The game of golf has incited a shocking amount of controversy, given the subtle nature of the sport. Yes, I said it. Although golf is primed to become an Olympic event in 2016, many people still
don’t consider it a “real” sport. In fact, 48 percent of respondents to a Debate.org poll were on the denial end – virtually an even split.
There are many reasons why golf is often deemed “just a game.” There is no sprinting, leaping, or lightning stutter steps involved. Audiences do not pack stadiums, waving light sticks and cardboard heads of their favorite – or least favorite – players. During a golf match, crowds weave around and through the course, are silenced by officials, and demurely celebrate with a few “golf claps.” There simply isn’t the hand-to-hand combat in golf that we typically think of as sport. And that’s all true. But there’s much more to the story.
The modern version of golf was invented in Scotland in the 15th century. The Old Course at St. Andrews is thought to be the first modern golf course. And the Scottish connection stems not just from history. One of the sport’s most prestigious championships, The Open, is held there annually. As the popularity of the game grew, tournaments like the Masters, the U.S. Open, and the PGA Championship were created; this foursome of majors became golf’s most acclaimed matches.
On the wistfully stormy hills of St. Andrews, in the shrouded calm of Augusta, and countless other unique playing fields, millions of fans have witnessed a new kind of history, not just in golf but in the sports world. Eras have passed, much like the Jordan era in basketball, or the Pele age in soccer. Golf spawned the Nicklaus-Palmer rivalry, one of the most loved and reveled in sports. And in the late 1990s, a young Tiger Woods rose to challenge former greats.
But today there is a still greater history being written, so new that the ink hasn’t yet dried on the page. Golf is no longer an “old man’s game.” The age structure has become increasingly bottlenecked, as athleticism, strength, and flexibility are emphasized. Rory McIlroy, who grew up watching the prime of Tiger Woods, captured his first major championship at the age of 22, becoming the second-youngest player to win the U.S. Open. Since then, he has won three more major championships. April 2015 was the start of Jordan Spieth’s meteoric rise, as he broke a course record at the Masters and captured the coveted green jacket at age 21.
Spieth and McIlroy have helped usher in a wave of fresh talent, audience, and character to golf in a revolutionary way. Golf balls are being driven farther, struck closer, and lofted higher than ever before. But the core of golf has retained its Scottish roots. There may be no spiking, dunking, or kicking. But there are pitches fine-tuned to a surgeon’s blade, sometimes firmly and with roll, sometimes delicately carrying side spin. And there is dirt, sand, and water to muddy shoes and challenge creativity. And there is the calculation, the strategy, of sending a little white ball over curves and crannies. At times, there is the collapse of a swift bubbling of tension as a shot banks off awry, or lips out of the hole, a frustration comparable to nothing else. And at times, there is the exhilaration of watching one roll into the cup that sends even the most decorous peanut gallery into an earth-shaking uproar that would overpower an MLB crowd following a home run.
So call it what you will – a sport, a game, a hobby. Maybe golf needs a category of its own. Maybe there’s simply nothing else like it in the world.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.