I love golf. Even though I’ve participated in athletics throughout my life (football, baseball, wrestling, swimming) to me, golf is the purest contest in sports. I took up the game a few years before becoming a stay-at-home dad (SAHD). The first time I played, I sucked but I was seduced by the game’s nuances and intricacies. To improve, I played five days a week. I practiced several hours a day and my scores began to reflect my effort. I went from a 20-plus handicap down to a single digit index. For those who don’t play, this is a pretty good achievement. Once kids entered the picture, I turned my attention from golf to changing diapers. It was a natural poopgression.
There are so many appealing aspects to golf, and I could wax poetic about many of them, but the one characteristic I most admire is how golf provides a perfect metaphor for life.
How so, Steely Dad? What the hell have you been smoking and what sort of transcendental bullshit are you feeding us?
On Sunday at the PGA Championship, in what may be perhaps the greatest upset in golf history, Y.E. Yang, the 110th best golfer in the world, beat Tiger Woods, the world’s perennial number one player. How can #110 ever beat #1?
By most (if not all) accounts, Woods should have beat Yang and done so handily. Yang started playing golf at 19 years of age; Woods started at 19 days old. Ever since Tiger displayed his precocious golf swing on the Mike Douglas show, he has been surrounded by the game’s best talent, professionals who’ve provided him with sound advice and counsel. Today, Tiger has the money and influence that affords him access to the best swing coaches, the best mental coaches, the best facilities, the best equipment, the best caddie, the best nutritionist, the best doctors, the best personal trainers, the best of everything. Yang doesn’t and despite these glaring inequities, this David still beat golf’s Goliath.
So really, how can #110 beat #1? It doesn’t seem possible. Surely the PGA must have redistributed some of Tiger’s talent to make it a fair match, right? Perhaps the PGA took some of Tiger’s winnings, put the money in a pool to be redistributed to other players thereby ensuring fair and equitable access to the best resources? Maybe Tiger had to play with inferior equipment, play from different tees or take extra strokes. How else to explain it?
What? You say that didn’t happen? You say Yang beat Tiger with his own ability, without the PGA manufacturing the circumstances or the outcome? You don’t honestly expect me to believe that Yang beat Tiger with sheer determination, gratuitous guts and singular focus, do you?
Plus, don’t you agree that Tiger doesn’t deserve to enjoy being the world’s number one golfer? He doesn’t deserve to win 50 percent of the tournaments he enters. Tiger doesn’t deserve to win 14 out of 14 majors when he has at least a share of the lead after 54 holes. Obviously Tiger couldn’t achieve his number-one status through talent, sacrifice and hard work, right? He’s the best for one reason: he’s lucky. The only difference between #1 and #110 is luck. It’s the only logical answer, right?
Everyday, we hear this type of argument made about the society in which we live; that the wealthy guy enjoys his status, not as a result of sacrifice and hard work but because he was luckier than the poor guy; that it’s impossible for the poor guy to rise above without handouts and entitlements and redistribution of wealth. So let me ask you. Why do we accept these notions as truths in life but not in sport? Why can it be that in golf we enjoy watching two guys with different backgrounds, different levels of talent, different cultures, different financial resources, different languages, compete in a contest in which one guy clearly has an advantage, and completely accept the outcome whatever it may be? How is it that we accept imperfect circumstances in sport but in life many insist that society has an obligation to manufacture fair results? They corrupt the human compass, an internal mechanism whose needle perpetually points “due persistence,” for they fail to recognize that in life, as in golf, it’s possible for a Yang to beat a Tiger. In their Utopian vision of society, no one would watch a single sporting event (OK, fake wrestling aside) because outcomes would be contrived. And just as sports would lose fans under such conditions, so too would society lose great and fertile minds.
“Oh, but man is inherently evil and the strong will take advantage of the meek,” some make us fear. Well, not in a civil society. Think of the PGA as the government (the USGA is the actual governing body but please afford me some artistic license). It has a set of rules and each player (think of them as members of society) has a right and incentive to do his best. Who enforces the rules? Did you know that in golf each player is expected to penalize himself? In other words, players are largely self-governed. However, should a player neglect to call a penalty on himself, he would be an anathema, shamed and pilloried. He would lose all credibility for he dishonored the game, its values and traditions. Is this expectation of self-governance too much to demand of a great society? If golfers can do it, why can’t the rest of us? Are we not capable of answering to a higher moral standard?
When circumstances are manipulated to achieve a desired result, it crushes the spirit of every Yang out there who dreams of beating a Tiger. If before the final round of the PGA Championship, the commissioner said to Yang, “Dude, there’s no chance you’re going to win this thing. Tiger has all these advantages that, quite frankly, aren’t fair to the other players. The ONLY way you can win is by accepting our help.” Do you know what would happen? It would destroy Yang’s competitive spirit, it would shred his belief in himself and it would enslave Yang’s mind that he cannot now, or ever, do it on his own. Yang would feel as though he is entitled to the victory, that he doesn’t have to earn it, that the world of golf somehow owes him special consideration. If the PGA began to manipulate variables in order to manufacture results, #110 would never have to work as hard as #1, the quality of the competition would dissolve and no one would watch or care because the outcome has been established. We would never be able to dream, “what if,” because the “if” would have already been answered.
If you watched Yang’s victory like I did, you probably said, “Right on!” But if you discovered that Yang was given special accommodation to improve his odds of winning, I bet you’d feel cheated of that beautiful moment when you were able to believe that anything is truly possible.