Why Does the World Contain Golf?

Glen Newey · Why Golf?

A discredited and aloof government presiding over a sporting extravaganza conscious that the eyes of the world are on it; scenes of mass penury among the locals while the tribal elites schmooze with the jet set and live high on the hog. Yes, it’s the Open Golf Championship at the Royal & Ancient course at St Andrews, the ‘home of golf’, which tees off today. At least we should be spared the braying vuvuzelas.

Why does the world contain golf? The question is strictly analogous to asking why it contains evil. Like chess or darts, golf is clearly not a real sport, which I define as an activity that you can only be any good at with a BMI of less than 35. At school, golf was offered to us as a ‘games’ option in the sixth form. Then, as now, I had no interest in bashing a dimpled pill towards a tiny and distant hole. But it looked less nasty than waddling through sludge in frozen mist after a leather ball, or getting the club-end of a hockey stick in the nuts. I was beguiled by the golfing scenes, in TV soaps as much as sportscasts, where the players were conveyed between strokes in electric buggies, alighting only to swoosh a lazy approach shot to the green. Reality bit when I found that I had to lug the bag of clubs myself, blasted by wind and rain, for a nominal five miles – a purely theoretical figure, bloated by the constant need to divagate onto the beach or into tussocks of marram to track down my wayward ball. It was with relief that I switched the year after to another non-sport, snooker, where you could at least stay in the warm and get a drink.

Scottish First Minister Alex ‘Shrek’ Salmond is a keen player (handicap 18). No doubt this is based on the notion that golf is as Scottish as a game can be, short of curling on the ice of Loch Ness with a frozen haggis. In fact, Scotland’s claim to the dubious distinction of having thought the game up has been challenged by China. Around 950, during the Southern Tang dynasty, local bigwigs were apparently to be seen in tam o’shanter and plus-fours, thrashing their niblicks through the sand traps and fretting over their stance. Anyway, the SNP minority administration in Holyrood thinks that golf is Scottish, and therefore a good thing. Shrek has given his blessing to Donald Trump’s plan to plonk his £750m vision of north-east Aberdeenshire as a golf links and luxury condo development on a site of special scientific interest. Local residents facing the threat of compulsory purchase to turf them off the land at Mill of Menie, part of Trump’s scheme, have revolted: following the Heathrow anti-third runway ploy, they have bought up parcels of land to bog down the development in litigation. Undaunted, Trump began building at the start of this month.

Once an über-conservative game whose ruling powers frowned on blacks and Jews, golf is now merely über-capitalist. It is Enlightenment individualist instrumentalism in ludic form. Golf courses are nature denatured, their terrain as plush and upholstered as a Fragonard backdrop. They often lie on common land, so ramblers asserting their right of way by crossing the fairways have to take their chances with bomblets of flying gutta-percha. As the aim is to record as few strokes, rather than rack up as many runs/goals/points, as possible, its parsimony also (as Bagehot said of Adam Smith) appeals to the Scotsman in every man. And I do mean 'man'. St Andrews University principals are traditionally given honorary membership of the R & A, but not the University’s new incumbent. Dr Richardson isn’t black or, as far as I know, Jewish. But the doctor is – and this is the deal-breaker – a woman. To be fair to Shrek, he did complain about the snub. But he’s still holding the pin while Trump measures his putt.


  • 15 July 2010 at 7:20am
    Joe Morison says:
    The 'Guardian' today quotes John Updike describing golf as "a non-chemical hallucinogen". I don't play; but on a moonlit night, the Old Course at St. Andrews is extraordinarily beautiful in a really quite trippy way.

  • 15 July 2010 at 7:39am
    Geoff Roberts says:
    You might ask the same question about Cricket or Baseball or Lacrosse or (my favourite) Polo. Who was it that said Golf is 'a good walk spoiled by a silly ball'? I take your point about 'game' versus 'sport' but what I would like to know is, what do golfers do when they are not playing or practising? In Mr. Wood's case I think we can guess. It must be crushingly boring being a top-class athlete in any sport. Tour de France? (All right, I don't want to upset the traditionalists among LRB readers, so we'll move on to assess the impact of sports on the traditional British Sunday.

  • 15 July 2010 at 1:04pm
    Geoff Roberts says:
    Golf also producces the world's worst jokes.

  • 16 July 2010 at 1:19pm
    loxhore says:
    Why is there golf rather than nothing?

  • 18 July 2010 at 2:00pm
    A.J.P. Crown says:
    We played croquet during my last two years at school. It was crueler and more sadistic than rugby, partly because the participants were brainier.

    Golf is an auto sport. One criterion for a successful car design is whether the boot accommodates a set of golf clubs. Motoring through Sweden, I've noticed that a golf course or a driving range is invariably signposted from the road every five-or-so kilometres. All Volvos and Saabs take the clubs, of course.

    One of the most beautiful places on earth is the course of the Detroit Golf Club, with its greens sprinklers running, on a hot summer night.

    • 19 July 2010 at 6:58pm
      Geoff Roberts says: @ A.J.P. Crown
      Did you read Alice in Wonderland for A level?

  • 19 July 2010 at 8:17am
    Martin says:
    "Golf courses are nature denatured". No doubt it is boring to quote George Monbiot, but he does highlight the damage golf does to the planet: He estimates there are 25 000 courses in the world - and that was 20 years ago. A few in Scotland are probably fine, as it rains enough there, but in many places they stand in stark contrast to the arid land or even desert around them. That means they are swallowing up water that is needed for farming and household consumption.

    • 19 July 2010 at 3:24pm
      A.J.P. Crown says: @ Martin
      Before George Monbiot even existed, it was highlighted by Michael Pollan among others.

  • 19 July 2010 at 5:54pm
    alex says:
    How much water that is needed for farming and household consumption (i.e. flushing the loo) does George Monbiot swallow up every hour?

    • 19 July 2010 at 9:56pm
      Martin says: @ alex
      About the same amount as is swallowed up eveery hour in the 19th hole at St Andrews.

  • 27 July 2010 at 12:20am
    groakes says:
    The world will be a saner place when golfers get paid like nurses and nurses get paid like golfers....

Read more