President Obama has come under fire lately for his devotion to the game of golf. The criticisms have fallen into two categories: 1) That he was playing golf at all, a shameful thing to do; 2) That he was keeping other people who wanted to play golf from playing golf by blocking off the course.
But what is this game?
That was what I set off to find out on Thursday. I sallied forth to the White Course at the East Potomac public golf area and hit the links — not to be confused with hitting the lynx, which consists of provoking a large wildcat.
I would, I decided, play nine holes of golf and see what was so appealing about this.
My qualifications were as follows:
•I am pretty good at mini golf. I have been known to hole-in-one under the small windmill or even through the clown-shaped tunnel.
•I have seen “Happy Gilmore.”
•I have never seen “The Legend of Bagger Vance.”
•I read a lot of P.G. Wodehouse stories about golfers who really care deeply about the game and get distracted by the roar of the butterflies in the adjoining meadows, so I have a dim idea of the stakes.
•My retired grandparents watch a lot of golf and, when I was younger, made me watch it with them. They even went so far as to get me a golf lesson with the “pro” at their club, who taught me to hold the club a certain way (I don’t remember what way) and to hit the ball with it, some of the time, no great distance, with little consistency.
I have never actually played a game of real golf, but it seemed like all I would have to do would be to bring my putt-putt skills to bear on the real course and also hit the ball sometimes with one of the big clubs that was not the putter.
Then, I could emerge with a clear understanding of what exactly the president was going through to make all those elderly conservatives (who I thought were golf’s primary demographic) so upset.
Here is how it went.
It is 2:41. I am on the golf course at Hole 1.
Next to me behind a net is the driving range, a long rectangle of green stippled in white balls, which looks from a distance like a coat of weird fungus.
This hole is par 3.
I assume the pink tees are for ladies (because GENDER!) but possibly not.
The weather is clement.
I decide to use the biggest possible club. This seems like a strong choice.
As I am still sitting there trying to take a picture of my club, Dave arrives. Dave is an older man from Oklahoma who heard that I was on the course by myself and wants to join me. He says that his daughter is a writer and that he is “not a creepy old man.”
“That’s always reassuring to hear,” I tell him.
I ponder this offer. It occurs to me that people are always describing golf as a social game in which lots of networking happens. That was why people were so upset when President Obama went golfing with John Boehner, to the point that they started making reckless comparisons to golfing with Hitler. Half the idea is that you get to talk to the other person on the green with you and, I guess, gain insights into his or her character and do secret business deals.
Dave is clearly not Hitler. I tell Dave he can join me.
He puts on a fancy glove.
I do not have a fancy glove. Dave limbers up by waggling his club around in a big arc. I mimic his movements in order to give off the impression that maybe I know what I am doing.
Dave, it becomes apparent, has actually played golf before in his life, ever. This gives him a certain advantage.
I sidle up to the tee area (tee place?) (tee rex?) and put my ball on a tee. So far, so good.
I swing the club several times and do not hit the ball at all. I don’t understand how this can happen. Most golfers seem to be old men with liver spots who wear shorts with a belt and pull their socks up to their knees. This is Dave to a tee, except that Dave is not wearing high socks. Meanwhile I have no liver spots at all, and I own lots of athletic gear and frequently
jog intend to jog. How is this hard?
Finally I hit the ball into the large net separating us from the driving range. I am so excited to have actually hit the ball with the club that I shout in excitement, startling the neighboring wildlife.
It falls into some plants. I retrieve it. I keep hitting it with the same club and it goes a few places.
Dave comments unfavorably on my choice of club. It turns out that just “USE THE BIGGEST CLUB AT ALL TIMES” is not the impeccable strategy I was hoping. He tells me to use the “pitching wedge.”
I switch to what I think is my pitching wedge. I am conjecturing this because it has a big P on the side and loosely resembles a wedge. Then again all the clubs look basically like wedges. I worry that this is clubbist of me.
I hit the ball again. It goes way over the green this time.
I don’t know what the president sees in this.
It takes me nine shots to finish the hole. Par is 3.
This is already extremely boring.
Dave thinks it would be a good idea if I turned my cart in and rode around in his.
Clearly Dave does not understand that the sole bright spot in this WHOLE ENTERPRISE is that you get to ride around in a little electric cart and feel like you are doing an Adult Activity.
“Drive for show and putt for dough,” Dave tells me.
I hit the ball. It goes way way off into the weedy area to the right of the green. I beat through the tall grass and pick up a ball.
“That yours?” Dave asks.
“It might be,” I say. It is clearly not mine. The writing on it is a different color. But we are going with it.
I finish this hole in 10-ish shots. “This green area is too buttery,” I tell Dave. “Is that the term, buttery?”
“No,” Dave says. “Slick. Fast, maybe. Hard.”
Dave has yet to network with me or offer any business insights.
I make it through in seven-ish shots. “How long have you been playing golf?” I ask Dave.
“Too long,” Dave says. Dave is very laconic.
There are still six more of these.
“When do you get to yell ‘fore’?” I ask Dave.
“This is hole four,” Dave says.
“No, when do you get to yell ‘fore’?” I ask. This question seems infinitely stupider the second time around.
Dave explains that when you hit a ball toward somebody, you yell fore.
Maybe I will get an opportunity to do this.
There is a big backhoe just sitting in the middle of this hole in a mound of dirt. But no one is inside the backhoe. It is probably symbolic of something (foreign policy? domestic policy?), but I do not have time to ponder this, because other golfers are hot on our tail. (Is that a golf term?)
I narrowly avoid driving my golf cart into a sand trap.
I hit my ball into another, unrelated sand trap.
I get out by hitting my ball repeatedly with the same club that I used to get into the sand trap. This is clearly a metaphor.
The sand trap is our embroilment in nation-building, and hitting things with a club is the strategy we have tried before that did not work, which you can tell because, like that strategy, it is not working.
No wonder golf is such a popular game for presidents. What metaphorical opportunities it presents!
It takes me a total of 12ish shots to get through this hole. Dave finishes in four. Dave is a champ, even though he is not networking with me and forming business relationships the way I anticipated.
(How is this only Hole 6?)
A big impediment to my play is that I can never see where the ball goes after it is hit. It goes up in the air and I completely lose all track of it. I remember having the same problem watching golf on TV. The ball would go up, and as far as I was concerned it would never actually come down again. Possibly they substituted an identical ball, using stealth. In the course of my own play, I have picked up at least two balls that are not mine, because I could not see where mine went. I am, in fact, playing with one of those balls right now.
Usually I get around the problem of not being able to see where the ball has gone by hitting the ball badly. Then I can clearly see where it goes, because it hasn’t gone anywhere. But this makes Dave so sad.
I hit a good shot. “Now we’re cooking with gas,” I tell Dave.
I finish in about six shots, which is very exciting because it is only double par, not par squared or par tripled, as is my wont.
I am starting to see what people see in this.
A helicopter flies overhead. This metaphor, whatever it is, seems a little heavy-handed.
This part of the course is covered with impressively large bird dung, either Canada goose or seagull. I think it is probably Canada goose. I am not as expert in bird dung as I should be.
This area of the course is also covered in large white feathers that I keep, from a distance, mistaking for my ball.
I finish in seven-ish shots. Instead of shouting in joy every time I hit the ball with the club, I have started to turn a critical eye on my game. “I’m not reading the green and accounting for wind,” I tell Dave. “Also, this green is too buttery.”
Canada geese descend on to the course in large numbers.
At this point my playing has improved. My arms are starting to be tired and sore from two hours of vigorously missing the ball by several inches, and this is making my game better. I guess nothing could really have made my game worse other than not hitting the ball at all, ever.
My second shot falls among the geese. “Are you going to play through?” I ask the geese. I am really getting into the spirit of this golf thing! I am excited to buy golf merchandise and exclude women and plebeians from my social and business circles.
The geese don’t seem impressed. I do not wish to anger them, as they have me vastly outnumbered. I hit the ball into the green in 3 shots.
I write down “WOW” on the detailed notes that I have been keeping of this game.
I finish in eight because my putting game collapses.
I literally write the phrase “my putting game collapses” so you can tell that I have drunk the Kool-Aid and have started to actually care how this game goes.
I hit two great balls, like that guy in the old joke who tripped over a rake.
“Wow,” says Dave.
I can totally see what people see in this.
I want wealth and age and leisure so I can devote myself to perfecting the game. Maybe I can even get some illegal supplements like Centrum Silver or a hearing aid. I now understand why President Obama likes doing this. The only real mystery is why he doesn’t do this all the time.
I am almost on the green. I make my third shot using a 7-iron, as Dave advises. I specifically ask him “what club do you advise?” because I am deeply invested in how this turns out.
It sails just over the green.
“I AM A GOD OF GOLF,” I write. You can see how far gone I am.
Then I land in a sand trap. This is my own fault for not using a 9-iron, as Dave advised. I thought I knew better than Dave. My hubris was justly punished. “I was a fool!” I write.
It takes a while to get out of the sand trap. Dave makes me stay in it to clean up, which is an even more exciting metaphor. I finish in 10.
I bid Dave farewell as, with an uncanny sense of pathetic fallacy, it begins to rain.
In conclusion, President Obama’s critics are making a horrible mistake. Every time he plays golf, they criticize him as though there were something more important than golf in the world. There is not. Golf is the be-all and end-all. You might think, looking at it, that it is a big pointless time-suck and that it does not matter if those white spheres with divots in them get into those distant holes with flags in them. But it does. I can’t exactly seem to express why, now that I’m not there and Dave is gone, but it does. People should not be saying, “President Obama, why are you playing golf when other things are going on in the world?” They should be saying, “Other things are going on in the world, please, keep it down so that the people on the links can focus better.”
No, we all need to get on course and stay on course.