To many outside the golf world, golf is a sport (barely deserving of that noun), that is boring. It is synonymous with old men and retirement, with stuffiness and baggy clothing, and most importantly, with too many hours of low-intensity nothingness.
But the latter point is fundamental to its addiction. Some may disagree of course, and be engaged only for Bryson swing speeds, or 18th hole calamities, or the chest-beating-fist-pumping rushes of a Ryder or Solheim Cup. One golf’s is it does offer that too, even if it seems tedious to wait for those moments. But to me, that wait is everything. That wait is the story, far more than the whatever the final line is.
The ebb and flow of the story is where the attachment is borne. People argue about how many holes a round of golf should be. Maybe its psychological nature would bring similar cycles no matter the number, but it always fascinates me how often 18 holes takes you somewhere different than you expected at some point in the round – a point when you were certain you had the narrative figured out. The story you think you are writing when you walk-in a birdie putt on the first, or bogey three in a row from the middle of the fairway, is only ever the beginning. What the middle and the end look like depend largely on how quickly you ware willing to acknowledge them.
The only predictability of golf, I would go out on a limb to suggest, is its unpredictability. It is understandable that a game where the human psyche is so tightly wound around speeds roughly equivalent to a tornado would be volatile, yet we all seem to fall for its unassuming calmness… time and time again. I can understand that tendency somewhat from a spectator perspective, as it’s perhaps a susceptibility to top-of-the-leaderboard focus, or throwaway commentary, or betting markets. Or the mesmerising, still lingering, power of the Tiger era. Small glimpses of these factors would have you believe there are only a finite number of storylines and dramas (or lack of) that can play out, and only a finite number of actors that can play them.
But so many of us spectators of golf are players of it too, at least to some degree of the word. We play, and so we know. We know that golf’s greatest leveller is surely its ability to disorientate. To throw something at you that no amount of preparation or skill or intelligence can tell you is coming. To any player, of any ability, at any time.
It’s why we leave the golf course disappointed so very often, even when successful. 72 hole tournaments are the same. It’s how we can be in awe of a flawless Rory 64 on a Thursday, and then despair that it just isn’t there on a Friday. Or why it’s there on a major Sunday but not before he’s played his way out of contention; why we can come up with such a term as a ‘back-door top 10’, why Tyrell Hatton can follow up a win with a 76, followed up by a 64, why Tommy Fleetwood can drag himself out of dark places with impeccable determination, why Tony Finau can play so many damn great tournaments without winning again. Why a club golfer off 17 can break 80 days after not breaking 100. Why we keep coming back.
Hatton is an absorbing case in point. He can somehow look more pissed off while shooting 64 than he does a 76, and maybe somewhere within that is his biggest asset. Professional golfers and athletes speak of being ‘in the zone’, a mystical place that is unlike anything else. Its intensity is only felt when it is over. Almost every golfer will point to their very best golf coming in those moments; produced by a sense of calm inevitability that everything is supposed to happen exactly as it happens. Hatton, at least by watching him, seems to contradict that entirely. Maybe that is him being in the zone. Watching McIlroy and Fleetwood eventually succumb while trying to catch him in Abu Dhabi – it was as if every sarcastic self-deprecation (thumbs up included) from Hatton hurt his competitors far more than himself. He seems to have embraced the unpredictability that we all take too long to accept, even while he plays a standard of golf only comparable to when anyone else actually is ‘in the zone’.
I don’t know why so many of us struggle to acknowledge the only thing golf yells at us over and over. Maybe it’s a kind of perverse, reverse psychology. We feel that we have conquered golf in fleeting moments, in shining glimmers of our potential. Be it a perfectly-read downhill 10 footer, or a high, soaring drive backdropped against a cloudless blue sky , or a flighted, grip-down 3 iron that never leaves the flag on a howling links day. Those moments make us think we know better than golf. But the truth is, golf knows better than all of us. We’re all just addicted to the argument.