In defence of golf (really)

Environmentalists claim that golf is a rich man's game that is scarring the planet. Is no sport safe from the eco-moralising of the whingerati?

Duleep Allirajah

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‘Was this the best Open ever?’ asked The Times (London). ‘Is it time to wake up yet?’ was my response.

As you might have guessed I’m no golf anorak. (I’m not sure what the correct term is for a hardcore golf enthusiast. ‘Golf ultra’ doesn’t ring true, but given their penchant for trainspotterish waterproofs, I think ‘golf anorak’ sounds about right.) You won’t, for example, have caught me glued to Radio 5 Live’s saturation coverage of last week’s British Open at Carnoustie. Nor was I particularly enamoured to see golf monopolising the sports pages of the newspapers – interrupted only by the obligatory Beckhamwatch article. I’m not suggesting that the press should ignore golf, rather that it should tuck it away somewhere less obtrusive, perhaps alongside the chess or the sudoku. In short, anywhere but on the sports pages.

So no, not a golf lover. And yet, when golf comes under attack from a bunch of self-loathing middle-class worthies, I find myself uttering the slogan: ‘We are all golfers.’

I did consider writing a gratuitously provocative anti-golf article. You know the sort of thing. Ten Reasons Why Golf isn’t a Proper Sport: 1) There is no PGA Tour drug-testing regime because there’s so little athleticism in golf that nobody is sure how drugs might enhance performance. 2) Old people play it…and so on. It would have been a doddle. But then I found that US journalist Ben Alder had beaten me to it. After reading Adler’s diatribe, ‘The case against golf’, on the Guardian Unlimited website, I felt no option but to defend the maligned golfing community (if there is such a thing). Adler, you see, hates golf because of its environmental impact. ‘The construction and maintenance of golf courses is harmful to fragile ecosystems the world over’, he writes. ‘Its proliferation as the international pastime of the leisure class is multiplying the problem, and its approval by governments and societies epitomises the wasteful and scurrilous approach to development that is replicated in miniature on millions of suburban lawns.’ (1)

Adler is not the only person to argue that golf is a green issue. A coalition of environmentalists and anti-globalists has even held an annual ‘No Golf Day’ to highlight the environmental damage caused by this heinous leisure pursuit. Inevitably, George Monbiot, the man who put the ‘mental’ into environmentalism, has long opposed the globalisation of golf. ‘The proliferation of courses in the South is great news for golfers, and disastrous news for everyone else,’ wrote Monbiot. ‘Peasant farmers are deprived of vast tracts of productive land, rivers and aquifers are shrivelling up, pesticides threaten both medical and ecological calamity’ (2).

The problem with the green case against golf, which pretty much goes for the green case against anything, is that almost any worthwhile human activity, with the possible exception of composting your own shit, leaves some kind of environmental footprint. Monbiot, for example, doesn’t just stop at golf. In a supremely silly article in Observer Sport Monthly last year he argued that pretty much all sports were helping to kill the planet – with the exception of frisbee (which, it goes without saying, isn’t actually sport) (3). Who needs satire when you’ve got the rantings of George Monbiot?

If sports-hating green killjoys aren’t complaining about golf’s contribution to eco-Armageddon, then white middle-class liberals are bashing it for being white and middle-class. Take, for example, former Marxism Today editor Martin Jacques, who specialises in handwringing articles about elitist, white-dominated sports. ‘It seems an iron law that the more expensive and exclusive the sport, the whiter are its participants and spectators. Where the costs of entry are minimal, there is a wide avenue of opportunity for those with little or nothing, which is why football is just about the most democratic sport of all’, wrote Jacques recently. ‘Contrast that with golf, where expensive real estate means that the cost of entry for a golf club is out of reach of the vast majority of those of colour. Cast your eye down the entry list for the US Open and it is overwhelmingly white.’ (4)

I’m not going to try to deny golf’s elitist origins or its stuffy traditions. I could, for instance, point out that the early golf professionals were working class; that, in Western Europe and North America, golf is no longer the exclusive preserve of the leisured classes; and that plenty of top golfers, like Angel Cabrero and Seve Ballesteros to name but two, come from fairly humble backgrounds. However, I’ve no doubt that Jacques would be able to wheel out plenty of Masai herdsman or Indian shanty-town dwellers for whom golf club membership is simply unaffordable. And he’d be right. In the world’s poorest countries, golf is clearly a luxury.

But so what? Does that mean that golf’s appeal cannot be universal? Even I, a confirmed golf-sceptic, can see that the game is capable of generating excruciatingly dramatic tension. Although the context is different and some of the apparel is a bit daft, the essential human drama of golf is easily recognisable. Sergio Garcia bogies the eighteenth hole. England bottle a penalty shoot-out. It’s pretty much the same thing: a failure of nerve under supreme pressure.

The truth is that you don’t have to be able to participate in a sport to enjoy or understand it. Most of us will never be able to drive a racing car yet that doesn’t stop motor racing being one of the most popular spectator sports in the world. We might not technically comprehend why one engine outperforms another but all of us can grasp the concept of a race. One guy goes tries to go faster than the other – it’s a fairly internationally recognised concept. Similarly with golf: although I’ve never set foot on a golf course (seaside crazy golf is as near as I’ve come) I can appreciate the skill, dedication and mental resilience that is required to excel at golf. The contest, the battle, the heartache of defeat, the unbridled joy of victory – these are all universally understood.

So, let’s not beat ourselves up over the fact that Third World subsistence farmers can’t afford to play golf. That’s not the fault of golf but of a lack of economic development. Golf may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but surely there are more important things to get worked up about? Indeed, when the ethical whingerati start having a pop at such an innocuous pastime, it awakens my inner Jack Nicklaus. So, give me a Pringle jumper and a pair of plus fours – and, I guess, a set of golf clubs too – so that I too can exercise mankind’s inalienable right to tee off like Tiger.

Duleep Allirajah is spiked’s sports columnist.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Sport

(1) The case against golf, Guardian Unlimited, 14 June 2007

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