So now that the NFL season has passed, leaving its customary trail of carnage behind, civilized followers of sport can turn their attention to the opening of spring training camps and the approach of that most glorious of the great terrestrial cycles, the baseball season. It was a satisfying Super Bowl for me, inasmuch as the Steelers lost (though I would have preferred it if Ray Rice’s fumble and Joe Flacco’s yielded interception of three weeks earlier had not put Pittsburgh there to begin with). I did feel a certain twinge of pity for Hines Ward, however, as it seems he never got a single chance to take a cheap shot at the head of an unsuspecting defender twenty yards or so from the ball and two seconds after the whistle; it must have been hard for him to have been taken out of his game like that.
Otherwise, I really didn’t care. The dreariest baseball game played between two teams without any hope of a pennant on a sweltering day in July is immeasurably more interesting to me than the entire NFL season.
That said, I do understand what people like about American football, and I can find it entirely absorbing while I’m watching it. And when a team that has “Baltimore” emblazoned on its jerseys is involved I even genuinely give a damn. In a larger sense, I can pretty well grasp what it is that draws spectators to most sports (even soccer, I suppose, though I would have a hard time elaborating on that). The only team sports I ever watch are baseball, American football, and (exotically enough) cricket; but I can imagine that others might have a taste for other games that is analogous to my own predilections.
There is one game, though, whose appeal entirely eludes me: golf. And I have come to believe over the years that this is because its appeal belongs not only to an unfamiliar aesthetic order, but to an altogether alien moral reality.
Actually, the day after the Super Bowl, I found myself at one point thinking about golf, probably simply in contrast to the previous day’s extravaganza. In particular, I found myself thinking back to more than a year ago, to the tale of Tiger Woods’s violent contretemps with (in order) his wife, a fire hydrant, and a tree; and I recalled how alarmed so many souls briefly were—as if the very pillars of the universe had been shaken—to learn that the world’s most proficient golfer, despite having a lovely wife and an exquisitely photogenic family, was a philanderer of fairly profligate appetite and of some considerable ineptitude. It had all been very sad, of course, and very deplorable too, but I could never quite grasp why so many people seemed to care so intensely, for two reasons.
First, philanderers are a pretty common property, especially among the rich, and nothing about Tiger Woods as a person should have made anyone expect more from him than from anyone else. And second, and more important, no one at the time seemed to be paying any attention to a fairly atrocious aspect of the man’s personal conduct that had been on open display long before he so gaudily disgraced on that fateful night: to wit, Tiger Woods is a man who makes a living (and has amassed an enormous fortune) by playing golf.
What could be more hideously, scandalously shameful than that? In any sane society, such a man would be a perpetual object of the most withering and merciless disdain; he would fear to show his face in public because he would expect to be laughed to scorn by anyone with a decent sense of human dignity.
I take it as an absolutely irrefutable maxim that a man capable of playing golf very well is probably capable of little else, while a man capable of watching golf with interest is probably capable of anything. As a purely private pastime, of course, and so long as one never learns to do it with any appreciable skill, golf is as unobjectionable as any other pointless diversion (tossing bottle-caps, shooting icicles with your .22 rifle, casting a vote in a presidential election). When I walk in the woods, I like to swing a walking stick and whistle; if I am feeling particularly heroic, I sing or recite verse more loudly than I could do safely in inhabited parts. The casual golfer, who adds some variety to a morning stroll by attempting to persuade a small ball to dash ahead of him at irregular intervals and take the lay of the land (so to speak), is doing nothing more reprehensible than that.
But when golf is treated as a form of sport, to which adults devote great portions of the ever diminishing reservoirs of their limited time here on earth, and is even regarded as a respectable occupation (however lucrative) for a grown man or woman, it becomes perhaps the most vicious employment to which human hands can be applied this side of criminal assault or murder.
I am not, incidentally, suggesting that there is anything wrong with the immense remuneration that a truly talented athlete can command. I have discovered over the years that I myself quite like money, and would not be at all adverse to having a good deal more of it than I do, and I certainly cannot imagine why someone who does something as intrinsically noble and important as play third base for a Major League franchise should not get a healthy cut of the profits his team generates. I do not even, strictly speaking, mind that Tiger Woods is apparently not just rich, but a bona fide billionaire.
But it does seem to me a matter of some importance to understand why the third baseman can be a worthy object of our admiration while the golfer cannot, and must never be. For the difference between playing baseball for a living and playing golf for a living is not simply a difference between two comparable vocations, but a moral and metaphysical antithesis, of positively cosmic dimensions.
Of course, before one addresses such matters, one should first pause to remember that golf is not in any meaningful sense a sport, and golfers are not in any meaningful sense athletes (that is why they almost never really have to retire). It is true that to play the game at the highest levels requires skills that few persons could hope to attain. But the difficulty inherent in any given activity is not an index of that activity’s value or creditability. Indeed, the more difficult an intrinsically worthless pursuit is, the more morally lamentable it becomes. If anything, the extraordinary effort required to master the game of golf is its most damning feature.
More importantly, though, golf is utterly—utterly—devoid of all the virtues of genuine sport. There is nothing daring, sudden, inspired, or splendid in the game. It is not a game of strategy, as are the best team sports (baseball supremely), except in the trivial sense that a golfer has to think about how to make each shot. Agility, speed, and strength are largely absent from the field; there are no moments of sublime physical artistry or fortuitous grace, no grand displays of heedless courage, no astonishing instances of the triumph of spirit over the limits of the flesh. Golf requires amazing physical precision, of course, but of so absolutely inconsequential a kind that it can scarcely be regarded as anything more than a laboriously acquired daintiness.
Moreover, unless one is cursed with a peculiarly morbid sensibility, and so can be excited by occasional changes of lead on the course, it is impossible to find any drama in the game: there are no great contests of will, no hopeless struggles, no breathtaking peripeties, no advances and retreats, no amazing or heartbreaking last acts. (“Oh, yes there are!” the querulous golf enthusiast will protest, but he can be silenced with a threatening glare.)
And, of course, whereas a professional sports franchise represents a local population, and is therefore an essential part of the fabric of community—a source of common aspiration, of festivity, of shared leisure, of fellowship in triumph and defeat, of celebration and mourning—a golfer represents only himself. And, quite unlike athletes in genuine individual sports, such as track and field, a golfer is engaged in a form of activity that does not test the limits of the body’s native powers or gloriously reveal the heights of perfection to which human movement can be brought, but only demonstrates how grotesquely hypertrophied a pathologically odd behavior can become when the person who suffers from it neglects just about everything else in life.
All of which is only to say—as if we needed to say it—that professional golf is essentially evil. I use the word here in its venerable Platonic and Christian metaphysical sense. If evil is, of its nature, a privation of the good—a steresis agathou or privatio boni—lacking any substance of its own, but subsisting solely as a kind of umbratilous negation of the real, then professional golf, by virtue of its complete lack of any of the good things proper to true sport, must be accounted the “ideal” embodiment of evil in matters athletic: it is the malum in athleticis, the perfect reverse image of all that is wholesome and ennobling in sport, the shadow produced when the light of the good is thwarted by the perversity of human will, an artifact of depraved desire. It is an absolute wickedness, and we must hate it absolutely.
At least, that is how I often see the matter. I may one day make a moral cause out of it, but for now I would rather not think of it at all. Football season is over, baseball season draws nigh; we need not darken our counsels with talk of things so sad and dreadful. For myself, I would prefer to spend my time wondering whether Derek Lee and Vladimir Guerrero have another good year in them. That, after all, is a very, very important matter.
David Bentley Hart is a contributing editor of First Things. His most recent book is Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies (Yale University Press). His previous “On the Square” articles can be found here.