The Front 9 of the Rest of My Life

I’ve been playing a lot of golf recently. By “playing a lot,” I really mean, “I went to two PE classes and played nine actual, full-size holes for the first time ever.” To many people, golf is a normal part of life and a great excuse to go outside with a group of friends and enjoy some beautiful scenery. And at the Claremont Municipal Golf Course on Wednesday, all of this was indeed true. But for me, playing my first round of golf was also a big step.

For a long time, I shied away from the links because at some point, I decided that golf is what people do when they’re too old, tired, or fat to play real sports. Although I was consistently outdriven at the range by both a feeble octogenarian and a 250-pound John Daly-wannabe, I no longer think this is the case. Golf just happens to be a sport that’s difficult to the point where a novice (such as myself) would need years of practice to become even okay at it, but that’s accessible enough that you can play almost as long as you live.

So if golf is so pedestrian, then why am I writing about it? The short answer is because it’s the first thing that popped into my mind; the long answer is that learning to play golf is a pretty good reflection of my life right now, and I think that can be extended to a good portion of my class. Let me explain.

Golf is one of those country-club sports that, for better or worse, has permanently become associated with gentility. It’s been painted as being about one level removed from polo (horseback, not water) when it comes to aristocratic heritage and sheer waste of resources. Take a look at popular fiction like Caddyshack or Rick Reilly’s novel Missing Links—in both, the humor comes from the juxtaposition of Monty Pythonesque Upperclass Twit golfers with salt-of-the-earth jokers and hacks. In fact, golf is considered such an elite pursuit that after Hurricane Katrina, Congress prevented relief money for the Gulf Coast from going to golf courses that were affected by the flooding (Congress also withheld funds from two other rich-person hangouts: casinos and “massage parlors”).

Given its widespread perception as an “elite” game, golf has been afforded a relatively high social status compared to other sports such as soccer (the most popular in the world, probably because it has such a low barrier to entry—really, all you need is a ball) or basketball (same story, at least in cities with abundant courts). It’s also one of the most popular sports among people who are out of college—you don’t see too many 45-year olds lining up to play tackle football or 11 v. 11 soccer. As the Class of 2011 transitions from student life to more prestigious professional life, fellowship life, graduate/law/medical school life, or (at least in my case) gloriously-unemployed-but-with-a-nice-looking-degree life, it is worthwhile to consider whether the sports we play will (or should) change as well.

For example, I’ve been playing soccer and baseball since I was 5. But at some point in my adult life, it will become unacceptable if I keep on playing the same sports I have during college—afternoon recreational baseball every weekend and pickup soccer with random Jamaican migrant workers in the summers. It’s also undeniable that sooner or later, my body will give out and I’ll be forced to do something that puts less strain on my tender knees, back, or liver. And even if I did remain perfectly healthy, the lack of time to train and opponents to play would eventually force me to stop playing these sports, or at least switch to their less-stressful alternatives (men’s softball and adult league pickup soccer).

Part of the reason I started playing golf this week was because I’ve always been curious about it and I haven’t really had the opportunity to play risk-free until now. But to be brutally honest, another part of me wanted to pick up golf for these purely utilitarian reasons. And besides, if golf is truly a game for elite people—almost every modern president has played—doesn’t it make a whole lot of sense for me to become decent at it, if only for networking purposes? For that matter, shouldn’t I also learn how to play tennis, squash, cricket, and croquet?

At first, I was somewhat skeptical toward the idea of learning a sport partially for its utility in professional life. After all, it’s anathema to everything I’ve learned about sports since I was a kid, and everything Hollywood has ever taught me—you play “for love of the game,” not for the sake of some business deal to be hammered out in the clubhouse after the 18th hole (or whatever you call the last set of a squash match). And when you play a sport, you play competitively—you don’t lose intentionally in order to butter up your opponent for that aforementioned deal.

But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that playing sports for practical reasons can be beneficial, too. Even at Pomona, non-competitive endeavors such as intramurals bring people together in positive ways. And in a weird way, transitioning to practical sports like golf parallels our collective transition from academia to the “real world” in the sense that it’s an opportunity to try something new. In college—especially in a liberal arts institution such as Pomona—people pursue a wide variety of intellectual fields for a wide variety of purposes. You can, as one of my good friends did, major in Religious Studies even if you have no intention of becoming a member of any faith’s clergy. Similarly, in the athletic realm you can become a fencing champion even if you won’t find regular sparring partners later in life.

Graduating is, at the risk of sounding clichéd, not just an end to these activities, but a chance for a new beginning. As such, it only makes sense to move on to new horizons after graduation, both athletically and professionally. That means being open to trying out a new sport such as golf (which I actually discovered was very enjoyable, despite the fact that I shot a 65 on the front 9). In my time at Pomona, I’ve gone from being an athlete to a sportswriter to co-sports editor of TSL. All of these positions have taught me something about myself and have allowed me to stay involved with the sports that I love. As I march down the path from player to journalist to fan, I have no doubt that sports will continue to play a major role in my life. If golf is one of those sports, so much the better.

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