why people love it. For, again, all these constitutive components are given a particularly golf-y shape within the contours of the game. Here the game can be seen as a shared world for its inhabitants to enjoy such facets.
A follow-up Part II will appear on Wednesday.