There are many wonderful things about golf. One thing is that it's nice being outdoors, with the trees and the birds and the gophers and so forth. The feeling of being at peace with nature can be slightly offset if one thinks of the wetlands or prairie that was ruined to build the course, or the tons of fertilizer that are needed to keep it green, but in many cases if a golf course weren't where it is something worse would be, so what the hell.
Another good thing about golf is the exercise. Of course it is now customary to keep that to a minimum by using an electric cart, but even getting in and out of cart, walking to the ball, taking a couple of practice swings and the like are more exercise than one would be getting if one weren't playing golf. And, in connection with point number one, the carts are electric, perhaps having less of an impact on the environment than the sweat and carbon-dioxide one would produce without them.
Clearly the best things about golf, however, is how far one can hit a golf ball. A duffer like I used to be can hit a golf ball almost two hundred yards---well over two hundred yards, if slicing isn't a concern. That's yards. The centerfield fence in a fairly big baseball stadium is seldom much more than four hundred feet from homeplate. A duffer could tee up in front of homeplate at Candlestick Park and drive the ball consistently way up into the seats (although not consistently into the centerfield seats, it must be admitted). A good golfer could probably hit a three or four-wood out of Candlestick---something I don't think anyone has ever done with a baseball. In fact, I once had a club slip out of my hands as I completed my follow-through, and it went further than any baseball I ever hit. To be honest, I don't think anything I've ever done athletically is more pleasurable than the feel of a solidly hit drive, and the first couple of seconds of its flight---right up until it starts to slice towards the trees.
There is just one basic problem with golf, which makes it a lousy sport. That is the fact that there is an objective score.
I used to play golf with my friend Julius. We also played tennis. Suppose on some hot Friday in July we play eighteen holes of golf, and I beat Julius (although in fact he usually won), by a score of 103 to 105. (This is actually a pretty low score, due to the fact that we played Winter Rules except during the middle two weeks of August.) I would not feel good about this. 103 is a lousy golf score, whether one beats Julius or not. It would be worse to hit 103 and lose to Julius, of course, but not much.
Now compare this with tennis. On Saturday we play tennis, and let's suppose (although this is also unlikely) that I win, three sets to two. In all likelihood our tennis is even more pitiful than our golf, if that's possible. But I feel great at having beat Julius. It's because there is no objective score. If there was such a thing as breaking 100 at tennis, I no doubt would have failed and felt miserable even though I won. But there is no such thing, and I feel great.
The fact that there is an objective, cumulative score in golf has another implication, which is that one lousy hole can ruin an entire round. I mentioned above that I used to be a duffer. The fact that I am no longer a duffer is not due to improvement, but to abandoning the game entirely. This came about in the following way.
One day Julius and I were playing and I was doing incredibly well. As we teed off on the sixteenth hole at Stanford's course, I had a real chance of breaking 90, which I had never done. Playing at that level meant that I was destroying Julius, of course. I felt great. And my tee shot went about two-hundred and fifty yards, straight down the fairway. Bliss.
But then I shanked my next shot off to the right, in among some rocks well up in the rough. The next shot flew back over the fairway, into the left rough. A nicely hit long iron produced a moment of pleasure, as it appeared to make it to the green. But upon closer inspection the ball was in a trap just short of the green. Three shots to get out of that trap, over the green and into another trap on the other side. Two shots to get out of that. Three putts. A thirteen for the hole. No chance of breaking 90, or even one hundred. A good chance of losing to Julius.At about this point, after picking up my ball and as I walked to the seventeenth tee pretending to listen to Julius's detailed description of his brilliant bogey, I introspected. And what did I find? I noticed that I felt absolutely miserable. My self-esteem was plummeting. My stress level was rising. Basically, I was at my low point for the week. I would have been more relaxed if I had spent the morning grading papers or reading memos from the dean or some other activity that I normally regard as roughly equivalent, as far as producing relaxation and pleasure, to having a cavity filled.
I finished up the round, and have never been back to a golf course. Who needs it. Tennis for me. God didn't give me much in the way of athletic ability. Age and a lifetime of poor nutrition and sedentary jobs haven't helped. But how ever old and frail and inept I am, I can find a tennis partner that I can occasionally beat. And those moments of victory are as pure and sweet as winning Wimbeldon would be, unsullied by some high number on a score card reminding me that I really stink.