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To ride or walk? The question is often answered before it’s asked. Riding is the standard at many an American golf course. Yet for those that do walk, there is a certain appreciation for this practice that goes beyond wanting a little exercise. But the question of “why” still remains. Walk or ride, you’re playing the same game, inhabiting the same space, seeing the same things. Is there something to the manner in which you traverse 6,500 yards that makes a meaningful difference to your experience of a round of golf? And if so, then perhaps this is an indication that this phenomenon goes beyond the confines of the course to life as a whole.

I think there’s an intuition here about walking. It’s the job of the philosopher or thinker to explore and expound upon such intuitions. With this in mind, I’m interested in what others have said about walking, and it’s a topic I’d like to return to periodically on this site.

For starters, in this post I’m looking at a Henry David Thoreau essay titled “Walking” (1862). The essay has a few different threads. It has an overarching consideration of the human person in relation to nature and in relation to the whole of society. It comments on civilization, the beauties of the natural world, education and knowledge, history, and addresses a certain lethargy and dullness he sees in the lives of his contemporaries. In this, the dull is the tame. Thoreau wants the wild of the wood, not the cultivation of the city. There’s more to the essay than I’ll comment on here. This post basically tries to figure out if his thoughts on walking—which are always about more than walking—provide any insight into the game of golf and its play.

Knights of Sauntering

Thoreau wants to address the “art of Walking,” an art he finds so few practitioners of, so few have a “genius, so to speak, for SAUNTERING.” Thoreau fancies himself, then, a knight of a “new, or rather an old, order,” that of “Walkers, a still more ancient and honorable class.” He laments the craftsmen and shopkeepers sitting in their shops all day. Whereas for himself:

I think that I cannot preserve my health and spirits, unless I spend four hours a day at least—and it is commonly more than that—sauntering through the woods and over the hills and field, absolutely free from all worldly engagements.

Further, it’s not about “taking exercise . . . it is itself the enterprise and adventure of the day.” I’ve made a similar point previously regarding the game of golf. Its uselessness is something that recommends its worth: it isn’t used for some further end. It itself is the goal. Exercise and comradery and a respite from the demands of life, all of this is part of it, but these are not some other, further goals for which we undertake a round of golf.

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Thoreau: All about the 4-hour walk

In this essay, Thoreau stands unimpressed by the society he inhabits. It’s the wild and unruly not the cultivated and crafted he’s after. (He also comes off as rather impressed with himself, which is a bit off-putting.)  So much of his walking-sensibility is steeped in the experience of distancing oneself from society, which according to Thoreau dulls the sensibilities and renders one devoid of life. As he laments: “How little appreciation of the beauty of the land-scape there is among us!”

Thoreau’s ideal is the wild: “Life consists in wildness. The most alive is the wildest. Not yet subdued by man, its presence refreshes him.” Further, he claims “it is the uncivilized free and wild thinking in Hamlet and the Iliad, in all the scriptures and mythologies, not learned in the schools, that delights us.” His “hope and the future for me are not in lawns and cultivated fields, not in towns and cities, but in the impervious and quaking swamps.” And it is walking that brings Thoreau to this place.

But, Thoreau says, “I feel that with regard to Nature I live a sort of border life, on the confines of a world into which I make occasional and transient forays only.” But in crossing the border, “the walker in the familiar fields which stretch around my native town sometimes finds himself in another land.”

There’s much more to say for this essay, and quite a bit to critique. But that’s enough for a brief introduction.

Thoreau on the Fairways?

So what of golf? Would Thoreau see this as an arena of life where his thoughts on walking find a home? I doubt it. As a game, golf is the result of human creativity and culture. While it can be a solitary endeavor, the game is in essence a certain type of societal effort. It is the result of a collection of persons connected by something shared in common. The comradery and friendship, even competition, of golf all mark its essence. It’s no mistake that clubs arise for the game’s play, promotion and preservation. Further, its playing fields are cultivated and shaped by human imagination and effort. The golf course doesn’t maintain the untouched wildness for which Thoreau is so desirous. So even walking the course seems to fail to meet Thoreau’s ideal.

Thoreau might also take aim at the private club:

At present, in this vicinity, the best part of the land is not private property; the landscape is not owned, and the walker enjoys comparative freedom. But possibly the day will come when it will be partitioned off into so-called pleasure-grounds, in which a few will take a narrow and exclusive pleasure only.

As one that lives close to an underplayed private 9-hole course, I can sympathize a little with Thoreau here. I’m not against the private club at all, but I do like something of the Irish and Scottish practice of having even membership clubs open to public tee times regularly.

This might be overstating a theoretical opposition between Thoreau’s thought and the game of golf, though. Of all games, golf seems the result of discovery. The result of cooperation with the natural world and what it gives. The development of the game on the Scottish dunes is one of accepting the givenness of nature and playing along with it. Surely, it’s the case that a departure has been made from this earlier idyll. Many a course of today’s game is the result of extensive human effort and reshaping of the landscape, sometimes abusively so.

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Nonetheless it remains that unlike the artifice of the baseball or football field, the golfer is found amongst trees and sand and sea. While certainly in the midst of the result of human efforts, the golfer traverses the course facing what the natural world offers. Golf in a climate-controlled dome would be a travesty. When done well, a golf course and its maintaining can be an example of stewardship and caretaking. See Machrihanish Dunes. (Of course, this isn’t always the model and too heavy of a hand can be taken where the natural world is harmed by golf and its practitioners.) I also think there is a more satisfactory anthropology present in the image of humanity as caretaker—gardener—as part of, but also a cultivator and shaper of nature.

Further, the golf course is in some ways a liminal place. An in-between. It’s a departure from the workaday world and an entry into a different sort of existence. Walking emphasizes this and allows one to experience this more fully. While golf is not the wild and untamed of Thoreau it is an alternative to the demands of commerce and business and necessity. It can help the golfer escape the numbing and dulling noise of the modern world. As a game, it is a free activity that, if done with the proper disposition, can provide a respite and recreation. Perhaps walking when playing can help this as a manner of emphasis and experience, a greater way of being enmeshed in the course rather than romping over it on four wheels. The walker is also freer. Where there is a cart-path only sign, the walker goes where he wants.

While Thoreau himself most likely would not have extended his thinking on walking to the world of golf, I do think there is a potential for portions of his thought to be applied to the game as experienced by the walking player.

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