WITH MORE THAN 17,000 golf courses in the country, half of the world’s total, the USA is the Nation of Golf. Grouped together, these courses would cover 4,000 square miles. If the state of golf were a state, it would rank, in size, between Delaware and Connecticut. Or arranged another way, imagine a national golf course, more than a mile wide and 3,000 miles long, spanning the continent: 306,000 holes of golf on a course stretching from Myrtle Beach to Torrey Pines.
Though numbers are declining, 25 million Americans play golf–about one out of every 13 of us. Four million are considered serious golfers, playing 25 times a year. This is down from a peak of 6.9 million in 2000. The decline is attributed to an increase in the pace of life, and the comparatively long stretches of time required to play the game–four hours for 18 holes is typical. Also, golf is expensive, with high fees needed to cover maintenance–and extensive, as courses cover more than a hundred acres, and, because they are so big, most people have to pay to rent carts (or people) to carry their heavy clubs around. It usually costs more than one hundred dollars to play a round, and many hundreds at fancy courses. Smaller courses and faster versions of the game, they say, are attracting new players. Still, golf is big, and it is not going to disappear.
At least a quarter of the courses in the country are indeed exclusive, accessible to club members only. The rest are generally open to the public, for a fee. Some are privately owned, but many (around 15%) are owned by municipalities. The City of Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks, for example, operates 13 courses throughout the city, seven of them full size with 18 holes, where fees are typically $40 or less. The others are nine hole courses, 3-par, or other types of smaller and practice courses, where people can learn to play without getting in the way of others.
Most sports are played on rectangles of consistent dimensions, and can be pursued almost anywhere, even indoors. Golf’s field of play is irregular in form and defined by features of the outdoors such as grass, trees, sand, mounds, and water, reflecting the origins of the game, from the coast of Scotland. Golf is a sport played on, and with, a landscape. In this way it is unique.
A typical 18-hole course is 150 acres in size, about half of which is maintained turf. Each hole is a microcosm, an opportunity to project oneself into terrain. Golf is about extending one’s reach, over hundreds of yards, and the pleasure of arriving on target, and filling a hole.
Whether golfers are aware of this intuitively or not, the three phases of golf can be seen as a parable of life’s voyage–launching at birth, navigating a safe passage, and successfully planting a seed. Then moving on.
On one end is the tee–the launch point, the start of the game. You may see the target in the distance, but you often don’t; it is too far away, or it’s around a dogleg and obscured by trees. In the middle is the fairway, punctuated by hazards and traps, and bounded by roughs and woods. Avoiding them, escaping their clutches, is the central challenge of the game. You hit the ball hardest at the beginning, hoping it lands at a good spot, so that it takes just one more shot to get it on to the green–or even into the hole, if you are lucky. Once on the placid green, a fine carpet of highly engineered soils and grasses, the final putt/s is a compression of scale–a test of poise, precision, mastery, and calm.
Usually it takes more than three whacks or taps to get the ball in the hole. If it is expected to take four, then it’s a par four hole, which is typical. Once the ball is rendered into its cup, it all begins again, another adventure in a story that is 18 chapters long (or nine, if you are short on time).
Golf courses are romantic places, evoking notions of a pastoral sublime. They are also site-specific, distilling scenic qualities of the place where they are. In this way golf is a celebration of the variety and character of the American landscape. Primarily, though, golf is a landscape reduced to a functional stage, a simplified vista, serving the needs of the sport, which is, like most things in America, an industry. Golf is an assertion that nature can be thoroughly tamed, sculpted, and placed under control, so long as we can keep it up. ♦