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From days of the Scots, golf has blended competition, friendship


Over the years, I have asked a lot of golfers one leading question: Why do you play golf? Often, the replies seem stereotyped and typically superficial, the most common being that golf is a “challenge.” But then, those who say that mostly don’t practice. Some speak of the chance to socialize, while others mention the exercise benefits, as they load their clubs into a half-ton electric golf cart. As it turns out, the most interesting and most genuine response to “why golf” came from a 17-year-old talented girl from El Paso, who I had been working with to improve her mental game. She was a good player, eventually winning a Division I golf scholarship, and I pressed her for the real reason she chose golf instead of soccer or basketball or something else. We walked a couple hundred yards down the fairway before she spoke. “I decided I wanted to be really, really good at something that was very, very hard,” she said, pausing thoughtfully before adding, “and something that none of my friends could do well at all.” It blew me away, because that was the first time I got an honest, open, introspective answer to my question. My young student revealed herself as achiever, and even more so, as a competitor.

The essence of golf, as the Scots figured it some 500 years ago, is competition. For centuries, all golf was match play, with one golfer playing a match against another golfer. When one player had enough of a hole, or lost the hole, he picked up his ball and they moved on to the next hole. That’s why they played so fast! It wasn’t about shooting a low score, or producing a birdie-fest for television. Too much Scotch whiskey was consumed for that; and they did pause briefly for a shot of whiskey. The fact that there are 18 holes on a golf course is because the Scots measured 18 shots of whiskey would hold them to the end. They competed with feathery balls.

But while it is true that in our corporate and organizational work groups we have to cooperate, yet to survive and dominate we have to compete. It may not be “why” we work or play, but we try to be better than something or someone. At times, the golf course is our adversary. Other times, it’s an opponent (who also may be a friend) who we try our best to beat. Occasionally it’s ourselves – attempting to overcome our own demons.

But wait! There’s another side to this story. The essence of golf is also about camaraderie. Even the Scots and the Irish knew that, as they tipped their flasks to each other in cold, windy, blustery days, when the salty spray blew in from the firths across the fairways that linked the land to the sea. When I was golfing in Ireland a few years ago with my son and my nephew, I felt that spray and I felt the strong emotional fellowship that golfing bestowed.

I found the writings of John Updike (1932-2009) most telling on the topic of golfing camaraderie, seeing the game with both humor and pathos. The following quote appears in a 1996 compendium book called “Golf Dreams”: “Like the golf course itself, golf camaraderie is an artifice, carved from the vastness of nature: It asks only five or six hours a week, from the jocular greetings in the noontime parking lot and the parallel donning of cleats in the locker room to the shouted farewells in the dusk, as the flagsticks cast their long shadows.”

Dr. Charlie Blanchard is a licensed psychologist specializing in sports and leadership. Contact him at docblanchard71@gmail.com.