Wednesday, April 11, 2007

You Can Feel Free To Go Read Something Else

Let's talk about golf.

This last weekend was The Masters. This is the one weekend of the entire year when you can be assured of finding me camped out in front of the TV watching a sporting event. I try to catch the other three majors - the US and British Opens and the PGA Championship - but they can be good or bad depending on a lot of factors. Most of the old Scottish Links courses on the British Open circuit, for instance, live or die on the quality of the weather: wind and fog makes for great golf, clear sunny days turn the Royal & Ancient into a shooting gallery for today's power-hitters. Similarly, a bum course can turn either of the other two American majors into a slog - they can't play Bethpage Black every year, but boy wouldn't it be great if they could.

But the Masters... well, I don't get sentimental about sports. Usually they bore me to tears. Once in a great, great while I'll watch a baseball game, but that's about it. But it's hard not to get sentimental about Augusta. I haven't played a game of golf in almost a decade and I don't really regret that - like I need another time-consuming hobby! - but I'd play again if I could play Augusta. Yeah, even if it just meant duffing around the course, making a fool out of myself and plopping the ball into every water hazard in Georgia, I'd do it, just for the chance to walk down those storied lanes...

Bastion of white male privilege? You bet. But, come on. Give me this one concession.

So I never miss the Masters. Although there are many tougher courses out there, there aren't many courses that are as consistently challenging. By which I mean: Augusta doesn't have a reputation as being a hellaciously tough course. But it is probably one of the most subtle and perpetually interesting courses ever designed. Just about every kind of challenge you can conceive can be found somewhere on that course. You can't play well at Augusta unless every single facet of your game is strong: you have to be able to hit the long fairways, you have to be able to hit with accuracy, you have to be able to place your wedge shots with the utmost delicacy, and you have to know how to putt. Sometimes, some years, it all comes together for one or two golfers and they just get it, and the course opens up like a Chinese puzzle. The fact that they play here year in and year out gives it a familiarity - not just the players but the viewers and spectators as well get to know every nook and cranny. That doesn't make it any easier, but it does give a special satisfaction when someone is able to run the table, so to speak - the golf course has personality. There's really nothing else like it.

And this weekend, a fellow like Zach Johnson won the tournament. And of course it's hard to begrudge anyone from winning the game. One of the very best things about golf is that at no point are any of the competing players every actually in direct competition - it's not like they have to actually fight for the ball. No, even when they're playing side by side their only real direct competitor is the course itself. So while other considerations do come into play (the game is an incredible psychological test), the game is almost entirely a test of individual skill, individual grace under pressure. And this year, Johnson had the skill to pull an upset victory out of an extremely treacherous weekend. Conditions were as harsh as I'd ever seen them at Augusta, a fact which only accentuated the course's difficulty. They even eased off on some of the traditional Sunday pin placements, if you can believe that - a small mercy, certainly, to judge by the numbers being posted.

I must admit that while Jonson played some particularly fine golf, especially on the back nine on Sunday, it's still something of a disappointment. One of the most unpleasant aspects of the game, for me at least, is the endless supply of incredibly boring upper-middle-class WASP scions of privilege, who only seem to multiply with every passing year. Golf is a game of subtle personalities, and these guys don't have anything: frat-boy looking, collar-popping meatheads that could have been popped from a mold. Of course, those who love golf can hardly to expect anything different: golf is not a game with traditional minority appeal, and golf is not a game readily available to the poor. The hopes that Tiger Woods would bring a new generation of diverse players to the game have proven almost entirely unwarranted. There is a lot more diversity in the game than there used to be, but it's mostly international. Golf is very popular in Asia, so we see lots of Japenese and Korean players (the Koreans are proving especially dominant on the womens' tour). Vijay Singh won the Masters in 2000, and he's a native of Fiji - but one brown person hardly counts as a revolution. (Singh is also an inveterate asshole, but for just that reason he makes a great foil for the white-bread likes of Phil Mickelson.)

So, yes, allow Johnson his moment of well-deserved triumph. But will he stick around to become a champion for the ages? Probably not. There's no story here. Nothing to distinguish him from the dozens of punks who pop up on the tour every year. It's almost an anticlimax, because there's nothing there to root for. That's a problem with such an open field - invariably most fans will walk away disappointed that "their" guy didn't win. But sports boils down to stories, and there are lots of players on the tour who carry around extremely interesting stories. Johnson just isn't one of them, and I doubt he ever will be. But there's always next year.

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