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GP18May05: Our Daly Bread

The Romance of Golf.  The game of golf has a romance and mystery about it that puts all other sports in its shadow.  It is the stuff of myth, easily woven into books and films.  Michael Murphy, the eminence behind Esalen Institute, the parapsychology schlock tank on the shores of the Pacific—in its fun, pre-business days as Big Sur or Slate’s Hot Springs, this was just a nice hippie hangout where you could take in the hot springs, do yoga with the son of a Chinese banker, and eat a fine loaf of freshly baked bread—has a fair amount of Barnum and Bailey in him, and, caught by the sport, he conjured up an amusing book called Golf in the Kingdom that’s a blend of pure yarn, pseudo-philosophy, and wispy mysticism.  Then there’s The Legend of Bagger Vance, a Robert Redford movie where a local boy from Savannah who is recovering from the horrors of World War I beats out Bobby Jones and Walter Hagen, the kings of golf in his day, having rediscovered his swing at the urgings of a gypsy coach.  A movie closer to the spirit of our own times called Tin Cup finds a washed up pro named Roy “Tin Cup” McAvoy conquering the hearts of the crowd and playing a storied round of golf, even though he is beaten by his slick, calculating, play-it-safe friend Simms, who is the million-dollar TV athlete McAvoy will never be.  McAvoy loses the battle, but wins the war—and the girl. 

If you ever have walked the right course, say the Country Club in Brookline, Massachusetts (www.golfclubatlas.com/thecountryclub1.html) outside Boston in the Fall, and seen the birds overhead, and felt happily alone with your thoughts, you can feel why golf is a sport apart, even when you are not playing it.  You are never playing against some other golfer: you are in a contest with yourself or the gods. 

It’s the very serious amateurs who best capture the pageantry of this sport.  Like our friend Winfield, they may travel back in time to 1884 at Oakhurst Links in West Virginia, there to wear the garb of another day and experience square sand tee boxes, fairways that would counts as roughs in the modern day, small greens, and flagsticks that are three feet high.  (See www.oakhurstlinks.com.)  Or, like editor-writer Lewis Lapham, they may partake of the small courses of Scotland, away from the madding crowd, where one learns to play the game the right way, scoring be damned: 

The lesson was the same one to which I'd been introduced 50 years ago on the Monterey Peninsula by a father and grandfather instructing me in the traditions, royal and ancient, of the game they approached with reverence and played in silence. Neither of them cared to listen to excuses.  Play the shot and accept the consequences, the proof of character more important than the worldly trifle of a paltry score.

That’s what we want to see out of a good game of golf—some proof of character.  See www.forbes.com/global/2004/1018/062_print.html

Robots.  Oddly enough, the actors in everyday professional golf—Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, the assorted officials of the PGA—none of them are up to the story.  When interviewed, they are rather bland.  We are not quite sure what flows in their veins.  By and large, they seems like what they are: cogs in a business that relentlessly promotes its wares, machines that work rather well, but not Men of War who can run races that defy our imagination.  Somehow this is what happens when a sport turns into a business.  The players seem less than mortal, hardly worthy of all the tumult and shouting.  Ciphers all. 

Every so often even today somebody crops up in the game who truly wears technicolor.  Such was Payne Stewart, who sported knickers, ignited the crowds with his own excitement, and was known of an evening to sing a song even though he was not a very good musician.  Very sadly, life was cut short, when he died in an airplane accident, the fate of many of our legendary troubadours. (See www.jacksonville.com/special/wgv/inductees/payne_

John Daly.  Then there’s John Daly from Arkansas, a state known for producing colorful, flawed, winsome people and harboring birds such as the ivory-billed woodpecker, long thought to be extinct.  Occasionally, as if to prove he has the goods, he wins a major, such as his capture of the PGA Championship in 1991, his first year in PGA golf, or the Buick Invitational in 2004, with the 1995 British Open thrown in for good measure.  He is vastly appealing to all the crowds everywhere, because, we suspect, he runs by his own rules, stumbles a lot, and often radiates an anguish that assures us he is more than human.  The night before the first round of the recent Byron Nelson Tournament, he was playing guitar at Cool River in Irving, Texas, a beer in hand, but then he went on to shoot 64 at Cottonwood Valley Course the next day.  “Daly remains a holdout in this era of golfers who are workout fiends.  With a considerable paunch, he keeps diet soda and cigarettes in his bag and consumes each with a fury.”  See New York Times, May 13, 2005, pp. C15 and C17.  His troubles with both alcohol and wives are legion and legend.  And yet he keeps hitting the longest balls in the game, and has won the Long Distance crown an amazing 11 times.  (See http://en.wikipedia.
org/wiki/John_Daly_%28golfer%29).  He has wonderful ups and cosmic downs.  He is “Tin Cup” McAvoy. 

Golf in Trouble.  For the last 5 years, golf has been having some considerable indigestion, troubled  by a  falloff in paying customers on the golf links, by a ferocious pause in the building of new courses as old ones struggle for revenues, but most of all by its transformation from a sport into pure business.  Callaway Golf, the maker of the Big Bertha, which seemed to be the company that could not stop growing, has hit a rough patch.  (See www.callawaygolf.
com/Default.aspx.)  Golf’s now mostly about keeping score, rather than building character. 

When the suits take over in certain fields of creative endeavor, the air eventually goes out of the balloon.  NBC, long the top TV network in a declining business, has now plummeted to fourth, since it has been GE-ed to death.  Jack Valenti, the widely heralded political opportunist out of the Johnson administration who went on to head the Motion Picture Association, presided over a vast shrinkage in the moviegoing audience, having given people too many reasons for staying out of the theater.  Museums, we predict, are about to max out, now that they are becoming architectural extravaganzas to host overpriced traveling art shows.  Too much focus on business is bad for these businesses.  The spirit has gone out of them, as they have lost human dimension. 

Theory of the Compulsive Class.  In 1899 Thorstein Bunde Veblen penned his most famous work, Theory of the Leisure Class, where he essayed on  “conspicuous consumption,” the propensity of the upwardly mobile to spend income on needless objects to achieve one-up status within a society perpetually in social competition.  (See http://en.wiki
pedia.org/wiki/Thorstein_Veblen.)  We expect him to gain new currency, now that the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and other publications are discovering that we are becoming visibly class-riven again. See http://online.wsj.com/article_email/0,,SB11159
5026421432611-IBje4NmlaJ4nZyqaHqHaqmEm4,00.html.  Also, look at new series on class in Times  http://www.nytimes.com/2005/05/15/national/class/OVERVIEW-FINAL.html.  Of course, the name of his book was a misnomer, because there is never any hint of leisure amongst compulsive men and women on the make.  They are endlessly in motion, always trying to prove what goes up never comes down. 

When sport becomes a business, slicing away its roots in leisure, the romance goes out of the game.  It then just becomes part of a culture of conspicuous consumption and one-upsmanship, a joyless thing at best.  Then “Debranding,” which we have previously discussed, sets in.  John Daly, grossly overweight, married now to a lady with some legal problems, powerful and out of control, a boyish gleam that still has him looking mighty young, riding through the U.S. in his RV far from the first class air cabin of his peers—he has the smell of leisure about him.  His waywardness is needed to get the game back on course. 

The Hollow Men.  In 1925 T.S. Eliot gave us “The Hollow Men,” where he reworks fragments from the first draft of “The Wasteland” into a poem about the barrenness of modern life and the quest for values to redeem it.  (See www.answers.com/topic/t-s-eliot.)  In golf and a 100 other games, that’s our task.  To fill the hollow and put meaning in the game.  Right now the balls are solid enough, but not the players.

P.S.  In a landmark decision on 16 May, the Supreme Court, in an opinion authored by Justice Kennedy, decided that states that permit direct shipment of wines to consumers from instate wineries must afford the same privilege to out-of-state wineries.  Unusually, a combination of liberal and conservative justices joined to gather to support free trade and the interstate commerce provisions of the Constitution.  The Twenty-First Amendment, which repealed Prohibition, gave the states unusual power to control the distribution of alcoholic beverages.  But here the justices said it does not give the states (and instate distributors) the right to unfairly discriminate against out-of-state beverages.  There is some thought that this may upset many of the other ingenious devices states use to restrict competition from other states.  It is yet to be seen whether this will really give the American consumer more choice and better prices on spirits and wine.  In any event, this may set the stage for better economic integration of these United States, a stark necessity in an area of unrestrained global competition.  Here’s to better bread and wine.

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